Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Friends Don't Insult - An Interfaith Reflection on Free Speech and Compassion

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Keywords:  Charlie Hebdo, interfaith dialogue, peace, free speech

When the news of the attacks on the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris erupted earlier this month, one of the reporters from the local paper, The Daily Item (Sunbury, PA), called me for my reaction.  I expressed prayers for the families of the victims.  And then I was very clear that we should not respond with violence against Muslims because the vast majority do not perpetrate such crimes. He also asked me what I thought the Muslim response should be. I said that it was important for faith leaders to come together to model healthy conversations about the questions that are coming up about the incident - why some Muslims responded to the caricatures the way they did.  I suggested that he talk with someone from the local Muslim community, and that it was important that we be able to deal with these questions in an open and honest way.

My friend and pastoral colleague in interfaith work, The Rev. Ann Keeler Evans, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley, reminded me that one of the best ways to respond to these kinds of violent acts is to engage in the simple things with those whom many would consider our “enemies.”  “Have a picnic,” she said.  “Hold a potluck where people bring their different dishes and share a meal.  Show up together at arts festivals and public events and let people see us doing ordinary things together.”  In other words, be a self-deprecating embodiment of the old jokes, “A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim walk into a bar . . .” and just share a beverage and conversation.  Doing ordinary things can speak volumes in these extraordinary times.

Since then I have grappled in my own mind and heart about the tension between the right to free speech as exercised by the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo (and any other satirical medium) and the revulsion I felt upon seeing the caricatures in the paper.  I gained some clarity after reading the Gospel assigned for Jan. 25 for those churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  We read in Mark 1:15 these words:  Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’"

Because the time is fulfilled, and because the Kingdom of God has already come near, this has immediate effects on our world, our lives, and, yes, our churches and houses of worship.  The key is in the verbs: μετανοέω (repent) and πιστεύω (believe).  The verb forms in Greek are in the present active imperative.  They are expressing commands to the hearer to perform a certain action by the order and authority of the one commanding.
μετανοέω means to turn – to turn away from what has been destructive and harmful, and turn towards that which is healing and restorative.  In our time, it means not only turning away from violence to respond to those who anger you when your religious beliefs have been insulted.  It also means turning away from the continuing rancorous religious rhetoric uttered by so many in our own country and around the world.

Yes, we want to defend the freedom to express our thoughts and opinions, and to critique hypocrisy and protest abuse, and even to laugh at ourselves.  But in the kind of kingdom envisioned by Jesus and those of us committed to interfaith peace and dialogue, we would not dream of insulting people of other faiths with our words, or cartoons, or ads on city buses, or bumper stickers on cars, or memes on our Facebook pages.  Why?  Simply because they are our friends.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t do those kinds of things to my friends. And in their mercy they refrain from doing those things to me as well.

This does not mean that we do not disagree, even sharply, with each other and our respective beliefs and practices.  It does not mean that we refrain from asking the difficult questions in an effort to reach greater understanding.  It does not mean that we don’t, in good fun, tease each other when we are feeling playful.  We do all of these things.  But we do them with care and respect, not wanting to hurt each other or jeopardize our friendships for the sake of a thin appeal to “rights.”

For me, those friendships are built on Jesus’ other key word, key command, really – believe.  Or, better, have faith.  Trust.  Have confidence.  In whom?  In your friends, especially the ones with whom we are willing to cross lines and break bread, join hands and step into zones of difference in order to find common ground.  And we have faith and trust in the God who calls each of us to the path of peace, finding as many willing partners to join us along the way.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sunbury Pipeline Safe? Magical Thinking

The following op-ed was printed in the Jan. 19, 2015 edition of the Daily Item.  The link is here, and the full text is below:
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Prominent voices in the Susquehanna Valley (Central Pennsylvania) have touted the proposed “Sunbury Pipeline” as a boon for new businesses, jobs, and “affordable, accessible” energy from shale gas.  The same arguments are made for pushing through the Keystone XL pipeline.  Like most misleading arguments, there is a bit of truth that seduces us into wanting to believe these projects are a good idea. What these voices have overlooked or may not be aware of are the serious short-term and long-term costs that will accompany these pipelines.  These are not just risks. Pipelines have a history of documented damage that pose a threat here as well. 

