Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting Political in the Pulpit

Though I've been posting content online lately, its mostly been trying to get my new church's facebook page and blog going (along with trying to help update the website).  Shameless plugs:

Website           Facebook Page                Blog

Four weeks in, I'd like to report that things are going fairly well and I am getting settled in.  As you know, both faith and politics play critical roles in my life.  I believe one affects the other, although I try to claim that faith ways more heavily in the balance, I know there are times this isn't true.  I also believe the church has to be relevant and must address the critical issues of the day.  When the Shirley Sheppard saga was unfolding, I thought it was a wonderful example of how people can grow and can change their minds.  Thus, I paired it with the lectionary scriptures from Genesis and Luke that I believe imply that God's mind can be changed also.

The sermon was received fairly well, but I did have one person comment that I need to be careful about mixing politics with the pulpit.  Now, I do intend to be very conscious of this.  I do think we need to address issues like poverty and immigration from the pulpit, but we have to care not to be overtly partisan.  (In some ways, I know that is almost impossible.  How can you advocate for immigration reform without being partisan when one party appears to clearly object to any kind of comprehensive reform?!?)

That being said, I don't intend to shy away from contemporary issues.  But, I do hope to be self-aware.  If you have a few minutes, I hope you might read my sermon from Sunday to see if you felt it was as even handed as I thought it was.  I welcome your comments and critiques!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Love Pool

I love this guy's cartoons-  Naked Pastor

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

Re: What's Next

Whether or not it should be first on the progressive agenda, it looks like what is next on the Democratic agenda is Wall Street reform:

Health care's done. Members of Congress are home, or will be soon, and will spend the next two weeks talking to their constituents about the monumental law they just passed. But when Democrats return to Washington they'll have to balance their health care sales job with a completely different, and long-brewing initiative: financial regulatory reform...

Getting upset when other people get help

The chattering classes in Washington seem to indicate that the Obama administration will be implementing a new foreclosure prevention program that actually seeks to reduce the outstanding principal on mortgages that are currently upside down (owe more than they are worth).

We all know that the country is in a housing crisis. Every time a house is foreclosed upon, not only is one family displaced, but it reduces the value of every other home in the neighborhood, increases the likelihood for crime, and reduces the tax base for the city in which they formerly lived. Even so, I was not surprised to see the following reaction:

A few months ago, the principal on my mortgage was comfortably more than the place was worth, and my low income was in decline. So I did the responsible thing, cut my expenses back to the bone, and raised and moved whatever money I could to cover it, and to try to pay it down. I wanted to deal with the fact that I was upside down on the mortgage and dangerously exposed to future rate increases; most of all, I wanted simply to reduce my monthly payments.

Why did I bother?

If I had not been so responsible, Obama’s plan (I still cannot quite believe it) would have given me (via my bank) YOUR money, humble tax-payer, as a gift to reduce my mortgage, and I would have gained to the tune of many thousands of dollars.

However, because I did the responsible thing, MY tax money will be going to help those who were in exactly the same situation as I, but weren’t responsible enough to live within their means and meet their obligations, perhaps because they bought a bigger car than they needed, were paying interest on credit cards they shouldn’t have been using, or whatever…

How dare the government do this? How dare they? This isn’t capitalism. It isn’t even communism. It is some upside down, messed-up mediocracy.
At one level, I'm quite sympathetic to this blogger. She (he?) does appear to have tried to act responsibly and as such may not receive the direct benefit of those who have not been able to take the same actions as her. While she assumes that all had the ability to make these same decisions (I'm not sure how an unemployed person could have raised their mortgage payment), lets run with her assumption for the moment. What if irresponsibility is being rewarded here?

From an economic standpoint, this may well be problematic. The administration is at some level providing a disincentive for responsible decision-making. However, I think an economic case can be made for proceeding anyway due to the harm it causes to those who live around the potentially foreclosed home.

However, it is from a theological perspective where this really gets murky. There is no doubt that much of the Bible operates from an action-reward ethic. The prophets, whose texts I do love dearly, clearly indicate that God is punishing Israel (or one of the nations) because of the actions they have taken. Thus, any punishment they receive is God's just reward.

However, Jesus presents a different perspective- one many of us might call Kingdom Economics:

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
By any contemporary measure, the landowner is not treating his workers fairly. Those who worked all day certainly would seem to have a reason to gripe. But Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God works differently. Indeed, it is an economy based on grace and not worth. Thus, God freely gives to those who may not "deserve it."

