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?

Everyone Belongs in the Kingdom

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My little garden in a little town in a little state is my refuge, my haven, my glimpse of the Kingdom.

It is in shade, yet there are flowering plants and lots of green foliage. I did a little work and nature did the rest. In the near distance are trees dappled in sunlight in the late afternoon and a glimpse of the churchyard next door.

Robins and catbirds and sparrows and swifts sit on the fence and call to the universe or fly and dart about. Honeybees cover the cimicifuga and they are more than welcome. Fat bumblebees fly up into the heart of the hosta blossoms. I sit with my coffee and my book and my mature, overweight cat lazes nearby.

A chipmunk runs across the paving stones from one clump of vegetation to another. A poodle pup named Rory charges up the path from next door, tail wagging, to greet me. Onyx flips her tail and eyes him warily. I give him a good patting and send him back to his owner.

Yes, the Kingdom, the harmony, the peace despite a busy major route just yards away. For 45 minutes a day most days I can come to my retreat and, ideally, shed the tensions of the work day.

It is more difficult to shed the tensions of the world. Even more difficult is that I am ever mindful of the fact that there is no haven, no blessed retreat, no Kingdom for so many people on this Earth, our island home spinning through a universe of wonders and horrors.

Is it neurosis or social conscience that never lets me forget how privileged my life has been? I have known loss and grief. My mother died when she was the age I’ll be in September, a short, violent battle with liver cancer that took her before we could even get our minds around what was happening to her. My beloved brother died when he was the age I am now, a long, drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer that left him a bag of bones loosely covered in flesh, and it was almost impossible to recognize the athletic, handsome, dignified youth and man he had been.

People, pets, jobs, relationships, the losses that are the normal stuff of most lives.

But no one I love has ever been executed because of the color of his skin. No one I love has so far been in the path of a terrorist. No child of mine has ever lived in a war zone or had to risk drowning to reach a shore of safety.

In the late 1980s, the African National Congress toured the world with a documentary called “Every Child is My Child.” Along with all the political and economic and humanitarian efforts to end the evil called apartheid, it galvanized people to look at the struggle in a new way.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that I have known as long as I can remember, that every person is my child, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father, and the Kingdom is not mine alone to enjoy. It won’t be the Kingdom until everyone can live without fear, in safety and peace, in the sure knowledge that when they wake up to a new day, they are not risking their lives by stepping outside their doors.

 

What’s Lent Got To Do With It?

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Presumably everyone who calls themselves a Christian is now observing Lent, the 40-day journey through repentance leading up to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I don’t know whether all denominations put on the sackcloth and ashes that I was taught to don as a child. Despite going to Confession weekly, I rarely felt forgiven because the very next time I went to Christian education I was told about some new way in which I was a sinner and that my sins made up the nails that crucified Jesus.

I went to all the movies that came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s about Jesus: “King of Kings,” “Barabbas,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Ben Hur,” etc. And I left each movie haunted about whether I would have been one of the people yelling for Jesus’s blood or one of the women who followed Him.

To add to my neuroses, I used to spend hours as a child poring over three editions of Funk & Wagnall’s yearbooks that were in our house. They must have been for the years 1952, 1953, and 1954. They contained many pictures of dead people: Eva Peron in her casket, Emilie Dionne, victims of gangland shootings, Mau Mau casualties. The yearbooks introduced me to a world of horrors, and they got mixed up with the guilt I already carried so that I began to feel responsible for everything bad that happened in the world.

Through the years, that sense of guilt has never really left me; even now, in liturgical church traditions, I’m told at one and the same time that I am a sinner and also told that I’m forgiven once and for all for those sins of which I’m truly repentant.

Yet in all of my young education, learning about slavery, watching civil rights protesters on television, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, was it ever suggested in church that the original sin I was supposedly born with had anything to do with the sin of racism. Moreover, the Christian church in the United States has not, as one body, repented of the sin of aiding and abetting racism.

I have been asking myself the last few years, what would Jesus want the form of our repentance to take? Giving up chocolate or meat or TV for 40 days, or setting about righting the wrongs of our national history by admitting to the sin of enslaving, raping, murdering, excluding, and treating with contempt a sizeable proportion of God’s children? If there is such a thing as original sin, then what white people, with the complicity of the white Christian church, have done to Africans and Native Americans is our original sin.

Now is the time to repent.

An organization called Ignatian Spirituality Network is e-mailing daily Lenten reflections to those who sign up. Written by a diverse group of people, the reflections are called “Lift Every Voice.” The website is www.ignatianspirituality.net.

Richard Wright’s Heir

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Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.

And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.

After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.

I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.

Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.

The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled     suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly     oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting     themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly     upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt     finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and     a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,     and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,     butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a     drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the     lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow     surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity     for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by     icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the     grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods     poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the     darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves     into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into     my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and     cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red     upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that     my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth     into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my     black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as     they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from     me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into     my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a     baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot     sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in     yellow surprise at the sun….

Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.

The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube

 

A Journey Toward Light

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
. . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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I Refuse to be Scared

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I am sick to death of morally bankrupt politicians telling me what and how Americans are feeling.

“Americans are scared.” “Americans don’t want Syrian refugees coming to this country.” “Americans want to know what’s going on inside mosques.”

First of all, I am not scared of being killed by terrorists. I was not scared after 9/11 and I’m not scared now. Here’s why: I do not think that my life is worth any more than anyone else’s on this planet. I do not think that I should be exempt from catastrophe and that the millions of people who deal with natural and manmade disasters on an almost daily basis shouldn’t be exempt.

