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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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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