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Sunday, July 24, 2016

A clear and present danger

In all the years I've been ordained - 30 in October, if you're curious - I've rarely, if ever, been publicly supportive of a Presidential candidate.  Any Presidential candidate.

No bumper stickers. No yard placards. No buttons. No nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

At least, when I was in parochial ministry. Things are a bit different when you're not the leader of a congregation. Even so, and while my politics are pretty obvious to anyone who is paying even slight attention, I've always tried to be fairly circumspect. 

Separation of church and state, you know. It's in our constitution. Or, at least, that's what I had always thought. Turns out, it's not. It was just a phrase Thomas Jefferson used. A lot.

Funny how that happens, eh? You say something enough times and it becomes "truth".

Well, I'm sure I don't know what I'd do if I were still rector or vicar in a congregation. I think I would be having more than a few conversations with my bishop and clergy peers, my spiritual director and therapist.

So, I'm writing this to clergy leaders, yes, but also to any and all of you who exercise leadership in Christian community - especially to those of you who have not exercised leadership but have been feeling 'stirrings" about needing to stand up and do something.

As we've heard over and over and over again from various journalists and political pundits, this is an election process like no other. For example: A year ago to the day that Donald Trump gave his speech accepting the nomination from the Republican party for President of the United States,  Donald Trump said of John McCain, 
"He's not a war hero. He's a war hero 
because he was captured. 
I like people that weren't captured."

That evening, July 21, 2015, the NY Post ran a cover depicting Trump on a raft with an encircling shark lurking behind. The headline? "Don Voyage!" Post owner Rupert Murdoch said that Trump was "embarrassing his friends" and "the whole country." 

And, yet, on Thursday, July 21, 2016 - exactly a year later - when Donald J. Trump strutted to the podium to announce - in a 75 minute speech - that he would accept the nomination to be the Republican candidate for President of the United States, he did so with the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and the NY Post.  

How did that happen? 

We should not have been surprised. Donald Trump has been saying for most of his adult life that he wanted to become President of the United States. Anyone who saw his face during President Obama's impromptu "roasting" of The Donald at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner could see on this face the formulation of his plans for a candidacy run. 

Watch the clip here and see if you don't agree that Mr. Trump simply could not abide being mocked by a Black man - especially about his life's ambition. It's pretty clearly written all over the scowl on his face and the squint in his eye, the way he sat on his hands and rocked back and forth in his chair, that he set out to do something about it right then and there.

When Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President of the United States on June 16, 2015,  Mr. Trump said that Mexicans, "They’re bringing drugs.They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!" And, he proposed building a wall. A YUGE wall.

A month later, the man who has called women "fat pigs" and "disgusting" dismissed Fox New's Megan Kelley as a "lightweight" journalist who, during the Republican Presidential debates,  had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her... whatever." 

In December 2015, Mr. Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." He also wanted to round up all Muslims for deportation. He didn't say then - and still hasn't said - how he intended to do that, but that's not what's important when you're trying to "shock and awe" and instill fear and incite violence.

He has a long history of racism, from having had charges brought against him and his father as early as 1973 by the Nixon Department of Justice (not exactly known as a bastion of liberalism) for civil rights violations in housing. 

In 1986 during the Central Park jogger case,  Mr. Trump denounced Mayor Ed Koch’s call for peace and bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The five teenagers spent years in prison before being exonerated, but not before Mr. Trump spent considerable time and energy and money whipping up the crowds into a racist frenzy. 

That was 1986. Sound vaguely familiar?

Mr. Trump has also retweeted messages from white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers, including two from an account called @WhiteGenocideTM with a photo of the American Nazi Party’s founder.
He, of course, has repeatedly and vehemently denied any racism, and he has deleted some offensive tweets. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi racist website that has endorsed Trump, sees that as going “full-wink-wink-wink.”

