Here are the rough notes from this morning's worship message: we shall see!
The sanctioned and appointed readings for this day – the Third Sunday in the season of Advent – invite, implore and encourage us to “Rejoice in the Lord.” St. Paul was adamant when he wrote to the aspiring Christians of Philippi:
Rejoice in the Lord – in all ways – rejoice. Let me say it again: rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all under-standing, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
A great number of people are having a rough go at honoring this text in hundreds of churches and communities all across the United States this week because they are afraid. Afraid and angry – afraid and manipulated – afraid and confused. Not only are some religious and political leaders fanning the flames of xenophobia and religious hatred in America, they are insisting that their own personal uncertainties and loathing are somehow at the core of authentic American Christianity, too. In a word, they are conflating their own odious opinions for the gospel of God’s grace made known to us in the birth, life, death and ascension of Jesus the Christ.
Take Franklyn Graham – Billy Graham’s son and heir apparent – who this week regularly tweeted to his followers that what American Muslims believe, represent a frightening evil that is tearing apart the security and future of our nation. Consider Jerry Falwell, Jr. – current president of the largest Southern Baptist University in the USA and son of the Moral Majority’s founder – who not only encouraged students at Liberty University to carry concealed weapons with them to class and in their dorms, but is on record as saying: “I’ve always thought, if more good people had concealed-carry permits then we could end those Muslims before they walked in killing ... Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here!"
And then, Lord have mercy, there is Donald Trump: current front-runner in the pack of those vying for the Republican nomination to be President in 2016 – who is a showman, multi-millionaire, self-acknowledged Evangelical believer in Jesus Christ and master manipulator of the media – who just last week announced that: The US should ban all Muslims from entering our nation until we better under-stand who they are and why they are coming here. And his stated reason is that so many Muslims are committed to jihad. He had already called for surveillance of US mosques, a prohibition of Syrian refugees and the registration into a national database of all who practiced Islam as a religion. And now he is advocating that ALL Muslims be kept outside of our borders.
Small wonder that bastion of political progressive ideology, the NY Daily News, ran a front page attack editorial stating: When Trump came for the Mexicans I did not speak out because I was not Mexican – and when he came for the Muslims, I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim… Those words are, of course, a satirical restatement of a poem written by the Nazi era German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who began as a supporter of Adolf Hitler back in 1933. But as Hitler not only became more aggressive – and broke more of his promises to the German Church – Niemoller abandoned ship only to find himself arrested by the Nazis in 1937. After he was fined and set free, he was recaptured by Himmler’s Gestapo and held in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. During this time he came to terms with how his own fears and the anxiety of his nation allowed him to compromise his faith and betray his deepest values. In the early 1950’s, Pastor Niemoller summarized his reality like this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
We know that they came for the homosexuals and gypsies, the intellectually and physically challenges people, too – and no one spoke out because they were not homosexuals or gypsies of those with intellectual or physical challenges. Eleven million people were murdered in the Holocaust – 1 million were Jewish children – and no one spoke out because…
People of God, I exercise extreme caution when speaking about politics – not because religion and politics don’t mix – they clearly do. Religion is about how we live into are most precious values and politics is how we get things done in the real world. So I’m not afraid of having discussions about the interface of religion and politics nor am I one who thinks you should never the political realm during worship. The Pope does it all the time. The African-American and Evangelical churches, too.
Yes, I DO believe that worship must always be directed towards God rather than just ourselves and our limited perspectives. And YES I choose to be circumspect rather than promiscuous when it comes to talking about the mostly frivolous and petty irritants that take up so much time and space in most of our politics. And YES, YES, YES I have NO interest in narrowly defined partisan politics. I un-registered myself from either of the dominant political parties five years ago so that I could be free from any hint of impropriety when it comes to advocating for the common good from the pulpit.
So I don’t call out Mr. Trump – or his theological minions in the church – lightly. Most of the time, I watch their shenanigans from the sidelines and shake my head in disappointment knowing that this, too shall pass. But we have now arrived at a moment in America that has been long in the making. 45 years ago Richard Nixon and his administrative staff hatched a scheme known as “the Southern strategy” that has been the political play book for politics in the USA. And, to one degree or another, it has been a winning strategy for the likes of Ronald Reagan as well as Presidents Bush I and II. It has fomented racial fears. It has played race against race, male against female, and urban American against the rural South.
Lee Atwater, political strategist for George Bush, put it like this in a death bed confession shortly before cancer took him from this realm: we played the race card to win – we played the fear card to win – we played the hatred and class card to win… and now I ask God’s forgiveness. You see, as long as the political Brahmans of either party were in control of the nominating process, they could keep the crazies under control. Yes, George Wallace frightened the life out of the big money leaders of the Democratic Party back and Pat Buchanan spooked the Republicans, too.
But there was not a snowball’s chance in hell they would ever get the nomination. Because back in the day, the old boys – and later to a much lesser degree the old girls – kept a lid on playing the fear cards so that exorbitant racism and religious demagoguery could be held in check. It was the dirty little secret of the late 20th century and it worked after Lyndon Johnson let the genie out of the bottle and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
But those days are over – and now the parties don’t control the process – those with the most money call the shots. Rich candidates can buy all the media time they want. They can put as many legislators in their pockets as they can bankroll. And there is very little political, religious or social accountability in place to slow them down. Today we have a situation where, as Bob Dylan once sang in 1965, “money doesn’t talk – it swears.” It corrupts. It pollutes. And it creates a dangerous political environment that is being exploited because of domestic terrorism, the explosion of Islamic refugees fleeing Syria and the rise of ISIS or more appropriately the forces called da’esh in what was formerly Iraq. Now, what was once a carefully manufactured strategy of fear, has become normative.
