Friday, February 24, 2017

The Preacher Persisted: Finding Courage in the Pulpit




The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade


I'm no stranger to push-back from people angered by a controversial sermon.  But a shift is happening in churches that is testing the mettle of even the most prophetic preachers.

I was recently invited to supply preach at a congregation to cover a colleague during his vacation.  I had been told by several different people that the congregation had a reputation of being a politically progressive church. So I crafted a prophetic sermon that engaged contemporary issues for the assigned lectionary readings for the day. In the sermon, I never referenced any political party or figure, but clearly named the systemic loss of an ethical and moral center in our country of late.  I also reiterated Moses’ call to follow God’s commandments to turn away from death and embrace life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).  True to my commitment to include God’s Creation in my preaching where appropriate, I critiqued the ways we have abused this Earth in violation of the command to choose life.  But I ended by pointing out that God is still at work calling people to rise up in defense of the vulnerable and answering the call to justice along with people of other faiths and nonreligious people of good will (you can read my blog post based on the sermon here).

The reactions of the listeners in the days following the sermon revealed a much more politically diverse congregation than I expected.  The pastor told me he had received numerous emails and phone calls from his parishioners – some who had expressed appreciation for the sermon, and some who expressed strong anger at what I had preached.  So the pastor asked if I would be willing to come back to the church to talk about the sermon with anyone who wanted to discuss it further. 

I was open to this suggestion for several reasons.  First, my current research is exploring how Mainline Protestant pastors handle sermons on controversial issues, so I saw this as an opportunity to hear first-hand from parishioners about this very topic. Second, as a seminary professor of preaching and worship who requires students to receive constructive critique of their sermons, it’s only fair that I be willing to accept the same kind of feedback.  And third, my working hypothesis regarding preaching about controversial issues is that the process of deliberative dialogue is one way that we might heal our divisions, work toward civil discourse, and move the conversation forward in a productive way.  So in the spirit of scholarly inquiry, pastoral openness, and civic goodwill, I accepted the invitation to return to the church for a conversation.


The room was packed with over 20 people (they normally had just a handful of participants for these Wednesday evening “table talks”).  The pastor began by handing out a very helpful set of ground rules for discussion entitled “Touchstones for Creating Safe Space” from the Center for Courage and Renewal.  After leading us in prayer he then asked me to share with the group some opening remarks about how I had come to preach that particular sermon.  I explained that I had chosen to take a more prophetic approach to preaching the scriptural text based on my informed assumption that this congregation was open to sermons that directly addressed justice issues from a biblical perspective.  But, I continued, since then I had come to learn that there were strong reactions to the sermon, both positive and negative, and I was interested in hearing from those gathered what they wanted to share about the sermon.
From what I could tell, about half of the people in the room had a negative reaction to the sermon, and they shared the following kinds of responses:
* I don’t come to church to hear about political issues.  I don’t like to hear that.
* This sermon was just post-election whining.
* There was too much law and not enough Gospel.
* This sermon was too political.
* I was offended.  I feel you attacked me just because I voted for Trump.
Though there was not enough time for me to respond to these accusations, it was curious to me the kinds of things that were read into the sermon, especially the personalization of what was clearly a critique of systems and ethos, not individuals. (Exploring this phenomenon is a task for another time.) And I noted a general air of discomfort, indignation, and even scolding disapproval from those who offered their critiques.

Others, however, expressed thoughts that were exactly the opposite, with an overall tone of support, appreciation and even gratitude for the sermon.  They shared the following kinds of responses:
* The church should speak about these political issues.  Jesus never withheld himself from critiquing those in power.
* Moses was political and stood up to those who were abusing their power.
* I heard both Law and Gospel in this sermon because it invited us to find the center of our morals and ethics.
* I believe we are called to be caretakers of the environment as part of our baptismal vocation, and this sermon affirmed that for me.
* I found this sermon refreshing because it directly addressed issues I care about.
* The fact that so many of us have come together to discuss this sermon is a good thing.  We need to talk about these issues in the church.

