Poisonous Generalizations After – and Before – Chattanooga

It didn’t take long after the tragic shooting deaths of five Marines for the venomous voices of generalized hate to begin their bellow.

The murderer was a Muslim. Therefore all Muslims are dangerous.  Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with anger.  Damn Muslims. Send them all home! Attack their countries!

Sadly, one of the loudest of those venomous voices belongs to someone who claims to speak for Christians. Franklin Graham, whose anti-Muslim fanaticism is nothing new, wrote that all Muslims are potentially dangerous. Therefore, no Muslims should be allowed to immigrate to the United States. After all, he reasons, that is what we did with German and Japanese citizens during World War II. We also locked up US citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II – is that the model Graham believes we should follow?

This kind of prejudiced generalization is something I would expect from political demagogues, not Christian pastors. I don’t believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” includes judging that neighbor by the actions of someone who happens to share his ethnicity or religion.

If so, then maybe you should lock me up. After all, Charleston mass-murderer Dylan Roof was Lutheran – an ELCA Lutheran like me, in fact. Where are the calls to send Lutherans back to Germany or Scandinavia?  Or to halt immigration from those places?

The thing is, we don’t make generalizations about white folk. Someone  we consider “white” does something horrendous and it’s not a reflection of a whole race of people.  Dylan Roof was a “lone gunman,” obviously “deranged.” Of course he was . . . normal white Christian people don’t do that kind of thing.

I was listening to a conservative talk-radio host today rant about the White House because the initial presidential statement had been about a “lone gunman” in Chattanooga.  The White House spokesman wouldn’t “admit” it was because the gunman was one of those damn Muslims.

Because  Muslims . . . and Mexicans!  A Mexican in San Francisco commits a horrific murder, and Donald Trump (speaking of political demagogues) basically says, “That’s just how those Mexicans are.” Trump was “punished” for this hate-speech by rising to the top of the opinion polls. Trump famously published “The Art of the Deal.” He knows how to make a sale. Hate sells.

You hear it about black folks, too. After the Baltimore protests, for example, there was talk about how “they” don’t care because a portion of the protests resulted in destruction of property. The talk was about how that’s just how “they” are.

Making poisonous generalizations is a way to keep “them” in their place and to maintain “our” superiority – “white privilege.” It is picking and choosing the worst behavior of those with whom we disagree, then using it to smear everyone in the group we want to marginalize (or to keep marginalized).

It is the antithesis of the way Martin Luther explained the commandment about False Witness:

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking about marriage equality and other LGBT rights only to have the person I’m talking to say, “But look at what those people do.  Look at those wild gay pride parades!”

Somehow we manage to avoid judging straight people – white Christians mostly – by how they behave at Mardi Gras parades. Or in racetrack infields. Or at NFL tailgates.

Generalization dehumanizes. It is the opposite of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Jesus did not say, “Love your straight white Christian American neighbor as you love yourself.”

There were no qualifiers there. In fact, he made sure we knew even the people we don’t like are included when he said, “Love your enemies.”

Here’s the thing – I confess I am guilty of this too.  It is tempting to be lazy and to judge someone by their group identity – either self-identified or imposed – rather than get to know them as a person, as God’s creation, as someone who Jesus died for.

How can we change not just our actions but our hearts?

Here’s an exercise I’m going to try. I hope you’ll join me. Think about a group you have bad feelings about, that you meet or hear about someone in that group then you jump to negative conclusions about that person.

Got one?

I do.

Now, go find and read an article about members of that group that is positive, that works against your stereotype.

If your chosen group is “those damn Muslims,” I can help you out. (Reverend Graham, you out there?)  I read such an article this morning in the Washington Post about Muslim outreach in DC during Ramadan.  It even has in the second paragraph what folks are always claiming that they want from “those Muslims,” repudiation of terrorism committed in the name of Allah. And there’s this – “Muslim charity drives have raised funds for damaged African American and Pakistani churches.”  Here’s the link.

For other groups, Google is your friend.

Poisonous generalizations are based in fear. Their power emanates from the fear they engender. When Donald Trump – or Reverend Graham – speak in stereotypes, they are both feeding, and feeding off, that fear. That is the direct opposite of what I am called to do as a Christian and as a pastor.

