In God we mostly trust: A Sermon on Luke 16

Grace Church, Great Barrington

Sunday September 21, 2013

“In God we mostly trust.” Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

I want to try something a little different here- I hope you’ll grant me this liberty as your preacher this morning, seeing as your very wise pastor has scheduled me here for what is generally considered the most confusing parable in the Gospels. I’m a guest, and this is an experiment, so just go along with me. I want you to pull out your wallet and find a dollar bill.  I know, no one caries cash. If you can, find a paper bill and take it out. If you can’t find a bill, grab a credit card or a coin. My work is to preach. Your work is to hold onto that bill for the entire sermon. That’s all. Now, what does that bill proclaim? I know you’re Episcopalians, but pretend you are Baptists and you can talk back to me in a sermon. In God we trust. May it be so.

Let us pray….

This is a sermon about money which will NOT include an ask for money. Seriously. We have a dangerously bad habit in church of only talking about money when we want some more of it. We know that Jesus talks a lot about wealth and poverty, taxes and titles, debts and debtors- but we mostly talk about money during the liturgical season known as Stewardship.  In the Gospel of Luke, the parables before this are the lost coin and the prodigal son.  The parable after this is Lazarus and the rich man. We are smack in the middle of an extended set of stories by Jesus about money and our relationship to it. (are you still holding onto that bill?)

And what can only be considered a work of genius by your pastor, I am here to explain to you a passage that just about everyone acknowledges is miserably complicated and universally dreaded in the 3 year rotation of scripture known as the Revised Common Lectionary. One commentator said that even Luke seems unsure what to do with this story. The theologian Rudolph Bultmann called this parable “a problem child.”  First, it’s not entirely clear what is going on: Why is the money manager fired? Are the charges against him true? When the manager goes to cut the debt of those who owe the rich man money, is this an act of wisdom, kindness or blazing self-interest?  Why are we to make friends with the use of dishonest wealth?  What if you gave that dollar bill in your hand to the person behind you- is that what Jesus wants?

We struggle to follow what’s going on in this parable, then we ask WHY Jesus is telling this story! It seems like the manager only reduces the bills of those who owe money so that the manager will have some people to stay with when he gets fired. Is Jesus praising this self-preservation? I don’t have the answers for much most of these questions, but let me add this: Don’t force this to be a perfect overlay faithfulness to God.  Parables don’t have to explain everything; They can teach us something without teaching us everything. And Luke in particular loves a good complex story where the social order is turned upside down. If the most this parable can teach us is that our relationship with money, God and God’s people is wicked complicated, than I think we are being faithful to the text and honest about how confusing this story is set in an economy and social context entirely different from our own.

The most familiar line comes at the end at verse 13  “13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Both demand allegiance. Money exerts power over us. When we have too little, we struggle to feel secure.  When we lose it, we feel adrift. When we have much, we think about it too. That dollar bill in your hand seems to exert power over us, to squeeze tighter, to pay attention. Money demands our focus; Money demands our attention; Money demands our time. We are told again and again, we can’t just let money sit there, squirreled away in a bank account, we have to manage it.  We all become money managers. Money has to be moved, invested, insured, split, taxed, counted, accounted, strategized, pre-paid, banked, borrowed, leveraged, loaned, most of all, increased.  We are like the money manager, moving money that is ultimately not ours, with the illusion of control. Money and the lack of money takes us space in our heads, in our calendars, in our hearts. You know the anxiety of not knowing if you’ll have enough to retire, or send your kid to college, or pay the rent or buy your medicine. You know the anxiety of wondering if you can afford to repair the church building. You know how much space in our minds money occupies. You know that as a nation we act like there is no such thing as enough.  As Americans, this is one of our particular spiritual ailments. Are you still holding onto that bill? Did you start making a list of the bills you still need to pay or the things you need to buy? And when we are thinking of money that demands such attention and commands such fidelity, we are not thinking of God.

In God we may proclaim trust, but in our money we invest. Our money did not always proclaim our fidelity. Our national motto was almost something different entirely on that dollar bill you hold.  In the early 1860’s, in the midst of the religious turn during the Civil War, Americans started to write to the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. The first letter came from Rev. M. R. Watkins, a “Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, PA, ” asking for the words “God, Liberty, Law” to be placed on our currency, saying “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”   Secretary Chase had his director of the Mint in Philadelphia James Pollock respond. Pollock wrote, “Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.” And so we went about trying to craft a national motto.  Pollock proposed “OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST.” We’ve always had this American impulse to claim Our God, Our Country. To stamp our name and ensure it is ours. And that we would do so on our money simply points to the endless complexity of our complex relationship with God and money. “In a time of immense national chaos, IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. And in a time on immense national anxiety during the cold war and the state affirmed atheism of USSR, Eisenhower signed the  1956 joint resolution declaring “In God We trust” our national motto and printing it on our paper bills where it’s been ever since.  We may claim our trust in God with every dollar we spend in America, but  our actions as a country betray this trust. We now live with the income inequality between the rich and the poor at the widest point since 1928,The Economist reports that “The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.”  For all our proclamations on our currency, we seem way more interested in worshipping the almighty dollar instead.

After all the complex maneuvering by the money manager, we get the line in verse 8. “8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;” The master, or in Greek “Kurios” or Lord shows up again in the story and affirms the money manager lessening the debt of the people.  Yes, it may be self-serving, but the money manager is lessening the debts of the people. Scripture is pretty consistent; releasing people from debt is a good and holy thing. And for all of the complexity in understanding this parable, this much is clear: the money manager’s future depends upon the people ‘beneath’ him. Our future as “One nation under God” depends on the people ‘beneath’ us. This obscene gap in income inequality matters not just because we are now letting people in the richest nation in the world go hungry while the House of Representatives cuts food stamps, but because ultimately, our sustainability, our economy, and yes our salvation, depends upon those ‘beneath’ us. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Proclaim release to the captive, proclaim the year of jubilee. You cannot serve God and Wealth. Even as we grip those dollar bills in our hands tighter and tighter as our own anxiety grows and grows, the economy of God upends all of our of our presumptions.

gideon's gardenOn our best days, at our most holy, Church is the place where the screwed up simultaneous over and under-valuing of money in our world is set right. There have been times in the Church’s history, when units of measure were not standardized that the Church was the trusted authority to proclaim weights and measures. This is the place were we calculate true worth. God’s economy is different from ours. Grace is not cheap but abundant, simultaneously free and precious. But in very really and tangible ways, at our best Church aims to set right our relationships with money in ways that are healthy and holy. I see you doing this. You are growing precious food at Gideon’s Garden and giving it to people who could not afford locally sourced, sustainably grown, organic baby spinach greens. The first fruits of creation are being given to God’s hungry people. You should be so proud. This is an act of setting our relationship right with God and wealth. Monastic communities try this, where all things are held in common. Shoot, even Berkshire county tries this with the local currency the Berkshares! Church is where we try, try, try to taste the foretaste of that new economy. In the first reading today, you heard Jeremiah mourn “for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt” and wonder “is there no balm in Gilead?” In God’s economy, we declare “there is a balm in Gilead.” You are modeling so much of this different way of being in relation to money. I wonder what places in this church God is asking you to trust him more with your money, or his money or this money that you are borrowing.My hope is this: when you pull out that dollar bill, a credit card, your Paypal account, I want you to proclaim “In God, I trust. This money, I borrow.” Will you say it with me? “In God I trust, this money I borrow.” We cannot raise our arms in praise if we are clinging to the money in our hands. We cannot serve God and wealth. In God may we trust this day and in the days ahead. Amen.

