Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Easter Sermon: The Perfect Easter Story

Easter Sermon 2016
United in Christ Lutheran Church
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Watch the video of this sermon here:

The conventional wisdom among preachers is that you need a big story on Easter Sunday to match the power and grandeur of this highest of high holy days.  You need a sermon that is going to include a testimony or a narrative that will make people say, “Wow!  Hallelujah!  Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!” You want people walking out into the light of the Easter morning after the service filled with the memory of that sermon that has reached the peak of homiletic perfection.

So I’ve been racking my brain for weeks trying to find the perfect Easter story.  I’ve been keeping my preacher’s antenna out for just the right story with the right combination of pathos and humor, heart-warming and soul-inspiring.  I thought about recounting the true story from the movie Miracles from Heaven, about a little girl who is miraculously cured of a digestive disorder after she survives a devastating fall from a tree that should have killed her.  Somehow while she is unconscious, she encounters Jesus, and he tells her she is going to be fine. And she wakes up completely healed.  A perfect Easter story!

Or I thought about the interview I heard with a woman who was caught in the bombing of the airport in Brussels, Belgium.  She admitted that she was terrified and spent the first moments in the aftermath hiding under a table.  “Frankly, I was a coward,” she said.  But she saw two little girls injured and in need of care and attention.  So she went to them, singing songs to them, saying the Lord’s Prayer with them until medical help could arrive.  Right there, in the midst of hell on earth, the Spirit of God found its way into the smoke and rubble, singing through her tremulous voice.  Another perfect Easter story!

But then I went to the Good Friday breakfast held for John Sheaffer by the Mifflinburg Kiwanis, and I thought about the miracle we have in our own congregation.  A man whose heart simply stopped for no reason that could be explained.  And only by the steadfastness of his friend Louis’ CPR, and the miracles of modern medicine, and I daresay the prayers of this congregation and the hundreds if not thousands of people who lifted him up in prayer, only by the grace of God is he alive today.  I remember standing at Williamsport Hospital, looking out the window and thinking we’re going to lose him, to a week or two later walking into his hospital room and hearing him asking me how the congregational meeting went.  I felt like I had a glimpse of the resurrection.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

But then I thought about Devon and Jindrah Kemper, who should have died in that horrific accident.  But, again, through the power of prayer and modern medicine, and Devon’s stubborn, ornery will – the two of them are alive, and Devon is just as stubborn and ornery as ever (and I'm sure he would agree with me on that!)  Another perfect Easter story.

And then there’s Jeff Snyder, whose was working in the barn when the floor collapsed.  Had he landed the wrong way, it could have ended his life.  But by some miracle, his foot and ankle caught the worst of it, and he knows he got a second chance – and he’s using it to serve in any way he can.  Another perfect Easter story.

I’ve never heard of a congregation with this many miracles right in their own pews!

But even when the tragedies have come, the risen Christ still finds a way into our midst.  I have conducted sixteen funerals in the nearly five years I have been here at United in Christ.  From the very first one – Rich Hoover – to the most recent one – Bill Harvey – I have witnessed resurrection moments where even in the midst of death, the legacy of that person is kept alive through the faith of the people of this church. 

A scholarship fund was started in Rich’s memory.  And now Felicia Swartz, who has benefited from the generosity of that fund, is starting her final internship this summer and will someday become a fine pastor.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

Rich Huff, our beloved resident jolly Santa Claus, died four years ago after complications from a house fire.  But the people of this church have kept his spirit of generosity alive by establishing the Operation Santa Claus fundraiser that has helped so many children in need in our area, and has become an event of community collaboration every year.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

Laird Killian’s work lives on in this pulpit and in so many things he made for this church.  Grace Kling’s memory lives on through a music fund so we can enjoy wonderful music like we are today. Bill Johnson’s memory lives on through the prayer room that was supported by a gift in his memory.  These are glimpses of the resurrection all around us.

And think of all the children and grandchildren who are the legacy of people like Pauline Hauck and David Tanner, Sam and Bea Rice, Leanne Byerly, Dorothy Strassner.  For their families, faith does not end just because a life comes to an end.  What their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren learned from their life and their witness and their faith in this resurrected Jesus Christ is that no matter what happens, you do like those women who watched their rabbi die on that cross.  When the body comes down, you go and prepare the spices, and then you show up at the tomb to do the most compassionate thing you can – anoint the body, caress the memory with the fragrance of love.  You show up, and you keep going, no matter how bad it gets.  And one way or another, the risen Christ always finds a way into our midst.

What amazes me about this congregation is that no matter what happens, you never give up.  You keep showing up.  And somehow, as you’re doing the simple task of hauling yourself up in the morning to give it one more go, you find yourself standing next to the women at the tomb, amazed that something has happened, something you did not anticipate, something that has changed everything. 

Frankly, I’ve never encountered a church that has endured as much as this one has.  From the legendary origin story of this church splitting with the one across the street after a conflict among the members; to pastors who have divided and split this congregation; to a massive wind shear blowing down through the valley and splitting the church roof from the frame, peeling it back like a can of sardines.  This congregation is no stranger to splits and conflict and tension and one darn building problem after another.  Why just in the last year we’ve had to contend with the floor sinking in the fellowship hall to the roof leaking right up there in the ceiling. 

