I’m going to speak in theological categories about one Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA who today said, ““They don’t care about our schoolchildren, they want to make all of us less free.” There may be no more depraved person on the political stage at this moment than this so called chief executive. Let me dial us into the word “depraved.”
The great Reformed theologian, John Calvin, talks a lot about depravity in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Good liberals do not like to talk about such a term–it signifies something beyond the reach of reason and self-help, self-led enlightenment. You get an idea of this dilemma watching a series like The Sopranos where a mobster sees a psychotherapist but the therapist cannot penetrate to the problem of Anthony Soprano’s life. He’s not just depressed. He is wicked. And it is that latter term that you won’t find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And the terms wicked and depraved are not part of the NRA’s or President’s vocabulary for solving the gun problem. You see, oddly enough, these men share the liberal predicament and assumptions about the trustworthiness of human beings: they believe you can hand out guns like candy to people because people can be trusted with guns and not just guns, but hideous weapons of war. Wrong. And they are wrong because of the depravity of human beings. Here is something Calvin says about that: ”Such is humanity’s depravity, that a person stifles and corrupts [this] knowledge, partly by ignorance, partly by wicked design; and hence does not by means of it either glorify God as one ought, or attain to happiness…” This depravity leads to the misuse and wicked designs of events like Parkland.
Wayne LaPierre is a depraved spokesperson for a depraved organization that speaks in Orwellian lies about freedom and rights. They do so and insult parents, teachers, students and fellow citizens who are sickened by the carnage they have unleashed on our society. We must confront this wicked and depraved organization that is on the par of companies that purchased and profited off of slave ships. We must because what Wayne LaPierre’s depravity blinds him to is, our children deserve to walk into school FREE OF FEAR of being executed. Sensible gun control right now. Ban assault weapons. And by all means stop giving your money to the NRA and stop taking money from the NRA. They have the blood of children on their hands.
The Southern Baptist churches I grew up in loved Billy Graham and I can remember as a young person listening to his “crusades” on television. His oratorical power and presence combined with a fervent and warm religiosity appealed to my family, as he appealed to so many.
Now decades later, I see Rev. Graham in a more complicated way. Perhaps you have heard that phrase, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is sometimes taken up as a slogan for pastors, preachers and journalists! There is something of the truth that resonates in that slogan. But what I have come to conclude is that—for whatever reasons, be it naïveté or cynical and machiavellian religion—Billy Graham turned that phrase on its head. He did not comfort the afflicted in a time of Viet Nam and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. He afflicted the afflicted. He did not afflict the comfortable but was intwined with the State, providing cover and aid to Richard Nixon and even participating in anti-semitic conversation with the President. And this is, perhaps, the telling point for me as regards this Baptist preacher who called his mass evangelistic rallies “crusades”—insensitive to the historical reality of what a word like “crusade” even conveys, violence in the name of Christ—he was a Baptist in name but historically severed from Baptist proclamations about liberty and its distrust of the State. When he wrapped the Gospel in the American flag and became a spokesperson for the Empire, he looked less and less like a Baptist and more and more like a sycophant of the State. He must, however, be given credit for his having denounced the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Years ago I attended a session of the DC Baptist Convention where Anne Graham Lotz spoke as a keynote speaker. Her sermon bristled with homophobic rhetoric. Billy’s son, Franklyn, is a darling of the right wing, using his voice to harm the stranger in our midst, lashing out at Muslims and carrying the cross to oppress women and minorities. Surely these acorns did not fall far from the tree.
Billy Graham was a true believer. He was a powerful preacher. He was a crusader wrapped in red, white and blue. Those who fell sway to him should soberly ponder his legacy as those who were harmed by him continue to feel oppressed by his ministry and those who carry its torch.
On a day dedicated to remembering Presidents, much of our consumer culture will be looking for sales. But not everyone. Today a small group of Riversiders, along with small groups from eight Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations, will meet at Temple Micah in Washington in order to claim our American citizenship. We come together in order to begin changing the narrative of fear and hatred to one of mutual regard and hope. We are meeting to incarnate that American of all slogans, E Pluribus Unum–Out of Many, One.
Several months ago, Rabbi Zemel invited representatives from these several congregations to meet in dialogue. We have broken bread together, shared our despair over the direction of our country under a President who is particularly hostile to the stranger and the different, and we have shared our hopes as expressed through the prism of our unique religious perspectives and experiences. The leaders of these congregations agreed that we wanted to share our hope and excitement for reclaiming covenantal bonds of American citizenship with our congregants. Starting slowly, we each have invited a small number of our congregants to come together over a table of food and a common worship service.
Black and White, female and male, young and old, immigrant and native, gay and straight… Muslim, Christian, Jew… we are America. We not only recognize one another as fellow human beings but we dedicate and renew ourselves to protecting the dignity of each and of every one.
Ash Wednesday evening and what we now know is that 17 young people have been murdered by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Many more are injured and possibly more will succumb. Politicians who robotically spout their “prayers and thoughts” are with victims hide behind prayer and religion while their hands take money from the NRA. Bloody hands! Bloody politics. Stop praying to end gun violence, Congresspersons. We didn’t send you to Washington to pray nor to instruct we who pray in our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples about prayer. We sent you to legislate and protect your citizens. Stop praying to end gun violence and start legislating sensible gun control laws! We who take religion seriously deny you the use of piety to hide your inept and callous disregard of our children and young people, our fellow citizens.
This past October, I preached a sermon entitled, “We Need To Talk About Gun Violence.” If you search inside this site for “guns,” you will see over a dozen entries devoted to this topic. After years and years of massacres the only conclusion we can rationally make is, our culture is depraved. The level of depravity is stupefying and it permeates every level of our culture. In this season of Lent, let us ponder this reality, seek God’s redemption in our own lives and let us work side by side with those who want to end this scourge of gun violence in our country.
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.
This past week I had more than one conversation with some individuals who were seeking a way to deepen their spiritual lives. As a pastor, these kinds of conversation are what I and other pastors long for–we want to lead our brothers and sisters to a well where they can drink deeply. As it turns out–and it always seems to turn out like this in our spiritual journeys–a serendipitous discovery came across my footpath and is often the case in my life, I was guided to this discovery by my wife who was reading the 2018 updated version of What Color Is Your Parachute? and she offered me a link to a site that the author had mentioned in the book. I went there. I found an ad for another site and it is this site I want to suggest to you as a tool for your daily practice of spirit and spirituality.
The site comes to us via the Jesuits who are trained in the discipline of Ignatius of Loyola. They have created a marvelous site and a very practical and cool app that you can download called “Pray As You Go.” If you are trying to find a way to kindle a spark in your faith or simply add sparkle to your walk in God, then go to the site. You can listen to daily prayers on their web site (you don’t need the app to do that). I have tried it and find it to be soothing, peaceful, and yet willing to confront questions about our spiritual lives that can get us unglued from the traps of a too-busy culture.
Finally, there is one practice you are urged to make part of your life by the scriptures. It is there from the moments of Creation. It is enshrined at Sinai. And the Church insists that this practice is the work of the Church: W O R S H I P. Standing together as those called out by Christ; embracing one another fully as made in God’s Image; Rejoicing and Praying and Loving; this practice every week lends a rhythm and sense to our scattered activities and infuses us with hope. Join us Sundays at 10 a.m. where, in the auditorium of Jefferson Academy Middle School, we become the People of God. Practice makes perfect. ~See you Sunday