The Wood is Dry

Progressive Christian Social Action

The Wood is Dry

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…  For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Luke 23:31

This morning the tears finally came. Friends, the wood is dry.  People are getting sick and dying from the pandemic, which is just getting started. In some places, like New York, the hospitals are beginning to get overrun.  Healthcare workers are overwhelmed and risking exposure every day, often without enough supplies, respirators, or protective equipment. Schools and businesses are closing, and people are being laid off faster than during the Great Depression. We are beginning to see shortages of food. Racial violence and domestic violence are increasing. Economic insecurity, anxiety, fear, and tensions are on the rise.

Yesterday, a two-trillion-dollar stimulus bill was signed into law. It will take some of the economic pressure off at least some of the people but will provide many times more money to bail out the industries that keep the current economic system going. This system is called a free-market economy, but everyone knows that the government always (so far) can find enough money to wage war or to bail out the banks or to subsidize favorite industries that “pay to play” in order to elect and lobby the very leaders who make the decisions about policies that end up siphoning even more of society’s wealth up to the top. This is an example of the Shock Doctrine at its worst—taking advantage of a crisis to install policies that transfer wealth to the already wealthy. While the bill offers money for medical necessities in for dealing with Covid 19, loans to small businesses, and grants and expanded unemployment insurance to people are suffering, it also offers much more in bailouts for big corporations. The Trump Administration’s Treasury Department will be able to leverage the $500 billion dollars many times over, to the tune of $4.5 trillion or more, far more than the amount given to the people in this hour of extreme need. It has even been called a “corporate coup.” (See article below)

I not only grieve for what our people are facing now. I am also furious that our lawmakers don’t take this opportunity to create a system that is not based on the God of money, a system with the purpose of caring for people and protecting our earth.

This grief and fury must have been what Jesus felt at times, when he challenged the religious and political leaders who supported from and benefited from the unjust Roman system of domination and occupation at the expense of the people.  They targeted him as a subversive and put him to death because the popular movement he led pointed to a new way of living, demonstrated an inclusive and egalitarian community based on compassion, and challenged the status quo. Jesus could see that if the Domination System targeted him at that time, when the Spirit of God was so active and apparent among him and his followers, it would continue to do so long after he was gone.

In Luke 23:26-31, we read that as Jesus made his way toward his crucifixion a great multitude of people “bewailed and lamented him.”  But he turned and addressed them saying: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’  For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The wood is dry.  But I’m encouraged because I see green shoots all around: in the people who reach out to each other in this time of pandemic, in health care workers and others who risk themselves and give their all for the common good, in those who care for the children, deliver food to elders, facilitate online connection, and try to raise people’s spirits, and in those who continue to strive for social, economic, and environmental justice and systemic change.

The seeds of resurrection are already planted.  With prayer, dedication to each other, and courage, we rise.

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Lent and COVID 19

Progressive Christian Social Action

Lent and Covid 19

This Lenten season is unlike any other I have lived through, with the threat of serious illness and death all around, businesses shuttered, people losing their jobs, the stock market crashing, social isolation, and responsibilities that people don’t know how they can meet. So many of us are staying home in order to “flatten the curve” to keep the virus from spreading so quickly that it overwhelms the health care system, while health care workers and others courageously carry on for our well-being, risking exposure every day.

This is the context of Lent this year.  The story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, his forty days in the wilderness, his betrayal by the Powers that be, and his journey to the cross resonate for those of us who see these events from his life long ago as an ongoing dynamic that continues in the world today. As theologian Dorothee Solle said, “In the midst of reality stands the cross.”

So far, I have it easier than many. I’m staying home. I’m experiencing a sense of spaciousness and appreciating the gift of time—more time for prayer (which we so badly need) and for other spiritual practices that foster a deeper relationship with God. I am also finding ways to contribute to family, community, and world from where I am, via telephone, by becoming more versed in Zoom, by catching up with work on our nonprofit, and by working to create a mutual aid group among our neighbors. There is plenty to keep me occupied.

