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Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — If What You Fear Does Not Exist


by: on September 9th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text: 2 Kings 6:24 – 7:21

O my God, Such an appalling story is this. The beloved city, Israel’s capital, is besieged by Syria. Famine – man-made, war-made – has them by the throat. No crops come from the fields for no one dares venture outside the city walls. No one is free. Everyone is terrified. Carrion and pigeon poop are sold for food at extortionate prices. The moral life of the people has collapsed in greed, violence, and betrayal. Are your ears still burning with the complaint of the mother who went to her neighbor’s house expecting boiled boy for lunch, but was deceived? Despair over his city has shrunk the king to an inner tornado of angry, hopeless watching – like the useless official in New Orleans after Katrina. Why should the ruler trouble to punish these women, or anyone, for their evil deeds when the whole fabric of society is rotting, starring with the leaders’ failure to find peace with Syria. Why, the sentence that immediately precedes this awesome story is, “And the Syrians no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” But here they are again – and are we not responsible for this utter human disrepair?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
- W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

The king of Israel now aims his impotent fury at God, or at the man of God, Elisha. He wants to kill somebody. We have been in a like place before.

This story is a parable of our self. We are the walled city. We are its violent, deceitful citizens. We are the raging ruler, who when the need is greatest, leans only to his own understanding, and has no God, though he goes to church each Sabbath day.


Will Pope Francis Take Jewish-Catholic Relations to the Next Level?


by: on August 21st, 2013 | 5 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

As has been widely reported, Pope Francis began his papacy with an already strong relationship with the Jewish community. Yet only time will tell if this pope will put the final nail in the coffin of Christian anti-Judaism: namely, an official end to the absurd notion that Christian faith produces more compassion and mercy in the human heart than does the Jewish faith.

It is worth noting that in addition to his expressions of solidarity with Argentina’s Jewish community, Pope Francis, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, participated in a Jewish-Catholic Tzedaka service; a charity effort where Jewish and Catholic volunteers went out – together – distributing aid to the poor and downtrodden of Buenos Aires.

Arguably, inter-faith Tzedaka-like service programs could be a template for a healthy, and I would argue very necessary, reform of Catholic religious life: specifically, the kind of reform that would help to end the utter fiction that Christians are more loving and compassionate than Jews.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — This Is Not The Way


by: on August 19th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text on Sunday, August 18, 2013

2 Kings 6: 8-23; Luke 19: 39-42

Late last spring, I read a new book by Nick Turse called Kill Anything That Moves. I recall the moment I finished it. I closed the cover and laid it on the table and wept some while in silence.

It took Turse ten years to compile this history, never told fully until now. He interviewed hundreds of veterans and Vietnamese and pored over files forgotten or hidden by the government. More than 1,000 footnotes armor his book against the rage it will provoke in many Americans. Its 250 pages still the heart like the most appalling confession of sin our soul could conceive.

Here is one veteran’s memory of one atrocity. It is not My Lai; it merely mimics My Lai, except that it was undocumented until now.

We moved into a small hamlet, 19 women and children were rounded up as Vietcong suspects and the lieutenant that rounded them up called the captain on the radio and asked what should be done with them. The captain simply repeated the order that came down from the colonel that morning . . . to kill anything that moves . . . I looked toward where the supposed Vietcong suspects were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch. She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped—that’s standard operating procedure for civilians—and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men around the circle opened up on full automatic with their M-16s. And that was the end of that. (Turse, p. 238)

If we can’t deal with these things in church, what good is church? Where else will we cry this utterance in a way that can do some good? Told short, the book shows that murder and rape and bombing to death of millions of Vietnamese civilians was unleashed by orders from the top. Through a decade of hell, on virtually every day and in every province of Vietnam, North and South, America practiced genocide. Of 5.3 million civilians wounded by our war, one third were women and one quarter were not yet at the age of puberty. We lost our mind. We also lost hundreds of thousands of our veterans to homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, and prison. We utterly lost our way.


Nuns Who Commit Sexual Abuse and the Annexation of Mercy


by: on August 15th, 2013 | 10 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons.

Steve Theisen, 61, is the Iowa director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Unlike the vast majority of men and women whose lives have been positively affected by the support SNAP provides to victims of clergy abuse, Theisen was not sexually abused by a Catholic priest: he was sexually abused by a Catholic nun.

