Bringing People Together to do Good

The Church Is Not a Business

I attend a lot of church meetings. And I’ve been attending these meetings for years. This includes the meetings where we have conversations — sometimes they’re very difficult conversations — about money. We talk about how we’re going to raise the money we need in order to do the things we do, from supporting a local program that provides lunch food for youth while school is on summer break, to sending our adults on mission trips, to paying our musicians, to telling people in our community that we exist. We talk about how we’re going to spend the money we have. And, sometimes, we talk about how we’re going to have to make some hard choices about how we’re going to spend the money we have if we don’t do a better job of raising the money we need.

And, every so often, someone will say something like this: “We have to make these choices. Whether we like it or not, the church is a business.”

And those kinds of statements always bother me.

It’s true that the church is a business in a trivial sense. Churches do some of the things that businesses do and they have some of the concerns that businesses have. Churches raise money and spend money. Churches buy things and sell things. Churches need to deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses also have to deal with. But that’s true of other things, too. If that’s what we mean when we say that something is a business, then libraries are businesses, and cities are businesses, and families are businesses.

If that’s what we mean when we say something is a business, then maybe even individuals are businesses. People like you and me. Little businesses.

But that isn’t what we usually mean by the word ‘business’. What we usually mean when we use that word is an organization whose primary purpose is buying and selling and making money. It might do that in a noble way: many news organizations are interested in making money by getting important information into the hands of as many people as possible. It might do that in a terrible way: weapons manufacturers are interested in making money by making and selling the weapons of war. Most businesses do that in a pretty neutral way. They sell books or bread or bicycles. But regardless of what they do, their primary purpose is to buy and sell and make money. 

And that’s not true of individuals or families. Or churches.

There are plenty of voices that tell us to believe that everything — including individuals and families and churches — are businesses. For example, there’s an entire branch of charity skepticism that tells nonprofit organizations that they need to think and behave more like businesses. And there are many ways that we buy into that idea. We elect business people to public office because they tell us that the government should be run more like a business. We trust business people to propose public policies because they tell us that wealthy people are more innovative. We do things like — and I’m obviously guilty of this — have personal brands and think of ourselves as something like a business. At least, some of the time.

And those voices are the voice of mammon. At least, a little bit.

The biggest struggle in the story of Christianity is the struggle between mammon and the Kingdom of God. Jesus makes the choice clear: “No one can serve two masters,” he says, “for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”1Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 Or, maybe even more starkly,

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

[…]

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”2Luke 12:16-21, 32-34

The church isn’t just not a business. It is a not-a-business. It is the opposite of a business. 

And, yes, churches raise and spend money. They buy and sell things. They deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses — and nonprofit organizations and families and individuals — also have to deal with. But those are things that churches happen to deal with, because we live in a time when business practices are part of the zeitgeist. They are not what the church is about. The church is about something else.

If I can bold, the church is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor.3Luke 4:18-19 Everything else — including the buying, the selling, the balance sheets, and the income statements, and everything else — serves that purpose.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Different and Whole and Beautiful

On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.

We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.

If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.

But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.

And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.

Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.

And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.

Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.

Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.

And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.

Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.

Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.

And John is still working… for a while.

One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.

Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.

Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”

Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.

And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.

And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.

We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.

But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.

On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.

There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.

Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.

Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.

We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.

We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.

We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.

And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”

There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.

We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.

That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.

And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.

There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.

But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!

Who We Will Be

A couple of years ago, Mariah and I went on vacation to the House on the Rock. If you’ve never been there, I really can’t do it justice. In the 1950s, this guy named Alex Jordan Jr built this crazy museum on Deer Shelter Rock in Wisconsin. There are rooms and gardens and displays, and they’re all incredibly weird.

There’s the Streets of Yesterday, a recreation of an early twentieth century town; the Heritage of the Sea, with a 200 foot model of a sea monster and a bunch of nautical exhibits; a collection of pneumatic orchestras where air hoses make violins and trumpets and drums play themselves; the world’s largest indoor carousel; and room after room of just… stuff.

And I vaguely remembered it from childhood. And it showed up in a novel I read. And so Mariah and I went there. On the last day of the season. And we walked through it… by ourselves.

And here’s the thing. When I was a kid, it was probably an enchanting place. I mean, the world’s largest indoor carousel! But now, well. It’s dusty, and everything’s broken, and there’s carpet on the walls, and almost everything is a model or a replica or something that you could pick up a bunch of at a roadside stand in the 50s. It’s creepy.

And I don’t think that it’s changed that much in the twenty or thirty odd years since I went there as a kid. I suspect that it was always this way. It was always dusty and rundown and, dear God, there has always been carpet on the walls.

But I’ve changed. Some of the magic and easy wonder of childhood has worn away. I see the world through different eyes.
Time changes us. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And that can be hard to remember. And it can be hard to remember that this is true for everybody.

In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we see David, in triumphant glory, sitting on the throne of Israel. All of the tribes of Israel — and the elders of the tribes of Israel — are with him. They are making a covenant, and they anoint David to be the king of all Israel. He is thirty years old and he will rule for forty years. And he will become a symbol of Israel. His name will be synonymous with a golden age. Centuries and millennia later, people will long for that kingdom to be restored.

And it’s worth remembering the story. Because David has not always been the king of Israel. He was not born into the royal family; he was not raised to sit on the throne.

David is the youngest son of a shepherd. He was a shepherd and a musician. He became a warrior and a trusted member of King Saul’s court. And when God chose David over Saul, he became a fugitive and a rebel. When he and Saul reconciled, he became the heir to the throne. And now he is here; the king of Israel, becoming greater and greater, because God is with him.

