Ignoring the dangerous, opportunistic blathering from the Trumpsters, it seems to me that the more liberal statements following the Orlando tragedy do not go far enough. Statements like “Muslim Americans are just as much Americans as ‘we’ are,” “Muslim Americans have just as much or even more of a stake in opposing extremism,” and “Islam as a religion cannot be blamed or condemned” are all true enough as far as they go. Continue reading Muslim Civil Liberties, by Don Manning-Miller
Sunday, May 22, 2016
“Clothes make the man.” So observed the pundit, Mark Twain. We dress for success to quote a cliché. But, what does that mean for people of faith gathered on a Sunday morning in May in the middle of “Peace Month”? How does what we wear relate to the things that make for peace?
It has not escaped my attention that I am virtually the only one here who wears a jacket and tie to church any more. This is not a judgment on anyone, just an observation. Fashion changes over time and the truth is that I am something of an anachronism. They still sell suits and ties and dress shirts at Macy’s so I imagine there are places where they are worn. Sometimes it must still be important to dress for success. There are places and situations where what you wear matters.
I know I am my mother’s child when it comes to dressing, especially for church. By the end of her life she had closets full of beautiful clothes, most of which were reserved for special occasions. And, when I was growing up there was no more special occasion than Sunday morning. We had our “Sunday best” and those clothes were saved for that day. Washed, ironed, and polished, we would head out the door spotless and spiffy. In her worldview, you saved your best for the Lord, including what you wore to the Lord’s House. I think she had a point. How we adorn ourselves does affect our attitude, how we feel, and how we carry ourselves.
Writer Gay Talese has opined, “Putting on a beautifully designed suit elevates my spirit, extols my sense of self, and helps define me as a man to whom details matter.” That 19th century dispenser of witty wisdom, Oscar Wilde, once quipped that “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.” But even the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that “Being perfectly well-dressed gives one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” Actually, the entire Mark Twain quotation is: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suppose the naked folk who sometimes lounge at the intersection of Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco can capture your attention, but they have little long term affect on social structure.
Well, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “dress for success”? Is there a connection between fashion and faith? I started to think about this Tuesday in Bible study when Thelma Parodi pointed out that The Message paraphrase of Isaiah 11:5 reads, “Each morning God will pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” Thelma thought, and I agree, that this is a charming, captivating image. For that same verse, the New Revised Standard Version reads, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” The reference is not directly to God but to the “shoot” that grows from “Jesse’s stump,” the one whom later tradition identified as the Messiah, and whom we have associated with Jesus.
It is this One from God (or who is God in human form) who comes to redeem creation, to guide us up the Holy Mountain, to lead us to our home in God’s Beloved Community. What does he wear? How does he dress for success? He straps on righteousness and buckles up faithfulness. He comes ready to work on the things that make for peace. Isaiah proclaims, “The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over the Promised One, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding. The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.” Here is one dressed and ready for what must be done for peace to prevail.
Now this passage links nicely, at least in mind, to what Paul has to say to the church in Ephesus about being dressed and ready for the work they have to do. Except, of course, this passage from Paul is full of military imagery – hardly what you’d turn to to talk about the things that make for peace. Armor is not usually the peacemaker’s outfit of choice. I know we sometimes use the language of peace euphemistically to describe various weapons, soldiers, and military operations, but use of language doesn’t always make it so.
I’m sure the armor imagery spoke to that early Ephesian church in a place and time in which soldiers in military attire were a common sight. They would have had a clear picture of the Roman soldier in his wide leather belt, emblazoned breast plate, sturdy sandals or boots, protective helmet, carrying his sword or spear and shield. I imagine it was a more intimidating presence than the one we carry from contemporary costume dramas. These guys were not actors, they meant business.
