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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.
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Nostalgia is a powerful force in our society. We have marketers who want to recreate experiences in our lives. If it not for nostalgia how would anyone explain the Rolling Stones’ touring success late into their geriatric career? For every baby boomer who sings, “I hope I die before I get old” while reading the risks of taking that next Viagra pill there is a cash register ringing. While nostalgia may sell Elton John’s 14th Greatest Hits album, but it is certainly not a good strategy for the church.
In the Presbytery that I am currently residing we are skirting perilously close to bankruptcy. It has reached the point where we no longer can use any money for mission, development or any new ministries in the future. Some of us have wondered if default happens how that will effect individual congregations? We are assured in public that nothing negative will happen to individual congregations. Yet, with our leadership’s lack of transparency and obfuscations on the facts in the past there is a definite credibility gap.
So, how did a powerful and influential Presbytery in the PC (USA) find itself in this position? The main problem of our financial problems is encapsulated in a disaster called Meadowkirk.
Meadowkirk is a state of the art camp built way out in the country when the presbytery’s inside the beltway camp, Glenkirk, was sold. After it was completed the Presbytery found itself owning the debt on a camp far exceeding its value by over $10 million. Unchecked cost overruns, shady banking practices, naïve fiduciary stewardship, an economic downturn, incompetent administrators, lack of financial transparency, lack of presbytery oversight, loans signed without presbytery votes, overly optimistic reservation goals, the national decline in church camps and a complete lack of any business plan all contributed to an over $20,000,000 debacle.
Yet, there is one overlooked reason a group as smart and filled with powerful people would make such an unwise investment. It was nostalgia. Although smart people believed that leaders had the best plan together for a successful camp it turned out that there was no real plan, but a lot of false faith. Many of the clergy who opposed this boondoggle recount that some of the counter arguments they received on the floor of presbytery for this camp amounted to little more than tearful remembrances by elder and minister’s of their own formative days at camp.
“What about the children?” can often be more of a rallying cry for the validity of our memories than anything to do with the well being of our children. This is a tough lesson for a proud presbytery. It is the power of our emotional memories over having the essentials to pay for the ministries that will touch our children’s futures. It is a sad commentary on looking back instead of forward and this is just one of the church’s grossest examples. It happens all the time in denominations, judicatories and individual congregations. It is time for us to change this and look toward the ministries that bring Jesus to new generations and not remind us of when we met Jesus so long ago. Maybe in doing so we will meet Jesus again.
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Wrath vs. restraint is the topic today and we find our news unfortunately littered with examples for us to observe this week. It is one thing to say that the short fuse of anger is best extinguished and restraint is the better form of valor, but when in the midst of the hurricane it is never as easy to muzzle ourselves as we would like. Anger holds us hostage to the seething and uncontrolled actions of our deepest impulses, while restraint allows us the gift of time between action and reaction. Easier said than done.
Last week there were many discussions on what should have been done by Joe Paterno. There is no doubt that his tepid reaction to a child’s rape in his locker room was not far enough, but what shocked me was the reaction that students took when the trustees made the only sane decision in firing Paterno. They took to the streets. This would have been fine, but celebratory actions soon turned to mob interaction with rage burning in smashed windows and burning cars. How soon the Penn State creed “Success with Honor” had been tarnished and sullied.
It is a clear warning of how thin the line is between wrath and restraint. We all think that we have hermetically sealed ourselves away from it and then something so shocking, so tragic, so inexplicable comes into our view and we know there is something wrong.
For over a decade now we have desensitized ourselves to the violence that has been wrought in our names. Iraq and Afghanistan are far away and since many of those fighting in our names are from rural, red states we may feel it was an unjust war, but our protests are muted by endless 24 hour news cycles that have numbed us to more pressing issues at home.
In our political debate about budgets we seem to excise an essential element into our national debate about austerity vs. increased revenue. It is that a huge percentage of debt we have incurred is not because of wrath. It is the two wars that have increased the toll on our public. Yet, in debate after debate it is Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, social programs and the like that are targeted now by both parties as part of the essential nature of the problem. Yet, in reality those will be the same programs needed by the damaged soldiers coming back from wars that increased this debt in the first place. Some may say I am getting too political here, but I think this is just basic truth and morality.
