Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection (June 11)

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

9:10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

9:11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

9:12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.

9:13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

9:18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live."

9:19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

9:20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak,

9:21 for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well."

9:22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." and instantly the woman was made well.

9:23 When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion,

9:24 he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him.

9:25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.

9:26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

If I want to follow Jesus, I need to listen hard: "God desires mercy not sacrifice." Class dismissed. My homework? Learn what it means that God is merciful. Compassion is the source of Jesus' ministry.* The essence of mercy is compassion, kindness, forgiveness. Biblically, mercy is exhibited by a superior to an inferior. For example, it is within one's power to punish, but one chooses to show mercy instead. Another meaning is tied to compassion, similar to a mother's visceral love for her children.

Jesus shows his compassion to tax collectors and sinners, a women with the issue of blood, and a young girl thought to be dead. (Jesus says that "she is sleeping.") "Suddenly," occurs twice in the reading, to show how consistently Jesus embodies the mercy he teaches: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7) 

In Matthew, the first references to "church" appear. Have the leaders in the church of Matthew's time replaced the Pharisees of Jesus' ministry? Often those outside the church see more clearly when self- identified Christians fail to love and behave mercifully. Jesus' words to Pharisees apply to anyone who claims to love God: "Go and learn about God's mercy." I cannot be both self-righteous and merciful. I must choose.**

There are no people outside of the mercy of the Lord. There are no barriers to God's love in Jesus Christ.  If I claim to follow Jesus, the main thing that makes me holy and distinct is not the purity of my worship, who I include and exclude,  who is right and who is wrong, but rather, having been a recipient of God's unearned unfailing mercy embodied in Jesus, how am I pursued by mercy? How will I pursue mercy?

*See also, Matthew 12:7. This particular phrase is unique to Matthew. Matthew mentions Jesus' "compassion" eight times in his Gospel. 
**The Parable of the Unforgiving Steward (Matthew 18:23-35) seems to be a explanation, in story form, of "Blessed are the merciful."  

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection

The Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

28:17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

28:19 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,

28:20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Church as Teacher
Matthew is a missionary Gospel, with all of its instructions for missioners (Matthew 9-10). In what we call the Great Commission, above, Jesus "apostles" his disciples by sending: "Go therefore." But the content of that teaching is "all I have commanded you." That's a large part of Matthew, starting with Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.

Glossing over Jesus' teaching is convenient to do. But preaching Jesus' teaching is the standard content of Gospel preaching.* It seems many on the outside of  Christianity have judged churches and Christians for our failures to follow Jesus' teachings. I know I fall short every minute; however, is that the excuse to discount the way of Jesus Christ when commissioned to do so?

Is this another session on works-righteousness? Let's get the tired law vs. grace dichotomy out of our minds for a minute. The existence of Jesus' teaching saves me. Full stop. The covenant Christ offers comes by God's initiative and grace, as surely as our being created in God's own image and likeness. As surely as the Torah is given by God's grace. 

Whatever eternal  life is, I am going to find it very difficult to claim Jesus when, at the same time, I refuse to meet him in my vulnerable neighbors.** In Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:21-33), I really do meet the risen Christ in the imprisoned, unsheltered, hungry, thirsty, alien, and sick. What about those huddled families, children, parents, grandparents at our Texas borders? And those who will cross my path today and tomorrow? 

*John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England, in the 33 Standard Sermons he preached and required of his itinerants, 14 are on the Sermon of the Mount.
**Although some read Matthew 25:21-35 as referring to brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, the Church, I err on the side of generosity. Tipping the scales for me are the questions of Scripture, such as (1) Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10) and, (2)  Am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4). 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection

Gospel Reading

John 20:19-23; 20:19 
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

John 7:37-39
7:37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,

7:38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"

7:39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The Point of Pentecost

While the Acts narrative favors the orderly, detailed and careful accounting of the coming of Holy Spirit, John's Gospel tells a different story.* John surely knew Luke's account, but presents another promise and possibility. 

While Acts 2 tells the story in metaphor, "a sound like the rush of a violent wind," or "tongues as of fire" coming upon those gathered,  John 20 presents the breath of the risen Christ as the Spirit. Jesus Christ is alive and we experience that through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not only the breath of the risen Christ, but also, closer than our next breath! 

The Holy Spirit issues forth from the Father (Acts 2) and the Son (John 20). John implies what later became known as the doctrine of the Trinity. The Spirit coming from the Son as well the Father was a source of long and sharp differences between church leaders in Rome and Constantinople, until the Great Schism of 1054 and the formation of The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. **

But the differences between Acts and John are great resources for presenting the whole Gospel of the Holy Spirit. John's Gospel is the result of a full generation of church life beyond Luke-Acts. The Holy Spirit sustains us in our journey, not for a momentary event, but for long endurance in the faith. The walk is one step at a time and is impossible and pointless without closeness and intimacy with Source of life (see reading of Psalm 104) and the Source of the Church.*** This is the depth of insight in John's witness.

Sunday's reading proclaims that walking with Christ cannot be achieved by checking off boxes, attaining goals, being good enough, longer prayers, or what pleasing God involves. Walking with Jesus is possible with the gift and grace, and God- infused joy and love, peace and patience, justice and compassion, the "living waters" of God's people in Jesus Christ. 

