Monday, September 4, 2017

Who do you say that I am?

Yesterday's sermon text on Matthew 16, when Jesus asked the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?," took on a new meaning for me as our pastor, Rev. Keith Turman, expounded on the Word. He brought the text down to two separate questions for the Church.

First, who do we say that Jesus is? For the Christian, and for the Church, is Jesus who He says He is, in word and deed? Is He good news to the poor, comfort to the afflicted, welcome to the stranger, reconciliation to the world? Is He turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your coat and your shirt, love to the neighbor (as Jesus defines neighbor), prayer for our enemies?

And who does the world say that we (the Christian and the Church) are? Are we good news to the poor, or are we some perverted "prosperity gospel"? Are we comfort to the afflicted, or are we rubbing salt in the wounds? Are we welcome to the stranger, or do we reject "those people"? Are we part of God's reconciliation of all things, or are we the leading edge of the wedge of division?

If we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, the answer to those questions should be crystal clear.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

America, the Christian Nation

Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. – Psalm 62:8

We Americans love to make the claim that we are a Christian nation. Our politicians end their speeches with words like “God, bless the United States of America.” Yet so much of our politics, our policies, our public discourse, are based in things that run counter to the idea of a people that puts our trust in God as our refuge. We have been blessed with a land with abundant natural resources, and people with a pioneering spirit and can-do attitude. But we have also been cursed with what Rev. Jim Wallis calls America’s original sin, and we continue to wallow in the consequences of slavery. We have instituted and perpetuated an economic system that, unchecked, exploits the earth and oppresses the poor and vulnerable. And we have become so fearful that we have the largest military force on earth by far, the most people incarcerated, and the most firearms in private hands of any nation on earth.

For 250 years, our ancestors bound people from Africa in chains, shackled in the holds of ships, and brought them here to provide the labor necessary to perpetuate their idea of a civil society. When our Framers, whom we revere as demigods, wrote our Constitution, much of the real debate was over the institution of slavery, resulting in things like the Electoral College, the power of states with less population, and exactly how human some humans were. For the first 80 years of the United States of America, slavery continued as the dominant force in politics, culminating in a deadly and devastating Civil War. And while the slaves became free because of that war, our politics continue to be centered on “us versus them,” because many of us still fear “those people.” We trust in concepts like “school choice” and the war on drugs and welfare reform instead of trusting in God to give us grace to see every human as part of God’s very good Creation, made in God’s very image.

Isaiah preached doom to those who enact laws and issue decrees that oppress the poor and vulnerable (Isaiah 10:1-4). Christ opened his own public ministry with his own mission statement, quoting the same prophet, preaching good news to the poor, healing for the sick, food for the hungry, and relief for the oppressed. Yet we have become so afraid of the poor that we blame our nation’s ills on them. Instead of waging war on poverty through protecting the rights of workers, providing an economic safety net for those caught up in layoffs and transitions in the marketplace of labor, we wage war on those people, calling them lazy or otherwise unworthy. We attack what we call income redistribution, ignoring the fact that wages for working class Americans have been stagnant through nearly three decades of “supply-side economics.” We are guilty of the very things Isaiah warned of, and ignore the very mission of Christ.

And for all our talk of America’s strength and exceptionalism, we are exceptional in our fear. We are awash in guns, placing our trust not in the God of refuge and strength, but in the NRA and the misguided notion of the “good guy with a gun.” We build walls and issue decrees because of our fear of those fleeing violence and destruction, just as a young couple with a baby boy born in Bethlehem fled the homicidal rampage of Herod. We reject strangers, forgetting the words in Hebrews 13 that we should welcome the stranger, because we might just be unaware that we are entertaining angels. And we are so eager to send others of us off to war, then abandoning those who return from battle with debilitating injuries to body and psyche, relegating them to charity.