We pay lip service to our patriotism on days like Veterans Day, but isn’t it in all reality more celebrated because it is a three-day weekend than that anyone might have come back broken in our many military actions. We have quite a few in our congregation and sadly over time even they are fading off with death.
As many of those Vets have heard my harangue I will subject it to you on this day we talk against wrath and restraint. If we choose the path of wrath, then our society must take responsibility for those who come back broken and shattered from their experiences in war. We can no longer be a society that treats these Vets with impatience or indifference at the merest inclination that their symptoms are too bothersome for us to face.
Let us be clear, War causes damage. It causes death and injury on the battlefield and its repercussions will be felt long after the final bullet has flown on the society who assented to the use of force. Abuse, suicide, homelessness, chronic pain, lack of employment, chemical dependency, psychological issues, divorce and prosthetic limbs are what we see returning from the battle field.
Many decried how the soldiers returning from Vietnam were treated when they returned, but the continued tragedy was society’s almost complete abdication of their long-term mental, physical and social health. As someone who has worked with a lot of homeless programs we know the sources of some of our most intransigent homeless, it is war. To me it is a sin to spend trillions on wars and far less care on Vets when they come home.
This is why we must not be swayed by emotions when our leaders tell us that the next war is advantageous for us. We now will have many maimed and scarred individuals who will be witnesses to wrath’s cruel after effects. This is why it is so important for us to look with mercy upon those who have seen things that we hope to never, and have experienced violence in ways that we can only dream.
I think this is why my attention this week has been so radically focused on the line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is a radical notion that is often missed upon a very shallow reading. Yet, every time we recite that prayer we make an invocation to the divine that we wish to be judged by the way we judge others. If we knew that our judgment would be as harshly meted out upon us as the judgment we have of others then we might more often choose restraint over wrath.
Well for all of us praying this prayer today we are under that covenant with God. We are begging for God to not judge us harsher than we intend to judge our fellow humans.
It is also not all about war but how we treat those whom are broken and hurting in this world. If we do not show them mercy, then how can we expect mercy? Next time we pass someone who is a vet on the street I hope it will impel us to do more in their advocacy. We will look on compassion toward those who have born an unbelievable burden on our behalf. They need our care and concern and mercy. We cannot ignore our responsibility in the face of wrath done in our name. We will spend a generation forgiving and asking others for our forgiveness. Hopefully, in the future this will give us even more cause for restraint in the face of emotional calls for wrath. Yet, when wrath comes, we must be people of mercy and look toward the long view of care and concern for healing our broken parts of society.
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I know that it is Stewardship Sunday and there is always a hesitancy to be here to listen to my sermon on such Sundays. We have, in the past had historic low attendance Sundays. There have even been two such Sundays where the Stewardship chair did not attend. Set your minds at ease if you thought I was going to talk exclusively about money this morning. Fortunately, I had already made sure to preach on the deadly sin of Greed well before this Sunday in hopes of not being accused of manipulation.
Yet, in a strange way today’s sin and virtue seem eerily more important to the idea of stewardship than greed could ever afford. If one believes what every stewardship chair in this church has communicated since I have been the pastor then sloth is a troubling sin in the context being a steward of our whole lives in relationship to the community of faith.
In our culture work and productivity have been mingled in an unholy marriage between the market forces and our divine texts. While on one hand we have almost exclusively bound our identities within the confines of the employment that we do, we in turn, look at those inside our society who are less fortunate as unproductive humans because they lack socio-economic validity within our market context. It is time for us to radically question coopting of these two very divergent ideas. Markets want to maximize profits in the gain for a relatively few percentage of their shareholders and even a smaller percentage of aggregated wealth. No matter what your thinking on work ethic it is Biblically untrue to believe that they should hold the consolidation of wealth and power in individuals as moral.
We are reminded by the author Thomas Spidlik in his speaking on the origins of the earliest church that:
Their way of life was scandalous. Individualism was banned; their life was communal; private property, in many cases, disappeared; they proclaimed the News of Salvation in joyful simplicity of witness, rejoicing in the persecutions they underwent for the sake of Jesus, and forgiving their enemies.
