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June 28th, 2015
“Advice on the Offering”
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
In my first call there was an older woman who lived in a house that was a remodeled chicken coop. True story. We were involved in a capital campaign to add a much needed addition to that church. For some reason she felt compelled to tell me how much she had committed to give for the project. I spoke too quickly and said, “That’s too much.” See I knew how limited her resources were. Angrily, she replied “that’s not for you to decide, it’s between me and God. I was just giving you a heads up.”
Earlier in chapter eight of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he tells the church about their sister church in Macedonia. There, they were full of faith and short on resources. Yet, “they gave beyond their means.” Most of us might spend beyond our means from time to time, but ‘give beyond our means?’
Do you remember Jesus in the temple, watching the collection box? It may have been the widow from the first church I served who put those two copper coins in the till, or someone like her. It was so moving that Jesus pointed this out to his disciples, and the idea of ‘proportional giving’ was born.
Whenever someone is trying to get me to emphasize this moral issue or that moral issue, I am reminded that Jesus offered more advice, spoke about money, stewardship, more than anything except the Kingdom of God. There is no specific commandment on giving from Jesus, as St. Paul notes. So we are left to our own devices. In a new members class years ago I was taken off guard when a couple asked me, “how much should we give?” The Holy Spirit was faithful and in good rabbinical fashion I answered with a question, “how much are you ‘called’ to give.” That couple in the new member group answered my question by asking, ‘doesn’t the bible say 10%. Is that how much we have to give? and I said no, you can give more.
See this request from Paul is not about the normal ‘alms giving.’ It is not about the plate being passed in church on Sunday. The first thing it is about is the Jerusalem church that is suffering extreme poverty; and he is urging all of the people he knows to come, generously, to their aid. See for disciples of Christ, stewardship is not only measured monetarily, but also relationally.
It is as if Paul is suggesting that those Christians over in Corinth pause and think about the situation in other churches. Think about other people. See, the first point Paul makes is that being a follower of Jesus is relational.
Although the Jerusalem church was in dire need of financial assistance, Paul’s appeal for help was directed at gentile churches. And so Justice is both economic and relational—even racial. Being reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace because everyone’s needs are met—is there anything that feels closer to heaven? It is easy to be put off; Paul lays it on so thick, using every lever at his disposal: Shame. Flattery. Fear. He did whatever it took to get the Corinthians to eagerly give; not because the money was important, and it was, but because that’s what people reconciled to God do. They are generous.
More than one stewardship campaign has been based that gift that keeps on giving, guilt. But in reality, Paul is not trying to make us feel guilty. Instead, he is basing his appeal on the same thing that every good offering is based upon: gratitude. In his first letter to the Corinthians he exclaims “already you are filled; already you are rich!” (1 Cor. 4:8). The second thing Paul is speaking about is the Son of God, in the flesh. The “BIG” word is “INCARNATION.” Paul is saying that the drama of God’s redeeming love occurred in this life that we know, where we live, the same place where, for example we might share some of our resources with those in need. “He who was rich became poor.”
Even back then, it was easy to compartmentalize life, saying: Today I will exercise in the spiritual realm. Come Monday its back to the ‘real world.’ Paul dispels such binary thinking. Because the One who is eternal became physical, because the spiritual entered into the material, because this ultimate reality chooses to meet us in our reality, there is no separation between the spiritual and material. Money for relief of the poor, or an earthquake in Nepal, or funding education in the inner city has the same ramifications as prayer and worship or any other spiritual practice.
We might jump over this short verse in the midst of the rest of this reading, but it gets at the second part of what Paul is speaking speaking about. It is the reason or motivation for that collection: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Sometimes we can rationalize keeping our resources to ourselves by saying that “I worked hard for it, it is mine.” What you might here Pauls saying is that none of it is yours, especially your place as a child of God. It was generously and freely, sacrificially, given to you. He never comes right out and says the how much. But the why? The why is right here in black and white, and it is the background to Paul’s advice to the Corinthians, and us, on the offering.
Monday, June 22nd, I was blessed to join some of my United Church of Christ family on the steps of the capitol building in Harrisburg to raise a prayer for education in Pennsylvania. Once a friend advised me to stay out of such matters and ‘stick to religion.’ So let me tell you why I was there.
As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote, poor school districts inevitably struggle to afford special-education staff, smaller classes, better computers and teacher development, among many other things. You do not need to study financial reports or performance studies. All you need to do is to visit these schools to see it.
One study documented that per-pupil spending across all districts in Pennsylvania during the 2009-10 school year was $12,729. Districts with the least and greatest levels of poverty, the fewest and most students, and the lowest and highest levels of student achievement, spent, on average, more per student than districts in the middle (i.e., the second and third quartiles) of the poverty, enrollment, and achievement distributions. On the average, poorer districts perform lower than wealthier districts. Why? Larger class size, fewer resources, less targeted professional development, reduced ancillary staff, as a consequence of strangled budgets result in reduced academic outcomes.
Education expenditures must be sufficient to produce acceptable academic outcomes for all students, especially when educational needs vary across the student population. Students living in poverty, English- language learners (ELLs), and special education students all require a larger investment than other students in order to achieve academically. This means that districts with high numbers of high-need students require more funding.
In 2013, Stein and Quinn of The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that indicated statewide, the adequacy gap for all non-charter school districts (including the School District of Philadelphia) in 2009-10 was, on average, $751 per pupil—suggesting that an additional $1.26 billion was required to account for the difference between current per-pupil spending and an educationally adequate level of spending.
