A wide spot in my imagination.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jesus was a girl...with two mommies...and a Muslim daddy

At the church I previously served as pastor, the kids signed up in advance for the parts they wanted to play in the annual Christmas pageant.  One year, two little girls signed up to play Mary.  And nobody signed up to play Joseph.  Ours wasn't a Tony-winning show, so what the heck.  We went sans Joe that year, and two little girls -- one about 8, one about 5 -- stood together tending baby Jesus.  The double-casting was entirely innocent, but church was open and affirming to gays and lesbians, so, behind the scenes, we jokingly referred to that year's pageant as, "Jesus Had Two Mommies."

At the church I now serve, a "real" family plays the Holy Family roles, if the calendar works out.  (By calendar working out, I mean, did anyone have a baby in he past few months?  And will they be in town for Christmas Eve?)  This year, a charming little four-week old girl will play the role of baby Jesus.  And her mother and father will dress in costume as Mary and Joseph.  The best part is, the dad is Muslim.  He's not exactly "practicing" or especially "religious."  But by birth and tradition, he is Muslim.

So, Jesus is a girl.  S/he had two mommies.  And his daddy (or is that step-daddy?) is Muslim.

My grandmother had a huge yard filled with flowers, fruit trees and statues.  And every year in December she set her manger scene in the middle of it.  It was the plastic kind where you stuck up a light bulb up their robes. But my grandmother wasn't content with that.  She hauled over the rest of her statuary -- a terra cotta swan that was really a flower pot, a concrete boy with a fishing pole who normally lived at the fish pond, a ceramic frog.  By Christmas Eve, a bizarre cadre of critters surrounded Jesus.  None of them matched in style, size, or material.

Sweet little Jesus girl with two mommies and a Muslim daddy.  An odd-sized boy with a fishing poll, swans, frogs, sweaty shepherds, befuddled scientists from the east, maybe a braying donkey, a pregnant teen-aged girl, a decree-sending emperor who had no idea he was part of the tale.

Christmas is a universal story. Fear, faith, longing, home, misfits, new life.  Those are universal ideas.

"God bless us everyone," as Tiny Tim said.  And, "Peace on earth, goodwill to all."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wayne LaPierre and Jesus

Wayne LaPierre, head lobbyist for the NRA, held a press conference in Washington today.  He said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Jesus of Nazareth, is said to have been a carpenter like his daddy.  One day he sat down in a field of weeds near a lake and said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

One of those guys makes an annual salary of $970,000, by the way.  The other one was killed on a cross near the town dump and tossed in a borrowed grave.

Two different visions for life.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Shortest Sermon You May Ever Hear

Timothy B. Tutt
Pastor, United Christian Church
Austin, Texas

Sunday, August 12, 2012  
10:00 AM Worship

11th Sunday of Epiphany
 (Lectionary Year B)

“The Shortest Sermon You May Ever Hear”
Matthew 22:34-40

34   When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’     .

[Note:  This was my final sermon to preach as senior pastor of the United Christian Church in Austin, Texas.]

Love God and live like it.   It’s that simple and that difficult.
Love God and live like it.  That’s all you have to do.
After 11 years, 572 Sundays, 132 council meetings, 132 newsletters, dozens of funerals, weddings and baptisms, and approximately 2000 dishes that I have sampled at Wednesday Night Potluck Suppers, that is what I hope you will remember:  Love God and live like that.
Everything else is just extra, and there are lots of ways to say it, but at its core, that is the call of the Gospel:  Love God and live like it.
No matter who you are or where you go, Love God and live like it.
If you are young or old or gay or straight, if you are rich or poor, or a Republican or a Democrat, if you live to be a 190 and sit in these pews every Sunday for the rest of your life, or if you never darken the door of a church again, that is what I hope you will remember: Love God and live like it.
Love God and live like it.

Friends, as you go forth from this place, hear the Good News: 
God loves you.
Do not be afraid. 
Be kind to everyone you meet.
And remember: God loves you. 
You are loved.  You are loved.  You are loved. 
Amen, amen and amen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Jesus and Louie Gohmert

The "Batman" movie shootings in Aurora, Colorado, are a painful tragedy.
East Texas Congressman  Louie Gohmert said on a radio show today, "You know what really gets me, as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place."  He was talking about this shooting.  
Gohmert also said the tragedy could have been lessened if someone else in the movie theater had been carrying a gun and shot the gunman.  He said, "It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?" 
Jesus of Nazareth said, "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him to other."
Not easy words.
I wonder who is the most Christian, Jesus or Louis Gohmert?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What is our Work?

There's truck-loads of dithering and hand-wringing among mainline churches these days (and years):  What is the church about?  Who is the church for?  What is the church's mission?  

A friend of mine sent me an email on another topic.  In the midst of his writing he described the church thusly:

A Hebrew Bible passion for justice
a Gospel commitment to abundant grace
and a contemporary church always open to welcome and serve all God's children...
is still our work.”

Seemed worth sharing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Boy Scouts, Evolution, Love and other Controversies

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts leadership affirmed their ban against "open or avowed homosexuals."  That silly, unnecessary, hurtful, exclusive romp reminded me of a sermon I preached a couple of years ago.

The sermon touched on Valentine's Day, evolution, Scouting, mental illness...and love.  

