Showing posts with label citizenship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label citizenship. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


This year is the centennial of the beginning of the First World War, and today is the annual commemoration of the armistice that ended that war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Remembrance Day and Veterans' Day commemorations have been more visible in the media this year as Europe marks the centennial and as the US grapples with issues in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. 

Some of my pacifist friends object to the wearing of the red poppy because of the way the tradition has become almost jingoistic. There is a compulsion to wear the poppy or make public thanks to veterans in social media as though one can not be a patriot if one does not. 

A peacenik myself, I understand the pacifist perspective, but as I was thinking about this today, it occurred to me that those who began the tradition of remembering on Armistice Day remembered not only the sacrifice of those who did not come home but also the horror of war for everyone involved. 

They knew that death for one's country was far from sweet and fitting.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

For me, the poppy, this resilient flower that reclaims the scarred land, is a way to remember not only the valor of all those who have served, but also the horror of what it is we ask them to do. I look forward to the day when we have learned not to ask. 

Photo courtesy AU United Methodists

Sunday, August 24, 2014

There’s Power in the Word

This sermon was presented at Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference) on Sunday, August 24, 2014. The revised common lectionary texts for Year A, Proper 16, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost were Psalm 138Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20. 

I think sometimes we underestimate the power of words. We teach our children to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” To tell someone to “put your money where your mouth is” is to say that financial support is more useful than spoken support.  To say that someone is “all bark and no bite” is to say that that person only talks, but never acts. To say that someone talks the talk but doubt that person can walk the walk is to doubt that person’s ability to act.  
It’s funny, though. The very existence of phrases like these, the way that we repeat them over and over until they accrue meaning greater than the sum of their parts is evidence of the power of words.  Repetition of the sticks and stones expression can bolster the confidence of a child being teased. All bark and no bite diffuses the power of someone else’s aggressive speech. Put your money where your mouth is and walk the walk challenge someone else to act directly. And really, if you’ve ever been bullied with words, you know that words have the power to inflict pain. They can leave lasting scars on our souls that inform the way we see ourselves, the way we interact with the people closest to us, and the way we live in the world.
            When I was looking over the lectionary scriptures for today, I was struck by two things. The first was the sheer quantity of references to speech acts via forms of the verbs say, sing, call and answer. The second thing that struck me was what speech acts accomplish. They create relationships, and they guide the way we inhabit those relationships
            In verse three of Psalm 138, the psalmist says, “On the day I called, you answered me” and this answer had the power to bolster the psalmist’s “strength of soul.” Throughout this psalm, speech creates a relationship between God and the people as speech and song connect the earthly and the divine. And in this psalm, the speech is reciprocal. God answers, the kings of the earth hear the words of God’s mouth, God’s name and word are exalted. In the same way that relationships among people depend on communication, our relationship with God depends on speaking and listening in prayer and meditation.
            In the passage from Romans, verses six through eight list eight gifts: prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, diligence, and cheerfulness.  While each of these eight can make use of speech, three of them (prophesy, teaching, and exhortation) depend on speech to be accomplished. More than just valuing the power of speech in the work of the church, though, Paul puts words to work for him. With a particular sort of speech act, an extended metaphor, he shapes the way that members of the church interact with one another. We are, he says, members of one body, and each member has its function. This passage is reminiscent of first Corinthians chapter twelve in which Paul gives this body metaphor greater depth. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” Human beings are often challenged by difference. We don’t know what to do with it; it makes us uncomfortable. This metaphor teaches us to value the contribution of each member of the community as we value the contribution of each part of the body.
In the gospel passage this morning, Jesus challenges the disciples to think about the power of words, names in particular. He asks, ‘Whom do you say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Now, Jesus, of course, knows exactly who he is, but in this conversation with the disciples, he is checking on whether what they say aligns with what he knows. Because Jesus knows that what people are saying about him shapes their relationship with him. To identify Jesus with John the Baptist or one of the prophets is to connect him to the past. To name Jesus as one of the prophets is to affirm the status quo, to continue an ongoing cycle of prophesy about a future not-yet-arrived. Peter’s answer that Jesus is the messiah, however, identifies him not as a reincarnation of one who has come before, but as the incarnation of Old Testament prophesy.  A prophet is not the messiah. To name Jesus as the messiah is a radical act that announces that the future is now. 
            All this thinking about the power of words has been timely for me. A friend and I have been engaged in a good-natured ongoing debate about the relationship of language and thought. Namely, whether our words and grammar inform the way we think or whether the way that we think informs the words that we have and the grammar that organizes those words. It’s been a lively debate for us and a sometimes contentious one among professional linguists. I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that language is a rigid structure that prevents us from contemplating ideas for which we have no words, but I do think that our habits of speech become habits of thought, and habits, I’m sure we can all agree, once established, are difficult to change.
            Change is possible, though. As with Peter’s radical act of naming Jesus as the messiah in the gospel today, our speech acts can shape the way we experience relationships in our world. The passage from Romans uses beautiful words to create a vision of a harmonious body of different people, and this is a vision we are familiar with within the church. When we are doing well as a church, the body welcomes a variety of members and values their individual contributions.
            Words, however, also have the power to devalue the people with whom we come in contact. One only has to listen to the news to hear this in action. Conflict and violence can on occur when the aggressor views the victim as less than human. This is true in cases of personal violence like assault, murder, and rape; in cases of ritualized violence like political campaigns; and in cases of armed conflict like those in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iraq right now.
            I’m not going to make any judgments about who is right and who is wrong in any of these conflicts. I am going to challenge you to pay closer attention to the way you hear them described, though. Language that compares people to animals, language that labels people evil or bad, language that treats people as objects dehumanizes those people.

            When we use dehumanizing language we participate in the violence, we perpetuate the conflicts and we are complicit in the tragic piles of bodies that result. What would happen, though, if we took a radical step like Peter and changed the way we talk? When we change our language, we expand Paul’s metaphor from the church family to the human family. When we change our language, we recognize that all the people we share the earth with are members of the body and each of them has a contribution. When we change our language, we take the fist step toward beating our swords into ploughshares.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Saying it like it is

     I'll be honest with you, there's a lot about Mitt Romney that scares me. He seems to have changed his stance on many issues over the years that he has been in the public eye. He rarely offers details, even when pushed for them. He is not my favorite candidate, but I don't hate him. I don't think that everything he says is evil and awful. It saddens me that so many Democrats and Obama supporters can not hear a good word from Romney's lips.

     Many among my women friends have their knickers in a knot over two comments in the debate on Tuesday, October 16, 2012, and I don't really understand why.

     The first is the "binders full of women" line. It probably would have been more clear to say something like, "binders full of curriculum vitae from talented women," but of all the things Romney said, is this really the thing we care about most? Personally, I'm more concerned about his tax plan, the details of which are still unclear to me.

     The second is the anecdote Romney shared about his chief of staff in the Massachusetts  gubernatorial office. Here's what he said:
"I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.
Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.
She said, I can't be here until 7 or 8 o'clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o'clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let's have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you." (transcript courtesy of ABC)
So, after Romney went out of his way to include women in his cabinet, one of them asserted herself and asked for a reasonable schedule so that she could also be a mother. And he agreed. Governance is not a nine to five job, but Romney, as he presents himself here, was willing to work with a staff member who wanted to be home most evenings.The only part of the above statement I take umbrage to is the idea that it is only women in the workforce who need this flexibility. All caregivers, male or female, should feel empowered to ask for the flexibility they need to do their jobs well and take care of their families.

     Today, instead of talking about the challenges women and men face in trying to balance careers and families, and how that chief of staff was gutsy to ask for what she needed, people are saying things like this:

     I am a mother, and I have a professional career. I do want my evenings free. I want to be able to cook dinner for myself, my spouse, and our children, or to enjoy a meal that one of them cooks for all of us. Unfortunately, the realities of the American workplace make this increasingly difficult for me and for my husband. Every week I have to make decisions about whether I will stay on campus for a meeting or event and let the kids sit in after care at school or skip the meeting and pick them up on time. Whether I will put time into my family or into my career.

