Pentecost in the Age of Trump

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A sermon preached on 6/4/17 at Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield, MA

O Holy Spirit of God, abide with us.
Inspire all our thoughts.
Pervade our imaginations.
Suggest all our decisions.
Order all our doings.
Be with us in our silence and in our speech,
In our haste and in our leisure,
In company and in solitude,
In the freshness of the morning and in the weariness of the evening,
And give us grace at all times
Humbly to receive thy mysterious companionships.

If the apostles thought they were in danger before Jesus came and breathed on them, thus imparting to them His Holy Spirit, they were in even more danger afterward.

To let God use your mind, your heart, and your hands is indeed a perilous venture, my friends. For when you do, you open yourselves to ridicule, to mocking, to having to place yourself at both physical and spiritual risk.

I have always thought of the mysterious companionships mentioned in the prayer as creatures of the natural world. Indeed, I believe that God used such creatures to draw me closer and closer to Her. I can’t tell you the number of times that, in moments of deep discouragement, a swallowtail butterfly has swirled around me, or a wolf, though attached to a chain, has come up to me and licked my hand, or a dragonfly has landed on my arm, and immediately all bad thoughts have evaporated and I have felt comforted and loved.

Kissed on Both Eyelids

I have felt as the actor Walter Slezak felt when he wrote in his autobiography that upon meeting his future wife, he felt as if God had kissed him on both eyelids. Isn’t that warm and cozy and comforting?

As I get older, however, and look at the patterns of my life, and if we look at the patterns of the apostles’ lives after Pentecost, we can see that there is much more to the working of the Holy Spirit in ourselves, in the church, and in the world.

There comes saying the unpopular thing that needs to be heard. There comes daring to love the unlovable. There comes befriending one’s enemies. There comes, at all times and in all places, an involuntary urge to do the right thing, no matter the cost.

 There comes action, according to the gifts the Spirit gives each one of us.

The original Pentecost was a Jewish holiday called Shavuot. Fifty days after Passover, Jews still celebrate the day on which God gave the Israelites the Torah and they became His people. This year it was celebrated on June 1.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for spirit is “ruah,” meaning wind, power, strength. In the New Testament, the Greek word “pneuma” is used for the Holy Spirit, meaning breath. We see them both used in the readings from Acts and in John’s Gospel. Notice the differences in them, though. In Acts, Jerusalem is filled with people who have come to celebrate Shavuot, which has now morphed into a harvest festival. Suddenly a violent wind comes into the house where the apostles are staying and tongues of fire rest on them. Suddenly they are able to speak in other languages, and every person in the city hears them speak in their own language.

John’s Pentecost is taking place on the same day as the Resurrection. The frightened Apostles are barricaded behind locked doors. Jesus comes to them and breathes on them, recalling Genesis and God’s breath into the first human being. Jesus said to the apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Real Kiss of Life

What ties the two Scriptures together is not obvious. One depicts the Apostles in the middle of a micro-storm and includes hundreds of other people. The second shows a very quiet moment in which Jesus is not only breathing on them, but into them. This is no artificial respiration, but it is the real kiss of life, the sealing of them as His own and marking them forever as people who are commissioned to go out into the world and be Jesus in the world. And as he did it to the apostles, he did it to us.

When the Spirit comes, Jesus tells the Apostles in Chapter 16 of John, “. . .he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Matt Skinner of the Lutheran Theological Seminary puts it this way: “That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.”

The world that the Spirit comes to prove wrong, through the Apostles and through us, “usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies,” Mr. Skinner says. And by the most intimate divine act possible, that of breathing into us, Jesus assures us that His peace is not that of the world, not just the cozy and comforting view I’ve had, but peace that gives confidence that no matter how bad it gets, Jesus is with us through it all.

But what do we make of the final verse of today’s gospel reading? Quoting Mr. Skinner again, “The Johannine Pentecost” goes like this:

Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!

Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!

Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?”

We have to look back at the verse from Chapter 16 and throughout the rest of John to understand that, no, we are not given the responsibility of coming up with a balance sheet of other people’s rights and wrongs.

