upper room daily devotions

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Oddity of Christmas Eve

With Christmas Eve, Christians fall into a rather odd tradition of waiting for a Prince (of peace), a King, and a pauper (He was, after all, born in manger under threatening political circumstances). Let no one convince you that what we do is rational or what we celebrate is normal. Let no one rob you of the wonder of a child born into a feeding trough who becomes nourishment and strength for our world. Let no one explain away the peculiarities of this holy day. It is odd, indeed. We sit vigil to welcome a king born in lowly estate, and we pray with all that we have that his reign of peace will finally come to all peoples living under all flags. We sit vigil to experience God's holy breath that spoke creation into being miraculously become flesh. The holy and everlasting Divine breaks into our imperfect and finite existence to dwell with us in our suffering and to lead us to life eternal - life wholly and fully lived. O come, o come, Emmanuel.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Theme

This past July I was appointed to a different congregation. That means that this year Advent is a brand new experience. This year I am in community with a whole new bunch of folks as we prepare for, wait for, and anticipate the birth of the Christ-child. So, since this has been a season of entering into new community, our Advent theme has been [ENTER].

We started the first week with [Enter the Challenge]. We talked about the challenges presented by scriptures that portend the end of things when we are ready for happy and hopeful scriptures about the beginning of things. We explored how staying with the challenging scriptures can lead us to a more mature faith and a deeper understanding of the incredible grace that God extends to the world by choosing to enter into it radically and fully.

Advent 2 was called [Enter the Reality]. We invited a speaker to come and share about Mary's Place and the Church of Mary Magdalene, which serve homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle. A woman shared about her journey from a life of homelessness and hopelessness. She now lives in a home and has been reunited with children from whom she had been separated. She stays active at Mary's Place as a mentor and example of what change can occur. Reality is something we often try to escape, but faith keeps us radically present in reality. God is radically present in reality by being born into our flawed and hurting world. God enters reality and so should we.

Advent 3 brought us to [Enter the Dream]. Relying upon the lectionary scripture Isaiah 61, we explored God's dream of a healed world. We also played with the lectionary and changed the gospel reading to Zechariah's Song, which also offers a dream of a different world.

On Advent 4, we will move to the theme [Enter the Song]. Mary and her Magnificat will take center stage. What song does our world need to hear? What song is in our hearts? We will use icons to explore moving through that which is right in front of us to something sacred and wondrous. Music does this, too. Music can take complicated ideas and dry and dull words and elicit deeply powerful emotions. Music helps us move deeply into experience. This week we [Enter the Song].

And, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we [Enter the Mystery] and [Enter the Poetry]. We arrive at our destination, and we enter fully into the miracle of God with Us.

I don't know how clear these themes have been to the people in the congregation, but they have been primary for me. I am trying to enter into their lives. We are trying together to enter into ministry with each other. We are trying to enter into a new year with hope and joy and trust. It seemed [ENTERING] would be a good fit for us. It is, after all, what we are doing with one another, and it is what God is doing with us all.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Struggles are (Sadly) Not New

The feast day for Saint Ambrose was last week on December 7. Properly named Aurelius Ambrosius, he lived in the mid and late 300s and was the bishop of Milan. Legend has it that at his birth a swarm of bees landed on his tongue foreshadowing that he would become a great orator whose words would be sweeter than honey. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers, bees, students, Milan, candle makers, and domestic animals. And, he was outspoken on social issues that affected the people living in the late 300s, including economic inequality and how inequality relates to the God of our scriptures.

St. Ambrose said, "Wealth, which leads men the wrong way so often, [should be] seen less for its own qualities than for the human misery it stands for... The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor! ... The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there, confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering"
(... St. Ambrose of Milan (Aurelius Ambrosius) (339-397), De Nabuthe Jezraelite [ca.395], in Journal of the History of Ideas, v. III, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942, XIII.56, p. 461 (see the book; see also 1 Kings 21:1-19; Luke 12:15; more at Man, Poverty, Pride, Shame, Sin, Way, Wealth, Wrong)).

Ambrose, along with many other early Mothers and Fathers, did not have and were not trapped by the language of or political and economic systems of our time. How we understand our world is a product of Modernity. We are post-Industrial Revolution. We are the children of the Enlightenment. Not them. Church Mothers and Fathers were neither capitalists nor communists, not socialists or anarchists. This nomenclature and the systems to which they refer are modern inventions. Rather, the early Church Mothers and Fathers were simply Christian. They looked at the plight of the poor in their towns and villages, and they knew that something was wrong.

To come to this conclusion, all early Mothers and Fathers had to do was turn to scripture and search their hearts. They knew that capricious wealth and voracious greed are not part of God's good kingdom. From the 8th century prophets to first century epistles, the Bible speaks against usury, wealth accumulation, latifundialization, deceptive weights and measures used against the poor, corrupt justice systems, and neglect of the most vulnerable (known in the Bible as the widow, orphan, and stranger). We are incorrect if we call leaders of the early Church socialists; they were not. They were biblicists.

Wealth, in and of itself, is not the problem. It wasn't in the Bible. It wasn't to the early Church. And, I would say that wealth isn't the problem today. The question asked in the Bible - the judgment leveled at the extraordinarily rich- concerns the manner by which wealth was accumulated. How, the prophets ask, did you become so wealthy and by what means are you protecting that wealth? Have you charged unreasonable interest on the poor (usury)? Did you confiscate ancestral lands and drive the poor from subsistence living into slavery or indentured servitude that results in a system of poverty and indebtedness that cannot be escaped (latifundialization)? With your power and privilege, did you simply cheat the poor by weighing their crops with false weights and measures in order to pay them less or to require them to produce more to pay back debt? And, when they fell into debt, were you merciful or merciless? Did you meet at the city gates to arbitrate justice and rely upon your position of power to secure a favorable outcome regardless of truth or justice? Did you take all you can, hoard all you have, and withhold from the weak and vulnerable? These are the issues that riddle our sacred texts. They are not about partisan politics. They are unconcerned with specific economic policy except insofar as those policies affect and impact the poor and weak. Once again, the problem isn't wealth but the ethics used to justify the accumulation and protection of wealth. St. Ambrose also said, "It is the poor who mine gold, though they are denied gold; they are forced to work for what they cannot keep." This is at the heart if the gospel.

To my fellow Christians who believe that the Bible is primarily or even solely concerned with spiritual matters (meaning, not physical) and the afterlife, let me refer you to the 10 Commandments, Exodus, Leviticus, the rules about Sabbath, the prophets, the Apostle Paul, the Book of the Revelation, and Jesus as given to us in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are replete with stories, examples, and teachings about economic ethics. Why? Because God's kingdom is real; it is physical. It is lived out among people on this earth. One cannot speak about God's world without addressing the difficult details that determine how we live together.