And it’s worth remembering the rest of the story. Because this is not who David will always be. He will sin against God and his neighbor. His favorite son will rebel against him and die. He and his kingdom will pass away.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David… even Jesus.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus has come home. He has been out in the world preaching and teaching and healing. He has gathered disciples and crowds come to see him. And now he is doing the hardest thing that a preacher can do: he is preaching in the worshipping community that he grew up in.

There are people there who have known him since he was a child. And they’re saying, “This is Jesus, right? Mary’s kid? Remember when he was little? Remember that time he…? Or that time he…? Ha! Who is he to tell us anything?”

But Jesus isn’t who he was, once upon a time. He isn’t a little baby, meek and mild. He isn’t a kid doing all the things that kids do. He is a hidden king, with a throne in heaven, ruling over the whole earth, rebuking the wind and calming the waves, raising people from the dead, bringing the kingdom of God into the world.

So he leaves. He moves on. He gets back to work where his work will be appreciated.

He has gone out. He has come home. He goes out again.

And he calls us to the same work.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. I spoke to one of the members of this team the other day and they told me about their first trip to work with the boys at Sunbeam Children’s Home. They told me how it pulled them out of their comfort zone, how they saw the faith of those boys, and how the trip had rejuvenated their faith.

And I know that person is not alone. I know from experience — I know from watching hundreds of volunteers go through Back Bay Mission, I know from watching friends who have gone on mission trips, I know from my own mission work — that going out to serve changes us. Sometimes those are big changes. Sometimes those are little changes.

Going to serve — whether it’s a flight away or a drive away or a walk away; whether it’s halfway around the world or across the country or down the street — plants a seed in us. And we care for that seed by loving our neighbor. And it grows.

When Jesus leaves his hometown again, he gathers his disciples. He gives them the authority to cast our demons, and heal the sick, and call people to repentance, and deliver the good news. And he sends them out into the world in pairs. And he tells them not to take anything: no staff, no bread, no bag, no money, no extra clothes (but to wear sandals, because protecting your feet is just good advice). They are going to be dependent entirely on the hospitality of the people they meet.

They will go out. They will come back. And, even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, they will be changed. They will meet new people. They will experience new things. They will do things that they have never done before.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David, even Jesus, 

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And, by the grace of God, we have a choice about how we will spend that time. By the grace of God, we have a choice about who we will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, when today is once upon a time. By the grace of God, we have the choice to grow closer to God through service to our neighbor.

Last week, I used a saying that a friend of mine uses all the time: There is no such thing as other people’s children. This morning, I’m going to use a saying that I got from Connie Schultz. Connie is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who used to write for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She’s also the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. A few years ago, she spoke at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, and I heard her say this: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

Let me say that again: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

And that’s not quite right. We don’t quite fix ourselves. But when we serve others, we open ourselves up and invite God to fix us. Christianity is about being open to God’s healing love… through our service to others… whether those others are the boys at Sunbeam, or kids at the border, or families in DeWitt. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. We are doing that so that we can send them out in love. We are doing that so that they can be changed. We are doing that so that next week they will not be who they are today. And we do that so that we can welcome them home again… so that next week we will not be who we are today.

Time will change us. Service will change us. The Holy Spirit will change us into people who are a little bit closer to the people who God calls us to be.

Hallelujah.

What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis? (A Revision and Expansion)

Last week, I published a post about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. In that post, I was trying to make two important points:

First, while many of my friends and colleagues are treating Kennedy’s retirement — and Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination — as a crisis, that changes very little for many Americans. To summarize a guest on Lovett or Leave It last week, the left has treated the courts as Alexa for civil rights. We’ve expected the courts to implement progressive policies. But that does not mean that most people have enjoyed the results of those policies. Those of us who are relatively privileged might experience this as an emergency, but for countless Americans this is simply the way things are.

Second, while the left needs to pay attention to and respond to crises like this, we also need to be developing institutions that will both help us craft and implement progressive policies and defend those policies once they’re in place. And we have to be vigilant in doing that, not only because we want to create and defend progressive policies, but because we need to reassert and defend basic small-d democratic norms.

Since I published that post, I’ve had a couple of conversations that have made it clear that I didn’t make that case very well. So I’m going to use this post to try to make that argument more clearly. As with everything on this blog, this is still preliminary, so I won’t make any guarantees that it will be perfectly clear.


As I said in that previous post, Kennedy’s retirement isn’t a crisis. It’s mundane. And I said that knowing that a more conservative supreme court will restrict reproductive rights, diminish LGBTQ rights, damage voting access rights, and do a host of other things that threaten both progressive goals and small-d democratic values. While many people who are like me — that is to say, relatively privileged — see these as absolute crises, for many Americans, that will change surprisingly little.

Abortion is a good example of this. Every woman in America enjoys a constitutional right to have an abortion. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, many American women face substantial limits to this legal right. Simple physical access is a challenge: five states had only one abortion clinic in 2014, and more than 20 states had five or fewer. That makes it difficult for women who may have a travel a long way to get an abortion if they need or want one. In addition to the physical limitation, 19 states require a second physician to be involved in the procedure after a certain point, 19 states require that an abortion be performed in a hospital after a certain point, 43 states prohibit abortions after a certain point, 11 states restrict coverage of abortions by private insurers, 18 states require women to receive counseling or specific — and sometimes dubious — information, 27 states have waiting periods, and 37 states require minors to have parental involvement in their decision to have an abortion.