Timothy B. Tutt
Pastor, United Christian Church
Austin, Texas

Sunday, February 14, 2010  
9:30 AM Worship

Transfiguration Sunday
 (Lectionary Year C)

“Everybody’s Son and Daughter – Jesus, Mental Illness, and Us”
Luke 9: 28-43

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Today, three things collide...or perhaps I should say (hopefully), three things hold hands on the church calendar. 
First, it’s Valentine’s Day, of course. 
Second, it’s Evolution Sunday.   A group of Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and others have suggested that today is a good day for churches to think about how science, particularly evolution, intersects with our faith.
Third, here in our little corner of the Realm, we are observing Scouts Sunday.
            So, Valentine’s Day, Evolution Sunday, and Scouts Sunday.

            Now, the first one, Valentine’s Day is not so controversial.   Everybody purports to like love, and most folks like chocolate, so we’re okay with Valentine’s Day.  (As for me, I’m allergic to chocolate so I would just as soon people give each other big boxes of mashed potatoes or chicken enchiladas, but I doubt that is going to catch on.)    Still, we’re okay with Valentine’s Day.

The second thing, Evolution Sunday is more controversial.   Maybe it’s not so controversial here in this church.   We’ve got a fair number of scientists and teachers, so I suspect most of us either embrace the idea entirely, or really don’t give it much thought at all.  But still, the larger world around us seems to be all a-twitter about “humans descending from monkeys.”  The Texas State Board of Education is a good -- or rather, bad -- example of that.  Ever so often the State Board of Education gathers here in River City and people have a good fight about evolution versus creationism, mainly in textbooks.   Seems like there are a lot of people who enjoy calling Charles Darwin names even though he’s been dead 128 years.    So, there’s the controversy of evolution.

Then, there’s Scout Sunday.   For some people, Scout Sunday conjures up a Norman Rockwell painting of freshly-scrubbed lads and lasses in their uniforms, pledging their duty to God.   But for other people, the Scouts (both Boy and Girl) are groups that symbolize intolerance in some ways through by policies that bar certain folks from participation.  GLBT people persons, persons of certain religious persuasions, or lack thereof, have been excluded. 
            In fact, one of our church’s denominational partners, the United Church of Christ, has called into question these policies.  Yet, we have a dozen or more kids in our church who like tying knots, making crafts, learning to cook in a Dutch oven, and sleeping out in tents.   So, Scout Sunday presents a contrast – inclusion versus exclusion.
            (Let me say, by the way, that here’s what we’re doing with Scout Sunday.   We are combining Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.   I think that honors gender equality.   Through this Scout Sunday, we are also acknowledging the Scout pledge to “do your duty to God” is one way that young people have the opportunity to think about their faith beyond the walls of the church.  That’s a shocking idea, huh?   That God doesn’t live only at church.   So, to our Scouts, thank you for finding ways to think about God beyond Sunday.  And we’re also used this Scout Sunday as a time to invite others to come and see how our community seeks to live out our faith.  Learning from others, learning from other faith traditions, is important.)

            So, we’ve got these three contradictions bumping into each other.   Valentine’s Day.  Evolution Sunday.   Scouts Sunday.   As we think about these things, there are a plethora of questions that come to mind:  How do Christians embrace evolution and express their faith?   How can a family take part in two organizations that may have contradictory ideas, like Scouts and the UCC?   What if you’re a liberal on these issues and your next door neighbor is a conservative on these issues – how do we get along?  How does one church express a certain angle on theology while another church expresses a different angle?

That brings us back to Valentine’s Day.   Love.  I know, I know, it sounds so cheesy:  Love.   I’m not talking about buying flowers, or going out to eat or signing your name to a hallmark card.  I’m talking about, “Love one another.”  The words of Jesus, the words of the Apostle Paul, the cornerstone of the Good News that the church has to share.   Love.  The hard work of loving God and loving others.

            Our scripture passage for today is about love.   Jesus, Peter, James, John have this remarkable experience up on a mountaintop, then they come down to town and there’s a pained father crying out for help for his sick little boy.   The child is crying and convulsing and slobbering and hurting.   And the dad begs Jesus, Please help my little boy.  He’s my only child.  What was wrong with this little boy?  I don’t know.  Maybe he suffered from epilepsy, or some terrible digestive sickness.  Maybe he had the precursor to one of our mental illnesses, some extreme version of Tourette’s Syndrome or some terribly manic bipolar disorder.   
You will see that the title of my sermon includes mental illness.  At our 10:45 service I’m going to delve into that aspect a bit more.  I really don’t know what was wrong with the boy.  But I think I know what healed him.  Love.   The love of a man who took the time to stop, to listen, to touch and to care.
That is the same love that houses homeless people.    That is the same love that Cathy described in talking about the Interfaith Hospitality Network.   That is the same love that spurs you to give to the CROP Walk.
That is the same love that our society needs to address the controversies we face.  Evolution versus creationism, inclusive groups and exclusive groups, liberals and conservatives, Fox News and MSNBC.   How do we live with each other?
            I have strongly held views on these issues.    But I am not interested in digging up Darwin and “baptizing” him in the blessed waters of post-modern scientific thought (particularly since he was already baptized once as a good Anglican).  And I’m also not interested in digging up Darwin and crucifying him on a cross of gospel tracts.   I’m also not interested in preaching a sermon that sounds like closing arguments in a case for or against the Scouts.  
I hope that what this sermon does is cause us to think about living the contradictions and spur us onto loving the contrarians.

