Today’s Rethink Church prompt for the Lenten journey is “Sent.” I wrote this haiga with the simple understanding that we try to share in church enough on a regular basis: that it is a blessing to have enough and enough to share. Maine Federated Church is collecting Easter baskets for our Chow Pantry, because most of our church members have enough to cover their basic needs and enough to put together an Easter basket for a family that may be struggling to cover medical bills, utilities, or rent. Similar to our participation in CHOW, we believe by taking care of simple things like food or Easter Baskets, we help community members free up resources for other bills. The picture is of the stack of buckets that is mightily diminished since they were first put out. I will try and take a picture of the completed baskets for next week.
Recently I was reading an article in the April 2019 edition of Sojourners magazine called “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by theologian and anthropologist Michel Chambon. I found the article fascinating as it reflected on the ongoing relationship between Chinese Protestant Christianity and the government under which they live. I found it fascinating because it had a greater level of reflection on the relationship between the church and state in a land I know little about in general.
I read various things about Christian practice I did not even realize where are part of the practice of my beloved family in another nation. Did you know that Christians lead large calisthenic groups in places like Nanping? Did you know that the Chinese are also facing the crisis of an aging population? I did not know that was happening. Most of the news I have seen over the years has focused on trade issues, pollution issues, or religious-freedom issues. In particular, they taught me growing up that the Chinese church was consistently and constantly under pressure. In fact, the church that the sources I read taught me about growing up could never exist openly–a public gathering of Christians to exercise was beyond my comprehension.
What makes this interesting is how Mr. Chambon presents the information. Mr. Chambon states:
“The Chinese state–like every other state–operates under its own political tradition and in relation to its own national culture. Chinese religious police is not only defined by a supposedly coherent national law but also through the agency of local officials who play a key role in its implementation. In practice, state control is heterogenous and varies from district to district. It relies on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.Michel Chambon in “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” (Sojourners, April 2019, pg. 8)
In some places, local officials have imposed stricter regulation and monitoring on Christians and other social actors. In other places, they have destroyed Christian churches and jailed a few leaders. But in my view, this does not represent a general crackdown on Christianity. It reflects instead the Chinese policy of ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys’–applying a heavy hand on one group is publicized to push others toward self-limitation and censorship.”
At some level, this should have not needed to be spelled out to make sense. Part of the struggle of the United Methodist Church is the belief we can set an international policy on human-sexuality without understanding that there needs to be a reliance “on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.”
At some level, the attempt to apply one set of laws across the board internationally is to engage in the same idealistic hubris which I felt must apply to Chinese culture of my imagination for decades of my life. The attempt to enforce such legislation without balancing the needs of the local area is at least naïve. I am certain there are folks who believe the “coherency” of church law requires uniformity, but that may be misguided. Yes, there are those moments of persecution which are regrettable and terrible, but what if that is a part of the policy of applying a heavy hand to push others towards “self-limitation and censorship?”
What really struck me and threw me for a loop was that I recognized this policy of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys” in my culture. I have seen this policy my entire life. In my context as an European American Protestant Christian, I have not seen this policy enacted from the top down. Our government says there is freedom in this land. I have seen this policy enacted at the grassroots and in the middle of society. I have seen it applied in the way we treat indigenous tribes, immigrants, and the descendants of our own hunger for slavery.
In June 2015 when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was it to put an end to every group of African American Christians? Clearly, Dylann Roof did not end the African American church when he murdered nine of the Christian family. In my experience, the church surrounded the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church regardless of denomination or race. That is my perception. Did Dylann Roof’s violence lead folks to self-limitation and censorship?
Here’s the thing: as a part of the dominating culture of American Imperialism, I am uncertain I can say that Dylann Roof accomplished the same goal as the Chinese policy. I can say I refuse to use an honorific to refer to him, but how did his actions affect those in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did the people like those gathered in other communities similar to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church walk away with a message? Did people who worshipped in synagogues or mosques hear the shots of a member of the dominant culture towards a group of African American Christians and hear a message? Did they see violence against a subset of the dominant religion (Christianity) and fear for their own future when they do not share the same experience of God?
