Monday, April 30, 2012

Liberal Religion's First Message -- from my sermon at the "Gathered Freely" Assembly

I say that we should spend less effort inviting people to become Unitarian Universalists and more time inviting people, and challenging people, to live out the core values of liberal religion however they can, wherever they are, whoever they are.

Liberal Religion, of which Unitarian Universalism is only one strand, is a moral, ethical and spiritual tradition.  It is a spiritual path, which when it is followed, leads people to happier and healthier lives. 

Being a religious liberal is a decision to live life differently. It is a decision to re-invent yourself, to re-make yourself, to re-boot and download some new apps.
 ....
Let us start with this basic fact:  for most of the people in this world, nobody cares about their hopes and dreams.  For most people, the message they hear from the world is “You’re not here to live your dreams, you’re not here follow your path.  No, you are here to sit down, shut up, show up for work on time, and not cause any trouble.  Face it, nobody cares if you live or die, much less whether you are happy, or are fulfilling what you know is your purpose in life.  Nobody cares. You just need to survive.”
...

So, the first message that we, the practitioners of liberal religion, have to say to people is this:  Consult your deepest sources and find your soul’s purpose; you have a right to define for yourself the life you want.

Liberal Religion says to you: You have a right to be free. You have a right to determine your own identity and destiny.    We don’t think it is just your right.  We think that claiming your own agency, your own self-possession is an essential step to happiness, to health and a precondition for any sort of spiritual maturity for you.

We are dead serious about this. Here’s how serious we are: if you think you appear outwardly to not be your true gender -- we will stand with you.  When men or women have felt that to be true to themselves, they must marry someone of the same gender, we have stood with them. When someone says: I am not what you think is my disability -- see all of me -- see everything I can do -- liberal religion stands with them. We stand for your right to choose how you will inhabit all of the different identities you have.  Bottom line, Liberal Religion stands for the right to live free of other people defining you or limiting you or saying you have to be this way or that way.



Professional Religious Leadership -- Problems and Trends

I serve as the UUMA representative on the Council of Church Staff Finances; the Council advises the Office of Church Staff Finances which is the part of the UUA staff which manages and oversees the benefit programs that the UUA offers -- the TIAA-CREF retirement savings accounts, the Health Insurance Plan, the other Insurances.  They also oversee the development of the compensation guidelines, etc.  Richard Nugent heads the office now; many remember Ralph Mero in this role. The Council also includes representatives all the other professional groups -- the Religious Educators, the Musicians, the Administrators and subgroups of ministers, community ministers, interim ministers.

The Council met last week and reviewed the general situation.  There are some problems.

Problem 1. Aspirations for a Professional Religious Leadership vs. the poor prospects for the Institutions that can support Professional Religious Leadership.

Unitarian Universalism has an aspiration toward full-time professional religious leadership.  The ideal model is a congregation with full-time, fairly compensated professional leadership in all areas -- a full-time minister, DRE, Musician and Administrator.  There is a commitment that we strive toward equity between the professions and in some areas, there are legal requirements that the same benefits are offered to all employees who work a certain number of hours. 

Only a minority of our churches are able to carry such employment costs financially.  Our aspiration when it comes to the terms of employment for our religious professionals is that of a successful mainline Protestant church of the 1950's.  And because that is the aspiration of our professional religious leadership that becomes the ideal model of successful liberal ministry. 

Yet, we know that the 1950's mainline Protestant church are the large dinosaurs of a religious ecosystem that is changing.  The trend seems to be toward fewer and larger churches at one end and many more smaller organizations at the other end. We are locked in to a professional system that is of the old ways. And the fact that our ministerial formation process is so expensive means that our debt-ridden new ministers are not even more motivated toward serving the kinds of churches which are becoming obsolete.

2.  A second problem:  Congregationalism vs. Employment Cooperation between Congregations.

There are no mechanisms for sharing employees between congregations.

3.  A Third Problem:  the weak administrative structure of our small congregations vs. the legal requirements of being a competent employer. 