More than “Boston Strong”

Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord MA

Sunday April 28, 2013

Image

Chalk drawings on Mt. Auburn Ave, Watertown

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:31-35

 

After it was all done, with feet back on land, her body temperature slowly rising again, she said “It was one of those rare occasions in life when things turn out better than you ever imagined.” On August 7, 1987, a 30-year-old woman who learned how to swim just up the road in Manchester New Hampshire, began in Alaska and swam across the Bering Strait. For two hours and six minutes, in water that started at 43F and dropped to 38, Lynne Cox swam across the US-Soviet Border for the first time in 48 years. “Experts believe she succeeded because of a combination of determination and her own body fat which insulated her like a seal.“ tactfully opined the BBC.  Swimmers may be unlikely diplomats, but Lynne’s symbolic act cut through the silent glaring of the Cold War. At a signing of a nuclear weapons treaty later that year, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev praised Lynne, saying “She proved by her courage how closely to each other our people live.” Just 2.7 miles. Just that close.  Let us pray…

If you have been to church even once before today, chances are you’ve heard the gospel lesson from John. This is the new commandment, that you love one another. Except that there’s nothing terribly new about it. Love one another. Got it. Heard it in the Old Testament, Heard it in the New Testament.  Not throwing stones at neighbors. Letting those newcomers sit in the good seats in my pew on Christmas Eve, no less. Love one another. This is children’s sermon stuff. Love one another. Let’s sign up for coffee hour duty and call it a day here. We’ve got things to do.

Except, that the weight of this passage is lost by taking it out of the full chapter. We separate ourselves from the strength of this passage. The Lectionary committee did what is so tempting to do, cutting and cropping and segmenting our lives. These five verses are placed right in the middle of denial and betrayal.  Look at Chapter 13. Before these verses in 13:21, Jesus says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me.”  After these verse, Jesus tells Simon Peter “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”  This love Jesus names in verse 34 is spoken into betrayal and denial by those closest to him.  You who will deny me, you who will betray me: Love one another. It’s a love not contingent on the disciples’ good behavior, but on Christ’s Love. Love one another as I have loved you- without reservation, without condition, without consideration that you will return this love.

And again, the passage turns. In verse 35, Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love is not just for the disciples, but for a public witness to the world. Jesus expects the community of his followers to behave in such a thoroughly different way that people will KNOW that “you are my disciples.” It’s public. It’s perceptible. This love is fierce, and it’s visible.

A friend of mine works in elder services on the South Shore of Massachusetts. She told me once of a man in his 80’s who had kept his loving relationship with another man, his ‘housemate’ a secret for years. When his companion died, there was no community to hold his grief. He drove around and around the South Shore looking for a church to visit, a sanctuary to sit, to pray, to sing, maybe to feel another human’s touch even if just in the passing of the peace. He looked for a church that might be friendly, a church that would not betray his love. He drove past church sign after church sign, none signaling a safe harbor. For love to be visible, it must be recognizable. For a grieving man driving alone in a 1984 Cutlass Ciera who had not walked into a church in half a century, the words “Open and Affirming” meant nothing. He was looking for a visible sign, perhaps a recognizable flag, that the love of God could be extended, even to him.

Jesus is pressing his followers for fierce, visible, explicit love, even in fractured community. My now deceased maternal grandmother had a habit of sending newspaper clippings through the mail, in repurposed envelopes. No note, no explanation. The message was implied. I think I was supposed to infer something like “I read this article and it made me think of you. Love Gran.” Jesus is asking the disciples to send those newspaper clippings and actually write out the implied message. The command is to make a gesture so identifiable that others immediately recognize the love that shortens the distance between us fractured humans- a swim across the Bering Strait to an enemy’s shore, a flag of inclusion, a handwritten note that actually says “love Gran.”  These gestures of visible love aren’t just for the benefit of a closed community, but to show what God is like to the world beyond the community.

Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, our state has been visible these past two weeks. We prepared for a Patriot’s Day weekend when the whole world would watch. Dean Jep Streit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston (who ran the marathon many times) once remarked to a friend that he loved the Boston Marathon because it was a world-class athletic event that anyone, with some grit and preparation, could participate in. The Boston Marathon is high on excellence, broad on participation- which on our best days we aim for in Church too. And then, we became visible in ways entirely not chosen by us. In the midst of all the pain and anxiety of the past two weeks, we have seen fierce, visible signs of love for one another.

We have seen the same hospitals proving medical care for the victims and the perpetrators of violence.  When their churches were still a crime scene, Old South worshipping at Church of the Covenant, Trinity Copley at Temple Israel.  When a Palestinian Muslim woman was knocked down in Malden and young men who look “foreign” on the MBTA were stared at too long, many rabbis and pastors attending Friday prayers this week at the mosques in Roxbury and Cambridge. When he could see police with machine guns from his parsonage window, Fr. Arakel went across the street to St. James’ Armenian Orthodox Church in Watertown to let the police search the sanctuary, make them coffee and let the first responders charge their cell phones to text their own worried families. We have seen powerful signs of fierce love that rebuilds our fractured community.

And yet, we have more work to do.  You know this. Even with a suspect arrested, we are far from done attending to this experience. As Christians, we have an obligation to our common, public life to offer visible signs that acknowledge our pain, not merely mask it. Even if we want desperately to be “Boston Strong,” a win by Red Sox’s can’t save us from our grief.  “Boston  Strong” is not enough to will our way to wholeness. Resiliency is not something we can buy. Sam Adams Brewers have put in a trademark application for a “Boston Strong” Beer. Already 8 other companies have trademark applications in for “Boston Strong;” You can buy “Boston Strong” hats, tee-shirts, bumper-stickers, tattoos, coffee, beer. Almost immediately, “Boston Strong” became something to consume. Six months from now, when we lay awake wondering whether a police siren starts another manhunt, it will not be “Sweet Caroline” we sing to ourselves to calm frayed nerves.  We cannot just be critics of signs, but as Christians we are obliged to be creators.  What are the stories, songs, narratives of grief and redemption that we can offer? Even in our own grief, we have work to do. Scripture offers a vision of heaven like a city. God doesn’t vacuum up the righteous in the rapture, but instead God comes to dwell and redeem our communal living.

