“Our Nation of Immigrants”

strangers“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” —Deuteronomy 10:19

The various summaries of the law in the Bible include strangers as people to be especially cared for. Whether we call them sojourners, immigrants or aliens they need help because they are frequently socially powerless. Continue reading

“Hearing God’s Word from Unexpected Places”

Celtic cross

 But the Lord said to me: Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’  Jeremiah I.7

It is good to be back with you. I so enjoyed being here on Epiphany Sunday for Pastor Mike’s installation. It was cold then. It is not cold today. I have a small confession to make. Mike e-mailed me “We don’t wear robes in the summer.” And I e-mailed him back, “Can I wear one. I’m kind of a robe guy.” So I brought a robe and a stole up here to Dover, but then I realized I was preaching about opening oneself to new experiences and insights, so I’ve decided not to wear one. You know, to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk. I am also wearing a blue shirt for the first time in forty years, because I’m kind of a white shirt guy, too. So I’m really being daring today.

Will you pray with me:

Gracious God, through the written word, and through the spoken word, may we behold the Living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen

I was just twenty-six years old when I graduated from seminary and became the pastor of the Congregational Churches of West Newfield and Limerick, Maine, just over the border and up the road about an hour from here. That was nearly forty years ago.

I grew a beard to look older and wiser than my years, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t fool anyone. I’ve learned a thing or two about the ways of the world and the church and myself, but when it comes to the ways of God I still stand in awe before the mystery of it all as much as I did back then.

But I will tell you one thing I have learned. You have to be open to hearing the voice of God from unlikely people and in unexpected situations. This is a humbling truth, and there is a kind of Socratic inversion about it. Remember how Socrates said of himself: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Likewise, the people who think they always know what God is saying tend to be the ones least open to hearing from God, and are therefore the least knowledgeable.

Because if we decide in advance where and when and through whom God will speak, we severely limit our capacity to hear from God.

There are many reasons we close our minds and hearts to those through whom God speaks.

Perhaps we think someone is too young to speak for God. In our Old Testament reading today, Jeremiah tells God just that, that he is too young to be a prophet. God rebukes him, saying: “Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’” Jeremiah I.7

I remember when I was young being frustrated that older people often found it hard to see me as someone with something to say because of my age. Now that I am not so young, I have to resist the impulse to dismiss the insights and wisdom of the young, and to tell the truth, I find myself more and more learning from those who are younger, which is an ever-expanding group.

My twenty-nine year old daughter, Rebecca, was just ordained to the ministry in June. I have heard her preach several times now, and, if I do say so myself, she is pretty good. But sometimes when I am listening to her, my mind is saying, “How can this be? Is this my daughter? I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”

And you have a daughter of this church being ordained soon, Emily Goodnow, a schoolmate of my daughter’s from Yale Divinity School. And perhaps some of you who watched her grow up in this congregation wonder, “How can this be? I remember when she was just a girl in Sunday school.”

Recall when Jesus went to his home synagogue to preach his hearers said, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3)

His youth and their familiarity with him kept them from hearing him.

What else keeps us from hearing God speak to us? It wasn’t so very long ago that the conventional wisdom in the church was that preaching the Word of God was a man’s vocation. There are still Christians that believe that.

When I was growing up there were no women ministers in my church or in my experience. When I was at Andover Newton one of my teachers, Emily Hewitt, was one of the first 11 women ordained in the Episcopal Church. It caused quite a stir at the time.

As I was preparing this sermon I wondered what she was doing. So I Googled her, and I discovered that she later went to Harvard Law School, became a lawyer, and is now the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims. Why would the church want to deprive itself of the talent of someone like her?

But for a long time we did keep women from using their gifts and talents. It was a widely accepted convention.

For example, and I am really dating myself now, but when I started my ministry in Maine, there were only male deacons, who served communion. The women, called deaconesses, set up the communion and cleaned up after. That was the way it had always been and it was accepted. But we went through a change. We saw the basic unjustness of this arrangement, and we changed it.