Ironically, they were dressed to bring about peace – the great Roman Peace or Pax Romana. This was, indeed, a sort of peace – enforced peace that involved the suppression of freedom, threats or the practice of violence when needed, control and oppression of whole populations, the well-being of the few at the expense of the many. This was not the vision of God’s Holy Mountain or Beloved Community. This was not the goal of the Promised One, the Prince of Peace, to whom the Ephesian Christians pledged allegiance. While they endured the Roman Peace, Paul urged them to prepare for the peace that passes understanding. Turning the military imagery on its head, he speaks of “the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…shoes for…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one…the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
I suppose the Ephesians might have been shocked or amused at Paul’s use of this image of their oppressors to make his point about being faithful to Christ, and to God’s high calling. But then, again, maybe it was empowering, the way “Putting on a beautifully designed suit [might]elevate the spirit, extol [one’s]sense of self, and help define [one] as a [person]to whom details matter” or “Being perfectly well-dressed [could] give one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” It is a kind of dressing for success – for the success of shalom and Beloved Community. Following the practice of the Promised One, put on your “sturdy work clothes and boots” and get busy.
Maybe there are times when it is still appropriate to put on your Sunday best and to go up to God’s house to sing and pray in praise and celebration. I hope so. People still dress up to go out occasionally and wear party outfits, don’t they? We still like to watch the glamor and glitz on the various red carpets and the fashion shows on reality television. “A well-tied tie” may not be “the first serious step in life,” but there may be satisfaction in that, or however you choose to adorn yourself to feel good and beautiful and express joy in living. That is indeed a form of success, worthy of investment. Put on your red dress or sweater and celebrate the Spirit of life as we did last Sunday. Get out your tux and your formal, your high heeled sneakers, your brightest lipstick, your pink feather boa, your gaudiest bow tie, your dress up sweatshirt, and kick up your heels now and then.
But don’t forget the things that make for peace. Don’t leave Jesus sitting on the side of the hill weeping over us because we didn’t know or see or embrace the things that make for peace. Otherwise we run the risk of sowing the seeds of our own destruction – the emptiness of our good times, the felling of our great “trees” of state, the toppling of our temples, the crumbling of our cities, and the devastation of creation.
When we dress for success, we must be certain to put on clothes appropriate to the work at hand. We don’t need the image of armor to see that, if we want the things that make for peace, our sturdy work clothes and boots are righteousness or right-living, faithfulness to the living presence of God, the truth that sets us free, the salvation or sense of wholeness which the gospel promises, and the Spirit who provides wisdom and understanding, direction and strength, knowledge and fear or awe of God.
Dressed like that what other work could we do but feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners – the very things that make for peace? I guarantee you Jesus won’t be sitting on the hillside weeping. He’ll be right there working with us in his own sturdy work clothes and boots, dressed for success, the success of establishing God’s Holy Mountain, God’s Beloved Community, right here and right now. What outfits do you have hanging in your closets, ready to wear?
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Today we transition from a month-long emphasis on love of the earth and creation care to things that make for peace. The theme for May is “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” In part, this new emphasis is shaped by this month’s special offering for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz. We have been a supporting congregation of this organization for many years.
What I am wondering, as we consider peace today, is what does the word mean to you? Off the top of your head, what do you imagine or think or feel when you hear the word peace?
Today’s gospel reading comes from the book of John. We used it as our Words of Assurance after Reflecting on our Need for God. It is interesting that this text and the Ancient Word from Revelation are actually lectionary readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter. Is it coincidence that the lectionary would give us such peace laden texts on the first Sunday of “Peace Month”? or is it the work of that Advocate, the Holy Spirit, trying to teach us something about peace and peace-making?
Most often I use these words from the fourteenth chapter of John for funerals and memorial services. That seems to be an appropriate time to call forth peace, especially peace that offers comfort and soothes the grieving heart. Jesus begins his teaching, recorded in this chapter, by assuring his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In God’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Many a grieving soul has found peaceful comfort in these words through the centuries. And surely this one way to look at peace.