Christians believe that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Or at least we are supposed to. It’s hard to tell when some of our loudest “leaders” are trading in hate-based fear.

Our call is to out-love the fear. I wonder if we can.

—-

I intentionally left out the name of the Chattanooga perpetrator. It is the victims we should remember:

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan
Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells
Staff Sgt. David Wyatt
Sgt. Carson Holmquist
Petty Officer Randall Smith

Please join me in prayers for their families, friends, and comrades in arms, as well as for the protection of all those who protect us.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Racism | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Case of the Missing Bible Verses

Missing Bible VersesIs there a conspiracy by Bible publishers edit, abrade, scour, or otherwise corrupt the Holy Scriptures?

Maybe you’ve seen the urgent Facebook posts – “PAY ATTENTION PEOPLE” one begins – about the “missing” verses in the NIV and other newer Bible translations. Supposedly, 45 verses have been removed and this is some sort of evil plot to “change the Bible.”

One of my parishoniers forwarded such a post to me and asked me about it. Here’s my reply, edited for blog publication:

It is true that those verses do not appear in the text of the NIV, ESV, and other modern translations.  There doesnt seem to be any plot to hide them though, or if there is they aren’t very good at it – Most of the verses are there in footnotes that begin “Some manuscripts . . . ” before printing the “missing” verse.

Don’t worry, this is no conspiracy to edit the Bible!

The BIble was divided into verses by a printer named Robert Stephanus in the mid-1500’s.

Those verse divisions became standard and were used in the King James BIble, published in 1611.

The translators of the King James Bible used Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) texts that were considered the most accurate at the time.  This included all the verses Stephanus had numbered.

Since 1611 (400 years!) many earlier manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament have been found. This is oversimplifying, but scholars generally consider older manuscripts to be closer to the original because they haven’t been copied and recopied as much. Of course we don’t have the orignal manuscripts of any of the Bible, so we are always relying on copies.

There is no “original Bible” that we can go to and resolve the differences between manuscripts.

Those older manuscripts don’t have the verses that have been deleted from the newer translations.  Most likely, they were added by copiests during the intervening centuries. Some of them are because, for example, Mark and Matthew tell the same story, and Mark may have a verse that doesn’t appear in Matthew; somewhere along the way a copiest added the Mark verse to the Matthew account.

An example of this is the “missing” verse Matthew 17:21 – it is a duplicate of Mark 9:29 which is still there.   Again, if this is a conspiracy, it is not a very good one because they forgot to erase the verse in Mark!

There are some Christians who are “King James only.”  I believe they are misguided and unaware of the advances that have been made in translating the Bible since 1611. Not only have older manuscripts of Scripture been found, but also other ancient Greek and Hebrew writing that helps us to understand how to better translate the original words into English.  That helps to explain what some claim to be suspicious changes in wording in new translations. Remember, not only has the understanding of ancient Greek improved, but the English language itself has also changed a lot since 1611!

Also, if you look up the “missing” verses, you’ll see that none of them substantially change our theological understanding. If someone were trying to change the Bible with nefarious intent, there are many other verses they could have taken out to really mess things up.

In summary, this is much ado about nothing.

FYI, Here’s a list of the “missing” verses cited in the post forwarded to me: Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46; Luke 17:36, 23:17; John 5:4; Acts 8:37

Do you have a question about the Bible or about anything else you’d like to see answered in this blog? Post it in the comments or send it along using the “Contact” Button above.

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God the Cosmic Artist

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Back before I was a Christian, folks would ask me why I didn’t believe in God. Science always figured prominently in my response. Scientists had explained much of what had been attributed to deity over the centuries; it seemed inevitable that in time everything would be accounted for scientifically.

But now . . . I can’t look at a picture like the one above without praising the God I believe created such awesome beauty.

Sunday morning before church I was reading about science (it’s what nerdy folks do at breakfast sometimes).  I am a big fan of Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomyy” dispatches in Slate magazine. He does a great job of breaking down complex cosmological concepts in accessible language. But Slate Article it wasn’t Phil’s words that caught me, it was that picture.