So, for example, Kansas has four abortion clinics. It requires a second physician to be involved after the viability of the fetus; prohibits abortions after 20 weeks except in the case of a threat to the woman’s health; bans ‘partial birth’ abortion; limits both public funding of abortion and the ability of private insurers to cover abortions; mandates that prospective patients be told about a link between abortion and breast cancer, fetal pain, and negative psychological effects; has a 24 hour waiting period; and requires parental consent for minors. So, while a woman in Kansas might have a constitutional right to abortion, she doesn’t really have a practical right to one.

And there are many other ways that states work to restrict abortion rights.

Of course, this isn’t just about abortion. It is already shockingly easy for states to restrict voting access (and ensure that the voting process entrenches right-wing power), for businesses to refuse to cater to same-sex couples, for employers to maintain unsafe working conditions, and so on. The world that my progressive friends and colleagues are afraid of is the world that exists for countless Americans.


Part of the reason that the world that many of us are afraid of is the world that exists for many Americans is that progressives have relied too much on the courts to institute policy. Abortion, same-sex marriage, and other rights are not in place because we passed laws protecting them. They are in place because courts have ruled. To return to something I said in the introduction, we’ve relied on an Alexa-get-me-gay-rights strategy to implement progressive policies. And we simply don’t have the power to change from a judicial to a legislative strategy right now. Every branch of the federal government is controlled by the right, as are 33 governor’s mansions and 32 state houses; and the right has worked hard to guarantee that it will maintain its power through voting restrictions, gerrymandering, and institution building. I suspect that it will take decades for the left to develop the power structures to guarantee civil liberties and small-d democratic reforms — and implement progressive policies — through legislative means.

That brings me to the importance of institution building. One thing that the right has been very good at is building institutions that spread its worldview and set people up to take power in civil society. There are ideologically right-wing think tanks (e.g. The Heritage Foundation), membership organizations (e.g. The Federalist Society), universities (e.g. Liberty University), media channels (e.g. Fox News), and so on. And these organizations enjoy influence on right-wing members of government. For example, Trump is selecting his Supreme Court nominee from a list that was created for him by the Federalist Society (and his commitment to choosing from that list was a way of proving his conservative bona fides). While the left obviously has similar organizations, none of them have this kind of influence on the culture or on left-leaning politicians.

One of the most famous and most powerful examples of institution-building on the right is the religious right. As early as the 1930s, the political right was actively courting right-wing religious figures like Rev. James Fifield Jr, the pastor of the wealthy First Congregational Church of Los Angeles and a founder of the right wing and pro-corporate Mobilization for Spiritual Ideas. Fifield praised capitalism, business, and free markets; and he denounced President Roosevelt and his New Deal. And, of course, the organization had radio programs, television programs, and a magazine. Fifield was not an evangelical, but a Congregationalist. In fact, he received his B.Div. and an honorary D.Div. from my alma mater, the now-very-progressive Chicago Theological Seminary.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern religious right — now a coalition of evangelicals and Catholics — became a major force in American culture. Even in 1975 — two years after Roe v. Wade — an evangelical ethics textbook by Norman Geisler was pro-choice! But the rise of the modern religious right is the result of investment by the political right (and, to a degree, vice versa). The political right helped build the institutions of the Christian right. And that investment has paid off: in 2016, the Christian right was more than willing to overlook Donald Trump’s moral turpitude in hopes of seeing more conservative policies and court decisions that would restrict a host of civil rights for groups that they don’t like. And the holy grail, of course, would be additional Supreme Court Justices who would chip away at — if not outright overturn — Roe v. Wade.

To put it simply, the right has spent a few generations building and maintaining substantial institutions that have helped it gain political power. And a devoted member of the right can get a degree from a college that will reinforce that worldview, attend a church that will reinforce that worldview, watch and read news sources that reinforce that worldview, join clubs that reinforce that worldview, and so on. And those institutions will mobilize their members: they will work to make sure that their members attend rallies, write their representatives, show up at protests, and — most importantly — vote.

The left simply doesn’t have anything comparable. Part of the reason for that is that the right has been very successful in ‘playing the refs’ and making sure that moderate platforms — and even many liberal and progressive ones — include right-wing voices for fear that, if they don’t, they will be cast as biased. So, for example, the homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, white supremacist Pat Buchanan was a respected commentator on MSNBC for almost a decade. Comparably leftist commentators don’t appear on most liberal platforms, let alone moderate or conservative ones.

And, of course, the right has been successful in using its political power to weaken left-leaning institutions. Unions are still a powerful force on the political left, but moves from the right have been diminishing unions for decades. And the most recent of those moves is the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

I’m not going to suggest that the left build institutions that mirror the ones on the right. I don’t think that would reflect liberal or progressive values. My point is simply that while the left can win elections, it doesn’t have the institutional power to mount a sustained campaign to alter how our government works or to protect progressive policies over the long-term. The right is prepared to roll back progressive policies and enact conservative ones over the course of decades. I have little confidence that the left is prepared for the same kind of long-term work.


Instead of sustained institution-building and preparing to work over decades, the left has relied on mainstream small-d democratic institutions to implement progressive policies. That has now put us in a position where, as the right captures more of the levers of power in the government, we are seeing those same policies get rolled back. In a fair world, this would be deeply problematic, but not hopeless. We could work on winning the next set of elections and get back to implementing a progressive agenda. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the right has made serious investments in entrenching its own power. So Hillary Clinton could have 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump and still lose the presidential election. And in Wisconsin, Republicans can control almost two-thirds of the state assembly seats despite winning barely more than half the votes in 2016 (and, in 2012, despite not winning even half the votes). Similar circumstances are at play in other elections.

