Sunday, September 3, 2017

Humility Required

It’s been a difficult week in the world.  At the time of my writing this sermon, the news had confirmed thirty-five deaths in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  One chemical plant outside of Houston, TX had experienced two fires and a 1½ mile radius around the plant had been evacuated.  Other chemical plants were facing similar concerns.  The flood waters were not expected to fully recede for at least another week and a half to two weeks.  In other towns around Houston, floodwaters are still rising.

And the United States aren’t alone this week.  In Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, flooding has killed nearly 1200 people.  Two weeks ago, three hundred were killed in flash flooding in Sierra Leone.  It can be difficult and scary to watch the news.  One can feel helpless in the face of such devastation, reaped by mother nature – exacerbated by poverty, substandard or non-existent building codes, deregulation of environmental standards.  It is difficult to know what to do in the face of unrelenting environmental disasters.

We all have different gifts, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans.  In last week’s lectionary reading, Paul listed those specific gifts.  This week, we are given practical advice on how to use our unique giftings to positively impact the world.

When we see the plight of people around us (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we heard their cries (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we are moved with compassion and feel their suffering (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), we are called to action (as God acted in calling Moses in our Old Testament passage today).  If we are to take seriously the notion that we are made in the image of the divine, then surely we can see and hear what is going on in the world today, feel the sorrow of a broken and hurting world, and respond in a way that brings God’s love more readily into the world.

In our epistle reading for today, Paul lays out how to respond to a world that is hurting.  Our response hinges, it seems to me, on verse 16, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”  Paul’s central call in this passage to a posture of humility.  “See the truth in a situation and in yourself exactly as it is and you are.  Do not make the things, yourself included, larger or smaller than they are.”

One of the central issues we will wrestle with in the course of our life is what Carl Jung called our shadow side.  Our shadow side is the part of us that we cannot except – that which we seek to exile.  This can be lived out in forms either grandiose or shameful – assuming we either greater or lesser than the truth of our identity.  When we live lives disconnected from a posture of humility, we often find abrasive in others the things we cannot embrace in ourselves.  We reject in the other the very traits we cannot accept in ourselves.

“Live in harmony with others … so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  The Greek word translated as “peace” is more similar to the Old Testament word “Shalom” than our common understanding of peace – which we often simply think of as lacking in discord.  Peace means “living in the gift of wholeness,” having “integrity of being.”  Peace is about justice, completeness, the common welfare.  True peace acknowledges that when some part of our world is hurting, all of our world is impacted.  True peace seeks not the calmness of an individual, but restoration of the whole of creation. 

Paul calls us to love genuinely, with mutual affection; to rejoice in hope; to persevere in prayer.  It is an impossible task to love genuinely in other what we have exiled in ourselves.  When we begin to make peace with our shadow side, when we begin to accept in wholeness that we are capable of both goodness and evil, when we embrace the totality of our humanness, we are finally able to fully embrace others.  We can find ourselves capable of stepping back, looking at things exactly as they are, and we can respond with humility.

From the vantage point of humility, we can truly rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  From a place of humility, we can see the plight of people around us, hear their cries, be moved with compassion, and respond to their needs.  What that looks like will change from one situation to the next; from one disaster to the next.  But it will always include contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, feeding those who oppose us, and giving them clean water to drink.

And perhaps in today’s world, it will also include calls address climate change, supporting regulations that keep chemical plants away from residential areas, and investing in infrastructure.  And if you’re wondering who the saints are in the midst of these disasters, so that you might contribute to their needs, I invite you to consider the words of Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, who so graciously invited children from all over the United States into his neighborhood for generations:

I was spared from any great disaster when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live.  But I felt secure in my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the 
helpers,” she’d tell me.  “There’s always someone trying to help.”  I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors, and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

Look for the helpers.  Join them in their quest to live peaceably.  And may you give up who you think you should be and embrace all that you are – for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom and just reign on earth.  Amen.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Was Jesus a White Supremacist?

Reflections on Matthew 15:10-28
Sunday, August 20, 2017

When my maternal grandmother died five years ago, my aunt made certain that I received the family bible.  It had been my great-great-grandfather’s initially and was printed in Boston, MA in the early 1890s.  It contains very little by way of genealogy.  On the inside of the back cover is the name and birthdate of my great-great-grandfather and the name, birth, and death dates of my great-grandmother.  Tucked between pages at various points are a few pressed flowers – once pink carnations, now a brittle brown-tinged chiffon.

