Failure to Floss: A Sermon on Privilege & Repentance

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Preached at Wilbraham United Church (UCC & UMC), Wilbraham MA with Christ the King (ELCA) & Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal)

Sunday December 3, 2016

Matthew 3: 1-12

 

I lie to my dentist. I LIE to my dentist. So if I’m going to practice repentance this Advent, I need to confess. Every 6 months, I lie to my dentist. Dr. Anurag Gupta D.M.D, B.D.S. 2008 graduate with highest honors from Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine asks me, “Have you been flossing daily?” And I LIE. He asks me when I’ve been flossing, and I say “Often.” He asks me “How often?” And I who just flossed 30 minutes before my visit, I say, “Frequently.” Through my teeth with their tender red gums, I say what is supposed to be true, and I lie.

That’s the easy confession, the stuff we know we’re doing wrong, the stuff we have the capacity, if not the will, to change. John the Baptist requires us to attend to the bigger stuff, the more complicated stuff, the stuff that gets stuck in our eyes and our minds and our hearts.

John the Baptist forces us to have the conversations we’d prefer to avoid. I’d be mighty happy with my candy canes and handfuls of cookies shoved into my un-flossed teeth, but into Advent John the Baptist crashes. John the Baptist resists sentimentalism. John the Baptist refuses domestication. JOHN THE BAPTIST WRITES HIS FACEBOOK STATUS IN ALL CAPS. He talks too loud. He’s blunt. He’s unafraid of how people will react. John the Baptist would show up at your Holly Fair next weekend with your free admission and ample parking, he’d sit down at the Holy Café, with his scratchy camel hair coat, and make everyone feel uncomfortable as he hunched over a bowl of soup. He’d take the cookies from the Cookie Walk with his grimy hands and not even pay for them. He won’t sing nicely in the choir, he won’t help put up the Christmas tree, he won’t play along nicely. John the Baptist is inconvenient. John the Baptist holds up the mirror to the people, even the people who don’t want to see, and says, “ I see you sinning. Repent.”

John the Baptist stands at the threshold of the Christ event, and shouts “Y’all ready for this?”

No. No, we’re not ready. Not really. The kind of wholesale transformation that John portends is more than we can imagine. We can hardly conceive the kingdom of heaven John anticipates. We’ve been afraid to say it’s not working. We think small, like “maybe we can have enough kids for a high school youth group this year” or “maybe we can have a nice family Christmas dinner without a fight or someone passing out drunk.” We’re too ensnared and too fearful to imagine that kingdom of God and life abundant. We’re stuck in this broken, hazy, status quo that isn’t really working for everyone.

In verse 2, when John opens his mouth, teeth caked with locust and wild honey, and says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

Repent. Μετανοεῖτε. Repent, or translated another way, “Reform.” “Reform, for the reign of Heaven has drawn near.” In Greek, it’s easier to see that it’s a command, and it’s plural. Not just you individually repent, but all of you. All ya’ll. Or from my ancestral homeland New Jersey, “youse guys.” All you repent. All of you reform. All you, change your mind. John’s pushing for more than a simple change of action, but a change of a whole worldview. He’s pressing on a whole change in the landscape, where the valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low. John’s call to repent, to reform, to change our mind and expand what we can imagine, is a wholesale structural change because of the coming of the Lord. In the words of the mid-90’s women’s R&B group En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”

The people come, and the baptisms follow. Crowds come out to a remote place, traveling far because they want this new way of life.

And then the religious leaders show up.

There are a thousand possible reasons the religious establishment shows up. Maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees are showing up just in case. Maybe they’re coming to hear John’s preaching, to judge it against their own. Maybe they’re jealous of the crowds, looking on the Facebook page of church down the street with the bigger youth group. Or maybe they figure, this baptism is some sort of magical spiritual vaccination, they may not believe in it, but it can’t hurt. Somewhere between curious, jealous, and self-protecting, the Pharisees and Sadducees show up in the desert.

And John, loud and clear, calls them out.

John calls our their privilege in verse 9: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John is calling into question something utterly radical. John says: there is no entitlement in the kingdom of God. John says, your parentage, your ancestry, your pedigree, your racial and ethnic privilege, none of it matters in the kingdom of God. God is so powerful and so invested in the radical dignity of all people that even these stones could become Children of God.

John crashes into Advent, and as much as we’d like to think that other people are the Pharisees and Sadducces, John the Baptist holds up the mirror to us, and says “You brood of vipers, I know you haven’t been flossing!”

It’s hard to have that mirror held up. We like to think of repentance as something to assign to other people. But we confess each week because our brokenness isn’t something that just happens once, but a constant need to change our actions, reform our minds, and repent.

The longer I stay with Christianity, digging into our text, living this way of life, the more radical and more challenging it becomes. The more countercultural it feels. To live as if the gospel were actually true, to live as if there is enough for all. To live as if the life abundant were not just a future possibility but in-breaking right now? John says, our privilege won’t save us. We follow a man who was born to migrant parents under occupation, ate with sinners, gathered the broken, gave out free health care, challenged the Empire, was unjustly arrested, tortured and killed. Why on earth would we think Christianity gets to be big and powerful and established?

