Week by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego. I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide. The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago. At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards.
Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”
This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG. Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois. Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain. In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain. It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.
So, what of the future? The photo to the right was taken last week. It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway. Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here. As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future. As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell). It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation — in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope. Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure. In such places.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor. I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different. This time, I will have a weekly assignment. To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.
This is not an easy task in any season. Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry. Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018.
Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.
New York Times reporter Julie Hirshfield Davis describes the detention centers for refugees in Texas border towns as being “a little like a prison and a little like a day care center.” (The Daily podcast 6/19/18). A little like a day care center? Really?
What nonsense. How can these holding tanks be benignly described as daycare facilities? Ms. Davis, however, should be cut some slack. She suffers from the same national cognitive dissonance disorder millions of us suffer. What we see, we think, can’t be real. We are facing the sinister riddle of who we have become as a society. We ponder over how it happened. Who are these people, mirrored back to us on television? Pogo was right — We have met the enemy and it is us! How did we arrive at this place? Is this me, my nation?
Let me help Ms. Davis — these are NOT daycare facilities. These are prisons — for children. Children sleep on the floor, have little choice in how to spend their days and are kept in floor-to-ceiling fenced cages. No matter the rosy stories told by the “care givers” this is a prison… this is incarceration. Families are torn apart because they feared for their lives and they sought a safe place where they might begin again and scratch out a living. Babies, toddlers, wee little children are being used as pawns. Can our cruelty deter others? Might we trade better treatment of these families for a political win — something about this likes a wall.
We didn’t arrive in this place overnight, or over an election cycle. We have come a long way from President Reagan’s first inaugural address describing the United States as a shining city on a hill. He spoke these inspiring words: “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Sadly, what we have believed deep in our bones, that the United States was a place of refuge, of new opportunity, is being lost, sacrificed to political expediency. There has always been an uglier side to our identity. This broken reality of our humanity is now on full display in our treatment of the refugee.
Reagan’s soaring language was, sadly, tied to a “Southern Strategy” of thinly veiled racism and jokes about welfare queens. The uglier side of our nation’s story was also at work when George Herbert Walker Bush who understood the U.S. to be a moral leader, nevertheless was elected in part, by his appeal focus to television spots about Willie Horton, an ex-con who was said to have been released on society early and then committed fresh acts of violence. Be afraid… This became a potent symbol of racism designed to elicit fear, especially among white working class folks. But now we have fallen further — we have forgotten those fundamental values to which we aspire and now live under the sadly misguided focus on new enemies who offer us new fears. From every podium of the White House we are told, in one way are another, that we should “be afraid, be very afraid.”
How is this possible? What to do? I confess to being confused myself — almost confused enough to call a prison a daycare center — but not quite. What does it mean to be a citizen in these times? Prayers are essential, as are protests. This is not who we are as U.S. citizens. This is not who we are as people of faith. We cannot allow this to be the definitive word on how we treat “the stranger in our land.” The nation is not quietly accepting that children should be separated from mothers and fathers in a journey from terror without dissent.
There is an upside-down, inside-out quality to what is occurring. Let’s be clear — I have not been blind to the drift in our nation’s identity in recent years. People in cities, small towns and countryside across the U.S. have been struggling. Tens of thousands of manufacturing and mining operations have been closed over the past twenty years. Small farms continue to disappear. Investments in education have dwindled. Our nation has become better at hiring people to run prisons than building much-needed infrastructure. No wonder, then, that our imaginations turn to incarceration rather than welcome centers.
We have allowed false dichotomies, false economies, to be used as political theory and practice. This is a complex issue and the demagogues want us to believe that there are only two choices and one simple answer. Just a little thought about the situation on the border causes a rational person to say — how do we bring imagination to this? What other alternatives are there? What might be done in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that can alleviate this? There must be dozens of ways to allow entry and do close monitoring of refugees that are less expensive than imprisoning mothers, fathers and children.
The stage was set for our foolish binary choices years ago. It did not begin in 2016. Many so-called “leaders” especially on the right, preached a narrative of “me first” and “fear the other” for years: us or them… either/or… my way or the highway. When one lives in a binary world regarding social interaction and possibilities, every choice is a false choice. Cable television and talk radio have laid out the predicate — a world was composed of distrust, soft prejudices, implicit and sometimes outright racism.