Despite these positive rebuttals to the negative reactions to the sermon, the angriest voices were the loudest. There was one person in particular whose level of anger was so strong, my experience of her was that of being attacked.  She repeatedly interrupted me (breaking the agreed-upon rules of engagement) after she had demanded that I explain myself about a point in the sermon, and snidely ridiculed the safe space ground rules agreed upon by the group.  She also threatened that she would leave the church (which made no sense because this was just one sermon by a visiting preacher).  And she demanded to know if the pastor had vetted my sermon ahead of time, and if the synod (which oversees and coordinates the spiritual and organizational activities of its member congregations) didn’t have guidelines for what is allowed to be preached.  In other words (as I heard it), isn’t there some way we can silence this kind of preaching?  Can't we make her sit down and shut up?  I noticed several heads nodding in agreement with her.
At that point, I recalled what had happened to Senator Elizabeth Warren when Senator Mitch McConnell silenced her from reading Coretta Scott King’s letter when the Senate was debating whether or not to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general.  Warren was censured from speaking, and McConnell gave the following justification:  “She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.”
I know preaching during this time in our nation’s history is difficult, even painful.  The pushback can hurt. The consequences of people being angry, withdrawing their membership and their offerings, and threatening to shame you and even censure your proclamation of the scriptures are real.  I know because I’ve been hearing it from preachers around the country through my research, in conversations with pastoral colleagues, and because I’ve experienced it firsthand. 
But perhaps we preachers – especially those of us who are preaching while female – need to adopt our own version of this now-famous trio of sentences: 
The preacher was warned.

The preacher was given an explanation.

Nevertheless, the preacher persisted.

#preacherpersisted

In the days since that lion’s den of a meeting, I am still committed to dialogue and hearing those with whom I disagree.  I know there is much to be learned and I remain steadfast in my hope that one way through this divisiveness is through honest respectful speaking and humble listening.
But here’s one thing I know:  I will not allow my prophetic preaching voice to be silenced. 

At my ordination, I made a vow to “preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and the creeds and confessions” of the Lutheran church.  Thus I follow Martin Luther’s lead of calling out abuse of power when I see it and being willing to accept the consequences of my commitment to justice.  In that ordination vow I also promised that I would “lead God’s people by my own example in faithful service and holy living, and to give faithful witness in the world, that God's love may be known in all that I do.”  Thus, following the lead of another Lutheran minister – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who took a bold prophetic stand against a dangerous and powerful regime, I am committed to ministering to those most vulnerable, and holding myself accountable to “the least of these” whom Jesus has identified as his own embodiment in this world (Matthew 25:31-46).      
As my good friend and colleague Emily Askew has reminded me, sometimes being prophetic entails loss.  If people threaten to leave because they are gnashing their teeth at the gospel, we may have to let them go in love, entrusting them to God’s care.  But if you’re avoiding preaching the hard stuff because you’re afraid of dividing the church, remember – those divisions are there with or without you.  You are simply called to witness to the reality of what is . . . and share the vision of what God is calling us to be.
This does not mean you should be partisan in your preaching, as in giving endorsement of a specific party or political individual.  But you have a protected right to offer a prophetic critique of words, policies, executive orders, and actions of any person, government, corporation or organization that holds power.  Remember – you are called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ who never shied away from “talking politics,” which, in its truest sense is that which concerns the polis, the citizens.  Thus Jesus' ministry and preaching were absolutely political, which authorizes our ministry and preaching to address the concerns of the citizens as well.  
The key, of course, is how you preach politics.  One piece of advice I can offer at this point is to find a group of colleagues with whom you can share your sermons before you preach them, so that you can help each other navigate the Scylla of partisanship and the Charybdis of cowardice.  You do not have to be, nor should you be, a lone ranger in your ministry.  Find and cultivate trustworthy preaching partners and hold each other accountable while offering mutual gifts of wisdom and prudence.  (I'll be offering more guidance and best practices as my research on "preaching in the purple zone" continues, so I invite you to subscribe to this blog to see future posts.)  
So attend to your biblical exegesis with skill.  Apply your study of theology with integrity.  Let your pastoral heart beat for those you serve both inside and outside your church.  Pray with fierce trust in the God who called you.  And preach the gospel with persistent courage!

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


Friday, February 17, 2017

How Can We Talk? Confessions of a Disillusioned Red-Cradle Christian

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Susan M. Shaw, Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University, has written an excellent article entitled “Dear White, Christian Trump Supporters: We Need to Talk,” which has articulated not only my thoughts, but also my experiences. Like Shaw, I was born in an area characterized as blue-collar and conservative (central Pennsylvania).  I grew up a church-going Republican in an upwardly mobile white working-class family.  I am what you might call a “red-cradle Christian.”  While my family attended a Lutheran church, I was also immersed in conservative Christianity through extended family. I spent the first half of my life in the hunting camps and at the picnic tables of red-state culture. In other words, White Christian Trump Voters, I was one of you.  I learned from you to cherish the forests and streams and rivers; to place the highest value on clean air and land; to see all people and all creatures as part of God’s family.