So why continue to honor God? Why seek to follow God's ways if there isn't a reward in it for us? It is because we recognize that we are made in God's image. We know that there is no one else that we would choose to follow. We honor and obey God not because of the reward, but because we trust that in so doing we might be just this much closer to bringing about the kingdom of God here and now.

I don't claim that the government should make all economic decisions based on my theology. But I do claim that we as Christians should celebrate, rather than be resentful, when we see God's grace lived out in the world. It may not be fair. It may not even seem logical at times. But I'm content to trust that the God who created all knew what s/he was doing. Thank God it's not up to me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What's next?

Ok, I want to start with the necessary caveat that nothing is over till it is over and that health care reform still needs attention. Furthermore, this certainly isn't the last step to a perfect system and it will have to be tweaked in the future.

That being said, I had an interesting conversation online today regarding what progressives should focus on next. He thought immigration reform; my sense was climate change. But I can admit that it wasn't too well thought out. So, my progressive sisters and brothers, what is next?

Let's set some ground rules-
1. It has to be something that can legitimately be accomplished before November. Thus, I'm not sure something like eliminate the death penalty counts.
2. It must be politically pragmatic to do. This is kind of like the last, but let's be honest, as we get close to an election politicians are far less likely to take major risks.
3. As always, our need to tackle it has got to come out of our faith somewhere.

So, what do you think it should be?

Controlling Costs

Now that we have come to the point where the bulk of healthcare reform has been passed, we enter into a phrase where our working theories, both on the left and the right, get put to the test. If this bill collapses the health care system and bankrupts the country, the right will be validated and will be able to use the popular disgust to repeal the bill and implement their own system.
However, I firmly believe that is not what will happen. While health care will need to continually be tweaked (as with any major program), I believe this bill has made the first major steps toward stopping the runaway freight train that has been health care costs all while guaranteeing near universal coverage. If I and progressives are right, here are five ways in which it will be accomplished:

(1) Create a competitive insurance market:
(2) Implement reforms through the Medicare Commission:
(3) Encourage cost control through a tax on "Cadillac plans"
(4) Change incentives through Medicare "bundling" programs
(5) Changing the politics of reform

Read Klein's article in full for the details, but suffice to say this is how the policy will be judged. The time for speculation has ended. When these reforms are fully implemented, we'll be able to see whose philosophy was right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Gay-Friendly Church

Sometimes its hard to think about just how far we have to go:

On Abortion and Health Care Reform

I recognize that one of the stickiest issues in the intersection between faith and politics is that of abortion. Though I disagree with some positions taken by self-described "pro-life" people, I do believe I understand their position and can appreciate where they are coming from.
There has recently been considerable publicity and energy over whether or not the current reforms before Congress would actually encourage more abortion. I am aware of 0 people on either side of this debate who actually would advocate for more abortions. Thus, this is a considerable charge.

However, I believe that much of the rhetoric around abortion and health care reform has failed to live up to reality. Thus, I encourage all to read this article explaining just what the Senate Health Care Bill (the only one that is on the path to approval) does and doesn't do.

Charge:   Health care reform will allow federal funding for abortions through community clinics:

Fact:   "None of the 1,250 Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, that would receive the billions in money through the reform bill offer abortion services."

Charge:    Health care reform will force American's to subsidize abortions.

Fact: " The Senate bill with the Nelson language says an insurance plan in the exchange can offer abortion coverage, but a woman who wants it must pay for that element of the coverage by a separate check that goes into a separate account."
Charge: All American's will be required to pay a special fee to cover abortion:

Fact: "The reality is only those who elect to choose a policy that includes abortion would have to pay the separate fee, and that is designed to keep federal dollars from potentially paying for abortions."
Charge: Abortion will be forced on states where voters have chosen to make obtaining an abortion difficult.

Fact: "The Senate bill also explicitly allows states to bar any policies in the federally created insurance exchanges from providing abortion coverage."

Furthermore, there are a number of provisions in the bill that are likely to reduce the number of abortions. The bill
"includes key elements of the Pregnant Women's Support Act that have long been sought by abortion foes: One is to appropriate $250 million over 10 years to create a federal Pregnancy Assistance Fund, which will provide assistance to pregnant and parenting teenagers and college students, as well as pregnant victims of domestic violence; another Senate provision not in the House bill would increase federal financing for adoption by $1.2 billion over the next two years."
Additionally, there is some evidence showing that people with insurance coverage are far less likely to receive an abortion than those who are uninsured.

