Monday, November 13, 2017

Our Veterans' Day Band Concert -- Hearing the Gettysburg Address Again for the First Time

Two things redeemed our Veterans’ Day concert by the Lake George Community Band from the deep, dark well of false patriotism and militarism into which we easily could have fallen.

First was a contemporary composition from 2003 commissioned by the NM Military Institute Regimental Bands of Roswell, NM. Each Time you Tell Their Story is a reading accompanied by concert band by Samuel R. Hazo:

No soldiers choose to die. It's what they risk being who and where they are. It's what they dare while saving someone else whose life means suddenly as much to them as theirs. Or more. To honor them, why speak of duty or the will of governments? Think first of love each time you tell their story. It gives their sacrifice a name and takes from war its glory.

This seemed a new way to express patriotism. Sacrifice is still the theme, but loss and grief are given larger status.

Second, we played a concert band piece which I assumed was old, but was published in 2009, was Lincoln at Gettysburg, a simple music setting for the great address. Lincoln’s speech seemed eerily current, and important for today because of the thoughts expressed about our nation, our values, and the internal war that continues to consume us. The first line is striking:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Liberty is claimed by all sides of current disputes, and oddly, we are more divided today than recently about the equality of people. Jefferson had not explicitly included colored slaves, native Americans, or Spanish residents of the thirteen colonies, and few who heard or read the Declaration of Independence would have thought of them. But when Lincoln was speaking of “all men” he was thinking of Negro slaves. Today when we hear “all men” most all of us hear it to be inclusive of women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, as well as those of other races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions. That tells us how much we have changed! But Lincoln went on:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Yes we are so engaged, and while we are not yet again killing each other, our hold on liberties and equality are being challenged and tested. This reading seemed so modern and not of history but of today.

Lincoln was asked to dedicate a great burial ground, which still reeked of human putrefaction at the time of the speeches, four months after the battle. But Lincoln declined to glorify the dead or the battle they fought, instead saying that the dead had dedicated the field themselves.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This speaks of my America, which is not about the worship of guns, the revival of racial nationalism and the flag of the Confederacy, the acceptance of misogyny and sexual harassment, the increasing distance between not only rich and poor, but rich and the middle-class, the stupefying incompetence and false values of our Congress and Senate, and a man in the White House, unelected by the popular will of the people, who frightens children and makes women cry. All these things make us wonder if the deaths at Gettysburg were in vain.

Other works the band performed in addition to standard marches, included one that honored the death in battle of one of the first soldiers to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. I quote Walter Cronkite who explained once, that

Two forces drive war: National pride and human loss.  The first starts wars. The second sustains them. The first casualty creates an investment in blood that retreat would seem to dishonor.

No one wants to be first to die in a war, few will admit that a war was wrong when someone they loved died in it. and as John Kerry told Congress about the war in Vietnam, that no one wants to be the last soldier to die in a war.

My question is, "How can we glorify in any way the death of soldiers in a war so ill-conceived and false as our war in Iraq?" Is there a way to write music to express shame and regret? Composers today seem more inclined to express the power and destruction of war, and the loss of loved, real people.

The issue becomes political, because many went to fight in Iraq not for oil or even glory, but in revenge for 9/11. Revenge is famously unrewarding. We are more inclined to music that is inspiring, invigorating, exuberant, solemn and hymn-like, with emotional lyric lines, and crashing cymbals, with a lively and defiant finish. These are the words publishers used to describe the compositions we played for Veterans’ Day.

The problem of military music partly lies with the music publishers and the music education establishment. All protest music from the ‘60's has disappeared from the publishers’ lists. Patriotism and militarism sell. Remembrance and the hope of glory sell. The bands can draw crowds of veterans. Politicians applaud and give funds for music programs. Veterans organizations give money to community bands who agree to honor them! The military loves the assistance in recruiting new, young soldiers, who will be veterans soon enough, or among those honored fallen. And the music is written for other purposes: to provide music for a certain "grade" of performance, to provide examples and "studies" requiring difficult or unusual instrument fingerings and rhythms, to cut another notch on a composer's conducting baton and resume.

The sister of a bandmate won’t attend our concerts because she believes such music and performances glorify war. I agree. Those who attend are inspired and encouraged to feel that they now “support our troops.” Government policy is forgotten or never to be thought about. Martial music makes you want to march, but someone else tells you in what direction to go.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Don’t Politicize Veterans’ Day!

Betty Little, our NY Dist. 45 State Senator , spoke Nov. 3 at a breakfast event honoring our veterans, sponsored by the Glens Falls Senior Center. She was the first speaker and in her first few minutes, she commented on how good it was to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, how important the flag is, and how protests surrounding the flag and the National Anthem are wrong.

