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Posts tagged ‘politics’

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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Generosity and DACA

Matthew 20:1-16

GenersosityWhat are your initial thoughts to this story—the idea that an employer sends out workers at different times all day long, but then pays everyone, regardless of how long they worked, the same wage?

Do you find yourself in the shoes of those who worked all day, who aren’t happy with the employer’s decision? Are you feeling envious?

Or do you find yourselves in the shoes of the workers sent later, feeling grateful for the generosity of the employer?

Whoever you identify with this story, keep in mind what the employer says at the very end to the workers first sent out when they complained: You were happy with the wages I offered. Are you envious because I am generous? The last shall be first and the first last.

As Jesus parables often do, this one challenges cherished values, long-standing opinions, and the so-called “order” of things that we hold to. It’s nothing new for Jesus—he did the same thing with the stories about a hidden treasure in a field, a lost sheep, a pearl of great price. The way we often see the world is turned upside down. But not it’s some pie-in-the-sky, over-spiritualized thing. It’s not something very nice to say but impossible to practice.

We are not talking about fairness at all, or the value of a hard day’s work.

This is all about generosity and the way of generosity, and how that generous way can change people’s lives and bring  more balance to society in general.

And so let’s bring this story and this idea of generosity down to earth. Let’s talk about DACA.

DACAcongressMany of you probably know about DACA or at least have been hearing about it in the news. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a U.S. immigration policy that has allowed certain individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country without documentation, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. Currently, approximately 800,000 individuals—called Dreamers—were enrolled in the program created by DACA. This policy was established by the Obama administration in June 2012. The reason we are talking about it in the past tense is because DACA was rescinded by the Trump admin. this month.

Some of you may wonder why so many people, including the current administration, would be against a thing like DACA. Especially because research shows that DACA increased the wages and labor force participation of DACA-eligible immigrants, and reduced the number of unauthorized immigrant households living in poverty. Further, DACA has increased the mental health outcomes for DACA-eligible immigrants and their children. All told, there are no known negative impacts from DACA on U.S. citizens who were born in this country. U.S.-born people are not losing jobs. And most economists say that DACA benefits the U.S. economy as a whole.[1] And finally, though certain TV personalities and Donald Trump claim that DACA-eligible individuals are more likely to commit crimes, there is no evidence of that whatsoever.[2]

So then, why are we in the middle of a very public and emotional argument about these dreamers, youth and adults who have been here since they were small children, brought here by their parents? This is the only home they know. English is their language. They have been going to U.S. schools their whole lives. Many are productive, tax-paying citizens, contributing positively to society and doing all kinds of skilled work from nursing to business to education. And yet, there are far too many loud voices [and I’m appalled to say that too many of these voices are so-called Christians] that are shouting that DACA is not fair and that these Dreamers should not be given this chance to study, work, and live in the U.S.

Why?

It’s about fear. People fear that if they let go of their preconceived notions about society and nationality and status and economy that they will lose everything or at least something important. Their fear causes them to ignore actual facts; their fear makes them prejudiced; and their fear keeps them from generosity.

This is the same thing that happened in the story about a generous employer and grumbling workers. Think about this—the workers first sent out were guaranteed a full day’s pay. They could rest easy. If the employer chose to offer full pay to others who were sent out later, why would the first workers complain? Because people want to believe they earned something or deserve something, meaning that they are better than others, more deserving It can be applied to immigration status, wages, education, and even salvation. Yes, it can go to that extreme.

Last week, I was at the International House of Philadelphia for a presentation entitled DACA: A Dying Dream? featuring panelists Alicia Kerber, Head of the Mexican Consulate of Philadelphia; Sarah Paoletti, Director, Transnational Legal Clinic at Penn Law, Adam Solow, Attorney with the immigration and nationality law firm Solow, Isbell & Palladino; and Anel Medina, DACA recipient. I met with other Dreamers who were there. If you would have been there, you would have heard the same story:

DACA is not perfect, and another conversation for another time is immigration “status,” but at the very least, DACA is a starting point for opportunity, an attempt to make society better by improving the lives of those around us. I am unsure what will happen in the next few months as Congress is charged with “fixing” DACA. I have no idea what the future will hold for those who were planning to apply for DACA but cannot now. I will continue to work with all those who are on the forefront of this issue and I will continue to listen to the stories of the Dreamers. All I do know is that the majority of the people who speak loudly against DACA are living in fear. And their fear keeps them from seeing facts and their fear paralyzes them and can even lead to hate and prejudice. And those full of fear do not accept generosity, either for themselves or for others.