We may have to come to the startling conclusion that the amount of accumulated wealth or worldly position we have stored has very little to do with our spiritual security. They may however be a determining factor in hindering our spiritual growth. It is interesting that in the middle ages such astute spiritual observers like Jacopone da Todi associated the sin of sloth with wealth and not poverty. In one of his wonderful Italian poems he relates:
Looking for a remedy, Sloth convinces the soul
That a bit more wealth is all that is needed
To restore her flagging courage.
Sloth in this meaning as vice has little to do with the productivity of one’s economic development and more to do with the atrophy of a person’s spiritual being. One can have much worldly possession and lose their spiritual souls. As Jesus reminds us it isn’t important how great the storehouse of treasure is here on earth, it is what is being stored beyond this physical plane that matters.
So where do we turn if our identity is not to be found inside the occupations that we inhabit or that sloth is not the definition of one’s market share in the productivity of economic growth? It is found in the holy texts between the invocation to “Work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and to “not grow weary in well doing.”
Hopefully, you know me as a pastor well enough to not spiritualize things to too great of a degree. Yet, I am compelled by the Biblical invocations to transform our secular definitions of work into something much more divine. I must agree with the theologian David Jensen when he explains that,
…meaningful human work responds to the divine work that pulses at the heart of the universe. Though God’s work is not dependent upon ours, when our labors respond to divine work, we also contribute to the life of the world.
So, if we are to turn away from the model of productivity toward something much more creative and new it must be something that transforms our notions of ourselves. It must be something that transforms individual wealth into a commonwealth. This transformation must force us to relook at our neighbor’s worth as greater than the sum of their employment. It must cause us to look at stewardship in terms of a growing and abiding faith in our God as opposed to duties. Most of all it must transform our care of ourselves and neighbors in love.
It is life that we want, abundant, eternal and transformative life. It is only in turning away from atrophying sloth and toward a greater faith that we will all achieve that sort of dynamic life inside our community. It is more dependence upon God and less upon yourself required to combat spiritual sloth. For as the modern mystic Jacques Phillippe has adeptly reminded us, “…Jesus does not want to forbid us to do whatever is necessary to earn our food, to clothe ourselves and to provide for all our needs. But he wants to deliver us from the worry that gnaws away at us and causes us to lose our peace.”
It is our great challenge to turn our dependence upon things of this world and move together toward dependence upon the almighty. It is the dependence that no economic system, political party or even religious movement can hold. It is free and freeing because our God is free to save us from all our sins and transform them into eternal praises. Thanks be to God.
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I now know that God shows no partiality. Peter
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. James
In all my years of being in the church one of the most depressing notions is listening to Nominating committees work through their “lists” of people who are deemed worthy of serving the church. I overheard once (not at my church) a leader of a Presbyterian church talking to another elder and saying, “We need to get her on board, she is one of us.” By “one of us” I found out later that the elder meant that this woman was a high paid lawyer and well respected in the community. When I survey the fire fighters, waitresses, students, High school dropouts, Wal Mart employees, dish washers and grocery stockers I have too often felt that many in the church do not believe the they are “one of us.”
No matter what the democratic structures of our churches there is an appalling hierarchy towards education, power and economic success. All that needs to be seen is the giddy glee in a nominating committee when a prominent member of the community agrees to a leadership role. It is not the local church alone that bears this false witness, but seminary boards, Foundations, non-profit boards and judicatories. We seem to have followed the advice of every self-help book in the Business section of our local Barnes and Noble against the clear invocations of our holy texts.
I would challenge the church as our sociology and economy transforms to take a second look at this nepotism and favoritism. Our churches claim to be a unity in Christ. So, why should there be any cultural hierarchies imposed upon the church by principalities and powers. This is not to say that some of those same people in favorite positions of society are unable to fulfill the spiritual decision making of the church proper. It just implies that their is not an inherent spiritual station that they possess because of success, economic opportunity or knowledge. Faith is the substance of things not seen but hoped for. This can be possessed by a janitor as well as a CEO. May we all live into the promise of equality before God that is our inheritance.