I reacted so angrily that I left the event because I hadn’t understood until that moment how an issue becomes politicized and how twisted our national life has become. Politicization takes something that belongs to everyone and divides us by suggesting that the issue belongs to one political view or party. Politicians love to speak to and for veterans because the appeal is emotional, because so many of us have personal ties to one or more of the 380,000 who died in battle or from battle injuries since 1941. Mostly veterans are attractive to politicians because they constitute 22% of our population, a sizable voting bloc.

But Americans who have served or died in war included Republicans, Democrats, and Socialists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, and were of all colors. Such service and losses are not political. We hope that our soldiers fought and died for liberty and justice for all, for the values in our Constitution, including our freedom to protest against every sort of injustice. Our first amendment protects dissent and protest against our nation, flag, anthem and pledge. To be against protest is to be against freedom of speech, and threatens our democracy with tyranny.

Citizens tend to support politicians in time of war, even when our national response to world problems with military solutions is unwise. Patriotism is love of country and pride in our values and many accomplishments, which mostly are not military. Criticism of the NFL and other protesters may gain a politician some votes, but not honestly. Senator Little is entitled to her views about the flag and the NFL, but they have nothing to do with honoring veterans.

Since the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, the Republican party has claimed that opposing the use of military force for any purpose, is to oppose the United States and be against all who serve and have served. This has always been a lie. To want our nation to have a just and rational foreign policy is the highest kind of patriotism. Instead, we have had too much patriotism of the sort that encourages military service in support of bad policy, profiteering, and political gain.

Some in the military understand this, perhaps better than those of us who do not serve. A few years ago I heard the head of a local American Legion unit say, “Americans are willing to serve, but we want the cause to be just and the use of the military sensible.”

Once we enter a war, we cannot easily get out, so that wars perpetuate themselves. Walter Cronkite explained this once: “Two forces drive war: National pride and human loss.  The first starts wars. The second sustains them. The first casualty creates an investment in blood that retreat would seem to dishonor.” Few will admit that a war was wrong when someone they loved died in it.

(A portion of this post was sent to The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Glens Falls NY.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Are We Still Friends If We Fight? – A Sermon

I Corinthians 13 and Luke 6:27-36

OOPS
When I told my wife what I was preaching on this week, 
she called me a hypocrite.
She is right, the first thing I need to say is 
that I am not filled with love for my enemies.
Love for those beyond my family 
       is not something I can claim much; 
I can only aspire to it.
I think I can explain some of my difficulty.

I have two stories I would like to tell.
That’s how we are supposed to spice up a sermon, 
        with stories from real life.
Unfortunately, I asked my preacher friends on the internet
whether it is ethical to tell stories about real people, 
even if you don’t name them, or if they live miles away.
I was told by several people not to do it without their permission.
They are probably right, so I pulled a whole page from this sermon.

The stories were about disputes I had with two different people;
Each one of them accused people of a different nationality 
of being less than worthy of our respect.
Each dispute was about politics.
In the first one I responded badly.
I did better in the second.

UGH
I’ll bet most of you could tell similar stories.
My life isn’t the only one that has been made difficult 
by our political and social divisions.
Maybe yours has been, too.
I am not saying anything you don’t know,
about how divided people are from each other.
Many people report losing friends in the past year 
        because of political differences.

Family disputes have risen, too.
Fear of this year’s Thanksgiving dinner has risen
because in too many families there is someone 
who is going to say something 
        that causes others to explode in anger.

It isn’t just families; it’s churches, too.
We might think that Christians would all see the world 
        in similar ways, and share the same values, but it is not so.
There is not one church of Jesus. 
Churches are as fractured as political parties.
Churches don’t have the membership or influence they once had.
And all the other institutions in society are declining 
        or changing drastically 
from what they used to be in our lifetimes.

Each of us is influenced more and more
by values we adopt from sources other than the church.
Our values have changed.
In 201l, the Public Religion Research Institutes asked in a poll 
whether elected officials "could fulfill their public duties 
if they committed immoral acts in their private lives.” 
61% of white evangelical Protestants said "no.”
In October of 2016, PRRI repeated the poll. 
This time, only 20% said immoral personal acts 
disqualified a politician from public office.

AHA
What is going on? My friend says we have different worldviews.
A dictionary tells me that 
“A worldview is the set of beliefs 
about the fundamental nature of Reality.
  These beliefs ground and influence 
all our perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing. 
  Our worldview is our philosophy, mindset, set of values,
                outlook on life, ideology, faith, or even religion.”

So Worldview is about values, many of them grounded in religion.
Jesus and Paul taught values.
Here they are in our readings today.
To be a Christian is to value love so highly 
that we are asked to love our enemies.
We are asked to be generous and forgiving, welcoming, patient, 
and compassionate, and many other good things.
  
WHEE
The last time I was here, as everyone remembers really well (!),
I spoke of values and how they are key to understanding God.
I said God is whatever lies behind or underneath or above 
our deep symbols and values.
That’s pretty abstract, but this thought is carried to an extreme 
in the Bible itself, in the 1st letter of John, where we read that 
“God is love.”
Such a statement invites us to say then that “love is God,” 
although the Bible won’t go that far, 
        and the church hasn’t either, but recently some of us have. 

