Saturday, November 25, 2017

“Politics and the Pulpit” - November 26, 2017

Ephesians 1:15-23

My text this morning comes from the Letter to the Ephesians, but I also want to cite Paragraph (3) of subsection (c) within section 501 of Title 26 (Internal Revenue Code) of the U.S. Code, which provides a tax-exempt status for:

“Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

This is sometimes called the Johnson Amendment, and what it did was to put into legal form a longstanding recognition of the right of religious groups to engage in prophetic advocacy around any issue, but draws the line at direct involvement on behalf of candidates or parties.

How does that work?  It means that back in the 1980’s Cardinal Krol could send out a letter to be read in every Catholic church in Delaware County the Sunday before Election Day urging his people to vote for candidates who opposed legalized abortion and state funding for parochial schools but never said, “Don’t vote for Bob Edgar on Tuesday, because he’s United Methodist clergy.”  Today it means that I can tell you that the tax bill currently making its way through Congress would repeal this amendment, and to consider for yourself what it would mean, especially if you think politics and the pulpit need to be kept in a proper relationship.

Christians walk a thin line but a clear one between the need for earthly rule and authority and the recognition of its limits. 

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]

Disagreement on that point is what led the Romans and the rulers of Jerusalem to nail the upstart rabbi from Nazareth who said that to a piece of wood to die as an example to anybody who might not recognize Caesar’s full authority over every corner of life.

The gospel claims that the effort of earthly powers to supplant God is futile.  Earthly power passes from ruler to ruler but eternal power is God’s alone.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” [Ephesians 1:20-23]

So when push comes to shove, we recognize earthly power and the people who exercise it. but only in a contingent way.

            Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God.  Nobody else has a proper claim to the title, even though every generation sees someone who puts himself or herself forward that way, tsars and Holy Roman Emperors, kings and queens.  Sometimes they are totally blatant about it.  In 1609, King James I told the English Parliament:

“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth ... Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have Kings; they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only.”[1]

Ummm… no.  And “no” is the correct reply to anybody who says that they are going to be the savior of a nation, much less of the world.  No politician of any party or stripe will ever bring the kingdom of God.

            We find that out time and time again.  It was the claim of Pope Pius XI in 1925 that

“If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquility, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent.”[2]

That may be good in theory, but the problem is that if a ruler ever forgets or denies that there is a Divine King, that is when they begin to travel the road to tyranny.  Twelve years later, this same Pius XI had to write a letter to people in Germany – and he wrote it in German, not Latin, which was not his normal practice – that said,

“Should any man dare, in sacrilegious disregard of the essential differences between God and His creature, between the God-man and the children of man, to place a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them.’ (Psalms ii. 3)."[3]

Then Hitler began sending Catholics to concentration camps along with Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews.

            The Church of Christ is not here to push any political agenda, but to proclaim the gospel.  That means that the Church is always going to be questioning – and urging others to question – whether the policies and laws of a nation match the will of God as expressed in scripture.  It isn’t because we have the answers to all human situations.  It’s because we admit that we do not know everything.  Somebody who experienced that intensely was Jimmy Carter.  In his memoir, Living Faith, he talks about the need to exercise any kind of power with humility.

“Whether within a church, among a crew of workers building a house, in a family, or in a nation, I have noticed that isolation comes with increasing power or prestige.  This can breed arrogance, as truth and sharing suffer when others are not willing to speak up to us or to correct our errors.  This is true in military organizations and in governments, including democracies like ours, except that in a free society even the top officials can expect criticism, both constructive and otherwise, from political adversaries and the news media.  Appreciated or not, this provides a very beneficial self-corrective influence.”[4]

And he goes on to confess,

“Knowing how many lives could be affected by my decisions, I felt a special need for wisdom and a sense of God’s presence.  Although I had a lot of advice from all sides, it was a lonely job during times of crises or when the issues were especially controversial.”[5]