You heard it in the text we read from Revelation 21: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The heavenly city is not a place of poverty or violence but restored relationships, bursting full and inhabited by that glorious global mix of people you catch a glimpse of on Commonwealth Ave. Maybe one reason that the Boston Marathon is so symbolically powerful is that people run towards a city, not flee from it.

For a part of the country notoriously slow to warm up to outsiders, many, many writers have said over the past few days that we were all made Bostonians by the events of the last two weeks. I feel it too. Those were my streets that were bombed. Those were my neighbors injured. That was my apartment under lockdown. How many of you are not originally from this area? You know how hard it can be to break in, to be a home here in New England where the ‘new church’ was built in the 1800’s and the ‘new family’ has been here for 3 generations. History weighs heavy here.  Places are made sacred by prayer or death, sometimes both. Maybe we have been made one city by acts of death. The challenge next is to be made one by acts of visible love.

It was just 2.7 miles across the Bering Straight between Alaska and the Soviet Republic. For comparison sake, it’s 2.7 miles as the crow flies from the door of this church to MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord. That’s how far. That’s how close. In this place it is entirely possible to live 2.7 miles from one another and keep up our New England stonewalls of silence between neighbors. In this place, it is entirely possible to live just 26.2 miles apart and have entirely different experiences of safety and security, education and opportunity, life and death. Jesus speaks, into the brokenness of community a new commandment of Love.  Look for the place this week where you can offer a visible sign of love. Fierce love. Love not for the lovable, but for those who would deny you or betray you. Offer some superfluous sign of love that rebuilds fractured community. That is just how simple and how hard the Gospel is.

Desire to Gather

Desire to Gather: A Sermon on Luke 13

First Parish Church, Weston Sunday Feb 24, 2013

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,* “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when* you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’ ~ Luke 13:31-35

The name is misleading: Sempervivum. Sempervivum, “always living.” Except they die. These plants that we often know by the name “Hens & Chicks” really only live for three seasons. Eternal life that’s not quite. The main succulent plant, the “hen” sends off ‘chicks’ loosely attached to the mother plant. Do you have these in your yard? But after three seasons, the ‘hen’ plant sends up a center stalk that blooms, and the plant dies. It can’t be stopped. Blooms and dies. And the baby chick plant lives on: Sempervivum. “How I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood.” Let us pray….

Jerusalem is not very far from here. Each week we creep closer. The arch of Lent, from quiet darkness of Ash Wednesday to the glaring parade of Palm Sunday moves us closer. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city feels like almost every time it is in the news there is conflict and strife. But it’s magnetic. It’s contested. It’s a draw to pilgrims and prophets.  It’s the center of the universe for the writer of Luke and Acts. Luke’s Gospel begins in Jerusalem, with Zechariah at the temple praying for descendants.  The boy child Jesus returns to Jerusalem to preach in the temple.  Later in Acts, Stephen and James will be martyred in Jerusalem. “All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel, while all the other New Testament writers combined mention it only 49 times. “ Jerusalem, the start of Jesus’ prophetic ministry; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets who have come before, and this one too… Back through the history of the Jewish people we learn in Deuteronomy 12:5, Jerusalem, after all, is “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there” Jerusalem is thick with meaning, but fickle and unfaithful.  Attractive, magnetic, infuriating Jerusalem.

And there, in Jerusalem, before his time has come, Jesus is warned off by some of the Pharisees: Herod Antipas is gunning for you. But Jesus will have none of it. He knows his death is coming. He does not treat it as a separate event, but part and parcel of his ministry: today, tomorrow and the next day. He’s still got work to do, healing to accomplish.  He tells Herod the fox to buzz off.  Suddenly, Jesus’ defiant tone turns to mourning. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you are not willing.”

Maybe it’s anger. More likely it’s lament as Jesus sighs, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” How I have desired to gather you, says our God.

From May to September 2012, two Boston Globe reporters Meghan E. Irons and Akilah Johnson lived on Mount Ida Street in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester. With other reporters, photographers, videographers and data visualization specialists, they attempted to understand this 68 block neighborhood with a murder rate four times the city average. Nate and Trina Davis have already had their youngest, their 14 year old son Nicholas shot dead a block from their house, when their eldest son was arrested for gun possession. Big Nate is tall, large. He’s lived in Bowdoin-Geneva for 40 years. Little Nate is reduced to a voice on the end of the phone line calling from jail. Little Nate was bound for college.  Unseen by their child, Big Nate and Trina stand in their dining room talking to a cordless phone, Trina still in her pink hospital scrubs. They stand with their arms open. How I desire to gather you.

Sometimes the streets of Jerusalem run through Bowdoin-Geneva. Sometimes they run through Weston as we long to gather. The invitation of Lent is to return to God’s open arms, to allow the Holy Comforter to gather up the broken bits of our lives. Jesus grieves not his impending death but the broken relationship with Jerusalem. The Jesus who wearily opens his arms to Jerusalem is the same Jesus who knows our grief as we try to gather up the scattered parts of our lives- a child led astray, a loved one who drinks, an unfaithful spouse, a broken relationship, bodies that will not do as we command. Jesus knows our love for the ones we can’t protect. How I have desired to gather you, says our God.

This is the story of our lives as people guided by Scripture. The story of Scripture is the story of God’s opening arms to a scattered people who are unwilling to be gathered. It’s not just others, we too resist being gathered in. We have many good excuses for staying separated from our God and one another: Our American exceptionalism. Our Yankee independence. Our town lines. Our sports rivalries. Our class divide. Our perceived self-sufficiency. Our denominational particularity. Our very full schedules. How often God desires to gather us and we scatter like chickens. Jesus prays that his followers may all be one, and we’ve created thousands of denominations. We can tell the story of the Church as a story of scattering chickens. But Scripture gives us our story of God’s steady desire and our tendency, generation after generation, to scatter. Lent is the season to examine the scattered bits of our life and place them before God.

Amid his grief over temperamental Jerusalem, Jesus chooses as delicious image to express his love: a chicken, or more accurately a hen. I fear I can’t say anything especially wise about chickens. I live in the city. The closest experience I have to chickens is when one of the neighbors seemed to have some illegal roosters for cock-fighting that started crowing before the hum of the MBTA busses and my alarm. We need our farmers to lead us here. But, we do not need to know much of anything about chickens to notice Jesus’ odd choice for this analogy.  To Herod’s coercive power like a fox, Jesus counters with the gender-bending, open winged image of a hen.

