Sunday, November 1, 2020

Beyond the Basics - a sermon on love & justice


Beyond The Basics - a sermon on love & justice
text: Matthew 22:34-46 
21st Sunday after Pentecost, year A
preached on Zoom on October 25, 2020
for the United Church of Cookeville

One of the first sermons I ever had the honor of giving, since following the call to preach about nine years ago, I preached it in my Mom’s church in the Detroit suburbs, the same church I attended in high school. The title of that talk was, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.” It was thrilling to teach on one of the familiar miracles where Jesus feeds the masses, and it was just as fun to come up with that title: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.”

You have now figured out that I was simply messing with the words from an old familiar song, that I remember from church in the 1970s and from church camp in the 1980s: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. Such a strong, simple sentiment. The first part of today’s gospel is rooted in this idea of Christian love. Jesus is clear. Jesus is so transparent that this text has been paraphrased by our contemporaries into a short-hand for what it means to follow Jesus in our world. The bumper-sticker t-shirt version is this: Love God. Love People.

You have heard that way of saying it before, haven’t you? Love God. Love People. And maybe you have heard people ponder: Why can’t we just get back to the basics? If we get back to basics, the world will be a better place. If we get back to the basics, we will “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds” and we will “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Sounds easy, but it is not.
Love God. Love People. We have not only seen that on bumper stickers and t-shirts, we have seen it on church signs and banners. That is back to basics Christianity. I wanted to call this sermon Back to Basics, but I realized something stark and sobering as I prayed and studied, so much that it gives me the shivers. Back to Basics is not working for the American church right now. If we are going to get back to the basics, first we need to go beyond the basics to see where we may have gone wrong. 

Surveys of Generation Z, that is the young people born this century and late last century, surveys of these Zoomers, as they are sometimes called, they don’t say they recognize Christians for their love as much as they say things like, they recognize Christians for their hypocrisy. Experts on the American religious demographics speculate that this new generation might be the first genuinely post-Christian atheist generation in American history. All that despite the efforts of some evangelicals and some conservative Christians to unite the flag and cross in a frenzy of nationalism. 

If we are to get back to basics, we need to go beyond the basics. We need to talk about love, but we also need to talk about justice, and even power. I am grateful to be having this conversation this morning in a United Church of Christ congregation. 

The UCC has been historically aware and active to address how to translate a “back to basics” approach in a way where it is “beyond the basics” to genuinely help others. So for example, the UCC sign doesn’t just say, “Love God. Love People.” The United Church of Christ specifies how y’all do that, by saying on one of its more popular signs:

“Protect the environment; Care for the poor; Embrace diversity; Reject racism: Forgive often; Love God; Fight for the powerless; Share earthly and spiritual resources; and Enjoy this life.” 

These encouraging, specific, and generous words are displayed on banners by your churches across your denomination, to share with the world what the denomination is about.

Now you know there is that part in many preachers, where we just want to say: not only is it back to basics, it is back to the Bible. When I was preaching regularly in Sparta until recently, I loved to channel my favorite Black baptist preaching mentors and lead into every scripture quote with the exhortation: “The Bible says . . . . .” 

The Bible says a lot of amazing things. It remains the authoritative text in our faith tradition. But the Bible also says confusing things, even problematic things. I know some of y’all well enough and the UCC tradition well enough to understand that y’all are okay when our shared conscience requires us to dialogue with scripture and to push back at it from time to time. 

The second half of the text today got me hung up in just that fashion. The first part of today’s text is all about love, but the second part of the text is all about authority and even power. 

So the text does something super strange today. Now, we are aware of the audacity of the Christian claim, “Jesus is Lord.” We are aware that the church sees Christ, not the Bible and perhaps not even the historical Jesus, but the one Richard Rohr calls the “universal Christ,” we see Christ as our ultimate authority. 

Yet this gets super complicated and awkward in Matthew’s gospel today, because the Bible implies here that Jesus is the Son of David and the Lord of David at the same time. And Jesus explains this by quoting the Psalmist David. In chapter 22, verse 44 of Matthew, we read an excerpt from Psalm 110, “'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet."'

Now some readers will have no problem entertaining many theological premises simultaneously, such as the pre-existence of Christ before the birth of the historical Jesus, the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, and the all-encompassing authority of the trinitarian Christ, so much that the poet King David would be pledging his allegiance to this Christ, some 1000 years before Jesus was born. 

