Friday, September 21, 2012

Once Upon a Tree--A Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

"A few summers ago I went to that famous March on Washington, And the clearest memory that I have of it is standing near the Lincoln Memorial hearing the song 'We Shall Overcome' sung by a quarter of a million or so people who were there. And while I listened,  my eye fell on one very old Negro man, with a face like shoe leather and a sleazy suit and an expression that was more befuddled than anything else; and I wondered to myself if, quite apart from the whole civil-rights question, that poor old bird could ever conceivably overcome anything. He was there to become a human being. Well, and so were the rest of us. And so are we all. Poor old bird, poor young birds, every one of us. And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, as he will, by God's grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really."
  --Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat   

Carlyle Marney, great preacher used to say when I find myself in trouble I always turn to the Psalms. The Psalms were the first worship guide for the people of God. They were also the first hymns the worshippers ever sung. When their plea went up to God in hard times asking: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” those songs were from the Psalms. But they taught us that the Psalms of praise and lament and thanksgiving could be sung in even the hardest of times. In fact, we might say that if we were to trace back to one of their secrets of survival we would find the Psalter as part of the answer. Dr. Marney was right—when we get into trouble we believers can find help and hope in the book we now call Psalms.  

When the editors collected the Psalms over many years—Psalm 1 was not the first Psalm that was written—but it became a prelude or overture of all that would follow. The Psalm begins talking about how one might find happiness. I am struck by the analogy which the writer used to describe the person of faith. The happy ones are “ trees planted by streams of water...”  What can we learn from this image of a tree?
Rooted in the Earth

The tree is rooted in the earth and tied to the world. And if this is true it means that this tree is planted in the midst of the world. Funny how people faith have always had a hard time with this concept. And so much of our talk has been on the spiritual—as opposed to the worldly. Through the years in hard times God’s people would talk about heaven and the end times and when Jesus would come in the clouds and Armageddon would take place. Such talk ignores the hard-living people because so much of what goes on inside the church on Sundays is a far, far cry from the hurting needs of their lives. Our Lord said, "go into all the world...” to preach that "God so loved the world...". 

Jesus came and lived his life among ordinary people. He became one of them and in that incarnation--he learned something of who they were and they discovered something of God. And the church is to be an extension of that incarnation in the world. And if we make any kind of impact on the world we will speak the language of the people. We cannot ignore the soil in which we are all planted. Jesus consorted with common people. He invited riff-raff to dinner. He spoke to prostitutes on the street. The little people loved him. His parables were about things they could understand--no holy words--just simple stories about birds and boys that left home and people going to Temple to pray and seeds planted in the ground. And later when the New Testament was written it was written in koine Greek--which was the language of everyday.  

So the tree is planted in the soil of our lives. And if this is true this tree is to reflect the day and age in which we live. How in the world should we come away on Sunday never hearing a single word about poverty or health care or those without jobs or addicted to one of many things around us. Why you can go into many churches and you might as well be back in the twelfth century.  

In an old book by Howard Clinebell he asked some basic questions about the church. The way we answer these questions just might tell us if we are rooted in reality or not. This is what he asked: 

"Does the church in thought and practice build bridges or barriers between people?

...Strengthen or weaken a basic sense of trust and relatedness to the universe?

...Stimulate or hamper the growth of inner freedom and personal responsibility?

...Provide effective or faulty means of helping people move from a sense of guilt to forgiveness?

...Increase or lessen the enjoyment of life?

...Handle the vital energies of sex and aggressiveness in constructive or repressive ways?

...Encourage love (and growth) or fear?

...Give its members a `frame of orientation and object of devotion' that is adequate in handling their     problems and pain constructively?

...Encourage the individual to relate to his unconscious in living symbols?

...Accommodate itself to the neurotic patterns of the society or endeavor to change them?

...Strengthen or weaken self-esteem?            
     --Howard Clinebell, Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church

You see, a tree rooted in the reality of our lives helps us in a great many ways. We are a worldly people. But this only part of the story.

Strong Root System 

The tree is fed by a strong root system. I am told that the roots of most trees are as long underground as the tree is tall. The tree cannot stand without a strong root system--it will just topple over.    So, the tree planted by the rivers of waters was fed by a stream that kept it strong. "It yields its fruit in its season, its leaf does not wither...” in all that he does the tree prospers..."(Ps. 1.3b)

What feeds the tree will determine its strength and weakness. And this is why I love that verse in Psalm 104.16: "The trees of the Lord are full of sap." Or those trees that Jesus talked about: good tree and corrupt tree--the good tree brought forth good fruit and the corrupt tree brought forth sorry fruit. (Matt. 7.17) And so I keep coming back to our text today. "He is like a tree planted by streams of water..." (Ps. 1.1.) Jeremiah understood this when he wrote of the faithful: "He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when the heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit."(Jer. 17.7-8)

