Monthly Archives: November 2020

Developing a Holy Squint

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection waken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Mark 13:33.

Rev. Kyle Childress, a pastor and teacher I greatly admire, grew up and ministered most of his life in the state of Texas. He tells a story about an old rancher whose face was permanently sunburned and lined from decades of living outside. He had developed a “perpetual squint,” so that, daylight or dark, indoors or out, he always looked like he was squinting, looking across some pasture for a stray cow in the face of glaring sun and blowing wind. Squinting, looking into the distance for so many years had shaped his face. Indeed, it had shaped the way he looked at everything.

Pastor Childress goes on to reflect on how we are shaped by where our gaze is fixed and how the course of our lives is determined by who and by what we love, hope for and expect. Seems to me that is a good thought with which to start the new church year. It is a great parable through which to view the season of Advent. Truth is, we are shaped by our longings and what we desire determines how we live and how we treat each other.

In our gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus encourages his disciples to keep their gaze, their perpetual squint, on his coming. That is easier said than done. There is plenty out there to distract us. There will be wars and rumors of war, says Jesus, earthquakes and famines. Mark 13:8. Of course, we don’t need Jesus to tell us that. But then Jesus goes on to tell us about things we have not yet experienced; things that are not simply part and parcel of human history. The sun will cease to give its light. The moon will turn dark. The stars will fall from the sky. All those things we thought where constant; all those things we imagined would never change suddenly do. And then, they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

The Greek word “erchomi” that we translate as “coming” frequently means rather “to appear.” So we might better translate this verse “then they will see the Son of Man ‘appearing’ in the clouds.” That is an important distinction because it is not as though Jesus left us alone two millennia ago only to return at some point in the distant future. He is here now. He has always been here for eyes that can see him; for eyes that have been trained to search for signs of his appearing and the unfolding of God’s reign. For those whose perpetual squint is formed by Jesus and the reign of God he promises, those signs are everywhere.

On election day in Warren, Michigan a group of Donald Trump supporters and backers of Joe Biden started shouting slogans and insults at each other through bullhorns-a none too common occurrence. But then Matthew Woods, a 59-year-old Trump supporter and travelling musician, challenged the Biden supporters to a “sing off.” The opposing groups soon started singing together and even posed for photos. “We shook hands, hugged each other and apologized for saying bad words to one another,” Wood said. “’Let’s forget about politics. Let’s hug each other and be friends.’” Harmony: Opposing “Trump and Biden groups make music together,” CityNews, November 3, 2020.

Like the tender shoots of the fig tree, this fragile moment, during which two groups of bitterly opposed people were able to see through the hateful rhetoric, stereotypical thinking and rigid ideology dividing them to their common humanity, gives us a glimpse, however fleeting, into what God desires and promises for all people. Disciples understand that moments of compassion and reconciliation like these are not just islands of tenderness in an ocean of hatred and indifference. They are God’s future pressing in upon our present. They remind us that the grip of evil is not unbreakable. They are a foretaste of God’s salvation poised to break over all creation like a cosmic tsunami.

Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus also understand that the reign of God does not come without struggle, suffering and loss. The cross is the shape of God’s reign as it takes hold of a world in bondage to sin. Thus, Jesus warns us not to be led astray by promises that the end is at hand when, in fact, there remains much work to do. Mark 13:5-7. Discipleship requires that we recognize the evils of systemic racism, economic injustice and entrenched patriarchy and know that baptism into Christ Jesus is a call to struggle against these and all other powers of sin, death and the devil. We would be naïve to expect this struggle to be short lived. We would be foolish to believe God’s reign will come without suffering, sacrifice and loss. But Jesus would have us know that, even in this, we are witnessing not merely the death throws of the old creation, but the birth pangs of the new.

It is not in vain that Jesus taught us to pray first and foremost that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s kingdom come and that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Praying these petitions, meditating on them and allowing them to shape the contours of our souls transforms us just as surely as gazing into the rugged outdoor elements transformed the expression of that old rancher’s face. So keep awake. Keep your eye peeled for signs of the kingdom. Keep your squint focused on Jesus and on what he is doing, so that when he is revealed to all the world and God’s gentle reign of peace breaks in, your eyes will have been trained to recognize it, your heart will have been shaped to love it and you will have formed the habits required for living in it joyfully, thankfully and obediently.

The above story from Warren, Michigan illustrates how music can both be and affect signs of the advent of God’s reign. Here is a poem by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper making a similar observation.

Songs for the People

Let me make the songs for the people,
   Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
   Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
   For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
   With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
   Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
   And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
   Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
   To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
   When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
   Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
   Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
   Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender

   Girdle the world with peace.

