Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What Are We Hoping For?

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
December 10, 2017
A trip to the wilderness can focus ones attention. Thats the signal insight in this shift in the collection of texts that we have received as the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah was drawn together from several distinct sources, and chapter 40, our text this morning, marks the beginning of what scholars call Second Isaiah. The author of this prayer for comfort understands that the people have been in the wilderness the wilderness of exile in Babylon for many years.
The exile doesnt determine what comes next, but surely it shapes it. That is to say, the people have walked in darkness, they have been out there in the wilderness beyond the lights of the city. They have been in exile. They have been forcibly relocated and treated as if they didnt belong. They have no home. They cannot sing their own songs in this foreign land. They have been in the wilderness.
Now they are on the cusp of liberation. That doesnt necessarily mean that they will seize the opportunity of return to create a just society where strangers are welcome and no one is exiled into darkness, but it does mean that they know what darkness is.
They have been there. They have struggled through it. They have tried to see clearly, but its really hard to focus in the darkness. You tend to rely on other senses. You lean in and attend with your ears. Your skin might prickle as your sense of touch grows more acute. The wilderness focuses your entire attention.
That wilderness experience provides the shape and contour of the hopes that flow forth from those desert springs. To know what you have been denied is to know what you hope for. The wilderness experience created a deep thirst for liberation that demands to be quenched.
Have you ever met someone who survived a near-death experience? Weve all read stories about folks who discover a sharper focus, a deep sense of purpose in living fully the time they have for they have been to edge of the wilderness of existential fear. They have confronted death and understand the fierce urgency of now in a way that most of us simply dont.
Isaiah is writing from that place.
Many people find their passions in life by way of wilderness experiences. That is to say, when you wind up in one of those frightening, arresting experiences that you didnt really anticipate, you often come out the other side determined to respond to what you just went through.
Thats why survivors become advocates, whether its survivors of gun violence who join or even found organizations determined to reduce gun violence, survivors of human trafficking who become advocates for other survivors, survivors of sexual violence who do the same, and so on.
When Time announced its Persons of the Year last week I was in the midst of pondering this Isaiah text and the way that the gospel of Mark alludes to it in the prologue.
Comfort, comfort my people, says our God.
My people, says God. My people are the ones out on the margins. My people have been abused. My people have been exiled. My people have been discriminated against. My people are the ones who go through the wilderness.
We all want to think of ourselves as Gods people. The thing is, we dont want to go to the wilderness. Oh, we like to go to national parks, hike mountain trails, and find remote waterfalls to gaze upon and feel all spiritual. But real wilderness wilderness on a Biblical scale is never so tame, never so beautiful.
Thats because in scripture wilderness is not a park. Its not even a place, really. Wilderness is a condition.
In the prologue to Marks gospel, in Ched Myers reading, wilderness represents the peripheries.’”[1]
As the gospel unfolds, the narrative portrays mounting tension between the periphery and the center, between those on the margins of society and those who hold tightly to the reigns of economic, political, and religious power within the society.
When God calls forth prophetic witness, God is calling forth those who will speak out on behalf of Gods people. Prophets tend to emerge from the margins. The people God draws closest to in scripture always dwell on the margins. As the theologians of liberation put it, God has a preferential option for the poor, for the outcast, for the marginalized, the discriminated against, the abused. God prefers those who have been to the wilderness.
If we take seriously the theology of the cross this should not surprise us. After all, God has survived xenophobia, abuse, and violence, including the violence of death on a cross. God is another survivor.
Perhaps, a half century after declaring God dead on its cover, Time returned God to the cover last week. If you’ve seen the cover photo from last week you probably noticed the elbow off to the right edge of the picture. Some folks speculate that it represents those who remain anonymous and, perhaps, silenced in the face of sexual abuse.
That’s probably right, but I looked at the photo and thought, how sly of the editors. They reimagined God as female, understood that God is a survivor, realized that God dwells along the margins, and, because you can’t capture God in an image, just hinted at her by picturing an elbow.