    Instead of taking pot shots at sound bytes, let's talk about issues and solutions.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Christian Citizenship

This sermon was delivered Sunday, July 3, 2011 at the Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference). The Gospel text was Matthew 22:15-22.
I grew up in the late 20th century. When I was in high school in the ‘90’s the debate about the separation of church and state was being fought in terms of prayer at school assemblies and graduation programs. When I graduated, the choir director had to rewrite some lines of the songs the choir had traditionally sung to take God out of them. So, with that background, it’s always a little strange for me when I come to church on the Sunday of 4th of July weekend and we sing patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
In the United States, this tradition of the separation of church and state is a long standing one. It’s not hard to understand why. The grandparents of our founding fathers probably remembered the turmoil England suffered because of the religious civil wars in the 17th century, and Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington never wanted that to happen again. Many early colonists including the Puritans, Quakers, and Catholics came to North America in order to have the opportunity to practice their faith freely. Thus, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the freedom to practice their faith openly and publicly by stating that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
For us in the United States, freedom of religion means that we can support and attend any church we want or no church at all. We can enroll in schools, get jobs, vote and marry without having to prove our faith. But separation of church and state has also come to mean that we don't pray together in social and civic groups of mixed faiths. We have not yet confined our faith to the privacy of our own homes as they have in France, where people functionally have freedom from religion, by which I mean that religious faith is considered a private matter, and expression thereof is banned in the public sphere.* No headcoverings for Muslim and Orthodox women, no visible crosses for Christians. Is that what we want, though? Do we want our civic lives and our electoral decisions to be robbed of the guidance that our faith gives us? It's a tough question.
I think the Bible can offer some wisdom on this score. We citizens of modern democracies, born in the 18th century Enlightenment, are not the first to struggle with the concepts of church and state. The Jews of Joseph and Mary's generation were subjects of King Herod, a Jewish leader, but they were also subjects of the Roman Emperor. It was their fulfillment of their civic duty to be counted in the census that took them to Bethlehem for Jesus birth.** 
            In the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether Jews should pay taxes. In part, they’re just trying to get out of paying taxes but also to trap Jesus in his own words, which seems to be their goal each time we meet them in the New Testament. This episode, however, can lead us to a deeper question: Can we be good citizens of the earthly, temporal state into whose organizational structure we are born at the same time that we are good members of God's eternal heavenly congregation? Jesus responds to these men, and to us, with the seemingly simple: “Is it not Caesar's likeness on the coin? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.” Um. thanks, Jesus. Easier said than done. 
I'm going to pause here a minute to mention the fundamental difference between taxes and tithes: Taxes are obligatory, and there are legal repercussions for not paying them. Non-payment of taxes carries earthly punishment: jail, imprisonment. And taxes are pretty hard to avoid. They are rolled in to our utility bills and airline tickets. They are assessed at the grocery store. On behalf of the government, our employers take them directly from our paychecks. And most of us do everything we possibly can to avoid paying them: we deduct our children, we deduct mortgage and student loan interest, we deduct the losses of our farms and small businesses, we deduct the funds we give to charities.
Tithes, on the other hand, are a freewill offering. They express our gratitude to God for the blessings we have received and our commitment to supporting the projects and goals of God through the church.
So, okay, the coins and bills in my wallet and in yours are stamped with the likeness and symbolism of the state, so they belong to Caesar. Or, in our case, The United States Federal Reserve. But we, each of us, are stamped with the likeness of God. We are created in his image, and it is ourselves Jesus is telling us to render unto God in the verses I read this morning. 
The frustrating thing about Jesus's message is that he often tells us what to do without telling us how to do it, and rather than muddle through and puzzle it out prayerfully, we look around for easy answers. In the media today, you can find voices who will say that Republican conservatism is the place to be if you're a Christian. You can find an equal number of voices identifying the liberalism of the Democrats as the Christian path. Those voices will tell you to hate gay people. To hate rich people. To hate poor people. To hate our enemies. To hate our president. Those voices often tell you to mistrust and disbelieve anyone who disagrees with them and to respond with anger and with hate.