Acts 2 is an orderly account of God acting in the history of the church. But God and our life with Jesus is not. Life is full of messy decisions and people. Acts 2 is also a look back. Many churches attempt to recreate the Acts - Pentecost with a sound and light show, perhaps foreign languages for added effect. The point of Pentecost is to participate in God's work of re-creation, not to resort to theatre. The reenactment is within us. We are the re-creation of Pentecost in and for the world. 

*Only Luke uses "orderly account" to describe his Luke-Acts He uses the term twice in Luke 1, I assume, for emphasis. However, God working in orderly ways is not the point John.
** Rome taught that the Spirit comes from both the Father and Son, or the filioque clause.
***Pentecost is also known as the birthday of the Church.

How I Survived Ministry (2)

Just last year, while in the process of fully retiring from active ministry, my Spiritual Director at the time asked, "Looking back, you did what God wanted you to do, didn't you?" The question bothered me for some time. It reminded me of a query that the Board of Ordained Ministry asks to explore the genuineness of one's calling. Really, it's always a good question to ask, whether in active ministry or not. 

Have I done what God wanted me to do? I approach it with some wonder, uncertainty, and honestly, resignation. God only knows.

It's important to discern if I am accomplishing my purpose and to affirm why I am on this earth. But that comes down to the concrete acts of faith not limited to ordained ministry. As I began ministry, I was driven to be a success, to be accomplished, an achiever. It was about my ministry, my calling, my gifts. I was spent by the short term, the measurable, and the check-list of pastoral tasks.* 

As important as the validity and credibility of one's ministry is, the high of achieving each success wears off in a matter of days. The cycle of addiction is run by the inner drug store. The next success must be bigger and better. The adrenalin highs and lows was exhausting and corrosive of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resilience.

Sustainability and endurance needs to be explored in every facet of the ordination process, as well after ordination, especially in the first ten years of full-time ministry. What will make churches grow and flourish is not disconnected from the parish, lay ministry partners, myself and my family. If I only lived from the high of achievement, how could I expect anyone in the parish not to follow a path to burn-out and purposelessness. How could I expect to leave something of continuing value?

What I'm Learning

  1. Sustainability in life-long ministry requires endurance and resilience, even though I'm pulled into the vortex of proving my value in the short term. 
  2. Important as small successes are, when I live and die by them, the season of brown-out is sure to follow. 
  3. Regularly, consider usefulness and purpose in ministry as an inoculation against burn-out.
  4. Let time-management be guided not by estimated hours or tasks, but flow of energy- when full presence may drop. 
  5. Consider in reflection: What long-term good will my work serve? How can I find mutual support with others?    
*See The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2016), pp. 331-335 for the exhaustive (and exhausting) job description for a Clergy-Pastor. 

Monday, May 15, 2023

How I Survived Ministry (1)

The book of Deuteronomy calls Moses the greatest prophet in all of Israel. He received his true vocation from God around age 80 while also a fugitive from justice. On the age front, that should be encouraging to those who seem to be passed over for that promotion because younger people and part-timers will be hired for much less. Moses' destiny would not to hang around the Egyptian court as an advisor to the king like Joseph did generations before. His vocation literally saved him from a death sentence.

Most churches are drawn to the young and energetic clergy thinking that they will in turn attract younger generations (as if age and energy alone will guarantee meaningful connections and ministry with unreached, unchurched younger adults). Because churches have budgets and are cost conscious, entry level clergy often fill this function, whether or not their spiritual gifts and abilities fit this role.

I was the youngest of three brothers, so I have naturally have been drawn to older people all of my life. Because of their wisdom or knowledge or experience, I learn when I am with chosen mentors. I remember front porch visits with my neighbor's grandfather when I was around 5 yrs. old. Dr. John Lennon, my youth minister (Minister of Christian Education in those days), was the one who served as my spiritual director before I knew what one was. Under his guidance, I was confirmed and explored vocation. I could always count on getting an honest answer from him and I trusted him as a person and friend. John retired at 65, the same year I graduated from High School. We had one of the more dynamic youth ministries around. He remained active. For example, he consulted in Christian Education in Australia, and held church staff positions in retirement.

I was chaplain at a retirement community for several years. This ministry, which I dearly loved, required dealing honestly with the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional onslaughts of aging. The frequent question in spiritual counseling seemed to be: "Why am I still alive?" It was a question of vocation, purpose: " What am I now here for?" The search for and the fulfilling of that purpose is a holy one at any age; it also saved my life by bringing a continuity, a sense of wholeness that God is never finished with us.

After being an R.N. during W.W. II, Mom went back to college when I was in High School, graduated with the R.N. when I was in college, then started work in a free clinic before teaching childbirth classes. She was 85 when she fully retired. When she was in grade school, her church had a vocation day and the children were asked to wear the clothing of whatever their chosen vocation would have been at the time. They processed down the church, as if to offer these dreams to God and to declare themselves to the world. She dressed as a nurse.

How did I survive the forties? I did it by the grace that God is not finished. Purpose and usefulness saved me.

Here are some ideas to consider:
  1. Remember and name, in gratitude, the people and events that have brought you to this point. 
  2. Resist the norm of defining your call as something in the past. Define meaning and purpose now.
  3. Reflect on your identity. Apart from all the roles and labels and titles, who are you? This may time longer than you think. 