The man who once supported Planned Parenthood and was staunchly pro-choice did say in an interview with Savannah Guthrie that he would depart from the Republican Party Platform and "allow" abortion in the case of incest, rape or the life of the mother."  

However, when asked by Chris Matthews in March of 2016, Mr. Trump said that women should be punished for having an abortion.  

He, of course, walked that back - because even the most strident pro-abortion activists cringed at a position they certainly believe but had been carefully deflecting for decades -  but there it was.

However, in April of 2016, Mr. Trump said that transgender activist, Caitlyn Jenner, could use the women's room at Trump Towers any time she needed to. I know. Go figure, right? 

He has been married three times - twice to women who were not born in the United States (read: immigrants) - and has reveled in his reputation as a "lady's man". Indeed, three women have brought charges of sexual assault against him. As if that weren't enough, he has made lascivious remarks about his daughter, Ivanka, who is the "public face" of his respect for women.  

During her speech at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka told us that her father was "color blind and gender neutral," even though the weight of evidence does not support that assertion.

And, for an apparent variety of reasons and despite his sexual immorality, his three marriages, his vulgarity and impertinence, reportedly 78% of (white) Evangelicals support him and endorse his candidacy. 

As if all of this weren't enough, it is important to remember that Mr. Trump's friend, mentor and lawyer was none other than Roy Cohn - Senator Joseph McCarthy's (of whom it was asked "At long last, sir, have you no decency at all?") right hand man - helped the Rosenberg's to the electric chair for spying and helped elect Richard Nixon.

It is nothing short of amazing to me - and, apparently, most of the rest of the Free World - that this man, this racist, misogynist bully, this political demagogue who won't apologize even when it's clear that he is wrong - is the Republican candidate for President of the United States.

Actually, when you read the Republican Party Platform, it isn't exactly so much of a surprise.  Among other things, "We the People" seeks to reverse the SCOTUS decisions on Roe v. Wade, Marriage Equality, and the Affordable Care Act, defends their unique interpretation of the Second Amendment gun rights, seeks to "ensure honest elections" (read: further erosion of the Voting Rights Act) and yes, even gives mention to and is supportive of "The Wall." (I am not making this up.)

So, what is the responsibility of Christian leaders in these very perilous times? 

I think it is important, now more than ever, for Christian leaders to promote conversation and dialogue in Christian community.  

I know. I know. That sounds so lame, right?

Not when you consider that fear and anxiety and anger do not promote community. Indeed, it is the very mixture of toxic human waste that drives us apart from each other, increasing suspicions of each other and promoting tribalism and nationalism - the foundational building blocks of Fascism. 

This is part of what we're seeing in Trump's strategy. We've seen it before. It's the tactic of the demagogue to make enemies of each other. It's divide and conquer. And, it works.

That's why conversations and dialogue in communities of faith are critically important. It's a wonderfully subversive way to move people from their reptilian brain response and into an ability to think critically, engage one's insight and participate in creative, imaginative problem solving.

These conversations might include but not be limited to 
+ Christian identity, religious principles and moral values.   
+ The identity, principles and values of a democracy
+ The imperatives of the Gospel
+ The responsibilities of baptism
+ The nature and character of Christian leadership 
+ The public practice of theology.
This could be prompted by a series of sermons followed by conversations on the topic. Or, it could be an evening presentation by a variety of community leaders followed by conversations and dialogue. 

Or, perhaps, it could be an ecumenical or interfaith event with people from a variety of religious backgrounds presenting their perspectives on these or similar issues.

More important, even, than these conversations is the creation of an environment were people feel secure enough to express their opinions and listen to those of others. 

That will take enormous trust in the religious leadership so if it hasn't already been established, it will be critically important for clergy to be mindful of this developmental task. 

One of the reasons Mr. Trump has gotten as far as he has is due to the fact that he excels at raising anger, anxiety and fear. I believe Christian leaders need to be mindful that many of the people sitting in our pews and coming to our altar rails are experiencing these emotions. 

