Of Bullies and Saviors
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
December 29, 2013
I have to confess. I was a fan of Duck Dynasty. I watched it and found it funny. To me, it’s sort of a cross between The Beverly Hillbillies and The Three Stooges. I also saw Willie as something of a Jacob trying to run a major business with the rest of the family being a bunch of Esaus. And, yes, I liked the family coming together and having grace before the meal. I appreciated the fact that they were obviously people of faith but did not use the show as a harsh bully pulpit in reference to people they would disagree.
I know that Phil Robertson wanted the show to be more overtly religious. A&E was being cautious. It seemed that they believed that for the show to maintain its appeal to a wide span of people, people like me, for example, they had to keep it toned down. Mr. Robertson said a lot of harsh things about A&E but he remained with the show. Between the Robertson family and A&E this was a $500,000,000.00 dollar adventure. Mr. Robertson, is struck me, enjoyed the money and so he remained on the show. I’m fine with that.
I don’t know enough about Phil Robertson to say what kind of a person he is. He is something of a curmudgeon on the show but it’s a show and he’s playing a character that may or may not be based very much in reality. In reference to his wife, Kay, on the show, he makes a lot of references to getting some good loving from her and that she’s a good cook. In real life they’ve had some trials and tribulations but are together and appear to be strong in their commitment to one another.
There was a lot to like, for me, about Duck Dynasty. While my world is very different from their world, they seemed to be a very decent group of people who loved each other, had a sense of humor, and were a people of great faith. Best of all, in a day and age when so many people have demonstrated a type of mean spirited with their faith, they were not.
People who know Phi Robertson well say he’s not a bigot and he is very honest when he says he really doesn’t judge people and that he loves everyone. Perhaps this is so. Mr. Robertson may, in fact, be a wonderful man.
His recent interview offended me as a Christian.
There were a bunch of people who began to talk about his 1st Amendment right. Please.
The 1st Amendment to the Constitution reads thus:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
For this to have been an issue, Congress would have had to create a law prohibiting the statements that Phil Robertson made and the President would have had to sign the bill. The law would then be appealed and the Supreme Court would have to uphold the law. If you believe that either branch of the Congress would pass this, the President would sign it, and the Supreme Court would uphold it, you are sadly and tragically mistaken. Phil Robertson was free to say what he said without worry of arrest.
Was he free to say it in terms of being a character on an A&E show? Television networks do have a right to oust people who say offensive things. Martin Bashir stated something dreadfully offensive about Sarah Palin and lost his job for it. Did he have a right to say what he said? Legally, yes. Professionally, what he said was repulsive and unprofessional and losing his job was a natural consequence of what he said. I am not a fan of Sarah Palin but what he said was beyond offensive and he paid the price for it.
What Phil Robertson said was legal. A&E’s response was legal. They chose to suspend him for, it seems, two hours or so. There was $500,000,000.00 on the table between the Robertson family and A&E. With that much money on the table it should surprise no one that a speedy resolution was sure to follow. A&E reinstated him. The Robertson family is going to stay. A& E is willing to overlook statements; the Robertson family is willing to overlook the A&E reaction. The decisions were made and the resolution was created because of love. They all love the almighty dollar enough to overlook everything.
Many people in Christianity have stepped forward to defend Phil Robertson for defending traditional Christian values. I am offended because he did not do so.
Here are a couple of things he said:
"It seems like, to me, a vagina -- as a man -- would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying?"
Human sexuality is complex. Sexual orientation is complex. People making lifelong commitments to one another is complex. Boiling everything down, as a man, to the choice of where one wants to place one’s self is not the central point of life and relationships and even of sexuality.
He is basing his statement, in part, based on a premise that sexual orientation is not an orientation but a preference. Whenever I hear people use the phrase ‘sexual preference’ in lieu of sexual orientation, I know we are having a problem. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘gay lifestyle,’ I know we are having a problem. People do not choose sexual orientation any more than they choose their own gender or eye color.
Secondly, Robertson said this:
"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
Mr. Robertson is giving, what appears to be a glancing, personal, paraphrase of a passage in 1 Corinthians 6. His reference is wildly out of context and even more wildly a personal paraphrase.
Again, he shows a remarkable indifference to sexual orientation and goes further. He seems to be indicating that homosexual behavior can lead to things such as bestiality. A consensual sexual relationship between two adults who are loving and have made a lifetime commitment to one another is equated to bestiality. It’s okay because he’s merely stating traditional Christian values. Seriously? We have to defend him because he’s a good Christian and takes the Bible as inspired. Seriously? It’s Biblical and if you don’t believe this you are picking and choosing what you believe. Seriously?
Funny thing is that I see a lot of churches that say other churches pick and choose, pick and choose. I’ll give a very simple example. Many churches deny women the right to preach because it is Biblical and they are not going to deny the Bible. (They actually DO deny the Bible because the first Christian message was that Jesus had been raised from the dead and this message was preached by, ahem, women….)
But going back to my point. Many churches do not allow women to preach because it says women are not supposed to preach in the writings of St. Paul. I’ve sat in churches where this is so and I’ve sat next to women listening to sermons and bowing their heads in prayer and their heads were uncovered. Most churches ignore that one, even the churches that choose to not allow women to preach.
So, taking Paul out of context, paraphrasing him, and stating this is traditional Christian doctrine is a good thing?
Here is why I’m offended by Phil Robertson’s comments. People are taking him seriously. People, Christians, are defending him saying he is promoting traditional Christian values. In doing so, we are turning our back on people and, frankly, spitting on them and treating them like they are children of a lesser deity.
Phil Robertson equated the loving relationship two gay people have with one another to bestiality. He delved into theological ‘truth’ by talking about how much more vaginas have to offer than anuses and assured us all this is what traditional Christianity is.
He demeaned people because of their sexual orientation. I know straight people, gay people, and bisexual people. They are friends who I love. They Worship God with me. They share blood with me. Their lives and my life is intertwined and I am greatly blessed by them. It is not because they are gay. It is not in spite of the fact they are gay. They are people I love. Period. End of story. He demeaned people I know and love and he demeaned really, really fine people who have demonstrated the love of Christ to other people over and over again.
Phil Robertson has told us that he has baptized a large number of people and brought a lot of people to Christ. That’s nice. I’ve baptized a lot of people as well. It’s a pretty easy thing to do.
The great challenge as Christians isn’t always bringing people to Christ, but bringing Christ to people. Did his comments bring the peace of God which passes all understanding to anyone? Did his comments bring the words of Paul that tell us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ to anyone?
What offended me, as a Christian about Phil Robertson’s words were that he demeaned people and frankly, attempted to take Christ away from people. He did so for good reasons, however. He thinks vaginas have a lot more to offer him than an anus does.
Phil Robertson, in my opinion, has just devastated the efforts of so many people trying to preach, teach, and promote the love of God to people’s lives. Instead of promoting Christianity, he just invited people to stay in bed on Sunday morning or read the paper or watch television. He did nothing to promote the goodness of Jesus to anyone.
Ultimately this will do him no harm. The show is popular and so A&E wants to keep it on the air because it is making them a lot of money. The Robertson family will remain on the air because it is making them a lot of money.
Off to the side of the road are people who were told, once again, they are children of a lesser deity.
Off to the side of the road are so many Christians diligently and faithfully attempting to bring the love of Christ to people who just watched their efforts shattered.
Off to the side of the road are so many good things so many Christians have done, their efforts overshadowed by a man who sees vaginas having more to offer him than anuses.
Phil Robertson is being promoted as a great Christian these days. Many Christians have lined up behind him to celebrate his upholding of what they call their traditional values. He got their backing and he’s making a lot of money. Meanwhile, people will see all Christians like Phil Robertson and say, “I’m done with church.”
As for me, I’m going to try and continue to bring Christ to people.
And I’m no longer going to watch Duck Dynasty.
This is a marvelous proclamation for a day of thanks made by our first President in 1789. In it is a nobility of purpose, of faith, of a common cause that has been mostly lost to us.
Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
A Place at the Table for EVERYONE
Text: Luke 17:5-10
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
October 6, 2012
One day a minister was driving home from church with his wife. He felt really good about the sermon he preached that morning and was gloating a bit. He asked his wife, “How many great sermons do you think were preached this morning?”
