Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dubious Gifts - A Sermon

I know you’ve had a rough week with the weather so I thought I’d share a little story a colleague told me.  

Not long ago his cat had kittens.  One of those kittens was more adventurous than the rest and kept getting into mischief.  One day the kitten climbed up a tree and couldn’t get down.  This particular tree was young itself, so although it was too tall for my friend to reach the kitten even with a step-ladder, it was also too thin for him to climb.

He thought about it for a long time and finally had a brainstorm.  He tied a rope to the tree as high up as it would go and then tied the other end to his car.  He thought he could just bend the tree down a little bit with the car, then get out and reach the kitten.

Well, it worked pretty well, and the tree did bend down so that the top was right at eye level.  The only real problem was that my colleague had never been a boy scout and never could tie a good knot.  Just as he got out of the car and was about to reach the kitten, the knot on the car gave way, and the tree sprang up like a catapult.  That poor kitten shot up into the air with a pitiable MEOOOOW and flew out of sight.

My colleague felt terrible, of course, and drove all over looking for the poor thing but finally gave up.  Then, two days later, one of his parishioners called for him to come over.  She was really shaken and needed spiritual advice.

“Father,” she said, “I’m not sure if this is a miracle or a curse.  You know how much I hate cats and how much little Emily has been begging me for one.  Well, two days ago she kept bothering me until I finally said, ‘Look, why don’t you go bother God about it?  If he wants you to have a cat, he’ll give you one!  If he gives you one, you can keep it.

“And wouldn’t you know it, she goes out into the yard, prays to God, and out of the sky falls this kitten and lands right in her lap!”  My friend pronounced it a miracle and got out of there as fast as possible.  

You can joke about raining cats and dogs, but this gift from God was not what the mother was looking for.  On the other hand, in this dubious gift giving season, it’s been my experience that a lot of the gifts we receive (or give) are neither what we requested nor particularly want.  

Apparently, that’s the Christmas tradition.  I mean, look at poor Mary.  Here she is, minding her own business when out of the sky flies not a cat but an angel.  Gabriel pops up out of nowhere and tells her she’s going to have Jesus.  

You can imagine she was looking for this news about as much as that mother was looking for a cat.  She was young, not married but engaged -- and vulnerable to severe punishment for any inappropriate behavior.  But just as the mother knew in her heart God had spoken to her with that cat, so Mary knew that God was acting here -- giving her the chance to be involved in the most tremendous intervention in the world.

It was not what she asked for, that’s for sure, but Mary accepted this gift because it was from God.

Of course, it might be that God decided to give an unwanted gift because he’d gotten so many from us.  Think of all those sacrifices he kept saying he didn’t want, for example.  Or the temple that King David decided he would build for God in today’s Old Testament reading.

According to this story, David just up and decided that, since he had built himself a nice new palace, he ought to build one for God, too.  Probably just felt guilty.  But God would have none of it.  He sent word that he never asked for a temple and did not need one, thank you very much.  Some scholars even assert that the verse about Solomon building one was only added later because Solomon had already built it!

The difference between David’s unwanted gift to God and God’s unasked for gift to Mary is telling.  David’s gift was not really a benefit to God in any way.  It was to make David feel better -- and look better to his people and the outside world.

But God’s gift was to help us.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a hard time getting gifts for others -- knowing what will please them.  Often I give up and end up getting nothing.  But God knew exactly what we needed with this story.  It was not what Mary had asked for, but she understood how important Jesus would be to the world.

Because what we needed was a savior.  Someone who could bridge the gap we had dug separating us from the love of God.  We did not ask for it, but sometimes the gift we don’t ask for is the one that most changes our lives for the better.  Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is that gift.

Which brings us back to that poor mother with the cat.  You can just imagine her daughter - after a day or two of infatuation with the kitten - dumping the poor thing on mom to take care of.  But you just might also imagine that woman sitting on her sofa all alone, sipping tea, and stroking a kitten curled up in her lap wondering how she ever managed before without it.  Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama and Warren

The shock of the century -- Barack Obama picked Rick Warren as the chaplain of his inauguration.  