The stories are legion, reported by the OCSF and by the professionals themselves:  congregations have volunteer treasurers and bookkeepers, some of whom are completely inexperienced and others without current knowledge,  They mishandle taxes, W-2's, pension contributions, and insurance premiums. Health Care Reform will dramatically increase the level of reporting required of employers in the future.  The picture is that of a cadre of religious professional whose livelihoods are often in the hands of administrative structures that are too weak to be reliable. 

What we need:  We need "super-congregational" structures that function as employers.  (By "super" I mean "above" not "better".)  These structures would allow multiple congregations to share ministers, musicians, religious educators and administrators.  One idea would be for the flagship congregations in a region to actually employ a larger staff, providing services to smaller, local congregations and billing them appropriately.  Perhaps Districts and Regions could become employers.

If the UUA can run a professional health insurance company, there is no reason why it cannot create or contract with a third party to provide payroll services for all congregations, thus standardizing and professionalizing this function.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Big Issues/Ultimate Values

Earth Day, Blah-Blah

I am not going to preach about Earth Day -- or let’s say, I really hate preaching about Earth Day. 

In the liberal church, it is a waste of time and energy and a subtle reminder of our acquiescence in our powerlessness.  It is humiliating. 

Let me say what I am thinking on this: 

I believe that the human civilization has using the energy resources of the planet at a pace and in ways that will be life-threatening to billions of people and great numbers of other species.  Climate change is a part of this.  Encroachment onto other species habitats are another part of this.  Pollution another.

This is our global economic system, involving the livelihood of every person on the planet in our core economic and social roles.

Human civilization is a machine that extracts resources from the Earth, uses that energy to create other kinds of wealth, and spreads that wealth around to the Earth’s population.  How does this machine perform?  Well, it is very successful at extracting energy sources from the Earth, moderately successful at creating other forms of wealth, goods and services with that energy and unsuccessful at distributing that wealth throughout the world’s peoples.  Vast inequalities exist on a global scale. 

These are all systemic decisions and arrangements.  They are the stuff of politics, war and diplomacy.  This system works as it does because of decisions made in corporate board rooms, and Congressional Committee rooms, and lobbyists offices and international conferences of business and public sectors officials.

When I was a political science major at George Washington University, back when the world was young and all the animals spoke the same mother tongue, our working definition of politics was the decision making process by which a society, a country, a group of people, decided how to create and allocate their commonly held resources. 

Using that definition, how we find and use our energy resources is at the very core of our political life.  It is some of the core issues of our common life together. 

We are called by this religious tradition to embody certain virtues in life: I think that when we think about energy, we are called to honesty (looking at the facts straight on -- not engaging in wishful thinking), humility (knowing that the world does not revolve around ourselves and our desires -- standing in humility before those 8 and 9 year old girls who spend hours everyday collecting water that seeps from a muddy well and carrying it for miles in 5 gallon cans back to their families) and empathy, compassion and solidarity and reverence, holding this world with some kind of tender awe and forebearance.  We are called by this religious tradition to think outside the box of how we make economic decisions -- outside the box of economic utilitarianism and pragmatism. 

But our present ways of thinking about church, about religion and about spirituality stand in our way. 

You have to understand that what I am about to say is not something that I would have said 5, 10 or 15 years ago.  It is not the traditional practices of the Free Church tradition.    What I am about to say, I would have considered as heretical as anything a UU minister could say.  Lots of my colleagues would not agree with me.

But on Earth Day, it is so clear to me that the way that we draw the boundary between the political and the spiritual is a declaration that we intend to be irrelevant.

The way that we draw the boundary between the political and the spiritual is a declaration of our intention to be irrelevant.
All the big issues now about how we shall live together today -- how we use energy, how we create wealth, how we distribute the wealth humanity creates -- are political issues, and must be addressed in the political processes that govern the nations of the earth.  They are controversial and tough and complicated, but they are also the decisions where we, as humanity, move toward the values that we hold, or where we do not. 

Because they are so-called political issues, we withdraw from discussing them, announcing to the world that Liberal Religion has nothing concrete and current to say about the actual issues that must be decided.

What does that leave us to talk about on Earth Day?