The abuse began in the 4th grade, when Theisen was just nine-years-old. He stayed after class one day to wash the blackboards. Alone with the nun in the classroom, she showed him how the Eskimos kiss: by rubbing noses. Some weeks later, she then showed him how Americans kiss. Then a few more weeks passed. The nun then said to the boy, “This is how the French kiss.” And with that, the forty-something nun stuck her tongue in the boy’s mouth. It escalated from there. As Thiesen recalls, the nun never touched his genitals, and neither of them were ever disrobed. But from 4th through 6th grade, after school and sometimes on weekends, the nun would have him on the floor, French kissing and necking. Sometimes the nun would be on top of him, other times she put the boy on top of her.

Theisen also recalls sitting next to the nun in chapel. She would hold his hand under her religious habit so that no one would see.

It was not until well into adulthood that Theisen told someone what had happened to him: his therapist. It took 18 sessions with the therapist to finally open up about the experience that so affected his life. As Theisen explained to me, trust does not come easy to victims of child sex abuse.

Theisen’s testimony is gut-wrenching to hear, for those who are willing to listen. Not only did he live in daily fear as a child that someone would find out what was happening between him and the nun, he was also wracked by guilt. For when the school children would ask the nuns why they wore rings on their fingers, the nuns would tell the children that they were married to Christ. During the abuse, Theisen thought he was committing “the most grievous sin in the entire world because he was fooling around with Jesus’s wife.”


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — Be Bountiful


by: on August 5th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text: 2 Kings 4: 42-44; Luke 9: 10-17

The stories of Elisha are tucked away in a few chapters of 2 Kings, where most Christians never tread. Perhaps we heard them in Sunday school, but since then, they have been locked in a cabinet. Now, suddenly, this dusty old box bursts with a word like one of the best-loved gospel stories, the feeding of the multitudes. Set side by side, this Elisha story and the Jesus story look like twin sisters: the hungry crowd, disciples with only a little something in a grocery bag, the master’s command—Give them food, the disciples’ protest—How?, the command repeated . . . and then, food for all.

Meditate with me on this promise, this hope, this possibility of food for all. As ever, we won’t worry whether this all happened just so, for here is the heart of the story: Food for all. When there is food for all, when the hungry are filled with good things, then there will be no more war, no more greed, no more racism, no more mean streets, no more mass incarceration, no more border police, no more deportation, no more joblessness, no more fracking the foundations of the earth, no more lousy education, no more lousy housing, no more bankruptcy and death when sickness comes to the uninsured, no more rotting democracy, no more hunger and thirst—when there is food for all. This possibility in the feast of food for all—you have always felt it.


Bishop Katharine: Seeing the Divine in All People


by: on July 30th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Bishop Katharine, the first presiding woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. Credit: Creative Commons.

In May, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, came under blistering criticism within her own and other Christian denominations for a sermon she gave on the island nation of Curaçao. The sermon was so provocative that it led critics on the Christian right to charge that the first presiding woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was possessed by the devil.

In six sentences, the bishop upended a longstanding interpretation of an event recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, in which St. Paul is said to have delivered a young pagan slave girl from demonic possession. The slave girl was also a fortune-teller in the city of Philippi, and her craft brought great profit to her slave masters. When Paul and his companions arrived in Philippi to spread the Gospel, the girl followed them around, shouting to everyone, “These men are servants of the Most High God; they will make known to you a way of salvation.” The slave girl did this for several days until Paul finally got annoyed, turned to her and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you, come out of her!” (Acts 16: 17)

From then on, the slave girl was silenced.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind – The Help We Need


by: on July 29th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text: 2 Kings 5: 1-14; John 15: 12-17

Now we have heard another story of wondrous healing. Our Bible holds very many. We came to love them when we were little, and we may love them still, but they come with puzzles now. If they mean that God once acted with power, but does no more, then they pronounce a curse on us. If they mean that miracles, still possible, come only to people of great faith, or only to those with lots of people pulling for them, then God is like politicians, who care only for constituents with means. If miracles are just random acts of kindness, why bother with the God theory at all? And if the stories mean that ancient people were gullible, and saw magic anywhere, then we are wiser, but sadder – for never mind Bible stories; we still have sorrows and wounds and depressions and diseases which keep us from the help we need. Everyone hurts. Our dead boys won’t walk again, the streets are mean, and greed is at the wheel of the world. Has this miracle story something to say to one who just wants to be whole? The word had better not be just heavenly sweet, but a goad and a guide.

