Sunday, August 13, 2017

After Charlottesville

Romans 8:31-39
August 13, 2017
 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

When we sang, “blessed are they who seek peace” a moment ago I was thinking of clergy friends and colleagues who marched yesterday in Charlottesville. I wasn’t able to be with them this time, but I suspect that I will have a chance to be blessed in their presence down there before long.
Racism and white supremacy have been called America’s Original Sin, and clearly we remain as broken by that original sin as Augustine ever imagined humankind to be broken by the original sin of Adam.
I find good news in making that comparison because I think Augustine was wrong. I think the Genesis story tells us that God looked at creation and called it “good,” and that we are born and born again into that original blessing. That doesn’t deny our history – as human beings, as Americans – but it does insist that the power of God lies in redeeming that history.
That is to say, we are not bound by it. If the story of Jesus is about anything at all, it is about the power of God to absorb the great “no” of human violence and hatred, and speak, instead, a persistent, insistent “yes” in response.
Thus, when two-bit Klansmen and white nationalists with their history of hate and their theology of blood and soil trample across the lawn of one of the country’s renowned centers of learning, we must turn from their scowls and screeds and violence, and seek, instead, to align ourselves with and amplify God’s great “yes” – yes to wisdom, yes to community, yes to grace, yes to radical hospitality, yes to wildly inclusive love.
As Ellie Wiesel said, “We must take sides …. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
I don’t know, this morning, exactly what such interference looks like. I haven’t figured that out for myself at this moment, so I am not going to pretend to make suggestions for us, as a community.
I know this much: come Saturday we will take our youngest child to Charlottesville to move in to her dorm at UVA. The violence there is, obviously, deeply disturbing on a deeply personal level for us.
So I know this much, as well: the vague sense of unrest that I feel about the violence in Charlottesville is how my African-American sisters and brothers feel about every single fucking day of their lives.
And, as Rev. Sekou told the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship last summer in Portland, if you are more offended by that language than you are by the conditions that prompt it, then it’s time to look in the mirror for the source of your discomfort.
My friends who are black are the least surprised of any of my friends about the violence perpetrated by white supremacists. They have been being victimized by such violence for, oh, about 400 years in these parts.
They don’t want to know why we are surprised. They want to know when we’re going to wake up and resist. We must take sides. As for me and my household, we will continue to try to stand on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized, those who for far too long have cried out for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
My friend and colleague Allison Unroe – a clergy woman I’ve known since she was an undergrad at Virginia Tech and counselor at Camp Hanover – was part of the clergy presence in Charlottesville yesterday, and last night she posted on Facebook:
“Today I stood helpless in front of a group of angry white men who wanted to harm me simply for standing for peace. I said nothing to them. I did nothing to them. I just showed up and prayed and sang, and afterwards I happened to walk to my car on the same street they were on.”
Allison was lucky to escape unharmed. Other clergy colleagues were not so fortunate. Some of the folks that Martin and I interviewed in Chattanooga last month for our film project were also present yesterday in Charlottesville and several of their number wound up in the hospital receiving stiches for wounds suffered at the hands of violent white men.
“We must take sides …. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
As I said, I don’t know what that looks like right now, but I do know that silence in the face of injustice is acquiescence that aides and abets the oppressor. If my voice is silent, then my hands are dirty with the grime of hatred and violence.
White supremacy is spiritual violence that destroys everything it touches. It is powerful and it has distorted American life and history from our founding. If we were a more theologically orthodox community we’d take talk about the “powers and principalities” seriously. The apostle Paul did, and maybe we can learn something from him on this.
There is power in hate. “Blood and soil” is not just a Nazi propaganda slogan; it is a theological claim through which white nationalists seek and claim divine justification for white supremacist aims. But such power is not divine; it is demonic.
The good news, though, is quite simple and clear: love wins. Love is a force more powerful. The arc of the moral universe is mighty long, and sometimes it seems like it goes on forever. But when we do the work of love it bends the whole world round.
We began this morning with words from the Belhar Confession – formally adopted by the PCUSA last summer into our Book of Confessions. I’ll move toward a stopping place, if not a conclusion, with this from the same source: We believe
·      that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ;
·      that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
·      that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;
·      that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
·      that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.
Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.
I do not know, in the present moment, how to map a clear path through the present darkness, but I do know that a light shines in it. As my friend David LaMotte sings, “you may say love is a powerless tool, that the real world is heartless and hope is for fools, but I’ve watched for the sunrise and the truth is I’ve found, it’s not light that is fragile. It’s the other way round.”
All the darkness in the world can’t extinguish the light of just one candle. We will light candles in the present darkness, and the light will overcome the darkness. We shall overcome. Amen.


Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Our Common Calling

Micah 6:8
August 6, 2017
I follow a blog written by a guy in North Carolina named Hugh Hollowell. I’ve never met him, but he’s friends of friends I trust. I’ve found his writing incisive and insightful, and I borrowed from him a lot this week.
He does a lot of vocational discernment work with individuals and groups, and one of the exercises he invites folks into involves a 90-day commitment to writing down at least one sentence every day that begins, “I believe ….”
The sentence can be completed with anything that one believes – spiritually, politically, grammatically. His conviction is simple: our vocation – our calling – comes from what we believe. Moreover, if you write over the course of several months things that you believe you will begin to see patterns in your beliefs. That pattern describes a belief system, out of which emerges a sense of calling that frames true vocation.
It’s crucial to note, whenever one speaks of “vocation,” that vocation is not the same as job. There can, of course, be overlap between one’s vocation and one’s job, but it’s not necessarily the same thing. I’ve known more than a few folks whose vocation, for example, is in the arts, but whose jobs are in retails or service industries. Their jobs support them financially so that they can pursue the vocations that fulfill them.
I have spent a lifetime wrestling with the tensions between job and vocation, and I do not feel alone in that. Over the years, though I have never taken on the precise practice that Hollowell prescribes, I have written down what I believe often and in various contexts.
Thinking back on what I have written over the past 20 years or so prompted two thoughts: first, I can pretty quickly sum up what I’d call a mission statement for my life based on the common themes of that writing; and, second, I wonder what common mission statement we would draw as a community based on the core beliefs that we walk in with.
If asked to sum it up in a sentence, I would write, “I believe that we are called to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
Micah 6:8 is my mission statement. I certainly don’t measure up to it fully ever, but on my better days I lean that way.
Summer is a good time for pondering this stuff, because it is a time for planning for us, so I want to take a bit of quiet time in worship this morning and invite you to think about how you complete the sentence that begins, “I believe …”
Perhaps you’re feeling Jeffersonian this morning, so you’ll write “I believe that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Maybe you’re feeling deep existential despair today, and “I believe that ‘man’ is a useless passion,” sums it up for you. I hope not, but, hey, some days you just feel like Jean Paul Sartre. We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re feeling hopeful and faithful, and “love wins” says all that needs to be said.
Whatever you can honestly say you believe this morning, jot it down on the slip of paper you received when you came in. When you’ve written whatever you have to write, just drop it in the basket.


The Work of the People

Psalm 23; Luke 9:10-17
July 30, 2017
The readings this morning pretty much speak for themselves, so just a couple of extraordinarily brief remarks on these texts:
First, they are both about abundance. The green pastures and overflowing cup remind the psalmist that God has given us all that we need. Jesus understands this such that even looking out at a huge throng he trusts that there will be enough to go around and more than enough.
Second, the story from Luke is about the people, given what they need, doing together what they need to do in order to make use of what they have been given. It is a story of a liturgy of feeding.
Y’all know that I have a certain fondness for a few particular New Testament Greek words: agape – that wonderful, rich word that indicates a selfless love that gives without regard to risk; kairos – the word for time when time itself overflows with possibility; metanoia – the word usually translated as “repent” but which suggests something deeper than a merely religious act and points toward a more profound turning on the road of life.
Yup, I love those words. But my favorite word from New Testament Greek is the one I remind us of here so often: liturgy. It means, literally, the work of the people. It comes from a pair of Greek works litos and ergos. Litos is also the root from which we derive laity, or lay people (which, come to thing of it, is redundant). Ergos, which is translated as work, refers to the power to do something.
Liturgy has come to mean merely the order of worship for a faith community, but if we hold fast to the roots of the word we discern also a deep connection between worship and work, or, in churchy words, between worship and mission.
That connection ought to be clear always. We ought, as the wall hanging outside of the sanctuary reminds us, always remember that we enter this space to pray and we leave it to serve.
At our best, we’re doing both of those things at once: praying with our hands and feet as well as with our hearts and minds.
This morning we’re going to do that without leaving the sanctuary.
There are many worship stations this morning including the obvious – the tables in the center of the space. In response to the word read and proclaimed this morning you are invited to participate in one of several ways. First, we are creating today’s bag meal to feed our neighbors at A-SPAN. There’s plenty of space for sandwich making and Lisa will give us directions in just a moment.
Feeding our neighbors through A-SPAN and AFAC is, of course, direct service. It’s crucial and it makes a difference in the lives of many hungry families and individuals. It does not, however, address hunger at a systemic level. That work of doing justice requires that we engage policy makers. Up in the chancel this morning there are a couple of tables with policy information from Bread for the World. There are postcards addressed to our local congressional delegates. Please spend some time up there and write a message to your reps encouraging to support policies that address root causes of hunger.
We feed folks. We work for justice. And we undergird it with our prayers. In the back there are colored pieces of paper. You are also invited to write your prayer requests for this morning’s prayers of the people. If you would like those prayers spoken aloud, put them in the basket next to the stack of colored paper. If you would prefer they not be spoken, simply roll the paper up and add it to the butterfly that we have been creating this summer as we take the ugliness of the cross and transform it, through our various prayers, into something bright and beautiful.
You are also invited, as you make sandwiches or writer letters, to share the peace of Christ with one another along the way, and to get some coffee and snacks, too. I encourage you to move around the space and engage each of the stations as you feel so called.
When we’ve finished bagging the sandwiches, we will close our time of worship with a prayer and a song.
So, let us continue the work of the people together.