Meanwhile churches focused on entertainment and worried about numerical decline — they were too busy with this to speak on behalf of the immigrant or the poor among us. The tragic, sickening, self concern of Christian leaders, scurrying to “fix” our broken institutions, without stopping to consider the inevitable changes related to secularization and demographic shifts, meant that important voices on the behalf of the most vulnerable were silent or muted at best.
Years ago, Parker Palmer, anticipated our current state. It is almost as if he knew Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to pull Romans 13 out of context last week and use it to justify the tragedy on our borders. Palmer wrote “traditional Christian language has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and has been tortured beyond recognition” (Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, p. xxi).
A type of theological malpractice has found ascendancy in the rhetoric of our public life. When there are pictures of pastors endorsing and praying over the POTUS, who on the same day is implementing horrific policies, I want to shout out in protest: “there has been identity theft!” In this, Biblical Christianity has been traded in for a cheap imitation of the faith — something that may sell as comfort in the short-term but will bear little long-term fruit. Like the POTUS, these religious leaders are day-traders, seeking to ride the cultural swing of the moment. The life-giving, life-transforming language of restoration and reconciliation has been replaced with a distorted gospel giving license to exclusionary, selfish, violent and war-condoning ideologies.
Here is one way to recast what is occurring and offers some guidance as to how we proceed — every time some national official suggests that there are drug dealers, gang members, thieves or rapists coming across the border and this justifies the cruelty we see, we need to stop and shout “who do you think you are kidding? Where is your evidence?” Evidence is scant, almost nonexistent, you see. Good research shows that refugees contribute much more than they require of their new home. They are, like ALL PEOPLE, to be cherished more than feared. How we treat them and their children reflects how we ought to be treated… Yes, that is Biblical… and also the guidance of other faith traditions.
Is there no hope of redemption or restoration for those who might bring their own set of brokenness or troubles? We should and must screen those who would do us harm. The calculus, however, isn’t even close. There is enormously more potential for good than evil arriving at our portals. Do we have such limited imaginations that we will simply define everyone arriving, even children, as our enemy? When I see the young ones standing, crying as their mother side, as she is being taken away, I believe I see in that little one a future medical doctor, a chemist, a university president, a journalist, a teacher or a pastor — and, if we are lucky, that little one may one day be a friend to one of my grand children. That is what I see — that is what our nation must see.
As a preacher I am blessed to hear a great sermon. I know the challenge of crafting words and theology designed to move believers to live more faithfully or welcome unbelievers into the faith. Fortunately, I hear such preaching often as I travel or attend worship at my home congregation St. Marks United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.
Recently I heard one such finely crafted and moving sermon delivered by one of my pastors, the Rev. Jimmy Moore. I invite you to read it, to consider the wisdom it contains and to be moved by his call to live with a more robust theology of Creation. Here it is:
Creation Groans, Creation Glories
[Prior to this sermon, Rev. Moore Interviewed Dr. Jeffrey White, Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Integrated Program on the Environment at Indiana University. This interview is available through St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington.]
Sermon: I want to tell you about a friend of mine. She is great. She is one of the most reliable friends I have ever had. When my dad died when I was fourteen, she was there for me. She just didn’t place any restrictions on what I needed. When I reached my late-thirties and had a time of depression she was there for me. She just said, “you come and be where I am, and you don’t need to say anything. Just be here and it is fine.” She is intriguing. She is graceful, and she is full of mystery and wonder. And her name is Nature. I have found that she has a really big job to do. This is a big world with a lot of people in it. She helps feed and clothe this world.
I think that part of what I needed to know this week is that she is still present for me. You see, this is not how I expected this sermon to begin. This has been one of the more challenging weeks in my pastoral ministry. Some of that I won’t be talking about and some of that I will. I am doing a funeral tomorrow night for a family Mary Beth and I know. This is public story, so I am not speaking out of turn, but a twenty-three-year-old man took his life. Then on Thursday, one of you called me to let me know there was a seven-month-old baby in Riley Hospital who was nearing the end of her life. The family wanted a baptism. I went over there, was with this family and baptized this baby who is still on life support, only so that her organs can be harvested for other children in the hospital.
