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).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How to be a Christian (and a Pastor) after the Election

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

My colleague, Dr. Dale Andrews from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I sat with students at Wake Forest University Divinity School (North Carolina) the morning after the election for what was supposed to be a conversation about the intersections of race and environmental justice.  We were there for the school’s Prophetic Ministry Week and were prepared to talk with them about what prophetic preaching looks like in the face of eco-racism and related issues.  But that morning as the tears flowed and audible sobs were heard throughout the room, the feelings of shock, confusion and utter despair meant that we needed to process with these theologically-trained Christians – some of whom were preparing for ordained ministry – what had transpired for our nation. 

How are we supposed to go into our churches on Sunday morning?  What are we supposed to say and do?  How can we face those who are going to gloat over this victory?  How are we going to endure the pain of those who are devastated by the outcome?  What does it look like to be church in the midst of all this?” These were the kinds of questions they were asking.

My first response was to remind them that ensuring people’s safety is top priority.  Given the rhetoric of the man who is now president-elect, a significant portion of this country is experiencing alarm and legitimate fear about their physical and emotional safety, or for their family members, friends, fellow students and co-workers.  Women, people of color, immigrants and their children, people of differing sexual orientations, people with disabilities, those who rely on health care from the Affordable Care Act, and Muslims are among those who are desperately worried about their safety and health as the new administration comes into power.  So if you are a pastor or leader of a congregation, it must be clearly stated that no kind of hateful rhetoric or disparaging remarks about those who are now threatened will be tolerated in God’s house of worship. The church is called to be a place of refuge.   And if you are a Christian, you are part of the body of Christ, which means that you are to refrain from that kind of talk even outside of the church.  You represent Christ in the world.  Behave in a manner that reflects the one whom you worship.
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade and The Rev. Dr. Dale Andrews

Dr. Andrews astutely reminded the students that this is exactly why they are called to be Christian, to preach, to minister. “For such a time as this,” he said, invoking Mordecai’s words to Esther when she was faced with going into a place of potential danger for herself, carrying the burden of her people’s safety in her hands (Esther 4:14).  In other words, this is exactly the time when pastors are needed, even if they are feeling devastated themselves.  God is already in the tomb even after it appears sealed forever.  Jesus has already gone ahead to Galilee to meet you.  The Spirit is already at work in ways that may not yet be evident.  So you are called to be a pastoral presence and to use all of your skills in pastoral care for reflective listening, empathy and silent but attentive presence.    

And if you are a Christian (including a pastor) who is celebrating the results in this election, now is the time for restraint.  Do not gloat.  This is not like the Sunday after the World Series, or after the Superbowl.  This was not just some political game where the victors can good-naturedly rib the losers.  For half of this nation, this loss represents a crumbling of the basic foundations of decency, respect, and the means by which to preserve the common good.  For those who are concerned about the environment and climate change and have worked so hard to protect God’s Creation, the thought of the new administration rolling back every protection is terrifying.  For those whose very lives are threatened by people now empowered to strip their rights from them, the results of this election are panic-inducing.  So if you are celebrating after this election, remember – if it had gone the other way, you would be understandably disappointed and angry.  But you would have had no reason to fear for your health and safety. 

Thus refrain from insisting that people need to “come together.”  Avoid using words like “unify” and “move on.”  You cannot expect or even ask people to unify with a person whose words have authorized homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, gun violence, sexual violence, racism and white privilege.  Or to “come together” with someone who has supported those values by voting for the person who encourages all of that.  So if you are coming to church Sunday with feelings of elation, exercise compassionate restraint. Even if you feel like sidling up to your fellow Trump supporters during coffee hour and giving a knowing wink and sly high-five – resist the urge.  I would have given the same exhortation to Clinton supporters if the election had gone the other way.  Being a Christian during this time requires space-giving.  Eventually we will need to talk about where we go from here.  But understand that this is a time of deep grief for many.  Especially for those “blue dots” in predominantly red churches.

"Women at the Tomb" by Claire Elam
Which is why some people may not even feel comfortable going to church this Sunday if they cannot bring themselves to face what they fear will be the triumphant jeers of their fellow Christians.  That is perfectly understandable.  But if you are a pastor, you don’t have the luxury of absence.  So I reminded the students that the day after the crucifixion, the women did something that we need to do.  They showed up.  The women were confused, angry, anguished and in deep grief.  But they went to the tomb because they were faithful.  They went to perform the rituals – the sacred actions and words – that were part of their people’s faith for centuries.  We, too, are called to show up.  We are called to be faithful.  And we have actions and words – rituals – that are designed to hold the vast range of feelings experienced by the congregation.  Rely on that pattern of worship that is so ingrained in us – gathering, hearing God’s word, breaking bread and sharing wine, and sending out into the world.  Let the liturgy minister to you and your congregation.  Let it gather in all who will come.  And trust that the Spirit of God through the compassion of Jesus Christ will indeed be in our midst.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA).  She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).

Friday, November 4, 2016

Blessings and Woes: The Christian Case for Hillary Clinton

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

If you are a Christian whose church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, the gospel reading assigned for this coming Sunday is amazingly appropriate given the national presidential election two days later.  The passage is Luke 6:20-31, known as The Beatitudes, where Jesus is talking to the crowd about blessings and woes.  He begins by saying this:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

He then follows with a list of woes for those who are rich, fat and happy with lots of yes-men around them telling them how great they are.

