“Tear Open the Heavens”

This text was in my mind while watching news from Ferguson, and a young protestor was asked what his agenda was, and he said it was for racial justice and they were going to “shake the heavens.” I don’t know if he knew the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, but the words were unmistakably there. I pondered the parallels of how the Civil War is our nation’s great cataclysm, and how we struggle still with its legacy. The 90-second deadly encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Daren Wilson has exposed the nation’s conflicted soul once again. If this were a movie instead of real life, we might say that Brown is an ambiguous character who personifies young black men who could go either way, on the one hand enrolled in college and hopeful about the future, and yet he could be sucked into the violence of urban street culture that is amplified for evening news and police shows. There is a ready-made narrative for that side of Michael Brown. The same could be said of Daren Wilson, who presents as Joe Average, not particularly racist, and yet he is surrounded by a militarized police force that looked more ready to go to Fallujah than Ferguson. These two men are as unclear to us the 90 seconds they shared.   Like the OJ trial and Rodney King, we may see them through the narratives about race that are already in our mind’s eye.

Full Sermon here:

Is Atheism an Intellectual Luxury for the Wealthy?

Chris Arnade wrote an interesting article in the Guardian with this title.  I'm fascinated because Chris is an atheist who worked on Wall Street and then became a photographer of homeless people in the South Bronx.  He reveals the humanity of his subjects and their beauty amidst the brokeness in their lives.  In his conclusion he reveals his startling thought:

They have their faith because what they believe in doesn't judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless. 

In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners. 

We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don't. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has  numbed their understanding of our fallibility.

Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.


I read the article reposted on Alternet, where he gets hammered in the discussion boards for defending the "silly crutch" of religion.  Since I worked in a homeless shelter, I saw a kindred spirit in this atheist who could see everyone's humanity, so I posted this reply:


I was a program manager for homeless programs for 8 years and saw profound and beautiful faith of people bearing painful lives, brokenness that started very young. Thanks for giving voice to them, in words and photos. The faith of many people would not stand up to my own seminary-trained reasoning, but this faith often helps people move forward in recovery and healing. What people need most to move on from the shelter was hope. I could offer programs and life skills groups and job training, but if there was no hope, it did not matter. If an intellectually inconsistent and confused faith gives hope, helps people love and carry on, who am I to knock it down? In truth who among us really is totally consistent?  

Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at my church last Spring and someone skewered him about supporting production of parts for the F-35 fighter jet in Vermont while claiming to be against wasteful military spending. Bernie basically said, "Bingo, you got me. Some tech companies in Vermont also make military-related stuff. But I'm tired of people saying, 'I can't support you, Bernie, because I only agree with you on 99 percent of the issues.' Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."  

Logic and reason is not always the best test of a human being. I'm going to be religious here for a moment and quote that crazy, confusing book called the Bible. "By their fruits you shall know them." (from Jesus in Matthew) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Apostle Paul to the Galatians.) Whether you are a Christian, atheist, Muslim, or anything else, if you embrace this kind of life, my heart is glad for it.

Bill Maher and Michael Moore just don't get progressive religion...

Michael Moore and Bill Maher are still missing the point. Many of us are both liberals AND Christians or Jews or Muslims. We do take on the extremists in our sermons, and feed and house the homeless, fight for GLBTQ people, and yet Bill continues to paint all of us with the same brush. Maher's critique of Islam paints Malala Yousefzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the same brush as ISIS. Neither Moore or Maher seem to get that many of us act for love and justice BECAUSE of our religion.

Here is Moore's full defense of Maher's argument with Ben Afleck:

By Michael Moore (@MMFlint)

Bill Maher is a friend of mine. He stood up for me when I was attacked after my Oscar speech (given on the fourth night of the Iraq War, a war Bill publicly opposed while 70% of the country, including the majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, supported it), and I stood up for him when ABC fired him and cancelled his show when he attempted to stop the hysteria and fear-mongering after 9-11 -- resulting in the Bush White House publicly ordering him to watch what he says -- or else. When Bill got his HBO show, he went on a 7-year tear against the Bush administration and became one of our most unapologetic and unrelenting voices against the insanity being shoved down our throats. 