His wife looked over at him and said, “One less than you think.”
And for those who are wondering, no, this is not autobiographical.
It does remind me of something Jesus is saying. Jesus, without ever actually saying the word, humility, is telling people to practice humility.
Jesus, first tells the disciples a little thing about faith. Faith is faith. It’s not something you have a little of or a lot of. You either have faith or you don’t. This is not a slam, by the way. The apostles, like most of us, didn’t believe they had enough faith----Jesus is telling them that you either have faith or you don’t. But then, in a major challenge, tells them if they really had faith, they could toss a tree into the lake. There is a bit of encouragement and challenge all rolled into one.
Then Jesus goes on to make a point about humility. He speaks of doing what we are supposed to do----and not expecting great accolades for doing it.
There is something interesting about all of this. God doesn’t call us to be heroes or expect great rewards for having faith. God, instead, calls us to be saints----and to share God’s holiness with the world.
Which brings us to today, World Communion Sunday, and a sermon title, “A Place at the Table for EVERYONE.” If you have ever chatted on the Internet you know that when you put something all in caps, it’s shouting. I’m shouting EVERYONE today.
We often, in our discussions about God talk about faith and prayer is an act of faith. So is coming around God’s Table. It is an amazing act of faith. How we approach it, I believe, is with faith and humility.
It is, first and foremost, God’s Table.
If you remember anything today please remember this. Merideth and I may be the pastors of this church but it is not our table. It is not owned by the Elders or the Church Council of this church. It is not even owned by St. Marks. This is God’s Table.
Because it’s God’s Table no one ever has the right to deny anyone a place at the table. It is God’s Table. Only God can deny us a place at the table and God never denies anyone. All are invited to the feast.
And we do this. We don’t deny people a place at the table. It’s part of our tradition.
Last weekend I heard a man in rural Missouri, a member of the local United Church of Christ congregation say about his church that they have picked up all the people none of the other churches wanted any longer. I laughed. I’ve said it before that many of our members have been thrown out of the finest churches in town and we do not deny anyone a place at the table----ever. We seem, on some level to get it. It’s not our table. It’s God’s table.
But something haunts me about this. Everyone who comes through our doors is welcome and invited to the table but I often wonder how we deal with a group of people who are already here, many who don’t come to the Table. I’m talking about our children.
We say that children are welcome but we don’t really invite them. We leave it up to the parents and we don’t talk about it very much. Until right now.
About 15 or 20 years ago the United Church of Christ General Synod recommended to churches to begin welcoming children for Holy Communion. For many people it was a shocking development because, they said, it defied tradition. That’s not necessarily so, however.
The thing is paedocommunion, the theological term for children and Holy Communion is not something that is new. We know from the writings of Cyprian in the year 250 that the early church offered children Holy Communion. We also know that in the 13th century many churches in the west began to deny children Holy Communion while the churches in the east continued, and still continue, to offer children Holy Communion.
The churches in the west stopped for a variety of factors such as superstition regarding the sacramental elements and, frankly, a lack of preaching. Local church pastors were banned from preaching for a long stretch and most people were told not to take Holy Communion. It was not a good time.
Another objection people often have with paedocommunion is that they say that children do not understand. There’s some validity to this----except I have to admit. I really don’t understand Holy Communion either. My thoughts and feelings about Holy Communion from when I was in seminary and until now are drastically different. I no longer really try to define what happens----I just know something happens----and I really don’t understand it.
Holy Communion is not really about understanding as much as experiencing something special. I figure if I don’t really understand what’s happening, I’m not that worried about other people really understanding it either.
There is also something else about this. Why would we deny children something good and wonderful? Whenever we gather around the Table of God something good and wonderful and holy happens. I love for children to have the opportunity to be part of that and I not only invite them, but I invite them and their parents to avail themselves of opportunities to talk to Merideth and me about this.
We cannot honestly say we welcome everyone to God’s Table if we do not invite our children to God’s Table. They are welcome, but they have not been invited. Today, I’m inviting. If not today, I invite parents to talk to us so we may invite and welcome all.
I say all of this in the context of today’s Scripture.
We can easily pat ourselves on the back. A lot of churches don’t invite everyone and many don’t welcome everyone. We do. Great. Hooray for us.
But let’s be reminded that Jesus wouldn’t be patting us on the back and saying ‘hooray!’ Jesus’ response would be more to the point that we are doing what is expected.
Let us be reminded today, as we gather around God’s Table that it is indeed God’s Table and we are invited and very welcome guests. All of us. No exceptions. It is God’s Table there is a place for EVERYONE.
Last night my wife and I had the opportunity to hear Rachel Held Evans speak about her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Her lecture, like her book, was both very serious and yet very humorous at times. As a minister in the last decade of active ministry hearing this remarkable young woman speak was a sign that Christianity will live on. She is certainly an amazing witness to the power of Christ in the world.
Biblical womanhood is a hot button issue. It coincides with Biblical manhood and Biblical marriage. Behind her observations, of course, is the burning question as to what exactly ‘Biblical’ really happens to be? As she pointed out, the term Biblical is often used as an adjective and, frankly often used cheaply as an adjective. It tends to be a word used to end discussions rather than facilitate discussions.
The Bible is full of stories of women, many who are unnamed. Many of the women in the Bible change the course of history and they either get little to no credit and many of them remain unnamed. Being a woman in Bible times was difficult, to say the least.
Ms. Held Evans was raised in an Evangelical worldview and much of her terminology and heart obviously come from that world. The difficulty she encountered was that she began to ask questions----very good questions----and in her research came to understand that the worldview she was living in was too limited. God was greater and more expansive and human life was far too complicated to fit into any sort of blueprint. In her research for her book she spent a year living out portions of the Bible in very literal ways to see what, exactly, was possible, or, perhaps, reasonable.
Her lecture last night was excellent and well received at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville. The applause she received was well deserved and very affirming to her. I had a sense, however, that she was a bit taken aback from all the applause she was receiving and thanked everyone for the affirmation. I had the impression that affirmation for her work is something she has struggled with.
Last night I ordered her book on my Kindle. Amazon has a sweet deal on the book and I could not pass it up. I decided to read the reviews of A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Wow.
Please let me preface this by saying the overwhelming number of reviews were very, very positive. She is averaging 4 ½ stars and that is a remarkably high percentage. I have not yet read the book as I just purchased it last evening. However, based on the premises she laid out in the lecture, I have no doubt the book is every bit as good as the reviewers.
However, being the fatalist that I am, I decided I needed to read the 1 star reviews. Frankly, I could not imagine how people could have critiqued her slow low.
Here is what I discovered. The critiques were less ‘critiques’ but personal attacks. It became obvious that Rachel Held Evans had decided to look at the idea of Biblical womanhood from a more objective and even critical perspective. The fact that she interjected humor into the equation made people go downright mean.
What I read were not theologically sound assaults on her theological perspective. Many of those who chose to do so did so from far shakier ground than Ms. Held Evans ever trod. Her research was obviously extensive and very coherent. Their research was either painfully shallow or non-existent. Whereas Ms. Held Evans attempted to analyze and understand the Scripture, they were busily using clichés in reference to faith.
What was most, obviously, however, was that these ‘reviews’ were not so much reviews but personal attacks. In a twist of the famous Michael Corleone line, she ought not to take these professionally, this was personal. Much of it surrounds, I suspect, the words of Proverbs 31:
10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29 "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Many women have used this as a job description and often feel guilty about it. Often it has been interpreted as the commands to women on how they ought to be wives to their husbands. It is, they believe, a command from God unto them, and most fall short.
To make matters worse many men have also used this as a blueprint for their wives. Talk about a set up for abuse!
However, the only command in this comes at the end when it speaks to the men: Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
It is a poem and often used as a song from the men singing praises to the women in their lives. It is not about the work the women SHOULD be doing, but a song of gratitude for the life and commitment she has made to her husband.
Furthermore, as Ms. Held Evans points our very well, the opening words are not translated very well. This is not all that uncommon in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Translations are often toned down or adjusted to our sensibilities. But the opening words, as here in the New Revised Standard Translation are ‘a capable wife.’
