Friday, March 21, 2008

Does the United States Get a Free Pass on Immorality?

At times over the past few weeks it has felt unbearable listening to the smug attacks from both liberal and conservative news commentators on remarks made from a Christian pulpit, critical of the United States of America. The firestorm has centered on outtakes from a very few sermons by Barack Obama's UCC pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who, incidentally has one of the most compassionate and most generous congregations in all of American Christendom).

Oddly (and tragically) the one remark by Pastor Wright that has proven most controversial seems to me fairly basic to a responsible understanding of the Christian faith. Stripped of the emotion and the phraseology, he is saying that the United States of America stands under God's judgment for our actions in just the same way that we believe other countries stand under God's judgment.

What could be more basic than that? Isn't that much of the heart of our Holy Scriptures, that Israel stands under the same judgment that other nations do? If I remember my prophets and historical books correctly, what we have been told as clearly as clear can be is that since we have been entrusted with the identity of the People of God, we will be judged even more harshly than "the nations."

The reality in this country is that we who really believe that we are that city built on a hill, the new Jerusalem will resist and in the process demonize anyone who reminds us that we stand under the judgment of God. How hypocritical! How counter to the revealed Word of God, spoken through the prophets and even by Jesus Christ, himself.

Surely we don't think we get a free pass on the torture we have inflicted in our current as well as past wars, the bombings of civilian targets, resorting to armed combat for economic reasons, our long years of practicing slavery, our condoning of marketing merchandise by images which degrade women, our deference to corporate power over the needs and the rights of the poor, and on and on.

We should all be seriously depressed at the depth of the civil religion practiced in this country that would exempt us from being held responsible for our national sins. We should be furious at those commentators who assume we can sever our prophetic roots from the Christian religion -- and who demonize one of the greatest pastors in our church for speaking the truth.

So what are the odds that Christian preachers have used this occasion to call our church back to its roots? Probably not very good. Why is that? Is that we really do prize being liked? Or is it that despite our words of reverence for the Bible, we have simply forgotten its words and message?

Don't you just love the way so many leaders of the "reasserters" claim to be the only ones in the Episcopal Church who care for the Bible and its authority while standing by as Pastor Wright is crucified by the left and the right? They are not "reasserting" anything: they are ignoring it. Those on the liberal side are not much better. We talk about the "unfortunate language" of the sermon excerpts, forgetting that we have not used ANY language in attacking our national sin. We, too, like the evangelicals are more comfortable in dealing with "personal" sins.

I had thought of including a few trenchant quotes from the prophets to sum up this short piece, but the only thing adequate would be to include the whole of the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and all the rest. Maybe, since this is Holy Week, words from Jesus as he neared his own death in Jerusalem might be appropriate:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (Matthew 23:36-38)

We who claim the identity of Jerusalem for ourselves have a major task of repentance ahead of us.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bright Sunday Sermon

I almost didn’t make it to the church this morning. I had a pastoral emergency that I just had to attend to. . .well, I might as well tell you, it was about Arnold. I’ve been trying to work with him about self-esteem issues and he called me really early this morning to say that he and Janet had had a big fight. So I asked him how the fight ended this time. “When it was over,” he said, “she came to me on her hands and knees.” “Really?,” I said. “That’s a switch. What did she say?” “She said, ‘Come out from underneath the bed, you sniveling coward!’”

And Arnold is not the only one who’s been under the gun. One of you was asking me a couple of weeks ago about when I’m going to retire. I told her I have no plans to retire anytime soon. But even so, her eyes started to tear up and she cried, “Oh, Father Tom, we are going to miss you so much!” Well, I tried to reassure her by telling her, “Look, the priest who takes my place will probably be even better than me.” “Yeah!” she said. “That’s what they said LAST time!”

And then, Bob Bonacci stopped my wife, Ann, outside of Star Market while Ann was struggling with a case of beer. Rather than helping her out, he called out to her, “Hey, Ann! Wacha get the case of beer for?” She said, "I got it for my husband.” "Oh!" he said, "Good trade."