Friday, April 21, 2023

White Too Long: A Review

I will flatly say that the bulk of this country's white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long. James Baldwin, 1969  ( White Too Long, p. 233)

Robert P. Jones' White Too Long (2020) is a cutting analysis of racist attitudes in white Christianity. Although it's not a new book, I wonder if things have changed. It's  a lingering question after reading the book. 

The book's strength lies in the author's statistical explanation of a basic contradiction: why white Christians* have highly warm feelings toward African-Americans while scoring much higher on measurements of racist attitudes.** Also, those who identify as white Christians score higher in racist attitudes than the unaffiliated. A better measurement of white supremacist attitudes is The Racism Index. It measures, argues Jones, attitudes on systemic and institutional racism, using: 1) Confederate symbols 2)Inequality and African-American mobility 3) Racial inequality and the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system 4) Perceptions of race, racism, and racial discrimination. 

Jones' more searing analysis comes in Chapter 8 ("Mapping"). A clear path is set forth, from hypothesis to statistics to conclusion. It constitutes a sociological mapping of the "genome" of white Christianity. Have white supremacist attitudes integrated into [White Christianity's] DNA as part of what it means to be a white Christian in America? "If the correlations we see between white supremacist attitudes and white Christianity cannot be explained away by other factors, white Christians have some serious soul-searching to do." (p. 166.) The analysis, Jones argues, will measure "how much holding racist attitudes predicts independently the probability of identifying as a white Christian," as well as the reverse: "measuring how much identifying as a white Christian predicts independently the likelihood of holding racist attitudes." (pp. 171-172)

One of the most devastating conclusions of this book is the deconstruction of church attendance. Church attendance is always very prominent in the measurables of a successful, growing church. Attendance is always one part of the holy trinity of successful Christian churches. (The other two are budget and buildings). My calling as a Christian Educator-teacher and clergyperson in the United Methodist Church was based, in part, on the assumption that regular, better Adult Education in the church enlivened a generous and just love of neighbor. However, Jones concludes that the opposite is true: "White evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics who attend church regularly are as likely as their less-frequently-attending counterparts to hold racist attitudes." (p. 183- italics added for review)

Another conclusion that challenges the popular wisdom is that the unaffiliated (those who don't identify as a white Christian ) score lower on the RI. White churches do not deconstruct white supremacist attitudes. Instead, they "dress it up in theological garb, giving it a home in a respected institution, and calibrating it to local cultural sensibilities." (p. 182) Why would an unaffiliated person think that church would equip me to be kinder and more just toward our African American neighbors? 

Although signs of hope for white Protestants are offered (Chapter 9),  descriptive sociology is limited to statistical conclusions. The book cannot easily proceed to the normative. So the question, what must white Protestants do in order to be saved, remains.This drawback does not minimize the importance of Jones' work. We are still free to act and respond to his uncomfortable, inconvenient conclusions. 

We are free to ask of our churches and ourselves: what purposes do our ministries serve? Does our preaching and teaching of the whole Bible omit its call for justice? How can we preach the entire Lectionary Cycle- or- the Gospels for that matter- without even one reference to- let alone a sermon on- racial injustice? How are the words of cognitive dissonance in Jesus' teachings minimized or discounted? How can we stop fleeing to Jesus and flying to heaven just because facing the truth ourselves is uncomfortable. How do we best challenge the rise of hate, anger, and resentment in white churches and in America- and build a better future? 

*Those who identify as white Christians are categorized by evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. The findings are based on research of the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research on issues at the intersection of religion culture and politics. 
**A finding from the study is that white Christians score much higher on racist attitudes (resentment, bitterness, anger) than those who are unaffiliated, though they are not the focus of the book.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Gospel Calls for Faith- Not Certainty

The angel of the Lord said to the women: "Do not be afraid! I know you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for He has been raised just as He said." Matthew 28:5b-6a.

Do you find it interesting that, even though no one saw the central event of our faith, we, like the women at the empty tomb, are still invited to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ? We read it like seeing an empty tomb would have been a good thing. Jesus' total absence begins the story. It's only with the word of the angel, God's servant, that there is a change in narrative. It's an invitation to trust and rely on God's love, grace and faithfulness.

"The desire for certitude is an obstacle to launching full sail on the ocean of trust," wrote Thomas Keating. For anxious, terror-struck disciples not knowing how Jesus left the tomb, the only way forward is to consent not to know, to trust the words of God's messenger. The voices are many who declare otherwise. Our program for security seeks an end to mystery and unknowing. As the gospel Easter song declares we indeed like the idea of "all fear" being gone. But is that the measure of our spiritual life? I hope not. If all fear being gone is what it's about, then I've missed the bus!

Faith accepts the unknown. From Abraham to Moses, from Mary to Peter, we take the next step in the journey not because all our questions have been answered, but because God gives us enough faith to take the next step. It's God's goodness and mercy that chases after us as long as we live- the real measure of faith.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Can I Frame My Story with Jesus' Story?

When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.* 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I retired from doing ministry more than a year ago. It's not been an easy year. I vastly underestimated how difficult it would be to let go of being in active ministry as a clergyperson. Who am I?  Not a label or title, I know. But the question is far from an intellectual exercise. My once and future work and calling is really for others to accomplish. 

