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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The Hopes and Fears of the Next Four Years

adventcandleschristcandleThe date of Easter moves around according to the lunar calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is not a “moveable feast.” It is rooted in the solar calendar, and is always observed on December 25th.

However, December 25th falls on varying days of the week, a fact that can drive preachers crazy. This year I have a whole week between the last Sunday of Advent and Christmas. Next year, the last Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve!

So, it’s Monday I don’t have my Christmas Eve sermon ready yet. I’m grateful to have a few days to prepare. I can’t remember a time in my life when our nation was more divided or more anxious about an incoming presidential administration. Nor can I remember having a President-elect who behaves like Mr. Trump, flouting protocols, tweeting insults, and appointing foxes to oversee chicken coops. I am truly fearful for our nation, the environment, and our neighbors around the world.

I bring that fear to the texts for Christmas – to the angels’ command, “Fear not!” and to the unlikely king who lies swaddled in a manger. Just what might “good tidings of great joy” mean for us today? In other words, what difference does God’s incarnation make?

Perhaps by Saturday I’ll have some kind of answer. It will have to be succinct, however. Christmas crowds don’t come to hear heavy theology. They come for the candles, the carols, and the memories. For most, Christmas is an escape from the exigencies of the moment. On Christmas, people expect the prosaic, not the prophetic – and certainly not more than ten minutes of that.

I’m especially grateful to have these six days to get ready. Ready or not, however, Christmas is almost here.

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Boys on the Bus

screenshot-2016-10-11-09-37-23Plenty of writers more widely read that I have commented on the Donald Trump “bus video.”  If you decide not to read this blog, I don’t blame you.

On the tape Mr. Trump can be heard boasting about groping women and attempting to seduce them.  He can act this way, he tells his conversation partner, because his status as a TV star guarantees him impunity.

I’m not surprised by this video.  It strikes me as entirely consistent with my earlier assessment of Mr. Trump’s moral core.  His behavior on the recording is reprehensible, but not out of character.  Nor am I scandalized by the vulgar language on the tape.  In my college days I worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.  I heard much the same from the lips of roustabouts and roughnecks.  That kind of talk has always made me cringe, but it doesn’t shock.

What bothers me most about this tawdry business is Mr. Trump’s non-apology.  His response is to say that he is not proud of what’s on the tape, but it’s just “locker room talk” – mere words.  His clear implication is that, when they are sure they will not be overheard by women, all men speak that way.

Well, they don’t.  I don’t.  My sons don’t.  The men I work with don’t. The men I exercise with don’t.  And the men I am proud to call my friends don’t.

I’m a Calvinist.  I believe all men (and all women) are sinners.  That doesn’t mean that all men speak of women with contempt, disdain, and condescension, or that they joke about violating their own marriage vows.

I’m a sinner, just like my brother Donald, but I don’t like being tarred with his brush just because we’re both men.  On the lips of teenage boys “locker room talk” is a sign of immaturity.  Coming from a grown man of 59 years it’s a sign of arrested moral development.

There is, of course, Biblical precedence. King David famously impregnated another man’s wife and arranged for her husband to be killed in battle.  David was both an adulterer and a murderer, but David came to himself and repented before God.

Brother Donald is different. Although he describes himself as a “strong Christian,” it’s not likely we will see Mr. Trump in sackcloth and ashes.  His lack of repentance is the saddest aspect of this sad episode

I said much the same about Bill Clinton back in the day.  But, you might have noticed, Bill Clinton isn’t running for President.

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Hope

SanctuaryI try not to use this platform to post sermons.  Today, however, I thought I’d make an exception.  Below is the sermon manuscript for Sunday, June 19, 2016.  It’s not the sermon.  A sermon is an oral event which takes place in a particular context and is addressed to an assembly gathered for worship.  These are just the words of the sermon (more or less).

 

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 19, 2016
Psalms 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29

Hope

Perhaps your soul, like mine, is weary this morning.  Weary from hearing news reports about the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.  Weary from reading  the text messages that came from inside the club as panicked patrons pleaded for rescue and sent their final good-byes.  Weary from watching politicians who have fought so hard against equality for the LGBT community express their new-found empathy.

Weary of the pain.  Weary of the tears.  Weary of the rank hypocrisy. Weary of those who cling to the notion that the best response to all this carnage is to put more guns in the hands of more people.  Weary of the dearth of reason and common sense — in Congress, in the Florida Legislature, and in the public square.

Weary.  Soul weary.  So very, very tired.  As the psalmist says, “ . . . my soul is cast down within me.”

