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.

Justice, not Charity

In religious circles a lot has been written about how charity treats the symptoms of injustice rather than correcting what is wrong. It’s not a new thought. We’ve known this for a long time. Writing before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

“We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

This is hard work. It is easier to write it or say it, and much more difficult to know what to do and how to act to correct the inequalities and injustices that wound people. It means standing with those who suffer and confronting those with power. And I will be the first to admit that is frightening. It’s easier to stay safe in my privileged position.

One way to begin is to engage in charity with the aim of discovering the reason charity is necessary, then to work to correct the cause of the suffering that makes charity needed in the first place. God give me the courage to love, to learn, and to work to correct injustice.

The Enemy’s Rules

I feel very sad today. The government of Syria used poison gas on its own people. Now we have bombed an air base in Syria. In terms of “just war” theory, killing children is far worse than bombing a military base. Still, violence is violence, and begets more violence. Bombing will not bring peace.

One of our prayers for Sunday includes these words: “Help us to put our faith not in the princes of this world, but only in the Prince of Peace.”

The use of military power can force a country or group to submit, but it cannot bring lasting peace. Only the hard work of changing hearts, seeking common ground, and recognizing our shared humanity under God can bring true peace.

Adopting the enemy’s rules might help one side to “win” by force, but it will not bring peace that lasts. The Enemy (the powers of evil, the devil, our pride, our fear) tempts us to think that we can win by beating others down. To the best of my ability, I won’t play by those rules.

Maybe those are the only rules earthly governments can live by, since they protect boundaries by force or threat of force. I hope those who follow the Prince of Peace can live by other rules, ones that show the way to the true peace of God’s Kingdom coming and will being done on earth.

Flesh and Spirit

The column below is what I wrote for the church’s April newsletter.

Easter is late this year, so at the end of March we’re a little more than halfway through Lent. As we look ahead to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, I’m looking back to Christmas. The two are like bookends. The two are like poles around which life orbits. We don’t have one without the other. These two great feast days are at the heart of our identity, our consciousness of what it means to be flesh and spirit.

The Word became flesh. Incarnation. Energy finds expression in matter. E=mc2. However we express it in words or equations, the Christian understanding is that spirit and matter are not enemies or opposites, but two sides of the same coin. That is the message of Jesus. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us God. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” is a mystery to contemplate, a guide to our understanding of the whole of our tradition and scripture, and a clue to the purpose of God’s project in creation. Jesus is the cornerstone of the foundation, the keystone of the arch, the central piece of the picture that shows us where life is headed, what God’s work is all about.

Jesus is the fullest expression of the eternal mystery of God. And – I hope you are always overwhelmed and amazed by this – Jesus is the model and goal for our lives! Jesus shows us “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus makes real life possible for us. Jesus teaches us and shows us that when we are most fully alive, we embody the spirit of God. We continue the incarnation. The church is the Body of Christ on earth. And I don’t mean, of course, a building. We are living stones. We are built together into a home for the very spirit of God.

I’m refraining from using exclamation marks on every sentence, but that’s the feeling! Christian faith is not a deal we make so that we get a reward when our life is over. It’s about making God real. It’s about the new creation taking shape within and around us. It’s about a new community following the way of Jesus in its life together.

If the church has not understood that, and if we have failed to give that message, we have been far too modest, far too insecure, far too dull in our living and sharing of the astounding news of what life is and can be. It’s safer, though, to pretend that faith is about “getting to heaven,” because it keeps us from having to make heaven real and to confront the “principalities and powers” that would rather stay in charge and keep heaven a distant promise.

Easter is a new beginning. This Easter, let’s begin again to show the power and love of God’s eternal spirit in our flesh and daily life. The very presence of heaven is at hand.

Distorted Faith

I was reading Richard Rohr this morning – his Yes, And… book of daily meditations. Writing about how a person develops a sense of the sacred, he notes that in the first half of life, many people’s spirituality is self-centered. He says,

Christians in the first half of life become obsessed with dying a happy death and going to heaven. Even religion becomes a rather privatized “evacuation plan for the next world” (as Brian McLaren calls it), and the clergy seldom recognize that much of religion is trapped at the individualistic and egocentric level. No actual love of neighbor, outsider, the poor, or even God was really necessary. This is garden variety first-half of life religion, and it has passed for the real thing for much of the Christian era.

The truth of Rohr’s insight seems obvious to me, but it runs counter to the dominant emphasis in popular religion, which focuses on “getting saved” and “being good” and “going to heaven.” But that emphasis on escapism from this world cuts the heart out of Jesus’ life and message. He came to establish a new community he called “the kingdom of heaven.” This was a transformation of this world, not an escape from it.

To the degree that we have bought into the popular, “evangelical,” message that Christian faith is about believing some idea so God will approve of us, accept us, save us, we have failed to grasp what Jesus was about. Jesus came to heal us of our divisions and gather us into a new community. But that’s hard. That takes courage and humility. It puts us up against the way of the world.

It’s easier to believe that Christian faith is about “believing” something so we can get a ticket to heaven, rather than about following the way of Jesus and joining his new community. But it’s wrong.

So, I apologize for whatever I have said that has reinforced that distorted message. The world needs people who are committed to the project Jesus came to start — the transformation of this world and the healing of all that divides people and destroys life. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s not get distracted by “heaven,” but remember that Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is among / within you.”