Well we can talk lyrically about the glories of the natural world.  We can read Mary Oliver poems and go with Wendell Berry into the woods near his Kentucky farm.  We can mourn the trees.  We can attempt to gain wisdom from the observation of nature, we can build up our sense of wonder and joy in that.

We can talk about our personal life style choices -- do we recycle?  do we turn off the lights?  do we eat meat? 

A long time ago, when I was in seminary, it seemed that every time I would talk with UU’s about the environment, we would end up exchanging vacation recommendations.  “ Go here, or go there -- you can really get away from civilization at this park, or in this place.”

Now, it seems that the same discussion results in recipe suggestions -- how to cook Kale (why, dead God, why?) and is there something like an environmentally friendly meat source possible?

These are not the locations in which change will either happen or be frustrated. 

The future is being brought into being by government policy, by corporate actions, by tax advantages given and withheld. 

We spend millions of dollars, probably billions, subsidizing corn production, with the result that corn syrup is below market cheap, and becomes filler in our foods and everyone is getter fatter and fatter and diabetes is everywhere, and all of this are political decisions, but here in this room, we don’t talk about that.  We talk about individual self-control; we talk about individuals resisting corporate food. 

How did this happen?  Over the long haul, Unitarian and Universalism have been known for for their social engagement.  But now, especially here in New England, the UU clergy have become strangely quiet.  Groups of laypeople are active in this cause or that cause.  Some ministers have issues that are their heartfelt causes.  And yes, on the issues of transgender rights, marriage rights for gays and lesbians, UU ministers have been in the forefront of a significant social movement that has gone through the political process. 

But immigration, energy, taxes, economic development strategies, wealth distribution: not so much.

One gets the feeling that some things are too important for church.

Church is an hour of peace.
Church is for serenity.
Church is for listening to beautiful music.
Church is for thinking about unicorns and fuzzy puppies.

But is church the place where you are challenged to consider the big issues from the point of view of ultimate values?

Our country is much more harshly polarized than ever before.  With the economic transformations we have undergone just in my lifetime, it is to be expected that big issues will be on the table.

And we have an alignment between political ideology and political parties now.  For the most part, for national politics, conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans.  And moderate North Eastern Republicans because Democrats. 

And New England Unitarianism was, for decades and decades, Moderate Republicans at prayer, or at least, respectful and agnostic silence.

So New England Unitarianism could share a broad moderate political consensus that crossed party lines.  A church could contain both loyal Republicans and loyal Democrats but they still shared a lot of political opinions. 

And so the clergy and the ministers adopted a strategy of being non-partisan, or bi-partisan.  It was gauche and unnecessary to talk about partisan politics in the church: everybody was for civil rights, everybody was for voting rights, everybody was for equal rights for women, for choice on abortion, for environmental protection, for a fairly generous social welfare system, for an internationalist foreign policy.  The partisan differences were much smaller here in New England. 

Now, the political reality is that almost every political issue is harshly polarized along partisan lines. 

Is there global warming and climate change?  Understand my position here:  were I to unequivocally say from the pulpit here that there is human-created climate change would be seen as many people as having made a statement indicating a partisan loyalty.  If I were to say that the scientific evidence is convincing that there is climate change, would likewise be seen as a partisan statement.

Were I to raise the question of whether it is just or fair or even smart to conduct our immigration system as we do -- partisan statement.

Can I talk about whether we need to increase spending on the poor and vulnerable -- feed the hungry using our tax dollars --  beep !  Don’t go there.  It’s OK to raise money for Carty Cupboard -- but challenge the idea that Food Stamps should be phased out over the next decade -- Don’t Go There, Tom.

Unitarians and Universalists have a history of discussing, debating and taking stands about race and racial prejudice, subjects. But to talk about how race  is affecting how people see the President, who is the first African American to hold that post -- way over the line.

It’s real simple: if we live in a harshly polarized political environment, where the political parties take diametrically opposing positions to the other -- no, scratch that, this is a false equivalence -- it is the stated policy of the Republican party to draw a line in the sand between themselves and President Obama and the congressional democrats -- a no compromise, all opposition stance -- in order to keep things clear for the voters -- i

In a situation where every issue is polarized by party -- and UU ministers are supposed to be non-partisan and above the fray -- it is inevitable that UU ministers will not talk about anything but personal matters, poetry and whether fuzzy puppies are cuter than kittens playing with strings. 

