How Long, O Lord? A Sermon in a Rural County Following the Election

Isaiah 6

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. –Karl Barth

Election numbers

  • County 2/3
  • State 40%
  • National slightly less than 50%

Protests across cities

Fringe Trump supporters overtly threatening

We are a deeply divided people

Our hope that we would somehow magically come back together after Tuesday was naive.

***

Result of election of one who was openly

  • Racist
  • Misogynistic
  • Blamed immigrants and Muslims

Stories from circle re fear

Text: ”Half of this country just threw my life under the bus”

Election served as a trigger for sexual assault victims

Hateful “go home” notes left in people’s work mailboxes

Synagogues hiring security

Screamed at on way to work: “Trump! N****r!”

I spent much of Wednesday counseling, listening 

***

Others celebrate shock to polarized system

Needs have been ignored

Voting for him doesn’t mean you did so because racist

Some of you voted for him despite these things

***

View the world through the Bible,  faith, love

love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 CEB

As followers of Jesus we are obliged to stand with those the powerful have attacked.

I sat down to write the scripture email late Wednesday. I came up with something not quite reflection.

I share some of that with you now:

***

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people.

And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated.

And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him.

This is a discouraging story. 

The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements,

their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path,

and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor.

I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer.

I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile.

Too often I’ve felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children!

My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history,

and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — all while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. 

Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights are at stake now.

One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!”

An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him.

God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45).

God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people!

His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did.

We must strive to manifest the extravagant love of Christ.

We must protect the vulnerable even when others empower hatred.

[Isaiah] said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  (Isaiah 6:11 CEB)

And I suppose there is the Good News:

Even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up.

Amen.

My Trip to a Gay Bar (#OrlandoShooting)

Friends,

A couple of my high school friends were visiting me at college. They asked my not-yet-wife and I to go with them to the local gay bar. Though I don’t recall a lot of details I have memories of discomfort and vulnerability.

13413757_10209876016319664_3928409912324737014_nI had never before seen men openly showing affection to one another.

Yes, I knew my visiting friends were gay. My best friend, who would later be the best man at my wedding, had already come out to me. My faith built upon the teachings of Jesus who tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), had already allowed me to affirm a relationship that was kept closeted in the broader culture.

The biblical witness taught me that love is the core of the Christian faith. The Holy Spirit had already moved me to see that love might very well cross traditional cultural boundaries. Still, it took awhile for my gut emotions to catch up.

I suspect that is how it is with some even today, nearly four decades later. It is how I suspect it is for those who vehemently spew hatred toward so many of my friends, my clergy colleagues, and even my own firstborn child. It can be hard for emotions to catch up when you’ve been raised and taught in traditional ways of thinking.

The trouble with emotion-powered rhetoric regarding our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer kindred is that it can lead us to miss seeing the image of God in others. It can lead to violence toward others as it has too many times and in the early morning hours of June 12, it led to the massacre at an Orlando nightclub.

In my initial numbness, my spontaneous sobs, my deep desire to hold my children close, even my anger over this heinous act, I’ve thought about that night at a midwestern club. I went to that club because I knew it was important to my friends whom I loved. Looking back I see the Divine guiding me to overcome my discomfort and fear to be be present with my friends whose God-created sexuality was disdained by mainstream culture.

I did not yet know that the bars and clubs functioned as sanctuaries. I did not yet know that as one of my clergy colleagues wrote, “When churches would not let us cross their thresholds, the bars were where we held our memorial services and our weddings.” This shooting violated sacred ground as surely as the shooting at the AME church in Charleston did last year!

The arc of the Bible reflects a continuously widening circle of inclusive love. The narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah — despite what you may have been taught — is a parable about how important welcoming others is to God. Jesus regularly crossed the boundaries of ancient life, loving and eating with those his culture told him to despise. God still moves us to widen the circle of love.

In this era of alienation from the divine and one another, when politicians stir up hatred for their own ends, when violence seems impossible to stop, when even our own have too often turned to self-violence, we can make a difference.

We can open our hearts and minds, listening to other ways of thinking. We can choose to speak and act in loving and respectful ways about those in far off places and those we greet on Main Street. It really is that simple to change the world and be the people God created each of us to be.