Sin As Estrangement

Over and over again in John, Jesus talks about Himself and his relationship to the Father, and that if one can’t believe what he says, one remains separated from God, and so the word “sin” here in today’s reading refers to that estrangement, that separation. To forgive people’s sins here doesn’t mean that we are to give absolution for others’ moral failings, but that we, as commissioned by Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can help set people free from their unbelief by bearing witness to Jesus in our lives. If we don’t, the estrangement from God is “retained” in the world.

In a way, Jesus is really pointing out cause and effect: If you, my apostles, my followers, my church, bear witness to me, you will help to free people from their unbelief. If you don’t, that unbelief will continue.

To relate this back to Acts, I have to address the elephant in the room. Yesterday, seven people were killed by terrorists in London. At least 28 others were wounded, some life-threateningly so. This is the second terrorist attack in England in two weeks.

At least 90 people, mostly women and children, died in Kabul, Afghanistan this week in a terrorist attack, and several killed at a funeral Friday for a young man who was protesting the lack of security in Kabul and was shot by police.

In the US, there have been two fatal incidents of domestic terrorism in the past two weeks. A white supremacist fatally stabbed Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche were fatally stabbed and Micah Fletcher wounded in Portland when they intervened with a white supremacist who was harassing two young women whom he believed were Muslim.

African-American college student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed by a white supremacist student on his college campus two weeks ago.

Our President condemns attacks on white Westerners and uses them to push his travel ban. We hear very little from him about the domestic terroristic attacks, which I believe were empowered by this government, or when Muslims are killed by others who call themselves Muslims but pervert the faith of Islam.

Luke writes at least twice about God’s unifying vision of all people, about anti-discrimination if you will. Today’s scripture, which is always read on Pentecost, shows people from dozens of nations able to understand each other, able to hear each other, after the Holy Spirit comes in wind and fire.

Is this then the true work of the Holy Spirit? To empower us to set others’ free from the deadly sins of extremism and racism? To radically learn to UNDERSTAND each other and HEAR each other, no matter who we are and where we’re from. To radically DEFEND those who are attacked and to intervene when we witness the discrimination, the hate of those who have rejected the Kingdom of God?

I would have preferred to dwell on the cozy and comforting aspects of the mysterious companionships today, my friends. I would rather not have to ask you, or myself, if you had been on that train in Portland, would you have intervened? I would rather have played Pollyanna’s “glad game” and left you with rosy and optimistic thoughts.

But our world, and our country, becomes more dangerous every day as the sins of racism on all sides do their evil work, inside our country and out of it. So today, I say, the mysterious companionships are courage, strength, and fortitude to resist the evil work at every pass. This is what Jesus is breathing into us today. Will we accept the grace to do that?

Lynching By Another Name

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Donald Trump can say all he wants about chasing ISIS off the earth because of the attack in Manchester yesterday, but he’d do better to eradicate domestic terrorism in the US, beginning with his white supremacist staffers.

richard collins IIIThe latest victim: Richard Collins III, stabbed to death on his college campus in Maryland Saturday night by a fellow white supremacist student.

No, Trump and his racist cabinet can’t be held responsible for the existence of domestic terrorism, but they can be held responsible for not only not trying to do anything about it, but helping it to fester by their own racist agenda.

Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia isn’t going to do a damn thing to eradicate the ISIS/Al Qaeda threat. It just means more people dying in Yemen. And those billions? Will they benefit average Americans? Will they keep black men alive? Will they prosecute police officers who point-blank murder black men? They will not.

Between Trump’s budget proposal, which will decimate programs that actually help Americans, and the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells in Congress, one might say they are domestic terrorists too.

Charter Schools & Dark Money

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Charter schools were not on my radar until I heard a presentation by a consultant for the Massachusetts group Save Our Public Schools.

That group is pushing for a “no” vote on Massachusetts state ballot question #2, which seeks to lift a cap on the number of charter schools that can be created each year. A “yes” vote would allow up to 12 new charter schools every year. Continue reading

Thoughts on the DNC

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What a gorgeous tapestry the Democratic National Convention presented to the world!

Black, brown, and white faces, hijabs and turbans and flag-adorned straw hats, young people and old people, almost like Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Golden Rule” painting.

golden ruleWhat America is. What America needs to be.

