Hearing in Tongues

(sermon 5/31/20 – Pentecost Sunday)

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Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

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Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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It’s often helpful when hearing a passage of scripture to place ourselves within the story that’s unfolding – and not just doing that once, experiencing the story from just one vantage point, but to move around within it – imagining the story and thinking about the different ways that different people in the story would experience it from their vantage point. What were they seeing in that moment; what were they hearing; what were they even smelling? What were they feeling/ how did they understand what was playing out in front of them?

When we hear this familiar passage from Acts – the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples and their going out into the street proclaiming the gospel, speaking its words of prophetic truth in all the languages of the people of the city and all the religious pilgrims who had come there from countless different places – I suspect that most of the time, we hear the story, and imagine it, through the eyes of the disciples. I suspect it’s normal for us to first see ourselves in this story as the ones doing the speaking.

But what if we changed that? What if we changed places? What if we experienced this story from the vantage point of the people who were out in the street, and who were hearing the message from the disciples? There they were, hearing this message from people they didn’t know, people different from them, and even though they were speaking a familiar language, the message they were offering was a discomforting one. One that they didn’t necessarily want to hear. One said they needed to repent and turn away from their current ways.

It isn’t always easy to hear challenging, prophetic words like the ones spoken by the disciples that day; in fact, it usually isn’t. And it’s even harder when those prophetic voices are coming from people who are different from us, and who are conveying their message in a way that we wouldn’t normally expect. We saw that in today’s first reading, from the Book of Numbers, when Moses’ hand-picked 70 elders, the select leadership of the Israelites, had gathered, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them as it had on MOses himself, and as it did on Jesus’ disciples, and the seventy all started to prophesy. But then, two others began to prophesy, too – Eldad and Medad, two men who weren’t part of the leadership, the inner circle – they were just part of the common folk, out in the midst of the people, began to prophesy, and some in the leaders didn’t like it and wanted them to stop. But Moses said no – that the Holy Spirit will move wherever it will, and will speak through whomever it will, and when they speak, they should be listened to.

Today, on this Pentecost Sunday in the year 2020, I have to think that we’re in the midst of a similar moment. A moment where important, prophetic words are being spoken by people who are different from most of us, and they’re conveying their message in ways different from what we might typically prefer. They’re speaking words of truth that can sometimes be discomforting, and that can stretch us into places that might sometimes be hard to accept.

A big part of the Pentecost story is the part about the disciples speaking in tongues. But this Pentecost, I think that we white people should be less concerned with speaking in tongues, and more concerned with hearing in tongues. Truly prophetic words are coming to us in the past weeks from members of the black community, who are feeling pain. Hurt. Grief, frustration, anger, and yes, rage, and all of it is absolutely justified. We all have hearts; most of us feel those same emotions over the recent tragic news stories about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and others. But in a sense, we can’t really feel those emotions in the same depth, in the same way that they can, not fully anyway, because not only are they feeling those base emotions, they’re experiencing them through the lens, the filter, of the more than 400 years of abuse and injustice that they’ve endured on this continent at the hands of white people and white power structures – a 400-year history of injustice that Mayor Fisher very properly referred to in his press conference yesterday morning.

The blunt prophetic words coming from black mouths now and landing harshly on white ears are telling us that our governmental and social systems are broken. They have utterly failed people of color. They’re structured in a way that creates privilege for whites and injustices for people of color, and that makes true racial equity impossible. Right now, people are going out into the streets here in Louisville, and Minneapolis, and Atlanta, and countless other cities, speaking words every bit as prophetic and true as the ones spoken by Jesus’ disciples when they went out into the streets of Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost. These prophetic voices of our black brothers and sisters, like the voices of Eldad and Medad, and like the voices of Jesus’ disciples, can’t be ignored. We dare not ignore them. They are demanding – and through them, the Holy Spirit is demanding – that these things have to change. Racism is sin, and the structures in our society that perpetuate racial injustice is just as much sin. As a matter of our faith – as a matter of our hearing and responding to the moving of the Holy Spirit through all of those demanding change now – we have to stand in solidarity with them, and walk alongside them, and work together with them, to dismantle racism and racist structures in our society.

And as we hear those voices, we can’t allow acts of vandalism and property damage, which is virtually inevitable in times of frustration and rage, to distract us from our commitment to anti-racism. As bad as vandalism is, there is no equivalency in it; there is no negating the more life-threatening injustice going on. I heard one store owner whose windows were broken downtown being interviewed. He was saddened by the damage to his store, but still, in a show of support for the protestors and their cause, he said, “my window can be replaced; Breonna Taylor can’t.” To be blunt, if we allow ourselves to get more upset, more enraged, more drawn to action by vandalism than we get over the unjust killing of human beings, we need to be asking ourselves some very serious questions.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that violence is not the answer, that rioting is not the answer, but that still, a riot is “the language of the unheard” – meaning that while violence and vandalism is wrong in the abstract, when pushed beyond a certain threshold, a certain intolerable point of injustice and powerlessness, it is an all but inevitable and understandable reaction from anyone, whoever they are. So the real solution to the problem of people rioting, of engaging in the “language of the unheard,” is to actually *hear* them, and to actually do something about the injustices and powerlessness they face. This time, in the name of Jesus, and literally, for the love of God, let’s really hear them, and working together, and with God’s help, let’s fix this ungodly, unjust, and evil situation.

Amen.

For We Too Are God’s Offspring

(sermon 5/18/20)

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Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because God has fixed a day on which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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Do you have a favorite movie? I’m talking about the kind of movie that you can watch over and over again, no matter how many times you’ve already seen it. The kind of movie where you have most of the lines memorized, and you know exactly what’s coming next every moment. And that familiarity doesn’t ever make the movie old; on the contrary, since you already know all the plot points, it allows you to see additional smaller, more subtle things going on that you’d never noticed before.

Now imagine if you were watching that movie – and, for that matter, it’s the exact same thing with a favorite book that you can read over and over – but this time, out of the blue, the ending was completely different. This time, the plot unfolded in a completely new and unexpected way.

