mlkbanner

What will become of his dream?

The theologian Karl Barth once said that the task of a Christian is to hold the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. You interpret the newspaper with the Bible, not the other way ‘round.

This weekend the newspaper is thick. We have a president-elect making a great deal of news. The first African American president gave his last speech this week. And tomorrow we honor what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. King.

Because I’m a preacher, I have to read ahead in the Bible. I knew we’d have these readings coming to us this Sunday as I watched the President’s speech, and the president-elect’s press conference. I had in mind that we would be celebrating Dr. King today, and I was thinking about Joseph’s brothers’ sneering words in the book of Genesis: “We will see what will become of his dreams.”

Joseph’s brothers are jealous. The young man has his father’s favor. He’s been given a beautiful technicolor dream coat. He has this gift of dreaming. He has not, however, at the age of 17 been given a gift for tact. (Few teenagers have the gift of tact, but Joseph’s lack is strong). He tells his brothers that he has dreamed that they will bow down before him. The brothers, shall we say, are not impressed. They plot to thwart the dreamer.

You know the story. Joseph isn’t killed, but sold into Egypt. Through his gift of dreams and interpretation, his station eventually improves. Joseph finds himself sitting at the right hand of the King, entrusted with Pharoah’s household. Meanwhile, back in the Israel’s land, a famine strikes. Joseph’s brothers come begging. They bow down before Joseph.

Dreams can be persistent.

You all know why this lesson was chosen. These readings are assigned for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, because brother Martin was famous for his dream. He had the audacity to dream, to invite a country to dream, for equality, for justice, for brotherhood. (Today we’d add sisterhood as well). Martin’s dream is taught to schoolchildren of every race today.

What will become of Dr. King’s dream?

This week’s newspaper witnessed a wide swing. President Obama and President-elect Trump are very different characters. You got a sense of the difference as Tuesday night’s speech turned to Wednesday’s press conference. These leaders campaigned from very different stances. “Yes we can” and “Make America great again” are vastly different ways of looking at our nation.

I can understand why so many people are uneasy. As I said to you the Sunday after the election:

I am nervous about the legislative and executive agenda about to be ushered into the halls of power. I am scared for some of my former immigrant parishioners who are permitted to work through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. I am concerned for members of this congregation who are insured through the Affordable Care Act.

In his “I have a dream speech,” Dr. King spoke of the sweltering summer heat. The march took place in late August, but Dr. King wasn’t just speaking about the sweaty swamp of Washington DC. King spoke of summer metaphorically. That summer protests raged across the South. As he shared his dream, he told the nation:

“This sweltering summer of…legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual…as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.”

As we embark on the adventure of “making America great again,” we cannot turn back. People marched, people bled, people died to guarantee freedoms. We cannot turn back. We will not turn back.

Dreams can be persistent.

Our country is great precisely because of the change that is possible in America. Just yesterday, Ellis and I went to watch “Hidden Figures.” The movie features the story of “colored computers,” black women who did the math that allowed our country to win the Space Race, to put a man into orbit. I encourage you to go see the film. It was remarkable. The crowd that gathered was also remarkable. The theater was full. For a movie about black women scientists, the theater was full. And it was full of white people.

America has changed. America is changing. We cannot turn back.

We have to keep dreaming brother Martin’s dream.

And we need to pray.

Some of you may have read that there’s a controversy brewing in our Episcopal Church about prayer and the incoming president. As is tradition, two prayer services will be held this week in Episcopal Churches.

On Friday, the President-elect, his family, and his invited guests will gather at my former church, St. John’s Lafayette Square, just across the park from the White House for a private prayer service. Almost every president since James Madison has had a service there the morning of their inauguration. (Kennedy went to the Catholic Cathedral.) Thankfully, St. John’s has not been a focus for controversy. The tradition is too old.

But the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral will also host a public service of prayer with the new president, to be broadcast on television, on Saturday. The National Cathedral Choir has also accepted an invitation to sing at the inauguration on Friday.

Some in our denomination would have us close the doors of our churches to these festivities. I can understand this point of view. The president elect’s campaign brought out some really negative elements of our society. Racism and hatred were emboldened following his election. Several mosques, synagogues, and even Episcopal churches were vandalized with words like “Trump’s America.” I can understand why some wish The Episcopal Church would boycott the inauguration.

I’m pretty close to many of the leaders in The Episcopal Church in Washington. I know the bishop, the priests, and the choir directors. I know that many of them swallowed hard as they took meetings with the inaugural committee. Big public decisions are never easy to make. I am glad I’m not in their shoes, and I won’t second guess their decision to participate. I was honored to be at St. John’s for the second inaugural service for President Obama. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. And I am glad that this week, I get to be in St. Louis, in “real America.” I am glad that on Saturday, I’ll be out in the streets with many of you in our Women’s March, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.

I am glad not to be in Washington, but we all have to consider how we will pray these days.

