Leadership Matters

1 06 2020

Today, America needs some leadership!  

As our world continues to address the the COVID-19 pandemic, and our nation struggles with the consequences of racism and White supremacy, the American people are longing for leadership.  Foreign policy issues may have a role in issues related to the coronavirus, and economic disparity may be one of the factors behind the race riots taking place in cities from New York, to Minneapolis, to Los Angeles; but today, America does not need a diplomat, nor a businessperson.  America needs a leader.  

Today, no one is thinking about the make-up of the Supreme Court. No one’s really interested the Stock Market or the Dow Jones.  And for week’s now, I haven’t heard any talk about abortion rights or America’s immigration problem.  

Today, these issues are all secondary; because American greatness is being overshadowed by anger and violence, rioting and looting, chaos and anarchy.  And why?  Because we do not have a leader.  America does not have a knowledgeable, informed, articulate, leader sitting in the White House; and anyone who has not felt the effects of that absence for the past 3 1/2 years, surely, is feeling it today!

Is the current state of affairs in America the fault of Donald Trump? 

Does it really matter?

Anyone worthy of the presidency should be able to offer the American people at least a modicum of hope in difficult days.  But Donald Trump is not a leader.  He never has been, and he never will be. 

So take note America! This is why character matters.  This is why integrity matters. This is why intelligence, wisdom, truthfulness, humility, kindness, and compassion matter.  We do not need a president who sits in a bunker in the White House, Tweeting away incendiary, divisive, and childish nonsense. We need a president who can lead. We need a president who can motive us to our better selves, and who can inspire us to continue to build a nation where “liberty and justice for all” is not just a nationalistic reelection slogan, but a goal to which we are all seeking to aspire. We need a president who reads, and who is continually seeking to learn, and grow, and who longs to be more than a mere figure-head who is blindly worshipped.

America needs a president who can lead; and who is seeking to lead all of us. So remember that in November. Leadership matters. And Donald Trump is not a leader. He is not the kind of president America deserves. And he is certainly not the kind president America needs . . . not today . . . not ever!





My Quadrant is Missing!

22 04 2020

In the spite of the number of years I have spent in the Church of Jesus Christ, 34 of them as an ordained pastor in the PC(USA), I still find myself without a tribe. And the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have only magnified my sense of aloneness! As I, and countless other pastors, attempt to figure out what it means to “be the Church” when people can’t “go to church,” I have felt like I’m on my own to figure out what what worship looks like in these days of physical distancing and state-wide quarantines. And here’s why.

One of the ways churches around America might be grouped is according to their theology and their worship style. So on the graph above, if the x axis represents the theology of a church, those communities that are more conservative and evangelical will fall further on the left, and those more liberal and progressive will fall further on the right. If the y axis is for a church’s worship style, congregations that are more formal and liturgical will find themselves towards the top, and those that are more informal and contemporary will find themselves near the bottom.

Now in my experience, there are large numbers of people in churches that fall in quadrant III. They label themselves as evangelical, and their worship style is clearly contemporary. And without distracting readers with biased descriptions, they tend to be Biblical literalists and love ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of music played on electric guitars and drums. Statistics would have us believe that this is where the largest number of Americans can be found, likely because this is where most of America’s mega-churches can be found!

My experiences would also lead me to believe that there is a smaller and relatively equal number of people and churches found in quadrants I and II. In quadrant II are those conservative churches where the pastor and the people are still dressed to the nines, and where the choir still sits up front and sings about grace saving “a wretch like me,” and that “God, his son not sparing, sent him to die” for the sins of mankind! The people found in these churches tend to be older than those from churches in quadrant III, and they are generally found in the more rural areas of the south and the mid-west.

People and churches in quadrant I are far more liberal in their theology, but they are still tied to the old hymns of the faith, and embrace a style of worship that, and again – please don’t be distracted by my descriptions, reeks of the kind of ritualistic traditionalism that sucks the very life out of my soul! Many so-called ‘mainline’ churches are found here, and quiet a few are from my own PC(USA).