Thinking back to those moments, I realize that I took part in an ecumenical memorial for those family members in faith down south, but I did not reach out to people who might have received just as violent a message. I did not stand alongside those who might also have been intimidated. The African American Christians were the chickens who were slaughtered, I rushed to the hen house to soothe the flock, but ignored the rest of the surrounding people.
When I reflect on Mr. Chambon’s article, what really strikes me is that I have been blind. I was not only blind in my understanding of Chinese culture. I have been blind in the way I have treated my own neighbors. I was blind as a teenager every time I was silent when a friend would drive to the nearby Native American reservation to act like hooligans. I was blind as a college student when I stood by ignoring the Muslim community after September 11, 2001. I was blind to injustice when people grabbed anyone who was not pale (like me) out of the line in airport security lines.
The challenge Mr. Chambon’s article leads me towards is a difficult challenge. When I know that African American males are disproportionately jailed, who else is hearing that message? How do be in ministry with those folks who are disproportionately jailed and those who are also given those messages? When I hear that folks are labeled as coming from s%#thole countries, how do I not only build up the people I meet from those places but also the others who hear words of disparagement? How do I open my eyes further? How do I honor my own principles and ethics? How do I stop letting blinders fetter my sight?
The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “repentance.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! The photo was taken off of the trails in Vestal. In particular, it is in the section labeled the “Greenway.” I will include an extra picture with the nearby placard if you wish a little context.
This pipeline runs through Vestal and travels through rivers where local folks catch fish. Probably not surprisingly, the number of people who catch fish where these pipes risk contaminating the waterways are often economically lower on the scale than the folks who get their fish imported from the local Wegmans.
"Dad, I am hungry!"
"Hi hungry! I am your dad!"
I laugh at her sigh.
I turn with my warmest smile
And look in an empty fridge.
“Hungry Kyoka” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
I wanted to share this kyoka this morning for a simple reason. A kyoka is a form of poetry in which the profane or mundane is placed into a poetic form. For some people “Dad jokes” are profanely terrible. For other folks family conversations in a kitchen are commonplace.
For me, what is profane is neither the bad humor nor the commonality of the situation. What is profane is that there are many families in this world and in our community that have little or nothing in their fridges. Humor is one response to tragedy. The tragedy of families which struggle to feed their families is a profanity in a country where people regularly propose billions of dollars for a wall while families starve.
There are people in our communities who do not have enough to eat without assistance. I have performed funerals for people who have died of complications from malnourishment. Not all of those situations were from a lack of access to food, but I can tell you sometimes having nothing in the fridge leads to mental distress, spiritual crisis, and physical challenges.
Here where I live in Broome County we are blessed to have access to both the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) operated by the Broome County Council of Churches and to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier which extends out from Broome County to also cover Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins counties.
I wanted to invite you to become involved in hunger outreach in your local context. If you are one of the people who follow this blog because you love Christian contemplation, consider how many of the saints learned the value of contemplation through action. If you are a poetry person, consider how difficult it can be to create or enjoy beautiful poetry when you are distracted by a growling stomach. Hungry has inspired many wonderful pieces of art, but I am certain it was not enjoyable. Please consider volunteering time or resources to one of these wonderful missions or a similar mission near you.
Allow me a moment to say there are many commonalities among world religions. Almost all of them point to both the value of love and the reciprocal blessing of kindness. Call it karma, the promise of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or by another phrase meaningful to you. It is good to show kindness to people in need.
Here are five ways to get started in helping fight hunger:
- Pick a designated non-perishable item of the month that you use a lot of in your life. If you pick peanut butter, purchase an extra jar when it is on your grocery list. Donate it to a local food bank or food pantry.
- Do not automatically say “No” if you live in an area where grocery stores might invite you to donate to a pantry. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier occasionally invites people to “Check out Hunger.” A similar program might be available near you.
- If you go to church, offer to help make sure there is healthy food for times of fellowship like “Coffee Hour.” If you see a friend who looks like they might need an extra cookie, offer to get them one while you “Get a cup of coffee.” If your church is willing, find a family who might need a blessing and offer them the leftover goodies (with grace and an understanding if they say no).
