Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Climate Change and the Modern-day Slaughter of the Innocents

Refusing to be Consoled:
Climate Change and the Modern-day Slaughter of the Innocents
First Sunday of Christmas 2016

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)
Text:  Matthew 2:13-23

"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."  Matthew 2:18 (NRSV)

This stark scene of children’s bodies lying limp in their mothers’ arms comes crashing into our silent and holy nights of Christmas peace and joy.  Last week was the time for celebration and the sweet smell of a newborn’s skin.  This week is different.  Because here we have the juxtaposition of the state-sanctioned murder of babies and toddlers against the images we cherish of Mary holding her precious baby boy in swaddling clothes.  The jarring contrast is almost too much to bear.  We squirm in our pews and anxiously wait for the reading to be over, and hope that the preacher won’t make us think about these acts of evil perpetrated against the innocent. 

But this story is part of the Christmas saga.  And it contains an awful truth.  As much as we repeat the all-too-familiar adage about Jesus dying for us to save us from our sin, this passage from Matthew confronts us with one very difficult reality that we can’t ignore: 

All those baby boys died because the baby Jesus lived.
Jesus escaped with his life.  Those children died. 

Mary cradled her son safely in her arms far away.  Hundreds of other mothers cradled their dead babies in their arms with excruciating cries of grief. 

Most of them probably did not even know why the soldiers descended into their town, burst through their doors and reached into the cradles.  But we know.  A despotic ruler crazed with anger kills all the other children because the one he wanted got away.  A generation of children paid for Jesus’ life with their own.

Some will say that this story about the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as it’s come to be called, simply can’t be true.  Some scholars say that there is no indication in the historical records of such a genocide taking place.  And that may be the case.  Or it may be that the murder of Jewish babies just wasn’t important enough to make the headlines.  It wouldn’t be the first time that the erasure of hundreds of lives by thugs-in-power simply went unnoticed or ignored. 

As we listen to this Bible story today, we can’t help but hear Rachel’s wailing and loud lamentation rising not just from Bethlehem, but from other places around the world.  We hear those anguished cries piercing our ears and our hearts from the dust and rubble in Aleppo, Syria.  As I scroll through my Facebook page and see the pictures of a city bombed to sandy piles of rubble, all vegetation gone, I come upon a video of a hospital where children who have survived the latest round of bombs are sitting on gurneys.  Their faces are dusty and blood-caked but oddly quiet.  They have no tears. But the adults around them wail in grief.  One teenage boy comes in cradling a baby in his arms.  But the baby does not move, because his tiny body had been smothered in the rubble.  The teenager has already lost his parents and now clings to this little body, crying like Rachel in Ramah.

Do you know why Rachel was crying?  Genesis 35:16-20 relates that Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, died in childbirth on the road from Bethel to Bethlehem. Her midwife tried to comfort her with the news that she had born a son – the one who would be called Benjamin.  So there is a bittersweet quality to her tears.  

But in Jeremiah 31:15, Rachel becomes a symbol for all of Israel who mourns the loss of their dead after returning from exile and captivity in Babylon:

15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more. 

In quoting this passage from Jeremiah, Matthew takes it one step further with the image of Rachel weeping in her grave at Ramah over the horrendous events taking place in Bethlehem.

We want to move on quickly from this story, to go back to our holiday celebrations, playing with our shiny new toys.  But Rachel’s cries do not fade when we close the covers of our Bibles and walk out of the church service.  In Aleppo, in Sudan and Kenya, in Somalia, Columbia, Ukraine, North Korea, and Afghanistan, and so many other countries we see that war, gang violence, poverty, and rulers even worse than Herod are killing children and ravaging families around the world. 

We’d like to think that Rachel’s cries from these places, while heart-rending, are not our fault.  But actually we are partially responsible. What most people don’t realize is the role that climate disruption and environmental devastation have played in exacerbating the situations in Aleppo and other war-torn areas.  Which means that those of us who live in countries that have burned the most fossil fuels share some responsibility for the carnage.

Alex Randall of the Climate and Migration Coalition notes that “Problems arise when patterns of climate-driven migration collide with existing violence.”  Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for ELCA Global Mission concurs: “As never seen before, over 62 million persons have been displaced from their home by violence, poverty and economic marginalization . . . But lately we have seen the huge impact climate change is having on people’s lives,” (K. T. Sancken,“Seeing Jesus in the face of the other,” The Lutheran Magazine, November 2016, 15).