And I wish they would just meet dreamers like Anel Medina and listen to her. She’s amazing.

Friends, the world is unfair. If you don’t think that is true, just look around. The idea that we always “earn” or “get” what we deserve just isn’t true. So in this world where there is plenty of injustice and unfairness, generosity is needed.

It’s desperately needed.

What if you thought about your job [if you have one], as a gift. What if you thought about your home or apartment as a gift. What if your ability to go to school, eat food every day, feel safe, what if all of this is because of generosity? Honestly, I think this perspective is healthier for you, for me, and for the world. Accept generosity in your own life. Accept generosity when it’s shown to others.

[1] “Fact Check: Are DACA Recipients Stealing Jobs Away From Other Americans?”. NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-09-07.

[2] Nowrasteh, Alex (July 12, 2017). “Illegal immigrant crime wave? Evidence is hard to find”. Fox News. Retrieved September 9, 2017.

A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life. John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin. This is why, as I mentioned, it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on. We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

Standing Up to Bullying Inside and Out

Matthew 21:1-11

Here we are reading a story that is usually associated with palm branches and hosannas. For many Christians, this is the story they hear each Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It’s a strange and complicated tale, because shortly after this weird parade, things go really bad for Jesus and co. Betrayals, arrests, torture, even death. I’ll never tell you what to think or how to interpret these stories—I simply share my thoughts, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve heard. Considering all that, I’ve never been one to think that Jesus of Nazareth knew that he actually would be tortured and crucified once in Jerusalem. I know that some of the Gospel writers allude to Jesus knowing and predicting it, but keep in mind how these stories were written and when they were written. These authors had the benefit of knowing what was going to happen, and they were also speaking to various groups of people who needed context. In my view, this doesn’t taint the story. I actually think it makes it better. Consider that if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Consider that even after Jesus’ death Jesus’ friends and family and didn’t know how to interpret all that happened. And consider that it was a LONG time after that people finally decided to write down what stories they had heard about it.

In other words, I’m saying that the story gets richer for me when we ask the identity questions again:

Who was this Jesus? Who did people say Jesus was? What did Jesus say and do?

And who are we?

Because religion created the Jesus figure. Each and every form of Christianity, whether Eastern Christianity, Roman Christianity, American Christianity, etc. came up with their own version of Jesus. And so that work shouldn’t end. The story continues. Who is this Jesus? What did Jesus say and do? Who are we?

Let’s get to the story of the day, shall we? Jesus of Nazareth was finally reaching the climatic destination that all the Gospel writers foreshadow: Jerusalem, the mecca, the epicenter of religion and culture and language and…the Roman Empire.

Yeah, there’s that.

Consider that as Jesus and the ragtag band of followers processed towards the city for Passover, there was another procession. The Roman army came to the city from the west. They were the riot police before they were called riot police. They had one job during Passover: keep the peace. Because Jerusalem’s population would explode to more than 200,000 people for the festival. Because crazy, trouble-making fools like Jesus of Nazareth would be coming.

The stage is set.

Meanwhile, our storyteller throws in some quirky twists. Before they get to the city, Jesus sends people ahead—they have one job—go find a certain donkey and a colt. It’s a weird request, right? Or is it? It’s all setup beforehand. Because of the threat of danger, things are more secretive now—kind of a like a really good spy movie.

Daniel-Craig-james-bond-BWJesus. Jesus Bond?