To my sister Christians who want to cast Jesus, the prophets, and the early Church as socialists, I must also correct you. God's kin-dom does not conform to the economic models of our making. To elevate our economic systems above God (whether those systems are capitalism, socialism, communism, or anarchy) is at best foolish and, more accurately, idolatrous. We must do what the early Mothers and Fathers did - what the prophets did - we must measure our systems against God's vision. We must, of course, always be aware of cultural conventions in the Bible and avoid becoming biblical literalists. Yet there are some overriding principles in the Bible that have found themselves embraced through the ages. Like the authors of the Bible, we, too, can ask ourselves how wealth is gained and maintained. And, our answer will tell us whether to support or confront, to embrace or reject. Let's resist the easy opportunities to use God for our own political and personal ends, for God is not a means to and end. God is the ultimate end. We are not the Ultimate Being; we are laborers on behalf of the Ultimate One.

As we move through this week toward Mary's Sunday on this fourth week in Advent, I may add to this post by including more and more quotes from the Bible and the early Church about God's kingdom and economics. The problem, sadly, is that even in cyberspace there is not enough room to include all of the quotes because our struggle with economic disparity is nothing new.


"Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead" (St. John Chrysostom).

"Houses of hospitality must be built for the poor in every city of every diocese" (Council of Nicea).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Want Gifts for Christmas (by Katie M Ladd)

This essay is entitled "Why I Want Gifts for Christmas (by Katie M Ladd)" because I want gifts. For Christmas. This year. As I scroll through Facebook and read editorials, I see many people writing about their desire to forego gifts. "All I want is time spent with family." Really? That's all they want? I am clearly a bad person. I don't just want that. I want a new Blu-Ray player, Harry Potter movies to play on that Blu-Ray, the dent in my car fixed, my car detailed, maybe a new blender, a coat (my one coat is several years old), some pants that fit, underwear, gift certificates to go to the movies, hiking shoes, fig preserves (the best food on earth), an itunes gift certificate, good smelling candles, and a new pair of gloves. Okay, I won't be shy. I also want a scooter to drive to work, a signed piece of art by Charles Schulz* (my favorite art of all time! Go, Charlie Brown!), renovations done to my house (heck, a new house), an electric car, a new electricity panel at my house that could handle an electric car, solar panels on my house, a wi-fi fob on my tv so I can stream television shows, a fenced in yard, a puppy in my fenced in yard, a trip to Turkey and Greece, and a lot of money. I want all of these things. I am not exaggerating. I want every single one of these things.

I like things. I don't like shopping. But, I like things. I want things. I do.

And, yet...

I am not asking for these things (well, most of them) because even though I want them, I know that there is a better way to mark this holy season - there is a better way to live my life. One problem we seem to have in this country is that we have acquiesced to the premise that if we want it, we should have it. That is not an ecological ideal. It is not a communal idea. It is not an ethical virtue. It is not a Christian value. We can rise above our wants. We are, after all, sentient beings capable of reflection, thought, planning, and empathy. Despite the misguided resurgent devotion to Ayn Rand, the proper moral pursuit for a human being isn't necessarily that person's personal happiness or self-interest. We belong to groups - families, communities, churches, synagogues, mosques, prayer circles, hiking clubs, book clubs, alumna associations, alumnae associations, parenting groups, 12 step groups, circles of friends, and so forth. We do not belong only to ourselves. Pursuing aims, including "things," for our own self-interest without regard to how this pursuit affects others should not be lauded. Sorry, Ayn. You were wrong. Those who follow you today are wrong. I am more than a collection on wants or even needs. I am more. We are more.

For those who feel the need to pepper spray fellow shoppers, camp in tents in order to buy a new PlayStation, stand in long lines to get a deal on a pair of jeans, I wonder, "How much did this enrich your life and the life of your community?" Aren't you more than this?

The ethics of my faith and the mystery of the Christmas story remind us all that we are more than our basest selves. Human beings are capable of immeasurable kindness and compassion. Human beings are able to step away from self-interest for the sake of another. We are. You are. I am. We are able to ask this Christmas for a different kind of gift, not because we don't want other things, but because we are committed to something more.

The Christmas story is fundamentally a story about God bringing life from a place where no life should be. It is a story that parodies the birth stories of the great. It makes a farce of the powerful and the rich. The great song of Christmas is Mary's Song, the Magnificat. How ironic that the song of the soul of Christmas includes, "[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:51-53) when we grapple and fight, scratch and claw our way toward a new toaster. Let's not allow Christmas to be ironic this year. Let's look with hopeful hearts for Christ's light to shine in our darkness, for God's Son to be born. Let's do Christmas differently this year. With joy. And simplicity. And love for neighbor. Let's approach Christmas with a hope for life in our lifeless communities.

I want things. I bet you do, too. Here's my actual Christmas list. Notice, it still includes a few things.
*Blu-Ray Player
*Harry Potter on Blu-Ray
*Donations to UMCOR
*Donations to the Woodland Park Zoo - specifically for the Western Pond Turtle
*Donations to Heifer International
*Donations to the Church of Mary Magdalene/Mary's Place
*Donations to the Trevor Project
*Donations to Jamaa Letu
*Donations to Nothing But Nets
*Donations to Wildlife Direct - Mountain Gorillas
*Donations to Operation Nightwatch
*Fig Preserves

Feel free to buy me gifts. All of you. I welcome the stranger reading this post to give me a gift, but don't get the Blu-Ray or the Harry Potter (I'm very particular, you see). Get the rest. Fig preserves are welcome.

*It was brought to my attention that I originally posted that I wanted art from Howard Schultz. Um, in my defense, I was drinking a Starbucks coffee at the time. Cross-contamination. I don't particularly care for art from him, unless coffee counts. I want art by Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and his crazy gang of friends.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hobbling the Occupy Movement

Forty days ago I was struck by a car while I was walking. Thank goodness my injuries were not life threatening. For this I am very grateful. However, I have been left wounded; I am still hobbling on crutches, limping without crutches, and going through the too long and arduous process of healing. All of this has taken place as the Occupy movement has come to Seattle and set up its tent. I have been forced to watch from the sidelines shaking my crutches in frustration that I am unable to offer my time and presence. It has been my sense that I would not be a pastoral presence to the occupiers, a mediating influence between them and the police, or an effective witness in the street. All I have been able to do is pray...from a distance. And pray, I have done.

Seattle, by its nature, is a liberal city. For assistance during the most recent election, I turned to a progressive voting guide. Where else would one do this and find candidate after candidate equally acceptable to the progressive voter? Mostly, a person had to choose the issues that were of most importance and vote for the candidate that shared a passion for it. It was a liberal v liberal election, a progressive v progressive election. Given the overall liberality of the city, it didn't take long for the city council to consider divesting money from big banks and explore more ethical means of banking. The mayor praised the movement and committed to ensuring its ability to maintain its presence. A town hall was held to discuss the city council's decision to affirm and support the general principles of the movement. But, like so many things, the Seattle-Occupy relationship fast became complicated.