- Pay attention to your neighbors. If you know a family is going hungry, “Secret Santa” them by paying for a pizza or other food to be delivered from a local restaurant anonymously. Make sure you cover the driver’s tip so that the person is not embarrassed.
- Call a Food Pantry, Food Bank, or Soup Kitchen. Ask what they need and volunteer what you can in time or in goods.
When I was a young boy I visited with my relatives down south in Georgia. My grandfather’s sisters lived in a small town where they spent their days in a house that was quite large and quite ornate. I wondered at the house, the railroad tracks that ran past the front yard, and the massive properties on the side of the tracks on which they lived. As a kid I was more interested and terrified of fire ants than I was of the social situation, but even I noticed that the people who helped my grandfather’s sisters maintain the property came from the smaller homes on the other side of the railroad tracks. As an adult, it took me forever to realize that they looked different too.
I do remember hearing negative things. When things went missing it was never because they were misplaced. The “help” had taken them. Even when those things were found, it was still the fault of the people who came to help the two elderly women in their home. I realize now that there was a world of things going on behind the scenes. There were likely issues of race, prejudice, class, and economics at play. There were also questions of grief as two women lost the ability to control first their bodies and then their minds. I don’t excuse the behavior, but I did have the seeds of my first nightmares about Alzheimer’s disease in those days.
As an adult who is now removed nearly three decades from those events, I do not blame myself for having neither the wisdom nor the education to ask questions. What small child really knows enough to ask those questions? Furthermore, would my proper southern relatives have even taken me seriously? I do my best to act with the wisdom gained in my day to day life now, which is where this post originates.
I identify as a millennial but I am not a young adult. I have three children who I am raising to the best of my ability. I pay my taxes, dutifully pay off massive student loans, and understand that I cannot be bailed out of every challenge by my father. I do my best to be a constructive part of society. I also listen to a lot of complaints about millennials.
Perhaps it is my sensitivity to hearing people complain about my generation that caused me to notice something I found disrespectful the other day. Several folks that I know shared a couple of memes suggesting that eighteen year old students are spoiled. One or two of the folks pointed out that eighteen year old kids used to charge the beaches of Normandy and other folks pointed out that eighteen year olds used to serve in Vietnam. They proceeded to mock eighteen year old kids as being spoiled.
It begged a question in my mind. Who do they think serves in the Armed Forces today? Who do they believe are recovering from wounds from IEDs in hospitals and clinics or leaving children without parents after ambushes? What’s more, when they come to an age where they need care to live out the end of their lives, who do they believe will be the doctors or nurses? Who do they believe will care for the needs of their property? Who will teach their children? Who will serve in the fire departments, police forces, and even on road crews when they are no longer capable?
To me it was mind boggling. I remember my relatives saying that my grandfather’s sisters did not understand what they were saying about other people. I also remember a few choice moments when the generation who raised me made a few choice comments that were not so gracious. For all of the criticism of the people who came before, my own family has struggled to leave behind the bad habit of criticizing others for being different, whether that be in terms of race, age, ability, or education.
The memes gave me pause because it seemed as if another generation had been raised up to sit on their lawn and insult other people for having the audacity to live life differently than they once lived. What’s worse, I am almost certain that somewhere in my life I do the same thing. I might even be doing it now.
So, let me apologize for those moments when I forget the lessons I learned from the mistakes and missteps of my ancestors. Let me apologize for people who do not see what they are doing in their attempt to be funny, opinionated, or simply a part of a disastrous movement who wants to disenfranchise as many people as necessary to maintain the way things have always been. Let me apologize for the things that I will miss in my own heart and my own actions. Please forgive me.
Eighteen year old soldiers, students, and human beings… You have my respect. Please, live a life that is incredible and help me to live a great one as well.
For two weeks in a row, people have asked me to put the text of my message online. This week I did a little extemporaneous preaching in the midst of this manuscript, but these are the bones upon which the sermon was based.
Date: April 22, 2018
Title: Shepherds Act
Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
We’re gathered in the season of resurrection. We’re gathered not in the shadow of the cross but in the light of Easter morning. The good Shepherd has come, has laid down his life for God’s flock, and has risen from the grave.
