Puffs of wind and resurrection hope: A Sermon for Proper 13C, 2019

El Paso. 20 killed, at least 26 wounded, but perhaps more because some of the wounded may have fled the scene fearing that if they sought medical attention they would be deported.

Gilroy Garlic Festival. 3 victims killed, 12 injured. In both cases the perpetrators were white supremacists bent on ridding the US of immigrants and people of color.

Dayton, OH. If you haven’t heard the news this morning, another mass shooting late last night. 9 dead, 16 injured.

These are just the latest in a long list of mass shootings; by some estimates 249 in 2019 alone. We are numb with grief; many of us outraged, angered by the fact that common-sense measures on gun control are blocked by craven politicians beholden to the money from the NRA.

While details on the shooter in Dayton remain sketchy, we know the motives behind the tragedies in El Paso and Gilroy. The shooters were white supremacists, racists, emboldened by a society in which such views have become widespread and unchallenged in the media. Were they Muslims, the full power of law enforcement would be marshaled against them; but as we’ve seen repeatedly, too many of those who wear uniforms in police forces and military share the views, if not the willingness to act on them publicly, of the shooters.

There are no words that can offer comfort; no thoughts and prayers that can ease our mind. The shocking reality of the violence; its seemingly endless recurrence, and the racism and hate that lie behind so much of it lay bare the moral rot in our nation, just as the unwillingness of politicians to address the carnage in any meaningful way, does the same. And we also need to look inside ourselves, to interrogate our deepest emotions and most deeply-held beliefs, to ask whether deep in our hearts we too shelter some of the same hatred and fear that unchecked and stoked lead to such heinous acts.

No words… I would like to stop now for a few minutes; to allow us silently to reflect on the events of the past 24 hours and the last week, to pray for the victims, to pray for our nation, and to listen to ourselves, to our emotions….

 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

No doubt it was overwhelming for many of you to sit in silence just now. The horrific violence, the deaths of so many, the hate that we see reflected so intensely in social media, at rallies, and in the acts of shooters as in Gilroy and El Paso. We feel impotent, angry, fearful. And we wonder, where is God in all this? We wonder too, how as Christians are we called to respond and to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Hard questions without easy answers.

Our readings, the Psalm, the excerpts from Ecclesiastes, and the gospel all touch on death and on our legacies. From Ecclesiastes: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

From the Psalm:

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

 

The gospel reading, first a dispute over an inheritance and then the parable of the foolish rich man, who stores up all of his grain so that he can “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I wonder how many of us are like that rich fool. We lead our lives, go to work, accumulate possessions, plan for retirement; look forward to the time, be it tomorrow or ten years from now when we can relax and take it easy.

I wonder how many of us are like that rich man. Do you notice how he thinks?

He’s faced with a problem. For whatever reason, hard work? Favorable weather? He has a bountiful harvest unlike any he’s had before. What will he do with all that grain? And so he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

How many times in those few sentences does the word “I” appear? Here is a man blessed with abundance who thinks only of himself. What might he do with that abundance? Share it with the laborers who did all the work, even invite them to a celebration of the bountiful harvest? No, he thinks only of himself.

One could say the same thing of the writer of Ecclesiastes. In our reading, we hear the word “I” repeatedly and when he speaks of others, he speaks only of whether they deserve what he leaves behind, because who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. His response? All is vanity, literally, a puff of wind.

In fact, the rich man’s words, “eat, drink, and be merry” come from Ecclesiastes (8:15):

“So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

It’s advice we might like to take, especially on days like today when the news is particularly disheartening. It’s advice we might like to take, to enjoy ourselves, and ignore the suffering and injustice and all the evils in the world. We might like to close ourselves off from all of it, to claim it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do about it, that the occasional “thoughts and prayers” in response to radical evil and horrific violence is enough.

Now, I’m not about to disparage eating, drinking, and being merry. I’m as fond of celebrations as anyone. I love good food, fine wine, and don’t ask me how much dancing I’ve done this summer.

But all is not vanity and a puff of wind.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was crucified because he preached release to the captive, good news to the poor, because he challenged injustice and oppression, because he turned over the tables of money-changers and proclaimed love of enemies.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry was vindicated by his resurrection—evidence to us that God is working new things in this world, defeating evil and calling us to imitate Jesus by loving our neighbors, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captive.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and as Paul writes in Colossians, whatever we might want for ourselves, whatever goals we might have, whoever we are, we are being remade in Christ, our selves are being transformed, made new creations, “according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In Christ, may we be remade and renewed, that we lay aside our differences, our anger and despair. Living in the power and hope of resurrection, may we follow him in loving our enemies, proclaiming the good news, and challenging the rising tide of hate and violence that surrounds us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-Semitism, Anti-Judaism and the past and future of Christianity

Last week saw two attacks on communities of faith. The first, at an African-American church, was thwarted by security measures the congregation had put in place after Charleston. Undeterred, the gunman went to a nearby town and gunned down two African-Americans in a parking lot. The second was at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 worshippers, aged 54 to 97 were brutally murdered by a white man. Both assassins were white men filled with hatred,, white supremacy, racism, and Anti-Semitism.