If we have been in a Christian church for very long,
we have learned the golden rule, 
included in the passage from Luke this morning: 
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

What is the street version, the cynical version of this teaching,
[“Do to others before they do to you.”]
What is the cynical idea of what “golden rule” means:
[“Whoever has the gold, rules.”]
These alternative rules tell us how the world really works:
Helping others doesn’t help you get ahead.
Thinking of others first just puts you behind.
These rules imply that Jesus is a wimp.
      His teachings are for losers.
The value here is not love, but survival, and dominance.
The way to survival and dominance here 
      is not the value of giving, but greed.
The goal here is not compassion, but competition.
The values underlying competition are animosity, 
even meanness, and cruelty, if they are necessary to get ahead.

Note that the famous love chapter extols love, 
but does not tell us what it is.
Instead it tells what love is not.
These things are not included in love: 
envy, boasting, arrogance or bluster, 
rudeness or making a scene, 
insisting on our own way, 
being irritable or throwing fits, 
resentfulness or negativity, and injustice.

So what are the opposite, positive values which are preferable?
I looked up the antonym, the opposite of each word.
They are: Charitableness, peacefulness, humility, and patience, 
kindness, positivity, and doing justice.
These are the positive values that make up "love."

Many church members have told me over the years 
that their favorite verse in the Bible is Micah 6:8:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?”

We were supposed to learn such things in Sunday School,
or hear them in Sunday sermons, 
        enough for them to inspire us.
But we seem to be learning from Jesus or God less 
than from other role models.

YEAH
So how do we deal with family and friends, and co-workers?
When someone says something shocking to you –
it might be prejudice against another group of people.
it might be contrary to what you think 
                are good Christian values.
It might be a different political opinion than you hold.

The first thing is to be silent. I did not do this.
Only thinking about afterward can I say: Stop and think. 
Maybe count to ten.
Do not respond from the emotional region of your brain.
Respond calmly and without raising your voice.

You might say “I disagree with you on that.”
Or, “I don’t believe that.”

Maybe the best thing to say is “Tell me why you think that.”
Or, “How does that make our lives better.”

If the fight occurs anyway, 
follow the advice in the letter to the Ephesians,
“Do not let the sun set on your anger.”
That was my rule always, when I was a pastor.
Apologize for your part of the dispute.
Saying you are sorry is not a sign of weakness.
Apologies tend to make us gain respect and strength.
But apologies have to be real:
 “I’m sorry if you were offended” is not an apology.

Another helpful strategy is to turn the conversation to something
the two of you have in common, and build from that.

Or to say “I value you as a friend, 
        and I don’t want to fight with you.”
This gives permission to the other person to back off, too.
Or respond to the other person’s need as I did last week:
“Tell me about your shoulder pain. 
          I had shoulder surgery last March.”
In that case we both talked at length about 
        what had happened to us, 
we found that he knew my doctor,
and wanted to know about the doctor that did my surgery.

Am I going to do better in such situations in the future?
Maybe, but maybe not.
I have studied conflict management in at least three, heavy courses.
I have a fair track record at managing groups 
and working with congregations in conflict.
One on one is a different matter. 
A large group is easier.
Christians can learn to fight fair in a group.
But the risk that one party of two will leave 
and break the bond between them is huge.

Even the possibility of losing friends 
        isn’t the biggest problem before us.
My friend says we should agree to disagree.
I do not like that.
It means that there is an ocean of topics and important issues 
that we cannot talk about with each other.

If friends cannot speak about issues facing the entire nation,
there can be no genuine representative democracy,
which requires citizen participation, 
                not only in the voting booth,
but in dialogue with each other.
The ancient Greeks and Romans devised ways to do that.
But worked for them only for a short period of human history.

If we cannot have difficult conversations in our churches,
that will be the end of the teaching of Christian values.
BTW, Congress voted recently in their budget bill (not yet passed)
to end IRS enforcement of the rule 
that prevents churches from preaching politics 
and raising money for political causes.
  If you don’t like that, write your Congressman and Senators.

So I am working up courage to open a conversation with a friend
about something that we both care about 
                but about which we disagree.
We cannot continue in this country 
                to ignore the great issues of our time
by only speaking of them with those with whom we agree.

I’ll bet there are issues that cannot be spoken of 
        in your congregation.
Too sensitive, too difficult, too controversial.

I would like to think that there is hope in returning 
        to the basic values we learned from the Bible and the church.
Do you think there is hope?
And will you do something about it?


May we all strive for the highest kind of love,
in which we do for others what we would want, 
Even when we do not want to do it for the other.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Folly of God - Sermon June 4, 2016

[The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional is the title of a book by John Caputo. I have been reading lots of theology and philosophy in order to better understand myself as I write my memoir, tentatively titled Faith Before and After.] The text is I Corinthians 1:17-31.

