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The Dead Zone is what they are called. Dead Zones are the reality of life for some in this country. Yet, long before BP Global’s latest bit of environmental negligence in the Gulf of Mexico there was a local tragedy that hunters and fisherman of every political stripe would talk about. South Louisiana had been loosing it’s marshland for decades and a rapidly increasing number. This deterioration of nature’s coastal cleaning apparatus and natural hurricane barrier left not only plants and wildlife vulnerable, but also human’s and the industries that kept sustenance in one of the poorest areas in the United States.
In the middle of this local catastrophe is the Dead Zone. This was an area where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans. Nothing can survive in this churning, toxic pool of water that is dumped into one of our country’s best fishing and shrimping areas. Whether it is from fertilizer or chemical dumping, it is killing everything in that area of the country.
This is pooled with environmental racism, geographically high cancer rates, chemical plant dumping and the remains of slash and burn farming methods. It is no wonder that these areas of our nation place at the bottom of categories that one would want to be on the top of nationally and on the bottom of lists that one wants to excel on.
Without political clout they often find themselves without the same type of professional activists that one would find on the East or West Coast. Yet, is it any less immoral when children from the Mississippi Delta find themself surrounded in a poisonous environmental mix than upper-middle class governmental worker’s children in the Palisades neighborhood? Yet, to our shame the Mississippi Delta is not the distance that we travel in our ignorance.
Can we be so calloused that we cannot see our moral interconnectedness with those across town never the less a thousand miles away? It is because we do not have to travel to the Delta to see the impact sheltering ourselves from deterioration can isolate us morally from our neighbor’s plight. Safe enclaves will not protect us from the divine’s piercing gaze into our responsibility for our brothers and sisters.
It is morally shortsighted to wall ourselves off into the organic isles of our local grocery and plop our recycling into bins with pleasant sighs. While these actions barely begin at healing a scarred planet they are found wanting in their individualistic and self-satisfying nature. Our planet will not be saved from its systematic destruction by individual acts of cleansing, but by the corporate act of forcing redemption upon our institutions letting down our plants, animals, neighbors and our planet.
We can no longer ignore the agonizing cry of our neighbors, nor the whirling seasonal changes that are beset upon us in this literally changing climate. Our politicians have shown to be cowardly in the face of this great challenge. Our religious leaders are afraid of being called too political by their safe or conservative members. The activists have become professionalized and so dispirited that they can only grasp for minor victories.
In the end it is about sin. From our holy text’s earliest admonitions is for us to take care of this planet in good stewardship. To do otherwise is to oppose God’s good purpose for this world. No matter how conservative one claims to be they can no longer hold that mantle if they hold to the rape of our planet by corporate interests over and above the conservation of land, water, health and long-term sustainability on the land. Liberals can no longer be taken seriously by their tepid mouthing of environmental policies. Their incrementalism has shown to be lacking in character.
It will take people whose radical faith impels them to stand up for all living creatures and our neighbor’s own survival. It will take something that is a much more rare commodity than a strategy for votes or dividends. It is courage. It is no less than redemption that we seek. We have a Savior that contends that his salvation makes all things new. That is what our choking, sludgy and arid planet needs from us. It is what our wheezing and asthmatic neighbor pleads with us. We need a radical confession to the belief that how we live at this point in our history is not good enough. It is immoral and as with any immoral behavior must be brought in repentant change to bring about redemption. Our hope is that we can co-exist in mutuality with our neighbors in peace and this does not mean non-engagement. Nor does it mean conflict avoidance. It means that we must humbly work toward salvation, not only for our souls, but for our planet as well.
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During my first pastorate in Louisiana there were a lot of things that I experienced that were culturally alien to me. There were Cajuns and Creoles cultures to navigate with their chicory in the coffee, boudin, traiteurs, lagniappe and an ancient French use of the language. It often felt like being in another country. Yet, it was a culture of celebration and one where they knew how to live out Laissez les bon temps roulez (Let the Good Times Roll). This is one part of that culture that keeps it brimming with life.
