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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Calling for Blood

Screenshot 2017-04-24 10.08.30

In this season of Eastertide, the newspaper headlines cause me to remember that my Lord and Savior, the risen Christ, was the victim of capital punishment.  Jesus’ death came at the hands of the State and with the apparent approval of a great many.  Even though he had grave doubts about Jesus’ actual guilt, the Roman Governor Pilate gave assent to his execution.  Jesus’ death was cruel by any standard, but by the standard of the Roman Empire in the first century, it was not unusual.

The blood lust of “the crowd” is a major feature of the Passion story.  Governor Pilate offers to release Jesus, but the crowd insists, “Crucify him!”  On this all the Gospels agree.  Horrible as crucifixion was, it seems to have had the approval of the people Pilate listened to.  By the end of the day on Good Friday, it appeared that the people’s lust for blood had the final say.

I hear echoes of the Gospels in the way the State of Arkansas has attempted to set up a conveyor belt of death.  The Governor in that fair state attempted to kill eight prisoners in eleven days.  Apparently, he needed to fill  all eight coffins before the State’s supply of midazolam had reached its expiration date.  Governor Pilate had a similar propensity to execute people in batches.  That’s why there were three crosses on the hill called Golgotha.

I am thankful that the courts threw a monkey wrench into Governor Asa Hutchinson’s killing machine, but I take no solace in knowing that a majority of Arkansians probably support his effort.  True, a few are aghast, but crowds have not stormed the capitol demanding a return to something approaching sanity.

One wonders where the Christians are.

Nor do I find consolation in the fact that the same thing hasn’t happened (yet) in Florida.  Recently, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in any case.  This is, of course, her prerogative under state law, and she has good reasons for her decision.  She’s dead right when she says that the death penalty serves neither the interests of the community or the cause of justice.  Would that Governor Pilate – or Governor Hutchison — had such insight and courage.

As for Florida’s Governor Scott, he has taken 23 capital murder cases away from Ms. Ayala, and turned them over to a prosecutor who does not share Ms. Ayla’s aversion to execution.  This is no surprise, coming from a Governor who has signed more death warrants than any of his predecessors since the death penalty came back into use in 1977.

In a recent online meditation, Richard Rohr writes about the death of Jesus, and how his death “takes away the sin of the world.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin—ignorant hatred and violence, not the usual preoccupation with purity codes—and by refusing the usual pattern of vengeance, which keeps us inside of an insidious quid pro quo logic. In fact, he “returns their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:28), teaching us that we can “follow him” and not continue the spiral of violence. He unlocks our entrapment from within. (https://cac.org/)

It’s clear to me that we are indeed trapped in a pattern of vengeance.  As Easter people, we know in our hearts that there is a better way.

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Not in My Neighborhood?

screenshot-2017-02-27-11-00-01The best way to ease our conscience regarding deportations of immigrants is for us tell ourselves that the government is targeting “criminal aliens.” No one will lose sleep if “bad hombres” are the only people being spirited away by ICE agents.

Then comes the news that the manager of the local Piggly Wiggly, the fellow who has lived as your neighbor for 20 years, has been arrested and imprisoned. That’s what happened to residents of Apalachicola, Florida. Jose Francisco “Pancho” Grijalva Monroy was a familiar face – a neighbor, a friend. Surely he’s not a “criminal alien.”

It turns out that Mr. Monroy did have a run-in with the law a few years ago. The charges were dropped, but it appears his name remained on a list. Somehow I doubt the residents of Apalachicola will sleep more soundly now that that their friend and neighbor resides in the ICE retention center in Wakulla County.

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco – just Carlos to the people of West Frankfort, Illinois — has managed the La Fiesta Mexican restaurant in the heart of town for a decade. He’s the kind of neighbor who knows your kids by name, who brought food for local firefighters during a big fire, and who drove 2 hours to the hospital to visit someone he had heard about – not a relative – just someone who needed a visit.

Carlos was picked up by ICE agents on February 9. It turns out he was arrested for DWI years ago. And, yes, he’s an immigrant from Mexico without papers.

Residents of West Frankfort call Carols a “stand-up guy,” a “role model for life,” a “pillar of the community.” Although the town of 8,000 voted solidly for Mr. Trump, nobody seems to have imagined that the “bad hombres” Mr. Trump promised to expel would include Carlos. Now they’re writing letters of support to ICE – everybody from the mayor to the high school coach to the local prosecutor.

When immigrants acquire faces and names, when your kids go to school with their kids, when they show up with free food to feed the local fire brigade – you see them not as “criminal aliens” but as neighbors.