But where are the churches in quadrant IV? Where are the churches that recognize the “reformed and constantly being reformed” nature of the Church applies not just to our theology, but to our worship? Where are the churches full of people who love Jesus, but who also believe that just as the Spirit has shed “more light” on the issues of gay marriage and ordination, perhaps more light might also be shed on how and what we do on Sunday morning between 11:00 and noon? Where are the Churches that are not just pushing the church’s boundaries when it comes to the role of woman and our complicity with American racism, but that are also open to new ways of thinking about the music of worship, the sacraments of worship, what is read in worship, and how we pray in worship? And please, don’t tell me to go to a seminar on Taize, or to a story-telling workshop! Because if that’s the best the Church can do, we’re in big trouble. I spent 20 minutes at a major denominational workshop last year listening to a debate on whether it was acceptable for pastors to not wear robes!

In spite of my sarcasm, I’m not so much interested in condemning churches in quadrants I, II, or III. I simply want there to be enough room in the Church for someone like me, in quadrant IV. I’m convinced that this is where more and more people are today; so why aren’t there more churches here? Maybe the restrictions of COVID-19 can help us figure this out! I think our future depends on it.





Sermons from the Days of Trump

4 03 2020

Here is the introduction to my first book; and if you’ve not had a chance to purchase a copy, you can do so at Amazon, Parsons Porch, or just Venmo me and I’ll pop one in the mail.

We all know how the presidency of Donald Trump will be remembered. This is how I want to be remembered!

Few things have influenced my preaching as much as the election of Donald Trump! 

In 34 years of ministry, countless experiences have touched my heart and soul, and a variety of personal, church, national, and world events have influenced the way I have sought to interpret and apply Scripture to my life, as well as the way I have sought to help the people to whom I preach on Sunday mornings apply it to their lives.  But nothing has had a more profound impact on what I share and how I share it than the behavior and administration of our nation’s 45th president. 

Like so many pastors, in seminary I was encouraged to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I have always believed that the Gospel is nothing if it is not political, and that there is no way to faithfully and effectively preach without dealing with politics of the day.  But at the same time I have also sought to avoid partisanship, and to refrain from either demonizing one party or idolizing another.         

But sadly, and tragically, on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something happened that would dramatically alter the trajectory of our country, and influence my preaching for weeks, months, and years to come.  At no point in my lifetime has an American President governed this nation with such blatant selfishness and narcissism, nor led the free world with such pompous arrogance and sanctimony.  His lack of regard for those on the margins of our society, his naiveté with regard to the inherent racism of American life, and his disregard for the misogyny that plagues our world, can only be compared to history’s most ill-equipped and uninformed national leaders.  His moral bankruptcy and ethical infidelity fly in the face of all that is of God; and so if his presidency has NOT had an impact upon what is being preached in American pulpits, then something is tragically wrong with the American Church!   

In my experience, Scripture has never been as relevant as it has been for the past several years.  The application of Biblical principles to living life in 21stcentury America mandates that preachers embrace their prophetic voice.  As was the case when the early Church sought to minister throughout the Roman Empire, faithfulness today will be defined by our willingness to speak truth to power, and by the courage we display in challenging the predominant theology of empire and the worship of national exceptionalism. 

Scripture always has, and always will, set the agenda for my sermons.  But when it comes to the application and interpretation of what I believe the Spirit to be saying to the Church today, for the past two years the various texts have set themselves in direct opposition to the policies and practices of the current administration.  And sadly, in too many instances, these policies and practices have become the norm for the Republican Party. 

The ‘kin’dom, or reign, of God is about people loving mercy, seeking of justice, and walking humbly with the Spirit.  The sermons included in this book are the fruit of my attempts to encourage the Church to do this.  They are the result of the Spirit’s movement in my life in the two and a half years following the election of Donald Trump, and I hope they continue to speak to you, the reader, today! 

