God’s Family Is More Diverse Than We Think

This post is what appeared in the Rome Sentinel newspaper on Saturday, April 28, in the “Religion” column that we local pastors take turns writing. Just had to give digital readers equal time!

Each of the seven Sundays of Easter there’s a reading from Acts instead of an Old Testament reading. The reason for this is to think about what it means to be Easter people, people whose lives are shaped by the good news of Jesus.

This week, the story is about how Philip met an official of the Queen of Ethiopia on a highway one day. The man was riding in a chariot, reading from Isaiah. Looking up, he saw Philip and asked him to help him understand what he was reading.

The Ethiopian official was a eunuch. If you don’t know that word, it means he had been castrated, probably before adolescence – emasculated so he would be safe around the women of the royal court. According to Jewish purity laws, someone who had been “cut off” in this way was unclean and was not to be admitted into the assembly of the people of God.

However, the man’s “unusual” sexual identity was not a barrier to Philip, nor to the Holy Spirit. Philip explained what the man was reading from Isaiah, and helped him understand. Then, as the chariot passed a body of water, the man asked to be baptized. They got down. Philip baptized him. Then Philip went on his way to the next work the spirit had for him, and the Ethiopian man went on his way rejoicing at his inclusion in the people of God.

We see in this story a connection to a promise made in Isaiah 56, verses 4 and 5. “To the eunuchs who… hold fast my covenant, I will give… a monument better than sons and daughters… and everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah’s promise and the Spirit’s action through Philip are more welcoming and more inclusive than the purity codes, and more welcoming than some of the judgments people pass nowadays. What if God’s covenant and God’s family are not limited by our narrow, traditional norms? What if human experience of gender and identity is more diverse than we have thought? God welcomes people who are hungry for the Spirit, and invites us to widen our hearts and our tables in response.

God’s welcome may stretch our comfort level and challenge our categories of human identity. The invitation of the Gospel, though, is that we are all one. Each of us is different. Each of us is broken. And, each of us is loved. The way we have divided ourselves is by walls of our own construction. We don’t have to be “right,” just to recognize and respond to God’s all-inclusive love and grace.

Wondering About Guns

This is my contribution on this day of remembrance one month after the killings in Parkland, Florida.

That the possession of deadly weapons has become a very divisive issue is an understatement. Some people feel more secure with guns around. For some, the presence of guns is very frightening. I can understand that.

What I can’t understand is the way the Second Amendment has been twisted to support a supposed individual right to own guns, as if that right were absolute and did not need to be balanced with other rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In particular, I can’t understand why anyone would claim that raising the age at which someone can legally purchase a gun in order to promote public safety is a violation of constitutional rights.

The Second Amendment said that because we need a militia to provide for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. (emphasis mine) That meant – in 1791 – that the authorities could not come and take your gun, because if they did, and our country was attacked by some enemy, we would not be able to defend ourselves and the security of our nation would be in jeopardy.

Now, in 2018 and for a long time, we have a standing army, a national guard, and other branches of the military, who are all well-armed and capable of defending this free state. We have police. We have no need of citizen militias. The need that existed 227 years ago for ordinary citizens to have arms available to defend the country no longer exists.

I’m simply thinking logically. That the modern Supreme Court has construed this amendment as protecting an individual right to possess deadly weapons for personal use not related to national defense seems absurd.

One would think that, with the enormous number of people killed by guns — 60% of gun deaths are from suicide — we would want to register guns, keep track of them, issue permits only to people who can and will use them safely, and do whatever we can to limit their use to legitimate purposes.

I realize that “people kill people” as defenders of gun rights like to say. But people kill people with deadly weapons. And the deadlier the weapon, the more people can be killed. I would think that in the aftermath of so many massacres, we’d want to limit the availability of guns and seek to control them more effectively. I realize there are about as many guns out there as people in our country. It will be hard to control them. But we have to start, for the sake of our children and the lives of generations to come.

The bottom line for me is that we should have a bias toward keeping people safe rather than to further spread the availability of guns.

Confidence

These words of wisdom were in the Sojourners “Verse & Voice” today, and are worth sharing:
 
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” – Marianne Williamson
 
After all, the other person’s emotions and responses are their responsibility, not yours. At the same time, I don’t want to run over people, simply to state my convictions and act on them without apology. And then be willing to listen.
 