And following your encouragement to pursue education, work hard, and achieve the American Dream, I was the first in my family to go to college.  I worked my butt off through all levels of education to the PhD level (with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt to vouch for my not being a silver-spooned trust fund elitist). Along the way, the Christian values you instilled in me led me to discern a call to ministry. As an ordained pastor I have striven to faithfully serve congregations with people of many different races, different political affiliations, and varying degrees of economic privilege. And it was the Christian values you taught me in Sunday School and youth group that helped me to first recognize and then work to confront my racism, as well as to learn from those who have experienced true oppression.

But for some reason, the results of the Christian and Republican values you had invested in me have yielded a bitter return in your eyes.  I have emerged with progressive Christian convictions which, ironically, are a direct result of the red-cradle values I was taught.  And now I am viewed with hostility by Trump voters.  I sense that I am considered a traitor.  To make matters worse, I'm accused of not "listening" to you.

Friends, I have listened to you all my life and ministered to you as your pastor. I agree with Shaw – we do need to talk, but I don’t know how to talk with you anymore. Everything you taught me to value as a red-cradle Republican Christian child – caring for God's Creation, respecting civility, speaking and acting with honesty and integrity, practicing hospitality, following Jesus – I feel you have turned around and attacked through your rhetoric, your votes, and your hostile ideologically-driven actions. What am I to make of this? I am so frustrated, confused and confounded.  What common ground can we find for dialogue when that ground literally has been destroyed and poisoned?  How can I trust you when you are okay with voting for people who are hell-bent on destroying everything and everyone you taught me to value, right down to the forests and streams and air itself?

I am really struggling with this because I believe in the power of dialogue. I have built my life, my ministry, and now my work as a seminary professor (who happens to be writing a book on how to preach across the red/blue divide) on the firm conviction that by inviting all voices to the table to listen and learn, we can reach understanding and move forward for the good of all.  But I am reminded by my black friends, my gay friends, my Muslim friends, my Jewish friends, my Latina/o friends, my friends with disabilities, my environmentalist friends, my “foreign” friends, and my other-than-human friends within Creation that not everyone comes to the table as equals.  And my high hopes for civil discourse are bumping up against the harsh reality that my encouraging people to engage in dialogue would force my other-than-White-straight-male-Christian friends to a table where Trump supporters want them either silent, invisible, absent, subservient, enslaved, cast away, or even dead. 

Please understand, Trump-voting Christians, that I do hear you when you say do not consider yourself a racist, and that you resent being lumped in with white supremacists when all you really wanted was, say, small government, well-paying jobs, and protection from terrorism.  I regret that those needs and values have been fused with the Trump agenda, much of which I hope and pray you do not agree with (such as grabbing women’s genitalia and having big government control their bodies, lying and bearing false witness, worshiping false gods of money and power, and various other commandment-violations). 

Perhaps it feels to you the way many Muslims feel when they are accused of having the same horrific convictions as fundamentalist terrorists.  You’re right, it’s not fair that your values got hijacked by extremists.  But in the same way you expect Muslims to disavow those who do violence in their religion’s name, shouldn’t you also abide by the same expectations?  Isn’t there a point where you should speak out?  Haven’t we reached the place where you recognize that you must put aside your devotion to ideology and turn back to the Christian values you taught me?  

Even when it comes to sharing the same pew and the same communion table with you, I am in deep moral and existential distress.  Because, dear Trump-supporting friends, when the terms for talking together and worshiping together and sharing fellowship together mean negating everything you taught me to believe in, I am at a loss.  I feel like a hypocrite, that I’m selling-out, and that I am betraying the very God whom you taught me to honor and obey.

So, yes, I have been listening.  I have been doing what you told me to do. I continue to listen.  And that listening has opened my eyes, broken my heart, and driven me to my knees in prayer.  So it is my fervent hope that in my continued work on fostering dialogue, you will also listen with the same willingness to have your eyes opened, your heart broken, and your knees bent to look in the eyes of all those whom Jesus loves – especially the least of these within the human and other-than-human family.  I’m reaching out to you from the same red cradle we shared, and hoping you’ll look beyond to see an entire landscape of rainbow cradles that contain lives that are just as valuable to God as yours.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA), though the views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect the institutions she serves.  She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Getting Local with Rep. Andy Barr: Environment, Health, Immigration All Connected

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Andy Barr (R) is the United States Representative for Kentucky's 6th congressional district since 2013 and offers "mobile office hours" every second Tuesday of the month. Today, less than a month after Trump's inauguration, 30 people showed up at his Lexington office in Hamburg to share their concerns about what is going on in Congress, with Trump, with our country, and with our state. Mr. Barr wasn't there, but his staffers were, and they got an earful from a room filled with concerned citizens who were well-informed, articulate, passionate, respectful and firm in their convictions that he must listen to his constituents. Some of us were from Together We Will Bluegrass, others were from the group Indivisible-Bluegrass, and some were citizens who showed up on their own.  We shared many of the same concerns during the hour-long meeting.  