It is not as though you, the rank and file UU’s in the pews are politically uninterested.  I read your passionate debates on social media.  I hear of your activities in the community.  I know that you care. 

And maybe that is OK.  Maybe that stuff is for there, and maybe this room is for something else.  That’s how we have drawn the lines.

But the way we draw these lines means that for big stuff: the important stuff: there is one set of values at play:  economic efficiency, expedience, utilitarianism and yes, group loyalty. Most people decide these civil and political choices by a process of “elite signaling”.  You are persuaded by the people who are usually persuasive to you.  You stick with your team.

The Liberal religious values are for other parts of your life.  Reverence, humility, honesty, gratitude, compassion, open-mindedness, self-possession -- they are not the values that you need to embody in political and civil affairs.

Life can go on that way for a long time.  What will happen, most likely, though, is that group loyalty will take over your thinking about those subjects.  What’s good for our side? 

But there will come a time, though, when your side is wrong. 

I think that the conservative movement and the Republican party crossed that line in regarding to the environment and climate change long ago -- that the economic interests of the energy business is in the drivers seat, and most of the Republican party is riding along out of group loyalty. 

Take it from me:  I know the paths and pitfalls of excessive political loyalty.  At sometime or another, you will have to judge your allies and your parties positions against ultimate values.  I remember a time when I was deep in my ultra-leftism, when I read a line by Pope John Paul II -- a pope I have very little sympathy or agreement with -- he said that the foundation of all society was the single irreducible human soul.

Irreducible. 

Our principles say the same thing when they talk about the inherent worth and dignity of each person. 

I compared the way that I was thinking to that statement and it started a process that changed my life. 

I think my life would have been different if I had been hearing a voice all along that stood on ultimate values, and helped me measure my loyalties and activities against those ultimate values.  It would have strengthened my self-possession, my ability to tell right from wrong on my own.  But I had cut myself off from the religious life, partly because it was irrelevant to the big issues of the time.  The church I grew up avoided much discussion on Civil Rights and the War in Vietnam.

They were too controversial for the church to talk about.  And so I went elsewhere.


They were too controversial for the church to talk about.  And so I went elsewhere.


And it was a long journey back. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Will Not Be Said about Trayvon Martin's Case

The indictment of George Zimmerman is justice being done.  Everyone will say that.

What will not be said, at least, not very often, is justice would not have been done if it were not for the public outcry and protest that developed.  And, that social media activism was crucial in creating and sustaining a firestorm of protest

Social media activism also educated millions of people about this case.  The articles, the exposes, the information that put this case in context were shared with millions of friends and followers who would have been outside the information network of activists before.  I know that in the last 3 weeks, I have read many articles and comments in publications that I had not been familiar with before.

I call it another win.  Like the defense of Planned Parenthood from the Susan G. Komen's attempt to cut them off.  Like the Senate GOP dropping the Blunt Amendment.  Like the spanking of Rush Limbaugh when he slandered Ms. Fluke.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's Crisis in Christianity

I like Andrew Sullivan a lot and have been reading him regularly for a long time. 

His piece "Christianity in Crisis" describes the awful corruption of Christianity that we now see in what he calls "Christianism" -- intertwining of Christian institutions's  with radical rightwing politics: he hold "Christian conservatism" to be neither.

He starts out by invoking Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as a "real Christian, a disciples of the doctrines of Jesus", but Sullivan's model for the alternative Christianity is actually St. Francis.


As Jesus was without politics, so was Francis. As Jesus fled from crowds, so did Francis—often to bare shacks in woodlands, to pray and be with God and nature. It’s critical to recall that he did not do this in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority. He obeyed orders from bishops and even the pope himself. His main obsession wasn’t nature, which came to sublime fruition in his final “Canticle of the Sun,” but the cleanliness of the cloths, chalices, and ornaments surrounding the holy eucharist.

His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity.