Jesus never promised us success. Jesus never promised us tall steeples, or stained glass or our church buildings at the center of town. Jesus didn’t promise us days off for our religious holidays or commercial advertising that reaffirmed our religious tradition alone. The longer I stay with Christianity, the less concerned I am about the war on Christmas and more concerned about the way the Christmas event challenges us to think anew about war. About violence. About undocumented infants born in temporary provisions. About the registration of people, not just a decree in ancient days when August was the Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria, but under the next presidential administration.

We prefer to think of repentance as something that we like to assign to other people. But repentance is regular habit of the people of God. If we are to have a credible witness of a new way of living to a broken world, we are obliged to look at the log in our own eye.

The music historian and writer Jay Smooth says we tend to think about racism and privilege like tonsils. He says, “Like you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again. If someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say “No–my prejudice was removed in 2005!”

Instead of this binary of being good people or bad, of being racist or not, of being privileged or justice seeking, Smooth proposes moving away from the notion of tonsils, instead to a paradigm of discourse more like dental hygiene. Privilege is less like tonsils and more like, well plaque (seriously, go watch his TED Talk Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU) . Because as we move through the broken world, through our biased culture, each and every day, we all build up some privilege plaque. Smooth says this way of living “is something that you maintain and work on every day.” You brush your teeth every day.

Repentance is regular habit of the people of God. John the Baptist shows up, and says, “I know you’re not flossing!” John the Baptist shows up in Advent, holds up the mirror to say “you’ve got racism in your teeth. You’ve got sexism in your teeth. Over there on the left, you’ve got a chunk of homophobia stuck. Can we get you some dental floss, because you’re treating some people like they’re disposable, deplorable, illegal. You are not treating every like a beloved child of God. And if you keep that stuff in your teeth, eventually it’s gonna rot your mouth.” We’ve all been in coffee hour; It’s awkward, to say the least, to have someone point out that you’ve got a chunk of spinach hanging out on your molar. It’s worse though, to keep it there. We don’t just brush our teeth once and are done. We don’t just submit to the waters of baptism and never stumble again. Repentance is the regular habit of the people of God. And to make enough room at the manger for the in breaking of God, we need to clean and clear some stuff out.

Speaking about the Church in his era, the British writer “G. K. Chesterton said that if you love how a fence post looks and want to preserve it, you must repaint it every year. A faithful church can’t be maintained without constant reformation.” If we love our church, if we love Jesus Christ, we cannot accept the status quo, so far from the life abundant of the Reign of God. Repentance starts with us, and our daily examination of what’s getting stuck in our own mouths. Repent, Reform, for the kingdom of God is drawing near.

 

 

 

 

Polemical Praise: A Post-election, Interfaith Sermon on Psalm 100

Interfaith Council of Western MA Thanksgiving Service

Foster Memorial Church UCC & Grace Community Baptist Church, Springfield MA

Sunday 11/12/16

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that has made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I confess that I didn’t much want to be here today, nor did I know what useful thing I could say to you. I’ve been more in the mood of wallowing and hiding, stewing and struggling. My major accomplishments over the past few days include putting on clothes and leaving the house, and not flipping off every driver that seems out to get me. Everything in me wants to burrow in my home, gather my family close, wall myself off from any more news of corruption or elections or the assaults on vulnerable people. Maybe you feel this way, too.

But I come here, to an interfaith Thanksgiving service, as an act of love, an act of power, and an act of defiance. I come here as an act of love, because I am convinced I need the rest of you to be fully human. I come affirming the power of people gathered in the basements of churches and synagogues and mosques to share the gifts of our communities. I come here as an act of defiance, because even as division and fear has been fueled across the country, our gathering is a counterwitness to all that fear and division. We are an act of love, power, and defiance, an example of peaceful coexistence and mutual delight in people who are very, very different from one another. I refuse to deny the goodness and necessity in this, in us. Maybe you came here today for these reasons too. Maybe you decided that putting on your clothes, leaving the house, eating some baklava and a hug from a neighbor was better for your soul than stewing and struggling on your own.

The dedicated organizing team of the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts shared with me the readings and theme, picked long in advance. A theme of “Giving Thanks?” Hard to do when you’ve just seen the blatant racism across the country unmasked. Our scripture is a psalm of thanksgiving? I’ll take a psalm of lament, some ashes and sackcloth. A joyful noise? I’d much prefer some communal wailing. I have “holy envy” for the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of corporate mourning for the destruction of the Temple and all that was lost since. I want to fast, and refrain from washing and work, and read hard texts and taste bread dipped in ash. I want to hear our grumbling stomachs and hold our aching heads.

But, the Psalms are a songbook for every season. The Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, maps out three movements of the Book of Psalms: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. First, the songs begin in describing the world and God as stable and consistent- orientation. Then, the songs shift to upheaval and a sense of God’s absence- disorientation. Finally, a shift to something else, acknowledging the disorientation, not returning to the former days, but moving to somewhere new- reorientation.

Some of us, especially us white folks, were severely disoriented this week. Our country wasn’t suddenly racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, but this past week exposed the extent of the disease. Many of you knew that all along.

Brueggemann counts Psalm 100 among the songs of reorientation. This Psalm 100 is an act of love, power, and defiance. And here is why it is absolutely right for us today, exactly what we need in a time of struggle. Psalm 100 it begins with a most provocative act: the praise of God.

Psalm 100 begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God.”