            No less than anyone else, those in office remain human beings.  If it’s our place to remind them of that, it’s also our place to remind ourselves of that.  No human being is without need of God’s grace, nor beyond it.  Some of those in the highest places may in fact be the most deeply wounded or troubled.  One reason we don’t endorse candidates is that we have the duty to be supportive in a different way.  We should be asking the Lord’s help for them as people, which is hard to do when we get caught up in seeing only their good points or only the bad.  So we read in I Timothy:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [I Timothy 2:1-4]

Pat Robertson should be praying for Nancy Pelosi.  Franklin Graham should be in prayer for Barney Frank.  Jim Wallis should be keeping Mitch McConnell in God’s light.  Anyone who’s up for a real challenge might want to take on the grand slam: Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jin Ping.

“For there is one God;
           there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
           who gave himself a ransom for all.” [I Timothy 5-6]

Yes, the scripture says, “All.”

[4] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1996), 96
[5] Ibid., 97.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Sowing Bountifully" - November 19, 2017

II Corinthians 9:6-15

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [II Corinthians 9:6] 

           Gardeners will tell you that.  When you plant vegetables from seed, the thing to do is not to poke a hole in the ground, drop in one tiny carrot seed, measure three inches, poke another hole, drop in another seed, and on and on and on.  No, you dig a shallow trench, sprinkle seeds all the way along, and cover it up.  Later, when the seedlings have appeared you thin them out, leaving the strongest plants and room between them for the carrots to form underground.

           It’s true in other areas, too.  If you are never friendly, you will have few friends.  If you don’t put hours and hours into practice, you will never be good at the piano.  If you don’t get a few bruises, you will never master the science of kung-fu.  More importantly, if you never share the gospel, people who might hear of and come to experience Jesus’ love for themselves may have to hear it from somebody else.  It’s best not to count on that.  

           But you also need to try all sorts of ways to do that, because (as Jesus’ parable of the Sower talks about) there are all kinds of soil – rocky, fertile, weedy, hard-packed, and so forth – and there are all kinds of people, all of whom are beloved by God.

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [II Corinthians 9:6] 

If you spread the good news in only one way, or to only one type of person, that is sowing sparingly. 

I am not saying that there aren’t some ways that are better than others, and that some are not just downright obnoxious, at least to me.  I don’t think Jesus would want us to be sneaky or mean-spirited.  The gospel is good news, not something to bonk someone over the head with from behind.  Out in Lebanon there is a woman who regularly runs for School Board with some very definite and specific ideas about what should be taught and how the students should dress and generally behave.  I disagree with her on most of it, as generally does the overwhelming majority of the electorate, but in her heart she really does care about the kids, and I cannot fault her on that in any way.  

I do, however, fault her for a habit that she has of going into church rummage sales and sticking pamphlets and tracts into the pockets of items on the clothing tables, especially ones that announce God’s judgment in technicolor detail and claiming that it can be avoided simply by repeating a short prayer that is like an incantation of sorts, then running to the nearest body of water to be baptized.  The gospel is not about avoiding eternal fire.  That’s a side benefit at best.  The gospel is about being invited into the joy of God’s presence, and how Jesus can and will enter the places of despair and torment to get us out of them and into the kingdom of love and light.  Not all pamphlets are like hers, of course, although I still think that sneaking something into someone’s hands that way makes a bad impression.  

The same way, back in the Dark Ages there were several Christian metal bands, like Petra, that didn’t work for me.  Headbanging for Jesus?  I don’t think so.  But as an alternative to KISS and Judas Priest?  I guess it was good in that way, and some people really do respond well to amplification, just like others respond well to acoustic jazz.  

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [II Corinthians 9:6] 

Even someone who had very particular preferences in literature, C.S. Lewis, wrote both very intellectual explanations of the faith and children’s books that were like fairy tales – but to talk about what Jesus is like and what faith means.  He also wrote poetry about his own experience of conversion and growth, and published his notes about what it was like to lose his wife to cancer and wrestle with the grief that followed.  All of those were written for different types of readers because

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [II Corinthians 9:6] 

If you spread the good news in only one way, or to only one type of person, that is sowing sparingly. 

