Sanctuary

For many Christians, the word “sanctuary” refers to the space in which they gather for worship. It’s a holy space, set apart for the radical, intimate encounter we have with our Lord when his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are shared with God’s people.

Parroquia San Germán de Auxerre, San Germán, Puerto Rico

A sanctuary is where God’s promise is revealed to us most clearly. A sanctuary can be a centuries-old Gothic cathedral, a simple church building built ten years ago, a living room, or the hood of a humvee for Soldiers deployed overseas. If God’s promises are proclaimed there, that space becomes a sanctuary – a place of holy encounter with God.

Some Christians, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasize that our bodies and our lives are a sanctuary. A popular praise song intones, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I first sang these words at a church camp I attended as a young adult. Perhaps you’ve sung this tune at camp or at worship. “With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

What does it mean to be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true? We often connect these ideas to worship, devotion, and prayer; and, often, to how one behaves in their interpersonal relationships. If we listen to the prophets, we hear in their cry that worship and sacrifice is nothing but vacant, blathering words without actions that honor God by caring for people who suffer.

In Isaiah 5 we hear the prophet sing a love song about God’s tender care for his people. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and describes how God tilled the ground, built the watchtower, and cared for the vineyard that is his people.

Yet despite all of the care that God has given the vineyard, it yielded rotten grapes rather than an abundant harvest of good grapes. The prophet laments that God’s possession had failed, and thus speaks God’s promises to destroy the vineyard. But just a verse later the voice shifts from judgment back to lament. You can hear the prophet’s sorrow and weary disappointment in these words:

“The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!”

God expected justice, but there was bloodshed.

Earlier in Isaiah (chapter 1, verses 10-17), the prophet puts an even finer point on it:

Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
    Listen to our God’s teaching,
        people of Gomorrah!
What should I think about all your sacrifices?
    says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts.
    I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from you,
    this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings.
    Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
    I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
    They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
    I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
    I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
    Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
    Put an end to such evil;
    learn to do good.
Seek justice:
    help the oppressed;
    defend the orphan;
    plead for the widow.

The prophet here quite literally calls out the prayers and sacrifices that take place in the temple – in the sanctuary – as inadequate without the accompanying works of justice. That work is clearly defined as helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (vs 17).

It is not enough to pray when your hands are stained with blood and your lives betray the grace that has been given to you.

Words are not enough in the face of human suffering. Saint James tells us that words of faith aren’t worth a hill of beans without faithful action (James 2). Christians are called to action that flows from faith in the One who defied how things are done in this world, and calls us to follow him in a life of faithful defiance.

Our Lord defied death and rose from the grave. He defied illness by healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus defied hunger and oppression by filling the famished with good things, and by including those whom society excluded. Our Savior’s words were defiant against those in authority, and generous for those who suffered. As followers of this defiant Prince, we are called to lives that reflect the values not of this kingdom but of the coming Kingdom of God. As citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), our priorities come not from man but from God (Acts 5:59).

Perhaps this is what sanctuary looks like. Pure and holy, tried and true, any who seek to be a living sanctuary for our Lord do so by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outsider, healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and defying the forces that degrade human dignity. That’s sanctuary.

My church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently declared itself to be a sanctuary church at its triennial Churchwide Assembly. In this case, the term refers to the historic practice of churches being places where fugitives could find safe haven from apprehension. Offering “sanctuary” has been a ministry of the church since medieval days. In our own country churches have extended sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad sheltering African Americans fleeing (legal) slavery, and defying northern laws requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves. More recently, congregations opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and political persecution in the 1980s.

This calling to be a place for fugitives – from the Latin fugitīvus, fleeing – places the church in a unique position in society. Called neither to be beholden to the shifting opinion polls of society, nor to be a tool of governing authorities, the church fixes its gaze on the vulnerable who flee unfathomable horrors and it seeks to offer its balm in obedience to God’s command to care for people who suffer.