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions. You could have diagnosed his postwar conversion as an outgrowth of posttraumatic-stress disorder. Or you can simply observe what those around him testified to: something special, unique, mysterious, holy. To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation. It lets go of complexity and focuses on simplicity. Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments. That was enough for him.
Sullivan is a political writer, although his interests are extremely broad, so he defines the crisis in Christianity in political terms.  The presenting problem is Christianist politics, which, upon examination, reveals a religion that has lost its way.  The solution therefore must lie in a an apolitical, de-politicized church.  Hence, St. Francis.  Radical asceticism.

Andrew Sullivan has surprised us often, but I have a hard time imagining that he is about to take up the begging bowl and try to be the lesser brother who whispers his thoughts into the ears of others, so as to not exercise too much power.  So, his vision of a resurrected Christianity is off-kilter; it's a fantasy life for him.

What he does not hold out as a hope is a politically engaged, empowering, inclusive, decentralized, religious institution that supports and enables personal spiritual development.

Sullivan is a Catholic, and so he seems to see his only choice as the hierarchy or the mendicant monk.  He doesn't quite get Protestantism as a viable reform movement in Christianity, especially the fruits of the Radical Reformation, which persist today in the radically inclusive sects like Quakerism and the Unitarian Universalism I serve, and which influenced Jefferson.

Sullivan starts with Jefferson's Bible, but does not follow that historical thread.  Jefferson had contemporaries and together they all have heirs, in that many others have pursued the project of an institutionalized "pure Christianity."   

Sunday, April 08, 2012

....Impossible

Of course, religious liberals will be flummoxed by Easter. 

The day celebrates an event which the rational and reasonable mind knows is impossible to have happened.  The modern mind, and religious liberalism, is, in part, Christianity as touched by the modern, scientific, rational mind. 

So, impossible things, like the dead returning to life, flummox it.

To which, some people respond with “and that’s the point....”  Jesus rising from the dead is impossible, which says that it is a miracle, which proves that everything that was said about Jesus’ divinity is true.  With God, all things are possible.

No one in the early church, it appears, doubted the Resurrection.  By the time Paul writes -- which is the earliest Christian writer there is -- just 20 years after the death and resurrection of the Christ -- we have no trace of a debate about the story of Resurrection was true.

No one can be detected saying -- maybe it was just a metaphor.

We have no record of anyone saying maybe we have the story confused with other resurrection stories of other cultures, or maybe it was a trick and an illusion.

No one said that it was really about the Earth’s rebirth in Spring.

 They all believed it happened.  The angels rolled the stone away and Jesus walked out, blinking into the sunlight of a fine Sunday morning.

On the other hand, one of those French enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire maybe, said that it wouldn’t matter if every person in Paris said that they saw with their own eyes:  he knew that it was not possible for the dead to return to life.

Whether you believe in the historical truth of the resurrection is not crucial to one’s spiritual life.

There  are two stories that come down to us from the Passion of Jesus -- the final week of his life in Jerusalem. 

One is that He was the Son of God who suffered and was crucified for our sins.  By being God, he was the only substitute worthy enough to repay the debt to God that our human sins had incurred.  It was all a divine plan to save us from the inevitable wrath of God.  The fact that Jesus came back for short time after this death does not add to or take away from the work of our salvation done by Jesus.  It was so we might believe.

And the other story is that Jesus was a human being, caught up in a social and political and cultural crisis, who became the scapegoat of a city in crisis, and was executed by the powerful to satisfy the mob, an innocent victim whose death reveals to us the nature of the world that we live in, the myths that support the powers that be, and our own dark urges. 

Again, if Jesus emerged from the dark tomb afterwards does not change the meaning of that story.

Easter tells the story of one of many resurrections. 

Remember that there is the resurrection of Lazarus, recounted in John.

And then the resurrection of today, the Easter Resurrection.

And then there is revelation of the Holy Spirit, as the spirit of the resurrected Christ, which is still with us.  That resurrection is often seen as the meaning of the Pentecost story.

But here is another version of the same story: According to the gospel of John, Jesus promises his disciples that even though He (Jesus) will be going away, going to the Father, the Father will send another to be with them forever.  The one who comes next is the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Truth.  The Greek word is Paraclete, which also means Advocate, the defense attorney of the accused.  So Easter foreshadows the arrival of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit of Truth.