Now I was not born into a culture of celebration and raucous partying. I can still hear my elder’s furrowed brows at the decadence that each year’s newscast of Mardi Gras brought. To my fundamentalist forerunners this was truly proof of sin and decadence. With people flashing their private parts for plastic beads and drinking in the streets could the second coming of Christ be far behind?
So, unfortunately, I had carried these prejudices with me to Louisiana and was very quickly disabused of them. I was quickly made to understand that Mardi Gras was a deeply religious understanding of the liturgical cycle amongst the Catholic Cajuns and Creoles. They were having one last blow out before they would deny themselves for the 40 days until Easter. All the delicious king cake was a reminder of the King Jesus, the colors reminded us of the equality of all on a day where everyone was a King and the parades were the coming together of the community. They assured me that there were hundreds of Mardi Gras in Louisiana and that New Orleans was just one of many.
I can attest that the celebrations in Lafayette, Abbeville and New Iberia were much different from the one year we ventured to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I can also say that amongst my Cajun and Creole friends they represented something deeply religious.
As my time as a pastor in South Louisiana was coming to an end I had decided that my last Sunday would be Easter in that small church I had called home. As I preached my last sermon we prepared that Monday for the movers to come and pack our house. That is when I really learned how seriously this culture took this 40 days.
As the morning started the movers came with boxes and paper to wrap our breakable things. As we watched they started with a lot of energy in getting to their task. Still, as the day wore on we noticed something very fascinating. Ever couple of hours they would take a break and leaving our house for about a half an hour. As the day went on they became more vocal, jovial and celebratory in their packing. They also smelled of quite a bit of liquor. It was then that we realized that they were celebrating the first day that they were allowed to technically partake in liquor after the 40 days of denial.
When we reached our destination in Rhode Island it was clear that they knew the state they were in. Every box was overstuffed with wrapping, lampshades had been put in boxes with extra wrapping and salt shakers under two inches of paper wrap. It was the only move that I have had that had so little broken because of the extra wrapping done by our celebratory friends.
Even though I no longer drink, I do appreciate the sentiment that goes along with the idea of celebrating the accomplishment of Easter’s end to the 40 days. In many of our communities across the United States we will return to our jobs tomorrow like today was a quaint commemoration of something from the distant past. Something that we know is important to reflect upon, but not something that makes it past our hectic week’s schedule. That is too bad because that is not the history of this day in the church.
Easter was a day were everything changed for those who wished to join the church and in some early church community when those seeking membership into a church community exited the font on Easter morning it would be the first time that many would hear the Lord’s Prayer recited. They were not only resurrecting into a new life with Jesus, but a new life together with a family that they had previously never known they had relations.
Let us know that today is about things changing. There can no longer be the old person we were when we stand on the other side of the font. We have put on a new person. This new person is one that is radiant with Christ’s presence. We are being engrafted into a new family and we need not resist Christ’s pull any longer. Come and know new life, turn from sin and look into the face of love. That is something that we can celebrate from today until the day we take our final breath. Thanks be to God.
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“I thirst!” What an incredibly human, pathetic, tragic and commonplace phrase in this dramatic scene of death. A human system deprived of liquid, enduring extreme torture and embarrassingly hanging bloodily from a tree dehydrates. No real mystery here.
The greater shock is the truly human bodily functions Jesus has while hanging here slowly dying. “I thirst!” is the complaint that any of us would have in the case of extreme blood loss and excessive violence done to our body. This is not miraculous teaching, profound words or wise aphorisms. This is an ascent to Christ’s body breaking down and it’s system requiring a drink.
I might have been standing there taunting Jesus, saying,
“Where are your angels to come and rescue you now, to wet your lips with water from heaven!” “I thought you said you where living water? You said that anyone who drank from you would never thirst again and here you are thirsty? You sound like the rich ruler who when burning up in hell asks for just a drop of water to sate his tongue.”
Yet, resentment at not having a supernatural superhero to save the day puts us always in the category of those who miss the point of Jesus’ life and death. It is the fact that Jesus suffers, like we do that is almost unacceptable to our minds about the divine’s interjection into our world. We constantly look for the miraculous amongst the weeds and ignore the blades of grass struggling to live in their midst. There is something beautiful about the common, the regular and the human. It is so beautiful that God sent his son to come amongst it and be a part of it. He was not above it as Philippians points out. Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.