Mr. Pat Melton, seated in light blue shirt,
was Mr. Barr's spokesman at the meeting.
We began by expressing our appreciation that Mr. Barr was willing to open his offices to his constituents at all, given that his counterparts in the Senate (Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul) refuse to meet with citizens, do not answer phone calls or allow for recorded messages, and offer no way for our voices to be heard.  Nevertheless, our questions began with inquiries as to when Mr. Barr would be holding a town meeting, since he has not done so since 2014.  The staffer representing Mr. Barr, Mr. Pat Melton, had just started his position two weeks ago and, while gracious, amenable to our concerns, and not hostile in any way, was understandably not up to speed on his boss's schedule, positions or policies.  Nevertheless, he insisted that Mr. Barr was committed to listening to his constituents and keeping our best interests at heart.

We pointed out that Mr. Barr's actions indicated otherwise.  For example, many of us filled out the constituent survey on Mr. Barr’s website. We wondered who designed the survey, and why are there so many false choices presented that are skewed toward a conservative agenda?  If Mr. Barr is supposed to represent all constituents – progressive and conservative – wouldn’t it be prudent to listen to those who do not agree with him, but whose votes he needs to be reelected?

Another example of Mr. Barr's apparent lack of concern for his constituents has been his push for deregulating banking.  As Jane Eller from Indivisible Bluegrass pointed out, Mr. Barr has sponsored or cosponsored 9 pieces of legislation to deregulate banking.  How can we be protected from credit and mortgage scams and other scurrilous banking practices that led to the 2008 crash if Mr. Barr insists on deregulating banks?

There were also pointed questions about Mr. Barr's attacks on the Affordable Care Act, and serious concerns about the lack of access to health care that would result from abolishing health insurance for Kentucky citizens.  

My question had to do with environmental issues, which are very much a matter of public health.  I addressed my question from a faith perspective as Lutheran clergyperson:

I am distressed that Mr. Barr voted to overturn regulations that protect citizens from coal industry pollution.  Coal mining interests have invested $435,000 in his campaign committee and political action committee since his first run for Congress in 2010, making the sector his top supporter.  For the 2016 election cycle, Barr tops all of his House of Representatives and Senate colleagues in coal industry contributions, with almost $44,000 as of the end of September.  There’s no war on coal.  There is a war on public health.  And he is receiving half a million dollars to wage that war.

These were commonsense protections that did not harm the industry in any way.  Having a 100-foot buffer between coal mining and streams is about the length between two bases on a baseball field.  That is barely enough land to put between the harmful coal pollution and the sensitive streams that feed into the drinking water supplies for thousands of Kentucky residents.  And the requirement for coal companies to restore streams and return mined areas to conditions similar to those before mining took place is simply being a good neighbor.  We’re taught as children in Sunday School – if you make a mess, you must clean it up. 


I know that Mr. Barr is attends an Episcopal church.  The Anglican/Episcopalian document, “Stewardship of Creation” (2002) says that a goal for the church is to:  “encourage all members of our congregations to understand that God calls us to care for the creation by making our communities and environments better places for the next generation than they were in our lifetime.”  I’m interested in how Mr. Barr, who is a Christian, and an Episcopalian, can rationalize his actions while still claiming to be a Christian?  

Mr. Melton had no response for this.  And my question was followed by inquiries from others around the room about Mr. Barr's stance on climate change, if he would protect the EPA, and why he doesn't draw on the wisdom of scientists in his district on these issues. It was also pointed out that the immigration ban is keeping much-needed foreign doctors from our rural areas where they are desperately needed, and that doing away with the ACA would eliminate health care for coal miners suffering from black lung.  We as citizens were unanimous in our demand for the strongest possible health and safety protections for our state, our land and waterways, and each other.

Several other concerns were raised and issues addressed:
* An impassioned plea from the group not to defund Planned Parenthood (even from those in the room who oppose abortion).
*  Urging Mr. Barr to support efforts to remove Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.
* Concerns from a local elementary school teacher whose students from immigrant families are scared that their parents will be taken away and they will be left alone.
* Genuine fear about the state of our country due to President Trump's executive orders, chaotic leadership, and constant barrage of lies.