And the prayer is, “Lord, you do not call us to shrink ourselves. Let us not be afraid to grow and expand, to stand steadfast in your confidence and grace, for your blessed spirit lives within us.”

The Kingdom of Heaven

This post will appear in the Rome Sentinel on Saturday, February 10. I have the privilege of taking a turn writing the religion column a few times a year in our local paper. But, since a lot of people don’t read the paper any more, especially younger people, here’s my column for those of you who prefer digital media.

Jesus came to Galilee saying, “The time is fulfilled, and kingdom of heaven has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  — Mark 1:14-15

At the heart of my Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus came to proclaim a new reality that was breaking into the world. He referred to this as the “kingdom of heaven.” Some use the phrase “reign of God.” The Jews used the word, “shalom” to refer to a state of being where everything was whole and in harmony. Judaism also has a term that describes the reason God’s people exist: “tikkun olam” is the work of “healing the world.” I believe it is that same work that Jesus came to fulfill by inviting people into the “kingdom of heaven.”

I believe that part of the modern evangelical movement has distorted the message of Jesus.

The distortion I see is reducing Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven to nothing more than a claim that if you believe certain ideas you’ll “go to heaven” after you die. That kind of escapist religion treats God’s creation as a disposable and temporary place that humans have a license to foul up because they are just practicing for real life in “heaven.” To treat the earth with such contempt is to spit in God’s face.

What I believe Jesus came to do is to enlist people into a new community, a new reality, people who are committed to mending the world, restoring the creation, being part of God’s redemptive work. The Word became flesh. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth, not to lead an escape from earth to another realm. That other realm is here, “among you” or “within you” as Jesus said. That other realm is our hope, hope to release people from the hell of warfare and anger, addiction and despair, greed and abuse.

I don’t think of another place called heaven or another place called hell. They are present realities. They are spiritual realities. At the same time, I believe that nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from the love of God. God will hold me when my mortal life is through.

One idea that makes sense to me is what C. S. Lewis said long ago in Mere Christianity. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you… into something a little different than it was before. All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

The invitation Jesus offers us is urgent. We only need to look around us to see how urgent it is. The world is in a mess. Turn around. Change your life. Get with the program. Let the Way of Jesus shape your life, for the mending of the world, for shalom, for the new life of the kingdom of heaven. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God, and be part of God’s healing of this suffering world.

The People God Calls Blessed

These seemed good thoughts to share in a time when we have had enough of criticism and shrill disagreement, and need to remember who we are and are called to be, beyond all definitions, affiliations and ideologies. Words fail. And we have had too many words. We need embodied love. Though it is silent, its speech is heard louder than words. Only love can heal us.

This blessing below was written by Ruth Burgess of the Iona Community in Scotland.

If I’m reading it right (in Matthew 25:34-46)
the people God calls blessed
are the ones who
feed the hungry
welcome the stranger
befriend those in trouble
care for those in pain.

Not a word about
who or what they do or don’t believe in,
only a description of how they live their lives.

So I ask a blessing, God,
on my friends
who cannot
or do not
believe in you.
A blessing that they are not expecting
yet one which they will recognize.
A blessing of joy, integrity and justice,
a blessing of love and life.

A Christian Witness in Partisan Times

Last week I had our church secretary send out a letter from Harold Delhagen, the leader of the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church USA. Harold wrote an open letter to members of Presbyterian churches in our region, reflecting on President Trump’s disdainful and condescending manner of speaking about people from certain countries that he considers inferior and from where he would prefer people not immigrate to the US. I wrote a short cover letter in which I asked people to pray for the president, our nation, and ourselves as we seek to bear witness to Christian character in the face of the President’s dismissal of people he seems to believe are below him. My observation was that is not a Christian attitude or position.

I received an anonymous letter in the mail today which mistakes my attempt to provide Christian guidance and theological reflection for what the writer of the letter called “serving as a shill for the left.” (By the way, the writer used the Irish spelling of my last name in addressing the letter — “Prendergast,” which is always fun to see! My ancestors somehow lost that spelling when they crossed the ocean.)

Anyway, the letter reminds me of a time when I was living in Iowa and I preached a pro-life sermon in which I expressed my gratitude that the state legislature of Iowa had taken a stand against the death penalty. My sermon was organized around the pro-life teachings of the Bible. All one of the elderly gentlemen in the congregation could hear was a partisan argument, and said to me as he left the sanctuary, “Well, I see you’re taking your sermon material from the Des Moines Register!”