I am 72 and I am writing a memoir.
One reason I am writing my memoir is because I don’t believe what I used to believe.
It is important to me to figure out what I used to believe
how I came to believe it, and what I believe now.
My other motivation is to leave for my 8 year old granddaughter
who doesn't attend church at all
some explanation of what I did as a minister, and what churches used to be like.

My memoir is the story of one man’s life in a mainline denomination
during the last half of the 20th century.
In it I try to explain what I have seen as the essence of Christian faith
when I let all the extra stuff fall away.
A friend in high school asked:
“Is life really complicated, or is life simple and we just complicate it.”
So I ask “Is Christianity really complicated,
or is it simple and we just complicate it?”
Let me just say that my own memoir gets complicated because I have to ask:
What was the Calling that I experienced? What exactly was that call?
Where did it come from? Who is this God we all talk about so much,
with so little understanding and clarity?
At root it may all be simple, but
we complicate things because we think about them,
so I think that life is both simple and it is truly complicated.

Most of my life I have been battling with God,
with the God who doesn’t exist and never existed.
You know that God:
The God who is strong, all-knowing, all-seeing, the judge, the king, the father.
The God I have found is more like the one described by Paul.

One of two essentials of Christian faith is the cross.
The cross is a powerful symbol.
It was the means of execution by which Jesus and countless others
were tortured to death by the power of Rome.
I don't usually give lists in sermons, but here I think I must.
First of all the cross is the way Jesus died, an historical event.
Second, it represents the suffering of a man who was innocent
and all the innocent who have been tortured and killed by tyrannical empires.
Third, the cross is a symbol for all the suffering of the world,
endured by all humans, because we live this life in this world.
Fourth, the cross is the symbol for ultimate integrity,
for Jesus died without violating the principles which he taught,
because he lived and died non-violently protesting the ways of Rome.
And fifth, the cross condemns and declares the end of all violence.
It is wrong for those in power to kill those who aren’t.

Everything else you may have heard or thought about the cross
is probably tacked-on, elaborately created
to make the simple story of Jesus’ death and Rome’s cruelty
mean something else, to serve the agenda of the teller of that tale.
So the cross isn’t about sacrifice,
or paying a debt to God who is offended by our sins.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross willingly; or because God wanted him to do so.
He probably didn’t think he was the son of God,
that he would be rescued, or later be raised from the dead.
He was a fully human man,
brutally killed for preaching that God was above Rome;
that God’s Empire or kingdom was greater than Rome’s.
The cross was not glorious, never was and never will be.
The ultimate contradiction and irony
is a cross made of silver or gold, or encrusted with jewels.

The only possible way we can say any of these things or conceive of the cross
in any of these ways, is with the phrase “as if.”
When we contemplate the deep meaning of political violence and death,
we can say it is “as if” his death was a sacrifice,
“as if” the cross were a precious thing.
All of Paul’s theories about God and Jesus are those of an imaginative thinker
spinning out creative possibilities for us to consider.
Paul did not set out to write scripture;
he was writing, probably verbally dictating,  letters.

The only other essential thing in Christian faith, I think,
is the communion table and our communion around it.
I have said to you here before that
When we eat together and when the symbol works,
our eyes are opened to see Jesus more clearly.
When we are gathered around the table,
we are drawn under the influence of Jesus.
We find ourselves in a similar relation to him
as had the first disciples who ate and drank with him.
The words of his teachings, the stories of his suffering and death,
the promises of the fullness of life,
are given texture and flavor in the sacrament.

If the supper transforms us, we somehow can see God in each other,
and we can discover ourselves called to participate
in healing and restoring the world.

If there is no community around the table,
if there is no exchange of ideas and affections or feelings,
if we wall ourselves off from each other; it cannot work.
But for you who live together as this congregation,
community of sharing each other’s lives is possible.
You probably know Jesus’ idea of church as a gathering,
no more complicated than a table and benches,
with bread and wine on the table.

Now about that pesky idea of God.
Paul says God is foolish according to our usual ways of thinking.
Many if not most of us think wealth and success and nice things are good.
The God of Jesus and Paul doesn’t care about them.
Jesus said that “It is harder for a rich man to get to heaven
than to go through the eye of a needle,”
because the riches don’t get us anywhere meaningful.

We think of God as strong and mighty, sort of like a Hercules or Goliath.
But Paul says the real God’s idea of strong is the cross.
So if Jesus reveals God,
then Christian faith is the oddest possible religion.