Well, there’s something like that going on in today’s second scripture reading, from Acts. In the ancient world dominated first by Greece, and then by Rome, the story of the trial of the philosopher Socrates was one of the most familiar stories known, just like your favorite movie or book. Even in the little backwater of ancient Palestine, the story of Socrates’ trial and his being sentenced to death, was well-known to a large chunk of society. In 399 BCE, Socrates had been charged with creating civil divisions and corrupting the youth by allegedly introducing new deities, different gods than the ones officially recognized by the city, and allegedly supporting their worship over the officially recognized ones. He was brought before the tribunal, which met at the Areopagus, in the city of Athens, to face these serious charges. And despite the fact that Socrates was one of the world’s greatest minds, and that his Socratic method of thought laid the groundwork for almost the entirety of Western logic and philosophy, he was still found guilty and sentenced to death.

So virtually anyone who first read or heard Luke’s Book of Acts would have known this story inside and out, and they certainly knew its ending. And it would have immediately come to mind as they heard this story of the apostle Paul that we heard today – being summoned by the Athenians to the Areopagus to explain himself and his positions, telling him it seemed that, just as was the case with Socrates, he seemed to be introducing a new god to the people in his preaching and conversations. Obviously, the stakes were high for Paul.

But in a brilliant maneuver, he was able to succeed where Socrates hadn’t. As we heard in the story, as Paul was out and about in Athens, he’d seen a temple dedicated to “the unknown god” – apparently, an attempt by the Athenians to not upset and suffer the wrath of some deity they’d missed in their official list. So Paul was able to say “No, no, I’m not introducing a new god – I’m telling you about this “unknown” god; you don’t know them but I do, and I’m here to introduce them to you.” And it worked. Paul, or more to Luke’s point, God, had changed the ending of the story.

Another part of how it worked was that Paul quoted two different Greek poets in his argument – including the quote “For we too are God’s offspring.” While that was a line from a Greek poet, it was hardly a concept exclusive to just Greek thought – it was also firmly embedded in Hebrew creation accounts and theology, too.

This particular quote stuck with me as I read this passage this past week. Many people in our own society would repeat that thought too; at least, they’d pay lip service to it. But I wonder how many people really believe that – that all human beings are created equally as God’s offspring, and therefore, all due equal justice, equal social equity, and equal human dignity.

Of course, in just the last two weeks, we’ve heard about the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by two armed white men who chased him down while he was jogging. The two men claimed they suspected him of stealing something from a construction site he’d stopped to look at. It was horrific, terrible. And you know that if it had been me who stopped to wander through that construction site, as I’ve done countless times in my life, or if it had been any one of you who have the same skin color as me, those two wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Plus, I mean, Arbery was in a T shirt and jogging shorts; where, in the name of God, could he have possibly been hiding stolen construction materials? And who appointed these two to be the neighborhood police? Who gave them the idea that they could use lethal force against someone who wasn’t posing a threat to anyone, let alone someone who wasn’t posing any physical threat to them? For Pete’s sake, one of the men admitted to going home to get a handgun before chasing Arbery down; there was no physical threat to these two. And for that matter, where did they learn the sinful, evil idea that preserving property – just stuff; replaceable, material stuff – would ever justify killing another human being – someone who, too, is God’s offspring? Where did they get the idea that it’s legally and morally acceptable to kill another human being just to protect property? Unfortunately, they got it from many places in our society, because sadly, our society has what I would consider a fetish over property rights. That we place such a high value on the right to our stuff, our property, that in the eyes of many people, we have the right to kill other people to protect it. And hand-in-hand with that is another fetish that too many in our society have, that they have the right to protect that property with guns. Gun worship, and property worship; these are the two idols, the false gods that our society faces in so many quarters today, that too many people actually worship over God. That’s the “cake” of the problem, if you will; the icing on that cake is the idea of white supremacy. The idea that these two men apparently had, that they had some kind of God-given right to do what they did because of their racial superiority.

While there are many great things about our country, and our society, there are also many ways that it’s sick – very sick, and it has been since its very beginning. A lot of that sickness comes from the way we white Americans have exploited, abused, enslaved, robbed, imprisoned, and killed the members of virtually every group of non-white, non-male, non-straight, people we’ve encountered, or dragged to, this continent; and most of the time, we’ve justified these sinful acts as being consistent with our Christian religion – often saying not just that what we were doing was OK; but that we had an actual *command*, a charge, from God to do so – it was our “Manifest Destiny” that white European Americans would subdue the continent and everyone already here or not like us. We did it, and we used our religion to claim, that in fact, we aren’t all equal – that we aren’t all equally God’s offspring and therefore, not all deserving of equal justice, equity and dignity. That whites – and yes, straight male whites – were superior to everyone else.

I know that you know all that. But still, no matter how much we know these things in our heads, the poisons of white supremacy and racism and all other forms of bigotry still show up in our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, and we participate in and benefit from social structures designed to benefit whites at the expense of people of color and other minority groups.

I know that you all know that, too, and that when you hear stories like the one about Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor right here in Louisville, or any of the countless similar stories, I know that your heart breaks, just as God’s own heart breaks. But ultimately, maybe you feel helpless and you throw up your hands and wonder “what can I do about it?”

Well, what we can all do, as a matter of our faith and our belief that we are all God’s offspring, is learn as much as we can about the situation. And that requires listening to the voices of the people being hurt, taking their stories to heart, taking what they say seriously, even when it discomforts us and hurts us and makes us get defensive. And we can work, and vote, and use every means of communication we have to put an end to any law or any system that treats members of any group of people less equally, less justly, than others. You can make your voice heard, calling for an end to the unequal treatment of people in policing, in the courts, in hiring, in lending, and in the provision of adequate social services and education. When you hear people being unjustly treated in our society cry out “Hey, our lives matter, too; we too are God’s offspring!” answer “Yes! I support you!” And just as importantly – maybe most importantly of all – any time you hear someone make a disparaging, dismissive, bigoted comment about any group of people, whether based on skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic status, educational status, whatever – any time you hear something like that – something that feeds the kind of ignorance and hatred and white supremacy that got Ahmaud Arbery killed – you can have the courage to speak up and tell that person they’re wrong, and that, as a matter of your Christian faith, and your belief that we are all equally God’s offspring, you won’t let that kind of hate go unchallenged.