I decided to do a little research myself to see how other translations rendered Proverbs 31:10:
31:10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. (NIV)
31:10 A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. (RSV)
31:10 Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. (NKJV)
31:10 A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds. (Message)
31:10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. (KJV)
31:10 A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies. (ASV)
The truly capable woman -- who can find her? She is far beyond the price of pearls. (NJB)
I was most struck by the last one from the New Jerusalem Bible. In many ways the NJB is the most accurate English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and, like the others, it rendered the Hebrew rather inaccurately.
Proverbs 31 begins with the words “Eshet Chayil.” Rachel Held Evans said that in her research she discovered the words literally meant “woman of valor” as opposed to the way it is often rendered. Her critics do not appreciate this rendering very much so I felt I needed to research it myself.
There is a reason Rachel Held Evans got such good reviews on Amazon. Her research was and is right on target. Her critics, bless their little hearts, (A wonderful Southern expression….), are as wet as anyone who stood outside in the Louisville area this weekend as we got 6 inches of rain. Proverbs 31 is not a job description given from God to women, but a song of praise, from men, to the women in their lives, these women of valor.
Interestingly enough, the Bible leads us in some very amazingly wonderful ways to view the women in our lives. Despite the often brutal passages concerning women and the brutality many women have received in Bible times, and now, there are beautiful statements in the Bible for and about women. Rachel Held Evans has found the good, the bad, and the ugly as a disciple of Jesus Christ. She really is a woman of valor.
I am concerned over our increasingly divided nation. In looking at the threats we face as a nation I cannot overcome the thought that our greatest threat is coming from our midst. We have become our own worst enemies.
terms ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ entered the picture. The red states were the Republican states and the blue states were the Democratic states. Anything that transpires in the state that either corresponds or differs from their assigned color is newsworthy. The colors are marked in terms of the Presidential elections and the colors never waver. Every news network uses them. We have become a divided nation, red and blue.
Churches are divided. There are conservative churches and liberal churches or ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ churches. I love Rick Warren’s statement that he’s not really looking to have the left wing or the right wing, but the ‘whole bird.’ I agree with him. I’d like to think people didn’t feel a need to differentiate themselves in church by conservative or liberal-----two words, by the way, that are completely absent from the Bible.
CNN has recently brought back the show Crossfire with four hosts, two from the left and two from the right. I greatly appreciate their effort to assist in making a divided nation a bit more divided. CNN, for the most part, has attempted to be somewhat balanced. For their efforts they are dead last among cable news providers. People on the right watch Fox News and people on the left watch MSNBC. We have to be sure to divide our news watching.
If you are a senior citizen you can now join the AARP which, I guess, is the ‘liberal’ version of being retired or AMAC which I’m guessing is the ‘conservative’ version of being retired.
Scouting has also divided. There are the Girl Scouts and a new version of ‘conservative’ Girl Scouts and a new ‘conservative’ version of the Boy Scouts is coming out. Those ‘wild’ scouts. Frankly this offends me beyond words. I know so many men who grew up in the Boy Scouts who are beyond amazing and wonderful men, and I can talk endlessly on the amazing and wonderful experiences my daughters had in Girl Scouts. As I said, this offends me beyond words.
I’m wondering if there are going to be ‘right’ and ‘left’ restaurants so that people don’t have to eat in the same room with people who may disagree with them.
The consequences are becoming devastating.
Within Christianity there has been a precipitous drop in Worship attendance in the past decade. Churches from all traditions and backgrounds have expressed concern and bewilderment that people are staying away in droves. Tragically the message of Jesus has often been twisted by political beliefs as opposed to influencing beliefs. Churches are growing smaller---rapidly.
Increasingly people are getting their news from the Internet. The Internet does have a lot of reliable sources but it is a free domain of every possible idea. Social media often drives the information or misinformation that abounds. People with nut allergies are being told to stay away from Twitter as they will come into contact with a lot of nuts on there.
Our two major political parties are no longer interested in governing the nation. They are interested in blocking the other party from governing the nation. That is all they are interested in doing. The consequences of this are inevitably one party taking over everything and, essentially becoming a dictatorship. If we continue to move in the direction we are going, this is not potentially going to happen, it IS going to happen. It is only a matter of time. The direction we are heading has been traveled before many, many times and the results have always been the same.
Historically we have always been able to come together in the past. We did, briefly, after September 11th, but that togetherness is long over. We were too divided for it to continue.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have further divided us. Perhaps the closest we came to a sense of togetherness was an overwhelming opposition to going to war with Syria, albeit for different reasons.
In 2007 there was a massacre at Virginia Tech. Last year small children were gunned down at a grade school in Connecticut. These kinds of events used to bring people together and now they just manage to inflame the division. People no longer just disagree with one another, they have come to hate one another. Everything, no matter how big or how small has become a time to condemn people who are different from us or disagree with us.
We do it, of course, in the name of loving our country and loving our God. I suspect God is not amused at people choosing to hate and blaming their hatred on loving God. Jesus invited us, demanded us even, to love one another. Hating one another in the name of God, and dividing in the name of God strikes me as the ultimate blasphemy. Jesus once said that the only unforgiveable sin was to sin against the Holy Spirit. He didn’t define exactly what that was, but I keep thinking we may be seeing it now.
I keep thinking of two Scripture readings I’m preaching from this coming Sunday. The Message translation is great. In Jeremiah 8 it reads, “I drown in grief. I'm heartsick. Oh, listen! Please listen! It's the cry of my dear people reverberating through the country. Is God no longer in Zion? Has the King gone away?”
The second, the words of St. Paul to Timothy, however, may provide seeds of hope. He writes: “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation.”
My first prayer is this. I pray we stop dividing among ourselves and allowing people to divide us and to remember, first, to love one another.
Prayer Is a Lifestyle; Not an Emergency Exit
Texts: Colossians 2:6-10; Luke 11:1-13
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
July 28, 2013
Do you pray?
In fairness I know I’m asking a group of people sitting in Worship on a Sunday morning which means that everyone hear prays. Worshiping God in a community like this is really the ultimate form of prayer and considering that only 15-20% of the American population attends Worship on Sunday morning, the people who do probably pray a lot more than the average person does.
Prayer is not something we just know how to do. Christian prayer is not an innate thing; it is something we need to learn how to do and it is something that we need to practice. Often people say, “Well, I pray but I get frustrated and don’t feel anything, so I give up.” If that is how you feel, please know you are not alone.
Luke tells us that Jesus was praying and one of the disciples asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus’s response was to give them the words of what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer.
Let’s talk a little bit about this prayer.
A couple of weeks ago when I did the Bible Study at the Logos Snapshot I asked people if they knew the words of Matthew 6:9-15 by heart. No one raised their hands, but when I pushed them, everyone knew those words by heart. The words are the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, at Worship every Sunday we pray those words directly from the King James translation of the Bible. We end it with words not in the New Testament, but from an early Christian church document, the Didache, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”
Luke’s version of this prayer is shorter. Most scholars believe that Luke’s reflected the original words of Jesus more than Matthew’s version as Matthew’s is more defined. Potentially the two versions reflect different ways Jesus himself used it, teaching us HOW to pray more than exactly what words to say. When you look at what Jesus is saying and doing, in the context of what he’s saying and doing, is that it’s not just saying a specific set of words, but making prayer a lifestyle.
My sermon title is: Prayer is a lifestyle, not an emergency exit.
For many of us prayer is an emergency exit. We don’t pray until we have some sort of crisis in our lives and feel an overwhelming need for God’s help. We don’t know what to do so we turn to God.
Now this is a good thing, but we often turn to God without a good sense on how to turn to God. Prayer is learned behavior and praying is developing a lifestyle and until we learn to pray, we struggle.
I had a friend of mine, a wonderful man, who had been married for 50 years and his wife died. She was a wonderful person and had done all the cooking and laundry for them for their entire married life. When she died he was confronted by two painful realities. He had a washer and dryer that he had no clue on how to work, and a refrigerator full of food that he did not know how to cook. He had never, in his entire life, done laundry and had never cooked anything more than toast or steaks on the backyard grill.