I’m not shocked.  Nor am I as horrified as some.

You surely know that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, is the author of the wildly popular, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and its sibling, “The Purpose Driven Church.”  He’s especially popular with the likes of Forbes Magazine which called his book, "the best book on entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in print.”

His own website touts his success as the nation’s most influencial pastor (The Economist).  And, according to The Times of London, “Business and political leaders across America are turning to Rick Warren for guidance.”

But that’s not what has people upset about Rick Warren and the inauguration.  It’s that he is anti-gay and anti-choice.  He let the fight to pass Proposition 8 in California, which bans same-sex marriage and equated homosexuality with pedophilia and incest.

Let me be very clear about where I stand on those issues.  I believe gays in this country need to have the right to marry or choose whatever equivalent form to marriage they feel is appropriate (gay friends disagree as to whether it should be called marriage or something unique to same-sex bonds.  I don’t care but feel they should decide) -- and that it should be set out in our laws.  I also believe that abortion must remain legal, and that making it illegal will do nothing to reduce the number of abortions in our country.  

Obama has always said he supports the rights of gays to marry, but anyone who has watched the election should know that he is, above all, a political creature.  Despite the betrayal many gays and lesbians feel in this selection, Obama knows that the LGBT community is small, and he feels under great pressure to prove just how “center” he is.  

For the record, Bill Clinton had Billy Graham give his inauguration, and Graham was just as anti-gay as Warren -- probably more so.  It’s clear that Obama, who doesn’t have a church at the moment, chose a pastor who had wide popular appeal and would assuage the right-wing evangelicals.  Anyone who thought he would move forward purely on conviction seems to neither have followed Obama very carefully nor have a sense of how politics works.   

Having said that, was it the smartest move he could have made?  Doubtful.  Mr. Obama could have chosen an unknown pastor of a middle-of-the-road church with unstated views on anything controversial.  He could have picked somebody respectable but completely uncontroversial so that the invocation would have been a non-event.

That would not have been anyone in my church, of course, because we are hated by the right as being too liberal, too pro-gay, too pro-choice.  But there are others he could have invited.  Brad Braxton of Riverside Church in NYC comes to mind.  There you’ve got an evangelical affiliated with the UCC and the American Baptist Church.  Yet, the church quietly affirms its support for same-gender civil marriage.  Of course, Mr. Obama probably does not know Rev. Braxton.

So, I would not have picked Rev. Warren for my inauguration.  On the other hand, just as it is wrong for him to put gays in the same category as pedophiles -- just as much as I disagree with him on that entire front -- it’s also wrong for his opponents to equate him with Nazis (as I’ve seen) or with the KKK.  Yes, he’s wrong, but he’s not evil.  

And he has shown himself to be capable of learning.  He changed his view on the environment, for example, not an insignificant conversion.  

Still, my biggest objections to him have more to do with how he views the church -- essentially as a corporation, as as entrepreneurial enterprise.  That’s why business and political leaders love him.  Which is why I wouldn’t have him speak.  But that's another article.  

Besides, I have my own religious leader.  And if I ever become President-elect, I'll pick her.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The President and the Shoe

What should President George Bush do with Muntader al-Zaidi?  For those who missed it, he is the 29-year-old Iraqi journalist who lobbed two shoes at him during a press conference in Baghdad Sunday.  In Arab culture, showing the bottom of the shoe, let alone throwing it at a person, is among the worst of insults.  

Immediately after throwing the shoes and yelling, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” (for the first shoe) and “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” (for the second), the reporter was tackled.  Seconds later he was dragged out of the room and beaten while the press conference went on, his screams audible.  There are conflicting reports -- depending on whether you are reading U.S. or non-U.S. reports -- as to whether American security forces stepped in to stop the beating. (BBC News, December 16, “Shoe thrower 'beaten in custody'”)

So, with his last remaining days in office, an unexpected and unwelcome sideshow during his final visit to Iraq, and historically low approval ratings, what should he do?  