What this means is that it is harder and harder for the left to gain formal political power. And that means that it is harder and harder for the left to implement or defend progressive policies. And that puts us in the situation that we’re in now: lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping to stem the tide of policies that range from the conservative to the fascist.

As I said in my original post, moving from crisis to crisis is exhausting. And it’s showing. The response to Trump’s original travel ban was massive protests at airports across the country. The response to the Supreme Court’s ratification of the most recent version of that ban was considerably more muted. I suspect that’s because we were more focused on the crisis du jour: the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on the Mexican border. We are ill-prepared to mount the kinds of defenses of progressive policies and small-d democratic values that are needed right now.

Before I was a pastor, I was in the nonprofit sector, and one of the things that I learned about there was the multi-tier work of disaster relief. While we tend to focus on organizations that appear in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane, there are also other organizations that show up later. The first organizations are devoted to crisis-response. The second set are devoted to rebuilding. And while the first set of organizations might be present for a few months before moving on to the next crisis, the second set of organizations can be at the site of a disaster for years, slowly and purposefully working to redevelop communities. So, for example, while some organizations showed up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (providing emergency shelter, restoring power, getting supplies to people, and so on), other organizations are still there rebuilding communities. Disaster recovery is both short-term and long-term work.

And so is political change. We need some people who will respond to crises. We also need some people who will do the long-term work of building institutions, regaining political power, defending small-d democratic values, and so on. And that is work that will need to be passed from generation to generation. Because even if we could implement a wish list of progressive policies — and restore the norms that our democracy depends on — we will always need to defend those policies against and protect those norms from those who would destroy them.

Scenes from #FamiliesBelongTogether

Weather just does not cooperate with rallies in the Quad Cities. But despite temperatures in the 90s and a head index over 100 degrees, people gathered in VandeVeer Park in Davenport, Iowa, to rally in support of immigrant families who have been torn apart by the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, ICE raids, and deportations. Everyone there recognized the same basic truth: the United States desperately needs substantial and compassionate immigration reform.

Other People’s Children

You all know that Mariah and I don’t have children.

Now, I’m almost 40, so this happens less often than it used to, but it still happens. Someone asks when we’re going to get around to having kids, or reminds us that there’s still time, or tells us that we’re going to regret it if we never have children. But the fact is that we thought about it, and we prayed about it, and we made a choice.

Some people are called to have children. We are not. And that’s okay.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t like kids; in fact, we love them. And while we might not have children of our own, we take the idea that it takes a village to raise a child seriously. We are there for the children in our neighborhood, and our congregations, and our communities. And we are happy to do our part.

But, because I’m not a parent, I’m going to borrow some credibility from a friend of mine who is. Like a lot of my friends who are women and who are around my age, she’s a mom with two young children. And, honestly, her husband is kind of a big kid sometimes. And, to be fair, so is she. But she is a mom. And she takes being a mom seriously.

And one of the things that she likes to say is, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”

I’m going to say that again. It’s that important. There is no such thing as other people’s children.
And Jesus knows that.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, we have two stories; one wrapped inside the other. Both of them are stories about healing. Both of them are stories about other people’s children.

Jesus has just crossed the Sea of Galilee and stepped off the boat when a man named Jairus comes up to him. Jairus is a leader in the local synagogue and his daughter — who was about twelve years old — is on the verge of death. And he begs Jesus again and again to come and help, tears in his eyes, his voice cracking, “Come, please, and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

And, because there’s a child in need, Jesus goes with Jairus.

But while they’re walking, the crowd is pressing in. Everyone wants to see Jesus.

And in that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. As long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. She’s spent all of her money on doctors. She has nothing left and has nothing to show for it. And just like Jairus said, “Come, lay your hands on my daughter so that she can be made well,” this woman says to herself, “If I can just lay my hands on the hem of his cloak, I can be made well.”

She gets close to him. She lays her hands on his cloak. Jesus feels the power go out of him.

He turns to the crowd and asks who touched him. And this woman steps forward and falls to her knees and tells him what she did. And Jesus says, “Daughter…” That word is important, he says, “Daughter… your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
In that moment, she is his child. Because Jesus knows that she is someone’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

No sooner does he tell her to go in peace than some people come from Jairus’s house and say to Jairus, “Your daughter is dead. There is nothing we can do. Stop bothering Jesus.”

And Jesus says something that should sound familiar. We talked about it last week. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith. I got this.”

And they go to Jairus’s house. And Jesus revives his daughter. And he tells them to tell no one… and to get her something to eat.

Jesus knows that this is Jairus’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

It would be easy for me to say that we are all Jesus’s children. And that’s true. It’s true in a broad, abstract, metaphorical sense. It’s true in the kind of way that a Hallmark card is true. But it is also true in a deep, personal, visceral sense.

It’s true in this way… I recently read a story by a woman whose husband is a pediatrician. This woman wrote that her husband understands how babies cry. He understands what those cries mean. They’ll be out at a restaurant or a store or wherever and hear a baby crying and he’ll turn to her and say, “That baby is hungry,” or “That baby is sick,” or, “That baby is mad as hell.”

But sometimes, he’ll hear a child crying and he’ll suddenly sit up straight, cock his head to the side for a second, and then stand up and start running. Because he knows that cry means that child is hurt… and needs help… now.

And we are Christ’s children — all of us, the people in this sanctuary and the people out there in the world — all of us are

Christ’s children in that deep, personal, visceral sense. He knows our cries. he knows that we’re hurt. He knows that we need help.

