As the Storm Rages

Here is the text of the sermon I gave on June 24, 2018, at the First Baptist Church in America, here in Providence! It’s a bit longer than usual, but I was in a Baptist Church, after all.

Good morning! And welcome to Ecumenical Sunday at the First Baptist Church in America! I am, as you may have guessed from the attire and title, an Episcopal Priest. But I haven’t been an Episcopalian for very long, believe it or not. I didn’t go to church much when I was younger, and ended up spending a fair amount of time as an adult trying to figure out what denomination I belong to.

I settled on the Episcopal Church because of the theology of the church, because I really love the sacraments, and because deep, deep down, I really like the hierarchy. Basically, I’m possibly the most un-Baptist person to ever ascend this pulpit.

That I’m here today, in this historic place, is fairly crazy. I told a few Baptist friends I would be joining you all today, and there was a lot of looks along the lines of (make stunned face).

I say all of this as a warning that if the floor feels a bit cold, don’t worry, it’s just that hell has frozen over because I’m preaching in the First Baptist Church in America.

And I’m going to preach on politics. At least a little. Now, before you get uncomfortable in the pews, hear me out. Because what I’m hoping to do is discuss the storm that is raging around us from a distinctly Christian perspective, not from the left nor the right. And I want you to be warned that the goal of today is for us to be prepared to wade into the storm together.

Because beyond political affiliation, beyond the color of our skin, beyond our marital status, our sexual orientation, our denomination, beneath all of this, if we are gathered in this room, we are all Christians.

And Christians have never been afraid of difficult conversations. Nor to take a stand for what is right in the face of a swirling storm.

The storm in the Gospel reading today, I think is a great metaphor for the political storm that we are in as a nation. There was chaos on all sides. No one knew what to do, or where to go. All appeared to be lost. And keep in mind, many of the disciples were fishermen. They had seen storms, they’d seen bad storms, they’d seen bad storms on this particular body of water.

And they were still scared.

So they did the most logical thing, they sought help from their leader, who just happened to be God in human form. Which, really, was pretty lucky for them. All was saved, they got a tongue lashing, but I can’t blame Jesus for being a tad on the testy side. He must have been deeply asleep to sleep through that storm. I wouldn’t have wanted to be woken up either. But I digress.

As Americans, we’ve seen bad. We’ve seen bad times in war, in conflict, in recession, in depressions.

But honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time when our government has just done lost its mind like it has now.

And that’s the storm that I would like to talk about today. I do so for a few reasons. First, Jamie told me to preach whatever the Spirit gave me, and this is it. Really. I was preparing to preach on David and Goliath, which is the Old Testament reading for today, and then the Spirit was like – no. Storms. Go.

Second, I think that as Christians we’ve become too polite and too afraid of politics. We forget that we follow in the footsteps of a man who was so political the ruling elite killed him.

Third, we should talk about this storm because we have to! We absolutely have to. And we must have a genuine discussion. No pointing fingers, no placing of blame. An honest discussion. Where we hear each other, and we seek to understand. Not convince or convict.

There may well be some who are staring at me right now and thinking something along the lines of “yeah, right.” But I am right. It is possible to have an honest discussion. One where we simply listen to one another, seek to understand rather than to persuade.

I know this because it’s my experience. The church that sent me to seminary is a conservative, literalist, evangelical Church in Maryland. They consider me a sinner because of my sexual orientation and I was unable to be in leadership of any kind in the church, nor was I able to become a member. But they recognized my call to ministry and sent me to seminary anyway.

I’ve had conversations with the pastor of that church on theological issues that we are deeply divided on. And we are able to have conversations.

Conversation is possible when you disagree. And at this moment in our history, conversation is necessary.

Because this storm, this storm has potential to divide our nation so deeply, we may never recover.

We must remember how to have difficult conversations with one another. Conversations where people might get offended. Conversations where we might get offended!