The average of $5,813 in per-pupil dollars coming from the state in Pennsylvania in 2012 ranked 21st nationwide — and was less than every abutting state except Ohio. The Educational Law Center estimates that high-poverty public schools in Pennsylvania spend an annual average of $3,000 less per student compared to wealthy schools, adding up to a funding gap of $75,000 in a classroom of 25 students. While this number includes local funding, the fundamental issue is that the state funding amount is not consistent across districts. It is not equitable. This average shortfall is savagely more in some poor districts.
The reason that the expenditures must meet a ‘fully funded’ and ‘fair’ formula is that without complete and adequate funding, these students, on the whole, are not provided an ‘equal’ education to their counterparts in wealthier districts. This educational deficit has long term consequences for the economies of cities and states, setting up a vicious cycle. Without complete and adequate funding, who, exactly is this workforce that is being prepared for the jobs we hope to create through tax subsidies for corporations?
Jonathan Kozol, writer, educator, and activist, who studied education for forty years, bluntly explains this situation by noting that legislators are unwilling to tax benefactors and corporations. In Pennsylvania, critics frequently point to teachers salaries and pension [a pension fund whose multiplier was recently increased (not requested by PSEA) by 0.5% by the legislature]. Further in the past, this same legislature reduced school districts required contributions to these same funds, and market returns temporarily provided an offset in income. That situation was brief, and since then, no increase in funding (even without increased pension contributions by districts) has crippled poorer districts.
Morally, ethically, this is structure for educational funding that is in effect an economical and social segregation. As a pastor that is why I am compelled to speak, this is a faith issue. In St. Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he urges them: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, NRSV)
I urge Governor Wolf to fulfill his campaign promises for fair education funding. It is long past time for the legislature to provide a permanent fair funding formula that is not subject to the whims of politics, but instead provides equitable funding for all students and districts.
THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
April 19, 2015
“Believing is Seeing”
Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.
Not all that long ago, my wife and I were traveling somewhere. It was snowy, windy, and cold. I could have been December, January, or February, I don’t remember. As we rounded the bend in the country road I noticed out of the corner of my eye four deer standing out on the edge of the field, near the woodline; they were easily 500 yards off. I said, “look, deer.” We kept going. She said to me, “are you watching the road?” She’s that kind of navigator. I told her, “of course I am!” She wondered how in the world I managed to pick those deer out of the landscape. Some of you know how I did it. My eyes are tuned to that image. It jumps out at me.
I was standing in the parking lot about a month ago, talking to someone. I paused. “What?” they asked. “Listen,” I said, “snow geese.” They wondered aloud how I heard that.
It’s a habit. Over the years I have gathered an encyclopedia of times and places where deer can be expected. Not specific places, but if I am in a familiar spot that helps, then I can anticipate seeing them.
When I get surprised is when I see deer where I don’t expect to see them. When I was at Princeton, my advisor’s home was on the edge of town and he couldn’t keep shrubs in his yard. The deer chewed them to the ground every winter. This was suburbia. I thought he was hallucinating until when I was there one day having lunch, the deer came up between the houses for their lunch. They startled me. I didn’t expect to see them in that setting.
Hearing is the same thing, we get tuned to certain sounds. Snow geese on the horizon. A baby’s muffled cry down the hall. Sometimes, though, we don’t hear and we don’t see.
It is like the nurse who had a patient in the hospital. She had cared for the man for two weeks, nurturing him back to health. The man went back home to his wife. One day they were in the grocery store and this nice young woman came up to them and greeted them, saying ‘It is so good to see you again.’ He looked at her during an awkward minute. His wife looked at him. He looked at the young woman. Finally he said, ‘do I know you?’ ‘Why sure she said…’ he interrupted her and said, ‘of course! I know you! I just didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!’ Some things are easier to recognize in a setting that we expect them.
I hope you don’t mind if we think about this variable experience we call ‘seeing.’ It is common in the bible to hear this word, see. Peter begins speaking to a crowd and uses this word ‘see.’ John writes a letter to a church that is enduring division and he uses the word, ‘see.’ In the gospel, Jesus tries to quell the disciples confusion saying, ‘see that it is I myself.’ I want to emphasize these conversations, not in a way that some people do, to criticize. I want to take a close look at those people so that we might learn something about ourselves. We all develop our vision as we grow older, but one thing we all do; we see things through our own ‘lenses.’ Behind most of the decisions we make, things we say, what we do, what we like and dislike, is how we ‘see.’
I have a childhood memory of the first house my family owned. It was a warm summer evening and after dinner we were sitting out in the backyard eating watermelon. What I remember is my grandfather telling me that the seeds were bugs. I couldn’t bring myself to eat watermelon for years. Even now, I can plainly see that the seeds are not bugs, and yet I don’t eat it if I can avoid it. What is going on here? You know what is going on here. I am entirely able to observe that those little black bits are not bugs, but seeds. Yet, no thanks to the watermelon.
We come to Peter. Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar. At the gate of town where the beggars congregate a man looks to Peter for something. Peter knows what he wants. He anticipates what he wants. Then, in one of the greatest lines in scripture, Peter takes the man by the hand and says,
I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
The man begins jumping around and shouting for joy. The people nearby were, of course, astonished. What did they see? You can imagine what some investigator would hear if he interviewed the witnesses. But Peter didn’t wait for any speculation. He explained to them what they saw.