Often during the week I wonder how what is happening the week is going to run into what is going to happen on Sunday morning. I didn’t see this one coming… but my heart has been super heavy and full. My mind knows it is not smart enough for what I’m having to deal with. I needed my friend. So, ironically, I was doing a wedding in Greenwood and because I am not of good cheer when I drive up Indiana highway #37 (with all the construction), I drove through Nashville and up Highway 135. And the woods were there. And, she brought some of her healing… and I will need more. And so, will some of these people.
What I will tell you is that I know most of you here. I know you and I know if you had a friend and someone was treating your friend badly, you would intercede. My friend needs help. My friend needs you. So, I actually do believe that the Doctrine of Creation is as potent for us as the Doctrine of Redemption. It tells us how we are here and how God’s life breathed into the life of the world, and breathes still.
Dr. White, in our interview, used the word, “sanctuary.” I told the Sunday School class this morning if someone vandalized this room with ugly graffiti, you would be livid. I would be. Yet, the world is our sanctuary. The cosmos is our sanctuary. I do not believe it is the will of Jesus for us to ignore the fact that this world is in need. I think one of the things that happened in the Christian tradition is that in earlier translations of Genesis, the word “dominion” was used to describe what humans were to be given in terms of our responsibilities in creation – we had “authority.” I think that came subtly, and not so subtly, to mean we could do whatever blessed thing we wanted to do with the world and it would be alright. More recently those who study scripture are liking and valuing the word “stewardship” more than “dominion.” Stewardship says we have this care, this gift that has been given to us.
I know that you have people in your lives that have been given to you – your children, your friends, your parents, your partners and your congregation members. I am deeply convinced, deeply convinced, that the responsibility we have is the responsibility of love. We are called to treat creation like we would our children, our partners and our friends. To love it that much. To love it exactly that much. And so, the Psalmist says, in Psalm 19 “The heavens are declaring the glory of God.” Now, I have already told you that I don’t believe that science and religion are at odds. I do believe that when I step into this world I am stepping into a holy place filled with glory — FILLED with the possibility of being healed and blessed, filled with the fact that I am in a world that is here for us and in a world for whom we are to be present and caring and responsible.
I will also reject the notion that somehow it is a violation of Christian calling to care for the environment. I have heard people say, “if it is going to be burned up anyway, why should we care?” Please don’t take that view toward my home! It makes no sense. This is the world you are given… right now, this is it. This is the world where unless something unbelievable happens, your children will be living, and their children will be living, and their children will be living. It is part of Christian calling to invest in that.
So as the Romans passage tells us, all Creation is groaning. This groaning is swept up into reconciliation, into the longing of God to bring all things together. Not only by creation but also by redemption, God is bringing us together to care for this world. There are some bad things happening in this world. There are some bad things happening in this State. In Indiana, we are one of the most polluted states in the country. That is not an opinion, that’s a fact. So, we could talk about arctic temperatures warming. We could talk about draughts in Australia or Africa. We could talk about what climate change is doing in the world. But, I am asking you to do something different today. I want you to know that our call today is to recognize what is given to us.
So, In the span of eight days I will do a funeral, a memorial service, I will have baptized an infant and will have done a wedding. What all of these have in common is the word “cherish.” In funerals and memorial services, we are invited to cherish the memory of the ones we love and cherish the faith that calls them to God. In our marriages we are called, not only to endure marriage, but to cherish each other. You can laugh at that. Everyone who is married knows what I’m talking about. If you feel you are doing more enduring than cherishing, there is a problem. Right? When we baptize babies, even when babies only have a few hours to live, we are cherishing the breath that is in them and the hope that is in them and the love that surrounds them. And, we are called to cherish this world.
Let me close mentioning two theologians. One is named Matthew Sleeth who was an emergency room doctor until he was on a vacation with his wife. Sitting on a beach, she asked, “What is the biggest problem in the world?” He said, “It is the fact that we are poisoning ourselves and it makes my job as a doctor more difficult.” She responded, “Well what are you going to do about it?” He quit as a doctor and became a pastor and works in creation care.