I, for one, am glad there's at least one top comedian who isn't afraid to say the word "capitalism" or give credence to the good of socialism.
You may not agree with Bill on everything. Yet I'm guessing you love it when he goes after the Uterun Police/Protectors of Child Rapists (also known as The Vatican), or when he brilliantly satirizes the crazy Christian Right which has controlled much of our politics for the past 33 years. I certainly do. 

But when Bill goes after Islam, or crazy people professing to be Muslim, we grow uncomfortable. Why is that? Because when he bravely ridicules and attacks Christian assassins of abortion doctors who cite the Bible as justification for their evil acts, we heartily applaud him. But when he mercilessly stomps on Islamic assassins who cite the Koran, we grow uneasy. Why the switch on our part? Is it because Bill doesn't just stop with the Islamic assassins -- he thinks anyone who follows the Koran is a bit nuts? Or the Bible or the Talmud or the... you name it. He thinks it's all coo coo for cocoa puffs. 

I have, when I'm on Bill's show, told him there are far more examples historically of the death and destruction that Christians have brought to the planet, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the wiping out of Native Americans to the Holocaust. But he points out that, in truth, the Jesus followers seem to have taken a break lately in their genocidial lust -- and that the debate should be about the present; i.e., which religion is now doing most of the terrorizing?

Though I would maintain that it is still the Judeo-Christian West whose armies and banks and institutions keep much of the third world under a heavy economic boot, resulting in a lot of hunger, suffering and death, Bill asks, "If I draw a cartoon of Jesus in a dress, will Christian leaders issue a call to assassinate me?" 

I can't speak to Bill's drawing skills, but it's safe to say that in the USA he can draw whatever he wants. In fact, other than those murdered abortion doctors, a hundred bombed or ransacked Planned Parenthood clinics and a few people like me, there are not many activists or artists who have to worry about Baptists blowing up their homes. Sinead O'Connor was not beheaded for beheading a photo of the Pope on NBC. Your middle name can be 'Hussein' and you can still win the state of Virginia if you're running for President. 

Sure, I can make a daily list of all the horrible things so-called Christians still do in this country. Rarely, though, do their actions involve decapitation.

But if you're a Dutch filmmaker who makes a movie about violence against women in some Islamic countries, or if you're a Danish cartoonist who draws an image making fun of the Prophet -- well, you are then either shot to death or you are now in hiding.

So if Bill is taking the same exact position liberals usually take whenever we see free speech being threatened, or women being abused or people forced to submit to fundamentalist dictates, why then is he facing any criticism for speaking out against these wrongs? When Christians do these things we speak up -- loudly. So why not speak out when Muslims do it? 'Cause it's none of our business? Isn't it?

I think I may have a couple answers as to why some liberals are uncomfortable with Bill's humor when it comes to Islam:

1. We have witnessed, since 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in this country undergoing huge amounts of prejudice, bigotry and sometimes outright violence. This sickens us (as I know it does Bill). So we are extra sensitive to what sounds like, as it goes through the liberal filter in our ears, any "anti-Arab" comments. We don't want to hear anything even remotely anti-Muslim. But we have to be careful that this doesn't stop us from listening to legitimate criticisms about things that go on in the Muslim world. I just think that, due to our illegal actions (invasions) of the past decade, our government lacks any moral authority on this and should be forbidden from any attempts to "fix" those problems. 

2. Liberals are intensely fed up with these two wars against mostly Muslim populations (not to mention the indiscriminate drone strikes on at least four other nations). And now the party that won the elections last Tuesday would like a war with Iran. An ignorant American public was manipulated with fear and lies to start and maintain the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars -- and that manipulation continues today in order to justify things like the mass spying by the NSA on our entire citizenry. When the Cold War ended (25 years ago today in Berlin), the defense industry went berserk with worry that their salad days were over. A new enemy was needed. Arab terrorists fit the bill perfectly! Not only has the defense industry since thrived, a whole new fake industry has arisen -- the Homeland Security behemoth. As our infrastructure, our freedoms and our middle class vaporize, billions are spent as a grossly out-of-proportion response to a few shitty disasters. 