I know that can be hard, especially if the person spreading the hate is someone important to you; someone you love. It can be scary. But take heart, and have courage – because the same God who gave Paul courage and the right words to succeed on the Areopagus when even Socrates couldn’t, will also give you courage and the right words, too. Who knows? If we all did that, with God’s help, maybe we can change the ending of our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

Love Is Not Optional

(sermon 1/19/20 – Race Relations Sunday)

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1 John 4:7-9, 16, 18-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

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In mid-April of 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King found himself locked up in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama – arguably the most thoroughly, and brutally, segregated city in America, although there were certainly countless other contenders for that title. The 34-year old King had come to Birmingham to offer moral support and visibility for the months-long series of nonviolent protests and the boycott by blacks of segregated businesses that had devastated the Birmingham economy. He was arrested when he led a march in town, despite being denied a permit to march by the city’s notorious, brutally racist and segregationist Commissioner for Public Safety, Bull Connor.

In the midst of Dr. King’s presence in Birmingham, a number of white, moderate clergymen jointly wrote an open letter to King saying that while they shared his desire for peace and racial harmony, they couldn’t accept his methods. They hadn’t given enough time for peaceful negotiations to bear fruit through the supposedly proper channels. They called on Dr. King and the black community to just be patient, and wait for slow, steady progress to happen on its own.

Sitting in his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response to these clergymen, what we now know as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s a profound statement that every American, and certainly every American Christian, should read and meditate on at least once a year. It’s a deep statement from the heart where the issues of civil justice and the gospel intersect.

In his letter, Dr. King addresses the clergymen’s call to wait. After pointing out the long and unsuccessful attempts the local community had already made to go through supposedly proper and legal channels, he wrote:

“For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. … It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

The clergymen also complained that the black community was breaking some of the city’s laws, and that while they supported their goals, they couldn’t ever condone breaking the law. Dr. King wrote that it isn’t wrong to disobey an unjust law; that in fact, it was a person’s Christian duty to disobey an unjust law – but, he wrote,

“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. … We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” … It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.”

Finally, Dr. King addresses the problem in a broader way:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; … who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”…

In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

Dr. King held those clergymen’s feet to the fire, pointing out to them that love for all of God’s people is not optional – it isn’t dependent upon our own comfort level, or what we’d always been taught, or even official legal sanction from the government, because as Christians, we answer to a higher authority, and the ethics and morality commanded by that authority.

Today, we can be thankful for all of the advances in racial reconciliation that have been achieved, largely through the work of Dr. King, and countless others as well. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there’s still a lot to do. Unfortunately, in current-day debates about issues of race and racial reconciliation, you’ll hear many of the exact same arguments and criticisms, fifty years later, that Dr. King battled in his letter. There is a lot left to be done. And it’s even worse now, because some of the advances made back in Dr. King’s time are being reversed as civil rights laws are being gutted, and some of those same old injustices that caused passage of those laws to begin with are already happening again. We’ve still got miles to go forward, and right now, the gears of our society have been thrown into reverse.

For us, the church, on this Race Relations Sunday, we need to recognize that Dr. King’s message didn’t originate in any partisan politics, or ideology, or abstract philosophy. Rather, every single issue that he spoke out against – racism and racial discrimination, poverty, economic injustice, the hypermilitarism that gripped our society then and that still does today – every issue, and every single argument that he made against them, came directly out of the indisputable core of Christian ethics and moral teaching. And as Christians – and right now, as I look out at you, I see primarily white faces like my own, and I’m speaking here particularly to white Christians – when we look at our world today and try to process what we see – when we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting in the streets calling for an end to racist policing practices; and we see the New Poor People’s Campaign holding mass rallies around the country protesting institutional racism that’s at the root of so much American poverty; and even us boring, mostly white Presbyterians marching in the streets of St. Louis, and here in Louisville, and probably other cities as well, to call for the elimination of the terribly racist cash bail system; when we see people marching in so many places for racial equity and justice – we need to hear Dr. King’s words again: It isn’t always the right thing to wait. Patience isn’t always a virtue; sometimes it’s a sin. So is accepting and obeying an unjust law, because obeying an unjust law, and refusing to disobey it, makes a person complicit in that injustice.  When we hear the words of the ancient prophets mirrored in the words of this modern-day one, we all need to recognize that love isn’t optional for us, either. And if we’re going to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for us to just say that we aren’t racist – which, to be frank, really isn’t true. We all have racial biases and prejudices within us, and we all take part in racist systems, even the most noble and well-meaning of us. But to the larger point, it isn’t enough for us white Christians to say that we ourselves aren’t racist; we have to be actively “anti-racist” – becoming more aware of the racist structures and systems around us and that we unavoidably take part in, and taking whatever direct steps we can to change them. We have to do that because the ghosts of Birmingham are still with us. Bull Connor never really died; in spirit, he’s still with us. But the good news for us is so is Jesus Christ. Christ emboldens and empowers us for the task of continuing the work of the kingdom of God. And yes, Christ has also told us that in doing this, there will often be consequences. We will sometimes upset and anger friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers. Sometimes, the consequences will be even more severe. We know that Dr. King, and his family, paid a terrible price at the hands of hatred and opposition to his proclaiming the same gospel message that we claim to profess. In spite of that tragedy, we remember Dr. King this weekend, and his powerful witness of Jesus Christ in our time – and for it, we can say

Thanks be to God.

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

Where Are You Staying?

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(sermon 1/15/17 – Race Relations Sunday)

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42

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There’s a lot going on in this gospel text, but let’s pick up the story in this gospel text in the middle – these disciples of John the Baptist are intrigued by Jesus. They want to know more about him and follow him, so they ask him, Rabbi, where are you staying? And Jesus gives them one of those great Jesus non-answer answers, Come and see. And for some reason that can only be attributed to the leading of God’s Spirit, without really knowing where he was staying, or where he’d be going next, they did.