 Brueggemann writes:

“To praise is to reject alternative loyalties and false definitions of reality. Praise is relentlessly polemical. As this God is affirmed, in the same act other gods are dismissed as irrelevant and denied any legitimacy. As Israel acknowledges to whom it belongs, it also asserts to whom it does not belong. “

To give thanks and praise, we orient back to our truest selves. To orient back to our truest selves, we give God thanks and praise.

After a recent visit to a church, I wandered around coffee hour, trying to find the least awkward way to talk to a hundred people I did not know. Start with the children.

I bent down to shake the hand of a small girl about 9, small enough to still bend down but large enough to stand on her own. “I’m Laura,” I said. She told me her name, in a language unfamiliar. I tried to repeat her name, my thick American tongue stumbling over the unaccustomed sounds. She noticed my struggle. “I wish I had an easy name like Laura,” she said, knocking the wind from my lungs. Her mother stepped in from another conversation. “This is how you say her name,” she taught me. “Dieulila, her name means God-is-here.”

God is here. God is here, and just because God is here, does not mean that people aren’t being hurt by clumsiness and misplaced anger. In the past week, I’ve seen many Christians proclaim “God is still on the throne,” but that doesn’t mean that God’s people aren’t being hurt. This past week, Jews have been targeted with Nazi graffiti, black students return to school to find signs of “white only” water fountains, Latinx students heckled with cries of “build a wall,” Muslims intimidated when their places of prayer have been desecrated, and women harassed in public spaces while our national election confirms that sexual harassment is not an impediment to public office. God is here, but we are far from behaving as such.

But when we start in praise of God, we reorient our view and our world. To center God as the object of our praise is to displace all else. No politician will save us. No patriotism will save us. No privilege will save us. Praise centers God when the center cannot hold. Praise reminds us that God is “Malik al Mulk (مالك الملك) The Owner of All Sovereignty.” When God is the Owner of All Sovereignty, nothing else can be sovereign.

  • When political figures claim to save us, we “know that the Lord is God” (PS 100:3)
  • When money becomes a god, we “know that the Lord is God.”
  • When whiteness and maleness is deified, we “know that the Lord is God”

To know that the Lord is God is to remember that we are not God. The object of our praise is outside of ourselves. To praise God is to reject anything that might try to claim sovereignty over our bodies and our lives.

 

The secret of Psalm 100  is that it’s a communal song. Psalm 100 is not a prayer for a quiet corner, but for a public park. Psalm 100 is less a chant in a monastery and more a seventh inning stretch. When the Psalmist sings “Make a joyful noise all the earth,” the whole earth sings. St. Augustine heard the song, not in one country or “one particular corner of the earth, or one habitation or congregation of men…the good are mingled with the wicked throughout all lands. Every land is full of the discontented murmurs of the wicked, and of the jubilance of the good.”

And so we sing, all people that on earth do dwell

            Brueggemann says, “To sing in this way to Yahweh is to abandon self-groundedness. A life without praise is more likely a life turned in on self. It is a life of autonomy and self-invention, which imagines that one is self-made, need answer no other and can rely on no other.”

To sing communally is an act of defiance against all who would say we can go on our own.

This is our Abrahamic tradition, and our American tradition. In defiance, we sing the Psalms, and sing Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and Woodie Guthrie’s “this Land is Your Land, ” and Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry.” We teach our children Yusuf Islam’s “Peace Train,” and learn the cords to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.”  We shout Rage Against the Machine’s, ‘Killing in the Name,’ and dance Beyoncé’s “Freedom.”  We lift every, every voice and sing.

St. Augustine wrote, “this Psalm giveth this exhortation to us, that we jubilate unto the Lord.” It’s a good verb, to jubilate. Let us jubilate as if our lives depended on it. And if you cannot sing today, your neighbor will sing twice as strong on your behalf.

We’re going to sing this Psalm in Latin, a language none of us are fluent in! We’ll sing Jubilate Deo. We’re going to practice being uncomfortable trying something new and leaning on each other.

I’m serious, we’re going to sing our praise to God, reorient ourselves with God at the center. Stand up, put your feet on the ground. Throw your shoulders back and your mouth open. Sing as if your life depended on it. Sing together as an act of love, an act of power, an act of defiance.

jubilate

 

The Danger of Denominations: A Sermon For Reformation Sunday

 

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Arlington MA

Reformation Sunday- October 30, 2016

John 8:31-36

 co2ucejShe spoke with the humility of someone who actually spent a lot of time in prayer. Her words were precise, nothing wasted. I had developed a sweet friendship with a Greek Orthodox woman who loved her Church, loved her people, loved Jesus Christ and had a particular devotion Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer. I saw her again after a long absence, and she asked where I was worshipping this Sunday. “I’m preaching at a Lutheran Church for Reformation Sunday.” “What is that?” she asked. “Well, on that day, we Christians in the Reformed traditions commemorate Martin Luther, and the nearly 500 years since he nailed the 95 thesis on the church door, sparking needed reform in the Church…” I stopped as her brow began to crinkle, her brown eyes squinting to understand. She said, “My church, we do not commemorate the Great Schism that divided the Eastern Church from the Western Church. Why would you celebrate as a holy day the time when the Church divided?”