The Jesus of the Passion is the one who chooses to share in my diminishments and losses. For much of my life in Protestantism, I missed a central dimension of the good news embodied in the Crucifix, Jesus' loss of control- of God, others, and his physical agency.  In the empty cross of Protestants, Jesus cannot be identified by his wounds or humiliation. Here, in his Passion, and beginning with his being taken into custody of the authorities, Jesus loses control. 

Long ago I had a talk with a campus minister. My personal spiritual disciplines which I practiced so rigorously had lost their meaning and relevance. Everything that was once so certain and formulaic now seemed empty and pointless. I could only tell you what I no longer believed. The campus minister, who represented an evangelical tradition, cautioned me not to leave everything behind. The problem was that I didn't know what to keep or discard. 

All my systems of explaining God will pass away. I build them up, only to see the erosion of their structures rust, weaken and fall. When the real comes, what is unreal will fade away.  But this perspective requires time and a seeking heart.

When Jesus rode the donkey with her foal into Jerusalem, I picture a sunny day. We wave our palms with joy, lay our precious cloaks down for his pathway into the city. Prepare the way for the King! I don't want to see his coronation on a cross. It's a metaphor for the end of having Jesus the way I want, and actually, having everyone the way I want. 

So many expectations of God, church, others, and self are assaulted, then crucified. What does it mean that God does not weave a web of protection and deliverance around Jesus? Why can't God come through for once? What about friends scattering to leave Jesus alone with his accusers?  Did three years of following Jesus really help them when they ran away as fast as they could?

The Dunning- Kruger Effect theory suggests that we have blind spots when it comes to seeing ourselves as others see us. I tend to overestimate myself. This explains, in part, the disciples own assertion of "we are able" to follow you to the death, Jesus. But is this really the measure of faith? The story points us in the direction of returning compassion and love for violence and ridicule. Jesus embodies this transformation. 

The church- and world- is full of dreamers who want others to live up to their ideals. What is a telling measure of faith? What is needed is for followers of Jesus, and those sent out (apostles) to begin to embody Jesus' way of transforming indifference, bitterness and blame into compassion, patience, and gentleness. 

*Or "us" for gender inclusivity

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Black History Matters: Resources for White Churches (3)

Ideas for reflection, discussion, and study

++An excerpt from a letter from the freedman, Jourdan Anderson to his former enslaver, Col. P.H. Anderson, August 7, 1865 A Letter from Jourdan Anderson: A Freedman writes His Former Master, Facing Ourselves and History, May 12, 2020.
I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane, and Grundy, go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die, if it come to that, than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
++  The Church as Enslaver
We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the Gospel, and babies sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! [  ] The slave auctioner's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand-in-hand. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845

++Healing from the Three-Fold Wound 

Our healing is from the three- fold wound of sexism, class-ism, and racism. Julian's own vision tells the story of our original wounding and how God looks on us with pity, not blame. The choice of these three particular wounds is effectively argued, using not only the statistics of sexual abuse (1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), but also in sharing the struggles of saints like Phoebe Palmer and Henri Nouwen, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Baker Academic, 2008. As reviewed  in my blog post 
++What is White Privilege? 
When it comes to race, the past is always present...Formal segregation in housing policies may have been struck down, but steering, where real estate brokers direct home buyers toward or away from particular neighborhoods based on race, is as effective as ever. School segregation is no longer the law of the land, but classrooms today are depressingly re-segregated. Yet no one is responsible...We end up with, as social scientist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva cals "racism without racists." 
If white folk refuse to name white privilege for what it is, then it is more likely that you will ignore how black inequality, black suffering, exists all around you. Those of you who know better than that must tell other white people what you know...Beloved, racism and bigotry are ugly, uncomfortable to grapple with, but if you don't address them, you reinforce the privilege of not having to face up to the truth. Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaSt. Martin's Griffin, 2017, pp. 79-80, 204.

 ++The Black Manifesto and Response of the White Churches

On May 4, 1969, Civil-rights leader James Forman interrupted the worship service at The Riverside Church in New York, to read The Black Manifesto. Forman speech called for $500 million in reparations from the predominately white American churches and Jewish synagogues for their role in perpetuating slavery. "Fifteen dollars for every black brother or sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as a people who have been exploited, degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted." Quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, 2021, pp. 97-98.

While Forman received a fraction of the funds called for from white congregations and judicatories (approximately $300,000), his success lies primarily in initiating a national debate about the responsibility of churches for their long history in perpetuating human enslavement.

++ A Letter from Birmingham Jail 

On the sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings, I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her impressive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is there God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with interposition and nullification?" Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963.

The Governor of Mississippi from 1960-1964, Ross Barnett was a strict segregationist based on the Supremacy of the White Race. Twice Barnett rejected James Meredith's application and admittance into the University of Mississippi. Finally, and with the ruling of the SCOTUS, James Meredith officially became the first African American student at the University of Mississippi on October 2, 1962. He was guarded twenty-four hours a day by reserve U.S. deputy marshals and army troops. Meredith fulfilled his childhood dream to graduate from the University of Mississippi with a degree in political science in the summer of 1963.  