More than many churches, the Lutheran Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant church whose faith and practice came to this land from Northern and Western Europe, North American Lutherans had for generations reached across the Atlantic to help their families and coreligionists make their own journey of faith to a new land.

After World War I, Lutherans began organizing to support refugees fleeing war in their ancestral homelands. Their work expanded with the massive refugee crisis spurred by World War II. Throughout the 20th century – from Cuba to Vietnam, Hungary to Uganda, Central America to the Balkans – Lutherans partnered with the federal government to resettle refugees and help them find a welcome home in the United States of America.

Care for the immigrant is, at its core, a practice of faith. Besides all of the examples of Jesus calling us to care for “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46, among others), the Hebrew Bible is filled with exhortations by God to his chosen people Israel to honor immigrants and strangers, “because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34

This construction – “because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” – shows up at least five times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, extolling the Israelites to treat the immigrants as one of their own. Leviticus 17:8 and 10 call for the equal punishment of Jew and immigrant if they bring the sacrifice before the Lord in an unworthy or unholy manner. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that the Lord “loves immigrants,” and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18 call for the Israelites to protect fair pay and legal rights for immigrants. In Leviticus 25:23, the LORD even tells the Israelites that they, too, are immigrants. “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”

What does it mean that the ELCA has declared itself a “sanctuary church”? The details are still being worked out, but at its core the declaration by the Churchwide Assembly is an affirmation of our church’s longstanding commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee as an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.

More, it is an affirmation of our church’s 2016 AMMPARO mission strategy of accompanying and supporting migrant children and their families with legal, humanitarian, and advocacy support; and, of working with partners in the United States and in Central America to understand and advocate for resolutions to the systemic violence and poverty that prompts so many families to risk everything to leave their homes in the first place.

Does “sanctuary church” = “sanctuary city”?

The sanctuary that our church offers is not the same kind of sanctuary that some “sanctuary cities” are offering – namely, a refusal by local and/or state law enforcement agencies to partner with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Making the comparison between “sanctuary cities” and our “sanctuary church” is nonsensical – the church in this country never has been, and never will be, a governing body nor a law enforcement agency. Our church simply does not interface with the federal government in the same way that cities and states do.

The call by our Churchwide Assembly declaring the ELCA a sanctuary church is not a call to break laws, but instead is an invitation for agencies, congregations, and members of the church to care for the immigrant with steadfast faith, love, and sacrifice. It is true that some congregations might welcome undocumented immigrants, house them in church buildings, and provide legal aid. Others will provide financial and in-kind support to relief efforts along both sides of the US-Mexican border. Others will advocate for changes in immigration policy or funding for refugee resettlement. And yet others will commit themselves to prayer for families fleeing violence and poverty, and for leaders in the United States and in Central America whose words and deeds will have significant impact on the welfare of millions of people for years to come.

The Lutheran Church’s commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee predates the current global migrant crisis. Our commitment to the immigrant and the refugee is born out of our own experience as an immigrant church, and is rooted in the command of God and example of our Lord Jesus Christ to care for the outsider and seek the welfare of our neighbor in need.

Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

A peace that changes everything

Below is the sermon I preached on May 26, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while overseas on deployment. The readings for this Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5, and John 14:23-29, available by clicking here.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

[singing]
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild. God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all you nations rise, join the triumph of the skies …”

Peace on earth. It’s on our Christmas cards,
emblazoned on scented Christmas candles,
printed on large banners streaming across church entranceways
and lit up on household Christmas lawn decorations.

Peace on earth, the angels proclaimed.
“My peace I give to you,” our Savior promised.
Peace.

What does peace look like?

Last Sunday at the Morehouse College graduation in Atlanta, Georgia,
commencement speaker and tech investor Robert F. Smith
made a surprise announcement –
that he would pay off the student loan debt
of each of the graduates in the class.
396 students.
Millions of dollars of debt.
Paid!

If you’ve ever paid off a long-lasting debt, you know the relief.
If you’re currently paying off a long-term debt,
you can probably imagine the relief.