He tells the story that around this time he took his son fishing. It was a small town on a river and they took a guy named John with them. He said my boy caught a fish and John said “Well, that’s a trout.” The boy said “Dad, can we keep it?” and Matthew said, “No it needs to grow some more.” He released the fish and John looked at him in a strange way. Then his boy caught another fish, not quite as big as the first and asked, “Dad can we keep it?” Sleeth said, “No son, it’s smaller than the other one, right John?” John said, “Well, frankly, I’ve lived here all my life and the trout you are holding up there is the second largest trout I have seen in my life. The one you threw back was the largest.” Sleeth said to his son, “Okay, we’ll take it home.” As they were walking back to their car, John grabbed Sleeth’s arm and said, “I need to tell you something. Do you see that sign right there? It says that ‘This river is full of dioxins’. Your boy, if he takes a bite of that fish, take it away from him and don’t let him eat anymore. Children in this area aren’t supposed to eat more than one fish a year.”
You, you good people of God aren’t supposed to eat fish more than twice a week. This is a problem, in the making of paper and other products we have released these toxins and all over the community this is happening. As Walter Brueggemann would say “This is an issue of neighborliness.” What we do, does impact the other.
One more theologian is A. J. Swoboda, who is a Pentecostal Christian. He calls himself a Pentecostal Environmentalist. He says we should know that there are three things about Pentecostals. He says: 1) “We believe the Spirit is moving and so God is involved in what is happening right now.” 2) “We believe in caring for the marginalized. This issue is marginalizing people everywhere because of what it is doing to their environment. It effects the poor more than those who can get away from it. 3) Finally, he said, “We cry. If you go into a Pentecostal church, you will find Kleenex all over the place that means we can be moved.”
Then he says this, “We believe in two conversions. The first conversion is to God. The second is a conversion (which sounded outright Wesleyan to me) is a conversion to be back to the world. This is the conversion I am preaching today – that the God who loves you says, “love my world.” Don’t pretend that what is true is not true. Christians don’t do that.
Wendell Berry said “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us was good for the world. We were wrong. Rather we should adopt the assumption that what is good for the world is good for us.” To go back to my earlier point, Wendell Berry, like Jeff, like me, like you, finds grace in the world.
This is Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things that many of you know:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go lay down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Good people of God, this world, this grace-filled world, this groaning world is given to us. The call in the invitation of today, the request of today, is to take care of what we do with it. It is full of glory and full of longing and we are called to be in it. That’s the Gospel too. Amen.
“Thy kingdom come on earth” is a core element of our foundational prayer… the Our Father. How then shall we live? How can we sing the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” in these days? What if we had the eyes to see God’s realm in our every day living?
Few movie scenes are more memorable than “Luke” Jackson singing Plastic Jesus while sitting as a convict in a Florida prison. Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was a 1967 classic, a favorite, a parable about corruption and the abuse of power. It was the story of a poor man convicted of a minor crime and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp.
Luke is shown singing the song Plastic Jesus after finding out about the death of his mother. It is a forlorn, haunting portrayal. You can see this scene here. Perhaps you already know the song, or the first lines at least:
I don’t care if it rains or freezes; Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus; Sitting on the dashboard of my car; Comes in colors pink and pleasant; Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent; Take it with you … when you travel far.
The song was a parody, written a few years before the movie. It is a spoof, an over-the-top critique, of a “Christian” radio station in Del Rio, Texas in those years that sold prayer handkerchiefs and other phony spiritual artifacts. One could purchase “actual splinters from the cross of Jesus.” Yes, there were dashboard figures for sale — ones that glowed in the dark — representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. This “border busting” high wattage radio station, when not selling religious wares, featured a disc jockey known as Wolf Man Jack. To learn more about the song Plastic Jesus and its evolution, click here.
Without doubt, the most memorable and repeated line from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” It is spoken by the warden and one other in the film. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this by offering more information now.
The idea of a “failure to communicate” and “Plastic Jesus” came to mind this month when I read that on June 7th, several United Methodist conference representative are planning to pass out plastic water bottles in downtown Indianapolis — as a Christian witness. Help! Talk about a failure to communicate. Save us from our plastic, Jesus!
