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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Vigil in Tallahassee

CharlottesvilleLast Thursday, August 17, a vigil was held at Tallahassee’s Lake Ella to remember the victims of violence in Charlottesville and to stand for peace, justice, and inclusion.  I was honored to be asked to speak.  Here are my remarks:

Thank you for coming out on this warm evening to express our solidarity with the people of Charlottesville and our concern for the peace and welfare of our nation.

Tallahassee has a lot in common with Charlottesville.  Both are centers of higher education and both play central roles in the history of their respective states.

But we have something far more important in common with Charlottesville.

Like Charlottesville, Tallahassee is populated by human beings
people created in the image of God,
people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,
people who are responsible for their behavior
and for the welfare of their communities.

What happened in Charlottesville last weekend exposed an ugly and shameful aspect of our common humanity.

We saw that some of our brothers and sisters – and it’s only a few – think of themselves as superior
to people of color,
to Jews and Muslims,
to women,
and to members of the LGBTQ community.

These people fancy themselves superior, but also somehow aggrieved,  that America is becoming more and more racially, religiously, and culturally diverse.

They look at the rainbow and see storm clouds.

They see the world changing, and they would like to turn back the clock —
to a time when women knew their place,
when black lives didn’t matter,
when gay, lesbian, and transgender people hid in their closets
and feared for their jobs and even their lives.

These people feel so aggrieved that they are willing to take their Nazi banners, their clubs, their guns, and their fists to march lockstep into the past –
and they want America to march with them.

We are here tonight to say that we will not march with these folks.

We will not return hate for hate,
taunt for taunt,
blow for blow,
but we will not be silent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.

We will not be silent.

We will not pretend that racial and religious bigotry is OK.

We will not accept the warped and twisted notion that there is a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and people who stand up for human dignity, equality, and community.

Even if that bankrupt morality should be broadcast from the Whitehouse, we will not accept it.

We will not be trumped by those who would make America small again.

So, we must pray for our enemies and stand with our friends.

We must become the nation God wants us to be.

We must live up to our highest values, and not down to our lowest instincts.

We must make America great again –
great in mercy,
great in compassion,
great in concern for neighbor.

I believe that’s what the vast majority of Americans want –
regardless of their sect or party.

I know that’s what Tallahassee wants.

May God give us strength to face up to evil,
honesty to confront the evil within our own hearts,
and grace to live up to God’s best hopes for us
– and for this world which God loves.

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Trinity and Iftar

 

This week our congregation hosted an event for Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  Sponsored by the Atlantic Institute, this was an occasion for people of the Abrahamic faiths to learn about each other’s faith traditions and share the Iftar meal.  A speaker from each tradition was assigned the topic “Service to Humanity in the Abrahamic Faiths.”  Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday in the Christian calendar, so I took the opportunity to form my talk around the doctrine of the Trinity.  

Shalom.  Salaam.  Peace

I have the honor to tell you tonight why service to humanity is so important to us Christians.  I have chosen to align my remarks with a doctrine that is distinctive to the Christian tradition – a doctrine that, you probably know, is soundly rejected by both Jews and Muslims.  I speak of the doctrine of the Trinity – the idea that God is One, and within the Divine Unity are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinity is the conceptual grammar we Christians use to speak about God.  More than that, Trinity is the way we experience God in scripture, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the ongoing life of the Church.

I speak of Trinity tonight not to provoke offense, but rather to be honest about what those of us in this room do and do not have in common.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us gathered here tonight share a commitment to our neighbor, broadly defined.  We all believe that God desires us to show compassion and respect toward one another.  We all affirm, that in one way or another, we serve God through service to our fellow human beings.  The theological and conceptual underpinnings of those commonalities might be similar, but they are not identical.  The fact that we have so much in common creates a “safe space” for honesty about our differences.

So, using Trinitarian grammar, let me tell you why service to humanity is so important.

First, we Christians know God as Father, the Creator of the world and everything in it.  God the Father is revealed in many places in our scriptures, but especially in the stories of creation found in the Book of Genesis, one of which we read just last Sunday in worship.  In that first story, after creating the heavens, the earth, and living creatures of every kind, God creates humankind in God’s own image.  The New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible reads:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.  Male and female he created them . . .

To claim God as Father in the Trinitarian sense is to affirm that all people are created in the image of God.  All people – of every race, every nation, and every faith.

It follows that to know God as Father is to be committed to the welfare of all human beings – not just those who look like us, or speak like us, or belong to our tribe. Not just those who obey our laws and customs.  Not just those who want to put America first.  And, I should add, not just “people of the Book,” that is, those of us in the Abrahamic faiths.