Mr Smith’s gift will radically transform the lives of these students.
It could change their career path,
being able to work for less pay in the short term
rather than go for a paycheck in a job that crushes their soul.
Graduates may more quickly settle down to buy a house,
not saddled with student debt.
 These young adults may now have the chance to live more generously,
able both to provide for themselves, give to church and charity,
and look after family without concern for that massive debt bill.

What a relief.
What a peace that has come upon these students.
It’s a peace that has changed their lives.
It’s a peace that allows them to live differently.

Peace. A peace that allows us to live differently.

Christ gives his followers such a peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” he says in John 14:27.
“My peace I give to you.
I give to you not as the world gives.
Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

This is a peace that allows his followers to live differently,
without trouble or fear,
without concern for how the world gives,
or the peace that the world promises
but which always. falls. short.
Always.
This peace is different.
The peace of Christ allows his followers to live differently.
We see that in each of today’s readings. Let’s take a tour

Today’s first reading comes to us from Acts 19.
A few chapters earlier in the Book of Acts – back in chapter 9 –
Paul experiences a conversion.
He once persecuted and attacked Christians;
but now he had received the peace of Christ
which allowed him to live differently.
He now proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel,
the promise of Christ.

So let’s go to the first reading, in the book Acts 16, starting at verse 9.
It begins with the Apostle Paul having visions of where to travel,
where to proclaim the Gospel.
These visions lead him to a Roman colony called Philippi.
On the Sabbath he goes outside the city gates to the riverbank,
where he thought there would be a place to pray.
Note here that
A) he didn’t really know if there was a place to pray or not,
and that,
B), he left the city gates.

In ancient urban design, city gates were barriers meant to keep
the good and proper and accepted in,
and to keep the bad, the improper, and the rejected out.
You were either in or you were out.
The wall was a visible reminder of that fact.

Remember that the rough-around-the-edges,
locust-eating, camel’s hair cloth wearing preacher John the Baptist
preached in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s city gates,
and baptized in the river,
not in a synagogue or the proper temple,
or the town square.
But God did something outside those city gates.

Remember that Jesus himself was executed on a cross
not in the center of town, but outside of the town, at the edge,
where such dirty and sundry things were done.
Outside.
But God did something outside those city gates.

And so here, again, we hear a cue – outside the city gates
and we realize that something of barrier-crossing, is happening,
that something to shake up the status quo, is about to take place,
because every time barriers are crossed by the Spirit of God –
with John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, or Paul of Tarsus –
something’s about to happen.

So Paul goes outside the city gates and meets some women by the river,
and he begins to talk with them.
Again, cue Jesus, who often spoke to women
and then was invariably questioned or even chastised
both by his disciples and by the Pharisees for doing so!
But Paul goes there, anyway, breaking cultural and religious norms
for the sake of the Gospel.

Among the women in the crowd gathered by the river was one named Lydia,
whom Scripture describes as a seller of purple,
and whom tradition has magnified into being a merchant of some means.

One scholar, Dr. Mary Turner of Pacific School of Theology,
suggests that the proper understanding of the original Greek
reveals that Lydia was less a wealthy merchant
than someone who actually made the purple fabric with her own hands,
a laborer, a craftsperson, an artisan herself, not a dealer.

And in those days, the making of fabric was not an esteemed job,
in part because it was an inelegant process.
Dye houses had a terrible odor
because the process of dying involved the use of animal urine –
thus, dye houses were placed outside the city gates,
because who wants to live or work near such a place?
Those who worked with the dye were marked, literally, by their profession;
their skin, their arms, were discolored,
and this condition stigmatized them as laborers doing menial work,
outside the city gates.

And yet, by the peace of Christ, Paul goes there.
He goes outside the city gates,
crossing barriers and breaking taboos for the sake of the Gospel
and the sake of those whom God so loves.

This is what the peace of Christ does – it calls Paul, and all of us, to live differently,
to go beyond the walls of human division,
to break down the barriers that would separate God’s people,
and to seek peace, community, and fellowship with others,
particularly those whom society would reject.

