Memorial on Valentine’s Day


This afternoon I will take part in a memorial service at the Florida State Capitol for the 17 students slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School one year ago.  Here, more or less, is what I plan to say:

There was at time when February 14 meant fun, intrigue, and romance, especially a among the young.  For thousands of Americans, and particularly for the survivors of the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, the meaning of the this day has been forever changed.

Jaclyn Corin, now a senior at MSD High, wrote in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times,

There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of the shooting. When I hear the sound of sirens or fireworks, I’m taken back to that horrific afternoon. For me, Valentine’s Day will now forever be a reminder of loss.

We gather tonight to remember the 17 lives stolen from their loved ones one year ago, the 17 people who bear physical scars from that day, and the hundreds more whose scars, though invisible, are no less real.

Experts in trauma tell us that “the body keeps the score.”  For the rest of their lives, the people affected by that bloody Valentine’s Day will be haunted by the violence inflicted by a single person armed with a weapon meant to be used on the battlefield, not in the hallways of a public school.

The memories of most Americans tend to be short.  By now, if you were not directly connected with the victims of that massacre, you might already have moved on, as did so many after a similar massacre of little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before the Christmas of 2012.

Indeed, if it were not for the determined activism of the students of MSD High, we might not even be gathered here on this grim anniversary.

Standing on the steps of the Old Capitol last year, those students pointed their fingers as us, the generations that preceded them, and cried “Shame.”  And they were so right do to so.  Too many of us had given up hope of any success in bringing some measure of sanity to the gun madness that has infected our culture.

Those young people “called BS” upon their parents and grandparents.  They pulled the curtain away from the unholy of holies and exposed the gods our culture worships –the gods of violence, guns, and hate.  They showed us that we had bent the knee to these idols, and sacrificed our own children on their altars.

As we pray tonight for healing and wholeness for those deep, invisible wounds borne by the victims of last Valentine’s Day, let us also repent of the idolatry that set the stage for that terrible loss.  Let us turn in a new direction and work ever harder to change not only the laws, but also the culture, that spawned the shooting at MSD High.

Let us forever banish the pernicious slogan that put “God” and “Guns” on a par with one another, for the two never did, and never will, belong together.

And, as we seek healing, from the God of love and grace, let us also repent.  Embraced by that God, let us also seek the moral courage to do what is right for our children and our children’s children.

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Stand up for Jesus, not Donald Trump

Screenshot 2019-07-31 19.25.11

Like many of my clerical colleagues, I do not enjoy conflict.  Whether it’s an argument over the color of the carpet in the church parlor or a parking-lot debate about same-sex marriage, my instinct is to remain “pastoral,” keeping myself above the fray.

That was the approach taken by white clergy in Birmingham when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the struggle for racial justice.  They told Dr. King that, while they agreed with his noble aspirations, he should be patient so as not to provoke conflict.  Dr. King’s reply: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

I am particularly wary of conflict with my fellow Christians.  The way I see it, we Christians already convey a mixed message to folks outside our churches.  We disagree about a number of important issues and airing our dirty laundry in public just adds to the perception that the Christian faith has nothing to offer but intolerance, judgment, and condemnation.  We American Christians have an embarrassingly poor record of communicating God’s love for this hurting world – as our Lord would have us do.

So, as much as I hate to bring it up, I feel compelled to ask my brothers and sisters in Christ – and especially those who are proud to call themselves “evangelicals” — how, in God’s name, they can continue to sanction the words and actions of President Donald Trump.

In recent days the President has called for four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries.  He has demeaned a black congressman from Baltimore and, with vitriol unbecoming an ordinary citizen, much less the President of the United States, has insulted the entire population of an American city.  According to our President, anyone who chooses to live in Baltimore is less than human, for “no human being would want to live there.”

The President’s ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with him, laced with racist memes and demeaning nicknames, contradict a bedrock principle of Christianity – that all human beings are created in the image of God.  The President’s insults go beyond political hyperbole.  They are a stunning contradiction of the faith all Christians share.

There comes a point where silence becomes complicity.  Christians of all stripes should condemn with vigor the President’s racist, dehumanizing rhetoric.

We should also remember our divine calling to be “leaven in the lump.”  We can be agents of reconciliation, helping to pull the national conversation out of the cesspit and into a respectful public square.