Once Paul looked out at the church he loved at Ephesus. And this was his prayer for them: "...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3.17-19) And then, in the next chapter, Paul talked about those tossed to and fro, like trees blown over in a time of storm. And then he added: "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." (Eph. 4. 15-16) 

So we are to draw power from the great source something powerful happens to us. We endure.  We continue to flourish despite the winds, the rain, and the elements.  We stand tall. But the Psalmist was not finished.
Growth and Fertility

The tree is also symbol of growth and fertility. No wonder when the writer looked for a symbol of life--he chose a tree. For this is  life-in-process. This business is largely unfinished. So I see in this symbol a great deal of hope and possibility.  As long as the tree grows it will live. When the tree ceases to grow--it begins to die.

Jesus cursed the fig tree because it did not bear fruit. This was a parable of Israel. Because they did not live up to their potential they had outlived their usefulness. And so our task here is to bear fruit. For Jesus reminded us that by their fruit you shall know them. 

One day a friend took me out in his side yard and showed me a tree. They were supposed to cut it down, he said. There was a hole in the tree--and it was rotten. And everybody advised him to cut it down. But he never got around to it. And a wonderful thing happened. This tree broke all the rules. This tree continued to grow around that rotted out hole. If you were to go  there today you would see a tree wounded--but yet growing.

And there are people that sit on our pews—and sometimes even stand in our pulpits who carry heavy burdens. The good news is that the gospel holds out new life especially for the wounded. Hope and possibility. God is not finished with us yet. That, too, is part of the symbol.  But there’s more tree talk.
 Shade and Protection

The tree provided shade and protection. In a desert land trees were a premium. They were places to pitch a tent, to build a shrine and to settle disputes. The tree was a place to hide from the blaring desert sun. Without an oasis from time to time--life in the desert would have been unbearable.

One of the great city planners of America was a man named Olmstead. He understood the power of green living things. He planned Central Park in New York City and green acres in many other cities of this country. In the middle of all that concrete he purposefully carved out some green space. He said these special spots would give the city a soul. And if you have ever visited one of those parks on a Sunday afternoon and seen the kids playing and the lovers under the trees and people on bicycles, jogging or just sitting there laughing--you understand. The park becomes a place of renewal where people get in touch with their roots again.  

People in Bible times, traveling through the hot, desert climate would suddenly come upon an oasis. It was a place of shade. It was a place of water. It was a place of refreshment. A stopping-off place. And there, at the oasis, they would rest for a while and then they would be on their way.  And this is what the church is to be. An oasis--a stopping-off place. A time when we can come in and discover peace and refreshment and then go on our way. 

This is why I love a picture I discovered one day in Charleston. This watercolor hangs in my office reminding me of what church ought to be. It is a scene of St. Philips in downtown Charleston. In the picture--it is a rainy, rainy day. The streets are wet and it is gloomy. And the robed choir is out in front of the church getting ready to process in. Each choir member has an umbrella--standing there in the rain, getting ready for the procession to begin. And it seems to me that church, more than anything else, is helping people to come in out of the storm. To provide a place of protection from all the elements out there. We could almost call that a tree. 

No wonder they talked about a tree in that first Psalm. We are all to be rooted in the reality of our time. We are to find ourselves fed by a strong root system that will not fail. And for as long as we live we are to be people of growth and hope and possibility.  


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Voter ID--the American Way?

I like the story of the man who bragged, “The first hippo I ever shot had been dead three days.” Sounds like Voter ID in South Carolina. Our state Election Commission Director Marci B. Andino has said that she has never seen a case of credible in-person voter fraud.  The former SC State Elections Commissioner, Roger Leaks, Jr. went further: “I can attest that, after sitting on many Voter Appeals Boards, I have never encountered a single case of voter ID fraud, real or imaginary.” In 2009 the Supreme Court upheld a voter ID law but they went on to say: The Federal government reports that they have obtained only 26 convictions or guilty please for voter fraud between 2002 and 2005.  Looks like we’re going to have to shoot that dead hippo another time.  

Government has usually spent a great of time dealing with non-issues that most citizens would call safe. There are over 30 states besides South Carolina that have passed some kind of Voter ID restrictions. They seem to have forgotten that a huge segment of the voter population that will find it hard to vote in the coming Presidential election. Many folk wonder why this is such a problem. They assume:  Everyone has a photo ID, drives a car, has a birth certificate and a passport. Why not just drive on up to your election place, open up your billfold and let the authorities see that not-so-attractive picture. Not so.  

It is estimated that at least 11% of our population lack any kind of certification. This law affects as many as 200,000 in South Carolina. Most of these people are African-American, elderly, have low income or find themselves disabled. 8% of South Carolinians live more than ten miles from the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles office. Only 6% of the Department of Motor Vehicle centers are open on weekends.   