There is a goofy story that I love about a customs guard on the Canadian border. One day he was checking people through the border and a man came riding a bike with a box of sand attached on it’s back carrier. The custom officer thought something was fishy so he decided to do a search. Combing the box’s contents he realized that there was nothing there. So, he let the man past.
The next day the same man came through on a bike and a box of sand on the bike’s carrier. He felt the same suspicion and searched the box to no avail. This time he decided to have the bike x-rayed but this yielded no result either. So, he waved the man past the border again.
This happened for a month and each time the border guard attempted some new way to catch this man in the act of smuggling. Body searches, x-rays, taking the bike apart and re-assembling it. Yet, it was all to no avail, the custom officer could find no contraband and let him across the border.
Years later, after the custom officer had retired, he was eating breakfast in his favorite coffee shop and reading the newspaper when in walked the man on the bike.
The custom officer stopped him and said, “Hey, I was that custom officer a few years back and you would always cross the border on a bike with a box of sand on it’s carrier. I knew you were a smuggler, but could never catch you. I does not matter legally now, since I am retired, but I have always wondered what you were smuggling?”
With a wry smile the man from the bicycle answered, “Oh, that is simple, I was smuggling bikes. “
Where are you looking for the divine today? Is it the belief that Jesus is some sort of spiritual talisman that arranges everything in your life? Could it be that he is a Harry Potter type wizard or a conjurer of magic?
No, Christ thirsts, like we thirst. We thirst for real and spiritual water. Christ reveals to us that there is no length too great that God will not reach to bring the possibility of resurrection into our lives, even unto death. Humanity is important to God. That is why our lives are worth salvation and regeneration. Looking in faith toward the Christ is an act of belief in a man who bled, hurt and had thirsts just like we do. It is this man where we seek salvation.
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Marriage is a liturgical act that binds two people in a covenant with each other and celebrates their love, mercy, peace and hope that they intend to celebrate throughout their breathing hours with one another. I use the word liturgy because it is important for a ceremony like the one we are having this morning. Liturgy is the worship of the people. It is an agreement of the people in praise to covenant with each other and to make that agreement together with each other and with their God. Liturgy is a democratic act of the people and is the decision this morning that no matter what our faith we affirm that this love is acceptable in the sight of our God. Not only is it acceptable, but that when communities come together and affirm love, mercy, peace and hope it is extremely pleasing in the eyes of our God.
I strongly believe that your love for each other is only one part of the reason that we are celebrating today. Love gets you to the altar, but there are other transformative things that sustain a committed relationship through the long and treacherous terrain of existence. It is my firm belief that any sustaining relationship is about the completion of our humanity. It is the relationships that we have with each other that allow us to be the humans that we are intended to be in this world. Whether it is the lasting relationships that each of us has forged through our participation in occupy, the vital friendships that we nurture in life or the erotic love that we share with another human these are meant to make us whole as humans.
No less than Jesus himself states that his ministry on earth was to bring life and to give life in abundance. He did this by talking, touching and healing what was broken and making it whole. It is our hope that joining these two lives will intermingle passion, care and love, but also that it will bring about an ever increasing abundant life.
The greatest act of revolt in the face of an entrenched power maintaining control in a status quo through incrementalism, corruption, materialism, violence and fear is affirming that we gain our life through something greater than anything they could provide. That is what we celebrate today. There is no principality or power or ruler of darkness in this world that can shake our resolve to affirm the freedom that life brings. We will not be enticed by the shiny and mesmerizing talismans of power, money and greed. We come to celebrate life! We come to celebrate love! We come to celebrate Freedom!
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With stunning hypocrisy the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) censured Rev. Janie Spahr for marrying same sex couples in a state where those marriages are legal. This has a chilling effect on people of conscience and will encourage the most radical conservative elements to again use our church courts to persecute ministers for using spiritual wisdom over legalism or fundamentalism.