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The Idolatry of Nationalism

John Witherspoon Satue

Statue of John Witherspoon in Paisley, Scotland

The New York Times reports that at a ceremony in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, President Emmanuel Macron of France rebuked the nationalist impulses that are reshaping the world today.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Mr. Macron told world leaders at the ceremony. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”

I couldn’t agree more.  Love for God and neighbor is the heart of any Biblical ethic.  The prophets said this over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus teaches the same in the New Testament.

The command to love God includes the prohibition of idolatry:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-5)

The Reformed Tradition is particularly sensitive to the allure of idolatry.  The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lists as one of the tenets of reformed theology:

The recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word God.

In short, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and out of idolatry flows tyranny.  When we put nation before God, it’s not long before we find ourselves bowing at the feet of tyrants. Presbyterians, of all people, should know this.

It is precisely this “recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny” that prompted the framers to build checks and balances into the U. S. Constitution.  We can thank Presbyterian John Witherspoon of Princeton for teaching this to his student James Madison.

Merci beaucoup to the President of France for prompting the theological memory of the folks in my branch of the Christian family tree.

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First Things First: A Sermon For All Saints’ Day and Election Day

All Saints

I don’t often post sermons, but this week is an exception.  Our congregation observed All Saints’ Day last Sunday as we were reeling from the news of a shooting a few blocks away at a yoga studio. The victims are known by many in the congregation. That was Friday.  Tuesday is Election Day.

The Gospel reading in the Consensus Lectionary for November 4, 2018 is Mark 12:28-34:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. (New Revised Standard)

 The passage I just read from Mark’s Gospel could not have come at a more opportune time in the life of our nation or of this congregation.  On this first Sunday of November, the line of people and topics crying out for attention runs from this pulpit, out the door front door, and halfway round the block.

The Stewardship Committee is first in line, anxious to read what is written on the pledge cards you are about to place in the offering plate, and hoping that, in response to this sermon, you will cross out the pledge you had written at home and increase the figure before the plate comes by.

The victims of Hurricane Michael are next, wanting to make sure I mention their plight so that we do not forget them.

The mourners from the Tree of Life synagogue are here, wearing their prayer shawls and kippahs, having come straight from the funerals of eleven of their fellow Jews, wanting to know what we Christians have to say about that massacre in their house of worship.  As I was writing this sermon, more mourners – these from Tallahassee – joined the queue.

The candidates for elective office are next, pamphlets and stump speeches at the ready.  Some of them have come with appeals to make, and some with buckets of mud to sling before the election on Tuesday.

And, surrounding us on every side are the saints of ages past, the members of the Church Triumphant.  This is their day, too, and their presence cries out to be acknowledged and celebrated.

That’s a lot of fish to fry in one sermon, and it all has to be served up in time for the folks who ride the Westminster bus to get home for lunch.  It’s just too much, isn’t it?  Too much important stuff, too many hurting souls, too many broken hearts, too many voices crying out for a gospel word.

So, as I say, the Gospel reading appointed for today is a Godsend.  It puts everything into perspective.  It calls to mind the essence of the faith.  It puts first things first.

As we come to the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is shaking the city to its core.  He’s performing miracles of healing, yes, but he’s doing more than that.  He’s taking on the religious authorities – the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians – and he’s dazzling them with his knowledge of scripture and his intellectual acuity.  His opponents have thrown everything they can at him – every trick question, every horny dilemma, every theological trap laid over the quicksand, and Jesus has met every challenge.

Not only that, he has disrupted business as usual at the temple, driving out the buyers and sellers of sanctioned sacrifices and overturning the tables of the money-changers.  Quoting scripture, he has called for the temple to be a house of prayer for the people of all the nations, as God intended. His opponents are now united in their determination to kill him.

That’s the context in which a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him – with sincerity I think – “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answers as any Jew – of his day or of ours – would answer.  He answers with the Shema: Sh’ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

“Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. . . (and to that Jesus adds “with all your mind.”)

That command comes first, Jesus says, and from it flows everything else.  That command directs our response to God’s love for us, which precedes our love for God.  “We love,” says John’s epistle, “because God first loved us.”  Aware of how much God loves us, we naturally want to love God back with our prayers, our hymns and songs, our sacrifice of praise, and even our checkbooks.