Voter ID in our state means that voters are required to show a Driver’s license, Passport, Military ID, a DMV issued photo or a photo ID issued by local boards of elections. Those registered voters without a photo ID can show up at the polls and can cast a provisional ballot which can be counted when they return with some acceptable proof of identity. They can receive a free ID for the purpose of voting by filling out a form and bringing it to the Department of Motor Vehicles. They also would have to bring some proof of citizenship (a birth certificate, passport, naturalization papers) or proof of social security number, and verification of South Carolinas residency. This could be anything from a report card to a utility bill.   

We need to remember that there are many registered voters in our state that cannot drive, have no bank accounts because they only use cash, own no credit cards, cannot find their birth certificate if they ever had one, certainly have no passport. Many of them work five-six days a week. They would have to use vacation time or get off work just to Drive to the Motor Vehicle’s Office and fill out papers. They could order a birth certificate for $12.00. Why should already registered voters have to jump through all these hoops? 

In 1965 this country passed a voting rights act which guaranteed every adult citizen the right to vote. We stuck down literacy tests which many states, particularly in the South, had used to deny voting privileges to African-American citizens, Hispanics and others.  This bill was to put an end to discriminatory voting practices all over the country. Some citizens gave their lives for the cause of voting privileges for everyone.

Opponents of Voter ID say that this is a way to turn back the clock and make it difficult or impossible for many people to vote. Some of these critics say that this is a way to make sure that many who voted for President Obama four years ago will not have that chance this fall.  

Advocates of Voter ID claim this is not the intention of photo ID legislation. They say they simply want to preserve the integrity of the voting booth. They also say that partisan politics has nothing to do with this effort. 

There is little proof of voter fraud in our state. When the Court reviews this photo ID law in late September perhaps we can bury the dead hippo once and for all. The issue is not if you vote for President Obama or Mr. Romney. That is your choice as a citizen. It matters terribly that all registered voters have a voice in this election.

This article appeared in The Greenville News(SC) on Sunday, September 24.

 (You might want to read a moving article about a registered voter in Pennsylvania who had no car and the difficulty she had in getting a Voter ID. 2012/for-some-pennsylvania voter id )

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Hang Up and Drive"--A Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

Most of us have seen the bumper sticker that says: “HANG UP AND DRIVE!” This is a not-so-subtle suggestion to put your cell phone down and keep your eyes on the road. The disciple James would have understood this sentiment. Early in the life of the church he wrote to scattered Christians. They were surrounded by a pagan culture and basically confused about what it meant to be a Christian. Like the church today, they haggled about what it meant to be a people of faith. Somehow their ideas of Jesus and their own actions were poles apart. So James wrote those scattered churches to help them reconcile faith with practice.

Like the early church we too face a crisis of understanding what we are to be and to do. The world has picked up on our confusion. Some say that to be a Christian demands that you follow the negative principles floating around politically these days. Some want to argue theology protesting that they are not fundamentalists. Some say we must subscribe to the agenda of the far right or the far left. Either/Or.  Some talk about what they government should do to help society and organize committees to study the needs around them. Others, more practical in nature, talk about a loss of values. And we’re all familiar with those who stand in front of the microphone, clearing their throats and saying: If you are a real Christian you have to be against: and I’ll let you fill in the blanks. It could be anything from abortion to getting rid of the deadbeats that are living off the government to legalizing marijuana.

Ask people inside and outside the church what was Jesus like? You are liable to hear them talk about his compassion, his caring—-how he reached out in love even to the poor and outcasts. Most see the church as a group of talkers. Is it any wonder that atheism has grown by leaps and bound they don’t see much positive action from we Christians.

James wrote his epistle to set the record straight. To be a Christian, he wrote, was to move beyond talk. Christians, like their Lord, put their faith into practice. James’ whole epistle was written to move the church beyond hearing and talking to solid action. In his second chapter he said that real Christians leap across the worldly standards of class and caste and show compassion.

What suggestions did James give us to move from talk to action? James said it has nothing to do with protecting our rights or shoring up the establishment or filling church pews. It has little to do with being against something. To be a Christian is to be not only someone who hears the words at church but leaves the sanctuary to do something about what has been heard. In other words we really are to hang up and drive.

James’ second chapter stated: We cannot escape coming to terms with caste and class if we follow Jesus. James would wonder where in the world the Christian interpretation to be anti-feminist, anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare or anti-homeless came from? He would also be bothered by the liberals who live in nice homes, drive those expensive foreign cars, and are caught up in the keeping up with the Jones’ treadmill.   

James asked the church four questions about faith and commitment to Christ.