Because Jesus calls us all to sit at the same table. We are to sit at the same table and be in community with people who are different from us. Slave and free. Rich and poor. Jew and Gentile. White and black. Gay and straight. Married and single. Married and divorced. Immigrant and Citizen. Democrat and republican. Man and woman. Transgender and Cisgender. Episcopalian or Baptist. Dog person or cat person. Gryffindor or Slytherin.

We are all called to Christ’s table.

We are all called to be in community with one another. A community whose goal is to learn from one another.

And unlike the disciples in the Gospel, we don’t have the benefit of waking Christ up if the storm is so much that we’re scared. We have to figure this out on our own with only the lessons left behind.

And so here is what I suggest we do. Are you ready? It’s revolutionary.

We talk to one another.

I know. It’s crazy. But we should all find someone we trust, or at least respect, who has a different opinion from us, and talk. I would be willing to bet that in this room there are people who disagree with one another. Find someone you disagree with. Talk to them.

What I believe you will find is that buried under all our disagreements, is that we actually want the same thing. We just believe in very different ways of getting there.

We all, well, most of us, want what’s best for people, for all people.

Now, I know that you all don’t know me very well yet. But I am not a person who backs down from a challenge. And I’m not going to simply because I haven’t met most of you before.

I would like everyone to take a deep breath. Because I’m going to talk about immigration. Again, I’m going to do so from a deeply Christian position. At least, from my understanding, based on my life, training, and experience, my understanding of a Christian position.

To begin though, a quick history lesson. Because I truly believe that it is of vital importance that we understand how we got to where we are. I believe it helps us all to better understand the totality of a situation, and how different viewpoints develop.

American was founded by immigrants. It was founded by people in search of a better, more prosperous life. What those initial immigrants did to the Natives who were already here is a sermon for another day, but, it’s important to note that the arriving white people considered themselves to be superior to the darker skinned natives, they considered the natives to be heathens, stupid because they didn’t speak English, and not truly human, so they could easily be displaced, enslaved, or killed.

This is just fact. I know it is difficult to hear, but if you go back and read some of the original documentation and correspondence from the founding of this country, this is what was thought.

Those who founded this country, who built the foundation of this nation, built a foundation of creating a better life for themselves, at the expense of others.

It sounds prettier to refer to this as the American dream, of coming to America to create a better life for you and your family. The earliest settlers of America didn’t come here to escape persecution, they chose to come to America.

That’s the idea that shaped the immigration policy of this nation – people come here to help make America better, and to build a better life for themselves. So immigration should be limited to the people who can help make America better for everyone. And it’s a great concept. But it doesn’t fit the current situation.

The current immigration crisis is a lot more like the earliest days of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, just to remind you, was endorsed by the German Christian Church, and Hitler claimed to be Christian. Before the mass slaughter of the Jews began, the German government made it as impossible for Jewish people to live in Germany as they could, so that the Jews would choose to leave. This anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe and into America, making it very difficult for the Jews to escape.

So much so that when immigration applications began arriving, they were denied. New immigration laws were put in place, and boat loads of Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe, often to their deaths.

The refugees today are fleeing for their lives. They aren’t coming to America seeking a better life, they are coming to America seeking the opportunity to be alive. They are fleeing violence, war, famine, extreme poverty, gang violence, murder, rape, and being sold into human trafficking.

And I hear the argument against allowing the refugees to enter, I do, fear about the economy and the need for Americans to have jobs. Especially, lately, I’ve been listening to the arguments supporting the separation of Children from Parents – that the parents are criminals and whenever a parent commits a crime and goes to jail, even an American parent, they are separated from their children.

I understand the desire to keep our borders safe so that criminals do not enter this country – and the argument that by the very nature of entering illegally, these are criminals entering the country.

The argument against allowing Jews to enter America in the late 30’s and early 40’s – was a fear that some of them were German spies. That some of them were criminals.

What if I tell you, the law that is currently being used to detain now families at the borders, took its current form in the 1950’s. And that up until this year, entering illegally was considered a Civil Offense, not a Criminal Offense. No jailing, a civil citation, and entry into the immigration court system, not the criminal system.

But the law is in place. And now, there is movement to do something about the law. Moderate republicans are attempting to put forward legislation to address at least some issues. Conservatives republicans are rejecting the legislation, and Democrats are refusing to negotiate.