Indeed, I think it is absolutely critical for Christian leaders to acknowledge their own anger, anxiety and fear. And, we need to name it - yes, sometimes out loud and publicly - observing and monitoring how these emotions affect our own behaviors. 

This is the time when our own established support systems and wellness programs - including spiritual direction and pastoral care - are absolutely critical to our ability to lead effectively.

More than anything, this is the time for leadership. Strong leadership. Leadership that doesn't deny the anxiety but neither does it feed it. Leadership that understands that courage is the ability to keep walking, even though fear wants you to stand still. Leadership that calls people together when fear and anxiety want to keep them apart. Leadership that stands up to bullies. Leadership that speaks truth to power. Leadership that risks propriety for notoriety. 

Leadership that, to paraphrase one of the saints of the Civil Rights movement, no longer accepts the things we can not change and changes the things we can not accept. 

Leadership that, in the words of one of my mentors in ministry, does three things: name the pain, touch where it hurts, offer hope. 

Eminent historian and film maker, Ken Burns, recently said in a CNN interview that we are living in an "incredibly perilous situation right now," adding, "Asking this man to assume the position of President of the United States is like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747."

The danger is clear and very present.  

Let's not give into it. 

Let's not eat of the bread of anxiety. 

Let's move forward. Together.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Revolutionary Love

A sermon for Pentecost VII - July 2, 2016
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

It’s an interesting gospel for this holiday weekend.

Here we are, celebrating the birth of this nation with family cookouts and picnics and, of course, fireworks. And, there is Jesus, commissioning 70 brand-new disciples, urgently talking with them about mission and ministry what to do about rejection.

I find it irresistible not to imagine the urgency of the early mission of Jesus and compare that with the urgency of the founders of this country in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

I should note that, in American, we call it the Revolutionary War. In Britain, it’s still called “The War of Independence”.  That’s because the British did not see America as a nation; it was referred to as “the colonies.”  Some folks there still do, when they want to be pejorative . 

British school children, I’m told, still do not learn about the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere’s ride. What is discussed in textbooks is the effect the war had on Britain.  It was just “independence” you see. Nothing more, nothing less. As if we were naughty adolescents, throwing a tantrum because we refused to contribute to England after the Seven Years War between England and France through outrageously high taxes.

“No taxation without representation,” as a succinct complaint of the problem made perfect sense to people living on this side of The Pond. To our founders it was the oppression of occupation by a foreign government – not unlike what the Hebrew people  in Jerusalem were experiencing under the occupation of their country by Romans.   

And, like the Romans, the British, at the time, simply did not understand the complaint. We were “their” colonies. They believed they could do with us as they pleased. (For now, I’ll refrain from modern examples of occupation, but I'm sure you can name a few without breaking a sweat.)

There’s a revealing story about a conversation between King George III and then Prime Minister William Pitt.  George asks, “What of the colonies, Mr. Pitt?” Pitt reminds him that, “America is now a nation, sir.” And George answers, “Is it? Well, we must try and get used to it. I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs . . . . .”

As the Brits would say, “Right.” Or, “Well, there it is, then.”

It was a Revolutionary War because, among many issues, it was the first war where thirteen independent colonies joined together to overthrow rule by a foreign monarchy. 

That had never been done before. And, what resulted was, in fact, revolutionary. What emerged was an independent nation. The sentence – “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" from the Pledge of Allegiance – was not lightly or irreverently penned. Those independent colonies eventually became states, which became part of  “The United States of America”.

That’s pretty revolutionary.  Which is precisely why there was so much resistance to it.

Jesus had another revolutionary mission in mind. He did not pursue a military overthrow of the oppressive forces of Rome. That would have been a fool’s errand. He had other, higher-minded goals. 

His revolution was not economic or political to be achieved by military might. Rather, his revolution was that of the heart and soul of a nation, with the establishment of a spirituality that would redeem the religious leadership of Judaism from its cozy, symbiotic relationship with Rome and begin to establish a freedom from the law of the land and religious tyranny, into a life in the spirit of the religious laws. 