And he commands us to love each other and he loves us. And there is no such thing as other people’s children.


The great theologian Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “when you preach, hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

There have been a lot of children in the news lately.

On my first Sunday as your pastor, it was the children of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Earlier in June, it was a young undocumented immigrant from Des Moines who was deported and died on a street corner in Mexico.

Over the last couple of weeks, it’s been children at the border between the United States and Mexico, who have been separated from their parents and put in detention facilities.

And even when they’re not in the news, there are children in this world suffering. They are mining the rare earth elements for our computers and smart phones. They are laboring in sweatshops making sure that we have fashionable but affordable clothing. They are being abused and neglected and forgotten.

And there are hundreds… thousands… tens of thousands… millions of them.

And there are people who are telling us that it’s okay. Those kids don’t live in our neighborhoods. They don’t go to our schools. They don’t come to our church. They are other people’s children. And wouldn’t that be nice… if it were true?

But it’s not. Those kids live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools and every single one of them is welcome to sit on these steps during the time for young worshippers and join us at this holiest of tables. And there is no such thing as other

people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s grandchildren.

There’s no such thing as other people’s cousins and nieces and nephews. There’s no such thing as other people’s brothers and sisters. There’s no such thing as other people’s aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents.

There’s no such thing as other people’s family. And that means that there is no excuse when we see a child in pain. Or a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years or a man with tears in his eyes, a crack in his voice, begging for help, saying, “My child is on the verge of death.”

And I know that you know this. Because next week, we’re going to send a team off to an orphanage in Jamaica. And we’re going to bless shorts that our Crafty Stitchers have made for those boys. Because those are our boys. We know that there’s no such thing as other people’s children.


When Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter, Jesus cannot do anything but go with him. When a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak and hopes for healing, Jesus cannot do anything but let his healing power go to her. When Jesus hears someone cry, he goes to their aid. That is what Jesus is like and it is how we know that Jesus is God… because that is what God is like.

And that is what God calls us to be like. We’re not always going to be good at it — God knows I’m not always good at it, it may even be that I’m not often good at it — but that doesn’t let us off the hook.

We will not help everyone. We will not heal every wound. We will not bring justice to fruition. We will not repair the whole entire world. But we are still responsible to do our part in the work that we will not complete. We must still care for the seeds and the saplings of trees that our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren will sit under.

That is the work we are called to. That is the work this table strengthens us for. When we see a father with tears in his eyes begging for help, to go and heal his daughter. When we see a woman who is suffering to heal her. When we hear a child crying to stand and run.

Because we are one family, made up of the children of God. That means that we can take comfort in the parent who cares for us all. Hallelujah.

But that means that there is no such thing as other people’s children. That we have work to do to care for them all. That we have the responsibility to show them that there is nothing to fear, that they can have faith, and that — by the grace of God — we got this.

What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis?

Like a lot of progressives, I was upset to hear about Anthony Kennedy’s looming retirement. He was a conservative justice, but he was a conservative justice with principles. And, sometimes, those principles led him to rule in favor of people who were oppressed and suffering. Those principles made him a swing vote, and his vote on the Supreme Court made a difference.

Now, he has ceded his legacy to a reactionary Republican Party and the people who lead it. And I have no doubt that over the next generation the Court will chip away at reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, voting access, and dozens of other things that aren’t just items on the progressive agenda, but fundamental parts of a small-d democratic legal order. With this retirement, the Republican Party and the pseudo-conservatives who run it will have a huge influence on the direction of this country for a generation or more.

And, of course, if a question about whether a sitting president can be indicted comes before the Court, Donald Trump will have effectively chosen his own judge.

But…

A lot of my friends and colleagues are treating this as one more crisis in an increasingly long list of crises. That’s exhausting. Those of us who are progressive are running ourselves ragged trying to respond to event after event. And I think that might be the wrong response to this and, frankly, to the almost countless violations of democratic norms and subversions of democratic values that we’ve witnessed over the last year-and-a-half-ish.

Frankly, this isn’t a crisis. I’m not saying that because it’s acceptable. I’m saying it because it’s mundane.

Reproductive choice has been under assault since the day Roe v. Wade was decided. LGBTQ rights have been attacked the moment that each one was gained. People have fought to restrict voting since the first minority voter arrived at a polling place. And there are countless other examples of the attempt to deny rights to those who should have them and to roll them back once they are recognized.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the ‘crisis’ that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn’t a crisis at all. It’s the way that the world is.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the 'crisis' that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn't a crisis at all. It's the way that the world is. Click To Tweet

And we need to respond appropriately. We are not in a crisis that came from nowhere and can be solved over the course of a few protests or a few elections or a few court cases. We are living in the result of decades of meticulous work by the far right. And we need to respond in kind. We need to make the work of justice and mercy a part of our daily lives — yes, a part of our daily lives, not the whole thing — and recognize that this is not a sprint, but a relay. We will do some of the work. And our children and grandchildren will do some of the work. And untold generations will do some of the work.

Because the fact is that those small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them.

Small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them. Click To Tweet

As the saying goes, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Fear and Faith

I don’t play favorites. I don’t have favorite things.

If you ask me what my favorite food is, I will name every cuisine on the planet. If you ask what my favorite movie is, I’ll name ten or twenty, and they’ll be different movies on different days. If you ask who my favorite muppet it, it’s Animal… and Gonzo… and Rolf… and Dr. Teeth… and all of the others, too.

I don’t have favorite things.