Here was a man in his 70’s and many people in his position in life would have felt lost and overwhelmed. He went to the library and took out books. He read about how to use a washer and dryer and did his laundry. He got some basic cookbooks and cooked his way through his refrigerator. He became self-sufficient. What he found out was that it was less the books and research he did, it was actually doing it. Unless we take the time to actually sit and pray, we never really learn.
The second thing is learning to listen at prayer.
Years ago, at my previous church the tradition was that the pastor would turn and face the altar and do the Offertory prayer facing the altar. I did this every Sunday so it was automatic. There, like here, I say the exactly same prayer before the sermon, “My the words of my mouth,” prayer. Like here, I did it every week.
I plead guilty to getting into prayer ruts and I did the same prayer every week for the Offertory. One Sunday I placed the gifts on the altar, turned and face the altar and said, “My the words of my mouth…” One person figured this out listening to a recording of the Worship Service. I didn’t realize I had done it and no one in the congregation had listened to the prayer either.
I went to a workshop in seminary once and the leader gave us a demonstration of a prayer and said that in his opening prayer, which was a tad lengthy, ended with him asking God that we all be struck with malaria and leprosy and our cars turn to rust and our houses burn down, as we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. And we all said, AMEN. He played it back to us. No one in the seminary had picked up on the ending of the prayer. We had all tuned out.
Part of my daily prayer is praying Psalms. I try, and I’m not always successful, to pay attention to the words with the intention of listening to what the words are saying.
Sometimes I read the words and pray the words and they fill my heart. Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, when I listen and pray attention, my heart is filled with comfort and joy. Other times I end up reading Psalm 137 and it ends with the words, O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Really listening to the words of the prayers forces me to confront all my thoughts and all my emotions.
Today we’ll pray the Lord’s Prayer. We do this every Sunday. It’s printed in the bulletin today and it’s Luke’s version. I’m not doing this to say the version we use is bad, or that we have to change. Next week it’ll be back to normal. But today, I’m using a different version from a different part of the Bible to force all of us to slow down and listen to the words.
Prayers is not just about saying words, it’s about listening.
The last thing I want to say is that prayer keeps us focused on God. When we take time to pray every day we have the ability to remain focused on the way of God.
Paul, in his letter to the Colossians references people who are captive through philosophy and empty deceit. Being someone who majored in Philosophy my ears perked up.
Paul is making a reference to what we would call the secular world and the religious world; the realm of humanity and the realm of God. Philosophy can live in both or it can live in just the secular realm. I taught Ethics in a college and I had to focus on Philosophical ethics as opposed to Christian ethics. They often come to the same conclusion and often use the same reasoning to come to those conclusions. One, however, adds the issue of faith and God’s will into the picture.
It is, however, easy to get lost in the world of pure reasoning and pure logic and reason our way away from God. It is easy to put our hope and faith in things that are not related to God. It can be money, power, technology, and other people.
When we pray, we keep our focus on God. It does not mean we can no longer integrate logic into our lives, or technology, or money, or power, and especially other people. We cannot survive in a world without these things and people. But our world and our lives are greatly lacking when we do not make God a central part of our lives.
Do you pray? Everyone here does. To be at Worship in July speaks volumes. But we probably all strive and desire to pray better. The best way to do it, is to do it. It’s important to listen, and it’s important because it keeps us connected with God.
Prayer, after all, is a lifestyle, not an emergency exit.
There are, at times, interesting conversations on Facebook. There are significant issues the nation is facing and people of faith happen to face. Often there are threads of people having civil conversations with a variety of viewpoints. This is good.
I am amazed and saddened, however, when many of these constructive conversations come to an abrupt halt usually because of one person. The person becomes what is often called a ‘troll.’ They are the person who chooses to bring incivility into the thread. They throw around names and labels and call people stupid, etc. Instead of good intentioned people having a conversation the discussion turns nasty and one person begins to ‘take on the room’ so to speak. They become the center of attention and conversation and the civil give and take is lost.
The mechanisms by which this takes place vary.
There is name calling or calling someone dumb. There is the tossing of red herrings to divert attention away from the main subject. There are the consistent attacks on others; especially those who are trying to be reasonable.
Civility has become a major problem. Who knew?
Seriously speaking, most people learned manners while growing up. If our parents didn’t teach us manners, our teachers did. We learned decorum in school along with everything else. We learned to now shout out, to not interrupt, to be unkind to other people was not a good thing. I know I learned during ‘nap time’ in Kindergarten that we were supposed to be quiet and that my teacher had very good ears.
We have all been taught or told that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are important and to listen to everyone who speaks with respect. I’ve learned over the years that listening to people with respect has been helpful.
I am not sure what happened. I suspect talk radio has had an impact on things. Many of the talk radio hosts seem to take on the ‘troll’ role and go on and on, often viciously about other people.
In the political realm we see truly nasty and mostly dishonest commercials about other candidates.
But now this lack of civility has crept into society in very sad ways. In a day and age when we face really difficult issues, people who behave badly in conversation with others are disrupting the ability to solve complex problems.
I’ve taken to deleting threads and taken, also, to be sure that I do not sink into the mud with others. There’s an old saying that when you get into the mud with someone pulling you there you are in the mud with someone who likes it.
For one, I don’t like it at all.
I have been watching very little news these days. There is very little I am actually interested in watching. I find that whenever a politician gets on television my first impulse is to change the channel. It has made me a far happier person.
There are some things of note.
I am dazzled, amazed, and impressed by the three young women who had been held hostage and abused in Cleveland. What they endured was horrific. By coming out and talking about their lives moving forward, I find they are exhibiting an amazing amount of courage and class. Their healing has a long way to go, but one cannot be anything but impressed by them right now.
I worry about the world we live in right now. Egypt is once again in a mess and so much of the Middle East is turning upside down with revolution and violence. We are seeing it in Brazil and there are moments in Europe when it is breaking out. Culturally we seem to be, as people, pulling further and further apart----and this is often goaded on----at times when we need to be pulling together.
While this may only be of interest to me, and Giants’ fans, I’m glad Victor Cruz signed a long term deal with the Giants.
Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are competing against one another in the Senatorial election in Kentucky in November, 2014. It will not only be ugly, it already is ugly as there are already attack ads running for this election. AGH!!!!!
I’m guessing other people are very interested in the George Zimmerman trial. Last week, when I actually wanted to watch news for a little while, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and Headline News were all running the trial live.
Rev. Dr. Dale Milligan is the creator of the Logos program we use at St. Marks.
It started as Youth Clubs and turned into Logos; and now Logos is part of GenOn Ministries. Here is a sermon he preached that articulates the vision he had. It always moves me.
Humility is vexing. Seriously.
Ever hear someone say that he or she is great at humility? Being ‘great’ at humility is something of an oxymoron. If we get very proud of our ability to be humble it seems to defeat the purpose or be at odds with what humility actually is all about.
Humility is at odds with our sense of the world. I was reading that psychologists state that the leading issue they deal with is the issue of narcissism. Indeed, we are a society that says celebrates individualism and celebrates the “I” to the point of absurdity. We have lost a sense of community and with it, humility.
I’ve been pondering humility a big and here are some thoughts.
First, in terms of being a people of faith, we need to recognize that we aspire to the ways of God as opposed to the other way around. The idea of ‘God’s will” is rarely about God but about our will and blaming God for our will. The will of God gets translated into how we live our lives, how we vote, and often our ideology. God becomes a Democrat or a Republican, all based on our viewpoint.
I was fascinated most recently about people debating if Jesus would have approved food stamps or the Affordable Healthcare Law. I’ve read two sides of this and when people talk about there being two sides to every story, they miss this one entirely. Jesus fed people and never charged them a penny. Jesus healed people and never charged them a penny. If we aspire to do exactly what Jesus did then we’d say we need to feed everyone for free and provide totally free healthcare. Would Jesus approve of food stamps? Probably not, but not because of the reasons people usually give. He’d just feed everyone.
Am I saying this is a good idea? Not really as it would devastate the economy and destroy people’s livelihoods in farming, stores, etc. Conversely, he would probably object to charging people for food stamps. The argument becomes circular. My point is that, ultimately, bringing Jesus into the debate is more about us than it is about Jesus. We often lack the humility to see that our will and God’s will aren’t always very comparable.
