worship notes: calling out hate crimes with love

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, June 19, 2016. I have just
returned from our public interfaith vigil. And while I could have used a little more silence and lament, I am blessed to have been with other folk standing in courage and solidarity at this frightening moment.  Here's my take on where we go next; join me for worship this Sunday @ 10:30 am if you are close by, ok?

Introduction
This morning I must be simultaneously didactic, offensive and compassionately broken-hearted with you, just – I might add – as I am with myself in these troubling days of violence, fear-mongering and demagoguery. Like some of you, I found myself grief-stricken and enraged over the massacre of our sisters and brothers in the Pulse dance club of Orlando, Florida. 

+  It was a vicious hate crime against GLBTQ lovers. It was an act of domestic terrorism against our common security and safety as Americans. It was a desperate cry of anguish and despair from a profoundly broken and troubled man. It was the ‘chickens coming home to roost’ yet again in a culture that pays homage to the idol of might makes right. It was the karmic consequence of religious bigotry that has perpetuated hatred, discrimination and violence against the queer community for millennia. And it was the embodiment of what St. Paul once called in the opening chapters of Romans:  the wrath of God.

+  Now, before you bolt – or prejudge my words too quickly as more religious BS – or cry out in your own grief and fury, let me explain:  I am NOT saying that it was God’s will or judgment that 50 gay, lesbian and trans men and women should be murdered in one of the few places in their city they felt safe to be fully alive. Nor am I suggesting that this massacre was anything but an atrocity – a sacrilege – a barbaric and cruel violation of everything that is holy.

Rather, what I am saying – and sadly what I believe with all my heart – is that what happened in Orlando – and what took place in Newtown and San Bernardino and Charleston, SC – is what happens to real people when we willfully choose to ignore God’s mandate to love one another as God has loved us.  God’s wrath, you see, is NEVER retribution and violence from above, but always the social and emotional consequences of our own selfish, fearful, ignorant and broken decisions.  Whenever we personally or collectively decide to live just for ourselves – without consideration of love, justice, compassion or the common good – the One who is Holy lets us experience the consequences of our choices. Like a wise but broken-hearted parent or wizened old AA sponsor, God says:  Do you really want to live this way?  Is this truly what you feel is best?  Ok, have it your way for a while – experience this horror. Your cruelty will hurt everyone – including yourself and me – but maybe, just maybe, it will also bring you back to love when you’re sick and tired of the devastation and pain. Maybe!?!

Insights
Three portions of Scripture have shaped my conclusion that God’s wrath is NEVER about God bringing punishment and death upon those whom God loves – and that would be us ALL, everyone without exception. No, God’s wrath is about the Lord choosing to be silent, absent, empty and small in the loving hope that as we feel and experience the horrors of life without love and responsibility, we will want to return home. Repent. Change our direction and get back on track. The first text is Romans 1 and represents the distillation of St. Paul’s mature Christian wisdom.  From prison Paul writes these words:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them… ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Now let there be NO ambiguity about what the Apostle is telling us: 

+  First, he wants us to know that all people regardless of their religious tradition understand something about the way of the Lord simply by observing nature:  there is order to the seasons and there are times of unexpected power and even fury in hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanoes. If we simply watch how divine nature works – even just the movement of the sun, moon and stars – we grasp that there is an order to creation and we have only a small part within it. 

+  Second, nature alone should tell us that God has set in motion a way of life with an order that must be honored – a way of living that builds up security and the common good – a system of interacting with others as God relates to us. There is food, there is shelter, there is night, there is day, there is rain and sun and a rhythm to God’s creation – a time to be born, a time to die, a time to laugh, a time to mourn – a time for song as well as silence.

+ Third, when we start acting in ways that violate the rhythm of God’s creation, making our own rules and violating the limits of the world, first we become foolish – and then we become dangerous.  Paul says we become bestial – resembling birds of the air, animals of prey and reptiles.  We become vicious not loving, cruel not just, selfish, confused and afraid rather than souls created in God’s own image to live in harmony with creation.