We come to the letter writer John. John is writing to a church that has been divided over some kind of disagreement. We don’t know what it was. But whatever it was, John told them there is one medicine for what ails you:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
So for us, there is something wrong if we cannot recognize the love of God in one another. It is present for all to see and yet something hinders our ‘seeing.’ What would it be? Is not God’s loving grace such a powerful presence that it is obvious? Apparently not. Not if you aren’t looking for it. Not if you do not anticipate it.
We come to John and the disciples in the upper room. I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. Last week I watched a part of the tv mini series, A.D. I told myself that I didn’t need to watch it. I’ve read the book. As I watched, I was impressed, surprisingly, that the writers and editors did not depict the disciples as a group unanimous in their resolve, in anticipation of the risen Christ. They were not. Not in the book, not in the t.v. series. The writers of that series depicted the upper room scene. Just like in scripture, they had trouble ‘seeing Jesus.’ “They were startled and terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost.”
I know people who limit the possibilities to that realm. You know, to the ‘religious.’ It is as if Faith is active only in the territory of the spirit. They might say believing Jesus is the Christ is something that is important in that it gives us hope for eternity. The risen Christ is encountered in the bread and the wine, and in scripture read and preached. And, to their credit, Jesus can be encountered there. But there are other places too.
Some things are so hard to see. We are so prone to miss what is going on around us.
One of the hardest things to see is the Risen Christ in our midst. So John wrote these things to remind all of us that we need to practice ‘seeing,’ and build our own ‘encyclopedia’ of where we notice God at work in the world around us. If we decide ahead of time the likely places where we will encounter Christ we can increase our chances. But where?
John wants the reader to know that the place to look for the presence of Christ is not beyond the earth. But that the sacred center of life is still in the world, in the flesh and blood, material world. This is where God is active and alive. This is where people can know God and where God lives with and empowers people. In the world around us. In people around us. Sometimes in the most unlike people and places.
And because of this passage and so many other passages in John, no one who reads these stories can then continue to believe that following Jesus Christ means being concerned only for matters related to the soul. Then, with the ancient heresies of John’s day, and now, with those ancient heresies dusted off, the dwelling place of God is not off in the world of the spirit somewhere, fenced into what is sacred but not secular, but within this physical world in which we live. Let us not create false divisions.
We have to tune our eyes and our hearts so that we might believe this, and so see it.
You can see Jesus in the daily ministry of the church. Where? As we are armpit deep in the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual…human hurts of people in our church, our community, and our world. As we gather around the Lord’s table and Word of God our eyes and hearts get readjusted. And when we go out to serve this same God, we continually re-discover God, the living and true God, noticing this presence around us; There, God meets us and continues to empower us for ministry in this world. See?
You are witnesses to these things.
April 5, 2015
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
For a few minutes, I ask you to suspend your familiarity with the account of what happened ‘early in the morning on the first day of the week.’ For a little while, let your heart rest in that place that so many were on that day, confused, discouraged, perhaps ready to go back to ‘normal’ life, whatever that is.
But someone, not of our close knit group, a person who had to follow along on the edges, makes her way to the tomb. Her name was Mary. She has been called Mary Magdalene. She has been the subject of wild speculation like so many prominent figures are. Some have said she was a harlot. Others, quite creatively, have suggested that she was Jesus’ partner. Some have even imagined that she bore his child. Early in the church’s tradition, she is is often identified not only with the anonymous harlot with the perfume in Luke’s gospel, but also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; this interpretation is often called the “composite Magdalene” in modern scholarship. The seven devils removed from her by Jesus “morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well.” (Morrow, Carol Ann, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation.” Liguori Publications. Catholic Update Newsletter. Nov. 30, 1999.)
What we do know is that according to Luke, seven demons were cast out of her. I do not confess to know what that really means except that she had a complex condition that Jesus miraculously relieved her from. We do know that she appeared to be the leader of this group of women who also followed Jesus. Being a woman, and living in a society where they were seen as little more than property and a means for procreation, she was never the less depicted as a brave and resolute person who stayed nearby Jesus throughout his suffering and crucifixion.
The insiders, you might note, have scattered. The end of the Jesus story, as they had conjured up in their minds, did not turn out as planned. Fearing for their lives, or soundly dejected, they have made their presence scarce in the final days. Who can blame them.
Then, maybe because she and the other women were doing the woman’s work of anointing the body, or perhaps it was because of her unwavering dedication, early in the morning on the first day of the week, she leads a small group to the tomb.
I do not know precisely what was going on. But I have stood at the edge of freshly dug graves enough to have a sense of the mood. There is a scripture I use there, perhaps one of the earliest writings of the christian era, from another outsider named Paul to some folks in Thessolonica: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” But on this day no one knew this, so no one could say it.
It is easy to not know this. I see it outside my office window from time to time. Someone goes out to the cemetery, amidst the stones. There are family names, sometimes they put the words: ‘Father, mother, or, husband, wife.’ Sometimes they are bringing some fresh flowers, sometimes they are taking away a dried and decrept arrangement from a prior season. There lingers there a certain kind of pain that is renewed, even though the smell of freshly dug soil has long been blown away by the wind and grass now grows.
When I watch them I believe that there are many who visit whose name is also chiseled into that stone, their loved one’s dates complete and theirs uncertain. But in some continual act of devotion they come to tidy things up and remember.