Honestly, there’s not much to commend us as a Christian nation. As the saying goes, if America were to be put on trial for being Christian, the judge would dismiss the charge for lack of evidence. We are so afraid, afraid of those people, afraid of losing the treasures we have stored in barns, afraid of being seen as weak. We are afraid of justice, because we just might get what we deserve. And we’re afraid to put our trust in the God of refuge and strength, because we just might be held accountable for our greed, our hatred, and our disdain for God’s creation.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Overcoming entropy in our world

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is based on the concept of entropy, a characteristic of thermodynamic systems. Increasing entropy is a tendency toward "randomness" or "chaos" in a system. It is why heat energy always flows from high temperature to low temperature, and why no heat engine can ever be 100% efficient. To counter increasing entropy, one must add heat or do work on the system.

Others have expanded the concept of entropy beyond its roots in thermodynamics to other systems or more philosophical endeavors. In big data, entropy is the enemy of analytics. In the garden, entropy is the enemy of the meticulous green thumb.

Given today's news, it seems that entropy is well at work in our world. In Syria, especially in the area around Aleppo, violence is rampant in a tragic civil war, where the only losers so far are millions of innocent Syrian civilians. Tens of thousands are dead, and some 6 million have fled the war-ravaged territory, facing xenophobic resistance to their resettlement from Western nations, including the United States. Entropy seems to be unrestrained.

And it seems we have our own growing war in the United States, with battle lines drawn over violence. A friend remarked earlier this week that worlds are colliding with the proliferation of firearms on our streets and increasingly violent confrontations between law enforcement and citizenry. In Charlotte, violence has erupted over the shooting of a black man by police, and each party has retreated to their familiar scripts. Social media reports suggest that Wednesday night's protests were peaceful until police showed up in riot gear, apparently escalating the situation.

What force can we exert, what energy can we bring to bear to halt the increase in entropy in our world? The issues are complex, the ideologies are entrenched, reversing course seems impossible. But perhaps there is a way. Maybe we could start with a simple concept that every child of every race, nationality, and religion knows in one form or another: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Those of us who claim the name of Christ might acknowledge, not with our lips, but with our own actions, that every human being is the image of the Creator.

Overcoming entropy is hard. It requires expending energy, what is called "work" in thermodynamics. Applying the most basic concept of the Divine worth of every human being is hard work. But that is the only way forward.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Orwellian doublespeak

From the Orwell dictionary:

Right to work. A labor law philosophy that gives workers the rights to be paid low wages, work in unsafe and unfavorable working conditions, and be fired at any time with no notice and no reason.

Voter integrity. Measures intended to prevent certain groups of people from voting, ostensibly to combat the rampant in-person voter fraud. Measures include draconian photo identification requirements and restrictions on same-day voter registration and early voting.

Entitlement reform. Any number of measures intended to kill New Deal programs and their derivatives. Typically this means doing things like raising the retirement age, and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Also known as increasing big banks' and insurance companies' market shares.

School choice. Any number of measures aimed at giving taxpayer dollars to private businesses and religious groups, so that parents can have a choice to not send their kids to school with "those people."

Protecting women's health. Imposing prohibitively expensive and unnecessary regulations on clinics that provide abortions, causing many to close, is supposed to protect women's health. Also, preventing women from free or low-cost cancer screenings, contraception, and other services is protecting women's health.

Fiscal restraint. Usually means first cutting the top marginal income tax rates, then increasing defense spending (including often going to war of some kind or another).

Tax reform. Shifting from progressive income taxes to regressive sales taxes. Frequently includes imposing new sales taxes on goods and services used by working class people (movie tickets, car and appliance repairs), but not on goods and services used by more affluent folks (greens fees, brokerage fees).

Flat tax. The ultimate tax reform, resulting in a single tax rate with no deductions. "Submit your tax return on a postcard" to some unknown entity, because a flat tax includes abolishing the IRS. The flat tax does not usually include income from investments (capital gains, interest, dividends), which punishes labor and rewards wealth.

Gun safety. Having a loaded gun, with safety off, everywhere, all the time, in order to either repel the hordes of radical Islamic terrorists or take out, with sniper precision, some "bad guy with a gun" in a dark movie theater or crowded subway car or church worship service or local bar. Also having a 30-round semi-automatic .223 lightweight rifle to resist the tyrannical government's B-2 bombers and FA-18 jets and artillery and tanks, or to make deer sausage in the field.