Secondly, I’ve been thinking in terms of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. John steps aside when he sees Jesus and quietly says that “he, (John) must decrease so that Jesus could increase.”
If you have ever ventured up to Mount Saint Francis in the Knobs, that locale is run by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. The Franciscans have had their own ecumenical issues and there are a variety of types of Franciscans. Francis of Assisi’s followers called themselves the Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or, in English the Orders of Friars Minor. The translation of Friars Minor, however, is actually something of a distortion of the Latin phrase, fratrum minorum which means, literally, ‘lesser brothers.’ Built into their understanding was that they were humble servants of God.
The Franciscans have had varying degrees of success with this concept and often, ironically, they compete with one another in terms of humility and poverty and try to outdo each other in terms of being great at humility and poverty. Like everyone else, they often fall into the trap of failing at humility.
My prevailing philosophy of ministry is that our role as clergy is to serve God and serve God’s people. Ministry and discipleship ought to be sans agenda other than serving God and serving God’s people. Anything else and we fall victim to hubris.
I wish I could say that I’ve never been guilty of this. I wish I could say that I’ve never had an agenda and that I’ve never twisted God’s will into my will and blaming God for it. I wish I could say that I’ve always been great at humility….
But, alas, that oxymoron lives on.
Today is Trinity Sunday in the Christian Church and the Trinity is something that defies a really good definition. I had an entire graduate level course on the Trinity and we all finished the course just as flummoxed as we began. The Trinity, God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. God is one, but three. God is three but one.
I keep thinking this is also a narrative of God in relationship to God.
One thing the Bible keeps reminding us is that God is always in relationships with people. God never seems to move (except in the instance of creation) without human partners. God’s existence is revealed by Abraham. God’s Law is revealed by Moses. God’s will is revealed by prophets. God’s love is revealed by Jesus as Jesus redeems humanity. Jesus himself chooses partners. The Holy Spirit comes and lays herself down on Christianity to sustain and nurture the Christian Church.
In an era of individualism the whole concept of God in relationship to God seems, somehow wrong. An age of individualism should be telling us that God is God and in no need of relationship with anyone, least of all God with God. In an age of individualism, it would seem that we should be talking about an autonomous God who lives and moves and breathes with really no interest in others.
Yet, here it is, Trinity Sunday. God in relationship to God, defying and denying any sense of a world of individualism.
Who does God think God is? God?
America Magazine, a Jesuit, Roman Catholic publication, has an article entitled, Pursuing the Truth in Love. Something the author put in the article struck me:
“America understands the church as the body of Christ, not as the body politic. Liberal, conservative, moderate are words that describe factions in a polis, not members of a communion.”
(The word ‘polis’ comes from Greek for city and we derive the word ‘politics’ from ‘polis.’)
What is fascinating is that in the comments section several people expressed distress and asked, “How will we know what we agree with or disagree with unless someone tells us if it is a liberal or conservative statement?”
Have we come to this? Have we come to the point of using labels so much, so often, and so freely we cannot determine if an argument is good or bad, valid or bogus, meaningful or worthless unless it has a label attached?
The Christian Church is the Body of Christ.
St. Paul wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
I played with it and wrote:
There is no longer conservative or liberal or moderate, there is no longer Democrat or Republican, there is no longer Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Evangelical, there is no longer male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.
The words are a variant but the meaning isn’t. The Christian Church is the Body of Christ. We often forget Jesus’ prayer:
"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. John 17:20-21
“That they may all be one.” My denomination, the United Church of Christ, has those words as a motto. They are words that remind us that the Christian Church is the Body of Christ.
Take note of what Jesus doesn’t say: “That they may all be the same.”
Ecumenism, churches working together, does not imply that churches all need to be the same and agree on everything. People come to God in a variety of ways. There are people who find Christ in very liturgical denominations with great structure and hierarchy. God bless them when they do. There are people who find Christ in free church traditions with less liturgy. There are people who find Christ in Sacraments; others find Christ in the Word. Many find Christ in both. Some people find Christ in traditional hymns; others find Christ in praise music. Some people find Christ in holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Others find Christ in Latin liturgies.
Who is right?
Perhaps this question is the very problem and miss’s one little thing; the Christian Church is the Body of Christ.
St. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians that the church is a body with many parts. We are all gifted spiritually and differently. The sad reality is that we truly don’t like ‘different’ all that much. Often, as much as we like to celebrate diversity, we like diversity more in theory than in practice. Often our idea of diversity is having a lot of people like ourselves with slight variations of opinion. It is rare to find people who truly love great diversity. Lest I sound self-righteous about this I say this about myself as well. I always claim to love diversity, but, down deep, too much diversity gets on my nerves!
Sometimes I read blogs and I read a lot of apologetics that speak mostly to denominational and theological traditions. Very often the premise is why the blogger and his or her church or tradition is right, and why other people who disagree are wrong. I do understand the desire to be right. Most of us who belong to churches tend to mostly agree with many of the premises and styles of our faith tradition. This does not make is right.
The truth of God is far greater and far richer than any one of us can possible know and understand. My sense is there is truth and fallacy in every tradition. There are enough ‘one true churches’ in existence that pretty much assures us that no one has cornered the market on truth and the totality of God’s truth. We simply cannot.
It is a reminder that the Christian Church is the Body of Christ. All of us. We are sisters and brothers in Christ. Our challenge is to embrace our family members as fully as we can.
My Sabbatical is in its final month and I am currently spending the last month at the beach with my wife, Janet. It has been a time of renewal for us enjoying the beach and one another’s company.
The theme of my Sabbatical was learning and experiencing spirituality and hospitality from a Benedictine perspective. The hope, of course, is to integrate this into my life and find ways to integrate it into the life of my congregation. The people at St. Marks are reading and learning about Benedictine spirituality as well and have a retreat opportunity to experience it more fully. I hope everyone takes advantage of this.
Benedictine spirituality is remarkable ecumenical. There are non-Roman Catholic Benedictine monasteries and the majority of clergy who are Benedictine Oblates at monasteries are not Roman Catholic. Many of the Benedictine fit very nicely into the prayer life and spirituality of Protestant clergy.
There is much to this. One is praying the Psalms every day and one is reading and reflecting on Scripture. There is always one word, however, that keeps cropping up. The word is listen.
As the pastor of a church I have preached a lot of sermons over the years. I figure I’ve probably preached over 1400 sermons over the years. That is a lot of preaching and a lot of talking. Right not, however, I haven’t preached since the beginning of March. Often, on retreats, I would write sermons and get myself ahead. I have not written any sermons while on Sabbatical----though it has been tempting. The reason I haven’t written any sermons is that even sermon writing is ‘talking.’ This has been a time for listening.
Listening is difficult for me. I like to have opinions and share my opinion. Often when someone else is speaking, I am thinking of what I’m going to say in response more than I am actually listening to what the person has to say. I doubt I am the only one like this. We are a society that likes to talk first, listen second.
A significant amount of my time has been spent largely alone. I have had large amounts of time with no one to talk to. It has made me sit and listen. Not preaching has compelled me to pray the Psalms and actually listen to the words. Not preaching has compelled me to read Scripture and listen to the words rather than preach about it. Listening to God, who is still speaking, has become an interesting journey for me. A good one.
My hope and prayer is that I learn to maintain some sacred silence for myself and continue to listen.
We have a wonderful oceanfront balcony at our condo. Every morning I pray looking at the sun dancing on the ocean; at night, I sit in darkness and listen to the waves not seeing very much while praying. I find, to me, the ocean reminds me to be in awe of God. We often like to make God portable and small so we can understand and almost control God. The reality is God is neither portable, fully understandable, and certainly not controlled. The ocean reminds me of this in amazing ways. I am learning to fully appreciate being in awe of God.
In watching the devastation from Oklahoma my heart breaks. There were so many lives lost and so many lives devastated. Many people lost children and loved ones. Many more lost their homes, their cars, and everything they owned. Sadly, among things people owned were precious, precious memories of time together. It is so amazingly sad.