Climate change leads to drought and increased crop damage from insect infestations and blights in some places, which drives farmers away from the land and leads to uprisings.  In other places, rising sea levels cause entire towns and island populations to relocate.  When this many people are forcibly displaced from their homes – a number higher than it has been at any time since World War II – it creates the conditions for corruption, violence, and authoritarian regimes thrive.

War, in turn, consumes resources and destroys infrastructure which in turn intensifies the cycle of misery for those trapped in these areas.  Diseases like cholera and other water-borne illnesses hit children’s bodies the hardest.  Rachel’s tears weep for the babies whose bodies are depleted by intestinal illnesses, malnutrition, and disease; for the children whose fragile lives are cut short by war and violence, leaving them limp in their mother’s arms.

How are we to engage this kind of suffering?  How do we avoid the sin of avoidance and the passive evil of complacency on the one hand, without getting overwhelmed with despair on the other? 

Our way through this double-bind is illuminated by a Word from God.  There remains the proclamation of hope and the call to action.  In Jeremiah 31, after acknowledging the unimaginable pain of Rachel, the voice of God says this:

16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 
17 there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country. 

This is what they want, all those who have been displaced – refugees, migrant workers, and those we incorrectly label “illegal” – all of them want to find a home.  They want to live in peace.  They want to raise their children and grow their food and drink clean water and have access to basic health care, education, and governments free of violence and corruption.  They want to have meaningful work with enough money to live comfortably and to pray in their houses of worship.  Isn’t that what you want for yourself, what you want for your own children?  Which means they are not so different than you and me.

And so there stands before us today the choice of how to respond to what we have seen and heard.  If we are to be part of the fulfillment of God’s words of promise to Rachel and all mothers who long for restoration, then we as Christians and as the Church must take seriously what our role is in this world of Rachels who cannot be consoled with mere words.  As we begin a new year, this is an opportune time to think about what we can do both individually and collectively to help those in crisis – a crisis that we are partially, though unwittingly responsible for.  We may not be in a position to prevent the immediate bloodshed, but we can do two things – we can advocate for displaced persons, and we address the long-term causes that are contributing to the conditions of displacement in the first place. 

Jennifer Crist is a friend of mine who is an ELCA mission developer in Harrisburg, Pa., and has done incredible work with children in Guatemala through Tree4Hope for over a decade.  She says, “I really want people and congregations in the U.S. to know that there are so many things that they can do.”  She acknowledges that while there are huge systemic problems, “we as a church have such a great asset in having the ELCA Advocacy office and the AMMPARO strategy.”  AMMPARO (which is a play on the Spanish word amparo which means “refuge”) stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities. It is a strategy approved by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly to work with organizations to provide legal assistance, community outreach and family reunification to migrants who are in the U.S.  In 2017, maybe your church can consider doing a study about similar kinds of accompaniment strategies and discern where God may be calling you to give “hope for their future” (Jeremiah 31:17).

Or perhaps your church can organize a teach-in to help people learn about the effects of climate change and the ways in which it contributes to and exacerbates the refugee crises across the globe.  And then work on ways you and your congregation can help address climate change, including communicating with your local elected officials on the need to adapt measures to mitigate climate disruption.

Or your church may decide to partner with organizations to help resettle families in your local area (Lutherans can contact Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS).  For example, Gethesemane Lutheran, the congregation in which I now worship, has been working with other neighboring Lutheran churches to collect household items for refugees who will be settling in the Lexington area.  And a church I once served in Media, Pa., not only collected household items, but also organized volunteers to be translators, help find jobs, and navigate the complexities of becoming U.S. citizens, of settling into their new home.

At the very least, our sermons and Sunday School lessons must discourage the use of disparaging language when talking about the human beings who are fleeing desperate situations in their home countries.  They are not “illegal.”  The religion they practice does not make them “terrorists.”  And the color of their skin does not make their lives any less valuable than those of us with white skin.

As Christians who are celebrating the Nativity, we have to remember that Jesus’ birth came at a price. But it’s obvious from the life he lived and the death he suffered that he did not forget all those babies who lost their lives.  