For example, in our Valley, home and business owners with the pipeline buried underneath are at risk for loss of property value, refusal of insurance due to liability, and loss of resale potential.  Residents near the compressor stations along the route will be exposed to methane and other noxious gases due to leaks and routine venting, not to mention explosions.  The river’s ecosystem and those who rely on its drinking water will be subjected to incalculable risk when (not if) the pipeline ruptures or leaks.
  When all of this is taken into account, it becomes apparent that the pipeline is, in fact, a bad idea for the Valley, its residents and the river.

A recent editorial expressed confidence that despite the risks of running the pipeline beneath the river, environmental safety can be attained by maintaining a transparent process overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection.  This argument rests on the premise that the DEP is trustworthy, reliable, well-staffed, non-partisan, and proactive in protecting the environment.  And that the companies involved have the best interest of the environment and public health in mind, putting them before profit.  In my experience with DEP and the companies involved with the proposed White Deer tire incinerator, which was shelved a year ago, and with the shale gas industry over the past several years, such assumptions and trust are misplaced.  This is an example of “magical thinking” which leads people to believe that their thoughts will make something come true.  We may wish and hope and trust that very little will go wrong with this pipeline, as well as the Keystone XL, and convince ourselves and others of the same.  But when the disasters happen, all of our magical thinking fails us.  Even with best of intentions, human error would be too costly.

And it’s not just the Valley that will pay the price for this pipeline.  The methane that leaks from the fracking sites and through the pipelines, compressor stations and in the power plant itself are a more potent form of greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20-year period.  Harvard scientist Naomi Oreskes has pointed out that this is the very timeframe when we need to decrease our use of fossil fuels to curtail the climate feedback cycle that is leading to serious planetary problems.
Bottom line – the gas must stay in the ground.  But here we are in the Valley running full tilt toward more infrastructure for the cancer of the shale gas industry to metastasize yet again.

This Valley is too precious to leave to chance, human error and magical thinking.  Let’s not be misled.  At the very least, we need to have environmental scientists, naturalists, and other researchers study these plans in detail and tell us what the risks are.  We need to look at other instances of pipelines that have been dug underneath rivers to learn what problems they’ve had. It’s irresponsible for our leaders to tout this as such a good thing for the Valley while overlooking or making light of the threats.  If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

New businesses and jobs are a good thing.  And we need energy for our electricity needs. But let’s welcome businesses that are on the forefront of the clean energy sector (solar, wind and geothermal) that will provide stable, well-paying, long-term jobs in the Valley without damaging our properties, health and river. 

Schade is the pastor of United in Christ Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, an ethics instructor at Lebanon Valley College, and was a leader of the Tire Burner Team.  She is the author of the forthcoming book, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecological Theology and Homiletics (Chalice Press).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Climate Stew Crew's newest member: The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Meet the newest member of the Climate Crew Stew!

So honored and excited to be part of the team behind this weekly podcast on climate change! Funny, quirky, educational 13-minute podcasts on climate change by my friend Peterson Toscano. Watch for a post on Monday, Jan. 19 with my "debut."