Our system right now, is broken. The measures so carefully put in place to prevent this very situation from happening, have failed. No one is talking to one another. There is only yelling, and distrust.

It’s not a surprise to me, nor to many who have studied the social history of this nation, that we are in this situation. It’s not new. Our very nation is founded on a premise of distrusting “others”. Especially others who don’t look or talk like us.

So here we are. This storm is raging, the boat that is America is taking on water like crazy. We are sinking. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty scared the very fabric of this nation will be ripped apart. Regardless of whether you think the direction of this country is good, or bad, we should all see that we are sinking.

And honestly, all that I can see left to do is to cry out to God, “Jesus, do you not care that we are perishing!”

And in the stillness and peace that follows asking, as we marvel in the presence of Christ, as we accept our tongue lashing for letting things get to this point, in that peaceful moment we must realize that God has been with us the entire time.

God has been, and is still with us. Waiting for us to reach out, and start to focus on God again. And what God is calling for us to do, is to love another, to treat our neighbors as we treat ourselves.

If you’re not ready to treat a refugee neighbor at the border as your neighbor or even to consider them your neighbor, start with your next-door neighbor at home. Or your neighbor in the pew this morning. Someone new at coffee hour. Talk to a stranger next to you in line at a coffee shop.

Get to know people. Learn how to respect people who are different.

And to be clear, I mean all of us. Even those who are proudly liberal. Just because you give money to a good cause isn’t meeting this command of Christ. And if you are proudly conservative, you are called just the same. We are all called Christians. And Christians are called to be more than all of this.

Christians are called to rise above the storm. The People of God are called to love. We are called to be known by our love. So love. Love big, or love small. Love however we are called and prepared to love. But we must get out of our comfort zones. We must all stop approaching the world as though we are right and the other is wrong.

In all likelihood, we’re all wrong.

But it is never wrong to love. Ask Christ how to love more. Ask Christ to help you love your neighbor as yourself. Ask Christ to help you understand who your neighbor is.

This storm that we are in, it’s huge. And it’s consuming us. Every week there’s something new, some other way that our world and nation are broken.

It’s time to start fixing.

And as Christians, we know that what will fix this, the only thing strong enough to possibly heal the brokenness, is love.

So love.

Love everyone as God loves us.

Amen

Careful what you wish for…

I had the honor of preaching at Providence Presbyterian Church on June 10, 2018. The text is 1 Samuel 8:4-11, 11:14-15. Take a look & let me know!!! (I’ll post the audio link soon)

I have a little dog. Actually, I have two. And whenever I’m in the kitchen, the little dogs are super close by. My little dogs are also very insistent that they want to be eating whatever it is that I’m working on up there.

Now, one of the dogs, Stella, will eat anything and gladly. But Albus (yes, Albus Dumbledore – I like Harry Potter, a lot), often has moments of regret at his insistence when I finally give in. Last week he demanded that he wanted kale. And I told him I didn’t think he actually wanted kale. But he insisted. So he got a piece of kale.

And he did NOT like kale.

Stella, however, gladly picked up the kale and handled the situation. She’s useful that way.

Much like my little dog, I’ve had a lot of moments in my life when the phrase “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” has popped into my mind. And this reading from Samuel truly, truly exemplifies that idea.

We know how this story ends. We know that the Israelites get a king, Saul. Saul really looks the part. He’s an eldest son. Tall. A strong military leader. And handsome.

Saul also leaves a lot to be desired as a king and ends up going crazy at the end. Then there is David. Then Solomon. Both of whom have positive traits, but are also profoundly human and, especially Solomon, do a lot of harm. And then there is a series of kings in Israel that just aren’t good. For a long time. The Israelites end up in exile. Twice. And then the Romans show up.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

I, as a human and especially as a priest, spend a lot of time trying to understand people whose views aren’t the same as mine. And often, in order to do this, I have to go back in time, to learn the history of how we got to where we are.