"From September 30 to October 2, marshals and the later-arriving Mississippi National Guardsmen and U.S. army soldiers fought against the swarms of citizens. One hundred and sixty-six marshals and forty-eight American soldiers were injured, while two civilians were killed in the melee. About three hundred citizens were taken prisoner by marshals and federal troops. After the riot was crushed, the military continued to occupy Oxford for almost ten months." Source: Elizabeth Brevard, "September 30, 1962: James Meredith and the University of Mississippi," Face to Face: A Blog of the National Portrait Gallery

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Crowds of Palm Sunday and Good Friday (3)

When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, Jerusalem had swelled to approximately two million people:
Imagine that you are at a boarding gate for a flight to Israel, several days before Passover, as passengers gather to travel to Jerusalem in time for the holiday. Men and women are jammed together; children are crying or laughing or temporarily vanishing. Now imagine that more than 250,000 families have assembled. And that each family unit is accompanied by one living sheep. And that everyone has to camp out for a week in the terminal before finally boarding the plane. Paula Fredriksen, "When Jesus Celebrated Passover," The Wall Street JournalApril 19, 2019.

Crossan and Borg describe a scenario in which a Triumphant Entry by Jesus in one part of city is in sharp contrast with the procession of the Roman legions across town. We will never know if this was on the mind of Gospel writers. Jesus enters the city of Zion unhindered. Indeed, Palm Sunday is the day for Jesus and his disciples.  The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About the Final Days of Jesus' Life. Harper Collins, 2007.

Preaching and Teaching Points Consider

  1. Explore the historical Jerusalem context of the Gospel narratives. 
  2. The crowds have a range of reactions to the Triumphal Entry.
    • Notice the worship and exultation of Jesus as King (palm branches, victory through gentleness and peace).
    • There are surely Roman legions marching  all over Jerusalem (victory through threat and violence). 
    • Rebuke, resistance, backlash (Pharisees).
    • Resignation (Chief Priests and Elders). 
    • Joyful witness of  Lazarus' Resurrection (those who heard and saw)
    • The various reactions are parallels of our corporate and personal journeys.
    • The range of reactions are still present- within the church and within each member.
Palm Sunday presents two options: 1) Choosing to live by threat of violence and harm or 2) The way of Jesus. His way as he taught in the Sermon on the Mount is embodied in his coronation on the Cross. His triumph is one of gentleness, peace, and the love of God, neighbor and self. 

But the way of Christ is a harsh rebuke of my cherished American-Texas myth of peace and safety and harmony through more guns and more violence. The way of Christ and his kingdom is a diatribe against my weak resignation to the way of the mass murder of children, youth, and teachers. Their murders are not a necessary evil. The Christ of Holy Week does not offer American Christians the convenience of flying to Jesus in the midst of hell on earth. 

Will Willimon once described a conversation he had with a Jewish neighbor. Willimon argued that the Sermon on the Mount had to be tempered with the world of realpolitik. His Jewish neighbor, concurred, yet added, in essence, "But my building does not have a cross on the top of it." Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, Abingdon, 1984.

Did the 'Same Crowd' that Waved Palms Later Condemn Jesus? (2)

According to Luke, the crowd on Palm Sunday is associated with those sympathetic to Jesus: "a whole multitude of the disciples" and John mentions those who had "been with Jesus" at Lazarus' resurrection, who continued to testify to this act. Both Luke and John mention the presence of the Pharisees, either as those in the crowd itself, or as onlookers. Matthew and Mark offer the least help in naming the participants.

Jesus' sentence of death before Pilate is what now concerns us. It's especially important to consult the Gospels themselves to see who was in the crowd before Pilate, the group who pronounces the judgment of death by crucifixion (a Roman capital punishment). There are plenty of inconsistencies in the accounts with actual Roman law as it was supposedly practiced in the time of Jesus, and a great resource in this area is the classic, The Trial of Jesus by Chandler. Who exactly is apart of this crowd and who shouted "crucify."

The twelve disciples are removed from this scene. Judas has already met his end in Matthew 27: 3-10. In Matthew 26:56, Mark 14: 50, the disciples scatter. Although Peter follows at a distance at first (Luke 22:54), he, too, eventually leaves the High Priest's courtyard after his three-fold denial (Matthew 26: 75, Luke 22:62). In John, Peter is accompanied by "another disciple," since "that disciple was known to the High Priest." John 18:15

Gone from the crowd of Palm Sunday is any mention of the Pharisees. Their warnings on Palm Sunday become fulfilled during the arrest and trial. The Pharisees, the teachers, who later become the rabbis of Judaism, are not the power brokers in the story. One might consider their warnings on Palm Sunday to be akin to a "word to the wise."

Luke has Pilate calling together "the chief priests, the leaders, and the people." Luke 23:13 NRSV These are the ones who later shout, "Crucify, crucify him!" in Luke 23: 21. For Matthew, the presence of the chief priests and elders were the reason the people turn: "Now the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and and to have Jesus put to death." (Matthew 27:2, NRSV) Mark 15:11 has the chief priests acting alone to stir up the "crowd." According to Matthew, there is more than one crowd --"many crowds" and pass the word from person to person. If you pass a story from person to person, the story will change as it spreads.