But as always, this pandemic will disproportionately impact those who are most vulnerable. Yes, elders (like me) are most vulnerable to dying of the virus, but others are seriously impacted even now, and will be as the weeks go on.  I think of the children whose lives have been changed so completely, who are cut off from school and friends; parents who work but have to stay home to care for their children; families who don’t have health insurance, people who are sick, disabled, or without permanent shelter, people who are already confined and socially isolated, elders without support. Surely emergency laws to protect our vulnerable neighbors should be a priority, not just during this pandemic, but always.

Countering these impacts will require us to not only to reach out in compassion to individuals, but also to work for justice. This means advocating for policies that protect the well-being of the most vulnerable and working to transform the current system, which is not designed for people or planet but for multiplying wealth for the people at the top. Although the actors have changed, the Domination System goes on, and the ruling Powers even today are often blind to what compassion and justice require. “None of the rulers of this [or any] age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Corinthians 2:8.

I will continue to stay home and immerse myself in God, but I will also be available to reach out to others in compassion and to work for justice, prioritizing the most vulnerable. I close with these words that Martin Luther wrote during a plague in 1527, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” After the plague he lived another nineteen years.

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

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Never Again: Protest is Our Prayer

Progressive Christian Social Action

Never Again!  Protest is Our Prayer

United Methodist Building, Washington, DC

On this Monday of Holy Week, reflections on the events that led to the death of Jesus merge with events that are taking place today.  As in Jesus’ day, today’s ruling Powers are entrenched in control by domination and violence.  People who seek to change the dominant system and make it more compassionate are maligned and persecuted, as Jesus was.  He was put to death after he drove out the money changers from the Temple, challenging the economic system upon which the Roman occupation of Jerusalem was maintained.

Today it is our youth.  Some are congratulating them for their activism, but they are also being insulted and called names for marching for their lives, standing up to the ruling Powers, and demanding reasonable gun laws and safe schools.  When these demonstrations of active democracy are maligned or called naïve, while our political process is dominated by corporate front groups like the NRA, we are in dark times indeed.  Meanwhile, gun manufacturers and their political advocates accept very minor gun-control policies that they know will increase gun sales. (See the March 2nd Time Magazine report:  Gun Maker Says Sales are Plunging.)

Nevertheless, young people are stepping into leadership, raising their voices, and calling for an end to gun violence, including shooting deaths (often of young black men) by police.  They demand that adults act and that lawmakers establish policies to protect them from being shot and killed in their own schools.

In my own community, many students joined in the nationwide school walkout, some with support of teachers and administrators and some on their own.  I’ve talked with several of them.  One student told me that their school let them make signs, but they couldn’t have words or images related to guns.  Another told me that the teacher said that since it was raining, they could march around the halls, but later relented and they did go outside.  One girl told me how she overcame her personal self-doubt when the marchers she was with turned around and she found herself in the lead.  She didn’t feel like she should be leading the march. She felt like fading back and letting someone else take the lead, but she stayed the course, letting her values guide her instead of her fear.

Many people, including me, believe that there would be less gun violence if there were stricter gun control laws, background checks, mental health services, and (not often mentioned) greater economic and social equity.  Some people are feeling more hope for the future because of this uprising of student activism. I, too, applaud the spirit of these young people and rejoice that they are awakening to what is at stake and coming into their own power.  Every so often there is an uprising that catches fire and kindles a spirit of hope and activism for the sake of a better world.  Every so often a time comes around when “the politically impossible suddenly becomes possible” (Naomi Klein).  This is such a time.

But adults, now it’s on us.  Youth can take the lead, and they may well be the ones who will change the world.  But we can’t just cheer them on.  We must act as their allies, acting in solidarity with them.  We, too, must show courage.  We, too, must speak out, in our homes, at work, in our places of worship, no matter how entrenched these institutions are in the status quo.  We, too must demand action in our communities, in public spaces, and to our legislators. The kids shouldn’t be the only ones to say “Never Again.” They shouldn’t be the only ones to say “We call B.S.” to the conventional wisdom that weapons of war should be easily acquired or to challenge the paralysis of lawmakers because they are in the pockets of the NRA.

Adults, too, need to extend their support, experience, expertise, and resources to this movement.  We need to join with our young in taking action that will make true the call, “Never again.”

