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.

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.

What is Faith? part one

What does it mean to be a “person of faith?” I’ve been struck lately by how often I consider this question. We live in a time of change, maybe even crisis, in the church. There’s no doubt. Pews that were once full are a little more spacious on Sunday morning. Some of our sisters and brothers are looking at their church finances only to discover they may need to leave a beloved historic building behind if the congregation is going to stay open. There’s anxiety in the system.

We are very fortunate at Holy Communion. We are not in danger of closing. Our congregation is growing, not quickly, but sustainably. Still, the wider question continues to come up for me, even as your pastor here. What does it mean to be a “person of faith” in this changing landscape?

The question usually occurs on the edges of the community of faith, and indirectly, like when I’m working through pre-marital counseling with a couple, when one person is an active member in a congregation and their partner stays away from church. How do we talk about faith? The question arises when I work with family members plan to a burial for a member who has died. More often than not active members of a Christian community are in the minority in a family. What is faith? The question came up this week at Theology on Tap. A group of about 30 of us gathered to talk about gun violence. I stayed after and talked with our bartender who called himself “an atheist,” but “I really liked what you guys were saying.” I find myself wondering in all of these encounters: What does it mean to be a “person of faith?”

In some ways I’m not really anxious. I’m hopeful. I know the church will change. And let’s be real. The church NEEDS to change. Most church’s wouldn’t start their mission statement like we start ours: “Holy Communion is a welcoming and diverse community” So many people have been told they are not welcome by the church because they asked questions about whether the earth was just 6000 years old or the authority of a leader. People have been for told they aren’t welcome because of their gender, their sexual orientation, their class, their race or their political positions. When church spends so much time excluding people, when the church offers bad news, can we really wonder why Sunday attendance is down? The church needs to change, and the church is changing.

I am confident that there will be followers of Jesus in the years, and centuries, to come, because I think our world is in need of what Jesus has to offer. More than they know, our society is hungry for good news. That is what “Gospel” means after all, “Good News.” We are hungry for good news. I think that deep down, without naming it, people are hungry for faith.

So what is this faith? What does it mean to be a person of faith? The Book of Hebrews answers the question at length in our reading this morning. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The writer of Hebrews goes on. By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he reached the promised land. By faith Abraham and Sarah had children in their old age.

Now, don’t start sneaking to the door. I know some of you are very grateful to have made it beyond child-bearing years. You’re not interested in God rewarding your faith by giving you children when you are “as good as dead” (Sometimes the writers of the Bible don’t make the best word choices). Still, don’t get too nervous. God probably won’t choose to bless you with children in your wiser years because you have faith. Probably. There are other blessings that come from faith.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph. By faith Joseph warned his people of their coming exodus. By faith Moses was hidden from Pharaoh and grew up to lead his people out of Egypt. The author goes on “time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice…shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire.” Faith has consequences.

Now the author of Hebrews wrote these words thousands of years after the events occurred. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to see faith in God at work when the people are already saved. It’s a little more difficult when you’re facing the lions and you can see them licking their lips. But that’s just it. Faith, in the tradition of Hebrew’s is about the long view.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight is pretty good too. We do well at taking the long view at certain times, like the beginning of the school year. Before the homework starts. Before we’re in the middle of grading and the long hours of soccer practice, school, homework, musical rehearsal. When we take back to school pictures, it’s easy to be filled with ideas of college and career. The trick is to hold on to that long view. How do we keep the faith?

The writer goes on to say that many of the Biblical heroes “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Here the letter to the Hebrew’s invokes Moses specifically. In the book of Numbers we learn that Moses died before the people make it to the promised land. But he dies up on a mountain, where he can see the long view. He has faith that they will make it there. Dr. King famously used this image in his last sermon. I have been to the mountaintop. He said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That’s faith.

There’s a poem that has come to mean a lot to me. It’s called the “Prayer of Oscar Romero” which is partly why I paid attention to it in the first place. There’s a mystery to the title, because it’s not really a prayer. And, more importantly, it wasn’t written by Archbishop Romero, the martyr of El Salvador who stood with the poor. It was written by another Catholic bishop around the time of Romero’s death. But the poem speaks to the tense situations that Dr. King and Archbishop Romero faced.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that
the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

What does it mean to be a person of faith? I want to posit today that it means taking the long view. The Gospel has it’s own way of putting it: “Keep your lamps lit.” I think these warnings from Jesus are meant to help us keep the main thing the main thing. Know what it is you hope for. Keep that in perspective.

For me, the center of the Gospel is the promise of Jesus that the Reign of God is coming. In the end God wins, love wins. We will make it to that promised land. We will live in a world where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an overflowing stream. We will learn to treat our sisters and brothers with dignity. We will pound swords into plowshares. The challenge, in the words of Jesus, is to seek first the Kingdom of God. And maintaining the long view can be difficult. We can get distracted. It can be hard to keep awake.

I’ve told you before, I’m struggling this season with watching the news. I’m so glad the Olympics started this week, because the paper and the radio will have more to talk about that the Election cycle. This has been a brutal political season so far. Now, I believe in the separation of church and state. I will never endorse a candidate from this pulpit. The church can’t even endorse if the candidate is sitting in our pews and running unopposed. But I can talk about the general sense of the political landscape.

I find myself tired and irritable after reading news about the election. It seems so often this year, we’re not being asked to vote FOR a candidate but to vote for to keep someone else, someone awful, from office. The overall tone is so negative.

There was an interview on NPR this week that was balm for my soul. Khizr Khan was interviewed by Kelly McEvers on All Things Considered. Khan is the father of the US Army Captain Humayun Khan, a war hero killed in Iraq who happened to be a Muslim and from an immigrant family. The father famously offered Donald Trump his pocket Constitution.

What moved me wasn’t his rhetoric at the convention, but the passion in his voice when McEvers asked him about the Constitution. Khan immigrated to this country, eventually attending Harvard Law School. The constitution wasn’t a prop for the night. He often carries it with him in his jacket pocket. His copy is worn from use, and filled with underlines and highlights.

McEvers asked him to read something that was particularly meaningful to him. He picked the 14th Amendment. You could hear the emotion in his voice as he read the guarantee for equal protection under the law to all citizens “born or naturalized.” You could hear the faith this man had, the faith of an immigrant who chose to come to these United States because he hoped for equal protection. He hoped for safety, security, and the chance to make a new life in a place where he did not have to fear his country’s own army or police force. He holds on to that hope, literally.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” In the midst of such a negative climate, keeping our eyes on the ideals we all share. In the midst of all the muck, to lift up our eyes and to focus on our common values. When the going is rough, and slow, and frustrating, to take the long view. To keep our eyes on the prize, and to trust that God is doing better for us than we can do for ourselves. That is faith.

As the world changes around us, can we be a community that helps people lift up their eyes? Can we rise above the frustrating humdrum and offer hope? Can we take the long view? Together, can we be people of faith?