Of all the figures in this story, only one is so anxious and untrusting and hurt that he cannot do any good. It is the king of Israel. He is you. He is me. This king represents every old thought we have about how things work. He stands for that forlorn wish we have for a leader to swoop in and save us from disaster. The king is in our every anxious thought about money or about next year’s budget. The king is our fear that it will all turn out wrong if we make a wrong turn now, so we turn nothing at all. The king is that flat view of reality which sees only cause and effect; and works harder and harder to gun the engine of more cause for more effect – and is always exhausted.


You’re Racist But Not Evil


by: on July 26th, 2013 | 7 Comments »

Once upon a time, white people were racist. And they did some very bad things to people who weren’t white, including black people. For a long time, the white people forced black people to be slaves. And then later, when the black people were free, the racist white people wouldn’t allow them to stay at the same hotels, go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, or eat at the same restaurants. Some of the white people were really, really racist. They actually hurt, and sometimes even killed, black people. But then a man named Martin Luther King had a dream. And he took a walk to Washington, D.C., and told the whole country about his dream. And white people’s hearts were softened. They realized that it was wrong to be racist, so they stopped. So now there are no more racist white people.

If many Americans were to tell a bedtime story about racism in our country, that’s what it would sound like. Racism existed for a long time among a lot of people and then suddenly it did not exist anymore. The Civil Rights Movement was profoundly successful in teaching average white Americans that racism is evil. That lesson, however, had less to do with the rhetorical genius of leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and more to do with mass media’s coverage of the movement.

The disturbing images coming out of the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s forever disrupted the notion that racism was a benign and socially justifiable institution. The term “racist” instead conjured up images of Alabama governor George Wallace physically blocking two African American students from registering at the University of Alabama; the faces of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the three young Freedom Summer workers who were executed in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and photos of peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs and water hoses. And perhaps the most gut-wrenching photo of all, the image of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s unrecognizable face. To be considered racist became associated with being capable of committing such atrocities.


Jewish Nationalism, Christian Theology, and the Demise of Interfaith Dialogue


by: Robert Cohen on July 11th, 2013 | 17 Comments »

Christian Cross and Jewish Star of David. Credit: Creative Commons.

Right now, decades of progress on Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue is unraveling. What had been a period of unprecedented advancement has been halted and replaced by (Christian) frustration and (Jewish) anger.

Interfaith relations now seem to exist only as part of the established hierarchy of formal Jewish and Christian communal structures. The realms of acceptable debate are securely locked down, confined to domestic issues and the sharing of religious practice. Any serious challenge by Christians or Jews to the status quo on Israel is considered firmly out of bounds.

So what’s happened and what can be done to get back on track and establish a mature, open, and honest interfaith conversation that doesn’t fall apart as soon as Israel or the Palestinians get mentioned? Here, I want to examine how distorted presentations of Christian theology and fossilized views of Judaism have become part of the new and disturbing dynamic of Jewish-Christian interaction.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind – Decision


by: on July 8th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text on Sunday, July 7, 2013: 2 Kings 2: 1-14; Luke 9:51-62

The stories you have heard this morning are master/disciple stories. They tell of the moment of decision to leave everything and go. These stories are about you and me. If they were merely about the old heroes, we’d find them only behind glass in libraries. But they are here because they are about that moment of decision for possibility in the crisis you are facing. The door of the eternal is here: the infinite in a moment. Or not. If perhaps you think, There is no great decision before me now, that means that for you, discipleship is dormant. This is not a bad thing, but let us see it clearly. In Luke’s story, Jesus calls several individuals to follow him, but they do not sense the crisis in the call; they have ordinary attachments to attend to. Jesus is not annoyed. It is just not time for them to become disciples; no one is always a disciple. If you sense no call to rise and follow, then at present you have no master. Or, you are your own master; you are at rest and discipleship is dormant. It is as if the divine master said, “Elisha, stay here,” and Elisha replied, “O.K.” Would that not be obedience?

When a teacher tells a student to stay behind, it means only that she is not ready to go on. As we say, this is not a bad thing. If one is not ready, then to go on, unprepared, would be the bad thing. A sad thing, however, is our cultural assumption that we may ignore the question of preparing to be ready to rise and go, to become human. American culture wants to flatten the path of the soul’s development; to insist that everyone is on a journey and every journey is on the same level, except, of course, those of athletes and rich people. Someone observed that American Protestants want the church to teach the children and bless the adults with a sermon – just the opposite of Jesus’ way, who blessed children and taught the adults – or some adults, at any rate: the learners, the disciples. Most of the time, our discipleship is dormant. “First, let me bury my father,” we say. Let me keep my appointments. Let me stick with what’s stuck, and defer decision.