Wednesday, November 2, 2016

No Matter What?

With regard to the current presidential election and its outcome, I recently heard someone say that "whatever happens, no matter what, it's God's will."  Of course, I find this incredibly problematic.  First, we are the ones at the polls voting; not God.  And so, this kind of thinking presumes that our judgment (or at least the judgment of those who comprise the majority vote) is unquestionably without error.  That is, whatever we as a nation decide by majority vote is to be interpreted as God's will.  Furthermore, this kind of thinking supposes that God is in control of everything, including our politics, and we are just pawns being moved about.  Are we to think that everything that has transpired leading up to election day is really, undeniably the work of God? 

To give God all of the credit (blame?) for the outcome of our politics, is to abdicate our responsibility as citizens; and as people of faith.  To say that God is in complete control of the election, orchestrating the outcome to coincide with God's will, is like saying God confused those Cleveland Indians outfielders and gave the Cubs a grand slam in order to create a game 7 situation tonight.  God is about as involved in our politics, as God is in baseball (or any other professional sport).

I'm not saying God is absent from our lives.  I'm saying God has empowered us and given us freedom to follow God's ways, or not; and it's entirely possible that the outcome of this presidential election will be the result of the latter.  That is to say, the outcome of this election may not be God's will.  But whatever happens, it's really on us; not God. 

Whatever happens, for Christians, our first and best allegiance is to God in Christ; and we must continue to seek God's kingdom.  No matter what.

Monday, July 4, 2016

It's Time to Get Official!

Following the mass shooting at the PULSE nightclub in Orlando last month, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) issued a statement in support of the LGBTQ community.  As an ordained American Baptist pastor and as a gay man, I was so proud of ABHMS and its Executive Director, Dr. Jeffrey Haggray.  The words in that statement gave me some hope and courage in the midst of tragedy.  Not only did they express their anguish and grief, they said that they condemned “with the strongest language possible whatever ideologies and sentiments contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence against fellow children of God, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”  Furthermore, they affirmed that “We are all created in the image of God, and God’s love for all people is steadfast, immovable and unconditional.”  The statement ended with a courageous call, in which “Haggray encourages churches across the United States and Puerto Rico to open their doors in welcome to LGBTQ persons and others each and every day”:

“Let us find authentic ways to publicly communicate that we stand with LGBTQ persons by extending hospitality, security, love and acceptance in God’s houses of prayer intended for all people,” Haggray says. “Let us publicly affirm that, as Christ’s church, we are a beloved community—a community that welcomes into our houses of worship Latino/Latina neighbors, LGBTQ friends, Muslim co-laborers, and all persons who seek dialogue, understanding, safe-keeping, community and love.”

In tweeting out the link to the full statement ( it occurred to me that not only had ABHMS condemned the “ideologies and sentiments” in our own denomination that “contribute to a culture of homophobia, bigotry, hatred and violence,” they had also called all American Baptist churches to become Welcoming and Affirming.  Never before had I heard such clear words in support of LGBTQ people from any of our denominational bodies.

And now I am waiting, waiting for our churches to respond.  I am especially waiting for those churches that have in many ways behaved like Welcoming and Affirming (W&A) churches, but have yet to make this known in any official way.  Such churches may have members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender, whom they welcome and accept as they would anyone else.  They may even have pastors and/or staff who belong to the LGBTQ community.  And yet such churches have not/will not make the move to make it known to the wider community that they are churches that welcome and affirm LGBTQ people.

To these churches, doing anything official may not seem like such a big deal.  They often see themselves as W&A, and see no difference between themselves and other churches that have made it official.  But if there were no difference, it would not in any way be problematic to put “A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation” on church promotional materials, or hang a rainbow flag out front, or even put a rainbow sticker on the church marquee.  There would be no question.  But, as it stands, these things are still problematic for churches that have not made their W&A ministry known and official.  

And so, LGBTQ people interested in becoming a part of such churches must ask someone they trust if it’s a safe place for them.  Those LGBTQ persons courageous enough to risk joining such churches will always have times where they wonder if it’s okay to be themselves.  Same-sex couples will wonder if they can be married in such churches.  And when tragedy strikes the LGBTQ community, as it did in Orlando, such churches will always make an uncertain sound, if they make any sound at all.  Unofficial W&A churches are not the same as official W&A churches.