In the early years and early centuries of Christian faith,
the church settled a lot of conflict by creating a paradox,
saying that Jesus was both the son of God and yet fully human.
This is a way of saying “It is as if this man was son of God.”
So this shabby rabbi in a corner of the great Roman empire,
was crucified to show everyone that he was a nobody.
Somehow it backfired and his followers declared him son of God.
The story of Jesus turns everything upside down.
It tells us that we are not supposed to think of God in the sky
or as a power who takes care of us.
The resurrection is meant to tell us of how his teachings lived on,
and how Jesus lives on in our sharing of a communion meal.

God is spirit, and as such lives behind the cross and under the table.
It is "as if" God comes out from behind the cross and under the table
when we remember Jesus
and when we are taunted and haunted by his teachings.

God is that which lies behind the ideals and virtues,
and the unconditional aspirations of humanity
Like forgiveness, grace, and love. Like mercy, justice and peace.
Like communion.

These are not God; they are the cover of the book that hides or conceals God.
This is why we don’t see God. God isn’t really there.
We see the cover, the mask, or the clothing, but not God.
Moses saw a burning bush, but not God.
A burning bush was an image that amazed ancient Hebrews
and masks for the Greeks created personna in theater,
and later the idea of persons in the Godhead for early Greek Christians.
For us I think we can be more direct in describing the indirect:
The spirit is what occurs between and among us.
God is known by the existence and emergence
of forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.

Another image was sent to me on Facebook a few days ago.
Werner Heisenberg was the German scientist
who studied the smallest particles,
and found out that sometimes they exist, and sometimes not,
and sometimes they are in different places, maybe at the same time.
Sometimes they are particles and sometimes they are waves.
This he called “the uncertainty principle.”
It all depends on the place of the viewer.
The quote from him is
“The first gulp you take from study of the natural sciences
will make you an atheist,
 but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

The God Heisenberg spoke of was not the one he ever heard about
in his Lutheran church.
The God that is waiting for us at the bottom or the glass of our searching
is one we do not and cannot know
except by the relational ideals or values
that are most desirable and impossible to fully attain
Forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion
are all relational.
They are the greatest possibilities of what can happen between people.
I see them as existing between the particles Heisenberg studied, and between us,
sometimes there, sometimes not.
The unconditional values are relational because reality at its most fundamental level
is relational.
All we have of a God is these values that are the sometimes visible hints of
what we have called God.
We find them in the teachings and acts of Jesus
and other great sages of the world’s religions.

The parables of Jesus teach about mercy and forgiveness.
Simple sayings like “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies”
make us re-consider the possibilities for peace.
Stories of miracles are told to hint at God,
 so that the stories of Jesus raising Lazarus or someone’s daughter
reveal truths about love,
and the story of the risen Christ appearing on the road to Emmaus
reveals truth about communion with someone
who tells stories of deep meeting, and then disappears.
God is hiding in or behind these teachings and stories.

God is not so obvious and certain as we tend to think,
and certainly not an object or old man as the church has taught us to think.
So theologians have struggled to think of God as Ground of Being,
or the God above God, or “serendipitous creativity.” Wow.
That one says it is as if God is whatever is within the act of creativity,
happening when it happens, unpredictably and surprisingly.

So God is wise, but weak, kind of like a Mother.
So God is Good, like Jesus, but definitely a loser.
So God is Powerful not in might,
but in the power that we can experience only
in forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.
Any God there is worthy of the name is hiding.
We can say "God is here when you feel suddenly compelled to help a stranger,
forgive your spouse, support greater justice in the legal system,
witness to peace, or experience oneness with others in communion."
God is in and under and behind the cross and this table;
God is in and under and around the bread and the drink.
May God be in and under and behind and around and underneath and overarching us.
Amen.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Preaching Difficult Subjects, Like Racism

A sermon, including: What is jazz? and a story from NPR
Text: Matthew 2:13-23 [especially 2:16]

People often ask why is this terrible story in the Bible?
First, There is no evidence from any source
that Herod had children under two years old killed as is told in this story.
The whole story is a legend, told to make a point, or several.
First, this story answers the question, How did Jesus come to live in Nazareth?
Second, it is a reminder that the power of the Roman Empire,
the authorities, were threatened by Jesus and his teaching.
Preachers mostly avoid this text. Why don’t preachers preach about certain topics?
And why is it that there is so much about politics in the Bible
when we don’t want politics in our churches?
[When we read about Herod or Rome, or centurions, or the crucifixion, we are talking politics.]
This is a sermon with lots of questions.

The whole story is meant to make us think and feel about Jesus as Messiah.
One thing to notice is that Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape Herod.
They took Jesus to Egypt just as the Hebrews had gone to Egypt many years before.
It ties the story to particular passages in the prophets,
since the author of Matthew is always trying to show
that everything about Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.