Rocks and Hard Places

Romans 8:22-25; Genesis 28:10-15

July 23, 2017
Let’s crowd-source some definitions this morning. First off, what does “hope” mean to you? Is “hope” the same as “wish”? What does hope do?
Last week’s Christian Century includes a lovely essay called How to live in hope, by theologian Charles R. Pinches. He opens with this story:
Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation guided his people through the deep crisis brought by the invasion of the white man. Shortly before his death in 1932, he said to his biographer: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them again. After this nothing happened.”[1]
As Pinches explains, “while the Crow remained alive after the buffalo went away, their lives had no place in their own history. This is,” he argues, “a fitting way to characterize a life without hope: having no place within a history.”
Hope is what ties our past to a longed-for future that gives our present struggles meaning. Hope gives us a place in time. Hope is, in this understanding, what makes something happen. We act in the world to bring about the change we wish to see such that the world of the future more closely aligns with our present hopes.
As Pinches notes, Thomas Aquinas called despair – that is, a life without hope – the greatest sin because despair “consists in […] ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness.” If, as we talked about last week, sin amounts to separation from God, despair separates us from God’s story. In despair, there is nothing in God’s story for me. Nothing happens.
In despair, we remain silent, as well. While the phrase, “wallowing in despair” carries an entirely unhelpful moralism, it nevertheless captures a deep truth about despair: despair incapacitates us and leaves us mute.
Paul, writing to the church at Rome, might have fallen into despair given his circumstances. Caught between a council in Jerusalem that doubted the validity of the increasingly gentile church, and that growing gentile church’s doubts about the faith of Jewish Christians, Paul might easily have thrown up his hands and said, “what’s the use?”
Given his experiences in jail along the way, despair seems a perfectly legitimate option. Moreover, when one pauses to consider that the founder of the movement that Paul has joined wound up on a Roman cross, it’s not hard to wonder how any of the early Christians found a place for themselves in the story of God.
Hope seems like the least likely of the three great virtues Paul names – faith, hope, and love – to persist in a tiny movement emerging from a fringe religious group in a backwater of an empire that persecuted them. Nevertheless, they breathed hope.
It was the same hope that Jacob carried – a hope against all odds that somehow there was a place for him in the story of God’s people.
I’ve long been fascinated by the Jacob story, and particularly by the small but significant detail of the pillow for his head. Why, I have wondered for as long as I can remember, did Jacob think he’d get a good night’s sleep resting his head on a rock? Granted, I’ve never been to the Holy Land. Maybe their rocks are softer than our rocks, but I doubt it.
Sure, he was travelling light and on the run from his older brother, Esau, whom Jacob had cheated out of the eldest’s birthright. Still, why is this even a believable symbolic detail in this historical mythology of Israel?
Because that early mythology already regularly refers to God as the Rock of Israel’s salvation – from Jacob’s final blessing to his sons referring to the Rock of Israel (Gen. 49:24) to David’s song of gratitude following his deliverance from Saul that opens with “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge” (2 Sam. 22:2-3). That symbol continues to pertain right on through Jesus changing Simon to Peter – the Greek is petras, or rock, and Jesus proclaims that Peter will become the rock upon which the church will be built.
One can find one’s self in the story of God when resting upon the rock. Jacob gives himself over to God’s providence and surrenders both to sleep and to trust when he lays his head upon the rock.
Rocks, however, remain hard, and thus this is a difficult hope we cling to in faith.
As Pinches notes in his essay,
“Difficulty is part of the definition of hope. […] Hope is what sustains us when the stories in which we have a share turn unjust and require our dissent.”
He goes on to quote a Wendell Berry essay, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” from more than 25 years ago. Berry was writing in response to Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.” Carruth’s short poem protests the war by protesting the invitation to speak against it in a poem.
Berry suggests that “much protest is naïve; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest that that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”[2]
In other words, in, for example, Martin Luther’s words: “here I stand, I can do no other.” If I am to preserve what matters in my own heart and spirit, I must stand up. If I am to claim a place in the story of God’s love I must stand up for that love in the life and history of the world in my own time and place in it.
It may be as comfortable as trying to sleep with one’s head on a rock, but hope that is worthy of the name will never be a soft and fluffy thing.
With that in mind, I invite you to take the stone you received when you came in this morning and think about your own hopes. What hope do you hold on to that holds you fast in the face of challenges in your own life and in the life of the world?
Let us bring these challenges and these hopes to God in prayer.

[1] “How to live in hope,” by Charles R. Pinches, Christian Century, July 19, 2017, page 22.
[2] Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990) 62.