That picture!  The pockmarked crescent of Saturn’s moon, Dione, aglow in light reflected from the rings that cut through the center of the picture like a pinpoint laser beam.  Behind Dione and the rings in the image captured by the Cassini spacecraft, you can just make out the gargantuan outline of Saturn, shadowed like a new moon.Can you imagine what it looks like from the surface of Dione, where no human has trod? The glowing rings cutting across the sky, Saturn darkly looming, another moon, Enceladus, shining under the arc of the rings . . .

Astrophysicists estimate Saturn was formed 4.5 billion years ago. The rings and moons are 4 billion years old. For all those billions and billions (I sound like Carl Sagan) of years, Dione’s beauty was there, unobserved by any human. But always seen – and I would presume to say enjoyed – by the One who created it.

IN THE BEGINNING, GOD CREATED.  Mental gymnastics to reconcile Biblical poetry with science are such a waste of time. The more we understand about the vastness of the universe – both in space and in time – and about the wonders of the infinitesimal quantum spaces of matter – the greater my awe for God who stands outside of space and time while at the same time inhabiting and empowering everything.

Even me!  God created everything that exists . . . and me. God “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13) with the same care with which God crafted the universe. Science can tell us about the processes that go on in the womb – the mechanics of the “knitting” – but one must look beyond (or through) the science to see the Knitter. Science can tell us about the forces that shaped the universe –  how “God created” – but again we must look beyond or through those explanations to encounter the Creator.

I cannot look at that photo of Dione and Saturn’s rings without praise rising in my being. Yes, my perspective has significantly changed from my unChristian days, but I would argue my appreciation for what science reveals has been enhanced, not diminished, by coming to know the One who conceived, designed, and constructed the universe we know – and don’t know (yet).  Like the view from Dione.

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A Church’s Radical Response to the Marriage Equality Decision

In response to the Supreme Court decision about marriage equality, we are going to try something radical at my church. Actually, what I should say is that we are going to continue to try something radical, as it is what God’s people have always tried to do:

We are going to live, worship, and serve together as the people of God.

To put it another way, together by God’s grace we will continue to live out our Mission Statement:

“Empowered by the Holy Spirit, We GATHER, GROW, and GO.”

So here’s the statement I made to my congregation (edited for written clarity) on Sunday. The positive response it has received so far reflects my hope – and belief – in our congregation’s ability to live out such a “radical” response:

Since Friday’s Supreme Court decision affirming marriage equality, my conversations in person and on social media with members of our congregation have confirmed what I thought would be the case: Many of us greet the outcome with joy. Others of us are at least disappointed. Some – perhaps most – of us don’t have strong feelings either way, or are even wondering, ‘What Supreme Court decision?’

The “official” position of our denomination (ELCA) is that folks are free to disagree as they follow their “bound conscience” about these matters. Some of us believe that loving our neighbor means in part including in God’s great gift of marriage those who find love and meaning in a relationship with someone of the same gender. Some believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Others are somewhere in between or are undecided. But none of these positions is required to be an ELCA Lutheran (or a Christian), any more than the same conclusion is required on other issues (especially political issues) about which we may differ, but which should never divide the Church.

In the midst of our disagreements about this or any other matter, let us remember what unites us. We stand together at and under the cross of Christ, joined as one body by the Holy Spirit, and as brothers and sisters by God’s grace poured out in baptism. We have been freed to love and serve each other – regardless of our differences – and to share Christ’s love with our neighbors, no matter who they may be.

Sure, we disagree about issues around sexuality, but the truth is we differ about so many other things. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and I don’t know of any family where everyone agrees about everything. And yet, we are still family.

In my church, we have young earth creationists, believers in intelligent design, and folks who think God uses evolution to achieve the great variety of living things. We have folks who believe in the rapture, and those who conclude Jesus is coming back once for everyone. Some among us practice abstinence when it comes to alcohol, and others of us appreciate that we are a denomination that descends from Martin Luther, who loved to discuss theology over homemade beer. We disagree about lots of theological fine points, and just plain don’t understand others. (What does it mean in the Apostle’s Creed when it says Jesus “descended into hell”? I can give you a bunch of different theories and disagree with myself!)

We have liberals, moderates, and conservatives;  democrats, republicans and independents; and many who don’t care about politics.