There was in fact a woman named ‘Mother Hen;” not of a fairy tale but on the path to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.  Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille was born in 1813 in New Orleans to a French father Jean-Baptiste Lille Sarpy and her mother, Marie-Josèphe “Pouponne” Díaz, who would have been called at the time “a free quadroon” or a ‘Creole of color.’ Mother Henriette was the child of their common-law marriage or ‘left-handed marriage,’ typical between wealthy white men and Creole women. Henriette grew up well educated, speaking French, attending quadroon balls, being groomed for the same arrangement. Yet, her faith was stronger than the social & familial expectations. When there was no religious life possible for women from her background, she founded the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, inviting in free women of color. When the Church would not gather these women, Mother Henriette took on the open armed posture of Christ, the mother hen.

Today, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, there is a small church named “Dominus Flevit,” or translated from the Latin, “the Lord wept.” The 1950’s architect of the church shaped it like a teardrop. But beneath the contemporary church, the patch of earth where Jesus wept was also a Canaanite burial site and Byzantine monastery, and later on a 16th c mosque. Behind the contemporary altar, a window shows not some stained glass image of the New Jerusalem to come, but clear glass allows the worshippers to look upon that very same Jerusalem for whom Jesus wept.

In front of the altar stands a mosaic of a hen with wings outstretched. The words from Luke ring the top of the Mosaic, “How I desired to gather you….” And even tucked under the feet of the hen and her chicks remain the words “et noluistis” (“and you would not”) in the pool of red under the chicks. Even still, the wings of the outstretched hen embrace the promise to gather even those who would scatter. That is the promise of Lent. May it you receive the invitation this day from Our God to gather again. Amen.

A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving

“A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving” Joel 2: 21-27

Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service: hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sutton MA Tuesday November 20, 2012

21Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 22Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.      ~Joel 2:21-27

It was always the same, until it wasn’t. For many years, my family of origin had Thanksgiving at my parents’ home. Same canned cranberry jelly, same mashed potatoes made by my father the same way his father made then- heating up the milk, reserving a bit of the water the potatoes boiled in and then mashing by hand- always by hand. Same turkey served on a hideously tacky giant serving platter that my great Uncle Jim had been given by his work instead of a cash bonus. Same Pepperidge farm stuffing mix that we had had the year before, and the year before that, and probably since 1937 when the company began in Connecticut. It wasn’t fancy, but it was familiar.  One Thanksgiving, we traveled to visit some fancy relatives in Philadelphia. We sat down to a table of individually brined Cornish game hens, brussel sprouts with pancetta and a balsamic demi-glaze, curried sweet potatoes, cranberry chutney with candied ginger and pineapple, and stuffing with such foreign matter as cornbread, leeks and pecans! No green beans topped with Durkee onions, no smooth canned cranberry jelly that could be sliced into pleasing circles of ruby gelatin goo, no Pepperidge farm stuffing. Worst of all, no comforting, plain white mashed potatoes.  There was wailing and gnashing of teeth the entire car ride home. And my younger sister was promised a “proper” recreation of Thanksgiving just as we had known it.  May we be so bold as to invite new experiences and new people to your table of abundance, O Lord. Let us pray…

Rick Bragg grew up among Pentecostals in a town called Possum Trot, Alabama. The Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist was raised by his mother, with his two brothers and the occasional visit by his abusive, alcoholic father. Writing for Southern Living, Bragg tells of Thanksgiving’s “Never-ending Grace” among his people:

            “When I was a little boy, the words seemed to last forever. It seemed like we were walking the Exodus ourselves, one paragraph at a time. Surely, I figured thousands of little boys had starved to death between the words ‘Let us pray…’ and ‘Amen.’ The bad thing was, from where I sat, hands clasped but one eye open, I could see it all, and more than that I could smell it all, this wonderful feast laid out hot and steaming. Thanksgiving… But it would all be as cold as a Confederate statue on Christmas morning by the time we got any of it. Between me and all this bounty stretched what we have called and will always call “The Blessing.’ It consisted, as near as I could tell, of reading the King James Bible front to back, then holding a discussion on its finer points. While I now see the beauty in those words and in this tradition, I was an ungrateful heathen back then, thinking only of my belly and my own little self.”

This is where we live, between “Let us pray…” and “Amen,” between Thanksgiving gluttony and thanksgiving grace, between famine and feast. This is where the people of Judah live as well. Our scripture reading tonight comes from the minor prophet Joel as he speaks to a people in between.  The people of Judah have lived with years and years of famine and plagues of locust. Joel is graphic in the details- if you are interested, or bored by the sermon, go ahead and look for the gory details in Joel chapters 1 &2. The food has been cut off before their eyes, the seeds shrivel, the storehouses are empty because the grain has failed, the cattle and sheep wander because there is nothing for them to eat. The people cry out to the Lord in their despair and then we get to this passage of praise and thanksgiving.

This prayer of thanksgiving from the prophet Joel doesn’t come out of nowhere. This prayer of thanksgiving comes out of struggle and hardship. Those of us Christians gathered here whose lives are structured by the Church calendar know that the other time we read Joel’s recounting of the suffering and famine is on Ash Wednesday, the day we are most aware of our frailty as mortals.  Like the Israelites offering up this hymn of praise, even as we pray with gratitude this night, we know that there are those among us who are without meaningful employment, those suffering in body and in spirit, those who will be without food, shelter, companionship or a sense of hope. It’s not in spite of our suffering that we give thanks. We give thanks in the midst of suffering. From that parched ground of Judah, we offer up our honest, genuine prayer of thanksgiving.

I received an email last week from a friend addressed to “Dear Found Family,” and almost immediately began to cry. Across the ocean from the country he was born in, after divorce in his own life, death of one parent and debilitating mental illness with the other, we on the receiving end of the email were “found family.” This whole holiday season can be complex – a curious mix of gratitude, but some wistfulness too about those family and friends who have died, those family situations that are too toxic to return to, those close ones separated by distance, war, silence, poverty. The prophet Joel re-imagines all who God cares for- not just the nuclear family or the people of Israel. God’s provision is so strong that it extends to the soil. Do you see it in verse 21-22? “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things. Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green.” And then God turns to us; “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew prophets are very cautious to remind us that both overwhelming poverty and overwhelming wealth are dangerous to prayer. It is hard to be thankful when your stomach aches from hunger pangs. It is hard to be thankful when surrounded by so much stuff that you pretend there is no lack. The prophets remind us that God has a concern for the material needs of the poor and thus we who have enough to eat this night are called to have that same divine concern for the poor, as you in Sutton do with your generous feeding program.  You are doing holy work. You are a sign of God’s provision and care.

On verse 26, it all turns; “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” Yes, feast and eat. But do not separate the feasting from the praise of the One who provides for you.  We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. It’s a near heretical thing to talk about diets in advance of Thanksgiving. But if we just feast, we are gluttons and we forget the source of the bounty. If we just fast, we are sullen and we forget the joy of gathering with good company and gracious provisions. We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving.