Love one another.  Conservatives and liberals, creationists and evolutionists, Scouts and not, the mentally ill, the physically well, the Olympically healthy, homeless people and those with three home.  Love them by stopping, listening, touching, caring as Jesus did. 
To me the most vital issue in our society today is learning to disagree with civility, with respect, with dignity.  Certainly we must speak up with urgency and with passion and with justice when wrong is perpetrated.  We must cry out as the daddy did in this text. 
But we simply must learn better ways to disagree.
I think that “more excellent way" (as the Apostle Paul wrote)  is love.

I hope, I pray that as citizens, we will find ways to end this debate over evolution.   I hope, I pray that we will embrace scientific views and faith perspectives that help us explain and care for our planet.   I hope, I pray that all groups of people – Scouts, churches, garden clubs, nations – will transcend the lines that divide us and truly embrace, welcome, and include all God’s critters.
But I’m afraid I’m a fatalist.   I’m afraid that once we’ve settled the evolution-versus-creation debate, I’m afraid that once we’ve fully welcomed GLBT people into, I’m afraid that once we’ve moved beyond the Christian versus Islamic wars that tear us apart, we will just move on to some other “fight” that we can’t even imagine today.
            Sadly, that seems to be how we humans are.  
            We may settle the current issues.   But unless we learn to love, we will just move on to other issues.  Unless we learn to heal, we will continue to fight.

But if we learn to love, to agree with kindness and to disagree with even more kindness, if we learn to respect, to care and to include, then we can live the more excellent way that beckons:  “Love one another.”

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bleach for the Soul

Timothy B. Tutt
Pastor, United Christian Church
Austin, Texas

Sunday, June 3, 2012  
8:30, 9:30 and 10:45 AM Worship

2nd Sunday of Pentecost
Ordinary/Common Time
 (Lectionary Year B)

“Bleach for the Soul”
Romans 12:1-2  and James 1:26-27


Last Sunday, my sermon was about a minister in North Carolina who made some terrible anti-gay statements in a sermon.  He said, among other things, that we should round up gay and lesbian people in this country, put them in an electric fence, and wait for them to die. 
My sermon is posted on my blog and on our church’s Facebook page.  And I think we uploaded it to the church web page as well.
            In that sermon, I talked about the wrong that people sometimes do. I talked about how the church has sometimes blessed that wrong over the years.  I talked about our need to speak out against evil.   And I talked about the hard, hard work of praying for those who do wrong.
            I must say, I was overwhelmed by the response to that sermon—the conversations we had at the doorway after worship, the emails, the Facebook posts.  I was reminded once again of how thoughtful you are as a church, how gracious you are as individuals, how sensitive you are to problems in the world.

            As I said, I posted that sermon on my blog.  Remember, the sermon was about a minister who preached a horribly, horribly anti-gay sermon.  So, on my blog I got a post from a woman name Magen.   I do not know Magen.  I don’t know where she lives.  I don’t know much about her.  But I feel terribly, terribly sad for her.   [If you are reading this blog again, Magen, I would appreciate you contacting me.]
            So, she read my sermon on my blog, and here is what she wrote:
I followed a link to this sermon from your comment on HRC's Facebook post, and I'm glad I did. I was raised in a church founded by my grandfather, currently pastored by my uncle with my father as the associate pastor. After my divorce I realized I'm homosexual. I have sat through many hurtful sermons preached by my family as well as guest speakers. I eventually stopped going to church, but still sent my son. After the president's support of gay marriage went public, people from the congregation began to take a more active stand against the gay lifestyle. They said this is a bigger issue than other sins in the Bible because people are making a lifestyle of it. I decided I could no longer send my son to church with my father, who has picked him up for services twice a week. I planned to have a serious talk with my father explaining my decision, as it would not be taken lightly. I planned to find a new church to attend that is more in line with what I believe Jesus wants from us. As it turned out I didn't have to have that talk. My father simply stopped calling and stopped showing up to pick up his grandson. We are cast aside, cast aside by Christians in the name of God. These are the people who taught me about Jesus as a little girl. What do I make of this? I've pondered this question for many years. Is God a concept that was invented to control, to provide comfort to conformists? As a homosexual I know that I didn't choose this, I didn't, I truly, from the bottom of my heart, did not choose this. But I can't convince anyone. They don't believe me. God must know that. What do I do with this?

I’ve written back to Magen.   I haven’t heard back from her yet.

Last Sunday I asked you to pray for Reverend Worley, the pastor in North Carolina who preached the hateful sermon.    Several of you talked about how difficult that is, to pray for someone who seems so hateful.  It is hard to see that person as a child of God.  I know that. 
This week, I will ask you to do something that should be easier.  Please pray for Magen, this woman who emailed me.   Obviously, her faith is important to her.   And her family seems important to her.   And she has been kicked out of both, “cast aside” is the phrase she used.  She feels cast aside by her family and her church.

It’s interesting how all of this has come together in this sermon this morning.
Several weeks ago, maybe several months ago now, Ken, Nikki and I selected the scriptures for this service.  The verse from the Book of James:  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”   And here is a family, a Christian family, a family of leaders in their church, who have kicked their daughter out of their family.  They have essentially orphaned her and her son.  And yet, this scripture says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows…”
Our Centering Words, the words that used to begin the 9:30 and 10:45 services this morning were written by Tim Colvin.  Tim wrote that we want to trust the rulers of this earth, we want to trust our bodies, we want to trust our families, but our governments, our bodies and our families sometimes fail us.  Tim didn’t know anything about this woman when she wrote these words.  I hadn’t even read this blog post when Tim prepared the bulletin.   But here we have a family who has failed their child.  They have cast her aside.