Skirmishes with police dotted daily proceedings. The town hall was interrupted by occupiers who decried the process. The daily worker grew frustrated that protests ostensibly geared for their benefit were disrupting their sleep and obstructing their streets. I have followed the conversation and watched it unfold, but I have not been able to be part of it.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the Occupy Seattle Facebook page indicated that the afternoon's protest was being met with an even larger police presence. This lit up the Livestream conversation as people wondered if Occupy Seattle would be going the way of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Portland. Was the tension about to reach an untenable level? Would the police, militarized and frustrated, about to ratchet up the confrontation? "Come down," the cry went out. I looked at my crutches, felt my swollen knee, and knew that I could not come down. I could neither parade nor process, much less carry a sign or wear a robe. I read the feed.

As most in the nation know, tensions did finally mount to a breaking point. The police, claiming to do nothing more than keep the streets clear, pepper sprayed the group and arrested several people. Among those in the melee were a pregnant woman, a United Methodist colleague, and a wonderfully prophetic 84 year old Seattle woman. Dorli Rainey is a character who cannot be summed up in a sentence or two. If you want to know her, visit her website. Yes, she has a website.

Agitating for change is a dicey process. On the one hand, change won't occur without agitation. On the other, the desired change will be elusive if the agitation shakes off needed support. The Occupy movement has struggled to find the balance between too little and too much agitation. Those who maintain that protestors "should" do it legally without upsetting anyone don't understand that the goal of the movement is not simply to vent frustration "at the man." Rather, the goal is to question and demand change in political and economic decision making processes and the policies which they create. Any system that consistently and relentlessly values the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is a corrupt system. To those in the Abrahamic traditions, it is an evil system. Moreover, it is such an ensconced system that a lot of agitation is needed to force it to change. That is why agitation and even confrontation are needed. That is why lawful protest won't work. It won't agitate enough to upset large and deeply rooted institutions, processes, or policies. Heck, lawful protest wouldn't even garner attention of the press, which is vital in creating change. On the other hand, those who yearn for confrontation for the sake of confrontation do so at the peril of the overall goal. Commuters are part of the 99% as are police, fire fighters, and neighbors trying to sleep. Neighborliness must be a part of the movement if the movement is going to really be about a better society - a better community.

I have not been able to be part of Seattle's Occupy community - to either turn up the heat of agitation or provide a calming presence that fosters neighborliness. This timeout for me has been a great lesson in humility and patience. Despite daily hopes of heading out to be present with folks, to hear their stories, to pray with those who need, or to witness the yearnings of so many who hope for so much better, I have been sidelined. And, somehow, miraculously, the people continue to walk, chant, and agitate...all without me. Amazing. (I hope you are reading the sarcasm in my fingers that type this.)

Movements like this need us all. Yet, movements like this are bigger than any one of us. The church is like this. It needs every caring hand to reach out and every gospel changed heart to pray. But, church is bigger than any one of us. It is about a dream, a hope, a vision of another world, a new heaven and a new earth. We are not indispensable as individuals. Yet, we are vitally needed. I don't know what will wind up happening with the overall Occupy movement, especially as cities begin to crack down on them. On this point, the Occupy movement could learn from the Jesus movement. We certainly faced steep odds in the face of enormous empire, and we found a way to thrive. What I do know about the Occupy movement is that its work is not done. It has achieved an amazing amount by casting the whole nation into conversation about banks, the economy, the intersection between greed and the environment, and the ruthless treatment of the poor. Mazel tov! There is more to be done, though. Money is still the language of politics. Money still flows to the wealthy and not to those in need. Money will always threaten to displace honest and sincere dialogue about the common good. The goals of the Occupy movement will still be there when my leg finally heals and I can walk with them down this journey. But, part of me wishes that this were not so. The better part of me wishes that all of the concerns would be addressed so that my ambulatory self would be unnecessary. The better part of wishes that the powers and principalities that so desperately want to hobble the Occupy movement would themselves be hobbled such that their limitless power no more could hurt, foreclose, outsource, defraud, and impoverish the working class and the unemployed.

I am in a reflective mood these days. it is hard to let go. It is difficult to know that all that I have to offer are my prayers. But, perhaps that is my lesson this time around. Perhaps it is my gift. I have prayer to offer. I have perspective, distance, and prayer. I do not need to hobble the Occupy Seattle scene with my presence. Rather, I can use my wounded body to remember all who are wounded, all who struggle to make it through a day, all who cry out in pain. I can carry my crutches as a reminder that our culture leans on oil and other dirty energy. Every time I lean forward to swing my hurting leg onward I can think of how we lean on the least and the last and allow them to hold the rest of us up and provide us with cheap goods. Every time my knee spasms or my back hurts I can feel the pain of those without work, those losing their homes, those who do not think there is anything good left to feel. And, I can hope for the time when I will be free from these crutches, unencumbered and truly myself once again just as I hope for police who act with restraint and city councils who do not turn deaf ears to the cries of pain in their communities and a Congress that will seek a common good and a president who will move the country toward peaceableness, clean(er) energy policies, and neighborliness throughout the world. I cannot be in the streets right now, but I can pray for those who are. And, pray I will.

I will not hobble the Occupy movement by withholding my prayers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Women, Men, Media, Rape, and Perception

Recently, I've been in a number of conversations about gender with guy friends, congregation members, and colleagues during which I hear that women cry foul too frequently. Men, they say, are just as likely as women to be subjected to negative stereotypes; they are presented with images of the perfect male body that they, like women, can never achieve. I believe that I surprised my male conversation partners by partly agreeing with them. Air brushed photos of male models portray ideals of the male body that the typical man will never have. Media and culture consistently parade before us the hero who can withstand an inhuman beating and then rise, unaffected or (even better) sexily battered, to find victory. Again and again, men are told what strength, manliness, and courage mean, and frequently they have something to do with the ability to beat up, overcome, dominate, or subjugate another. I agree with my conversation partners. Men are subjected to bad images of what it means to be a "real man." And yet. And yet...

Women still face obstacles that men don't. Women make up 51% of the United States and yet they constitute 17% of Congress. There have been 44 US presidents, all of them men. While women are closing the gender gap in highly competitive fields, they are still resoundingly outpaced by men. Only twelve Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Women are going to medical school and into specialties like General Surgery in increasing numbers, but they have a long way to go to reach parity with their male counterparts. Even in my own field - my own denomination - women make up only 29% of United Methodist clergy. This is just data. None of this speaks directly to attitudes, workplace hostility, or social pressures, other obstacles women face in work and culture. However, this data do point to those things. Women, by choice or by coercion, still have a long way to go to find parity with men in the workplace.