Another story out of Oklahoma has also been the heroism of a group that always seems to rise to the level of heroism and that happens to be teachers. So many educators lost their lives and saved lives in Newtown and, again, we are hearing stories of teachers lying on children to protect them. I spent a short time as a teacher and my daughter is a teacher, but one thing is for sure. I really did not appreciate my teachers growing up the way I should have. These people serve us with honor and courage and wisdom each day.
I read a bit about Jodi Arias’ defense today in seeking life imprisonment instead of death. I do not believe in the death penalty. I do not believe the state, any state, has the right to kill its citizens. There are times, in law enforcement, and war, where it becomes necessary. Many lives have been saved by law enforcement shooting an armed criminal and saving the day. That is, sadly, necessary. Is society protected when we take a person out of a prison cell, march them down the hallway, and kill them? It isn’t and we delude ourselves into thinking it is. We are simply giving citizens the right to kill other citizens----for what?
Often it is about revenge. It isn’t about justice. What Jodi Arias did was barbaric and she has earned the right to be locked away for the next 50-60 years, never to walk in freedom and never to see the sun rise or set. She murdered her boyfriend and justice entails she be locked away for the rest of her life. We have no right to kill her.
Often people lament that it is wrong that we have to pay for this person to be in prison for their entire life. We do. We have no right to kill people because they are too expensive to keep around. We live in a culture of death and, at some point, we need to recognize that killing one another improves nothing. It makes is the same as those we kill.
There is been a lot of joking about Jodi Arias and this is not funny. This is a tragic story from beginning to end. Period.
Lastly there have been many poignant Facebook posts about the last day of school in New Albany and Floyd County. There are children hitting milestones. Kids are moving from grade school to middle school; middle school to high school; high school to college. For some, this is entering their senior year and for parents of seniors preparation for major changes is taking place. It is amazing to see our children grow up and move on. It is a good thing I’ve experienced this and now have adult children who I love and appreciate for what they have grown into. I continue, however, to miss the little children who used to live with me. I celebrate with folks as they see their children grow into wonderful adults; but I share the sadness of the long gone memories of little ones.
In a small Congregational Church in South Butler, New York, a church that is a predecessor church of the United Church of Christ, something amazing happened on September 15, 1853. A young woman named Antoinette Brown was ordained into the Christian ministry. A church had done something people weren’t even talking about doing very much. They had ordained a woman into the ministry.
The Spirit had moved.
A couple of years ago I heard a minister, not from my own denomination, refer to the Holy Spirit as ‘He,’ and I sat wondering what planet this man had come from.
The Hebrew word for spirit is Ruah which is definitely a feminine noun. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is very distinctly a remarkable instance of the coming of the divine feminine.
The Hebrew word for God is YHWH, literally translated as “I am.” We use the pronoun “He” in reference to God Abba, literally, “Daddy,” and gives us a sense of God as a Heavenly Father. For me, who had a loving Dad, there is no real problem with this. For people who struggled with their fathers, this can be a major issue. Sadly, for many, being a father is a biological thing and they never get around to being Dad.
Jesus, of course, was a male. We refer to Jesus as ‘He’ and do so appropriately.
But the Holy Spirit is ‘She.’ The Holy Spirit moves in our midst and reveals the feminine side of God in creative, imaginative, and amazing loving ways. The Holy Spirit inspires, sustains, and nurtures us in amazingly profound ways each and every day.
Today is Pentecost and the Spirit moves in the church, often in scary ways. The Holy Spirit, not unlike a loving mother, teaches us to walk, talks to us, and challenges us each day. The Holy Spirit is the nurturing presence in our lives each and every day. The Holy Spirit also terrifies the organized church! When the Holy Spirit comes through things change and things get disrupted.
Things happen like they happened in September of 1853. People listen and do something profound and different.
As people gather to Worship as Christians today, let’s be mindful of the coming of the Holy Spirit in unique ways; and when we celebrate with those women who have followed the same path as Antoinette Brown let us celebrate and be glad. They are proof the Holy Spirit is alive and well and in our midst; and some are still listening!
Here is my crude take on some things happening in our nation’s capital. There is a great deal of partisan outrage and, in one instance, it’s two sides of the same coin that people ought to be concerned about.
First, Benghazi. No one is happy about what took place in Benghazi. People lost their lives to terrorists in a high risk location. The outrage over the event, to me, have been overblown. It took time to ascertain the correct facts and, in a day and age of instant news cycles, some of the initial facts are wrong. It cost the very capable Susan Rice an opportunity to be the Secretary of State and we are stuck, and I mean STUCK with John Kerry, Mr. Equivocation. Funny thing about equivocation is that the other Mr. Equivocation is Mitt Romney. Must be something in the water in Massachusetts… My sense is that much of the outrage was election driven and is currently, “Hillary Driven.” I get it. The Democrats would do the same thing.
There is a bigger issue of a coin with two sides in terms of freedom of the press and expression.
Tea Party folks are stating, correctly, that they were targeted by the IRS. This came in reference to extreme scrutiny in terms of tax exempt status. They feel their rights were trampled unjustly and they do have a point.
I am not a fan of the Tea Party. They like to call themselves patriots and I tend to see them more as nihilists, but my opinion of who and what they are is of no consequence. I may profoundly disagree with them but I also believe they have every right in the universe, at least in our nation, to express themselves. If they are eligible for tax exempt status, they ought to receive exactly the same scrutiny as everyone else, no more, no less. Anything else is denying them their rights.
Additionally, Associated Press was forced to turn over source documentation to the Justice Department. The AP is the major source of information in journalism. Every major news outlet depends on the AP. If the AP is crippled, the freedom of the press is crippled. Source material will dry up immediately.
The Right is angry about the Tea Party but pretty indifferent to the AP issue; the Left is angry about the AP issue but pretty indifferent to the Tea Party concerns. This is one instance when they should both be concerned about both things.
Currently, the President can’t pass any legislation through Congress. To call Congress inept is to make it sound better than it actually is. On a rainy day one party carries umbrellas and one party wears sunglasses; on a sunny day, they flip. It’s that bad.
Freedom of expression is a big deal. Without a free press and without citizens having a right to speak untethered is vital to the health and well-being of the nation. This is a time for responsible adults to step forward and assure the rights of all citizens, not just the ones they agree with.
The scary thing is two-fold. We have an ‘all powerful’ government reaching out and violating rights; but that all-powerful government is incompetent and inept. It is a dangerous combination and, as I said, it’s time for responsible adults in leadership to step forward and do their jobs. I just hope there are some responsible adults left in our nation’s capital.
Sunday is Pentecost, the day the Christian Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit.
At Baptism and Confirmation we always ask the question: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” Everyone always says ‘yes.’ I wonder how often we really wonder what, exactly, that question entails.
The Holy Spirit is, in many ways, the natural enemy of organized religion. If we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe that the Holy Spirit moves us where God is moving, or trying to move us. Often that movement is out of our comfort zones and often out of the structures we live within and often love. The Holy Spirit moves us away from the known, often into the unknown.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
We in organized religion say we do, but often don’t particularly care for the Holy Spirit moving in our midst. I know when I lead Worship I structure a Liturgy and the Liturgy is printed in the bulletin. When I preach the sermon has come after hours of preparation. The prayers were written or chosen and the hymns were selected with a sense of theme and style and concern as to how well everyone knows them. If someone were to stand up and say they needed to preach or ‘say a few words’ and it wasn’t in the bulletin, I’d be miffed. If someone were to stand up and say, “That prayer didn’t work for me, do a different one,” or “Hey, let’s sing this hymn instead of the hymn you selected,” I would not be happy.
Additionally, over lunch that day people who were attendance would probably say, “Can you believe the nerve of that person? Who do they think they are standing up in Worship and demanding a change?”
What happens, however, when this rabble rouser of sorts was right and was actually moved by the Holy Spirit?
One of the most troubling stories in the Bible is when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the courtyard of the Temple. In reality, they were not doing anything wrong. People were forced to use Roman money in their day to day lives. Their little rebellion was being able to use Jewish money at the Temple. This meant that people had to change their currency from Roman money to Jewish money at the Temple. The moneychangers were doing their job.