This scripture passage from James says, “Keep yourself unstained by the world.”   The scripture passage from Romans has some similar ideas, “Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”  
Both of those scriptures have passages have been used to develop moral codes, purity codes.   Keep your body pure, keep your body unstained.  Maybe you learned it this way, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t you go with girls that do.” 
Fair enough, to that old saying.  But that old saying is not nearly enough, not enough at all.
Jesus said, “You can clean the outside of the cup, but the inside may still be full of greed and self-indulgence.”  (Matthew 23: 25)
The Apostle Paul said, “You can speak like an angel and do all kinds of amazing things, but if you don’t have love you’re a resounding or a clanging cymbal.”  (I Corinthians 13: 1)
As I said, I don’t know this woman, Magen, and I don’t know her family.  But it seems to me that the family may be like cups, clean on the outside, messy on the inside.   Aren’t we all, sometimes?  They’ve got lots of words to say about rules, but she feels they left love by the wayside of their journey.   Don’t we all, sometimes?
I ache for them.  I really do.
And I wonder what it must be like for her uncle and her father.   They’re the pastors of a church.  How do they preach the story of the Prodigal Son without having their hearts break? Isn’t that the point of the story:  That we wait with hope and grace to throw a party for the people we love?  I guess they would focus on the “sin” aspect of the Prodigal story, though Jesus didn’t focus on the sin when he told it.   They probably say that she’s a “sinner” and needs to repent.  Based on what I’ve read in this email, I can’t say this woman is a sinner.  I’m tempted to say that it’s her family who’s becomes “stained,” by excluding her. That’s the problem with sin: It’s really easy to spot the “stain” in other people’s lives and really hard to see in ourselves.

So, what do we make of this, to ask Magen’s question.  How do we discern the will of God?  What do we do with this family that has “cast aside” their daughter?  What do we do with these scripture passages about pure religion?  Is there bleach for our souls?
First, I think, we pray. I asked you to pray for Magen this week. I asked you last week to pray for the pastor and hateful electric fence idea.  So, keeping praying.  Listen for the Spirit to speak in your lives.
Also, listen for these stories, stories such as Magen’s.  Stories like that are hard to hear. “My father simply stopped calling,” she wrote…  “My father simply stopped calling, and stopped showing up to pick up his grandson. We are cast aside, cast aside by Christians in the name of God.”
We pray, we hear those stories, and then we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice.  That is, we offer ourselves to be used as instruments of God.  We offer ourselves to people who are broken and battered and bruised.  Can we fix all of their problems?  Maybe not, but we can try. 
We can care.  We can act. 
It is not enough for us to simply sit sympathetically in church, but do nothing.  It is not enough to think, “Oh, that preacher in North Carolina is bad.  I’m so glad my preacher is good.”  It’s not enough to think, “How said for that woman to be kicked out of her church. I’m so glad to have my church.”  That is not enough.
Instead, here is what I think we are called to do.  When that father stopped calling his daughter, we start calling. Maybe not her, we don’t know where she lives, we don’t have her phone number.  But we know someone who is cast out, shunned, lonely.  Care for that person.   When that grandfather stopped showing up to pick up his grandson for church, we start showing up to bring them here or to some place where they make connections of the soul.
Over and over, people say to me, “This church is so great.  I feel so loved here.”  Or, “My kids or grandkids are getting such grounding here.”  Or, “The youth mission trip is so important.”  Or, “I feel accepted here.”   I am grateful for those comments and feelings.  But it is never enough to be soothed in our own religious satisfaction.   We must also share that Good News with others.
If you find your soul warmed here, invite others to join you in God’s embrace.
If you find yourself loved here, invite others to experience that love with you.
If you find yourself accepted here, invite others into that grace as well.

From time to time I hear people say – well-meaning people – “I really don’t want too many more people here, because we might lose some of what makes us special.” Yes, we will.  We will lose something special.    And we will gain more of it.  Because there are a million Magens out there with those aches and grief.  A million Magens, saying, We are cast aside, cast aside by Christians in the name of God. These are the people who taught me about Jesus as a little girl. What do I make of this? …. What do I do with this?
There are a million Magens, who need this place, who need your compassion, you kindness.   There are a million Magens out there who need to hear the words that Tim Colvin wrote:  “Rulers may betray, bodies may fail, and families sometimes disappoint.  But God guides us, the Spirit sustains us, Christ welcomes us home.”
Do not be afraid.  You are loved.  Share the Good News.   
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the mercies of God.  Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Messiness of Being Human: A Pentecost Sermon in Response to Hatred

Timothy B. Tutt
Pastor, United Christian Church
Austin, Texas

Sunday, May 27, 2012  
8:30, 9:30 and 10:45 AM Worship

Pentecost Sunday
 (Lectionary Year B)

"The Messiness of Being Human:
A Pentecost Sermon In Response to Hatred" 
Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27

My sermon title in the bulletin is “Years of Wonder, Days of Spirit.”   And that is a very fine sermon.  But I am not going to preach that sermon this morning.  That sermon is about Pentecost in the first century and Pentecostalism today.  There’s a little bit in that sermon about Albert Einstein and some about Moses.  I will leave copies of that sermon here on the pulpit.  Feel free to take a copy home today.
            Instead, I would like to speak to you, for a moment or two, about a situation that has been bothering me the past two week.  I’ve had this nagging issue in my mind.