Thus, fair minded people may oppose health care reform for a variety of reasons. Abortion, or the fear of increased abortions, ought not be one.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Christian Unity

Look Ma, I'm starring in a cartoon:

Faith and Wealth

This is an interesting chart to ponder.  It did challenge my expectation that Evangelicals would be wealthier then the average Christian.  That's a shame-  I always blame them for the prosperity Gospel.  Perhaps I need to look a bit closer to home.

h/t:  Andrew Sullivan

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Our Government Inaction

H/T:  Ezra Klein

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Conservative Voice Against Torture

I'm often accused of approaching political issues with a left-leaning bias. I plead guilty! Despite this, I do not believe I hold most of my positions out of fealty to a particular political party, but out of core principals that I draw from studying politics and policy in light of my faith.

As such, I often think the positions I hold on moral issues are those that do not cut strictly down the liberal-conservative moral divide. While I may espouse liberalism in the laws passed by the government, this does not mean I believe in an anything-goes world.

I say this because I’m about to tread into an issue where I have been accused of being a softhearted liberal. I am continually amazed by the cavalier way in which many American Christians accept the use of torture in a variety of circumstances. I just don’t see how this squares with our desire to be re-formed (re-born) in the image of Christ. I was thus pleased to see that a Christian writer at the arch-conservative website National Review Online agrees:
I think torture is a great evil, and that the resort to it in the past decade is a black spot on America’s record.

It’s not just a black spot on America. It is a black spot on American Christianity. I encourage you to read this conservative’s wrestling on the issue. He is honest about its complexity- perhaps more honest then I could manage. I applaud him for exploring the issue, and hope many more Christians of all ideologies can follow his example.

If, like me, you think your church is crying out for a frank discussion on this issue, this article published in the United Methodist Faith in Action newsletter will give you a place to start.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Re: Our paralyzed Government

A friend responds:

"I don't see how sending more money, nor having the gov't spend more money, is necessarily advocating for the poor given the abysmal efficiency and track record of gov't poverty measures. And, of course, there's that teach a man to fish/give a man a fish thing. The worst thing that happened to the poor (and the church, for that matter) was the gov't takeover of charity."
I wanted to respond on the blog because it taps into something I've been meaning to write about. I often hear people say that the government took away what the church should be doing. How exactly did it do that? There is certainly no law prohibiting denominations from setting up new hospitals, new food pantries, private schools etc. There is absolutely nothing that prevents a rich church in the suburbs from diverting their $500,000+ budget away from internal expenses and toward outreach ministry to the communities around them.

Furthermore, for the individual, there is absolutely nothing preventing them from donating money to faith-based institutions to do this charity work. Want to pay less taxes? Donate more of your money! Every dollar you donate to a non-profit is one less dollar that is taxed by the government.
My conservative and libertarian brothers and sisters- the opportunity to stop sending money to the government by giving it to charities is hanging out there. Nobody can stop you. You just have to be willing to give it away.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Our Paralyzed Government

I believe that part of social justice is advocating for policy changes with and on behalf of the least, last and lost. However, history shows that social change comes slowly and with considerable effort. Its rare that the powerful will voluntarily make sacrifices when they may not see an immediate benefit.

However, social change has gotten much more difficult in the last three years with the advent of the constant filibuster. Though this supermajority requirement has been invoked over the years, the idea that every piece of legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate is a recent phenomenon. Ezra Klein, a blogger for the Washington Post, demonstrates this:

Here's a fun fact: The Senate filed 214 cloture votes (votes to break a filibuster) between 2007 and 2010. That's more than it held between 1919 and 1976. And during that period, it was actually easier to filibuster, as you needed 67 votes to break the obstruction, not 60.

Meanwhile, you'll note that 2010 is only a couple of months old. By the end of the year, we'll be nearing 300 cloture votes, if we haven't passed that milestone altogether. That brings the 2007-10 total to about what the Senate saw between 1919 and 1984. Say what you will about the Senate, but this is not traditional. The "cooling saucer" of democracy was never meant to be left in the freezer.
Thus, for those who want to advocate for the poor, one of our tasks will be to determine how to change this trend. It is not enough to count on individual Senators playing nice. We must advocate changing the rules so that no matter who is in power, we play by majority rules. Now, I may not like everything that gets passed in this new environment- but I’m quite confident that those who have power won’t have nearly the trouble getting 60 votes as those who do not have it. Thus, in the long run, eliminating the filibuster will serve the cause of justice.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Minority Report

As a middle class, white, Christian, heterosexual male living in America, I live a life of incredible privilege. There are few scenarios in which my culture is not the dominant culture being expressed. However, because of my small singing career, I get the opportunity to be a “minority” a few times a month when I sing Shabbat services at Park Synagogue.

