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.