We Must Be Jesus for Immigrants

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A comedian named Tom Papa has a recurring shtick on “Live From Here,” the radio show that superseded Prairie Home Companion. Each week he gets himself into an absurd situation while he’s Out in America. He’ll say something like, “Have you ever been chased down Fifth Avenue by a drunken clown.” Then he pauses and says, in a Sad Sack voice, “I have.”

To borrow his schtick: Have you ever been on a 20-ton wooden schooner in an 80-knot gale with a broken jib and waves crashing over the sides?

I have.

It’s terrifying. Physically, I have never been more scared in my life than on that day in 1981. In fact, it was so terrifying that it was day I started praying again, after many lapsed years.

Bible commentator William Barclay says that because of the shape of the Sea of Galilee and the topographical formation of the land around it, storms come up with no warning, just swooping down on the lake with speed and violence.

Such was the case here, and even these seasoned fishermen were afraid for their lives. It’s possible they had never encountered one of these sudden storms.

Jesus was in the seat of honor in the stern, where the motion of the boat would have been less noticeable than at the bow. He was apparently so comfortable on his cushion that he fell asleep. The disciples had to wake him up to tell him that they were all in danger of dying, whereupon Jesus “rebuked” the wind and told the sea to be still. Then he rebuked the disciples for being afraid. “Why are you afraid,” he said. “Have you still no faith?” And they marveled, and were no longer afraid.

That’s it, that’s the story. And really, the message can be summed up in just a few words: With Jesus, we need have no fear.

Have you ever gone to church and thought the sermon was going to be really short and then found out it wasn’t?

I have.

Because there’s a lot more to this story, and there’s a lot more to say about fear.

What if – just  what if the storm hadn’t really abated, but with Jesus awake and going through it with the disciples, their fear was taken away such that it was as if the storm just went away?

I’m not saying that Jesus couldn’t make a storm stop if He wanted to. Of course He could. But maybe the real point is that whether there’s a storm or not, if Jesus is with us, we have no need to fear.

Fundamentally, I have believed this with all my heart for a long time. But after the national scandal of children and parents being separated at the border that has been revealed in all its horror in the past two weeks, has weakened that faith, and you might have the same problem I have. With Jesus, we need have no fear. Until we do.

I’m not talking about temporary fear, which the 12-Step tradition has made into an acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. There are simple solutions to this kind of fear. When I say “simple,” I don’t mean easy, but it can be overcome if one wants to overcome it. It’s up to the individual.

I’m talking about existential fear. Not as in Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, but fear for one’s very existence because of the oppression of an agency with limitless power over oneself.

Theologian Howard Thurman addressed it many times, most notably in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited,” he wrote. He was specifically referring to the legacy of slavery in America and during the Jim Crow era, but his words have meaning for every group of dispossessed people.

Africans were kidnapped, brought to a new country, and put into inhuman conditions of servitude. Babies were ripped from their mother’s arms. Families were separated in the most unchristian ways.

And now it is happening to another group of people on whom the hounds of hell have sent fleeing from violence (one existential threat) into a country where they seek asylum but instead have their babies ripped from their arms and all are put into detention centers far away from one another, not knowing whether they will ever see their loved ones again.

Could we say to them, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you.”? Or, “You’re afraid? What’s wrong with your faith?”

I hope to God not.

Have you ever laid awake sleepless because you know there is something so horrible happening that your body literally cannot rest?

I have.

I’m so afraid for these children and these parents that I have been incandescent with rage this past week, and the real threat isn’t even to me. When these seismic nightmares happen, I think, “They’re crucifying Jesus again. And again. And again.”

And yet, as Pastor Erik Karas reminded me on Facebook this week, Jesus rises again and again and again.

It’s not the faith of the children and the men and women who fled here for safety that is relevant. It’s my faith, your faith, that Jesus didn’t just calm a storm. Jesus spent His ministry, and through his torturous crucifixion, teaching us how to calm a storm, how to take the threat of violence and neuter it, how to claim victory over the death of the body and the death of hope.

In his weekly message, Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta wrote, “Following Jesus is about taking up agency. It’s about Jesus believing in us to do the things he taught us. Following Jesus is not some always-trepidatious, hand-wringing kind of hope. Following Jesus is about being immersed in his teachings and hazarding faithful, audacious actions. Maybe church has taught us to be fans of Jesus instead of partners with Jesus.”

Are we just fans or are we partners? Do we need the miracles of raising from the dead and calming storms to believe, or do we believe that we can BE Jesus to the people Jesus commanded us to care for? The stranger, the alien, the hungry, the imprisoned, the child of God who has been oppressed to a degree that they feel disinherited from that mighty status, our co-heirs  with Jesus to the Kingdom?

Let us walk WITH Jesus into the storm and use our faith to help our brothers and sisters in Christ. Speak out, stand out, write letters, donate money to organizations that are hiring lawyers to represent the lost children in order to reunite them with their parents. Take part in vigils, be informed, watch the news no matter how painful that can be.

There will be time, endless time to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness; now is the moment to walk into the Valley of the Shadow of Death with Jesus and express our faith by bringing hope to the hopeless, by being light in the darkness.

