Friday, January 19, 2018

All My Tomorrows (On Janis Joplin's Birthday)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants of one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14

Paul did not agree with Kris Kristofferson’s assessment that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” 

But then again, Paul never heard it sung by Janis Joplin.

She would be seventy-five years old today.

My brain has a hard time imagining Janis Joplin at seventy-five, but she certainly left us way too soon.

She was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company when they came to Wesleyan on March 9, 1968. Fifty years ago this spring. A month before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Three months before Bobby Kennedy. Eight months before we elected Richard Nixon.

But when I hear her singing in my head I don’t think about national events. I think about that great talent lost. The wrenching pain that drove her to greatness and ultimately pushed her over the edge. 

When she was at the University of Texas, as a fraternity prank, some guys nominated her for “Ugliest Man on Campus.” There must be a special place in hell for people who think that’s funny.

The acne scars. The tangled hair. When I hear Faith Hill sing her version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I wonder if two people could ever be more different than Faith Hill and Janis Joplin.

Everyone sings sad songs. And every singer wants you to believe that they have lived the blues. But Janis Joplin didn’t need to convince anyone.

In Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” she sang one of the most poignant lines of all time: “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.” 

As it turned out, she did not have very many tomorrows to trade.

Sometimes yesterday seems so much better than today. In my head, it is not Bobby McGee, but Janis Joplin, who is singing. And feeling good was easy then, when Janis sang the blues. 

“Me & Bobby McGee” is a dark vision. But it is despair delivered with a driving beat that makes you want to sing along. The words are dark but the music is bright.

In many ways, faith is about trading yesterday for tomorrow. Maybe not without regret, but certainly with hope.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas: A Lesson to Be Lived

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our commercialized celebration of the holiday. Even before Jesus was born, in the proclamation brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring a challenging message about transforming our lives and the world around us.

On Christmas Eve, our Christmas Pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman,  an African American preacher and theologian, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1964. The poem is about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
           To find the lost,
           To heal the broken,
           To feed the hungry
           To release the prisoners,
           To rebuild the nations,
           To bring peace among people,
           To make music in the heart

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tax Reform (The Magnificat in Reverse)

He has brought down the powerful 
from their thrones, 
and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

The new congressional tax bill is not tax reform. It is just tax cutting. And it is not just cutting taxes; it is distributing the overwhelming majority of those cuts to the wealthiest among us.

And it is not just at all.

The wealthiest 1% of all Americans already control substantially more than the bottom 90%. Under the new tax bill that top group will gain a little bit more.

This is the Magnificat in reverse. The rich are filled with good things and the poor are sent away empty.

Of course the theory-- and we should be clear that this is a political theory without any economic evidence to back it up-- is that if the wealthiest people have more money they will invest it in enterprises that will benefit everyone. Right now the wealthiest individuals and corporations are sitting on a lot of capital. The theory is that if they had more capital they would create jobs and raise wages.

This has not worked in the past, but (apparently) hope springs eternal.

For at least four decades the American economy has been devoted to a massive redistribution of income from the bottom to the top. The gap between the richest Americans and the poorest Americans has been growing, and the middle class has been shrinking.

And let’s be clear. This gap has widened under both Republican and Democratic presidents. There have been different rates of increase but there have been no great reversals.

President Obama made income inequality a major policy priority. He was able to reverse the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while maintaining those cuts for the middle class, and he was able to expand healthcare for middle and low income families. But those modest policy changes were more than offset by the massive gains in pretax income that went to the wealthiest Americans as the economy recovered from the crash of 2008.

The new tax bill will deal a possibly fatal blow to the Affordable Care Act. By repealing the individual mandate, the bill will result in 13 million more Americans without health insurance. That number could rise if the increase in premiums caused by the repeal of the individual mandate causes premium costs to rise dramatically. We know that premiums will go up. We don’t know how much they will go up. 

This is not unintended. 

In a celebratory gathering on the White House lawn, Mr. Trump deviated from his prepared remarks to offer a candid assessment: “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.”

As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post:
“Trump, in a Cabinet meeting earlier Wednesday, let his fleeting encounter with honesty get the better of him when he read aloud the stage directions that called for Republicans not to advertise that they were killing Obamacare. ‘Obamacare has been repealed in this bill. We didn’t want to bring it up,’ he said. ‘I told people specifically, "'Be quiet with the fake-news media because I don’t want them talking too much about it.”’ Because I didn’t know how people would —.’ Trump didn’t finish that thought, but he said he could admit what had been done ‘now that it’s approved.’”
Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act may not be the only casualty.

When the deficit increases, and we know it will, lawmakers will be “forced” to “reform entitlements.”  By “entitlements,” they mean Social Security and Medicare. And by “reform,” they mean cut.

So the rich will have their taxes cut and the poor and the middle class will have their Social Security and Medicare cut. 

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"When You're a Star, They Let You Do It"

Trump and Gingrich share the stage at a campaign rally.

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah 6:6-8

On January 31, 1999 I preached on the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. The Lectionary text from the Hebrew Scriptures was that familiar passage from Micah.

