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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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


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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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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Who will testify?

fracking-infographicThere are certain liabilities attendant to serving a church two blocks from the State Capitol.  Because of my proximity, I am (too) often asked to testify before Senate and House committees.  As Moses said to the burning bush, “If it weren’t for honor of the whole thing, I’d just as soon not go.”  

However, I have agreed to address the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government this afternoon, January 25.  The Committee is taking up Senate Bill 318, which, among other things, declares null and void actions taken by local governments to ban fracking in their jurisdictions, and calls for a million-dollar study to see if fracking might be safe, and preserves as “trade secrets” the list of chemicals used in fracking.  

Of course, the bill doesn’t speak of “fracking.”  It talks of “high-pressure well stimulation” — a much less volatile phrase.

I was asked to make the moral case against the bill — in less than two minutes.  So here’s what I plan to say to the good senators:

Thank you for your service. According to John Calvin, public service like yours is the highest form of service – far above that of pastoring a church.

I urge you to consider the moral case against SB 318, and indeed, the moral case for a ban on fracking in the State of Florida.

I stand in a religious tradition that affirms that “The earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof . . .” (Ps. 24). You and I are not the owners of creation. We are the stewards of creation. As stewards, we are responsible to God and to our neighbors to manage the earth’s resources with regard to the good of all.

We do not need a million-dollar study to tell us what is already known about what the bill calls “high-pressure well stimulation.” The harm caused by fracking is already well documented in peer-reviewed studies. The jury is not out on this matter; it simply is the case that fracking cannot be done safely. The questions in this bill regarding groundwater pollution and harm to general health have already been answered, and to maintain otherwise is either misinformed or, frankly, disingenuous.

This bill overrides the decisions of elected officials who have already declared a ban on fracking in their jurisdictions, undermining the will of the people who elected them and undercutting their proper authority. It also prevents ordinary citizens from knowing what’s being injected into the earth beneath their feet.

You may not share my religious conviction that we humans do not own God’s creation. But, as members of the human race, regardless of your religious convictions, you owe it to your fellow human beings to protect them from the harm that fracking clearly causes. You have this obligation not only to this generation, but also to our children’s children for generations to come. In other words, all of your true constituents have yet to be born.

God will not thank you and me for doing our job as stewards of the earth. That’s our job. But I do thank you for weighing this matter in a morally responsible way.

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Shared Faith, Different Visions

Screenshot 2016-01-11 08.06.05Just down the street from the church I serve, Franklin Graham, my brother in Christ, will be holding a prayer rally in front of the old Capitol building.  According to Brother Graham’s website, the purpose of the rally is to challenge Christians to share and live their faith at home, in public, and at the ballot box.  I join Brother Franklin in the fervent hope that Christians in American will do just that.

At the same time my brother is appealing for Christian unity through prayer and action, however, he is fanning the flames of homophobia and Islamophobia.  As I read his tweets in social media, it is clear to me that he and I differ as to how Christians should live out their faith, both in private and in the public square.

I won’t being attending the rally.  Three busloads of immigration reform activists are coming to our church on the same day.  Our congregation will provide hospitality, including, meals, showers, a warm place to sleep.  We think partnering with the Florida Immigration Coalition is a good way to live out the gospel.

But I will pray.  Here’s what I’m praying for.

I pray for Christians in American to reach out to neighbors – especially to neighbors who do not share their race, religion, or culture.  I pray this because I believe that Christians are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love neighbors as themselves.

I pray for elected leaders to seek justice for what the Bible calls “the least of these” – the people on the margins of society — the hungry, the naked, the thirsty and the imprisoned.  That means reforming our penal system, restoring civil rights to ex-prisoners, and amending immigration policy so that families are not torn apart and children who know no other home than America can share the American dream.

I pray that my fellow Christians will follow Jesus Christ, our mirror to the human and our window to the divine, by crossing boundaries and welcoming the stranger, the outcast, and the dispossessed.  It seems to me that’s one of the best ways to share what we Christians call “The Gospel,” that is, the “good news” of Jesus Christ.

I pray that all Americans of all faith traditions will not fall victim to fear and hate, but instead will seek to understand the variety and complexity that is part of every faith tradition, including Christianity.  Before we decry the speck in the eye of the one who differs from us, we need to remove the log from our own eye.

According to his Facebook page, Brother Graham believes that “The problem we have in this country is sin.”  As a Christian and a Calvinist, I couldn’t agree more.  From my theological perspective, “sin” means, among other things, falling short of God’s best hopes for us.

The way I see it, Brother Graham and I have much in common.  We differ, however, in our vision of what Christians are called to be and do.

That Christians in America are falling short is clear.  I have faith that God will sort out our divers prayers and answer those that conform to God’s best hopes for this fallen world – this world God loves.

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An Open Letter to Brother Donald

John Knox Witherspoon

Presbyterians are no strangers to high office.  Some have sought it, some have attained it, and some have helped to shape others who have held it.

John Witherspoon, the only member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).  Among his students were James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, William Bradford, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. From among his students came 37 judges (three of whom became justices of the U.S. Supreme Court), 10 Cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 presbyters had studied under Witherspoon.

Abraham Lincoln and his family never joined the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., but they worshiped there regularly.  When beloved son Willie, age eleven,  died, the Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor at the New York Avenue Church, presided at his funeral in the East Room of the White House, and when Lincoln was shot, it was Dr. Gurley who was called to his bedside.  Dr. Gurley continued to provide pastoral care to the Lincoln family.

William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, was nominated for president and ran three times, losing every time.  A ruling elder, he also ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1923 — only once, but he lost that election, too.  Brother William might not be my favorite ancestor, but then again, you can’t pick your relatives.

Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse, was thoroughly Presbyterian.  Dwight Eisenhower was born into a tradition that became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but shortly after his first inauguration he was baptized in a Presbyterian service and remained a member of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Church until his death.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian, too.  He says the Bible is his favorite book.  Recently the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly wrote brother Donald an informative letter:

Mr. Trump,

I am the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination of the congregation in Queens, New York, where you were baptized. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) develops its policies through councils of teaching elders and ruling elders. At the national level it does that through the General Assembly. I would like to share with you the Presbyterian policies on refugees and immigrants.

Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. Presbyterians have a mission presence in many refugee-sending countries, including Syria and Lebanon, where we have been present since 1823. Our relationship with people of faith and communities in these countries gives us knowledge of the root causes of the flight of refugees and further cements a commitment to welcome.

Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.

As a Presbyterian I acknowledge my immigrant ancestors and my new immigrant sisters and brothers. I also respect that we came uninvited to a land already occupied by people. This creates a sense of humility about my citizenship that shapes my views on those who seek a place here. I hope you will find this helpful. I especially hope it will inform you on your policies going forward.

In Christ,

The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

What a helpful letter. I hope brother Donald takes it heart.

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