And not only does Paul go to Lydia and the women there,
but he receives her hospitality to stay in her house –
which is quite possibly that urine-stenched workshop I just described.
This gesture was more than mere kindness on her part,
but instead extending hospitality was a tenant of faith
and a sign of fellowship with God
in ancient Jewish and Christian communities.
Paul accepts this gift, and communes with Lydia and with God there,
outside the city gates, with the stench of urine wafting in the air.

The peace of Christ calls us to live, and to live differently.

The vision of the New Heaven and a New Earth
is certainly different than the vision of how we live now.
Turn to Revelation, in the back of your Bible, chapter 21,
starting at verse 22, and going into the next chapter.

John the Seer, the recipient of the vision that makes up this book,
describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” starting earlier in Chapter 21.
A New Jerusalem is coming down out of the heavens,
and a loud voice announces
that God’s dwelling place is with humanity.
Any separation that people once felt from God has been taken away.
Death will be no more, and God will wipe every tear away from our eyes.
The former things, the former ways of living, have passed away.
All things are made new.

In today’s reading we see that this city has no temple –
which was the cornerstone of Jerusalem,
the promised dwelling place of God.
But this New Jerusalem requires no such temple,
because the Lord God Almighty himself will be the temple,
and his glory will shine so bright that no sun or moon is needed.

And – here’s where we get to that part about living differently –
the nations will walk by this light.
The gates to the New Jerusalem will never be shut.
There will be no night, nothing vile, nothing deceitful.
That just sounds amazing,
and it stands in stark contrast to this world-that-God-so-loves
yet which is, in places, sadly broken and marred by sin.

The vision of the peace of Christ, the vision of God’s promised future,
is one of a life lived differently,
of a world, of the nations, living differently,
at peace with one another.

Life, lived differently, because of Christ.

Lastly, let’s turn to our call to worship, to Psalm 67.

As the nations stream into the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22,
I imagine them singing Psalm 67
in a grand parade of joy and celebration
streaming into the city’s open gates, led by the light of God’s glory.
For this is a song of praise that is filled with the hope
that all people would know the salvation of our God,
the blessings, the promise, the bounty, the goodness of God.

“Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among the nations …”

Jumping ahead a few verses,
“Let the people celebrate and shout with joy,
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.”

All the nations of the earth are there, guided by God,
pouring into the New Jerusalem,
living differently in the peace of Christ.

Oh, we who work in the warring profession,
trained to take up arms and defend neighbor and nation
against any that would harm us,
we – especially you have been there,
in the pressure of the battle –
we know, you know,
that this vision of Psalm 67 and of Revelation 21 and 22
is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in this region
over the past 16+ years.

So, do we dare to believe the words of Scripture,
do we dare to trust in the promise of what will be,
that a life lived in the peace of Christ changes us and the world,
allowing us to live differently and create, by God’s grace,
a different kind of world?

Or, do we trust what our eyes have seen,
what our ears have heard,
what our hearts have felt,
and our souls have suffered
about the cost of war and humanity’s brokenness?

Do we read the roll call of battle buddies lost to war
and expect more of the same,
or do we dare believe that there is a scroll of life in that New Jerusalem
bearing the names of all of God’s beloved
and showing forth the promise of a different kind of formation,
a different way of living,
in the Kingdom of God?

Yes, and yes.

Dear friends in Christ, we live between these two worlds –
the world as it is, and the world as God promises it will be.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19,
we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This is our highest loyalty. This is our ultimate destiny.

Yes, we resist the ways of the world,
yet we are called by our Lord to be as wise as snakes
and as innocent as doves for as long as we are in it (Matthew 10:16).
We engage in this craft of waging war
not for the sake of seeking what the world gives,
because that’s an empty promise,
but to minimize the worst of what the world has to offer,
and to make room for our neighbors and nation
to see the world at some semblance of peace
so that they might know the greater peace of Christ our Lord.