We bring that weariness with us into worship this morning.  We wear it like a mantel.  It becomes our prayer shawl.  The words of Psalms 42 and 43, the psalms appointed for this day, frame our lament:

             As a deer longs for flowing streams,
                   so my soul longs for you, O God,
             My soul thirsts for God,
                  for the living God.
             When shall I come and behold
                    the face of God?
              My tears have been my food
                    day and night,
               while people say to me continually,
                   “Where is your God?”

In times like these God can indeed feel far away, remote from our reality and indifferent to our cries for help.  We would do well if, like the psalmist, we were honest about those feelings.

For many of us, the church is a safe place to bring our weariness, our frustration, and our anger – even our anger toward God.  Here we are able to say to God,

            Why have you forgotten me?
            Why must I walk about mournfully
                 because of the enemy that oppresses me?

We can say this because the psalmist shows us how, because generations have said it before us.  We are not alone in lamentation.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Church for us is a safe place to grieve.

Not everyone has such a safe place.

Last Sunday, over at Lake Ella, I joined a throng of people for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the shooting that took place early that same morning.  Over and over, speakers from the LGBT community told how the Pulse nightclub had become well known as a safe place for that community to gather.  People went there to celebrate birthdays, to announce engagements, and just to hang out with friends.  It was a setting where they didn’t feel judged or out of place.

That teeming nightclub with its loud music and throbbing lights was a kind of sanctuary for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender people.  As unlikely – even sacrilegious — as it might sound, Pulse was a kind of holy place – or if that is going too far – at least a safe place, a place of refuge from “the enemy” of which the psalmist speaks.

For so many LGBT people “the enemy” can be found at their workplace, their school, or even in their own family.  The enemy’s names are Legion, but we know some of them: homophobia, intolerance, condemnation, and bigotry.

As it turned out, Pulse was not that safe place from the onslaught of the enemy.   A man armed with a weapon that belongs on a battlefield, not a on a street in Orlando, Florida, entered that sanctuary with its loud music, pulsing lights, and mostly young, brown-skinned children of God.  The evil he carried out there is unspeakable, and its roots run deep — not only in soil of Islam, but also in the soil of Christianity.

As the vigil on Sunday ended, I conveyed to the organizers an invitation I knew you would want me to give.  “I know you want to hold tomorrow’s vigil on the steps of the Old Capitol,” I said, “but if it looks like rain, the doors of First Church are open to you.

It didn’t rain the next afternoon, but it was so hot outside, the Capitol Police were afraid a large crowd meeting under the afternoon sun would constitute a health hazard.  They declined to issue a permit, so the organizers decided to come here instead

This room was not a comfortable venue for many in the congregation last Monday  night.  For many LGBT people, the word “church” does not connote “welcome,” or “hospitality.”  It means something else. “Church” means those same enemies who broke into the Pulse nightclub last week: homophobia, intolerance, condemnation, and bigotry.

As I stood at the door, I heard one person say to another, “I thought we were supposed to be at the Old Capitol.  Why the hell are we coming to a church?

The gathering last Monday was not a worship service.  There were no prayers, no hymns, no readings from scripture.  My only role was to give a welcome.

I didn’t come to this pulpit.  I just stood down there and told the folks who had packed these pews about some of the history of this building.  I told them about Col. Richard Shine, a slave-owner and elder in this church back in the 1830’s.  The bricks in these walls were made on Col. Shine’s plantation.  The blood and sweat of slaves is mixed into these bricks and into mortar that holds these walls together.

I told them how the slaves had to sit up there in the north gallery.  Their names were entered upon the rolls of communicate members, but they weren’t allowed to sit down here with their white Presbyterian masters to share the Lord’s Supper.

“This has not always been a place of welcome and hospitality,”  I told our guests.  There are many sins of which the Gospel calls Christians to repent, not least of them being the sins of slavery and homophobia. But I wanted our guests to hear this word specifically to them at that moment of their anger and grief: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are welcome.

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
   and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
   a multitude keeping festival.

The memory of worship in the temple at Jerusalem helped the psalmist to find some sense of equilibrium in the midst of his lamentation.  I hope that, looking back on last Monday, some of those gathered here in this place of worship might have received a similar blessing from God.

Long ago, the brand new Christians of Galatia were struggling with the question “Who are we?

Are we Jews?  Are we Gentiles?  Are we misfits?  Do we cling to the law of Moses?  Do we ignore the law?  Who are we

You are children of God, Paul wrote.  All of you – children of God through faith.  As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  The old categories don’t apply anymore.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus . . .

            That good news made all the difference to those first Christians, and what was true of them is true of you and me.