I went to college in Ogdensburg, New York. If you look on a map of New York State and find Ogdensburg, you’ll find that it is on the St. Lawrence River. People who live in New Albany, Indiana understand this. We, in New Albany, live on the Ohio River. Directly across the river is Louisville, Kentucky. Directly across the river from Ogdensburg was Prescott, Ontario.
If we were going to spend the day in Ottawa, or go to Montreal, or spend any time in Canada, we’d often head to the bank to change money. One time my parents, my sister, and my Grandmother came up for Parent’s Weekend and stayed at a hotel in Prescott. My Grandmother put money in the Coke machine and it went right through. I told her she needed Canadian money. She looked at me and said, “Everyone knows you can’t use Canadian money in a Coke machine.” I told her, “True, unless you are in Canada….”
The moneychangers at the Temple were merely doing their job. Jesus disrupted them. The presence of the living God was moving in the midst of the Temple courtyard, disrupting things, and people were miffed.
We believe God is a living God, moving in our midst, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
I have been a minister in the United Church of Christ for almost 30 years and have been a member two years longer. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and spent 8 years in a Roman Catholic seminary. I am at a point where I have been a part of the United Church of Christ for longer than I was Roman Catholic.
During my Sabbatical journey I spent time in three Roman Catholic monasteries where I benefited from wonderful Benedictine hospitality and spirituality. It was shared in a caring, loving, and nurturing way. It was also a journey back into the church of my youth. There is much that I benefited from my growing up in that tradition and in my journey of late. I learned, however, more and more deeply, that I love being a part of the United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ has my heart as a faith family.
During my time away I worshiped at two different United Church of Christ congregations.
The first was in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the United Church of Santa Fe, pastored by Rev. Talitha Arnold and Rev. Brandon Johnson. The United Church of Santa Fe was founded in 1979 and is in a very comfortable, modern building. The Worship Service was delightful and the welcome was amazing.
The congregation has grown exponentially over the years. It is in a great location and the pastors obviously love the congregation and the congregation loves their pastors. Talitha has a way of leading Worship that is warm and inviting and Brandon’s sermon on the Sunday I was present was excellent.
I was coming off a difficult experience at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. In hindsight I was not a good match for visiting that monastery and the experience was, in a word, rough. I went to Worship that Sunday morning in need of some healing refreshment and I certainly received it.
After having an excellent experience at St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey, I visited with an old and dear friend, Rev. Mark Dewald who is the pastor of First United Church of Christ in Reading, Pennsylvania. I had an opportunity to experience Worship at First Church and it was outstanding.
First United Church of Christ was founded in 1753 and the building is an old, magnificent structure in the heart of the downtown. The Sanctuary is beautiful and, frankly, breathtaking in a way old, magnificent churches often are. The Worship Service was wonderful and the welcome I received from the people in the church was great. It was obvious that Mark is beloved by the congregation and that he loves them as well.
In many ways, the two churches are studies in contrasts. United Church is in a very modern building and, while liturgical, it is a very modern type of liturgy. They use the current United Church of Christ hymnal (The New Century Hymnal) and there is no organ. They have an excellent pianist (she is amazing!) and the choir dressed in ‘civies.’
First Church is very liturgical and uses their liturgy very much from the old Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal. The music was often very responsive, using very classic and traditional responses that have been used in that church for decades. The choir is up high in the choir loft and in cassocks and surplices. Their organ is huge and magnificent and they have an outstanding organist/choir director.
Whereas Santa Fe is a vibrant city with many tourists, and United Church has a new facility with abundant parking, downtown Reading has fallen on difficult times. The people at First Church park in a parking garage almost two blocks from the church. Through amazing work my Mark, they have been able to hobble together a dedicated group of people each week.
They are both, despite looking and appearing to be so different, very much a part of the United Church of Christ. Interestingly enough, my congregation, St. Marks United Church of Christ in New Albany, Indiana, is different from both in many ways, and also very much the same.
In the United Church of Christ we don’t ascribe to the belief that we are the ‘one true church.’ We see truth and folly in all churches and all traditions, including our own. We don’t ascribe the ‘one true church’ status on anyone else. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are a number of ‘one true churches’ and they all differ from each other greatly, with the main common trait being the myth that they are the ‘one.’
There are things I love about the United Church of Christ.
First, I love the diversity. Churches and the people in the churches can be different. There is not only not a stigma attached to being different, but there is a joy and celebration in those differences. We are not a homogeneous group and nor do we have an aspiration to be one. There is something rich and refreshing in the boldness of difference.
Secondly, United Church of Christ people truly do embrace ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.’ When that statement came out several years ago on television commercials people in congregations felt their hearts beating faster. Someone ‘understood’ them! This welcoming is clear in so many ways.
Thirdly, the United Church of Christ tends to push envelopes. It is honestly maddening at times, but it is also amazing. A Roman Catholic friend asked me about the ordination of women in our tradition and where we stood on it. She knew we had female clergy but didn’t know how recently we had ordained the first woman. She was shocked when I told her that Antoinette Brown was ordained in 1853.
Lastly, the United Church of Christ does not demand perfection. I am imperfect and I serve as the pastor to an imperfect church filled with imperfect people. What’s not to love about that?
I’ve learned much, experienced much, and grown a great deal. One thing is for sure, however. The United Church of Christ has my heart.
In a Salon interview in 2006, recently recalled in Business Insider, Mike Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch said about looks:
It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that. In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."
Abercrombie & Fitch does not stock clothing for women sized XL or XXL. They simply do not want these women in their stores. They do stock these sizes for men as Jeffries acknowledges there are bulked up athletes who need the larger sizes. Abercrombie & Fitch is there to serve consumers who are good looking, popular, and hopefully buff. Business Insider wrote this piece because Abercrombie & Fitch is rapidly losing market share to other companies that are more expansive in their client base.
As of now, however, Abercrombie & Fitch leads the rush to keep people out.
In Jesus’ day there was a rush to keep people out.
Sinners were rejected by society. People who were sinful in any way, shape, or form, were given the boot.
Tax-collectors were seen as the worst of sinners. They received the boot.
Lepers were people considered to have been cursed by God. They received the compassion of a size 10 boot.
And better than half the population, women, were excluded. They were marginalized, used, and abused and had no rights and no voice. For many of them, the boot would have been better than what they received.
Mike Jeffries was born in the wrong era. He is a bully in the classic sense of the word.
People who are the least bit overweight are left out.
The unpopular kids in high school and college are left out. These are the kids who are the head of the Science Club or the Computer Club. They are the main characters of The Big Bang Theory, but Mike Jeffries does not really want them in his stores. The kids in the band? Give us all a break. Mike Jeffries wants the football players and the cheerleaders only. Of course, the football players and the cheerleaders SHOULD be welcome as should everyone else.
I cannot shop at Abercrombie & Fitch. Jeffries has made that perfectly clear. Frankly, I never could shop there. Even when I could fit into his clothing (I can’t now) I was never cool. During study hall in high school instead of hanging out in the cafeteria with the cool kids, I tended to read in the library with the rest of the nerds. I do not believe any of us actually wore Abercrombie & Fitch as we were never cool enough to go there.
I keep thinking that Jesus was all inclusive. Are all churches? I’m happy to know that my church, like most churches in the United Church of Christ, welcomes everyone, no matter what. We are the opposite of Abercrombie & Fitch. We have no rush to keep people out.
Frankly, sometimes this makes us odd. Frankly, however, the odd folks are always the most fun. And none of us actually can shop at Abercrombie & Fitch.
People who read this are going to say I have a bleeding heart. Perhaps they are right. My sense is that we are looking into the face of tragedy.
Yesterday Jodi Arias was convicted of first degree murder in the killing of her boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander. She claimed self-defense but the evidence against her was overwhelming. In observing her on the witness stand her constantly changing story did not help her cause in the least. Additionally, he was found naked in the shower, a bullet wound to the face with 25 stab wounds and his throat slit from ear to ear. There were obvious signs of someone trying to cover their tracks at the scene as well. The claim of self-defense seemed far-fetched, at best. It was difficult to imagine that the jury would find anything other than convicting Ms. Arias of anything other than first degree murder.