And yet time and time again, when it looks like the church may be on the verge of collapse, when many had probably written it off as dead in the tomb, always the people show up to carry on.  Like those women on an early morning at a cemetery in Jerusalem, the porcelain blue light of the pre-dawn sky coaxing them through the shadows of the tombs.  They had come to do the task that had to be done – to anoint Jesus’ body.  But when they show up, there is no body – only two men in dazzling clothes who give them news they cannot even comprehend.  The idea that Jesus is actually risen from the dead is so far beyond our thinking, that not even the disciples believe it when the women run to tell them.  Oh it’s just those hysterical, grief-stricken women.  Just telling old wives tales. 

But it’s not a tall tale.  It’s not just some fantasy story made up to make us feel better about what happened.  The resurrection happened!  It really happened.  And in the days and weeks ahead they will come to realize that yes, it’s true.  The risen Christ is in their midst, and the world has changed forever.

You can go to Brussels to find the risen Christ.  And you can go to the movies and see inspiring stories of little girls and little boys who saw Jesus coming to them after crossing over death’s door, and coming back to tell their story.

But you can also find empty tombs see the risen Christ right here in your own church, right here in the pew next to you or behind or in front of you.

Through your words, through your actions, through your serving, through your disagreements and tensions, through your history, and through your youth who are not just the church of tomorrow, but are the church right now

Keep showing up.  Keep doing the right thing.  Never doubt that God is in your midst creating a resurrection moment, even if you can’t see it at first.

And if this is your first time here, or you only come here once or twice a year, I would urge you to come back more often to see what God is doing in this place. 

Because, let me tell you, United in Christ is a resurrection congregation.  Never doubt that.  No matter what has happened in the past, no matter what may come your way in the future . . . God wants this church to be here and to carry on, and to tell the perfect Easter story.  


Monday, March 28, 2016

I Thirst – Youth Eco-Reflection for Good Friday

#goodfriday #cleanwater #youthministry @ELCAWorldHunger #walkforwater
On Good Friday the youth of United in Christ, Lewisburg, PA, designed a service of darkness focused on the seven last words of Christ.  The youth worked in pairs on their sermons which they preached in a dialogical style. The sermon below was written by two of our middle school youth from an ecological perspective, focusing on the need for clean water. (To see the other banners and learn more about the service, see this blog post:
John 19:28: After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”
PREACHERS:  Rachel Schade and Zoe Scott

Rachel:  One of Jesus’ last words was “I thirst.” Jesus once asked for water from the woman at the well. Now he is thirsting for water as he is dying on the cross. Water is vital for life and is a very important part of God’s Creation.

Zoe:  There are several places in the Bible where water plays a key part in the story of God’s people. In Genesis, all life arose from water. The book of Exodus has the story of the Hebrew people passing through the waters of the Red Sea, and later getting fresh water from a rock.

Rachel:  In Isaiah, he talks about flowing rivers upon deserts in chapter 41. And in the New Testament, Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, and talks about “living water” with the woman at the well.

Zoe:  When Jesus is crucified, he is pierced in his side and water comes out. These are just a few of the events in the Bible that have to do with water.

Rachel:  Today, water is, in a sense, being crucified. Humanity is destroying water by filling it with chemicals from shale gas drilling, pesticides, herbicides, and animal waste. 

Zoe:  Oceans are filled with so much plastic, huge islands of trash are floating in our seas.

Rachel:  And because of climate change, people are suffering from drought in some places, and flooding in others.

Zoe: Jesus expressed the importance of water on the cross, so why isn’t humanity keeping that importance alive today?

Rachel:  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other groups have noticed these problems and are doing their best to address them. ELCA World Hunger has a program called Walk for Water to raise awareness about water shortages and do projects to help water become more available to people who don’t have easy access to it.

Zoe:  They know that Jesus’ cry of “I thirst” is echoed around the world even today.  So they fund-raise for water purification tablets, irrigation canals, and well installations.

Rachel:  We as a congregation can do so much to support and participate in these programs. We encourage you to do as Jesus did:

Rachel and Zoe: Honor and protect our living water. Amen.

"I Thirst" was just one of the reflections written by our youth for the Good Friday service.  To learn more, check out this blog post:

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Youth-led Good Friday - Seven Last Words of Christ

For Good Friday, our youth at United in Christ, Lewisburg, PA, designed a service of darkness focused on the seven last words of Christ.  The older youth divided into pairs and wrote sermonettes on each of the themes which they preached as dialogues with each other.

The First Word:  Forgive
Luke 23:32-34

The Second Word:  Paradise
Luke 23:39-43

The Third Word:  “Woman”
John 19:25a-27

The Fourth Word:  “Thirst”
John 19:28

The Fifth Word:  “Forsaken”
Matthew 27:45-46

The Sixth:  “Finished”
John 19:29-30

The Final Word:  “I Commend My Spirit”

Our younger youth read the biblical passages.

Our seminarian Felicia Swartz and I worked with the youth to write these sermons, and choose music to perform with the youth and our guitarist, BJ Koch. And we came up with ideas for the banners which were then created by Felicia and other adult volunteers with help from the youth.

After the opening hymn, the sanctuary was darkened.  We had a battery-powered spotlight on each banner which was turned off after each sermon, increasing the darkness as the service progressed.

Finally, the only light that remained was the final candle, as the youth led the congregation in whispering the Lord's Prayer.  A thundering drum roll signaled the earth shaking and thunder in the darkened sky as the cross was carried by the youth out of the sanctuary.

This service was prepared over the course of five weeks during the season of Lent.  It is a great way to have youth involved in the planning and leading of worship during Holy Week.  A dedicated group of parents and adult volunteers is a must, but the format for the service is fairly straightforward.  And it is very effective.  Many parishioners noted how much they were moved by the students' reflections, and how meaningful the service was for them.