Rev. Tim Graves
Pastor, Condon United Church of Christ

__

I sent this letter to my congregation and to the small town local newspaper.

My Daughter-in-Law

My daughter-in-law and daughter exchange vows. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
My daughter-in-law and daughter exchange vows. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

She married my daughter on Saturday. Though we have long considered her part of the family, I’ve struggled to tell others how important she is to me. I’ve been without a simple label that communicates who she is to me.

Calling her “my daughter’s partner” or “my daughter’s girlfriend” only explained who she was to my daughter.  The awkwardness of “my daughter’s significant other” did little to uncloak my love for her.

Add my fear of the bigotry of anti-LGBT sentiments to the failure of our language too often caused me to stutter. I’m ashamed to admit I sometimes avoided expressing my love for her because of fear of bigoted Christians.

I love that young woman. During a short period of time years ago when she and my daughter were apart, I went into a mild depression. Yes, she’s that wonderful! She’s also that perfect for my baby girl!

For twelve years, I’ve been marginally successful at expressing my love for her to others. And then this year, the law finally caught up with love, allowing two soulmates who met in college to marry.

I am thrilled to call her my daughter-in-law!

Now when I tell someone about my daughter-in-law, they immediately know that the relationship is deeper and more important to me than a random friend of my daughter. Not only did the Supreme Court finally validate the legitimacy of love between my daughter and her beloved, they validated my love for her. My daughter-in-law is connected not just to my baby girl, but to me.

I love my daughter-in-law!

A Pride Month Confession

A Pride Month Confession

I packed up the props I’d used in class. I carefully inserted my students’ papers and exams into the “to be graded” pocket in my bag. I touched the glass window beside my desk, shivering involuntarily.

I wrapped my warmest scarf around my neck, pulled on the hat my students (and my own children) laughed at, laced my snow boots, and put on my heavy coat. It was winter in upstate New York and the sidewalks were still imperfect from the twenty-three incher two days ago. Trudging through the student parking lot toward the small faculty lot I used, I noticed a quarter inch had fallen while I was distracted by student conferences.

I looked forward to sitting around a fire with my family after my long day. I wondered if I should pick up a pizza for dinner or if Maggie had another idea. Though I certainly didn’t feel like cooking, my mood was upbeat. I was gratified by the discussion we’d had in class that afternoon. My students were finally grasping the concepts they’d been struggling with for several weeks.

When I got to my car, all of the joy flushed out of me. Scrawled across the back of my car, in the newly fallen snow was one word: Fag.

I perceived this as a reaction to the rainbow sticker across the top of my rear window. I perceived this as a hateful act. I felt diminished. If I felt this way…what if? What if, I wondered, this had happened to one of my students? What if I was gay or lesbian or transgender? What if this action was directed at an immutable part of who I am?

The next morning I reported the issue to Security. None of the thousands of students at the college should be subjected to hate based upon their orientation. The connection between my rainbow sticker and the disgusting word scrawled in the snow was clear, I said.

I was dismissed. It was random, I was told. Nothing they could do, I was told.

Next, I spoke to my Department Chair. She was sympathetic to my concern for students, agreeing it was a hateful act. Unfortunately, political considerations and transitions-in-the-making kept her from using any of her remaining clout in support of pushing this issue. She gave me strategic assistance but essentially I was on my own.

I contacted the head of Security. In what I think was a well-articulated email, I described what happened. I expressed my concern for LGBT students.It was random, I was told. Nothing he could do, I was told. 

In the end, I dropped it. I was getting nowhere. That was more than fifteen years ago.

To this day, I regret I didn’t work harder at getting at least an acknowledgement that a hateful act had occurred. I don’t recall whether, as a non-tenured faculty member, I was afraid of causing trouble. Perhaps, but I think I’d remember that emotion. I think the sin is that I dropped the matter because I was busy. I gave up because it was easier. How many students, staff, and faculty suffered similar hatred because I stopped too soon?

Holy One,
I confess I’ve failed to use all of my gifts and talents when faced with injustice. Forgive this sin. Too often I use busy-ness or “not my fight” as an excuse for allowing an injustice to continue. Forgive my self-focus. Nag me. Remind me that bumper stickers are not enough. Move me. Keep me restless for your dream for our world. Help me to strive for justice wherever and whenever I encounter it. Amen.