Christians are so familiar with authoritative Christian impositions and interpretive retrojections into the Hebrew texts, that we can tend to read them uncritically. God refers to Godself in the plural in the opening lines of Genesis, that must be the Trinity. The story where Abraham almost sacrifices Issaac, that is just getting us ready for Jesus’s execution on a Roman cross, and all those passages in Isaiah that end up in Christmas carols and Christmas pageants, they are definitely, unquestionably about Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Duh, didn’t you go to Sunday school? Wait, I thought you went to seminary? 

I hope you will not be surprised when I tell you that I read a commentary on today’s text by a Jewish rabbi, and he came to dramatically different conclusions about Matthew 22:44 than most evangelical Christian commentaries do. Yes, the rabbi I consulted claims that this particular exchange may never have happened and that its common interpretation is so much insulting and incorrect “Jews for Jesus” gibberish. 

While we do not necessarily reject traditional Christian teaching on the universal power and unchanging nature of Christ, neither do we haphazardly insist that every passage in the Hebrew Bible that we want to make about Jesus, was actually about Jesus. History has shown us how anti-Jewish interpretations of the gospels in church can lead to anti-Jewish hatred in the real world. 

To preach just a few days before this United States Presidential election, it is not enough to say that we as Christians respect religious pluralism and political integrity and ethnic diversity. 

We may also have to remind ourselves that as Christians, we can and should reject Christian theocracy, Christian nationalism, Christian superiority, and Christian warrants for sexism, homophobia, and white supremacy. We can name as sins, yes sins, the heresies that lead churches and their leaders to support abandoning our covenants to empower the poor and release the prisoners and practice peace and protect the natural world. It is not enough to say “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not at the same time work for what that love looks like out loud and in public, in our communities and in our country. 

In late 1967, less than a year before a bullet took him out at a Memphis motel, Martin Luther King preached the sermon speech “Where Do We Go From Here” at an SCLC gathering:

“Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.” 

Some folks may make an exclusive claim about the authority of Christ, but we also know who Christ is through Jesus, the One who would always be inclusive of the misfits and misunderstood and always intrusive to the haters and hypocrites hoarding worldly power. The authority of Christ is never authoritarian, and we cannot surrender our loving generosity to those who have so twisted our Jesus to where they are never loving and never generous, when it really counts, like the American Christian, who has said about politics: 

“When I'm looking for a leader . . .  I don't want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek. I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”

If we settle for a kind bland bumper sticker back-to-basics approach, our love will never lift up and empower, but we might get stuck in our empty platitudes and promises without the practice that prefaces the coming kindom. Beyond the basics might take us to the book of James to remind us that our faith-without-works is dead. Let’s get back to the basics of love by always going beyond the basics to include justice. Amen. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Nothing & Everything: a note from a restless unemployed preacher

I got nothing. Nothing except everything. Trying to understand everything, when nothing stays the same. In the days since concluding a vocational journey of more than three years as preacher & pastor, this is where I have been: theologically confused, liturgically frustrated, ecclesially homeless (sort of), emotionally spent with anger & grief.

I am Jesus-follower but also spiritual-explorer, & I am at this place of admitting no perfect path, no authentic all-encompassing place for a person who wants to be both faithful & free-spirited, orthodox yet eclectic. 

In my more than fifty years, I have:
tried supernatural theism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, atheism; 
practiced Christianity, Buddhism, neopaganism; 
studied process theology & liberation theology; 
met the Cosmic Christ & the Universal Christ; 
listened to every hipster evangelical charismatic, to every radical progressive dogmatic; 
seen God in drugs & drink, abstinence & sobriety, yoga & deep breathing; 
worked the 12 steps & tried to live by the 4 agreements; 
& don’t even get me started on Tarot, divination, numerology, & animal medicine. 

In searching for every possible place to meet God, to locate authentic spirituality, I need to be constantly reminded of the simple stuff, the sayings that end up on cheesy church signs: love God, love people, love creation. 

When it comes to dining-out at the religious equivalent of an-all-you-can-eat Las Vegas casino buffet, I have tarried there long & come back for seconds & thirds. It’s as if, in all this, this regimen of heavy & heady religious studies, it’s as if having the hip & correct orthodoxy, whatever the heck that means, was somehow more important & pressing than the desperate need for radical orthopraxis, based on those go-to-teachings like Matthew 25. In this sudden moment of freedom & uncertainty, it’s abandoning perfect theories for imperfect practices, some daily reality that keeps calling me in. 

Because with the latter, for you or me or everyone, the planet & the people are crying out for help, for hope, for truth. Not just a private spirituality but love-out-loud as public justice. If I get lost too much in the weeds of the former, I might follow my brain right back up-my-butt, so to speak, until theology is no better than the booze & other behaviors, that I must surrender my addiction from, every-single-freaking-day. 

Flashback eleven years: after two decades of ardent radical activism only matched in its fervor by my active addictions, I flip-flopped fully into born-again religion. Give me all the testimonials, all the hand-waving, always praying-out-loud, prayer-without-ceasing, praying-on-my-knees, I was ready for church. Every path & tributary of spiritual-but-not-religious had been tried, but I will be sure to loop back around eventually, just in case I missed one, on which I might learn more. But for the last ten years, the mainline church has been my jam. From Sunday school to Divinity school to my very own pulpit, preachers are going to preach. Until we don’t. At least not for money, on Sunday, at a regularly scheduled time.

For years of my spiritual adventures, I have been trying to find my way home to that everlasting epiphany, to get grounded, to settle down & land in a place of religious sustenance. One day, I might not be a desperate dabbler, a homiletical hobo, a theological transient. So when we landed somewhere, we wanted to sink roots, to stay. But it didn’t work out. My attempts to moderate & modify & mellow out may have failed. Such delusions I have about meeting people in the middle. We realized all along how moods & minds can turn on a dime, & now, I recognize my own limitations, alongside the obvious shortcomings of an institution. 

The mainstream stream is sometimes just a stagnant stinky pond of stupid sewage. Where is the waterfall, where justice rolls down like water, righteousness like an everflowing stream?

It seems redundant & hyperbole to remind everyone that we worship a homeless radical brown-skinned executed criminal & resurrected Resister. But in the land of white Jesus, insist on this anyways. 

Seems silly to reiterate that the actual Jesus described in the gospels is that guy that your parents warned you about, told you to walk on the other side of the street from, that white Christians actually go to church to murder him again, but not until they twist & belittle his truth. Mainly I am so utterly sick of the hermeneutical gymnastics, the sheer effort required to prop-up antiquated country-club church & to suppress the revolutionary church, wherever that can be found, inside or outside the institution.  

See I have been an activist much longer than I have been a pastor, a restless seeker much longer than I have been located in any singular theological location. As to my membership in the resistance to modern misery, certain privileges & comforts of age & career have made me want to retire or hide, to quit the movement, or at least step back, take a breath, maybe work from the sidelines. Yet I guess I may have underestimated the depth of this radical calling over-and-against the other competing callings: teacher, poet, author, blogger, husband, artist. Or perhaps, it is the times in which we live that have simply chosen & insisted on this calling for me. 

It was second nature to be in the streets in June 2020 for Black Lives Matter, against police brutality, for LGBTQ rights. I don’t know where else I could have been. It’s also been at my heart to write about it all, talk about it all, say what is really going on with it all, which will wait for other rants, with many more specifics. Reckoning with racism & surviving a pandemic are only on the surface of many things that are bubbling up strong, from a deeper depth. My desire to talk about, & participate in, liberation for all humans & for the whole planet, the whole cosmos, burns bright.  

In the two weeks since losing my church job (has it really only been two weeks), I have walked a million miles in my mind trying to figure it all out. My friends have also been generous, to an extent, with unsolicited advice. 

My interpretation of my beloved reformed teaching tells me that grace & salvation are cosmic facts beyond my control. For some strange reason, God has elected & selected us, whether we play-along-nicely or not. Neither your cosmic destiny, nor mine, are up-for-debate for this love wins, love love love-based Jesus universalist. Jesus lived & died to save us all, without exceptions, true story.

So as I unpack the unraveling of one part of my vocation, following my genuine call remains compelling. Something my spouse said, it just stuck; she said it during the heightened anticipation, anger, & anxiety of the events leading up to leaving church. She said I might have to choose between being a pastor & a protester. That at least turned-out-true with the particular call that has closed-up-shop for me (they will find another preacher). Will another particular call come for me? Or will radical devotion to the resurrected revolutionary require me to labor with love outside the traditional church? 

What seems to hold my heart & hands closest to the kindling flames of change, though, are the practical topics & pressing trends that will contribute most clearly to the total transformation of this world, to better be the Beloved Community. Trust & faith & surrender on my personal path are tempered with feeling the fierce urgency of now, of finding where we can best serve the movement. 

Not sure if I will see you in church, or even, what churches that might be, but I do hope I will see you in the streets. Peace! 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Cure Every Disease - a sermon on racism in the time of pandemic

Cure Every Disease - a sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost, in the time of pandemic - preached by Andrew Smith for the Blue Spring Presbyterian Church & visitors online, from his home on June 14, 2020 (text: Matthew 9:35-10:8, Cotton Patch version, year A)

Audio link -- audio cuts off right before the end of the message, manuscript is below:

This time last summer, our family’s annual time off was consumed by concerts, and when we came home from a show near Niagara Falls, New York, we found that lightning had struck one of our trees, a large branch fell, which in turn crushed our roof, doing thousands in damage to our Cookeville home.