And the pic below? Me at around age 4 at my dad's landscaping and nursery business.  A quiet moment between climbing mulch bag piles, running through greenhouses of exotic and local plants, and exploring the little creek that ran between the fields of young trees, their roots burlapped and waiting to take root in new soil.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Our Constellation of Faith - Epiphany Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church
Jan. 4, 2015

Watch the video of this sermon here:
Last month we embarked on a sermon series about finding and experiencing God in darkness.  Today, as we draw to the close of the Christmas season and approach the day of Epiphany, we take this time to note the tiny lights in the sky that can only be seen when the sun goes down – stars!  For many years I lived in the Philadelphia area where the light pollution is so strong, the light of the stars is barely visible.  It’s like trying to hear the music of piccolos but the trumpets keep blaring away.  The little lights in the distant sky get drowned out when the street lamps and headlights and spotlights keep blaring away.  Living in the city, I wished I could just shush the noisiness of the lights so I could enjoy the peace and quiet of the stars. 
Living in this part of central Pennsylvania, however, where the Susquehanna River and fields and hills stretch on for miles with minimal artificial lighting has given me the hush of nighttime I longed for.  I have come to love gazing at the starry sky above our house on the edge of farmland where only the occasional lights of porches and garages compete with my view of the constellations.  In fact, I am actually learning to identify some of those constellations.  With the help of the handy dandy Google Sky Map application on my phone, I can hold my screen up to the sky and know the names of the stars and constellations I am seeing. 

I’ll bet the Wise Men, or Magi (as they are sometimes called) wished they had an app to help them navigate their way to Jesus. I’ve often wondered how it was that they were able to “follow” the star to the place where Jesus was.  I know they were learned men, well-versed in the movements of the stars in the heavens.  The Magi consulted the accumulated wisdom of many generations of women and men who gazed at the heavens and noticed the patterns in those dots of light, how they moved over time.  And when they saw the unusual phenomenon of two stars aligning in the sky to form one doubly bright light, they knew that something amazing had happened and sought to find out what it was. 

In our crèche scenes and Christmas cards, the Wise Men are shown on the opposite side of the shepherds at the manger, implying that they arrived the same night.  But most likely it took those Magi weeks, even months to find the Holy Family.  Who knows how long they traveled from their own separate countries until they met and discovered their shared quest.  They may have been following those two separate stars for years, anticipating their joining, and intent on making their way to where the giant star pointed.  However they found their way, we can be sure that, like their counterparts on the sea who guide their ships by the stars they see at night, the Magi learned to observe the constellations and track their own movements accordingly.  

The Wise Men from the East were the first of the Gentiles to be drawn to the light of the Christ child, which for them was first seen in a star.  Matthew includes this story because it is important for him, as a Gospel writer telling the story to a specific audience, that the message of Jesus’ universal significance be conveyed.  Like the light of a star, the love of God revealed through the person of Jesus is meant to be seen by all, whether they’re standing right next door, or many miles away. 
I wonder . . . who do you know who is seeking the light of God?  Are they many miles away?  Are they right next door?
Friends - you are one of those stars pointing the way to Jesus.  Because you have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you are one of those lights in the dark sky that can help guide people to the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Think of how many men and women and children have found their way to this church, followed the Christ star, in a sense, to find Jesus welcoming them in this place.  Three years ago we made a commitment as a congregation to begin inviting our friends, neighbors and family to our church, so that they could encounter the love of Jesus through us.  Did you know that since that time we have welcomed 30 new faces through baptisms, new members, and renewed members who returned after years away from the congregation?  When many churches are seeing their numbers dwindle, you have bucked the trend.  You believe in this church, and you believe in what Christ has to offer to others through this church. 
Not only that, but think of all the other people who have found joy, music, fellowship and hope through our ministries and special events.  Our OAKs Monthly Senior Center regularly welcomes about 20 people, many of whom are not members here.  Our new Young Adults group has included friends of our members who have expressed great appreciation for this new ministry.  And our youth are some of our brightest stars!  We have our Small Stars Sunday School class that just started this fall for toddlers and their caregivers.  And our All Stars older youth invite their friends to this church on a regular basis.  Just last week we had 27 young people here for our pre-New Year’s lock-in.  A third of them were friends of our youth.  You know your church is cool if the kids are inviting their friends!  

