Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In the Meantime

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Luke 18:1-8
October 16, 2016
Reading this parable from Luke during the week my mind kept running to Psalm 27. It’s my favorite of the 150 songs that comprise the psalms in scripture. I am moved by its lyrical opening affirmation: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” And I take comfort always in its closing lines: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
But then I am reminded by Tom Petty that “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Most of us, most of the time, do not enjoy the waiting, no matter what we’re waiting for:
·      Children looking at wrapped presents beneath a Christmas tree;
·      A patient waiting impatiently for test results;
·      Candidates on election night waiting for the returns.
The waiting is the hardest part.
So, what are you waiting for these days? For what do you long? I trust that it’s pretty clear that another way of putting this question is, simply, what are you praying for? I invite you, in a brief time of silence, using one side of the slip of paper you received when you came in this morning, to write down one or two responses to those questions: what are you waiting for? For what do you long? What are you praying for?
The parable that Jesus told his disciples according to Luke is about the waiting, about the hardest part. The parable underscores the difficulty in stark terms: there was a widow who came to the unjust judge to petition for justice.
Whenever a widow shows up in scripture we should imagine the most powerless figure. She is a woman in a patriarchal society who has no man, and thus no economic power, no social power, no standing in the religious community, no voice, and no champion.
Justice in Luke is always about turning the economic and political tables, and about the restoration of right relationship. The widow wants to be heard, and she wants to have legitimate power within the social, economic, and religious systems that define her life.
The judge refuses to listen, and refuses to listen, and refuses to listen. Until he does.
As Gandhi said, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
And into each comma in that series one pours countless hours of waiting: waiting for the calendar to turn, waiting for minds to turn, waiting for systems to turn.
Jesus spoke to a community that understood waiting. Israel had been waiting for the messiah, for the return of King David or of one like him to take his thrown and restore the glory of the nation.
Luke tells us that this parable is about prayer and faithfulness, but, as always, if we listen for voices from the underside our exegesis will be more faithful and more enlightening. That is to say, if you want to grasp the depth of scripture – or, all the more so, to be grasped by it – listen for the interpretive voices of those long silenced or marginalized.
One African-American pastor, speaking of this passage in Luke, remarked simply, “unless you’ve knocked on a locked door until your knuckles are bleeding you don’t know what prayer is.”
It helps to understand the nature of the doors that we bang on in life, lest all we get from the knocking is bloody knuckles.
In her chapter of Faithful Resistance, my colleague Annanda Barclay names a few of the doors: guilt, shame, complacency, comfort. She argues that these patterns perpetuate injustice, and, in particular, white supremacy. “Guilt, shame, complacency, and comfort act as emotional and physical barriers inhibiting our ability to create change.”[1]
Certainly these are barriers, but they are more like locked doors than stone walls. In other words, they may be locked, and it may take years of banging on them, or, perhaps, of searching for they key that fits, but however long it takes, it remains always possible to open them and, thus, to get through them.
Therefore, Jesus parable becomes also instruction for how we wait, for how we live in the meanwhile this side of the locked door that we so desperately need to get through.
A few minutes ago, I asked “what are you waiting for?” and did so understanding the question to be about the outcome, as it were; about the “what” that awaits on the other side of the waiting.
I’d like to pose the same question again, with a different emphasis: what are you waiting for? In other words, what reason do you have to continue waiting? Why are you waiting?
More to the point of Jesus’ parable, what is going to be the nature of your waiting? How shall we live in the meanwhile? Are there actions, or, perhaps, practices we can engage that make of the meanwhile something worthwhile.
For, you see, how we wait makes all the difference in how we ultimately receive that for which we have longed. Indeed, how we wait for the door to open goes a long way toward determining what we’ll discover on the other side.
Put a bit differently, how we choose to spend the many and lengthy seasons of waiting in our lives determines, to an almost complete extent, how we live our lives on both sides of whatever doors we long to open.
For example, as we wait on pins and needles for the outcome of next month’s election we can spend our waiting time consuming all kinds of rhetoric designed, primarily, to make us fear the outcome – whatever the outcome may be.
You know the stuff I am talking about. It is almost unavoidable in every conceivable form of media. The worst of it arrives as conspiracy tripe or rank bigotries.