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I’ve Even Done It in Church

I’ve Even Done It in Church

I’ve done it in the car. I’ve done it in a restaurant and on a boat. I’ve done it in the bedroom. I’ve even done it in the sanctuary of a church! Today, I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood.

I heard the young couple before I rounded the bend with its cluster of shrublike trees. I recognized the sound of people enjoying a private conversation. As the couple came into view, I witnessed a shared kiss — a peck really — between the two women.

Photo by Tim Graves
I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood. Photo by Tim Graves

This should be unremarkable and certainly not blogworthy. People kiss everyday. People, especially young people, kiss in public places and I don’t give it a thought. But I was disturbed by this experience. The kiss itself didn’t bother me but the look on the young woman’s face when she saw me has stuck with me. On her face I saw the surprise of being witnessed. Her expression revealed concern, maybe even fear of my response. I smiled what I hope was a reassuring smile and nodded my head as I continued on my way.

Driving away from the trailhead, I played her expression and response through my mind. I felt angry at a culture that would make someone fear kissing the one she loved. I felt ashamed at my own Christian faith that too often implies the love of these two young women is sinful or repulsive. Love is never repulsive. Love is never something to be discouraged but something that should be encouraged. Love is the language of the divine.

In my passionate musing about the encounter, the divine spirit renewed my resolve to lead my rural, eastern Oregon congregation to officially and publicly become open and affirming of people “of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” (1) The love represented by this couple’s kiss is sacred and should be celebrated.

I smiled. Once again I met God on the sacred mountain.

Walking the Border

Walking the Border

The sound of the car in the drive drifted through the front window, through the spotless living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen where she was preparing light snacks. That was her cue. Judy washed her hands and carried the tray to the coffee table as her partner Celia greeted the pastor at the front door.

After twelve years in a committed relationship Judy and Celia had finally found a church home where they could be open about their love.

Celia and Judy called out to Jesus as he walked the borders. God’s church walked with Jesus welcoming and affirming the loving couple. 

“A pumpkin patch!”  Hector exclaimed,  “I came around the corner and all I could see was orange. The yard was filled with orange pumpkins.”  He had been noticing how committed the folks at First Congregational were to raising money for others but he never expected them to use pumpkins. He hadn’t seen that many pumpkins in one place since he helped his dad harvest them as a kid.

“I guess it’s time that I check that church out,” he said to himself.  On the following Sunday, he walked into a sanctuary for worship for the first time in decades.

Hector was shocked to find Jesus walking the borders. God’s church walked with Jesus, focusing on others instead of themselves. 

The sudden opening of the door surprised her. It was Saturday after all and Joni had been leaning up against it in an effort to avoid the cold fall wind. But what really surprised her was how warm the air was inside. It enveloped her, healing her near-frostbit fingers. The woman who opened the door was also warm saying,

“Stay as long as you like,” and handed her a hot cup of coffee.  Joni quietly walked in and sat in the back of the sanctuary as the woman who opened the door returned to quietly practicing the piano.  Joni warmed her hands on a cup of coffee as she sat in the back of the sanctuary.

The homeless Joni didn’t expect Jesus to open the door on a Saturday. She didn’t expect to find Jesus and his church walking the border. 

Susan was done with men. After the sexual abuse she’d endured as a child and in her marriage, the last thing she needed to hear at her church was that malarkey about obeying her husband.  But that was what pastor George had preached…a lot! But what finally chased Susan away from the church was when she went to the pastor for help.

Pastor George told her that she must forgive her husband for the black eye he gave her. He told Susan that she must be doing something wrong…and she should try harder to be a pleasing wife.  Then he started quoting the Bible to her about women’s subservience to men.

She didn’t think she’d ever go back to ANY church after that day. But six years later, her best girlfriend had convinced her to check out the new woman pastor in town. She was relieved when the morning prayer began,

“Mothering God, We come to worship your abundant majesty today,” the pastor prayed. You see Pastor Lucy always included the feminine, the masculine, and the mystery of faith within her prayers and liturgy. And Susan noticed.

