Sunday, October 8, 2017

22A (written after another mass shooting, this time in Las Vegas)

The scripture appointed for today can be found here


And Still, It's Us

This is a hard week to preach. There have been many, far too many, hard weeks to preach. When some tragedy or another has struck and we have been left breathless by the pain, numbed by the frequency, bereft at the loss, and raging at the injustice.

This is a hard week to preach, a week in which my very prayers have been akin to screaming into the wind.

Words torn from my lips as I am left behind.

And, then, to hear the Isaiah passage today:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel, 
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting; 
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed; 
but heard a cry!

God did not expect the bloodshed. God did not expect to hear the cry of the oppressed.

God expected righteousness, God expected justice, God expected more from us—the people made in God’s image, called to reflect God’s love. God made us to be more than this.

And, as I grapple with the scriptures this week, I grapple with the truth that far too many of us have built our lives and our churches without the foundation that is the cornerstone we call Christ. Rather, we have placed at the very foundation of our lives and faith those very evils which we deplore,

Greed, murder, hatred, fear, and violence.

When we give these things worth beyond the worth we give to God—then we worship evil and not our God.  The word worship, comes from an Old English word “worth ship” and in scripture the word worship is the verb to serve.

When we give worth to something that exceeds the worth we give to God, than we are demonstrating that our interests, our heart, our energy, our selves have been devoted to idols.

American author Neil Gaiman's book, American God's, describes the fictional events leading up to a war between what he calls the “gods of the old world” and the “new gods”. For his purposes, the old-world gods are those brought by immigrants and worshipped by the first nations people—the new gods are those which have grown in power as their number of worshippers have increased. The worth that has been given to the various gods determines their power—and, in the cosmology of Neil Gaiman’s book, the pantheon of the new gods have names like “media”, “technical”, and “Mr. World”. It is the new god Media who speaks the following,  

“The TV's the altar. I'm what people are sacrificing to.'
'What do they sacrifice?' asked Shadow.
'Their time, mostly,'…'Sometimes each other.” 

Sometimes each other.

I can feel my chest tighten, and my breathing tighten. We may think that human sacrifice is something of the distant past, but this week we’ve watched as human beings have been unwilling sacrifices to our cultural obsession with power, prestige, and even that nebulous thing we call “freedom”.

A distorted understanding of freedom that fails to take into account that freedom is not some individual goal but a larger striving—and that any freedom that serves to oppress is not the true liberation that comes from God.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” (From NM’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”)

No one wins. No one wins. Republican, democrat, pro-gun control, anti-gun control, black, white, gay, straight, fiscal conservative, liberal. None of us win, none of us, as long as any of our stances deny the humanity of any one of us.

And this, this is what I believe Paul is getting at in the opening words of the passage we heard today,

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

As Saul the persecutor, Paul had used his tribal identity, his adherence to the law, and his zeal, as a means by which he denied the humanity of others. His conversion places Christ at the center—and when he gives worth to Christ he finds himself giving worth to others. The others Paul once persecuted he now calls “beloved”.

Which brings me to another point. The possibility that even the most zealous of persecutors might be transformed. A possibility that we cannot deny, and so we pray for those who persecute—just as we pray for the persecuted.

And, we do this, we pray this, because if we are to know ourselves as beloved, then we are called to recognize that belovedness in others.  If we can see the humanity in Christ, then we are invited to see the Christ in our humanity.

This is true seeing. This is where we are transformed. This is the place of grace and of hope born of faith. Born of knowing that God who declared our creation “good”, did not then and will not now, abandon us to evil.

You may find yourself asking, how can you say this? When the world is so torn, how can you still see God at work in the world around us?

I ask myself this very question. And, I find the answer in all of you, in all of us, and in this gathering. I see God, in the reality that people keep showing up. That there are still people, most people, whose kindness far exceeds their cruelty. God still plants, God still tends. God’s Spirit will be given and fruit will emerge.

And so, in reading the parable of the vineyard today, one that foretells Jesus’ execution, I note that the violence is the creation of humans and that the vineyard that gives life is the creation of God.

Violence plants the seeds for our own destruction and it’s not God doing the destroying, it’s us.

It’s us.