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Cross Country by Train

 

 

As some of you know, last year I traveled cross county by train—not once, but twice.  The first time was to Washington DC, in September, to work with a team of United Methodists from around the world on updating the “Natural World” section of our denomination’s Social Principles.  The second time, I got a one-month rail pass and presented my book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, at several East Coast venues.  I spent Thanksgiving with my sister in Asheville, North Carolina, where I also presented my book.

One of the benefits of traveling by train is a sense of “freedom from the bondage of time.”  There are none of the usual demands of life while going long distance by train.  I eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired, visit with a fellow passenger now and then, meditate as I gaze out at the scenery, and get out for occasional “fresh air breaks” at various stations.  I settle in to the rhythm and am comforted by the sound of the train’s whistle up ahead.  I trust that I am being carried to my destination.  And in between, I write, write, write, listening for the inspiration of the Spirit.

Long-distance train trips function as writing retreats for me.  On both trips, as I was traveling with my newly-released book, I was also working on a Second Edition to Shaking the Gates of Hell, my first book.  I was working under deadline, and sure enough, I got the draft of updates and edits submitted to my publisher in mid-December, two weeks before the end-of-year deadline.

Now it’s in their hands, and eventually I’ll get their suggestions back, then typeset pages for me to proof, and finally, the book itself.  The Second Edition of Shaking the Gates of Hell is scheduled to be released later this year.

My challenge in these days is to continue living free from the bondage of time, amidst the many demands and opportunities that each day presents.  I know that especially as an activist, it’s easy to take on too much, trying to fill whatever need I see.  There have been times when I’ve taken on so much that I feel like I’m on a train that’s taking me further and further from where I want to be, so that I can hardly remember why I got on in the first place.  I end up running on automatic.  Then I crash… and I have to stop, re-evaluate, limit my commitments, and make more realistic (and humble) choices.

I understand that not everyone can cut back on activities, especially if they are supporting their families.  That’s why we all need to continue promoting justice (including a living wage), so that everyone will be able to be sustained.

I was at the demonstration today on the bridge in Nevada City, commemorating ongoing resistance to the policies of the Trump Administration.  Then I walked home, up the hill from town, enjoying the beauty of the day.   Each of us can only do so much, and I want to be a spiritually fit as possible so that I know what I need to do and will be equipped to do it.  I choose to be sustained by spiritual practice for the long haul, and I practice trusting in the same way that I trusted while I was on the train, that I am being guided and carried to my destination.

 

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Following Jesus Without Being a Sheep

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This post is based on a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 7, at Nevada City United Methodist Church.  You can watch the whole service here or move the curser 21 minutes into the service for just the sermon.

The Gospel of John includes many metaphors.  Just in this short passage (John 10:1-10), there are two:  1) Jesus as the good shepherd, who leads and cares for the sheep, and 2) Jesus as the gate, the point of access, so the sheep can come in and go out and find pasture.  Here Jesus describes his mission and goal:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  It also reminds me of the 23rd Psalm, which my grandmother taught me, and which I’ve taught my children and at times, my grandchildren.  Passages like this stick with us, and come back at just the times we need them.  For instance, when we feel like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, what does that mean?  A shepherd’s goals are to make sure the sheep have a place to roam, pasture, food, water, protection from predators, and if one strays off, according to Jesus, the good shepherd will leave the 99 there in the wilderness and go out to seek the one that was lost.  That’s an image of God.  And that’s a great image of abundant life.

But awhile back, one of my granddaughters said to me, “I don’t want to be sheep.”  So when I started preparing this sermon, I decided to look up the definition of “sheep.”  1)  Any of the various hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals (genus Ovis) related to the goats but stockier and lacking a beard in the male–specifically one long domesticated especially for its flesh and wool.  2) a timid defenseless creature; 3) a timid docile person, especially one easily influenced or led.  Of course, none of us want to be that kind of a person, and that’s certainly not what Jesus meant.

Jesus didn’t mean for people to follow him without thinking for themselves.  He engaged people.  He used figures of speech, he asked them questions, he challenged them, he sent them out in ministry.  He said, “Follow me, do what I do, teach what I teach, love how I love, serve as I serve.”  He engaged with people in the fullness of their humanity, even though sometimes (like us) they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about).