So I don’t have a favorite scripture. When you’re a pastor, that question — what’s your favorite scripture? — comes up more than you would think. And I usually say that it’s Luke 4:18-19, the moment when Jesus is in a synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And that’s a good scripture, but it’s not really my favorite scripture. It’s just one of them.

And this scene in Mark is one of the others… because you can hear Jesus let out a frustrated sigh.

Let me set the scene. It’s night. Jesus and the disciples and some other people are on a few small boats crossing the sea, and a storm comes up. It’s only a windstorm, but still. The scene on every boat is the same. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and it’s being swamped. And they all know the stories. They all know the tragedies. This is how boats go down. They are perishing.

And in one of the boats, Jesus is in the back… asleep.

So the people in that boat run to the back and shake him awake, and they say, “Teacher, there’s a windstorm. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and we’re being swamped… do you not care that we’re perishing?”

And Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to be still. Then — and this is where you can hear the frustrated sigh — he says to the people, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? C’mon guys.”

And the people, missing the point, are awestruck, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

And I say they’re missing the point because the question they should be asking is, “Why are we afraid?”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions. We have all been afraid. We’ve all felt the flight response click on or stood frozen in terror.

And it isn’t just us. If you have a dog, you’ve probably learned to recognize the signs of fear: tail tucked and backing away; or turning to run while keeping the scary thing in view. Fear is built into us.

It is, maybe, a basic part of the world that God created. And, if it is, then — like everything else in this world — it is good… and it is broken.

There’s another sermon about when fear is healthy and when it’s not. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

For now, just remember this: there are different kinds of fear. Sometimes, fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose. A little bit of fear when you’re on the sea and a storm comes up can make you pay closer attention and move faster to protect your boat and your life. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose.

But fear can also be a bad thing. Fear can distort love. A little bit of fear when you meet a stranger can harden your heart and make you put up walls. Fear can be a bad thing. Fear can distort love.

Remember that.

But…

Today’s Old Testament reading is from Job. According to the story, Job is a wealthy and righteous man. He has a large family, and thousands of camels and oxen and donkeys, and many servants. And he makes his sacrifices to God. He is blameless and upright. He turns away from evil.

Now, all of the beings in heaven come before God. And God brags about Job a little bit, about how he is blameless and upright and turns away from evil. And one of the beings of heaven says to God, “Well, of course he is. You protect him at every turn. Let me screw with him, and we’ll see if he remains blameless and upright.”

And God says, “Okay.”

And Job’s sons and daughters and most of his servants are killed. And his livestock is stolen. And he himself ends up with terrible sores all over his body and ends up sitting in ashes, scraping himself with a piece of broken piece of pottery. And it’s just him and his wife and his three friends.

And Job’s wife tells him to just die. And his friends tell him that he’s suffering because he sinned; even if he doesn’t know what sin he committed and even if he has always been upright and blameless. And Job… Job is fearless. Job pleads his case. Job demands an answer from God.

And today’s reading from Job is the beginning of that answer. And, if I can summarize a speech by God, it goes something like this:

I made an entire, huge, amazing cosmic order with seas and rain and snow and stars and constellations and lions and ravens and ostriches and hawks and behemoths and leviathans. And I’m not going to explain how it all works to you. I’m going to need you to trust that I know what I’m doing.

It’s easy for us to think that faith is about believing things: that God exists, that Jesus is the son of God, that something about the cross and the tomb and Easter morning saved us all. And when we think that faith is about believing things, it’s easy to think that the opposite of faith is doubt.

But the story of Job makes it clear that faith is about something else. Faith is about trusting God. And our story from Mark — our story about Jesus, on a boat, asking a question — makes it clear that the opposite of faith is fear: “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not.

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not. Click To Tweet

And there are a lot of people telling us that they’re not. There are a lot of people telling us to be afraid. They are telling us to be afraid of immigrants and crime and guns and fascists and a thousand other things… and ideas… and people. And I am sure that some of us here are afraid. I’m sure that some of us here are running around our boat in a panic shouting, “we are perishing!”

A storm has come up. It can be overwhelming.

But… here’s Jesus, in the back of the boat, wondering why we’re running around, letting out a heavy sigh, and asking us, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And I want to say, “Yes. I’m afraid. There’s a storm upon us. It’s overwhelming. People are perishing. And it would be great if you would rebuke the winds and calm the sea, but that isn’t happening. And it would be great if you would answer me out of a whirlwind, but that isn’t happening. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on bailing the water out of the boat.”

You see, there’s another sermon about how Jesus will walk with us and everything will be alright by-and-by. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

We live in a tension between fear and faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-yet-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, because it does. We act as though everything depends on us, because it does.

We live in a tension between fear & faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, b/c it does. We act as though everything depends on us, b/c it does. Click To Tweet

But… here’s the thing. I don’t have a favorite scripture, but the one I return to again and again is that passage from Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And I have faith, I really have faith, that as long as we are doing that work, we have nothing to fear. As long as we are bringing good news to the poor, as long as we are proclaiming release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, as long as we are freeing the oppressed and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor, we have nothing to fear. We might have that little tickle in the back of our minds that makes us pay closer attention and move faster. But we have nothing to truly fear. Because when we are doing that work, God is with us.

And, more importantly, we are with God, who is always right there, in the back of the boat, telling us that we have nothing to fear. But we do have work to do. Amen.

God or a King?

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no sermon today. Instead, here’s a classic from way back in 2012. I think I preached this at a Mennonite church in Ohio, but I don’t remember where.

One of the great themes of Israel’s history — one of the great themes of human history — is the choice between the the divine and the earthly. This is easily seen when it comes to idolatry in worship. Israel is constantly tempted to worship the gods of its neighbors, or worship natural creatures or worship objects made by human hands; and Israel repeatedly falls to that temptation.