To love God – to love God back – is the first and greatest commandment.  But prayers and songs and checks in the offering plate are not enough, are they?  Sunday love has to find expression in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday love, and that calls for us to put our love for God to work.

Therefore, the second commandment, Jesus tells the scribe, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Teacher,” replies to scribe, “you are right.”  To love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself is much more important that everything that happens here in this temple we’re standing in right now.  More important that the burnt offerings, more important than the sacrifices, more important than the finer points of the law.

More important, we could add, than the pledge cards.  More important than the budget.  More important than maintaining this old sanctuary.

To love God with your whole self and your neighbor as yourself – that is the heart of the Jewish law, and also the heart of the Christian ethic.

“When Jesus saw that scribe had answered so wisely,” says Mark, “he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

Two realities flow from this bedrock teaching of Jesus.  The first is, we can’t love God without loving our neighbors.  The second is, my neighbor’s welfare is just as important as my welfare.

The love of God for the world puts me and my neighbor on level ground.  It makes my neighbor my equal.  It tears down what Paul calls in his letter to the Ephesians “the dividing wall of hostility” between me and my neighbor.  To love my neighbor as myself is to realize that I cannot love God or self unless I love my neighbor as well.

Beyond our personal and most intimate relationships, love for neighbors must manifest itself in the pursuit of justice for those neighbors.  Justice is how love puts its boots on.  Without justice, love becomes mere sentimentality or wishful thinking.

Love without justice is lighting a candle at a vigil for the slain in Pittsburgh, without banning the weapon of war the shooter used to carry out his rampage.

Love without justice is praying for the relief of those refugees from Central America headed toward our southern border without calling out those political leaders who lie about who those refugees really are, the leaders who exploit their suffering in order to increase our fear and to garner our votes on Tuesday.

Love without justice is tweeting without acting, offering “thoughts and prayers” without asking why those folks are risking their lives in the first place.  Love without justice is venting on Facebook without voting for change.

Taken together, the commands to love God and neighbor form the lens through which you and I are called to view our lives as Christians and as citizens of this nation.

What do you see when you look at those folks from Central America?  Do you see invading hordes or neighbors seeking safety just as we sought safety when Hurricane Michael was headed our way?

When you look at those families, do you see terrorists or neighbors fleeing from terror?  Do you see brown-skinned invaders, or do you see Joseph and Mary and their newborn child Jesus, crossing from Judea into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous gangs?

The dual command to love God and neighbor puts everything in a different perspective.  It prompts us to look through the lens of love which leads to justice, and to reject those other lenses so common today – the lenses of fear, and hate, and division – the lenses that distort reality and obscure our view of God’s kingdom.

After all, the purpose of the church is, to use the old-fashioned language of our Reformed Tradition, to be “a provisional representation of the kingdom of God.”  Our job is to draw the world closer to God’s kingdom by loving God and neighbor.

So many of the saints who have gone before us have shown us how to do to that.  Today we thank God for their example and their presence with us now, as we are surrounded with that great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space – saints like Vern, Helen, Bud, Audrey, Bob, Art, and Ray.

They showed us how to point toward the kingdom.  They showed us how to love God and neighbor.  And they still do.

First things first, beloved.  First things first.






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National Refugee Shabbat

ShabbatHere is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached on October 19 at Temple Israel, a neighboring synagogue led by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jack Romberg.  The occasion is National Refugee Shabbat. 

Shabbat Shalom

As-salamu alaykum

Pax Vobiscum

Peace, Y’all

Thank you for the kind invitation to stand on this bema and attempt to preach the Word of God. I grateful for your hospitality and your partnership through the years.

Tonight, I invite all of us to exercise our faithful imagination and to remember who we are as people whose faith is informed by the scriptures.  For most of you, that means the Hebrew scriptures, and for us Christians, that means the Hebrew scriptures as well as what we tend to call the New Testament.

I ask you to do this – to imagine and to recall – because people of faith in our nation are facing a crisis regarding refugees and immigrants – a crisis of both moral and theological dimensions.  At the root of that crisis, I have come to believe, is a failure of both sacred imagination and sacred memory.