Two weeks ago the President of the United States expressed his personal support for gay marriage.  Those were historic words from our nation’s chief executive officer.  People responded in a number of ways to his comments.  Some cheered, some questioned, some said, “About time.”
In the middle of those responses, a pastor in North Carolina preached a sermon offering his views on gay marriage.  The pastor’s name is Charles Worley, and his congregation is in Maiden, N.C.  (MSNBC.com, May 22, 2012)

Now let me say a few general things about his comments, before I address his sermon specifically.
First, I support, and have the privilege of, a free pulpit.  No one in this congregation has ever told me what to preach or what to say.  Sometimes you disagree with me and argue with me, and that is okay.  That is a hallmark of Protestant Christianity, ministers being free to speak on issues as the Spirit leads them, and church members being free to use their minds to think. 
I also treasure the corollary of a free pulpit, the freedom of speech that our Constitution guarantees people in this country.  As we celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow and honor this nation, the freedom of speech stands first among the things I cherish.
And, I also strongly support the separation of church and state.   I think keeping state and church separate allows both to better fulfil their purposes.  And part of the separation of church and state is the freedom the church has to criticize the state.  I think, as Christians, we have a duty, a responsibility, to speak out when we feel the state is wrong, is unjust.
On the issue of marriage, I also understand that there are some people who hold very strongly to traditional views of marriage.  And by traditional, I mean the Western views that we have held for about the past four hundred years, based on romance, love, mutual respect, and maintenance of the nuclear family.

So, this preacher in North Carolina, Reverend Worley, has the freedom to preach as he feels led, he has the freedom to speak as he feels called, he has the freedom to critique our government as he sees fit, and he has the freedom to support marriage as he defines it.
But his words went far beyond freedom and tradition.
You may have seen his sermon on the news or on YouTube. 
Two Sunday ago, Mr. Worley said in his sermon that he opposes gay marriage.  From his pulpit he called the president some very childish names.  He also stated for whom he would vote and implicitly instructed his congregation to do the same.
And then he went on to say that we should round up all of the gay and lesbian people in this country. He said we should put them in a pen of some sort with an electric fence around it.  To show how kind he is, he said we should fly airplanes over and drop food from time to time.  And he said that because they won’t reproduce, we should just wait for them to die off. 
This man is proposing a Holocaust, concentration camps.

I have been to Auschwitz.   
I have seen the barbed wire and the bricks and the ovens. 
I have seen humankind’s inhumanity to others. 
I understand the Apostle Paul’s words about groaning for the world.  (Romans 8:22)
I have been to Eastern Europe where the walls of communism kept others in bondage. 
I have been to a Navajo reservation where Japanese Americans were jailed by our government, trapped on grounds of suspicion. 
I have crossed the Trail of Tears where Native Americans, where my children’s great-grandparents, were rounded up, forced to leave their homes by an oppressive government.  
I have stood on plantations where one race, my race, my great-grandparents, enslaved another race and forced them to do their bidding, or die.

Those acts were wrong.
Often, the Christian church supported those acts.  That was wrong.

Friends, we must stop the hatred, the language of violence. 
Christianity is a faith of grace and love, not a system of hatred and intolerance. 
We must not allow our faith to be used to build prisons of intolerance, whether they are actual prisons of fence and of stone or whether they are prisons of the mind and of the spirit.
Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church.  It is time for the church to be born again, not born of ideology and segregation, but born again of integration and peace.
Pentecost is a freedom.   The Jazz Ensemble played “Freedom Jazz Dance” as the prelude.  Very appropriate. 
Pentecost is the story of the free spirit, the free mind, the free soul.  It is a story of God’s unbounded love for diverse humanity. 