I want to end by telling you just a bit about my recent pilgrimage to Sewanee, Tennessee, where I joined 37 strangers who quickly became soulmates on a contemplative retreat at St. Mary’s Place. The theme of the retreat was using the transforming nature of contemplative practice to produce compassionate action. On the last evening, as I listened to people sum up their hopes for what they would take home with them, I composed a prayer. I borrowed their ideas, words from the New Zealand Prayer Book, a touch of the St. Francis prayer, and wisdom from Howard Thurman. So, let us pray:

Eternal Spirit,
Earthmaker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Loving God, in whom is Heaven,
Lead us into silence where we may find healing and sustenance.
Lead us out of silence so that we may be your instrument in bringing healing and sustenance to the world.
We want to do our part, no matter how small our part may be,
To serve your righteousness and justice, O Lord.
And with your prophet Micah,
May we always act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you
As we become the people you dreamed us to be.

Amen.
 

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Let the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

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(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)

Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?

Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)

I heard walls coming down!

So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.

First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.

Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.

Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.

Shucking the corn? Unlawful.

Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.

Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.

Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?

We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.

In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.

Why?

walls coming downBecause “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?

Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!

And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.

So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?

Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”

He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering  through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.

This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

evelyn underhill

English mystic Evelyn Underhill knew it too.

“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”

Why?

Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.

Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.

I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking  events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.

I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.

The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.

Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.

Why?

Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

That something is God.

The 21st Century Pieta

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On Good Friday, Christians around the world assume an attitude of mourning as they commemorate the steps to the cross that Jesus took.

When I say “assume,” I don’t mean they’re pretending. For millions of people, this day reminds them of the suffering of an innocent man who took on the world’s darkness and allowed himself to be sacrificed. The Roman-ruled world could not understand his message of a new compact between God and human beings.

As I follow the cross through my own little village in the rain later today, I shall be mourning other sacrifices as well: the sacrifices of the souls of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, of Stephon Clark, of Danny Ray Thomas, of Anthony Stephan House, of Draylen Mason.

Sacrificial lambs of a country that refuses to deal with racism, the NRA, white supremacy, police who refuse to consider less than lethal force when dealing with black men.

Sacrificial lambs of a society that espouses “right to life” but doesn’t blink when children’s lives and black lives are taken.

stephon clarkStephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cell phone when he was shot 20 times. At a Sacramento Council meeting, a protestor said that a grandmother’s backyard was “a sacred space.”

 

Danny Ray Thomas was for unknown reasons walking with his pants down and his hands in view when he was murdered by police. Two years ago, while he was in jail on a drug charge, his girlfriend drowned their two young children. His was already a life of unendurable pain.

anthony houseAnthony Stephan House was getting ready to go to work when he picked up a package on his porch that exploded and killed him. His young daughter was in the house.

 

draylen masonDraylen Mason was a high school senior and classical musician who had not yet heard that he was to receive a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to continue his studies when he too picked up a package on his porch.

The 17 children and staff of MSD were just going about their daily routine at school.

I was only 8 years old when I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Pieta” at the World’s Fair. It made me cry.

From now on when I think “Pieta,” I will see the mothers of all the children killed in massacres and the black men, women, and children killed by police who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

How long will we let our society continue to condemn them to death?

The GOP’s War on Christmas

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Yes, Virginia, there is a War on Christmas.

It’s just not being waged by those who the “president” and Bill O’Reilly have accused.

You see, Virginia, the “president” and the Congressional GOP mostly identify as Christians. Yet, less than a week before the celebration of the birth of Jesus, they have shown themselves to either blatantly disregard, or not believe in, any of Jesus’s teachings.

Rather than feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison, or heal the sick, the “president” and the GOP want to enrich the already wealthy, steal from the poor, arrest the protesters. and let the sick get sicker even to the point of death.

Take care of widows and orphans? Oh no, they say with their actions, we need that money to pay for the billions of dollars we are giving our donors and ourselves.

Not only that, your children and your children’s children will have to deal with the mess of the trillion-dollar deficit and the ruined environment.

We don’t really know whether Jesus was born in a barn, but we have faith that this story reflects God’s message to human kind.

Wealth, earthly power, and political authority are not what God wants for God’s people. Sharing one’s heart and soul with all God’s children – and therefore our sisters and brothers – and caring for the most vulnerable in any society is what brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.

If we fight the GOP’s War on Christmas, we have righteousness on our side, Virginia. Never forget that loving the outcast, welcoming the stranger, and walking side by side with those who have met with discrimination are our weapons.

This is a war we can win if we believe in the sanctity of our cause. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and humanists can all agree and come together to form a great army that is on the side of justice.

Let it be so.

 

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.

 

By Their Fruits You’ll Know Them

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When I was in my 20s, I went out with a man who made himself objectionable to my friends.

One friend, an older man, tried to talk to me about the relationship. He pointed out that if a person is kind to everyone, that is a good character trait. But, he said, if someone like my boyfriend was only nice to me but unkind to others, it could mean he was just trying to get something from me.