Only Jesus doesn’t do the martini shaken not stirred. He’s more into red wine.

wineSink

Oh right—the donkey business. Matthew‘s author is asking us to pay attention [once again] to a story written mostly for Jews. The donkey, metaphorical or not, is meant to point to Jewish prophetic literature, and in this case, Zechariah: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Keep in mind also that the people with Jesus, i.e. those called disciples or followers, were now at this point the loyal and close counterparts of Jesus. Those who met them outside Jerusalem, however, and put their cloaks on the ground, were not all sympathetic to their cause. And once inside the city, things got even worse. People did not celebrate Jesus and his little parade—instead there was confusion, skepticism, and in some cases, even anger. It was never really a celebratory parade. It was a messy protest.

And all this leads us back to the questions. Who is Jesus? What did Jesus say and do?

Who are we?

The way I see it—Jesus wasn’t a king, at least not the type of king or ruler we usually imagine. Jesus didn’t wield power, didn’t sit up on some throne barking orders, didn’t stand far off aloof from the common people, didn’t press buttons to launch war weapons, didn’t see violence as any kind of answer. Neither was Jesus a religious leader who wore a big and funny hat with extra jewelry and long prayers and holier than thou attitude. But neither was Jesus a political revolutionary who used weapons to make change or who held up the end far above the means.

Jesus was and is to me, someone who represented the best of what our humanity full-expressed can be: Jesus loved and accepted people as they were, and encouraged them to heal in any way they needed to.

And Jesus stood up to bullies.

Oh yes, he did. He stood up against his own people the Pharisees and called them out for their hypocrisy. He stood up to the Roman bullies who hid behind their forums and pillars to avoid seeing the horrific aftermath of their wars, the extreme poverty caused by their taxation, and the inhumanity of their occupations of other’s lands. Jesus stood up to the bullies. And yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was difficult. But Jesus’ love for people moved him to stand up.

Friends, I don’t know where you are today or what you’re thinking now. I’m asking myself: Who are you today? What do you do and say, how are you loving and accepting people as they are, and how are you standing up to the bullies? Because there is no fear in love. If we love, we cannot let fear overwhelm us and hold us back. We love. We must stand up.

What is happening in Syria, what happened in Rwanda and South Sudan, and all other places where genocide and war and inhuman acts reign, these tragedies and unspeakable acts are and were made up of moments when a group turned into a crowd, when people turned on an imagined enemy because someone planted that evil seed. It happens here and everywhere. Mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues have been attacked and vandalized — hate graffiti is painted on walls and cemeteries are vandalized. Trans people are beat up in the street and terrorized, bullied in bathrooms, made to live in fear, made to feel lesser. Those who are homeless are robbed, beaten, and left to die. Black and Brown people are targeted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes even wrongfully killed.  Anyone who “looks” Mexican is told “Go back to your country, we don’t want you here!” Look, as a humanity, we have to face something—that we can find ourselves getting swept up into a parade of emotion and fear and misunderstanding, and before we know it, we are participating either directly or indirectly in bullying. We may want to walk with Jesus and the disciples from the East, but we can easily join the Roman legions from the West.

And that’s why Jesus’ example and the story matter. We cannot stop all the suffering in the world, no. But we can be aware, we can stand in witness, we can stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or victimized. What we cannot change, we can acknowledge. We can love by doing this, by listening to someone’s story and saying: I hear you, I love you. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.

And I’ll stand with you—I’ll stand with all of you who are hurt or lonely or rejected. I’ll choose not to follow the bullying crowd and instead I’ll stand close to you, on the margins, loving you. In doing this, we stand as close as we can to the Spirit, to the Divine presence, who is constantly offering love, offering healing, offering identity.

 

How Do Changes Change YOU?

Matthew 17:1-9

Change.

changeFactory
Does this word scare you? Make you shiver? Excite you? Heighten your anxiety? Give you hope? Motivate you? Change. How does this word make you feel?