To request the service outline and sermon samples to give you ideas for how to do this in your own congregation, post a comment to this blog post for more information.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Responding to Pushback Against Activism for Justice

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Copyright, March 24, 2016

I have been a prophetic, ethics-oriented preacher since I became ordained nearly sixteen years ago, and have been a public activist for five years now, addressing a host of injustices ranging from environmental devastation to racism to homophobia to fracking to climate change.   I have noticed the kinds of negative reactions elicited from those who have opposed my work or taken issue with my activism and that of others like me.  

For example, on March 21, 2016, I was part of an interfaith coalition of religious leaders who are calling on our elected leaders to put a MORALtorium on any future shale gas drilling (fracking) in Pennsylvania because of the serious problems it’s caused for water, land, forests, air, communities, public health and the climate.  

The speeches I and others made at the rally and advocacy day held at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg were covered by local media, and this resulted in much online sniping and negative comments.  For instance:

Jim Willis: I question the morality of so-called "religious" leaders who worship the earth rather than the God they profess to worship.

Reddler: There is hypocrisy if they heat homes and churches with nat gas. And isn't methane natural? Isn't God responsible for 'natural'? Guess you can blame God for every time a cow farts.

Tom Servo: I love how leftists love to claim "it's all about science!!!!" and then they instantly mobilize a pack of soft headed religious zealots to march for them.  ALSO as far as warming is concerned, if any of them HAD looked at the science they would know that natural gas is the best possible bridge fuel to take the place of coal. But since this is really all about religion, they don't care about that.

Brian Gabriel Comeaux: You and your luddite friends wage war on the poor and the elderly by doing your best to deny them inexpensive energy and utilities. Cold kills while inexpensive natural gas heats homes.

kevin jorgensen:  Bet they all drove a car to the rally... and even if it was electric, its carbon footprint was far from zero. Bet they all plug their iphones into a fossil fuel powered grid and internet. Bet they all heat their homes with something that puts a lot more pollution into the atmosphere than natural gas. These people are all the characters in that cartoon where the protagonist is sawing the tree branch they are sitting on... we all know how it ends.

And consider this piece posted by Marcellus Drilling News: 

Radical Democrats Invoke God + Sham Science to Bash PA NatGas
Just about nothing makes us more angry than when self-righteous “religious” leaders prance in front of cameras to denounce extracting and burning fossil fuels, like natural gas, as immoral or unethical. They are the height of hypocrisy–because they left them homes and churches heated with natural gas, wearing clothes made from fibers that come from petrochemicals (oil and natural gas), driving vehicles powered by fossil fuels, speaking into microphones with plastics in them and standing at a podium made from a material derived from petrochemicals–to denounce it all. Yet they use it every single day themselves. They claim to have God on their side. Repugnant. The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade (United in Christ Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, PA) and a group of 50 or so other hypocrites recently held an interfaith rally in Harrisburg to call on Gov. Tom Wolf to stop all drilling for gas and oil in the state–because it’s “immoral.” Too bad Rev. Shade lost her way and quit worshiping God and instead now worships nature. Her twisted philosophy is what happens when you quit worshiping the Creator and instead worship the creation…

Rather than just respond to the content of these posts (which are rife with theological and logical inaccuracies, not to mention cheap shots and attempts at character assassination), it may be more instructive to analyze them from a tactical perspective to understand the underlying patterns. The hope is that by understanding what’s actually happening in these negative responses, we might respond in ways that bolster our confidence, avoid pettiness, and move the conversation to a higher, more productive level.

Philosopher Mary Midgley in her essay “Emotion, Emotiveness and Sentimentality” (in The Essential Mary Midgley, ed. David Midgley, London and New York: Routledge, 2006) explains the tactics often used by those wishing to dismiss the concerns of those addressing justice issues, such as advocating for animal and environmental rights.  There are four:  1) accusations of being “too emotional”; 2) accusations of being ignorant; 3) accusations of being hypocritical; and 4) accusations of being inappropriate.  Let’s take each of these in turn.

1. Calm down, you’re being too emotional
A typical reaction against those of us who advocate for environmental justice is to accuse us of being “too emotional.”  Aside from the fact that this is a thinly veiled sexist remark implying that our work is akin to women’s hysteria, the accusation is based on an incorrect premise.  Calling environmental advocates “emotional” assumes that emotion is the opposite of rationality, logic and level-headedness.  It is not.  “All argument involves trying to change feelings,” Midgely observes, “because all belief involves feeling,” (113). 

In fact, those who are urging us to “calm down,” not be so “reactionary,” and to “cool it,” when it comes to sounding the alarm about climate change, deforestation, species extinction and ocean ecosystem collapse are actually the ones who are suspect.  This is because accusations of being overly emotional are a red herring tactic.  Red herrings are fish with a very strong smell that were used by criminals to throw off dogs from the scent of a trail when being pursued.  Red herrings are tactics used in arguments to distract us from the facts at hand. 

First, we must note that, as Midgley points out, those who react against our work are also “emotional,” otherwise they wouldn’t be reacting at all.  Second, we must always inquire as to the motive behind the urging to “stop overreacting” and being overly emotional.  “He is like a spy in the pay of the enemy, plotting to keep Priam quiet in bed till the Greeks have control of the city,” Midgley explains.  “He is not a bit emotional (why should he be?  His side is winning).  And towards Priam, his aims do not seem emotive.  He is trying, after all, to produce calm, to get rid of emotion.  But  . . . he is trying to work directly on emotion for his own ends, by-passing normal thought. (Compare subliminal suggestion.) . . . This fellow is a traitor and a fraud,” (114). 