I imagine that this is the work Mary was about that day. So it was a normal day, the usual for those who were grieving. But the removal of the stone and the empty tomb disrupt what she was about. Her mind moves to the logical conclusion that someone has taken Jesus’ body. What other conclusion could there be? In a closed an ridged structure of ‘that’s the way things are’ only the old and familiar occur. Find the body, and get things back to normal.
To this outsider, this one who was not welcomed at the table, but had to tag along at the margins, Mary’s closed world (and ours) is broken open when Jesus calls her name. The one who was certified as dead greets her. The established rules as to what should happen, what can happen, how things can happen, are overthrown. And because of who she was, the old structures of who is an ‘appropriate’ disciple of Jesus Christ is left in shambles. It is a new day.
But even Mary is stuck in the old way. She asks the gardner, “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” Even she wants only to do what is acceptable and proper. But his calling of her name, that familiar voice, shatters her customary world, as comfortable as it may be. It is Mary Magdalene, who begins the proclamation of Easter.
Now, remember with me that we do know the entirety of the story, so that with Mary we can experience, and with Peter, we can proclaim, the reality that ‘God shows no partiality.’ With Saint Paul we can affirm that now and forever ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.’ That apparently it is true, that ‘whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you…Today we know this. Today we are certain that Jesus came to redeem the whole world, even you and I, as imperfect as we are. ”so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” This is the good news.
Here is a throw-back-Friday post from a while a ago:
A rare event, my wife and I went out to breakfast this morning.
She noticed that I have descended into my Triduum funk.
This condition is an annual affair, even though I do my best to strike it from my calendar. I suspect that the reason for it is other events that dominate my calendar.
The liturgical calendar demands that I immerse myself in the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to Golgotha. I wish that there was a way to keep one foot planted in present realities, pleasantries of my choosing, and just dip a toe into the Triduum tide. Apparently I cannot manage this dialectic.
What is strange is that it isn’t as if I don’t know the entirety of the story. Our bible study group has been reading Luke. Miraculously, the series ended yesterday, Maundy Thursday, with our reading and contemplation of chapter 24. Two weeks ago, the group wondered if we should cancel our meeting this week, what with it being Holy Week and all. I said, “no, the timing is perfect. I am happy to meet if you are willing.”
I suspect that my consternation is due to my observation that most folks do not travel the whole route. It could be this avoidance is because it is just to hard a route to take. Another reason is that this part of the story tells us something about ourselves we’d rather not face. We, after all, are sensible, progressive, modern folk.
I hope that I am not bitter. Who can blame those who would rather not make the entire trek. We could all be spared what is by any estimation a few days that chronicle the worst human traits; betrayal, violence, greed, self-righteousness. The large crowd of Palm Sunday will not be repeated until the following Sunday, despite the best efforts of musicians, liturgists, and preachers.
I guess that, as clique as it sounds, I wonder if the fullness of the good news can be received if the fullness of the bad news is not paused over, considered, and taken up as part of our own story.
“One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we are also the ones who on a Friday – just rationally following the best of western jurisprudence – tortured to death the Son of God.” (“The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up In Jesus’ Name”)
THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
March 22, 2015
“Something Old, Something New”
In a season of failure and disappointment, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people of something on the horizon.
For most of us, we live in a territory marked by privilege and exceptionalism. Lent is a time for honesty. Not only about ourselves, but our society, our world. Such honesty may well disrupt the illusion of well-being.1
I recently heard about Oklahoma legislator, Dan Fisher, who introduced legislation to ban AP courses in that state because they “omit American exceptionalism.” Fisher said the current structure of Advanced Placement history courses focus on “what is bad about America.” The Tulsa World newspaper contradicts him, saying that the course teaches the full range of American History, ‘the good, the bad, and the exceptional.’ But it isn’t only in Oklahoma where there is resistance to naming how we have failed one another. We do this to ourselves, our families, and our communities all the time.
Against the prevailing, self preserving, idea that we are doing just fine, thank-you, the prophet speaks of the brokenness of the covenant; the covenant that shapes a healthy society. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.
If someone is speaking about a new covenant, they must have in mind an old covenant. Jeremiah recalls God’s covenant at Mt. Sinai, which they broke. His community could call to mind the covenants before that one: with Noah, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. After Sinai, there was Joshua and Samuel. Each of these covenants were new at one time. Jeremiah says that the newness will not be seen in the terms of the agreement or the time period covered. Even God does not indicate any change. What will change? What will be new? It is the people and how they receive it. First, Jeremiah speaks of inhaling the Torah. Then he speaks of knowing it.
The people will internalize the covenant. This will be no privatized reformation of individual lives. Not that people were asking for this new covenant. No one in Jeremiah’s day was speaking sweetly of “letting God into” his heart. There is no hint of an invitation on the part of the people. As Walter Brueggemann points out, this covenant is given by God without reason or explanation. God wants the relationship with the people and resolves to have it. So God declares that he will write himself into the people.
You could say there is a down side, I suppose, to all this. God will be intimately present. God will not be experienced as some distant, disinterested deity. With that presence we cannot live in a world of our own imaginations. There will be no refuting reality. God will be as close as a parent chaperone on a first date. The young couple returns from the movie, a hamburger and milkshake, the car is parked along the curb as they chit-chat in the front seat. A few moments go by and hands embrace. The tones are hushed, there is electricity in the air. Then the porch light goes on. See what I mean? There might not have been anything happening, but the icy stare the father received by his daughter as she came through the door indicated that not everyone believed that ‘nothing was happening.’ There can be a down side. When Jeremiah uses the word ‘know’ he means it in the biblical sense. He does not mean some sort of intellectual awareness or possession of some inert fact. This is something as tight as your skin, as ever present as your pulse.