Each sermon was modified only slightly to better fit this forum, with congregational examples removed to make the overall message more relevant to all readers.   At times, they may appear to be overly punctuated, but they were written to be preached; and those punctuations guided my delivery.  Further, since I often ‘wander’ from my printed manuscript, I cannot fully guarantee that what I said when each sermon was preached, is exactly as it appears in this format.   But it is close! 

In several instances I have included an introduction to the sermon: a brief account about what was happening on the national stage in the weeks leading up to my message; the lyrics of a song or hymn used in worship the morning the message was given; some other element from worship on that particular Sunday; or a combination of the above.  I have also include the Scripture texts for the day, and unless otherwise noted they are from the New Revised Standard Version. 

My hope and prayer is that all of these messages will inform both your faith AND your politics; for as our walks with God are deepened, so too should our walks with one another.  At times our faith is indeed intensely personal, but it is never private.  It is lived out in our world, and thus our civic life cannot help but be impacted by the faith we profess with our lips.

If these messages offend you, be sure that it is ME doing the offending and not Scripture or the Spirit.  For if it is either of them, that is between you and God.  But if it is indeed me, I apologize.  My goal is never to offend, only to be faithful.   





God, in the Gathering

18 02 2020

VIC

I was sure I would never fit in!  I’m easily one of the youngest people in the group, and I’m a guy.  What could I possibly learn from, or have in common, with this group of 20+ older women and the occasional 3-4 older men?

Little did I know!

I’ve been participating and leading Bible Studies for almost 40 years; but never before have I been in a Bible Study like the VIC (Ventures in Community) Bible Study in the Mount Vernon section of Alexandria, VA.

Led by retired Episcopal Priest Jonathan Bryan, and held at Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church, this Thursday morning Bible Study is easily the most stimulating two hours of my week.  And no two hours of my week gives me more hope for the Church of Jesus Christ.  Episcopalians and Catholics, Methodists and Lutherans, Quakers and Presbyterians, all come together to read Scripture and consider new and fresh ways of thinking about God, faith, the Gospel, and Christ’s risen body in the world today.  Nothing is out of bounds.  No thought is ever put down or rejected.  And no one allows any sort of rigid, doctrinal orthodoxy, to keep us from considering the ‘new thing’ that the Spirit is doing in the Church today.

More often than not, people say what we’ve all been thinking for years, but never had the courage to say out loud . . . and certainly not in the presence of other ‘church’ people! “Perhaps the Church really has taken its understanding of original sin too far!”  “Perhaps the ‘nature’ of Jesus isn’t all that different from our nature!” “Perhaps salvation is for all people and not just a chosen few!”  “Does anything really change at baptism?”  “Is the Bible GOD’S word, or humanity’s word that has been attributed to God?”

I think I’ve come to realize that while for centuries men were busy administering the Church, women were growing the Church.  They were meeting in small groups long before there was anything known as a ‘small group movement’: studying the Bible, talking theology, and caring for one another in ways that even the most progressive men’s ministries have never been able to match.  And before this generation of women is gone, we need to listen to all they have to say.  Their wisdom is stunning, their spiritual maturity puts most of us to shame, and they are the ones who hold in their aging hands the future of the Church.

For seven years now this Bible Study has quietly, subtly, and unknowingly helped me to see that I was not alone on this journey called faith.  They have taught me that not everyone is afraid of the advances in science and theology, Biblical studies and sociology, history and ecclesiology!  In fact, women have been dealing with these issues for years, exploring their impact on the faith and considering their influence on the Church.  While we men have been trying to hold on to our authority and our pulpits, women have been asking big questions about the nature of God and faith, and they have literally BEEN, the “new thing” that God is doing among us.

The question now is when will we see it?  When will we in the larger community of faith become more aware of it?  When will we stop being afraid of it, and learn to embrace it, so that it might take us deeper in our walks with the Holy!