This morning, the rabbi’s sermon was “Why Jews do not build Cathedrals.” He proceeded to accurately describe that the architecture of the middle ages reflected a Christian theology of honoring the omnipotence and other worldliness of God. When a human enters a great Cathedral, they are in many ways reduced to ants in the midst of an all-powerful God. He indicated that in building the Temple, the Jewish people had once held a similar theology. However, now they believed in a much more personal God who can be negotiated with. Furthermore, rather than Holy being an “otherworldly” concept, Jews sing the Kadosh (Holy) when they are gathered together in fellowship and when remembering the lives of their ancestors to whom they are still connected.

After the service, I overheard the cantor remarking about how different the Jewish and Christian ideas of God were. While the rabbi had made it clear he was talking about Middle Age Christian theology, the canter had automatically transferred this onto the belief system of modern Christians. Whether this is appropriate is deserves its own post, but I’d rather focus on the curious experience of hearing someone from another faith tradition make assumptions about my theology based on sermons talking in general about some distant Christian ancestors. I wanted to protest to say- that really doesn’t represent my faith. Please don’t make assumptions about me and my theology by simply listening to someone describe it from the outside.

As I reflected further, I wished that every Christian, or at least every pastor, could experience that at least once. As we enter the Lenten season, we come to a time when our liturgy and scripture readings tell of increasing conflict between Jesus and (depending on the passage used) the scribes, Pharisees, or just “the Jews.” We contrast Jesus’ loving character with people who are said to be incredibly legalistic and who have lost sight of their God. This builds to Holy Week in which, all too often, a major dramatic point is when the congregation shouts “Crucify him, crucify him”- supposedly imitating the crowd of Jews who gathered to hear Jesus’ fate.

So having heard all this, what do those who hear our sermons, scripture readings and liturgies think when they come face to face with contemporary Jews? Do they hear our careful distinctions between Jewish leadership and the Jewish people? Do they recognize that the reactions recorded in scripture may not reflect the attitudes of the majority of Jews at the time of Jesus? Do they realize that contemporary Jewish theology may be very different than the theology that was recorded in the New Testament two millennia before? I’m afraid too few, pastors and congregants alike, make these crucial distinctions. As we go through this Lenten season, may we all take time in our prayer and study to consider how we might approach these texts without projecting judgment on our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Denying Identity, Denying God

The below is a "mini-sermon" that I prepared for Homiletics, but I think it speaks well as a blog post:

One of our central tenants as Christians is that our faith is not some private element to which we devote a small portion of our time, but an overriding calling that shapes who we are, what we do, and the values we hold. There is no doubt that the bible contains a number of moral proclamations- around economics, vocation, diet, hospitality, criminal justice, and yes, sex. It is this final category, and specifically around sexual orientation, in which most of the energy goes.

Given the breadth of issues covered in Scripture, its vital to explore just why this issue has become the greatest source of conflict for the church. It certainly isn’t because it is a main topic in the bible: its acknowledged by both sides of this debate that there are only 5-6 verses of scripture that appear to deal with sexual orientation directly. Given the paucity of verses that address the issue, one would expect humility when it comes to interpretation. Instead, we find that these 5-6 verses dicate tax codes, inheritance, church membership, and ordination rights. Why?

Many will claim that it is because the Bible is absolutely clear on the subject...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Building the Temple for the Next Generation

Below is the sermon I delivered today for Brooklyn Memorial UMC:

1 Chronicles 29:1-19

King David was a remarkable figure in the Hebrew Bible. He defeated the giant Goliath…Went from a shepherd boy to King…Firmly established Israel’s kingdom by defeating those enemies who had harassed Israel for years…Established Jerusalem as the capital city for the Holy nation of Israel, God’s chosen people living on The Promised Land…Now that, is a life of accomplishment!