Well, the first thing he should have done was to stop the press conference and made sure there was no beating going on.  If the man was detained but not being physically harmed, he could have carried on but made sure he announced he was going to talk with the man as soon as it was over.  

But that's crazy!  Why would he talk to a man who had just publicly insulted him?   Because he’s the leader of a great country.   He needs to take the high road, to show that he is not deaf to the pain and suffering going on, that he takes seriously the grievances of the people there.  To show that he would not mearly laugh it off.  It was a mistake to say that the action of one person did not represent the feelings of the many.  In this case, and judging from the countless news reports from around the Middle East of supportive actions, it seems that Mr. al-Zaidi does indeed represent the mood of the region.

Another reason to meet with the man is because he’s a Christian.  He would do well to emulate Pope John Paul II after he was attacked -- with deadly force, not merely shoes -- by Mehmet Ali Agca.  The pope visited him when he was physically able -- often.  President Bush would do much for his reputation and for American-Arab relations if he took this man seriously and truly listened to him.  He would also take his faith seriously, faith which requires us to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who hate us, to account for our own actions.  To make sure the man was physically safe and to listen to him are supremely Christian acts.   

Next, the president would do well to immediately pardon him.  In his waning days in office, he will pardon many people who have caused more harm.  He even pardoned a Turkey at Thanksgiving, so pardoning a man who insulted him seems a small thing.

Wait, you say!  He can’t pardon the man because it is the Iraqi government which controls his fate.  True.  Still, President Bush could easily put pressure on the government to let the man go.  He could publicly state -- to the press of the world -- that he forgives the man and is formally requesting the Iraqi government to drop all charges against him.  It would carry weight with President Maliki and would make a huge impression on the world.  And let’s face it, the man faces between two and seven years in prison for what was an inappropriate but spontaneous and ultimately harmless gesture.  

Let’s also show some Christian understanding.  If you had reported day after day on the carnage in your country, witnessed countless deaths and maiming especially among the poorest of the poor; if you had been arrested and interrogated twice by U.S. forces simply for doing your job as a reporter; if you had been kidnapped and tortured, you just might feel like throwing something a little harder than a shoe.  Perhaps we ought to even give the guy credit for a little restraint.

Finally, President Bush would do well not to duck the issue (pardon the pun) but to publicly address it with the Arab people.  He could let them know he understood the seriousness of the insult, that he disagreed with the methods but knew Mr. al-Zaidi spoke for many.  He could tell them that, while he did the best he knew how, he also realized how many were hurt because of it.  He could apologize for his part in the pain even if he continued to insist on the necessity of the war.  

After all, Christians detest administering pain more than receiving it.  Christians seek forgiveness from those they harm or offend.  Christians are quick to forgive those who harm them.    And, of course, politicians do what is expedient.  But in this case, the Christian action would also be the most expedient, making Mr. Bush look more understanding, compassionate, and in tune with the people around him than he has appeared so far.

So pardon him, Mr. President.  It’ll be good for your soul.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Who Are You? -- A Sermon

To be honest, I’m not sure “Who Are You?” is the best sermon title today.  Yes, that is the question the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist.  And yes, he did answer with that profound satemet that he was merely one sent to prepare the way.

But lost in there is what goes behind the answer.  Because when John answered “I am not the Messiah,” he was forever changing the way people would see him.  Up until this point, while he was preaching and had the people eating out of his hand, while he had the leaders impressed by his fiery rhetoric and power, he could have told even the priests that he was the messiah, and they might have accepted it.  

At that moment, when they asked the question, John had a choice to make.  Do I take on the role they are practically handing me?  Or do I tell the truth and consign myself to mere messenger status?

