Proclaiming the Gospel and following Jesus in America, 2018: On Muslim bans, indefinite detention, and the separation of families

As the days and months go by, I barely recognize the nation in which I was born and where I’ve lived for 58 of my 60 years. Perhaps it would be better to say that the shiny polish of civility, justice, and inclusion that dominated my understanding has been removed so that the ugly image underneath is on full display.

With the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the “muslim ban,” the continued assault on the rule of law, the inhumane and unjust treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, it would seem that there is no check on the forces of racism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Even worse, as we have seen in recent weeks, Administration officials appeal to Christian scripture to support the legality and morality of their actions.

As a preacher of the Gospel, it remains my solemn duty to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to call for justice and peace, to remind myself and my fellow Christians of our  duty to love God and neighbor, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to respect the dignity of every human being.

Over the last week, I and other members of the Unity and Relations Commission of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked on a statement entitled “On the misuse of scripture to justify injustice.” It was approved by the Board of Directors and published yesterday. The full document is available here: On the Misuse of Scripture to Justify Injustice – Wisconsin Council of Churches – final.

I would also call attention to a personal statement I wrote on February 1, 2017, as the “muslim ban” was originally announced. It’s available here.

In addition, the Wardens and Vestry of Grace Episcopal Church published this statement in  2017: Renewing Our Covenant

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Job’s accusations and God’s response: A sermon for Proper 7, Year B,2018

As the horrific tragedy continues to unfold before our disbelieving eyes, perpetrated by men and women claiming to act on behalf of the nation of which we are citizens, my grief and anger continue to mount. We are learning a great deal about the values of our fellow citizens and the commitments of fellow Christians. In shock and disbelief, and growing fear of the future of our nation, indeed our planet, I feel my faith in God begin to waver, certainly my faith that “justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-rolling stream,” is shaken by the growing tide of hatred, injustice, and oppression.

In times like this, the book of Job offers not a comforting, but a challenging read. It’s not a book that comes up often in the lectionary—I went back through my files and discovered that it’s been more than five years since I’ve preached on it, so it’s worth taking the time to take a closer look at it. In the first place, if your only encounter with Job is through a Sunday School class decades ago, or through the still fairly common phrase, “the patience of Job” try to erase from your mind anything you might think you know about the story or the book.

Let me offer a brief overview of the text as a whole as background to the verses that we read today. Job is a complicated text that in its in present form reflects a good bit of editing. It begins and ends with narrative; in between are many chapters of dialogue and poetry. The basic story is quite simple. It begins in heaven, with a member of the divine court, the Satan, the adversary or prosecuting attorney, discussing with God the righteousness of God’s servant Job. The adversary asserts that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy and is wealthy. God invites the adversary to test Job. Job’s daughters and their husbands are killed, his herds and flocks destroyed. But Job continues to assert his faith in God. Finally, Job himself is beset with boils on his skin. He sits in the middle of the street, scratching the boils with  a potsherd, a fragment of pottery.

His wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job refuses. In his terrible distress, three friends come to comfort him, or perhaps gloat over his reduced circumstances. They tell him repeatedly, over several chapters, that Job is punished for some sin he has committed, that he should repent of that sin, and ask God’s forgiveness. But Job persists in claiming his righteousness, refuses to accept his friends’ assessment of his situation.

Finally, in his despair and frustration, Job changes tack and the book becomes something of a trial. Now God is in the dock and Job is the prosecuting attorney. Again, over a series of lengthy speeches, Job demands to know of God why all this has happened to him. Throughout all this, God has been silent since first allowing the Satan, the Adversary, to test Job. As Job presses his case, leveling the charges against God, God remains silent, absent even. This brings us to the end of chapter 37.

After all of that, after all of Job’s suffering and anguish, after chapters of Job’s charges against God, finally God replies:

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”

And that’s that.

After all of that suffering, after all of the insufferable comments from his wife and so-called friends, after his anguished speeches appealing to God to explain why all of this was happening, now finally God speaks. And what is God’s answer?

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”

What kind of an answer is that?

Well, I would like to go back and lay another level of interpretation on this drama. The book of Job is a challenge to our assumptions that our lives and the world make sense. In the biblical tradition, there’s a strong tendency to equate faithfulness to God with material prosperity. You see it in the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs especially. They are faithful, and they are rewarded with land, flocks and herds, abundant wealth, even offspring. The book of Job, although it was written rather late, seems to be set in the patriarchal period, and in the beginning of the story, Job as a righteous man is also wealthy.