These plastic bottles are to be “relabeled with a message of hope.” Hope? It seems what was intended was a symbolic action referring to the giving of a cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew 10 or Mark 9. Unfortunately, for many, this is more an act of pollution. Please check out this brief You Tube on Plastic pollution.
Should the church encourage such blight on creation? I know, I know, it may only be a small number of bottles — 500 or 1,000 and this is only a tiny part of the more than 35 billion water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. every hear. What witness are we to give to such a danger to us, our children, and all our relatives?
Most bottles are used once for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and then tossed away. (There are health dangers from repeated reuse.) Most plastic bottles don’t fully degrade for 700 to 1,000 years. Ten percent of plastic bottles end up in our oceans and waterways killing millions of animals annually and over 2/3rd of our fish now test positively for plastics in their blood streams! We eat the fish… and so on.
I write this as a small plea, a tiny protest to those who think it is a witness to pass out plastic water bottles in the name of Jesus. Is it too late to reconsider? To repent? To offer a more positive witness? Think of the greater witness that could be made if there was an act of repentance, a public turning around. A call to the local newspapers could generate quite a story of faithfulness, of Christians who care enough to change.
This would be a real sharing of Gospel news, that actual cups of cold water are given and not polluting plastic bottles that will despoil our environment and diminish the health of our planet and our children’s children.
Sometimes what is meant for good instead communicates an opposite message. These folks who plan to give out plastic bottles are good people and their message is well-intended. Sadly it is at the same time a misguided effort. One can’t blame these good folks entirely. The Indiana Annual Conference has avoided taking a clear stand on the importance of caring for God’s creation. In fact for years there has been an effort to avoid working together on critical justice issues.
Last year, in June 2017, a simple legislative proposal that each congregation study a document calling for “Environmental Holiness,” for the care of creation was put on hold. Some thought it was “too political.” Others, among them some Conference leaders, thought it would take too much extra work. So it was decided that consideration should be delayed.
This year, June 2018, we have plastic bottles offered as our witness. I know that good folks haven’t thought very clearly about how we care for God’s good creation. What we have here is a failure to communicate… Unless we repent and believe. So we pray — Save us from our plastic, Jesus.
From the United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.
The Council of Bishops made the following pledges: “With God’s help and with you as our witnesses—
We as your bishops pledge to answer God’s call to deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation.
We pledge to make God’s vision of renewal our goal.
We pledge to practice dialogue with those whose life experience differs dramatically from our own, and we pledge to practice prayerful self-examination.
We pledge ourselves to make common cause with religious leaders and people of goodwill worldwide who share these concerns.
We pledge to advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations.
We pledge to measure the “carbon footprint”of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes. We will urge our congregations, schools, and settings of ministry to do the same.
We pledge to provide, to the best of our ability, the resources needed by our conferences to reduce dramatically our collective exploitation of the planet, peoples, and communities, including technical assistance with buildings and programs, education and training, and young people’s and online networking resources.
We pledge to practice hope as we engage and continue supporting the many transforming ministries of our denomination.
We pledge more effective use of the church and community Web pages to inspire and to share what we learn.
From God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.
When the history of the church in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is written, there will be a question as to exactly who the one known as Jesus of Galilee was understood to be. There will be questions as to whether what he taught made any difference in the way folks lived their lives today.
My prayer, my hope, is that the history will include the sermon that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Bishop Curry’s powerful message captured much of the teachings of the Jesus long ago. It was a vision that is far from much of what passes for Christian teaching in too many American churches.
While the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle was heard by perhaps two billion people around the world, Bishop Curry joined hundreds of other religious leaders in the United States only four days later in an even more important event focused on “Reclaiming Jesus.”
They marched on the White House and proclaimed that the ‘America First’ slogan adopted by national leaders in the U.S. is “a theological heresy for the followers of Christ.” [See: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crises].
It is the sermon Bishop Curry preached at National City Church in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening that deserves even more attention. Curry said we are called to: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor!That’s why we’re here!”
Yes, that is indeed why we are here. When the story of the church in this century is written, I pray it will be of the church that decided to Reclaim Jesus.