The Spirit is continually at work in us and among us, but too often we’re blind to her activity.  Fortunately, for me, right now, my eyes are being opened to this work because of the lives of the women who are part of my VIC Bible Study.  I am certainly grateful to Jonathan and the other men who are there, but I’m particularly grateful to the women who continue to teach me what it means to be on this constant journey called Christianity. Your voices have been silenced or ignored by the Church for a long time.  But no more!  It’s time for the rest of us to begin listening.  And when we do, watch out.  The world will ever be the same!  And that, after all, is what the Gospel is all about.

 

 

 

 

 





The Politics of Jesus

5 02 2020

Politics of JesusTo be clear at the outset, Jesus and the Gospel are nothing if they are not political!

When the Gospel according to Matthew tells the story of the magi’s visit to the Christ-child, Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judah, has his fears put on display for all to see.  Rome, and the governing powers of the day, were afraid of Jesus.  Especially Herod.  Why?  Because the message of Jesus challenged Roman authority, and sought to lift up a different kind of ruler and different kind of ‘kin’dom.

And why in the Gospel according to Mark does Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, have John the Baptist killed?  Because John sought to hold the Roman politician to a higher standard.  Herod Antipas had illegally married his brother’s wife, and John was not about to avoid challenging behavior that he believed to be contrary to the ways of God – even the behavior of a Roman official.

In Luke’s version of the Gospel stories, we read about Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem, from the east, and on a donkey.  And while we don’t often hear sermons about why, most scholars agree that Jesus was not just setting himself in contrast with, but in opposition to, the Roman leaders of his day.  He did not arrive on a warhorse, nor did he enter the city through the main gate, the Damascus Gate, on the Northwestern wall of the city – the gate through which most military leaders and political dignitaries would enter when visiting from Rome.  No!  Jesus was challenging all of that.  The kindom to which Jesus was pointing embraced a politics that challenged empire; and the new world order which he came to inaugurate would make his followers citizens in the Kindom of Heaven before any tribe or nation found in this world.

And finally, at the very end of his life, the Gospel according to John reveals that it was Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who sentenced Jesus to death.  That’s why Jesus was crucified on a cross.  That was the Roman means of execution: as opposed to stoning, which was how the Jewish people put criminals to death.  Jesus’ crime was sedition.  And the powers in Rome knew that he was a threat to their authority and way of life.  His message was about so much more than simply challenging the traditional practices of the Hebrew people.  In rejecting many of the outward religious laws involving diet, sacrifices, and personal morality, Jesus embraced a new politics – one that challenged those in power, and that lifted up those on the margins of society!

Yes!  To be sure, Jesus and the Gospel were, and remain, political.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all make that powerfully clear.  Herod the Great and Herod Antipas were both afraid of his message because of the ways it challenged the empire; and in the end, it was that message that led to Jesus being crucified by Rome!  It was all VERY political!

So why is the Church today so afraid of politics’?  We Americans acknowledge the importance of there being a separation between Church and State, but Church and faith are two different things.  And our faith is all about our life in the ‘polis’ – in community.  So we MUST be concerned about the treatment of immigrants and refugees.  We MUST be concerned about justice issues, and any matter that deals with a nation’s treatment of women, minority communities, or people who embrace differing belief systems.  And we most certainly must be concerned with truth, honesty, character, and integrity.

John Howard Yoder, in his 1972 book “The Politics of Jesus”, said that “Jesus gave (his followers) a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders — by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence — by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money — by sharing it. (And . . .) he gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society — by building a new one . . .”

This “new order” must involve both the government, and the politics, of the day.

There is no question that partisanship in the Church must be avoided, but may we never avoid politics.  For politics is at the heart of the Gospel.  And if we don’t want to hear to hear about politics in the Church, then just know that it will be impossible to hear the Gospel either!  For the two go hand in hand.  And you can’t have one, without the other!





Your fear is frightening!