In so many ways the worldview, the theology of Job and his friends is not that different from our own. We believe that if we work hard we will be rewarded, that our success is a sign, not only of who we are but is also a sign that God has blessed us. And when we see people less fortunate than ourselves, we often attribute their fates to the decisions they made. We look for rational reasons for personal success and failure, and even something like illness, cancer, can be viewed as punishment—what did I do wrong that caused this? What behavior led to this?  What is God punishing me for?

 

It’s a seductive theology, pervasive not only in the recesses of our minds, but perhaps, like Job’s friends, when we judge the situation of others. It’s a theology, a worldview, as I said, that assumes the universe operates according to laws, that things happen for a reason, that we can make sense of it.

But then something comes along that calls such a rational, well-ordered universe into question. It could be a natural disaster, a profound injustice, or a personal setback. And suddenly none of it makes sense, and we’re with Job, calling God into the dock, trying to bring God to explain why things have gone so wrong for us or the world, or perhaps, our faith is so utterly shaken that we begin to doubt God’s very existence.

We want the world to make sense. We want evil to be punished, good to be rewarded. We want the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. But it may be that all of that is only our fondest hopes, grasping at straws as we’re fleeing a sinking ship. Maybe the universe is chaotic, arbitrary.

But there is a certain faithfulness in questioning God. Job might have taken his wife’s advice early on his ordeal. He could have “cursed God and died.” He might have accepted his friends’ assessment of his situation, sought in his past behavior some key to explaining his plight. But he did neither of those things. He questioned God; he challenged God.

And in response, God came to him in a whirlwind and spoke. Job had a profound, moving, life-changing encounter with God. Later on, Job will say, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5)

The answers that the book of Job offers to the perennial questions of human existence: Why do bad things happen? Why is there injustice and suffering in the world? Does any of it mean anything? May not be particularly satisfying or reassuring, but they also don’t try to candy coat or evade the difficult issues.

God responds to Job in two ways: first by reminding Job of the vast gap between Job and God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” God tells again the story of the creation of the universe, and of God’s power in creating it. God is omnipotent, and far beyond our comprehension.

But there’s another response in God’s words. As God describes the act of creation, God uses language and imagery that emphasize its plan and orderliness: “Who determined its measurements, or who stretched the line upon it? … who laid its cornerstone…”

It’s not only that God created the universe in its beauty and mystery, and human beings in it; it is also that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is in charge, God is working God’s purposes out. Those purposes may be opaque, hidden to us; they may confuse and confound us; they may leave us in despair and doubt.

But they do not leave us alone. God answered Job, and God speaks to us. God is present with us in the midst of suffering and chaos. Job learned that God comes to us in our suffering, doubt, and need. Nothing need shake our faith in that. Thanks be to God!

This is who we are: America has always separated families

From unlikely sources such as the US Chamber of Commerce to ordinary Americans appalled by the scenes of children ripped away from their parents and living in cages, the cry arises, “This is not who we are.”

It’s an appeal to emotion, morality, what used to be a common sense of decency.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. As commentators like Jelani Cobb and Shaun King point out, the institution of slavery often separated parents from their children, wives from their husbands. And freedom didn’t make it easier–freed slaves were separated from their family members who were still enslaved.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Native American children were taken away from their families and culture and placed in boarding schools in an attempt to “civilize” them.

So, this is who we are and the fact that the policy has widespread support among Republicans should give us pause. That many of those supporters claim to be Christian is more evidence of the existential crisis in which American Christianity finds itself.

It’s not just that the Attorney General cites Romans 13 to argue for obedience to these policies, that he neglects Paul’s eloquent statement just a few verses later, that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

As Christians, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. As Episcopalians, at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. This policy is the end result of a steady process of dehumanization of our fellow human beings. It’s the same process that historians remind us preceded the Final Solution in Germany. (For a recent discussion of some of these issues, see this article by Cass Sunstein). That ICE employees use similar tactics as were used then. Telling parents that they are taking children to get baths was a common explanation given by prison guards before leading children to the gas chambers.

In the face of these horrors, the enormity of the evil, clarity of witness and courage to speak are necessary. We must remind ourselves and the world, that the God we worship has a special concern for the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the alien, the widow and the orphan. We must remember and proclaim that the Jesus we seek to follow embraced and welcomed children. We are called to love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our clarity and courage as we proclaim God’s love and justice, as we seek to live out that love and work for justice, and our witness to the world as love one another may seem futile and meaningless as we face the enormity of the evil in our world, but it is our calling. Our hope is not in our own efforts but in Christ; our faith is not in our own power but in the power of our God who hears the cries of the oppressed.

 

Agile Grace?