The Presbyterian Church finds itself in the bipolar theological stance of accepting gay and lesbian elders and ministers in our community of faiths, but denying them access to one of our essential liturgical acts. Many states and the District of Columbia affirm the basic civil right for people of same gender to covenant with each other in an act of fidelity. Yet, the church for years has been more than willing to cede its moral authority on this issue to the state, when in truth no state should usurp our rights as religious bodies to define our own liturgical acts. The actions by the PJC has a chilling effect, not only on ministers who prayerfully follow their conscience, but throws into question the legal marriages in which those clergy preform. Why would a church want to throw into chaos loving families when most of them have waited so long for their basic civil rights as citizens?
This is the strange nature of our church today: finding ourselves tone deaf to the movement of the Spirit in new generations. Polity can become idolatry. Polity was made for humans and not humans for polity. It is a sad state when a reformed church sidles itself with bureaucracy and a rote non-questioning status quo over a new generation of leadership in the church. The sociology is not on the side of liberals, conservatives or moderates who only want to watch with their walkers in hand as incrementalism turns the church into a new wing of the Smithsonian.
For those who truly care about the future of a “Reforming” church come along with those of us holding the Bible in one hand and listening to the Spirit’s movement. For those with ears let them hear, hear that though you fight these Baby Boomer “cultural” issues you are losing the larger prize. These may continue to be the issues as our Churches, Presbyteries and General Assemblies age out. We will continue to bemusedly ask the everlasting question, “Where are the next generation of leaders?” Hopefully, not too late we will realize that they are worried about the poor, student loan debts, fraudulent foreclosures, predatory lending, the environment, unemployment and have already made peace with these issues of sex that we find so intriguing.
Long live the Presbyterian Church that I love. Long live the church that might convict me for celebrating love.
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My God, My God
Why have we forsaken you?
When your goodness surrounds us,
And your children could be our hedge
against the despair and depression
we feel in the world around us.
What have we left them here
but distraction and waste?
Can these plastic bottles speak,
do they give them life?
Will the illusions we create
fade away and leave them empty?
Looking to the stars
we peer beyond ourselves,
knowing that our answers
lie far beyond us.
There is more to be seen
than with the naked eye.
When we rest in wonder
sanctify our thoughts,
glorify the emptiness in time.
We can only do this
by our pleasure in you.
This chest that beats out
the life we consume
is not the extent of our full worth
and there is much more
to life than counting
each beat of finite time.
To all that we abandon
our memories trouble us.
They have been left orphans
to our weakness and pride.
Our repentance turns us
to remembrance of false idols
created to distract us
from our responsibilities.
Help us to turn from despair
and it’s paralyzing grip.
That we might create
magnificent monuments to your will.
We have lost too much
to gain so little.
Our grasp toward things
does not replace
our family, neighbor or community.
We have waited too long
to put our hand to on the plow,
waited for an invitation
to create the community
where dignity among equals reigns.
Out of the sadness of lost relations
we hope to forge laughter
and a sense of care.
Out of our anger
make the calm contentment of change.
If we are to have righteous indignation
point it toward injustice
and the salvation of the starving.
When we isolate ourselves
from each other reveal amongst us
the necessity of each human
so that we might find you in plain sight.
Every child is our ward,
every mother is our mother,
every father is our father,
and every grandparent our elder.
When they slide into despair
we must feel its effect to our bones
and their cries are mingled
amongst our hearty praise.
We covenant with you
and with our neighbor:
A rejection of power
over and above the powerless,
a rejection of capital
over and above our common wealth,
a rejection of possessions
over and above relationship,
a rejection of productivity
over and above wisdom,
a rejection of technology
over and against mutuality,
a rejection of punishment
over and above spiritual discipline,
a rejection of negating anyone’s humanity
in the name of country, individual pride or religious affiliation,
and a rejection of a society
that defines humanity solely on race, class, identity or status
over and above their acceptance by the divine.
May our friends see hope through us,
May our enemies find the peace we desire,
May our neighborhoods find justice and mercy,
May our nation uphold the dignity of all living creatures.
