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

from nakedpastor.com


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.