So we liberals don't want to hear another word about an "Islamic threat" or some non-existent Iranian nukes or... or whatever! We know we're being set up to get behind another war effort, another arms race, another diversion intended to make the point-one-percenters even filthier rich -- and the rest of us distracted with false fears and hatreds. 

I don't even know if I want to see Jon Stewart's new film about the Iranian who was unjustly imprisoned. WHY not? It's a true story! It happened! But the liberal panic button says this film will be used in ways to pump up fear of Muslims. At the very least, it will be the first thing Jon Stewart has done that the Republicans will like. So does that mean he shouldn't have made it? 

Two weeks ago on Bill's HBO show, he had on the wonderful Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. They had a good and testy back and forth (Bill often has Muslims who disagree with him on his show, like the great Ben al-Afleck). Rula was giving it to Bill pretty hard, but when he paused and asked her if he were a Muslim, living in certain Muslim countries, and he walked into the Men's Club one day and announced he was now a Presbyterian, would that be ok? She paused, and then said "No."

Comedy is and should be a dangerous business. Those comedians who play it safe are far less interesting, less funny and, frankly, are often boring. Those who are willing to take their comedy to the Line That Shall Not Be Crossed -- and maybe step over it from time to time -- are the ones we are drawn to. But in order to encourage them to take those chances, we have to give them some leeway, give them a break when, in our mind, they've crossed that line. To not do so is to encourage them to go toward the bland, the passe and to the non-offensive. Those comedians like Bill Maher who are willing to take the risk of being the court jester -- saying the things that the rest of us are often thinking (or wish we were thinking) but are afraid to say -- should be supported, not silenced. 

Michael Moore

"The Gratitude Economy" Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

UnfairLife is so unfair!  It starts the day we are born.  One baby is born a girl in Lahore, Pakistan and another a boy in Palo Alto, CA.  You already have in mind a picture of their destiny.  Life gets more unfair as soon as your next sibling is born.  We are hard wired to make sure the cookie gets divided down the middle.  Some people are born short, you might think I was born to be tall, however I wanted to be 6’8” and play in the NBA, so I feel too short.   Some people are born ahead of their time in a world not ready for their ideas, and far to many die far to young when they still had so much to give.  A lifelong smoker can hack away till they are 95 while people in perfectly good health with great habits die of cancer in the prime of life.  Some people complain about teacher’s salaries while the world’s billionaires make that much money every minute of every day!  And guess who pays a higher percentage in taxes!  Have I convinced you yet that life is unfair?

One of our biggest theological conundrums is trying to understand how God can be called just when life is so obviously unfair.  God clearly has a different view of justice than we do, just read randomly through the Gospels.  Who do you identify with first in today’s Gospel Lesson?  Are you thinking, “It is so nice that even those who worked just a little still got a day’s wage?  Life should be more like that.”  Or do you want to yell at this Vineyard owner for being ridiculously unfair?  Who ever heard of such a thing, paying everyone the same no matter how much they worked?  Don’t you know Communism failed?  Russia is capitalist now, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is the wealthiest man in the world.  So there!  So my point is….I’m not sure what…I just know this is not fair.

Are you envious because I am generous?” says the vineyard owner.  “Of course I am.”  Why?  Because everyone did not get what they deserve.  That is the unspoken belief underlying our sense of justice.  Justice is getting what you deserve.  You work hard and it pays off.  If you are slacker, there are consequences.  But what do you deserve?  How would you know, who decides?  Would you really want to get what you deserve in all circumstances, even when you really blew it?   It sounds great to get what you deserve, until I am the one who made a bad choice, said the wrong thing, feel short.  Then I want a break.  How fair do I really want life to be?

