The Goats Are Lining Up


Jean Cousin, The Last Judgement

Jean Cousin, The Last Judgement

 ”I was sick and you took care of me…”

That is the statement made by the Son of Man at the Great Judgment. You’ll find it in a story told by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25.  Those who cared for “the least of these” would be separated as sheep belonging to the flock of God. Those who refused to feed the hungry, provide a cup of water for the thirsty, refused to welcome the stranger in their midst, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked and care for the sick were to be judged as goats and denied entrance into God’s Kingdom.

Today, Friday March 24, 2017, the President and the Republican majority in the House are prepared to deny millions of Americans healthcare.  Ironically, the Ryan-Trump plan is not cruel enough for the far right Freedom Caucus and thus, it may fail. Not because it is cruel but because it is not cruel enough.

The goats are lining up.  A nation is about to render a judgment but in the process, be judged.  They exchange human nobility for shame and wear it like a badge.  They would throw Jesus and his mother to the curb.  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.

addendum

The administration and House’s attempt to replace the ACA failed but given the President’s response that he will wait for it to “explode” should concern us all for a number of reasons. First, the President and congresspersons vow to uphold the law when they are sworn into office.  The ACA is, as they admit, the law of the land. To sabotage and undermine it so that it will fail is a violation of their solemn oaths.  It is also a naked attempt to make something fail and then to complain that it was a failure.  This is disingenuous to say the least. But above all, the effort to destroy the one plan in place to help citizens achieve medical coverage has consequences for the very lives of the citizens they represent.  Mr. Ryan himself lamented that the “good becomes the victim of the perfect,” wishing others would compromise to make the plan better.  Why, Sir, doesn’t this apply to the ACA? Why would you prefer the explosion of it to simply improving it?  Heed your own advice and for the sake of the nation you serve, get busy improving the ACA in a bipartisan way.   To quote the Roman statesman, Seneca, “I would certainly not describe as mercy what was actually the exhaustion of cruelty.” The Trump plan was manifestly cruel. Its failure is not necessarily a moment of mercy, as can be seen by the President’s tortuous logic and response.  Sick Americans and their loved ones deserve better than a promise of an explosion.

 

 


Augustus_Caesar

FAKE NEWS. SYCOPHANTS. AND THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS CHRIST.


..for it is the nature of kings that they will hold good men in more suspicion than the bad, and dread the talents of others.’  –Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline

Our President is not a king so one might object that the Roman historian, Sallust’s depiction of kings does not apply.  Our President, however, performs as a king, taking great relish in the issuing of edicts and demanding that his voluminous lies be accorded the appellation of Truth simply because the words are coming out of his mouth.  Despite evidence to the contrary, he will double down and triple down on his lies, as if by merely repeating the words he will magically make it so.  Having addressed the positive in Mr. Trump, let’s ponder the negative for a moment.

In his book, Dynasty:  The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland writes, “Words, under the Caesars, had become slippery, treacherous things.”  And then turning to the Roman historian of that age, Tacitus, describes the moment:  ‘The age was a tainted one, degraded by its sycophancy.’   Tacitus, meet Trump.

This sycophancy—at least it seems to me—is the danger of the moment in which we live.  Sycophants are servile persons who obey and pander to someone important in order to gain an advantage.  What this means is we have a congress that refuses to hold the president accountable because they have an agenda of their own (they would like to be rid once and for all of Medicaid, render the safety net useless, deny medical care to its most needy citizens, the elderly and the poor, and burn billions of dollars building more weapons of mass destruction).  They won’t check the President because for now, they want the President to check the boxes on their legislative agenda.

The banal chant of “fake news” has been taken up by an administration that has attached itself to White Nationalism.  White nationalist apparatchiks [like Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael Anton] who fawn over fascists of previous eras have taken up residence in this administration with little objection from the party in control of both the House and Senate.  Sycophancy has tainted our age and our government to a degree previously unthinkable.  Here’s a tip though:  when the alligators on your animal farm assert the swamp should be drained, you should think twice about who is faking whom.