With 2,000 years perspective, we can only imagine John standing there, quoting Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”

But in truth, it was a tempting moment, one in which for John to identify himself meant for him to commit himself.  He had to take a stand, to say, “This is who I am, and this is where I place my allegiance.”

So it is for us, too.  

When we identify ourselves, we are telling people where we belong and to whom we commit ourselves.  Even in simple ways.  “I’m a Yankees fan” or “I’m a Mets fan.”  Those simple statements determine what hats you’ll be wearing, what tickets you’ll be buying (if you could afford them).  

Or, “I’m a Granados-Kramer.”  That little statement tells you that I’ll do everything in my power to feed, clothe, shelter and protect the others who belong to that little group.  It means giving up some things in order to do so, but it doesn’t matter.  I’m committed to them.

The same is true for OUR common name: Christian.  When we identify ourselves as Christians -- and more particularly as Episcopalians, and even more particularly as members of St. James’ -- we make a commitment.  A big one.

By claiming that identity, we commit ourselves to a radical way of life that is never easy.  We commit ourselves to seeing all people as valuable in their own right rather than as something to use in order to get what we want.

We commit to working for justice and peace, not just for those nearby but for people a world away -- even if others think we’re flaky.

We commit ourselves to forgiving even those who have hurt us the most.

We commit ourselves to gathering regularly because by claiming the identity of Christian, we assert that belonging to the Body of Christ can’t be done in isolation.

Mostly, we commit ourselves to following Christ wherever that may lead.

And there is a real likelihood that Jesus will lead you to places you don’t want to go.  Place where you are not respected or understood.  It might be close -- say at school or work -- or it might be the far corners of the world.  I don’t know.

All we know is that when we say “I am a Christian” it means that we commit ourselves to THIS identity above all others, and that the one we follow WILL lead us.  

When John the Baptist said, “I am not the Messiah,” he was essentially ending his career.  What would come after, he did not know, but whatever it was, he was ready to embrace it because he knew who he was.

As we prepare for the birth of the Christ, the one we have so easily claimed to trust, it’s good for us to ask ourselves, “Who am I?”  Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

All Things With Hope - A Sermon

Today is one of those days when you don’t know which direction to turn.  Is it the weekend of Thanksgiving (with everyone traveling)?  Is it the First Sunday of Advent (hence the candles)?  Or is it Ingathering Sunday (hence the collection of pledge cards)?  Where do we give our attention?

Well, being Anglicans, we’re inclusive.  So, we observe all of them.

Because, being Anglicans, we can see the common bond that ties them together.  

Of course, the common bond in everything that God makes is love.  But there is another nearly as important bond: hope.

Now, hope has three main elements.  It is for something in the future.  It is for something desirable.  And it is for something that is at least theoretically possible.  All three of those are found in giving thanks, waiting for Christ, and pledging. 

Think of it.  Can you really give thanks for whatever is good in your life without the hope that your thanks will please the giver?  Or the hope that there will be something to be thankful for in the future?  When you think of it, one of the most hopeful acts a person can commit is to say “Thank You.”

You may not know it, but the official holiday of Thanksgiving was instituted during the Civil War.  Whatever his political reasons for instituting it, Abraham Lincoln knew that a people giving thanks cannot but hope for and imagine a better future.  Those who see nothing to be thankful for in their past or present see little to hope for in the future.

Or watching and waiting.  As our Gospel today says, “Beware, keep alert. Keep awake.”  Just before this passage and including it, Jesus describes a frightening and traumatic time of suffering and persecution in the unknown future.  You’d think that would be enough to make them lose heart.

Only then, Jesus tells them the Son of Man will return -- and bring with him God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice and mercy.  When this will happen, nobody knows, but Jesus instructs his followers to be alert, to watch for the signs, be keep awake. 

