Saturday, December 6, 2014

Come Down - Initial Reflections on the Death of Michael Brown and the Events in Ferguson, MO

Michael Brown is dead. He was 18 years old. He was black. He was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. He was shot with his hands up… and he is dead.

Was his shooting a crime? Some witnesses suggest that he had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” A possible interpretation of the forensic evidence has his hands raised in an offensive attempt to grab Officer Wilson’s gun.

This week, a grand jury convened to consider possible prosecution of Officer Wilson declined to press charges, and protesters filled the streets of Ferguson, MO, setting fires and clashing with police and the National Guard. Protesters also marched in Philadelphia around City Hall and in many cities across the country.

Reading various articles about this case, two distinct narratives emerged; two narratives that I hope I have fairly represented thus far. One narrative portrays Michael Brown as an aggressive thug who attempted to assault a police officer; Officer Wilson responded with necessary force to defend himself and the sad outcome is that Michael Brown is dead. The other narrative points to the long legacy of black youths being shot to death by white police officers. Yes, Michael was no angel, but he did attempt to surrender and instead was shot 6 times.

My point this morning is not to advocate for one narrative over the other, but rather to invite us to reflect upon this powerful experience that we have shared and to connect us with some of the deep language of our faith. My aim is to go beneath the surface of this particular event to the deeper longing it stirs in us; a longing that is so essential to us, so profoundly human, that we prefer to bury it, to distract ourselves from it, to find any and all ways to hide from it, but it’s always there. It troubles us. It disturbs us; and we don’t know what to do about it.

We long for this world to be just. We long for life to be fair. We long for that something that we know is missing to be found and put back into place so that “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich).

We struggle with these feelings, but the Bible does not struggle; it does not hold them in; it cries out to God in full voice with the language of lament; language we find in Isaiah 64:1–2 (NRSV) O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

The language of lament owns the reality that this world is not the way we want it to be; it’s not the way it ought to be; it is deeply, profoundly, fundamentally flawed. And when we are honest with ourselves, and the language of lament is brutally honest, we confess that we have a part to play in this sad state of affairs; we are not the way we ought to be; we are not just and fair and right. As Isaiah puts it, Isaiah 64:6 (NRSV) We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

As gifted and capable and good as we are, we cannot save ourselves. The path of progress and human development will not set what is wrong to right.

For some, this is a cause to despair; to turn away from this tragic state of affairs, distract ourselves with momentary pleasures and find some way to live with the reality that “it is what it is.”

For Christians, it is time for Advent; it is time for us to lift to God in prayer ourselves and this sad mess of a world that is both so achingly beautiful and so callously cruel. It is an invitation to confront the terrible wrongness in this world and in ourselves with the one power that can, that will, that is setting all things right; the power of faith; faith in a God who isn’t absent without leave; faith in a God who hasn’t left us to figure it out for ourselves; faith in a God who is the Potter, we are the clay, and God-only-knows what God can make of us, for God will not be exceedingly angry; God will not remember our iniquity forever; God will consider that we are all God’s people.

At Advent, we cry out to God, “Come down!” And we remember the babe born to a virgin in Bethlehem of all places. We remember that day by the Jordan River when God tore open the heavens and descended like a dove on that babe now grown to a man from Nazareth of all places. We remember how the sky turned black and the ground shook when that man Jesus was crucified on Calvary. And we remember how the earth quaked, the stone rolled away, and that dead man Jesus was raised to new life, eternal life, for the power of God made it so: Life and love conquered sin, evil, and death, because God came down.

At Advent, we remember and we look forward; we look forward to the day when we won’t wonder if justice has been served, for there will be no doubt. We look forward to the day when 18 year old boys won’t lie dead in the streets for reasons we may never know. We look forward to the day when evils likes racism will be no more. We look forward because Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

So we will not despair after a week like this. We will not give in to rage and hate but we will listen to those who do, for as “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation's apostle of nonviolence, once said: "a riot is the language of the unheard." He also showed us that only disciplined, sacrificial, and nonviolent social movements can change things.”[1]

In the midst of his grief, Michael Brown’s father looked forward to that change, “Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son's death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”[2]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is Advent and we are all the people of God. Take an honest look within, and ask God to save you from what is wrong and set you right. Take an honest look around, and ask God to save this world from what is wrong and set all things right. Take an honest look and offer honest prayers with the language of lament; language that names what is, looks forward and cries out, Isaiah 64:1 (NRSV) O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Amen.