When the disciples wanted to shoo the children away from Jesus, his rebuke of them was stern because he knew that a generation of children had already been lost: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” (Matthew 19:14).

When his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them, Jesus reached out for a little child as an example of the ones who are the models of greatness in God’s Kingdom (Matthew 19:1-4).  He did not forget those babies who had been murdered.

Even his dying request for the Beloved disciple to care for his mother Mary shows that the cries of Rachel weeping for her children were not far from his mind (John 19:26-27).

Of course we know that despotic rulers are still killing children.  Soldiers are still murdering babies.  Belligerent leaders are still denying climate change and refusing to act to mitigate its effects.  Facebook posts and Twitter feeds are still spewing forth hatred of immigrants, refugees, and desperate people seeking to escape the horrors that have taken over their homelands.

But the Word of God still calls to us.  The Church still stands.  Your congregation has work to do.  And you have a role in the Kingdom of God.  Listening to Rachel’s cries is part of our work.  Taking action on refugee issues and climate issues and immigration issues is an extension of our Christian faith.  As Malpica Padilla reminds us, Matthew 25 is the test of whether or not we will see the face of Jesus in these children in Aleppo, in Sudan, in Guatemala.  “We see Jesus in the face of the other, the vulnerable others, the refugee others, the marginalized others.  At the end of the day, we will be judged not by how much theology we know or how good our doctrine is, but how we have cared for the vulnerable ones,” (Sancken, 19).  Jesus has heard the cries of these children and their mothers.  And Jesus is opening our ears, our eyes, our hearts to hear them, and to respond in faith.  Amen.

Looking for more ideas for preaching that addresses climate change and other environmental justice issues?  Check out http://www.creationcrisispreaching.com/.

Sancken, K. T. “Seeing Jesus in the face of the other,” The Lutheran Magazine, November 2016. http://www.livinglutheran.org/2016/11/seeing-jesus-in-the-face-of-the-other/

Randall, Alex, “The role of climate change in the Syria crisis: how the media got it wrong,” New Internationalist, June 10, 2016. https://newint.org/blog/2016/06/10/climate-change-and-the-syria-crisis/, accessed Dec. 23, 2016.

Romm, Joe, "Veterans Day 2030 Could Look Like Syria Today, Thanks To Climate Change," ThinkProgress, Nov. 11, 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/veterans-day-2030-could-look-like-syria-today-thanks-to-climate-change-1e4afafd523#.vep2f4qaw; accessed Dec. 27, 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Eco-justice Christmas Sermon

What does Christmas mean for climate refugees, migrant workers, 
and our very Earth suffering under climate disruption?  
Jesus' birth interrupts us with a reminder about whose lives matter to God.

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)

Text: Luke 2:2-20 

In a congregation I served several years ago, 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 a variety of responses.  Some people named 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 . . . (you guessed it) children

Some churches are more welcoming of children than others.  But even the most forbearing among us can get a bit exasperated with the interruptions of children.  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!”

If you are one of the parents or grandparents who actually has one of these children in your care during worship, 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 interruption.  Actually, life with a child is a series of interruptions – diaper surprises, sudden sicknesses, nightmares at 3 a.m. 

Mary and Joseph understood what it means to be interrupted by a child. Nine months ago, Mary was going about her life, happily planning for her upcoming marriage, when an angel appeared from God and interrupted 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, busy with his carpentry business, when an angel appeared from God and interrupted 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 rest of the story is also punctuated with 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 one interruption after another.

As we revisit these age-old stories in at Christmas this year, we find interruptions of a different kind are in need of our attention.  Our planet’s ecosystems are interrupting humanity with an urgency that cannot be ignored. Nearly everywhere we look across the globe, the effects of human-induced climate change, pollution, deforestation, and extreme energy extraction are interrupting and disrupting the lives of billions of people.  While many of us and our parishioners will long for a sweet sermon of greeting-card sentimentality, the reality is that for people living in poverty, dealing with rising sea levels, escaping war-torn areas, facing environmental violation of their homes or tribal lands, and trying to survive in a society that has told them their lives don’t matter, such saccharine sentimentality is a luxury they cannot afford.  If our aim is to be true to the text about this interrupting Christ-child, our preaching shouldn’t pay for such a short-lived luxury either.