Nevertheless, with these very limited and flawed human beings, Jesus was able create a community that welcomed the poor, the outcast, the stranger, even women and children.  A community that embodied God’s love and what it means to live an abundant life.  A community that embodied the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Today some call it the reign of God or the kin-dom of God.  A kin-dom of abundant life.

This community that Jesus drew together became very popular, so much so that the religious leaders began plotting against him.  They collaborated with Rome to keep the military occupation in place, and they benefited from this collaboration.  Jesus challenged their authority.  He broke their laws, including laws against healing on the Sabbath.  He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.  He and his followers occupied the Temple.  Slept outside, but each day the people all came back to occupy the Temple.  The authorities couldn’t arrest him there.  Why?  Because “all the people hung on his words.”

Finally, the authorities succeeded.  They waited until he was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane with just a few followers.   Then they came out with swords and clubs and Roman guards to arrest him.  They tried him in a mock trial, beat him, and crucified him.  His followers fled, except for a few—mostly women.  They killed the shepherd, and the sheep scattered

Then something amazing happened.  People started saying, “I have seen the Lord.”  According to the gospels, this started with the women—the first preachers, the first witnesses to the resurrection.  The community that had formed around Jesus reconstituted itself, based on the lived experience of the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We read about that early community today in Acts, about how the people pooled their possessions and shared with whoever was in need.

These early Christians continued in the faith of Jesus.  They lived according to his teaching and example, identifying with the poor and outcast.  For the first three centuries, Christians refused to bow to the Emperor and refused to serve in the Roman Army.  Many were martyred for their faith.   They stood on conscience.  Not at all like sheep.

When Constantine made Christianity the State Religion, the church became identified with the power of the state.  Some have called this the downfall of the church, because the Church became aligned with the dominant culture, wherever it was situated.  But throughout history, there have been people and communities who have kept alive the vision that motivated the early church.

One of these people was John Wesley.  John Wesley was a key figure in the 18th Century Great Awakening, and the founder of Methodism.  Wesley worked hard to make sure that the early Methodists were not sheep, that they didn’t just believe what they were told.  He insisted that people move toward a mature faith, and take responsibility and make decisions for themselves.

We still follow that understanding today.  I have been helping with the youth confirmation classes during this school year.  I’ve been teaching some of these kids ever since they were little, when we’d sing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” But faith is not always so simple.  And we don’t want our youth to just swallow something whole, even if they’ve read it in the Bible, even if someone in authority tells them so.  We don’t want them to be “easily influenced or led.”

And so, in our classes, we’ve often turned to John Wesley.  Wesley said that of course we need to read scripture.  But we also need to look to tradition, reason, and experience.  We need to look to Christian tradition, especially to traditions of the early church, which he said demonstrated “no other than love.”  We also need to use our own God-given faculty of reason.  And we need to be true to our own experience, our experience of the world, our experience of the divine.  It we turn our back on our own common sense or our own experience, we turn our back on ourselves.

We’ve put a lot into challenging the youth.  And when the time comes for them to decide whether to be confirmed, some may say “yes,” some may so “no” or “not yet.” But they will know what they are deciding.   I’m grateful to Pastor Kris, to Peggy, Eleanor, and Jenny, and to this congregation, who have all supported the youth in this process.

Pastor Kris suggested that I preach on the themes in my upcoming book, but I decided instead to go with the lectionary.  Still, I am putting in a plug about the book, which is called Love in a Time of Climate Change:  Honoring Creation, Establishing Justice.  It will be released in July, and there are cards on a table in the Fellowship Hall if you want to know more.  It’s based on the teachings of John Wesley.  It uses scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to explore the themes of creation and justice.  The point is not to convince people what they should think.  Instead, it’s a challenge for readers come to their own understanding about climate change, and to decide for themselves how to respond.

We face many challenges, not just climate change.  There are so many challenges today that change may seem almost impossible.  We may be tempted to give up hope, but now is not the time for that, not if we are truly committed to following Jesus.  Christ is risen.  God who is Love can bring light out of darkness and life out of death.

Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God… the reign of God, the kin-dom of God.  However we name it, following Jesus means following him into the heart of the struggle for a better world:  a world where all have access to food and water, where all are cared for and offered shelter, where even the stranger and outcast are sought out and brought into community.  A world where the abundance of creation is a shared gift, offered to all people and all species and preserved to all generations.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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