And yet by the grace of God we’ve managed to be the body of Christ in this place and time, loving each other and striving to reach out with the Gospel of Christ’s love to our community and beyond. There are – and will be – times when everything is not harmonious. Sometimes we get it wrong individually and as a congregation; thank God we are saved by God’s grace and loved by God no matter who we are, no matter what we have done.

That’s where we find our unity – in our salvation by God’s grace through faith. We are united in our sinfulness and in our helplessness to save ourselves. We are united at and under the Cross, and gathered as Church by the Holy Spirit.  And we are united in mission, to love and serve each other, our community, and the world as the Body of Christ.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Church, Homosexuality, marriage equality | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

HATE WON’T WIN – A Sermon After Charleston (Psalm 27:1-6)

Charleston-Emanuel-AME-Church-Shooting-Victims

Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. 45 years old
Depayne Middleton Doctor. 49 years old.
Cynthia Hurd. She would have been 55 years old today.
Susie Jackson. 87 years old.
Ethel Lance. 70 years old.
Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney. 41 years old.
Tywanza Sangers. 26 years old.
Reverend Daniel Simmons. 74 years old.
Myra Thompson. 59 years old.

These nine Christians – African-American brothers and sisters – gathered for a Bible Study last Wednesday evening at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They were joined by a stranger, a young white man who just listened for the hour they discussed the Gospel of Mark.

But the young man was welcomed. He later told police that he almost didn’t go through with what he was planning because everyone was so nice to him.

But he did go through with it. He murdered those nine folks.

Lord have mercy.

In his Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther wrote that a theologian of the cross must call a sin what it is.

So let’s call it what it was – a sinful act of HATE BASED ON RACE.

Some who would rather not confront the sin of racism – and who do not wish to acknowledge the continued pervasive presence of racism among us – have called this murderous assault other things. They have said it was an attack on Christianity or religion in general. They have said it was the isolated act of a disturbed individual. They have blamed mental illness or medication treating mental illness. They have blamed guns.

But let’s be clear – let’s call it what it was. Hate based on race. The perpetrator himself said he went to that particular church to kill black people. This is what he said to his victims before he began his evil deed: “You rape our women, you’re taking over our country, you have to go.”

He has admitted that he killed them simply because they were African-American, not because they were Christians.
He was a Christian, a member of an ELCA church like this one. For us, this is a family matter – not only was the perpetrator an ELCA Lutheran but two of the pastors were educated at the Lutheran Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

Of course it is easier to think of this as a far-away isolated incident perpetrated by a madman or to blame it on something other than racism. It is easier because then we don’t have to confront the sin that stains our culture. It is easier because we don’t have to talk about racism. If we acknowledge its roots in racism then we have to admit it is not someone else’s problem – it is OUR problem.

A few years ago I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls were murdered there by a KKK bomb in 1963. I remember being deeply moved by church members who were there at the time sharing their recollections of that horrible day. I remember also being thankful for how far we had advanced since then.

But . . .  today we mourn another group of African-American worshippers murdered in their church because of hate.

Hate that is learned.

Where did the perpetrator get those ideas? How were they germinated? What was the fertilizer – and I use that word on purpose – what was the fertilizer that made them grow?

We, people of God – especially we who have the privilege of choosing to ignore our ethnicity – we need to ponder these questions.

We want desperately to believe racism is a thing of the past, but the Southern Poverty Law Center (which keeps its eye on such things) reports that hate groups have increased by a third in this century – since 2000.

The stench of racism is still here. It is certainly in our churches. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that America is more segregated on Sunday mornings than at any other time is still true. Integrated church staffs would help, but for some white churches an African-American pastor is out of the question. Our previous synod bishop, Bishop Knoche, tells of going to meet with a church council within the past ten years and being told, “We’ll take any pastor you send us . . . as long as it’s not a black pastor.”

Lord have mercy.

But confession begins on an individual level. As your pastor, it begins with me. I confess that some of what I was taught growing up in the south of the 60’s and 70’s still lives inside me. There are times when I have to remind myself that people of color are not, for example, inherently more dangerous than people who look like me.

Lord have mercy.