We are called to follow Christ not only through the season of struggle leading up to the cross but past the cross into resurrected life. We are called to lives of more than just speech. We are called to lives of action. Indeed, what does John write to us this morning from across nearly 2,000 years? In his gospel, John records Christ as stating:
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
John records the words of Jesus as Christ lays out a vital part of who he is and what he will do. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but take note. Jesus is talking to a collection of the chosen people, the children of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is talking to a group of people who have belonged to the flock of God for generations. Before the 23rd Psalm was the world’s psalm, it had been their song for generation after generation.
The people of God gathered with Jesus that day were told that the flock must grow. The people of God were told that Jesus was going to reach out to people who were in other folds of sheep. They didn’t know it then, but some of those people would speak Greek and not a smattering of Hebrew. Some of those folks would speak the roots of what would become English, French, Gaelic, and German. Others would one day speak Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Some would one day speak Spanish, Portuguese, and the language of countless Indigenous tribes throughout Africa and the Americas.
I somehow doubt that the children of Abraham understood what Jesus was saying that day, but in hindsight it is incredibly powerful. The good shepherd will lay down his life and will take it up again. Jesus is claiming mastery over his own life, his own death, and proclaiming that he will take up that life again. He has been sent to care for the sheep who will respond from across the world.
This is a proclamation that should have rattled people. This is a proclamation that did rattle people. This is a proclamation that was bolder than bold. So, why doesn’t it shake us today?
Yesterday, the United Methodist Church throughout the majority of NYS and in two Pennsylvania towns gathered as the Upper New York Annual Conference to begin a journey. To be honest, I was dreading the meeting. I had no idea what was going to happen, what was expected of us, and I frankly assumed the worst. Call me a pessimist or call me a realist, but I have been to too many meetings where we talk being politically correct without choosing to do anything concrete. I believed in the intention of the meeting, but I was really nervous about how a church could change things.
Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church fought against alcoholism and helped to power the temperance movement. Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church preached the gospel out on plantations and caused riots and lynchings for teaching the “property” of slave-owners to read. Once upon a time we empowered Sunday Schools to teach children to read when they were forced to help on a farm or in a factory on every other day of the week. We have had a legacy of power and change, but honestly it has been a while.
I walked into a room believing that nothing good could come out of that meeting, especially on a subject as broad and powerful as racism. I have to confess to you that I may have jumped to the wrong conclusions. I saw something as powerful and overarching as bigotry and wondered how we could ever even begin to face it. I lost hope for a moment yesterday. I admit that and confess my own sin.
So, I confess I was more than a bit skeptical as the leaders led and told us about heartfelt conversations that they had participated in while wondering how we could begin to face such challenges. The leaders told us about how there was no way a mandate could ever force churches to be different and that there was an understanding this had to come from the people. So, the leaders began to talk about their own journey of discovery, even admitting that at times they would assume this was everyone’s problem but their own. I saw reflected in their faces a struggle with something that was bigger than any one of them.
My heart broke a little bit as I realized that this was the church being sincere. I heard echoes of the passages I had studied all week and was convicted. If we are a people of many folds, if we are a flock of many ethnicities, if God has called to all of us, then should we not seek to live at peace with other people in the fold. When they hurt, don’t we hurt? When they struggle, shouldn’t we struggle? When they cry out, shouldn’t we hear?
John wrote in his letter “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I heard leaders speak about how we have done wonderful work at saying the right words, but rarely have followed them up with concrete action. It remained to be seen how we could do something concrete, but I heard John’s words echoed. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
So, we’re gathering to begin to talk about racism, privilege, and what we face. Soon, Pastor Dave from Union Center UMC, Pastor Taylor from Nanticoke and Killawog will gather with pastors and laity from Apalachin, Newark Valley, and other surrounding areas to start to look at how we can work together to begin to see beyond ourselves. Soon, I’ll be headed up to Syracuse to help lead the sessions in our group, partially because I was the one in our group willing to go and partially because it gives me tools to later have those conversations in churches. This will give me tools to bring here.