Satan is, according to one strand of the Bible, the accuser.  Remember that in the book of Job, Satan initiates all the calamities that befall Job when he accuses him of being not really so righteous.  He is righteous, says Satan, because he has gotten everything he wants.  Job is, according to Satan and to use the language of today, living with great privilege, and so he can afford to be righteous.  Take it all away, says Satan the accuser, and see if he is still so devout.

Accusation and Defense.  How much of the life together is the endless repetition of accusation and defense and counter-accusation and counter-defense?  And oh, how tempting it is to see it that interplay as morally equivalent, the actions of players who change sides, like a sports team that sometimes plays offense and sometimes plays defense, like a baseball team.

But the spirit that comes after Jesus is not the spirit of forgiveness, according to John.  It is not the spirit of neutrality, nor the spirit of the above the fray. It is not the spirit of split the difference.  It is not the spirit of centrism or bipartisanship.

It is not the spirit that there is no truth.

It is the spirit of truth. 

 Jesus calls Satan the father of lies, and he says that the truth will set us free.

What are the lies that Satan tells in this world.  It is the lie of the false accusation.  Not just any accusation, but the false accusation.  After all, Jesus made many accusations -- he accused his critics of hypocrisy and narrowness and placing religious ritual and regulations between people and God. 

No, the lies of Satan are the false accusations that justify many of the social oppressions that we see today:  that whole groups of people are depraved; that gays and lesbians lead lives consumed by lust; that the poor are stealing from us (!!!) ; that traitors walk among us. 

The oppressors demonize their victims; to humanize those who have been demonized is the work of the Holy Spirit.  

Demonization vs. Humanization.

These broad and general accusations should not be met with counter-accusations, but must be met with the truth.  Even though the truth is hard to know, and everyone is sincere and is trying to do the best they can.  Sometimes, the truth offends.  And sometimes, we ourselves don’t know the truth in full, and we will need to be corrected.

The spirit of truth is an advocate and a defender, not the final judge. The Spirit of Truth takes the side of the falsely accused, the single victim, the scapegoat, the powerless.

The Christian church has often been called the Body of Christ -- the resurrected Christ existing in ordinary space and time -- it is people inspired by the Holy Spirit to carry on the work of Jesus.  And, I believe, that the body of Christ, the resurrected Jesus, is not confined to buildings with steeples and pews, or even people who call themselves Christian, or have even ever heard of this story.  It is those who do the work of his ministry: to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring a garland instead of ashes to all who those mourn, and to humanize those who have been demonized.

And one part of that work is to defend the accused.  At the very most personal and individual level, the church defends that single, lonely isolated person that carries within him or herself, and yourself, the accusation that you are not good enough for God to care about -- that you have fallen so low that you have no chance for God’s grace. 

And we defend the sinner, you and me, against the accusation that there is no second chance, or third chance or any chance at all.

And we defend all those who face discrimination and oppression against the countless accusations made against them that they deserve what is coming to them.

And we defend the poor against the accusations of the rich.  And on and on.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth and it stands against the powers and principalities of this world.  That this spirit of truth and concern for the victim is at work in the world is a sign of the resurrection of the first Easter.

But what of this resurrection of the body -- Jesus defeated death.

Is this not the one great and wild hope of humanity?  Cannot we call it just that? 

An wonderful expression of our wild hope that Death, that implacable angel who haunts our every dream and whose cold shadow stunts our every hope, that tall angel who carries off everyone we love, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, sons and daughters will not ultimately prevail. 

 Easter morning is a sign that Death has not the final word and that all of this, all of this, everything does not ultimately dissolve into nothingness and futility. 

Oh, it is hard to believe, it is so hard to believe, but before you can believe, first you must love the possibility that it could be true. 

Easter expresses the tenderest hope of humankind -- that death might be evaded and overcome.  Not because any of us really want to live forever  -- I don't know anyone who wants to live forever, but because we yearn to be reunited again, with a few special people we have loved and lost, even for a shortest of times. 

Perhaps like Jesus for a few weeks in Galilee.
   
Easter carries the dream that every sad thing might come untrue.