This year, members and groups at Grace, from the Vestry on down, have been reading The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I reached for it when I was looking for something that would change the conversation at Grace. We’ve done a lot of good work during my nine-years’ tenure here. We’ve welcomed lots of new members, seen significant growth in our Christian Formation program for children and youth, undertaken the first major renovation and capital campaign in 30 years. We have a task force, “Creating More Just Community” that is focused on issues of racism and inequity and is doing significant advocacy work around criminal justice reform through MOSES and has also formed partnerships with the Madison Jail Ministry.

We could do and must do more. My goals in this process are two-fold: 1) to leverage our location and building to connect with our neighborhood, and especially our neighbors at the State Capitol; and 2) to move beyond our walls and our property and build relationships with our neighbors in places and contexts other than our building. But to do that, we need to think beyond and outside our walls.

The former goal is rather obvious but nebulous and at the same time a potential mine field given the current dynamics in our state and nation concerning the relationship of Christianity and the political sphere. Our Creating More Just Community group is working on it, having reached out to legislators and legislative staff, and through our connections with other groups, we’ve hosted a forum for governors’ candidates, numerous gatherings on criminal justice reform, and are currently hosting the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.

The second goal presents its own set of challenges. While our building and our lovely courtyard garden are an enormous asset. We have, quite literally, the best location in the city, even if we don’t have adequate parking. We are beautiful, visible, and those who enter our spaces, whether it’s the nave or our gardens, experience beauty and transcendence, and a palpable sense of the divine.

We’ve been here for 175 years. Our nave was completed in 1858. It’s the oldest building on Capitol Square; the oldest church in continuous use in Madison. Its stone walls speak of stability, permanence, immobility. What might agility look like in our context?

Today, after our 10:00 service, we had the first of what will likely be a number of conversations about our future, about adapting and innovating our ministry and mission for the next decades. Almost 50 people participated. There were people who have been members of Grace for decades. Others who participated have been attending for only a few months; one person, a neighbor, has attended a few times over the years, but had the courage to join our conversation and to participate.

We heard stories; stories of how people came to Grace; the familiar, and powerful story of how the Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984, on a one-year trial basis (It’s been here ever since). We heard the story of the food pantry, and of the people, the visionaries who created it and those other visionaries who advocated for the shelter.

We talked about our neighbors–the many 20 and 30 somethings who live in our neighborhood and are looking for community and connection, and looking to help those in need. We talked about the demographic and cultural changes facing Christianity in the US, and Grace Church.

Vilas Guild Hall, constructed in 1894 as a memorial to Cornelia Vilas, was filled with the sound of animated conversation for almost an hour. We didn’t make it through all of the questions I had laid out to guide our conversations but conscious of the time, I began to bring the meeting to a close.

It was at that minute, as I began talking about next steps, about having a welcoming process in place before the fall, that someone stopped me and said, “Let’s get started right now. If you’re interested in forming a welcoming committee, come over to this table after the meeting’s over and we’ll start making plans.”

We have a great deal of work to do. Welcoming visitors is only one of many tasks ahead. We need to get out in the neighborhood, talk with the people who live, work, and play here, to listen to their needs, their passions, and dreams and find a way of connecting their stories with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can do that successfully, we will be well on our way to becoming more faithful followers of Jesus and showing others the transforming power of Jesus’ love in their lives and in the world.

Are we as crazy as Jesus? A Sermon for Proper 5 Year B, 2018

I was walking around the square a few days ago, on my daily round that ends up at a food cart, when I passed the Solidarity Singers. It was a nice day and they had gathered as they have almost every day since 2011, to sing their songs of protest against the policies of Governor Walker and the republican led state legislature. As is typical on days like this one, tourists, business people and state workers were out as well, and their were large groups of school children gathered at the Capitol or at the top of State St, enjoying field trips in the last days of school before summer break. As I passed the singers, I thought to myself, what do all these people think of this little group of singers? I know what I was thinking, “They’re crazy! How can they keep it up for all these years?”

A couple of weeks ago, I was here at Grace to welcome and host participants in the Poor People’s Campaign Wisconsin. They’ve been gathering at Grace each week since May before rallying at the State Capitol, some of them risking arrest by performing acts of civil disobedience. This group is part of a nationwide movement led by the Rev. William Barber, drawing on a movement MLK jr began in the last year of his life. In this political and cultural climate, with little chance of effecting policy changes, this movement seems futile, unlikely to change the opinions of policy makers who seem to be focused on finding new ways to punish poor people, people of color, and other marginalized people. They’re crazy, what’s the point? I was tempted to think.

Then, I thought about us, about this congregation. Here we are on a beautiful Sunday morning, when there are so many other things we might doing—watching the triathlon, eating brunch with friends, reading the Sunday NY Times. Those of us who attend church are in the minority, increasingly so. We’re out of step with culture, with the zeitgeist. So why do we still do it? Are we crazy?

