it’s another banner day in washington

Today, the House of Representatives pushed a shiny, new healthcare bill on through to the Senate. No hearings, little analysis. This bill has been called “a monstrous act of cruelty,” and has been denounced by pretty much every medical-related field except big pharma.

The list of pre-existing conditions includes CRIMES.

Rape is a CRIME.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

Domestic violence is a CRIME.

And instead of offering embrace and support, victims can now be penalized for seeking medical attention for those three crimes against them. All this happened while the President of the United States made statements saying that women want to be sexually assaulted, and abusers in the entertainment industry were awarded Oscars and given multi-million dollar severance packages.

AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THE JOHNSON AMENDMENT.

What today’s executive order accomplished is to make it legal for churches to tell their congregations which way God wants them to vote. Nobody’s First Amendment rights were violated by the Johnson Amendment. No pastor has been sanctioned for looking at sociopolitical current events through the lens of the Bible. No priest has been reprimanded for asking, “What would Jesus do about _______?” No pastor has been fired for preaching about how the church should interact with refugees or the poor, or about issues of race and gender.

But.

Now no pastor’s tax status will be on the line for preaching the Gospel of Trump. No church will lose its 501(c)3 status for bowing to the idol of America. No house of worship will be in hot water teaching the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism.

Because that’s why we have church, right? To hear about how great the government is, and to have someone tell us what is God’s perspective on our political climate. It’s too much work to look at the critique of government provided throughout the Bible, and compare those situations to what we face today. And besides, Revelation is so dramatic and confusing and HARD.

*****

I took Introduction to Preaching this semester, and Tuesday was my turn in the pulpit. I preached from Jeremiah about prophets, and about the responsibility we have to speak truth to power.

Here’s some truth:

This administration does not care about its constituents. It does not care about women; it does not care about children. This administration does not care about the disabled or the people suffering from mental illness. It does not care for our elders. It does not care about the land, the water, or the air. It does not take seriously nuclear war, nor does it care about the blood already on its hands. It does not care about the poor or the oppressed.

Lifting the Johnson Amendment might accomplish one of the to-do items on the Republican Evangelical’s to-do list. But more importantly, it built a pulpit that allows the rest of us to call them out.

Thanks for holding the door open for us, Mr. President.

*****

Jeremiah 5: 26-29

“My people are infiltrated by wicked men,
    unscrupulous men on the hunt.
They set traps for the unsuspecting.
    Their victims are innocent men and women.
Their houses are stuffed with ill-gotten gain,
    like a hunter’s bag full of birds.
Pretentious and powerful and rich,
    hugely obese, oily with rolls of fat.
Worse, they have no conscience.
    Right and wrong mean nothing to them.
They stand for nothing, stand up for no one,
    throw orphans to the wolves, exploit the poor.
Do you think I’ll stand by and do nothing about this?”

possibilities for the people of god

My Bonhoeffer classmates coordinated the worship service at CRCDS on Wednesday, November 2, 2016. The scripture reading was 1 John 4:11-21. I had the opportunity to offer the sermon. Here it is.

My oldest child is almost 14, and has very particular tastes and strong opinions. Because APPLE — TREE. I put a lot of time and effort into gifts for this kid because of these opinions and interests, and I find it rewarding to deeply engage my creativity, resources, and this child’s perspective. Driving home from class one night in September, I had a true light bulb moment. I decided that for Christmas, I would give my child two tickets to see Hamilton in NYC. My light bulb quickly shorted out with the realization that there were only a handful of tickets available for one matinee sometime at the end of June, and that two tickets to Hamilton cost about the same as seven months of mortgage payments. We now console ourselves by listening to the soundtrack once a day, reading/watching any media coverage and performances by the musical’s stars, and by learning more about the real life people upon whom the musical is based.

There are a few central themes to this telling of Alexander Hamilton’s life that I feel are relevant or even parallel to the current sociopolitical situation in the United States today, and are also relevant to the Church’s response. The first theme is introduced early on in the musical; Hamilton asks his new friend, Aaron Burr, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This discussion of ethics and values happens a number of times throughout the course of the musical, and the tension between the two characters rises until [SPOILER ALERT] they duel and Burr shoots and kills Hamilton. The End. I’ve now saved you $4000 and a trip to NYC. You’re welcome. The second theme is Hamilton’s sense of urgency and purpose, and is expressed in the lyric, “I am not throwing away my shot;” a line that returns with every new opportunity that Hamilton faces. The final theme, woven through both acts of the show, is that we don’t know who is going to tell our story after we are gone, and we don’t know how our actions will be interpreted by future generations.