Pentecost is also a story of fear.  The scripture says that God’s spirit came upon these early Christians in a new and powerful way.  They ran out into the street.  And the people who met them, who heard them, were afraid.  They made fun.  They called them names.  They thought they were drunk.  You read the scripture (Acts 2).  They were afraid of them.   They were afraid of new ways of speaking, new ways of living, new ways of loving. 
We live in a time of fear. 
As horrible as Reverend Worley’s words were two weeks ago, I understand something of why he said them.  He is afraid.  He is afraid of a changing world. 
And our world is changing rapidly.  Issues of marriage, issues of economics, issues of technology, are all changing.  We live at time of great change.  History shows that about every 500 years, the world undergoes dramatic upheaval.  The birth of Jesus and the Pentecost explosion (0), the Constantinian domination (c. 500), the Great Schism (1054), the Reformation and the printing press (1500s.)  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence)   
It’s hard to live in a time of change.  How we communicate is new, where we live is new, how we relate to each other is new, even the hymns we sing may be new.  And people are afraid.
Over and over again, our Bible sings out to us, “Do not be afraid!  Do not fear!”  When those early Christians gathered in that upper room, they must have been terrified also.   It wasn’t just the people outside.   It was the people inside, as well.  They were afraid.  Jesus, their lord and leader and teacher, was gone from their midst.  They were all alone.   So they hid in a room. 
And in an experience that defies our understanding, the Spirit of God showed up.   It wasn’t enough for a prophet to speak or a writer to pen the words, “Do not be afraid.”  This time, God spoke in a new and powerful way. 
Did the wind really blow?  I don’t know.  Did fire really sit on their heads?  I have no idea. 
But something happened.  Some moment of great connection with God occurred that caused them to cast off their old ways, to cast off their fears and to live and speak in new ways.
I don’t know that I have the words to speak to and for our world.  I lean on Paul’s words that the Spirit will speak for us.  (Romans 8:26)
I pray, I pray fervently and deeply, that the Spirit of God will move in the heart and mind of this Mr. Worley, that he will see the new work of the Spirit, and that he will not be afraid.  At a minimum, I pray that he will renounce the words of violence and the images of Holocaust and hatred that he used.  I pray that he will be freed from his narrow-mindedness and be opened to the love of all God’s children.
And I pray for myself.  I pray that I will be freed from my own narrow-mindedness.  I pray that I will be open to the love of all of God’s children.
After all, God’s children are a fascinating, wonderful mix of critters.   You are, just you the people in the room, are different and unique and wonderful and weird.  And in the Pentecost story, the Spirit meets us “where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences” and weirdness.   
Theologian Eric Barreto has pointed out that, “The Spirit translates the Gospel instantly into myriad languages….Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.  God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God's language.  Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension.  At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi and Chinese alike.  At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear.  God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of [the human experience], speaking different languages, eating different foods and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”  (Huffington Post, May 21, 2012)
Freeing, liberating, life-giving Good News that transcends our fears and opens the prisons of our minds.

It is easy to take the same kind of hatred that Reverend Worley used in North Carolina and turn it back on him.   It is easy to call him names and belittle him, as he has done for others.  It will be harder for me to pray for him.  But I will try.   And in a moment, out Jazz Ensemble will remind us of that when they play, “Speak No Evil.”  So I will try.  And I invite you to join me in praying for him as well. He is part of the messiness of the human experience.  God speaks his language too.
And I’m going to do one other thing as well.  I’m going to write a check for our United Mission Offering.  And I’m going to give it our church to give away.  On the memo line, I’ve noted that this gift is in honor of Charles Worley.  I didn’t want to write that phrase, but I did it.  However much I disagree with him, I feel compelled to honor him as my brother in Christ, my sibling in this messy human family.
Now, there may be a little “dig” in there, maybe I’m not as pure as I should be, because, you see, part of this money will go to support the Justice and Witness ministries that seek to include all people in the church. 
Part of this money goes to support new churches like Hope United in Georgetown that is an Open and Affirming church that is working to be a welcoming presence in Williamson County
Part of this money goes to support the reconciliation ministries that bridges divides and brings people together.
I don’t know that Rev. Worley will appreciate the way this money is used.  But I’ll tell him about it in the letter I will send him.  And rather than lambast him, I hope this is a way, one small way, to promote the unity of Spirit that we find in the Pentecost story.  So I invite you to join me in this giving. 
I invite you to join me in praying for those with whom you disagree.
I invite you to join me in dedicate our lives, once again, to living as people of the Spirit.

God, this Pentecost living is messy business.
We, your people are complicated, difficult people. 
Warm our hearts once again and open our minds to your ways.
I pray for Charles Worley. 
I’m sorry for the fear in which he lives and the ways he expresses that fear.
I pray for myself, O God, for the ways that I am afraid and the words I have used to harm.
I pray for those who are left out of the church, those who feel belittled and forgotten.
I pray for our United Mission Offering, for the ways that our gifts can help and heal. 
Visit us all with a sense of your renewing Spirit,
that we may all be instruments of grace and peace, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Right-Sized in the Universe?

Copernicus and others taught us that we're not the center of the universe.  Our home is just one of many homes swirling in the inky, spangled cosmos.  We're not even the center of our galaxy.  That's a milky collection of gassy chunks, where our sun is just one neighbor in the Local Fluff.  And we're not even the center of our solar system.  The sun is.  That's why it's called a solar system, not an earth system.

But at least we can still be the center of the earth, right?  With chest-thumping hymns of national exceptionalism or mind-numbing thoughts of personal egotism, we can put ourselves where we belong: on the pedestal of me-first-ism.

Then this comes along...

  • Sunday I was reminded that there are more members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Congo than there are in North America.   Interesting since the CC(DOC) claims to be the first denomination born in the United States.
  • And I heard on NPR this morning that car-making icon General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in the United States.

So, where do we fit?  Does all that make you feel small? Or right-sized?  I wonder...

I'd like to hear from you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Apologies, Apologies Everywhere

Apologies abound lately. Well, sort of. And as they abound, they sometimes confound.

I heard a college basketball player this morning describe an on-court dust-up with another player. The player apologized "if" the other player "took it the wrong way." A conditional apology isn't really an apology, is it?

Last week, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton apologized for his role in the "bounty" scandal where his players paid their teammates for injuring opposing teams. Payton said, "I am sorry for what has happened." Kind of makes you wonder, was he sorry for the bounty, or just sorry he got caught?

A few weeks before, President Obama apologized to the president of Afghanistan for Korans that were burned on a U.S. military base. Former Senator Rick Santorum snipped that Mr. Obama's apology showed "weakness." Newt Gingrich went further, saying that president "surrendered" by apologizing.