Thus, Midgley advises: “Anyone accused of being emotional about injustice or oppression or war or bad science or anything else can quite properly reply, ‘Of course I feel strongly about this, and with good reason.  It is a serious matter.  Anyone who has no feeling about it, who does not mind about it, has got something wrong with him.’ Strong feeling is fully appropriate to well-grounded belief on important subjects.  Its absence would be a fault,” (Midgley, 112).

So if you are accused of being “too emotional” about a topic, certainly take a moment to gauge whether your level of feeling is appropriate to the situation, and if it’s not, dial it back.  But more often than not, it is precisely because we have done our homework, used our rational faculties, paid attention to the studies and science, and reviewed the facts that we react – and react appropriately – with emotions ranging from alarm and anger to sadness to righteous indignation.   
2. You don’t know what you’re talking about
This is a common response from those who take issue with someone pointing out that the methods by which we are heating our homes, transporting ourselves and our goods, and treating Earth and Earth-kin for food are resulting in suffering.  Accusations of ignorance, stupidity and being uninformed – when in fact reasonable steps have been taken to observe, study data, employ reason, and make conclusions based on evidence – are another kind of red-herring tactic, Midgley explains. 

For example, we might concede that natural gas is currently cheaper than solar for producing electricity and, thus, heat.  But that fact does not nullify the other fact that the process of extracting the gas is extremely harmful to people, animals, plants, communities and the climate.  Accusing a person of ignorance when in fact the argument creates false dilemmas (either we have gas or we freeze to death!) and ignores alternatives and other information (solar has now become competitive with fossil fuels) is another red herring tactic. 

When accused of being soft-headed or impractical or otherwise unintelligent – or when politely but patronizingly told that you don’t know what you’re talking about – certainly take the time to assess your knowledge base.  Check your facts, do you homework, and don’t succumb to the temptation to resort to their school-yard retorts.  But when you’re told, “It may be bad, but you have no idea how much worse it could be, and what you’re proposing is going to send us down the wrong track,” the appropriate response is: there is no justification for causing or allowing suffering.   Let’s find a way to do things better.

3. You’re a hypocrite

No one likes being called a hypocrite, especially people of good faith with sincere convictions and  generous hearts.  So this accusation can really sting.  And the charge seems to have a valid point.  “You claim to have scruples, when, in fact, you are being hypocritical.  Because the fact is, you are benefiting in some way from this industry, practice, system, etc.  You are driving the cars, using the plastic, heating your home, and using the fossil fuels in all manner of ways.  Your collusion thus disqualifies you from criticizing.  You have no right to complain about our methods.” 

Midgely reminds us that this kind of accusation is made about the disputer, not the dispute (thus it is an ad hominem attack, meaning that it’s a subtle type of character assassination).  

This is yet another red herring, because it distracts from the issue at hand.  So Midgley astutely points out why it’s perfectly acceptable in our activism to be critical of existing practices and products:  “People who want to change are not disqualified from asking for it by their involvement in existing institutions.  If they were, no change could ever be brought about,” (117-118). 

In fact, it is precisely because we are using these products – and seeing that they are being produced in a way that causes suffering – that we have the right and obligation to raise questions about it and push for change.  It is the consumer’s business “to demand that the producer should find less objectionable ways of producing it,” Midgley urges (118).  That means we have every right to ask for the humane treatment of animals, energy that does not damage the environment, and agriculture that does not poison the surrounding ecosystem.

It is important to realize that the person who is trying to block criticism often has vested interest in keeping things status quo and avoiding change.  Thus “they cannot be trusted on such questions,” Midgley warns.  The effort to dismiss one’s strong feelings about the unethical means by which certain items and services are produced also hearkens back to the first tactic – accusations of being too sentimental.  That, combined with charges of hypocrisy “is often an effective way of silencing critics and making them feel ashamed.  We should resist it,” advises Midgley (119).

4. Be “realistic”
“You environmentalists are stuck in a fantasy world and need to touch down to reality.  Let’s be objective and realistic.  We don’t have the luxury to do what you’re asking. It’s too expensive.  There’s a war going on.  We don’t have the resources.  There are too many other pressing problems.” Etc., etc.

All of these are common responses used to deflect or dismiss those who raise concerns about environmental problems, climate change, animal rights, community rights and human rights.  The accusation is that we are being inappropriate in our critique and distracting from the “real” issues that usually involve money, protection of systemic power, and maintenance of institutional status quo.

This is not to say that there aren’t real questions about how we weigh competing concerns, assign priorities, and triage emergency situations.  For example, Midgley asks “How much ought we to mind about the preservation of wilderness?  Or about art? Or about the beauty of the countryside?  How important is knowledge, or freedom?  Ought they always to give way to the contentment of the greater number?  How, in general, are conflicts between such various values to be resolved?  These are real and serious moral questions,” (119).  The problem is when the person who receives our criticism responds by a) subtly using emotion to manipulate us away from the question we raise, or b) framing the issue as a zero-sum game (also called creating a “false dichotomy” or “false dilemma”).
Either one of these responses might employ what social movement theorists William A. Gamson and David S. Meyer, in their essay, "Framing Political Opportunity” (in Social Movements and Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) call a rhetoric of inaction.  They identify three central themes in the rhetoric of inaction -- jeopardy, futility, and perverse effects:

Jeopardy refers to the argument that by attempting some change, we risk losing achievements already won.  Inaction is more prudent in this view of opportunity because the dangers of loss outweigh the possibilities of further gain. 
Futility refers to the argument that there is no opportunity for change, that any action is essentially a waste of time and resources.
Perverse effects refers to the argument that the very actions designed to change things will only make matters worse.   Inaction is better because, regardless of good intentions, the unintended negative consequences will outweigh the desired effects (285-6).