This congregation has been a light in the darkness for so many individuals who are wandering, seeking a congregation of friends who will take them in and help them take the next steps on their faith journey.  We already know Jesus is here.  We experience his presence every week in the hugs and handshakes, in the songs we sing together, in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup at communion.  But how will the Wise Men and Women out there find where Christ is without the stars to guide them? 
An incredible gift has been given to you, to us, as a community of Christ.  We, as a congregation, pass that gift on to others, just as the Wise Men did for Jesus and his parents.  Our benevolence to the synod, the food we have collected, the children in need we have helped, the guests we have welcomed, the homeless we have helped through Habitat for Humanity, the gifts and songs we gave to the residents at Country Comfort, the children in Liberia whom many of you have helped to educate through your financial support – these are the gifts we give to the community, to the world, to announce that the light of Christ has come into the world.   

We may be a small congregation – but the light we shine in the darkness is just what someone out there needs see to help them find their way.  In your bulletin there is an insert called “Letting My Light Shine.”  On the inside there are two identical flaps for your to write down the names of people you would like to pray for in the coming year, that they will come to know the love of Christ through your light.  I would like you to write down their names on one side that you will tear off and put into the offering plate.  On the other side, write those same names and keep them with you.  Post them on your dresser mirror, or your refrigerator, or in a place you look at often, so that you can remember to pray for them.  And we will create a prayer list call the “shining stars” – first names only – of those names you turn into us.  Throughout the coming year, we’ll revisit the list to see how we’re doing.  Maybe we’ll even see some of these wise men and women sitting in the pew next to you one Sunday. 
I mentioned earlier that we had a big group of young people here at the church for the lock-in and many of them were guests.  One of them was a boy who had never been in our church before. In fact, he had never been in any church before.  I found out because I asked him, and he said this was his first time in a church.  I was glad this was his first experience.  Because we played games and made craft bags that Vivian showed them how to do.  We grazed on hot dogs and veggies and chips and fruit throughout the long night.  We played hide and seek and watched movies.  And just before midnight we gathered in the darkened sanctuary carrying the little candles we used from Christmas Eve.  Ellen and Devon led us in song on their guitars.  We read from the Bible, and we shared prayers for our hopes in the coming year.  And then we sang “Silent Night” as the candles made our faces glow.  This little boy could not sing along because he did not know the words.  But I heard him humming softly, looking around, taking it all in.  On that night he found himself in a constellation of beautiful glowing stars right here in our church.

These people on your list – I can just imagine how they might feel being part of our constellation here at United in Christ.  Pray for them.  Let your light shine for them.  And keep watching for the appearance of those new stars!  Amen.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Interview with The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade: Religion and the Environment

An 11-minute interview conducted by Stacy Hinck and Zoe Meras, students of Dr. Brantley Gassaway's class History of Religion in America at Bucknell University.  Their questions are well-thought out and generate a great discussion about:

* how religion and the environment intersect
* Lutheran theology and biblical interpretation influenced by and addressing care of Creation
* the rationale for Christians being advocates for ecojustice issues
*  the model of public theology provided for us by Jesus' ministry
*  the connection between climate change awareness and preaching
*  the calling to initiate a "green" civil rights movement.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon - A Holy Interruption

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Text: Luke 2:2-20 

[The video of this sermon can be found here.  The video is a little shaky for about the first 30 seconds, but then settles in:]

Several years ago I served in a congregation where I sent out an informal email poll asking people the following question:

“What do you find to be the biggest distraction when you attend a worship service?”

There were quite a variety of responses.  Some people said it was things like cell phones, the sound of traffic outside, or the temperature being too hot or cold.

But by far, the biggest source of annoyance during worship is . . . (anyone want to guess?)  children!  Now in our church, we make it a point to welcome children during services.  Of course there is a nursery available when children need it.  But ours is a church that tries to communicate the message to children and families that just as God welcomes all people and invites them into God’s presence, so we, too, extend that same invitation, no matter what your age or your attention span.