Soon, we’ll begin a journey which is intended to not just inform the clergy and active laity on how to see what’s going around us, but to bring that knowledge home to our churches. Soon, there’ll be opportunities for you to join in our work, and this is a work I believe can change the world because it starts at the right level. This is a work which begins with the journey for people to open their hearts, to learn tools for their daily lives, and to begin to work together.
These are the kind of movements that have changed the world in generations past and we are capable of doing right. We are the people of God, called in the image of the one who lays down his life for the sheep, and we, with Christ, can pick up our life and enter into the ministry with Jesus.
In his book “Strength to Love,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a chapter named “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” He wrote in that chapter on Matthew 10:16, which read in the King James Version he preferred “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Rev. Dr. King wrote that good Christian people need to work to have a heart that is tender enough to love others and treat them like people and a mind that is tough enough to realize the difference between what is right and righteous from what is undeniably wrong.
Speaking on the need for us to have strength of will and solidity of mind, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following: (pg. 5)
“There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
Friends, we are a resurrection people. We believe that God is in the process of remaking our hearts and minds. Can we have the courage to be like the good shepherd and live with both conviction and love? Can we have the will to look in the mirror and ask difficult questions of ourselves, our society, and what we receive without realizing it? Can we be brave, bold, and love with more than words? Can we become tough-minded enough to break our shackles even as we remain tender-hearted enough to love?
I invite you to be in prayer with and for me over the coming months because I know this will not be easy personally. I invite you to be in prayer for what God might be calling you to do in the coming months. I invite you to hear the call of God and to respond.
Welcome to the longest blogpost that I have ever written… Also, I am going to go ahead and state that I’m writing this as a well-educated, white, Protestant male who has a lot of privilege. I use a lot of “we language” to talk about the overwhelmingly white church. I own it and am trying to learn new ways of being.
Yesterday I share a quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. I adore Walter Brueggemann and I really loved the quote. Here’s what it said: (original quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional “A Way Other than Our Own”, pgs. 2-3)
“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
I received a bit of pushback for sharing this concept by a few people that come from a different place in life than I am. In particular, a colleague and friend of mine said that there was no context for the quote. I normally wouldn’t mind letting Walter Brueggemann stand up for himself as he’s a world famous theologian who has more street credit with people in almost every corner of the church. I normally would leave it alone, but my colleague was just the most openly vocal person. I respect him for his openness and boldness. Such boldness is a gift in this profession.
I have private messages questioning my patriotism, my theology, and in one case my integrity for daring to share such divisive words. I decided to respond on my blog so that I could create lots of links to sources.
I do not mind people questioning my patriotism. I stood in the rain for over an hour waiting to pray for God to bring comfort into the lives of people mourning soldiers who passed in the service of this nation. I stood glumly and thought of my friends in the armed forces who have lost friends. I listened to people complain about the rain. To be fair, it was really cold and wet. I have learned to have thick skin due to the circumstances of my ministry.
I do not mind people questioning my theology. Theology is necessarily limited by the person who is approaching the divine. I stood in the rain and prayed at the beginning of the service. The Baptist minister who believes different things than me about God prayed at the end of the service. We don’t need to agree to show love and respect to each other. Theology is always a matter of perspective unless you know all things, in which case you’re navel gazing because only God knows everything.
I do get a little irked when people question my integrity. I stood in the rain to pray for others so that they might have comfort today. While standing there I realized that I have no place to rest my bones. Following Jesus has meant that I no longer have a home like many of the people that I serve. I find home in my loved ones, my community, and even in my relationship with God, but there is no grave for me to rest within at the end of my days. My responding to God has led me to forego that blessing. That takes commitment and is more than a little disconcerting.
I am a servant of the Most High and I do my best to live out my service well. My quest is to live out that service with integrity. I have decided that I am going to respond to these criticisms in the best way that I can. I am going to respond with a defense of this statement and encourage others to engage in the conversation. I mean no disrespect to those who disagree with me, but there comes a point where one must be clear, concise, and accurate when talking about challenging issues. I might not be concise, but I pray this is both clear and accurate.