When you encounter these kinds of rhetoric of inaction, counter with the rhetoric of action:  urgency, agency, and possibility.

Urgency points out that if we do not act now, the situation will not remain the same but will, in fact, become more and more difficult to change or manage.  Action may be risky but inaction is riskier still.   
Agency encourages us to embrace the "openness of the moment” by pointing out that windows that are currently open will not stay open for long.  Admittedly, there is no guarantee of success, but the present offers opportunity enough to keep hope alive.  Also, taking action now will open the window wider and keep it open longer, allowing more room for future success.
      Possibility shows us the promise of new alternatives which helps to counter the threats of perverse effects.  Create a vision of better policies, greater justice, and more humane social life as alternatives which our actions can help bring about (286). 

Finally, take heart
It’s actually a sign that your activism and advocacy is having an effect on the world when certain people respond with sniping, negative comments, name-calling and attempts to dismiss.  Because it means that you have been heard.  You have brought attention to an issue that, indeed, makes people uncomfortable, but nevertheless needs to have our attention. It is precisely the reason behind or beneath their discomfort, anger, or otherwise negative response that is the more interesting question.  Because if there really was no reason to be concerned, you would have been ignored.  The fact that you have touched a sore spot and gotten a reaction means that we have found an area that requires our attention. 

Most of the time, it is neither wise nor productive to engage those who post unkind, uninformed or hostile comments online.  But if you have the opportunity to engage someone one-on-one who has reacted negatively to you but also shows signs of genuine care, curiosity, or willingness to listen, offer to engage in further conversation to find out why they are angry, what has made them feel so annoyed.  They have listened to you, now listen to them.  It may be that together you are able to take steps forward that address both of your concerns.  This is how positive change evolves – in fits and starts, and sometimes with mistakes and missteps, but also with genuine and authentic efforts to answer the call to be our best selves. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Fracking MORALtorium Speech, Harrisburg, PA

MORALtorium Rally and Advocacy Day
Speech by
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
Pastor, United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015)
Adjunct Professor in Religion and Philosophy –
Lebanon Valley College, Annville, PA; Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, PA
March 21, 2016; Harrisburg, PA

Almost exactly four years ago I stood in this very spot in the Capitol Rotunda as part of a broad spectrum of individuals who had gathered to express our distress and moral outrage about the passing of Act 13 – the so-called “fracking bill” that paved the way for the shale gas industry and its related processes to maximize profit at the expense of our citizens and the ecosystems of our state.

Photo by Meenal Raval
Some things are the same as they were four years ago.  I’m wearing the same shirt.  I’m still outraged that the majority of our legislators and government officials have ignored the science about the damage being done by fracking.  And I’m seeing many of the same people who have stood in solidarity since this assault on our state began.

But some things are different.  The things we had warned about in terms of poisoned waters, fractured communities, disrupted forests and farmlands, and compromised public health have not only come to pass, but are much worse than we anticipated.  Especially regarding the effects of methane gas worsening the climate crisis, the intrusion of pipelines spreading like cancerous growth across our state, and the occurrence of earthquakes in other states taking our fracked water to dispose in injection wells.

Photo by Meena Raval

But the biggest difference I see is the increasing number of faith leaders and people from diverse religious and spiritual traditions who have stepped up to embrace their prophetic role and hold our elected leaders accountable.  That’s why we are here today.  We are calling on our legislators to listen to science and protect public health.  This is one area where science and religion are actually in agreement.  Whether you are from the city or the rural areas, whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent, we can certainly all agree that there are values we all hold in common that warrant the strictest protection for our land, water, air, communities and the health of our citizens. 

As a Lutheran Christian, I believe in a God of justice and truth and put my faith not in corporations and temporary, corrupting wealth, but in the God who fights for the oppressed, the voiceless, and in those who stand on the side of righteousness.  This is our history and heritage as Americans.  We invite you to join us in standing in solidarity with those who suffer, calling our leaders to accountability, and living into the vision of a clean-energy future where all children, women, men, and Earth-kin may thrive.

Photo by Meena Raval

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday "24": Torture, Terrorism and Jesus

Sermon - The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Palm Sunday 2016

Watch the video for this sermon here:

Do any of you remember the show from the early 2000’s called 24 on Fox that starred Keifer Sutherland?  It was a riveting series. For those of you who’ve not seen it, each episode portrays one hour in the life of Jack Bauer, an agent in the fictional government agency called the Counter Terrorist Unit.  There are 24 episodes for each season (hence the title), so that one day is stretched out over the whole season.  I only watched two episodes and I had to stop, because it is a highly addictive show.  Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that compels you to watch the next episode.  It is very cleverly done, and, I’ll admit, is a very captivating series.