As I said to you the Sunday after the election, we will pray for Donald, our president elect at Holy Communion. We pray for the president, by name. He needs our prayers. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church reminded us this week: prayer is not the same thing as cheering or declaring our support. Our Presiding Bishop went on:

“I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”

And Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We will pray for Donald, but that’s not all we’re going to do. This coming Saturday, a group of us are going to meet up downtown for the Women’s March. If you want more information, get in touch with Kara Cummins, so that we can coordinate a meeting point and walk together. We will pray for the president, and we’ll march. In St. Louis, in Washington, along the US/Mexico border, wherever America needs dreamers, we’ll march.

What will become of his dreams? Dr. King’s dreams are still there to be dreamed. We’ve come close at times. Eight years ago I stood with 1.8 million people on the National Mall as the first black president was inaugurated. You could almost feel the earth shake. The world was changing. Still Dr. King’s dream was bigger than the first black president. The dream goes on.

What will become of his dreams? Dreams can persistent. Even when the newspaper looks bleak. Turn to the Bible. We learn that dreams are persistent when God’s people are persistent. God was there for Joseph. God was there for Moses, and Deborah, and Ruth. God was there for David. God was there for Peter and John and Mary Magdalen. God will be there with us, dreaming with us.

“This Little Light of Mine” we sing. “I’m going to let it shine.” How will you help keep the dream alive? How will you help the dream persist? Will you open your Bible and your newspaper? Will you allow yourself to be shaped, to be formed, and then to go make some news?

In the days, months, and years to come, a dream is at stake. The dream wasn’t just the dream of a single presidency. It wasn’t just the dream of a single preacher or a single movement. The dream is bigger. The dream belongs to God. God dreams of a world where justice rolls down like water. God dreams of a world where all God’s people are free from persecution, from violence, where all God’s people are free to love. God has big dreams.

Keep dreaming. Keep praying. Keep moving forward. Keep dreaming. Let your light shine.

epiphany

How do Christians approach other faiths?

How do Christians approach other faiths?

This morning we have a strange story before us. Magi come from “The East” to bring gifts and honor to the Infant Jesus. We’re used to thinking about “three kings,” but the text doesn’t give a number. We settled on three because there were three gifts. Since one of the gifts was gold, the magi became kings. But the text uses a simple word “magi” as in “magic.”

My good seminary friend The Rev. Matthew Wright pointed out in the weekly email to his congregation that “Magician” is a word often used in Scripture for condemnation. Magicians, astrologers, practitioners of sorcery were “outsiders” to good Jews.

So today we are confronted with a surprise. These magicians recognize the true light. They follow the star and it leads them to the infant Jesus. Not only that, but they know that Herod, the leader of the Jewish people, is not to be trusted. These magicians are able to discern truth. Matthew’s story would have surprised Jesus’ religious contemporaries. God’s people were suspicious of outsiders.

Which brings me back to my initial question: how do Christians approach other faiths?

Perhaps some of you were brought up in a Church tradition that taught “exclusivism.” The idea is probably the best known Christian opinion. Exclusivism holds that no one outside the Christian faith can be “saved.” Exclusivists tend to have a very “after-life focused” vision of salvation as well. Christians go to heaven. Everyone else goes to the other place. Some versions of Christianity even teach that you must ascribe to their particular brand of Jesus-following if you’re to hope to see the inside of the pearly gates.

When I was in college, one of my theology professors, a particularly wry-witted nun and Pauline scholar sent us home with a final paper. I don’t remember the assignment exactly, but I remember the topic a friend chose to write about. This 19 year old college freshmen was going through a particularly evangelical season, and he had been arguing with the professor all semester as she brought an academic approach to Scripture. For his term paper, he argued that Mother Teresa was in hell. The writer he cited claimed we knew this, definitively. My friend showed me the paper when he got it back. I’d never seen someone write “F” in bright red all the way across a cover page before. I believe she also wrote the words “lies and heresy” across the front.

Now, that may seem harsh, and it was. He ended up re-writing the paper on a completely different topic with academically rigorous sources and passed the class. But I tell the story to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most loudly heard voices in Christianity have held similar opinions to my friend and his paper about Mother Teresa. The “exclusivist” vision of Christianity has held sway.

I’ve not had the chance, but someday I’d like to sit down with an exclusivist and ask “What do you do with the Magi?” How do you account for this story in the Gospel? These mystical heretics from the East that come to pay homage to Jesus are but one moment in Scripture that make me uncomfortable with the exclusivist claims.

Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, had another approach. Rahner coined the idea of the “anonymous Christian” in response to the old question: “What about someone who dies having never heard of Jesus?” Rahner replied that it was possible for someone to live a Christ-like life without using Christian language. Since Rahner’s time, others have applied this formula beyond Rahner’s original question about someone who hadn’t heard of Jesus. They see this way of thinking as an “Inclusivist” way to look at faith. We don’t have to feel bad for our good Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends. If they live good lives, in the end, God will count them as unwitting Christians, and explain it all to them after they die.