Perhaps this is why so many people love Thanksgiving as a holiday. Thanksgiving is hard (though not impossible) to commercialize. We don’t have the social pressure to give massive gifts (though what happens on the Friday following is also a test of our ethics of gratitude and justice). True, Thanksgiving runs the danger of gluttony. Plenteous food should lead to plenteous praise. Thanksgiving is that holiday where we haven’t quite severed the connection between the two: abundant food, abundant praise. It’s hard to commercialize gratitude. Thanksgiving is a holiday without irony. We are earnest, effusive, grateful. Not snarky, commercial, empty. We are full, our gratitude is great, and God’s love is abundant.

Thanksgiving is a holiday we can all (mostly agree on).  All our religious traditions have practices of gratitude and praise. And I am here to tell you this night and this Thanksgiving, whether you are on a diet that is lactose-intolerant, salt-limited, gluten-sensitive, parsley-allergic, cruelty-free or Macrobiotic; If you are an Omnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegetarian, pesticatarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan, or a freegan. Whether you keep Kosher or strict Kosher, on the South Beach diet, Paeleolithic diet, The Pilgrim diet, you too can be on a well balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. If you choose. That’s the thing. That’s the hard part, taking the time to pause before this meal, every meal to give thanks for what is before us and remember those who are without. Tonight you can get on the diet of praise and thanksgiving here in this church with these other Pilgrims, but KEEPING on a diet of praise and thanksgiving is the harder part.

When we do it right, and Lord knows we struggle, a diet is something you do every day. It’s a lifestyle shift. A diet of praise and thanksgiving is a daily discipline of giving God, or your higher power or those around you, thanks for the good things in your life, even when it is hard, even when there is sorrow. For us fallen, forgotten, messy people trying to live a life of grace and gratitude, we cling to verse 26. We do not separate our pleasure and feasting from our discipline of gratitude. We do not feast without giving thanks. We resist the urge to open just one eye in the Never-Ending Grace before the meal to steal a drumstick while no one is looking.

This Thursday is an easy day to give thanks. Our whole country is oriented in that direction. The challenge is Friday. And Saturday and Sunday and Monday. What will you do with the leftovers of Thanksgiving? When the turkey is gone and Starbucks moves on from pumpkin lattes to peppermint, will you still keep a diet of thanksgiving and praise?  You know what it takes- that pause, that wait between the start of your meal and the first bite. That space between famine and feast. That acknowledgement of having enough and making do with less so that others can have enough to live. That mindfulness that both extreme poverty and extreme wealth keep us from gratitude. That is where we keep our practice of praise and thanksgiving.  May you keep your discipline well, dear friends. Amen.

“A Level Place:” A Sermon for Election Day Communion

” A Level Place:” A Sermon for Election Day Communion

Tuesday November 6, 2012, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Longmeadow MA 

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. ~ Luke 6: 17-26

To a divided country weary of war, Abraham Lincoln spoke a mere 10 sentences at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. But my ancestor, Rev. Edward Everett, a US Representative, US Senator and former Governor of Massachusetts, Harvard President, ambassador to Great Britain, US Secretary of State, and ordained congregational minister, my ancestor old Grampa Edward delivered the 2 hour speech before Lincoln. The next day, November 20, 1863, Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln wrote back that he was pleased to know that the speech was not “a total failure.” At the time, the response was mixed. Everett’s neo-classical speech was the standard of the day, filled with references to Marathon and Pericles- he was a Greek professor at Harvard after all. Lincoln’s tight ten sentences were “deliberately biblical;” In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes,  “Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis.” The partisan newspapers of the day gave mixed reaction: the democratic Chicago Times crowed, “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads this silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Your Springfield Republican on the other hand, printed the entire speech and dubbed it, “a perfect gem… deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”  (Pause)“This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Let us pray…

On this day when it is so easy to feel self-righteous, perhaps more than other days, it is good to confess. Beloved, you have asked of me a very hard thing: unplug from the Internet long enough on Election Day to write this sermon and stand before you without checking the polls. I confess I hit “reload” as if up to the minute exit polls of undecided voters in the bell-weather districts of Lake County, Ohio will give me the confidence that only God ultimately provides. You have forced me to step away from the seduction of real-time updates passing as security. The Church father Tertullian says, “In vain do we flatter ourselves as to the necessities of human maintenance.” Do you feel it too? It is so hard to step out of that rushing stream of information. What we do tonight, that we choose to gather here, putting down our smart phones and picking up bread, setting aside our newspapers and standing to receive the cup, are alternate signs, a realignment of our lives away from the seduction of more news and returning to the Author of our salvation. I am grateful for this hard thing you have asked me to do.

And since we’re on the topic, I ask for your forgiveness for taking the preacher’s prerogative and switching the Gospel reading tonight. Matthew inscribes the beatitudes into the “Sermon on the Mount” stretching over 109 verses. Luke writes the beatitudes into the “Sermon on the Plain” packed into only 30 verses- 4 statements of blessing, 4 statements of woe. To Matthew’s 2+ hours of Everett oration, Luke offers Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. And rather than repeat the sins of my ancestors, I decided to aim for brevity- you let me know if I can overcome my heredity. But the other reason to turn to Luke’s version this night is where it takes place- on the plain.

Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes takes place on the mountaintop. But in Luke, Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.” You can imagine the campaign rally version of this: The disciple handlers are trying to keep Jesus moving through the crowd, trying to avoid him getting stuck healing one person for too long. They’re trying to avoid ‘gotcha questions” from the Pharisees.  The zealots James and John are heading out to the smaller towns acting as surrogates to drum up the crowds.  The tired, smelly people have been waiting for hours in the New Hampshire cold just to see Jesus. The Roman guards are worried about the size of the growing crowd. Do we have enough Port-A-Potties? And the photo-ops! Let’s get a nice mix of diversity with some people from Judea and Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon, but please, keep the crazy Syrophoenician outta the picture. And Judas has gone off message again… But it’s not quite like that.

Instead, Jesus is healing all those who encounter him, all. It’s not a handpicked crowd of the beautiful and worthy with a non-threatening mix of ethnic diversity. It’s not a $10,000 a plate fundraiser with celebrities. No, Jesus’ rally is free and for all those needing healing. And he’s delivering a message that no man or woman seeking elected office in this country would ever give if they actually wanted to win. It is a scandal.  Jesus begins by blessing the poor, a group of fellow residents that during this election were at best ignored and at worst demonized for sucking government resources as the ‘dependent class.’ Jesus blesses the poor. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitude, Jesus blesses the “poor in spirit;” in Luke, Jesus blesses the poor. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a lot easier to spiritualize Jesus’ message about the poor in spirit so as not to implicate our own comfort and riches. Matthew says Jesus blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke avoids domesticating Christ’s scandalous message and Jesus declares, “blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled.” In Christ, God declares a partisan commitment to the poor and the oppressed.