All public statements from ABCUSA end with the statement: “American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.”  And by my count, there are only 100 of those congregations who have become official members of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  That’s just not enough.

Now I know there is a process.  It takes time to become a W&A church.  There are conversations to be had, about sexuality in general and so many other things.  And yet there are churches like the unofficially W&A churches who could get there a lot sooner because they are already far down the path.  And we need more churches to get official, I need the church I serve to get official, because there are people out there who need to know without a doubt that they are good, they are loved, and they are safe in our churches.  It’s time!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Remember Everything

Tomorrow will mark one week since the mass shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, which means that in a few more days (maybe a week) it will fade from the news.  And people will have gone to all the vigils they could stand.  Religious leaders and public officials will have said everything they could muster to comfort and call people to action.  Those who were gunned down will have been buried.  And the world will go on spinning.

So before all of that happens, I just want to ask that you remember everything.  Remember everything you felt, everything you prayed for, everything you called people to do, everything you promised to do.  Remember everything and press on and follow through.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Searching in the Dark

After trying to preach on this same text year after year, I felt like I finally "got it" last year (April 15, 2012).  I'm actually not preaching on "NAP Sunday" this year for a change, so I thought I'd just share this.  I don't know that I'll ever say anything better about Thomas ("Tom").

"Searching in the Dark"
John 20:19-31

If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and we do), and if you are an associate pastor (and I am), then today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, it is highly likely that you will hear a sermon based upon John, Chapter 20, verses 19 through 31.  Because, on the one hand, the Lectionary schedules this same Gospel Lesson every year for the Second Sunday of Easter; and, on the other hand, the Second Sunday of Easter, commonly known in clergy circles as “low Sunday,” is often a Sunday on which associate pastors are asked to preach (which is why I gently refer to it as “National Associate Pastor” Sunday, or “NAP Sunday” for short).

Now there are other scripture lessons for today on which I could preach.  I have, in fact, occasionally been led by the Spirit to abandon the Lectionary altogether and preach on “un-scheduled” scriptures.  But I have always been drawn to this Gospel Lesson (i.e., Jn 20:19-31).  Year after year, it never gets old for me.  Monotony never settles in.  I never get tired of reading these accounts of Jesus resurrected.  And I never get bored of talking about Thomas.  He’s best known as a “doubter” but (to me) he has become a friend in the faith; someone to help navigate the darkness of fear and doubt.

+                                  +                                  +

 At the beginning of our gospel lesson for today, it’s still that first day of the week, that first Day of Resurrection.   Earlier that day, “while it was still dark,” Simon Peter and the other disciple had seen the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord,” but now evening has come, it’s dark again, and the disciples are meeting in fear behind locked doors.  The scattered flock reassembles, still trembling perhaps with shock and disbelief at the crucifixion of their “good shepherd.”   We are not privy to their conversations, but I imagine them sitting there in the darkness, trying to figure out what their next move will be.  It’s dark and everything still seems uncertain and unsafe.  To many, it must have felt as if Jesus, “the light of the world,” had been “snuffed out.”

Perhaps no one spoke at all.  Maybe it was just as silent as the scriptures, and they just sat there, crouching in the dark, hoping no one would find them.  But just when the disciples feared the worst, that the story, the good news of Jesus had come to a sudden, tragic end, and that all was lost (Weems), “Jesus came and stood among them.”   And before their fear could morph into thoughts of triumph and even violent revenge—before they could try again to make him a militant messiah—Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”   Before his death he had told them, “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).   It’s as if they had lost that peace in the midst of all the darkness and chaos of Thursday and Friday, and now Jesus is standing there, handing it back to them.  Suddenly fear is forgotten, and it’s not so dark.  Then he says it again, as if he’s pressing that gift firmly in the palms of their hands, “Peace be with you.”  And then he commissions them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

And at that moment Jesus breaths life back into them, just as God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2:7, and he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “[w]hen he did that Christ made the Church, and in it our brother [our sister], a blessing to us.”  In this blessing is the freedom to live with one another without pretense.  We don’t have to be fake.  We don’t have to hide from one another. 