That elbow of God is there to give a sharp jab to the midsection of patriarchy. As hard and as heartening (it can be both) as it is to confront the news of the day, I am reminded of Karl Barth’s insistence that we must do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And, in recalling that quote, I am mindful that Barth, who died in 1968, has been in the news himself recently right alongside Al Franken and Donald Trump and so many others as another man who abused his position of power to take advantage of a less powerful woman. It is time for such men to step aside. The testimony of abused women is enough to compel the resignation of presidents of media companies, and it is enough to compel the resignation of the president of the United States. Donald Trump should resign his office.
Marginalized women are pushing back. Such gestures jabs, pokes, resistance come inevitably from the edge of the frame, from the margins of the text, from the periphery of power.
The middle of the frame is filled with glorified images of power almost always men who believe that they, alone, can make things great. The center of the text that is to say, its dominate reading or interpretive tradition almost always focuses on upholding traditional power structures that are centered on kings and princes, on the patriarchs. The centers of power are held, almost always, by men, and, traditionally, men only go to the wilderness to subdue it, to bring back trophies, to conquer and civilize it such that they will reign there, too.
But the God who chose to dwell among the outcasts in the person of Jesus did so through the life of a young woman who dwelled on the margins. Mary could well have been one of those women on the cover of Time last week. She could well have been one of the silence breakers.
And when she broke the silence she did so with a song.
Her song heralds a great reckoning, a turning of the world which will bring every tyrant from his throne. As movie moguls, corporate bigwigs, and United States congressmen are forced from their positions of power because they have abused that power, I hear a voice crying out: from the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Tyrants have been toppling all year as more and more women’s voices have joined a rising chorus singing for hope that the world is about to turn.
We’re a long way from justice, still, and surely the beloved community remains little more than a dim vision, far from focused, way out there beyond the horizon. But a voice from the wilderness is crying out. When I lend ear toward the wilderness I believe I hear her saying, Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 126.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Of Kings and Monsters
Matthew 25, selected verses
November 29, 2017
This is the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Next week, with the first Sunday of Advent, we begin anew. The last Sunday of the year on the liturgical calendar is traditionally marked as Christ the King Sunday, and we celebrate the lordship of Jesus.
When Lisa let me know that the young people were going to be doing what amounts to a Biblical study of sea monsters and we started looking for a date when they could share some of that study with the rest of the community in worship I was initially hesitant to do so today.
The text we just read from Matthew 25 is, for me, the heart of the gospel. The parable of the nations is the passage the takes me to the depth and power of the incarnation. It confronts me with an inescapable truth: if I want to come face to face with God then I need to go to the places Jesus says I will find the divine.
And that not those places most of us so blithely name when asked, “where do you see God?” For most of the time we respond, “at the top of a mountain on a clear day,” or “when I stand at the edge of the ocean.” But, as beautiful and peaceful as such places may be, if the only God we know is the one we meet there, then we are more acquainted with the God of bourgeois poets and Bob Ross painting than we are with the One who said, “when I was naked you clothed me.” The parable of the nations merits being the heart of worship for the God who confronts us there is worthy of our praise, our awe, our lives. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed right to me to pair sea monsters with the peculiar kingship of Jesus.
After all, sea monsters in scripture represent much the same thing that wilderness does: chaos out beyond the rule of law where monsters, wild animals, and lawless men roam. In the gospel, though, the most interesting characters transgress the boundary. John the Baptist is out there at the edge. Jesus goes to the wilderness to pray. Surely, an apostle who travels as widely as Paul did also regularly crossed the border.
The monsters, like the wilderness, represent that which is beyond our control and beyond our understanding. Often, the monsters are simply the unknown.