I am not, as the anonymous writer of the letter stated, “a mouthpiece for the Democratic party.” I seek to provide a Christian analysis of the political and social issues of the day. And, truth be told, my comments about the president are nowhere near as harsh as those of the good old conservative columnists, George Will and David Brooks, both of whom write political columns. I seek to encourage spiritual reflection on the world around us.

Neither were my remarks as critical as the pronouncements of Old Testament prophets, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and company, all of whom were unstinting critics of the kings of Israel. In the old days (I’m talking roughly Renaissance era) there was a tradition of literature that was expressed in a document called the “Mirror for Magistrates.” This was a collection of cautionary tales for earthly rulers who were encouraged to look in the mirror and see their faults, and be warned to improve their lives.

It may be the Mr. Trump is not so much racist as he is an arrogant, privileged elitist who is so unaware of and insensitive to ordinary people that he just doesn’t know any better than to speak with contempt of people that our Christian Scriptures remind us are our brothers and sisters, fellow humans made in God’s image, and who are worthy of our respect. I pray that, even at the old age he has reached, Mr. Trump might learn some humility and wisdom.

Health Care?

To me, it seems obvious that the Republican establishment is not interested in improving the quality of or access to health care for regular people. They seem focused on saving money for wealthy people who resent having to pay anything to provide health care for people who can’t afford it. They’re selfish. The implication of their attempts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act is that they must believe there are some people who don’t deserve health care.

We all pay for medical care for people who don’t have insurance, though. People go to the ER and hospitals pass along that cost in their overhead and you and I pay for it anyway in increased costs.

The only answer that makes sense to me is a single-payer plan where we ALL pay in and we ALL get coverage. It should be progressive, where those with more pay more. That’s how our Presbyterian Church medical plan is structured now. The employer pays an amount equal to a percentage of the employee’s salary. Churches with low-paid pastors are subsidized by bigger churches with high-paid pastors. It works.

The only way it will work for our country is if our elected officials realize that basic health care is a right and we need to provide it in order to have a healthy nation with a healthy population, and that if it’s important for us as a nation, we all need to pay for it.

Solar Panels in My Back Yard

Today, according to news reports, President Trump will announce a decision regarding the status of the US participation in the Paris Accords on Climate Change. Predictions are that he will withdraw our country or reduce our commitment.

Regardless of what the President may or may not do, all of us can do something. We can use less energy, live more simply, cut back our own carbon footprint, eat low on the food chain, re-use stuff.

In August it will be four years since Cynthia and I had a 12-panel solar array installed in our back yard. Since then, those panels have made more than 80% of the electricity we have used. According to the display on the DC to AC inverter in our basement, we have saved more than 9 tons of carbon from going into the atmosphere.

Imagine the impact of more people doing this. We can’t count on politicians acting for the common good, but we can each do our share. We can set an example. We can share.

And we can keep on speaking out and lobbying for earth-friendly policies. Because our voice matters. I’d love to show you my solar array and refer you to have your own system installed. All you need is a sunny southern exposure and the will to do something new!

Salvation

About 4 times a year I get to write the “Religion” column in our local paper, the Rome Sentinel. Below is the column I wrote for the April 29 edition.

At the end of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” What does that mean? How do you hear it? Is it confusing? After all, in modern evangelical culture “getting saved” means confessing your sin and “accepting Jesus as your savior.” We don’t see Zach doing that. All he does is to tell Jesus he’s going to give half his money to the poor, and then he’s going to pay back four times the amount he’s defrauded people in his tax collecting business. It’s in response to that stated intention that Jesus says Zach has experienced salvation.

Jesus is saying Zacchaeus has found a new way of life. He’s been delivered from his narrow, self-centered, greedy ways. He’s become a member of the kingdom of heaven. He has a new life that’s begun right then and there.

The word in the ancient texts that our Bibles often translates, “salvation,” can mean “delivered,” or “healed,” or “rescued,” among other meanings. Many of us are used to hearing it used to indicate some kind of transaction, as if we agree to believe a bunch of ideas and say some words in exchange for “going to heaven” when we die. As if heaven were a place. As if salvation were about some other world. I don’t believe that.