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the Presidential Election is looming, and that the current social and political situation in our nation is at best, tense. And don’t worry — I’m not going to tell you to not vote for the hatemongering, xenophobic, racist bigot. I’m going to talk about love. First John 4 tells us that God sent Jesus to the world as the manifestation of his love, and because God so loved us, we ought to love each other. The early church loved each other by sharing all they had, and making sure all community members’ needs were met. Verse seventeen is a promise full of hope:

By this, is love perfected with us, so that that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world.

He is in the world, just as we are in the world. It doesn’t say that God’s love is only abiding in us, and it’s not just that God’s Spirit abides in our hearts—God is present and active in this world, in the midst of mudslinging, in the midst of angry words, in the protesting, and in the brokenness. Verse eighteen:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

The earth is groaning for want of perfect love. The lament we hear from oppressed communities is utterly heartbreaking. The images and violence from Ferguson, Miami, from overpoliced neighborhoods around the country, and even as I speak, from the landlocked sovereign Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

The election on Tuesday is not going to change this. Policy, laws, systems — none of these things will bring comfort to our souls or assuage our fears. Diettrich Bonhoeffer said in The Church and the Jewish Question, “A state that threatens the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself.” I humbly suggest a slight change in his words to make this applicable to the US: A state, or political party, that inserts itself into the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself. When people in power claim to be lovers of Jesus on Sunday, but do not love their neighbors on Monday, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. When those same saints profess their love of God on Sunday, but on Tuesday cut Medicaid and Medicare funding for families and seniors in need, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Wednesday, when those powerful, saintly men condemn a rape victim for having a few drinks, but give the rapist a Get Out Of Jail Free card, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Thursday, when they send the National Guard to violate the civil rights of an indigenous people on their own sovereign territory, they negate the value of human dignity, and they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. That’s a lot of negation. I mean, I’m only on Thursday in my little illustration, and I haven’t even mentioned the two hundred seventy eight people of color who have been killed by police this year.

What are we standing for, my friends? If we stand for nothing, friends, what will we fall for?

In that same sermon, Bonhoeffer suggested three solutions, or “possibilities for action that the church can take:”

First, we can question the state about the character of its actions. “Governor Snyder, how do you explain as a person of faith, letting the water situation reach crisis levels in Flint?” “Mr. Trump, as a man of big faith, how do you respond to the KKK’s endorsement of you? The KKK is a notorious domestic terrorist organization, how does that fit into your faith practice?”

Next, we can embrace the victims of the state’s actions. This means we lament with the families and communities of those 278 victims of police violence. This means we stand beside the Sioux and 500 other tribes at Standing Rock—whether it is our physical presence, or making calls to your Congresspeople every day until they recognize your number on the caller ID, and until they step up. This means we find a better way to communicate to pregnant women that we believe in the sanctity of life.

And finally, Bonhoeffer says that it is not good enough to “Not just bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel, but to seize the wheel itself.” This is a really drastic option that Bonhoeffer says should only be used when the church sees the state is failing. I don’t know if we are quite there yet.

Where exactly is that perfect love of God? Are we hoarding this love that is perfected with us, storing it like a commodity, putting it in the bank? Friends, we can’t sit back any more and accept the things that are happening in our country. There is no more room for neutrality. Bonhoeffer said, “The neutrals pose a special problem—in the first place, there really aren’t any; they simply belong to the other side.” Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Our communities of faith need to be on the side of loving our neighbor, not the side of the oppressor.

We love because He first loved us.

This is our time — let’s not throw away this shot to infuse our neighbors and our communities with the perfect love of Jesus. We cannot throw away this opportunity to acknowledge the people who are suffering, the children who are hungry, the ones who are afraid. My friend’s 15 year old son dressed up as Luke Cage for Halloween on Monday. At one house, the white woman who answered the door told him he was pathetic, and he shouldn’t have been trick-or-treating because his costume was inappropriate. My friend was not present for that interaction, and her son was hesitant to share what had happened because he had been humiliated by a person who didn’t see him as a human. She saw him as a scary Black man in a bullet-riddled hoodie. She was afraid of a child in a costume that she didn’t understand, from a television series that was not made for her. She saw him and was full of fear.

We have an opportunity right now to take the love that has been perfected in us and use it to reshape and rewrite the social narrative of the United States. In the same way that a mama gathers up her child who is shaking and cry-talking from a nightmare, we need to grab a box of tissues, pour a glass of water, and embrace the people who are hurting and oppressed and afraid. And we need to hold on to them, and lift them up, and honor them.

Right before the Battle of Yorktown, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Washington sings a very short but powerful song,

I’ll tell you what I wish I’d known,
when I was young and fully of glory:
You have no control
who lives who dies who tells your story.
I know that we can win,
I know that greatness lies in you.
But remember from here on in,
History has its eyes on you.