10 01 2020

The Bible is full of passages about fear!  “Even though I walk thru the valley of death, I will fear no evil.”  “The Holy One is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?”  “Do not fear for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.”  “I sought God and my prayers were answered; I was delivered from all my fears.”   “God did not give us the spirit of fear, but of love and of power, and of sound mind.”

Fear is paralyzing!  It takes control of our lives and distorts everything we do: constricting our minds and closing our hearts.  It too often leads us to over-react to the situations that are before us, dragging us down the road of irrational beliefs and destructive behavior.  Sometimes it leads us to ‘flight’ – an attempt to get away from that which is tormenting us in order to avoid the pain that is believed to be in just around the corner.  But too many other times it leads us to ‘fight’ – confronting the perceived threat in ways that are often harsh, violent, and harmful to all.  Sadly, this ‘fight’ response has become way too common today, and for many of us, it is extremely frightening!

This is what was on display in Richmond last weekend.  People, almost all White and predominately male, marched through the streets of Virginia’s capital with guns and ammo strapped to their bodies as if they were going to war.  And why?  Because they are afraid.  They said so themselves.  They are afraid that the government is trying to take away their Second Amendment Rights.  They are afraid that Democrats are trying to restrict their access to weapons.  And they are afraid because crazy Liberal Socialists are trying to prevent them from being able to protect themselves from anyone who may want to hurt them or their families.   They believe that the Constitution has given them the right to own guns, and only over their cold dead bodies is anyone going to ever take them away.  Their fear has led them to illogical beliefs, and those illogical beliefs have led them to frightening behavior!

This is the real issue behind so much of the right-wing extremism that exists in our nation today.  Fear!  Far too many people spend far too much time living in fear.  They are afraid of Muslims, because those who believe differently than they believe challenge their worldview.  They are afraid of science, because education is regarded as the enemy of religion.  They are afraid of gay marriage, because that somehow threatens their heterosexual unions.  And yes, they are afraid of women, simply because that is the largest group of people over whom they like to superior.

But as distressing as these beliefs are in and of themselves, the behavior that results from these beliefs is even more frightening.  Walking around with an AK-47 strapped to one’s waist is not normal.  In fact it’s quite disturbing.  And no, none of us feel safer when we see people doing that.  “Nationalizing” the Christian faith, as so many White evangelicals are seeking to do today, makes that faith look nothing like the faith that Jesus proclaimed.  And this is not just heretical, it is downright wrong!  And refusing to vaccinate children, persecuting homosexuals, and failing to listen to or to honor the voices of women — is unjust, oppressive, and harmful to healthy functioning society.  It is behavior that should frighten everyone!

Which is why people need to continue to speak up!  Silence is indeed consent, and so someone needs to remind the extremists that when it comes to our Second Amendment rights, legislation is NOT confiscation?  No one wants to outlaw guns – we just want a few restrictions.  Someone needs to say that while we all have every right to believe whatever we want to believe, we do NOT have the right to mandate that everyone else believe the same way!  That’s what freedom of religion is all about.  And, someone needs to shout from the mountain tops that “science is NOT our enemy” and “our government is NOT full of evil people out to hurt us!”  Someone needs to say all of these things and more.

Why?  Because frightened people are frightening.  And frightened people of faith are the most frightening of all.  If anyone should know that we cannot allow fear to rule our lives, it should be people of faith.  But when we forget that, the very faith we claim, falsely, and disturbingly, gives too many fearful followers permission to behave in ways that are the most ungodly!

Fear IS real.  But it need not be given the power to rule our lives.  And when our fear becomes irrational, it leads to behavior that must be deemed unacceptable!  No one’s fear should ever lead us to believe that imprisoning people of color or passing a Muslim ban is an acceptable course of action.  No one’s fear should even lead us to believe that mandating prayer and reading the Bible in our public schools is going to make our schools safer.  Homosexuals do NOT need to stay in the closet and women do NOT need to stay in the kitchen simply because some people are afraid of the alternatives!  No one’s fear will every justify any of this; for indeed . . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!