This is Bright Sunday, a remnant of the Feast of Fools from the Middle Ages, a time during the year when the sermon is devoted, simply, to fun. And it is fun that needs no justification other than the knowledge that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead – and that’s a time to celebrate in any and every way possible. So, today, some of the best and more of the worst from this past year. All the stories today are true in some sense -- especially the ones about parishioners and clergy

But, before we go any further, I want you to know that it is not always easy being a pastor. Last Sunday, for instance, when an unfamiliar couple was leaving the church Fr. Jaime said to them, “You need to join the Army of the Lord!” But one of them said, “We’re already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor.” So Father Jaime said, “Then how come the only time we see you is at Christmas and Easter?” The husband pulled Jaime aside and whispered in his ear: “We’re in the secret service."

But it’s easier here at St. Paul’s than it is over at First Presbyterian. You’ve seen those electric hand dryers in public bathrooms? Well, apparently somebody from their Board of Deacons at First Pres went into their bathrooms and pasted little messages on the electric hand dryers they have: The messages say: “Please press button for a brief recorded message from our pastor.”

Clergy are not the only ones to have problems with the people they serve. Dr. Denmark told me that last week he saw one of his elderly male patients walking along Main Street with a stunning young woman on his arm and a smile on his face. When the fellow came in for his appointment the next day, Steve said “You’re really going wild, aren’t you?” The guy said, “Hey, Doc, just doing what you told me to do: get a hot Mamma and be cheerful” “That’s not what I told you,” said Steve. “I didn’t tell you to get a hot Mamma and be cheerful. I said, ‘You’ve got a heart murmur. . . be careful.”

Ann has had similar problems as a therapist. Last week the receptionist walked into her office and said, "There's a young guy in the waiting room asking to see you. He claims he's invisible." “He claims he’s invisible?” said Ann, “tell him I can't see him."

When I was in the Midwest, the one thing we knew about California was the bad feeling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. What was it Mort Sahl used to say, “that in the event of a nuclear attack neither city would alert the other?” So Bill Schmalle told me my first week here, that if I wanted to be popular with the congregation, I should tell at least one joke a year about Los Angeles. The only thing I could think of was when I was flying to Los Angeles and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was a mess. . .he was pale, his hands were shaking . . in fact his whole body was shuddering and he was moaning in fear.

The fellow sitting next to him said, "Hey, pal, what's the matter?" “It’s awful,” said the first guy. "I've been transferred to Los Angeles: they've got race riots, drugs, the streets are filthy . .and they’ve got the highest crime rate in the world, I’m just scared to death.”

"Hold on," said the second guy. "I've been in Los Angeles all my life, and its not as bad as the media says. Find a nice home, go to work, mind your own business, enroll your kids in a good school and it's as safe as anywhere in the world." Well, the first guy really calmed down. “Oh, thank god,” he said, “I was worried to death, but if you live there and say it's OK, I'll take your word for it. By the way, what do you do for a living?” "Me?" said the second guy, "I'm a tail gunner on a Budweiser Beer Truck."

It’s probably time for a religious story: The way I heard it was that at a Giants game, a Buddhist monk walked up to a tofu hotdog stand and said to the vendor, "Make me one with everything." So the vendor gave him a hot dog with the works and the monk gave him a $20 bill. The vendor put the $20 in his pocket – and the monk asked, “Hey, what about my change?" The vendor paused for a couple of seconds and said, "Change comes from within."

Maybe I’ve got time to rescue things with a food story. A guy was standing out in front of one of the seafood restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf, when a waitress came out and told him about their special: "Our special tonight is Big Lobster Tales, $5 each." Amazed, he said:"$5 each for lobster tails. You’ve got to be kidding.” "Nope", she said, "It's our special just for today." "Well", he said, "they must be little lobster tails." "No," she replied, "It's the really big lobster." ‘Are you sure they aren't those green lobster tails - and a little bit tough?" "No", she said, "it's the really big red lobster." "Big red lobster tails, $5 each?" he said, amazed. “They must be old lobster tails!" "No,” she said, “they're definitely today's." "Today's big red lobster tails - $5 each?", he repeated, astounded. "Yes", she insisted.