Valentines for Mr. Barr.
At one point a question was asked if Mr. Barr would be willing to stand up for the people of Kentucky - even if it meant standing against the Republican Party and even losing financial support from big donors.  Mr. Melton insisted that his boss's heart was in the right place.  

I ended by asking what Mr. Melton would like to see from us, what we could do to be helpful as concerned citizens.  He encouraged us to make appointments to speak with him, to keep showing up for events, and to maintain our level of engagement in this process.  And he promised to share our concerns with Mr. Barr.

I cannot speak for everyone who was there, but for me, the level of energy that room, the fact that people had done their homework and were so well-informed about the different bills and policies in our government, and that this many people took time on a Tuesday afternoon - Valentine's Day even - to share their concerns, was incredibly heartening.  

Indeed, this is what democracy looks like!

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Back to Basics: Advice for Christians in the Trump Era

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade presenting at the Teach-in, Lexington Theological Seminary, Jan. 20, 2017
On January 20, 2017 -- Inauguration Day -- the seminary where I teach, Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, held a Teach-in entitled "Now What?  Empowering the Church in the New Political Age."  We had planned for around 20-30 participants, but were surprised when the room filled with nearly 50 with 10 viewing the event online.  LTS President Charisse Gillett, Richard Weis, Jerry Sumney, Emily Askew, Barbara Blodgett, and I planned the event to foster a discussion on how Christians who are concerned with justice and goodwill should live out their faith in the current political environment. The feedback we received from participants is that more guidance is needed from church leaders going forward.  Because this is a new country we're living in now.
A full house for the Jan. 20 Teach-in at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Then and now I start with a little pastoral-care check-in.  Because, let’s face it – this has been a rough couple of weeks, and in fact, a tough couple of months.  Have you been experiencing any of these since the election (and maybe even before)?

Anxious.               Unsettled.           Distracted.          Unfocused.         Angry.   Confused.
Afraid for yourself or someone else.         Wondering about your own sanity.            Overwhelmed.

Maybe you haven’t felt any of these things.  But whether you consider yourself to be a blue dot in a sea of red, or a red dot in a sea of blue, the events of the past year have left very few untouched.  You may have noticed that no matter how hard you’re trying to be positive, make a contribution to the good of the world, and align yourself with acts of resistance to the evil at hand, you just can’t shake this feeling that something is off, something is amiss.  If you’re feeling that way, you’re not insane, and you are not alone.  Because something is terribly wrong. 

Fortunately, we have solid biblical and theological resources to help us understand what is happening.  Consider this passage from Deuteronomy which was the lectionary reading in many churches on Sunday, Feb. 12:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 -- See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

These verses come at the end of Moses’ speech to the Israelites before he is about to step down and allow Joshua to become his successor.  They are getting ready to enter the land of Canaan, and Moses is giving them the laws of God – the commandments –  that are meant to guide them, help them manage the boundaries of rights and responsibilities, and to provide the basis for their relationships interpersonally and as a community of faith.

At the end of this very long set of instructions come these words:  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you.  But if you turn away . . . you shall perish.”

My friends, a great turning away has occurred in this country.  A turning away from the most fundamental commandments of God has gotten us to this point where something vital to our very survival is perishing.  When something or someone perpetuates harmful stereotypes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or country of origin; messes with your sense of reality; manipulates your perception of truth; and uses techniques and strategies to disorient you to the point where you question your own sanity – and does so in a way that affects an entire nation, this means that something wicked is at work. 

The Israelites understood what it meant to live in a time when something wicked was a work, when things were fundamentally not right.  Deuteronomy was actually written after the time of Moses.  The book was written over a period of 200 years when the Israelites were reeling from the conquest of two hostile conquerors – first, the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians.  The Israelites knew what it was like to have a foreign government messing with their sovereignty.  They had first-hand experience with polarization amongst their people.  They knew what it was like to live in a time when lies become normalized and reality itself seems to crumble around you.  They knew what it meant to live with brutality. 

Now we, too, are living in a time I call The Age of Disintegrationism.  Because what we’re experiencing in our country and our culture is like an auto-immune disorder, where the very systems that have served human society (flawed though they were) have turned against humanity itself and are resulting in self-destruction.  Something sinister has overtaken us and is attempting to unravel the fabric of human community, like a flesh-eating disease that is attacking us at the cellular level. 

