Religious Radicals for Welcome, Diversity, and Justice

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit, given what has come before in our Gospel this morning. “His winnowing fork is in his hand.” “You brood of Vipers.” Don’t brag about Abraham. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” That is good news?

All this may seem a bit much this week. We are getting close to Christmas after all. This week we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of joy. This is joy week. We need a break from all the preparation. We need a pause from all the rush. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us came to church this morning because we needed just a few quiet moments in this busy season. So why today are we dealing with all this extreme rhetoric from John the Baptist?

John the Baptist is a radical, perhaps THE most radical figure in the New Testament. As Canon John Kilgore reminded us last week, in Mark’s Gospel we hear that John lived apart from the community. He covered himself in camel fur and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a little odd. He was all fire and brimstone. I know that some of you at Holy Communion are here to escape fire and brimstone. I know that many people come to the Episcopal church because we eschew such drama. The Episcopal tradition has not historically been a John the Baptist sort of place. Well, I am not hoping to disappoint you, I promise not to start thumping a Bible, but I think our world needs religious radicals.

Our world needs religious radicals, today more than ever. You may be thinking, “Mike, do you know what you’re saying? ISIS is parading across Syria and Iraq abroad. So-called-fundamentalist Christians are attacking civil rights at home. How can you say we need religious radicals?” And I say to you, we need religious radicals, because what passes for radicalism, what passes for religious fundamentalism has almost nothing to do with the faith we share. What passes for religious extremism has nothing to do with the good news, the Gospel.

What we need is the radicalism of John the Baptist. The people ask John, “What should we do?” Listen again to his words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors not to steal. He tells soldiers not to extort the people, to be satisfied with their wages. That was John’s radicalism. Treat one another like human beings, treat one another with dignity because all are created in the image and likeness of God.

The word radical comes from the Latin “radix” or root. To be radical is to be rooted, to know what holds us up, to know what gives us life. Over the past several months, your vestry has been leading a process at Holy Communion asking questions about our roots. What are the values and vision we share?

We’ve been asking three questions of parishioners. We’ve done so in small groups in homes, in forums between the services, the youth group and I even shared a lunch in the park. Vestry members have met one on one for coffee or a meal with members of this parish. We’ve been focused on the same three questions:

1) What brought you to Holy Communion?
2) What keeps you at Holy Communion?
3) In five years, what do you want your neighbors to know about Holy Communion.

The questions were simple, almost deceptively simple. The questions helped us get to our common ground. These questions helped us export our identity, our roots. The answers we received have begun to shape a conversation about our mission as a congregation. We have identified three values we heard above all the others:

We are a congregation rooted in the values of Welcome, Diversity, and Justice.

To me, those values are more valuable because we heard them from this community. The vestry didn’t sit in a room and make them up, they came from our conversations together. Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, these are our roots. Friends, those words are radical.

To be a faith community shaped by welcome, diversity, and justice is a radical calling, especially in our world today. In a culture of fear of the other, welcome is radical. In a city that is divided along racial and ethnic lines committing to a church where we meet on common ground with people of diverse skin colors, economic statuses, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, among other difference, coming together as a diverse community that’s radical. And in a society that stresses individuality, working for justice for our neighbors is radical.

In the weeks and months that come, we will have a chance to continue this process of dialogue. I have just sketched a few of the things I think we mean when we say we are committed to Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, but I don’t have the last word. Holy Communion isn’t that kind of church. We are asking YOU to dream with us. If welcome, diversity, and justice are our roots, what will we grow together? What ministries, programs, and priorities will we bring to life? How will we live these radical commitments?

There’s a story of St. Francis told by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The year is 1216. The great cathedral of Perugia is the setting. Boff tells us, “Lugubrious Gregorian chants rise [from the choir]…The solemn *Planctum super Innocentium* is being sung.” The body of Pope Innocent III lies in state before the altar. Innocent had risen to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. The Church had become the most powerful institution on the continent, but death catches up with us all.

The pope’s body is clothed in finery “furs, jewels, gold, silver, and every symbol of double power, sacred and secular.” But around midnight, as the deceased pope lies alone in the darkness, thieves break into the cathedral. They strip the pope bare. After they make off with Innocent’s rich clothes, legend tells us, a crumpled figure, rises from a dark corner where he was huddled in prayer. “He takes off his worn and dirty tunic, a tunic of penance that his friend Pope Innocent III had authorized him to wear in 1209… and he covers the naked body of the pope with it.”