The first question is: What do acts of favoritism have to do with following the Lord Jesus Christ? James wondered out loud: If a person comes into the church with gold rings, fine jewelry and well-dressed, will they be treated the same as a person who obviously has little of the world’s goods. He asked: would you usher both persons down to the front seats in the church or would you show a difference even in seating. James reminded the church that many liberals and conservatives really have to confess to the sin of partiality. Which church prospects are called the first—the poor or the well heeled? Not only is the church still the most segregated place in our week but it is probably the most class-conscious. James first pleads with us to watch our attitudes—with the rich and the poor.

 As James talked about partiality he wrote that Christians are to fulfill the royal law. What is this royal law? James learned this idea from Jesus: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. So James’ second question asks: Is neighbor a big word or a little word? They remembered that Jesus talked a lot about neighbors. Not just those closest to them. But he told them about stopping to help the wounded along the way. In his story the priest and layperson were just too busy with important things. Jesus talked about the outsider, a Samaritan who stopped and helped. Jesus asked who was the neighbor. And his disciples responded: the one that shows mercy. 

Is our word, neighbor big enough to take in those in need? Tex Sample states that the reason that hard-living people do not come to church is because of what institutions have done to them. They are very suspicious. Almost every institution has failed them: parents, schools, employees, police, courts, jails, government, community service and the church. And if this is not enough think of voter ID. 

Sample says that if we worry more about getting ripped off and hustled by someone once in a while we will never help anybody. He states that there is no way to close off that system and all the loopholes without making church a cold-hearted, bureaucratic structure that has no life. Neighborhood is to be a big word that includes all that need.

James’ third question was: Can you have judgment and mercy?  James says that mercy will always triumph over judgment. The neighbor is always the one who shows mercy. We don’t remember Mother Theresa because of her judgment—and she could be harsh with those that stood in her way of helping—-we remember her for her mercy. Jesus told us that we were not to judge—that judgment belongs to God. Why did he say this unless he understood that whenever we look down our noses at another it turns one of our neighbors into an enemy? Reckon this would apply to Democrats and Republicans as they toss hand grenades at each other these days?

Mercy, on the other hand, builds a bridge of connection with other members of the human family. It’s the affection we received as little children. It’s the time we moved to a new place and people took us in. Mercy is like that old yellowing sack of sympathy cards many of us keep moving from attic to attic because it marks a time and a place when someone lifted us up when we had lost someone dearly. Jesus said the merciful are blessed because in granting mercy they would find mercy themselves.

James fourth question was: Can we have genuine faith without works? “If a brother or a sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” 

I hope you are familiar with the wonderful Interfaith Hospitality program. This program forces churches to do something about all those that sleep in old paper boxes or shelters night after night. Several years ago our church was asked to participate in this program, which was beginning in our town. . For one week we would house homeless families. We would provide lodging for them at the church. We would provide supper and breakfast.  

When the idea was first proposed to us, I was dubious. Our church was little. We had few rooms that could be used for such a project. Most of our people were overworked and over committed—I loved the idea but I was not sure we could do this. But our lay-people taught their preacher a lesson. “Let’s try this,” they said. I reluctantly agreed. Like most churches we had a history of starting tasks and not finding enough volunteers to finish them. It took about fifty volunteers to run this program for a week. Someone had to turn Christian education rooms into bedrooms. Someone had to set up the cots and other furniture. We had to provide sheets, towels soap and well as two meals each day. At least two volunteers would have to stay at the church every night in case there were needs to be met. Our lay-people made a believer out of me. The church came through. We joined hands with the Unitarian church to do our week together. Those that have stayed and worked and brought food and all the other things that were needed say this program has changed their lives.  

A week after we finished our first venture with homeless families we had a luncheon for the volunteers. Around those tables we told sad and funny stories. Stories of how some of the guests had tried to play matchmaker with some of our members. We learned that some of our guests did not like to eat off paper plates. They wanted real plates and real silverware. This request sounded kind of picky until we realized that those with so little desperately need little things like real plates and stainless steel to give them some dignity. I think they may have taught us more than the help we provided them.  

Weeks later I left the church late one afternoon to work out at the local gym. It had been a hard day with many demands. The phone did not stop ringing and almost every call said: “Help me.” So I was ready for a workout. As I put money in the parking meter a man dressed shabbily came up and I thought: “Oh no, not again.” Before he could say a word, I said: “I’m sorry but I don’t have any money.” He responded: “Mister, I don’t want no money. I just want you to know that I’m not crazy. People say I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy. I’m just a little strange.” Well it took me off guard. And when I recovered, I said: “No, you’re not crazy. You’re OK. You are a child of God and that’s all right.” He turned around and walked away. And as he walked away there was a smile on his face. He kept saying, as he walked down the street: “I’m a child of God. A child of God. A child of God.” 
Let's hang up our cell phones and focus on our real business. It isn't talking, you know--much as we preachers hate to admit this--it is treating all God's children alike. It is seeing the word, neighbor through the eyes of Jesus. It is to show mercywhen judgment could easily be our last word. And it is to always remember that without works there is no real faith at all. And who knows, if we really to James' words maybe, just maybe an atheist or two just might take a second look at this thing we call church.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11th--Let Us Remember our Fallen

It's September 11th again. Eleven years ago it happened. We changed. The country changed. The world changed. For the first time in our history our country experienced what countries around the world have lived with constantly. I sometimes think the scar at Ground Zero still hurts and its aftermath has lasted far too long. I do not diminish the grief of all those that lost someone. I do think the rage and misdirected anger from then until now should be resolved for the health of all of us.