The Israelites were also subjected to that kind of societal unravelling.  And so the authors of Deuteronomy knew it was important to write down Moses’ words – these commandments of God – and teach them over and over again to the people. Because the ancient commandments were in danger of being forgotten and lost in the midst of a very chaotic time.  So they set down this fifth book of the Torah to keep the traditions alive because they were essential for revitalizing their nation and restoring the foundation upon which their society could function. 

My friends, we have a Deuteronomic task before us today. It’s a big word because it's a big job. The Christian church has duty and a responsibility to remind ourselves and our society of these things:

There was once – and still must be – a moral and ethical center.
There were – and still are – standards for responsible leadership.
There was – and still is – accountability to truth.

Our Deuteronomic task in the face of this latest iteration of chaotic wickedness is commensurate with Moses' instructions to choose life and resist death.  We need to do two things: 1) re-establish a moral and ethical center based on resistance to evil and, at the same time, 2)  support life-giving values shared with other religions and non-religious people of good will.   

In other words, we have to get back to basics – the basics of the Ten Commandments that give us the non-negotiables when it comes to human decency and what it means to live without fear of the strong overtaking the weak. The basics of the teachings of Jesus that give us the bottom line of radical integrity, and a sacrificial love that puts your life and your body on the line to protect those most vulnerable.  The basics of prayer and worship and service in order to neutralize this evil and begin to return ourselves, our churches, and our world to a place of centered sanity and re-integration. 

This means that when we hear “alternative facts” and fake news – we have to call that what it really is: lying.  And what commandment is it breaking?  You shall not bear false witness.

And when executive orders are handed down that will endanger the lives of people, we have to remind the Powers that the commandment, You shall not kill, means we must resist when they are trying to push through legislation that is, in fact, life-threatening. 

Not only that, but we are being held accountable by heaven and earth itself.  In verse 19, God calls on heaven and earth to bear witness to the choice – obedience and life, or turning away and perishing – that God has set before us.  The skies and the planet itself are watching to see if we obey God’s commands.  And I have to say, if we were in a cosmic courtroom, I cannot imagine that any reasonable resident of earth would say that dumping coal pollution into streams that feed the drinking water for human and other-than-human communities is choosing life.  That choice leads to perishing. 

I cannot imagine the rivers of Pennsylvania where I used to live, and the rivers of North Dakota where they want to put pipelines with dangerous, toxic gases and oil – I cannot imagine the rivers are testifying that we are choosing life.  No, the choice leads to perishing.
Sissonville, WV, Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture, Explosion, & Fire
 
If the atmosphere itself could take the witness stand, I can only surmise that the testimony provided would let the record show that the human species polluted this planet with enough carbon dioxide and methane to drive it into a raging feverish demise.  This is not choosing life.  This choice leads to perishing.

And so over and over in Deuteronomy we hear the words command and obey reiterated again and again.  Obedience – it’s not a word we use very much.  It’s not a word we like very much.  Obedience is a word that has accumulated a negative aura because we don’t like be told what to do, that we must obey.  Obedience – isn’t that what we expect of dogs and children? 

But the Hebrew word has much deeper spiritual and religious sense.  The word is shama, which means to hear, to listen deeply, and to let the voice of God resonate so profoundly within you that you can feel your very soul resonate with the truth that is being proclaimed. 

When is the last time you felt the truth of something so profound and so real that it made your body just hum with resonance?

For me, it happened on January 21, just a few weeks ago.  As I stood among the crowd of 5000 people gathered in downtown Lexington listening to the speakers calling for justice and equity, looking at all the different signs, and marching in solidarity with people I had only just met but I knew shared my values, I felt my whole being resonate with the down-deep-in-the-bones realization that the Spirit of God was still at work in the world.  And when I came home that evening and saw that what I experienced was actually one of hundreds of marches all over the country – all over the world – I felt the resonance vibrating me to my core.  I felt for the first time that the world was taking on the Deuteronomic task of choosing life, standing against the forces of tyranny and standing for their fellow sisters and brothers, and even with Earth and heaven, standing for equality and justice, especially toward the weaker members of society.  This command – to stand on the side of life – is one I am happy to obey.

My colleagues in faith, our Deuteronomic task is not an easy one.  You will get push-back.  You will be mocked and smirked at and patronized and politely dismissed.  And some of us will feel the wrath of the powers because of our work for justice.  But you will be heard.  Because you do not do this alone.  Your voice, speaking for the voiceless, is being amplified across this nation.  You are following the command of God to choose life, answering the call to justice.