Think about your own circles.  There are your family, your friends, and your coworkers, all of whom you know, and most of whom are probably a lot like you, at least in their ways of looking at the world.  That’s not always the case, of course.  I’m generalizing a little.  Yet there is a whole world of other people.   Try this:  If you usually shop at Acme, go and look at the people who shop at Giant.  Even better, if you shop at either of those places, spend a little time at Produce Junction or Kimberton Whole Foods.  Who do you see?  

Or go online and find articles that would be of interest to people who have formed what might be called communities of shared needs.  That is where you can learn about what is going through the hearts and minds of parents, immigrants, cancer patients, or entrepreneurs.  Skip down to the bottom and read the comments and questions.  Then ponder and pray.  What part of Jesus’ message speaks to them?  How could they hear it?

Here’s yet another angle.  What about those with shared talents?  Dancers, listeners, cooks, people who are multilingual – who knows who else – who are looking to find something in the process of creating or celebrating what God has given them?  Is there any way that, in putting their skills into action, they can encounter the One who is the source of all that is good?  They could be helped to discover the meaning of Paul’s assertion of the value of giving:

“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” [II Corinthians 9:11-12]

The hard part is in letting people approach God in ways that do not work for us. Even so,

“God loves a cheerful giver” [II Corinthians 9:7]

and one thing we can give is permission— giving God permission to do his work as he will (as if he needs our permission!), and giving permission to people to respond and to grow in depth of faith and in turn to bear fruit as God gives them the grace. 

“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [II Corinthians 9:6] 

God bless my Vivaldi, and bless your heavy metal, too, if each can honor him.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Sooner or Later" - November 12, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

     Okay, so here we go: another sermon in response to the news.  Forgive me, but I’m tired of doing that.  On the other hand, the scriptures speak directly and with the wisdom we need to make our way through the complicated situations that we live with.  So let me say a word about churches and guns.

     Guns do not belong in church.  There may be a few, rare instances where a qualified professional – by which I really mean a police officer or a Secret Service agent – might need to carry a weapon.  Even then, if they are off-duty, their weapons should also be off-duty.  I don’t care if you have a concealed-carry license or not, the house of the Prince of Peace is no place for guns or tazers or mace or nunchuks or howitzers.  Water balloons are allowable with advance notice and a note from your doctor.

      Another thing that does not belong in church is suspicion.  Just because somebody is unfamiliar does not mean that they are dangerous.  If someone is unfamiliar and also seems troubled, let me know.  Believe it or not, when someone is upset or in crisis it is not unusual for them to go someplace where they can feel safe or hope to hear a word of comfort.  If a church is not able to provide that, then how can we honestly repeat Jesus’ words,

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest”? [Matthew 11:28]

     The same is true of someone who might be familiar; if you sense that somebody might be troubled, go ahead and ask them if anything is wrong.  Only do it out of care, not out of fear, and be ready to listen if it turns out your hunch is right.  Be ready to hear what they have to say if they start crying or telling you a story that is difficult to hear. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [Matthew 5:3-4]

Today you might be the one to do the comforting on God’s behalf.  If you are uneasy in that role then remember,

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” [Matthew 5:7]

It doesn’t mean you have to be able to solve anybody’s problems, but more often than not, listening with an open heart will do far more than you realize.  Then, too, you can always wave someone over to help you so that you don’t have to make your way through whatever is happening without backup.  

     Don’t be afraid, but be prepared.  On a Sunday morning around here there will likely be people in the pews with professional awareness that can help.  There are people with medical backgrounds, social workers, school counselors and teachers, even clergy.  All of these have some kind of training in a wide variety of ways to offer help or to find it somewhere.

      Now, here’s the part where I am going to take away some of the comfort I just offered, although I will give it back to you at the very end.  Let’s walk through this together for a few minutes.  I’m going to start with the parable that we heard a couple of minutes ago.