Jesus seldom appeals to our sense of fairness.  In reality he challenges are self-serving ideas about fairness and instead models the moral world by a generous spirit, a forgiving heart, and a reconciling love.  Here the vineyard owner’s question again: “Are you envious because I am generous?”  The older brother of the Prodigal Son was.  He was upset because he was the deserving one.  Those who wanted to stone to death a woman caught in adultery were stopped in the tracks when asked, “Those without sin may cast the first stone.”  Jesus is the generous bringer of a new Kingdom, and new Commonwealth where a generous spirit reigns, where all people matter.

Manna-stalactites1God’s generosity does not begin with Jesus.  It was there even in the wilderness with freed slaves marching to a new world.  They were hungry and tired and wondered if they starve or die of thirst.  But Moses had lived in that wilderness for years.  He knew strong winds off the Mediterranean blew flocks of quail down to the Sinai to rest, and it was easy to catch them by hand.  He had gone out many mornings and harvested the sweet, sticky residue of the Tamarisk plant as the sun dried it, and balled it up in his finger and popped it into his mouth.  He showed it to his fellow travelers and they called it “Manna” which is Hebrew for “What is this stuff?”  And then he preached to them and said, “Here is the word of God: you shall have bread by morning, and you shall have meat by evening, and God will provide for you even here in the wilderness.”

And he turned manna into an object lesson, a metaphor for our faith in God.  “You can only gather enough of it for one day, for it spoils the next.  But don’t worry, because God is generous and will provide for you the next.”   We struggle to really believe there will be enough for us.  We hoard, try to store it all up, but it is all for not.  We must continuously be replenished. 

Climate changeThis is how the economy of God works.  (And by economy I don’t mean just finance, but that too.  Greek for economy is “oikos” which means “the household.”  God’s household is a place of generosity, with enough food for all members, overflowing love for all, forgiveness to heal the heart, justice to order activities, and peace when we work within this generous spirit of this household.  Hunger, injustice and evil all result when we break the flow of God’s generosity.  “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” said Mahatma Gandhi.  That is why people are marching in New York today to draw attention to global climate change.  Protecting the planet and living in harmony with it is not bad for the economy, for the earth is the source of the economy.   The wind and the sun, the tides and waterfalls, and geothermal energy from the earth can provide an abundance of energy if that is our goal.  There is only one reason to relentlessly pull oil, gas and coal from the ground and pour carbon into our atmosphere, foul our air and water.  Greed.  There is enough for our need, but not for our greed. 

I started this sermon noting that life is not fair.  It never will be.  But I don’t need everything to be fair.  I trust that God is generous.  I know there is enough love to go around.  I have hope that humanity can overcome our urgent challenge to secure our future as the climate changes.  I have faith that our actions make a difference, because God hears our prayers and gives us strength and courage.  I have confidence that God is still speaking, and that we are still listening!

How Many Times? Matthew 18: 21-35

Mandela 10Sermon for September 14, 2014 @ First Churches

 The story opens with Peter’s question about how many times you should forgive a person.  He is wondering if there is a time when forgiveness becomes absurd because someone keeps on hurting us.  I imagine most of us have someone in our lives that is very difficult to forgive.  They just don’t get it.  They know where all our buttons are and they just keep on pressing them.  We try to be Christian and pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.”  After several times of forgiveness we may feel like we are the doormat where someone else wipes their feet and we pray to God and say, “Lord, I have tried to forgive, but I have reached my limit.”  Peter had reflected on this, and to show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “Should we forgive even up to seven times?”  Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?!  In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality.  Throughout the Bible we find 7 days of creation, seven signs in the book of revelation, and so on.  Surely this would be more than enough.  I have the right answer now Jesus!