I began with a quotation from Martin Luther: “If you preach the gospel in every aspect except for the controversial issues of your time, then you have not preached the gospel at all.”

I now know that Luther did not actually include the adjective “controversial,” but in those days before I checked everything on the internet, I was working from my memory of what someone else had quoted as what Luther said.

Luther’s comments had haunted me for months as I carefully avoided anything beyond a few oblique references to impeachment.

I had avoided it for good reasons. First, there was the danger of too much opinion and too little Bible. Second, I didn’t want to make people unhappy by talking about an unhappy topic. And finally, I did not believe that it was a matter of the soul—it wasn’t where we were living.

At the end of the sermon I asserted two conclusions.

The first was that committing adultery and lying about it ought not to be an impeachable offense.

The second was that President Clinton ought to resign. Monica Lewinsky was an intern. She was barely an adult. He should have been her protector rather than her abuser.

There was more, of course, I talked about the prophetic tradition, about concepts of justice and mercy and humility, and I threw in a heavy dose of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the bottom line for me was that he ought to resign.

My memories of the Clinton impeachment hearings came back to me as I watched with amazement while the charges of sexual misconduct piled up against celebrities and politicians.

When I preached the sermon in 1999 I did not know that the chief architect of the impeachment process, Newt Gingrich, was cheating on his second wife at the same time that he was self-righteously condemning Bill Clinton. Ironically, Gingrich was having an affair with a staff aide who was barely older than Ms. Lewinsky.

It is a somewhat perverse characteristic of human nature that by divorcing his second wife and marrying his mistress he made his affair somehow seem more acceptable. The Clintons, on the other hand, are widely pilloried for staying together. And to make that strangely commonplace judgment even stranger, it is Hillary Clinton who is more widely condemned. 

But all of that is ancient history.

The present tsunami of allegations is unprecedented. And so is the reaction, which seems to indicate that as a society we will not tolerate this any longer.

The bad news is that sexual harassment and sexual abuse and far more widespread than many of us would have imagined. The good news is that women are being taken more seriously. 

And now there are consequences.

Al Franken, John Conyers, Blake Farenthold, and Trent Franks have all been forced to resign. And Roy Moore was defeated.

Donald Trump alone remains apparently unscathed by the allegations against him. And the sweep of the allegations is breathtaking. 

Newsweek reports that Mr. Trump “has been accused of rape and attempted rape a total of three times, once involving an alleged victim who was a year younger than Moore's accuser.”

He has been accused of walking in on beauty pageant contestants, some of whom were teenagers, while they were changing.

And, at last count, nineteen women have come forward to accuse Mr. Trump of sexual misconduct. The Atlantic has helpfully summarized the allegations and the corresponding response from the President.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump has denied everything. When a reporter asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?”, she responded with a resounding affirmation: “Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning, and the president’s spoken on it.”

In addition to the denials, the President has also attacked the women by calling them liars and by making fun of their physical appearance, saying that they were not attractive enough for him to want to sexually assault them.

Really. That’s what he said. And he said it more than once.

Other men who have been accused have responded with denials. Some have issued only half-hearted apologies, but none of them have attacked the victims as Mr. Trump has done.

But wait.

You know there’s more.

Mr. Trumps case is unique in that he is the only one who has bragged about his sexual assaults. “When you’re a star,” he boasted, “they let you do it.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Don't Call Them Pharisees

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
Luke 7:36

In the many debates online or in person about the inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church, two things are almost certain. 

First, someone on the traditionalist side of the debate will accuse those in favor of inclusion of not accepting the authority of the Bible. And then someone on the inclusion side will accuse the traditionalists of being Pharisees.

It is almost a ritual.

When those arguing for inclusion say that the traditionalists are Pharisees, they are invoking a slur that has gone unchecked for centuries.

But the traditionalists are more like Sadducees than Pharisees. We often speak of the two groups together, but the Sadducees and Pharisees were very different. 

Like everyone else in my generation and like almost everyone who went to Sunday School and grew up in the church, I learned early on that the Pharisees were the bad guys. They were self-righteous and hypocritical, obsessed with observing the letter of the Law, yet utterly tone-deaf to its spirit. They were rich and powerful, and they colluded with the Romans in opposing and eventually killing Jesus. They were ritually clean, yet morally corrupt.

And I learned in seminary that they were the perfect foil for preaching. Every narrative needs a good villain, and the Pharisees were the perfect villains for almost any preaching topic. 

It was perfect, with the slight problem that it was wrong.

The Pharisees were reformers.

They had a three-fold belief that God was a loving father, who loved humanity so much that he gave us the Torah, the Law, so that everyone who followed the law would have eternal life (fellowship with God, now and forever).

The three-fold belief of the Pharisees gives rise to the animating question of Matthew, Mark and Luke: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If the way to fellowship with God now and forever is found in following Torah (the way), what does it mean to follow Torah? What specifically must I do? And the answer is the same in each of the three Gospels: love God and love your neighbor.