      In the story, there are ten bridesmaids waiting to greet the groom so that a wedding could get underway.  It became late, and he hadn’t shown up yet.  When word came that he was getting close, half of them had prepared and were able to add oil to their lamps and the other half were caught without.

      The first thing to point out is that all ten knew he would show up sometime.  All of us know that there will be a time that we will find ourselves face-to-face with the Lord.  It might happen without much warning.  (This is where I mean to trouble you.)  Shootings and similar incidents we’ve heard about recently have taken place in churches, true.  But they’ve also taken place in theaters and in schools and stores, and cars or trucks have been used to mow down bikes and pedestrians.  Something like that could happen anytime and anywhere.  Sixteen years ago, who on the eighty-second floor of an office building in Manhattan would have thought that a plane might fly in the window?  In the Anglican traditions, there is a responsive prayer they call “The Great Litany” that includes some petitions that I used to think sounded overly dramatic, but now I am not so sure.

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, 
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, 
Good Lord, deliver us.” [from The Book of Common Prayer]

There’s no place and nowhere that something might not go terribly wrong, terribly quickly, even without some horrible person with a gun committing evil acts.  No gun of your own is going to provide you with real safety and the sense of security it might give you is a false one.

      But here is the oil that you can put into your lamp when it begins to burn low: there is eternal security in Jesus, of a type that nobody can take away.  It can give you courage when you are scared of anything, even when the physical threat is real and imminent.  

     You probably have never heard the name David R. Liebert.  Maybe you have heard the name John Africa?  He founded the group called MOVE that in 1978 was living in a house in Powelton Village, not far from Drexel University, having been ordered to leave a year earlier for a wide variety of reasons.  The city, more especially the Philadelphia Police Department, was anxious for MOVE to vacate the premises.  MOVE indicated that they were not interested in moving, that they were armed, and that their departure would not be amicable.  David Liebert was the man who got up one morning, had breakfast with his wife, told her he loved her, then went to the station and put on a bulletproof vest because it was his job to knock on the door that day, ask if John Africa was home, and deliver a warrant.  Most of us know how that went.  Unlike another officer, David Liebert survived that day, but he did die, sixteen years later, of a heart attack.  What made it possible for him to do what he did was partly natural courage and a sense of duty, but there was another element, which was faith.  He was someone who knew that, living or dying, he was in the Lord’s hands and so he could be ready at any moment.
It’s true that 

“You know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matthew 25:13]

But that can be okay.  You can go around, if you want to, in fear of the next terrorist or criminal act.  You can add to the fear of senseless violence your own threat of retribution, as if that helps the whole atmosphere.  You can take part in the cycle of posing as Wyatt Earp or Sergeant York – pick your favorite semi-fictional character.  Or you can go around with an inner, calm assurance that there is a far, far better way to live and to face the inevitable moment of dying.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, for rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:35-39]

      Put that into your lamp.  It gives a bright, bright light.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Relics and Roadmaps” - November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17

I finished cleaning my desk recently.  It was a job that took a couple of weeks, with a few minutes here and there every day.  In the course of it, I found a card with a picture of a nun and a small piece of cloth attached to it, noting that it was a “second degree relic” of the Blessed (now officially Saint) Katharine Drexel.  I told Father Newns about it, and he got all excited – his father had been a student, long ago, at the trade school she had founded in Bensalem.  I figured that a relic attached to a Roman Catholic saint probably belongs more down the street at St. Ann’s than it does on my desk underneath a pile of charge conference reports and a bottle of Elmer’s glue, so that’s where it is now.

Let me share the letter that I sent with it.