It is not hyperbole to say that recently, in the United States, the word change for many does not have a positive connotation. A president addicted to the bully pulpit and one who consistently uses fear to distract and separate people does not help. Not all change is good, isn’t that true? Removing protections in public places for transgender people and for transgender students is not a good change. Requiring people to carry and show IDs randomly doesn’t feel like a good change either. Forcibly removing native peoples from Standing Rock, their own land, so an oil pipeline can be installed, is not a good change. Banning the majority of the press from presidential press conferences is a bad and dangerous change. Lawmakers skipping out on town hall meetings…not a good change. Detaining people in airports, like Muhammad Ali’s son, a U.S. citizen born here in Philly, asking him about his religion—a horrific change.

Fanning the flames of ignorant prejudice and hate crimes, not a good change. Rest in peace, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, engineer and family man of 32 years, shamelessly killed in a bar in Kansas by a white man who said: “Go back to your country” before he shot Srinivas and wounded two others.

srni

So no, not all change is good.

In my view, any change motivated by fear, prejudice, manipulation, or power is not a good change.

Call it disfiguration.

Change is good when it is progress, when it leads to positive transformation. Changing positively is allowing for a new reality and then advancing towards that which makes us better people.

Call it transfiguration.

The idea of transfiguration [in a spiritual sense for Christians and Jews] is based on the Exodus story of Moses and then the Matthew story of Jesus. In Matthew of the NT, Jesus and three disciples go up on a mountaintop for 6 days. In the OT book of Exodus, the prophet Moses also went up to a mountain [Mt. Sinai] for 6 days. The 7th day, in Jewish thought, is Sabbath, rest, the recharging of batteries, recreation and reinvention of self. Both Moses and Jesus do this for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. In Jesus’ case, on top of the mountain, he is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face in the Exodus story. The main difference is that Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They have trouble listening, though, and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But Jesus reassures them with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.” They look up. And then they come down from the mountain.

Day seven; the change begins.

This metaphorical story has relevance in this very moment, I think. It is not a stretch to say that our world is disfigured in so many ways. Why do we judge people by who they love, the color of their skin, their last name, their religion, where they were born or grew up, or which bathroom they choose?

This is sickness, not health.

This is disfigurement, not transformation. So those of us who actually do want to live in a world in which people are valued as they are, and diversity of all kinds is embraced, and affirmation and compassion rule the day—those of us wanting this reality, this change, we have to go up to the mountaintop.

So to speak.

We have to take the time to search ourselves, recharge our batteries, heal and rest. We have to take the time to reinvent, recreate, and transform ourselves. And then we come down from the mountain. Then we make change happen.

A big mistake I have made [and many of us] is to wish for positive change, talk about it, but then never do the necessary hard work to make it a reality. I’m done waiting for a change to come. I’m finished with wishing or hoping for all people to be treated well. I don’t want to wait for the seventh day to come so that light will break through. I want to be part of positive change now, in this moment. Today.

And so I remind myself [and I remind you] that real change is cyclic. In order to make lasting change, all of us will have to do that tedious and difficult mountaintop work of introspection, self-examination, and transformation. We will need to ask hard questions of ourselves. We will need to look in the mirror. This allows us to have the strength necessary to face the obstacles when we come down from the mountain. This gives us the wisdom to discern who we should join with and who we should part ways with.

The world is disfigured. We must face it and not ignore what is going on. But we must spend time and energy recreating and transforming as people, and then making positive changes happen. The approaching 40 days of Lent are an opportunity. How will you get to know yourself better? How will that work lead you to positive change within yourself? And then, how will that personal change lead you to make positive change happen in the world? See you on and off the mountain….

Cast Nets, Light It Up!

Matthew 4:12-23

march1On Saturday, January 21st, 2017 a LOT of people were gathering in cities and towns and suburbs across the U.S. and even the world, for the women’s march. My mom marched in Durango, Colorado; my sister in Seattle, Washington; my niece in Des Moines, Iowa; many of friends and colleagues made it to Washington D.C. for the massive gathering of half a million people. Others gathered with thousands in Philly and even in the suburbs like the 1500 who marched in Doylestown.

march2Now I don’t know if you have ever participated in a march—whether to protest a war, a law, or an injustice. Marches and other non-violent protest assemblies are about lifting up voices of people that may not be heard. They are about identifying social issues and societal problems. Though you may not agree with every march or protest that goes on, it is important to understand and embrace the why of marches and that they are steeped in history. Any time a group of people in any place in the world felt that their government was not caring for them or governing wisely, people assembled and protested. They marched.

march3Maybe you know about the purpose of this particular march, maybe you don’t . The purpose and mission of the women’s march, as described on its website, caught my eye:

We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.