Every September 11th I pull out that big book called Portraits 9/11/01. After our terrible attack the New York Times began to publish every day a whole page of pictures of those who lost their lives that day. Beside those photographed we find stories of each one of those pictured.

Gertrude Alegero: "She always had time for a friendly chat with the corner newsdealer and the counterman at the deli..."

David Agnes: An assistant Vice President at Cantor Fitzgerald. After his death they found in his safety deposit box a lock of his daughter's hair..."

 Godwin Ajala: proud of being a lawyer in Nigeria. Because of his hard time there, he immigrated to the US in 1995, hoping to earn far more to support his family."

 Michael L. Bocchino: "He kept a scrapbook of all the fires and all the people he helped rescue in his 22 years as a fireman."

 Janice Brown: "Weekends were a hullabaloo of children, her own and her sistgers'. Monday through Friday she was an accountant at Marsh & McLennan. But on Saturday she was off to the zoo, the skating rink or the moves with her 11 year old son, three nephews and a niece."

 John E. Bulaga Jr.: He and his wife, Michelle, were three days away from closing on their first house, in Haskell, NJ when the World Trade Center was attacked."

 Daniel Coffey and Jason Coffey: "This father and son planned to meet for lunch at the World Trade Center where they both worked for subsidiaries of Marsh &McLennan.  Daniel, 54, needed to have his wedding ring enlarged after 30 years of marriage. His son, Jason, 325 was going to pick out a surprise engagement ring for his fiance, Coleen  McDonald when the towers were hit."

 Harry Glenn: "He was the pride of five boys, the son who said he was going to college and learn all about computers, and then went and did it...A lot of people didn't believe he could come out of Harlem and do as well as he did..."

 Matthew Horning: "At an office Christmas party in 1999, he told a colleague he had two goals: improving at guitar and finding someone to love. In January he started taking guitar lessons. In August he met Maura Landry...they were not engaged but the couple was planning a life together." 

Michael Judge: Was a Franciscan father and chaplain  to the NY Fire Department and could be found joking or comforting firefighters or driving hellbent to emergencies. He loved being a priest and wore his friar's robes to soup kitchens, to Gracie Mansion, the White House and to  countless baptisms and funerals."

Ann Nelson: Was a small-town girl with her sights set on the world. She grew up in Stanley, ND but traveled to China, studied in England and hiked on her own around Peru. She often said, 'Life's purpose is not to find a fun party but to make one.'"

 John Resta and Sylvia San Pio Resta: "This husband and wife both worked as traders for Carr Futures. They were married in the summer of 2000 and she was 7 months pregnant on September 11th."

Jeffrey Schreier: "He pushed a mail cart that morning from the Church Street post office. He had to get to the Cantor Fitzgerald mail room soon. He was a happy man...married to Phyllis and they lived a simple life in her apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn." 

Paul Tegtmeier: After waiting 20 years Paul became a New York firefighter at age 40 in 2000. He was the father of two and was on his way to Ladder Company 46 when the first plane hit. He turned around and headed to the World Trade Center to join his colleagues."

 Khamladai  Singh and his sister Roshan: "He was assistant banquet manager at Windows on the World and she helped. That morning they were busy preparing for 600 guests when the plane hit."

These are only a few of the 1,910 stories that were published week after week in the NY Times. I wish I had time to list them all. All totaled: 3,497 people died in the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

1609 lost spouses that day.
3,051 children lost parents that day.
327 foreign nationals were killed that day.
"Into paradise may the angels lead them: at their coming may the martyrs take them up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead them to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light." --Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead  


Monday, September 10, 2012

Atheism's Big Time Revival

Remember Madalyn Murray O’Hair?  She was an evangelist for atheism back in the 60’s and founded an organization that still calls itself American Atheists. She claimed to be “The most hated woman in America.”  For some strange reason atheist groups have come on strong the last few years. Men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have presented strong cases for atheism. The problem with most of their writings is that I would protest the same kind of religion they decry. They don’t seem to know that there is healthy faith and unhealthy faith. This is a free country and so if atheists want to believe God is only a delusion—that is their right. But I am really disturbed by their billboards that seem to be cropping up everywhere. These are some of their messages:     

   Are you Good without God? Millions Are.

   Atheism, simply reasonable.

  (Or the billboards around the Democratic Convention—

   Christianity is sheer silliness and has no place in politics.