Or as Revelation says: No more death, no more mourning, tears wiped from every eye -- that sadness and sorrow are a part of a universe, an old Universe, that is passing away.

So, let us this Easter have a heart, and view ourselves, and the rest of humanity with some compassion. 

Blessed with life, and cursed with the knowledge of death, blessed with love and burdened by loss and grief: suffering and frightened humanity nurtures this wild, crazy, joyous hope of death overcome, of impossible resurrection, of heaven’s bright fields, and golden streets, of harps and robes and gossamer wings. 

O you, who think you know better, please be kind.

Turn the power of your truth-telling not against these small hopes, but instead against the false accusations that empower the mighty. 

Spare the impossible hopes that sustain us in our grief. 

For someday, you may need the balm of impossible hope yourself.



Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Advocate

Homily from tonight's Maundy Thursday service

Homily:  The Advocate

According to the gospel of John, Jesus promises his disciples that even though He (Jesus) will be going away, going to the Father, the Father will send another to be with them forever.  The one who comes next is the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Truth.  The Greek word is Paraclete, which also means Advocate, the defense attorney of the accused. 

Satan is, according to one strand of the Bible, the accuser.  Remember that in the book of Job, Satan initiates all the calamities that befall Job when he accuses him of being not really so righteous.  He is righteous, says Satan, because he has gotten everything he wants.  Job is, according to Satan and to use the language of today, living with great privilege, and so he can afford to be righteous.  Take it all away, says Satan the accuser, and see if he is still so devout.

Accusation and Defense.  How much of the life together is the endless repetition of accusation and defense and counter-accusation and counter-defense?  And oh, how tempting it is to see it that interplay as morally equivalent, the actions of players who change sides, like a sports team that sometimes plays offense and sometimes plays defense. 

But the spirit that comes after Jesus is not the spirit of forgiveness, according to John.  It is not the spirit of neutrality, nor the spirit of "above the fray".  It is the spirit of truth.   Jesus calls Satan the father of lies, and he says that the truth will set us free.

What are the lies that Satan tells in this world.  It is the lie of the false accusation.  Not just any accusation, but the false accusation.  After all, Jesus made many accusations -- he accused his critics of hypocrisy and narrowness and placing religious ritual and regulations between people and God.  No, the lies of Satan are the false accusations that underlie and justify much of the social oppressions that we see today:  that whole groups of people are depraved; that gays and lesbians lead lives consumed by lust; that the poor are stealing from us; that traitors walk among us. 

These broad and general accusations should not be met with counter-accusations, but they must be met with the truth.  Even though the truth is hard to know, because  "everyone is sincere and is trying to do the best they can."  Sometimes, the truth offends.  And sometimes, we ourselves don’t know the truth in full, and we will need to be corrected.

The spirit of truth is an advocate and a defender, not the final judge. The Spirit of Truth takes the side of the falsely accused, the single victim, the scapegoat, the powerless.

Jesus gathered his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.  They talked of him leaving and he assured them and reassured them.  He had given them this word of the Holy Spirit who would be sent to be with them forever.  And he left them the bread and the wine of their last meal together -- food and drink of everyday life -- and ways that they could remember him at every meal -- and himself in a form that could be taken into their own bodies, to give strength to their muscles and to enter into their thoughts and to give them life itself. 

The church, the body of believers who are drawn together and inspirited with, inspired by, the One who the Father has sent after Jesus -- well, it is a body.  And as a body it has work to do. 

And much of that work is to defend the accused.  At the very most personal and individual level, the church defends that single, lonely isolated person that carries within him or herself the accusation that they are not good enough for God to care about -- that they have fallen so low that they have no chance for God’s grace. 

And we defend the sinner against the accusation that there is no second chance, or third chance or any chance at all.

And we defend all those who face discrimination and oppression against the countless accusations made against them that they deserve what is coming to them.

And we defend the poor against the accusations of the rich.  And on and on.

But a body needs fuel to work, and here at this table we are given the food that strengthens us for the work that we do.

So come to be nourished and strengthened, comforted and inspired, as we remember the one who lived and died that we might be free in the truth of God’s gracious love for us all.