Within the bible itself are a few interesting pages that betray its age:  a fill-in-the-blank style marriage record for nuptials which took place “in the year of our Lord, 18__”; a “Temperance” pledge with signatures lines for all members of the household who solemnly promise to abstain from the use of “intoxicating drinks as a beverage.”  With good humor, I pointed these things out to my partner, David.  It was with similar good humor that I began leafing through the pages, looking at the artwork in the bible – painting after painting after painting illustrating scenes from the text.  With a bit of wry humor, I remarked on just how white the Israelites were, back in the day.

Today, the truth of the whitewashing of our faith heritage is more cutting than humorous.  Today, the truth of how white American Christianity has become angers and aggrieves me.  Today, with mounting frustration and rage, I am disgusted by the ways those in power have co-opted the Gospel message for their own sick purposes, grabbing power and destroying lives in the process.  And without a careful reading of a text that is 2000 years removed from us in both language and culture, it’s not hard to see how these gross and grotesque distortions come about.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus makes one thing really abundantly clear:  nothing we take into our body has the power to defile our soul.  In an anatomy and physiology lesson, Jesus tells us that anything that we eat moves through our digestive system and is removed by the sewer system.  Rather, it is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us, Jesus says – for what comes out of our mouths proceeds from our hearts.  Defilement looks like this:  evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.[1]

The Canaanites were a people group living in the same geographic region as the Israelites in the time of Jesus.  From early in Jewish history, there was discord between the Israelites and the Canaanites.  The Canaanites were seen as culturally inferior, socially inferior, morally inferior, genetically inferior, spiritually inferior.  The Canaanites were listed in the book of Joshua as a people group the ancient Israelites were to exterminate.

In a world split into the “haves” and the “have nots,” in a world marked by the belief in scarcity rather than abundance, in a world where might made right, the Israelites decided that there wasn’t enough to go around, that they needed to lay claim to the goods (taking them forcibly if necessary), and that their ability to do so gave the right to do.  All of this was packaged up in the form of religious mandate and tied together with a bow of cultural and spiritual superiority. 

The not-at-all-subtle message of the oppressed turned oppressor became, “God is on our side.  We are trying to preserve what we have.  We want to preserve a future for our children and for our culture.”  And all the while, they seem to have forgotten both that a Canaanite is “one who comes from the land of Canaan” and that the Israelites, as a people group, were born in the land of Canaan.

And so, after telling his disciples that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person (rather that it is the evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander coming from the heart and spewing forth from the mouth which defile a person) Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem.  They head down from the literal, physical lofty heights of their mountain of metaphorical cultural and spiritual superiority.  They leave Israel behind and head north.  They walk into the land of Canaan and settle themselves in the region between the towns of Tyre and Sidon.

The ideology of settlers who created a grand new thing in Israel and the cultural investment in the notions of superiority and exceptionalism follow Jesus and his disciples back to the land of Canaan.  For in the land of Canaan Jesus and his disciples are met by a Canaanite woman.  This unnamed woman who has heard that Jesus entered her town calls to him:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But Jesus did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”[2]

Object lesson number 1 in our text today:  Jesus’s acclaim as a healer is growing in the regions around Jerusalem.  As he travels about, this woman pleads with him to heal her daughter.  And from the mouths of his disciples come their unjust pleas to send her away – despite the fact that they are the ones who have settled into her town for the day.  Settler mentality – we can go where we want, do what we want, say what we want, and there should be no consequences for our actions.

[Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[3]

Object lesson number 2 in our text today:  Jesus, having seen the sickness in the hearts of his own disciples, amplified their voices.  Jesus chooses to capitalize on the theology of scarcity.  “Sorry,” he tells her.  “Sure, I’m God.  You know that.  You’ve called me ‘Lord.’  Sure, we are cousins, hailing from common ancestors.  But, there just isn’t enough to go around.  I’m here for the house of Israel, not other Canaanite peoples.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[4]

Object lesson number 3 in our text today:  The assumed cultural superiority of those in positions of power.  This is the root of the evil intentions that come from the heart.  All those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression are considered “less than,” “inferior,” “a threat to” those who directly benefit from systems of oppression.  “We are the ‘haves,’” Jesus tells this woman, “and it would be unfair to give our resources to the ‘have nots’ who are clearly inferior to us.”  We begin to slander those we see as competing for our resources – unclean, vile, dogs, worthy of ridicule, deserving ostracism.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.[5]

I imagine Jesus sat there waiting for his disciples to figure this thing out.  I read this text and I can feel his mounting frustration as his disciples miss object lesson after object lesson, forgetting that what makes people unclean isn’t what or how they eat (one of the biggest markers of who was a Gentile and who was a Jew), but the stuff that comes out of their hearts.  This Canaanite woman demonstrated a heart of humility, pleading persistently for what she knew was right.