Worse is my fear –driven silence. There are times when I have stayed silent in the presence of someone who told a race-based so-called joke. I did not laugh, but that is not enough. I did not speak up. I confess I have been with people who have talked in disparaging ways about this or that race, or about people from another country. I have listened to stereotypes about “those people” and I have not spoken up. Silence implies agreement.

Lord have mercy.

How about you?

When we remain silent, we are part of the sin that is racism. Racism is nothing more than the original sin of PRIDE raising its ugly head. It is the sinful notion that I am better than you, that my group is better than your group. Racism is sin rooted in our disobedience of Jesus’ command to love my neighbor as I love myself.

Are we not called to confront sin? As Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted as saying, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”

As Christ-followers, we must confront our silence. We must not fall into Satan’s trap when we are confronted with this or any other sin and respond, “But those people do the same thing!”

When we are confronted with racism, we immediately get defensive. That’s our human, sinful nature. “The media taught me,” or “If those people didn’t, then I wouldn’t . . .”

Jesus called us to pay attention to the log in our OWN eye. Instead of rationalizing our disobedience and our silence by complaining about what other people are doing or not doing, we are called to ACTION.

What kind of action?

First, to recognize where we fall short.

Second, to speak up and speak out.

Third, to strive for justice, wherever injustice occurs.

And importantly on this Father’s Day, to talk to our children so racism isn’t handed down from generation to generation like a genetic malformation.

But what keeps us from acting? What keeps us from speaking up when someone among us uses a racial slur or stereotype?  What keeps us from confronting our own prejudice and the prejudice of others?

The same thing that motivated the perpetrator on Wednesday.

Fear.

What happened Wednesday in Charleston was a cowardly act of fear bred in lies. It was fear of people who are different. What kind of “courage” does it take to mow down nine unarmed praying people – some of them grandmothers – with a .45 caliber handgun?

We don’t confront racism and prejudice because we are afraid – afraid of losing friends, or of being put down, or of being embarrassed.

But brothers and sisters, we do not have to be afraid! Look at our Scripture for today, Psalm 27. The person who wrote this Psalm had every reason to fear – enemies all around, an army of them!

But the Psalmist declares, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

Trust in God and in God’s promises, and there is no need to fear!  There is no need to hate or to stay in silence in the presence of hate. Sure, it may be uncomfortable, it may even be painful – it apparently was no picnic for the Psalmist but remember the words of assurance Paul write for us in Romans 8 – “For the present sufferings do not compare to the glories about to be revealed!”

That kind of TRUST in God and in God’s promises was proclaimed loud and clear by the families of those who were murdered on Wednesday. Did you see any of the perpetrator’s bail hearing on Friday? Family members of the victims were allowed to speak.  With the emotional wounds so fresh, you would expect cries for retribution and vengeance.

But listen . . . Listen to what TRUST in God sounds like.

Listen to the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year old Ethel Lance: “You took something precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again.”  She continued through tears. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and so do I.”

Listen to the words of Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson. He spoke to the judge regarding the perpetrator.  “I would like him to know that . . . I forgive him and my family forgives him.”  Then Mr. Thompson amazingly expressed concern for the perpetrator’s soul. “We would like him to take this opportunity to repent.” Several other family members made similar invitations of salvation to the man who had murdered their relatives just two days before.

And listen to the words of Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons. “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, this is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

HATE WON’T WIN!

That young man murdered those worshippers hoping to start a race war but what has happened is that people have stepped forward and forgiven him. What is happened is that people have come together in love based on faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

HATE WON’T WIN!

Hate is rooted in fear.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid.”

AMEN

– A podcast of this sermon is available here 

(Sermon preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, June 21, 2015)

Posted in Bible, Christian Living, Christianity, Racism, Sermon | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Dave’s Letter to the Church at Millersville (The Power of the Gospel)

bishop cromartie pictureI wrote Sunday’s sermon in the form of a letter to my congregation based on the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome (Romans 1:1-17). The letter was read aloud by the lay worship assistant, interspersed with commentary by me. Here is just the letter. You can hear the whole sermon – letter and commentary – here.