   Or the image of Jesus on burnt toast labeled:

   Sadistic God: Useless Savior...Promotes Hate, Calls it ‘Love’.

The New York Times Magazine recently carried a six page feature article telling the story of a former Pastor who has begun an organization called: “Recovering from Religion.” He claims to have over 100 chapters scattered across the country.  

Seems like these organizations are determined to try to stamp out all religion. Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics says the billboard campaign crosses a line. “Unable to make a compelling case for atheism, atheists launch hateful billboards mocking faith.” He goes on to say: “Imagine the outrage in the media had a group said bigoted and hateful things about gays, or women or Hispanics or African-Americans.” There would be outrage were these targeted groups names were smeared across billboards—but have we forgotten Rush Limbaugh and all the other talk-show fanatics? And then we all know that just barely beneath the surface today there are a great many people who hate gays, despise women, Hispanics and African-Americans. Look at the abuse our President has taken since his election. But we know there are precious few voices raised defending these American citizens.

After the article came out in The New York Times Magazine there was a letter that I want to share with you. I wish I had written it: 

“If these people are really atheists, then why do they feel the need to proclaim their (non) faith? If God doesn’t exist, why is it so important to deny his existence and to do so publicly? Do they feel the need to publicly deny the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (to say nothing of the Great Pumpkin)? This seems to be a case of ‘You can take the man out of evangelicalism, but you can’t take evangelicalism out of the man.”(Sic)
   A.N.S., Alexandria, Va. 

Remove all the great efforts that faith has done in this country and we would be poorer indeed. Orphanages, hospitals, schools and colleges and programs for the poor and the homeless. Millions of dollars are dispensed by local congregation to those who knock on church and synagogue doors crying: Help me.  I would have had a hard time getting a college education without my little church and the school that helped me along the way.

We have had a few missionaries around the world who have done more damage than good but I think of all those who serve unnamed all their lives to help people in troubled places. They are in the majority and they have made an incredible difference.. I think of all the relief work that was done after Katrina and many more places. I have a hard time thinking that Habitat for Humanity has hurt more than helped thousands of families.

I remind the atheists and all of us—there is a healthy faith and an unhealthy faith. God give us the wisdom to know the difference.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Faith That Sings - 11th Sunday after Pentecost

I want you to think of the last formal wedding you attended. As you filed in and sat down, the Organist was probably playing. Then before the mothers were seated someone stood up and sang. Then the Organist struck up a triumphal march and in came the Preacher and the Groom and his Best Man. From the narthex came the fidgety groomsmen and the beautiful bridesmaids. Finally--the Bride--nervous, scared and gorgeous--marched down on her Father's arm. Toward the end of the service, someone would stand up again and sing, "The Lord's Prayer" or "The Wedding Prayer." Then the couple would kiss and march back up the aisle, and the music of the organ would play loud and clear. From beginning to end, music flowed like a river through the wedding service.

Now I want you to think back to maybe the lat funeral you attended. As you came in and sat down, the organist probably was playing something familiar like, "O God Our Help in Ages Past" or How Firm a Foundation" or "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The service began, and after the Scripture was read someone stood and sang something like, "How Great Thou Art" or "Amazing Grace." After the Preacher's remarks and the Benediction the Organist would again play something like "Come, Come Ye Saints, Who From their Labors Rest, All is Well, All is Well." From beginning to end in that funeral servicde music was the thread that bound it all together.

We don't have time to talk about what happens every Sunday. Preludes, Hymns, Offertory, Choral Pieces,  Solos,  Postludes. If we took the music out of the service our worship would be flat and boring. Aldous Huxley said that after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. There are some things that cannot be put into words.

In every age music has been part of the worship of the people of God. We know very little about Hebrew worship, but we do know that praise was at the heart of what they sang. As we move to the New Testament, we know that their worship grew out of the Old Testament synagogue service. They struggled with whether music and worship would be organized or spontaneous. Would they sing only Biblical words--or other words? Then as the Gentiles began to move into the church and shake things up, the church had to make room for the Hellenistic influences of that culture's music. No wonder we have often called the church music program the war department of the church. Almost from the beginning there have been so many struggles and  battles that cluster around music.

When early Baptist began, they despised the strictures of the Anglican Church so they threw out their hymn book, the prayer book and they would not allow any words to be read or sung in the service that were written down. They memorized the hymns. They scorned any kind of prescribed order so they developed their own order. They still memorized the tunes and words. Members of those little churches sang extemporaneously as the Spirit led and sometimes when the Spirit did not lead.

In the Seventeenth century,  Pastor Benjamin Keach split his church in two when he began to write hymns himself. They wondered why did he not stick to preaching. Some of the congregants called his hymns "the devil's invention." But that did not stop Rev. Keach. He gave Baptists their first hymn book in 1691.