To begin, I invite you to picture your home.  (Not your home right now.  Your home before Hurricane Michael.  No trees on your roof.) You are sitting on the porch or patio, it’s a nice spring day, and your kids are playing in the yard with their neighborhood friends.  As you enjoy your favorite craft beer or sweet ice tea or whatever it is you drink on a lovely spring day, you notice an odd humming in the air.  The sound grows louder, and you’re curious, but not alarmed.  You look up and see some eerie white planes in the distant sky.

In the next instant your world stops.  There is no sound but a ringing in your ears.  As you look around. Everything is in slow motion; your street has been transformed into a scene out of a post-apocalyptic horror film.  Disoriented, you look for your young children and spot them on the road, staring down at a pool of red.  As you run over, the closer you get, the more you can make out the figure on the ground; it’s the neighbor boy.  His leg is severed, blood is everywhere, but he is still conscious.

He holds out his small arms. You see the fear in his eyes as you run over.  You pick him up, but there is nothing you can do.  Your children stand in shock as their friend bleeds out.  You look for a safe place to turn, someone to help you, but your world is now vacant, there is no one, as his small body goes limp in your hands.

This is only the beginning. This scene becomes your norm, and there is nothing you can do but flee from everything you have ever known.  But where will you go?  There many outside your own nation who have the means to help, but they withhold their aid.  They think helping you and your people would cost too much or hurt their party’s chances in the next election.

There are places you can go to find some sort of refuge, but you’d be confined in a tent camp, and you have heard the horror stories of the sex traffickers who flock to those camps.  It could be incredibly dangerous, especially for your children, who have already lost their childhood.  You could try to find safety in a neighboring country, bypassing the refugee camps, but then you would not be allowed to work – how would you survive?

Your reality is now darkness as far as you can see.[1]

Can you see yourself in that scenario?  Can you see yourself as a modern refugee?  If you can’t, try looking through the lens of your faith.  Exercise your sacred imagination.

Or imagine this.  Your skin is black, and you come from a country that the CIA describes as a hotbed for human trafficking and slavery of its black minority residents.  Slavery wasn’t made illegal in your country until 1981, but the practice lives on.  Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt of which the holy scriptures speak, you are subject to a tradition of enslavement that goes back many generations.  You and your children are forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants.  You are treated as less than human.  You have no rights.  No dignity.  No freedom.

Somehow you have managed to escape and come to the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The agency called ICE is fully aware of what you would face should you be forced to return to your country – so aware that from 2014 to 2017, an average of only 7 of your countrymen were deported back to your home country.

But a new leader has arisen in the land to which you have fled, in much the same way that a new leader arose in biblical Egypt – a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph.

At a White House gathering just last week, this leader pledged to do everything in the federal government’s power to stop human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  “Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business and rescued every last victim,” the leader told officials.

And yet, under that same leader’s administration, in fiscal 2018, seventy-nine of your fellow Mauritanians have been deported back to Mauritania, and twenty-two are in custody awaiting deportation. Four of them were to be deported this week.

That leader is, of course, President Trump, the darling of self-proclaimed evangelical Christians, that great lover of scripture – especially “Two Corinthians.”

Can you imagine yourself as a black Mauritanian awaiting deportation?  If not, try looking through the lens of your faith, and if that doesn’t work, check out Wednesday’s edition of USA Today.

Here is the existential crisis you and I face: We “People of the Book” have allowed our fear of the other and our political allegiances to anesthetize us, to dull our sacred imagination.  We are losing the capacity for compassion and empathy.  Led by a narcissistic xenophobe who holds the highest office in the land, we are slipping into an unholy solipsism.  We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, and we are fast forgetting who we are.

Over the clamor of the partisan rallies and the chants of “Build that Wall,” scripture still speaks, if only we had ears to hear:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien… (Deut 26:5).

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 24:22)

I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .  (Matt. 25: 31-46)

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:22)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:40)

The sacred scriptures of the faiths of Jews and Christians are a compendium of migration stories. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, their homeland. Noah and family become boat people adrift without a destination. Sarah and Abraham are mandated to migrate and, for generations upon generations, God’s people are nomads. The meta-narrative we share is one of exodus, migration, and settlement into a promised land.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary fled with their newborn son Jesus from Judea into Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod.  Jesus himself was a refugee – a dark-skinned refugee from the region of Palestine.  If Jesus were to apply for admission to the United States today, he’d be turned down flat.