It may be that as a culture, we are so hardened by the recurrence of acts of racist terrorism that we hardly noticed the Kentucky incident. Or perhaps it was because only two people were killed. In either case, the lives lost there and the escalating violence against African-Americans, enabled by a culture of white privilege that refuses to acknowledge our complicity in systemic racism, has not so much reopened old wounds as it has exposed how deeply racism pervades the American psyche and American culture.

The killings at Tree of Life Synagogue have struck a nerve in myself and throughout America. World War II and the Final Solution showed us the scale of the horror that human beings could inflict on each other and revealed the end goal of Anti-Semitism. At the same time, American Jews assimilated into the mainstream. Overt acts of Anti-Semitism became rare and bias against Jews became unfashionable. As many Jews have become less observant and inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews common, Jews seemed to be different from other Americans only in their personal or family histories, or that they observed Chanukah as well as Christmas.

The massacre at Tree of Life, like the massacre at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church places a mirror in front of us, revealing us to be who we are, revealing that Anti-Semitism is not a historical relic but a present reality. It demands that we confront it in all of its evil, to expose all the ways our culture and our religion continue to be shaped by it.

Though Christianity began as a movement within Judaism and a movement that sought to maintain a Jewish identity at its center, its theological and institutional development was shaped by anti-Judaism. Paul’s vision that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female” quickly gave way to a very different perspective, such as that in the Gospel of John, where “Jews” are depicted as Jesus’ implacable opponents and responsible for his death. Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh shooter alluded to a verse from John on his social media profile: “Jews [You, the text reads] are the children of Satan” (John 8:44).

Theologically, Jews were consistently viewed as obstinate, or stiff-necked for their resistance to the truth of the Gospel. Efforts were even made early on to expunge Scripture of its Jewish content or to claim that the Old and New Testaments bore witness to two different Gods—a perspective that persists in popular ideas of the “the angry God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the New Testament.”

 

I won’t rehearse here the history of Christian Anti-Judaism or how over time that Anti-Judaism, which was based in theological categories became something much broader and ultimately developed into Anti-Semitism. But there are important elements that are worth noting. For example, the first victims of the Medieval crusades were not Muslims or Turks, but Jews living in German towns and cities of the Rhineland. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after Jews were expelled from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition continued to pursue third and fourth generation descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity.

If racism is America’s original sin, then Anti-Semitism is Christianity’s original sin, a symbol of our failure to embrace the full humanity and diversity of our brothers and sisters and to conceive of a God who might extend grace and love to all people without abandoning the covenant established with God’s chosen people. And like our reluctance to confront the racism central to American identity, our refusal to confront the Anti-Semitism that has helped to shape and define Christianity, has allowed it to linger just below the surface, or to manifest itself in a myriad of subtle ways. Still, it remains persistent and powerful enough to enter our political discourse in language of “globalism” or profiteering, in attacks on Jewish philanthropists or humanitarian organizations, or in images in campaign mailers that draw on medieval depictions of Jewish moneylenders.

As Christians, we must do more than mourn the dead, lament the persistence of Anti-Semitism, and shake our fingers at hate mongers. We must confront all the ways Christianity has contributed to the hate and evil in our culture and our history and we must do the hard work of developing resources that provide a basis for constructing a new way of being religious and Christian in our complicated and violent world. And even as we excavate the evil in our past and in our theology, we must acknowledge all the ways that our scriptures, our theologies, and our liturgies offer life-giving alternatives, hope, and joy, in the midst of so much evil.

“Lord, Save Us!” A Sermon for the Sunday after Charlottesville

I am struggling. I am afraid.

As I’ve watched events unfold this week, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. I’ve struggled to find a way from our world and our lives into the gospel. It’s not that the gospel doesn’t speak to our situation. It most certainly does. it’s that the situation keeps changing and each day brings new horrors, new fears, new challenges. In this week when we observed the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we seem to be on the brink of nuclear war—closer to that catastrophe than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All week, I kept thinking back to what it was like for me as a student in West Germany in 1979-1980; where scars from World War II were still present, and all around were reminders of the threat of catastrophic, nuclear war.

By the end of the week, the president was threatening to go to war with Venezuela.

We learned this week that 2016 was the hottest year in the recorded history of our planet.

This weekend we have witnessed in Charlottesville the hatred and violence unleashed by white supremacists, emboldened by a national culture that seems unwilling to name and reject hate and white supremacy. We have seen a young woman murdered by one of the white supremacist protesters. Views that might have been unthinkable a decade ago have become mainstream, and people who hold those views are embedded at the heart of our political and civic culture. While I was heartened to see the Episcopal bishops of the Diocese of Virginia and other priests, among whom several I know personally, standing witness against that violence and hatred, the reality is that many, too many, white Christians equate Christianity with whiteness, white supremacy, and with American nationalism. These are sins we need to call out and name as evil. While it is easy to point fingers at others, it is important that we examine ourselves, to see where those views are embedded in our selves. Continue reading