Yet there is an upside; the upside of this is that God will be intimately present. Yes, I know it is the same thing I said a few moments earlier. But not every close relationship is overbearing and restrictive. There is in the covenant the truth that it is loved into being, not coerced. Did you hear about the story of what is called ‘free-range’ parents? There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance. This is not what Jeremiah is talking about when he speaks of God’s presence.
Instead, God has chosen to give us a good bit of free reign. But like every good parent, God does not send us out into the wilderness without the resources to deal with it. This resource is the substance of Jeremiah’s message. Something new is on the way.
In some quarters you will find resistance to anything ‘new.’ Who isn’t skeptical about every ‘new and improved’ claim? But this ‘newness’ does not involve starting from scratch. Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ (verse 33); same covenant, but this time, that relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned. It is not imposed upon anyone. It is freely given. It is something that they will have with them as a resource rather than baggage.
Like every good parent knows, both ‘helicopter’ and ‘free-range,’ your children are not puppets and do now always do what you want them to do no matter how much or how little supervision they receive. So in every relationship there are moments, days, that are strained, even with us and God. But even this doesn’t threaten the relationship. We are sent out into an imperfect world with a guide for what will bring a happy, healthy life in community with our neighbor; and, the promise that we are never ever left alone, ready to be received with open arms.
The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness: For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34). The choice of grace on God’s part to create a world and love it into freedom is, Karl Barth writes, the “sum” of the Gospel, the best news that we could ever hear. For it means that God has chosen not to be alone in this life or in the life to come but to share that life with every creature. It is in this respect that we can say God has made a commitment to be for us and with us before we ever came into existence, no matter what.
Some years ago I had a confirmation student whose mother was a Christian and his Father was Jewish. At the little reception they had for him after confirmation I saw grandma coming out of the corner of my eye. There was no place to retreat. With no introductory chit-chat, she said, “So, Pastor Fogle, what do you think about the Jews?” Fortunately, God is merciful and just, I quickly came up with something to say, I told her: “I believe that God doesn’t break promises.”
So, until such a time as Christ is raised up and draws all people to himself, Jeremiah’s text remains for us – and for the first hearer of these words – a word of hope. Until that redeeming comes, until that new thing pushes the old thing into the past, God’s covenant with us will bear the marks of the cross. We have reason to be hopeful. We have not yet arrived. The days are surely coming, Jeremiah says. They’re on their way. We’re leaning into them. This is what God desires, and it would serve us well to accept that, God as present in our house, present in our hearts. Jeremiah insists that the covenant remains, will be renewed, and our best days are ahead.
1Walter Brueggemann, “Ferguson and Forgiveness” Odyssey Networks March 16, 2015 ON Scripture – The Bible. Walter Brueggemann says: “Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.”
February 15, 2015
“An Altar In The World”
2 Corinthians 3:2-6
As I begin this morning, I want you to take a few moments and turn to your neighbor and share with them one time that you experienced God in the world.
If you are willing, share with all of us that time. You can be brief, just the ‘Reader’s Digest” version.
I did not hear any accounts of clouds of smoke or pillars of fire as the Israelites experienced on their journey out of slavery. I did not hear any mention of faces, shining so brightly with the radiance of God that a veil was necessary so as to not terrorize the neighbors. It doesn’t sound like any of your shrubbery was set ablaze but not consumed. Nor did I hear any accounts of visitation by our Lord that moved you to set up permanent residence there.
I am not questioning your interpretation of those events. Who am I to say that you cannot experience God’s presence out on the golf course or in the turkey woods? You can. Its just that even in accepting that fact I must tell you that nobody has ever come up to me to elaborate on such an experience.
I suppose I am a bit suspicious because I spend so much time in church. I agree with another famous preacher who says she came to love churches, every one she has been associated with. This love is born from the all of the things…
we did nowhere else in our lives: we named babies, we buried the dead, we sang psalms, we praised God for our lives. When we did, it was as if we were building a fire together, each of us adding something to the blaze so that the light and heat in our midst grew. Yet the light exceeded our fire, just as the warmth did. We did our parts, and then there was more. (Taylor, Barbara Brown (2009-03-06). An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Compared to what we experience in here, so often so full of God’s presence, the world seems not only ordinary but often worse than ordinary. So we focused our attention here.
Somewhere along the line we bought— or were sold— the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. Plenty of us seized on those ideas because they offered us meaning . Believing them gave us purpose and worth. They gave us something noble to do in the midst of lives that might otherwise be invisible. Plus, there really are large swaths of the world filled with people in deep need of saving. (ibid, p.24)
And then we stop looking around, or if we do, we can walk right past a big bold epiphany because we have no expectations for God’s presence out there.
I don’t know what sort of expectations made the journey up the mountain with Jesus and the disciples. It may not have mattered. The disciples seem to have such an overwhelming experience of God’s presence that it could have torn in two whatever veils kept the Lord hidden. It’s a good thing too. Amid the violence and confusion of daily life that surrounds the Transfiguration event in Mark, faced with a troubled boy and a rowdy crowd Jesus.…God’s presence…wasn’t easy to notice.