It’s a blessing often ignored, like an unopened gift.  “The pious fellowship,” he said, “permits no one to be a sinner.  So [all] must conceal [their sins from themselves] and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.”  Yet Jesus’ commission dares us to do just that, to acknowledge that we have need of forgiveness as much as the next person.  Every act of confession and forgiveness affirms the resurrection and the belief “that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Confession and forgiveness of sins are signs of resurrection, of a new creation. 

The Apostle Paul wrote that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).  We think of Sunday as the first day of the week, the first day of Creation, but “The Epistle of Barnabas called Sunday ‘an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world…in which Jesus also rose from the dead.’  Early Christians saw the Lord’s Day as the eighth day of creation, when, having rested on the seventh day, God began to create anew” (Handbook 18).

“But Thomas” wasn’t there that Sunday evening, that first-eighth-day (v.24).  He didn’t see or hear anything.  He wasn’t there.  In Scripture he’s called Didymus, the Twin, but we know him better as “Doubting Thomas”; because when the disciples repeat Mary Magdalene’s testimony, telling him, “We have seen the Lord!” it’s not enough for Thomas.  No, he needs tangible proof to believe this talk of resurrection, he needs hard evidence that this new-life-in-Christ-talk is real:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v.25) .  And for that we call him a doubter.  In his consternation and disbelief, Thomas dares Jesus to show himself; he dares him to be resurrected.  And “after eight days,” on the next Sunday, Jesus returns to their hideout and he dares Thomas to see his hands and touch the wound in his side; Jesus dares Thomas to hear, see, touch, and believe.

The painter, Caravaggio, has also become a friend in the faith, for his depiction of this scene.  It’s called The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, but I like to refer to it as, The [Audacity] of Saint Thomas.  And I can’t help but place it on the bulletin cover every Second Sunday of Easter.  Like Scripture, it never gets old.  There’s our friend, “Tom,” looking like a blind man, searching in the dark, his eyes widening with astonishment, as his finger enters Jesus’ wounded flesh.  Some like to criticize Thomas, but if he has a twin, we are it.  Look in the mirror and you’ll see Thomas.  Frederick Buechner once said, that, “Even though [Jesus] said the greater blessing is for those who can believe without seeing, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any believer anywhere who wouldn’t have traded places with Thomas, given the chance, and seen that face and heard that voice and touched those ruined hands.” 

We’d like to think that we’re better than Thomas, but who among us has moved from the darkness of doubt to the light of belief, who has ever confessed, “My Lord and my God!” without some experience of the Resurrection, some flesh-and-blood encounter with the Risen Lord?  If you have, you are blessed!  But I confess that I am one who needs to hear and see and touch, so that I can “declare […] what [I] have seen with my eyes, what [I] have looked at and touched with [my] hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 Jn 1:1). 

I want to believe the poet/playwright, Archibald MacLeish, who said that “there’s always another scene”; I want to believe the Christian mystic, Howard Thurman, who said that “life’s contradictions are not final”; I want to believe that at the end of every episode of this Christian life appear the words: “To Be Continued…”; but I need something or someone to hold onto to navigate the darkness.  Don’t you?!  Aren’t we like Job sometimes, who said, “I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him”?

This is why Jesus’ commission to the disciples (to us) is so important, not as a theory, but as a practice.  Through Christ’s commission we may be as Christ to one another.  “As the Father has sent [Jesus], so [Jesus] send[s] [us]…If [we] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if [we] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (v.22)  We all need to experience the giving and receiving of forgiveness, and can do so because we have received God’s Spirit and this great commission.  And I’m not talking about the purely sentimental kind of forgiveness that assumes that in an instant everything will be fine.  The visibility of Jesus’ wounds reminds us that Good Friday happened, and that forgiveness, resurrection does not erase the past; But it does allow for healing and for life to go on, even though things aren’t the same.  There is a new creation!