Immigration reform. Making sure certain business sectors (agriculture, construction, hospitality, healthcare) have a steady supply of cheap workers who can't complain about pay or working conditions for fear of being deported. In other words, maintaining the status quo.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Nativism

Last night, the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union. The geopolitical and economic ramifications of this vote will be far reaching, with many no doubt unforeseen consequences as this decision takes hold.

Some news reports have already suggested that even those who voted "LEAVE" were voting more in protest, without regard to practical results like dissolution of EU trade rules with the Continent. No doubt those who chafed against open borders will chafe anew at increased difficulties in crossing the Channel for holiday in the south of France.

This vote marks a kind of official endorsement of the kind of nativist backlash that is fueling the Trump campaign in the United States. That nativism has its roots in the Jim Crow South, with its ideological forebears the segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. The parallels between the followers of Trump and those of George Wallace a half century ago are striking.

Trump apologists dress up this anger in the finery of economic populism. They distract the disgruntled public away from the systemic wage theft resulting from a tax code that encourages accumulation of massive wealth over compensating the labor that creates that wealth. Instead, the right wing political machine has directed white working class anger at "those people" who are taking their jobs, rather than at the "job creators" who hoard cash in offshore tax havens, breaking it out only to buy out other companies.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thoughts and Prayers

Early on Sunday Morning, June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire with an AR-15 in a nightclub in Orlando. At least 50 people died, and another 50 or more were injured in another act of mass violence, using a weapon designed for war.

With this latest mass shooting comes the usual statements, tweets, and facebook posts from politicians and other public figures offering their "thoughts and prayers." Numerous social media memes show votive candles, various colored ribbons, and other symbols of support for the "victims and their families." Columbine, Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tuscon, Mother Emanuel, San Bernardino, Orlando...the list goes on and on. Beneath these headlines is the steady drumbeat of 80 gun deaths every day in America, and the endless litany of "thoughts and prayers."

Maybe, like the prophets of Baal, our prayers are not loud enough, our petitions not flamboyant enough, our tweets not perfectly worded, and our facebook posts not clever enough. Or maybe we have forgotten the command of Christ to "pray in secret to God who hears in secret." Maybe we are guilty of following the form of religion, while ignoring its power. Or maybe we are leaning on our own understanding, afraid that God's answer will show that what we know to be true is completely wrong.

I don't know any answers anymore. And I don't want to posit any ideas to attack the scourge of gun violence that threatens the very existence of freedom. All I know is that I'm afraid of the world that our two brand new grandchildren will grow up in.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Extravagant love

Today's Gospel reading told the story of Mary, who anointed Jesus' feet with oil and washed them with her hair. This story of extravagant love has many lessons, and pastors go off in all directions in teaching on this story.

One part of the story is often overlooked. We are told in the Gospel of John that Judas,who in just a few days would hand Jesus over to the Romans, was present, and was critical that such an expensive perfume was wasted, instead of sold to support the poor. The Gospel writer goes on to say that Judas was a thief, the unofficial treasurer of the group, and was embezzling from the treasury.

In the past couple of weeks, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Oregon. While there, the delegates wrestled with whether certain people should be welcome in fellowship, even in positions of leadership, in our denomination. Some of the bigger questions include:
- How can we welcome all people without condoning behavior we believe to be sin?
- In a fellowship of believers, where all are sinners, is there a hierarchy of sin that should result in exclusion of some?

In that very first, most intimate collection of believers, we have a known thief. Jesus, knowing all things, certainly knew of Judas' thievery, down to the very penny. We can certainly argue that Jesus, knowing the ultimate plan, had to accept Judas with all his faults. But we can also argue that Jesus accepted Judas unconditionally, with all his faults, just as he accepted the doubting Thomas and the denying Peter.

Given this example, who are we to decide whether someone should be excluded from our fellowship?