So be encouraged in your Deuteronomic task today. Know that you stand in a long line of faithful people who take their religions and traditions outside their houses of worship and out into the world, helping to create on the outside what we preach on the inside.  Attend to your Deuteronomic task with confidence, good humor, with purity of thought, word and deed as Jesus commanded us, with perseverance, fierce advocacy for justice, and great joy knowing you have colleagues in this place, and in houses of faith, and in the homes and classrooms and on the streets and in the forests and across the skies to support and encourage you in doing this Great Work of our time.  Amen.

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

WINNER of 2016 ECOPREACHER CONTEST

Congratulations to Margaret Bullitt-Jonas whose sermon “Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust” is the winner of the 2016 EcoPreacher Contest!  Margaret will receive a signed copy of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015) and I’m featuring her sermon below.

Margaret serves as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. She preached this sermon on June 12, 2016, at a special service that brought together First Congregational Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ashfield, Massachusetts. June 12 was a day when people of many faiths around the world celebrated a day of prayer and action for Earth, our common home. It was also a day that marked the six-month anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si.  This sermon was part of the chorus of voices announcing that the Earth is holy and that it deserves our protection and care.  You can learn more about Margaret’s work on her website:  http://revivingcreation.org/. Notice how Margaret uses all three aspects of the three-fold approach I recommend in my book Creation-Crisis Preaching:flowering” (consciousness-raising), “leafing” (calling for specific action) and “fruiting” (transforming lifestyles and culture for long-term, sustainable change) in this sermon.
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Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust

The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ph.D.

“Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’” (1 Kings 21:3)

           
Whenever you and I re-awaken to God’s presence in our hills and woods, in the grasses and dirt beneath our feet and in the stars overhead, we discover again that we are connected not only to other human beings but also to everything else. We are part of the web of life: connected by our breath, blood, flesh, and bone to the whole creation.  As our Protestant forebear, Martin Luther, pointed out: “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and the flowers and the clouds and stars.” God’s love and presence are everywhere – not just in church, not just inside a sanctuary built by human hands, but also outside, in the sea and sky, in the humble tomato plant valiantly trying to grow in my shady garden.  The crucified, risen and ascended Christ fills all things, sustains all things, and redeems all things.  Whenever you and I come to our senses and realize that God is giving God’s self to us in every part of creation – in this breeze and bird and leaf, in this breath, in this heartbeat – then reverence springs up in us, and a deep desire to give thanks.  We realize again that the Earth is sacred, and in the strength of that heartfelt wisdom we can fight the great battle of our time, which is to protect the integrity of God’s creation, to preserve a habitable planet, and to build a more just and sustainable society.
           A record 175 countries have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is an historic first step toward limiting the ravages of climate change.  But the Paris Agreement is only a start.  It doesn’t go nearly far enough.  Its provisions won’t cap the rise of the world’s average temperature at 1.5˚ Celsius above pre-industrial times, which is the uppermost limit for ensuring a stable climate and livable planet.  Unless we get to work in every community and every sector of society to reduce our carbon emissions, unless we push political and corporate powers to keep fossil fuels in the ground and make a swift transition to clean, renewable energy, then the average global temperature is going to shoot far past that critical threshold of 1.5˚ Celsius.  Around the world, scientists and activists, vulnerable communities and communities of faith are fighting to avert runaway climate change.  Their cry and our cry is “1.5 to stay alive.”
            I usually take the Gospel as my sermon text, but this week I must turn to the Old Testament passage, that hair-raising story from First Kings about a powerless citizen being framed and murdered by an unjust king and queen so that they can seize his land.  Naboth has a vineyard beside the royal palace.  When King Ahab makes what sounds on the face of it like a reasonable offer to buy the vineyard, Naboth turns him down: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3).  Calling the land “my ancestral inheritance” suggests that the land has been in his family for a long time and also that he holds the land in trust.  To Naboth the land is not just a commodity, not just real estate, not just a source of profit and gain: it is a gift from God; it is sacred; it is entrusted to his care.  

            King Ahab is frustrated.  He goes home “resentful and sullen” (1 Kings 12:4), lies down on his bed like a pouting child, and refuses to eat.  Enter, then, the strong negative character of the story, Queen Jezebel, who basically asks, “Hey, don’t you have power to do whatever you want?”  She tells him to quit moping; she will take care of this.  Using Ahab’s credentials, she arranges for “two scoundrels” (1 Kings 12:10) to make false charges against Naboth in front of the city council and to have him stoned him to death.  And so the deed is done: through backroom dealings that include perjury, conspiracy, and theft, Naboth is framed and murdered, and the king claims the vineyard as his own.
            This is an almost archetypal story about dirty politics, about violence and the misuse of power.  It resonates down through the centuries and up to the present moment.  A few days ago, when I was visiting Union Theological Seminary in New York City to speak to an ecumenical group of clergy who had gathered from all over the country for an intensive, weeklong training on climate change, I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice.
            The mindset that allows Ahab and Jezebel to kill Naboth so that they can grab his land is the same mindset that allows governments and businesses to push aside low-income people and indigenous peoples and people of color to exploit, pollute, and take possession of their land, the same mindset that allows a nation to go to war against another nation so that it can seize control of another country’s natural resources, the same mindset that allows the fossil fuel industry to keep expanding its search for more oil and gas, despite the enormous human cost – especially to the poor – of burning fossil fuels.  Injustice against human beings is intimately linked to desecration of the Earth. 