Christ’s words are a scandal to our comfort and our society as it is. During the presidential campaigns, we confuse gaffes with scandals. This year, we pounce on Mitt Romney caught saying that 47% of Americans will never vote for him because they are dependent on government handouts. In 2008, we pounced on Barack Obama caught saying that rural voters got bitter and cling to their guns and religion. The scandal of Jesus’ words is not a slip up in front of supporters or a hot mic left running. The scandal of Jesus’ words is the uncomfortable truth of God’s concern for those who suffer right now, lacking the basic needs to retain their dignity as children of God. The theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.”

It is absolutely valid to question whether in this country and economy, all stand on a level playing field. NFS Grundtvig, a Danish Lutheran pastor wrote “In Denmark, our hills our not high and our valleys are not low. So too our people … While there are people with more and people with less, no one has too much and no one has too little.” But we cannot debate, cannot question one another on legitimate difference of policy from the mountain tops. We have to come to a level place.

Blessing and woe- all is to be changed, none are to stay the same in Luke. Yet again, a relationship with Christ flips the order of what is before us. This is not about guilt about what you have, but about all of us getting healed. In Luke’s beatitudes, Jesus is expressing a real and primary concern for the materially poor and hungry now. But he also invites all of us to come get healed. And we delude ourselves if we don’t think we are in need of healing too. But we’ve got to come down off of our mountains, off of our bully pulpits to a level place to be changed. We can stay on our mountain tops, shouting across the chasm of our country at one another, but we cannot be changed from there. We cannot be healed from there. Like that mess of clean and unclean people, we come down from our mountain tops to a level place to be healed. Jesus does not heal from a distance, but with hands touching broken bodies, fingers pressed on deaf ears, palms pressed on bent spines, hands lain on bodies wracked by death. For us to be healed, we have to walk down the mountains of our separation and be touched. You can’t taste and see that the Lord is good if you stay on your mountain.

On the day when we are most divided, communion is Christ’s invitation to come to a level place. You know what that act of bi-partisan hospitality looks like? A family member of mine, who shall remain nameless, without power or heat for the past 7 days in New Jersey after SuperStorm Sandy- a family member, an ACLU card-carrying, pro-choosing, gay-marrying, public-educating, liberal Democrat is being housed this night in the home of staunch fiscal conservative Republicans… with power and a spare bedroom.  You know this. You know this is possible. You know that we can rise up to become our better angels. You know it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Now, I most certainly have candidates I hope and even pray will win tonight, because I think they will support policies the least, the lost and the lowly. No one is asking you to give up your political convictions. The invitation is to re-member your primary identity at this table.

“The English word ‘vote’ comes from the Latin ‘votum,’ meaning vow or wish.” We think of vows of marriage, vows at ordination, vows before God, but our vote, our vow today is also a promise, a covenant before God and God’s people to stay in community after Election Day. We vow to participate fully in this country, even when we disagree. We vow to name the nameless women and men who fought, were bruised and died for the right to vote. We vow to pray for our country, in the words of Lincoln “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” What we do today is holy.

What you do tonight is prophetic. It may not feel so, but it is. In 1938, a German Roman Catholic priest  Fr. Max Metzger gathered Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy and laity together in Meitingen-bei-Augsburg to pray and study together. The Nazis considered these ecumenical gatherings subversive to their political agenda. Father Max was arrested, tortured and accused of being a spy. At his trial, he declared “I have offered my life for the peace of the world and the unity of Christ’s Church” and was executed at the Brandenburg prison on April 17, 1944.  We are not in Hitler’s Germany by any stretch, but you are participating in that same witness of Fr. Metzger and the ecumenical saints in Selma, and all those nameless faithful throughout history who refused to be divided from other Christians and co-opted for political gain at the expense of their primary identity in Christ. . In a season when churches seem best known in our political life for our impressive skill in dividing, what you do tonight is powerful. And what you do tomorrow and next Sunday and every day after this election when, because of your faith, you choose to treat others like children of God rather than political enemies.

But today, come to this level place, this table set for all. There is no receiving line for Republicans and a separate line for Democrats. There is no line for our Mileage Plus- Executive Class- Gold Star frequent fliers. There is no express check-out line for you with twelve sins or less to confess. No, at this table, there is no Jew or Greek, female or male, master or servant, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. There is one table, one Church, one Christ. The people shout, “I follow Romney!” “I follow Obama!” “Is Christ divided? Was Romney crucified for you? Were you baptized I the name of Obama?” By no means, St Paul proclaims! You cannot buy a seat at this table, you cannot earn your way to grace. You cannot do anything to separate yourself from the love of Christ Jesus. This is the level place where all things bend towards the One loves us unconditionally. No matter how you voted, or if you voted, Christ welcomes you here. Our unity comes from our baptism in Christ, not the ballot box. All you need do is come down off your mountain, stand in this level place with these other messy, unclean people in need of healing too and eat.

A Prayer for Election Day

On this day, more today, we pray for our country divided and ourselves.

We confess that we pick up our pens and pull our levers without naming the mothers and men who callused their hands demanding, again and again demanding, their right to vote.

We confess that we add to the rancor we despise, presuming the worst, pouncing on gaffs to win an imaginary prize.

We confess that we have turned parties into enemies and election into war.

Forgive us.

Take the malice in our hearts, the venom on our tongues and dispose of our anger.

Convict us to train our eyes on all whom you have called “blessed.” All.

Be with all those who put themselves forward for public service. Equip them in mind and spirit for this holy calling.

Restore us to our better angels, and if not, our better selves.

Guide our feet in paths of justice and peace.

This is my song, O God of all the nations.

Amen.

Christian Social Ethics & the 3 Massachusetts Ballot Questions

Christian Social Ethics and the 3 Massachusetts Ballot Questions

Remarks delivered at “How Does our Faith Influence of Vote,” an ecumenical forum and dialogue on Wednesday October 24, 2012 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Newton. For more information and congregational resources, video summary, bulletin inserts, hymns, discussion questions and “holy listening”  guide, visit: http://masscouncilofchurches.org/ballot2012.htm

Introduction

Last week, I watched Twitter as a Christian pastor and theologian Greg Boyd in MN with 10,000 followers wrote that he felt “called to abstain” from voting.  Boyd tweeted “I’m better able to place ALL my hope in Christ when I don’t.”  Now I happen to think that is a cop-out from the obligations of citizenship and it’s possible to place your hope in Christ, advocate and even vote for just public policy. I come from a Congregational Christian tradition, especially in New England, where our obligations as Christians were intimately entwined with our obligations as citizens of the Commonwealth, sometimes unhealthily entwined. (It’s the Congregationalists that give Massachusetts town meeting, right?) I believe voting is a civic duty in belonging to the community. And yes, there is in fact a long Christian tradition of separating from the wider culture to build some attempt at a perfected community. So unless you’re Shaker, you live in this world and your vote affects your own life and the lives of those around you. As much as I disagree with Boyd’s decision not to vote, it does point to the gap between our Christ and our candidates. Our options at the ballot box are often quite far from the kind of restorative justice we hear Jesus proclaim. Our public policy is not the fullness of the kingdom of God. As Christians, we live between the already and the not yet.