Let me tell you about the one episode I did see, because it is just so exciting.  In Season 4 we start out at 7 a.m., and there is a train wreck caused by a terrorist bombing.  At 7:33 a.m., the government agents are able to capture the terrorist suspected of bombing the train.  They bring him to the office, where Jack recognizes him as a terrorist who was traced to bombings in Europe.  But something doesn’t seem right because he doesn’t think this guy would risk coming to the United States for a simple train bomb.  His superiors, however, dismiss his concerns.  Nevertheless, Jack is able to find out that there is another attack planned for that same morning, and that the train bomb was really just a distraction.  The next strike is scheduled for 8 a.m.  But they can’t figure out what target is.  It is now 7:49 a.m.  The clock is ticking!

Jack sneaks into the interrogation room where they are grilling the captured terrorist, to no effect - he won’t talk.  Jack goes in with his gun raised and shoots the terrorist in the leg, demanding to know what’s going to happen at 8:00. “What is your primary objective?” Jack screams. The terrorist says it is . . . the Secretary of Defense! They’re planning to kidnap him.  Jack demands that they notify Secret Service immediately.  It’s now 7:57 a.m. 

Jack tries to call the Secretary of Defense’s daughter, Audrey, to warn her because he knows she is going to visit him (she also happens to be Jack’s girlfriend).  Suddenly, a rocket grenade sails past her face and hits a Secret Service vehicle, which bursts into a ball of flames. Jack hears the gunfire over the cell phone, as a van pulls up and gunmen fire at the Secret Service agents. Masked men abduct Audrey and her father into a van. Audrey screams for Jack, who can only listen helplessly.  It’s now 7:59 a.m.  Roll credits.

Phew!  That all happens in just one episode!  Want to find out what happens to them?  You have to tune in next the week.  After the second episode, I realized just how addictive it was, and I had to stop cold turkey before I got totally hooked!

It wasn’t just the addictive quality of the show that concerned me.  What bothered me even more is that I so enjoyed watching the drama of terrorism unfold before me on the small screen. And that I was actually doing a little fist-pump when Jack shot the terrorist in the leg.  It bothered me, especially in light of the torture scandals that erupted ten years ago from the prisons in Iraq, and the debate in Washington about the efficacy of using torture as a tool for national security.  And it continues to bother me in light of the recent presidential debates in which assumptions about certain groups of people being dangerous and terrorists dominates the rhetoric.

Now why am I talking about this on Palm Sunday?  What do terrorism and torture and presidential debates have to do with Jesus?

Well, as we’re heading into Holy Week, one way to understand the Passion of Jesus is as an example of the use of torture and what can happen when groups of people are swept into mob violence by the rhetoric of political leaders.  The beating of Jesus during his trial before Pilate was a form of judicial torture. Pilate, in his initial interrogation of Jesus, finds that no laws have been broken.  “But those who want to see Jesus killed ask Pilate to find some kind of evidence against him.  So Pilate has Jesus beaten in an attempt to extract new information.” (Vital Theology, p. 6).

It’s very similar to the episode of “24” that I watched.  The use of torture in this show is based on the “ticking bomb” argument -- if a captured terrorist knows when and where a bomb will explode - potentially killing many people -- an exception to legal conventions can be made and the terrorist should be tortured in an effort to produce the information and save lives. 

But many studies have shown that this is not how torture works.  Rather, it takes a considerable amount of time to gain a psychological advantage over prisoners. “[And yet this “ticking bomb” theory] has been used to legitimate the widespread use of inhumane methods of interrogation.” (Vital Theology, p. 2).

I find it disturbingly problematic that those who have the power to make these decisions in our own government and military and in presidential debates -- while claiming to be Christian -- believe that there is just cause for using torture and carpet bombing and other means of violence to combat terrorism.  I find it even more disturbing that there isn’t more outrage expressed by those of us in Christian pulpits and pews that this kind of rhetoric is being used.

And I wonder why this is?  I wonder if shows like 24 and Homeland and Sleeper Cell, make us not only numb to the use of violence, but, in fact, make us secretly cheer on the sidelines.  We live in a culture where suspicion about the foreigner and violence and torture are held up as ideal models of behavior.  It’s glorified on television shows and in movies and video games.  We’re exposed to it almost daily.  It has been become actually institutionalized since the first Gulf War twenty-five years ago.  And it encompasses our national conversations about everything from our Latin American neighbors to the south, to Syrian refugees across the Atlantic, to African Americans within our own country.  Violence has become our first response against ever perceived threat.

I remember reading the book, Night, by Elie Weisel, which is an account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps during WWII.  At the beginning of the book, Elie, a boy of 15, is still at home with his family when they hear rumors of Nazis deporting Jews to these camps of torture, but they do not believe it could possibly be true.  And even when they watch the foreign Jews being carted away on a cattle train, one of his neighbors just sighs with resignation, “What can we do?  It’s a war.”

And we hear this same kind of resignation today:  “But there is a war going on!” some people will argue.  “We have got to defend our way of life.  We have got to do everything we can to ensure national security.  We need to use any means possible to stop the terrorists, and the Muslims and the blacks and the Mexicans and the (fill in the blank).”