But that means, of course, that our worship services are all the noisier and distracted for it.  How many of you have had the following experience: you’re listening to the sermon, and you’re incredibly engrossed in the preaching (I know, it happens all the time), when suddenly the piercing cry of a child rises up from the pews and drowns out the preacher’s voice - and you can tell it’s just at the point where the most important, earth-shattering revelation is being declared.  But instead it’s “sermon-interrupted.”

Or how about when you have one of these lovable little urchins sitting in the pew directly in front of or behind you.  You watch Cheerios cascading to the floor, lose count of the number of times the child goes back and forth to the bathroom, and climbs up and down, up and down, as if the pew was a jungle gym.  And you hear all the juvenile prattle, despite the parent’s continued admonition:  “Use your inside voice.  Use you inside voice.”

And if you are one of the parents or grandparents who actually has one of these children in your care during worship . . . well, you’re lucky if you can even catch the gist of the sermon or hear a phrase or two from the prayers.  Worshiping with a child is one big exercise in patience and distraction.

I would go so far as to say that children are one big interruption.   Being a person who hates to be interrupted, I can say that that has been one of the most challenging aspects of parenting for me.  Just as I’m sitting down to work on one of these important, earth-shattering sermons, one of my children interrupts me to ask for something to eat or for me to play with them.  Or I’ll have my day all planned out - who I’m going to bring communion to, what meeting I’m going to attend, what work I’m going to get done - when one of them comes down with a virus and interrupts the whole schedule.  Don’t get me wrong - I love my children with every fiber of my being.  It’s just that I find it frustrating sometimes to have to manage so many interruptions.

I have a feeling that Mary and Joseph might have understood what it's like to be interrupted. Nine months ago, Mary was just going about her life, young and carefree, when an angel appears from God and interrupts her:
     “Greetings, Favored One!  The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus,” (Luke 1:28-31).
     Just like that -- girl interrupted.  Life interrupted. 

The Gospel of Matthew records a similar incident for Joseph.  Nine months ago, he was just going about his life, engaged to a pretty young girl, happily going about his carpentry business, when an angel appears from God and interrupts him:

     “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21).
     Just like that -- man interrupted.  Life interrupted.

And that’s just the beginning.  The whole rest of the story is full of interruptions.  The government interrupts their lives and tells them they have to make the long trek to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth, in order to pay their taxes.  The innkeeper interrupts their lives to tell them they have to stay in the barn with the animals because there are no more rooms available.  It’s just one interruption after another.

Do you ever feel like your life is sometimes like this?  You’re going along just fine, minding your own businesses, happily going through your routine, when something interrupts your life and brings you nothing but hassle: 

     The doctor interrupts your life to tell you that the tests results were not good, and you will have to spend this huge chunk of your life fighting this disease.
     Your spouse interrupts your life to tell you that he or she has found someone else that they want to be with, and you will have to spend a huge chunk of your time in a legal and emotional nightmare.
     Your employer interrupts your life to tell you that your position has been eliminated, and you will have to spend this huge chunk of your life trying to find a new job.

     A natural disaster interrupts the lives of hundreds or thousands of people and they will spend years trying to rebuild their homes and communities, to restore some sense of stability.

     And of course there is the biggest interruption of them all - death.  You’re going along just fine, minding your own business, when death interrupts your life, taking the person you love, and leaving you with nothing but sorrow, pain, guilt, and an emptiness like no other.

Life is just one big interruption after another.  No one likes interruptions.

Well, I can think of one exception.  The shepherds.  Living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  We have this romantic vision of their simple, bucolic life.  But really, a shepherd’s life was one that no one envied.  Long days and nights isolated and alone, these were people whom society often rejected for one reason or another.  No one wanted to hire them, so the only job they could get was watching sheep.  It was a hard life, monotonous and boring, with no hope of a promotion, no salary increase, no companionship beyond the other rejects out there with you.

And then one fateful night, the angel interrupts them.  “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you:  you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12).