Or in the words of theologian Miroslav Volf  in a recent Facebook post: Christ is the measure for all things, but “for Christians, the debate should not be whether one’s allegiance to Christ trumps one’s allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values for national life follow from allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between the universal claims of Christ and the particular claims of the nation.”

We know that these policy options are not everything we want for our broken world. We are here tonight because we want to make faithful, informed decisions on November 6.  We are also here to model a faithful way of being in conversation with one another even when we may not agree on policy. We know the body of Christ is fractured along lines of denomination. Increasingly though, we are seeing some re-alignment of Christians around policy issues, so that a liberal Methodist can have more affinity with a liberal Roman Catholic than with a conservative Methodist. We are here to practice holy listening with one another. There is not a political litmus test for inclusion in the body of Christ: Inclusion in the body of Christ comes not at the ballot box but at the waters of baptism. We believe Christians of good conscious can disagree about the proper policy tools and still be in relationship.  The world has seen plenty of fighting between Christians about immigration, marriage, healthcare, taxes and our candidates. We want to model another way of being in relationship, holy listening, even if only for an hour.

Massachusetts 3 Ballot Questions

We will consider the binding Ballot Questions on every ballot in all 351 cities and towns. Many of you will have non-binding questions in your municipality as well.  Broadly speaking, Question 1 is about work, and Questions 2 & 3 are about suffering- I will weight my remarks accordingly. When considering suffering, Job is your text. Try to remember the 3 visitors to Job: for 7 days and 7 nights they stayed with Job and said nothing. When they did speak and try to explain the meaning of their friend’s suffering, they were fairly useless. As we turn to Questions 2 & 3, remember that we are striving to reflect the initial pastoral witness of Job’s friends and avoid their blundering attempt to explain another person’s suffering.

I also suspect that my summation of the ethical issues for Christians in each question will satisfy neither proponents nor opponents. I ask your forgiveness where I fall short, and ask you extend to me a generosity of spirit. We are aiming towards what we aim towards in our interreligious dialogue: presenting the other in the best possible light and not comparing your best to their worst.

Christianity is as varied and diverse as any other religion. So there is no singular “Christian” ethical way of thinking about these questions. What are the questions we should ask as Christians to aid our thinking about good public policy?

Will all 3 Ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, ask yourself:

  • If passed, who might benefit from this law?
  • If passed, who might be left vulnerable by this law?

Question 1: “Access to certain automotive repair information?” Christians have a long tradition of scriptural and theological thinking about work. So as this Ballot Question revolves around access to information, whose work do we value- the automobile manufacturers or automotive repair shops? Is this about intellectual property rights? Or is it about creating an even playing field to allow mechanics the ability to earn a living? Christianity has a strong tradition of asking questions about what is a just profit for work and what is exploitation of labor. If passed, it appears that smaller auto repair shops would benefit. Consumers could benefit. If passed, it appears that manufacturers could be disadvantaged from where they are now.

Questions 2 & 3 beg us to ask, if passed would there be those left vulnerable under the new law? If passed would be helped? Question 2 and 3 both are designed to alleviate pain. We can make a distinction between physical pain and existential, spiritual and emotional suffering. We have seen the growth of the hospice movement, designed to allow patients to die at home with their pain managed and their family tended to as well. Palliative care has only been a medical board certified specialty within the last 10-15 years. But we have seen great advances in the quality of pain management that is available to most patients at the end of life. Yet, not everyone has access to such care. So in many ways, we have advanced medically technology to tend to the physical pain in many (but not all) illness. Harder to tend to is the existential, spiritual and emotional suffering of dying. This is the big looming pastoral care question that hangs over questions about “Prescribing medicine to end life” and “medical marijuana.” We talk about bearing the suffering of others- do these proposed laws help us bear the suffering of others faithfully? How do we as the body of Christ express something of the compassion and care of God to those in pain and suffering? Christianity has a complex relationship with suffering. There are times when oppressed people are directed towards Jesus’ suffering on the cross as a way to keep them oppressed. But many of our saints and wise ones teach that we learn something of God and ourselves in suffering- not that we seek suffering out, but when it comes we learn.

Question 2: Prescribing Medicine to End Life

Let’s own at the beginning of this conversation that Question 2 is wildly complex and often highly personal. Most all of us have experience with family and loved ones dying, sometimes with much suffering, sometimes with a joyful release into the waiting embrace of God. I bring to this my experience watching my aunt die slowly of MS while my mother was her health care proxy and the suicide attempts of people I love. How do our personal experiences impact how we think about public policy? As we discuss this together, please extend abundant compassion to your dialogue partners, not knowing all the struggles another has gone through before they arrived here this evening.

Language matters here: Proponents call it “Death with Dignity,” Opponents “Physician-Assisted Suicide,” and the State titled the Question “Prescribing Medicine to End Life.” Each of those terms could be interrogated further- why is it dignified to die by your own hand? Does the negative frame on “Physician-Assisted Suicide” trade on the cultural shame of suicide? I’m going to try to stay with the clunkier title of “Prescribing Medicine to End Life,” or Question 2 for short.

For me, one of the guiding questions as a Christian is to ask: what is dying well in the light of Christ? Or dying well unto the Lord? We are a people who believe death is not the end. My preferred resurrection hymn is Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.” Does this law help us die well? What is our Christian witness in death and dying that our death-phobic culture needs from us?

Let’s go to those guiding questions: if this law passed, who could potentially benefit and who could potentially be left vulnerable?

For the proponents of Question 2, this legislation could “benefit” those who have less than 6 months to live.  The intention is to allow individuals to control their own death in the face of suffering. Proponents see the legislation as a compassionate response to an intractable and grievous situation. In Oregon, almost 90% of the people who ultimately took a lethal dose where already in hospice care. You could read this statistic as telling us that those who chose to end their life are having their pain attended to through hospice care- and thus making different decision about why to end their life. Again in Oregon, 91% of those who sought prescription cited “loss of autonomy” as their top reason for seeking medicine to end their life. But if you think that this is a benefit, then there are necessarily terminally ill patients who cannot participate. The law would require the ability for the patient to have full mental capacities and to self-administer the drugs (this is why it’s not technically euthanasia). Perhaps two of the diseases with the most agonizing path to death, patients with ALS could not self-administer and patients with dementia could not comprehend the forms. Proponents also argue that medical professionals ‘benefit’ under the proposed law with conscious clauses that allow Drs, nurses and pharmacists to opt out.

If Question 2 is considered a benefit, you could read this as being about autonomy and the ability for an individual to control their own life and ultimately, death. Christianity has traditions placing a high value on the personal accountability to one’s God.  But also, Christianity does not always place the highest value on autonomy. We value the Church, the gathered body, the family.

For the opponents of Question 2, this legislation could potentially “benefit” unscrupulous family members or insurance companies seeking to get out from under costly payments at the end of the life of a client.