We have choices in all this. We can actively engage by volunteering our time with the campaign of a candidate we support. We can get involved in local groups working on the issues that are of deepest concern for us. Perhaps most importantly, we can turn off the stream of commentary.
Let me introduce you all to your new best friend: the off switch!
Seriously, the most important theological advice I can offer you on waiting is this: turn off the streams of vitriol that rain down all around us. This is true no matter what you are waiting for. Do not fill your head with ugliness. Turn it off. Shut it down. Avoid the people in your life who fill your mind with it.
This is not, of course, merely about politics. It is about every aspect of our lives. Choose with care what you put into your mind, into your soul. While we are not computers, that old programmer’s adage is as true for us as it is for our computers: garbage in/garbage out.
I experienced this in a small, insignificant, but instructive way last week. I spent about an hour or so one afternoon re-writing the old Stone Soup folk story for last week’s e-blast. I had a blast in researching the roots of the tale and then in re-writing it for you. It put me in a frame of mind I’d simply call open.
Then I walked over to the post office to drop something in the mail. As I walked up Irving Street toward Liberty Tavern I noticed a man u-turn his scooter into a parking spot on the side of the street I was walking up. He took off his helmet, and, as I approached, he called to me saying, “I am sputtering out of gas and I don’t have my wallet. Do you have a dollar?”
I actually only had a ten dollar bill, so I said, “let me get some change.” I went into a sandwich shop – where I had to buy a chocolate chip cookie to get change … whoa is me – and took the guy a buck.
Was he pulling a really cheap scam? Was he poor or merely careless? Was he “deserving”? I don’t know, nor do I care. What I’m pretty sure of is this: if I had spent the previous hour perusing ugly news and views I would have walked right past the guy. Instead, we enjoyed a brief conversation about scooters and motorcycles and the beauty of that afternoon. I gave him a dollar. I ate my cookie.
As I said, an insignificant little moment, but one that brought a little joy into the world. Joy – the deep joy of true shalom, the joy that we sing about when we proclaim that “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy” – joy is what lies on the other side of the door that I will keep knocking on until my knuckles bleed.
The color of my own waiting that day was to engage in something creative – re-writing an old folk story after re-reading several versions of it in the midst of reading several commentaries on Luke. In other words, my waiting, my meanwhile, was being shaped by the practice of study, of prayer, of creative work.
Those are among the ways I can keep knocking on that door that the whole of creation longs to pass through.
I invite you to take that piece of paper you wrote on a few minutes ago, and on the other side, jot down a word or two that describe for you a way of waiting, a practice for the meanwhile, that shapes you and sustains you as you knock on whatever doors need opening in your life. In other words, as you consider what you are waiting for, ask yourself what you can do about the waiting by way of either hastening the time when the door swings open, or of shaping your own life such that you can keep on knocking with the same steadfastness of the widow, trusting that “surely we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

[1] In Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance, 2016, p. 45.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Faithful Resistance

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 17:11-19
October 9, 2016
How many of you are familiar with Godwin’s Law? It’s the internet adage, coined in 1990 by American author Mike Godwin, that “as an online discussion grows longer the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1 in 1.”
It is the law that spawned my own internet serenity prayer, “God grant me the wisdom to avoid the comments.”
In this particular political season, Godwin’s Law has been proved over and over and over again – and, oh my, what a workout it’s getting this weekend. Both major parties, if you believe the comments – that you should never read – have nominated spawn of Hitler.
Sadly, such overheated rhetoric has become the norm in what passes for political discourse in the United States these days. The fact that we all recognize Godwin’s Law, whether or not we can name it, speaks volumes about the sorry state of our public conversation about anything that matters.
Indeed, when every conversation winds up in the same place – Nazi Germany – then none of the conversations can be taken seriously. Alas, most of our public conversations these days take place on the internet, and when the content of those conversations gets reduced, not to the least common denominator but, instead, to the most commonly named dictator, then we are getting dangerously close to becoming just like the five foolish bridesmaids: we’re wandering around in the darkness with no oil for our lamps, unable to see beyond our own narrow vision and thus completely unable to read the signs of the times.
When we have no light by which even to read then we cannot engage text or context, and thus we cannot even begin to grapple with the deadly serious questions of our time much less illuminate these questions for the broader community.