His mission was a way to reestablish the soul of a nation of oppressed people – not for the short term, but for the long haul.

That’s pretty revolutionary. Which is precisely why there was so much resistance to it.

What has any of this have to do with us, today? 

Most of us here in this church this morning are living pretty comfortable lives. Oh, we want more – that’s just human nature. And, some of us need more – better economic security, easier access to quality health care, equal employment opportunity with equal compensation. There are still injustices in our country and in our world.

But, most of us did not go to bed last night with the distant roar of hunger in our bellies. Most of us did not wake up this morning with anxiety about how we were going to feed our children. Yes, we worry about ‘home grown terrorists’ as well as those who may come into this country to overthrow what they believe is a “godless nation” of a democracy and turn it into their own theocracy. 

That said, we are still the greatest free democratic nation in the world, founded on “liberty and justice for all.” The working out of those principles is not without struggle, but those remain the principles to which we adhere and for which we strive.

It’s still a pretty revolutionary idea. Which is why there remains so much resistance to it.

I am struck by the words of Jesus to the seventy which come at the very end of this passage from Luke’s gospel. 

The 70 have been commissioned and sent out “as lambs in the midst of wolves” with instructions to live simply, trusting in the kindness of strangers; to cure the sick and proclaim that the Realm of God has drawn near to them.   

And, when they experience rejection, they are to “kick the dust from their sandals,” proclaim peace and move on.

The seventy returned with joy because of the miracles they had performed. Jesus reminds them of the source of their power and gives to them a spirit of humility, saying that, whether they succeed wildly or fail miserably, God’s love is theirs. 

“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” says Jesus. No matter what, God sees. God knows. God understands. God loves.

Revolutionary ideas are bound to fail all along the lines from inception to reality. Martin Luther King, Jr., wisely taught that “the arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice”. 

We, as a nation, have not always remained true to our goals and ideals. Our history is stained and tarnished by the capture and slavery of Africans and the tyranny and oppression of Native Americans as well as the denial of civil rights to people of color and women and LGBT people.

I think this is what is meant by the words in the Preamble of the Constitution, “ . . in order to be a more perfect union.” We are not perfect. We were never conceived to be perfect. We were created to be “more perfect” – to cast ourselves into the crucible of the refiner’s fire until the arc of history bends toward justice.  And that refiner’s fire is in the free expression of ideas and the controversy and tension that arise from those differences. 

That freedom - used responsibly - is the essence of what it means to be a democracy.

It is in that spirit of humility and expansiveness of freedom and God’s love that I offer this closing hymn as a meditation on this revolutionary idea of being part of something greater than ourselves – this revolutionary notion that “all men” – all people, male, female, young, old, black, white, brown and every shade of God’s glorious palette of creation, gay, and so-called straight, rich and poor, from every nation and people and tongue and tribe – are created equal, even if they do not receive equal treatment under the law. 
The words come from a variety of sources: Poem Lloyd Stone wrote vs 1& 2. Vs 3-5 were written by Methodist Georgia Harkness. The tune is “Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. Wesley has graciously agreed to play it for us. I’ve included the words as a bulletin insert.

As you celebrate today and tomorrow and enjoy the great bounty of this nation, I bid you to remember the words of Jesus. Remember that, no matter what, your names are written in heaven. Remember that God sees. God knows. God understands. And, God loves. Unconditionally.

And, remember the words of this song. Carry them in your heart, so there might be there planted the revolutionary idea of peace in your life, peace in your family, peace in this nation and peace in the world.

For such peace is the product of revolutionary love. 

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country --
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth's kingdoms,
thy kingdom come, on earth, thy will be done;
let Christ be lifted up 'til all shall serve him,
and hearts united, learn to live as one:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
myself I give thee -- let thy will be done.

Words: Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. 
Tune: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius