Shuck and Jive

Monday, September 30, 2019

While It Is Still Not Too Late

My sermon from Sunday, September 29th, 2019 at Southminster Presbyterian Church. Listen to audio here.

How late is it?

For me personally, at the age of 58, it is likely too late to fulfill that dream of playing second base for the New York Mets. That dream should be put on the shelf. My seven-year-old nephew, Cooper, can dream that dream, but for me, it is too late.

The journey of life requires that of us. That is to evaluate what there is still time to do and what must be considered realistically, too late. We may harbor old dreams long past their expiration date. It is healthy to let those dreams go with appropriate mourning and ritual so we can look with clear eyes at what is still yet possible and what dreams fit reality.

It is not easy to let go of dreams. Those dreams can be so much a part of us that we hold on to them even when evidence of their demise is easy to see. We call that denial.

Poor Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before its capture by the Babylonians in the 6th century before Christ. He has had a long relationship with Jeremiah. Almost friends I wonder? Their dance goes like this: Zedekiah asks Jeremiah for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah gives it to him. Zedekiah refuses to heed it. Again and again they repeat that pattern.

When it is too late for anything else, Jeremiah tells him, “Surrender. It is over. Spare your life and your family’s life.” Zedekiah won’t believe it.

And according to the text we heard this morning, even as the Babylonian army is besieging the city, Zedekiah asks Jeremiah why he is prophesying the end for Judah. It would be almost comical if it weren’t so tragic. Denial to the last. Zedekiah is captured. His family is killed before his eyes. Then his eyes are gouged out and he is taken to Babylon in chains. The last king of Judah.

Jeremiah does give one more prophecy. But if Zedekiah heard it, we can’t know if it ever held meaning for him. Jeremiah tells the story of the field he bought, complete with a lot of detail regarding the purchase. The prophecy is that land will be purchased in Judah again. Yes, it is hopeful. A hopeful prophecy. But it will not be fulfilled in the lifetime of anyone listening, including Jeremiah. This hope will be realized on the other side of the devastation. That is hope in the midst of reality. A real hope. It is not fake hope, the hope to which Zedekiah clung.

Some have been showing us that the hour is late for America. I won’t tell you that. I am not as clear of vision as they are nor as brave as Jeremiah. I will just point out that there are those people who say things like that. There is hope for us. Real hope, they say. But it is long past the fake hope of endless happy motoring. That era, they say, will end soon, as the hour is late.

So what do we do?

Well, there is a parable for that.

It is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. But Lazarus doesn’t have much of a part. The real story is about the rich man. Many people don’t like this parable as it conjures up images of hellfire which many of us traumatized in our childhood religion are glad to have left behind.

In my mind the best interpretation of this parable is by Charles Dickens in his story “A Christmas Carol.” One Christmas Eve awhile back, Ebeneezer Scrooge, the old miser, is visited by three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, respectively. Scrooge is given a gift that he didn’t deserve. He was able to see his life, past, present, and future.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, unlike the other two spirits, does not speak. He only shows. The death of the crippled boy, Tim. The celebration of the city over what? The death of Scrooge as he realizes seeing his own tombstone.

“Are these things that will happen or may happen?” Scrooge asks desperately to the Ghost who doesn’t answer.

Mercifully, Scrooge awakens, scared witless, but transformed. Much is too late for Scrooge. Too late for the love of his life he traded for greed. Too late for Christmas dinners that he missed with his loved ones. Most of his life is water under the bridge. But he has a little time left. It is not too late for everything. It is not too late for one more Christmas Day spent with joy and generosity.

Through the lens of Charles Dickens is how I see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
We might ask,
“Is this what really happens when we die?”
“Is there really a hell?”
“Is there really divine judgment?”
“Or is it just a story?”

Jesus, like the ghost of Christmas future does not answer. He just points to it.

The parable is not for the dead, of course. It is not for Lazarus or the rich man. The parable is for the living.

We can dismiss it as the rich man fears his brothers will dismiss what is written by Moses and the Prophets.

“Send Lazarus back to warn my brothers!” he cries.

“Even a resurrected dead man won’t convince them,” says Abraham. “What you get is what you get.”

Here we are today, September 29th, 2019, confronted by two Bible stories, one from Jeremiah and one from Luke. Bible stories that have been in Bibles long before any of us were around. Bible stories translated into hundreds of different languages, commented upon, reflected upon, debated, heard, dismissed, and received.

What do we do?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a powerful sermon on this text in 1955. The rich man in Latin is Dives (Dahy-vees) and the King James used Dives as proper name for the rich man. King in his sermon, said Dives’ sin, the rich man’s sin, was not that he was rich, but it was that he refused to bridge the gulf between Lazarus and himself, the gulf now permanent in the afterlife. This is from King:

“Dives is the white man who refuses to cross the gulf of segregation and lift his Negro brother to the position of first class citizenship, because he thinks segregation is a part of the fixed structure of the universe. Dives is the India Brahman who refuses to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother, because he feels that the gulf which is set forth by the caste system is a final principle of the universe. Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is the natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty. 
Dives sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.
So when Dives cries to Abraham to send him one drop of water at Lazarus’ hands, Abraham replies: “There is a fixed gulf between you now.” There was a time that Dives could have bridged the gulf. He could have used the engineering power of love to build a bridge of compassion between him and Lazarus. But he refused. Now the gulf is fixed. The gulf is now an impassable gulf. Time has run out. The tragic words, too late, must now be, marked across the history of Dives’ life.

King finished his sermon by saying that all of us are Dives in one way or another.

“Each of us is a potential Dives, maybe not rich in material goods, but rich in education, rich in social prestige, rich in influence, rich in charm. At our gate stands some poor Lazarus who has been deprived of all of these. There is a gulf. But the gulf can be bridged by a little love and compassion. Bridge the gulf before it becomes too late. It is now passable. But it can become impassable.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that sermon October 2nd, 1955 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, 64 years ago this week.

Nearly 12 years later on April 4th, 1967, in Riverside Church in New York, he preached the sermon that defined his last days, “Beyond Vietnam.” Exactly one year later, April 4th, 1968, he was assassinated. You can tell me whether or not his assassination had anything to do with his Vietnam sermon. The King family thinks it does.

The point is that it was a good sermon King preached in 1955 in Montgomery. Everyone liked it. It was scholarly, contemporary, and inspirational. Take a lesson from Dives before it is too late and bridge the gulf between yourself and those less fortunate than you.

The sermon he preached in 1967 was not well received. There King preached against the Vietnam War, saying at one point what had happened to the Vietnamese people:

“They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs. 
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.”

King called for the end of the war and for young men and women to become conscientious objectors. Near the end of his sermon he said:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

King was vilified, of course, by representatives of the war machine and by the many enemies he had already made over the years in his battle for civil rights. More than that. He lost virtually all support from his friends, colleagues, and supporters in the civil rights movement itself. His last year of life was a lonely year. It was also a year that he felt most alive.

“I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land,” he said in his last sermon in Memphis before he was shot and killed.

King knew his Vietnam sermon would change the course of his life. He knew the risk he was taking speaking against the war machine. He knew what people would say, that he would lose all that he had worked for, lose his support, lose virtually everything. Lose his own life.

King knew something else. He knew that it was late. He knew that America had not much time, (even less today) to save its soul before it destroys the world. He knew that the hour was late for him. Even at the age of 48, he knew his days were not indefinite. He knew that he had to make a choice. He had to decide what his life was, what his life was worth. He knew that he couldn’t retire on the victories of the Civil Rights Act when the elites were leading the country to hell in Vietnam and beyond.

He made his choice in his time.

He took a lesson from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Bible stories. That is all they are. Ancient history and parables. Jeremiah and Zedekiah, the rich man and Lazarus. Just Bible stories. For some people that is all they are and ever will be. For others, Like Martin Luther King, they are the summons from Spirit.

Spirit calling those who would hear that the hour is late.
There is not much time.
But there is time.
Time to end denial and to put on the shelf unrealistic dreams.
Time to act on a realistic hope.
Time to take inventory of your life and what you value.
Time to ask yourself what the rest of your life is for.


Friday, September 27, 2019

No Longer "Happy to Be a Presbyterian"

A few weeks ago I was banned from the Facebook group, “Happy to Be a Presbyterian.” I had been a member for some time, close to its beginning, I think. It has about 11,000 members and I think of it as the social media living room for members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), my denomination that I have served as a minster for 27 years. 

I was informed by one of the moderators that I had broken the group’s rules. I don’t doubt that I broke the rules. I often break rules. But in this case, what rule? What rule was broken?  The moderator did not say except that I broke the clear rules. Spelling that out from my point of view will be the point of this post. 

I should provide a bit of history about my relationship with my denomination. I am probably one of the most obnoxious ministers in the church. Many people do not like me. For good reason. I made a lot of enemies battling for LGBT rights (ordination, marriage). The same for my support of the Jesus Seminar, Evolution Weekend, and atheist ministers. Of course, I wrote and spoke out against the American Empire and its wars and Israel and its genocide of the Palestinians. I wrote about Peak Oil and the coming collapse of the American way of life (which will likely happen in very short order). 

My record is public. You can find all the stuff I have done on my blogs, Shuck and Jive and  Progressive Spirit, and now on Facebook (even as I despise it). You can even read or hear nearly all my sermons including those I have preached at my current church. Speaking of my current church, waters are again rough as you can hear by my most recent sermon and read in my most recent missive to the congregation.  My days as a Presbyterian minister in a pulpit are likely numbered. 

These days I write, speak and post against Islamophobia and in particular anti-Shiism, and have found renewed faith in God through my exposure to the person of Imam Hussain (a.s.) after having journeyed to Karbala. Let’s be clear. My theology like my politics are independent. I will not be owned by any gatekeeper of any religion, political party or movement.  I care about two things—Truth and Goodness.  I affirm this old Presbyterian principle:
“That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a person’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (F-3.0104)

With that, let’s go back to what happened at “Happy to Be a Presbyterian”. I posted this link. This was a link to a study completed by the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks regarding the collapse of World Trade Center Tower 7 on September 11th, 2001. The study concluded 

“…that fire did not cause the collapse of WTC 7 on 9/11, contrary to the conclusions of NIST and private engineering firms that studied the collapse. The secondary conclusion of our study is that the collapse of WTC 7 was a global failure involving the near-simultaneous failure of every column in the building.”

Within 38 minutes my post was removed. I posted it again. It was removed again almost immediately. I messaged the three moderators asking them if they removed it.  Each said no. One even suggested that Facebook might have removed it. After messaging the moderators, I posted the link to the study for the third time. It was again removed immediately. I wrote another piece (without the link to the study this time) saying what just happened with my suspicion that Facebook removed the post (they have done that before).  A spirited conversation resulted with many people commenting.

Finally, in the course of the conversation, a fourth moderator emerged and said he removed the post. I told him it would be nice in the future to let me know when that happens. In the course of responding to comments on this post, I once again linked to the study. In short order, the comments were frozen. The fourth moderator messaged me that he froze comments and and that my link to the study was again removed. That was the fourth removal of the link to the study. In my messages with him, he said he closed comments because the conversation was “not productive” and he removed links to the study because it “was not scientific.”  He decided that for 11,000 members of the group. I told him he was working for dark forces by his actions. I complained to the other three moderators about him. I was then told I was banned. 

What rule did I break? 

It wasn’t that I posted something political. Political stuff is posted there often, including previously by me. Maybe my post doesn't concern Presbyterians? It concerns everyone. A Presbyterian touchstone is speaking truth to power. Maybe I am just obnoxious. Maybe they didn't like that I protested the deletion rather than just accept it. I am sure people will say all of those things are rules I have broken. Whatever.

Here is what I think. I am a member of Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth and have been for nearly ten years. Exposing the lies of our government regarding the events of September 11th, 2001 cannot be tolerated by our media or any of our public institutions including the church even as the church is founded on the truth of Jesus Christ. 

That is the rule that I broke. I posted information that shows that our government lied and continues to lie about the defining event of this century. I posted information from an accredited university. I posted a study showing that our government lied. This is no small, insignificant lie. This lie has resulted in massive surveillance, torture, Islamophobia, the stripping of civil liberties, post 9/11 wars costing trillions of dollars, the destruction of nations, and the deaths of millions. It goes on. It matters. 

A 47-story skyscraper came down in 7 seconds (2.5 of those seconds at the acceleration of gravity). Obviously, it was the result of explosives. This is only the beginning of the lies.  We have been lied to. And I am squealing.

It is Hussain who has given me the spiritual courage to write about it and talk about it come what may. Since going to Karbala, I have been writing and posting more about this (and other crimes of the elites) than I ever have. I don’t care if Muslims or Christians don’t like me talking about this. Muslims don’t own Hussain any more than Christians own Jesus.

Hussain knew he would be martyred. He and his 72 companions versus 30,000? Seriously? What other outcome is there? But he is victorious. His story lives. Thus he lives

As for Jesus. He, too, was martyred in Jerusalem at the hand of Rome and its temple conspirators. He stood for truth. He knew he would be martyred. What did he think he could accomplish turning over tables in the temple? He lived for truth. Like Hussain’s his was a losing cause. But he is victorious. His story lives. Thus he lives. Jesus is also my spiritual inspiration.

It is Jesus I follow to Karbala.
Jesus showed me Hussain.
If I want to follow Jesus, I must follow Hussain.
Hussain shows me how to follow Jesus.

I don’t care about what the scholars of either religion say I have to believe about Jesus or Hussain. I think Jesus was a human being just like the rest of us (this goes against orthodox Christianity). I think Jesus was martyred (this goes against orthodox Islam). As I said, I am independent. 

When Imam Mahdi and Jesus reveal themselves, then I guess we will all know. All of us will likely be wrong about a lot of things. 

In the meantime, I care about truth and goodness. I will speak it so help me God.

I am sad I am no longer “Happy to Be a Presbyterian.” It is my family. But, as we know, all families are toxic when they require you to suppress your truth to be a part of them.

I am leading a study of David Ray Griffin’s book The Christian Gospel for Americans: A Systematic Theology, for four Tuesday evenings in October (8, 15, 22, 29) from 7-9 pm at Southminster. 

Dr. Griffin writes that the church is in a time of status confesionis (confessional status) in regards to the American Empire.  

It is now time for Christians in America—actually, long past time—to engage in an extensive examination of the nature of the American Empire to see if it is so “perverted and oppressive” that Christians, individually and as churches, should “publicly and unequivocally” reject it… 
American political, economic, and military leaders have long been engaged, since at least the end of the Cold War, in a “global domination project,” similar to the Nazi project. Like the Germans, America has used its power toward bringing the whole world under its control. How could we fail to regard this American Empire’s domination project—like the Nazi project—as wholly antithetical to Christian faith?
Our Christian faith at its best would lead us, both as individual Christians and as churches, to oppose the American Empire in the name of God. As long as the church does not explicitly oppose this empire, it is, by its silence, a de facto supporter.

All are welcome.