NPR apologized for a broadcast of "This American Life" that falsely described working conditions at an Apple factory in China. Then they spent an hour retracting and dissecting the false episode.

But the best apology of all in the news lately, belongs to Harold Camping. Camping is the radio preacher who said the world was going to end in May of last year. When it didn't, he changed the end-date to October. That date came and went.

Then, earlier this month, Camping broke his awkward silence to apologize. "We humbly acknowledge we were wrong," he wrote. The mistake was a "painful lesson," Camping said. Then he went on to call his own ideas "incorrect and sinful." Lest anyone still not understand, Camping threw in a few more "humbles" and spoke of himself "trembling before God."

Wow! Now that's an apology. The prediction business didn't turn out so well for Mr. Camping. Maybe he could go into the apology-writing business. Lots of work to be had there.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Bible and Beards, Pigs and Presidents

Presidential wannabe Rick Santorum declared last week that President Obama’s ideas are not based on the Bible. Let’s assume that Mr. Santorum is elected president and goes about establishing a government based on the Bible.

First of all, beginning on Inauguration Day, the new President Santorum will stop shaving. And I guess he will force all men to stop shaving as well. (It’s in the Bible.) Will the FBI enforce beard lengths or will that be left up to the states?

And I feel sorry for the person that Mr. Santorum appoints to be Secretary of Agriculture. The USDA is likely to have a tough time with the National Pork Producers Association after the new administration bans pork chops, bacon, and sausage. (No pork. It’s in the Bible.) Wonder how that will affect business at the IHOP?

And that sheriff out in Arizona, the Republican who supported Romney, then announced he was gay and said he was having an affair with an immigrant whose visa was expired? Tough call there. After all, the Bible says over and over that you should love the stranger in your land and treat him well. (Leviticus 19:34 and other places). The sheriff certainly loved—or really, really liked -- at least one stranger. But I guess President Santorum may have to kill the sheriff anyway. That’s in the Bible, too. (Leviticus 20:13. Ouch!)

Yes, it will be tough for Mr. Santorum to put into place a government based on the Bible. But there’s good news as well.

We won’t go to war since the Bible says, “Do not kill,” “Love your enemies,” and “Turn the other cheek.” (Yep, they’re all there. Pretty clear.)

And even though Mr. Santorum wants to shrink federal government, I’m sure his new Bible-based rule will allow for a new Department of Forgiveness. After all, that’s a big part of biblical theology. (Who do you think he will appoint to be Assistant Secretary for the Confession of Sins? Newt Gingrich? Bill Clinton? A lot of us could go to work in that bureau.)

One final hope: Maybe this new Bible-based government will help the economy. After all, I’m guessing that millionaires like Mr. Santorum and Mr. Obama and gazillionaires like Mr. Romney will “sell all that they have and give the money to the poor.” (It’s in the Bible.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Prop 8 Goes to Church

In 2008, voters in California passed Proposition 8, stating that in California, marriage is only between a man and a woman. The controversial issue went to court lickety-split, with all kinds of questions and complaints.

On Tuesday of this week, a federal court ruled that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

On Wednesday of this week, I got an email from one of the Sunday School teachers at our church. Here's the story she told me:

In the younger elementary class, kids were drawing. One boy asked a Kindergarten girl about her pictures. She was making them for her girlfriends and boyfriends, she said.

Full of second grade wisdom, the boy replied, "So, two men can get married, and it's no big deal."

The Sunday School teacher told me that, at that point, she readied herself, thinking her grown-up input and explanation would be needed.

But the young girl simply replied, "Yeah, but sometimes they have trouble having babies, so they have to adopt."

In her email to me, the Sunday School teacher said, "End of conversation, no big deal."

She concluded, "I just wanted to let you know that even the youngest among us are actively practicing the teachings of our church. I am so pleased that I will be raising my daughter in an environment that is so accepting of all God's people."

The word out of California is that supporters of Prop 8 plan to appeal the recent court ruling. This case may make its way all the way up the marble steps of the Supreme Court. I wonder if an elementary Sunday School class can file an amicus curiae brief?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ten (and a Half) Texas Politicians You Need to Know

So, Rick Perry’s decided to quit his presidential hunt, leaving quirky Ron Paul to be the man from Texas on the campaign trail. And George W. Bush’s time in the White House hasn’t quite faded from our national memory.

But believe it or not, Perry, Paul and Bush aren’t the only brand of Texas politicians. Along the way, Texans have elected – dare I say it? – a few liberals. Gulp! Maybe they called themselves moderates, progressives, or populists. Maybe they simply saw themselves acting with integrity or decency. Maybe their whole records aren’t perfect. Or maybe they just accidentally did a few good things.

But in the interest of fairness to my fellow Texans, here are ten Texas politicians you need to know:

1. Mirabeau B. Lamar. As second president of the Republic of Texas, he set aside land for each county to set up schools and for the support of two universities, later the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Lamar supported education and had the good sense to say, “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”

2. Elisha M. Pease. As governor in the 1850s, Pease created the Permanent School Fund, a big chunk of money that helps Texas schools keep their head above water today (despite efforts to take away their flotation devices.) Pease also gladly used state dollars (read that, taxes) to build institutions for orphans, the mentally ill, and deaf and blind Texans. And, he paid off the state’s debt at the same time.