There’s talk in some theological circles about a “Bonhoeffer moment” presented by the circumstances of this fall’s presidential election. I believe that we are, in fact, in just such a moment, but I believe that most folks who are talking about it are blind to the depth of the chasm on whose brink we stand.
That is to say, I have been asked, specifically, if we are approaching or have arrived at a point when, as a matter of faith, one must oppose the candidacy of Donald Trump. Frankly, I believe that the challenge to the church in the United States is far deeper than any single candidate in any particular election. So, contrary to Godwin, I will have no truck with comparisons of Mr. Trump and Adolph Hitler.
When one speaks of a “Bonhoeffer moment” in Presbyterian circles, one turns immediately to the Theological Declaration of Barmen. Written in 1934, primarily by Bonhoefer’s friend and colleague, Karl Barth, Barmen declared that the so-called German Christian movement was fatally contaminated by Nazi ideology and had ceased to be faithful to the gospel. Through Barmen the confessing church declared that by following Nazi principles the German Christian church had ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ.
If we are at a Bonhoeffer moment for the church in the United States, the overt support from certain conservative evangelical pulpits for Donald Trump is but a symptom of a far deeper disease, and, more to the point, conservative evangelicals are not the only part of the church who suffer from it.
It’s appropriate that today’s lectionary includes one of the classic healing stories. I was going to say that we’re like the nine lepers who don’t bother to express gratitude, but actually, I fear that we in the church today don’t even know that we are sick. In our delusion, we don’t bother to cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Instead, we just shuffle merrily along not noticing that we are rotting away.
That may sound overly harsh. After all, we have a rich, vibrant, caring, and compassionate circle here. But we are just one small part of a much larger body. It doesn’t mean much to have a healthy pinky finger when your heart is failing.
Speaking just for the Presbyterian part of that larger body in the U.S., the last year the church actually gained more members than it lost I was eight years old. You could tell a similar tale for every single major part of the church in the United States, including the conservative evangelical part of it and the Roman Catholic part of it. The only difference in the stories of declining membership, finances, and social influence would be the dates that mark their respective beginnings.
Numbers are not the end-all and be-all, and membership and money were never part of Jesus’ ministry model. Nevertheless, such metrics are not meaningless. The challenge comes in understanding what they imperfectly point toward.
I believe that the vast decline in the U.S. church actually points toward a state of affairs that Jesus would have recognized quite well, and one that the brief text from Jeremiah can help us address.
The church in America is captive to American culture. A movement whose source lies in the explicitly anti-imperial project of Jesus has become captive to the American empire, and, as such, we have lost our voice. We have lost the capacity to speak an authentic critical voice condemning the none-too-subtle racism, sexism, and heterosexism of the Trump campaign because we have, historically, given the church’s blessing to precisely these attitudes that the gospel calls us to condemn.
We have lost the capacity to speak an authentic critical voice to the casual militarism of the Clinton campaign because we have ceased to read even our own confessions and ignore the words of the Confession of 1967, which explicitly demands of the church that we call upon the nations of the world – including our own – to “pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security.”
We have lost the capacity to speak an authentic critical voice because we have deceived ourselves into believing that the American Dream is somehow synonymous with the Kingdom of God, and that what passes for democracy in America bears some connection to God’s election. We deceive ourselves, and, as New York City AME pastor Andrew Wilkes wrote last week for Religion Dispatches:
American elections, as we can see so clearly this season, are exercises in deception. The prevailing frame of the ideal voter as middle class and the excessive attention given to our presidential candidates’ tax returns (or lack thereof) and Goldman Sachs speaking fees have obscured more pivotal realities on the other side of the asset and income scale: there is a class of citizens and residents who endure taxation without effective political representation.[1]
We suffer an imperial disease, and yet, like the citizens of Rome in Jesus’ time, we don’t know we are sick because we are so comfortable. At least, that is, until we are not.
I read the gospels, and it makes me uneasy. I read Jesus saying to Peter, “put down your sword,” and it makes me uncomfortable. I read Jesus saying, “sell all your possessions and give your money to the poor,” and it makes me uncomfortable. I read Jesus saying, over and over and over again, “follow me,” and it makes me uncomfortable.
It makes me uncomfortable because I am complicit, and deeply so. I am an incredibly privileged person. I stand in a lengthy line of college-educated white folks. My father’s father was a law-school graduate. My father’s mother was a college graduate who began her higher education career before women could vote in the United States. Oh, and her grandparents in Georgia owned slaves.