During the rehab, we were reminded that there are flaws in the foundation of our home. These have not been fixed, only covered up. But not every problem should be dealt with this way.

In medicine you might know the difference between a treatment and a cure. A treatment improves the quality of a the patient’s life, while a cure would completely remove the disease. We don’t yet have a cure for Covid 19, and we are only improvising the treatment. And the last three weeks have reminded us with the lightning strike of unrest, of other diseases that have always existed in America: racism and injustice.

According to scholars, racism is not the same thing as bigotry, not even simple discrimination. Professors have come to understand racism as an interlocking institutional system, that places one race above another. In religion, we break it down more simply. Racism is a sin.

Whether system or sin or sinful system, it’s this racist reality, not merely the actions of four Minneapolis police officers, that has reverberated throughout our land, as our culture confronts itself in grief, in anger, and in love.

Today’s gospel text touched a nerve in me as I could not read it outside of current events in our country, but also my life, as I have been involved in this new protest movement in Cookeville and online, not only for justice for George Floyd, but justice for all. This is the message God placed on my heart. As I share my story, you may want to contact me later with your story, as we walk through this time together.

In our gospel passage, we read about Jesus telling the disciples, to cast out evil spirits and to cure every disease. Just as God empowered the twelve, Christ summons disciples today to cast out the unclean spirit of hatred and to cure the disease of injustice. To cure every disease.

Casting out demons and curing all diseases comes with a cost. The conclusion of today’s text says something scary: families will fight among themselves, some of us will be dragged before the authorities, some will be hated, some will even be killed. Brother against brother, children against parents, death and hatred and more death.

Such division or conflict, I pray that is not the case for us, in our congregation learning from and leaning on the witness of our denomination. This is who we are, Presbyterians, reformed and still reforming. Not just our church’s constitution and more recent confessions like Belhar, but also our lineage in the United Presbyterian Church (the former ‘northern’ church) here in Tennessee, which received Blue Spring back in 1906; this means that our denominational history in the last century was already with justice and reconciliation, not with upholding segregation.

This history gives us an opportunity to be connected to our unique witness to the inclusive Christ in our time and place. Like one of my predecessors up on the plateau, I’ve been moved to be an example for how this gospel witness for racial justice plays out in more practical, personal terms.

Back in the summer of 1946, exactly 64 years ago this summer, the Rev. Eugene Smathers, farmer and pastor and former moderator of our national denomination, faced a serious situation at Calvary Church in Cumberland County. That summer the church hosted an interracial work camp, and yes I said an interracial church work camp in Crossville in the 1940s. As you can imagine, it did not come off without incident, as they had to fend off mobs and night riders, at a time when the toxic mix of hate and alcohol often led to lynchings throughout the South. A furor erupted at Calvary Church because these work camps had socials at night for the local young people to mingle with visitors.

The night riders came. The mob shouted and cursed and hurled racial slurs against the guests. They were angry at a black man for dancing with a white woman. But they also had choice words for the preacher, giving him an extra helping of curse words. But Smathers and his friends protected their black guests and eventually, the mob moved on.

Another potential conflict came 8 years later at another work camp, when a similar situation transpired. Andy McCullough was a college football player from Michigan; 225 pounds of muscle, six feet tall. He was also polite, cultured, educated, and a gentleman. But Andy McCullough was also black, and that did not stop some of the white girls from Crossville from wanting to dance with him.

The Reverend Smathers wanted to prevent a mob from riding like last time. The sheriff promised no protection, saying simply, “get him out of here.” So after some negotiation with the sheriff, they deputized another citizen to provide security for the work camp.

In fact, for the duration of the work camp, different church members and citizens sat guard around the clock. Though occasionally drunken rowdies would drive by with the usual insults and curse words, the rest of the camp was a success, and before leaving, young Andy McCullough spoke to the church members, saying this was one of his life’s greatest experiences.

If Gene Smathers could confront racial divisions in the 1940s and 1950s, we certainly can confront whatever problems we face in the 2020s. And as reformed Christians, we have a particular place in our tradition from which to address the disease of social sin. As Presbyterians, we descend from Calvin, who said, “We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin.” Indeed Paul reminds us, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

As I see it through the lens of my faith, this protest is not some strange paradigm where one group is all bad or another all good, not good guys or bad guys at all. A disease has run rampant, and love is the cure. It is everybody against racism. We are not bad people becoming good, but sick people becoming better.