That’s what we do in Advent.  We watch,  We wait.   Watching is -- in and of itself -- an act of hope because it means we believe the future still holds something in store for us.  It means that we still have a role to play in the drama of life.  Even a soldier watching for the enemy does so with the hope of surviving the battle so they can go home to their families.

We watch,  We wait.  For Christ the small and humble child who comes in order to die on a cross and rise to new life again, thus destroying the power of death.  We watch for Christ, the glorious and victorious Son of Man returning with the angels to judge all, with the hope that we will be judged with the promised mercy and love.

You just can’t look to the future without hope.

The same holds true for that simple act of pledging.  Think about the word itself: PLEDGE.  You know, I pledge allegiance.  I pledge my honor.  I pledge my love. 

Pledging yourself is an act of hope, an act of trust.  Whether it’s your money, your honor, your life -- nobody pledges themselves without the hope that what they do will make a positive difference in the world.

I pledge myself to this mystical ministry called St. James’.  When I do so, I’m telling you that I believe this church is called to do the work of the Christ who will one day come in glory to judge the earth.  When I put that little piece of paper in the plate, I’m telling you that I trust in Jesus’ promise of life everlasting -- and hope to be part of it.  

When I pledge my money and my time to this place, I do so in the hope that my life and ministry here has meaning.  Because without that hope, what would be the point?

Our Stewardship theme this year has been PLEDGE WITH HOPE.  As in, We HOPE you’ll pledge a lot.  But seriously, that word HOPE lies at the heart of who we are as Christians.  Our hope is in the Lord who loves us enough to become one of us.  We give thanks in hope.  We watch in hope.  We pledge in hope.  

Because we are Christians, and Christians do all things with hope. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Help! I Have Goat Feet! -- A Sermon

I got a phone call Friday from the local nursing home.  They had a man who was dying and wanted to see a priest.  Not that uncommon, really, so I asked the usual questions:  

Does he have a church somewhere that should be informed?  “No.”  

Do they know his faith? “No.  In fact, he probably doesn’t even believe in God.”

Well, then why does he want to see a priest?  “Because he’s dying.”

And?  “He’s getting cold feet.  No pun intended.”

So, when you say cold feet you mean?  “He’s afraid.”

Afraid of what? He doesn’t believe.  “The closer he gets to death the more he believes there’s something to be afraid of.  As in hell.”

What makes him so afraid?  “Well, he’s a really mean and selfish and obnoxious person --  always has been.  Besides, he’s all alone.”

No family?  “They don’t want anything to do with him.  Like I said, he’s really mean.”

As it turns out, his death isn’t quite so imminent, and the soonest I could get an appointment to see the man is next Wednesday, but the issues are real.  He’s afraid the way he lived his life might leave him open to judgment.  

In short, he’s afraid not so much because he has cold feet as because he has goat feet.    He’s afraid of the judgment to come when Jesus will sort through the sheep and the goats and point to him and say -- GOAT!

Now, I just have to say a word in defense of goats.  They are not mean and selfish or obnoxious. They are clever, curious, friendly animals and have actually always been highly regarded by all societies including Israel.  Sheep, on the other hand are dumb, though they are admittedly useful.

So why the sorting of sheep and goats?  Well, first, shepherds had to separate them out because they were sold and used for different purposes, and back then they looked a lot more alike than they do today.  But goats had one or two strikes against them.  They were seen as a symbol of virility in many cultures, and that sexual undertone made them suspect among many of the religious elite. Also, in Judaism, there was the practice of the scapegoat.  Once a year -- at Yom Kippur -- two goats were set aside.  One was sacrificed as an offering to God. The other -- the scapegoat -- was led to the edge of town and had all the sins of the community symbolically placed upon it -- then it was sent out into the wilderness, taking the sins with it.  So the goat was the sin bearer.

But mostly in the gospel, Jesus was just using sheep and goats to say that there WILL be a judgment -- a sorting out between the good and the bad.  That is what this man was afraid of.  He did not want to look down and see goat feet.