I was hurt, and the relationship went on to a predictably unhappy ending. It took many years for me to gain the wisdom to see that my friend had given me some serious life advice.

I thought of this unhappy episode Saturday morning while listening to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He interviewed David French of The National Review. This was before the Northern California shooting, and not a week after the Sutherland, Texas, rampage.

Mr. French was there to accuse “Twitter activists” of being unfair to politicians who offer “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings.

“. . .the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich,” he said. “And prayer saturates their lives. . .So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.”

As a Christian, as someone who believes in the power of prayer, and as a “Twitter activist,” I bristled at Mr. French’s words. Perhaps you had to hear his patronizing tone. He spoke as if only Christians have a rich prayer life and as if “Twitter activists” are heathens.

Mr. French went on to say that “it’s not that these politicians are offering thoughts and prayers and no action . . . “ Yet he equivocated about what kind of action these politicians are supposedly taking. In fact, Mr. French said that he can’t even imagine what kind of action might have been appropriate after the Las Vegas massacre.

When Mr. Simon suggested that it is the difference in reactions to domestic terrorism and imported terrorism, Mr. French said, “But different mass killings demand different kinds of responses. They’re not all the same.”

He concludes by saying, “What use is an activist tweet anyway?”

Well, I’ll you, Mr. French. The more people who are talking about the problem of gun violence in this country by home-grown terrorists, the better. The politicians you say we twitter activists are criticizing unfairly are white male members of the GOP such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who only like government when it is used to hurt people, such as punishing tax “reform” (read tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy) and taking away any kind of a safety net for the most vulnerable among us.

I do not believe them when they speak of thoughts and prayers. Mr. French, you quoted Scripture on the air; I’ll quote back at you: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) This is Jesus speaking, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, where he has spoken about the poor, the humble, and hypocrites. It doesn’t get any more “Christian” than that. And the fruits of the politicians who talk about “thoughts and prayers” when they have the power to take action (“Faith without works is dead” James; not a scriptural principle, Mr. French, but actual Scripture) to prevent these tragic, senseless, avoidable murders is nil. If a bill is brought to the Senate or the Congress that might actually help citizens of the United States, and I include Puerto Ricans here, these politicians will do their damnedest to derail it.

I learned my friend’s lesson well, because what he was really telling me was “You will know them by their fruits.” That’s what I look for in a politician. They can say whatever they like, but what do they do?

If they do good in the rest of their dealings, fine, I believe them when they send thoughts and prayers. If they don’t, like our current GOP-controlled Congress, I don’t believe them. And I’m not puzzled by twitter activists who criticize them.

Prayer As Action

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For people in power to respond to a disaster by saying “My thoughts and prayers are with them” is a meaningless gesture unless that person follows it up with action to avert another disaster.

Yet there are times when prayer is the best action one can take.

I was privileged to see Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry last week and hear his powerful preaching. It was in a city I’m not really familiar with, and as I wandered around trying to find the place where the post-service luncheon was to be held, I was approached by a man.

He asked whether I would donate something toward bringing his brother from Puerto Rico to the mainland in exchange for a chocolate bar. I hadn’t brought sufficient cash with me to do so, and I explained this to him and also that I had now made two donations to the Hispanic Federation to help Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Marie.

Then I told him that I would pray for his brother, and the man’s face lit up as if he’d just been told he’d won a lottery. “Will you?” he exclaimed with joy. “Absolutely!” I said. “May I hug you?” he asked. “Absolutely!” I said. And we hugged.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

We talked a while about Puerto Rico’s travails, and he told me that he himself had only moved to the mainland shortly before the hurricane. He seemed glad to be here, and I hoped the mainland was treating him well. When we parted, something special was going on for each of us.

I believe that prayer is action; sometimes it is the only action one can take. I don’t pray for specifics much these days, and I don’t pray for a situation to go “according to God’s will.” Many people, and I have been one of them, hear in those words that God’s will might be that one has to endure a crisis without complaint; that suffering lies ahead and one just has to suck it up.

What comes after “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer is the most important part: “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

In other words, may God’s will for perfect reconciliation, perfect love, perfect peace, and perfect understanding come to human beings as it has come to those who have met God “not through a glass darkly,” but face to face.

I do pray that an afflicted person will know themselves to be surrounded with love and support and encouragement. I do pray that that person’s heart will be open to accepting help that might be unrecognizable at first. I do pray that they be strengthened and inspired by the Holy Spirit to see a solution where there wasn’t one before. And I do pray that Jesus may break down any barriers to healing inner wounds that prevent someone from accepting all the help that is available, divine and earthly.

At the luncheon I went up to the head table to get a picture of Bishop Curry, who had that morning preached prophetically about going to the mountaintop where heaven and earth come together to get strength to return to the trials and tribulations of our world and seek solutions to them.

An elderly woman next to me was telling the bishop that she prayed for him every day. The same light shone out in his face as I had witnessed a short time before on the Puerto Rican man. The bishop fairly lunged across the table to grasp her hands and thank her and then insisted she come up onto the dais and have her picture taken with him.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

You can hear the Bishop’s prophetic preaching below. The video was started long, long before sermon time, so you might want to advance it.