And his disciples, having given up their hope that Jesus would rebuke her and send her on her way, sat silently by and watched him challenge her right to exist and compare her to a dog.  They stop their open insistence that Jesus send her away.  And they continue to be silent about the injustice of the conversation unfolding before their eyes.  Not one of them is willing to use their voice to speak truth to power.

There is much in today’s Gospel lesson that is being echoed in our world today.  Just over a week ago, white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia with shouts of, “You will not replace us” and “White lives matter.”  A second march took place the next day, organized the by the same people, in Seattle, Washington.  These were followed by marches in New York City, Boston, Massachusetts, and Durham, North Carolina.

One protester from Virginia is quoted as saying, “As white nationalist[s] …. We … deserve a future for our children and our culture … we just want to preserve what we have.”  And another, “The goal is to ethnically cleanse White nations of non-Whites and establish an authoritarian government.”

These are not the sentiments of “fringe” members of our society.  These same people and their ideologies are supported by doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, lawyers, journalists, judges.  They come from all walks of life and they are maintaining the unjust system of oppression we call the United States of America.  And millions of well-intentioned people continue to sit silently by and watch it play out, saying nothing as the events taking place are far removed from their comfortable lives in other areas of the country.

How did we get here?  A Yale university social psychologist, Jennifer Richeson, says, “In some ways, it’s super simple.  People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them.  We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist.  The truth is that unless parents actively teach their kids not to be racists, they will be….  It comes from the environment, the air all around us….  Everything we’re exposed to gives us messages about who is good and bad….  The rhetoric for racism is still in place.  The environment for racism is still there.” [6]

The environment of racism is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the very fabric of the society in which we live.  It’s in the history of pastors and theologians who used biblical texts to justify slavery.  It’s in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan which claims to uphold Christian ideals.  It is in the representation of biblical figures such as Moses, the Hebrew people, Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, Sts. Peter, John, Matthew, Nathanael Bartholomew, and the women at the tomb as white.  It is in the fact that one version or another of Warner Sallman’s lily-white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus hangs in nearly every church in America – a nation that equates Christianity with whiteness and whiteness with superiority, rightness, and righteousness.

The only way to rid the world of the evils of racism is to dismantle the structures that support it.  And this means getting clear about how we benefit from its continued existence.  It means educating ourselves about how it functions in our society.  It means enhancing our awareness of how it exists in every segment of our society – it’s in the air we breathe; it’s in the water we drink. 

And when we start getting woke to these things, we have a choice.  Like Jesus’s disciples, we can sit idly by and let others engage in the hard work of dialogue; of confronting prejudice; of dismantling institutions and ideologies; of intentionally choosing to live integrated rather than segregated lives in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces.  Or, we can start to speak up and speak out.  We can start to do our own work to rid our hearts of the things that defile us:  evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander.

Jesus tells his disciples at another point, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do greater things than these.”[7]  It is well past time we, as a church and as a culture, do what Jesus did in his object lesson to his disciples – acknowledging the sin of racism and its effects.  It is well past time we, as a church and as a culture, stop thinking it is sufficient only to feed table scraps to those we deem beneath us.

It is well past time we welcome all peoples to the table as full human beings.  And if the table we have constructed is too small for everyone to fit, it is well past time we tear it down and build a new one.

[1] Matthew 15:17-19
[2] Matthew 15:22-23
[3] Matthew 15:24
[4] Matthew 15:26
[5] Matthew 15:27-18
[7] John 14:13b