But this time, reading this text, the sentence “I do not give to you as the world gives” stood out for me. What exactly does Jesus mean when he makes that claim or what was the writer of John trying to say when he wrote down these words? “Not as the world gives” – the peace that Jesus promises is something different than what we usually think of as peace. It is other than the absence of violence or freedom from struggle. It is more than comfort and assurance. The ancient Hebrew word used here is shalom. Shalom is something like the Hawaiian word aloha. It carries multiple meanings. It can be used to hello or good-bye. In addition to peace, it carries connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. When Jesus gifts his followers with is peace, it is something more than what the world has to offer.
Robert Kysar writes that “…the peace that you and I most commonly seek – is best described as the absence of things. The absence of war, the absence of crime and strife and violence, the absence of pain, conflicts, struggles, unfulfilled desires.” In fact, he says, “It almost sounds as if the peace we seek is something like a vacuum…What we strive for is the absence of all struggle which sounds like the absence of life itself” (Robert Kysar, Preaching John, p. 108). And Geoffrey Hoare observes that “Many people yearn for peace in the world’s terms: cessation of conflict, whether psychological tension or warfare; a sense of calm or a serenity of spirit” (Geoffrey M. St. J. Hoare in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, p.494).
“No, not this,” Jesus says, “not as the world gives.” Both Kysar and Hoare insist that what Jesus offer is not cessation or absence but rather it is presence, the presence of God though the Holy Spirit. The Jesus Way will continue to be available to those who embrace it and follow it. He is not going away; he is going on ahead, and where he goes, we, too, may go, in the power of the Spirit.
In Earth Month we tried to emphasize the spiritual and theological grounding for love of the earth and creation care. God made it; God delights in it; God loves it; God cares for it and, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, we are invited to approach creation in similar ways. Love it, care for it, delight in it, even join in the ongoing process of creation. God is present with us in the world all around us; we are encouraged to embrace that presence, to live into all the possibilities it offers to us.
Part of living with God’s ongoing presence in our lives is, then, to live in peace, in shalom – in harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being – with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor, with our enemy, with all creation. Again, this is not nothing, absence, cessation; it is something, something to give our lives to as we walk the Jesus Way. Remember how Genesis gave us a vision of the goodness, the well-being, the peace, if you will, of creation when God first laid it out and breathed life into it? Now the writer of Revelation offers another vision of something similar.
Beyond the pain and struggle of life as the world knows it, there is a promised land, a new creation, a heavenly city. Yes, it’s always risky to talk about heaven. Too many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somewhere out there beyond this life. “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” But what if it just isn’t so? What if heaven is right here in our midst if we’d look more closely. “Your Beloved Community come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus teaches us to pray. Not “just hang on; it will be over soon and you’ll get your robe and crown over there.” Nor does Jesus offer peace somewhere down the road and beyond the sunset. He offers it in the here and now.
This vision of the new Jerusalem is a poetic description of the Beloved Community, not unlike Isaiah’s dream of God’s Holy Mountain where they neither hurt or destroy because they recognize that God’s presence covers the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Jesus gifts his followers – and us – with that same presence, and he offers it now, not later.
In the vision of Revelation, ”…the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” In the middle of the vision we find the river of the water of life and the tree of life spread out on either side, offering all the nourishment we could ever need or want. Even the leaves are for the healing of the nations. The difference between the peace that Jesus offers and that which the world chases is in its great “Yes” to life. Faced with his own imminent death, Jesus says “Yes” to life. The powers and principalities have no ultimate say in his life. He is at peace in God’s embracing presence. It’s a different kind of peace – not as the world gives – and he offers it to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.
by Bill Leonard
Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Jimmy Carter has built Habitat for Humanity dwellings for 33 years. Jimmy Carter led the Carter Center in eradicating much of the Guinea worm plague in West Africa. Jimmy Carter is a (mostly) unashamed Baptist. Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Jimmy Carter has cancer.