In John, after Pilate questions Jesus the first time; he presents Jesus to the Jewish authorities, and it's the "chief priests and the police" who first shout 'Crucify him!' Crucify him!' (John 19:6) In John 19:14-15, when Pilate, after his second and final questioning of Jesus, says to the Jews, with dark irony, "Here is your King," the narrative continues, " They cried out, 'Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!'" (Note "The Jews" in the NRSV is translated as "the crowd" in the Contemporary English Version)

From the above account(s), the temple authorities really take the leading role, all the way to the last words of the "crowd" in John 19:16. The accounts firmly place a primary role to the chief priests, the elders, and their security force made up of Temple police, and Roman soldiers. The rest of the crowd's make-up doesn't appear to be a concern of the Gospel writers. And nowhere do any of the Gospels state that the crowd before Pilate is the same group as that of the Triumphal Entry.

In comparing these two accounts in the Gospels, about the only thing I can conclude is that on Palm Sunday, it seemed to be the disciples day, whereas; on Good Friday, the voices "Crucify him!" prevailed. Luke 23:22 But these voices were led by the Jewish Temple elite, not disciples, and not even the Pharisees. 

It's all too familiar to say that the same crowd that welcomed Jesus as their king a few days later shouted "Nail him to a cross!" But to do that, the preacher-teacher must go beyond the text. Further, there is no conspiracy that the writers would intend us to see the two crowds as one, not with the crowds of disciples and any sympathetic Pharisees running away from Jesus- and anyone connected to him.

Did the 'Same Crowd' that Waved Palms Later Condemn Jesus? (1)

As Lent begins, the chant heard from Christian pulpits and chancels will grow until it becomes one of the overriding themes of Holy Week, the week before Easter. But what in text of the Gospels suggests that this is really the case? What in the text contradicts this refrain? Instead of consulting commentaries old and new, the actual biblical text should supply the answer, shouldn't it?

First, the story of Palm Sunday is told, also known as Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. (Luke 19: 28-40, Mark 11:1-10, and Matthew 21:1-9, and John 12:12-19) Mark writes, "And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed cried out, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!" Matthew describes the group and its actions thusly: "Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road..." Matthew's account also has those in the city asking, apparently in ignorance, "Who is this?" Luke defines the group that is present as "the whole multitude of the disciples" Luke also places some of the Pharisees in the "multitude" telling Jesus, "rebuke your disciples."

Importantly, the narrative is included in the Fourth Gospel. John identifies the group as "the great crowd that had come to the festival," that is, those in Jerusalem. It is this crowd that "went out to meet him." NRSV John adds into the mix those people who had "been with" Jesus when he had raised Lazarus from the dead. They continued to testify to the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees in John say with resignation to one another: "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him." 12:19

So far, it doesn't even look like the "same crowd" for first event of Holy Week, the Triumphal Entry. The group declaring their praise and waving palms is an admixture of:
  • many who were present with no Pharisees (Mark)
  • most of the crowd with no Pharisees, but those in the city asking, "Who is this?" (Matthew)
  • a whole multitude disciples (of Jesus), with perturbed Pharisees in the multitude (Luke)
  • people running out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus because they heard of Lazarus' raising, and people who had been with Jesus at Lazarus' resurrection, and resigned Pharisees (John)
Again, the idea of one crowd so far is just that, a notion. But it is a thought not justified by reading the only sources we have for the event, the Four Gospels. As you can see, generalizations that this crowd was monolithic are not warranted, even when we limit ourselves to Palm Sunday. Next we'll take a look at the composition of the group gathered before Pilate. We'll look at consistencies in each account and among all the witnesses to see if the Palm Sunday group could be the same people Pilate addresses, "Here is the man!" John 19:5

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Restitution and Restoration Is in Scripture (Session 2)

How does the ethic of restoration develop throughout Scripture? The following steps may prove helpful in study, reflection and action. Start with giving time to exploring the Scripture. Much of this material will be new. It is not exhaustive. As a wise teacher once said, "Everyone wants to want to study the Bible." The corollary could be "Everyone wants to want to do what the Bible teaches." 

Numbers 5:5-10
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one-fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged. If the injured party has no next-of-kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for the guilty party. Among all the sacred donations of the Israelites, every gift that they bring to the priest shall be his. The sacred donations of all are their own; whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.

Leviticus 6:1-5

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbour in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbour, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt.

Ezekiel 33:15

If the wicked restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity—they shall surely live, they shall not die.

Amos 8:4b-6
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practise deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’

Luke 19.8
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Matthew 19:16-22

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

James 5: 4-5

Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.

Reflection on Scripture
These are only potential questions for group or individual study; they are suggested and not exhaustive. Let them invite more reflection.

1. In each text, what exactly was taken or stolen? What does the text set forth as restitution?
2. Which, if any, of the texts teach us to go beyond simple restitution (returning what was taken)?
3. Which passages address institutional theft? What specific practices are denounced?
3. In the Matthew 19 passage, what are the commandments that Jesus lists? Why do you think Jesus specifies certain commandments for the young man to obey? Which commandments do you think Jesus would name for us?
3. Do you think Christians are responsible for righting the wrongs of previous generations? Why? If not, why not?
4. What faithful actions do you think love of neighbor includes? Specifically, who is included as recipients of neighbor love in the above Scriptures?
5. Name one person you will now consider including in your neighbor love. Why?
6. As a result of thinking on the these Scriptures, name one action that you are willing and able to take? What are you willing and able to risk?