That was really indicative of all of Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming God’s good news for all people – first to the Jews, then outward to the despised half-breed Samaritans, then the Romans who were occupying the land and bleeding it dry with their taxes going back to Rome. Jesus and his message just wouldn’t stay put with just one particular racial or ethnic group. And the Church did the same – moving outward to all nations, all races. In fact, we Christians from so-called “white” origins came pretty late to the party. By the time the Christian faith was taking root in Western Europe, there were already well-established Christian churches and communities in places like Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, China, and countless other places that had been going strong for hundreds of years. It’s only because God’s Spirit refused to establish permanent residency with any one particular racial or ethnic group any more than Jesus did, or to establish any one race as superior or more favored over any other, that we’re even a part of the whole global Christian movement at all.

It’s because of that that we can indeed see Christ alive, and vibrant, in people everywhere. We can see the face of God in races and faces of every color and appearance. We can see this Great Truth – that all of those different looking faces, in all of their wonderful, beautiful diversity, are fully and equally created in the image of God. All of them are fully and equally deserving of equal human rights, equal opportunity, human dignity, and true justice. And if we dishonor any of them, then we dishonor the God who created them. This is the Great Truth.

But somehow, in too much of our history and theology, we lost sight of that Great Truth. Somehow, we allowed ourselves to buy into theologies and cultural norms and standards that replaced the Great Truth with the Big Lie – that “race” is actually a significant biological difference, that some races have inherent flaws in them and are inferior to others, and that among all of them, the white race was the superior one, the most God-blessed one. And because of that, they were justified in exploiting the other races for their own benefit. We believed the Big Lie directly and openly, justified by twisted scriptural interpretations from equally twisted spiritual leaders, for centuries, causing terrible, devastating, intergenerational harm to millions of people.

We used the Big Lie to justify the scandalous thought that we had a God-ordained right to actually own other people as property, because they were racially inferior to “us.” We reaped the benefits of free and near-free labor from African-Americans, enriching us at their expense. And set up social systems designed to keep them in poverty, designed to make it all but impossible for them to ever advance socially, educationally, economically – and then we had the nerve to look down on them, saying that apparently their race was inherently less intelligent, less ambitious, less able to succeed, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – they were morally and socially inferior to “us.”

We confiscated the property of Japanese-Americans and sent them to internment camps during World War II, even including many native-born American citizens, ignorantly thinking that they couldn’t be trustworthy, loyal Americans. They were considered morally and culturally inferior to “us.” Even after many of them served heroically in the war, many of them still weren’t eligible for citizenship, because the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship exclusively to free whites; and except for slaves who became citizens by Constitutional Amendment, that whites-only policy was in force until 1952.

We considered the Latino people of Central and South America to be an uncivilized, childlike race, which we used to justify exploiting them. Our corporations moved into their countries, buying up the land and means of production with the help of our government. We set up puppet governments in many of those countries which protected those financial interests. The corporations siphoned off the wealth of those nations to themselves, and indirectly, to us – turning the native population into a near slave-state that couldn’t earn enough money to survive. And when many of them, just trying simply to not starve to death, began to emigrate to the U.S., we limited how many of them could legally emigrate to ridiculously low levels, because we saw them as morally and culturally inferior to “us.” Then, when out of desperation many of them crossed the border illegally, and often at risk to their own lives, we were indignant, asking why they didn’t just go through proper legal channels, like our own grandparents had. We used the fact that they’d entered our country illegally as proof that they were all lawless undesirables who had to be feared.

Those are all hard truths to hear. But they are truths nonetheless. If they made you uncomfortable, or upset, or angry to hear them, I promise you that wasn’t my intent, except maybe to be angry that they ever occurred to begin with. They’re all the result of us losing sight of Jesus’ example, and buying into the Big Lie. I only mention them to help explain how we got to where we are today in this country with regard to race. To be clear, I don’t believe for a minute that anyone here today believes those tired, old, twisted, discredited beliefs about people of color. But all of us live in a world where we’re living with the ongoing results of those former things. We’re living in a world where social systems are still in place that perpetuate some of those past evils. We’re living as Christ’s Church in a way that’s probably the most segregated of any aspect of our weekly living, brought about largely by cultural differences and distrust that came about as a result of those old beliefs. And all of us – each one of us, without exception – carries some degree of racial prejudice and racial misunderstanding that are a lasting legacy of the Big Lie.

That would leave us in a very bleak place, if that were the end of the story. There would be little hope for us in our diverse, multi-racial society. There wouldn’t be much hope for any meaningful lasting kind of racial justice and reconciliation, if that were the end of the story. But because of Christ, we know that all of this misguided history isn’t the end of the story. We know that the Big Lie is just that – a lie, and the Great Truth is God’s truth of equality for all, and that there is really only one race – the human race. And because of that, we can work for racial justice and reconciliation.

The disciples in the gospel text didn’t know what to expect, but God’s Spirit led them into that unknown – and we can be assured that God’s Spirit will do the same for us, as we struggle with how to work for justice and reconciliation. God will enable us to see the face of Christ, the image of God, in all races and faces, and will lead us to work together to achieve racial reconciliation. When those disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, and where he was going, Jesus said Come and see. If we do the same, and we engage in community with people of color, if we hear their stories and are open to them telling us their reality, and being open to them telling us what needs to be fixed, then together, we’ll be able to put the Big Lie to bed once and for all.

Yesterday, I was at the Men of Peace Presbyterian Church’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. I didn’t have a reservation, and when I arrived, the person at the door said, “That’s OK; we have two tables set aside for people without reservations; they’re over there.” And when I looked at where he was pointing, don’t you know that one full table of the two was filled with people from Springdale Presbyterian Church. Honestly, it looked a little funny – it looked like someone had put up a sign that said “Old White Guys Sit Here.” And it was true; I think we were the only all-white table in the entire hall. But as funny as it might have looked, the great thing was that they were all there. They were all willing to show up, to get out of our all-white bubble, and be part of it – almost saying, “We aren’t really sure what all we can do, but at least we’re here – we’ve come to see – and we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”  The truth is, I couldn’t have been any more proud of Springdale Church, and those guys, as I was yesterday.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. As we do, let’s honor his memory by finding ways that we can engage in the work of racial reconciliation, and advancing human dignity and justice for all of God’s people. Maybe it will lead us into new territory; maybe even into conversations and considerations that we make us uncomfortable. Maybe it will be a little scary. But that’s OK – because when those disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, the real answer was “nowhere,” and at the same time, “everywhere.” Jesus has already been where we’re heading. He’s out ahead of us, telling us “Come on; Come and see!” – and if Jesus is already there, then what do we have to be afraid of?