Yet in announcing that he had contracted that dire emblem of mortality, and that it had spread throughout his body, the 90-year-old insisted that he would only “adjust” his schedule accordingly. An adjusted schedule is the most accommodation cancer is going to get from Jimmy Carter.
…Carter writes that throughout his long life, his Christian faith has “provided the necessary stability,” then adds: “Come to think of it, stability is not exactly the right word, because to have faith in something is an inducement not to dormancy but to action. To me, faith is not just a noun but also a verb.” Perhaps that’s why he’ll work the cancer into his schedule, still hoping to work on another Habitat house in Nepal this November. For the ex-president-Sunday-school-teacher, faith, not cancer, remains the verb. Now and forever more. Amen
WELCOME MINISTRY presents STREET REQUIEM – for those who have died on the street.
A concert featuring Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano, and Dr. Kathleen McGuire, conductor, other soloists, and a mass community chorus. Dan Cudworth and Afan Huang are singing in these performances:
Saturday, August 29, 2015, 7 PM
Old First Presbyterian Church
1751 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Sunday, August 30, 2015, 2 PM
Congregational Church of San Mateo
225 Tilton Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401
For further information: streetrequiem.blogspot.com
Text: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17
Twice in the last three years I have made a pilgrimage to Overland Park, Kansas, for the biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. These trips have been particularly evocative not only because Kansas is my birthplace but also because my earliest memories come from that part of the world.
Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, where our family lived from 1950 to 1953. For me, that period spanned ages three to six. As I have mentioned before, during those years my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, the suburb next to Overland Park. In that time of the post-war boom in the church, American Baptists had a program called “Churches for New Frontiers,” in which they purchased land and planted churches in promising suburbs.
My father, following a missionary yen, left a church of 1000 members to pastor a congregation of 13, which met in someone’s living room where the pulpit was the top of a new-fangled television set. At least this is the story I’ve been told. The vivid memory I do have from that time is of my father, wearing work clothes and his grey fedora, helping to roof the first building on the lot at 75th and Roe. That building was eventually the parsonage, but in the beginning it served as the church building. Upstairs was left open as a single large room which served as the sanctuary and the rooms in the lower level functioned as classrooms.
I don’t know how much of that building beyond the roof was the work of parishioners, but I’m certain someone laid a strong foundation there. I don’t mean only the foundation of the physical plant. After 65 years, that little house is long gone, but Prairie Baptist Church seems to be going strong.
I also can’t tell you the full extent of my father’s evangelistic passion that led him to leave a large congregation for one that didn’t even exist when he signed on. It must have been some of that same passion that led Paul to travel all around the Mediterranean carrying the gospel to the Gentiles and planting churches all along the way. Part of the story of my father’s missionary journey across Kansas was that, in spite of low pay and a growing family (my younger sister, the last of four siblings was born in 1951,) he stayed long enough to lead the congregation through its first crisis. He helped the congregation through the tension that arises when a second wave of members arrive, challenging the comfort and control of the charter members. I believe my father, like Paul, was a “master builder” who laid a strong foundation and the congregation weathered the challenge and grew and prospered.
People in Palo Alto also laid a strong foundation for this congregation now in its 122nd year. We have a long and rich history of faithful witness and service. But, as we face an unknown, uncertain future, I wonder what it is that constitutes a strong foundation for a church. In the hymn we just sang Rod Romney wrote that the “The church’s strong foundation is God’s eternal love…” Does that sound right to you? Is that the rock on which our church is founded, the pillars sunk deep in the soil that lift our spire towards heaven, the grounding from which our ministry rises and shines? Is it a foundation on which we can continue to build?
We know that Paul was dealing with a contentious congregation in Corinth. He believed he had laid a strong foundation – the one foundation of Jesus Christ, the sure foundation of the empowering Holy Spirit, the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. But he was worried about what was being built on that foundation. He was afraid that false prophets, bad teachers, and self-centered preachers were leading the people astray and creating chaos in the congregation. I suppose my father must have worried that the charter members of Prairie Baptist Church would not be hospitable to new folk, would not offer a warm welcome to strangers so that the message of God’s eternal love would distort and die from inbreeding.