It’s important to remember, though, that idolatry isn’t something that just happens in worship or on holidays or on sabbaths or on Sundays. God is not confined to the temple or the church. God is God everywhere and all the time.

And the Israelites’ first allegiance, before all other allegiances, was to be to God… every minute of every hour of every day regardless of where they were or what they were doing.

And what is happening here is not just a request for a king, but the facing of a choice: will Israel remain unique among the nations, ruled by God and God’s chosen, or will it become like other nations ruled over by a human king?

Let me back up a bit in this story, because I think most of us probably think of Israel as a nation that is sometimes a kingdom — after all, we know the names: Saul and David and Solomon and so on — and sometimes living in exile under some empire or another: Assyria, perhaps, or Babylon. We tend to think of Israel as having a king chosen by God or having some other king forced upon them by an oppressor.

But, as this story brings to light, there was Israel before there was Saul.

For generations, Israel has been ruled by people we call ‘judges’. You might recognize a few of the names – Deborah, Gideon, Samson – but others are probably, at best, forgotten: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Tola, Jair and so on. These, too, were rulers of Israel.

Israel repeatedly goes through this cycle: they would turn to other gods, they would fall under the rule of some foreign king, they would remember God and cry out and God would call forth someone to lead them to freedom. This someone was a judge. And the judge might simply liberate the Israelites and be done, or the judge might liberate the Israelites and rule over them for a time. And when the judge died, that was it: children did not take over, there were no dynasties, Israel returned to being a people with no king or chieftain but God.

And, of course, in due time, the cycle would repeat itself.

Samuel is the last judge of Israel. And he is the last judge of Israel in a time when the idea of the judge is losing credibility. Before Samuel, there was a priest named Eli who, more or less, ruled Israel. And while Eli wasn’t so bad as a priest, his sons “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” God ends up killing Eli and his sons and installs Samuel as judge over Israel.

And when Samuel grows old – despite having known what happened with Eli and his sons – he appoints his own sons as judges over Israel. And they, like Eli’s sons, are not good leaders: they “did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”

Eli and Samuel have themselves planted a seed of kingship.

And now we return to where we came in. The people of Israel are faced with a choice: will they continue to be set aside as a nation ruled by God and God’s chosen or will they become like other nations ruled by a human hand?

And the answer is obvious: Israel wants a king.

There are moments in scripture… where you can hear the heavy sigh of the divine:

And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.”

The people, in short, are just committing another kind of idolatry. It’s a sin that God seems to have grown used to.

So Samuel gives a warning to the people: A king will be terrible, he will take all of the best of Israel for himself and he will fulfill his own desires and you will end up as his slaves and you will cry out to God because of this king – who you chose – and you’re going to be stuck with him.

It’s a little bit ‘throw up your hands’, isn’t it: “That’s how you want to live your life? Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you and don’t come crying to me.”

And Israel chooses a government not of God, but of human hands. Call it ‘political idolatry’.

It’s not a new thing for Israel.

And it’s not just an old thing for us.

I’m a member of the United Church of Christ. I was born and raised in that denomination and that, as it took me a long time to learn, isn’t a terribly common thing. We’re still a pretty young denomination – fity-five this year – so the older folks in our denomination came from one of our predecessor denominations. And even among the younger folks, most people come from somewhere else. They were raised as Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics or what have you.

But I was born and raised in it. So I grew up in a culture where democracy is everywhere and the wisdom of crowds in trusted and every issue was settled with prayer and study and discussion and debate and, eventually, a vote. I was taught that God works – often very slowly – through crowds.

I can tell you that I sympathize with the Israelites. Sometimes a king would be nice. Sometimes I envy those churches where the pastor is just in charge. I like the idea of someone just being able to pick a hymnal, rather than having – true story – eight years of discussion to reach a decision. I like the idea of the pastor just being able to say that there will be no American flag in the chancel rather than – again, true story – “send it out for cleaning” and have it “be lost”.

There are certain advantages to having a king… when the king is good.

I also grew up in a household where politics was important. I suspect that the political life of our church – and by that I mean the liveliness of debate, not necessarily particular positions – fed our involvement in secular politics and vice versa. And I still consider politics important. I still follow debates and conventions and commercials and polls. I still stay up on election night following the returns and reacting to the calling of states like sports fans react to the calling of fouls. I love it. And I believe that this community life – arguments and debates and votes and protests – can really make the world a better place.

But it is easy — and I think we’ve been seeing this in American politics the last few years and were probably seeing it long before I was born; horrible pamphlets against John Adams by Americans for Washington — to lose sight of God and become convinced that the most important thing ever in the history of the world is party or platform or candidate or ideology. It is easy to let ourselves put all our faith and hope in creaturely politics and forget about – or at best give lip service to – the one to whom our ultimate allegiance is supposed to belong.

And that’s not just true in national politics or state politics or local politics. It’s true in office politics and church politics and all of those creaturely, human systems that we’ve created to get through the day-to-day.

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine.

So we, like Israel, are always faced with this question: do we chose divine leadership or human leadership? God or a king?

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine. So we are always faced with this question: do we chose God or a king? Click To Tweet

Well, we’re in a church, so we know the answer, right? When faced with the choice between God and pretty much anything else, the correct answer is… God. That’s right.

God or ice cream? God.

God or a new car? God.

God or untold riches? God.

God or a king? God.

It’s simple.

But it isn’t easy.