Real forgiveness is difficult.  Most of us find it easier to withhold forgiveness, to hold a grudge.  It’s the road most traveled, and that’s why I think we have practices like “passing the peace.”  We often downplay it as a friendly greeting during worship; a great way to show visitors how nice we are.  But we should really consider it practice for forgiving, for resurrection, for pushing back against the darkness.  When you hear “The peace of Christ be with you,” hear also “Christ is risen.”  And when you hear “and also with you” hear “He is risen indeed.”  You may feel like you’ve been doing this for so long it has lost all meaning, but if we live together long enough, church, there will come a time when saying those words and shaking hands or hugging will be all the light someone needs.  Suddenly, this world won’t seem so dark.  The same is true for the times we join in the Prayer of Confession and tell each other, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  It is not always easy to say, but we do; we have to. 

Much of what we plan and do as the church is preparation for the times when we will be called to live out the love of God, being the visible, flesh and blood Body of Christ.  As Peter Gomes once said:  “[We offer our own lives] as the immediate and ultimate ‘explanation,’ remembering that Christian truth is advanced not by postulates and formulas, the bone-crushing logic of arguments point and counterpoint, but in the living flesh of human beings.”  If there’s any proof of the Resurrection, we are it, friends.

So thanks be to God for Jesus, who lived, died and was raised to new life, who has always “lightened this darkness of [ours].”  Thanks be to God for the gift of peace and forgiveness, that we might live together.  Thanks be to God for Thomas, who questioned, doubted and dared, and taught us to say, “My Lord and my God!”  Thanks be to God for every person has been Christ to us, anyone who ever gave us a reason to believe that the darkness did not overcome the [light], that there is always another scene, that the contradictions in this life are not final, and that this episode is:

“To Be Continued…”


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I know "the flower fades"...but

For the past few years, as people are gathering for worship on Easter Sunday, we have engaged in the practice of "flowering the Cross"--i.e., we adorn the large, free-standing, wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary with fresh-cut flowers to create a beautiful symbol of the Resurrection.  If you hadn't been at any of the worship services during Lent and Holy Week, you probably wouldn't notice the contrast made by that flowery cross; it'd just blend in nicely with the other flowers in the room, and the brass ensemble, and the Hallelujah Chorus.  And that's okay, I guess.

But today, three days after Easter Sunday, I thought I'd tell you about what few see.  This morning I went into the sanctuary and began to remove the flowers from the cross, dry and withering (They were cut flowers, after all.  We knew they weren't going to last forever.).  Yet as I carefully removed each flower, I had the sense that something sacred (just as sacred as what happened on Easter Sunday) was taking place.  It was sacred, in part, because I knew that I would not be throwing those flowers in the trash, but would instead take them out to the compost pile of our church's garden.  There those flowers will continue to fade, but they will eventually help give rise to healthy food (mostly vegetables) that will ultimately give nourishment to the folks who eat at the House of Bread.

Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the season of Easter, of Resurrection continues; and so, the life and work of the Church continues.  We're here every Sunday, and every day in between.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Loving to Death

This week I came across an article on by Cody J. Sanders entitled, "After Westboro: The Trouble with 'Tolerance'" in which he states that "radical hatred and violence--like that of Westboro and perpetrators of hate crimes--is never countered by tolerance, but instead by radical acceptance and embrace." In reflecting on Sanders' words, as we began to observe "a holy Lent," I thought of how Jesus was intolerant to the point of death--that is, he would not tolerate people's/our sinfulness (which often involves violence and hatred), but called them/us to new life and loved them/us (even the unrepentant). And he died never perpetrating the "radical hatred and violence" of his accusers, but instead loved them/us to the point of death.

For Christians who are being tolerated, herein lies the difficulty: we can never allow our intolerance of being tolerated to take on the form of hatred and violence. Instead, we must love our enemies; love them despite how wrong they are; love them even if their hatred and violence should overtake us. We must love them to death...and trust that therein lies the power of God to overcome hatred, violence, and even the grave.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Journal Excerpts from El Salvador Mission Trip 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