And so we changed our ideas about who could preach the Word of God, and now women ministers, and very talented ones like Rebecca and Emily, are a commonplace in our churches.

When John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims in Leyden, addressed them before they shipped off to the New World, he preached a sermon to them. And in that sermon he said, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

This openness to new light and truth is very biblical. Our God was always doing the unexpected. Even the people God chose to speak on his behalf or to carry out his plans were seldom what one would expect.

Think about some of them with me: Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and general scoundrel. He tricked his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and had to leave town in the dark of night. Yet he became the Father of a Nation and was given the name Israel.

Moses, God’s spokesman, said, “Not me, Lord, I’m not a good speaker. God said, “I’ll send your brother Aaron with you. He can do the talking.”

The prophet Jeremiah, who we heard about today, said, “I’m just a boy.”

And Mary, the mother of our savior, was a humble unmarried teenage mom.

These instruments of God go against our human expectations, but God uses all sorts and conditions of men and women to speak and act on his behalf.

And so we have had to expand the circle of those who preach, bringing in women within the lifetimes of many of us in this room.

And we are continuing to expand the circle. For example, in the church where I worship our pastor is gay. And he is married. And he and his husband just last week adopted a baby boy.

And that is new to me. And because of that it have been a bit of a challenge for me to get my mind around, because even a decade ago a gay, married pastor with a child was not part of my experience, or the experience of many for that matter.

Last year, during our interim period, I was praying for God to send us a faithful pastor and preacher. And God did, because this pastor is a rock-solid Christian, born and raised in the church, and I never hear a sermon of his without hearing something of the voice of God in it.

The world around us changes. The contexts in which we preach and hear changes. I am reminded of the story about Will Campbell, the white civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King. He was a Southern Baptist, and he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it? I’ve even seen one!”

So once again we have had to expand our thinking about who we think we might hear God’s Word from. We have had to expand the circle.

Because God calls a variety of men and women to speak on his behalf, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, races, tongues, and sexual orientations. And the truth is we need to hear from them all.

Because the Word of God doesn’t just drop from the sky. The Christian faith is a mediated faith, coming to us through the words of others. We have the words of the Bible, and the Word of God can be discerned in them, but they themselves are not the Word of God. No, to hear the Word of God we need human interpreters, which is one of the tasks of the church.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me was put forth by the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So we need people in the church to mediate the Word of God to us, to make it real for us. And this happens in community and in relationships with real people living real lives, with real talents and struggles. We need all kinds of people, so that you can even hear a sermon from someone like me with a brain injury.

Those of you who were here for Mike Bennett’s installation in January will remember that I preached a sermon called “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.” And in that sermon I said this: “Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” And I would expand Taylor’s words to include not only suffering, but all manner of shared life-experience, the kind that happens in community, the kind that happens day to day in the church.

And I said this to you: “If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and will become your pastor.”

And by all indications it seems that, nearly a year into your relationship together, you are finding that to be true.

But the very best preacher in the world does not make the Word of God alive by himself or herself. For that you also need good hearers, ones open to hearing things that they may not have heard before, that may challenge them, prod them, even make them unhappy or angry.

But by being open to the unexpected, hearers may well hear things that please and delight them, things that make them wiser and stronger and more faithful. And may open them to larger truths, to new wonders, and, above all, to the amazing grace and the vast love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I preached this sermon on August 25, 2013 at the First Parish Church, Congregational (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire.

The Use and Misuse of Faith in Politics

On Tuesday I wrote this on my Facebook wall:  “I want all my Facebook friends to know that as a committed Christian I deplore the political hijacking of my faith by ignorant, intolerant, racist and misogynistic extremists.”

As of this morning I have received 34 “likes” and about a dozen approving comments.  But I was uneasy about it.  Those of you who know me know that though I rant pretty easily about this and that I do my best to avoid self-righteousness.  And part of what I deplore these days is the tone of political discourse, and I worried that my frank cry of the heart was yet another ideology-driven screed.