And as our faith tradition teaches, every time this happens – and it happens repeatedly – God sends us prophets to wake us up. If we listen and get back on track with love, then violence, pollution, fear and social chaos diminishes. But if we choose to stone and murder the prophets – as also happens time and again whether that is Jesus or Harvey Milk or MLK – then God says, in effect, “Ok have it your way.  You take care of creation and one another according to your rules – and let’s see how well that works out for you.” This is our encounter with God’s wrath, the experience of God’s hidden presence in our world and hearts – not out of hatred, however, but out of love – for it is the will of the Lord that we have a change of heart and a change of direction, never simply punishment.

The wrath of God, you see, is about God’s loving choice to be silent after giving us warning after warning after warning – all in the hope that we will become sick and tired of the blood, fear, violence, slaughter, greed, manipulation and despair.  As one social commentator put it recently:  should we ever ask WHY does God let this horror continue, we must be prepared to hear the Lord ask us the very same question in return?  Why do you keep murdering my children? Why do you keep letting the NRA pimp out your politicians? Why do you keep manufacturing semi-automatic assault rifles – and selling them legally to broken and unstable people? Or even known terrorists? Why do YOU – why do WE – keep letting this happen?

+   In the wisdom of St. Paul it has something to do with our tolerance for blood and murder because apparently we haven’t been revolted enough by our own behavior to make courageous changes in gun laws, mental health funding and political policies.  If the reality of 20 massacred first graders didn’t shake us out of our greed and denial, will 50 dead gay dancers from Florida be any different?

+  Claiming to be wise, we became fools; and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling birds, four-footed animals of prey or reptiles. Claiming to be wise, we have become bestial as we experience the absence – or wrath – of the Lord.
We could approach all of this differently, of course:  we could open ourselves to the new commandment of Jesus – to love one another as he has loved us – and hold ourselves and our elected officials and gun manufacturers to the standard of love rather than fear and greed.  Back in 1963, before there was a national Civil Rights law that guaranteed ALL Americans the right to vote, Martin Luther King, Jr. was agitating for federal action. And most of the time what he was told was either “this isn’t the right time, be patient Martin” (how patronizing is that?) or else “the real problem is not changing laws but changing people’s hearts.”  To which Dr. King carefully replied:

 ... the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

People of God, if we were sick and tired of God’s wrath – if we were truly tormented by the innocent deaths of our sisters and brothers in Orlando or Charleston or Tucson or Newtown – if we were genuinely finished with living amidst their blood, we would make certain that by the end of this year assault weapons could no longer be sold in the USA. Would that change a lone wolf, broken and afraid, from committing murder? Not at all – but it would drastically cut down the number of lives he or she could massacre – and it would put our law enforcement advocates on an equal footing with criminals.  Because here is the empirical truth: we are a lazy people –  scientific testing bears this out over and again – as has been shown in a few urban crime zones, when weapons become even incrementally more difficult to obtain, the majority of those who want to use them, give up. Not all, of course, but the majority give up because they are just a little harder to get – and we are a lazy people.  Apparently that is just human nature – so why not work it to our collective safety?

The words of the prophet Isaiah now become instructive for those who have ears to hear: I’ve made myself available, says the Lord, to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I’m here; ready to be found by those who haven’t bothered to look. I kept saying ‘I’m here, I’m right here’ to a nation that ignored me. I reached out day after day to a people who turned their backs on me, people who make wrong turns, who insist on doing things their own way… they make up their own kitchen religion, a potluck religious stew, and spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead… rather than listen the love of the Lord.

+  How wildly prescient is that text?  Initially Isaiah was prophesying to ancient Israel in
about 539 BCE:  after the people had returned from exile in Babylon – after the city of Jerusalem had been reclaimed and its rebuilding had commenced – after the humiliation of defeat and devastation was supposed to be over. Once the best and the brightest had grieved their loss for a season, God’s promise was that they would be comforted and restored IF they chose to honor the covenant:  If they practiced radical Sabbath living, social compassion and neighborliness for the common good.