And you know, this is what most people fear when it comes to death.  They are not afraid of going to heaven.  For the most part they aren’t even afraid that they’ll just cease to exist as if they never had been.  They are afraid of eternal punishment.

But remember that the same Jesus who describes this judgment is the same one who says “Fear not.”  What is required is not so much to believe the right thing.  It’s not even required that we belong to the right church.

What’s required is ubuntu.  Now, if you’ve never heard that word before, it’s a Bantu word from southern Africa and it has been very current in the Anglican communion lately.  It has been held up as the thing that will keep us Anglicans together and will renew our purpose.  What is ubuntu?  

Roughly speaking, it is the bond which connects all humanity.  It is the belief that every one of us belongs to the other, and that when one hurts, we all suffer.  Ubuntu is what Jesus was talking about in the gospel.  Those who practice it -- who don’t care who needs their help because we are all bound to each other -- reach out to the stranger.  In Africa, any stranger who wanders into a village automatically receives hospitality without even asking -- the villagers look for wanderers and offer food and shelter.  They look for the hurting and go to them.  Those who live ubuntu enter into joy. 

In contrast, those who see no bond between each other, who live only for themselves -- well, they end up like that man in the nursing home:  alone, unloved, and afraid.  And it’s fair to say that even in the land of its origin, ubuntu is often forgotten.  There are a lot of goats out there.

But that doesn’t matter.  We are called to ubuntu, and that is what drives us at St. James’.  We live to invite others into the Kingdom of Heaven.  We breathe to go out and lend a helping hand.  We know in our core that we are connected through bonds that are stronger than mere affection.

Last week I offered reasons, even in this difficult economy, for being part of the church’s mission - for pledging your support.  Well, if you wonder what we are giving all this money for you could say it’s Ubuntu.  

That’s who we are.  We are here to affirm the bond between us.  To serve those who hurt because their pain is ours.  To hold up “the least of these” because they and we are bound in God.  That’s our mission.  That’s what we fund in our giving.  

I don’t want to disparage goats or frighten people with threats of eternal fire.  Yet there is the standard which Jesus puts before us: Do we see ourselves as bound one to another?  Do we believe and act as if what happens to a poor person in Africa (or Amenia) has meaning to us?  If so, that’s ubuntu -- and Christ will say to us, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Barak to the Rescue - A Sermon

27 Pentecost 08

I hope you had a chance to listen to the Old Testament reading before assuming my sermon title was a political statement.  But, really, when I read the passage from Judges about Barak being called upon by the Judge Deborah to save Israel from the much stronger Canaanites, well, I couldn’t resist.  I bet you didn’t even know Barak was in the bible.

Everyone looked upon Barak to save the day -- and for the most part he did -- but he could not do it by himself.  He needed an army of 10,000 Israelites behind him -- and one woman, Jael, who killed the Canaanite general Sisera.  Most importantly, he knew he needed God -- which is why he refused to go into battle without Deborah as the physical sign that it was God in whom Israel should place their hope, not Barak.

Which brings us to our own Barack and our nation’s troubles. Have you noticed how a lot of people are assuming he will save the day?  Sadly, too many think one man can change everything by himself, so they have thrown the problems of our nation upon him and said “Fix it!”  He can’t.  No one can alone.  He has already warned the nation that we will have to work together.

It’s that working together that’s the hard part.  We are anxious in our time of economic crisis.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time where people are so scared and angry that they’re utterly at a loss of what to do.  Many are virtually paralyzed by fear.

And so I will tell you what the first thing to do is.  Do like Barak -- place your hope in God.  But realize that does not mean to say, “God will fix it,” and then go hide until it’s all over.  We who believe and follow Christ know that we are called upon to be partners in making the world a better place.

I admit, sometimes it’s tempting to tell yourself, “Today’s problems are too big.  I’ll just hide and let someone else take care of it.”  But think of today’s Gospel before you decide to do that.  Think about those talents.