Thanks be to God.

Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

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Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

#lazaruslivesmatter

(Sermon 9/25/16)

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Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, being arrested during a Civil Rights protest, July 4 1963. Click image above to view video.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”  – Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

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He was living the good life. There wasn’t any question that he’d worked hard in his life, and his hard work had paid off. Now, here he was, at the peak of his life. He had a nice home, good food. He was able to travel, see different and interesting places from time to time. He could afford to wear stylish, up to date clothes, and to get new ones whenever the fashion gurus changed their minds about what was the hot new color or the right width for a necktie. He certainly didn’t consider himself rich; he was just comfortable, even though he knew others considered him rich. Of course, he knew there were plenty of others who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but in most cases, he thought to himself, if they’d have just worked as hard as he had, and applied themselves, they’d be doing well, too. After all, our laws set up a level playing field, didn’t they; with all the opportunity out there, if they weren’t successful it was their own fault. And yes, there were some who weren’t physically or mentally able to succeed in life, but that’s what charities are for. Most of the time the unsuccessful ones, the have-nots, were just lazy. They had a poor work ethic; they wouldn’t accept responsibility for their own lives. And what’s worse, they were constantly getting into trouble with the police. If they’d just abide by the law, like good, decent people, half of their problems would disappear overnight. It really is a shame, he thought, as he reached for a second helping of potatoes in what he didn’t realize would be the last meal he’d ever eat, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s just the way life is – always has been, always will be, for all eternity.

Or maybe not, according to Jesus. His story, this parable we heard this morning, was meant as a warning to the people in this world like the rich man in the parable – people who have relative peace, and security, and justice in their lives. Jesus’ warning was that for them to enjoy those things while depriving them to others is clearly not God’s will, and it that was their way, then they needed to change those ways. That was certainly true any time the comfortable were directly harming the have-nots, but it was also true when the harm was indirect, passive, through simple neglect or obliviousness, as was the case in this parable – the comfortable man never did anything directly to Lazarus to hurt him; he just ignored him.  Jesus was saying to his listeners through this story that, to borrow some language from our own time, Lazarus Lives Matter. That any of us who identify more with the comfortable man in the story than we do with poor, sick, homeless Lazarus, have an expectation – a charge – from God to use our money, our minds, our voices, our hearts and hands and feet, to enable all the Lazaruses of our lives to enjoy the same peace, stability, and justice that we do.

The problem of the rich man and Lazarus, the problem of the haves and have-nots is still a big problem; you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. And right now in our country, we’re seeing that problem playing out in terms of haves and have-nots, where the haves are those who have peace, and security, and justice in their lives, and the have-nots, who don’t. And due to the particular history of our country, for us, it’s a problem that’s deeply intertwined with issues of race. Race. The issue that from an actual biological, genetic standpoint means nothing – less than nothing. Really; if you analyzed my DNA, it could very well have more similarities with the DNA of Desmond Tutu than, say, (white male parishioner). Race is not biology; it’s a social construct based solely on a person’s physical appearance. It’s nothing. And yet, in our society, it seems to mean practically everything. Race determines in large part where we’ll live, how we’ll live; where we’ll worship and how we’ll worship. It will determine the quality of the education, and healthcare, and public services we’ll receive. Cutting to the chase, it determines whether we’ll be treated as full and equal citizens, receiving the same Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law that other citizens receive. From a purely secular standpoint, the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment of members of our society based on race – based merely on their physical appearance – is  unconstitutional . By way of this parable, Jesus tells us it’s unchristian. From a logical standpoint, it’s institutionalized lunacy.

And yet, it goes on and on, day after day, year after year. Our hearts break, yours and mine alike, when we turn on the television or look at the news feed on our phones and we’re subjected to the latest dashcam and youTube videos of yet another police shooting of yet another black man; and CNN plays the video in a continuous, 24/7 loop of violence porn. And we see more city streets filled, day after day, night after night, with protestors crying out for justice – and not just justice regarding the particular incident, the tragedy du jour, but for *real* justice, and peace, and security in all aspects of their lives. Protestors crying out, in essence, “How long, Lord?”, and demanding that we recognize that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

We watch it all, and it makes us wonder what in the world is going on, Why are all these tragedies happening? It’s like the wheels are falling off of our society; why? In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s life was so far removed from the realities of Lazarus’ existence that he just didn’t, couldn’t, fully understand. He couldn’t see that he and Lazarus were living within a system of two completely different sets of realities and possibilities – rules and realities that made it possible for the rich man to enjoy life’s goodness, and that simultaneously made it extremely difficult if not impossible for the Lazaruses of his world to do the same. In this parable, where the rich man doesn’t learn the reality of things, and what God’s desires are, until after he dies, Jesus is telling us that this kind of situation is absolutely unacceptable for us as his followers, as people of the Kingdom of God. It is absolutely unacceptable.

One of the great moral voices of our time, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has said that we’ve experienced two Reconstructions in our history. These were times when large numbers of people from different races, religions, and other classifications, recognized the problem of the Lazaruses in our society – particularly, the Lazaruses based on race – and they understood that they needed to work together to achieve greater justice and equity for them; to get the nation to live more truly and genuinely into the words and promises of its own founding documents. The first Reconstruction was in the decade or so immediately following the Civil War. The second, Dr. Barber says, ran from 1954, the start of the Civil Rights Movement, until about 1980. In each of these Reconstructions, we, the Church, played a major role in achieving the progress that was made, specifically because we understood Jesus’ meaning in this parable. And now, Dr. Barber suggests that we’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, where once again a broad and diverse group of people are coming together to advance justice and equity in our society once again. That’s what we’re witnessing being born, that’s what we’re witnessing unfolding on the television news. And, because we do understand this parable, we, the Church, needs to be a part of this Reconstruction, too, just as we were in the past.

But how do we do that? How do we get our hands around an issue that can seem too big and complex to solve? And, being completely honest, how do we come to terms with the conflicted feelings that all of us, you and me alike, sometimes have when we think about issues of race?