It goes on to identify specifically groups of people who have been targeted or discriminated against both historically and currently in the United States: Muslims, recent immigrants, Native people, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault, etc. It continues:

The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us…there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.

I encourage you to read more on their website. The guiding principles of the women’s march may sound familiar to some of you. They should. They reflect both Martin Luther King’s vision for a beloved community where all people were treated justly. In my view, they reflect the views of one Jesus of Nazareth who, many years ago, went on a march of his own. He left his home town, went on a journey to various towns and cities, and he carried a message with him. He preached good news for all people, but especially those who were on the margins. He named them. He healed them. He stood strong against the Roman government authorities and even his own Jewish religious leaders. He called people of all walks of life to take this journey with him, to march with him. What he did was controversial. He was hated by some; called names by many; forced to isolate himself and his followers at times because of death threats; and in the end, his journey, his march, did not end well. It was clear what he stood for, though. The Gospel writers were clear that Jesus was marching to make Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom a reality—that light would break through darkness and a new day would dawn.

I’ve been thinking a lot leading up to and after this recent presidential election about what I really care about and what I plan to do about it. I mean, what and who is most important to me? And how will I be a part of bringing healing and light and love rather than division and fear and hate? I challenge you to ask those same questions of yourselves.

What matters, who matters to you?
What will you do about it?

Will you march? Will you move towards those things and people? Okay, whether you are religious or not, or whether the stories about Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels have meaning for you, the question still is relevant.

Will you stand up for love and community right now?

Special note to Christians reading this:
I challenge you to ask those questions of yourselves, but I also want you to ask that question of your congregation, because this story about Jesus calling fisherman to march with him was not about creating a church or staying with the status quo. Jesus called them to build relationships with strangers—people who were very different than them. Jesus called them to hang out with the hated, the disenfranchised, and the most-marginalized in society. To be “fishers of people” means that we use whatever gifts we have, expertise, resources, time, and energy to seek justice for all people, and to spread love and light no matter what.

Many people of various faith backgrounds [and secular ones] are having frank and open conversations to organize around this idea of what will we do? I’m not that naïve to think that we will always agree on the how. But friends, that we must march together is essential. That we must stand up for those who are bullied is essential. That we continue to name anyone or any group that is specifically targeted by government, religion, or communities is essential.

I work with a congregation. The United Church of Christ in Warminster. This is my hope and dream and challenge for them.

Now when UCCWarminster people sold a building and left 785 W Street Rd in Warminster they withdrew to Ben Wilson Center. They made their homes in the urban gardens of Philadelphia, at SHARE in East Falls, at Manna on Main in Lansdale, Peace Valley Park by the lake, Warminster library, Orlando, Florida, Living Water UCC, many homes, and many other places. Then they made their home in the borough of Hatboro, in the territory of Montgomery County by the creek, so they that what had been spoken long ago could again be heard and seen: Land of Hatboro, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, United States of America, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who still sit in that region of shadow and death light will dawn. So they went, all over the NE suburbs of Philly, teaching in the cafes and churches and local places and proclaiming the good news of God, bringing healing to the diseases of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious prejudice, and all other sicknesses that hurt people and destroy communities. They followed Jesus on this path that stretched from York and Horsham Rds and beyond.

They cast their nets wide and far. They expected people to join them. They didn’t shy away from conflict, challenge, or opposition. Instead, they loved above all else, and to a fault. Every time they encountered hate they loved more and became bolder. Each time someone or something tried to turn rainbows into doom and gloom they joined hands with more and more rainbow-makers and sustainers. They marched for light and love.

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