Travis Alexander died at the age of 30. His life was mostly ahead of him. He’d had a fling with an attractive young woman and it ended horribly for both of them. Mr. Alexander lost his life and Ms. Arias is facing either the death penalty or life in prison with no hope of parole.
Jodi Arias told a reporter yesterday that she is hoping for the death penalty as longevity runs in her family. The idea of a long life in prison is worse, in her mind, than dying sooner rather than later. She is only 32 years old.
Switch to Boston. Two brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. They set off a bomb at the end of the Boston Marathon and later killed a police officer. Four people are dead and many are wounded. The nation was turned upside down for their act of terror. Tamerlan died of gunshot wounds in a battle with police and was run over by his brother who escaped. Dzhokhar, all of 19 years old was later captured and was badly wounded. He is now in prison, recovering from his wounds and awaiting his fate. With Federal charges looming, he is facing either the death penalty of life in prison without parole.
Two young people are dead and two young people are facing either execution or life in prison without parole. I am ethically opposed to the death penalty. I do not believe we have the right to take lives of others and so my hope, for both of them, is that they receive life without parole. Life in prison without parole is a harsh sentence. Imagine being young, as both Jodi and Dzhokhar happen to be. They are both facing 50-60-70 years in prison. They will not be seeing sunrises or sunsets. They will not be around smiling children. The change of seasons will mean nothing for them. Holidays will mean nothing for them. The people around them will all be people convicted of terrible crimes. Privacy will no longer be theirs and the many routine pleasures of life we all take so much for granted will be denied them forever.
Sadly, this is their fate and they deserve it.
I feel badly for them as they are so incredibly young. My heart breaks for Travis as he was young and innocent of any crimes. He fell in love, one would imagine, with the wrong woman. Tamerlan was so young, so angry and so hateful that he sought to kill. Their lives were so short.
Jodi is only 32. Instead of moving on and letting go of a relationship, she sought to kill. Dzhokhar joined his brother in murderous mayhem. My heart breaks for them. It is not that I don’t believe they should be punished. Their taking of innocent lives screams out for that. Justice screams out for that. It is just that they are so young… It breaks my heart that life as they should have known it and could have known it is over for them because they chose to kill. It is so sad and so tragic. Such a waste! It is such a waste of life for them as a consequence of wasting away the lives of others.
A man on the news this morning, a man who was close to Travis was reflecting that he hopes Jodi receives the death penalty as a deterrent to others. I disagree with him, but fine. He then went on to say, however, that he KNEW, in the end, that when Jodi’s life was over, God’s justice would prevail and that was his hope.
I guess that is where I fervently disagree with him. My hope and prayer is that Dzhokhar and Jodi, as they sit for many years, no matter what their sentence happens to be, they open their hearts up to God and seek and receive God’s forgiveness. To me, God’s great justice is always God’s mercy and God’s mercy is one that is filled with love and forgiveness.
My hope and great prayer is that despite their grievous acts of murder, they find peace with God and are able to, one day, live in God’s peace and love. To me, the ultimate justice is God’s love.
It’s Tuesday and the last time I actually used my laptop was early Saturday morning. My journey took me from St. Mary’s Abbey to Reading, Pennsylvania. I spent an amazing weekend with my friend Mark Dewald and has wife, Nancy, who were gracious enough to host me for the weekend. Mark and I served close to one another in Pennsylvania and have been friends for almost 30 years.
Mark has served as the pastor of First United Church of Christ in Reading for 25 years. First Church is located in downtown Reading which is a city that is enduring difficult times. First Church is not in a residential neighborhood and members have to park a block or so down the street in a parking garage. Mark has done an amazing job doing three Worship Services a week in order to get as many people in the door as possible. The Sanctuary is old and magnificent. The Worship Service was very traditional and, in many ways, very much the old German Reformed Worship. Mark’s sermon was great and I really enjoyed meeting the people who were there.
From Reading I drove to West Point and visited my friend Gabe Costa, a Roman Catholic priest and math professor at the United State Military Academy. I had been to West Point as a child on a class trip and, frankly, didn’t remember very much. It is really set away from everything else and occupies an amazing view of a bend in the Hudson River. It is a very quiet, tranquil place. Well, tranquil for the most part….when they raise the flag in the morning they fire a cannon. In fairness, one early morning cannon shot was far better than 30 minutes of howling coyotes…
Today I ventured to a hotel where I’m spending the next two nights. I’m meeting another old friend tomorrow. Today I drove to my old home town and saw the school I attended from 1960-1966 and the house we lived in. Then I drove to Fort Lee, NJ to Hiram’s for hot dogs and birch beer. This was another North Jersey venture. My trip has been filled with nostalgia and seeing so many beloved people from my life. I am richly blessed!
Morristown is a historic community in New Jersey with a long and fine history. Many places claim that ‘Washington slept here,’ but he really did sleep many nights in Morristown. It was the most common location for the Colonial Army to spend the winter. While Valley Forge is the most famous, the most used was actually Morristown. On the edge of the community is the house where Washington actually lived during those winters and a park in the community is where the rest of the army stayed. It is said that many of the campaigns the Colonial Army would engage in were actually planned in Morristown.
Morristown is a town of a bit more than 18,000 people and is around 3 square miles. It is actually something of a doughnut hole to Morris Township that surrounds it. Morristown serves as the County Seat to Morris County. When I was in middle school we moved to Morris County and I spent my high school years in that region. My parents lived in Morris County for almost 30 years and my Mom worked at the county courthouse in Morristown for a number of years. I lived in Morristown from May, 1980 to May of 1981, so it’s not unfamiliar to me.
In over 30 years it has changed. Businesses and moved in and out and while still familiar in many ways, the occupants of many places have changed. One formerly dreadful area is all gone and replaced with newer and gleaming businesses, and some formerly prosperous areas are no longer very nice. The population in 1980 was largely Caucasian and African American, and now there is a large Hispanic and Middle Eastern population. Morristown is the home to a Rabbinic Seminary and Seeing Eye, which trains seeing eye dogs.
Morristown also has a landmark of sorts. In the center of the community is the Morristown Green. It is something of a small park (very small park) with grass and trees that sits in the center of town. It is also here that several main roads converge. Surrounding the Green is something of a New Jersey tradition, a traffic circle of these main roads converging around this tranquil green and traversing themselves around it to continue on their journeys.
In 1980 the Green was something of a nightmare. It was referred to fondly as the $#%$@# Morristown Green. Traffic would converge into something of a mess and people would cut in and out, foaming at the mouth, swearing in their cars, opening their car windows and extending the ‘real’ state bird of New Jersey. Officially the state bird of the Garden State is the Eastern Goldfinch that no one has actually ever seen. If one is from New Jersey one is aware of what the ‘real’ state bird happens to be and the ‘real’ bird has no feathers. People would say that they really needed to do something about the $#%$@# Morristown Green.
I was really tired last night and decided to sleep a bit longer today. This meant that instead of joining the monks at prayer at 6:30AM I decided to pray on my own, sleep till 7:30AM and head into town for breakfast. I had seen a Panera Bread and determined it would be a good place to have some coffee and a scone. It also meant I had to traverse the Morristown Green.
As much as things have changed in Morristown the Green has not. It is still referred to as the $#%$@# Morristown Green and now MORE cars converge on it and road rage, the official state hobby, is still in effect. It was also heartwarming to see that the real state bird is in effect. The big difference is that in the past, most people had to manually roll down their windows in order to extend this gesture; now most people have automatic windows allowing them to have a more fluid motion in extending this greeting to one another.
It also reminded me of something else. New Jersey is an amazingly small state. Panera Bread is around 3.5 miles from where I am staying. It took me 20 minutes to get there and 20 minutes to get back. This morning I was greeted with honking horns, the state bird, and swearing. I did something no self-respecting New Jersey driver would ever do. A woman had her turn signal on to get into her driveway and I stopped and let her in.
As for Panera Bread, they have the same menu as the one back home. It is different here, however.
In this Panera Bread I must have heard three different languages being spoken. The young woman who waited on me didn’t call me ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey.’ There was one thing, however that made me laugh. One man said to another, “They really need to do something about the $#%$@# Morristown Green.”