As a Christian, I ask myself, when did our sacred memory begin to atrophy?  When did Bible-believing Christians lose track of what the Bible actually says?

Was it in the fourth century when we cast our lot with Emperor Constantine and bowed in homage to the Holy Roman Empire?  Was it when we arrived on the shores of America and christened ourselves “A City on a Hill?”

Was it when we became so focused on a vacancy on the Supreme Court that vices suddenly became virtues?  Lying, avarice, adultery, braggadocio, misogyny, ripping children from their mother’s arms and putting them in cages hundreds of miles away – somewhere along the line, righteousness has acquired a new definition.  Greed is good.  Dark-skinned people are bad. Truth is an matter of personal whim.  Facts no longer matter.

No matter that crime tends to be lower in immigrant communities than in the broader culture.  No matter that the vast majority of immigrants – documented or not — work hard and pay billions in taxes.  No matter that America can never be great so long as we ignore the voices of what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.”

So, tonight, I urge you to exercise your sacred imagination.  Imagine yourself packing up your possessions with Abraham and Sarah and leaving home for Canaan.  Imagine yourself wandering with Moses in the wilderness, on your way to the land of promise.  Imagine yourself leaving your home in Somalia, or Burundi, or Rwanda to come to live in Tallahassee.

Exercise your sacred imagination, and then listen to scripture.  Heed the Torah.  Embrace the Gospel.  Remember who you are.  Remember who created you.  Remember who taught you how to walk.  Remember who brought you with a great and mighty arm into the land of milk and honey.  Remember who promised never to let you go.

And then, heeding the call your better angels, live out the faith you have been given.


[1] Adapted from Sheri Faye Rosendahl, Not Your White Jesus: Following the Radical, Refugee Messiah, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) 31-33.

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Words Matter

Screenshot 2018-09-04 14.06.35Last week I participated in a press conference called by the Rev. Mr. R. B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.  At that conference, Mr. Holmes called upon Congressman Ron DeSantis to apologize for saying, in response to Andrew Gillum’s nomination for Governor, that the people of Florida should not “monkey this up” by supporting Mr. Gillum’s economic policies.

Rev. Holmes acknowledged that Rep. DeSantis did not call Mr. Gillum a monkey. However, he pointed out that “The term ‘monkey,’ from our Afro-centric, psychological, theological perspective, is highly offensive, and has historically been used in a very derogatory context.”

Rev. Holmes was being kind.  The association of the word “monkey” as a derogatory reference to people who come from Africa has a long history in Western cultures, reaching all the way back to Plato and Heraclitus.

Christians in the Middle Ages considered apes devilish figures who represented lustful and sinful behavior, and often equated people who lived in Africa with simians.  Some of the drawings accompanying the 1935 trail of the Scottsboro Boys – nine black teenagers accused of having raped two young white women – depicted a monstrous black simian figure baring its teeth and dragging off a helpless white girl.  (If you’re thinking that’s an image right out of the film “King Kong,” you’re right.)

After the press conference, one of the African-American pastors told about serving in Viet Nam.  He said he was asked by Vietnamese villagers to show them his tail.  Even today, black athletes report that they have had bananas thrown at them as a racist gesture of contempt.

How Mr. DeSantis could earn degrees from Harvard and Yale without becoming aware of the racist associations of that word “monkey,” I do not know.  I will take him at his word that he meant no harm.  However, having been educated about the hurt that word causes, he most certainly should have apologized for using it in reference to a black man.

Words matter.  When I returned from the press conference, my land line answering machine coughed up a disgusting racist robocall put out by a Neo-Nazi group.  You can bet that that group had no trouble picking up on Mr. DeSantis’ “monkey” comment.  Even if he didn’t “get it,” they certainly did.

We could all benefit from Proverbs 12:18:  There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.


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The Bible Tells Me What?


A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida, July 1, 2018

6th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 13:1-10

Those of you attuned to such things will notice that Tip did not read the Epistle Lesson assigned for this day by the lectionary.  The lectionary is a useful guide and very often a demanding taskmaster, but it is not, as the children in the preschool would say, “the boss of me.”  There are very few decisions a Presbyterian pastor can make without consulting the session.  One of them is the selection of scripture to be read in worship.  (Another is the choice of hymns, but for that I’d be a fool not to work with that guy back there on the organ bench.)

To be perfectly transparent, it was not I, but my brother in Christ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who prompted this departure from liturgical conformity.

As he was defending President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration, and as agents of the United States government were ripping children from their mother’s arms and sending them off to detention centers hundreds of miles away, Brother Jeff cited the opening verses of Romans, Chapter 13.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.  Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”[1]

Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” she said.[2]

Brother Jeff and sister Sarah, who are both self-professed Christians, are not the first to quote Romans 13 in defense of the status quo.  The supporters of King George did that back in 1776, and Presbyterian John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was very much aware of that text.

Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Presbyterians in the South used Romans 13 to justify slavery, and a hundred years later, that passage was often quoted by those who opposed the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

Brother Jeff and Sister Sarah join a long line of public figures who have used Romans 13 to defend the laws they like, whether they be the divine right of kings, chattel slavery, or Jim Crow voting restrictions.  It’s not a new tactic.  Proof texting is as old as the Bible itself.

However, if you’re going to quote scripture in defense of public policy, it’s a good idea to look at the context of the passage you are quoting.  As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, surely Brother Jeff knows the context of Romans 13.  I’m sure he won’t mind if we go over that just now.

The Apostle is writing to Christians in Rome – folks he has not yet met. The sitting Emperor is Nero (Yes, that Nero – the one who is supposed to have fiddled while Rome burned).  About five years earlier, Emperor Claudius had banned many Jews from Rome.  As Paul is writing, a lot of those Jews are coming back to Rome, and some of them have converted to Christianity.

Jews in the Roman Empire are already suspect because they don’t pay homage to the Emperor as a god, as the law requires.  To be a newly-minted Christian as well as a Jew in first century Rome is not a way to win friends and influence people.

So, if you are a Jew and a Christian as well, how should you behave under this new Emperor named Nero?  That’s one of the issues Paul addresses in chapters 12 – 15 of his letter.

Matters are complicated by the fact that Paul already has a reputation as a trouble-maker.  Remember how Paul’s preaching caused riots in Ephesus and Jerusalem? Paul needs to be careful.  His name is probably on a “no fly” list as he sits down to write.

With all this in mind, Paul advises the Christians in Rome:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good . .

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

            Not only is this admonition in keeping with the advice of other rabbis at the time.  It is also a good way for Christians in Rome to fly beneath the Emperor’s radar.

To take Paul’s words out of this first-century context and apply them to families fleeing for their lives in 21st century America is more than a stretch.  It’s a blatant misuse of scripture.  By using this passage to justify a policy which tears families apart and traumatizes little children, Brother Jeff reveals either a profound ignorance of scripture or a willingness to bend God’s word to his own political advantage.

Few concepts are clearer in scripture than God’s compassion for the immigrant, the sojourner, and the alien amongst us.  Leviticus 19 is but one of many expressions of God’s expectations of us.

 When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien . . .  shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 ).

            Brother Sessions left that bit of scripture out, didn’t he?  He also left out the rest of Romans, Chapter 13, where Paul moves from Nero’s law to a higher law, the law of love:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Our nation needs laws, beloved.  Of course it does.  Our nation also needs compassion.  It needs the love of neighbor that fulfills the law.  It needs the love of the alien who is our neighbor.

I wonder, does Brother Jeff Sessions really think that the Apostle Paul, whose ministry ended in a Roman prison, would sanction the confining of children in chain-length cages while their parents despair of ever seeing them again?  Does my brother in Christ really think that’s what the Bible tells us to do?

This Wednesday we will celebrate the Glorious Fourth.  When the signers of the Declaration of Independence put their names to that document, there were in clear violation of the opening verses of Romans 13 – at least that’s the way King George saw it.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with this passage while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail, he concluded that it is the Christian’s duty to obey just laws and to oppose unjust laws, even if that opposition should lead to arrest and imprisonment.  Sometimes civil disobedience is required to fulfill the law of love.

Perhaps by now Brother Jeff has learned that applying scripture out of context is not such a good idea.  Doing so can prompt people to read beyond the verses you have quoted and to encounter the whole of God’s word in scripture. That includes God’s word made flesh in Jesus Christ, who welcomed the children, who blessed the children, who told us that it is to the children that the kingdom of God belongs.

God bless the children.  God bless our nation’s leaders.  And God bless America.


[1] Religion News Service, June 16, 2018

[2] Ibid.

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Out of the mouths of babes

Screenshot 2018-02-21 17.02.19

Photo by Allison Tant Richard

Today I stood on the steps of Florida’s Old State Capitol with fellow clergy and watched thousands — most of them young — restore my faith in democracy.  It’s hard to express how moving it was to see such determined, articulate young people speak the truth to power with zeal, determination and courage.

The children from Majory Stoneman Douglas High School were not dupes of the left or actors flown in to impersonate real life youngsters.  They were the flesh-and-blood human beings whose friends were slaughtered and whose lives have been scarred forever by a troubled contemporary yielding a weapon meant for the battlefield.

I would not like to be the legislator who has to look those grieving young people in the eye and tell them that he or she does not support curtailing the availability and proliferation of all guns – especially those designed for military use.
I am beyond anger at lawmakers who say, “We don’t ban cars when someone uses a car to kill people; why should we ban guns?” That analogy is not only specious, it’s insulting to the memory of the 17 who died last week. There’s a difference between a machine meant for transportation and a machine built for slaughter. In fact, we do regulate cars. We regulate who can drive them and where, and how fast. We license drivers who have to pass a test. We insist on safety standards and even recall vehicles that don’t meet the standards

Not so with guns. Guns are for killing.

Nor am I persuaded that “mental health” is the prime issue. It is the height of hypocrisy that a legislature that refuses to expand health coverage to its low income citizens would suddenly call for more money for “mental health.” Clearly, the shooter at Parkland was deeply disturbed, and “the system” failed to give him the care he needed. But in fact, the incidence of mental illness is no higher for the United States than other rich industrialized nations, and people who are mentally ill are seldom violent toward others on a mass scale. Nikolas Cruz was an “outlier” among those suffering from mental illness. “Mental health” is not the primary issue.

The primary issue is the easy availability and proliferation of guns – especially hand guns and guns designed to fire many rounds rapidly.

Speaking of mental illness, it is beyond insane that a 18-year-old can walk into a store, fill out some papers, wait a few minutes, and walk out with an AR-15 rifle. In five of the six deadliest mass shootings of the past six years in the United States, the gunman had an AR- 15-style semiautomatic rifle. You have to be 21 to buy a handgun nationwide, but in many Florida counties you can buy an AR-15 at age 18 without a 3-day waiting period.

That’s my definition of madness.

The writers of the second amendment could not have dreamed that there would come a time in America when a person, barely an adult himself, could slaughter children with a weapon sanctioned by law. In their wildest nightmares, they could not have imagined that the “right to bear arms” would come to this.

But today I witnessed what I pray will be a tipping point in the struggle for common sense gun control.  These young people won’t give up, nor are they likely to excuse us adults who have failed so miserably to protect them.

Shame on us and Bravo to them.

” . . . and a little child shall lead them.”

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No Place to Call Home

Screenshot 2017-12-21 10.30.19National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day takes place on December 22, the longest night of the year. Tonight some 200 communities will gather to read the names of their neighbors — neighbors who have experienced homelessness and who have died in the course of the year.

Tonight in Tallahassee, we will gather at the Kearney Center, a facility built to be both an emergency shelter and a one-stop center to assist folks who are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness.  My primary connection to the Kearney Center is through Operation I.D., a program which helps folks to acquire a state-issued identification care.  For many, getting an i.d. is the first step in the transition from homelessness to housing.

That Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day should come on the day Congress is poised to pass the largest tax cut in a generation is more that ironic.  Among those who will pay for this egregious legislation will be neighbors served by the Kearney Center.

I was asked to give the “eulogy” at tonight’s memorial.  Here is what I plan to say . . .

We have gathered to mark the passing of brothers and sisters in the human family, people who are often overlooked or even purposefully avoided in our everyday lives. 

Homelessness is a moral issue.  The fact that so many people are coping with homelessness in this land of plenty is evidence of a moral failure on the part of us who elect our officials, make our laws, and set our economic priorities. 

The elimination of homelessness should be toward the top of Congress’ priorities.  Instead, Congress has spent the past few months cutting deals for the wealthy and trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate.  Just a portion of those billions that Congress is about to hand over to folks who don’t need the money could be used to end homelessness pretty much overnight. 

Although homelessness is a moral issue, to be a person coping with homelessness implies neither virtue nor vice.  People become homeless for all sorts of reasons, and none of us has the right to judge. 

Tonight is the longest night of the year, and it is also very close to the holy day Christians call “Christmas.”  It is important to remember that the child born in Bethlehem was laid in a manger because there was no room for him, and that he grew up to be the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head.

If you want to find Jesus this Christmas Eve, don’t be so sure you will find him in church.  He is just as likely to be here at the Kearney Center or camped in the woods, or sleeping rough in a doorway. 

Tonight we read the names of fellow human beings who died in the past year.  On this list will be friends to some of you, or acquaintances, or clients.  Whether you know them personally or not, you can be sure that they are somebody’s child, or sister, or brother.  Somebody’s mother or daddy, perhaps. Somebody’s lover. 

I know at least one person on this list. We had become friends through the years, and he would drop by the church occasionally to let me know how he was doing.  I was surprised to see his name on the list.  I didn’t even know he had died.

It is a privilege to read his name.  I believe that God knows every name on this list, and that is pleasing to God that we should remember these, God’s precious children.

Carl Alcorn
Joseph Burelli
Marva Chester
Rick “Dirty” Daniel
Steven Davis
Walter Dupree
Thomas Hodge
Brian Farley Jones
John Kennedy (aka Dan/Casper)
James Arthur Lewis
Deatrice Louis
Stanley Rall
Harold Reimer
Mark Reimer
Joey Tran
Shawn Whipple
Kaylyn Van De Wostine


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Gone but not Forgotten

Screenshot 2017-12-11 17.43.17In one of his sermons the great preacher Fred Craddock talked about going to a funeral for a word that had died.  I don’t remember the word in question, but just now I’m mourning the death of the wonderful old word “evangelical.”

Well, the word hasn’t exactly died.  Instead it has been appropriated by Christians who seem to have lost touch with the word’s original meaning.

The English words “evangel,” “evangelist,” and “evangelical” are derived from the Greek word euangelion, which means “good tidings” or “good news.”  That same Greek word euangelion passed through Latin and Old English to emerge as the word “gospel.”

The lectionary texts for the season of Advent are peppered with “good news.”  We hear it on lips of the ancient prophet Isaiah, in the preaching of John the Baptist, in the message of the angels to the shepherds, and, of course, on the lips of Jesus himself.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John and spends 40 days in the wilderness.  When he emerges from the wilderness, he takes up John’s message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news (euangelion).

The “good news” of the gospel is Jesus himself – the one who sets captives free, who heals the sick, who restores sight to the blind, who forgives, who touches lepers, who reaches out to women, who welcomes children, and who brings euangelion to the poor.  The message of Jesus is itself the “good news,” and whoever bears witness to Jesus is, quite literally, an evangelist.

I believe that the message about Jesus is still “good news.”  In my mind at least, that makes me an evangelical Christian.

Alas, I fear the word “evangelical” has come to mean something else altogether.  Now it refers to a subset of Christians who believe, among other things, that President Trump is God’s agent to hasten the End Times.  For this reason, many “evangelicals” are jubilant over Mr. Trump’s declaration that he will move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, signaling that Jerusalem is the true capital of the modern State of Israel.

According to this strain of thinking, known as “Millenialism,” the stage is now set for a worldwide conflagration.  When the dust finally settles, Jesus will return to earth to gather up true believers and dispatch the rest of humanity to hell.

If you don’t find much euangelion in that way of thinking, I don’t blame you.

I interpret Biblical texts differently.  I don’t see this End Times formula in the Bible, and I don’t think it is consistent with the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  While I respect sisters and brothers in Christ who adhere to this line of interpretation, I don’t agree with them.  And, frankly, I don’t think there’s very much good news in their version of the Good News.

To them, I’m not a “real” Christian.  I’m certainly not an “evangelical” Christian.  In my heart, however, I know otherwise.

I’d call myself a “classical evangelical” if it would help, but it won’t.  Let’s just say that I agree with other evangelicals, that, in the end, all of this is up to the Triune God.



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