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.
*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.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spiritual Presence - Sermon Part I

Twelve years ago I met a religion professor who was about my age. (Paul Allen Laughlin, author of Remedial Christianity and Getting Oriented) He had been ordained a Methodist minister after graduating from Emory in Atlanta. I had been ordained Presbyterian after graduating from McCormick in Chicago.

He asked me “What 2 important things didn’t we learn in seminary?” (I think this was while he was playing jazz piano in a bar in Santa Rosa CA.) “I don’t know,” I responded, “I would have to think about it.”
“The first one is World religions,” he said. “Everyone needs to know about them in today’s world. They didn’t seem so important 30 years ago, but after 9/11 we all see how important they are.
“The second one is the common element in every religion, but we didn’t study it: Spirit. Spirit is the lowest common denominator of all religion.”

He was right. After leaving seminary in the early ‘70's the world began changing more rapidly. It became smaller. We learned more about other peoples and other religions. People everyone seemed to be talking about Spirituality.

In Lent people have always had special services and adopted special practices, in order to meditate on the death of Jesus. In doing this we are hoping for a religious or “spiritual” experience; a direct experience of God. That’s the big change in the past 40 years. People don’t want to hear about faith; they want to experience it for themselves.

At a church on Long Island I brought a large canvas labyrinth into the church fellowship hall. Several people who walked it in silence, for the first time, broke into tears, it evoked such strong feelings in them.

I have been trying to recall how I came to faith and what it was like in those early years. I have been thinking of the intense, extended experience of Spiritual Presence I had during the 4 years I lived in Chicago and attended seminary. I can remember the excitement I felt then, and the enthusiasm that was in all of us in the church we belonged to on the near north side of Chicago in 1968 until 1972. I was all excited about my new Christian faith and the books I was reading in seminary. I had a strong feeling of life and freedom and creativity, of energy, and the life force. (I was going through a lot of changes: Going to seminary was a new direction for my life, moving to Chicago was a big change for an Iowa boy, I was facing prison for refusing induction to the Army, and in 1970 our first daughter was born.) I thought of all this excitement as the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of being caught up and surrounded by the power of God. I remember an outdoor festival our church sponsored on the seminary field, on Pentecost Sunday, promoting the freedom and joy of the Spirit.

This feeling of the Spirit is an awareness that God is with us, but not judging us. It is a sense of being open to others and to the future, it is a sense of an inclusive and caring God, and belonging to a community led by the Spirit. It is feelings of awe and wonder at the whole of the universe and in the depths of our personal being. The whole world looked different to me, infused by this great light and energy.

That church at that time was an amazing fellowship and community of people. We were a people with a sense of communal belonging. We cared for each other and each other’s children. We studied together. We cleared out the area at the front of the church so that all of us [as many as 100 or more] could have communion together around the table. We ate together frequently, at church and in our homes in small groups. We went to movies together and discussed them afterward. We were involved in the anti-war movement together. We met with Black neighborhood groups in attempts at racial reconciliation. We raised money for good causes to help others in need. We were a community bound together in following the spirit of Jesus.

We were filled with ideas about things to do and changes to make so that we could be both faithful and relevant. Church life became so intense – too intense. We were making so many changes – you couldn't be sure that anything that happened on a Sunday morning would be familiar at all – that our Session [church council] declared a moratorium on all meetings for six months just to cool things down!

Eventually, people moved away and new people joined. I was ordained in that church and left to be pastor of a small town church where life was very different. I was disappointed to discover that most churches were not like the one I had known in Chicago. I was disappointed to learn how hard and slow it is to bring change to a church. Now I think I better understand what happened in Chicago and what didn’t happen elsewhere.

I think I know now what makes that kind of church, a community of the Spirit, a community of spiritual presence that Paul Tillich wrote about, or the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King spoke of – I think I know how it comes into being.

[to be continued]

What Is the Spirit of Christ?

I have been fascinated by Romans 8:9 for 45 years, so I chose this as my text for March 16, 2014. I had written a paper in seminary (long gone) on “spirit” in the Christian canon. I focused then on Romans 8, because it seemed to me that we used “Holy Spirit” in the same way we speak of the human spirit when we speak of the spirit of God or of Christ. This was no doubt my basic humanistic nature at work. All of this was before the charismatic movement and the great adoption of “spirituality” into the American churches.

I decided I liked the Jesus Seminar’s Scholar’s version, but not entirely (it is a bit clunky), so I translated parts of it my way, with thanks to the textual analysis of The Authentic Letters of Paul, by Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, and Schmidt. I thought of using the LOLCatBible, but it is too hard to read aloud and understand. Great truths lie within, however.

Paul is also very difficult to understand. He is both an ancient writer and perhaps the first modern one. I see him essentially creating Christianity by spinning out one idea after another in order to explain his own spiritual experiences of “the Christ,” and to find meaning in his life. He didn’t always mean what we think he meant. His referents were other than ours. The deeper problem perhaps is that Protestants today can barely read Paul except through the lens of Luther’s reading and projection of it into all the churches of the Reformation. This has sent us down many rabbit trails. Here we go:

1 Those who are in solidarity with the anointed Jesus are no longer under a sentence of death.
2 For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by the seductive values of this world and death.
3 God did what the law of Moses – weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence – was incapable of doing: God sent Someone with God’s own character, but who was a participant like us in an earthly life with all its seductive corrupt values.
God sent such a One to condemn that corrupting power, and those corrupting values of our worldly life.
4 This fulfilled in us the just requirement of the Mosaic law so that we
live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to the purposes and power of God’s Spirit.

8 It is not possible for those who are pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement to please God.
9 You are not pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement but with God’s spirit of power and purpose.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit that was in the Anointed One does not belong to him....
14 All who are led by the spirit of God are the children of God.

You will notice that “flesh” here is not about our bodies, or sexuality, or personal failures. Flesh is about our human nature that drives us to get a leg up on our neighbors and make profits from them. It is the root of all that consumerism, warfare, inequality, and other nasty things that are common to this worldly life. Sin is our failure to live up to God’s values, or even our own ideals.

[Sermon to follow; to be continued]