Innocent III and Francis were both huge figures in the faith of their time. Innocent was the pope, the most powerful figure the Catholic church had yet known, but save for the medieval scholars in our midst, very few of us could talk about what Innocent valued, what he held dear. What were Innocent III’s roots? I couldn’t tell you. Francis is another story. Children today can talk about his love of animals and his respect of all of creation. People of many faiths today are inspired by his call to care for the poor. Francis was a radical, and his roots speak continue to speak to us today.

When they write the story of Holy Communion, will they write about our silver chalices and our beautiful stone building or will they write about something more radical? Will they tell stories of a community that was rooted in the teachings of Jesus? Will they tell stories of the ways we welcomed the stranger, and even the stranger stranger? Will they laugh as they marvel at the ways we brought such diverse people together to worship and to learn? Will they talk about our work together for justice?

I think our city and our world are hungry for the kind of radical Christianity I have heard described by the people of Holy Communion. We are weary of the visions of religion that are readily available. We are tired of what passes for extremism and fundamentalism. We are hungry for the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist, proclaimed by Francis, and proclaimed by this unique congregation in University City.

This Advent, how will we be religious radicals?

Honduras Presidential Meltdown

The recent events in Honduras have gotten me re-mincing about my year there.

A late evening in November of 2005 my friends Lyra, Linda, and I drove back to San Pedro Sula from Tela, winding through banana plantations and the aftermath of tropical storm Gamma.  The main bridge was out, so the trip took an extra hour.  We listened to Maná as we passed by wooden shacks where a single light bulb glowed blue green in that distinctly Latin American way.  We’d come to Tela to pass the day as the country voted for the next president.  We were upset when we discovered that the elections meant that no beer was for sale, but contented ourselves with some great seafood and an incredible sunset.

The run up to the elections had been loud and fascinating.  Every morning around 6:30am the trucks began driving outside my windows at El Hogar orphanage in Tegucigalpa, where I was serving as a year-long volunteer.  The trucks were mounted with loudspeakers which played a short jingle and then urged voters to select either Mel or Pepe for president.  There seemed to be very few formal debates, but every imaginable surface was covered with political posters, and the air was thick with campaign promises.  The choice seemed to be between a corrupt socio-path (Pepe wanted to enforce the death penalty for seemingly any suspected gang member) and a corrupt mafia boss (Mel supposedly had ties to crime rings and covered up murders).  Hondurans figured that whichever president was elected, they would embezzle a large portion of the aid that flows to the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest nation.

Honduras is not a left wing country.  I remember my surprise at the incredible words of praise that Hondurans spoke about Presidente Bush.  The US Military operates a huge military base in the center of the country which was used to manipulate wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1970s and 80s.  Before that Honduras had largely been run by US banana companies, giving rise to the terminology “banana republic.”  The power of the US military and business influence has made a small portion of the population very wealthy, and meant that many Hondurans uphold a strong capitalist, pro-US political voice.

Lyra and I used to joke that Hondurans were a people in need of a revolution.  Compared to our travels in El Salvador, where there was a sense that the poor could rise up from their situation through education and working to change the governmental and social systems, Hondurans were downtrodden.  They lacked a sense of drive and commitment to change.  “Yes We Can” were not commonly chanted words in a culture that had constantly been subject to someone else’s military business.

This is partly why I find this week’s events so puzzling and sad.  It seems that so few Hondurans are in support of President Mel Zelaya’s supposed swing leftward toward empowering the masses.  I suspect this is because Hondurans do not trust their elected leadership.  They figured the president would rob the people, and it seems from the reports of embezzling that he has been.
Even more puzzling to me is the international response.  As we continue to hear calls from the US, UN, Organization of American States, and Chavez to reinstate the democratically elected president I wonder about the sincerity of the desire to help the Honduran people.  Realistically the livelihood of the average Honduran took its most drastic downturn when the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and the subsidized prices of US agricultural products came together in a perfect storm that drove thousands of campesinos away from farming.  Over 50% of Hondurans are unemployed and 1 out of every 6 Honduran citizens live in the United States legally or illegally sending money home to their families.

If we really wanted to help the Honduran people we would do more than try to reinstate a questionable leader.  We would work to create a market situation in Central America where the family farmers could earn enough to provide housing, food, health care, and education for their families.  We would force our companies who employ thousands of Hondurans in maquilas (assembly factories) to pay a living wage.

As Lyra, Linda, and I tumbled down the winding back roads on the way back to San Pedro the night of the election I was amazed by the stark beauty and stark poverty of Honduras.  I remember a great feeling of gratitude to have the opportunity to get to know these people and this place.  I gave thanks to God for the joys and challenges I was facing.  Today my prayer is that the people I got to know in Honduras come forward from these challenging times with a chance to dream for a better future.