[2] Op cit.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Journey Begins

For purposes of understanding, I am re-posting my initial post to state my vision for this blog:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
(Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
With a light heart and “eager feet,” this blog begins. Where will it lead? “I cannot say.” But I can offer this hope: I hope that as we journey together we will catch glimpses of the possibilities that may lie just around the next corner, or that may yet remain if we but take a step or two back the way we came.
I journey as a Christian and a Presbyterian pastor. It is right and fair you should know that about me as you consider giving me the privilege of your company. I take each step in the expectant hope that we have a Companion on our journey who is true to his promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you…I am with you always.” If I have a walking stick to aid my steps, it is this promise, and I hope that together, we will catch glimpses of him along the way (for he is so very good at hiding).
Glimpses such as this: I went to Pep Boys this afternoon to buy replacement headlights for our vehicle. We were a pa-diddle (sp?) with one light out. When I attempted to install these lights, they did not fit. So I returned to the store, told my story, and asked to exchange them. The clerk looked at the parts and asked if I had driven the vehicle. When I said, “Yes,” he asked if I would pop the hood. Done. He fiddled for a moment or two, asked me to turn on the lights, and voila! No more pa-diddle! He then refunded me the money for the parts and refused to charge me for the help.
Who knew Jesus worked at Pep Boys?

My Journey Regarding Same-Sex Marriage and Being a Christian

Royal weddings make a big “to do” before bride and groom say, “I do.” The weeks leading up to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton inundated us with in depth analysis of every aspect of the big day: The flowers, the hair and make-up, the dress. I remember seeing an itinerary that broke the event down into 3 minute increments; 3 minutes! I was quite thankful to not be the clergyman officiating that service. I could just see the wedding coordinator stepping up mid-sermon and saying, “Terribly sorry, Reverend, but could you bring your remarks to a conclusion? We’re behind schedule.”

That would be distressing. My stiff upper lip might even quiver, but that is nothing compared to the disaster Jesus describes in “The Parable of the Wedding Feast;” “parable of the wedding fiasco” might be a better title.
A prince is getting married. His father the king sends out the invitations. No one RSVP’s. He tells the caterers to go ahead and prepare the feast, and he sends out more invitations. Not only do the recipients not RSVP, they seize his servants, abuse them, and kill them.

Kings do not tolerate such behavior; the reprisal is swift and severe, but the prince is still getting married. The king’s wrath is replaced by his generosity. “Invite everyone, the good and the bad, so my hall is filled for my son’s wedding.”

“Y’all come,” as they say down south, and they came, but one fellow didn’t have the proper attire. “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” so the king orders that this wedding crasher be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This king has issues, so do we. This week, the Supreme Court declined to act regarding 5 states laws permitting same-sex marriage. With this decision, a majority of Americans now live in states that allow same-sex marriage. We live in a state that allows same-sex marriage.

We have issues. What should we do? Every wedding in a Presbyterian church is authorized by Session; Session has the power to set policy; our present policy defines marriage as being “between a man and a woman,” thus prohibiting same-sex marriage.

We have issues. Feelings run high on both sides of the question, and I confess that I was tempted to leave this alone and play it safe; but when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA recommended changes to our Directory for Worship that would allow same-sex marriage, it was our turn to make headlines. The following Sunday, two of us asked me the same question at different times: “Would I officiate at a same-sex wedding?” I suspect one wanted to hear “yes” and one “no.” Instead, I said that I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt our church. We have to be ready for that wedding.

Leaving this issue alone won’t get us ready. The anxiety and turmoil we feel (probably right now) testify to our need to think faithfully (faith-fully) about same-sex marriage. We won’t complete that journey this morning, but we will begin. We will begin through this puzzling parable that Jesus taught us about a wedding crasher crashing the wedding.

1.   Crashing the Wedding
The first time the king sends out the invitation; no one RSVP’s. The reason many Christians would not RSVP to a same-sex marriage and why the thought of their church and their pastor being involved in a same-sex marriage causes deep distress is that the Bible says that such relations are a sin. How can we bless what the Bible condemns?

I’ve studied this in some depth over the past few years, and my conclusion is that what the Bible is talking about isn’t the same as what we are talking about. I am convinced that the Bible is talking about pagan worship practices and about abusive practices in the Greco-Roman world. 

Simply put, I can affirm what those passages teach without concluding that the same-sex relations we are talking about are a sin.

My mind has changed in the last 5 years. It has changed about homosexuality. It has changed about same-sex marriage. 