Let us pray…

Holy One, give us the Word we need this day. You speak to every generation and every people. Help us to hear your voice this day. Help us to see where we are still bound. Help us to be set free. I claim you again, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. We hear this line so often out of context that perhaps we forgot where it comes from. I did. I forgot it comes from Jesus teaching again among the religious leaders of his day. For generations, the Church would use this verse and others like it, especially in the Gospel of John to perpetuate the superiority of the Christians who accepted Jesus as Lord over the Jews who did not, a theological sin with lasting and lethal consequence. For centuries, we’ve been captive to this sin. Instead, we can see the religious leaders of Jesus’s time as much like many churches now, thinking we’ve got all we need, thinking we are not entangled, thinking we can free ourselves of all that ensnares us.

I have sympathy for those religious leaders. They’ve got a nice big temple right in the center of town, enough people to fill the pews, and the situation with the government is pretty good as long as you don’t question the empire too much. Whatever Jesus is selling, they aren’t buying. Jesus says, this way of life will set you free. And the religious leaders say, “nah, we’re good.” “They take umbrage at something Jesus doesn’t even say. You’ll be set free, Jesus offers. “We’ve never been slaves!” they respond.

Except, they’re wrong.

In verse 33, they answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” But, “We’ve never been slaves” is not accurate. Abraham’s children were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, but they’ve forgotten their history. By failing to remember their enslavement, they also forget that God freed them. They misremember themselves as self-sufficient just because they’re doing ok now. Moreover, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles, the festival commemorative God’s provision in the wilderness after the Children of Abraham are released from Pharaoh’s enslavement. The self-involvement of the religious leaders is so thick that they’re missing the irony of the feast and failing to name God’s liberating role in their history.

Theological self-sufficiency is a dangerous thing. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve got all we need. Jesus didn’t intend for us to be this way, separated and divided from one another. Norm Kansfield, a Reformed Church in America pastor & seminary president said, “denominations, by their very existence, are examples of the sin that is present in the world.”

On Reformation Sunday, we aren’t exactly reveling in our denominational sinfulness, but we’re not repudiating it either. It’s an awkward thing, to celebrate a day of division. I felt that talking with my Orthodox friend. It’s awkward when your heroes are their heretics, your saints are their sinners. I am proudly, gratefully a Christian in the Reformed tradition. I’m also sufficiently convinced of our human tendency towards brokenness that I believe in the necessity of the Church to constantly be reforming. And yet, denominations delude us into that same theological insularity that lulls us into thinking like religious leaders in Jesus’s story. We come to believe we’ve got what we need.

We make a mistake when we treat denominations as our primary identity, the icing rather than the cake. Jesus did not say, “Go, therefore and make Presbyterians of all nations.” Jesus did not say, “They will know we are Methodist by our love.” As John Thomas, the former General Minister of the United Church of Christ once said, “Denominations are powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” Lutheran is a powerful adjective, but an idolatrous noun.

Powerful adjectives, and idolatrous nouns. My mother-in-law made the switch from noun to adjective. For years, she worked as a historian and interpreter at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside of Charlottesville VA. For many years, the official tour at Monticello was all about the famous family, not about the stolen black labor that made Monticello run. They had forgotten their history of enslavement. But in 1993, the Head of Research Cinder Stanton, found a way to make a change. My mother-in-law, Zanne MacDonald, sat with a group of 12 tour guides or interpreters to meet with Dorothy Redford. On a quest to find the missing history of her ancestors, Redford, traveled to Somerset Place, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina. There, She discovered a comingled history of black and white people that culminated in nationally publicized homecoming she organized, bringing together more than 2,000 descendants of the plantation’s slaves and owners. Redford taught these historical interpreters at Montincello to make a shift, from a noun to an adjective, to see the humanity of those who had been captured, forced, and enslaved. No longer would they talk about “slaves” but “enslaved people.” They traded the noun for the adjective. They would get precise in their historical language, naming the Jefferson family not as masters, but owners, owners of other humans.

Quickly, the interpreters made a change, and then slowly the tourists changed too. On each tour, the tourists would pick up on the new language, using “enslaved people” to talk about those who grew the food, tended the livestock, ran the house, and raised the children without pay. They began to imagine the enslaved persons as people with names, histories, and families of their own. They began to imagine the greater humanity, not just the enslavement, but the person who has every right and longing to be free.

For a long time, the divided Christian denominations in the ecumenical movement have been primarily focused on working out the theological differences. We’ve spent many long years talking about how different our adjectives are; how different Lutheran is from Methodist is from Baptist is from Quaker is from Roman, all the while forgetting the common Christian identity that unites. Much of that good and important work on our theological differences has either been resolved or our divisions are not longer as divisive. My conviction is that the work of our era is not to resolve our denominational difference, but the other things that divided us, particularly America’s pernicious contribution to Church division in the form of racism and white superiority.

But the truth will set us free. We tell ourselves some pretty big lies, sometimes. We tell ourselves there’s not enough for us, let alone anyone else. We tell ourselves that if they’re winning, we must be losing. We tell ourselves that we got here only by our hard work. As a country we’ve convinced ourselves of the lie that some of God’s children can be free while some are enslaved. We’ve bought the lie that we can do it on our own, that we have no need of one another. But Jesus points to another truth, the absolute necessity of our interdependence on one another and our utter dependence on Christ.

Just down the road in Cambridge today, the Old Cambridge Baptist Church is inviting over Faith Lutheran Church to talk about Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday. Two churches in the same neighborhood, who could conceivably imagining one another as competition, are searching for the truth together. Communities pointing to Christ together, assured that they cannot untangle themselves from the snares of sin on their own.