Friday, July 14, 2017

Bowen on a Bicycle: Take II

Last night David and I went for a bike ride.  We were most of the way home, having just crossed the Ford Parkway bridge, heading east into Saint Paul.  The path on the St. Paul side is quite steep before it joins the roadway, goes under the bridge, where one can find a curb cut-out to get back onto the recreation trail.  I go down this hill very slowly; in addition to being steep, I have a stop sign at the bottom and there tends to be a lot of cross traffic on Mississippi River Blvd which does not have a stop sign.
As I creeped down the hill, I watched for traffic.  There were two cars coming from the south.  Not a big deal.  I was only halfway down the hill, creeping along so slowly I was at a near standstill.  I checked David’s location behind me.  The first car went ROARING by.  The second car reached the intersection a mere second later.  I was still a good 10 feet from the intersection and scarcely moving.
The car came to a complete stop.  The driver was attempting to (wrongly) yield the right of way to me.  I was farther from the intersection than this car that had stopped in the middle of it, trying to Minnesota nicely allow me to cross the road without stopping.
Except to do so, I would have to release the brakes, fully reengage my down-stroke, enter the roadway, and remain in front of this vehicle for a four-lane-plus stretch of underpass before I could re-enter the bike path on the other side.  I followed the rules of the road and obeyed my stop sign – acting exactly as I had promised to do when I signed a contract committing myself to obeying all traffic, safety, and trail laws, rules, and regulations upon the purchase of my two-wheel, leg-powered vehicle.
As I came to a complete stop, and the vehicle still refused to move, I had to dismount, not able to balance on two wheels for longer than a brief second.  I shifted my weight, put out my left foot to catch myself.  The toe of my shoe made contact with the ground and my leg collapsed beneath me as my calf muscle cramped so intensely I end up lying on the ground, shrieking in agony.  David had to dismount his own bicycle and press on the bottom of my foot to help gently stretch my calf and ease the cramp.
Another cyclist stopped to inquire if everything was okay, had I crashed, did we need assistance?  “Just a cramp,” David told him.  “Ugh!  Those are the worst!” the other cyclist said with sympathy.  “Sometimes you can’t even move!”  I know this well.  At this point I was moving again, but when the cramp first started, I was immobilized with pain.
And this is the shit about “Minnesota Nice” or “Iowa Nice” or niceness in general.  When people stop paying attention to the rules that govern their own lives and start living for the purpose of being “nice” to everyone around them – openly inviting others to violate the rules that govern their lives – the “nice” people are creating a DAMNED hazard for those of us just going about our business, taking care of our own shit.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Murray Bowen on a Bicycle

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


One of the biggest questions we can wrestle with as humans being is, “What is the good life?”  And like it, “How do I live a good life?”  In my work as a hospital chaplain I have the privilege of serving on our hospital’s Ethics Committee.  The opportunity to explore what is ethical in the context of medical care has given me a framework for exploring what is ethical in other contexts.

There are four ethical principles which inform us in our search for the good.  These four principles are:  autonomy (or the right to self-rule), beneficence (or bringing about a good outcome), non-maleficence (or minimizing harm), and justice (fair and equitable distribution of resources).  Ethical dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles are in tension. 

For example:  If a very wealthy patient comes into the hospital and demands to have a procedure done no matter the cost (the patient is willing to pay out of pocket in full), a procedure which the medical staff deems to come with little to no benefit and a high chance of causing significant harm or suffering, we have an ethical dilemma.  In this scenario, the patient autonomy – the right to decide what happens to their body – is at odds with the principles of both beneficence and non-maleficence.  Because the patient is willing and able to pay for any procedure, justice – as an ethical principle – is not at play in obviously significant way.

As an ethicist, if a consult is requested, I get to hear all sides of the debate and make a recommendation for a course of action that is most ethical.  The surgeon then gets to decide whether or not to follow the recommendations offered.

Much of what we hope to discover and create in the context of religious life and community is another path to answer the question, “What is the good life?” and like it, “How do I or we live a good life?”

In seeking the good life, we often create all kinds of rules about what is permissible and what is not permissible, by whom, and where, and when, and how.  And Jesus was born in to a culture that had a LOT of rules, which we sometimes call Commandments.  We all know the big ten, but there are also an additional 613 commandments found in the Torah – what we know as the first five books of the Old Testaments.  These are made of up of positive commandments (“You shall do x, y, and z”) and negative commandments (“You shall NOT do a, b, and c”). 

All in an attempt to codify living a good life – something which probably seems impossible to do 100% of the time.  We’re only human, after all.  We all make mistakes.

In Joseph Keller’s book, Catch-22, we see reality of impossible situations laid bare.  Set in World War II, on an island in the Atlantic, a group of Army airmen try desperately to get out of flying missions, knowing they will be placed on the most dangerous fronts.  And it is possible to get out of flying missions.  Airmen can be grounded if they are crazy.

There was, however, a catch.  Any man who claimed to be crazy and applied to be grounded demonstrated a rational concern for his safety and could not be deemed unfit to fly.  At the same time, any man who expressed the joyful anticipation of these missions – no matter how dangerous the mission and how crazy the man – was deemed fit to fly because they needed airmen willing to fly the missions.