The Pharisees were not literalists, they believed in a two-fold understanding of the Law as both written and oral. The written Law was unchanging, but the oral Law was reinterpreted by each generation of Rabbis. The Pharisees gave us the Synagogue, and the rabbinate, and they gave rise to both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

The Sadducees were in many ways the tradionalists of their day. 

They rejected the Oral Law because they were literalists. They believed that the written word should not be interpreted; it should simply be obeyed. 

The Sadducees were judgmental because they had no openness to the future. They were not waiting for the Messiah and they did not expect a Messiah because they did not believe that God would do something new.

Seventy-five years ago Harry Emerson Fosdick began his Christmas Eve sermon by saying, “We think this evening about the Sadducees.” He called them “the unloveliest people in the New Testament.” The sermon was titled, “Recovering Our Angels,” and he attributed the Sadducees’ miserable behavior and attitude to the fact that they did not believe in angels.

The angels that Fosdick referenced were not winged creatures in the sky. They were the messengers of God that come to us in myriad ways and incarnations, to inspire and comfort and sustain us.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need our angels to lead us into the future.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving and the Longing for Special Providence

When I was a little boy my mother taught us a bed-time prayer which my sister and I said every night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
The Lord go with me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning light.

In the more common, older and much scarier version of that prayer, the last two lines are:

If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I’m glad Mom gave us the revised version. I can’t imagine teaching a child to say the original.

The scarier version dates from a time when little children did sometimes die in the night from a host of deadly childhood diseases which have mostly been eliminated over the last century. Today our children are safe from those deadly diseases because scientists have discovered vaccinations and medicines that are truly miraculous. Our medical and scientific progress is (I believe) part of what God is doing in the world. It is part of God’s continuing creation

Today we have come to expect that for our children, safety is the norm. And death and disease are rare. At least they are rare among the developed nations of the world. It is easy for us to forget that in other parts of the world children continue to die of disease and malnutrition at an alarming rate.

We expect our children to be safe, and there is nothing wrong with that. All children ought to be safe. And safety is what every parent wants for his or her child.

But the biblical promise is not safety. The promise is that God will not leave us. Or to put it differently, in the context of my bed-time prayer, “safe” meant “safe in God’s care.”

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me, and for my family and loved ones, in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

On Thanksgiving we give thanks for the Providence of God and the blessings that sustain our life on this fragile planet. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

An Eighteenth Century Worldview and Our Theological Task

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:4-6

The United Methodist Church is on the brink of schism because of disagreements about the nature of human sexuality.

The practical issue that divides us is the question of whether our LGBTQ siblings are to be included in, or excluded from, full participation in the life of the church. 

Within and beneath those highly contentious issues there is a foundational question about who we are as a church.

John Scott Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy posted an essay on the Juicy Ecumenism blog of the IRD titled, “Case Closed: Affirming Homosexual Practice is Irreconcilably Contrary to Core United Methodist Doctrine.”

His contention is that “within the specific context of United Methodism, our denomination’s core doctrine leaves no room for directly and explicitly affirming homosexual practice.” And for emphasis he asserts that “Acknowledging this is not a matter of opinion or faction, but rather of basic intellectual honesty.”

Before I give you the link to his essay I need to warn you that it is long and ponderous, and as you read it you may find yourself losing the will to live. So be careful. But here is the link: Case Closed.

Lomperis observes that John Wesley’s sermons and his notes on the New Testament are part of our “Doctrinal Standards.” And he cites several instances in the sermons and in the notes where Wesley condemns “sodomites” as proof of his thesis that the condemnation of “homosexual practice” is part of our core doctrine.

He cites a passage from Sermon #38, “A Caution Against Bigotry” as an example:
“In Section I.11 of this part of our Doctrinal Standards, Wesley classifies ‘sodomites’ as part of a list of different types of sinners, listing ‘sodomites’ immediately after robbers and immediately before murderers! Specifically, Wesley judged that the fact that ‘common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land’ to be proof of the devil’s power.”
“I am uncomfortable with the word ‘sodomite.’”, writes Lomperis, “But we have no power to change eighteenth-century English language usage.  The fact remains that in Wesley’s day this was a very negative term applied to individuals who engaged in homosexual practice.” 

Note the exact wording he uses. It is instructive.

Lomperis speaks of “eighteenth-century English language usage.” He notes that this language usage was common “in Wesley’s day,” and that the language conveyed a very negative perception of same sex relationships.

Wesley used the language of his day to convey the viewpoint of his day.

It should not surprise us that an eighteenth century man, even a well-educated and enlightened eighteenth century man, would not have a twenty-first century view of human sexuality.

John Wesley was a brilliant man, but he was still a man of his times.

Our Book of Discipline speaks of “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task.” The Doctrinal Standards are part of our history and they shape our present, but Our Theological Task calls us into the future.

The Doctrinal Standards are meant to be a foundation, not a ceiling. 

Our Theological Task is not limited to looking for quotations from the writings of John Wesley and applying them to the twenty-first century.

We are not called to be religious archaeologists excavating an historical crypt, or curators of a Methodist museum. Our task is to use the wisdom of the past to guide us into the future.

As Paul told the Christians in Corinth, we are called “to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.