But it is not the whole of us, because the violence is not what defines us. What does define us is the love of God, the gift of Christ, and the truth that in our creation we were called “good”. What defines us is the potential we have to produce the fruit of the kingdom. The potential we have to build up, to create, to love, to have mercy, to pursue justice, and to see Christ in all persons.

We can reject the new gods with their insatiable hunger for blood, and embrace the God of our ancestors whose love for us is what’s insatiable.

We can. We can change. We can be transformed. We can, like Saul become Paul, reject the structures and institutions that threaten humanity and we, like him, can then declare all humanity beloved.


21A, Authority and Faith

The scripture for this week can be found here


We, as Christians, ally ourselves with those whom the world would seek to destroy—and in this, there is what some might find a peculiar comfort. In a letter, written from his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

“Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor
And in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me
When all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It is Your will that I should know You
And turn to You.
Lord, I hear Your call and follow;
Help me.” 

This affirmation of faith, written by a man who would ultimately be executed by the Nazi regime, serves as a powerful reminder that Jesus himself was held captive, that Jesus himself suffered. And, because of this Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his own imprisonment found comfort and assurance that he is not alone in his suffering and that he will never be forgotten.

Never forgotten and never alone. Bonhoeffer could easily have found himself discouraged, and indeed at times he is, but he turns to Christ for the assurance that his cause is just and that he serves the good. He died in the last month of World War II and did not live to see liberation.

A liberation that remains incomplete as we ourselves grapple with the reality that liberation of the camps did not bring an end to oppression. And, in this I find myself discouraged and forlorn, why is the road to peace so long?

Dorothy Day an advocate for the poor who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement wrote, in a letter that she too penned from prison, words I find that I need to hear,

“You sounded so discouraged and you know as well as I do that discouragement is a temptation of the devil. Why should we try to see results? It is enough to keep on in the face of what looks to be defeat. We certainly have enough examples in the lives of the saints to help us. Not to speak of that greatest of failures (to the eyes of the world) of Christ on the cross…You do not know yourself what you are doing, how far-reaching your influence is…God often lets us start doing one thing and many of the results we accomplish are incalculably far-reaching, splendid in their own way, but quite different from what we expected.”

We do not know, if the cornerstone that the world has rejected will be the very foundation of the world that God intends. We do not know, if the part we play and even those things that may seem to fail, will be the same things which will give birth to the world that God intends. We do not and cannot know, and so we are called to continue.

Called to continue to speak the truth, to name God’s love, and to serve God’s people. Even if the truth, the love, and even the people, have been rejected by the powers and principalities of this world.

Martin Luther King Jr. was clear on this point and, in a letter written from a jail cell in Birmingham seeks to convict those who would read his words,

“Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now.” 

Things are different now. Are they? As we gather in 2017 and call ourselves Christians, are they different?

Can the commitment of a small group of us bring an end to the modern evils we face?

I don’t know, but they didn’t know either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Dorothy Day; Martin Luther King Jr.—they did not know. And, yet, they persisted. They persisted even as they were led into their jail cells, they persisted even when facing death.

They persisted in proclaiming and LIVING the Gospel.

Even when doing so brought them into conflict with the authorities.

They knew by whose authority they did these things, and that authority was not that of human law. It was not that of congressional matters or executive orders. It was not that of politics and powers. It was the authority of the good news of God in Christ. The news that is good for the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering. The news that declares freedom even in the midst of oppression.

Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. the apostle Paul wrote the letter we heard today from a prison cell where he too was imprisoned for his insistence on naming and proclaiming the authority of God in Christ. But, he, like they finds encouragement in his recognition that God is at work in him. Paul writes,

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Look to the interests of others.

There is a table grace my family says most night, “Bless this food to our use, and us to your service and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

Ever mindful of the needs of others. Henry and I were discussing this prayer one day and he pointed out that if we are all mindful of other people’s needs, then everyone’s needs will be met because other people will be mindful of our needs.

And, in this I find encouragement and consolation—encouragement found in a child’s assumption of the inherent goodness of all people. This is enough, enough for now because even if we never taste of the fruit, the seeds that will blossom have been planted. Encouragement in Christ, consolation from love…look to the interests of others.

And, seek to live the law of love. The law which lifts up those the world and its powers all too often ignore. A law that is born not of this world, but of God’s.