Perhaps rather than allowing fear to govern our lives, we just need to better learn how to deal with it!  Perhaps we need to stop covering it up and suppressing it, and instead try to address it.  Because as real as fear may be, the actions to which it so often gives birth, if often far too frightening to inflict upon a society!

Fear is not from God, and there are all kinds of spiritual practices that can help us deal with it.  But if that doesn’t work, then please – realize that what is needed is not another gun.  What is needed is a therapist!   That will help not only you, but the rest of us . . . who are frightened by your fear!

 

 

 





A Plea to those Praying for Peace

8 01 2020

Peace

The events of the past several days have led many of my friends and colleagues to offer prayers for peace, and to encourage sisters and brothers in their respective faith communities to do the same.  Donald Trump’s ordered assassination of Qasem Soleimani has brought America to the brink of a war with an Iranian nation that is justifiably angry and understandably eager for revenge; and their lobbing of missiles into Iraq, striking two military bases with hundreds of American troops is of grave concern to everyone. So it only seems appropriate that for the past 12 hours faith leaders of every stripe have been calling people to prayer.  We’ve been told to pray for peace, to pray that cooler heads prevail, and to pray that our swords might be beaten into plowshares!

Sadly, we live in a world, and many of us are part of faith communities, that have taught us to believe that this is the extent of a faithful and effective prayer life.  And as a result, people of all faiths are quick to get down on their knees, bow their heads, and beg God to intervene in the affairs of the world.  We plead for an end to the violent actions of narcissistic nationalists, power-hungry political parties, and a bunch of maniacal and misled men.  We’ve been led to believe, at times even encouraged to believe, that prayer is little more than asking God to do what we think we are unable to do, or . . . to do what we are unwilling to do!  We put the task of maintaining and sustaining creation on the Creator, and completely abdicate our responsibility to build and grow a peaceful world.  We like to sing, “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”  But in reality, we think that bringing peace to our world is God’s job.

For three years, most White Evangelicals, blinded by their anti-abortion cause, have failed to hold the American President, his administration, and the Republican Party accountable to the things of God.  For three years, too many Liberal Protestants have only silently opposed the actions of the American government; and fearing their own people, and believing the lie that when it comes to things like misogyny, racism, and homophobia, there are acceptable ‘purple’ positions, they have failed to speak truth to power.  And for three years, people like me have been guilted into believing that our strong opinions were nothing more than that – opinions; that our soapboxes had become too big, too all-consuming, and too annoying, and that instead we simply needed to ‘get over’ the 2016 election, and go back to preaching ‘the way we used to preach!’

So I ask, is it any wonder that the world today does not know peace?

Should we be praying for peace?  Of course we should!  But prayer is not about asking God to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  In fact prayer is not ultimately about asking God to do anything.  Prayer is about our putting ourselves in a place where we can become aware of the God’s movement and guidance in our lives, and in a position where we will be more open and receptive to the Spirit’s calling.   Prayer is about mindfully becoming conformed to the image of Jesus; and recognizing our responsibility as members of the risen Body of Christ in the world today, to actually become peacemakers.  And this means active resistance to that which is not of God.  Prayer is about having the courage to speak up and speak out when we see people behaving violently, and hatefully, and destructively.  It involves correcting those who would distort the teachings of the Prince of Peace.  It includes voting for people whose lives reflect the God we claim to serve.  It means working for justice: for where there is no justice, there can be no peace.  And prayer is about seeking wisdom, trusting that she will not be found in the teachings of empire, but in the practices of community.

Of course we should pray for peace.  But peace is something that only WE can build!  So my plea this day is that our prayers become more than our pleading with God to send it to our world.  My plea is that each of us would recognize our responsibility, particularly as people of faith, to seek peace and to pursue it!  Because if we are unwilling to do that, and all that is involved, then our prayers will accomplish nothing, and they will mean . . . nothing!