As the Church moved from England to the new world, the hymns began to change. It was a rugged,  informal land. So the two great strands of the heritage of order and freedom came together. Baptists still know these traditions today. There was praise to God and there were the most personal of gospel songs. So today as we look out at the church we have an infinite variety of music. We have people concerned with inclusive language. We have people concerned with the multiculturalism of third world hymns. We have churches with no instruments but the human voice. We have churches with an orchestra every Sunday. But we also have guitars and tambourines and drums and gospel rock and contemporary Christian and Praise songs as well as Bach, Mozart, Medema and Wren.  Then there is that wonderful Taize music which comes to us from France which has altered some of the music forms in church. What are we to say to all of this?

Old or New?
The Church has always grown in a time when it's had to struggle between the old and the new.
There are people in churches that have been touched by the old hymns. Some protesting the new have said, "I like the old hymns!' There is certainly nothing wrong with this. For somehow so much of worship takes us back, way back to another time and another place. And we cannot take these powerful rememberings away from people.
There are people who love the new sounds. No hymn books, just screens and choruses and praise songs. Some call it contemporary music. But others opt for third-world hymns, while others want modern language reflected in hymns, praise songs and anthems.
Which is right? Which is wrong? Jesus told about a man who took out of this treasure house something old and something that was new and in the mix something happened. What would have occured if Benjamin Keach had not stuck his neck out and written that first hymn book for Baptists. What would have happened had Isacc Watts not swum against the tide? Read his biography. He was hated and despised by many. And back there English conservatives were suspicious of "When I Survery the Wondrous Cross," and "Jesus Shall Reign" and "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed," and "O God, our Help in Ages Past." In our tradition, we would be poorer indeed with the blind Fanny Crosby who gave us over a thousand hymns like "To God be the Glory," and "Blessed Assurance" and "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross."
We must be sensitive to those who cry out for language that includes all, for that's the kind of people we are. We must be sensitive to those long for new songs. Martin Luther used to ask  "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" And yet we cannot cut ourselves off from our roots. Several years ago  Bill Moyers did a special on "Amazing Grace." He told how this simple hymn has been used so many different ways and occasions to touch the heartstrings of people all over the world. There are some things we can't let go of without losing part of who we are. We are to embrace the old and look seriously at the new.
All or Part?
Music should also express the whole counsel of God. I think this means that we ought to include the whole whole range of life's experiences.
Who comes on Sunday? Someone who lost somebody they loved and they are trying to sort it out. There may be somebody who wonders if they are going to make it through school--if the money is going to be there. Someone elxd  may have lost a job and they are terrified. There may be a lonely High School Senior who is struggling with his sexuality.
And so when we show up on Sunday music should  lift up the longings of our hearts. Church growth people have been telling us for years now that people come to church to be entertained. They tell us that the music should be upbeat and should make the people feel good. Close upthe Organ. Forget the cross. Bring in the Guitars. Feeling good may be a genuine part of worship. But if this is to be an authentic experience we must play on all the keys and not just a few. The sad. The dissonant. The happy. The joyous. The light and the somber. Martin Marty wrote once that if we only have a summertime faith this only touches part  of our hearts. Faith has seasons as does the calendar. And worship should cover the whole counsel of God.
Entertainment or Praise?
So we have to struggle with the question: if our music to be entertainment or praise? TV has done a very good job of misshaping the way many of us worship. But unfortunately it has made us a nation of spectators. People travel from church to church wondering where they will find the best show. The standard of excellence is TV. We look around our little church with empty places everywhere and we wonder why we can't we be like that church in Texas with 50,000 every Sunday. What's wrong with us? Their preacher looks like a movie star. He is surrounded by beauty queens and football stars. Successful folks!50,000 of them! And our little church around the corner looks paltry indeed.
The difference? The difference is between reality and fantasy. One reaches out and involves you--and the other is just an experience of observation.
But real worship is reality. We come in and sit next to people who are just like us. People we have crossed swords with at committee meetings.  People downright peculiar. But people who came to your daughter's wedding. Someone who drove a hundred miles to stand by you when your Mother died. And when you convelescing from your operation they brought you a casserole.  And so you come on Sundays to listen to a familiar voice, much like your own. And you read out of the Old book. You listen to a choir crowded with people whose names you know. You know your church's staff by name. And sometimes you hear what Isaiah heard in the most ordinary of times. Sometimes you are moved and changed and lifted and carried along. When that happens, you cannot be a spectator. You are involved. Kierkegaard once said that we are all on stage as the actors. The Preacher is only the Prompter. God is the audience. Not the other way around. We are on stage. And we must respond. And that is real worship.
Everywhere or Just Special Places?
And we discover an amazing truth: that deep in our hearts we believe that we can sing the Lord's song in  a strange land. That is the wonderful promise that flows all the way through the Bible. It's what the Psalms were all about--praises to God--even in a hard time. Especially in  a hard time. That's what Isaiah kept telling his frightened exiled brothers and sisters after his vision in the temple.  God answered their prayers. God would not forsake them. They really could sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
So Isaiah 35 is one of he great passages in the Bible. In the wilderness--the wilderness--we will find joy and singing and gladness and flowers and water and the glory of God. "And God will come strengthening weak hands and make firm the feeble knees and saying to hearts that tremble: Be strong, fear not. Your God will come." Now this is a news that makes the tambourines shake and the organ play and our hearts sing with gladness.
Clarence Darrow, one of the great lawyers in the early part of the Twentieth century, was an atheist. And one night he was asked to speak in a black church in Chicago. It was the depths of the Depression. Nobody had any money. Many had lost their jobs. Some were hungry and most did not know what the future would hold. It was a time when black people were treated the way many of our immigrants are today--second-class citizens. That night Darrow, a most impeccable orator, began the litany of complaints that the black folk had of their unjust society. Toward the end of his address he said, "And I don't understand it. With all of these things, you still sing. You still sing. How can you sing?' And a woman in the back yelled out, "We sing because we got Jesus to sing about." And the whole congregation began to clap and clap. And the old hard-nosed atheist Darrow had nothing else to say. He just sat down shaking his head.
In the middle of whatever place we find ourselves in--and it may the strange land of some wilderness--God will provide a way. That's what kept the black folk going when they didn't have anything else.
"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."
No wonder we sing. Even after all these years. No wonder we sing. We've got Jesus to sing about! 