Because the truth about this little family is that they were buffeted by forces beyond their control.  They were like so many families today who live in areas gripped by violent regimes, or whose crops have been decimated by drought, or who find themselves wandering as climate-refugees seeking someplace with room at the inn where they can find shelter, a warm place to sleep, a meal, a change of clothes, and a lead on a new life.  Howard Thurman’s poem captures the reality of these families:

“Christmas is Waiting to be Born”
by Howard Thurman (African American theologian and Civil Rights activist)

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day's life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all mankind.

This doesn’t mean that we should hammer away at folks with a litany of guilt-inducing crimes against the planet and humanity.  No one wants to feel so overwhelmed by the complexities and compound fractures of our human and Earth community that they limp from the church regretting having come.  So is there any Good News in the midst of these interruptions?

The shepherds would say: Yes!  Living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night . . . the romantic vision we have of their simple, bucolic life is another artificially sweetened misconception.  Because, in fact, a shepherd’s life was one that no one envied.  Long days and nights isolated and alone, these were people who 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 difficult life of being constantly on the move with no hope of a promotion, no promise of a salary increase, no hope of companionship beyond the other rejects out there with you.  It’s a life all too familiar for today’s migrant workers and “illegal” immigrants who, like the shepherds, are often viewed as rejects and do the work no one wants to do, often the dirty work of supplying our food, all while being blamed for taking jobs of the native-born (who don’t want that kind of work anyway). 

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).

Just like that – shepherds interrupted.  Hopelessness interrupted.

This is startling to them.  Imagine the feeling of a child when the first big snow falls, and hearing the announcement that school is closed!  You run out and jump and roll in that beautiful, downy iciness, because you know it means 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, inhale 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 child!  Because this infant’s cry is the most important 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.

Seeing these migrant workers in the doorway standing on tippy-toe to catch a glimpse of the baby, Mary and Joseph probably sighed with exasperation.  Another interruption?  

But then the men speak. “We’re sorry to (ahem) 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 the world 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 corrupt leaders 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 then three days later in a 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.

If God found a way into the world in the midst of the interruptions back then, perhaps we need to be more alert to God’s presence in the midst of 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 news:  God is with us.  Emmanuel. 

And this is good news not just for humanity, but for the entire planet.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . .” (John 3:16).  Did you catch that?  The whole world:  Microorganisms! Mountains!  Air!  Rivers! Coral reefs! Giraffes!  Babies born to Muslim women!  Children sewing our clothes in foreign lands!  Teenage boys with chocolate-brown skin!  Your mother’s child – you!  All of these lives matter to God.

Which means we need to carry this holy interruption into the world outside the stable doors. 
We need to interrupt today’s corrupt leaders to tell them they are wrong.
We need to interrupt the oppressors to tell them that God is still seeking justice.
We need to interrupt the systems that marginalize people and force inequality, poverty, and violence on so many.

As Charles Campbell and Johann Ciliers remind us: "Jesus' birth interrupted the old age with a radically new order, which turned the world upside down. . . The Christmas festivals celebrate - again in communal, embodied form - the incarnation, in which God became body, flesh - carne.  God is born as a human child to common folk; or in specifically carnivalesque terms, a baby is made king - an event certainly as foolish and disruptive as the parodic exaltation of the crucifixion. . ." (Campbell, Charles L. and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools:  The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, Baylor University Press; Waco, TX, 2012; 77).

We, too, need to interrupt the lives of today’s shepherd’s - the migrants and those labelled "illegal" - to tell them they deserve respect and fair wages, and full citizenship.  We need to interrupt the lives of refugees to tell them there is, in fact, room at the inn. 

Buffalo at Standing Rock protest site.
Even Earth itself is joining in this holy interruption.  I’m remembering the tribal people gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation interrupting the plans of the oil pipeline companies, enduring water hoses, tear gas and sonic grenades launched against them in their peaceful protests.  In an interview with one of the tribal men about the impasse, suddenly the air is punctuated with whoops and shouts of joy – a herd of buffalo thunders into view.  Buffalo are not only a traditional source of food and clothing for the Sioux, they are symbolic of the power of the land itself.  For the Water Protectors, these buffalo announced good news – even the land itself is declaring God’s work in the world.