From Dave, a servant of Christ, called to be a pastor and ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament – means of grace for the people of God.  My authority to preach and preside at the sacraments does not come from myself. Ordination is an act of the church. The church is the baptized people of God, the Body of Christ on earth.

The Gospel I have been called to proclaim is nothing new – it was promised in the time before Jesus as recalled and recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, fully God and fully human, savior of each of us, hope for the world, and reconciler of the universe.

It was in his death and resurrection that Jesus most clearly proclaimed his identity. By his submission to death – even though he is God in the flesh, even though death is the penalty for sin and he never sinned – he showed the depth of his love expressed in humility and service. By his resurrection on the first Easter, he demonstrated that sin and death have no power over him nor any over his people. In baptism his death and resurrection become OUR death and resurrection, and we are freed from sin and from its ultimate consequence, death.

So I write to the people of Christ, both the church and the Savior:  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank God for you every day. One of the most important parts of my call as your pastor is to pray for you. I pray for God’s will to be done through you as individuals and as a congregation.

There is something  I am called to do that is even more basic than prayer, though. When I was experiencing a call to ministry and was not sure what I was going to do about it, I met with a pastor I trusted. I asked him about the work of being a pastor, specifically what was the most important thing.  He said it was simple . . . love the people you are called to pastor. That has been and will be my guiding principle, remembering that Christian love is more than a feeling; it is love in action.

Ministry is not what the pastor does, though. Being church is about being in ministry together. All of us have gifts and talents and ideas – we all have the same Holy Spirit living inside us, inspiring and empowering us. In baptism we became members of Christ’s church, and we were called to ministry. We are all ministers of the Gospel.

Being church TOGETHER is vital not just to our collective ministry but also to our personal faith and life. Christianity was never meant to be practiced alone. Sure, you can find and worship God anywhere, but only by being church can we encourage each other and combine our various gifts to BE the Body of Christ in the world and for the world.

The most precious thing we have as the church is the Good News About Jesus Christ – the Gospel. That Gospel of grace is what makes the church different from any other organization in the world. It is our reason for being.

The Gospel is the power for our salvation. It is power that comes from God, not from anything we do. The Gospel is God’s righteousness, not our own. We are saved by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We receive this salvation by faith, but don’t think that faith is something you do, either. Faith is created in us by the Holy Spirit. So our salvation is totally through God’s Grace – it is totally a gift of God. There is nothing we can do to earn it . . . that’s good news indeed, but the reverse is also good news – there is nothing we can do or not do that will cause God to stop loving us.  As Paul writes in Chapter 8 of Romans, there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God.

There are times when God is difficult to see, but God is always there. When you were baptized, God promised to be with you always, to walk with you and to be there inside you though God’s Holy Spirit. And God ALWAYS keeps God’s promises. The Bible is the story of God’s faithfulness. We know we can trust God, especially because God kept promises all the way to death on a cross. And then the resurrection happened. Just as God had promised!

In these recent days it has indeed been difficult to see God. Where is God in an earthquake in Nepal that takes so many lives, or in the turmoil in Baltimore? One way to answer that question was provided by Fred Rogers – you know him better as Mr. Rogers. You may not know that Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Minister.  He often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Look for the helpers – in Nepal, in Baltimore, in hospitals and hospices, in our own lives of struggle.  Look for the helpers, it is in them that we will see God, it is in them that we will see the Gospel lived out.

Friends, here is one place I have seen the Gospel during this troubled week:

Bishop Martese Cromartie, whose Facebook page identifies him as President of Prophetic Deliverance Ministries, Inc., travelled the streets of Baltimore with a camera on Tuesday and photographed the cleanup from the riots the night before. One of those photos went viral . . . Maybe you saw it on Facebook or Twitter or on television.

It shows an African-American youth.  He looks like an elementary school student, no more than 10 years old.   He’s wearing a brown sweater. He has three bottles of water cradled in his right arm, and with his left hand he is reaching up with another bottle. He is offering it to a white police officer, one of a line of police officers in full riot gear – shields, helmets, masks.

In his original tweet of the photo, Bishop Cromartie wrote that the picture, “speaks volumes.”

Yes indeed it does! When you look at that photograph, at the young man who wants to make sure the police officer is all right, at the police officer who is there because he has sworn to protect that young man (and others in his community), you will see the Gospel.