We arrived in San Salvador only yesterday, but I feel as if I've been here for weeks. Today was our first day on the work site with Micah and others from the Fuller Center, and we worked hard into the heat of the day. A young man, J., joined us and did twice the work I could (and he was only 16!). I'm hoping my body adjusts soon to the temperatures and climate here so that I can help as best I can. All the while [we worked], I kept thinking to myself: "What does Christ look like in El Salvador?" I still feel that this question gets at the heart of the reason for my coming here. Inasmuch as I desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed, I am equally hopeful that I will receive new understanding(s) about Christ in the world outside of my normal surroundings. I wish that for all. Thank you, God, for the journey!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our second day on the work site involved even more heavy work, lifting buckets of gravel and sand and cement into a large mixer, but there was more interaction with more of the families, especially the children...And that was some of the best stuff, that relating. What little spanish I know and am learning has been a great help. And the people are so gracious.

We've mostly been working on a walkway/sidewalk that is attached to one of the new houses, and I began to think about what I might say if someone asked me: "Why go all this way to build a sidewalk?" And I thought part of my answer might be that an Oscar Romero might walk there, a Lupita, even Christ might walk there...and in fact Christ will walk there, playing, living, loving in the lives of these El Salvadorians. May it be so. Thanks be to God!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The last two days on the work site, I was slowed down by an injury to my back, but it gave me the opportunity to relate to the families and fellow workers of El Salvador more. Those connection made it difficult to leave yesterday, not knowing the path ahead for many of them, especially the children, and wanting to be assured that they'd be okay. It's amazing how compassion (and even love) and concern can develop so quickly at times (and so slowly at other times). I pray, O God, that you would continue to bless and keep those beautiful families, those children of God, as only you can. And at the right times make me an instrument of your grace and peace, your hope and love. So it goes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

We arrived at the Iglesia Bautista Dios Compasivo in Ahuachapan on Sunday and have enjoyed their hospitality and fellowship these past few days. We have each been staying with different families the past two night and that has been quite an experience. Already I have begun to feel like family. I quickly became comfortable with taking bucket showers, sharing a room with the grandchildren (there are four generations in F. and G.'s home!), and conversing at breakfast. Thank you, God, for this opportunity!

Yesterday we all visited the Seminario Evangelico Baustista Latinamericano (SEBLA), and I very much appreciate J.'s presentation and explanation of the Baptist situation in El Salvador, particularly the relationship between the ABES and the FEBES. I summarized that experience as the pursuit of unity in the midst of/through diversity. It's the same with ABCUSA. The SEBLA only seeks to keep the gospel in context (i.e., El Salvador), which I think is important (authenticity, etc.).

Later in the day, J., K. and I went to the Clinica for ESL teaching and games with the children, and that was a lot of fun. We even had two pinatas, and we played football on the porch. I have acquired/devised a nickname that has caught on: "oso grande" (i.e., big bear) and I am quite fond of it.

[Even] Later today we ate lunch with many members of the church under a large mango tree, and then walked 2-3 miles down the mountain road to the river. We hiked up past an old electric plant to a large waterfall, that was just awe-inspiring. We played in the spray and pool below with such joy. I thought of the psalmist who wrote: "Deep calls unto deep..." After a while I walked back up the mountain road with two young boys. Although we didn't understand everything we said to each other alontg the way, there were several shared moments of wonderment. Thank you, God, for your beautiful creation, and your children.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The reality that our trip is almost over began to sink in today, as I said goodbye to F. and his family, those I'd lived with the past three nights. I feel such a deep sense of gratitude for all that has happened, all that I have seen the past several days. The view at La Puerta de Diablo, and the volcanoe and the waterfall have been as wondrous as the faces of children and older men and women. All tell of the great love and constancy of you, O God (Ps. 19). Te amo!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Today was primarily a day of rest and reflection, as we concluded our time in El Salvador. Still we were able to make a trip to the sites where Oscar Romero and many others were murdered and martyred and now revered and remembered. I found it deeply moving to hear and see photos of the events of those days. Walking through Romero's home, I considered what things might be included were a museum to be made for me someday. Moreso I considered the weight of glory, the cost of following Jesus--not only must we be willing to die/be killed for such faith, but we who remain must have the strength and faith to forgive and give to the culprits, the undeserving. It is difficult to be a champion of and friend to the poor, but it is even more difficult to be loving, forgiving, etc. to our enemies. But so it must be...