In the second creation story in the Book of Genesis we learn another important lesson about God the Father: God made us to live not in isolation from one another, but in community with one another.  “It is not good that the man (the adam) should be alone,” God says.  “I will make him a helper as his partner.”

(I won’t take that story any further just now.  It involves the naming of a long list of candidates, none of which fits the bill, a deep sleep, a quick operation, and a cry of delight from Adam, “At last!  Here is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  A serpent and fig leaves also come into play, but let’s not get into all that just now.)

The point is, you and I are not made to live in splendid isolation.  We were created to live in communion with one another.  To know God as Father is to strive for human community.

The second person of the Godhead, in Christian grammar, is the Son – that is, Jesus Christ.  We Christians believe that Jesus is God’s word made flesh, God’s incarnate Son.  Our scriptures tell us that Jesus went out of his way to reach across racial and religious boundaries to show God’s love for the world.  According to the Gospels, Jesus touched people who were ritually unclean, conversed with and healed foreigners, welcomed notorious sinners, and taught his disciples that they should be the least of all and the servants of all.

Jesus also enacted the role of prophet, exposing hypocrisies, driving out money-changers in the temple, and calling people to repentance.  He embodied what the Latin American bishops famously termed “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  He preached that in God’s coming kingdom, the first will be last and the last first.

Perhaps the most powerful lens through which to view Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, comes from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  There we find a parable about the Last Judgement.  The king in the story rewards those who welcomed him when he was a stranger, fed him when he was hungry, gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison.

“When did we do any of this to you?” the righteous want to know.

“Truly I tell you,” comes the reply, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We Christians believe that when we care for “the lease of these,” — the poor, the violated, the hungry, the outcast, the stranger, the immigrant, the prisoner – we are ministering to Jesus Christ himself.  In other words, God is somehow present in the suffering of others, and to serve them is to serve God.

Conversely, when we fail to show hospitality to strangers, when we fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, I would add, provide health care to the working poor, we fail to serve the Son of God, who is somehow present in those neighbors.  This is why President Trump’s assault on the Affordable Healthcare Act is so deeply troubling and so contrary to the heart of Christianity.

The third person of the Godhead in Trinitarian grammar is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, we believe, can be seen throughout scripture and experience. The Spirit the divine “breath” (ruach) which broods over the watery chaos in the opening verses of Genesis.  The Spirit is the power that emboldens the prophets of old to cry, “Thus says the Lord . . .”  The Spirit is the “still small voice” that keeps the faithful from losing heart.

The Holy Spirit is also the person within the Godhead who enlivens the church to carry out God’s work in the world.  The Spirit goes ahead of us, preparing the way.  We Christians used to think of Christian mission as bringing God to those who do not know God.  There is something profoundly inadequate about that way of thinking.

We don’t bring God to others.  We meet God who, by the Holy Spirit, is already present in others and at work in the world.  For instance, we believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Civil Rights Movement, and is at work now in ongoing efforts for social justice and racial reconciliation.   We believe that the Spirit still inspires ordinary people to speak the truth to power and to pursue God’s vision of peace, justice, and love.

The Spirit is free.  Like the wind, it blows where it will, and its range is not limited to the Christian Church.  Wherever walls of hostility are broken down, wherever humans are working together for good, wherever eyes are opened to behold the image of God in our fellow human beings, there the Holy Spirit is active.

More than that, when believe that when we pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words.”  Even in moments of deep despair, we are not alone.  The God who claims us out of pure love will never let us go.

I have barely scratched the surface of Trinitarian theology, but I hope you have gained at least some insight into what makes Christians tick.  I want to make one last point about what motivates Christians – or a least the Christians I hang round with – to serve humanity.

We do it not out of fear of punishment or to earn our way into heaven.  We do it in response to the love and grace revealed in the Triune God.  The key words in the lexicon of our faith are “grace” and “gratitude.”  Because we have experienced God’s unmerited grace in Jesus Christ, we are motivated to serve God in others simply because we are grateful.  It’s not fear or guilt that motivates our service to humanity.

Service is our response to the gracious and loving God whom we know as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Or, to quote the First Letter of John, “We love because he first loved us.”

Let me conclude with the quintessential Trinitarian benediction which comes from the Letter of Paul to the church in Corinth:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the   Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

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Top Dog

Screenshot 2017-06-03 09.28.17As I write, I am sitting in a sunny room in my mother-in-law’s home in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Yes, it’s not often one can put “sunny” and “Scotland” in the same sentence.)  I confess to some reluctance to leaving the house today, for that would mean facing my Scottish relatives and friends who are aghast at the behavior of the President of the United States.