"Well, here's my five dollars," he said, "I'll take one.” She took the money and led him to a table where she invited him to sit down. She then sat down next to him, put her hand on his shoulder, leaned over close to him and said, "Once upon a time there was a really big red lobster ..." (That probably would have done better as a Los Angeles story.)

But on a serious note, after experiencing some hearing loss, I began to look into buying a hearing aid; but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I went up to this discount place in San Jose
and I asked the salesperson, "How much do they cost ?" "Well, that depends," he said. "They run anywhere from $4 to $4,000." I told him I would like to try the $4 model. .so he put this device around my neck and said "You just stick this button in your ear and run this little string down to your pocket." "So how does it work?" I asked. "For $4.00 it doesn't work," he said; "But when people see it on you, they'll talk louder!"

And it’s not just the hearing loss that’s been a problem. One of the issues with my ADHD is putting things down and then not remembering where I placed them. Well, a week ago I was cleaning out my closet and I found a ticket from the shoe repair shop over on Park Row. The date stamped on the ticket showed that it was over 9 years old. I said to Ann, "Do you think the shoes will still be there?" “I don’t think so,” she said.

Well, I thought it was worth a try, so I put the ticket in my pocket, hopped in the car and went to the shop. With a very straight face, I handed the ticket to the guy behind the counter. With a face just as straight, he said, "Just a minute. I'll have to look for these." (pause) Two minutes later, the man called out, "Here they are!" "No kidding?" I said, "That's terrific! Who would have thought they'd still be here after all this time." But the guy came back to the counter, empty-handed. He said, "They'll be ready Thursday."

We are close to the end. This next to last story is a true story that took place at our Vacation Bible School. The pre-schoolers were playing a "jack-in-the-box" game where one child hid in a decorated box while the other children stood in a circle and chanted. "Where is Jesus, Where is Jesus?" At the appropriate time, the child in the box would pop up and say "Jesus isn't here, he is risen!" All went along smoothly with each child getting a turn to be "Jack" until one of our children popped up from the box and said "Jesus isn't here, he's in prison!" (From such are saints made)

We’re almost there. . . .Again, a true story. . about the guy who went to a party and had too much to drink. His friends plead with him to let them take him home, but he said he lived only a mile away; but about five blocks from the party the police pulled him over for weaving and asked him to get out of his car and walk the line. But just as he starts, the police radio blares out a notice of a robbery taking place in a house just a block away. The police tell the party animal to stay put and they hop a fence and run down the street to the robbery.

The guy waits and waits and finally decides to drive home. When he gets home, he tells his wife he is going to bed and says, “If anyone asks, tell them I have the flu and that I’ve been in bed all day.” Sure enough, a few hours later the police knock on the door. They ask if Mr. X is there and his wife says yes. They ask to see him and she says that he is in bed with the flu and has been so all day. The police have his driver's license, so they ask to see his car. So she takes them to the garage and opens the door . .and there it is. . . .the police car, lights still flashing.

That’s really different from the night when a police officer was staking out a particularly rowdy bar for possible violations of the driving-under-the-influence laws. At closing time, he saw one guy stumble out of the bar, trip on the curb and try his keys on four different cars before he found his own. Then he sat in the front seat, fumbling around with his keys for about 5 minutes. In that time everyone else in the bar had left. . and driven off. Finally, the guy starts his engine and begins to pull away from the curb. The police officer was waiting for him. he stopped the driver, read him his rights and administered the Breath-alyzer test. But the results showed a reading of absolute zero. The cop was stunned. . and demanded how that could be. The driver replied, “Well, tonight I was chosen to be the designated decoy.”

And so it was with the Lord of Life. Hanging there on the cross, representing all who would follow him, he looked like a most appealing victim. So, the medieval theologians tell us, Satan swallowed him up, dragging him into the depths of hell. . . But the joke was on Satan and all the powers of evil because in three days, Christ had burst out of that prison, freeing not only himself, but all of humanity from the clutches of evil. .for a life of resurrection. While life still holds its struggles and pain, we live in eternity, loved and cherished by the God of Isaac, who is named “Laughter.”