Let’s explore that line of thinking for a minute.  Imagine the story of the Palm Sunday told from the Roman’s point of view.  Imagine if the Roman Empire had a Fox network and a show called 24.  This series takes place about 2000 years ago and focuses on a Roman soldier in the Counter Terrorist Unit based in Jerusalem.  In season 4, the soldier witnesses a wild parade of insurgents roiling around a man riding into the city on a donkey.  Thousands are gathered for one of their religious festivals called Passover.  These Jews are nothing but trouble.  Always threatening insurrection.  There’s something about their religion that just makes them dangerous.  And here they are waving palm branches like flags and shouting about how this man was sent by their God. It’s 7:02 a.m.
"Palm Sunday in Jerusalem" by Rod Anderson
Later, the soldier is standing guard as the strange man goes through entrance of their holy temple, knocking down tables, overturning money boxes, and inciting his followers to riot.  Behind him, the soldier overhears the leaders of the temple figuring out a way to assassinate this man, but they are fearful of his followers who may riot during the festival.  In the meantime, the soldier is ordered by his superiors to keep an eye on this man, because he is a possible terrorist.

And their suspicions prove correct.  The soldier hears the man threatening to blow up the temple, openly criticizing the religious leaders, and warning his followers that they must prepare for a holy war when the “Son of Man” comes - a code word, no doubt, for a political coup.  It’s now 7:33 a.m.

But the Counter Terrorism Unit has an ace in the hole. They’ve gotten a defector named Judas from the terrorist camp to give them information about where the terrorist is staying and how they can capture him.  The soldier leads a battalion of men under the shadow of night to arrest the suspect and take him into custody.  It’s now 11:55 p.m.   

They’ve only got until sunrise - because then, the crowd will realize he’s missing and will riot in the streets.  The clock is ticking!  The man is interrogated by the chief priests to little effect.  They beat him to try to extract information from him, but he refuses to talk.  So they have the soldier take him to the Secretary of Defense, his boss, Pilate.

Pilate has no luck with him either.  The most he can get out of him are some cryptic phrases about his “kingdom” and testifying to “the truth.”  He assigns the Roman soldier to oversee a more severe interrogation involving whipping and beating. 

He whips him again and again, demanding to know what he has planned. “What is your primary objective?” the Roman soldier screams. The terrorist says it is . . . the Kingdom of God. The soldier demands that they notify Secret Service immediately.  It’s now 7:53 a.m. 

Meanwhile, the crowd has gathered around their headquarters, demanding the release of one of the political prisoners, as was customary during the festival.  The Secretary of Defense knows this is a delicate situation.  If he does not satisfy them, they could rise up and cause mass chaos, which would threaten the security of the entire Roman nation. 

So he brings out the terrorist, who now wears a crown of thorns twisted by the Roman soldier himself.  And they bring out another insurgent named Barabbas, also accused of terroristic activity.  Pilate tells crowd to choose which one he should release.  The camera focuses first on the face of Barabbas, then on the bruised and bloodied face of the beaten man.  “Who should I release to you?” Pilate calls to them.  It’s now 7:59 a.m.  Roll credits.

Phew!  What an episode!  Want to find out what happens next?  You’ll have to tune in on Maundy Thursday, and then the next episode on Good Friday, and then Saturday Vigil.

You see, we live in a culture and a world where what was done to Jesus can be done to any human being - including an Iraqi citizen, or an American citizen; a 17-year-old black boy wearing a hoodie, or a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey; a criminal terrorist or an innocent man. 

And yet when I talk with my clergy peers and ask whether they address the topic from the pulpit, the answer, more often than not, is “no.”  The prophetic and public voice of the church has been mute on these issues for many different reasons.  Because it is a difficult subject to discuss.

But here’s the thing:  we have a mandate from our Lord to engage this issue.  We need to address this question knowing full well that what was done to Jesus still happens in our world today.  Not that I expect you to write your Congressman about this, or attend a protest in Washington, or become an aid worker for refugees, or take down your Confederate flag - although you may choose to do any of these things. 

I guess what I want is for us, as Christians, to be critical consumers of our culture.  I don’t want us to swallow everything we are offered without questioning its source and its consequences.  I want us to be able to critically observe a show like 24 and the debates we watch and the newscasts and talk shows hear through the Christian lens, and not allow ourselves to be taken in and unquestioningly swayed by the mass media and news coverage and political spins that engulf us every day.  I want us to be able to look at something like this and say, “Hey wait, I’ve seen this before.  This same kind of thing happened in the Bible.  It happened to the one I worship.  It happened to Jesus.”  And in light of this realization, to be able to ask the question, “Am I really buying this?”

Because the crowds gathered around the Roman headquarters that day swallowed it hook, line and sinker.  They were convinced that what they were doing was right, for the safety of their country, for the security of their temple, for protecting their way of life.  But in the next episode on Good Friday, we see that they were wrong.  The defenders against terrorism became the agents of terror themselves.

Sometimes being a Christian means taking a long, steady look at yourself and asking, “Am I wrong about this?”  And then having the courage to hear God’s answer.


“Pilate Seen Employing Torture”, Vital Theology, Volume 2, Issue 10, Jan. 20, 2006; David W. Reid, Publisher and Editor

“Where’s the Outrage? Glancy Asks”, Vital Theology, Volume 2, Issue 10, Jan. 20, 2006; David W. Reid, Publisher and Editor

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sermon: Gilgal - Rolling It Away

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
March 13, 2016
Readings: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 25:11-18; Luke 7:36-50

Watch the video for this sermon here:

We’re in the last of our sermon series on “Healing, Health and Wholeness,” and we’re focusing on healing and health for our faith.  This Lent has been a particularly painful one for many here today.  Some of you are facing or recovering from serious medical issues.  Others are dealing with grief from the loss of people who are dear to you.  Still others are in the midst of difficult struggles at home, or at work or at school. 