May you experience this most holy interruption.  May God interrupt us with the gift of this Christ child.  And may all Earth experience this interruption of grace and peace, love and joy.  Amen. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Following God’s Call – Guest Advent Sermon by Rachel Schade

Rachel Schade, 13-year-old
budding preacher (and my daughter!)
December 11, 2016
Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Lexington, Kentucky
Text:  Matthew 1:18-25  

[Rachel Schade is in 8th Grade at Tates Creek Middle School in Lexington, KY, and a new member at Gethsemane Lutheran.  She was invited to preach at their monthly evening praise service and chose to focus on the theme of “calling” for this Advent service.  This is her first sermon, and I am proud to feature my daughter’s work in this special blog post.  You can watch the video here.]

There are many things we think about in our daily lives, such as our families, friends, jobs and school. However, I think it’s safe to say that there’s something else that many people don’t think about - God’s calling for us.
          In Matthew 1:18-25, an angel appears to Joseph telling him to take Mary as his wife, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” I don’t know about you, but if an angel told me to marry someone who was pregnant with a baby that wasn’t mine, I’d be a bit concerned. But Joseph believed the angel, listened to his dreams, and followed God’s call.
          But of course, this isn’t all about Josephs’ calling.  It’s about Mary’s calling as well. Remember Luke 1:26-38 which tells us that the angel Gabriel gives Mary the message that she will conceive a son named Jesus. Let’s break this down. In today’s society, we don’t like to think about our kids bearing children at a young age, let alone marrying someone twice their age. Even though Mary is much perplexed by his words, she accepts God’s calling for her even though it’s uncertain what lies ahead.
          So why would Mary and Joseph agree to follow this call? I can tell you one thing - the list of reasons why they shouldn’t is VERY lengthy: rejection by their loved ones, disapproval by religious leaders, uncertainty about their future, the list goes on. But to understand why they chose to follow God’s call, I think we can discern three qualities in both of them that opened their hearts and minds to God.

          The first quality was trust. They trusted the will of God, the assurance of the Angel, and the promise Holy Spirit. They also had to trust and believe in themselves. And just as important – they had to trust each other.    And this trust  helped them to build a better relationship in order to do what God wanted them to do. Overall, trust was and extremely important quality in this for both of them.
          The next quality was courage.   Courage is feeling afraid, but going forward anyway.  In Luke, we can tell that Mary is very brave. She says “Behold, I am the lord’s servant; let it be with me according to your word.” Not only is she agreeing to the angel’s words, she’s taking it upon herself to make sure that God’s will is being done.
Joseph, on the other hand, shows bravery in a different way. He takes the chance of moral embarrassment to follow God’s call. In those days, I’m sure it was mortifying to know people would be talking about you, whispering that your wife must have been unfaithful to be carrying a child who is not your own.  But he faced this humiliation to carry out the will of God.
          The final quality was commitment - commitment to God, commitment to each other, and commitment to their child. For Mary, she had to take the initiative to keep her relationship with her spouse as healthy as possible. Not only that, but she took on the responsibility of parenthood. For Joseph, he showed many examples of commitment. It would’ve been easy for him to walk out on Mary at any point, even abandon her on their way to Bethlehem. But no. He kept his attention on Mary for their whole journey, and this is what helped them to answer God’s call.
          So, there you have Mary and Joseph’s story. But what about yours? What is God’s call for your life at this time?  Maybe you’re considering a career change.  Maybe you’re thinking of what college you might attend.  Maybe you have a big decision coming up.  Well, I suggest that we all take the steps that Mary and Joseph did; 1) Trust, 2) Courage, 3) Commitment. You might be asking, “How do I acquire these qualities?” Let’s think about this for a minute.
          Trust. What do you think of when you hear this word? Well, I personally think of it as putting your faith in someone or something, because you have confidence that what you’re doing is right. And that’s exactly what Mary and Joseph did; they put their trust in God and the Holy Spirit. Remember that like Mary and Joseph, just because you answer God’s call doesn’t mean life will suddenly be easy for you. In fact, sometimes it’s just the opposite.  But that’s exactly why trusting God is important – to help you get through those challenges.
Which brings us to courage. Courage, by definition, is “the ability to do something that frightens you.” Let me ask you this, what frightens you? Think of that for just one second.  Maybe you’re like Joseph, and you fear public humiliation.  Maybe you’re like Mary and you fear taking on a task that feels too big for you. Now think about how God can help you overcome it. Remember that the root word for courage means “heart” – you have to put your heart into God’s call for you.  And God will make sure you have the gift of courage.
          But no matter how much trust and courage you have, they won’t last long if you don’t have the third quality - commitment. We see today that so many people neglect the obligations, or give up, or simply get distracted from God’s call. We see this in marital relationships, kids with their school work, friendships, jobs, etc. But especially as Christians we must show our commitment to the people involved most in our calling, and to God.
          Following God’s call won’t be easy, and it will take lots of hard work to attain it.  But remember that you are not alone in this call.  You have your church family to sustain you as you follow God’s call. And through trust, courage and commitment each of us - and all of us as a church together – we will be able to follow God’s call. Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Disintegrationism: How We Got Here, Where We Go Next