In your holy name
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I have been reflecting for the past couple of days on Mystery. It is such an important concept to my spirituality and here is a rough draft on some of my thoughts on it.
To perceive mystery
is the great challenge
it can render the temple
between sanity and beyond
tearing fissures across
the sentient world
with all its illusions
being hurled into the great unknown.
We only half-heartedly believe
all we see
to be correct reflections
from retina to brain.
We know distortions
have already been born
before we open our eyes
and awaken from slumber
to create magical realities
from information’s bits and scraps.
Still mystery’s presence
is it impenetrability,
its absolute infinite distance
between rational reception
and an embedded claim
of a creator.
This reality cannot
be tactile, in our grasp
but sensually frightening,
an emotional quandary
calling into question
all sanity and knowledge.
Mystery again claims
no reality but beyond,
it shakes each being
to yearn and wonder
in contemplation of that
which is incomplete.
It leaves a desperate and satisfying
yearning, an ache, hope.
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Recession pulling back,
tidal in retreat
knows nothing of feelings
nor blood in the vein.
It can only ebb
out of sight,
reminding us of a spot
where we once sighted
the wholly divine.
The more we return
and wonder, squinting
far into the past,
the more we anticipate
an uneasy return.
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“No offense pastor, but Christmas is a secular holiday! It is all about consumption!” These were the words that I heard last week when I was talking to a Jewish friend about Fox news obsession with the War against Christmas. I tried to issue a defense, but it is increasingly hard in a materialistic society. What even makes it harder is when people who claim to follow Christ buy into the culture’s economic systems and proclaim them divine.
In the 19th century Dr. Robert Browning made the assertion, “Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus Christ.” This caused a stir and was used quite liberally in missionaries opening trade routes in other countries. Many of us have spent a good part of the 20th century repudiating God’s role in any country’s political or economic domination.
Last week Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council’s assertion that Jesus was some sort of Free Market Capitalist must be rejected stringently when accompanied by even an elementary reading of our Holy Texts. To call Tony a fool would be giving him the benefit of the doubt. He is however siding himself with those corrupt people that Isaiah and later Jesus would come to rail against during the beginning of his ministry.
It would be hard to imagine the Jesus who was taught by his mother Mary extolling the brilliance of obtaining wealth through mortgage backed securities. All we need to do is listen to this young woman’s song, while Jesus was in her womb, to get an insight into his upbringing.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed;
For the mighty one has done great things to me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the holy;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed forever.
Aside from an outspoken mother with radical tendencies toward the poor, it is almost impossible to ignore that the Isaiah text that is cleverly inserted during this time of advent equates salvation with God’s poor. Often in the holy texts our salvation is intertwined with those who are poorest in our society. For those who wish to ignore these admonitions to assuage their guilt about having material wealth will be found wanting on the judgment day. It is well past time in an economic catastrophe caused by greed, fraud and corruption to call out our societal immorality. Two unpaid wars and unlimited borrowing have left us all wondering the future.
As Martin Luther King Jr. aptly points out all people are connected by an inescapable web of mutuality. This means more than that ignoring the poor is wrong, it tells us that the poor are integral to our own salvations as humans through Jesus Christ.
Last week I was asked by someone, “How do you really have anything to do with the poor?” I paused for perhaps the first time in my ministry and life. Have no doubt I can answer the question, but at this point in my life it comes a lot less readily.
Isaiah is the proclamation of hope to those who society ignores. It is the proclamation of salvation and sustenance for those who are without. It is the same message that is echoed by a poor 16-year old single mother. It is also the message that Jesus will proclaim at the beginning of his ministry on earth.
To ignore the marginalized is to ignore the main path to our own salvation. There is no salvation in our community unless the poor are seen as equals and their needs are as important as every one of ours. This is the hope in Advent. It is the hope that a little child will turn all of society upside down and turn over our tables so that we might see the world as it truly is and how it truly could be.
I am happy to say that you will not find a free market Jesus laying in a manger because his parents were too poor for a bed. You will find one who transcends all of our systems and breaks them so that more and more of us will find salvation.