History has its eyes on us. History always tells what we’ve done, from the Early Church to the Crusades, to the Religious Right, and I promise you that History is making a detailed record of our comings and goings as a people of faith. What will our children and grandchildren say about us when we are no longer here? More importantly, what will the children and grandchildren of the people who are oppressed right now, say about us?

Let us move forward with the confidence of a people full of perfect love. May we grasp Bonhoeffer’s possibilities and question the character of the state and the people who represent us. Let us lift the wheel off of the oppressed, and not only bandage their physical wounds, but work to heal their emotional trauma. Let us not throw away a single opportunity to embrace our neighbor and to love our brother, so that the story of the people of God in this time and place becomes the story of how God’s perfect love brought healing and reconciliation to this land. Amen.

the church loves refugees now

My heart is broken for Syria. I have been closely following the civil war since before it was a war, back in 2011 when peaceful protesters gathered to declare their desires for a better, less-oppressive Syria.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon and spend time photographing refugee life in some of the informal tented settlements.

home

no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well*

The next two generations of Syrian leaders are homeless. Two years ago, it was estimated that more than half the population of Syria was internally displaced. More than 11 million people are homeless inside the borders of Syria.

And that is only a guess.

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This sweet babe was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He is not entitled to a Lebanese birth certificate, and his mama can’t afford to return to Syria to get a birth certificate because they live in abject poverty. It is likely that he will live his entire life as a refugee: lacking food, adequate shelter, and suffering chronic health ailments related to a lack of clean water.

The Syrian Crisis did not materialize one day last week. Aylan, the precious baby found face-down on a Turkish beach, was not the first Syrian baby to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of Syrians have drowned escaping the war, but Aylan was the first one that people chose to see. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in the war –many of them children– but none of those images or stories grabbed the Church’s heartstrings.

The Western Church is, at long last, appropriately horrified by the situation facing the Syrian people. Christians on social media are hashtagging their indignation: #BeTheChurch and #WeWelcomeRefugees are everywhere. There are petitions asking governments to resettle refugees. Much-needed money and supplies are pouring in, and that is truly a benefit that will make people’s lives better.

Why now? Why did the Church decide to “Be The Church” on a random day in August? What made that day more significant than any of the other previous 1,640-ish days since the Syrian Crisis began? Cute babies die daily in Syria. I’m not trying to be crass or to downplay the significance of those deaths; it breaks my heart that people can cause such damage to one another.

DSC00496

But where have you been, Church? Where have you been for the Palestinians? Where are you for the Afghans? For Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese, Myanmarese, Colombians, or Sudanese? Because from where I stand, it looks like you aren’t here for any of these, or as Jesus called them “the least of these.”

The least of these are mostly confined to their own countries, mostly out of sight, and definitely not affecting the West or Western culture in any way. But those Syrians… they have come to Europe. There are white people carrying the bodies of their dead away in front of white media, and white people are shocked. White people are sweeping in to take care of the poor people of color, white people making decisions, white people saving.

Is the Church really interested in being the Church, in being a servant to the hurting people of the world, in housing the homeless and feeding the hungry? This newfound passion has taken the Church by storm. It looks like a fad, like Christians have discovered the next cool thing to be on fire for, that will soon be forgotten. When was the last time you heard a Christian mention any of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Did you know that Boko Haram is still kidnapping and murdering people? Remember when all of the truly devout Christians in America changed their social media avatars to the Arabic letter that is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, to honor all the Christians in Mosul, Iraq who were being massacred? It was so important!

This movement to provide for the Syrian refugees is not an organically-grown movement. It is a public relations campaign that catapulted itself into existence off the body of a dead baby. It is a campaign of shock and awe– shock at the realization of the masses that babies are dying horrible deaths, and awe at the incredible spending power of Western Christianity. I do not see the “We Welcome Refugees” people coming alongside the servants who have been working to assist the Syrian refugees for the past four and a half years. I don’t see this new force even granting the benefit of a mention to the countless NGOs who started the movement to support Syrian refugees. The Church is once again using its financial power to control the lives of the less fortunate, and is steamrolling those who actually have been “being the Church.”

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“Be The Church” is giving Christians a quick and easy means to feeling good about themselves, but it lacks the relational component that is necessary to keep the short attention span of the West focused on people who don’t look or dress like them. The Western Church will show us what it means to be the church: it will burn hot and fiery for a short period of time, and then it will find something else with which to entertain itself.

The Syrian Crisis is going to continue to be a crisis in October. It is going to be a crisis in 2016. It will still be a crisis in 2026, and for decades after. This isn’t a problem the Church can fix. It is one of the most complex social issues facing the world today, and it is one that will outlive my children, and possibly my grandchildren. If the Western Church is going to have any lasting effect on the lives of refugees, it needs to ditch its Saviour complex and learn from the people who have been battling this crisis since the beginning.

*excerpt from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire,
you can find the entire poem here.