Here at Springdale, we’ve already done some important work. We’ve studied our Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, these incredible historical confessions, part of our denominational Constitution, both of which expand on the message of this parable and make it clear that the work of racial equality and reconciliation is work that God calls us to and expects from us. It isn’t an option for us to ignore it. Next, our upcoming Issues Class is going to have a guest speaker who will tackle this same issue. Then also next month, the Presbytery is sponsoring a workshop on racial reconciliation. It will be held on Saturday, October 22, at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There’s a flyer out in the Gathering Space about the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see many of you there, too. And in addition to those things, a couple of us are beginning to work on a multiple-part educational offering that will dig deeper into the issue of race in our society; there will be more information about that in the near future.

Those are all good starts, and we should all be a part of them. But one thing that we can’t do is just get together in a big room full of only comfortable white people to sit around and try totalk about the issues of race in our society. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of time. I wouldn’t attend another meeting like that myself. We can’t understand the problems faced by other people if we don’t sit and talk with them, truly listening to them, in open, candid, and loving conversations in a mixed, multi-racial setting.

Another thing that we can’t do is leave our work at just the level of talk. Conversation is important, but it’s a means to an end; it isn’t the actual end itself. We need to find ways to turn our talk into positive, constructive action. And I don’t know specifically what that looks like; it may look like something different for each of us. It might be working together with existing community groups working for social justice in our community and society. Most of these groups include a large number of people of faith already; people who understand the meaning of this parable. For some of us, dare I suggest that it might be taking part in non-violent but loud protests calling for social justice improvements, just as we’ve done in the past. .

Whatever we do, it won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of good news here for us because, unlike the rich man in the parable, we know we’re supposed to be doing it. And also unlike him, we actually do have the benefit of someone having been raised from the dead to remind us of this reality, this expectation – and not just to remind us of it, but who remains with us, emboldening and empowering and strengthening us to actually do it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Facing the Giant (sermon 6/21/2015)

This Sunday's Old Testament Lesson is the familiar story of David and Goliath, an ancient version of the mismatch seen here. The story of David's faith in the face of what would seem to be insurmountable odds could be a very good point of departure for a Sunday when we both recognize recent graduates, as well as receive new members into Active Membership in the congregation. The text is found in 1 Samuel 17:32-49:

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.

Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.  – 1 Samuel 17:32-49

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He’d been looking forward to this trip for a while – he and his extended family were all going whitewater rafting together in Colorado. But they were all relatively young and adventurous and in pretty good shape, so they decided they didn’t want to just ride down the rapids while the guides did all the paddling; they took one of the trips where they were doing some of the real work, too. In order to be in the proper position to do that, he would have to straddle the pontoon of the raft with one leg inside and the other dipped into the water. It all started out fine in the gentle water, but after a while they got into the whitewater, and in a moment of not paying enough attention, he got bounced out of the raft and into the rapids. After some intense moments of panic as he got washed considerably further downriver than the raft, he managed to get himself safely to shore. But the shoreline there was steep and treacherous, so he climbed up to the higher ground and found himself coming out onto a nice, rolling green pasture. He figured he thought he could walk down to the point where the river came out of the ravine, but no sooner did he start out than he came over the crest of a little rise in the pasture and discovered that he was face to face with a huge black bull, the biggest one he’d ever seen, standing right in his path. Not really knowing anything about bulls, or what makes them mad, but he had to decide: should he try to sneak around this beast without trying to make it mad; or should he go back down over the hillside and take his chances with the steep shoreline of the ravine?

Well, David Lose, the preacher and writer who actually experienced that story when he was a very young man chose to head away from the giant bull in his path, and go back down over the hillside to get away from it. In today’s Old Testament lesson, though, another David, an even younger David, took the other course. Not only didn’t he shy away from the giant Goliath, or try to avoid him altogether, he actually stepped out and directly confronted him, confident that God would help him. Life can be this way for us, too. We’ll often find ourselves at some kind of crossroads, having to make a choice like this one – face the giant or find a way to turn away from it? In most cases, we aren’t even sure which choice we make will be the safest one, and often enough, we won’t be able to retrace our steps and choose again if it turns out we made the wrong choice – accepting a new job, or starting or ending a relationship, which doctor do I trust, should I have the surgery or not; there are endless examples of it. All that we know is that whoever we are, we’re going to find ourselves from time to time at that kind of crossroads. Do we face the giant, or do we turn away from it? Which path is the best?

We’re all facing a giant this morning. It’s an old giant; one we’ve seen all too many times before; one that we just can’t seem to get past. When Dylan Roof went into that Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and killed nine of them just because they were black, the giant of racism rose up in front of all us again, taunting us all just as much as Goliath taunted David. This giant, the evil, the sin, of racism and racist violence has been standing right there in front of us for almost 400 years in this country, without taking a single break.

This tragedy in Charleston isn’t ultimately a question of gun control, although that’s a big part of it. And it isn’t just a societal attitude of a cheapening of life in general either, although that’s part of it, too. This is specifically a problem of the demeaning and devaluing of the lives of a particular group of people, over against the lives of those in another group. It’s someone saying “Your lives don’t matter as much as mine.”

In the midst of this tragedy, we can tackle legitimate related issues, like demanding that the Confederate battle flag, that disgusting symbol of hatred and racism and bigotry and violence, finally be removed from any public place of honor. But we can’t let the side issues distract us from the main issue, the real giant. And we can’t take on an air of superiority, as if racism is only a problem in those states where you automatically get grits with your breakfast order whether you want them or not. This giant is everywhere. It’s in the South. It’s in the North. It’s right here, in our own midst. Every single one of us, you and me, carry racial prejudice within us, and whenever that racial prejudice uses some kind of power to harm or obstruct or impose injustice or inequality against others, that’s racism, and we’re caught up in it whether we do it directly ourselves or if others do it on our behalf and we’re just the beneficiaries of it.

Maybe the biggest problem is that too many of us really can’t even see this giant, or we want to pretend that he isn’t real. Oh sure, that giant used to be a problem in the past, but that’s all ancient history, and that these kinds of tragedies like Charleston are exceptions to the rule, they’re just unfortunate “accidents.” We’re all “post-racial;” we live in a color-blind society now. Nonsense.