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

"Gyre - The Center Cannot Hold" - by scart, http://scart.deviantart.com/art/Gyre-The-Centre-Cannot-Hold-505173481

How did we come to this point where a man misled by a fake news story about a completely made-up scenario of a criminal ring fronted by a pizza shop walks into the establishment firing his gun?

How did we come to this point where one-third of Americans still do not believe the science about climate change, one of whom is the president-elect who has called global warming “a hoax,” and another is his newly-appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who has perpetuated the patently false statement that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extend of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

How did we come to this point where fabrications about entire groups of people (all Mexicans are “rapists,” all Muslims are “terrorists”) spouted by the president-elect of the United States can become accepted as fact and justify hate crimes against these communities? 

How did we come to this point where what is a lie becomes truth, and what is truth becomes irrelevant?  Is there even such a thing as truth anymore?  How did we get to this point where we actually have to ask these questions?

And from a progressive Christian perspective, what is the church’s role in this time of unprecedented upheaval in reality?

These questions have churned in my mind following the presidential election, urging me to search for ways to make sense of this bizarre reality we now live in.  So I’ve been wondering if what we are observing is an inevitable consequence of the era of postmodernism?   (I’m about to get a bit academic and intellectual here, but stay with me – the pay-off is coming.)  Postmodernism is a philosophical system that emerged following the two World Wars and brought with it a questioning of all received truth and ways of knowing. Postmodernism arose in response to modernism, a period spanning about 300 years (1648 – mid-1900s) that included the Age of Enlightenment which stressed order, universal foundations, and truths based on science and reasoning.  While modernism’s goal was enlightened human rationalism and the establishment of power for the good of the many, in reality it was only the white, wealthy male elite who benefited.  And the unified narratives not only discounted women, people of color, and colonized people, they led to a clash of competing ideologies that resulted in two back-to-back catastrophic global wars. 

Like modernism, the goals of postmodernism were noble – freeing people from oppression and validating alternative voices.  Different perspectives and the deconstruction of the totalizing hegemonic narratives enabled the rise of feminism, queer studies, liberation theology, environmentalism, and post-colonialism. But the rejection of objective truth has come at the expense of the ability to speak of “truth” at all.

For many decades, the strongest reaction against postmodernism has been fundamentalism.   Fundamentalism not only insists on one truth, it claims that this truth has been divinely revealed, and, further, it demands that this truth should be imposed on everyone.  In some ways, fundamentalism is a throw-back to pre-modernism, which was the predominant mindset of humankind up until the 1600’s.  The premodern mind not only unquestioningly assented to Ultimate Truth, it believed that God or the gods revealed this truth to humanity.  Thus sacred texts and religious leaders were the primary arbiters of reality.  Today, the evolution of fundamentalism in the 2000s has been like premodernism on steroids due to the reach and organizational power of the Internet combined with the firepower of modern-day weaponry. 

(Understand, of course, that elements of all three eras – premodernism, modernism and post-modernism/fundamentalism – have been present throughout human history, despite whatever philosophical worldview was dominant at the time.  As well, this progression of “eras” as I’ve described it is not only oversimplified, it is predominantly a Western-based movement that does not always take other global cultures into consideration.)  

The influences of premodernism, modernism and postmodernism are still at work on human society at the individual and collective levels.  But now it appears as if another phenomenon is taking hold which is cause for grave concern.  The word to describe this period has not yet been articulated.  But a poem by William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) entitled “The Second Coming” uncannily captures the feeling of this phenomenon:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the center 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.