Until, that is, they came face to face with the still-glowing countenance of Jesus and remembered that who he would one day become is who he already is. They are reminded that Jesus’ future glory shines into each violent and confused moment of life. It alone is able to transfigure the present moment. And it needs only a disciple who remembers to look, to notice your surroundings. It is a kind of paying attention to God.
The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who became famous for her sensuous paintings of flowers, explained her success by saying, “In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven’t time— and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
And if time is one of the essential elements for epiphanies such as this, it is no surprise that all this occurred as Jesus and the disciples went ‘away’ to pray. Not to the synagogue, not to the temple. Away.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, “An Altar in the World,” suggests that one part of our problem is categories. We draw sharp boundaries between what is sacred and secular, what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘unclean.’ I do not mean to suggest that everything in life is a homogenized muddy gray. Rather, as Taylor suggests, there is a rich often unnoticed tapestry of God’s presence in the world.
It may be a pretty simple experience, not many get a grand and glorious, hit you over the head, experience like the disciples. But whenever and wherever you come to a stop and say, hey, surely God is present in this, you stand on holy ground. The real secret is that all ground is sacred ground. Our presence in it and our recognition of it does not make it so. But when we do, oh thanks be to God.
DEVOTIONS FOR THE CABINET MEETING
February 7, 2015
When our Consistory President and I were first discussing the content and agenda for this meeting this morning my mind immediately turned to a verse from proverbs that is often quoted to support meetings like this: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18.
But translated in the Contemporary English Version, we get closer to the original Hebrew meaning: “Without guidance from God law and order disappear, but God blesses everyone who obeys his Law.”
This text from Proverbs, chapter 29, is often cited to justify the work of visioning. Actually, it has nothing to do with vision, per se, but is instead about the ability to hear God’s will for God’s people and to act upon that.
Which lead me to think that this was not the perfect verse for today. It is a perfectly good verse for any day, but as a backdrop for thinking about what we want to accomplish in the coming year it isn’t that great or inspiring a verse.
I prayerfully contemplated this situation an I was drawn to another place in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Nehemiah. In chapter 4, the nation Israel is in ruins, literally and figuratively. Nehemiah has convinced the King to allow the people to rebuild their ravaged temple, their city, and their passion for this is made evident in their work to reconstruct the wall.
But there was this man, Sanballat, a Moabite who held some authority in the land at the time of Nehemiah the prophet. He heard about this band of Jews rebuilding the walls and he was angry. He ridiculed the Jews. He spoke to his associates and the army of Samaria, no doubt with a tone of ridicule and sarcasm: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble…?” The thing is, opposition to the work of God’s people has always been opposed by someone.
Nehemiah 4 is the verse that came to my mind: “So we rebuilt the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work.” (Nehemiah 4:6) Under the shadow of some angry opposition, the people went ahead and did what God had called them to do.
The temptation is – when there is opposition – is to become so worried, so terrified by the opposition, that you pray and pray and wring your hands and wait, and to stop doing what God would have us do. This happens to individuals and churches and can become the death of mission and ministry. You experience a few set-backs. The number dwindles, the budget is strained, and people think about the negatives, talk about the grim prospects — and talk themselves into death, by keeping their eye on all the difficulties and challenges and not the work God sets before them.
I imagine Nehemiah heard things like this: I just don’t know if we can make it… such a pitiful little bunch… people don’t want to go in this direction…We like things the way they were.” That’s not faith talking — that’s the emotion of fear and discouragement. Faith says: Let’s just do what’s right. Faith says: let’s turn adversity into advantage. Faith says: in spite of the trials, conflicts and circumstances – we are still going to obey this new light shed upon God’s word. There are strong parallels between our time and Nehemiah’s time. What looked like a disaster was turned, eventually, into a time that the people looked back upon as a moment in their history when new hope came forth.
Michael Piaza, part of the Center for Progressive Renewal wrote:
“While we in the church tend to think that institutional failure is just about us, the truth is that we are living in the midst of a much larger social shift that is destabilizing all of our critical institutions and creating a sense of fear, uncertainty and anxiety about our future.
In the midst of this change, the progressive church will rediscover its voice. The promise of the Gospel is that fear never has the last word, and that faith, love, and hope are always our paths forward. The future progressive church must reinvent itself in the midst of this global disorientation and step into the gap that today divides rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, legal resident and illegal resident, gay and straight, female and male. The church should be the place where these barriers are erased and genuine community forms to care for people victimized by the failure of the institutions built to support them. Reformed by a value of pluralism and diversity, the church provides a place for people to be known, loved, and supported as the world around us wrestles with disillusionment, violence, fear, and failure.” (Piazza, Michael S.; Trimble , Cameron B. (2011-07-15). Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Kindle Locations 331-340). Pilgrim Press/United Church Press. Kindle Edition.)
Let us pray: God of new beginnings every day, as we come before you, open our hearts and spirit to the difficult and rewarding work of discipleship. We have been working at caring for one another as you call us to do. Help us now, to add effort to the vision you supply, to add action and concern for our wider community; for your gospel is for the whole world. Inspire us. Grant us your Spirit and a mind to work. Amen.
Privilege is something I am familiar with. This awareness was something that came lately. Most of my life I would have rejected the assertion that I am privileged. As I graduated from seminary in the late 80’s, I was aware that being a tall, white, heterosexual, male, married to the same woman, I had a distinct advantage over some other candidates. This advantage was not based upon substance or skill, but rather upon perception.