St. Paul’s, you have a head start. You don’t even need to leave your building! You have two other churches that worship in this very space in the Haitian Adventist congregation and the Korean Presbyterian congregation. What if they know something about God that will set you free? What if you know some things that they that they have been longing to hear? You’ve already shown that you can be brave and listen across divisions of nationality and tradition when you dug deep to partner with those fleeing the violence of Sudan. You know what it is like to have a sense of the utter necessity of one another and the need to constantly be re-forming to be the Church God calls you to be. You know this. This is your history.

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” Jesus said. The truth is, we need the Son, and we need each other to keep reforming, to truly be made free. May you step towards this freedom today. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preferential Option for the City: A Prayer for Boston City Council

The Boston City Council has a tradition of inviting in local clergy & spiritual leaders from across the city  to offer a prayer or reflection. I am grateful for my fabulous city councilor Matt O’Malley for inviting me. Here is my prayer for our city.CiMFgj_WUAEbDSD.jpg-large

Marriages are not simply the joining of two people, but the joining of entire families and whole communities into something new. I invite you to join me in giving thanks for the signs of love and devotion at the marriage of Matt O’Malley & Kathryn Niforos. May your days be blessed and your love overflow to heal the city around you.

Giving glory to God and honor to the city councilors and dedicated staff, I want to reflect for a moment on God’s preferential option for cities.

For those of us try to follow the paths of Jesus of Nazareth, our Scriptures are woven through with stories of cities. God seems invested in cities, not just for commercial sake, or cultural sake, but God seems invested in God’s people living in close proximity to people who appear unlike us. The Hebrew Bible tells of “cities of refuge.” The Israelites wander in the desert, longing for the stability of a home. Mary, of the city of Nazareth, sings of God who flips the privilege of divided cities, a God who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. God fills the starving with good things, and sends the rich away empty.”  Paul travels between cities, from Rome to Corinth, Philipi to Ephasus. The most popular story about neighborliness, the Good Samaritan, is a story where the violence happens not in the city, but on the desolated road between Jericho and Jerusalem. To restore the stranger to health, the Good Samaritan returns him to a city!

Scripture might start in a garden, but it ends in a city. In popular culture, the vision of heaven is snow white clouds and rolling hills, more Berkshires than Boston. But in Scripture, in the Book of Revelation, the vision of heaven is decidedly urban:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as the betrothed adorned for their beloved. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God will be with them;

God 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.’

This is the city we long for, the city we build. This city where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

You do this holy work of guiding us ever closer to that urban vision, a beautiful city where not just some people, not just those who can afford it, but all of God’s people will thrive.

As you attend to the work of ensuring that all Bostonians have the chance to live and flourish, especially those who are still looking for detox and recovery beds, I want to end by praying the full version of the Serenity Prayer, which has been a life-line for many in twelve-step recovery programs.

We’ve come to know a shorter version, but longer version was actually written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who first wrote the prayer for a sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts as early as 1934.

I will lead us. You are welcome to join me.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

“Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.34.37 PM

The newspaper equivalent of church buildings turned into condos. 

 “Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

The two institutions I love the most are: Church and Newspaper (Museums and Baseball are 3 & 4, respectively). I believe in their similar and quite different holy work to tell stories of Truth and Life, especially stories that are undervalued and unseen. I believe both have a critical role in cultivating a thriving civic ecology for all.

I’ve long noticed a similarity in the challenges and need for innovation of these two institutions whose place and authority were once presumed in our culture.

Boston Globe’s Editor Brian McGrory recently sent a memo to the newsroom. Media commentator Dan Kennedy posted it here. https://dankennedy.net/2016/04/07/globe-editor-mcgrory-its-time-to-rethink-everything-we-do/

I read the memo with great interest about the future of the Boston Globe. But, all I could hear were echoes of my own institution. Below is my creative writing exercise. My text is in red. Enjoy.

~ Laura

Hey all,

 It’s time to bring everyone up to date on a series of conversations I’ve initiated among senior editors bishops over the past couple of months, conversations intended to lay the groundwork for a no-sacred-cows analysis of our newsroom Church and what the Globe Church should look like in the future. It’s also time to get the room fully involved in the process.

You know it as I know it: The Globe, Church like every other major legacy news religious organization in Massachusetts, has faced what have proven to be irreversible revenue declines. The revenue funds our journalism ministry. The declines have mandated significant cuts over the past dozen years.

 There’s far too much good that goes on at this organization on a moment-by-moment basis to allow ourselves to be consumed by what’s wrong with the industry religious institutions. But we can’t ignore hard realities, either, or simply wish them away. My own strong preference is to somehow shed the annual reduction exercise that seems increasingly inevitable here and everywhere. So I’ve asked senior editors bishops to think about how we, at the very least, might get ahead of the declines, and in the best case, work to slow or even halt them. To help shape the discussion, consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization Christian institution designed to take on The Boston Globe denominationalism, what would it look like?

 There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff clergy & lay leaders in the right way? Should we remain in the current print physical format that we have now, same size buildings, same sections geographic isolation? Do we have the right departments divisions of ordained and lay ministry? Is our beat structure seminary process outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week worship on Sunday mornings? Do print and digital in-person and online ministry relate in the right ways?

 The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still.