And today, I would like to take a little time to explain a bit more about this Scripture. And then I would like to offer a story that helps me put a major issue of the day in better context.

But to start, the Israelites demanding a king.

At least, that’s what it seems like on paper. It seems like the Israelites just couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea that they should live by God’s law. It seems like the Israelites wanted a king to rule them, instead of God. The reading is set up in a way that suggests the Israelites were turning their back on God.

And maybe they were. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

But here is what I do know.

I know that kings at that time in history were often essentially military leaders. Invading other nations was a way of life – it kept the young men occupied and employed and provided a money stream into the kingdom.

Israel didn’t have a military leader. They were sitting ducks.

And their neighbors, the Philistines, knew it. They were threatening and preparing to invade. And in fact, they would attempt to invade, in just a few chapters.

So, the Israelites were scared because they wanted someone to protect them from the very real threat of an invasion, which would mean slaughtered men and male children, lost homes, lost fields, pillaging of their towns, enslavement of all, and rape of the women and girls.

That’s a real threat. I’d be scared too. Especially in a world where it was the job of the king to lead the army into battle. And especially in a place that didn’t have a king. I would like to believe that I would cling to the idea that all I need is God. But there are times in my life when, if I’m being truly honest, the fears of the world can get in the way of my relationship with God. And being afraid for my life, and for the lives of those I love the most, that would blind me a bit.

There’s one other thing going on as well that I’d like to point out.

And that is children.

Specifically, a father’s love blinding them to their duty to God.

Before Samuel, Eli was high priest. And Eli had several sons that he raised up in the family business, the priesthood, and they were given positions of importance and authority. And they absolutely violated their positions. They ran amuck. And did terrible things in God’s name. We know this because scripture tells us they did, and because God punishes Eli for not keeping his sons under control, and for letting his sons do terrible things in God’s name.

What this reading today leaves out are verses 1-3 of chapter 8. And verses 1-3 say that Samuel’s sons are doing the same thing. They are also priests, in positions of authority and importance, and they are doing terrible things in God’s name.

And so the Israelites are probably getting pretty tired of the highest authority on earth, the high priest, letting their sons do whatever they want. That would lead me to mistrust the church. As, to be clear, it has lead hundreds and thousands of modern people to mistrust the church because of how we as Christians in religious authority have protected priests, ministers, and pastors who have abused children and adults, and have used their religious authority to condemn women, people of color, LGBTQ identifying people, and anyone who doesn’t agree with their narrow view of Christianity.

But, back to this story, if I were an Israelite several thousand years ago, living under the constant fear of rape and murder by a neighboring army, and feeling as though I couldn’t trust the religious leaders, I’d probably have wanted a king too. Someone to protect me, and to reign in the religious elite.

When I read this story, I get where God is coming from. I do. I get that God is saying to Samuel this isn’t a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of me. Because at the base of this, there is a rejection of God that has lead to boundaries that others want to cross. There’s a rejection of God that means that some have enough, some have excess, and some are in need. There is a rejection of God, a rejection that results in an idea that God loves some and hates others – even though God made all in God’s image.

There has been a rejection of God. But that rejection of God is not what’s on the mind of most of the Israelites. Most of the Israelites are scared and fed up with things as they are. And so they are demanding change.

They demand change back to what they understand. They are demanding a change back to a time that they probably weren’t alive for. Back to a time that had been made to sound better than it actually was. And they are looking at the kingdom’s next door. Kingdom’s with secure boundaries and strong military leaders. Kingdoms with more money because of those leaders and the wars they wage.

And the Israelites say “we want that. We want what they have. We want to make Israel great again. Like it was under Moses. And Joshua.”

Sound familiar?

It should.

Because the same thing just happened in our country. And is still happening.

Now, I want to be very careful not to pass judgment on those who support the President, nor on the President himself. Nor am I passing judgment on those who don’t support the President and what is happening under his administration. Nor is it my intent to encourage anyone who is not supportive of the President to become so.

All I want to do, right now, is share that sometimes having a backstory gives you a different view of people with different opinions. Knowing more about what’s going on, knowing more of the history, helps us to better understand those with different opinions.