When Israel chooses to have a king, they are saying that God will not be king over them and God’s chosen won’t necessarily rule over them. But God’s chosen don’t disappear. Samuel doesn’t leave. Saul can take counsel from Samuel. And David can take counsel from Nathan. And the kings who come after also have prophets, chosen by God, to counsel them… whether they want it or not. Kings may make their proclamations, and God…

Well, as the UCC is fond of saying, God is still speaking.

God speaks through prophets. God speaks through apostles. God speaks through a pastor from Atlanta and a woman who won’t sit at the back of the bus and people marching on the national mall. God speaks through protestors in front of statehouses and crowds chanting along streets and people standing in silence on college campuses. God speaks through letters to the editor and blog posts and tweets. God speaks in the strong voice of the great orator and in the small voice of the child who stands up for what is good. God speaks in the misery of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.

Where there is love, God speaks.

Where there is mercy, God speaks.

Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks.

Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks.

Where there is love, God speaks. Where there is mercy, God speaks. Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks. Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks. Click To Tweet

Kings were chosen long ago. And we keep choosing them today.

We might call them presidents or prime ministers or bosses or supervisors or what have you, but they are still there: power structures that we created with human beings — and all the difficulties that entails — sitting atop them. And some are good and some are bad. And more often some are simply better and some are worse.

But we are not without God. And we are not without God’s chosen. We still have our Samuels and our Nathans. And the beauty of how God works, is that God can choose anyone at anytime or even everyone at every time… and God can choose us to speak or to listen.

And if we listen – if we open our ears… if we ask and we seek and knock – then we can hear God’s call to peace and grace and love and life abundant. And if we wish, we can follow that call. And if we follow that call, we can speak to all those kings and call them to come with us.

And that is good news.

Blood on Our Hands, Grace in Our Veins

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld novels. The world that they’re set in is reminiscent of fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, and Pratchett riffed on the tropes of those worlds to bring humor into a setting that is often far too dry to be believable. And while the early books rely on medieval stasis (e.g., some alchemists may invent movies and threaten to awaken an eldritch abomination, but everything goes back to ‘normal’ in the end), later books see change come to the Discworld. Personal digital assistants (powered by imps), network communications (via semaphore towers), printing presses, and other technological wonders were slowly changing the Discworld before Pratchett died in 2015.

In Going Postal, Pratchett introduced Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a conman and charlatan whose death was faked by the ruler of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork so that he could be recruited to revive its postal system. Since this is a fantasy novel, a golem parole officer has been assigned to him. They have this memorable exchange (Mr. Pump capitalizes the first letter of each word, even in speech, and pronounces Moist’s last name with a ‘v’ instead of a ‘w’):

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” shouted Moist. “You can’t just go around killing people!”

“Why Not? You Do.” The golem lowered his arm.

“What?” snapped Moist. “I do not! Who told you that?”

“I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,” said the golem calmly.

“I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be — all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!”

“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”

And I’ve been thinking about that, lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

Pacheco was a high schooler in Des Moines, Iowa. He had been brought from Mexico to the United States when he was three years old. He was undocumented. He was protected by DACA. He was a DREAMer.

But last fall, he was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving under the influence, an immigration judge revoked his DACA status for misdemeanor offenses, and he was arrested as an undocumented immigrant by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was given a choice: be deported and take all of the penalties of a deportation, or ‘return’ to Mexico voluntarily. To avoid the penalties and leave the possibility of returning to country he grew up in open, he chose the ‘voluntary’ route.

He was escorted to Mexico by ICE. Then he was murdered.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame for his murder on the people who slit his throat, whoever they may be.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame on ICE and the administration that empowers it. They may not have known that Pacheco would be killed, but they knew that they were deporting him to a country with a murder rate nearly four times that of the United States (thought Des Moines has a surprising amount of crime). Even if he hadn’t been killed, ICE knew that they were sending him to a place where life would have been harder, and in a myriad small ways they were hastening his death.

And it’s harder — but no less right — to put the blame on everyone who participated in the process, and on everyone who failed to stop it. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people have a share in the death of Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

And before we get complacent and say that at least we have nothing to do with it, all of us have hastened a few deaths and hardened a few lives in a myriad small ways over the years. All of us have a share in some slaves, all of us have a share in some murders, all of us have blood on our hands.

Moist von Lipwig killed 2.338 people. I don’t know how many I’ve killed. But the fact is that I have some repenting to do. So do you. So do all of us. Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not.

Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not. Click To Tweet

But maybe the opposite is true, too. Maybe we’re also caught in webs of grace, whether we know it or not.

Last year, I quoted a post by Addie Zierman, where she wrote this about giving what seem like small gifts:

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

The fact is that most of us are not murderers or robbers or human rights violators, even if we have a share in murders and robberies and human rights violations. And the fact is that most of us aren’t heroes or great philanthropists or life-savers… but we also have a share in heroism and philanthropy and saving lives. Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn’t get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters.

Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world.

Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn't get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters. Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world. Click To Tweet

But I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t think these balance out. I don’t think that every share in kindness counts against a share in death so that doing one cancels the other. Morality isn’t a balance scale, and it’s not so nice and mechanical. Doing something nice doesn’t get us off the hook. Plus, that’s the kind of thinking that can lead to scrupulosity, and that would be a bad thing.

Second, we need some bigger kindnesses. I’ll admit that I haven’t done my part. But we need more people to stand up for immigrants like Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco. We need more people to stand against gun violence, sexual harassment and assault, mass incarceration, and the myriad other ways we hasten the death of others.

The fact is that we have a lot of work to do to get the blood off our hands and share the grace in our veins. Let’s get to it.

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