Now, if you thought the parable of the talents proved that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, you’re wrong.  The real point of this talent is that regardless of how much you have -- whether it be 5 talents or 3 talents (by the way, a talent is said to be equivalient to about $2,000) -- if you honestly work with it, you’ll be okay.  It’s when you are paralyzed by fear that things don’t work.

Fear is the enemy of our faith -- of our lives, really.  It was not because he made no money that the servant who buried his talent in the ground was punished -- it was because he froze.  He allowed his fear to overwhelm him.

We won’t do that.  We know it is not Barak -- or Obama -- to the rescue.  It is God.  And we are part of the rescue, part of the solution to the problems before us.  Back in Barak’s day it was an invading army.  Today it is financial crisis.  Either way, Christians know that we are called to move forward in hope and trust that Christ moves with us -- no, that Christ leads us.

And so we come to that even more difficult part -- the part of the sermon that makes us all the more anxious and that we all want to avoid -- but because God leads us, we will not avoid.  

Yes, I’m talking about Stewardship.  Pledging.  I need to talk with you about pledging today because we are at a point in our church’s life where this is a crucial conversation.  But it is one we will approach with hope and trust, not fear.

As you know, we chose the theme “PLEDGE WITH HOPE” precisely because of the economic crisis.  As Russell so succinctly put it, we are asking you to pledge this year in the face of uncertainty but also in the hope that all will be well.  We are asking you to move forward both aware of how things can change but refusing to be paralyzed by our fear.

We will not say, “I can’t pledge - I don’t know if I’m even going to have a job next month.”  We will not say, “I can’t get involved in any ministries right now -- I might get transferred or have to move in search of work.”  The parable tells us that this paralysis can’t advance the Kingdom of God.  

This doesn’t mean you destroy yourself.  It doesn’t mean you pledge money you KNOW you don’t have, or burn yourself out.  There are plenty of people in this church who can pledge enough and give enough of their time to advance our mutual ministry.  

I’m not going to go over all our many ministries at St. James’ -- and I’m not going to go over the budget.  You know we do a lot and you know we are in the red.  

Yet, sometimes we look at our endowment and assume it will save us.  It won’t.  Or we looke at wealthier parishioners and assume they’ll make it better.  They won’t.  We’re already in the process of reducing some employee hours and even considering cutting positions and ministries.

Sometimes we look at the faithful 20% of the congregation who do 80% of the work and assume they will always make things happen.  They won’t.  They are burning out.  

If we assume others will take care of our budget or our ministries, then we are waiting on Barak to fix it.  Then we have become that servant who buried his talent out of fear.  I ask you to leave your fear behind.  Move forward in hope -- in trust -- in faith that it is God who leads you.  Although you may have received your pledge cards in the mail already, I’ve asked to have more printed so you can hold one in your hands right now.  

Look at it not in fear (or disgust), but consider three things:  1)  The ministries we support are valuable and worthy.  They give us meaning.  2)  Some people may not be able to financially support those ministries -- but that doesn’t mean your or I can’t.  3)  No one knows the future.  As we move forward in hope -- as we pledge in hope -- remember that things can just as easily get better as they can get worse. 

In the parable today, it didn’t really matter how much money each servant was given.  What mattered was the attitude they approached their challenge with.  Let US leave fear behind and approach our challenge with hope and trust.  Let us PLEDGE WITH HOPE.

And remember.  Barak did not save the day.  He was allowed to play a role in Israel’s rescue, but he knew -- and we know -- our hope is in the Lord.   Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Abortion again, and again, and again

Maybe you saw the news last week about a Catholic priest who demanded that any of his parishioners who voted for Barack Obama should exclude themselves from Holy Communion.  Or that the Catholic Bishops of America are going to hold Obama's feet to the fire on abortion.


For some reason, this has become the cause celebre of Roman Catholicism.  The same church that doesn't allow its people to practice birth control also won't allow anyone to have an abortion.  As if that will stop them.