“Dear Father Newns,
            Enclosed is a relic of one of our local saints, Mother Katharine Drexel.  I want to get it to you as a gift for St. Ann’s Church before All Saints’ Day brings the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  It has taken us five centuries to stop shouting at one another so loudly that we cannot hear ourselves saying many of the same things, but I am glad that in many ways, despite our unresolved differences we can at least recognize the shared commitment to the life of faith and the work of grace in the lives of people like Katharine Drexel and find encouragement in that “cloud of witnesses”.
            As far as the provenance of this small piece of cloth:  It is attached to a card with the May 20, 1992 Nihil Obstat of Msgr. Thomas Herron and Imprimatur of Cardinal Bevilaqua.  That should cover its source.  More particularly, it came to me sometime between 1994 and 1998 when I served Holmesburg United Methodist Church and had a parishioner who worked at the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem.  She offered to arrange a visit, and I was shown around by a sister who had been a novice when Mother Katharine was elderly.  One story she shared has stuck with me because there’s something in it that speaks to Katharine Drexel’s personality.  My guide had been assigned to be her night-time attendant, and told me that she would be awakened regularly by the call, “Spectacles!  Spectacles!”  Going into her room, she would help her put her glasses on, then Katharine Drexel would lift a watch that hung on a chain around her neck, glance at the time, grunt and nod, remove the glasses (with help), and fall back to sleep immediately.  She remained decisive to the end.
            As I read about people like Katharine Drexel or Teresa of Avila or Francis of Assisi I ponder the thin line between stubbornness and perseverance, single-mindedness and short-sightedness, and how one of the great gifts we have in these saints is the lesson to be patient with the hardheaded people who can become either the reformers that any organization needs from time to time or who act as the brakes on those who go too far.  Of course, in the particular case of Katharine Drexel, I also find myself grateful for the good work that her forceful personality brought about, work that you and many others in this area are able to attest to personally.  That is yet another reason I am glad to be able to place this item, along with the leaflets I was given in Bensalem at that time, into your hands.
Grace and Peace,                                                                                        R. Mark Young”
            The part of history that doesn’t go into this letter, but is well known around Philadelphia, is that Katharine Drexel was often difficult to work with.  One of the things that the nuns saved were her pencils.  She was big on not wasting anything, and she used her pencils down to the very stub, smaller than the kind you see at Putt-Putt or a bowling alley.  The odd thing, though, is that every one of those pencils had a complete eraser.  As one of my friends remarked, “That was a woman who never had a second thought.”

            We put people who have been close to Christ on a pedestal sometimes, but in our heart of hearts we remember them not as statues but as human beings, with faults and flaws – and that is exactly what makes them important to remember.  (Here I speak of all of God’s saints, not just the people who are given that title, but everyone whom we know whose lives have been touched by God’s grace and who, in turn, have blessed our lives in some way, in any way that reveals Jesus’ universal love.)  Saints are not angels.  They are human beings, no different from you and me.  And you and I are, by God’s grace, no different from them.  In fact, it might be our worst attributes that God uses to his glory.

            Not long after I moved to a new church, I got a phone call from my successor, who had a problem.  Someone had died, and the funeral was looming, and she had met with the family and nobody wanted to say much about the man who had died.  Did I know anything?  I gulped, and then told her about the visits where the deceased went into great detail about his fights with his neighbors.  I told her about how we took the youth group Christmas caroling to his house each year and how he closed the door in their face with comments that would have made Ebenezer Scrooge blush.  How did he get to be that way?  I had no idea.  His family said that he had been disagreeable from childhood on.  What would she say?

            A week later we spoke again.  She told me she saw no reason to beat around the bush.  She had said that the gospel is not about people being likeable.  It’s about God loving us as we are, even if we are so miserable that nobody wants to be around us, and that it doesn’t matter what we think of somebody, they are still and forever beloved by God.  God’s love is not like ours, conditional and limited.

            John’s vision of the saints gathered around the throne in heaven isn’t about them.  It’s about Jesus’ willingness to give his life for them – and for us. 

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’”
[Revelation 7:9-12]

In that, we have a vision, not of the relics of our present lives, but a roadmap for what God has in store.  There is so very much that we leave behind, but so very much more that is given to us when the Holy Spirit puts all of our humanness to work, warts and all.

            Be yourself.  You are the person that God has in mind, and who knows where that may lead?