Susan didn’t expect to find a mothering Jesus walking the border. The church walked with Jesus along the border when it helped Susan reconnect with God by using nontraditional imagery for the divine. 

*****

When the ten lepers called out to Jesus, he responded. He welcomed and healed each one of them.

Jesus walked the borderlands where God’s people struggled. He healed the bodies and the souls of the disregarded and the rejected. 

But what of the ten? What of the nine and the one? In the words of Jesus,

“Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18-19 CEB)

When Jesus sent each of the former lepers off to the temple to have their purification, their healing, validated by the priests the nine went on their way.  One, however was caught between Jesus’ healing touch and the realities of the culture.

He was a Samaritan.

Within the leprous community, the distinction between Jew & gentile didn’t seem to matter but the tenth man would not have been welcomed by the priests. The tenth was not considered a full member of God’s good creation by Jesus’ own people. Despite being healed of skin disease, the Samaritan was still despised.

The Samaritan remained trapped in the borderlands. 

*****

But what of the ten? What of the nine and the one? In the words of Jesus,

“Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18-19 CEB)

Finding ten lepers, ten people with a skin disease, who were rejected by families and friends God-in-Jesus heard their cries for help.

 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. (Luke 17:14 CEB)

It isn’t that the nine former lepers were doing anything wrong when they headed off to the temple priests. Only the priests in society could certify that they were leprosy-free.  Jesus had told them to go to do just that. Jesus told them to go to the priests. But the tenth newly-healed man was between a rock and a hard place. He could not go to the temple because he wasn’t welcome and…

And yet, as Luke tells us, he was grateful and needed guidance to re-enter society.

The Samaritan was unable to do as Jesus instructed and so he did the one thing he could do. He turned to the savior in appreciation and gratitude. He praised not Jesus, but God. He praised God for what God had done through Jesus.

You see, because Jews and Samaritans did not interact he was only partially healed. Despite the physical healing he had received, the Samaritan was still an outsider, still an undesirable.  From the perspective of the original readers of Luke’s gospel even leprosy-free the Samaritan was an outcast. When the Samaritan returned, Jesus completed the healing.

He removed otherness from within God’s realm. Jesus affirmed by his actions that Samaritans are also loved and welcome.  Samaritans, too, are within God’s embrace.

Those who count such things, remind us that Jesus uses the phrase “your faith has saved you” — what the CEB translates as “Your faith has healed you”   — four times in Luke.  He uses it with a man, a woman, a Jew, and our Samaritan.

When we view this story in the context of the other three, we see that saving faith is open to a variety of people. In the ancient world, this was radical!  Sadly, in our world it is still sometimes a radical concept.

Jesus walks the border, welcoming all to God’s loving realm. We walk the border with Jesus when we open doors to others. 

To walk the borders, however, is not just about unlocked doors, pumpkins, or smiling faces. Walking the borders means we not only welcome all people inside our church doors but we affirm them.  We affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity, their ethnicity, their heritage, the unimaginable horrors they’ve endured, their economic struggles, and their perspective.

We walk the border when, like Jesus, we embrace the very uniqueness that has caused others to be rejected in the past. We walk the border when we see others like Jesus did, as God’s beloved children. AMEN.

***

The text for this sermon is Luke 17:11-19. 

This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on October 13, 2013.

Boldness in the Spirit

Boldness in the Spirit

I typically script my sermons. It keeps both my time and topic under control. Sometimes, however, that process Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 9.12.41 AMleaves too little room for the Holy Spirit to speak through me. That is, scripting sometimes prevents the unexpected epiphany, the words that even I do not expect to come out of my mouth.

Last Sunday, I veered from my normal style and preached primarily from notes. The result was that my sermon ran nearly thirty minutes. More significantly, however, was that my sermon spoke even to me. The Holy Spirit surprised me with epiphanies and challenged me.

I discovered through preaching this sermon that though I had told myself that during the years we lived in West Virginia we were secretive about my daughter’s sexual orientation primarily to protect her; we really did so to protect ourselves. While there was some truth to protecting her, it was a secondary reason. We hid who she was and failed to talk about our joy at the love she’s found with her partner because we were afraid the church that my wife was serving as pastor would react harshly.