Yeats’ words written at the conclusion of WWI eerily foreshadow our own era.  So we might call this time we’re in “post-centerism.”  Or perhaps “disintegrationism.”  However we choose to name it, this phenomenon is beyond the post-structuralism and deconstructionism that were off-shoots of the postmodern era.  Because those movements sought liberation.  What we’re experiencing now 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 result in self-destruction.  Something sinister has overtaken the premises of postmodernism in order to unravel the fabric of human community, like a flesh-eating disease that is attacking us at the cellular level. [For a more scholarly treatment of this phenomenon, please see this excellent article by Whitney A. Bauman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University: http://wabashcenter.typepad.com/teaching_religion_politic/2017/02/confronting-alternative-facts-in-a-post-modern-classroom-educating-planetary-citizens.html.]

As a Christian, a recent pastor, and now a seminary professor teaching preaching, I make the argument that the church’s role in this time is two-fold: 
1) to reclaim the theological language we use to describe evil
2) to re-establish a moral and ethical center based on life-giving values shared with other religions and non-religious people of good will.   
In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at the first task of the church – naming and confronting evil.  In Part Three, we’ll take up the second task – identifying and establishing the moral and ethical center. 

In the meantime, if you have been feeling anxious, unsettled, distracted, unfocused, angry and afraid during these last few weeks and months, understand that those feelings are normal and actually healthy.  Because they are your mind and your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong.  When something or someone messes with your sense of reality, manipulates your perception of truth, and disorients you to the point where you question your own sanity, this means that something wicked is at work.  One word for it is gaslighting, and it is one of the most sinister forms of psychological abuse there is. (I suggest reading this helpful article about gaslighting before moving on to Part Two of this series.) 
"DNA Unraveling" by babyb371,

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.  You’re not crazy.  Something is terribly wrong.   And together we’ll follow this through to find the strategies to neutralize this evil and return ourselves – and our world – to a place of centered sanity and re-integration. 

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.  The views expressed in this blog are her own and do not necessarily represent the institutions she serves.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fight Evil Fire with Holy Fire: A Call for Prophetic Preaching

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

God showed Noah by the rainbow sign,
No more water, but fire next time.
-        “Mary Don’t You Weep,” spiritual

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I is coming.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
-        John the Baptist

It’s the Second Sunday of Advent. The Christmas decorations are up and the shopping has begun.  So we’re supposed to be feeling pretty good right about now. But here are these words from John the Baptist:  “You brood of vipers!”

Who does he think he is, talking to us like that? We’re in the midst of the holiday season, and he wants to start calling us snakes?  What’s going on here?

We had a prayer in seminary:
Lord, when we are shaken up, comfort us. 
And when we are comfortable, shake us up.
So hold on -- we are about to be shaken up.

This scene takes place on the Jordan River where people are coming to this strange prophet to be baptized. These are ordinary people like you and me – office workers and bankers, people who work for the government, people who’ve served in the military.  Both men and women, teachers, parents, builders, lawyers and healers.   And just like us, they are basically good people. These are not hardened criminals. So why is John calling them a brood of vipers?
John didn’t know Martin Luther, but he probably would have agreed with a Latin phrase that Luther used to describe people like us: simul justus et peccatore.  It means, at the same time saved and sinner, simultaneously justified and condemned, healed and broken. It’s the paradox of the human condition. We are at once loved and embraced by the grace of God, yet we hurt each other and damage our world, both individually and as a global human system.

So when John describes us as a brood of vipers, we know there is some truth to what he is saying.  But he gets even more provocative when describing the One who is coming: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I is coming.  It would be a big deal for me just to tie his shoelaces. You have no idea what you’re in for. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

Winnowing fork? Chaff? Unquenchable fire?  What can all of this mean?

In 1963 author James Baldwin wrote a book entitled The Fire Next Time which takes its title from a line in the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.”  Baldwin’s book consists of two personal and poignant letters written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.  His words exhorting Americans – both black and white – to confront the terrible legacy of racism were an intellectual rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement.  But reading them now, over four decades later, in light of recent events following the presidential election, his words have just as much, if not more potency.  Because in many ways it feels as if a fire has burned across the political, cultural and social landscape of this country.  But this is not a holy fire.  It is the fire of white supremacy, racial and religious hatred, androcentrism, and eco-cidal domination.