Source: A Brighter Day Coming, (c. 1990 by Francis Smith Foster, pub. Feminist Press by City University of New York) p. 371. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher and writer born in Baltimore, Maryland. She was also one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Watkins Harper had a long and productive career, publishing her first book of poetry at the age of 20.  As a young woman, she taught sewing at Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, a school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. During that time,  Watkins Harper also worked with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society helping refugee slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad to Canada. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women in  1894 and served as its vice president. Harper died in 1911, just nine years before women gained the right to vote. You can read more about Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Divided Allegiance-The Plague of the American Church

SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Prayer of the Day: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Ephesians 1:20-21.

The celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. Sadder still is our generation’s failure to learn from this history the dark places to which nationalistic idolatry invariably leads. Saddest of all is the American church’s failure to address the godless ideology of nationalism as it rears its ugly head once again, not only within our nation, but within the very heart of our congregations.

The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform (which has been re-adopted by the RNC as the 2020 platform) states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.”

This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that  “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.”  It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”

This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has morphed into a fascist  style populism appealing to the basest instincts of our population and has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color for the last four years. This administration and its religious minions have mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Stephen Miller have become fixtures in the White House. The replacement of long standing public servants in crucial leadership positions in our government with Trump loyalists over the last week is more than disturbing. This, coupled with the president’s refusal to concede an election that he lost substantially, in terms both of the electoral collage and the popular vote, with the backing/enabling/complicity of the Republican party should concern us all. Whether or not Donald Trump finally leaves the White House in January, the religion of Trumpism will continue to be a toxic force in our country.

What concerns me more, however, is the relative silence of the American church in the face of what can only be described as a fascist deification of the nation and its leader. I understand, of course, that American mainline protestant churches have produced numerous statements and declarations objecting to particular actions and policies of the Trump administration and condemning racism in general. Yet, as far as I am aware, none has named the beast. No protestant church has condemned the Republican party for its idolatrous elevation of the United States to an “exceptional” status. No protestant church (at least none of the white mainline ones) has addressed the hijacking of Christian doctrine and symbols in support of this vile ideology. What we need, in my humble opinion, is an ecumenical Barman like declaration naming the heresies of American exceptionalism and the deification by so-called evangelicals and their leaders of the Republican agenda and Donald Trump.

Voices far more credible than mine are warning the church not to ignore the dangers of nationalist populism. In 2019 the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) published a collection of essays written by theologians, pastors and teachers from around the world under the title, Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism. In the preface to these deeply thoughtful and disturbing writings, Rev. Martin Junge, LWF General Secretary wrote:

“Exclusionary populism unfolds a negative dynamic, which undermines the very fabric and existence of public and civil society space. It perverts basic norms and values of how we want to live together as society and as international community. Therefore, it is vital to jointly address these challenges by scrutinizing its ideological foundations and denouncing its harmful assumptions. Furthermore, the LWF sees the need to articulate with renewed clarity our vision for just and participatory living together, and live out this calling as churches. We need to give an account of the theological perspectives that emerge from the gospel message, which points to God’s compassionate and liberating presence in this world.”  Id. pp. 9-10 (italics mine).

We should be concerned about this new exposion of American nationalist populism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

The difficulty, of course, is that many adherents of American exceptionalism and its racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideological children are sitting in the pews of our churches each Sunday (or in front of their computers in virtual worship). I know from experience that addressing white privilege, supporting refugee resettlement, speaking up for our Muslim siblings and saying in no uncertain terms that Jesus is a globalist can cost a church members and financial support-to say nothing of its pastor’s job. It is possible, perhaps likely, that some congregations will withdraw from the ELCA if its leaders begin to unmask the contradictions between faith in Jesus and a hypernationalistic pledge of allegiance to the United States. But is this really a fitting argument for muting our witness? As much as I value unity within the Body of Christ, I would prefer to see a church divided over the gospel of Jesus Christ than united under something less. I am not prepared to sacrifice our witness to Christ’s just peace just for peace in the ecclesiastical household.

We have a long standing tradition in Lutheranism of avoiding political partisanship in our preaching. That is a sound practice in ordinary times. After all, two people who are equally dedicated to addressing racism, eradicating poverty and caring for refugees can have very different views about how that good work should be done. In ordinary times, politics is the business of working out the nuts and bolts of how best to care for our neighbors. These are not ordinary times, however. There is no reconciling “America first” with “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Acts 10:34-35. There is no reconciling preservation of culture based on “blood, soil and race” and the “great multitude which no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9. There is no reconciling Trump’s messianic claim that he is “the only one” who can save us and Saint Peter’s declaration that “there is no other name under heaven [than Jesus] given among human beings by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12. If any of this offends anyone’s politics, they need to get themselves another politics or a another savior.