Jesus answers with a word play on the number 7 and says that we should forgive 70 times 7.  He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone 490 times, but rather he is saying we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness.  At this time I imagine the disciples responded much like I would, being absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion.  So Jesus then tells a parable to make his point:


To paraphrase a bit, Enron goes bankrupt owing billions of dollars to creditors and its employees, creating economic chaos.  That is how much money the servant owed in Jesus’s parable.  (A talent is about 130 pounds, price of gold is $1286 per ounce, so each talent is about $2.7 million, so 1000 talents is $2.7 billion.) In an unprecedented move, the top executives asked for time, promising to pay everyone back every dollar they owed, even it meant selling several of their Florida condos, so the Federal Judge agreed to extend them mercy.  Then the executives went out and began to shake down every person they could find for money, hiding their assets offshore and filing lawsuits against even the smallest creditor.  So the Judge stepped in and threw them all into a Federal Maximum Security Prison, along with their wives, ex-wives and children. 


That may sound like a story with a happy ending, but that is not the point.  Jesus is saying that all of us have experienced God’s forgiveness for some sin.  None of us are totally righteous and need God’s grace to be free from our mistakes.  If we are to experience God’s forgiveness and then turn around and be unforgiving to those who sin against us, we fall short of the call to discipleship.  Jesus is reminding Peter of the source of forgiveness.  Our own good intentions are not the source, but rather the powerful grace of God towards us and all people is the source.  But still we struggle to live this out in the real world.


A group of people were struggling with the nature of forgiveness at a Bible study class I attended at a Mennonite Church while on sabbatical.  Several of my international colleagues from the Summer Peace Institute also were there, providing a cross-cultural look at the difficulties.  First a man who had interned at a Rape Crisis Center spoke.  He was concerned that the counselors would not let the women speak about forgiveness in their therapy.  It was seen as dis-empowering and unhelpful to taking control of their lives.  He thought the counselors had a false notion of forgiveness, as if it was saying that evil is OK.  In contrast, he felt that forgiveness was really for us, to help us move on after trauma, so it was essential for the healing process.


Next, Lien, my roommate from Viet Nam spoke up.  He had spent five years in a single jail cell for working for democracy in the early 1990s.   Many people had starved to death as the government stood by and did nothing.   Who do you forgive when a whole system killed people?  “I don’t hate the Communists,” he said, “but history must not be forgotten and repeated.”


Joe Campbell, who runs a mediation center in Belfast spoke next.  He told the story of a family who had lost a son in an IRA car bomb attack.  They publicly forgave the IRA at a very tense time of the Troubles.  This created a great deal of psychological turmoil for hundreds of families who had lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict who were still struggling with the process of forgiveness.  His counsel to people was not to forgive and forget, but to remember and change.  Acts of violence are more than individual acts.  Only a few people actually pull the trigger in a war, but society as a whole creates the conditions of hatred and injustice.  So forgiveness is to remember the past and change our behavior and change the societal conditions.


A Mennonite missionary who had returned from El Salvador asked, “What are the implications when so many people have been killed, as in our Civil War?  How far can forgiveness go?  I find that I can bring people together from opposing sides for simple tasks like building a regional water system, but they will not meet in each others homes or share a meal together.  We just try to work at the simple level of trust, then allow grace to deepen and work itself out. 


“But what about our duty as Christians to forgive others?” said Francois, a woman from Congo.  She told the story of being chased out of Congo when a group of rebels attacked her village.  She had to sleep by a roadside for three days in hiding.  When she tried to go back the first person she met was a woman from her church who had supported the rebels.  Francios said she had no choice but to forgive.


A woman from Virginia said that she had been in a car accident a few years before and had been seriously injured.  She had gone through many hardships during her recovery and had been very bitter against the driver who hit her.  Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued her, doubling her misery.  Then one day,” she said, “I realized that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer.  When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.”


I learn two things from these stories.  First, working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art.  There are no simple formulas or prayers that will simply take care of the problem for us.  I can't tell you what forgiveness will look like in your life any more than I could tell Michelangelo how to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel.  The second thing I learn is that we can't walk away from forgiveness.  It is painful work to go through the process of forgiveness, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment.  Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else.  It is a cry to God that says, "Lord, heal my heart."  Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.