Consider who might be left vulnerable by this legislation: For the opponents of Question 2, this medical option could be manipulated to prematurely end the life of a sick patient. Medicine is not merely a science and doctors do not always accurately predict when a patient has 6 months left to live. No medical professional need be present when the pills are taken, so there is the danger of the medicine not working as intended. Opponents see those with mental illness as vulnerable under this legislation. Terminal patients are required to meet with two different doctors to meet the requirements to gain a Rx, but neither Dr must be a psychiatrist.  All patients requesting a life-ending prescription would not be required to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist. There’s a strong sense among disability advocates that the people with disabilities would be vulnerable in a society that does not value broken bodies. Family members and children could be vulnerable to the approx 100 pills in a lethal dosage that remain in a household in between the time the prescription is filled and the drugs are taken, or if the drugs are not taken.

Reporter John Hockenberry of NPR spoke at the Al Filipov lecture at Trinitarian Church Concord earlier this fall. Paraplegic since a car accident at 19, many visitors to his hospital said “it’s ok to be contemplating suicide.” Except he wasn’t. But then wondered if he should be? What signals do we send about which lives are worth living? How powerful is suggestion? And as we try to build a just society where our government reflects our highest values, what does it signal to have government-endorsed means to end one’s life?

Another way of asking the question about who potentially benefits and who suffers under a new law is to ask: What would happen if these bills are defeated- then who benefits and who suffers?

Question 3: Medical Marijuana

Ask again, if passed would there be those left vulnerable under the new law? If passed who would be helped? From the video you saw the case for use of marijuana to alleviate pain and nausea for people suffering from disease and chronic condition.

Remember the context here in Massachusetts: a successful ballot initiative in 2008 which decriminalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. A few weeks ago Nicholas and I were walking through the Public Gardens from the MCC office and ran into at least 3 groups of high schoolers smoking up amidst the rose bushes. We live in a Commonwealth were the voters have already said they do not think possession of small amounts of marijuana are criminal activity. If you support extending this movement, a medical marijuana law allows for regulation, instead of an illegal activity of growing or purchasing.

Ostensibly, Question 3 is a question about pain and suffering and ways to alleviate that for the sick. But even some proponents will say that this is a backdoor way as a state to undercut the destructive and unproductive US federal drug policy. If you support upending the “war on drugs” does it matter how you disassemble it?

The effectiveness of US federal drug policy deserves much more time and nuance than we can give here. We ask whether it is just to prosecute people for possession of small amounts of drugs. We ask how our beliefs about addictions as diseases square with our thinking about punishment. We ask whether the “war on drugs” is effective. We ask what does it mean for a supposedly “Christian” nation to disproportionally be arresting and incarcerating people of color and poor people. Is it economically rational to spend this much federal money on something that has yet to work well?

Opponents will say that if this is really about medical prescriptions for pain relief, then marijuana should go through the same steps that every other pain relieving drug goes through: Medical testing, double-blind trials, and ultimately FDA approval allowing for doctors to prescribe and pharmacies to distribute. Proponents point to the current US federal drug policy that makes it near impossible for researchers and drug manufacturers  to run tests on the medical value of marijuana- thus, marijuana can’t be treated like any other pain reliever and therefore we can’t apply the same standard.

Ask again, If passed who would left vulnerable under the new law? If passed who would be helped? Proponents hold that if passed, the law would benefit those with prolonged illness and chronic disease who cannot access pain relief by other means. If not passed, the state is denying them medicine they need to live life abundantly. Again, go back to the conversation in Question 2 about the complex Christian relationship with suffering.

Opponents are concerned that the vulnerable among us could be exposed to drug use, if the law passes.   Would schools and neighborhoods be vulnerable to the location of dispensaries or is this a case of ‘not in my back yard?” Opponents have raised concerns that communities could be vulnerable because the legislation as written does not include any provisions about where marijuana dispensaries would be located. Conversely, proponents state that the Department of Public Health would regulate location and those attempting to fraudulently use it would face felony charges.  Opponents point to the unlimited number of conditions that could be treated with medical marijuana and see a system with huge potential for abuse. As written there are no age restrictions, so conceivably a minor could obtain a prescription without parental consent.

How you think about marijuana influences a lot of how you think about Question 3: is marijuana a “gateway backwards” leading people off addictive and harmful painkillers and something innocuous, or is marijuana a “gateway forwards” towards more addictive drugs.  What are your analogies for marijuana? Is it like more like alcohol, nicotine or like St. John’s Wort? And depending on what you think marijuana is most like, that will help determine what kind of safeguards you want to put in place.

Part of what is so complex about this conversation is how little we have an honest and open conversation about marijuana use among the general population. There are real concerns from addicts in recovery that increased availability will lead more people to harder drugs and addiction. But how available is marijuana now? And how commonly used?  We don’t talk about it.  A friend of a friend spoke recently about a Bishop (who will remain nameless) turning to his neighborhood dealer to seek some relief for his wife in cancer treatment. Some have talked about marijuana as being “ungovernable,” because it can be cultivated by the most novice of gardeners. Are our laws just catching up with where people already are? If cancer patients are already taking to the streets or backyards to acquire marijuana, if passed this law provide a legal, highly regulated means for them to acquire it. Again, what does this mean about a Christian witness in the face of suffering?

Summary

Beyond the legislation, Christians have an obligation to build a caring community around those who are suffering. I’m yet unconvinced that legislation can build this caring community. Legislation may make it easier for some people to get the medicine or relief they desire, but legislation won’t bring a friend to sit at the bedside.  Beyond Nov 6, the Church has plenty of work to do for those who still suffer. However you vote, we have a pastoral obligation beyond the ballot.

Christianity offers an imaginative, symbolic role to our broken world. We hold up broken bread and say it is healing body. We hold up the meek and say they shall inherit the earth. We hold up death and say it is not the end. We say that what we see is not all there is. At times, we hold up laws and declare them unjust.  If, as a Christian, you support a position on the ballot, what symbolic signal are you sending? As a Christian, if you support Question 2, what witness does that give to people with disabled bodies? What witness do you offer those in prolonged illnesses?  As a Christian, if you support Question 3, what witness does that give to youth? What witness does it give to the suffering? As a Church, what are the values we model for one another? While language about “rights” may be most meaningful in public square, as a Christian community we have “responsibilities” to one another. There may be things that are legal but not advisable- remember Paul talking about whether or not the faithful in Corinth could eat the meat sacrificed to the pagan gods. Yes, you have the liberty to do so, but “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.” 1 Cor 8:9. As Christians, we try to hold to the idea there is a difference between what we can do and what we should do. We also hold a long tradition to prophetic witness in unjust situations. You carry all your values, personal experiences, tradition and civic obligations with you into these next small group conversations. Follow the model of Jesus: speak passionately, listen compassionately.