  • See the discussion of the lawyer and Jesus in Luke 10 (The Good Samaritan) in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, Brazos Press, 2021, pp. 170-171. Restitution is a well substantiated ethic and a defined practice throughout Scripture and Church history. Restorative love includes restitution, but goes beyond it. The Samaritan pays what will be due for the victim's recovery. 
  • Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop, St. Martin's Press, 2017. See especially Dyson's recommendations for White Church ministry, pp. 196-212. Sunday School questions are found on pp. 230-231. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Countering White Resistance in Churches and Groups (Session 1)

CAUSISTRY: the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions;  sophistry. Similar: sophistry, specious reasoning, sophism, chicanery, quibbling, equivocation, fallaciousness, fudging. (1)
And what was Black animalization, demonization, and infantilization but a fundamental redefinition of neighbor- from image-bearer to non-person- that justified not only the enslavement of Africans but also the subjugation of their descendants in the Jim Crow era? And are we not tempted to do the same today? Carefully redefining neighbor so as to justify our refusals to love? Contorting our words and ways of thinking as  to create a new ethical category, the "non-neighbor"? (2)
One of the obstacles to honest reflection is defense of my innocence.  I deflect whatever puts me in a bad light. 

Entitlement is having been born second base due the benefits of race. The deception goes, " I deserve what I have because I have earned it" (and not because I have been born into privilege). Imagining there is a level playing field, the quere becomes, "Why isn't everyone else on second base? What's wrong with them?"

Entitlement and privilege are fruits of self-deception but play into larger institutions. White Supremacy is not a "weed in the garden of American democracy," but a native species, visible in the inequities of health care, mortality rate, education, income, criminal systems, employment, housing, and wealth.  I had tremendous educational advantages given to me based on lending practices instituted nationwide after W.W. II. (3)

In the church, I received employment opportunities that my Black colleagues in ministry did not. For its first almost 200 years, (1784- 1968), the now UMC segregated on the basis of race. Black congregations (and to a lesser extent, Indigenous and Hispanic congregations) were separated by color, not by region or geography. Today, gay or non-binary people can be baptized, but are officially kept from having weddings in "our churches" and prohibited from exploring a call to ministry or ordination. 

Examples of cleverness I've said myself- or heard from- white, Christian leaders:
  • I'm not a racist and surely not a White Supremacist. I have several black friends. 
  • What about reverse racism?
  • All lives matter. 
  • I can't repent of the sins of dead people. 
  • We don't solve a problem by throwing money at it. (Note the use of "it").
  • They like their churches and we like ours.
  • Isn't it an oversimplification to suggest reparations? Who will be paid and how much? Who will pay and how? 
  • I'm only one person. What can I do? 
  • We've come a long way. 
  • Haven't we done enough?
Here are some ideas to consider: 
  • I share and identify my relationship to racism, both personally and institutionally. Doing so can open the door to others in the group to reflect on theirs. 
  • Expect that there will be dissonant voices. The goal is reflection, not agreement or harmony. Stating this upfront is helpful and thinking is not always encouraged in church. Some of this can be done in small group work.
  • Caution: I can easily throw off attention or examination of my hidden bias and practices by jumping to Scripture. This is a frequent symptom of resistance. Too, spouting Scriptures is not a substitute for the work of personal or institutional change.
  • Truthful dialogue with the Scripture IS crucial but not here. The next session is an exploration of Scripture, restitution, and restoration.  
(1) Oxford Languages and Google.
(2) See the discussion of the lawyer and Jesus in Luke 10 (The Good Samaritan) in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, Brazos Press, 2021, pp. 170-171.
(3) I grew up in northeastern Ohio, where  residential areas were segregated by redlining. "It was in something called the Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration, which said that 'incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.' Meaning that loans to African-Americans could not be insured." Along with the nation wide policy came the long term consequences: "Today African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of average white incomes. But African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth. Most middle-class families in this country gain their wealth from the equity they have in their homes. So this enormous difference between a 60 percent income ratio and a 5 percent wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the 20th century." Source: 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Thinking About Mom

This past January 24, I marked my Mother's posthumous 100th birthday. Remembering can bring clarity as to my own expereriences and motivations. For example, in my young adulthood, I was riveted to completing ordination requirements and making a successful life as a United Methodist clergyperson. 

When I first appeared as a Candidate before the District Committee of Ordained Ministry, I overlooked the fact that my parents and especially my Mother, Judy Endress, was a major player in shaping my vocational call. Such Boards were intimidating- and still so. I was pretty sure that Mom's influence wouldn't have impressed that Board. (1) 

"I'm called to ordained ministry because it would especially please Mom." That admission may have been honest but what the Board really wanted to know was whether or not God was calling me. Reflecting back, I now know that it would have been both wise and acurrate to have given more than a tip of the hat to Mom.

Mom had a laser-like focus on her own life-calling as an R.N. Shortly before she finally retired from teaching childbirth classes at age 85, she told me about the time her church celebrated Labor Day. Each child in the 6th grade class processed down the center aisle dressed in their future life's work. Mom was dressed as a Nurse. She reguarlary mentioned to me that we are stewards of God's blessings and I was to use my blessings to help others. She embodied this advice. 