What was once an ugly minority report in American history has become the driving engine of the status quo. If you know our legacy well, you will recall a repulsive story called the No Nothing Movement that discriminated in the 1850s against the Irish, exacerbated fear of and discrimination toward European Roman Catholics, exploited Chinese immigrants in California after being brought into the US to build the railroad, and engaged in acts of violence when intimidation failed. You may also recall the rise of the Klan at the turn of the 20th century that influenced movie making, a new wave of lynching and race hating and guided the political career of Presidents and Supreme Court judges. In addition to our blessings, we have a long history of going overboard when ordinary people grow anxious and mean-spirited politicians manipulate both white working class racism and the economic insecurities of the unemployed.
But what does any of this have to do with Advent? Or the birth of Jesus? Or rejoicing in the Lord always? Well, according to St. Luke’s gospel, we’re told that before the Lord began a public ministry, the last Old Testament prophet was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist was called to wake people up that something new was about to happen - something bold and liberating- some- thing to do with bearing fruit that befits repentance. Remember that repentance is really NOT about piety and trivial morality as is so often the case in American religion. Rather repentance is all about changing directions – realizing we’re going down the wrong path – and getting right with God.
And John is clear about what that looks like: he doesn’t much care about our theology – or ideas – or creed. No, if somebody has a NEED, he tells us help them with it. If they need a coat and you have two, what? SHARE! If you are charged with a political or military office, what? DON’T EXPLOIT THE PEOPLE! Don’t spread violence either – spread peace – make the pathways straight so that ALL people might rejoice in the blessings of God. And THAT – challenging selfishness, calling out fear-mongering, offering a clear and visible alternative to violence – is ONE of the ways we rejoice in the Lord. Like the Bible says: rejoice in the Lord always and in ALL ways! Bear fruit that befits repentance, beloved: cut away – prune – discard those attitudes, behaviors, political agendas and bigotries that increase fear and hatred. How did St. Paul summarize this?
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Part of rejoicing in the Lord is making visible and clear Christ’s way of peace: the way of Trump is not the way of Jesus. It is the way of Hitler. The way of the fear mongers is not the way to Christmas, it’s the way to the concentration camps. The way of the fruits of repentance is not to hide in dark and ugly bigotry, but to bring everyone to the table so that ALL flesh may see and rejoice. We must be on record as standing with those who have no voice. We must make visible the alternative way of Jesus. We must express our values to our legislators – over and over again. Because we’re all in this together. The silence of Nazi Germany speaks volumes of what happens when people of good will remain quiet and passive. Our own history tells much the same story albeit on a smaller scale. As Dr. King made so clear:
When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.
You see, we are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the heart of joy – the font of forgiveness and grace. And he told that our lives will be judged in this life and the next NOT by what political party we support. Not by what denomina-tion we belong to nor what version of the Bible we like best. No, he said we will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. Because, what so ever you do unto one of these my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Most of us cannot adhere to this degree of compassion all by ourselves. I know I can’t. Not only do we need God’s guidance and grace born deep within, but we need allies - compassion compatriots – to encourage us when we’re down and carry us when we need a break. We need one another. And this is another way we can rejoice in the Lord always. The refugee faces of the Lord Jesus are counting on us. The eyes of Jesus are looking out at us in hope from within the American Muslims who are harassed or demonized by part of the Christian family addicted to fear. We have been called to show an alternative – we have been called to offer a holy Christmas gift to those who are most in need.
So let me ask to do something for the Lord on Christmas Eve as a way to rejoice in the Lord ALL ways: if you know a person of another faith – if you know one who follows the way of Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or even an atheist – would you ask them to join you here on Christmas Eve? Not to evangelize them. OMG no – and make that clear – we honor and respect their tradition.
Tell them that 0n Christmas Eve 2015 at 7:00 pm, we are inviting people of good will – Jews and Muslims, believers and atheists, Buddhists and Sikhs, Protestants and Catholics – to join with us on our holiest night to raise a candle of hope against the current darkness. We will proclaim that Jesus did not come into the world demanding conversion. He is not the only way into God’s gracious healing and salvation. “In my Father’s house are many rooms…” There are many lights that lead to the source of hope and healing – and now is the hour to make that clear. Ask them to join you – and all of us – so that we might pray together for a better way. A compassionate way. A way saturated in peace. Ask them to stand with you as a friend as together we raise a candle against the darkness – all darkness – but especially the darkness of fear and hatred.
Now I don’t know if they’ll come: Christmas Eve is hard for a lot of people, but tell them we’re committed to the cause of rejoicing in the Lord ALL ways. That we seek to honor and celebrate ALL people. That we repent of the way Christianity has been used to oppress and harm and we're trying to bear fruits that befit repentance. So we're willing to try to find a way to stand in solidarity with one another. In our church. In our politics. In our homes. And in our hearts.
For then we can rejoice in the Lord ALL ways...