Jesus came to announce a new life under God’s rule that he often called “the kingdom of heaven.” He said it was within us, or among us. It was a way of life where God is king of our lives, where Jesus is our Lord. It’s what we pray for when we say: “…Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s about the healing and restoration of the entire creation to God’s original purpose. It’s a present reality, that God means to continue forever. And one of the amazing things is that we are already part of it if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear and the faith to follow!

One of the problems I have with people who seem to define salvation only as an escape from this world, something that is only in some other place after our death, is that attitude is disrespectful of God’s creation and is an insult to the God who made it and called it good and intends to renew it and make it a place of abundant life for all. To the extent that we dismiss this world as something to be used up and left behind, we blaspheme against God and against all of life.

In salvation, we are delivered from a narrow life with ourselves at the center, and into a new life with God and God’s purpose at the center, where we are transformed, and adopted into the family of God. We find salvation when we bow to Jesus as Lord of our life, and when we welcome our new life as citizens of the kingdom, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Zacchaeus found it. It changed his life. He began again on that very day. You and I can, too – be born again into the life of the kingdom of heaven. That’s the hope of the world – until “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”

An essential part of our salvation is the healing of creation, and the deliverance of all people from bondage to the ways of death that threatens to destroy the earth our home.

Thoughts on Commandment Thursday

The following was my message for the community Noon worship on April 13.

For those of us who worship on “Maundy” Thursday, Easter morning is not enough. We don’t want to gloss over the suffering of Jesus, the darkness and pain he endured, the darkness we all endure. We don’t want to escape. We want to take time for the pain. We want, as St. Paul said, to share in Christ’s suffering, as well as his resurrection. We want our heart to become more like God’s heart. All of us have noticed how loving someone without being loved, or being loved well, is a cause of suffering.

It’s a familiar story. When they gathered to eat the Passover, Jesus took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. He modeled for them and gave them a new commandment. (“Maundy” comes from the Latin word for commandment, so we should speak English and say Commandment Thursday.) And what is the commandment? It’s very simple. Only three words: “Love one another.” He repeats it, and adds some words that qualify the command in a way that should scare us. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Just as I have loved you….” Jesus loved these men who had failed to understand him, who were self-centered and competitive. Just after he had told them he was going to Jerusalem to be killed by the authorities, they had argued about which of them was the greatest and who would get to sit on his left and right in his kingdom. They had disappointed him. They would fail to watch with him that night in the garden. They would flee in fear after he was arrested. Yet, he washed their feet. He washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. He didn’t ask them to believe correct doctrine or to prove their orthodoxy. He simply said, “Love one another.” And, “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

He didn’t put any conditions on their love. He said, “Love…. Wash.” He knew how easy it is for us to judge one another, to categorize one another, to love some because I approve of them or agree with them, and to turn my back on others who seem offensive. He could have said to Peter, “You’re right, Peter. You are unworthy. I won’t wash your feet.” He could have said to Judas, “You’re going to betray me. I definitely won’t wash yours.” He washed their feet. All of them.

We have heard much in the news lately about some Christians wanting to be protected by law from having to serve people they don’t approve of. For instance, a Christian who owns a bakery wants to have legal protection from having to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. It is a strange concept that a Christian would want to be protected from having to serve their neighbor. As Christians we don’t seek the state’s permission or blessing to follow the way of our Lord. It is simply our identity to be Christian. It is our identity that we love our neighbors. We are free. And yet, we are not free to do as we please. Martin Luther said it well nearly five hundred years ago. “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” We are free because God has set us free. We are bound because we are commanded to love and wash feet.

Mother Theresa didn’t ask the dying on the streets of Calcutta about their religious convictions or their sexual orientation or anything else. She washed them, and cared for them as they died. Our scripture doesn’t place any qualification on who Jesus died for, except to say “for the sin of the world.” We are not in the place of God, to approve or to disapprove of others. I think that’s good news. We are freed from the burden of judgment. We are simply told to wash feet, and to love without distinction. As I have loved you, you also should love one another.

This day and its command to love brings us to a place where we are invited to consider the darkness within us, the distinctions we make and the ways we judge those we disapprove of. It is also an invitation to consider that at the heart of life we are all loved without distinction, and how we are invited to give that same love to all.