I’d like to believe that had nothing to do with my life, but then I read my own sacred texts calling for justice to roll down like a mighty water, and for good news that includes release for the captives and let the oppressed go free, and it makes me uncomfortable in my complicity.
You see, we have a history and that history has a claim on us even if we remain willfully blind to it. We live in the heart of a sprawling empire, yet we claim to follow the call of one whose very life was such a threat to the empire of his day that it put him to death on a cross. That should make us uncomfortable.
As Rick Ufford-Chase writes in the introduction to Faithful Resistance:
We are culture-bound: unable to see the ways in which we have twisted the meaning of our sacred text to justify our complicity in the Empire project. We are so caught up in all that it takes to survive in a globalized world, and so desperate in our search for meaning, that we miss the answers that are right in front of us in the sacred stories of God’s people who have struggled with similar questions across millennia.[2]
Jeremiah wrote to God’s people as they wrestled with their own relationship to an empire. They were captive to a culture that was foreign to them, to their identity as God’s people. Yet Jeremiah told them to build homes, plant gardens, raise families, and seek the welfare of the city where they were.
In other words, do not turn your back on the world nor even on the empire that has enslaved you. Instead, engage it. Live your lives where you are, and do so with the welfare of all in mind. Seek shalom – peace, right relationship, the well-being of those who live in the city where you are, for in their welfare lies your own, in their well-being lies your well-being.
But, as you build, as you sew and reap, as you pass along to the next generation, do so with another world in mind. As followers of Christ, our ultimate allegiance is not to the American empire nor to whomever we elect to lead it; our ultimate allegiance is to the one who calls us to build the Beloved Community.
We cannot build it well so long as we suffer the diseases of empire: racism, sexism, unbridled materialism, unquestioned militarism. These diseases rot away the body politic, yet it is not too late to cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Our healing will not happen overnight. It will take generations, so we really ought to begin now.
Indeed, what we are building in this small part of the body is a beginning place, a small site of healing, and provisional glimpse at what shalom might look like.
When I experience even this small taste of healing, I hear a faint echo of a call and an invitation, and thus I return to this remnant of the church, this echo of Jesus’ call, if nothing else, to say “thank you.”
It is not much, but it is not nothing, for, as Henri Nouwen reminds us, gratitude is the fundamental attitude upon which all authentic religious expression rests. Gratitude, saying “thank you” pulls me out of myself as it draws me into a relationship with another upon whom I rely.
If I were to try to articulate an opposite to Godwin’s Law it would sound something like that because the project of gratitude takes one about as far from the totalitarianism of the Nazis as one can possible go.
So, here I am; here I pitch my tent; here I build; here I plant; and from here I cast my glance toward another world that remains, even now, still possible. Amen.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A Conspiracy of Grace

Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 2, 2016
How many of you have heard about the conspiracy theory making the rounds of conservative web sites last week that Hillary Clinton was wearing ear buds at the presidential debate so she could get advice from backstage during the proceedings?
How many of you laughed when you heard it?
Now, how many of you recall similar theories about President George W. Bush during one of his debates with then-Sen. John Kerry? It was all the buzz on liberal web sites back then and you could have found full-color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used against him in, well, if not a court of law then, at least, in the court of progressive public opinion.
That was a dozen years ago, so I won’t ask if you remember laughing at that one nor will I ask if you lent credence to it. That is ancient history and it really doesn’t matter.
Conspiracy theories have long fascinated me as a mode of communication-through-simplification-and-obfuscation. You see, conspiracy theories are the epitome of insider communication, where the very lines separating insiders from outsiders are what’s being obscured. That is to say, if you already share a core belief with those who share a conspiracy theory then you don’t have to talk about the core belief at all. Indeed, absent that unexamined core belief the conspiracy theory makes no sense. For example, if you share a core belief about the personal attributes of, say, President Bush or Secretary Clinton, then you can share in the conspiracy conversation without ever questioning the core belief. A hidden earpiece is just more evidence of, for example, Secretary Clinton’s dishonesty or President Bush’s stupidity.
Only the insiders – those smart enough or in the know enough to discern these core attributes – are shrewd enough to interpret the crystal clear evidence that outsiders see as merely an innocent fold of the fabric or shadow in the screen-grab.