But I have been privileged before that. I grew up in a fairly diverse community. Wider community. In the first grade I was bused to a school across town, from a predominantly white school to a more diverse school. In high school our population was diverse, predominantly blacks and whites with a very few asians. I lived next door to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. My town was a college town. And yet, it was only really a few years ago that I realized that some of my classmates faced issues that I never had to face.
I think of one frequently. He is a ‘Facebook friend.’ He was a year ahead of me in high school. My mother served with his attorney father on a “Planning Commission.” He was recently inducted into my high school’s sports ‘hall of fame.’ After he graduated, he went on to Fisk, then University of Alabama, has done some teaching and consulting on leadership. A great personality, generous, and by every measure I can think of is a ‘success.’ And yet, he has to warn his son about where he goes and and when; how to avoid putting oneself in a ‘compromising’ situation.
There is another I think of. Lives in Costa Rica. A pastor. We were walking down a road one day in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica, going to the bus. Two huge stone pillars marked a driveway toward the ocean. I asked him, “what is this?” He told me it is a “resort for north americans and europeans.” I said, “can we go into see it?” He said, “you can.” For a second or two I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I am sure that there are many, many, facts in the situation in Ferguson that I know nothing about and that it isn’t nearly as straightforward as I might think it is.
It seems to me though, that the explosion of anger and frustration is not only about Michael Brown. I am just guessing here, because, after all, I know nothing about the situation or the experience. What I do know is that all through my pastoral work, if someone acted out in a way that seemed out of proportion to the precipitating event, I said to myself, “something is going on here I don’t know about.”
So I have said it here. As I write this, however, I realize that I do know what is going on here. The reaction is not exclusively to the Michael Brown situation but the grand jury’s decision to not charge the police officer is a ‘tipping point.’
Is it possible that the police officer used excessive force? Of course it is. Is it possible that his perception of this person clouded his thinking? Of course it is. Is it possible that Michael Brown did something that made the officer think he was dangerous? Of course it is.
This, to me, is the underlying issue. Perception. Anticipation, or more negatively said, profiling, can be an element in shootings such as these. It’s presence is born out in the statistics regarding race and incarceration, and race as a co-efficient to a variety of studies that chronicle the inequality of society. The weight of living in this situation for a lifetime must lead to despair.
Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
When I ask myself, ‘what is going on here that I might not know about’ there are many potential answers, as privileged as I am. But that is the thing that I don’t really know about, that the playing field is not level, that there is not really equality, that it is this sociological and economic inequality that wears down entire classes of people. I have learned about perceptions, that because I so easily walk through those huge stone gates without a question, in no way means just anybody can.
Cornel West, in his book Democracy Matters, lifts up a literary metaphor for this condition, commenting on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,”
Ishmael is the slim beacon of hope, the only one who survives the journey. And he survives in a coffin-raft given to him by his only friend, Queequeg, a man of color – in stark contrast to the white – dominated ship – whose near death prompted the building of the coffin. Ishmael’s survival at the end of the book is therefore due to Queequeg’s agency. The carving of the lid of the coffin symbolizes “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Even as Moby Dick is an indictment of American imperialism it is also a call for multiracial solidarity. (West, Cornel “Democracy Matters” Penguin Books: London, 2004, p. 89)
On the southern part of the Americas, Paulo Freire describes this condition more directly,
Peasants live in a ‘closed’ reality with a single, compact center of oppressive decision; the urban oppress live in an expanding context in which the oppressive command center is plural and complex…in urban areas, the oppressed are subjected to an ‘oppressive impersonality.” In both cases the oppressive power is to a certain extent “invisible”: in the rural zone, because of its proximity to the oppressed; in the cities because of its dispersion. (Freire, Paulo, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” p. 156)
Although Freire is writing about a different culture, the basis of his way forward is important for us. Freire is is describing the creation of an awareness that ultimately is far-reaching; moving beyond a call for a raising of the minimum wage or the end of racial profiling to a solidarity, a ‘cultural synthesis.’ This ‘critical consciousness’ is the fuel for a movement “…beyond the deception of palliative solutions. It is to engage in authentic transformation of reality in order, by humanizing that reality, to humanize women and men.” (ibid, p.164) I am saying that the problem is that we live in a society that values some human beings more than others.
For this preacher, the Gospel (as in the inclusive ‘good news’) is clear about this. There is no hierarchy, their is no division in God’s eyes and by extension, we should make no divisions either. One of my favorite texts of late is from Acts, chapter 8.
8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”[b] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
The eunuch, this person of bondage, ethnicity, of a foreign race and religion, of questionable sexuality, this person (it seems to me) heard in the words of Isaiah a word about himself. The pivotal question for those holding the power in this situation (who are Phillip and the disciples) is the question asked by the eunuch: “what prohibits me from being baptized?” Philip’s far reaching and widely implicating response is this: Nothing but water. Nothing but water stands between us and the recognition of your full humanity. In a moment of interpretation of the text, brought upon him by the ‘situation in life,’ Philip’s thinking is radically transformed.
In his book, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, Duke Divinity School preaching professor Richard Lischer writes:
The multiple traumas of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have produced a sense of futility among those with a vocation in language. Violence has a way of making a mockery of words. After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words seem hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God’s justice or God’s love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer. … When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, or capitalism, it is time for preachers to shut up and take stock of themselves.” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005, p.5.)