I never say “There but for the grace of God go I” because I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen to other people but not to me.

I never say, “See you tomorrow, God willing,” because I don’t believe God might decide to “take” me overnight or to “take” the other person and not me.

Human beings cause bad things to happen to people; human beings take lives. Human beings foment disasters. Human beings create situations in which toxins invade people’s bodies and cause cancer and other diseases. God does not.

Human beings pervert religious ideals to the point of needing to erase the lives of people who don’t agree with them. God does not.

God loves. God loves with a vastness that is hard to fathom until you feel such love yourself for another human being. Even then, we can feel only a small part of it.

I reverence life, all life, on this planet. But what I’m feeling now is that I would give my life if it would save one Syrian child  and bring that child to a haven where the child could heal and grow up and live a life without terror.

And I say to Donald Trump, “You, sir, are the dangerous one who needs to be removed from our society.”

To Jeb Bush: “You, sir, are the one who needs to put yourself in harm’s way if you think that boots on the ground is such a good idea.”

To Mike Huckabee: “Saying ‘for falalfel’s sake’ makes you not only stupid but ignorant and stupidly ignorant is far more dangerous than things that challenge physical safety.”

To Governor Charlie Baker: “Massachusetts is the FIRST state that should be accepting Syrian refugees since it was one of the first shores to which other refugees came so long ago.”

How dare you, Trump, Bush, Huckabee, Cruz, Baker, Fox News, Tea Partiers – how DARE you say that the United States has lost its moral compass when it is YOU who have torn that compass from its binnacle and tossed it overboard?

I say, You are terrorists also, and you do the same amount of psychic and spiritual damage that ISIS does physically. Your fear-mongering, your hate-mongering, your greed and your corruption have poisoned this country almost to the point of making it beyond recognition.

In my anger, though, I have some hope because I do believe that love will win. We saw it in the aftermath of 9/11; we saw it in the aftermath of Paris; love saves and love wins. There are a whole lot of people out there who agree with me, and we’re standing up and shouting it out.

Neither American nor Middle Eastern terrorists understand this, no matter what they profess. They don’t know what love is; they only know hate and fear.

Sorry, folks, you are going to lose. In many ways, you’ve lost already.

 

 

The Moral Universe – Politician or Holy Man?

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I started to write this blog a couple of weeks ago, but then decided it was out of date. The subject of Pope Francis meeting Kim Davis has come up again, however, so I’ve decided to push on with it.

After Jorge Bergoglio was elected the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, it didn’t take long for memes to start showing up on Facebook. As they did, liberal non-Catholics and ex-Catholics sat up and took notice. Hmm, we thought at first, this guy isn’t so bad for a pope.

Then we read about his refusal to wear the red shoes and his insistence on living in a more humble manner than previous popes, and when he went on to show his clear affinity for the poor and dispossessed, and he spoke out against the oppression of the poor and started turning the conversation away from abortion and gay marriage to climate change and immigration, well, we were ready to kiss Pope Francis’ feet. And we gave him the highest accolade we could think of: We called him a progressive!

Then he came to the United States.

Pope Francis came to America with a bang. We hung on his every word, wanting to hear him endorse everything we liberals believe in. When he left, many liberals were angry at him and hurt that he didn’t turn out to be, well, the Messiah of Progressivism.

It started out well. When President Obama introduced him on the Tuesday, the first thing the Pope said referred to our all being immigrants. “Yay,” we said. The next day he gestured for a Latino child to be brought to him; he kissed and hugged her and took her note asking him to help her parents be allowed to stay in the country. “Bravo,” we shouted.

He addressed Congress and talked about climate change and poverty and all our hot-button issues and then went and had lunch at a homeless shelter. “It’s the Second Coming,” we cried in adoration.

In New York the Pope went to Harlem; in Philadelphia he visited a prison. Could it have gotten any better?

The chatter started on Facebook before his plane had even left the ground. “He said women will never be priests,” the feminists complained. “He didn’t’ endorse gay marriage,” the LGBTQ faction said. And the worst: “HE MET KIM DAVIS – ohmygod he’s the Antichrist!” And then we liberals weren’t so sure about this Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

For once in my life, I reserved judgment through the backlash. I’m often one of the worst liberal reactionaries, but because I truly admire this man, I decided to wait things out and see what other news came out. And of course we learned that Pope Francis met a lot of people the Nunciature had scheduled, because that is a right of the Nunciature. One of them was Kim Davis. So many people decided this meant the Pope was endorsing her bizarre, loveless form of Christianity, even though we also learned that the only person the Pope personally invited to the Papal Embassy was a former student who is gay and who brought his partner.

The trouble is, I believe, partly that we want people we like to be enemies of our enemies. The rest of it is that we have made love, hope, and charity political issues rather than human issues. When someone comes along who has large name recognition and influence, we want them to toss the love, hope, and charity overboard and focus on what makes us angry, such as Kim Davis.

Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and now Pope Francis have all espoused theologies and philosophies that progressives agree with; because of that, we expect them to act like politicians rather than the holy men they are.

The way I see it, Pope Francis’s basic aim is not to make liberals happy. Aside from being the head of the Church of Rome, he has clearly shown his desire to walk in Jesus Christ’s footsteps. He is not a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, right wing or left wing. He appears to try to meet everyone where they are, whether it be Kim Davis or incarcerated people or former students who happen to be gay. And he appears to be truly trying to bring hope with him wherever he goes.

We heard Pope Francis ask many, many people he met to pray for him. That is not the request of someone who thinks he has all the answers and whose mind is made up on every subject. I find it very refreshing, and holy.