Why would a pastor speak to these political realities? someone might ask.  My response: The Church has since its inception worked out the Good News of Jesus Christ within the matrix of power and politics.  It was Rome that crucified its Savior.  And it was within the Roman history of which Tacitus and Sallust wrote that Christians had to live.   They offered Good News, not fake news. They worshipped one King, the King of the Universe, not the tyrant that occupied the Roman throne at any given time.  As the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus was born under the rule of Caesar Augustus.  He was ruthless.  He insisted upon being referred to as Divi Filius, son of a god.  So when Luke tells the Good News of the birth of Jesus and the New Testament declares him to be the Son of God, it is a direct affront and counter to the tyranny of the Roman Caesar-god.  As then, so now.  The Church declares the Good News and thus opposes the fog machine of lies.  Here’s a tip:  when politicians and presidents declare they are being merciful, as Mr. Ryan has claimed about himself, or that they are born again, as the President has said he is, but they attack and assault the weak, the poor, the hungry, the sick, then you can chalk that up to fakery.  The Apostle James was clear enough:  “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress,. . .[James 1:26-27]  May the Good News of Christ dissipate the fog of  fake news of this Orwellian government.  In such a time as this, do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together. ~See you Sunday


Lost & Found


lost_found

This past Sunday, March 5th, upon entering Jefferson Middle School, there was a white-board sign propping open one of the doors that leads to the auditorium.  Written on it in black marker were the words, “Lost & Found” with an arrow pointing to the auditorium which on Sunday serves as our sanctuary for ninety minutes.  Sometimes things come together and make perfect sense.

Every Sunday we sing two verses of Amazing Grace and there is a line in that first verse that reads, “I once was lost, but now I am found/ Was blind, but now I see.”  The truth is, we would be hard pressed to come up with a better sign to signify who has gathered in that auditorium on any given Sunday.

We’re the lost. We’re broken hearted by the violence and confusion that runs rampant through our world.  We’re given up on any number of causes and hamstrung to come up with any fresh ideas about how to heal the world. We are lost in our caregiving of children, of parents, of ourselves. We enter Sunday sometimes with barely enough light to see.

We’re the found.  We come to the church service not because we believe sitting in church makes us Christian.  It no more does that than sitting in a garage makes one a car. We arrive on Sunday lost, that is true, but much of the time we enter joyful for having been found.  We were slogging our way through the world when someone came alongside us and held our hand. We were captured by self-hate when someone reminded us that we were made by a loving God and are configured to love.  We were lost when suddenly, we awakened to the presence of the Good Shepherd. So we show up found. And we didn’t make that happen but, as Annie Dillard writes in her marvelous work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, grace is like a person who holds their cup under a water fall or stream.

We are the lost and found.  We invite you to worship with us and despite all that generates fear in our lives in these precarious moments, discover a great grace and a remarkable love that overcomes the world.  ~See you Sunday


ash_wednesday

Ashes to Ashes: The Season of Lent


Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Growing up in a Southern Baptist context, I never heard of Lent. I had no idea the Christian Church had “seasons” or its own calendar.  That was unfortunate.  Discovering this in my college years came as a great surprise and a benefit to me ever since.  For it became apparent to me that my navigation of this world and my life would be –if not easier then–more meaningful simply because I could comprehend my life as developmental, evolutionary which is to say, an unfolding mystery and journey.

The Lenten season begins this Ash Wednesday and marks the formal beginning of the season of Lent and that season is one of reflection, examination of our consciences and souls and repentance. We do this especially as we recall the testing of our Lord in the wilderness, just after his baptism.  I sometimes get myself down to an Episcopalian church to have the sign of the cross made on my forehead with ashes. Baptists do not hand out ashes or participate (as a rule anyway) in this ritual act.  I can tell you from my own experience, it is a powerful moment to have a priest rub those ashes onto your forehead as she says those solemn words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether or not you participate in such a rite, the truth of those words should stir us to a season of contemplation and repentance.

Ashes as a sign of sorrow have been with us for a long time.  In the ancient book of Job, we find that the stricken man “sat among the ashes.” This was a sign of grief and sorrow.

Leon Wieseltier in is book,  Kaddish,  wrote in his book about rending one’s clothes as a sign of grief. He pointed out that the mourner who rends thus gestures outwardly what has in fact takenplace inwardly. “This act of violence,” Wieseltier writes, “dignifies the external truth and the internal truth of what has happened.”  So with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads: it is an outward sign of an inner sorrow and grief: for our participation in the ruin of the world, for our grief for life that is short and brief, and a declaration that we will live more faithfully and justly in the days to come.  As the Book of Common Prayer declares:

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.  Have mercy on us, Lord.

ash-wednesday-clipart_13922520451


9608022_2a7811aa21_n

25th Anniversary in One Week: The Novel Pastorate


We have nodded to my 25th anniversary as pastor of Riverside Baptist Church this month –provided a collection of sermons, Safe Harbor– and now we conclude with a luncheon after a Sunday morning worship of “testifying.”   This past week has been an appropriate reflection of my 25 years. Here is some of what I did.