When you are facing these kinds of challenges, you can find that the very faith that you have relied on during your youth, or in other times of need, can sometimes feel wanting.  The journeys we undertake sometimes lead us to what is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.”  And your spirit, your trust in God can feel stretched to the breaking point.

I watched this kind of thing happen with my Aunt Joan, who was also my godmother.  Twelve years ago I watched my aunt begin a journey.  It was not a journey you can take in a car or on a plane.  In fact, it’s not even a journey where she could take any luggage.  Aunt Joan was suffering from kidney failure.  And over the course of many months, she undertook the long, slow journey to her face-to-face meeting with the Lord.  And while she looked forward to the destination with anxious anticipation, she did not enjoy the journey. 

Because it’s a wilderness journey.  Week by week, her body was losing strength.  Her appetite diminished, and food tasted weird to her.  Her body lost weight at an alarming rate.  She tried to stay cheerful and focused on the blessings in her life.  But I remember her telling me that some mornings she woke up feeling overwhelmed to the point of tears with the knowledge that her death is imminent.  I asked her what helped her get through the day.  She says only her prayers and the prayers of others.  And my Aunt Joan was a prayer warrior, let me tell you.  She had a faith that can move mountains.  But it was still a painful journey for her.

I thought about her journey as I looked at the lessons for today.  We start with the lesson from Joshua, where, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites have finally arrived at the border of Canaan, the Promised Land.  If you’ll remember, they suffered as slaves in Egypt for many generations until Moses led them through the Red Sea and into freedom.  That was the easy part.  They then wandered 40 years through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.  During that time they had nothing but quails and manna to eat.  It was a gift from God, this dry, bread-like substance they collected to eat each morning.  But while it gave them the nutrition they needed, it was a tediously boring meal. 

Now Moses did not live to see their arrival at Canaan.  But he appointed Joshua, his second-in-command, to become the new leader of the people.  And as they stand at the entrance of the Promised Land, Joshua is the one who hears these words from God:

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you." So the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day.

The Hebrew word here is “galal”, which means “to remove” or “to roll away”.  Which is why God tells them to name this location “Gilgal” - the place where God rolled away their oppressive past in Egypt and allowed the Israelites to step into Canaan, leaving everything else behind - the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the slavery they endured in Egypt.  It means that now they have a chance to start anew in a new place with a new generation of faithful people.  God rolls away their sins, rolls away the oppression, rolls away everything that had kept them from being free people. 

I thought, what a wonderful image - God rolling away generations of slavery in Egypt, pushing it back, the way the waters were pushed back at the Red Sea.  And in the previous chapter of Joshua, God rolls back the waters of the Jordan River so that the Israelites can cross over into the Promised Land. 

And from this point on, they will be fed not on manna, but on real food.  It’s no longer a meager meal of survival with just enough sustenance to get them through the day.  No, now they will eat from the crops of the land.  They can settle into a new life where they can rest and stay in one place long enough to plant seeds, watch them grow, harvest them and bake them into hot, fresh loaves.  No more bland, flaky crumbs gathered each morning with just enough nutrition to stave off hunger.  Now they can really feast!

And this theme of God rolling away the heavy burdens is repeated in the other two texts this morning.  Psalm 25 speaks about transgressions being forgiven and sin being put away.  And our gospel lesson is also about this “rolling away” of sin – Jesus rolling away the sin of this woman who comes to anoint him with fragrant oil.  All the hurt, humiliation and shame that this woman has endured has been rolled away.  At that spot where Jesus declares her sins forgiven - here is this woman’s Gilgal.  Her sin was rolled away and she was given new life!

Aunt Joan was on her way to Gilgal.  She was on her wilderness journey where her prayers were like manna - just enough to get her through each day.  But she had her eyes on the horizon, looking for Gilgal, where she knew she would hear her Lord say, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of kidney failure from you.”  And she knew she would step into that Promised Land where a banquet awaited her!  And the food will not taste weird!

So where will your Gilgal be?  Maybe you are in a place right now where you feel like you’re still wandering.  You’re just taking in enough sustenance to get you through the day.  You are longing to settle your soul into a new land of faith where you can rest and plant some seeds, watch them grow, harvest them and bake them into hot, fresh loaves.  You are tired of living off the bland, flaky crumbs that just barely give you just enough emotional and spiritual strength to make it through one more day. 

We’re longing for God to roll away the sins of this generation.  We would just love to hear God say that our reproach has been rolled way:

Wouldn’t you just love to hear God say:

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of the war from you."

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of climate change and environmental disasters from you."

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of divorce from you."

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of cancer from you."

"Today I have rolled away the reproach of death from you."

That’s what we really long for, isn’t it?  We want to see that stone rolled away from the tomb!  And by God, I can assure you that that day is coming!  On that day each person will stand at the new Gilgal, where the stone is rolled away, where new life begins, where the resurrection gives us a new creation.  On Easter Day we will stand at Gilgal and watch God roll the stone away! 

Yes, that day is surely coming, my friends!  But until that time, we are still on the Lenten journey.  We’re still waiting, still longing, still yearning for the fulfillment of that promise.  And this wandering in the wilderness can get even the most faithful Christian down.  Climate change, broken families, wars, sickness, kidney failure, and death can make your faith so weak and your heart so weary, you sometimes wonder how you’re going make it through one more day.

All we’ve got is manna, my friends.  

Yes, it’s just a bland, flaky crumb of a meal.  It’s not much.  But it’s just enough to get us through the day until we reach Gilgal.