Easy answers, as you well know, are elusive. The good news is that we’ve got an absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists ministers, many of the best in the nation, that has embraced profound and meaningful change over the years, always while maintaining our values. We’ve built two of the most successful websites  partnerships in the industry, first boston.com Addiction & Spirituality and now bostonglobe.com Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The latter site partnership is not only thriving, but growing rapidly, up more than 15 percent in uniques and page views this year over last, with the first session of “Foundations of Christian Leadership” outside of North Carolina, starting in New England in April and leading the league in digital-only subscribers in FOCL participants—the most important metric. We successfully overhauled key parts of the site last year Massachusetts Council of Churches’ leadership structure. We’re about to launch a major sports membership redesign this spring  summer, all while we confidently spread our wings with a broader array of stories ministries and topics geared first to our web emerging multi-denominational audience.

 At the same time, we haven’t just maintained print worshipping communities, but enhanced it over the past few years, with a great new standalone business section through the week, a Sunday Arts section that showcases some of the best critics in the industry, Address, premium magazines, broadsheet feature sections. I’m missing things, I’m sure. We saw quite clearly in January last winter just how much the physical paper worshipping community means to an enormous swath of our readership constituency.

The journalism ministry, through it all, has been consistently exceptional. We drove the Olympics BostonWarm debate. We launched a national debate on concurrent surgery thriving Christian institutions & the nature of councils of churches. We’ve been one of the smartest, freshest voices on the national political intra-Christian & inter-religious scene. We’ve chronicled poverty in rural Maine and economic segregation in greater Boston in deeply memorable ways ecumenical pilgrimages to Armenian Christmas Eve, the 200th anniversary service for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Feast Day of St. Mark at a Coptic Church, and Holy Tuesday in the Anglican Tradition.  Day in, day out, we are one of the most thoughtful metropolitan news organizations hubs for innovative Christianity in the land.

All of which is to say: We’re very good at change. We’re committed to high standards. We are well-positioned to go even further.

So I’ll frame the discussion one more way: Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?

 It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether this reinvention initiative is an excuse for more cutting. The glib answer is that we don’t really need an excuse to cut. The revenue declines require it. The more involved answer is that even without declining revenue, we should still be exploring reinvention, given the massive advances in technology and massive changes in reader worship attendance habits. And even without a reinvention initiative, we’d still have to cut. So the honest answer is that a reinvention would naturally take into account the realities of declining revenues.

I’ve sought some outside counsel to help facilitate the process, people who have thought long and hard about these issues and are deeply knowledgeable about what’s been tried at other news Christian organizations and how it’s worked. Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman, Dave Odom the executive director and deputy director respectively of the American Press Institute Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, plan to be with the new Massachusetts Council of Churches Working Board this summer, and heads of church meeting in December. in the newsroom on Friday—tomorrow—to meet in small groups with some staff. They’ll be joined by Marty Kaiser, the highly respected former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has worked with Tom on these exact issues. After Tom, Jeff, and Marty get an initial sense of our newsroom, we’ll discuss a path forward and how they might help. The key is to create a process that involves as many people as possible, at all levels, tapping into the wealth of creativity that is this newsroom’s Massachusetts’ trademark. 

This is a significant and important undertaking. It’s also an exciting one. We’re in a moment in this industry religious era and at this organization that requires us to be bold (have I used that word enough yet?) and imaginative, always in our journalism ministry, but also in determining how we best fulfill our civic responsibilities. There’s not the tiniest bit of doubt that we’re up to the challenge. 

I’ll be reaching out to some of you about meeting with Tom, Jeff, and Marty tomorrow, and then I’ll report back soon in a series of Winship Room gatherings about the road ahead.   We’re committed to a process in which everyone can effectively share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In the meantime, feel more than free to reach out to me directly.

Brian Jesus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finished: A Sermon for Good Friday

Finished: A Sermon for Good Friday

Shrewsbury Ecumenical Good Friday Service, March 24, 2016

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.                    ~ John 19: 28-30

 

I am the bread of life.

I am the light of the world.

I am the door.

I am the good shepherd.

I am the resurrection and the life.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

I am the true vine.

I am he.

I am thirsty.

It is finished.

Let us pray: Holy One, draw near to us as your people draw near to your Holy Word. Fix our eyes on your cross and draw all people to You. Amen.

No innocent death is ever good, even on this Friday we call Good.

There is no trivializing Good Friday. Today is a day for truth telling, for the audacious claim of Christianity that God in God’s self dies. Or as the poet John Donne said “What a death were it then to see God dye?”

Good Friday is the fickle rawness of March in New England, not the dependable warmth of June.

Good Friday is all open welts, and hard edges, and splinters of wood, neither the intimacy of a meal and wet skin of Thursday Night nor the bright hope and smooth stone of Sunday morning.

Good Friday is blood, and sour wine, and sweat.

There is nothing polite about Good Friday, a day when the decorum of respectable bodies breaks down into bruises and bleeding and groans and nakedness. You can try to stay on the surface of Good Friday, but it will pull you deep down.

There is little peaceful about Good Friday, a day when the powers of Empire reign supreme, and state-sponsored violence is put on public display. Good Friday is no quiet execution in a back room, but a spectacle, a breaking news scroll, a warning for all others who would challenge the powers and principalities.

IMG_2748There are no Good Friday greeting cards. There are no Good Friday chocolates. There are no Good Friday new bonnets or shined shoes.