So this morning, our hearts break, and we reach out to offer our love, and our condolences to all those whose live have been affected by this latest evil act of racism.

But even more than that, we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? How can we fight this giant? I mean, it’s certainly a good and a nice gesture to share prayers and statements of outrage or solidarity on our Facebook pages, and things like that, but in the end, what can we do about this kind of problem? In our Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 calls out the evil and sin of racism. And our new Belhar Confession calls out both individual and systemic, institutional racism, and points out that we are commanded by God to take whatever steps are necessary to end that racism, and to be actively involved in acts of racial reconciliation; to seek forgiveness and make amends for what we’ve allowed to happen in the past. So how can we do that? It’s a serious question, and one that we can’t answer this morning, but we need to answer it. What can we be doing, what should we be doing – here, in our own community – to help fight racism, and to help bring about racial reconciliation?

This is baccalaureate Sunday. Graduates, you’ll have to face this giant; in fact, you already are. Those of us who came before you have fought it to some extent, and we’ve made some progress against it, but not nearly enough. I pray with all my might that you’ll make more progress in killing it than we have. Just remember that the most success against this giant, the deepest wounds that it’s suffered, have been at the hands of those people who battled against it as a matter of their Christian faith. Those people who unabashedly called out racism as an offense, an evil, a sin against God. Those people who have called out racism in all of its forms, individual, institutional, direct and indirect, as incompatible with the kingdom of God. The biggest successes have been achieved by those people who placed their faith, and their trust in the God who empowered young David to succeed against Goliath – the God who has the power to calm the storm and the waves of the sea, and even the whitewater in Colorado. With that God’s help, we can beat this giant – it can’t be beat if we just try to take the easier looking path to avoid the giant, or if we close our eyes and pretend he isn’t there. But it can be beat.

Friends, let’s face this giant. And let’s beat it.

Thanks be to God.

The Greatest Commandment versus the Duck Commander

At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the dust-up over Phil Robertson’s comments made during a recent GQ interview. Setting aside the questions of why Robertson would ever even want to be interviewed by GQ, or why GQ would want to interview him, his comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, and a corresponding torrent of criticism of his critics. Robertson’s opinions led to his being placed on indefinite hiatus from participating in Duck Dynasty, the A&E “reality” show that’s made the Robertson family famous beyond merely those looking to buy a good duck call. In return, the Robertson family has said that they aren’t sure they can, or will, continue with the show if patriarch Phil isn’t part of the process.

Robertson’s controversial comments were twofold. In one direction, reflecting on his early life growing up in Louisiana, he makes incredibly insensitive and inaccurate comments about the status of African-Americans before the civil rights movement:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

 Of course, it doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to notice that, if his self-described status as “white trash” meant that he was being treated more lowly than other whites – even as  lowly as blacks, for goodness’ sake – then by definition, he most certainly did see, with his own eyes, blacks being mistreated. But to be so culturally oblivious as to not understand why, as a white man in Klan-saturated, Jim Crow Louisiana, he may never have heard blacks put voice to their problems and discrimination is a bit mind boggling. Phil Robertson may or may not be many things, but he didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being stupid.

In the second troublesome direction of his comments, Robertson offered his opinions regarding homosexuality:

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”

 What, in your mind, is sinful?

 “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

According to Robertson – a self-described “Bible thumper” who strongly stands for his fundamentalist version of the Christian faith – homosexuality is a core factor in the godlessness and immorality plaguing this nation, by definition in the same category with all manner of sexual promiscuity, even bestiality, along with a shopping list of other moral deficits. This opinion is hardly unique to Robertson. In varying degrees, it’s an opinion held by a large number of Christians in the world – at least, according to the official doctrines of the various strands of the faith, if not the actual beliefs of their individual members, it’s the belief of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But this is by no means the only view within the Christian faith. There is a substantial minority within the faith, both in terms of official denominational doctrine as well as individuals’ beliefs, that this traditional understanding of homosexuality has been wrong – and not just wrong, but  the cause of terrible human tragedy, the justification for the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse of millions of gay and lesbian people over the course of the past two thousand years, inside and outside of the Christian Church. This traditional interpretation of the Bible – arising out of only a handful of verses across both Old and New Testaments – has been used to justify the shunning, public humiliation, scorn, discrimination, violence, and even the murder, of countless people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Even the mildest of expressions of this traditionalist view – the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” – really does nothing but offer this same type of discrimination, only in warmer, fuzzier terms to make it more palatable to the hearts and minds of those doing the discriminating. To tell people who are by their very nature drawn to love those of the same sex that they are inherently disordered, and therefore, in a significant way inferior in their very being to others, is a devastatingly harmful thing to claim. It isn’t just harmful; it’s an utterly un-Christlike thing, and a thing contrary to the Christian belief that all human beings, in all of our many variations, are created in the very image of God. As James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary writes in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, “[T]he emotional burden imposed explicitly or implicitly by traditionalists on contemporary gays and lesbians – not just to avoid same-sex behavior but to renounce their own persistent impulses and desires, even when those desires are not excessive, simply because they are “objectively” disordered – creates a profoundly difficult and duplicitous message of acceptance interlaced with rejection.”

Indeed it does. All that a person has to do is to sit with a group of LGBTQ people and have them share their personal stories, and you’ll hear a near-universal thread of rejection, abuse, and damage caused to them by their respective religious bodies. You’ll find that LGBTQ people are at least as spiritually and religiously inclined as the general population, if not more so – contrary to the stereotypes and twisting of scripture that paint them as godless, immoral idolaters. And in that spiritual journey, they have, almost to a person, been horribly harmed by their churches. The spiritual carnage caused in the lives of LGBTQ people by traditional church doctrine is appalling, gut-wrenching.