The old categories don’t matter. Neither do the new ones:  Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgendered.  Important as those categories are outside these walls, they don’t matter here.  Not here, where baptism tells us who we are, where grace abounds, where sins are forgiven, where we look into the gospel mirror and see only the children of God.

When I think of those people who died last Sunday at Pulse, the thought that plagues me most is this:  that some of those people died not knowing that God loves them  — that they, too, are children of God, precious and beloved.

I am haunted by the thought that you and I failed to convey to them and to the world the love and mercy of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.  We let the categories that don’t matter get in the way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God will not hold this sin against us, but God does expect us to change.

The psalmist cries: . . . Why have you cast me off?   . . . Why have you forgotten me?  Where is God in all of this?

I know where God was last Sunday. God was in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, right in the midst of the terror, the pain, and the cries for help.  Named or not, summoned or not, even called by some other name, the Triune God was there, amidst God’s very own children, made in God’s very own image.

If I did not believe that, the weariness that I bring into this sanctuary today would be the death of me.  It would be the death of all of us.

The psalmist ends his lament with a question and a command, both addressed to himself:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

There is no neat and tidy way to end this sermon, just as there are no easy answers to the evils that haunt our violence-prone culture.  But there is a way forward, knowing that God in Christ will not forsake us.

Hope in God, beloved.  Remember who you are and hope in God.

 

See this article in the Tallahassee Democrat.

 

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Sanctuary

Mourning1

Photo by Mike Ewen

Last night First Presbyterian Church hosted a vigil in response to the shooting in Orlando.  Sponsored by Equality Florida and several other LGBT organizations, the vigil was scheduled to be held on the steps of the Old Capitol, the go-to place for public rallies in Tallahassee.  However, the Capitol Police were fearful that Monday’s temperature, which hovered near 100 degrees, might make an outdoor vigil risky.  At our church’s invitation, the vigil was moved to First Presbyterian at more or less the last minute.

Some folks in the LGBT community were uneasy about meeting in a church — and for good reason.  The church has not always lived up to the radical hospitality called for in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Our own sanctuary, finished in 1838, has not always been a place of welcome and inclusion.  The bricks in the walls of Old First were made on Col. Richard Shine’s plantation.  Richard Shine was an elder in the church and a slave owner.  The sweat of injustice is baked into the fabric of this old meeting house. The slaves of church members, although included on the Roll of Communicate Members, were required to sit upstairs in the north gallery.  They could share the sacrament with white folks, but they couldn’t sit next to them.

Still, the church was a true sanctuary — at least for some.  During the Seminole Indian Wars the building was a designated refuge for women and children.  A clearing around the church provided defenders a clear shot, should there be an attack.  That clearing served as a fire break in the great fire that destroyed most of downtown on May 25, 1843.  If it hadn’t been a “sanctuary” in a physical sense, the church would have burned along with the rest of downtown.

The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was a “safe place” — a “sanctuary” —  for many in the LGBT community.  It was the one place where people felt safe to be themselves — until last Sunday, June 12.

Our role in the vigil was strictly one of hospitality.  There was no prayer and no liturgy.  I gave a welcome, touching briefly on the history of the church and confessing the need for repentance on the part of Christians.  I told them, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are welcome.”

That is by no means everything Christians need to convey to LGBT neighbors.  But it just might be the first thing.

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Garden Grown to Seed

lawn-weedsIn the final verses of the letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages his beloved sisters and brothers with these words:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

After viewing the Republican presidential candidates’ debate last Thursday, I felt like (1) taking a shower and (2) reading Philippians 4:8.

What the world witnessed last week was more than embarrassing; it was an insult to the democratic process. I am aware that politics often gets down and dirty, and that ad hominem attacks are nothing new, but when people running for the highest office in the land resort to sexual braggadocio, they drag all of us down into the pigsty with them.

This is not a partisan concern. Whatever your political proclivities, surely you can’t be proud of what took place last week on national television. As Hamlet said,

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

What bothers me most about last week’s debacle is the message it sends to our children and to the rest of the world. America is supposed to set the standard for democracy. Struggling democracies look to us to see how it’s done. And what are we offering? “Things rank and gross in nature.”

Maybe I’m just a prude, but some things just shouldn’t be said in public by an adult who is seeking to be the leader of the free world. If one of our Preschool teachers had been in the moderator’s chair at that so-called debate, she’d have stopped the whole procedure, had the combatants sit still for a few moments, and led a discussion about what we do and don’t say to one another in a civilized community. Gently, but with firmness, she’d have explained that even if you’re angry, you don’t call people hurtful names and you keep your private parts private.

Our political garden needs some careful weeding. What it’s producing right now isn’t ready for prime time.

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