It would be wise because of longetivity. Mom gave me the idea that a vocation could be a  life-long dedication. Putting all my eggs in one basket. And, as studies in faith develpment have shown, one's faith is more enduring if parents take an active part in a young child's spiritualty. Christian faith and spirituality simply has more of an impact decades after childhood. Moreso with moms than dads. 

So it would have been smart to talk about mom's faith- that my call came out of an enduring faith. And if the Board interviewers discounted that, they would have been overlooking one of the main facets of how a lasting call works. (2)

For me, citing mom as a primary influence would have been acurrate and fair. My Grandmother Hacha was mom's guide in forming Mom's Christian faith, as was her mom, Great Grandmother Gabler. The term "black-belt Methodists" would apply to them all. (3) While many mentors, guides, and supporters crossed my path, Mom was one of my steadfast encouragers throughout my long career, from the very beginning,   

A final word on gratitude. Where would I be without these wonderful saints who showed up with their support, humor, and listening ear? What is the truth of my being here in this place and time? I now can see emerging insights about mysef that were not possible then. 

(1) The UMC requires candidates to appear multiple times before Districts and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry. With both written and interviews, I worked hard to match the expectations of others. Conferences require a triad that conducts sessions to explore questions in order to better know and understand the candidate.

(2) The 2018 Barna study found that 68 percent of U.S. Christians who grew up with someone who influenced their faith say their mother’s faith impacted them. That was followed by the father (46 percent) and a grandparent (37 percent). That pattern also was found among Christian teens, who are more likely to say they have prayed with or talked about God with their mom in the past month than with their father. See also, National Church Life Study "Parents are Role Models for Faith," 2016: "Some 58% of church attenders aged 15 to 29 nominated their mother, and 46% nominated their father as the person who showed them what faith was about."

I am also indebted to my teacher and mentor, John Westerhoff, whose groundbreaking faith development paradigm of Affiliative- Searching- Owned faith can be outlined as 1) the faith of others (childhood) 2) our faith (adolescence-young adult), and 3) my faith (adulthood). See Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith? Morehouse Publishing House, 2012. The classic first appeared in 1976.

(3) The term is borrowed from The Rev. Dr. Jim Jackson.


Thursday, January 19, 2023

Black History Matters: An MLK- Informed Sunday School Lesson (3)

We observed MLK Day this past Monday. What is my response now? What’s his message to white church leaders today? 

Jesus remarked how the religious leaders in his day loved to honor their deceased prophets and righteous ones. Jesus' challenge, at least in Matthew places the burden of proof on leaders by asking them, in essence, "Prove to me that you are not descendants of those who martyred prophets?" (1) 

Like any MLK Day where his quotes are extracted to make us feel a little better about my whiteness, social justice prophets are often honored for their words after, not during their lives. Jesus' disciples are called to be descendant of the prophets in their willingness to bear the harsher consequences for speaking and acting faithfully, witnessing to a self-giving love leading to justice and peace. We are blessed when we are threatened and harassed for being faithful, for it shows we are like the prophets who were before us. (2)

Matthew, along with the other Gospels, contain an assumption of anti-Judaism, a reflection of its historical context. That is something I need to reckon with as I claim it as my tradition. Christian missionaries and teachers were presenting their case for why the Jesus way is the true way that leads to a life of faithfulness among leaders (and not one of hypocrisy). 

You might say that the church of Matthew's day is not the church of MLK's day, or even ours, and you would be right in many ways. However, unless I completely disown Jesus' words against the hypocrisy of  all religious big wigs, it's a problem to miss the implication of Jesus' words now- religious institutions and churches and those who run them.

To explore the relationship of Jesus' words then and now, there are two quotes. One is a snippet of the Letter from the leaders of the White churches in Birmingham, addressed to those who were protesting for the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown stores, fair hiring practices, the reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools.

We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense. (3)

The next quote is from King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As a result of a city ordinance forbidding his protests, King was taken into police custody and jailed overnight. Importantly, his letter is addressed to white churchman (I assume also, the leaders who signed the above letter). 

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. (4)

I am a descendent of those white church leaders, preaching caution and the insulting suggestion that socio-economic and racial equity can be accomplished in the same white system (at the time of King, with all white judges and juries) the same system that created and maintained segregation and poverty. I want to ask, whose "sense" is "common" here? 

As a white clergyperson serving in a mainline Protestant denomination, my cultural heritage would place me on the side of those white churchman who tried to construct a carefully worded and dignified note that would not offend whites. I can see it now: my Bishop sends me the official response of the church to the "Negro citizenry."  (Oh, and what about the white citizenry?) I read their Letter (to the protestors). Do I call the Bishop's office expressing my critique of the Letter? I don't think so- not then, not now. 

And Jesus' words of lament against his religious leaders? They are words directed at those, who from their safe place (and protected by their status given to them by their faith if not birth), cast judgment and blame on others who don't happen to have the same privlidge.

As King's Letter mentions, not all white clergy asked for the protests to end, and some joined with him on the front lines: "But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom." So hope persists, even if flooded by other voices.

One thing that hasn't changed: I have a choice to act, to do what is my power to do. What are some faith actions and words that white people and their churches can choose to take?

(1) Matthew 23:29-31
(2) Matthew 5:11-12
(3) Birmingham Campaign | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
(4)  This letter was signed by religious leaders across many faiths: Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopalian.  

Sunday Gospel Reading and Reflection (June 11)

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow...