Many Beliefs, One Spirit

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois on February 26, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 12:42-53.

“Keep your lamps,” says the old gospel song, “trimmed and burning.”

Jesus has just finished a parable.

“Be like slaves waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet,” he said, “ready to open the door and greet him. When he comes home and finds them alert, he’ll have them sit down to eat… and he will serve them. You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Be ready, for no one knows the house. If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?

I grew up in the United Church of Christ and, let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of question we ask. We don’t have tests of faith, we have testimonies of faith. We don’t demand adherence to ancient creeds, we respect them. We don’t have a list of beliefs, we concentrate on caring for the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored.

The Christianity I grew up in was focused like a laser on caring for the least of these.

It wasn’t about where we would spend eternity. It was about what we were doing here and now.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got older and went to college and discovered that there were Christians with… a different perspective.
In college, I met Christians who firmly believed that you can divide the world into two groups.

On one side were the people who had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior… who believed the the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God… who had very strict views on sexuality… and… and… and.

On the other side was everyone else, doomed to spend an eternity in hell.

And when those Christians met me, they made a judgment. They decided that I was a nominal Christian, a cultural Christian, a ‘fake’ Christian… destined to spend an eternity in hell.

They believed that my lamp was not trimmed and burning. They believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find me unready.

And, to be fair, I made a pretty similar judgment about them.

Except, I don’t believe in hell. So my judgment was less consequential.

But I saw people who has tests of faith instead of testimonies of faith, who demanded adherence to ancient creeds but didn’t study them, who had a list of beliefs and ignored the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored. And I thought they were nominal Christians, cultural Christians, ‘fake’ Christians.

I believed that their lamps were not trimmed and burning. I believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find them unready.

We were two sides of the same coin. If Jesus had told this parable, I can only hope that we would have had the presence of mind to ask the question that Peter asked, the question that begins our reading today: “Is this parable for us, or for everyone?”

Today, we’re continuing our series on unity and diversity. And any time we talk about unity and diversity, this question comes up. Is this for us, or for everyone? Are we the people who need to hear this, or are there others? Is this about me, or is it about them?

In a world made up of many beliefs — religious, spiritual, political, cultural — this is a question that gets asked about diversity a lot: is this about something I need to do, or something they need to do?

And Jesus, as he usually does, has a parable of sorts:

“Who is this manager who the master will put in charge of the other servants to take care of them? It will be good for that manager if, when the master returns, the master finds him doing his work. That manager will be put in charge of all of the master’s possessions.

“But suppose the manager says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he starts abusing the other servants and eating and drinking and getting drunk? The master will show up when the manager least expects it. And the master will cut that manager to pieces.

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows. But the servant who doesn’t know, and does things that deserve a beating, will be beaten lightly.”

It is, admittedly, no ‘blessed are the meek.’

But sit for a moment with the fact that Jesus is talking about a master beating his slaves and then set that aside. Because what Jesus is saying doesn’t depend on the beatings. Jesus is saying something simple: if you know what the right thing is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be severe; if you don’t know what the right this is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be light.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. This is about us. It’s always about us.

You may know that my wife and I watch The People’s Court. On that show, there are a lot of cases about dogs. There are cases where one dog bites another dog, or where a dog bites a person, or where a person injures a dog. Dogs are a major cause of litigation in the television court system.

And one of the points that Judge Marilyn Milian always makes is that we don’t punish dogs for being dogs. When a dog feels threatened and snaps and bites, that’s not the dog’s fault. But the person — the person who shouldn’t have had the dog leashed or muzzled or safely indoors — the person knew better. So the person can be held responsible.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. Or, as Jesus puts it, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

And that’s dangerous.

You see, it isn’t enough for me to say that my lamp is trimmed and burning. I need to actually keep my lamp trimmed and burning. I need to take a razor and slide the carbon off the wick. I need to snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I need to clean the soot out of the vents and the glass and the gallery. I need to light it. I need to protect it.

I need to care for what has been entrusted to me.

Now, sometimes I need to care for what has been entrusted to you. Some things have been entrusted to all of us. We are all in each other’s care and no one among us has been relieved for the responsibility of caring for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
We are all called to love God. We are all called to love our neighbor. And, sometimes, we need to hold each other accountable.

But…

As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning, I don’t need to critique how you trim the wick. I don’t need to watch you snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I don’t need to tell you how to clean the vents and the glass and gallery.
And I don’t need to tell you what color the glass should be, or what material the gallery should be made from, or how your lamp should be shaped.
As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning — as long as you are loving God, as long as you are loving your neighbor — that’s enough.

It’s a lot. It’s too much. And it’s enough.

There is grace enough for galleries of gold and silver and clay. There is grace enough for glass that is clear or blue or red or rainbow. There is grace enough for cylinders and bulbs and vases and times when the glassblower sneezed.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

There is grace enough for people who have accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior, and for people who don’t understand what that means.

There is grace enough for people who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, and for people who see the Bible as a collection of testimonies written over centuries and standing in need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

There is grace enough for people who want and need rules, and for people who long to be freed from rules.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for republicans and democrats and libertarians and socialists.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for blue lives matter and black lives matter.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for you… and there is grace enough for me.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every life. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every act of love… and compassion… and mercy.

And the light of Christ — the fire of the holy spirit — will light the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

On Being Realistic

We are not here to be realistic. We are here to change reality.

Don’t be foolish: we aren’t going to end hunger by the end of the year. But don’t be overly cautious: we can end hunger someday, and we can do it by feeding one person at a time.

‘Being realistic’ is too often code for being too cautious, for backing off the big idea, for playing it safe. ‘Being realistic’ too often means: don’t take the risk; don’t dream big.

I wonder who the first person was to look at a plan to eradicate smallpox and say: be realistic.

I wonder if anyone replied: We’re not here to be realistic; we’re here to change reality.

Governing and Calvinball

For Christmas, I received the complete boxed set of Calvin and Hobbes, the great newspaper comic strip by Bill Watterson that ran from 1985 to 1995. This was easily my favorite comic strip growing up (its only serious competition being Gary Larson’s The Far Side) and many of its ideas have stuck with me: the wagon rolling down a hill at breakneck speeds, Spaceman Spiff, the transmogrifier…

…and Calvinball.

Calvinball, if you’re not familiar with the comic strip, is a game where players make up the rules as they go along. Except for the rule that rules cannot be used twice, rules cannot be used twice, so every game of Calvinball is different.

To Calvin and Hobbes, the point of Calvinball is to have fun, unhampered by the rules of formal sports. In real life, there are people who play Calvinball for the same reason. But in a lot of areas of our lives, the principles of Calvinball are used for another reason: we change the rules of the games we’re playing so that, whatever we do, we win.

Lately, this is how the principles of Calvinball have been applied to government.

Last week, Elizabeth Warren was sanctioned for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King regarding the nomination of Jeff Sessions. The original letter was written in 1986 in response to Sessions’s nomination to Federal District Court Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. Warren, of course, was using it as an argument against his nomination to United States Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell invoked the rarely used Rule XIX.2: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” It’s a rule used so rarely – usually, senators just threaten to invoke it as a warning to another senator – that it’s easier to find examples of times when it probably should have been used than times when actually has been.

But this isn’t the only recent example of the rules (suddenly) being used or changed to suit those in power.

The Republican-controlled legislature of North Carolina, for example, moved to severely limit the power of the governor after a Democrat won the election. A court recently blocked this legislation, but that doesn’t change the attempt or the motive: to change the rules so that Republicans could keep their power.

Similarly, when senate Democrats boycotted the Finance Committee’s votes on cabinet nominees, the committee abandoned the rule that said members of both parties had to be present. The Democrats insist that they would have been happy to move forward once certain questions were answered, but Republicans preferred to change the rules to suit their desires.

I don’t mean to pick on Republicans here. I’m sure both sides play Calvinball to some degree. But this kind of rule-changing (or highly selective rule enforcement) creates serious challenges for responsible governance. Changing the rules so that one side of the debate has always already won undermines democracy: it ensures that the minority voice can never be heard.

So how about we make a deal for both parties to follow: no more Calvinball.

Renovations

Sorry for the relative silence around here recently, but as you can see I’ve been doing some renovations to the site. I’m sure I’ll be finding bits an pieces that need fixed over the next few days and weeks (and months and years). If you find anything that you think needs my attention, please head over to my home page and use the contact form to drop me a message. Thanks!

I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule soon.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”