If you don’t already know the Truth – with a capital T – then you’re not able to see the small examples of the truth.
Why does any of this matter? What’s more, what has any of it to do with a brief passage from the gospel of Luke?
The structure of conspiracy theories, for me, provides the most powerful negative example of what’s going on in this story. This story both lifts up the idea of humility and rests on it, as well. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, rely fundamentally on arrogance.
The story in Luke begins in humility: “Lord, increase our faith.” To ask for something requires, first, recognizing that you need something, that you don’t already have it. To ask for something essential – faith, in this case – requires acknowledging that you lack something essential.
The parable Jesus tells stresses the humility of the servant, and suggests that faith requires of us a humble posture of service. At the same time, Jesus ensures his disciples that faith lived out in humble service can be incredibly powerful. Faith the size of a tiny seed, as Matthew’s version puts it, is powerful enough to move mountains.
The arrogance that marks insiders to run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories, on the other hand, has no power to move anything or anyone. Indeed, if you should try to question the core convictions of those who trade in conspiracy theories you’ll just be shouted down. No one will be moved. Nothing will be changed. It’s like arguing politics or religion on Facebook. Indeed, it is often one and the same.
That’s why, though it fascinates me, conspiracy thinking ultimately just makes me sad whether or not I am sympathetic to the core convictions underlying any given conspiracy theory.
So I am trying to engage in a different kind of conversation these days, one that is, I hope, a little closer to what the author of Second Timothy suggests: rekindle the gifts of God and, with power and in love, share the good news.
What might that look like in practice in a time of such deep divisions in our society? At last Tuesday evening’s meeting of National Capital Presbytery we were invited to engage a modest attempt at a gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. The principles that guided us would be utterly foreign to those who engage in conspiracy theories, but those same principles would have been perfectly familiar to Jesus because they rest on a foundation of humility.
We were invited, in engaging someone with whom we have a profound disagreement on an issue of conscience, to seek to understand the deepest motivations in the other and to find the best in their convictions while acknowledging, at the same time and with utter honesty and humility, the fullness of our own position including its inevitable blind spots.
By way of example, Jeff Krehbiel, pastor at Church of the Pilgrims in DuPont Circle, and Don Meeks, pastor at Greenwhich Presbyterian in Nokesville, Va. Jeff and Don come from about as far apart on the theological spectrum as one will likely find within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but they have been engaged in an intentional ongoing conversation for several years.
Jeff’s perspective in this spoke more powerfully to me, because he and I are, in addition to being friends, both flaming theological liberals. He said that through his conversations with Don he had come to admire the strength of evangelical convictions, the seriousness with which they take the study of scripture, and the passion they feel about sharing the good news with others.
At the same time, he acknowledged that theological progressives sometimes avoid scripture altogether, may pay more attention to getting to brunch with friends than to worship with the community, and, when it comes to sharing good news, tend to hide our light under a bushel basket that we don’t ever examine.
The point of the principles is not to turn away from one’s convictions, but rather to understand conversation as being not about conversion but, instead, about understanding.
For years now, as I have lived through and often participated in leading the church through great changes, I have been convinced that the greatest gift the church can offer to the world is quite simple: you don’t have to walk away from those with whom you disagree.
It’s deeper than that, of course, because this simple gift is grounded in the great gift of the good news of the gospel: God did not turn away from the great disagreement with humankind that was the crucifixion.
God could have walked away from that broken relationship, but in divine and sovereign love, chose to stay in relationship with humankind.
In the midst of a political season uglier than most, seek out that which is beautiful – especially in those with whom you may disagree.
I know my community, so I know I am preaching with far more Clinton supporters than supporters of Mr. Trump. In practice, gracious conversation right now looks like this:
·      Seek to appreciate and do not disparage the economic or social conditions that motivate some of those with whom you disagree.
·      Identify and appreciate the best in the other, while acknowledging your own blind spots.
·      Do not engage in conspiracy thinking. Instead, be part of a conspiracy of grace.
Whenever possible, do what we’re preparing to do right now: break bread together.
This is how we increase our faith. In the tiny seed that became the grain that is now this bread, we may find the strength of deep faith – enough to move the mountain of despair beneath which our society cries out for liberation.
Let us come to the table of grace. Amen.