This little dust-up raises several issues.

1.  Why do people remain Roman Catholic?  You've seen the bumper stickers that say, "You can't be both Catholic and Pro-Choice."  Yet, a recent survey showed that 58% of Roman Catholics think abortion should be legal.  Hmmm.  After the recent complaints about Obama sitting in a pew for 20 years listening to someone he didn't agree with, you'd think that these folks would be running from the church -- and that the church would be kicking them out.  But they don't go, and the church keeps accepting their money.  I'm telling you, just this week about the 18th person told me they can't stand what they hear in the Catholic pulpits but just can't leave because, as one told me, "well, you just can't."

2.  Abortion is not a scriptural issue.  It's not condemned by the bible.  I know, they say it's murder, but the bible doesn't say so.  Yes, I know scripture condemns murder, but the evidence for abortion being considered murder is weak.  In fact, scriptural evidence for fetuses being considered human is nearly non-existent.  Although there are several references to doing things "from my mother's womb" these almost universally mean, "from infancy" or "from early childhood."  It's clear they don't mean pre-birth.  The best anyone can offer is Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you. Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you. I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."

But think about it.  First of all, this refers to one specific person, Jeremiah.  You can extend it to all people, of course, but that's not what the text says.  More importantly, this verse talks about the soul, not the body.  God knew Jeremiah presumably even before conception ("before I formed you in the belly").  But note that it is only "before you came forth out of the womb" that he is sanctified.  That could easily and justifiably indicate that the soul does not enter the body until much later.   Either way, this and other scripture citations do not offer anything definitive about when the person becomes a person.  Traditionally, the time of quickening -- when the mother can feel the child move -- is the time when you can consider the fetus to be a person.

3. Abortion distracts us from Justice issues -- It's a funny thing how we can get all worked up about one issue -- abortion -- and ignore everything else even when the other issues are more important.  Take, for example, care for the poor.  Or domestic abuse.  Or pedophilia.  Or war.  I will admit that the Roman Catholic Church does speak out on some of these issues and does act on a lot of justice issues, but I did not see Rome threatening to excommunicate anyone voting for a war it called unjust.  

We have a lot of work -- and are not doing a very good job of -- taking care of those who are already born.  How is it that this church spends so much energy trying to force the unwilling to have more children so that they too can be abused by a harsh world?  If a person feels they are not capable of caring for a child -- and let's face it, adoption simply isn't a viable option for many -- it seems immoral to force their hand.  Let us focus on the justice issues where we can actually make the world better.

4.  The move to prohibit abortion is bad theology -- I do not mean that abortion is a good that must be protected.  Ideally, the best thing to do is minimize the number as much as possible.  But a punitive approach is not that of Christ.  He looked upon those who were scared and up against a wall with compassion.  He looked upon those who sincerely tried to help others not as villains but as Samaritans.  If we want to simply punish people, then by all means make it illegal.  But again, this was not Jesus' way.  

5. Prohibiting abortion is not practical-- it doesn't work!  You can make abortion as illegal as you want, but you won't stop it.  You won't even significantly reduce the number of abortions.  All you will do is increase the number of botched abortions resulting in death and disfigurement of young women  (mostly poor) who could not face the possibility of caring for another person (or telling their parents or suffering physically).  All you will do is increase the number of back ally abortions.

Again, if you want to reduce the number of abortions, legislation is not the answer.  Social justice is.  The best antidote to teen pregnancy is education and empowerment.  Studies have showed that even helping young girls open and manage their own bank accounts helps reduce the number of teen pregnancies.  Making birth control available and teaching kids about sex -- what it is and how it works and what the consequences are -- will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions.

Do those things, and abortions will go down.  Notice that the countries with the lowest percentage of abortions are also those with the most permissive abortion laws.  Countries with draconian laws generally have high abortion rates and high death rates.  So, is that what the Roman Catholic Church wants?  I hope not.