We who are given the peace of Christ,
whose names are written on the scroll of life in the New Jerusalem,
who are emboldened by the peace of Christ and by Paul’s example
to break the barriers of this world,
we have a call and a duty to know the promises of God,
of what is and what will be,
to not forget
what the peace of Christ means for us and for the world,
how this peace enables us to live differently,
and how this peace changes everything.
Yes, we have a duty and a call to hold onto this peace,
even as we, with great reticence,
are at times compelled to wage war.

This peace is nothing of our doing, but instead is a gift.
Note what Jesus says back in John 14 – my peace I give to you.
There are no conditions.
There are no five steps to earn this peace.
No boards to pass.
No test to take.
No top block to grab.

Nothing. This peace of Christ is a free gift,
given to you and to us
in a way that is entirely unlike how anything in this world works,
with all its conditions and strings attached
and distorted sense of merit.

No. Christ is different. His gift of peace is different.
And it changes everything.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding,
keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the One whose life lived differently
makes possible a different way of life
for us and for this world that God so loves.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Let us pray:
Gracious God,
we give you thanks for this gift of peace.
Grant that we who have received this promise
would steward, would care for, would nurture this gift,
so that,
in how we live and work, speak and serve,
your Son’s peace would shine forth from our lives
and extend to those around us.
O God in heaven,
make us instruments of your peace,
and renew us again and again as
dutiful, honorable Soldiers called to defend, protect, and sacrifice
not for ourselves, but on behalf of our neighbor and nation.
Guide us always by your light,
write our names on the scroll of life,
and give us, at the last, the promise of your salvation.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Soccer and school and Holy Week

At Christmas time many Christians decry that Christmas has lost its religious identity either by retailers who do not wish customers “Merry Christmas,” or by the lack of a Christmas tree on a town hall lawn, or by the presence of Santa Claus and reindeer, or by the consumerism which surrounds a holiday dedicated to One who calls us to give not to the point of debt, but to the point of death. It’s a familiar, if wearying, annual tradition.

At Easter time we don’t hear a similar cry, even though Easter is the more important holiday on the Christian calendar (without the cross and the empty grave, the birth of Jesus means nothing). Easter Bunnies will hop at shopping malls, and our shopping goes on with hardly a protest. On Maundy Thursday my daughter has an orientation at the high school for rising 9th graders, and on Good Friday evening my other daughter has soccer practice. And each of my children will be at school on Good Friday, even as Wall Street pauses for the day that Christian societies had for centuries marked with prayer and fasting.

And this is fine with me. Christianity, and in particular the historic forms of Christianity that shaped the calendar of western society for more than a millennium, no longer holds sway over our society as it used to. However incrementally, our society is moving into post-Christendom. And we who live the Christian faith do so with marginally fewer “helps” from culture. School, youth sports, and other extra-curricular activities heap increasingly high expectations and expenses on children and families. Work hours extend into times and places that used to be considered personal. Sundays are “fun days” in the cultural vernacular.

Christians can certainly continue practicing the faith even if the broader society no longer helps us out by setting aside time on Sundays and holidays where other activities are prohibited. It is hardly oppression for my family to wrestle with the schedule conflict of school events and worship services. It is what millions of religious people who practice non-majority faiths do every day.

In fact, this cultural shift moves Christian believers, however modestly, toward the experience of Christians in the first few centuries of the faith, who practiced their faith not in societies where they held power and wide influence, but instead in societies that variously ignored them, benignly acknowledged them, looked askance at them, or even persecuted them.

As we turn to the cross and the empty grave of this Great and Holy Week, may we be renewed to live our own death and resurrection every day, trusting in God’s promises that sin and death do not have ultimate power over us. And may we find support for our lives of faith from the Body of Christ itself, the church and its richest traditions, that recall for us the mystery and power of our Lord’s Passover from death to life.

For our Lord did not come into the world to condemn it, but instead that the world might be renewed through him.