Good Friday is not for the faith of heart. It asks of us more than a fondness for a moral exemplar, healing servant, wise man. Jesus asks, will you go with me to the court, the cross, the tomb? Good Friday asks more questions than it answers. Good Friday asks “Were you there?”

We were. We are. Good Friday is the day when we stay seated in our suffering. We sit with it. We sit through two chapters of John’s Gospel to get the full, hard truth of the audacious claim of Christianity that God is so invested in our life and suffering to have lived and suffered, too.

Today, our prayers are long. We trace the suffering over every corner of the globe and every crack of our hearts. We drape ourselves, we drape the cross in black; we Gentiles learn to “sit shiva” on Good Friday.

Good Friday is unflinching.

When I was a child, I went to the newspaper where my father worked. Like granite pillars, two tall beige metal filing cabinets stood sentinel, filled with obituaries. These were not yet the stories of the dead, but filled with the stories of the living. All of their life, written out, ready to go, except for that last paragraph and the date of death.

It is hard to look at this much death.  Those full file cabinets seemed like they would topple over on top of me. We are unaccustomed to this discipline of looking death in the eye, and not looking away. Good Friday is a staring contest.

Maybe, maybe some of you have practiced this, this looking at death, abiding with the dying you cannot save. Maybe you have sat for hours at the arm of a spouse, a child, a neighbor as they approach their last breath. Maybe in your grief you’ve contemplated all that was done, and all that was left undone. Maybe you care for the sick and the dying, strangers entrusted to your care. Maybe you’ve been to war, and the memories of death wake you still in the night.  Maybe in your depression you saw your own suffering, a malady so strong as to confine you to your bed and make a cave of your room. Maybe you waited outside the door.

It is hard to look at this much death. We turn the newspaper over in the recycling bin so we do not have to see the grief of travelers in the Brussels airport whose attempts to get home turned into a scrum of death We shield our eyes when photos of American soldiers torturing prisoners at the Abu Graib prison cross our television screen. We scroll past the photos of dead bodies of desperate immigrants on the shores of Greece with the remains of punctured rafts twisting at their feet, like the divided clothes at the foot of the cross. We pause the video of yet another young black man being shot because we’ve seen it all before.

It is both too hard, and too familiar to look unflinchingly upon death. We either rubberneck death or deny it. Good Friday trains us to look at suffering, not alone, but gathered at the foot of the cross.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus knew this death was coming. Everything had already been written. I am the bread of life. I am the true vine. I am the good shepherd. Before the world was, I am.

Everything had been written, except for that last paragraph.

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I am thirsty.” He spoke this to fulfill the scriptures. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is in control. There is no cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” like in Matthew and Mark.

Instead, Jesus writes the final sentence: “It is finished.”

For all of us who are not in control of our suffering, our shame, our vulnerability, Jesus is. Ego emi. I am.

Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

“It is finished”

What is?

Sin is finished.

Shame is finished.

Death is finished.

This frail and vulnerable body is finished.

Our God did not flee the superlative suffering of the cross. There is no secret escape hatch for the Holy One. God stays until the end, until it is finished. God does not blink in the face of suffering, but stays there, unfailing, unflinching.

Jesus’s last word was just one word, Τετέλεσται (tetelestai) from Teleo- third person, perfect passive indicative.

It is finished.

It is passed.

It is accomplished

It is complete.

It is complete: There is nothing Jesus needs from us to finish this work. In the completeness is also the singularity: Once and for all, and never again. No more of this. No more torture. No more executions. No more Empire. No more public shame. In the completeness of the cross, God says, this is not my way.  In the completeness of the cross, God says, we are not doing this again.

The God who knows even the number of hairs on your head, this God too, has experienced the fullness of our human suffering, so that what ever may come, what ever may be written next, our story doesn’t end alone.

We sing, “Were you there?”

Jesus sing, “I was there. I am there.”

We Live Tight: A Sermon for Cities

Sunday March 6, 2015: St James Episcopal Church, Somerville MA

Lent 4: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live jammed up, crammed up, layered on top of one another. We hear the fighting beneath us and the dog scratching above us. We live with arguments we cannot stop and doors we cannot open.

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes unmet and houses stacked so close together that as I cook in my apartment, I can see a pot boiling over on their stove next door, third floor across from third floor.

We live tight in a stew of euphemisms: We live with garden apartments, without enough sunlight to grow much of anything except mold. We live with half-baths, which means a space so small you’ll hit your knee on the sink about half the time you go. We live with the Craigslist Code, where “historic” means the place has never been updated, and “great location” means your apartment is above a bar.

We who live in cities, live tight on money, tight on space, tight on time. We ride tight in the MBTA car, stand tight in the checkout line, and park tight, wedging our way in and out to squeeze in between yet another yellow moving van and a beach chair space saver, though it is March and there is no snow is in the forecast.

We cling tight to the people who remain, since many of the new who move in will probably be gone in three years anyway. We know the churn and the turn-over and the High Holy Day of all our messy humanity that falls on September 1 every year and spills onto the sidewalks.

We, who chose the city or do not have the means to leave the city, live tight with people who may not look like us, act like us, talk like us, behave like us. How does the Christian story of reconciliation sound different in most densely populated municipality in all of New England? With 19,220.5 people per square mile here in Somerville, the question isn’t “who is my neighbor?” but “who isn’t my neighbor?”