Without getting into the detail that a discussion of biblical interpretation of the handful of so-called gay “clobber verses” would require, the reality is that the very best of biblical scholarship today indicates that these texts that have traditionally been used to condemn homosexual orientation and action have been misunderstood – by inaccurate translation from the original languages, as well as an incorrect understanding of the historical context and actual intent of the original authors. These supposed condemnations are actually referring to a number of types of same-sex activities that were considered wrong because

  1. they were quite often forced, non-consensual situations, often between slaves and their owners, or between adults and adolescents;
  2. they were expressions of out-of-control lusts, perpetrated by those who were not by nature homosexual, but who were by nature heterosexual, acting contrary to their own nature;
  3. they were examples of prostitution, or expressions of actual worship of pagan deities or other expressions of idolatry;
  4. they were seen as denigrating the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the time in which females were seen as something less than males, so anything that supposedly made a man more like a woman was seen as shamelessly “degrading” the man and the entire patriarchal structure of their society; and
  5. the pre-scientific culture in which these writings occurred did not have the understanding that we now have, regarding the inherent and unchangeable nature of human sexual orientation.

According to contemporary biblical and historical scholarship available to us now, and not available at earlier times in the history of the faith, these few New Testament passages that Robertson and others use as a basis for their beliefs (for a Christian, the Old Testament snippets regarding this issue are so clearly no longer applicable that they really don’t even merit discussion here) are really not referring at all to the issue that we face today – that of people whom we now understand are, by nature, oriented to be drawn to those of the same sex, and, extending the issue to the question of marriage, who wish to engage in loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Of course, this is only the latest, but certainly not the first, time that Christians have erroneously applied scripture to a social/cultural issue and caused great harm to many people. Usually (but not always) with the best of intentions of honoring God by honoring the scriptures as they understood them, we Christians have royally botched our understanding of the meaning of scripture any number of times. Certainly, we see this in past issues of slavery, women’s equality, and civil rights, and there are other examples as well. In each of these cases, Christians have eventually learned the error and terrible harm caused by their misapplying scripture to these situations, and we have adjusted our scriptural interpretation accordingly. The current situation regarding homosexuality is just the next issue regarding which Christians are gradually learning to adjust their beliefs.

And it can’t come a moment too soon. While Phil Robertson’s form of anti-gay rhetoric seems relatively mild on the surface, it’s actually the exact same rationale used to justify laws in Uganda calling for life imprisonment for being gay. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who has beaten the crap out of, or even killed, a gay person in a hate crime. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who discriminates against an LGBTQ person in employment or housing, or even as silly a situation as refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Phil Robertson might not personally treat someone badly because of his erroneous views, but given his near omnipresence in our culture at the moment, and his general likeability, his words will only encourage those who would indeed harm others in ways small and large.

Phil Robertson’s being smacked by A&E for his hurtful words is not a limitation of his First Amendment rights. He has the right to his beliefs, and no one has imprisoned him since the interview. But he has been criticized, rightly, for the harmful nature of his words. Neither is this a battle for “the Christian point of view,” since there is no single “Christian point of view” regarding homosexuality. But related to both of those issues, hateful, harmful speech is properly subject to criticism and condemnation, regardless of whether it stems from a person’s religious views or elsewhere. I’m sure that Bull Connor justified the evil of his actions against African-Americans as part of his religious views. If he didn’t, countless Klan members, skinheads, and Neo-Nazis certainly have. In perfect parallel with the Robertson dust-up, many people in the past who were denounced for their pro-slavery, anti-woman, or anti-civil rights beliefs claimed the right to those beliefs as a matter of their religion. But that didn’t get them off the hook. Simply claiming that hate speech is part of one’s religious views doesn’t earn that speech a free pass from criticism, consequence, or rejection.

Of course, the rub here is that the Robertsons’ TV show is very popular. For my own part, I can only take the show in limited doses – I’m not a fan in general of supposed reality TV – but in those doses, I’ve usually enjoyed most of what I saw. And if I met them in person, or were their house guest, I think I’d genuinely like the Robertsons (I’m not sure about Phil himself, though; he seems to have that scary, “something’s not quite right” intensity in his eyes that you see in, say, old engravings of John Brown, for example). And I want to like a show that espouses morality and a strong sense of family, along with healthy helpings of comedy.

But despite their personal likeability, and my wish for a fun, morally healthy show, I can’t give their patriarch a pass when he espouses outdated beliefs regarding race or human sexuality, especially when claiming to base either or both of those beliefs in the Christian faith. We’ve all learned a number of things at our parents’ or grandparents’ knees that, while not diminishing our love for any of them, we’ve come to realize have been mistaken and that we’ve rejected. The same is true of some of the earlier traditions of our faith that we’d been taught. As we move forward, we discover the truths of our faith more deeply, in ways that differ from earlier understandings, and applied to situations never dreamt of by the original authors of the scriptures. And I believe that it’s quite clear that that’s the situation here. The older, traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Christian Church has been wrong, and harmful, and needs to be rejected – not because spiritual beliefs are supposedly being diluted by godless secularism, but because we simply understand more about the realities of the situation now than people did 2,000 years ago, and we can see how to apply the principles taught by Jesus himself to these newer realities. Surely, this process is occurring more quickly now, with more and more people within our own families and close circles of friends who are finding the courage to come out as LGBTQ, allowing those around them to recognize that this is not some abstract theological issue. Rather, it’s one that for most people, has a well-known name, and face. It’s a brother or sister, or aunt or uncle, or parent or grandparent, or maybe even one’s own self. And it’s obvious that the people in question aren’t godless, immoral, shameful, idolatrous, or destructive to society. And they certainly aren’t an “abomination.” Odds are, they’re just as moral, and good, and upstanding, and spiritual, as anyone else. It’s time we Christians stopped villifying LGBTQ people, and started asking forgiveness for the damage our earlier misinterpretations have done.

So people shouldn’t “stand with Phil” just because they like the TV show, or because they feel the family, or the faith, is being attacked. They shouldn’t stand with him when he says things that, even if he didn’t personally intend them as hurtful, nonetheless are very hurtful – potentially even physically dangerous – to others. No matter how likeable the show is, or the family is, Phil Robertson’s views on race and homosexuality are simply outdated and wrong. Every day, more and more Christians are coming to realize this truth. If there is any redeeming value to this whole situation, I hope that would be that even more faithful Christians would think about this issue and would come to realize that we need to reject the traditional positions of the church regarding homosexuality if we truly want to be more faithful to the teachings of the bearded man that we follow and call Lord, the one who calls human beings – not the bearded man who calls ducks.