But the Holy Spirit spoke to me last week, nudging me to confess this past sin of self-protection while refusing to allow me to do the same again. Listen to Boldness in the Spirit using the audio player below. The text for the sermon is Acts 4:23-31.

A Christian Case for Marriage Equality

Many Christian arguments against marriage equality are rooted in flawed — even heretical — assumptions. Though perceived as hateful, these Christians often claim that they “hate the sin but love the sinner.” It is this very statement that indicates the reliance on the heresy of dualism. Our Christian hesitancy to talk about sexuality within churches is also victim to this flaw.

The Heresy of Dualism

Heavily influenced by Greek thought, Christianity developed a strong sense of the goodness of the spirit and the sinfulness of the body. One group of early Christians, the Gnostics, even thought that Jesus did not really inhabit a human body. The divine could not be divine within the profane human body. By the end of the second century, this hatred of the body was declared outside of the Christian faith. Yet, it persists in the mindset of many twenty-first century Christians.pull quote

In Christian thought, human beings are created as Imago Dei, or in the image of God. “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1: 26a NRSV). Human beings are spiritual. Human beings are physical. Human flesh is inherently of God. Our self-perceived physical imperfections and our sexuality are the image of God. In our sexual expression within covenantal, loving relationships human beings are Imago Dei. In sexuality, we mirror God.

Yet, an attitude toward our bodies as profane has permeated Christianity throughout the centuries. The Puritans are an American example of groups who have taken this heretical dualism to the level of self-hatred. Modern churches are also places where the belief that sexuality (the body) is so profane that we don’t even talk about it. In the church, we have allowed a culture of titillation to define human sexuality.

The Sin of the Church: Dehumanizing Non-Heterosexuals

Within this context churches and individual Christians weigh in on the morality of homosexuality. When many hear the word heterosexual, “hetero” stands out. When they hear homosexual, “sexual” stands out. For too long we have viewed heterosexuals as whole human beings while viewing homosexuals as only about sex. The common heresy of flesh as evil further dehumanizes our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

In the dehumanizing of and refusal to accept homosexuals as Imago Dei, we allow fanatics to spew words of hatred and violence. In our refusal to accept our lesbian and gay sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, fathers, and mothers as made fully in the image of God, we commit sin. This is the great sin of too many contemporary churches.

Dualistic Thinking in Arguing Against Homosexuality

The argument that one can love the sinner while hating the sin when applied to homosexuality is dualist thinking. The separation of orientation from practice regarding homosexuality leads to a separation of the spiritual from the physical. My heterosexuality is intertwined with my spirituality, with my sense of who I am as a child of God. In the words of theologian Christopher Morse, “The way God makes us in creation, including our sexuality, is [n]ever a cruelty joke. . . .No gift of God’s grace is to be held in dishonor.”

When Christians let go of the dualism, we are no longer afraid to view the gift of human sexuality along its created continuum of homosexual and heterosexual orientation. We are free to let go of our fear of the body as less than “of God.” We are free to accept that each human being is uniquely gifted by God with a physical way of expressing love with another human being.

pull quote2The first testament is littered with examples of God’s loyalty and compassion within covenant to God’s people. In Judges 10, after years of idol worship, the Israelites seek God’s help when under threat from the Ammonites. God is rightfully angry with their newfound faith: “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress” (Judges 10:14 NRSV). Despite rightful frustration, God “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10: 16b NRSV). God responds in compassion and honors covenant. It is this covenantal relationship that serves as a model for our human relationships, including our sexual relationships. When we express our sexuality–homosexual or heterosexual–within the covenantal relationship of marriage we are living more fully into the image of God.

God’s model of covenantal fidelity has been institutionalized by both the church and secular culture. Though not guaranteeing faithfulness, marriage supports stable, covenantal fidelity in American culture. By rejecting same-sex marriage we are denying homosexuals a tool that supports loving covenants. Americans have a duty to defend equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Doing so is consistent with our highest American ideals. We each will benefit from the stabilizing influence on our society.

Followers of Jesus have a moral imperative to advocate for marriage equality. Embracing the wholeness of body and spirit in the Imago Dei, Christian faith is rooted in covenantal fidelity and the love-ethic of Jesus Christ. Supporting marriage equality is fully and wholly consistent with the Christian faith and lifestyle.