The story of death surrounding Jesus’ birth
signifies that the child as an adult will be crucified.
Such tragedy so often seems to accompany happier events in life.
And the story holds meaning for us today because it is a reminder to us
of the great tragedy and suffering in life, much of it terrible and pointless.
This story is called “the slaughter of the innocents,”
and there is no shortage of stories in the news of the slaughter of innocents
        – in our cities, on our streets, and in family homes here in the US;
in towns and deserts of Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Mexico, Nigeria,
                        and too many other places.
In the US alone there have been a total of 17000 homicides this year so far.
(We are not the most violent nation.)
There have been more than 12000 deaths by guns so far this year.
We assume that most of the victims were innocent,
but then there was no trial for those who might be considered guilty.
The slaughter of the innocents is real and contemporary; not just in the past or elsewhere.

A few brave pastors did preach on this when it came up in the lectionary
2 years ago just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, when 20 children were killed.
It seemed more relevant then.

Of course preachers don’t want to talk about gun violence either.
The only times anyone walked out on a sermon I preached was when
I spoke about crazy people with guns when John Lennon was killed,
and again later when Reagan and Brady were wounded.
Why don’t preachers preach on certain topics?
You can imagine.

Fortunately, there is a lot less violent crime than 10, 20, 40 years ago.
And with DNA testing since 1989, 20 men on death row have been released.
They were exonerated from having anything to do with the crimes for which they were convicted.
A lot of innocents have been let out of prison.
300 prisoners have been released from prison after DNA found them not guilty.
They had served a total of 4,337 years in prison.
2/3 were African-American, but Blacks are only 13% of the population. Injustices abound.
How were these men convicted if they were in fact innocent?

One reason might be that prisons are full because people were and are afraid.
Studies have shown again and again, that if you watch local television news,
you will have an exaggerated sense of violence around you.
We fear things happening to our or our loved ones
that wouldn’t actually happen in a million years. [The murder rate is 2 in a million people each year.]
But there are many people in the news business and in politics who want us to be afraid.
Fear is a terrible thing.
The angels tell us Xmas eve, “Fear not.” Jesus grown up tells us “Don’t be afraid!”

One more thing preachers avoid. Preachers don’t want to preach about racism.
Reading American history I have discovered racism is the most prevalent,
foremost, biggest, most important, most destructive, most dehumanizing,
factor in American history and current American life.
Most of us white people don’t want to know this. We want to deny it.
We don’t want to believe that we are privileged,
that we receive favored treatment just because we are white.

I have been thinking a lot about racism because it was in the news
while I was reading books on the history of jazz.
I didn’t think it would be an education in race and racism, but it is.

A big question in music is What is jazz?
[Bernstein in his Young Peoples’ Concerts 60 years ago
        didn’t give a complete answer]
I have learned that jazz started on slave ships and in cotton fields down south.
In the 1700's these slaves found themselves ripped from their homes,
barely surviving terrible experiences on slave ships from Africa,
then living on plantations with strangers.
The slaves on a given plantation were from different tribes.
They all had different traditions, and had to learn from each other.
They had different traditions of singing and drumming,
and so they borrowed from each other.
As they adopted the Christian religion of their masters,
they mostly weren’t allowed to learn to read or to have drums,
so they sang and clapped and danced
to express their experience of God and Jesus and their hope for liberation.
They sang about their troubles and prayed in song.
Because their lives were so bad, they sang about their troubles
and they sang about being happy.
All that sad and happy music became the blues.
After slavery they moved into cities, like New Orleans,
where they picked up trumpets and clarinets
                and other instruments.
They took European music and added their bent notes,
         and flat 3rds and 7ths and 5ths and 6ths.
With the introduction of phonographs and recordings
they created music that drove White people crazy
                 after 1900.
When a few White folks started playing and singing it
similar to ways that the Blacks did,
                  White folks began to accept it.

Nearly every popular song for the past 100 years has
        been a rip off of some Black musician’s creativity.
What is jazz?
Jazz is the music of suffering people from Africa
which expresses pain and joy, given to all of us.
That’s what it is.
It is their lives – distilled, poured out, and drunk up.
None of us can live easily with too much suffering of the          innocents around us, so we need that music.

I end this sermon with a story,
         about Christmas and questions, among other things.
This story was told on the radio program, “This American Life.”
The show was called “Kid Logic.”  The story was told by a father. He said:
It all began at Christmas when my daughter was four. “What is Christmas?” she asked.
So I explained that this was the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
We bought a kid’s Bible and had readings from it at bedtime. She loved them.
She wanted to know all about Jesus. We read about his birth and his teachings.
She would ask constantly what a phrase meant.
She especially liked “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
And we would talk about these old words and what they meant.

One day we drove past a church with an enormous crucifix. “What’s that?” she asked.
I had never told her that part of the story.
So I told her, “That’s Jesus.  I haven’t told you the end of his story.”

I told her how he ran afoul of the Roman government,
how his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities of that time that they killed him;
that they came to conclude that he had to die. His message was too troublesome.