Playing the Wall Street Victim

In her widely shared “Two Views of Pope Francis” Ms Noonan unnecessarily condescends the Pope and his economics, and regrettably plays the Wall Street victim to the Pope’s cautions about capitalism.

Reagan_with_Peggy_NoonanMs Noonan’s experience with capitalism is legitimate, from her vaunted perch as a presidential speech writer and Wall Street Journal columnist. She has lived and worked at the center of American political and economic power, and she fervently believes in the free market’s power to unleash human potential, create wealth, and contribute to the common good. Her experience is legitimate.

Cardinal_Bergoglio_argentinaBut so too is Pope Francis’ experience. He has ministered in the slums of Buenos Aires, at the tip of a continent whose politics and economics is covered with American fingerprints – political, military, and economic. He has seen the worst of capitalism’s imbalance, mixed with corruption and imperialism, and he rightfully has his concerns about capitalism – particularly its underside.

Instead of condescending the Pope as someone who, “doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given—and is giving—his own church,” Ms Noonan could perhaps consider as valid the Pope’s perspective as one who has lived on the other side of the world’s economy, and refrain from playing the victim of an otherwise powerless spokesman who speaks truth about the poor.

Please read her article (linked, below). It reflects Ms Noonan’s faith and affection for the Pope, and her deep commitment to the free market. But ultimately I find her commentary flawed in its failure to see the legitimacy of another perspective of the global economy, one deeply rooted in personal experience and in longstanding church teaching.

Peggy Noonan article pope

Jesus Grieves: The Cross at Half Staff

I drove past a church today that has two flag poles on its property – one for the American Flag, and one for the Christian Flag. They were both flying at half staff in an act of public mourning for the victims of the Chattanooga shooting.

Now, I find the Christian Flag to be somewhere between silly and heretical. Flags are emblems of nation states, signs of a government’s authority over territory and people. Christianity is not a nation state and it needs no flag. Our Lord Jesus rejected efforts to give him the kind of authority that a flag represents. Christianity’s symbol is a cross on which our Lord found victory through death (not conquest), and power through weakness (not might). On that cross, our Lord bid us to do the same. To that end, I find the impulse to slap a cross on a political symbol to be odd, at the least.

Nonetheless, the Christian Flag gave me a different kind of pause today, as it flew at half staff. I am accustomed to seeing the American flag flown in such a manner, a sign that calls us to public mourning. But to see the cross similarly flown, well, that struck me. It reminded me that Jesus grieves.

Our Lord grieves at the senseless death of any of his children. Our Lord grieves at the sin that grips our nation and world. Our Lord grieves when the demons of anger or sickness or passion or evil possess any of his children and lead them to take the life of another.

Yes, our Lord grieves at the brokenness of our world – a world that produces enough food to feed all people, but does not have the will to do so. Our Lord grieves at all the -isms which, coupled with the power of majority rule or government mandate or social acceptance, keeps people from realizing the fullness of their promise in God. Our Lord grieves, because our Lord loves.

I’m no fan of the Christian Flag, but on this day I am grateful for its humble flight at half staff that recalled for me the grieving Lord of love who is present with us in our sorrows and sufferings, and who shows us a better way.

What a Week

(My weekly church blogpost shared here, as our church website is in transition)

Remind me not to take vacation during the last week in June ever again.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue Show one summer in late June as a kid, shortly after school let out (I was a really fun kid. Really.). They were talking about the constitutionality of burning the American flag in the wake of United States v. Eichman, a case that ruled as unconstitutional laws that banned the desecration of the American flag on free speech grounds.

The guests were passionate. The audience members were opinionated. There was lots of energy around this issue.

From that moment I got more and more interested in both politics and in the flag, and I learned quite a bit about both. I read the Constitution and the Flag Code, and various opinions about both. One of the lessons I learned is this: even though school is out and summer has started, late June – when the Supreme Court releases its most anticipated rulings – is one of the most consequential times of the year for our country.