Well, hold that thought. I’ll get back to that later in the sermon, and if all goes well, at our congregational conversation at coffee hour, we’ll have a chance to talk about that question.

But first, let’s take a look at this gospel story, or stories, in which Jesus is called crazy, or out of his mind.

Let’s back up a bit, because this is really the first time I am talking about the gospel of Mark since Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s important to remember that Mark was very likely the first of the gospels to be written. It’s the shortest and in many ways, it’s the most puzzling. The portrait of Jesus that emerges from Mark’s gospel is quite unlike that of the Gospel of John, for example, but this portrait is even strikingly different from Matthew and Luke, who were written a decade or two after Mark, and probably used Mark as a source for their own work.

The Gospel of Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the words that appears most often is the word “immediately.” The urgency is eschatological. Jesus preaches the nearness, the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, and by that very preaching the forces, cosmic and human that are opposed to the coming of God’s reign, take action to silence him. So, here, we are very early in the gospel. Jesus has just called his first disciples. After his baptism, and the arrest of John the Baptizer, Jesus himself begins public ministry of preaching, healing, and casting out demons. In last week’s gospel reading, from a bit earlier in chapter 2, we see the Pharisees criticizing Jesus, and then beginning to conspire with the Herodians, a group they would have generally opposed, to take Jesus down.

In today’s story, we see more conflict, more opposition. I want to draw your attention to the importance of location and family here. First off, our reading picks up in the middle of a sentence that begins “Then he (Jesus) went home;” literally, into his house; where the crowds gather and press in so much that he and his disciples aren’t able to eat. Then, his family shows up and the text probably should read here: “they (his family) were saying “he has gone out of his mind” literally, “he has stood outside”—we might say he is really out of it. Note the importance here, of who is inside and who is outside.

As if to emphasize the importance of the imagery of house here, in the next little episode, Jesus tells a story about how a house divided against itself cannot stand. And then, the story ends with Jesus’ family outside, calling to him, asking Jesus to come out. Here, Jesus underscores the point—it’s not those people, standing outside, claiming he is crazy, or outside of himself, who are his family, but rather, it is those people gathered around him, listening to him, whoever does the will of God, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The response of Jesus’ family is only one part of the opposition Jesus faces here. The scribes, the consummate religious insiders, the pundits, if you will, the gatekeepers, the monitors of acceptable teaching, are on his case as well, charging him with satanic influence, even satanic powers. Such language can be off-putting to those of us with modern sensibilities but it’s important for us to be able to name evil, to recognize its power, and to confess all the ways that we are in bondage to it. In our day, such clarity is a moral necessity, key to our being faithful Christians.

Who is inside, who is outside? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who is family? These are questions we should be asking of ourselves, our community, our nation. When families are being torn apart, people marginalized and attacked for the color of their skin, their national origin, their sexual orientation, it is incumbent on us to ask these questions.

As a congregation seeking to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ, seeking to share the good news of the love of Jesus Christ in our neighborhood and the world, these questions should be at the center of our reflection. Are we among those seated around Jesus, listening to his words, seeking to do the will of God? Are we so on fire for Jesus Christ, so ready to take risks, experiment, name and combat the evils that beset us, so committed, that others looking at us claim we’re crazy, or demon-possessed? Or are we those people looking in from the outside, offended by the risky, risk-taking behavior of the true followers of Jesus, rejecting them, worried about our status or popularity, or standing in the community?

We are having conversations about risk-taking, experimenting, developing new programs or ministries that will reach out and connect with our neighbors. We are blessed with so many good things here at Grace, stable finances, a beautiful building in the best location in the city, amazing people with incredible gifts, skills, and commitment. May we have the courage and creativity to imagine new possibilities for ourselves, our congregation, our city.

In a season when Christianity is on the decline in our culture, when our nation is so deeply divided and for so many of us going in a dangerous direction, Jesus calls us to follow him into that uncertain future, to recognize and name the evil that opposes him, to embrace all those of whatever nationality, or color, or sexual orientation, who would join us, as we build a community of inclusion, welcome, committed to do God’s will.

 

 

 

Sabbath as Rest, Liberation, and Resistance: A Sermon for Proper 4, Year B

When I was a child, Sunday was a day of rest or play. I don’t remember my parents ever doing any activity that could have been construed as work, and they didn’t allow us children to do anything of the sort, either. Meals were prepared and the kitchen was cleaned up but no other household chores were done—no laundry or cleaning. And certainly, there was no outdoor activity permitted that could be seen as manual labor, no gardening or lawn mowing, for example. Continue reading