3. Miriam Ferguson. Okay, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson left a trail of corruption and scandal in her wake, and she was pretty much the pawn of her husband. But she’s worth knowing. In part because she was a woman, elected governor in 1924. And in part because Ma took on the Ku Klux Klan (a group that made the tea party look like amateurs). She stood up to bullies.

4. Dan Moody. As governor Dan Moody reorganized the state’s prisons. He redid the state highway system to make roads connect, which meant he cut highway costs in half and meant he stood up to the road-builders and their lobbyists. He had the state started auditing its accounts.

5. Maury Maverick. Maverick served only four years in Congress, representing San Antonio, but his work is monumental. During the Great Depression, Maverick lived with African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and poor whites to see their plight first hand. He brought to Washington the memories of those tragic places. He also brought an ACLU membership card, an opposition to lynching, and loathing of the poll tax. Maverick objected to the House Un-American Activities Committee, went so far as to oppose all war in principle (though he earned a Purple Heart in World War I), and gave the world the word, “gobbledygook.”

6. Lyndon Johnson. Yep, he swaggered like Bush and Perry. Yep, he governed like a bully sometimes. And yep the Vietnam War was a horror. But dag-nab-it, the Civil Rights Acts were remarkable pieces of legislation. Federal funds for education, Medicare, Medicaid, highway beautification, environmental conservation, an all-out assault on poverty, Head Start – those things were real and powerful and needed.

7. Barbara Jordan. She sounded like God and used her voice on behalf of others. She passed a workers’ compensation bill that helped injured workers, and she broadened the Voting Rights Act to make sure that Mexican Americans were covered.

8. Ann Richards. Funny, flawed and fearless. She supported a woman’s right to choose, she appointed openly gay and lesbian Texans to offices, and championed the rights of Latinos and women. To paraphrase Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s broadside against Dan Quayle, “I lived in Texas when Ann Richards was governor, and Rick Perry is no Ann Richards.” (That probably makes them both happy.)

9. William Wayne Justice. As a federal judge, his ruling about prisoners’ rights led to a complete overhaul of the Texas penal system. And his 1970 ruling led Texas schools be desegregated. Longtime Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby said of the Judge Justice, he “dragged Texas into the 20th century. God bless him. He was very unpopular, but he was doing the right thing.”

10. My Uncle George. Okay, he was actually my great-uncle. He served as County Judge of Delta County for one term. While in office, my great-uncle George Bolger got crossed up with the county sheriff Benny Fisher over the bonds to fund the jail. The sheriff wanted more money, my uncle wanted less. In the midst of haggling out the details, a weekend rolled around. While everybody was away, the sheriff moved Uncle George’s office furniture move to the courthouse men’s. I don’t know who won the bonds debate, and my serious uncle was mortified by this entire episode. But that’s why he’s on the list – he was a politician who cared about the details of a budget and the dignity of public office.

10 ½. Benny Fisher. See #10. The Delta County Sheriff makes the list as an honorable mention for having a tremendous sense of humor.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Don't Be a (Religious) Hater

I’m kind of tired of people saying that they like Jesus, but they don’t like religion. (This little rant is prompted by a recent Facebook/YouTube clip, saying, “I hate religion, but I love Jesus.”)

There’s a whole other subset of folks who opt for the “spiritual, but not religious” track. That’s a different deal. Today, it’s the “Love Jesus, Hate Religion” mindset that’s bothersome.

I get the surface points – Jesus was about treating other people with kindness, honesty, justice, grace, compassion and love. Religion (or what people say is bad or false religion) sometimes (maybe oftentimes) squelches those virtues. Fair enough – on the surface.

So, to get by the squelching, some people – with earnest, hipster-like angst – want to opt out of religion. I think that’s selfish.

Following Jesus is cool. Devoting oneself to kindness, honesty, justice, grace, compassion and love – that’s the point of life, whether you love Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, or Bugs Bunny.

But I don’t think you can do those things in vacuum. That is, you can’t be kind, honest, just, graceful, compassionate and loving and never interact with another person. And the minute you interact with another person, you’ve started in on “religion.”

Religion is the process of living out a values system or a faith system. Religion is two or more people trying to follow Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster or Bugs Bunny. And the minute two people start to interact, there is conflict, or at least the potential for conflict.

“We should demonstrate our devotion to Bugs Bunny by dressing up in rabbit suits and passing out carrots,” says Adherent Number 1.

“Should they be organic carrots,” asks Adherent Number 2.

And that’s when the trouble starts. That’s religion.

The way to avoid it is for Adherent Number 1 to withdraw, to love Bugs but hate religion, to avoid Adherent Number 2.

Maybe that would work for followers of cartoon rabbits, I don’t know. But I don’t think it works to be an independent, religion-averse Jesus-lover. I think being kind, honest, just, graceful, compassionate and loving requires being religious – that is, it requires being in connection with, in cooperation with, in community with – maybe even in disagreement with – other people trying to live out those same values.

You don’t have to call your community a church or a congregation or a coven or a klatch. But you can’t act piously and sanctimoniously above the fray of religion either. It’s part and parcel of following Jesus.

Rather than “hate” religion, I think we are called to embrace it, to recognize its inconsistencies, to laugh at its foibles, to admit our own contributions to its shortfalls, to transform it as best we can.

See, “religion” (i.e., people) has done some terrible, horrible, inexcusable things. And along the way, “religion” has had a fine moment or two as well. But to “hate” religion seems to be rather sanctimonious. To take part in religion seems like hard work that keeps us humble.