It’s the Gospel as Paul talks about it in the first Chapter of Romans – the Good News that has the power to transform. Good News about God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Good news about grace in the midst of a world that is fallen and riven with sin.  The Gospel is reconciliation of enemies, it is the power to transform.

The picture by Bishop Cromartie is all of that. The young man with his simple offer of water is grace and reconciliation and can transform you just by gazing at it. I don’t know if that young man is even a Christian – or the police officer either, for that matter. But the picture shows us the Gospel just the same – it shows us the presence of God’s grace and goodness even in the midst of trouble and chaos and suffering.

That is the Gospel we are called to live out together.  The Gospel isn’t an idea or a doctrine, it is a way of life – life empowered by the good news about Jesus Christ.  It has been a tremendous blessing to live out that Gospel with you over the past almost six years. As we move into the future together, let us be even more diligent in seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we strive to BE the Body of Christ for each other, for our community, and for the world.

Love,
Pastor Dave

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Who Is My Neighbor (in Baltimore)?

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” – (Luke 10:29)

Who is my neighbor?

That’s my question as I sit in the safe sanctuary of suburbia and view the havoc in Baltimore on my big screen plasma TV. Like the lawyer who asked Jesus that question, I want to justify myself. I desire a self-affirming answer. Surely my neighbors are the people who think and act like me.  Like me they are most certainly deserving of this protected perch.

But that was not Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

I don’t believe it is Jesus’ response to me.

My neighbor is there in the streets, hurling stones and bricks with anger rooted in hopelessness. My neighbor has grown up believing  he will be in jail or dead before he is 25.  That is what he has seen. That is what he knows.

The HD image of my neighbor’s rage provokes fear and anger and heartache all at the same time. But I must admit . . . there but for the grace of God go I.

I have been blessed with family and mentors and good schools and middle class privilege (and yes, privilege that comes with being white) and what some would call luck (but I identify as blessings). What would I be if my reality was more like my neighbor’s?  If instead of breaks I had hope broken by circumstances I neither caused nor chose, who would I be?

God forgive my impulse as I watched the looting that violence should be repaid with violence.  I am quick to be critical of those who say or post on social media, “Just shoot ‘em,” but I confess the primal lure of such a reaction. God forgive me for thinking of my neighbor, even fleetingly, as a “thug.” Forgive me for labelling my neighbor and perpetuating his dehumanization. He was fearfully and wonderfully made just like me.

It is indeed easy for me to judge. I live an insulated existence.  I am protected by a system that relies on incarceration rather than reconciliation. It is a system where prisons have been privatized, where the wealthy reap profit proportional to the number of my neighbors they keep in chains. This is a system that echoes the shackled legacy of my neighbor’s ancestors.

No wonder my neighbor is angry.

There are other neighbors of mine in the streets who must choke back their anger and fear.  They are there in the midst of the maelstrom, risking their lives and their limbs, restraining their impulse to react with violence. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to follow orders to stay in place, to watch as destruction is inflicted on the communities they have sworn to protect. There behind the shields and the helmets and the mace and the guns are my neighbors.

My brothers.  My sisters.

God forgive my impulse to stereotype those public servants who sacrifice so much, those men and women whose families give them up for hours every day knowing there might come a day when they give them up forever. None are perfect, but most simply do their best. Can I say for sure what I would do in their place? Would I even be willing?

Yes, those on either “side” of the riotous divide are my neighbors.

But most of my neighbors, my brothers and sisters, exist in that divide.  They are not participants in the tragic events. They are residents and business owners, employees who happen to earn their living in the heart of chaos fed by despair. Many of them, those who have not given up on hope, have tried to lift up their neighborhoods and their families.  Some among them are brother and sister clergy of myriad denominations and faiths. Blessed are these peacemakers who stand not above but with people who are suffering, neighbors who are heartbroken and angry in ways I cannot imagine.

I cannot imagine.

So enough of my words.

I have failed to listen.

It is easy to pontificate from a distance, to make assumptions that even with the best of intentions only exacerbate marginalization by the very act of assuming.

It is time for my neighbors to speak and to be heard.

It is time to listen.

 I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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