+  Why, then, all the pain, fear and continued suffering the people of God asked in confusion?  To which Isaiah mirrors God’s words of wrath:  you are doing this to yourselves!  It is not the LORD, it is you who choose to ignore the importance of Sabbath rest and Sabbath justice. It is you who take up weird religious practices as if you could control the Creator of heaven and earth. It is you who ignore the poor and punish the most vulnerable in your realm. I have made myself and my way available and YOU have ignored me. So your suffering is of your own making.

And then the prophet offers this word of clarity just so that we don’t try to climb off the hook:  blaming God – or terrorists – or immigrants or really anyone else for our own laziness and moral failures changes nothing.  The suffering continues – and the innocent suffer more than the guilty – so what has to happen is that God’s own people must claim their brokenness. We must embrace our complicity in the violence and fear – we must call it out within our tradition – and name it with sorrow and grief before we are ready to change direction and repent.  Blame does not evoke hope. Blame does not solve the violence. Blame does nothing but avoid the truth. Only getting honest about our complicity matters – we used to call it confession back in the day – and it is the only way to reconnect and reorder our lives according to God’s love.  I don’t know if you heard or read what the Roman Catholic Bishop of St. Petersburg, FLA, Robert Lynch, wrote to his brothers and sisters in Orlando:

Our founding parents had no knowledge of assault rifles, which are intended to be weapons of mass destruction. In crafting the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which I affirm, they thought only of the most awkward of pistols and heavy shotguns. I suspect they are turning in their graves if they can but glimpse what their words now protect. It is long past time to ban the sale of all assault weapons, whose use should be available only to the armed forces. If one is truly pro-life, then embrace this issue also and work for the elimination of sales to those who would turn the weapons on innocents. Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.

Without honest confession – what the AA folks calls a fearless moral inventory of all our failures and wounds – we remain in denial – part of the problem rather than part of the healing and solution.  God’s promise of love and comfort is eternal – but not cheap – so the prophet puts it like this: 

Just as one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole bushel, there are still plenty of good apples left. So I’ll preserve those in Israel who obey me. I won’t destroy the whole nation. I’ll bring out my true children from Jacob and the heirs of my mountains from Judah. My chosen will inherit the land, my servants will move in. The lush valley of Sharon in the west will be a pasture for flocks, and in the east, the valley of Achor, a place for herds to graze. These will be for the people who bothered to reach out to me, who wanted me in their lives, who actually bothered to look for me.

+  And not just in worship alone – but on Park Square – at the voting booth – on the phone and computer with our legislators and newspaper editors.  This is a time for solidarity, not simply prayers. Prayers are essential. Prayers fortify our souls and open our hearts to the healing presence of the Lord.

+  But if we are not linking arms with the LGBTQ and Muslim communities in meaningful and public ways – however small or personal – then we’re not sick and tired of the blood and wrath of the Lord.  We still think that we can fix things – or avoid the horror – according to our own wisdom and strength, while all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Last Monday someone I have always known as a little girl, who has somehow now become nearly 30 years old, called me from Tucson.  She was a confirmation kid during our time in that oasis in the desert.  Dianne, my wife, served as her confirmation mentor – and they’ve stayed in contact with one another for almost 20 years. She came from a family of religious fundamentalists who are both terrified and hate-filled towards gay, lesbian and transgendered people – and at a very young age this young woman grasped that she was lesbian.  Over the years she has been up and down – involved in some tragic relationships – engaged in serious therapy and made more than her fair share of bad decisions. And through it all, Di has remained her mentor – never judging her but never giving her a pass when she went down dangerous or confusing roads either – just always there as a presence of love and welcome.  So on Monday, after a TON of inner work over the past ten years, including coming-out to her mother who has now disowned her, this young woman is preparing to get married – and she asked me if I would celebrate their marriage vows.