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;” St. Paul, a city dweller and city traveler himself, writes to the divided church in Corinth, the very church he founded. Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen; Paul, a Jew and a Christian; Saul of Tarsus and Paul of Jerusalem, and Corinth, and Rome, and Ephesus.

Paul who defies the easy binaries and Paul who too is a new immigrant and global citizen; Paul, who is in the middle of, yet again, another major disagreement with the Church in Corinth. It is this Paul who writes “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Maybe he’s trying to make amends with these disagreeable Corinthians. Maybe he writes it so he too will follow his own rule.

How hard it is in cities to regard no one from a human point of view! We’ve got all sorts of names for reducing complicated, multi-faceted human beings into one, incomplete, identity:

The gentrifiers,

The homeless,

The old-timers,

The students,

The tech bros,

The yummy mommies,

The Brazilians,

The Dominicans,

The Blacks,

The Irish,

The Italians,

The Catholics,

The Jews,

The gays,

The elderly,

The establishment,

The new immigrant,

The refugees,

The faculty,

The workers,

The commuters,

The makers,

The takers,

The gang bangers,

The investors,

The Section 8-ers,

The yuppies,

The old skool Somervillians,

and the priced-out Cantabrigians.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” Paul sets the high standard for a Christian life: We regard no one from our short-sighted, human point of view. We aim to see as God sees.

IMG_2653We who live in cities know just how hard this is. A hallmark of the city is anonymity, so many people we do not know and will never meet. It is hard to drop those single moniker identities of our human point of view for something more nuanced, more complex. Our challenge is to see the anonymous guy clipping his fingernails on the Orange Line not a weirdo but as a beloved child of God.

When at 3 in the morning, I wake up to the sound of garbage bins being knocked over because my drunk student neighbors fell into them, I confess, I do not see them as unique children of God. When I go out the next morning to find our recycling all over the road and discover a pile of human vomit on my crocuses, I do not think of my neighbor’s preciousness before God. But Paul says, for you who want to live in this Christian way of life, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” No one. Not even the neighbor who vomits on my crocuses.

And for Paul, it’s not just that we are tasked with seeing people differently, but as we see them differently, we have been given an enormous, momentous task: In verse 18, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

I’m sorry, what? God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? Has God met us? We’re a mess! Our cities are hopelessly segregated. We inherit division on top of division, on top of redlining and bussing and redistricting and urban renewal, on top of the foundational sins of enslaved Africans, layered on top of the seizure of land from the Massachusett tribe. The Boston Globe just this morning released a major study reporting our surge in income isolation, “with hundreds of thousands living in an economic isolation unlike anything in memory.” I can’t even be reconciled to my neighbor who won’t shovel his sidewalk safely enough, and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? The alternative title for this sermon is “When God makes bad decisions.”

Why on earth would God entrust something so critical to us? Christianity’s foundational claim is that through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our broken and divided humanity is reconciled, made whole, restored to the fullness of life abundant. Our brokenness isn’t our ultimate condition; our death is not the end of the story. God decides to give this ministry of reconciliation to a people who can’t reconcile over snow parking space savers?

We who live in cities have been entrusted with ministry of reconciliation, not in the abstract, but with our particular neighbors.

I think, I think the God who knows the number of hairs on our head is invested in the particulars. This ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us is not some cosmic, global reconciliation, but the reconciliation of particular people in particular places. I am not called to begin by reconciling North and South Korea, but begin by reconciling to my careless neighbor, my sister who didn’t take the recycling out again, my work colleague who seems like he hears only every 5th word I say, and the only high school friend who seems only capable of using Facebook for cruelty. This is reconciliation in the particulars. No reconciliation is possible if we do not first try to see as God sees. Reconciliation in this way is not broad and global, but tiny, local, particular, like the first green shoots of spring in that narrow band where the cement breaks open.

The theologian Miroslav Wolf sees God at work in this particularity of reconciliation. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Wolf says that God is partial. “In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs. When God executes justice, God does not abstract but judges and acts in accordance with the specific character of each person.” (222).

As Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, he gives these cranky Corinthians a new name, a new job description “Ambassadors.” In verse 20 he writes “ So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” It is mighty hard to be reconciled to our odious neighbors if we are not reconciled to God. It is mighty hard to see others as God sees, if we cannot imagine ourselves as God sees us: worthy, lovable, precious, particular.

If you have taken the MBTA Redline into the city, all the way to Downtown Crossing, you’ve probably seen a Business Improvement District Ambassador.

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Dressed in bright orange polo shirts & unflattering green windbreakers, these 40 women and men are stationed where the lost and lonely wander. It’s a city program to make the Downtown Crossing area a little friendlier and more manageable.

 

 

An out of town tourist wrote about the Ambassadors: “Hello, my wife and I just returned from a wonderful vacation to New England where we spent 5 days in Boston and a couple weeks in NH and ME. We just wanted to say how pleased we were with the assistance from Ambassador Michael. When we approached Michael for directions to the Common, instead of pointing the direction, he actually walked us there himself. We aren’t used to this specialized service. Please let him know again how happy we were with your organization and in particular, Michael.” In Particular. Larry from Pennsylvania was not left alone in the city, but helped, and not by just anyone, but “in particular, Michael.” Michael didn’t just point out the direction, “He actually walked us there himself.” And maybe that’s what it could be like for us to be Ambassadors of reconciliation too- to not just point out the way, but actually walk there ourselves.