In the parable of the nations that concludes Matthew 25, the only difference between those who enter the reward prepared for them since the foundation of the world and those who are cast into darkness is a willingness to confront the unknown, to minister to the monsters. The king who ushers them into paradise is not one who ascends to the throne by slaying the monsters, by conquering the unknown by the sword, but rather, the king is the one who so deeply identifies with those out beyond the borders of civilized society that he is ministered to by the ones who cross the borders to serve the monsters.
As I pondered the sea monsters that the kids were studying and creating, I also pondered the monsters we create.
My friend and colleague, Aric Clark, posted a reflection on the anniversary of the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In it, Aric wrote:
“For me, Tamir Rice is the victim that made it clear just how deadly white fear is. Someone called 911 on a kid playing in a park. Someone was living in such a state of continual terror that they saw danger in that beautiful little boy. Someone set those armed officers on alert and by the time they arrived they were so strung out on fear they fired immediately. There was no monster but the fear born of racism. No danger at all in this scenario except for the terrified white people.This is what I want my white friends and family to understand most of all. Our fear makes us dangerous. Our fear makes us kill. We think of racism as hatred. We think of violence as being based on anger, and some of it is, but because we don't think of ourselves as angry or hateful we don't see the violence in our behavior. We just want to feel safe.So we deny refugees.We ban Muslims.We deport immigrants of color.We call 911 on little black and brown children playing in parks.We trust in badges and uniforms and weapons, but it's badges and uniforms and weapons that are doing the killing, on our behalf, because we're scared. Like most fears it's wildly misplaced. The statistics don't bear it out. Violent crime is way down. Immigrants are less likely to be criminals than citizens. Refugees are essentially never terrorists.”
Our fear turns us into monsters. That fear is grounded in racism, which is the ultimate monster in the story of America.
It’s not the only one, of course. Patriarchy is its monstrous cousin, or, perhaps, its twin. Consumerism is part of its monstrous family, and is particularly -- though not uniquely -- American. Militarism is the monster that gives these others their global reach and power.
I like to think that I’m not part of that. I like to think that racism, sexism, xenophobia, militarism, consumerism, and the rest exist out there in the wilderness. I like to think that those monsters don’t dwell in my heart, but are, instead, confined to hearts that beat out there in the monsters of the deep.
But I cannot write those words without thinking, also, of the words that cartoonist John Kelly first articulated in the McCarthy era: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The path beyond the monsters, it turns out, is a wilderness way. Only as we walk it will we come face to face with Jesus, out there already, loving the monsters -- including the monsters who are us -- and loving them into his strange and holy kingdom.

Enter, then, the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for when I was hungry you fed me; when I was an immigrant you welcomed me; when I was a young black man you came alongside me as my companion; when I was a woman you respected me completely; when I was a child you cared for me; and when I behaved monstrously you redeemed me with love.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Truth Will Set You Free

Bottom of Form
Psalm 46; Micah 3:5-12
November 5, 2017
Jesus famously reminded his disciples that the truth would make them free. The prophet Micah clearly understood that the opposite sentiment is also important to grasp: lies will bring you to desolation.
These two sides of the same coin operate on more than two levels. That is to say, distinguishing truth from falsehood matters, at the very least, on personal, corporate, and political levels. Moreover, on each of those levels, and probably several others I haven’t yet considered, each of us is prone to falsehoods from time to time.
You remember the TV medical drama House that ran for most of a decade in the early 2000s? Dr. House was a wonderfully misanthropic character prone to grand proclamations about the state of the human condition. One of his favorite maxims was simple: “everybody lies.”
He was not wrong about that, but I always wanted another character to come back at him with the equally accurate statement that “everybody tells the truth.” The problem is that nobody does just the one all of the time.
That is to say, each of us struggles with the truth at various points in our lives. Most of us mostly have a hard time being honest with ourselves. I have made great plans – for a recommitment to exercise or a more regular practice of writing or a less regular practice of eating chocolate-chip cookies or some other such self-improvement practice – only to find that “future me” looks back at “eventually past me” and laughs at the naïve self-deception.