I am no happier when liberal Christians become “the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer” than I do when evangelicals become “the right wing of the Republican Party at prayer.”

I was also pleased to see that some of my “likes” came from conservative evangelical friends.  And many of them came from young adults in my children’s generation.  That is heartening.

My sister-in-law Annette, a faithful Roman Catholic, wrote this comment:

I gather that you love the sinners but hate the sins of willful ignorance, intolerance, racism and misogyny. But do we really love these sinners? And what do we do, as faithful, for or with these sins? We are sinners, too, by other measures. I’m feeling confused. It’s Lent and I’m breaking this down for my daughter with an intellectual disability and some things don’t add up when I look at the fundamentals.

She got right to my uneasiness, because I know myself to be a sinner as well, and not only by other measures, but even by the very sins I deplore in “the extremists.”

“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is the proper Christian admonition, but here Annette is savvy, too, as she knows how hard this is to do with any consistency.

To keep such self-awareness from becoming a counsel of despair I find comfort in the Reformation insight simul justus et peccator, that we are at the same time sinners and justified by God. “Redeemed sinners” is the way I like to think of it.

And something I had to learn in three decades of pastoral ministry is that there are some people who are just plain unlovable, so you have to turn them over to God who does love them.

But where I come down in the end is that just because we know we are sinners too, and perhaps share in some of the same sins, we are not exempt from speaking out about the things we deplore.

And I would assert that intolerence, racism and misogyny should be deplored by all people of good will, religious or otherwise, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.  And the use of these sins to raise fears for political gain is a double sin.

Religious Freedom: Which narrative will prove true?

 

Americans are justly proud of our freedoms, and near the top of the list is freedom of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof.” Article VI prohibits religious tests for public office. A rich diversity of religious faiths, unprecedented in human history, have lived together in our land and shared a vision of America as a safe social space for the free practice of religion.

That is the dominant national narrative, but it is only half the story. If you look at the history of our country closely you can’t help but notice a counter-narrative, one in which religious bigotry is as American as apple pie. For example, the “nativist’ movement which arose in the 1840’s in response to an influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Europe. It culminated in the (aptly named) “Know-Nothing Party,” who ran the former President Millard Fillmore for President (he lost.)

The result of this climate of fear was a disgraceful period that saw periodic mob violence, churches burned down, and some Catholics killed. The rhetoric was alarmingly similar to some of what you hear today about immigrants, that they threaten the culture of the country, and about Muslims, that their religious beliefs are incompatible with the American way of life.

In the 1920’s the anti-Catholics, including the Ku Klux Klan, claimed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy. At that time, the response of the Catholic Church was that the nativists didn’t represent American values as much as they did, since the Catholics believed in freedom of religion. They had a point.

Roman Catholics today are in the mainstream of American life, and constitute the largest Christian denomination in the country by far. It is hard for young people to imagine the rancor created by the presidential campaign of Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, in 1928, or of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In the dominant narrative those ugly nativist impulses in our national psyche have been put behind us.

Sadly, this seems not to be so. The perfect storm of a national immigration crisis and a recession have rekindled atavistic tendencies to fear and hate the Other. In the case of immigration this is not generally cast today in primarily religious terms, as many immigrants are Catholic.

But the raging debate over the proposed Islamic Center in New York shows that religious bigotry lives on. Is every one who opposes the building of this center a bigot? Certainly not. But the conversation is salted with enough starkly anti-Muslim rhetoric to disturb anyone who believes that freedom of religion is a cherished feature of our national identity.

In American life we do not have to like all religions, or believe that they are all true, but we do have to allow them the same freedoms we have to their beliefs and worship practices. The current debate, cravenly inflamed for political purposes, is really about which narrative will be found to be true about us. Are we peaceful, tolerant and generous, or are we fearful, hateful and selfish? Will we be American patriots, touched by “the better angels of our nature?” Or will we be “Know Nothings?” These questions hang in the air.

(Picture:   Roger Williams)