            Because of that mindset, Naboth is killed, and for a while it seems that Ahab has triumphed.  But then, the story tells us, God intervenes. In the prophet Elijah’s heart a holy resistance rises up.  A sacred protest fills him, a Spirit-filled energy to stand up against unjust power, a compelling need to protect the rights of the poor and to defend the sacredness of the land.  “The word of the LORD came to Elijah” (1 Kings 21:17), says the text. We don’t know how that word came to him, whether it came through a dream, a vision, or simply through the painful and gut-wrenching awareness that what Ahab had done was wrong.  What we do know is that the word of God came to Elijah, and that he received courage to stand up to the king, to stop the injustice, and to change the course of history.        
            The same Holy Spirit that spoke through Elijah and through the life and words and deeds of Jesus Christ is speaking through countless people the world over today.
            “1.5 to stay alive” – that is the cry of every God-inspired prophet who stands like Elijah beside the vulnerable Naboths of this world
            We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with the low-income community of Baltimore that is fighting for the right to clean air. 
            We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with Pacific Islanders forced to leave their homeland because rising waves are washing away their buildings and contaminating their water supply. 
            We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with indigenous peoples in the Arctic whose cultures are disintegrating as the ice melts. 
            We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with frightened pregnant women in the global South and the Southern U.S. who know that the Zika virus, which spreads in a warm, humid climate, could irreparably harm their unborn child. 
            We say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand with every person and every community that wants to live in a just and peaceful world with recognizable seasons and moderate, predictable rains, in a world with enough clean, fresh water for all and an ocean teeming with life. 
            And we say “1.5 to stay alive” to stand against the political and corporate powers that view the Earth as nothing more than a source of profit and who exploit the Earth and other people as if it’s every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.

            Thanks to one of our members, Bob Parati, we have a sign that proclaims, “1.5 to stay alive.”  After the service, I invite anyone who wishes, to join me outside so that we can take a group photo.
            I invite you to do some other things, too.  If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join Climate Action Now, our vibrant, local grassroots climate action network.  I’ve put a sign-up sheet in the back of the church, so you can receive Climate Action Now’s terrific weekly newsletter.  I will also gladly share your name with a new interfaith climate group I’m helping to lead, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action.  
            Thanks to some of the people in this room, and to people like you, Kinder Morgan’s NED pipeline was stopped.  Now the fight is on to stop another dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipeline, Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline.  Two weeks ago I was arrested in Boston along with fifteen other religious leaders after we sat down on the edge of the trench that runs down the middle of the street where the pipeline is being constructed.  Sitting at the edge of that trench was like sitting at the edge of an open grave, proclaiming the power of love and life as our legs dangled in the pit.  We clergy came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist.  We represented a range of religions, yet all of us were drawing from a holy power greater than our selves.  All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the unjust structures of this world.  And all of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action. We prayed and preached and sang until the cops handcuffed us and took us away. 
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas engaging in civil disobedience with interfaith colleagues to protest a fracked gas pipeline construction project in Boston. (Photo credit:  Robert A. Jonas)

            More resistance is ahead.  I invite you to consider joining a group from western Massachusetts that will protest the West Roxbury pipeline on June 28, and I invite you to consider joining a march against new gas pipelines that Better Future Project will lead in mid-July. I’d be glad to speak with you about those events, after the service.
             Near and far a wave of religious protest and activism is rising up around the world as we respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.   The first followers of Jesus tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice.  And we tap into that holy power, too.  Here at this table, we followers of Jesus will share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, knowing that God will give us strength for the journey and will nourish our hungry souls.  The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls all people to recognize that we form one human family and that the Earth is sacred and entrusted to our care. Just as Naboth said to Ahab, so we, too, say to the powers-that-be, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3).  With the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we head into the world to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.  
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas with protesters at the Spectra Pipeline in Boston. (Photo credit:  Robert A. Jonas)