In mid January, her pre-school had Martin Luther King Day off.
So I knocked off work that day and thought we would play.
At breakfast I plopped the newspaper on the kitchen table.
The Arts section was on top with a huge drawing of Martin Luther King by a ten year old.
“Who’s this?” my daughter asked. “That’s Martin Luther King,” I replied,
“And he is why you are out of school today, in celebration of his birthday and his life.”
“So who was he?” she asked. “He was a preacher,” I answered.
“For Jesus?” she asked. “Yeah, he was,” I said.

Now it’s very hard to explain these things to a four year old.
It’s the first time they hear anything. You have to be careful how you phrase everything.

So I said, “He was a preacher and he had a message.” “What was it?” she asked.
“Well, he said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about this for a minute and said “That’s what Jesus said.”
“That’s right,” I said.  “It’s sort of like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’”
She thought for a minute and then asked, “Did they kill him, too?”


The seeds of Jesus’ life and teaching bear fruit, again and again.
May the result continue to be not only surprising but transformative of our lives.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The People Who Pass - My Gypsy Story

It is time to put this story in print. It is true. I have told it many times but never written it down. I am driven to do so because of Adam Gopnik’s excellent report of the difficulties in France for the Roma and for the French.

In the early 1980's I was pastor of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church on the southeastern side of Trenton, NJ. (It has since merged with a church in Yardville.) This was an urban residential area, not far from the state prison and in another direction not far from the old Roebling steel works and State House, and in another from Little Italy. (I can tell other tales about that, but Janet Evanovich has done well enough with it.)

One Sunday an esteemed Elder of the church asked me about an old Cadillac that had been in the church parking lot for more than a week. He asked me if I could find out who owned it, and let them know that they couldn’t use our lot. The next day as I drove in the parking lot I saw a neighbor I recognized. I asked him about the car. “Yes, I saw people parking the car one day. They went into that house across the street.” I crossed the street and knocked on the door.

A man who looked very much like my mental image of a 17th century pirate answered the door. There were many others crowding behind him whom I could not clearly see. I told him that we needed the parking lot for the people who came to church events and the daily senior lunch. He understood and said he would move it, which he did.

My part time secretary had an office in the back of the church. I had claimed a large room in the basement for my office. I hated being in a basement, but it had a huge old double sided oak desk, and room for an 8 foot conference table. I installed a large chalk board on one wall for planning and teaching purposes.

One day my secretary buzzed me on my phone. The phone only had one line but it was left over from more flush times, so it had a row of I think seven buttons across the bottom of the phone, including an intercom feature. One of the unused buttons I labeled “God,” which drew interesting responses from people of various ages who used it.

“There are some women here to see you,” she said nervously. I said I would come up and talk with them. There were six women. One was grandmotherly. Three were middle aged; one of whom spoke and acted as their leader. Two were high school aged teenagers. All wore multi-colored full-length full skirts or dresses, and a lot of jingling jewelry. All had fanned out down two hallways and were examining all the rooms, offices, and the worship area. I suspected that they were “casing the joint,” but maybe they were merely curious. On my arrival they gathered around me. The leader said “We are here to ask for your help. We have need for a priest.”

“I am not a priest,” I said. “We are not a Catholic Church, but Protestant, Presbyterian. There is a Catholic Church a block away.”

“No. They will have nothing to do with us, nor we with them. We stay away from each other since ancient times. We have our own Christian faith, and you are a Christian leader, so you can help us.” I invited them downstairs to talk further with them, partly to get them away from my frightened secretary.

In my office, the leader introduced the others. “This one here,” she said about one of the teen aged girls, “has been dishonored by a man. We thought he was one of us, but he has betrayed us and insulted us all. He promised to marry this girl, but now he has stolen money and fled. Our men think that he has fled to Chicago, so they have left to get him. They will bring him back to us, and here is what we want you to do.”

“We will pay you well, to come to our place at night. You must wear your robe and vestments. We will have the betrayer bound on the floor. You must pronounce a great curse on him.”

“No, I don’t do curses.” I said many times in as many ways as I could. I explained that I and my church did not believe in curses, but only in blessings. I ushered them out.

A few days later I went to the house where they had lived. They were gone. None of the neighbors had seen them leave or knew anything about them.

Such an encounter tends to reinforce one’s prejudices. My Mother had told me of growing up in Missouri, where gypsies camped out in the fields on the edge of town. People had told her to stay away from them because they kidnapped little children, to sell, or to raise as their own. Only a few years before my enounter, in southwestern Minnesota, there was a story of how a number of cars and vans had parked in a discount store lot, entered the store, cleaned it out, and quickly left. They were not found.

We might think that after some time, maybe several generations, these people would be assimilated into the larger culture. Maybe; maybe not. I have mixed feelings because I love Django Reinhardt.

Another time in Trenton, a family came into the church asking for cash to get them to New England where they were to work harvesting apples. We were close to I-95, and were targeted by many asking for help. They had run out of gas a block down the street, they said. I asked them to take me to their car. They did. There were several very poor looking children in the backseat with many McDonald’s food bags and wrappers. I checked the gas gauge on the 12 year old GM sedan, and confirmed that it was empty.