So, what does Brueggemann say:
- There’s a crisis in the US church that has nothing to do with the theology wars that people love to engage in between liberal and conservative camps.
- The crisis has to do with an abandonment of the identity found in our Christian identity which is best expressed in the faith and discipline connected with our baptism into Christ.
- We settle for an identity that is partially patriotic, consumeristic, violent, and affluent. I think it is safe to say that Brueggemann has a negative view of this approach.
So, let’s get into this. Is there a crisis in the US church? Well, the Pew Research Center might be indicating that there is a problem. Attendance is dropping and the mission of the church according to Matthew 28:18-20 the purpose of the church is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
There’s a numerical issue that might show a problem, but why is that issue taking place? Is this the problem or a symptom? Are we the victims of a cultural shift or is it more insidious? Matthew 28:20 says that Jesus will be with us when we do what we’re supposed to be doing. So, what is going on?
Do you remember that point where Walter Brueggemann talks about violence? We were called to make disciples of all nations. We were called to teach them, love them like Jesus loved them, and to embody what Jesus commanded. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Jesus taught that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to Jesus.
When I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” We were called to embody and teach love. We broke promises. We killed women and children. We believed in a manifest destiny that destroyed cultures, families, and bordered at times on cultural and physical genocide. If it makes you feel sick to your stomach you aren’t alone. The General Conference of the UMC engaged in a sincere attempt to draw the church into repentance in 2012 and voices in our church have been asking us to continue that work ever since, but we continue to bring violence to our sisters, brothers, and neighbors over subjects like pipelines and corporate rights. We should be sick to our stomachs. This isn’t the way that Jesus taught us to live. We were called to teach people to live as Jesus’ commanded us. If we have trouble seeing where Jesus is at work it may be our own fault.
In seminary trusted friends invited me to consider reading further. I was invited to read books like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was invited go on trips to places like Window Rock, Arizona where I stood by the graves of soldiers who died for our nation. I talked with widows whose loved ones made it home safely and could only find work in uranium mines. I stood in the middle of a tribe of proud people and saw how the culture that I had been taught to love and honored had crippled a noble community, tribe, and nation. I shook my head when I realized there were no trees in the town of Sawmill because they’d been shipped away to build the impressive towns populated by people who looked like me. I wept openly by the statue erected in honor of the Windtalkers who served so proudly. My heart broke in pieces because the Jesus I know would not have done these things.
It goes further. I’ve married a woman who has stood in the towns where my nation dropped nuclear weapons on women and children. I’ve read about the 200,000 people who died in the name of expediency. Most of them died from burns, but some of them died when the pieces of the place they called home flew through the air and killed them. I have stood by sights where Confederate soldiers stood up for their rights to own other people and thought about how their blood was shed into the very water which once carried people as property from one nation to another.
As a lay person I have served food to hungry people on the streets of Rochester and done my best to give dignity to folks who are in need of food in the communities I have served as a pastor. I have seen people die when basic needs like health-care have not been met. For the want of an antibiotic I have seen people sicken and rest on their deathbeds. I have seen that our nation is not perfect. I have seen it with my own eyes and my eyes have wept with pain for what they have seen.
On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenging time and the beginnings of division were starting to tear apart the connections of the young nation. Lincoln said the following:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
I truly believe Lincoln’s fear is our reality. We have become a people who believes that we have a manifest destiny which can and should control the lives of people around us. Some people feared the other. Mob violence was tearing apart our nation as people oppressed and fought against people that they saw as property. Their fear was that the other would ruin the future, much like we are afraid of the terror that others can bring into our lives. Lincoln pointed out to the people that the true danger was coming from within. His fears would prove true. The way of being the early American nation was headed was leading to soldiers, neighbors, and families slaughtering each other all across this nation.
We are a people who it seems honestly believes that we have a right to control the lives of people around us. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. We preach our doctrines on television and demand that we bring prayer back into schools because we honestly believe that the people praying in the school will pray in ways that will agree with our beliefs! We would cry bloody murder if someone called for Islamic prayer every morning before school, but we are okay with it if we are the ones leading the prayers. We do the very things that Jesus told us not to do and it is killing us. This idolatry is killing us very quickly. We need to repent.