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Labor Day - 2012

“And just what do you do?” he asked. Hmm. I wondered what I should say. I am seventy-six years old. What am I supposed to be doing?  

The folk that keep asking this question are mostly smart people.  But their wondering always makes me cringe. Why? Because like my interrogators I also confuse being with doing. I’ve worried about the doing part much of my life. And I, too have walked up to retired people and said, “Uh, what are you doing now?” Some of the most miserable people I know are the retirees. They think because they don’t put on a suit every morning and head out to some office that they really don’t matter. The old book says that all of us count—the old and the young and all those in-between. We are more than the sum total of what we do.  

And Labor Day we need to remember this. Take that checker in the grocery store. Is she only a checker? Nah. There are layers and layers of her life. Like most of us she is like an iceberg. She’s got a family. She’s worried about her boy. She found a lump in her breast and is terrified. She goes to church when she can and most Sundays the singing especially touches something deep down. Standing eight hours a day her varicose veins are giving her trouble. Yet she smiles and asks what kind of a day you are having and makes you feel better as you wheel your cart out to the car. 

Or take the man who works as an Air Conditioner repairman. He told me he worked most of the night just to keep a family cool.  He didn’t complain—he just stated the fact. He said proudly, “I got it fixed.” He has never seen the inside of a college, he doesn’t read much. He watches TV and can tell you all the stats of Clemson and Carolina and a few more. He’s got a wife that doesn’t work outside the home. He says it with pride.  He has two grown kids he worries a lot about. His Mama died last year of lung cancer. Smoked too many cigarettes too many years. He told me, “You know so many people don’t think I’m important. When I come to fix their air conditioner they tell me to come in the back door. They stare at me like I’m a nobody. Yet I fixed their air conditioner when it didn’t work.” 

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894. It was first called a “workingmen’s holiday.” It was to celebrate all “that vital force of labor without which we could never have made this country great.” 

This holiday our labor force is threatened with 12.8 million of us either without jobs or working without benefits. Somehow those who govern us must help get us out of this grotesque situation. I wonder how our politicians really sleep at night knowing that out there just beyond their gated houses, 8.3% of their families are suffering because they have no job and so health insurance.

What will it take to break the logjam in Washington? Those that serve us—emphasis on the serve—need to remember that there is more to their jobs than making sure they get elected again and keeping the well-heeled happy. Who speaks for the voiceless men and women who would give anything to have a job? Abortion talk and rape talk and birther talk and dogs-on-top-of car talk doesn’t help our enormous problems. 

And so on this approaching Labor Day I think of that Grocery store checker and that good man who must walk through too many back doors to keep us cool. And I think of those over twelve million who would give anything to have a job.  

Labor Day is more than saying Rah-Rah to the working force—it should be a commitment from all of us to change this lop-sided way we have of doing our business in Columbia and Washington.  But we can’t just leave all our problems to the politicians. We all of us need to be kinder a little more patient with all those that do their parts to keep us going.  Maybe some phone calls, emails or letters to our representatives would not hurt. 

What do you do? They keep asking. Well, maybe not much in the eyes of the world. But if enough of us raised our voices and really cared about those not as lucky as we have been maybe, just maybe we could change this picture. That’s my challenge for this Labor Day.

(This article was published in The Greenville News (SC) Labor Day, September 3.)