The movie "Miss Representation" takes a hard look at the depictions of women in media. These depictions have consequences. They inform how boys view girls. They affect how girls view themselves. Images are powerful things. They are painted with brush strokes, through camera clicks, on TVs and movie screens, and they are described in words. Images of women in general and depictions of specific women affect how we as a culture view and value women, and they become the lenses through which girls interpret themselves.

In tonight's GOP debate, Herman Cain, despite battling accusations of sexual harassment, did not find it necessary to censor himself when speaking about Nancy Pelosi. He referred to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the most powerful women in the world, as "Princess Nancy." Following up on Cain's inability to self-censor, Todd Kincannon, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, posted a series of other nicknames that could be used to describe Nancy Pelosi. They ranged from "The Botox Bitch" to "The Crabby Cunt from the California Coast." In what universe should this be allowed out of the mouths of people running for office or advising and influencing those in office? And, what does it tell boys and girls about women when they hear people as powerful as Nancy Pelosi referred to in such a dehumanizing manner?

Of course, the big news of the day (the week, actually) is the ever evolving and horrific story of a former Penn State football coach's serial sexual predatory behavior against boys. As horrific as the abuse was, as long lasting as this abuse is and will remain in the lives of these now young men, I can't help but think that it is considered worse because a man abused boys. Sexual assault against women and girls is considered heinous in the country, but not as heinous as assault against men and boys. Why is that? Look at our media. Music videos by both men and women routinely portray women on the receiving end of violence in general and sexual violence in particular. Rape of women and girls? Bad, but, you know, part of our culture. Rape of men and boys? Repugnant. Stomach turning. Deserving of the death penalty. Moreover, religion, including Christianity has been complicit in promulgating the idea that women are subordinate to and therefore less than men.

Wrong. Rape of any kind is repugnant, stomach turning, and evil. Rape leaves life-long scars. It robs people (men and women) of the ability to bond in healthy ways, to enter into intimacy, or to see themselves as beautiful and wonderful beings. Rape does not affect women less. Women are not better made to accept the violence done to them.

I don't want to overstate my position. Men are subjected to idealized images. They are dismissed when they are too handsome. The are ridiculed for being too fat or too short. Men are given a set of acceptable ways to express themselves in society. It's simply that the ill treatment of women, whether overtly or implicitly, is more accepted by society. Implications of violence, especially horrific sexual violence, against women remain within the bounds of acceptability in our culture. This is true despite incredible gains made by women over the past few decades.

It seems to me that this is an issue for our churches. If it is part of our goal to continue Jesus' culture challenging and earth changing ministry, if it is part of our mission to continue his work of healing, lifting up, and reconciling, then we have to look at how our churches and our faith have helped support unhealthy images of women. We must change the messages that our little boys are learning about the value of little girls. We need to teach our boys how to respect girls and how to relate with them in ways that are not relegated to that of potential sex partner. We have to teach our girls that God has given them creativity, joy, intellect, and strength, and that it is part of their lives as faithful beings to cherish those most wonderful and holy parts of themselves.

A core teaching of Christianity is the resurrection of the body. Paul uses quite a bit of ink discussing the importance of real live bodies. New life in Christ is not just in the afterlife. Neither is it wholly concerned with inner life. We are embodied beings. We relate with the world and with one another in only one way - through our bodies. We experience the world through our bodies. Embodiment - incarnation - this is crucial for our faith. Since this is so, it seems that for our churches to be faithful, then they need to spend time better talking about, addressing, caring for, and celebrating bodies. This includes teaching both boys and girls about healthy ways to treat bodies, healthy ways to honor one another, and healthy ways to imagine what it means to be a person with real integrity.

To address this, Queen Anne UMC will be screening "Miss Representation" on November 18 at 7:00 PM (1606 5th Ave W, Seattle, WA). There will be a conversation about the film and the themes it covers. Come join the dialogue. For more information, visit our website at www.qaumc.org.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Reformation Sermon: The Giant Rummage Sale

Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 23:1-12

A lot of people sat on the edges of their seats when game 6 of the World Series went 11 innings. It ended in an upset with the Cardinals scoring in the bottom to take it 10-9. The Cards followed up in a much less interesting seventh game to win their 11th title. But, even as many in the country had their eyes on baseball this weekend, another professional sport has held the attention of others: the NBA. Embroiled in a lockout, players and owners remain in a standoff, both sides hoping that the other will flinch first. In the center of the conflict is how to divide the league’s revenues: the owners want a 50-50 split. The players want a 52.5 take. At their last collective bargaining agreement, players were guaranteed 57 percent. According to NBA players, going down from their 57% to 53%, would transfer $1.1 billion from them to owners over six years. The difference between 50 percent and 52.5 percent totals about $100 million. We are talking huge sums of money, even if the percentage points are not very wide. Because the two sides can’t come to an agreement, games have been canceled for November creating a loss of $350 million, twice the amount of the difference between what the owners and players want.

We seem to live in a world in which immense sums of money are tossed around all the time. Whether it’s Congress discussing the deficit, tax rates and breaks, infrastructure costs, energy costs, foreclosure costs, unemployment costs, war costs, or sports costs, regular people - people like you and me - (we) talk about hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars as though we can in any way conceive of what this really means. People have become used to having little while moving in a world with a great deal of money.

We live in a time of deep conflict - I don’t mean Conservative-Liberal conflict. I mean, we live in a time when we are constantly told conflicting messages: to be afraid because there isn’t enough to go around and then to live immersed in excess. Too little. Too much. Too little money. Money everywhere. Not enough food. Too much food. Food insecurity. Gas too high to buy, but still too many cars on the roads. Too many people on the planet (7 billion now, I hear). All around us are messages of too little and too much. Because we focus on the too little, we forget that excess is everywhere; it takes force to resist it, to try to live humbly and simply. Sometimes that force comes from the outside in unexpected and unpleasant ways. We are forced to live more humbly because we don’t have enough money. We sell our car. We sell our house (or we try to). We let go off cable. We don’t have a microwave. We make the decisions because circumstances dictate that they are necessary. Yet, sometimes external forces aren’t enough; despite not having enough, we still spend and spend, whether out of wants or due to needs. That is how many of us wind up in deep debt. Other times, we yearn for a more simple and humble life. We try through the force of will to live in ways that deeply resist a culture that continually promotes “more, more, more.” Choosing no cable. Growing our own food. Eating simple, whole foods. Living in smaller houses or condos. Shopping at Goodwill. Using the library. Investing in a local economy. Tying ourselves to a neighborhood. Whether or not we personally choose simplicity, our culture is steeped in a cycle of boom and bust, excess and deprivation. All around us is too little and too much.