+  Dianne and I have been talking about this for a few months and had pretty much decided that we really couldn’t afford to make a trip to Louisville, KY in the fall:  we have work to do, limited resources and other obligations here. But I have to tell you that after Sunday’s massacre in Orlando, when this old confirmation kid who has been to hell and back tenderly and tentatively asked if I would help her celebrate God’s gift to her of love in her wedding ceremony… without hesitation I said: YES, dear one, of course. It would be my honor and my privilege to stand with you in love.

+  We still don’t have any idea how we’ll afford this – or any of the practical implications – but this is not a time for pecuniary diversions: this is a time when we must stand and deliver in solidarity in our own way with all who are committed to the way of love and responsibility. For some this will be quiet and simple, for others it will be bold and out in the streets, but for all the ways of hatred and fear must be called out with the assurance that God’s love wins.

Conclusion
For that’s precisely the point of today’s Gospel:  Jesus doesn’t stand at a distance from the demon possessed boy – he brings him healing and hope. He doesn’t judge him or ask why the hell a good Jewish boy is living among the pigs in the tombs of a foreign Gentile land? He goes to him and embraces him, finds out his name so that this child is no longer a problem, or a stranger or a sinner – he is simply a broken child of God with a name. Jesus cherishes him – as we have been called to cherish those in the world who are equally afraid and alone and feeling threatened and vulnerable by all the violence around us.  We must come to know our broken community by name – not statistics – but up close and personal.

In time, Jesus calls out the inner demons that are wounding this child – and destroys some of the social problems causing his distress, too:  he sets things in motion so that all that illegal pork is forced to run off a cliff. Now think about that for a moment:  pork, of course, was and is unclean for Jews, so what was this herd of hogs doing just over the border with Israel?  Well, they were contraband, of course, illegal slabs of bacon smuggled across the border and sold on the QT.  Now notice that Jesus had no problem bringing this enterprise to a close:  off the cliff they went – and when that happened, this once naked young man was at peace and sat at the Lord’s feet in conversation. Hmmmm…. Interesting, yes? But two challenges remained:

When the disciples came back and saw this naked man sitting in front of Jesus – who now wanted to sign-up and follow the Master’s group but was told that he first needed to go home and make peace with his family – it dawned on them that THEY were going to be required to ante up in the young man’s renewal.  There were no Wal-Marts or Targets up on that Gentile cliff, so if that boy was going to make it home, the disciples were going to have to give him some of THEIR clothing, right?  Jesus was clear that unless we make this personal – unless we have skin in the game – all we’re doing is avoiding and denying our complicity in the brokenness and suffering.

And to make matters even more challenging, the merchants in contraband bacon suddenly show up and seeing the young man clothed and in his right mind after the pigs had been destroyed, the text tells us they were what?  AFRAID.  Seized with a great fear that demands that Jesus to get outta town.  Not only had Christ broken up their monopoly of power and wealth, he showed them the alternative to fear – embodied love – and when they saw that young man clearly healed, they could no longer pretend there weren’t consequences to their greedy actions.

LOVE matters – LOVE heals – LOVE changes everything and in God’s heart LOVE wins by transforming broken young people caught in the tombs as well as older disciples like you and me so that we call can come into our right minds and challenge the ways of violence and greed. Take on the fear. Call out the hatred in love. 


Tonight on Park Square we opened the vigil with Holy Near’s song, “We Are a Gentle, Angry People.”  I first heard it in 1978 on the night Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in the city hall of San Francisco.  Spontaneously people poured into the streets to show that in the face of horror the way of love was stronger:  we are a gentle, angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives. This is a gentle, angry moment, beloved, where the agonizing wrath of God is calling us out to proclaim with bold conviction:  LOVE WINS. LOVE WINS.  LOVE WINS!  

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