I hope that I have done that in the last few days. And I pray that God forgives and transforms me where I continue to need it.
I am reading. Well, I am always reading something. But recently I was laid up and so part of that time was spent reading.
Here is what I have been reading lately.
First, I read a book on Sabbath keeping. I have read many books on this subject. Long ago I read Marva Dawn’s “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” and Eugene Peterson’s work that is sprinkled throughout with his view of the essential relationship between Sabbath keeping and pastoral work. I know about sabbath keeping. I am not so great at doing it.
So the when I was referred to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s text “Sabbath in the Suburb” I was not expecting anything radically new. What I did expect was a very different perspective. Dana is a young, married, Pastor, with small children. Any one of these qualities can be what stops sabbath keeping in its tracks. I am painfully aware of the calendar most of our young families at church keep. The attraction for this book is MaryAnn’s voice. She shares a year in the life of her family, struggling to keep the sabbath. It was good to read, but I expect it would be ever better for some folks who find themselves at the same place in life that she is. The children complicate it, spouses complicate it, responsibilities complicate it, and technology becomes a leash with a very long reach. Dana deals with it all in her own way with timeless wisdom.
Too often I find books on sabbath keeping to seem unrealistic. When I read Peterson I wondered ‘why his church didn’t fire him.’ Some seep appropriate to the cloister but not to ‘real life.’ Dana’s book is real life through and through.
Another book I have been reading is Brian McLaren’s, “We Make the Road by Walking.” This text is a bit different than some of his other books. This one is designed and structured for groups. He calls it a ‘catechism’ but I wouldn’t classify it that way. Most catechisms I know about are prescriptive, or at least descriptive of the faith. I would categorize this as evocative. Brian says, straight out, that he is trying to introduce folks to the variant in Christianity that he believes is emerging now. And, if it is possible to introduce this post denominationalism, post modernity, post institutional, Christianity then I guess it should be through this kind of conversational style. There are fifty two chapters in this book. No coincidence. This would be a good resource for a small group ministry, or a prayer group.
One word of caution. This devotional will not be acceptable to some folks because in it McLaren seems unorthodox. For UCC folks his writing isn’t too threatening. Challenging, perhaps. Threatening, no. Apparently I am more ‘traditional’ than I thought, because I think this is a resource for folk whose faith has moved along on the journey. Developmentally, it would be helpful to have some Christian basics in your pocket before struggling with what may appear as a lot of ambiguity.
Another book I have been ‘nibbling’ at for some months is “Real Good Church” by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. Baskette was called to a small, urban, New England, church that was on hospice care. Surprisingly, they didn’t die. They went from a small, dozenish, gathering to a congregation of about 100 that can now support a solo pastor. What Baskette offers is not unique or new in the world of church development. What she does is get specific in terms of their experience and that makes it easier to translate into your situation. Is the space welcoming? Specifically, is the woman’s bathroom spotless and bright? Statistics suggest that it is women who decide if they will come back. She does not surprise in describing how attention to space, updated signs that make it seem like we’re alive, an ‘open and affirming’ welcome, and opportunity for participation (ownership, really).
This book is a whirlwind. Ok, an organized whirlwind, but a whirlwind none the less. Baskette lists items that deserve notation in every paragraph. That’s because she said she doesn’t like ‘swirly’ language but concrete language. So, plenty of examples are offered. Most importantly, epic failures. It is a comfortable read without technical ‘church-ease’ that is approachable by anyone.
One last book. Another friend recommended to me “A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-First Century Clergy Self Care” by Bruce Epperly. The author addresses contemporary issues such as technology, our calendars, and the changing expectations for the pastoral ministry. Still, he describes practices for self-care that have been around for hundreds of years. While I think that Epperly is masterful in his treatment of various practices, and his use of ‘real life’ conversations with pastors is helpful, I am not sure what makes this particularly contemporary. Compared to Molly Phinney Baskette’s chapter, “Pastoral Self-Care and Administration” in her book Really Good Church; Epperly’s treatment is plain ancient. Don’t misunderstand me, I really appreciate the way Bruce pulls together the classic areas of spiritual and physical care and his suggestions are absolutely practical. I am all about most of the spiritual and physical practices he suggests. But unlike Epperly, Baskette offers specific ways to deal with twenty-first century issues like email, social networking, and voice messages. No ‘swirly’ language there.
Finally, there are two liturgical resources. The first is a new volume by John Knox. It is a “Feasting On the Word” resource for Advent. I use the commentaries and the ‘worship companions’ and i find both very helpful. I expected this to be new material, but it seems to be a compilation of the other two resources in to a single, seasonal, text.
The other text was a joyous surprise. Here at church we have a children’s sermon every Sunday. Any preacher knows that those 3 minutes are dangerous territory. Say too much, over the kids head. Distill a complex text down to next to nothing and don’t do it justice. So I ordered “Feasting on the Word: Guide to Children’s Sermons.” For some reason I thought that this book would be a collection of children’s sermons that I could cut and paste from, modifying to suit my situation. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to see one of the first chapters: “Who Are the Children We Invite to the Feast?: Language Acquisition and Cognitive Development.” It was a great reminder for me that the Children’s sermon must take into account an entirely different world than the ‘other’ sermon. I knew that. But I have been fed a steady diet of ‘canned’ and ‘cutesy’ children’s sermons for a long time. It was good to remember some solid theory that underlies the ‘teaching moment’ in a children’s sermon.