This is startling to them.  I often try to imagine what it must have been like for them.  Do you remember the feeling you had as a kid when the first big snow fell, and you heard the announcement that school was closed?  And you ran out and jumped and rolled in that beautiful white stuff, because you knew it meant freedom.  Freedom from the monotony of another day.  A brief reprieve from that big test you were dreading.  Freedom to breathe a sigh of relief and play and drink hot cocoa and enjoy the day as a gift.

Imagine that feeling multiplied times a hundred.  The shepherds “make haste” - they’re running!  They’re laughing and hooting, jumping and singing the song they heard in the angel’s serenade:  “Glory to God in the highest!”

These are men who welcome the interruption. They long for something to break through the prison of their poverty, disrupt the monotony of their dreary lives.  For just this night they have a brief reprieve from their desolate lives.  They have freedom to breathe a sigh of relief, breathe in a breath of hope, and enjoy this night as a gift.

These are men whose ears are tuned to hear the cry of a baby.  They are happy to be interrupted by this baby!  Because this child’s cry is the most important, earth-shattering revelation the world has yet heard.  God is with us!  Emmanuel! 

These men run all through the city of Bethlehem, banging on doors, interrupting the sleep of countless people, looking for the child.  They want to see the Cheerios making a mess on the floor.
They want to hear the incessant prattle of this little one.  They want to be interrupted.  This is what they have longed for all their lives - a holy interruption.

Now, of course, when they finally find the little baby in the manger, you can be sure that Mary and Joseph probably just sighed with exasperation.  Not another interruption.  Can’t we even have this baby in peace without being annoyed by these dirty, low-life shepherds? 

But then they speak, “We’re sorry to interrupt.  But we’ve just been given the greatest news.  This baby - your baby - is the One!  The angel told us.  Do you know what you have here?  This child is the greatest gift God could ever interrupt you to give.  Whatever you have to go through for this child, it will be worth it.  Because this child will bring peace where there had been no hope of peace before.” 

“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19).
She pondered these words when the child grew to be a twelve-year-old, and interrupted their trip to Jerusalem by disappearing for days, teaching in the temple.

Joseph pondered these words when the child grew to be a young man, and interrupted his promising career as a carpenter to journey to the Jordan River and seek baptism and a life as a traveling rabbi.

You see Jesus’ life was all about interruption. 
He interrupted the sick to tell them that they were healed.
He interrupted the sinners to tell them they were forgiven.
He interrupted the outcasts to tell them they were welcome.

But he also
interrupted the corrupted to tell them that they were wrong.
Interrupted the oppressors to tell them that God was seeking justice.
Interrupted the whole system that marginalized the weak, forcing inequality, and poverty, and violence on so many people. 

And of course, there was the most important interruption of them all -- the resurrection.  Here evil and death were just going along, minding their own business, happily consuming just one more child of humanity, this one delivered by a cross on a hill at Golgotha.  But on the third day, in the cemetery garden, suddenly an angel appears and interrupts the women and disciples in their grieving, saying, “Do not be afraid!  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!”  Just like that -- Death interrupted.

Perhaps I need to adjust my attitude towards interruptions.  I’ll probably never actually welcome the day-to-day interruptions that annoy me and make it hard to get work done.  But the big interruptions - the sickness, the losses, the births, the deaths -- well, if God found a way into the world in the midst of the interruptions back then, perhaps I need to be more alert to God’s presence in the midst of the interruptions today.

In fact, maybe that’s the only way that God can get through to us.  Maybe it takes a holy interruption to shake us out of our routine, release us from our prisons of monotony, break the ongoing cycles of violence and evil and pain in this world. 

We need this child, piercing the air with his cries, interrupting our lives with this most important, earth-shattering news:  God is with us.  Emmanuel. 

May you experience this most holy interruption.  May God interrupt you with the gift of this Jesus child.  May you experience this interruption of grace and peace, love and joy.  Amen.