I’m thinking of a video of White Supremacist Richard Spencer speaking openly about the supposed superiority of whites and his intention to return America to white people (as if it ever actually belonged to them).  I’m thinking about the hundreds of reported incidents of racial and religious hatred displayed throughout the country over the past three weeks.  I’m thinking of a teacher friend of mine telling about a white elementary school student telling their dark-skinned classmate, “Now that Donald Trump is president, he’s going to send your parents away and you’ll have to live here all by yourself.” 

Baldwin’s words in 1963 echo loudly today:  "[Whites] are still trapped in a history that they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for many years and for innumerable reasons that black men are inferior to white men."

I receive these words as a white, female Christian preacher and teacher of preachers, a woman who has benefited from the privilege of my race, my education, and my religion.  From this standpoint, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that what has happened since the election is a burning away of the chaff that barely covered the brood of vipers lying beneath.  As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” 

It is a truth that people of color have known for years, for decades, for centuries.  But this truth comes as a punch in the gut to those of us who existed in the comfort of our privilege.  The thin veil of decency has been burned away to reveal the truth about who we are as a nation.  The ugly, dangerous, venomous truth has come to light and shown us in no uncertain terms that we are in need of serious repentance – metanoia (Matthew 3:2).

After the election I was feeling particularly despondent thinking of the ways in which so much of the tenuous progress we have so carefully built in terms of interfaith relations, race relations, environmental protections, equal rights for women and the LGBTQI community could be rolled back in the coming years.  A friend said to me, “It’s like an arson came in the night and just burned down the house.”  I agreed.  That’s what it feels like.

But as I’ve sat with this image for the past couple weeks, and contemplated these last few days the image of the holy fire, I’ve realized that there are other images at work here.  For example, controlled fires can be used to stop wildfires by carefully burning a strip of land and depriving the wildfire of fuel.  
"Watching the Old Go," Mary Anne Morgan, http://www.maryannemorganblog.com/musings/burning-away-the-chaff/

And natural fires that occur in the forest not only allow the saplings to see the light, but also release seeds that need the heat from the fire in order to grow.

"Fire in the Night," Mary Anne Morgan, http://www.maryannemorganblog.com/musings/burning-away-the-chaff/

With these two images in mind, I make the case that as preachers, indeed, as Christians, our task now is to do two things: 

1) We need the “controlled burn” of Jesus’ prophetic fire to deprive the wildfires of evil of their fuel.  
2) We need to point to the new growth of saplings and seeds that are sprouting up from the ashes.  

The controlled burn of prophetic speech means speaking boldly in our pulpits and pews against racial hatred, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and all the “isms” that are rearing their fanged heads with impunity.  It means taking bold actions as churches to divest from fossil fuels in order to deprive the wildfires of runaway climate change of the fuels that are consuming us, even as we consume. Holy fire can fight unholy fire. 

Of course, as John warned us, this will not be a comfortable process. We will experience pain, we will come to know deep sorrow, and we will come in contact with that sinful part of our own nature and the sinful nature of others. But that discomfort will be a sign that the holy fire is burning away the chaff.

As proclaimers of the gospel, we also need to ask: Where is God creating new growth?  What are the seeds of hope that need to be nurtured, even as we are still mourning in the ashes?  We need to point to that new growth and lift up stories of resistance and renewal. 
Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures/National Geographic http://www.natgeocreative.com/photography/1158747
Regarding our planet, I’m thinking of the growing numbers of cities and countries that are pledging to move to 100% renewable energy in the coming years – new growth, even in the midst of ashes.  

Regarding racial hatred, I’m thinking of the growing number of safety pins seen on the clothes of those who want to signal that they are a safe person, even in the midst of raging fires.  

Regarding Islamophobia, I’m thinking of the man in Texas man holding sign in front of mosque: "You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America." 

The man’s name is Justin Normand, a 53-year-old man who owns a sign shop in Dallas. "This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us," Normand wrote in his Facebook post. "Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother's feet. This was about my religion, not theirs."

That is a controlled burn.  And it shows that new growth and new hope is springing up in places we would least expect to find it. 

This is what we need to be watching for during this Advent season – new growth after the controlled burn. So be on the lookout for that holy fire.  

It starts with only a small spark . . . in a manger full of dry hay. 

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).