The blood of Jesus covers it all: protesters and police, Klansmen and Antifa, we could just go on. Yes the burden of the cross compels us to carry ours, giving up on perfection, listening to others, learning as we go. Repent, repair relationships, and finally, lean into the redemption found in the Beloved Community.

When all this is seen as a sinful system, we have no enemies but evil itself. No matter what frustrated people say online, we can avoid the perpetually personalized pitfalls of call-out or cancel culture and constant appeals to self-righteousness. Even our Jesus resisted this self-aggrandizement in a verse that we never seem to quote enough, Mark 10:18: “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’”

Black Lives Matter has always been a subset of All Lives Matter, just as addressing cancer has been a portion of addressing all disease. As I see it, Black Lives Matter is such a modest claim. Please don’t kill us. Don’t hate us. Don’t harass us. Because of how Jesus lived and who Jesus helped, for this pastor, I must say it: Black Lives Matter.

We need a treatment and a cure: to speak the truth in love, to challenge the illness of injustice while also respecting the integrity of each person. The cure is Christ’s unconditional love, played out in the gospel commitment to peace, reconciliation, and justice. And this is not a bad thing, even if it is sometimes a little scary.

Even amid the high drama of our gospel theme, what is wrong cannot stay wrong forever. “As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'”

Because even as we battle these demons of division and destruction -- within ourselves, our community, and our world -- God’s true kingdom or Beloved Community is always right there, right now, in the middle of human misery, welcoming the eternal majesty.

As Martin King proclaimed at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, “How long, not long.” As the Apostle Paul promises in Galatians 3: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

From Paul to the early church to the reformation to the troubles of the last century to our struggles, the reign of our Redeemer always empowers prophetic disciples, rejects evil, forgives wrong, arbiters justice, and seeks reconciliation. Always reforming, always repenting, always redeeming, always returning to our human family, where we are at once broken yet eternally bound together.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Were You There - two poems for George Floyd, when poems are not enough

image credit -- shirien.creates on instagram

two poems written in grief & rage, love & protest -- when poems are not enough

as should be obvious, no endorsement implied from any of my professional affiliations

Were you there
when they lynched Jesus
Were you there
did you carry the nails

Did you like the crack of the whip
did he get what he deserved
did you sip the sour wine with the soldiers
did you tweet this at 1am

the only good Nazarene is a dead Nazarene
& when the prophecy starts
the crucifying starts
Christ ain't nothing but a thug

were you there when they lynched Jesus
did you watch the temple burn to the ground
did you praise Roman law
did imperial lives matter
did you care a thing for the Jews
were you there when they lynched Jesus
if you were what did you say

you know they are still lynching Jesus
his name is George Floyd
his name is Breonna Taylor
his name is Ahmaud Arbery
his name is Martin Luther King

the truth it may bug you
but our Lord is a thug too
were you there when they lynched Jesus
& now what are we going to do


Not enough folk songs
Not enough punk songs
Not enough poetry 
Not enough prayer
Not enough protest
Not enough rage
Not enough mercy
Not enough love
Not enough hate
Not enough investigation
Not enough reparation
Not enough transformation
Not enough solidarity
Not enough slogans
Not enough revolution

Exorcism & fire
a situation that dire
who said their God
has no wrath

for the slave-owning 
frat party without end

don't wear a condom
don't wear a mask
don't even ask 
but hang a governor in effigy
kill another black man in the street

this $%#* ain't neat 
&#*( this ain't nice
Jesus Christ was crucified 
by an empire this cruel & crass
the Holy Ghost is coming

to exorcise your racist @$$

Friday, April 10, 2020

Unholy Week

this is an unholy week
not because all the special Holy Week services are suspended or online
this is an unholy week
not because John Prine just died
this is an unholy week
not because we don’t know what we are doing or where we are going
this is an unholy week
not because the professor has bad grammar & a worse work ethic
this is an unholy week
not because the pastor has been cursing a lot
this is an unholy week
not because the original holy week was so much like this one: uncertain, terrifying, clouded by death
this is an unholy week
because we have forgotten the pure fear of the first holy week & want to deny it in our now
this is an unholy week
because we are trying to fix things that are beyond broken beyond repair should stay broke
this is an unholy week
because we are arguing online about the finer points of theology while we forget the fierce now of this pandemic theology
this is an unholy week
because we are still committing our most unholy crimes against earth & humanity & for some, as soon as “this,” whatever this is, is over, it will only get worse
this is an unholy week
because we are missing the hard but beautiful lessons in our faces, in our hearts, on the prophets’ tongues
this is an unholy week
for now a Holy Saturday with a vague beginning but without end until the radical revolutionary resurrection resumes