The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her citizens, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.

Here is a peom by Vechel Lindsay speaking to the hijacking of Christian faith in the name of nationalist violence and oppressin.

The Unpardonable Sin

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: —
To speak of bloody power as right divine,
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine:—

To go forth killing in White Mercy’s name,
Making the trenches stink with spattered brains,
Tearing the nerves and arteries apart,
Sowing with flesh the unreaped golden plains.

In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
And turn each home into a screaming sty,
To make the little children fugitive,
And have their mothers for a quick death cry,—

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
This is the sin no purging can atone:—
To send forth rapine in the name of Christ:—
To set the face, and make the heart a stone.

Source: The Congo and Other Poems (c. Macmillan, 1914). Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879 -1931) was an American poet and originator of modern “singing poetry,” verse intended for singing or chanting. Born in Springfield, Illinois, Lindsay was the son of a well to do medical doctor. The Lindsays lived across the street from the Illinois Executive Mansion then occupied by governor John P. Altgeld whom Lindsay admired for pardoning a number of anarchists convicted in connection with their involvement in the Haymarket Affair. He was also a fan of Abraham Lincoln whom he memorialized in one of his poems in which he exclaims “Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all!” Lindsay studied medicine at Ohio’s Hiram College from 1897 to 1900. Much to the disappointment of his parents’ however, he left Hiram to attend the Art Institute of Chicago from 1900 to 1903 and the New York School of Art in 1903. His focus was on drawing, an interest that eventually led him to silent film criticism. At this point, Lindsay began writing poetry and traveling across the United States, mostly on foot. In 1914, he published his first poems in Poetry Magazine where he won recognition in the American poetry community. You can read more about Vachel Lindsay and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Evangelicals in Talks With Satan Following Trump Electoral Defeat

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

In the wake of Donald J. Trump’s failed bid for re-election to the presidency of the United States, several evangelical leaders reportedly met with Satan to discuss a possible détente and agreement of cooperation. “God stood us up on November 3rd,” fumed Rev. Paula White, a close spiritual adviser of the President. “I prayed myself silly, speaking in tongues and pleading for angelic reinforcements from all over the world. We got squat!” Ralph Reed, lobbyist and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, told us that evangelicals were “sending a message” to the Deity. “We think God needs to understand that he is not indispensable. He needs to know that he can be replaced.”

Said the Rev. Franklin Graham, “We were very disappointed in God’s failure to show up at the 2020 election in the way he did in 2016.” Graham went on to explain that he and his associates were not “rejecting” God. “We just feel that if we cannot rely on God to stand up for his champion and defend Christianity, we have to look for support elsewhere. It is our hope that God will soon wake up, see how his inaction has threatened the future of Christianity in America and step up to the plate. Until then, we have to turn for help wherever we can get it.”

The meeting was arranged by Jerry Falwell, Jr., former president of Liberty University. “We were very encouraged by the outcome of our discussions and look forward to an improved relationship with Satan, ” he said. “True, we have had our differences in the past and there has been some harsh rhetoric between us. But we were able to identify several areas of agreement between the devil’s agenda and our own. Where the future of Christianity hangs in the balance and God seems uninterested in saving it, we need to take a pragmatic approach to protecting Christian morality and family values. After all, we supported a twice divorced admitted sexual predator for president. Why not take help from the devil?”

Ghost reporters interviewed the Prince of Darkness later today who denied the existence of any agreement with evangelicals. “Absolutely no deal was struck,” said the Devil. “They talked. I listened. That’s all.” When pressed on whether any agreement might be forthcoming, Satan expressed some skepticism. “I’m frankly reluctant to commit to anything with them,” he said. “What’s in it for me? My Competition got the divine Name mixed up with these evangelical types and the Trump label. What good came of that? Young people are leaving evangelical churches in droves because they can’t stomach the man. Naturally, I’m pleased about that. Such defections increase my potential market share. But if I’m going to capitalize on this opportunity, I can’t let my brand be tainted with the Trump name. The last thing I need is more bad PR! Of course, these esteemed evangelical leaders all offered to sell me their souls. And I reminded them that I bought their souls already back in 2016. That’s right! They tried to sell me the same souls twice! Who does that? What happened to fair commercial practices and truth in advertising? And they call me the ‘father of lies.’ Go figure.”