What started me on that journey was the gospel itself. Matthew 22:8–9 (NRSV) Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

Crashing the wedding is central to the gospel: radical inclusiveness permeates the message of Jesus. Whatever we think about this issue, we cannot ignore the way God keeps reaching out with good news:
Matthew 11:28–29 (NRSV) 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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.
John 10:16 (NRSV) 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 3:16 (NRSV) 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Crashing the wedding is central to the gospel; the good news of Jesus Christ is open and inviting, but the traditional stance that condemned homosexuality and forbade same-sex marriage resulted in the perception that God hated homosexuals and that Christians hate homosexuals. To be sure, we talked about “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” but people didn’t believe it; in particular, homosexuals and their families and friends did not believe it. What they heard (and what they all too often experienced) was “throw them into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Since the Presbyterian Church proposed this change in its wedding policy, it has been interesting to observe the response. John MacArthur, a prominent evangelical pastor and writer called us, “Satan’s church.” Members and congregations have left the denomination. We’ve been condemned. We’ve been rejected. And I wonder if this is what it has been like to be a homosexual in the church all-along? I wonder if this is why it is so hard for folks to come out of the closet, especially to their pastor, because they rightly fear what the response will be.

I realize this isn’t easy. I recognize that this is a major change of mind. Set aside your preconceived notions. See the homosexual, see same-sex marriage through eyes of Jesus and the good news of the gospel. God loves us all; God invites us all, gay and straight, to crash his wedding. Shouldn’t we do the same?

2.   The Wedding Crasher
Does this mean there is no morality anymore; we can do whatever we want? What can we say about “right and wrong” if we are to welcome “good and bad?”

The king crashes his own wedding. Good and bad are invited. If the parable ended there, the message of radical inclusivity would be absolute, but the parable doesn’t end there. Instead, Jesus introduces a wedding crasher who isn’t properly attired and pays a terrible price for it.

God loves us too much to leave us alone. This truth is often invoked to challenge the homosexual to change their behavior, but it also challenges you and me to change our minds, our attitudes, and our behavior.
As the Apostle Paul put it: Philippian 4:8-9 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The question this parable puts to you and me is: Who are you wearing to the wedding?

When Prince William and Kate Middleton had their big day, we knew who they were wearing. Prince Harry caused a stir by wearing the red tunic of the Irish Guard rather than the blue uniform of the Royal Air Force in which he is a captain; but, the big question was who Kate would wear, and The Sunday Times published their scoop a full month before the wedding that she would be wearing a dress designed by Sarah Burton of the McQueen fashion house. This too caused a stir as McQueen is owned by the Italian firm Gucci, and it was the first time a British-owned house wasn’t chosen.

Who are you wearing to the wedding? Who sets the shape of and designs your attitudes and actions?

The wedding crasher wasn’t properly attired. His attitudes and actions did not fit the king’s invitation.
Galatians 3:27–28 (NRSV) 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The good news of the gospel demands a response, an RSVP if you will; that response is to clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ. Being a Christian means being committed to become more and more like Jesus Christ every-day; every-day at work and every-day at home and every-day anywhere we may be. Being a Christian also means becoming more and more like Jesus Christ in every relationship, most notably in our marriages.

Marriage is lifted up in Ephesians as a model for the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Revelation describes the Church as “the bride of Christ.” Marriage throughout the Bible is the central ordering covenant relationship of human beings. The wedding industry might want to sell the notion that a wedding is about romance, but the Bible is clear that marriage is about discipleship; marriage is about clothing ourselves with Jesus Christ as we model his relationship with the Church through our relationship with our husband or our wife.

Marriage is a covenant that brings moral order to our lives and to society. Denying gays and lesbians the right to marry denies them the opportunity and more importantly the responsibility to bring moral order to their lives and thereby add to the moral order in our society. Consecrating same-sex marriages offers the opportunity and the responsibility to each partner to be clothed with Jesus Christ and become more and more like him every day in every way through the particular trials and tribulations that they will experience through their marriages. Simply put, making promises to God and to one another of love and faithfulness are easy; keeping those promises is the work of a lifetime, “til death do us part.”

Who are you wearing to the wedding? Clothe yourself with Jesus Christ. Husbands, love your wives. Wives, love your husbands. Before we talk about someone else’s marriage vows, let’s be sure we fulfill our own!
God loves us too much to leave us alone. We cannot evade the question of same-sex marriage. One way or another, every church and every Christian will answer it.

How will we answer it? Answer it like Christ. Answer it by looking at our gay and lesbian neighbor as a brother and sister in Christ. Answer it by seeing “them” as “one of us” for whom Christ died, one of us who is also an invited guest and not a wedding crasher. Amen.