As I gave him $10 I realized that the gas gauge was broken, and that these people made their way around the country by telling stories to secure handouts. That was how they earned their living. I was paying for a well told story. OK. Until we can build a better society, this is what they and we have to do. Then I helped organize ministers in the area into a telephone tree for “knights of the road,” so that we wouldn’t get scammed more often than we wanted, and so we could agree on how best to help each individual and family.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spiritual Presence Sermon – Part II


Spirituality is Relational, NOT Supernatural!

We have the Spirit of God. The Spirit is within and among us. Paul says “You have the Spirit of God’s power and purpose and freedom.”
“You are free from the seductive values of corporate media commercialism and consumerism, of all the things that make for inequality and divide us and distract us from the values that Jesus was about.” That’s what Paul means by “flesh.”

In the Gospel of Thomas we read these words attributed to Jesus when his disciples asked him “When will the Father’s Imperial Rule come?” And Jesus said: “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘look, here!’ Or ‘Look there!’ Rather, the Father’s Imperial Rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

There was a teacher at my seminary who died a few years before I became a student there. His name was Joe Haroutunian. (Joe chaired the committee that wrote the Presbyterian Confession of ‘67.) All of my teachers told stories about him and they urged us to read his book, God with Us (still in print, Wipf & Stock).*

Joe wrote: “The Holy Spirit is not a ghostly presence or being. To speak of the Holy Spirit is not to describe a vertical relationship with God but a horizontal relationship with each other. The Holy Spirit is not so much in us – as among us. We know no love of God for us without our love for one another, no forgiveness of God without our forgiving one another, no faith or hope from God except as we have faith toward one another and hope in one another. We hear no good news from God or from his Son, except as we speak it one to another.”

Others go a step further than did Haroutunian: If we experience in Jesus that God became human, and if the Spirit of God is how we relate to each other, then God is not a being, God is the word we use for being itself, for the life energy and creative energy we know in our living. God is Spirit. God is love. And if we do not love, there is no God. That gives us a lot of power.

So think about this: What is the result of all our interacting, of all our loving each other? Fred Rogers – Mr. Rogers from his neighborhood said – “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” 

And that person gives a part of what you gave to them to others. So what we say and do and give carries the Spirit to others, and a huge web of thought and feeling catches on in the society and can become a dominant thought or feeling of the whole culture.

Mostly it doesn’t go that far, but we do speak of “the spirit of the age.” The predominant thoughts and feelings each year and decade and century shift and change and move in surprising and not so surprising ways. The spirit working between us and among us in all of the exchanges between us makes the culture in which we live.

When we have mystical experiences of the numinous or the sacred in small groups, in congregations, or in mobs, then we have a “transpersonal” experience of “God” or “Spirit.” Then we feel that something is happening or transpiring between us, sometimes between many individuals. Whether it is mystical or not, there is an unseen transaction between people that results in our coming to see things from the same viewpoint or seeing them in similar or perhaps new ways. The result is the transformation, growth, and/or dispersion of a worldview. Thus this “spirit” creates culture itself.

The totality of the culture of a nation, a workplace, or a congregation impacts what and how we think and feel, and what we think and feel then in turn influences the larger culture. It can be good or bad. That is why the culture is such a mixture of wonderful good fruit and awful weeds. This power of Spirit rising out of our interactions, has a dark side because you and I don’t always think and share what is good. Good and bad is in us and in the air around us, affects us, and we are mostly unaware of how we contribute to it.

I have a Lenten spiritual exercise for all of you this week. Think this week about every encounter you have with another person, beginning with your conversations after worship this morning.This includes face to face conversations, phone conversations, emails, and texts. Sit down maybe Wednesday and make a list of the people you have spoken with since worship today. What have you received from the other? What have you given to the other? What do you carry away from that encounter with the other? What effect does it have on you later? Does anyone come back to you days later and say – “You know that thing you said about families (or whatever)? I’ve been thinking about it and how it applies to me.”

That’s the Spirit at work. Spiritual Presence. We can’t see the Spirit but the spirit is within us and between us. The Spirit is working among us all the time and we are part of that work. It is not ghostly or supernatural. Spirituality is relational and transpersonal. What kind of spirit are we sharing and receiving? And the meaning of all this stuff that I have made all too complicated is simply: We should be nice to each other. Your spouse, child, parent, sibling, customers, store clerks, and all. We should be nice. It's catching.
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*No photo of Haroutunian is to be found online. H.R. Niebuhr, wrote on the dust jacket of Haroutunian's Wisdom and Folly in Contemporary Theology (1940): "His iconoclasm is deeply religious. His anti-religion is like that of the prophets and his protest against contemporary religion is like that of the early Protestants." This may explain why I like him.