And we all know what Jesus says about neighbors.

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What he said . .

c2ne8lmxeaaz3gaMy Daddy used to say that if you can resist the urge to make a speech at a presbytery meeting, the odds are, somebody else will make it for you. My colleague Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, N.Y., provides evidence that my Daddy was right.

Like Brother Brett, I could sure use some relief. 

 

 

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Christmas Eve Sermon

clothespin-angel

Clothespin Angel

Not Afraid

A few weeks ago, I was accosted (in a nice Christian way, of course) by two young women in our high school youth group. They had heard that some idiot (that would be me) was planning to tinker with this Christmas Eve service. They were, to put it mildly, upset, to think that anyone would mess with a Christmas tradition that they have known since they were babes in arms.

I assured my young friends that there was nothing to worry about. The format would be different — not lessons and carols, but a full service of Eucharistic celebration – but not to worry. We would be singing lots of carols and we would without fail turn off all the lights, set candles ablaze, and hold them aloft as we sing Silent Night.

You could see the relief on their faces. Contrary to popular notion, the most traditional people of all are not the elderly, but the young. They’re the ones who can’t get to sleep without their favorite blanket arranged just so, or their stuffed animal nuzzled precisely at the right angle. In my experience, it’s not octogenarians who resist change. It’s teenagers.

And so it should be. At a time in their lives when everything is in flux, it is only natural that the young should cling to established rituals and familiar words. Each of us might finish this sentence differently, but I suspect we all could complete it:

It wouldn’t be Christmas without . . .

Without candles?

Without carols?

Without that yellowing ornament made by your then four-year-old out of a clothes pin and a folded-over cupcake paper. You know the one I mean. It has a ball of cotton for hair which makes it look vaguely like a Cossack dancer. Over the years, you’ve accumulated much nicer decorations, some of them quite expensive, but none so precious as that clothes-pin angel with the cupcake paper wings. It takes pride of place on your tree every year.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without that clothespin angel.

Of course there are the obvious items.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a manger, without a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, without Joseph and Mary. You need shepherds, of course. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them. And a few wise persons will show up eventually. Three at the minimum, I’d say. A few sheep and at least one cow lowing as “the poor baby wakes,” and our list is complete.

Or is it? According to Luke, there is just one thing missing – one thing that accompanies the “good news of great joy for all the people,” and that one thing is . . . fear.

That’s right. Fear. Fear is essential to the Christmas story, and indeed, essential to the gospel itself.

It’s there in the angel’s visit to Mary. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel tells her, and then announces that her boy will be called the Son of the Most High. And fear is present in the angel’s visit to Joseph, too. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel tells Joseph as his pen is poised to sign the divorce papers.

I suspect that there is not a little fear riding along with that young couple on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And the fear in the hearts of those shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” – well, that is to be expected. It’s not every night that the sky is filled with “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells those shepherds – and Joseph, and Mary, and you and me. With the birth of this child, God is coming to join you in your fears and in your rejoicing.

Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. There is so much more to the gospel than the birth of Jesus. It won’t be long before Joseph, Mary, and their baby become refugees, fleeing across the border into Egypt to escape King Herod’s henchmen.

When it’s safe to come home to Nazareth, they live, like everyone else, under the oppression of Rome. This child wrapped tonight in swaddling clothes grows up to shatter racial and religious boundaries, challenge entrenched ideologies, eat and drink with prostitutes and tax collectors, and die on a cross condemned for blasphemy and sedition. Buried in a borrowed tomb, this same Jesus will be raised from the dead by the power of almighty God.

God is in all of this – the birth, the teaching, the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, born of Mary, born under the law. Our fears, whatever they be, are met in him tonight – met in Emmanuel, God With Us.

To live the truth of Christmas is to engage in the ministry of that grown-up Christ child. It is to reach out to the poor who cannot get decent healthcare in this land of plenty. It is to welcome, not dehumanize, the refugee. It is to resist the tug of tribalism which is eating away at our national character. It is to be great — great in mercy, great in compassion, great in love for neighbor, and great in zeal for justice.

Some very nasty demons have been stirred up by the hateful rhetoric of the recent campaign. Jesus, you will recall, was in the business of facing down and casting out demons. You and I can fear those demons, or we can face them down and send them packing. That’s what Jesus did, and he told us to do the same.

The hopes and fears of all the years – this year included – are met tonight in the child of Bethlehem, the prophet of Jerusalem, the Lord of Life. To him alone be glory in the highest heaven, and here on earth, where still he is pleased to dwell.

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