Most of us have been there. The details may vary but the pattern seems all-too familiar. As scripture puts it, with respect to missing the mark, when “we claim we are without sin, we lie and deceive ourselves.”
That’s the key: we deceive ourselves. And, hey, we don’t even need God in this equation. Heck, those who know me best listen to my grand plans and say, “sounds good.” But I’m quite confident that they’re also thinking, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
How do I know this? Because it’s the exact same thing I say when friends and loved ones share their grand plans for self-improvement with me. “Sounds good!” … and I’ll believe it when I see it.
It seems abundantly clear to me that there’s a word in this for each of us, as individuals, but there is also a word in this for the church, and for the broader culture, as well, and it is a particularly timely word.
When those who hold the highest offices in our national political life consistently lie to the public, then our common life is degraded. As Micah knew, when leaders abuse the public trust but then claim “God is on our side, and all will be well,” desolation is at hand. All I can say, on this Sunday before another election, is that Micah must have been reading the Sunday paper for the news from Washington is filled with the very kinds of deceit that came forth from Zion and Jerusalem.
As Walter Brueggemann insists, the prophetic task of the church is to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion. But what if the truth is that the church also lives in illusion?
We sit across the river from the insanity that is the current state of national political life, and we pat ourselves on the backs because we’re not like those folks in the White House or the Congress or so many parts of the media these days. But I wonder just how different the church really is. Are our seers and diviners, our prophets and oracles any less prone to self-deception than those to whom Micah addressed his words?
The Sunday of a congregational meeting is an excellent time for the church to take stock of its commitments and of its willingness to live into them. For example, about a year ago, after several consecutive years of growing the giving patterns of this congregation, we challenged ourselves with a fairly significant increase in pledge income.
Now I wouldn’t say that we lied about it when session approved the budget and the congregation received it last January, but I would say that we deceived ourselves. The actuals from the current budget will show that we’re not going to meet the 2017 pledge income numbers, and the preliminary budget we’ll look at in a few minutes reflects a more thoroughly honest assessment of where we pledge to be in 2018.
Looking at the budget invites us to assess honestly some important aspects of community life. As Mark Twain was fond of saying, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. While it’s true that the church membership statistic here at CPC has grown by about 10 percent in the past year, the worship attendance statistic has decreased by a similar figure. One of those statistics is lying.
If 90-percent of life is just showing up, then the attendance figure is probably telling us the truth, whether or not we want to hear it. Moreover, I think the nominating committee’s report is echoing that same truth. If we don’t have enough time or energy on hand to fill all of the available slots on our leadership board, then there is a truth that needs to be told.
I am not much of a prophet or seer or oracle or diviner, so I am not going to stand up here this morning and pretend to know precisely what this truth is. I am, however, a disciple of the one who said that the truth will make us free.
So, my invitation this morning is to seek the truth together. What is God calling us to be and do as the church at Clarendon in the present time? Do we have a clear calling, a mission that we believe in enough to commit our time, our talents, and our treasure in measures sufficient to the day?
As Rick Ufford-Chase, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly, told us when we were filming at Stony Point last summer, “over the next ten or fifteen years, we’re going to have to systematically deconstruct the corporate culture and institutional structure of the church, and create space for something new to emerge.”
We began 2017 talking about living into a reformation age. Nothing that I have seen or heard or read in the past year has altered my conviction that we are, indeed, living through an era of deep, thorough, and profound change in the culture, the economy, the political order, and the world of faith around the globe.
Seasons of profound change are always marked by deaths and rebirths. I believe some old truths are in decline, and new ones are trying to be born in our midst. Are we to be chained to old verities, or shall we discern the truth that liberates us to participate in the new thing that God is doing in our midst?

I will seek to follow the way of the One who promised that we would know the truth, and that it will make us free. It is the best I can do, and an invitation to do the same is the best word I have to offer. Come and see. Amen.