It was this novel from which the phrase “Catch 22” sprang – a type of unsolvable logic problem.  In psychology, this is known as a double-bind; an emotionally distressing situation in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the others, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This is a dynamic clearly seen in our gospel lesson today. 

Listen, I was a Religious Studies major in undergrad; I went to seminary; I was a leader in an ultra-conservative, bible loving, Evangelical student ministry through college and seminary.  I have read the bible in several contexts at various times in its entirety over the course of studies and ministry.  So, it was with a bit of surprise that I read the scriptures for this week and found myself thinking, “No really, what’s the joke?  Jesus didn’t really say that.  I have absolutely no recollection of reading this passage before.”

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

What?  Seriously, I found myself thinking, what does that even mean?  And how have I never read it before!?

I was puzzled by this for a week and as I tried to come up with something relevant to say to all of you today, I just kept coming back to it.  Children.  In the marketplace.  Playing flutes.  No one dancing.  Wailing.  No one mourning.  Something in me couldn’t make sense of it even within the context of the full reading for today.

And then, it struck me.  A double-bind.  A catch-22.  God forgive me the coarseness of the phrase, but I’m sure we’ve all heard it before:  Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you, and you did not mourn.”  “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus] came eating and drinking , and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  Double-binds.

We do one thing, you call us possessed; we do the opposite thing you call us sinful.  Two conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the other, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This, is perhaps, the most important thing we can learn in life:  When we live our lives, no matter how well intentioned, with the purpose of pleasing or satisfying those around us, we generally end up pleasing no one.  We often find ourselves in impossible situations, acting out of our understanding of someone else’s values, failing to live within our own values – often failing to even define our own values.

When we live according to someone else’s values, we often find ourselves caught between two impossible options.  And Jesus tells us there is perhaps a third way.

Because it was never about playing the flute and it was never about mourning.  It was never about fasting and it was never about eating and drinking.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This strikes me a slight understatement of facts.  Jesus’s personal burden, after all, included crucifixion.   And yet, yokes are created with incredible specificity.  They are not one-size-fits-all.  Yokes, when fitted properly, distribute the weight of the load evenly across the musculature of the wearer and realizes the full potential of the individual to bear the load.  By contrast, a poorly fitted yoke will cause discomfort, open the wearer to potential injury, and limit the potential to bear a load.

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself when buying my first bicycle as an adult.  I found one I liked – the frame material, gearing, and handle bar style all fit what I wanted.  I gave it a test ride and told the salesman it just wasn’t the bike for me.  It wasn’t any fun to ride.  I knew that biking for the first time in 20 years was going to require some effort, and the test ride it was pleasant enough, but it was a lot of work to just scoot down a relatively flat bike path for a quarter mile and back to the shop.

“Let’s give the next size up a try,” the salesman told me.  “Just to make sure.”  I wasn’t sure how I was going to muster the energy for another test ride when the 5 minutes we’d just spent on the first bike had nearly killed me, but I decided to give it a go.

The next size up was a frame that was 2 centimeters larger.  Less than one inch.  Looking at the bikes side-by-side, it was impossible to tell any difference at all.  We jumped headed to the bike path, rode for a mile before he insisted we return to the bike shop.  I felt like I was doing no work whatsoever.  It was amazing.  And it was fun!

And that’s the difference between living according to someone else’s rules and living in accordance with your own values.

To be clear – I am not advocating for throwing out all the rules.  We still have to live with one another.  Basic respect for the dignity of our fellow humans in aspects of life is still a really good thing.  And because we as human beings were created for and must live within communities in order to survive and thrive, being aware, mindful of, and respecting others’ values is pretty important. 

Experts tell us that those who are best at differentiating their selves and their values from the cohesive mindset of group thought are successful only 70% of the time.  We are created for connection – and connection sometimes means watching an action movie on date night when you’d prefer the latest animated Disney film because compromise and a shared experience are more important than getting your own way (which might lead you to sitting in a theater, watching a movie alone).

“To what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asked.  It pushes and pulls and makes impossible demands.  So, stop working yourselves to death to meet their impossible standards!  Stop.  Rest.  And wear the yoke of your own values – for that will lessen the burden of the load.

And my I suggest today that as we continue in our journeys to live good lives, may we always consider that which:

  • Respects the autonomy of individuals;
  • Seeks to produce a good outcome;
  • Limits the impact of any incidental harm; and
  • Furthers the justice in the fair distribution of God’s resources for all of God’s people