This is not new. Throughout history, too much and too little have resided next to each other. When they rub up against each other too much and the friction grows too hot, change occurs. Excess gives way to reformation. Prophets rise. The people revolt. New worlds are made. Jesus ushered in one such time. With his life, death, and resurrection, a whole new way of living in the world was introduced. Author and teacher Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years, the world and the Church have a giant rummage sale. We let go of conventions, traditions, and institutions that have been the backbone of our world. We get rid of the stuff we no longer need, we keep the stuff that works, and we make something new. Five hundred years after Jesus was born, the Roman Empire fell (at least the Western part did) and a new world order was established. in 1054, the Church split into Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholicism, and political and social structures in those regions reflected that split. Five hundred years later, the Byzantine Empire fell and the Protestant Reformation occurred. We are now 500 years after that. We are living during one of the world’s giant rummage sale, and our culture is feeling the shocks of change. That is why our cycles of boom and bust and our lifestyles of excess and deprivation are being felt so acutely right now. The little is way to little, and the too much is way too much. They can no longer exist in any form of harmony together. Something must give way.

Today is Reformation Sunday on the Church calendar. On October 31, - on the eve of All Saints Day - in 1517 in Wittenburg, Germany, a priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed what has become known as the Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church. While the specifics of his complaint centered around the selling of indulgences - or pardons for sins - Luther’s larger complaint concerned what he believed to be a gross perversion of the gospel as a whole. A gospel of grace had become a mockery. God’s free gift of grace was being peddled by the very institution set aside to safeguard the gospel. Pope Leo X in Rome had mired the church in an outlandishly expensive renovation of St Peter’s Basilica, and pressure filtered down to various regions to put in their share of money to pay for it. This resulted in widespread corruption, the buying and selling of high rank within the church, and the selling of indulgences - letters of forgiveness - for sins. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses is now considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This act changed history. We have been the beneficiaries of this change for 500 years.

For 500 years, the Protestant Church has grown and expanded. In the United States, Protestantism has become the civil religion of the country. As our country prospered, so did Protestantism. But, no longer. This rummage sale in which we live has us tossing out long held traditions and ways of doing things. This has been necessitated by a rising tide of complaints that the Church has become staid, hypocritical, hyper-critical, and irrelevant. We could just as easily hear today Jesus’ complaints of his own religious world. Just as Jesus castigated the religiously pious for their public displays, the same is happening today. Regularly on television we see televangelists in large megachurches decrying the immorality of others while they lead their own corrupt lives. Mainline denominations have become torn apart over sexual ethics while not protecting the laity from sexual predation from many clergy. We have become ensconced in debates about peripheral issues while neglecting the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized - whom the prophets and Jesus called widows and orphans. We are more preoccupied with church structure than with spreading the gospel and bringing people into the presence of the Divine. The Roman Catholic Church continues to make moral pronouncements and denouncements about others without getting its own priesthood in order. Local congregations that for so long existed because they maintained the de facto way of live have found themselves floundering as more and more Americans don’t live the same way - don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas or his Resurrection at Easter, that don’t care about Pentecost or the Trinity or the Resurrection. Because we haven’t had to know our story - it simply was a part of the fabric of our culture - we now don’t know how to live it in this increasingly secular and diverse world.

Jesus, though, tells us how to live through this rummage sale. Martin Luther understood how. John Wesley, Methodism's founder, did as well. Be humble. Be humble. Be less preoccupied with your own status and your own well being and your own self and your kind and your own way of living than you are about the least of these. For those who are the least among us, hear these words as comforting ones God. God sees your plight. God knows the wealthy and the powerful, including the Church, do not honor you well. But, God does. Jesus says that the Church will not find its power and its authority in large basilicas. It will not find its redemption is renovated worship spaces. Christians do not find salvation in public acts of religious piety, of shouting “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14) or “Lord, Lord with malice in their hearts.” Christians find redemption because God gives it. It is that simple. God saves us. The Church finds its power in living the gospel, in returning to the Word so powerful that the ark of covenant stopped the waters of the Jordan. When Jesus decries the use of larger phylactaries, he, in essence, is telling us to live out the wrapping of ourselves in the Law, not simply to do the ritual act. That is where we find our power, by wrapping ourselves in God's saving instruction and to have it inscribed in and on all that we and all that we are. This same instruction stops the waters of the Jordan. This same instruction will change the forces of our world today. Our Old Testament and our gospel lesson tell us that no sum of money, no matter how large, can compare to the vastness and the power of our God. Both scriptures tell us that God’s glory is magnificent and that our proper response to it is humility and service. God claims us. That is good news. But, when God claims us, God puts a claim on us. God forgives. God redeems. God loves. God also sends us to be servants in a broken world. To be voices of peace when there is no peace. To show by our lives and not through empty words that we follow the Lord. To seek not places of honor at banquets, but to eat with the poor in solidarity and in love. Hear these words one more time, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themsleves will be exalted.” This is the Gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Injury and Gratitude

On October 7, a car ran a stop light, turned left, and struck me while I was walking across a crosswalk in my neighborhood. It struck my right side with my left crashing to the pavement. Witnesses corroborated what I thought at the time - that the car was going about 20mph and turned left on red.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 5% of accidents involving a car striking a pedestrian at 20mph are fatal. This number jumps to about 50% if the vehicle is traveling at 30mph. At 40mph, the fatality rate is 95%.

On the evening of October 7, I was walking with someone to dinner. Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw a headlight and the corner of a bumper turning in to us. I was closest to the incoming car and put out a hand as it reached my side. It didn't stop. The driver hit the brakes after striking me.

The significant thing about this event isn't the accident itself. A good person made a bad driving error that sent me to the emergency room in the back of an ambulance. There is nothing unusual or remarkable about this. Accidents happen all the time. What is remarkable is the overwhelming grace that I have experienced since that bumper contacted my side.

The man driving the car apologized at the scene. Bystanders quickly called 911. The police officer who arrived at the scene was kind and calm. The fire and EMS teams were kind, calm, and full of good humor. I happened to be wearing my favorite pair of jeans. As I lay on the asphalt and they pulled out a C-collar, they jokingly asked if I minded if they cut my pants leg to inspect my leg injury. When I paused before answering (they were my favorite pair of jeans, after all), the EMT laughed and simply said, "I have to cut them." They were very gentle putting me on the backboard and they overwhelmed me with their kindness all the way to the hospital.

The hospital staff allowed me to be quite the baby. They played "What's My Line" with me to keep me distracted (no one guessed that I am clergy). The radiology technicians were very careful with me, fully aware that what they had to do was very painful for me. All of the nurses, doctors, and technicians were kind. After I was released from the hospital, my blood pressure went down and the same guys who scraped me off the pavement showed up at my door. We had a lovely reunion.