In the past week, the Supreme Court has ruled on marriage, healthcare, environmental protections, fair housing, and congressional redistricting, among other issues. Together with the outrage following the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the heated – yet very important – discussion surrounding the Confederate Flag, it was a significant week for our nation.

Now, in the midst of all this news and critical issues before our country, the church cannot be silent. At the least, the church and its leaders should seek to make sense – in terms of faith – of what our society is experiencing in this moment. Even more, the church and its leaders should be public voices for justice. After all, a lamp isn’t lit to be set underneath a bushel (Matthew 5:15), the call of a prophet is to cry out loudly against injustice (Isaiah 1:23, for example), and the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Cries for the church to stay out of politics, and for preachers to speak on matters of faith not politics, miss the point. Jesus engaged in ministry publicly. Jesus spoke about how people treat one another. Jesus died at the hands of government – publicly. The prophets of old decried how society neglected the widow and the poor. Faith without works is dead, and one work of faith is to seek a more just society that improves the health and welfare of any who suffer injustice, indignity, poverty, hunger, and oppression of any kind. Faith is inherently public, and is inherently concerned with public things.

After all, Jesus’ main way of speaking about God’s intent for humanity was to speak of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like ….” Kingdoms are societies. They are inherently social, public, corporate. The life of faith is not just something we keep to ourselves, individually.

Even more. Faith is not just one part of our lives, but informs the whole of our lives. We do not put faith on and take faith off. Faith is not just found in one box in our closet, to be taken out on Sundays and holidays. Faith is part of all that we do. Faith informs all of our actions. Faith – and the God in whom we have faith – is concerned with all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thus faith led me to weep when nine African Americans were murdered while at prayer. When one member of the body of Christ suffers, I suffer. Faith led me to ask tough questions about the legacy of racism, the power of symbols, and the unfulfilled promise of “we the people” seeking to form “a more perfect union.” In faith I read where Scripture tells me that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and that we are called to “bear another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Looking at the burden of racism and the legacy of oppression that my sisters and brothers bear, I grieve and ask, “How can I bear this burden with them?” I don’t have a very good answer. The question gnaws at me. The status quo is not working. Racism persists. This sin, and the structures that were shaped by it, need to be dismantled.

Faith led me to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, extending marriage rights to same-gender couples in all fifty states. For years couples and families have lived without the dignity and legal protections of marriage. Medical decisions, estates, health insurance, shared property ownership, and so many other protections and opportunities were denied to same-gender couples and their families, to our neighbors and friends, to Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, to our fellow human beings and sisters and brothers in Christ. Legal prohibitions created a hardship for millions of people. Faith celebrates when hardships are alleviated, when “the lowly are lifted up” (Luke 1:52). Faith rejoices at wholeness and healing and justice.

In neither of these issues am I directly implicated. I am not black. I am not gay. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith is not primarily concerned with the self. Our faith is primarily concerned with the whole of society and the care of the other. “Love does not insist on its own way,” writes Paul, speaking to the faith community in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:5). Faith is oriented toward the justice and renewal of the Kingdom of God and those who live within it. Justice is experienced – and enacted – in community. Faith is inherently interested in the community and the world.

So too, I believe, is the American Experiment. The United States was established by “we the people” to establish “a more perfect union.” The Bill of Rights was written to restrain society, its government, and its majorities from trampling on the rights of individuals. But more than a mere restraint function or a statement of the rights of individuals, the Bill of Rights and the eloquent call to create “a more perfect union” speak to a positive view of a society in which “liberty and justice for all” is the goal.

In the critical conversations about race that our nation has begun since the Charleston shooting, and in the celebrations and hand-wringings and questions of “what’s next?” following the Supreme Court’s ruling, our nation is one step closer to realizing its calling to form a more perfect union. Such steps are difficult, and ours will never be a perfect union – sin will make sure of that.

Yet we strive ever forward, as Christians and as Americans, to make ours a more perfect union. Such a more perfect union begins to take shape when our focus turns from self to other, and we recommit ourselves not to insisting on our own ways but instead to bearing others’ burdens … to seeking liberty and justice for all.