Hearing Anastasia Somoza and Gabby Giffords and the mothers of young men and women killed by police or vigilantes, survivor of the Charleston massacre: profiles in courage, all.

Michelle Obama: dignified, articulate, on point always, passionate.

Joe Biden, who knows too well what loss and grief are, but always optimistic, decent, and on fire this week with hope and encouragement.

Elizabeth Warren, tearing DT a new one in the most wholesome, goshdarnit way, my own senator who I am so glad will continue to serve us in the Senate.

Bernie Sanders, my first choice, making it clear to his supporters that they must not sit out this election; the stakes are too high.

Sarah Silverman, oh my goodness, Sarah, I love you!

And of course, our beloved President, who I really do wish could serve a third term. He will be so missed, and I’ve no doubt that the annals of history will mark his tenure as our finest hour.

Why the feelings of unease, then? Why the nervousness listening to Michael Kelly and Leon Panetta and General Allen go on and on about our military prowess and American exceptionalism?

Yes, I know that the strategy was to show the country that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish as Donald Trump. But I already knew that. That was why she wasn’t my first choice.

Brian Williams, how dare you criticize the people chanting “No more war”? “Sadly,” you said, referring to them as hecklers, they couldn’t be quiet. You, who lied about being under fire when you have never been under fire, except from your NBC bosses. How hypocritical can you get, when the theme of that convention was supposed to be that EVERYONE is welcome in the Democratic tent?

Yes, history was made at the Democratic National Convention this week, and I was able to watch it without yelling any epithets at the television as I had the week before. I will vote the Democratic ticket no matter what. But I pray, I really pray, that the philosophies expressed to the ideals of justice for all, liberty for all, the pursuit of happiness for all were not just lip service, and that the lip service to military power and aggressiveness were not the real philosophies that will be given priority.

 

Brexit + Trump = Bad News

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In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, we are hearing a lot of apologias for the vote to leave the European Union and are told that we must try to understand why people voted this way.

Many similarities have been seen between those Brexit voters in England and the followers of Donald Trump, so therefore we must also try to understand the Trump followers and find out what they want. Presumably we are also supposed to try to give them what they want without actually making Donald Trump the President.

This is a populist movement, we’re told, by the working class who want a better life, better jobs, better everything, and don’t believe they will get it from the elite ruling establishment. It is not about racism, it is not about immigration and open borders, we’re told. It is simply about wanting a better life and self-determination.

My response? BALLS! It is about self-interest, pure and simple; it is about wanting only what is good for oneself; it is about ignoring the interests of one’s country as a whole; it is about retaliation; above all, in my opinion, it is about the longing of white men to be king of the hill again.

The rise of Donald Trump and the rise of the agitation to leave the EU have one really big thing in common: immigration in the US and the refugee crisis in Europe.

The leaders of the agitation are not working class, are not poor, and most assuredly do not have the interests of the “common man” in their hearts. What they do have is the ability to exploit and manipulate fears of the “other” among their followers, to an almost maniacal degree.

Who suffers most from closed borders? Black and brown people and non-Christians. It’s that simple, friends. And it’s that evil.

Whether it’s a virtual wall or a physical wall, these two phenomena want to keep out the other and keep all the goodies for themselves. But making that wall means getting rid of the other who crossed the border when it was open. What does that lead to?

Thomas Mair, who allegedly murdered British parliamentarian Jo Cox in the cause of Brexit, had well-established ties to Neo-Nazi organizations. Neo-Nazi activists flocked to Donald Trump’s rally in Sacramento. Like Isis, they want to establish their own “caliphate” and return to the “good old days” of white men ruling the world. Don’t believe me? Read what the Southern Poverty Law Center has to say about the right(white)-wing activists who flocked to Sacramento: White Nationalism

But it won’t be the working class white men who benefit from Brexit or a Trump presidency; it will be the wealthy white elite, and they won’t (read don’t) give a rat’s ass about what’s good for the underclass.

I propose that instead of rounding up the black and brown and non-Christian immigrants/refugees, we round up the Trump followers and the England First followers into detention camps. Just for fun, let’s throw in the billionaire Libertarian agitators too. There they could receive the benefit of deep therapy to learn why they’re really so angry and be helped to recover from whatever real or imaginary wounds they have.

Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for all the people for whom Brexit and a possible Trump presidency hold dire, even life-threatening consequences.

AN OPEN LETTER TO DONALD TRUMP

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Candidate Trump,

I guess your mother never played Connect-the-Dots games with you. Do you not understand that the number of hate crimes in the United States has increased since you began spewing your vile racist rhetoric?

Do you not understand that there is a direct link to increased numbers of innocent people being killed and the do-nothing Republican Congress that has somehow been mesmerized into supporting you?

Do you not get that semiautomatic rifles are not used for self-defense, but for offense? For offense against human beings who have mothers and fathers and children and sisters and brothers and who have never done anything to deserve being shot to death?

Do you not get that the majority of these acts are perpetrated by AMERICAN CITIZENS with LEGALLY PURCHASED RIFLES?

Do you not get that there are murderers out there who cannot board an airplane because they’re on the no-fly list but who can purchase a rifle whenever and wherever they want?

Do you not understand that, despite the fringe element that votes for you, this country does not need you and does not want you?

Are you completely lacking in the human qualities of empathy and compassion? Are you completely lacking in the ability to learn from experience? Are you completely lacking in the knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil?

You must be. How else could you continue to say the things you say? To disgorge your idiotic rationalizations.

You are destroying this country, perhaps irreparably. How will we clean up the mess you make day after day?

To misquote the beautiful Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a much better person than I am, “SHUT UP IS SHUT UP IS SHUT UP IS SHUT UP!”

“History” as Propaganda

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James Madison doesn’t need Lynne Cheney to stand up for him.

In the arc of the moral universe, is there a spot where writing history is supposed to deal with facts rather than boost a present-day agenda?

Or is there a spot where one is supposed to write about a historical figure without tearing down other historical figures?

I wasn’t predisposed to read any books by Lynne Cheney, wife of Lord Voldemort. Then, because I had recently listened to Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I decided to be open and listen to Ms. Cheney’s book about James Madison. After all, the two worked together closely and were certainly among the Founding Brothers.

It didn’t take long of listening to James Madison: A Life Reconsidered to wonder: A. Did Ms. Cheney write it because she was jealous of the attention Hamilton was getting with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical? B. Is Ms. Cheney in love with James Madison? She seems utterly unable to write about Madison without tearing down Hamilton (who was, in fact, an abolitionist) and gushing, gushing, gushing.

To be honest, it is only recently that my autodidactic history journey has taken me to the Founding Fathers. While the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are brilliant documents, I can never forget the hypocrisy they contain as those white Europeans who settled this country stole land and lives from the First Peoples and then imported Africans to work it for them.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” if you are a white person. “A more perfect union” for white people. But okay, facts are facts and I can’t change them. So who were these men and was there anything so noble about them? I try to put myself there and yes, were I an early American, I would have revolted against the British crown as well. But to do so without having any glimmer that the oppression of the monarchy was no worse than the oppression of the slave-holder and the oppression practiced on Native Americans comes nowhere near the virtue of nobility.

Ms. Cheney immediately makes the statement that Madison and his close friend Thomas Jefferson were abolitionists. This is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. That’s like saying that vivisectionists are animal lovers. The Virginians among the Founding Fathers were Republicans and pushed stronger rights for states, as opposed to Hamilton’s Federalist stance, which preferred a strong central government. And this is exactly the fault line along which slavery rested, with states wanting the right to determine for themselves whether to continue the abhorrent practice.

Among the greatest irony of Ms. Cheney’s book is that all the things she lauds Madison for are things against which her husband worked. The secret government of the Bush puppet regime was his triumph and a way to suppress facts and freedom of information for which Madison worked so hard. Is Ms. Cheney that cynical or that stupid not to realize it?

This is not a biography; I do not come away with any real feeling for James Madison. I’ve consulted other books and scholars do agree that he was brilliant and certainly he did do a great job on the Constitution, if only people like Lord Voldemort and the Supreme Court’s right wing would actually pay attention to it.

And now Lord Voldemort has endorsed another He Who Must Not Be Named. Will Ms. Cheney write a glowing, loving biography of Him some day?