Brueggemann questions the connections between patriotism and our baptismal identity, but he isn’t the first. Consider the works of the prophets who came to the people of God cajoling, pleading, begging, and trying to convince them to remember whose they were. Consider the judges who asked the people not to seek an earthly king and how their decision caused grief, destruction, death, and exile. Consider Jesus who refused to be an earthly ruler and was crucified for His trouble.
How many books of the Bible are filled with these stories? How many times does God call on the people to repent of their earthly addictions to power and greed? How many times does God call on people to live lives marked my love, kindness, and humility? How often can we read these words and not understand the most basic of messages? Do we need to live out Lamentations in addition to Jeremiah?
I am a child of this nation. I have to live a life which honestly reflects on who we have become as a people. We were a nation of immigrants and we murdered the people who lived here before us. We were a nation of refugees from the struggles of an old world and we imported people as slaves from another part of the world. We were a nation that stood up to Hitler’s terrible acts. I do not doubt the importance of those actions and honor those who died to put an end to the Holocaust. That bravery does not change the fact that we are also the nation who nuked civilians (including women and children). Knowledge, history, and experience have taught me that my identity cannot rest in my place in this nation. If my identity as an American is all that defines me, then history teaches me that a prophet is needed, because this is not good.
Violence like the violence that we have brought into the world is like the violence that is described before the flood in Genesis. Arrogance like the arrogance we have shown through depopulating a nation, enslaving others, and mistreating our own neighbors is absolutely horrendous. This arrogance is like the arrogance that led to the Tower of Babel. This is not good.
I truly believe that Walter Brueggemann is right. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the red letter words of the New Testament brought through Jesus. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the call of the prophets. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to define ourselves less by where we happened to be born and more by who we have chosen to become in the life.
I am a Christian who happens to be a United Methodist. When I share in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table it is with the understanding that you cannot share in the body and blood of Christ if you’re not ready to partner with Christ in the ministry of undergoing suffering. I am a minister in the United Methodist church. When I baptize a child it is with the honest expectation that the child must come to a place where they believe in their own faith and identify with their own baptism into the life and death of a man who suffered.
In my own personal theology these beliefs are not optional. I have already said that I do not need people to agree with me, but on my end they are a part of our identity as Christians. If we cannot find our identity in Christ then we have lost our way and need to pray for forgiveness. As the foundational documents of the Methodist movement say all that is truly required to enter into the society of believers is ““a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”
If it makes people feel better, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ just affirmed their belief that God’s vision for the church is to be “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” They connect this to their mission which is to be “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” Seeking justice requires repenting of the things we do that cause pain.
For that matter, during the benediction at the American Legion’s service in the rain this morning, the Baptist minister around the corner lifted up Jesus Christ as the soldier who laid down his life so that people of every nation would enter the Kingdom of God and find salvation. By the way, Pastor Jim prayed a really powerful prayer. I’m looking forward to hearing more as time goes on.
For that matter, here’s a pretty good work of theology by a Roman Catholic scholar written on the subject of patriotism and our Christian duty is a pretty good bit of research too. By the way, it was written only a few months after 9/11. I still find it to be very relevant 15 years later. Too old for you? Here’s Pope Francis calling people to move towards justice and mercy earlier this year.
Baptists, Roman Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and even United Methodists like me. If you’re keeping track, that’s every denomination that has a congregation in the hamlet of Maine. We may worship different, but we all seem to be united in understanding that salvation rests in Jesus and that Jesus calls us to repent of our sins. We might not agree with what that looks like, but we all seem united in understanding that God is calling us.
As for Brueggemann’s words on affluence and consumerism, I realize that I have probably annoyed enough people already. I can go into that another day if people desire. The long and short of it is that I personally believe that John Wesley got it right. He did earn all he could and save all he could. He also gave all he could and died with less than 30 pounds to give away despite having an annual income of 1,400 pounds. It is said that he never had more than 100 pounds on him, which is pretty impressive given how easy it must have been to hoard his wealth instead of using it to bless others.