Now, I’ve just given you a summary, which is dangerous to do with a German theologian. Rahner’s own brother said that it was better to read Rahner in English translation than in the original German, because then at least one person had already struggled to interpret Rahner’s dense text. But the summary, I think, is fair as one approach from Christians to those of other faiths. Do we see good people of other faiths as wrong in their choice of language, even if their actions are ethical?

I raise the question about other faiths today partly because we are performing the second half on an inter-religious wedding. Brian and Meg were supposed to be married by a priest and a rabbi together, but then the priest wasn’t able to attend. Now, this is an atypical couple in many ways. Most people don’t get married during a Sunday service. Most brides who show up pregnant try to hide their bellies.

But Meg and Brian are a-typical in other ways as well. It is rare that you find an inter-religious couple who so consciously practice their faith. When they started coming to Holy Communion, Brian and Meg were intentionally alternating weekends worshiping twice a month with Central Reformed Congregation, and twice a month with us here. Brian volunteers with a program for kids in the judicial system in St. Louis. He listed me as one of his references. I had a good laugh when one of the volunteer coordinators called me to ask about Brian. I had to say, “No we don’t let Brian teach Sunday School.” Then I had to quickly qualify: We didn’t ask him to teach because it would be a little awkward for him, as a Jew, to have to explain Christian teaching to the little ones. I gave him a glowing reference.

Knowing practitioners of other faiths, like Brian, I simply cannot identify with the exclusivist claims that some Christians make. I also have a hard time with Rahner’s idea that good people are really Christians anonymously. I find that pretty presumptuous.

Partly, I’m less anxious about the question of other faiths because the Christian teachers I have learned the most from have tended to emphasize salvation as a question of the here and now more than “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Howard Thurman, sometime chaplain at Boston College where he taught a not-yet Dr. King, argued in his seminal book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that a religion focused on the afterlife does little to change the circumstances of people who live with their “backs against the wall.” He saw in Jesus a revolutionary figure interested in turning over the status quo in this life. Salvation was a much a question in the here and now as in the afterlife.

But the question of other faiths still beckons. My mentoring rector in Washington DC, The Rev. Luis Leon used to say: “I am a Christian because it is in Christianity that I have seen the light shining the brightest.” Those are carefully chosen words. We could use more carefully chosen words coming from Washington. There is an emphasis on subjectivity in the sentence: “Christianity is where I have seen the light shining the brightest.” There is also an acknowledgement that I have seen the light shining in other places.

Many of us have wonderful interfaith friendships. I have been privileged to attend Friday Prayers in Istanbul’s blue mosque with Turkish Muslim friends. I’ve whirled with Dervishes in Tribeca. I’ve danced with neighbors Simchat Torah as the scroll of Scripture surrounded the synagogue. I’ve sat silently for Zazen in a Buddhist Temple in San Francisco. I’ve even shared a feast with self-identified pagans for Samhain. I’ve been privileged to catch glimmers in many faith traditions.

Among the many deaths of 2016 was a scholar of world religions: Dr. Huston Smith. His book “The World’s Religions” is widely assigned by professors of religion, and it is good enough to read even if you’re not in college anymore. He studied and befriended people of other religions across his life. He famously introduced the Dalai Lama to the West. Smith said he remained Christian. For him, “God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.”

Smith’s work helped us see a way of being Christian that did not study other faiths for the sake of forming good arguments against them. Huston Smith gave us permission to be dazzled by other religions. For him, faith was a journey, an adventure.

These magi are adventurers, journeyers. You get the sense they’re working on a hunch by following this star. You know the old joke about the wise men, yes? How do we know there were three wise men and not a wise woman? Well, if there had been a woman they wouldn’t have arrived so long after Christmas. They would have stopped and asked directions. The joke betrays scripture a bit, because sometimes the detours are the important parts of the journey. Without detours, you miss the adventure.

Encountering the magi, these mystical figures from the East, I ask. How do you approach those of other faith? Do you hope to prove them wrong? Do you come with fear? Or do you come, like the magi approached the baby Jesus? Can you encounter another faith with a sense of adventure?

Turn the question back on Christianity. Is your faith an adventure? We live in a time of growing “secularism.” That is to say, more and more people are leaving “the church” leaving “the faith.” I suspect that for many of them exclusivism plays a role in the decision. Fewer of us want to be part of a club that doesn’t admit Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths. We’ve seen too much light in our neighbor’s practice to shut them out.

I wonder as well, if we saw faith less as a series of rote beliefs and exercises, could it be more compelling? What if our faith looked more, felt more like the faith of the magi? Could we set off, dazzled by the light, not exactly sure where the journey will lead? Do we dare to offer our gifts, to open our hearts, to follow a star that will lead us home by another road? This year, will you come on an adventure of faith?

13407008_10101244033019896_4811700993866231848_n

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.