I visited and counseled with the sick and the despairing; I kept vigil beside the former First Lady of Fifth Baptist Church, Rosalie Harrison, praying with her, reading psalms, and then commending her to God on Tuesday evening, February 21st. She had told me many years ago that she wanted to live to 100 years old.  I visited her in January to wish her a happy 100th and then, one month later, she left this mortal world with its tears and suffering.  Her graveside service is Thursday the 2nd of March at Fort Lincoln Cemetery.  I spent my day Friday visiting the funeral home and the cemetery to make her arrangements and in between those visits, received word that Lauren was on the way to the hospital to give birth.  I received news last week that Wyatt  was released from Children’s Hospital where he had undergone a significant surgery.  I sat on a bench on a beautiful Spring day of 74 degrees in February with the President of SWNA, a delightful and gifted gentleman who wanted to get to know me and our church better.    Spoke with Ian over at Blind Whino about the possibility of an art show and an alternative worship experience once a month.  Saw  several of our development team  walking our property, hardhats and goggles on as I drove by, headed for an appointment.  I taught a class at Howard Divinity and worked to arrange for as student to serve on a panel discussion of an up and coming play on March 4th at Temple Micah, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, devoted to the issue of prevention of  handgun violence.

Plans, prayers, tears and laughter–my 25 years crystallized in one intense week.  From joy to sorrow and back again, the pastorate at Riverside has been a novel and a sacred journey.   I’d like to conclude this month’s celebration of this anniversary with the Apostle Paul’s benediction in Romans:  For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.  ~ See you Sunday

 


Stage Left, Our Town, Our Church


stage

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts, . . .
[As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII]

One can forgive a playwright for casting all of life as a stage.  Indeed, Shakespeare by so doing ended up revealing a psychology of human social interaction that is informative and helpful.  What role did you play today? What lines were you given? What improvisation did you make when interrupted by an audience member or by a misplaced prop? What kind of entrance did you make this morning, grand?  Quiet?

Every Sunday we of  Riverside Baptist Church worship in an auditorium at a local middle school.  It has a stage with a beautiful burgundy curtain. The chairs squeak.  The sound reverberates against hard walls, making the speaking and singing parts at times difficult to hear. But you recall middle school and plays don’t you?  How exciting it was to work for the first time on a theater crew, arranging the moving parts of scenery and stage; how tense for actors to remember their lines and for singers to sing in tune; and how delightful to play one’s role before parents and family and friends.  To say that each Sunday we “play” at church is not flippant, but is as profound as Shakespeare’s keen insight into our daily lives that unfold into Acts, scenes and exits.

Like the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, we begin with the Stage Manager making announcements and orienting people to the surroundings, helping the audience to transition from “audience” to the role of “congregation” and this occurs just after the stage crew has covered a simple plastic table with a cloth, placed  flameless battery-operated candles on it, along with a chalice that was made by a local potter in our last service in the building that used to stand on the corner of 7th & Maine.   As Thorton Wilder has the Stage Manager say, this is Maine Street (our Maine is named after the state) and this is Our Town.  And our “sanctuary” now is a middle school auditorium and the props include school paraphernalia collected in corners, school signs and wide hallways with their shiny floors.  As with any play, whether or not you can see the world through the thinly constructed scenery depends on your own imagination and willingness to look into and through your own life.  Charles Isher, writing for the New York Times wrote about Thornton’s play, “Wilder sought to make sacraments of simple things. In Our Town he cautioned us to recognize that life is both precious and ordinary, and that these two fundamental truths are intimately connected. “

This he could have written about Our Church.  When you drive down Maine Avenue in SW these days, you’re likely to be distracted by cranes, large trucks, unfinished buildings being pieced together and flagmen.  But along that avenue is a rippled roofline of Arena Stage, a beautiful and provocative building that dominates the skyline and by its transparency invites any and everyone in to view a stage, a play, and their life.   But it’s not the only stage in town.  Just down the road in a brick middle school, an audience gathers weekly to learn lines, sing interludes, make gentle entrances  and courageous exits.  Indeed, we “make sacraments of simple things.”  Every week, each Sunday, 10 a.m. just off of Maine.   ~Ladies and Gentlemen, See you Sunday ~