I have considered wearing a bag over my head when I go out, but that probably wouldn’t work.  As soon as I opened my mouth, my accent would betray me. I might as well own up to the fact that “my” President is a profound embarrassment not only to me, but to the world.  His most recent equivalent to an upraised middle finger is his announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks rightly points out the amoral basis upon which my President makes his decisions.

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

My President never learned to sing “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world . . .”  He fails to grasp the fundamental concept of “neighbor” that lies at the heart of Christian ethics.

That’s why, even if he were to accept the scientific evidence for climate change, he would still reject the Paris accords on the grounds that other countries might get the better deal – might gain some advantage in the endless struggle to get ahead of their competitors.  Never mind that, historically speaking, the United States is the world’s greatest carbon polluter.  What’s important is today’s deal – today’s opportunity to win.

For that’s what the world is through my president’s eyes – a field of perpetual and brutal competition.  On the personal level, it’s “Donald first.”  On the global level, it’s “America first.”

My President has put a new spin on the concept of “American exceptionalism.”  The term used to suggest that American had a unique mission to make the world a better place – to be a “city set upon a hill,” a beacon of hope to the downtrodden and beleaguered, a nation willing to take moral leadership in the global community.  Under Mr. Trump, America doesn’t even pretend to aspire to such moral high ground.  We’re just one more dog in in a dog-eat-dog world – and a snarling, vicious one at that.

As I lead worship every Lord’s Day I pray aloud for the President of the United States.  I pray that he will be guided by the Holy Spirit and graced with wisdom, forbearance, and insight.  I will continue to make that prayer, for I truly hope that he will repent and open himself to God’s leading.

If he does, the first question he will have to struggle with is, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus has an answer for him, but to receive it, he must have ears to hear.

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Free to Differ

Screenshot 2017-05-09 08.55.41President Trump has promised to “destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, which has become shorthand for a provision in the tax code that applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations. Groups that enjoy that most-favored tax status must refrain from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates.

The law makes perfect sense to me.  Organizations that benefit from what is in effect a public subsidy should not be allowed to function as partisan organizations.

Proponents of repeal of the Johnson Amendment see it as suppressing “religious liberty.”  I don’t see it that way at all.  The law simply limits groups, including churches, from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity.  Nothing in the law bars me, as a Christian pastor, from speaking freely about matters of faith and public policy.  I can certainly praise or criticize those who hold public office.  What I can’t do under the law is endorse candidates for office – at least not in my capacity as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

In many ways, this fracas is much ado about nothing.  Only rarely has the IRS gone after churches for overt partisan political activity.  Despite what fear mongers say, the IRS is not poised to pounce on preachers.

Although I have occasionally been asked to endorse candidates for office, it has always been my policy not to do so.  I suppose that, as a private citizen, I could endorse someone, but, as any pastor will tell you, a pastor is never really “off duty.”  I have never endorsed –nor will I ever endorse – anyone from the pulpit.  On the other hand, my calling to preach the Word sometimes leads me to question or praise office holders and their policies.

My Dad, who was a pastor, declined to put a political sign in the yard of the manse.  When he lived in a home not owned by the church, however, he changed his mind.  I don’t put partisan bumper stickers on my car because I use it for official functions.  I don’t want a grieving family of a differing political persuasion to follow my car in a funeral procession, resentful of my politics.  On the other hand, because I own my own home, you might see the odd political sign in the front yard (or several of them.)

This week’s edition of Time magazine recalls the almost-forgotten role that some clergy played in the abortion debate before the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe versus Wade.  Writer Gillian Frank singles out the courageous acts taken by Charles Landreth, Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, and Florida State University Professor Leo Sandon.  The first paragraph of her article reads:

“Today I want to speak to The Challenge of the Sexual Revolution, or to The Use of the Body in Regard to Abortion,” declared the Reverend Charles Landreth on, June 6, 1971. From the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Fla., Landreth invited those present to imagine different situations that led to a “problem pregnancy.” Landreth prodded his congregants, asking them to consider what an unwanted pregnancy and lack of access to abortion could mean to an older married woman, a young woman who had been raped or a high-school girl “scared literally to death to tell her staunch Catholic parents and therefore very tempted to run to a quack . . . ”

I recommend the article.  I also give thanks to God for servants like Charlie Landreth and Leo Sandon, who truly understand what “religious liberty” means.

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