Not surprisingly, God declined to be interviewed for this piece. The Almighty typically does not weigh in on the daily news. But on this occasion, the Deity issued a rare, brief press release:

“I’ll gladly accept responsibility for hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and all the other ‘acts’ attributed to me by insurance companies trying to weasel out of paying their claims. But I want to make clear that I had no hand in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. You idiots did that to yourselves.”

**************************************************************

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Walking in the Light When It’s Still Dark

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-11
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Prayer of the Day: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day…” I Thessalonians 5:4-5.

This verse stands in stark contrast to the words of the prophet Amos we heard last week.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light…

Amos 5:18.

Whereas Paul speaks of the “Day of the Lord” as a new dawn, as a morning to be anticipated with joyful expectation, Amos warns his hearers that it will be for them not light, but darkness. Not salvation, but judgment. Perhaps they are both right. From the perspective of persons of color, the toppling of a confederate monument signifies the erasure of a symbol sanctifying the systemic prejudice they endure every waking moment. But from the perspective of those who revere the monument and what it stands for, it represents the loss of privilege and a stark judgment upon the status quo in which they have become all too comfortable. So, too, the promise of an existence where all people receive their “daily bread” sounds like liberation to the hungry, but conjurers up the dark specters of “communism” or “socialism” in the minds of those who have accumulated wealth and are accustomed to having much more than enough. Thus, whether the Day of the Lord represents darkness or light depends upon where you stand, what you value and where your hope is anchored.

Saint Paul characterizes disciples of Jesus as “children of the light and children of the day.” As such, they live and move in the light. Their eyes are accustomed to sunshine. For them, the inbreaking of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace is a welcome sight. It is possible, of course, to become accustomed to darkness. When you have been moving about in the dark for a long time, your eyes become used to it. You develop a measure of “night vision” enabling you to make out the contuers of your surroundings, avoid obstacles and identify familiar shapes. Darkness becomes the norm. But when someone switches on the light and dispels the darkness, the eyes are shocked by this unwelcome flood of luminescence. One’s normal response is to close one’s eyes against the harsh onslaught of light. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.

Paul, therefore, encourages the church in Thessalonica to accustom their eyes to the light of day, even as they live in the midst of so much darkness. The time will come when the “hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.” Luke 1:53. The mighty will be put down “from their thrones” and “those of low degree” will be “exalted.” Luke 1:52. The day will come when “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24. All who have been thirsting for righteousness, hungering for justice and seeking the reign of God welcome this development and every sign of its coming with joy. But those who have been living in darkness, those who assumed that might will always make right, those who imagined that the way things are is the way they must always be, for them the inbreaking of God’s reign of justice and peace will be a rude awakening, a harsh and terrifying light shining into the darkest corners and exposing what they always believed would remain forever hidden.

So the question is, are we becoming the kind of people capable of living in the light? Are we being transformed into the kind of people who can recognize and be recognizable to Jesus in the day of his coming in glory? Where will we stand in relationship to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the persecuted and imprisoned when the Son of Man returns to judge the nations? Some might criticize me here for suggesting that salvation depends on human good works rather than grace. Rest assured, there is no question that God’s redemptive love embraces all without regard to their worthiness. Furthermore, I think that Saint Paul’s words about the Day of the Lord and the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 to which I alluded have far more to do with what God is calling us toward this moment than with who does and who does not get into heaven at the end of time. If you know that, in the end, the value of one’s life is not measured in terms of power, wealth, fame, professional accomplishment but simply in terms of how one has treated “the least” among us, what light does that shed on how we are living today? The good news is that the Day of the Lord is beginning to dawn even now. Even now it is possible to begin accustoming our eyes to the light that breaks into our lives with every opportunity to practice justice, exercise compassion and show mercy, a light that must inevitably envelop the whole of creation. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5.

Here is a poem by Maya Angelou daring us to emerge from the darkness of our fears, prejudices and blood feuds to a new day. Perhaps this is something akin to what Saint Paul means when he challenges disciples of Jesus to walk in the light.

On the Pulse of the Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.

[…]

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (c. Maya Angelou 1993; pub. by Random House Inc., 1994). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Light and Fuel for the Long Haul

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Prayer of the Day: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:13.

By the time Sunday rolls around, one of three things will have occurred. Donald Trump will have been elected to a second term as president of the United States, in which case we can expect four more of the same. Or, alternatively, Joe Biden will be elected president by a solid electoral majority and we can hope some semblance of order will return to the White House. Or the election may not be decided tomorrow or the next day or the day after or the week after. The legitimacy of the election might even be cast into doubt and held captive to litigation. That would place us in uncharted territory. Worst case scenario, the election will be decided by the courts leaving a substantial part of the country feeling that it has been stolen from them.