And understanding is the first step to loving. And to love one another, that is what we are clearly called to do as people of God.

Please also understand that Scripture isn’t a history book. Scripture isn’t impartial. Scripture tells a story from a particular point of view and with a particular intent. This is why there are 4 Gospels, each telling the same story a little differently.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are also telling a story from a particular point of view. It is the story of how the Israelites came to be in the position they were in, which many biblical scholars now think is the story of how the Israelites came to be exiled, again, from their land into Babylonia.

As we have discussed, sometimes there are parts of a story that are important to understand all of what is going on, but they don’t drive the narrative as the author envisions it. So those parts are left out. Like in this Samuel reading.

JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has said that she had thousands of pages of backstory on each character, on each plot twist, on each element of the story. While she knew those parts, she didn’t share all of them because those details weren’t important to the story she was writing.

Way back in the beginning, I promised to tell a story. And what I’m going to tell is a story that is often, if not always, left out of American History books. I am going to attempt to do so in a fair, balanced, and honest way. And my hope is that we will all leave here today with eyes opened in a new way to something we don’t often think about.

It is a common American belief that the American police system was based on the British system of policing. There are elements of truth, and similarities to this. But, the American and British systems were both rising up and developing at roughly the same time.

The American system of police started, primarily, with gangs of armed white men who patrolled plantations to keep slaves in, and to catch and punish slaves who escaped. In New England, there were slave patrols, and there were also a lot of patrols to catch and control Native Americans.

Everyone, all over the US, who owned slaves or property, were concerned about a slave revolt. And, they had reason to be concerned – because there were riots & uprisings – more than 200. Participation in slave patrols became mandatory for free white men – both rich and poor – but freed men were not invited to participate.

In Rhode Island (and other parts of the north), slavery was not fully abolished until 1840, but there was a law for gradual emancipation passed in 1789. More and more freed slaves and free blacks began living in communities together, particularly in urban areas. And further and further away from the white landowners who had once owned them, but not further away from wealthy whites living in the same urban areas.

The city of Providence was incorporated in 1832 after a race riot in an area known as Snow Town, which was not far from where we are today. A white sailor was shot in Providence in 1831, and without any justification to do so, an angry mob of armed white men stormed into Snow town, burning houses, wreaking havoc, beating and murdering people of color. The well armed (& all white) militia was called to end the riots.

The story that is told, and may well be true, again, I wasn’t there, is that Providence was incorporated to form a police force in order to prevent angry mobs like this again.

And maybe that is true, I’d like to believe that it is because I like to believe the best in people.

But, the other side is that the city was incorporated so that there could be a police force, to keep the black people, away from the wealthy white elites. Riots would be prevented by keeping the races separate.

For myself, I will tell you that I used to say I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand. I wished for a greater understanding, particularly how we got to where we are as a nation and world.

And I got it.

And my life has never been the same. I no longer see the world in the same way. I see layers, and systems, and I see through the words that seem good on the page, to the reality of why those words were said.

Even though I see the world differently, and I struggle to understand how so many claim to be Christian and yet are so cruel to everyone who doesn’t look and think like them, even though this is my reality now, I still work everyday to love everyone. Even those who disagree with me.

I don’t wish to love everyone, I don’t exactly want to love everyone, I am commanded by God to love everyone.

And so I will. At least, I’ll keep trying. My hope is that we all will.

Albus, my little dog, he still asks for whatever I’m making when I’m in the kitchen, even when it might be kale. And I still ask to have a better understanding of those with whom I disagree, even though it means I may have sympathy for someone who would rather I not exist. And that I will have to learn to love them, even if the realities of this world say that I should hate them, turn my back, and walk away.

And for me that’s really the moral of this Samuel story – ask to follow God, learn the difference between what God is saying and what the world is saying, love one another, and do not rely on the religious elite nor the culture you live in to tell you what to believe about God. Have your own relationship with God. And find for yourself that at the core of us all, is a piece of God, calling to each of us to love and respect everyone. Regardless of what anyone else says.

Amen