How do we encourage one another and work together to carry the gospel forward into God’s future? In a column on “adaptive change,” Amy Butler reflects, “The old ways just are not working. The church is in need of creative leadership to take it into the future. We might need to think outside the box, to consider solutions we have never thought of before, to pursue adaptive change. What will this mean?” she asks, then answers, “Well, it will mean that people will not be happy…but life moves on…and the Spirit of God blows fresh wind wherever it wills. It’s our job to respond, discomfort or not. It’s adaptive change, and it’s true for our individual lives and for the church.”
In conclusion, she wonders, “When will we have the courage to boldly embrace this kind of change, to encounter the new opportunities that come as possibilities and opportunities instead of problems? Change is hard. This is a true statement. But change comes, whether we want it or not. The Spirit of God is always creating new possibilities where we prefer to endow old institutions. Will we have the courage to embrace this change? Or will we keep searching the aisles, hoping to replace what we had?” (Amy Butler, “Choosing Adaptive Change,” 8-11-2015, baptistnews.com).
The strong foundation is laid, foundation of God’s eternal love. The question is what will we build on it moving forward? Paul says we might resort to “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” But we know that, literally, wood is the only one of those resources with which we might build a building. Paul is more concerned with the qualities that characterize a congregation than he is with building a church building. He is wants us to consider when the refiner’s fire is lit, what will be destroyed and what will be purified?
Remember the three little pigs? Neither the house of straw nor the house of twigs survived the wolf’s bad breath. Only the sturdy brick structure built on a strong foundation withstood the horrible huffing and puffing. We have been given this strong foundation of God’s love for us and all creation, a foundation that can withstand any evil powers that threaten to disrupt us and consume us. What will we build on it?
I don’t mean to be a prophet of gloom, but the good news is being undermined, distorted and destroyed by the false prophets, bad teachers and self-centered preachers of our own time and place. The threatening powers are not just individual, they are also structural and systemic. Some of the biggest challenges to the church are embedded deep in our traditions and too often operate outside our consciousness – like racism, classism, sexism, power and privilege. As Amy reminds us change is hard.
Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well.” “But,” he continues, “all is not well now, and that raises the question of how…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 245).
In this chapter on the “Spirit of Holiness,” McLaren focuses on God’s judgment, which, at first, struck me as a curious emphasis. As I imagine some of you do, when I hear the word “judgment” I think of “hellfire and brimstone.” We were raised to believe in a literal separation of the “sheep and goats.” It was better to be scared into heaven than to burn in hell. It was a terrible legacy that led us far from any strong foundation based on God’s eternal love. For me, anyway, the notion of eternal punishment simply will not reconcile with a God who is love and eternally loves by definition.
McLaren’s argument sounds to me something like the parent who expects the best of us because she loves us so. In his view, this a God of restorative justice not a God of vengeful retribution. The place of judgment is to make things right, to restore the blessed order of creation, to build the Beloved Community on the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. The call to be the best self, the best community that we can be is a call to fulfill God’s vision for us from the beginning of time.
Paul says we – you and I collectively, the church of Jesus Christ – we are “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. To live into that reality is not an easy thing. To establish God’s temple in the here and now, to be God’s dwelling place will constantly shape and re-shape our witness. It is inherently counter-cultural, not easy but worthwhile work. If we trust that we are never alone in the work, we can also trust that in the end all will be well.
In our words of preparation, McLaren writes, “If we believe in judgment [as] God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward light each day in this life. Then, someday, when our time comes to close our eyes, we will trust ourselves to the loving Light in which we will awaken, purified, beloved, forever” (McLaren, op. cit., pp. 247-248).
A strong foundation is laid. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” Let the church continue to be built and re-built on God’s eternal love. Amen.