You know, though, I don't think Jesus ever told me to hate anybody. Jesus calls me and you and all of us to love. The New Testament calls us to love. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Turn the other cheek. Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that those who believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Love the lord your god with all your heart and soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. God is love.
Did you catch all those people and groups whom we're supposed to be loving? Here they are in short form: God, ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. Note that enemies is on the list. This is not a Pollyanna system, where everyone always agrees and there are no arguments. There are times that we are going to find ourselves battling for what we believe is right. Yet, even in those moments, we are called to love. My friend Sarah, a devout Christian, thinks I'm insane. How can we love the terrorists? They'll just take advantage of our weakness. But I believe love is never weakness, especially when our love is a conduit for God's love.
I think it’s safe to say that most of the time, most of us are doing okay loving the people around us in our homes, in our churches and workplaces, and in our communities. We at least try to love the people with whom we have personal contact. It's when we come to the larger arena of citizenship in a nation of more than 300 million people that we are not doing so well. When we bring anger and hate to our citizenship, we are not being Christian citizens. 
For me, Christian citizenship involves deploying that love that Jesus emphasizes throughout the New Testament in his words and in his actions. It means considering issues carefully and going beyond the two sides shouting in the media. Often, it means reframing the debate by asking a different question. It means making prayerful decisions and, finally, acting out of love.
Think for a moment about the most contentious issues in American government and society. Here’s my list: immigration, banking, abortion, the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, jobs, taxes, the economy. I don't think the Bible gives us absolute easy answers to what we should think about any of these issues. But I do think that Jesus’s message and call to love tell us how we should approach our particular decisions and how we should interact with those who disagree.
Let's take for example, the issue of abortion. We citizens of the United States have been arguing over whether abortion should be legal or illegal for a lifetime, and we bring all the weapons of hate to the debate: we call each other names, we do violence to property and to people, we misrepresent the ideas and values of our enemies on the other side. And we're really not getting anywhere. 
I don't want to argue about whether it should be legal or not. I believe every abortion is a tragedy that begins long before the woman reaches the clinic. I want to make abortions unnecessary. Let's love ourselves and our bodies enough to understand how they work and to teach our children, because knowledge is always power. Let's destigmatize adoption by loving the parents who give the child up as well as the parents who give the child a home. Let's change the debate. 
The same goes for dealing with terrorist organizations around the world. They're really angry, and their anger hurts us. A lot. Is our anger any better? Can we use love to try to understand their anger? Can we recognize our common humanity? Can we love them?
This  sermon has been an unusually political sermon. So, I want to state clearly, that I am not advocating a particular political party or a partisan stance on any of the issues I've mentioned. What I want you to take away this morning after we've sung  patriotic praise songs as part of our religious worship is the idea that patriotism and religious faith not only go together, but they can enrich each other. Specifically, that the life of radical love for everyone we encounter to which Jesus calls us will help to make us better citizens.

*     *     *     *
Of all the sermons I have given, this one made me the most nervous. I knew I was approaching the limit of what is acceptable in the pulpit. Nevertheless, I felt called to give this message. The response was great. Many people thanked me for the message and the ideas to ponder. One woman commended me on having the nerve to give it. At Wakelee, they clapped when I was done. I know that at least a couple of people were unhappy, I hope that they don't give their pastor a hard time for having invited me to preach in his absence. I hope that all the people who appreciated the message have the nerve to live it out and pass it on.
At Wakelee, the final hymn after I gave the sermon was "This is My Song." I couldn't have planned it better.


* This is a gross oversimplification of the reality in France, for a more nuanced discussion of the separation of church and state in the current French republic, see Brookings.  (added 2/14/16)
** I'm aware of the debate about whether there even was a census. Common Reason  lays out all the pieces of the argument well, if you're interested. Historical accuracy aside, Luke's story remains a good illustration of divided allegiance.