A friend came to the hospital and stayed the whole time; she even took me to an all night pharmacy after I was released from the hospital. A couple of days later, she made and brought dinner to me.

Another couple of friends helped with crutches. And yet more friends have made me dinner, driven me to doctors' appointments, sent flowers, and taken me to lunch. Even my selfish cats seem to know that something isn't quite right.

A clergy colleague stepped in and led services for me on October 9.

In July I moved to a new church. Here it is in October and I am not very available to them, but they have been remarkably gracious. They encouraged me to take the week off of work. People volunteered to come in to the church and help out as needed. The congregation sent me a card. A couple in the church sent flowers. The church has been very flexible with rescheduling meetings. I have experienced the power of our baptismal covenant at work this week.

These have not been an easy twelve days, but they have been holy days. As our country fights partisan wars, as the OWS people stand up to government corruption and corporate greed, and as only bad news seems to be reported in the media, this past week and a half I have been reminders of the goodness in the world.

If that car had hit me even slightly differently, I very well might not be able to type this post. I am very lucky that, despite my injuries, I am able to be up and about. I even led worship this past Sunday (with the help of another pastor who presided over Holy Communion). I am very aware of the combination of sheer luck and grace at work in my life.

I am being tended by caring and kind medical professionals. I am being loved by wonderful friends, family, and congregation members. I am being supported and prayed for by colleagues. Grace is everywhere.

In response to the grace that I have and am still receiving, I am very grateful. Thank you to all who extended concern and care to me. Thank you for being patient with me - with my forgetfulness, immobility, fatigue, and periodic grumpiness. Thank you for reminding me that community still exists in our world. Thank you for your witness for kindness and simple care.

I feel like I was hit by a car...and I was. But, I also feel like I have been embraced by God...and I was. This, I hope, is not only a lesson for me but for all who read this.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ramblings on TV and Leaving It Behind

A number of years ago when I moved into a new house, I decided not to have cable installed for my television. I even decided not to get an antenna. No broadcast TV for me. This was a big deal for me. I'm part of the "TV Generation." I grew up watching TV. As a child, it was Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Captain Kangaroo, and Mister Rogers. As I aged, it became other shows - The Love Boat, Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, The Carol Burnett Show, and others. My parents never put too much stock on limiting what I watched; at least, I don't think they did. This, of course, was before there was 24-hour cable so there was still plenty of time to play outside - in the sand box, in the tree house, with our pets, and with toys in the side and back yards. We roller skated, played pretend, and raced our Big Wheels around the neighborhood. As long as I finished my homework (I always did), spent time reading books (which I loved), and played outside (of course!), then TV wasn't such a big deal. So, when I decided to leave television behind, I actually had to mourn it for a while.

The thing is, I wasn't the first of my circle of friends to leave behind television. For years, my friends had been setting aside things that had been almost second nature for us. No TV. No car. No prepared foods. Certainly no video games. I was always the one with the new car, the reliable television set, and most definitely a VCR, DVD player, or cable movie subscription. When my friends wanted to watch a sports game or catch a movie on demand or see some live TV, I was the one to go to. In many ways, I was the last of most of my friends to toss over these old mainstays of life.

I haven't stopped watching television shows, I've abandoned broadcast TV. I use Hulu or Amazon (and occasionally iTunes) for watching TV. It streams right to my television. (Nice one, techno-geeks. Thanks!) I still watch the programs that I want to watch. With only a few exceptions, everything can be found online in a timely manner (Damn you, Bill Maher! Your show isn't!). Not having broadcast TV, though, forces me to make choices - to commit to a program. No channel surfing for me. No flip, flip, flip..."This seems oddly mesmerizing, let's watch it for a while" for me. If anything, I've become a more committed viewer because I have to look for and sometimes pay for each program.

Every now and then, I find that I am in the house of someone who has and is watching broadcast TV. How can people bear those commercials? What is that drivel coming from the mouths of people who are supposed to be broadcasting news? Since when did random people's tweets and ill-informed opinions rise to such a position of prominence that they are read on air? "Britney4205 says, 'I definately think Obamma is a moran." Really? Who screens this stuff? How is it news that "pajamamamaxxx" thinks Iraq had something to do with 9-11? That used to be called ignorance, and we used to ignore it because it portrayed the rest of us in a bad light. I can watch dumb TV; I've been known to watch a little "Gene Simmons Family Jewels." Somewhere, though, silly entertainment gave way to something more sinister. When did people's real tragedies become fodder for public consumption? Anything that begins "The Real..." should be banned. It is pornography. Plain and simple. So, when I'm visiting someone and the TV is on, I fully understand the depths of the word "grotesque." That is what a great deal of television programming is. It is grotesque. It is a distortion of what life really is.

Of course, there are really good programs. Whether one likes documentaries, serial thrillers, situation comedies, or satires, somehow quality programming does get made. I want to thank those in the industry who continue to dream of new stories to tell and who find new ways to tell old, well-worn stories - stories that pull at us again and again because they speak to the human condition. Sometimes these shows don't last very long; they don't all pull larger viewerships. Some shows find a surprising footing. Kudos to Lost, Mad Men, Modern Family, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Hour, 30 Rock, The Office, Breaking Bad, The Killing (well, it started off well...), whatever Ken Burns does, NOVA, Frontline, the PBS News Hour, and others who find and tell stories that make us laugh, make us think, and make us care. I can't imagine how much crap you must wade through to get your shows made.

I thought I was going to lose something when I gave up television. Interestingly, I gave up commercials, crawling banners across the bottom of my screen, and shouting pundits. I gained the ability to focus for longer periods of time. I gained time to spend doing other things. I gained control over the images that are placed in front of me; I receive more news now than I did when I watched broadcast TV, but I see fewer graphic images and hear much less opinion driven partisanship.

My experience in giving up TV has taught me that things I thought were going to be a certain way can be changed. I have given up eating meat (well, still fish...). Conversely, I have taken on praying the hours of the office. Just because certain habits and ways of being in the world have become "natural" for us doesn't mean that we can't unlearn them and grow into a new "natural." Leaving TV has allowed me a new freedom in all kinds of areas of my life.

I am by no means a hermit. I am as plugged in as the next person. I have my smart phone, touch pad, laptop, and desktop computer. But, something was freed in me when I left television behind. I don't know what it was exactly. A sense of being tethered? A feeling of being enslaved to a little box? I don't know. This year marks my fourth one without broadcast TV, and I know that I never want to go back. This is the kind of "Left Behind" that I can support. Whenever I pass a mini-van or crossover on the road and see a movie playing for the kids, two things happen in me. First, I think, "Turn that thing off and have a conversation, for God's sake." Second, I think, "My parents would have had that and I didn't turn out so badly. Perhaps those baby-borgs will unplug when they have a chance."

This blog is supposed to be about God, faith, the church, and other relevant issues. I can't seem to make a direct connection between changing television viewing habits and the reason for this forum, but I know that there is one. Perhaps my soul is less infected by the vitriol that so can so easily be stumbled upon when watching TV. Perhaps I am simply glad that I don't feel a need to watch the nightly news and hear about a tragic car accident that has no reason to be told except to exploit a private tragedy. Perhaps I am grateful that the programs that I watch thoroughly entertain and inform me. Perhaps, and I think that this might actually be it, I learned by giving up broadcast television that I can change parts of me that I once thought were unchangeable. Two decades ago I stopped drinking. Six years ago I stopped eating meat. Four years ago I stopped watching broadcast television and started keeping a weekly Sabbath. I know that the way things are is not necessarily the way they need to be or have to be. Change can happen. I can take control over my own choices and live better in the world. I take this as very good news. When I fall short of my goal and begin to act in ways that I thought I had left behind, I can repent and start again. And, for this, more than anything else, I am truly grateful.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Violence, 9/11, and Requiem

I love the music written for Requiem Masses. Emotive, dynamic, and compelling, the music moves the listener through a journey of deep spiritual mourning. A Requiem, or Eucharist for the Departed, is known as it is because of the first word of the Introit: “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” (“Give them eternal rest, O Lord”). The word "requiem" simply means "rest" or "repose." A Requiem Mass is celebrated to bring rest or repose to those who have died. It is a gorgeous and mystical service.

As we move closer to the 10th anniversary of the horrendous acts of September 11, I have begun to think of the music from several of the great Requiem Masses. The horror of that day draws us to pray for the thousands who died, for their families, for the cities that were caught in terror, for our nation that was paralyzed by fear and has struggled with it ever since, and for the world that has changed in the aftermath. We pray for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, who have felt the brunt of the US response. We pray for thousands of US soldiers who have lost their lives and for those whose lives have been forever changed. We pray for the children of the world; children are always the ones most affected by war, poverty, and violence.

In one way, not much changed after September 11. Terrorist attacks and violence - even devastating violence - have always been a part of human culture. Planes have been hijacked. Bombs have been set off in public spaces. In the rush to remember September 11, 2001, many people forget about the 1993 attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. Even the use of mass transportation, including planes, for one's violent means has been around for a long time. Whether one speaks of IRA attacks in England, Timothy McVeigh's bombing in Oklahoma City, the 1988 Libyan bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, the 1968 Palestinian hijacking of an El Al flight from Rome,the 1995 Subway Sarin Incident in Tokyo, the 1991 Luby's massacre in Killeen (TX), the 2007 mass shooting at VA Tech, or any other number of incidents, political minorities, fringe groups, and crazy people have been directing their rage at others to deadly effect for a very long time.

Over and against terrorism exists tyranny, which occurs when the state misuses its power in order to oppress or suppress a people. Tyranny always relies upon violence and its threat. Tyrannical regimes and governments have been recorded since the beginning of human history. Ethnic, tribal, and religious strife is neither new nor creative. Whether one speaks of a Pol Pot, Alexander the Great, genocidal Bosnian Momčilo Krajišnik, Leopold II of Belgium, or many other despots, the state can be a force of evil, violence, murder, and terror. Forced disappearance has been used in many countries, most notably Argentina, to remove people through abduction and violence in order to stop them from challenging the government. Tyranny is at the heart of my own faith story. When Jesus was crucified on a cross, it was an act of the state to silence a troublesome leader. This type of execution served to keep an oppressed people in an occupied land from rising up against their oppressors. Rome publicly crucified people and allowed their corpses to hang in public view to discourage others who might find rebellion or revolution an appealing idea. Not terrorism proper as it was enacted by the government, terror-inducing it certainly was by terrifying those who longed for freedom to remain quiet, afraid, and under the rule of tyranny.

The difference between a group rising up against a tyrannical power and terrorism can sometimes become muddled. One group's resistance fighter is another's terrorist. One country's claim to stability may be at the expense of a vulnerable minority.

Even though violence wasn't introduced into the world on September 11, 2001, something earth shaking did occur. In addition to great human loss, on that day ten years ago, the American sensibility of invincibility and permanence was significantly challenged, and it was deeply shaken. The surprising thing was that this sensibility was not only held by Americans. Much of the world looked at the United States as a privileged country. Physically removed from its enemies, economically and militarily unchallengeable, technologically advanced, and politically stable, it was difficult to imagine a different America. The natural response to this shaken sense of belonging was to declare that terrorism on American soil would never happen again (which, of course, it can and has). The government passed laws and initiated processes to ensure that nothing like the horror of September 11 would ever be permitted again. This deep desire for certitude and safety in a changing and unsafe world led to several acts of public theater, including but not limited to the removal of shoes and full body scans at airports and colored terror scales. Such folly resulted in two things: First, it kept a level of terror alive within the nation. This ongoing hum of terror-whitenoise prevented necessary real and deep mourning, and communal healing became almost impossible. And, second, it served no real purpose in saving lives. The government certainly did many things and instituted many processes for the protection of the country (more than 30 potential plots were thwarted), but in the midst of the rush to invincibility and certitude, the government also spied on Quaker meetings, put people who disagreed with the government on the No Fly List, and tapped our phones. Moreover, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost us much more than the billions of dollars that we have lost from our Treasury. They have cost us the precious blood spilled from our children, spouses, and family members. They have cost us our ideals, our hope, and our identity. September 11 changed us by making us a country bound by fear.

On this 10th Anniversary of September 11, I am thinking about the power of the Requiem to move us through an experience of not just "remembering" (we have done a decade of that), but of honest and real mourning, of finding rest and repose. Requiem invites us to sing and pray for rest and repose for the individuals who died in the towers and on the planes. We sing and pray for rest and repose for those who have died in the wars that were waged on behalf of the ones who died in the towers and on the planes. Because o
ur fractious government no longer even pretends to seek governance for all (only power for a few and comfort for those who are already comfortable), we sing and pray for our nation's government that has died to its duty to a common good. We also sing and pray for rest and repose for all our whole world, which has lost its sense of neighborliness, trust, and commonality.

The world has never been a peaceful place. To imagine it so would be to ignore the many other losses, deaths, and suffering that have occurred throughout the world. I think this makes the Requiem even more needed now. Its Christological language is the heart language of my soul and my tradition, but a Requiem need not be exclusive for Christians; it is a human cry for rest and repose. We all die a little when we lose the idea of living lives shared with one another and embarked upon lives known only through war, greed, and victory.

Today I hear the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (1756-1791) Requiem, K. 626, his final composition. It was left unfinished at his death.

Lacrymosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus. Huic ergo parce, Deus. Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen.

O how tearful that day, on which the guilty man shall rise from the ashes to be judged. Spare him then, O God. Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Rhythms of Life: Sabbath Begins on September 18 @ 11:45 AM

On Sunday, September 18, about 30 minutes after worship ends, Queen Anne UMC will begin a 7-part series on the spiritual practice of Sabbath-keeping. Each class will last about 1 hour. Bring your own lunch and a little food to share with your neighbor, and come ready to be challenged to live your life with a new rhythm.

We live in a fragmented world. We work too hard. We live far from our families. We move too frequently. And, we struggle to find balance. As a practice, Sabbath reminds us that we are called to center our lives not on the fragmentation of our own making, but on the integrity of our God. Sabbath disrupts the routines of our creation, and it reminds us of God’s holy creation. Many people think of Sabbath as a solitary retreat – getting away from life, but it isn’t that at all. Still others shrink from the idea of Sabbath because they hold old memories of dour and joyless Sabbaths – days when nothing was permitted. Yet, Sabbath is an immersion into life lived in the fullness of God, in the midst of community, and with joy. Sabbath is an entering into God’s rest for the sake of all of creation. It celebrates creation. It creates a standard of justice. And, it reminds us to live in the midst of God the other six days of the week.

This curriculum is a video-based curriculum and features people like Brian McLaren, Majora Carter, Bill McKibben, Amy-Jill Levine, Jack Sasson, Ellen Davis, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Norman Wirzba, Lauren Winner, M Douglas Meeks, Robin Jensen, and Phyllis Tickle. These are some of the most sought after speakers in our country. They are scholars, practitioners, new monastics, environmentalists, community builders, and dreamers. Come and join the conversation. Come and taste the Sabbath.

Please send inquiries to office@qaumc.org.

Queen Anne United Methodist Church

1606 5th Ave W

Seattle, WA 98119


Friday, August 26, 2011

St. Augustine, Justice, and the Kingdom

I have been wondering about what happened to the idea of a "just society." What happened to the goal of a compassionate society? It is alarming that politicians and pundits cry for "justice" on behalf of the rich without impunity. Justice is the righting of tilted scales that lean too far in one direction at the expense of others; justice is for the poor.

Since many of those clamoring and clanging about "justice" for the rich claim to be Christian, I lift up some words from the great Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day will be on Sunday, August 28.

In the Commentary on John, St. Augustine writes:

The Lord Jesus says that he gave his disciples a new commandment: Love one another...This love makes us new people - heirs of the new covenant and singers of a new song...For this reason the members of the Body are solicitous for one another. If one suffers, all suffer together; if one is glorified, all rejoice. For they hear and heed the words: "I give you a new commandment, to love one another" - [as] those do who are gods and children of the Most High, brothers and sisters to the one Son, loving each other as he loves them. He will bring them all to the fulfillment of their desires, for nothing shall be lacking where God is all in all (Treatise 65).

He calls the body of Christ to live as one - in unity. Today pundits might decry him a Socialist, a Communist - much as they have Warren Buffet. But, the saint predates such classification. To ascribe any of these classifications on him would be folly or simple mendacity. Rather, the saint saw the world eschatologically, waiting for God's kingdom to become manifest.

He wrote in the Commentary on the Psalms:

What could be more equitable and just than that those who were unwilling to show mercy before the Judge came should not expect mercy from him? Those who showed mercy will be judged with mercy. What will those on the left be charged with at the judgment? Their refusal to show mercy...If you want mercy, show it now. Forgive wrongs done to you, give of your abundance. Whose abundance do you give away if not his? If it were your own you gave, that would be generosity. But it is his and your giving is only a giving back.

One of the great fallacies of the world is the idea of individual and private ownership. This concept is fundamentally contrary to the Bible. All of the earth belongs to God; we are but mere stewards and tenants. I know how disturbing this challenge is to our way of doing things. I, too, own a house and a car and many other possessions, but the Gospel is nothing if not a challenge to the ways of the world. St. Augustine believed that Christ is both rich in heaven and poor on earth. To give to the poor is to give to Christ. To give to the poor is to return to Christ what is already rightfully his. This is the "giving back" to which St. Augustine refers.

He is most clear about justice and power in his treatise City of God:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.

There seems to always have been striation within society. The prophets railed against injustice. Jesus preached against injustice. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with outcasts, and proclaimed Jubilee. Yet, a gap remained between rich and poor. It remains with us today. St. Augustine said specifically to the rich:

Go on making use of your special, expensive foods, because you have got into the habit of them, because if you change your habits you get sick. Go on making use of your superfluities, but give the poor their necessities. He looks to you, you look to God. He looks to a hand that was made as he was, you look to a hand that made you. But it didn't only make you, it also made the poor man with you. He gave you both this life as a single road to travel along. You have found yourselves companions, walking along the same road; he's carrying nothing, you have an excessive load. He’s carrying nothing with him, you are carrying more than you need. You are overloaded; give him some of what you’ve got (Sermon 389,5-6).

The body of Christ should primarily understand itself and its larger society in sacramental terms. A budget acts as the bones - the structure - upon which society is built. Christians understand ourselves in terms of a body. This should be simple for us. As a body, our bones must be well ordered, strong, and connected together in ways that allow the whole body to move and thrive. Our society - our kingdom - must be a well articulated skeleton, given flesh, full of breath, strong and healthy. And, so I mix the metaphor: It must not be a great robbery.

If, then, you want to know what the body of Christ is, you must listen to what the Apostle tells the faithful: Now you are the body of Christ, and individually you are members of it.

If that is so, it is the sacrament of yourselves that is placed on the Lord's altar, and it is the sacrament of yourselves that you receive. You reply "Amen" to what you are, and thereby agree that such you are. You hear the words "The body of Christ" and you reply "Amen." Be, then, a member of Christ's body, so that your "Amen" may accord with the truth.

Yes, but why all this in bread? ...Because there is one loaf, we though we are many, form one body. Let your mind assimilate that and be glad, for there you will find unity, truth, piety, and love. He says, one loaf. And who is this one loaf? We, though we are many, form one body. Now bear in mind that bread is not made of a single grain, but of many. Be, then what you see, and receive what you are.

As for the cup, what we have to believe is quite clear...They were of one mind and heart in God, should be like the kneading together of many grains into one visible loaf, so with the wine. Think how wine is made. Many grapes hang in a cluster, but their juice flows together into an indivisible liquid.

It was thus that Christ our Lord signified us, and his will that we should belong to him, when he hallowed the sacrament of our peace and unity on his altar (Commentary, Sermon 272, Body and Blood).

Blessed Feast of St. Augustine. May we all learn to love as Christ does, to understand as the saint did, and to build a just and compassionate world.

PS St. Augustine is the patron saint for brewers! Drink a brew in honor of the saint.

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