I considered delaying my normal Monday publication date until Wednesday following the election so that my reflections would be more “contextual.” But I decided against it. After all, the gospel lesson speaks directly to uncertainty: uncertainty over when the bridegroom will show up; uncertainty over when, if ever, we will know who won the presidential election; uncertainty over what the future holds regardless; uncertainty over when this pandemic will subside; uncertainty over how many more lifetimes God’s people must wait for God’s reign of justice and peace to unfold. Jesus’ parable seems directed to people living in times of uncertainty. And let’s face it, those are the only times there have ever been. The ground under our feet has never been as firm as we tell ourselves it is. When the sun is shining, the sky is clear, systemic racism remains invisible and no pandemic looms on the horizon, it is easy to convince ourselves otherwise. But in days like these, the fragility of our world and of our very lives is hard to deny. Whatever the political weather, Jesus’ word is the same. Be prepared at all times for the appearing of God’s reign-but expect delays.

I have made no secret of my hope that the upcoming election will bring an end to the Trump presidency and the demons of racial hate it has raised up. But to those of you who share this hope, understand that it might not come to fruition. If we must face four more years of Trump’s dark and suffocating shadow, do we have enough oil in our lamps to get through those years? Are we so thoroughly convinced that the reign of God prevails in the end that we can stubbornly persist in speaking truth to power and advocating for the rights, safety and security of the most vulnerable among us without giving in to despair? Have we got what it takes to keep picking up trash on the shoreline even as regulatory repeal opens the floodgates to global pollution? The real test of discipleship is faithfulness even when faithful action appears futile. Are we up to that testing?

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s electoral defeat is hardly the end of the church’s struggle. My greatest fear is not that Trump will remain in office, but that he will lose to Joe Bidan and we will declare victory and go home. Getting Trump out of the White House will not rid our country of the evils his presidency has uncovered. Trump is the symptom, not the cause of systemic racism, patriarchy, sexual violence and idolatrous nationalism. If, as I hope, Trump is defeated in 2020, we cannot ignore the fact that a substantial piece of the American population will still be inflamed with the same racial hate that brought Trump to the pinnacle of power. Indeed, they will likely become more angry, more desperate, more energized and therefore more violent and dangerous. Our schools, workplaces and government institutions will still be laced with systemic racism and patriarchy. The gap between the rich and the ever shrinking middle class will still be growing. The shocking number of people living with food insecurity will still be there the day after the votes are all in. None of this will change automatically after the election. The new occupant of the White House will be beholden to big money and corporate interests despite all his protestation and rhetoric to the contrary.

So once again, the question is the same: Do we have enough oil in our lamps to continue on when it becomes clear that the reign of God has not yet come and our work has only just begun? Do we have the stamina to begin pushing Joe Biden on day one to take concrete steps toward dismantling systemic racism, extending health care to all people within our borders, addressing the disparity in wealth that falls most heavily on people of color and renew the country’s involvement in the international community’s efforts to combat climate change? Are we prepared to continue being gadflies goading our bishops toward racial reconciliation within the church that goes beyond preachy-screechy social statements and involves substantial financial support of Black churches and their ministries, thereby modeling the cry for reparations from a nation that was built on uncompensated Black labor? Are we prepared to keep pressing American church leaders  jointly to condemn American exceptionalism and Christian nationalism as nothing short of heresy?

And what if the third possibility materializes? What if we have no winner and no clear path toward resolving the electoral battle? I strongy suspect we will muddle through somehow. But then again, maybe not. Could this be the beginning of the end of American democracy as we know it? Could this impending crisis be the death rattle of an empire? Has our country had its day in the sun? Is it time for the United States finally to go the way of the Byzantine, Macadonian, Persian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires? God’s people throughout the ages have seen nations and empires come and go. “Crowns and thrones shall perish/kingdoms wax and wain” as the hymn goes. Does the American church, as symbiotically bonded with the American dream as it is, have enough of its soul left to carry on after that dream has been extinquished? Do we have the spiritual resources that enabled  the ancient church with its parishes, convents and monasteries to continue the gospel witness and care for the poorest of the poor in the wake of civilization’s collapse?

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, the church’s task is the same: to bear witness in word and deed to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Though it does not yet appear in its fullness, the light of that reign breaks in through the darkness to enlighten, encourage and inspire those who wait for it, long for it, stay awake watching for it and do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to bear faithful witness to it.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes pondering the destiny of a dream deferred. Could the same observations apply to our longing for the reign of God, which at times appears hopelessly out of reach?

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Source: The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, (c. 2002 by Langston Hughes; pub. by Harold Ober Associates, Inc.) Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).