But as King David came to the end of his reign, he knew he had more to do. Because he was so grateful to God for the many blessing that had been brought upon Israel, and because he wanted his nation to remain faithful to God, he wanted to build a permanent Temple in Jerusalem so that all of God’s people in Israel would be able to come, make sacrifices, and worship God.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Insanity of Marriage Inequality

Reprinting this blogpost by Andrew Sullivan in full with no comment:

This is a real and brilliant and remarkable minute and a bit. Watch till the very end, and see how insane this injustice remains:

The Kind of Hospitality Churches would actually get behind

I've never met a Christian who says, "yuck, no hospitality for me." But lets get real, we know from experience that when a visitor comes to church, its likely they won't be fully embraced. They might take your pew, dress inappropriately, sing off key, their kids might scream, etc.

Really, its an inconvenience.

However, I think I've found a solution! Instead of warmly embracing visitors, accepting them as they are, and assuming that they have something to contribute to the congregation, we can just send them one of these:

I mean, we can make it say Jesus loves you and everything.

Has their ever been a better evangelism tool?!?

(Hat Tip: Sullivan)

Monday, February 8, 2010

As you likely are aware, President Obama announced in the SOTU that he would work with the military to end Don't Ask-Don't Tell. Since most of the country agrees with this sentiment, I have been struck by how flimsy the arguments have been for those who say it should stay in place.

Rich Lowry of the National Review says its no big deal for gay people to pretend they are straight. To this, Andrew Sullivan issues an interesting challenge:

If you're straight, try it for one day.
Try never mentioning your spouse,
your family, your home, your girlfriend or boyfriend to anyone you know or work
with - just for one day. Take that photo off your desk at work, change the
pronoun you use for your spouse to the opposite gender, guard everything you
might say or do so that no one could know you're straight, shut the door in your
office if you have a personal conversation if it might come up.
Try it. Now
imagine doing it for a lifetime. It's crippling; it warps your mind; it destroys
your self-esteem. These men and women are voluntarily risking their lives to
defend us. And we are demanding they live lives like this in order to do so.

You up for it? I don't think I am. Whenever I talk to people about marriage equality, I have to resist the urge to say "But I am straight of course." (Update: wait, did I only say that to make sure anyone who read this knew I was straight. Pitiful, really). If it causes me angst to let someone have the wrong impression for 5 minutes, I can't imagine living like that.

Truest Church Sign in the World



As I enter my last semester of seminary, I have finally had to take that class I was dreading: The Ministry of Evangelism. Evangelism just seems to carry a negative connotation for me; I rightly or wrongly associate it with arrogance, superiority, close-mindedness, dogmatism, etc. I know this reflects my own prejudices as much as it does reality, but nonetheless here I am.

Our first book assigned was Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary from the United States who worked in India for much of his life. Given that the book was written in 1925, I girded myself for what I thought would be the inevitable paternalism and jingoism that I, rightly or wrongly, often associate with the past. How surprised was I to find a type of Evangelism I can maybe try on, even if I’m not quite yet willing to buy.

First off, yes, the book does have some paternalistic tendencies. But I ask myself, who among us doesn’t? Liberal paternalism, though often well intended, is a very real phenomenon. But once I got past that, I was continually struck that Jones identified the heart of my problem. Over and over again, the people he spoke with were vivified by the message of Christ. One after another, they told him, it is Christ who we want to follow; it is Christianity to which we object!

This felt oh so familiar to me. When I think about why I am reluctant to “evangelize”, it is never because I think Jesus is insufficient. I am not embarrassed by his radical generosity, his radical love, his solidarity with those who were oppressed even unto death. What I’m afraid of, to be frank, is that people will catch the spirit of Jesus and then come to our churches to find that spirit sapped. I by no means think that all churches are terrible or even that they are net negatives- but there is no church that doesn’t suffer from putting itself above Christ at times. The fights over theology, sexuality, the handling of money, and the mundane (building use, carpet colors, etc) have a tendency to distract a person (or a minister!) from that which we are called: to love and follow Christ so that we might be transformed into his image. Yes, this does involve considering theology, sexuality, economics and politics, but it all must be done while keeping our allegiance to the One who was able to rise above it all.

Jones writes, “Many teachers of the world have tried to explain everything- they changed little or nothing. Jesus explained little and changed everything” (187). How can I spend less time talking about Christ and more time changing my heart and the conditions of the world? How can I spend less time trying to convince and more time putting Jesus forward so that he might beckon us to follow? I glimpse somewhere in the distance an evangelism I can do- talking about this radical and redemptive person who is Christ. Oh may I find the way.