And in one of the most profound religious teachings in history, Jesus gives instructions for those who would follow in the way of God’s radical grace:

But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

As I read these words, and I consider my vote, it is all too clear which candidate aligns with the values of Jesus, and which one is diametrically opposed to those values. Donald Trump is the one who is rich, fat and happy surrounded by yes-men telling him how great he is.  While Hillary Clinton has spent most of her 30 years of public service in advocacy, defense and support of those whom Jesus calls “blessed” – the poor, the hungry, the despondent.  She herself has been subjected to the kind of hatred, defamation and derision described in this passage.  And while she is admittedly a candidate with flaws (as all humans are), from what I have witnessed, at her core is a strong grounding in the Christian upbringing that instilled these values of Jesus into her beliefs and actions.   

Full disclosure – I did vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary because I have serious disagreements with Clinton’s stance on fracking (she mistakenly thinks methane gas is a “bridge fuel”). And I do not think she takes climate change seriously enough to confront her fossil fuel corporate backers.  Nevertheless, at this point in the presidential race, it is very clear that a vote for Hillary Clinton is much more aligned with my values as a Christian than would be a vote for Donald Trump. 

“But, but, what about the emails?” some sputter.  I reiterate what Forward Progressives co-founder Allen Clifton wrote in a recent column:  "Until I start seeing the private emails of the RNC, Donald Trump and everyone else who’s claimed her emails (even the ones Russians hacked and gave to WikiLeaks to distribute) ‘prove she’s corrupt,’ she’s being held to a standard that nobody else is being held to. I don’t see the RNC or Donald Trump eagerly publishing thousands upon thousands of pages of their personal emails for everyone to read . . .”

“But, but, what if she’s indicted?” Again, from Clifton:  “The truth of the matter is, even if you told me 6 months from now that the FBI was going to indict Clinton for mishandling classified information, I’d still vote for her . . . just as long as it keeps Donald Trump from becoming this nation’s president." [Read Clifton’s full piece here.] 

I need a president who does not violate the very basics of human decency.  I need a president with whom I can engage with in the areas where we disagree by appealing to the shared values we have – as a female, as a mother, and as an advocate for what Jesus called “the least of these.”  I need a president who will not inspire and encourage the kind of bullying, racism, xenophobia and violent chauvinism I have witnessed in the past year from Trump and his supporters.  I need a president who I believe will do her very best to move us from woes to blessings.

Granted, this move is not some kind of Hollywood epiphany moment with singing violins and credits rolling on happy faces at the end of the movie.  We will be engaged in a long process filled with fits and starts, sudden jumps ahead, followed by stumbling backward with mistakes and missteps.  So we will need each other, we will need our houses of worship, we will need all of our resources of education, financial generosity, creativity, hearts for justice and minds for organization to apprentice ourselves to the blessing.

That’s what the Christian life is about.  We are apprenticing ourselves to the blessing.  And this apprenticeship means taking up the tools of the trade and learning to use them in order to help our country move from woes to blessings.  Among those tools is our ministry in the world – our vocation in our work, our volunteering, and yes, our voting.  IF you are a Christian, and IF you are considering whether or not to vote for Trump, ask yourself – am I voting for blessings or woes?  Am I voting for blessings for myself alone?  Or blessings to share in abundance?

IF you are a Christian, the teachings of Jesus can and should inform your vote.  As you consider the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and the blessings and woes before us, cast your vote for the blessings.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is an ordained Lutheran (ELCA) minister and is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary.  The views in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ELCA or Lexington Theological Seminary.

Trump as Plumb Line: The Christian Case against Donald Trump

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Watching Confederate flags pop up all over central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2015 like weeds cropping up in the garden overnight was my first indication that something was terribly wrong.  This phenomenon followed on the heels of two surges – white supremacy following the removal of the flag from South Carolina’s government buildings in response to the massacre of African Americans at Mother Bethel Church; and the ascendancy of Donald Trump.

Since then the rise of hateful rhetoric, hateful symbols and hate-filled actions against non-whites, foreigners, immigrants, refugees, those with disabilities, and women by Trump supporters and the candidate himself is incredibly alarming.  I am reminded of a passage from Amos 7:7-9 where the prophet is given a vision by God:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

What is a plumb line?  It’s the weight at the end of a line used by builders to show vertical direction.  This is how you can tell if your walls are straight and even. It is the means by which you can tell if what you’re building is true or off-balance.  And if your building is off-balance what can happen? The walls will lean, doors won’t close, and you’ll get cracks in the wallsUltimately, unless the problems are corrected, the house will eventually fall. When you hang the plumb line, it’s measuring the trueness of the house.  In a sense, it is making a judgment about the house - revealing whether everything lines up, or whether it is off-balance and headed for destruction.

So what does it mean when God puts a plumb line in the midst of the people?  What we have here is a metaphor. It describes God’s measuring the moral and ethical walls of our house to see if they are lined up with God’s will.  When the plumb line drops, there are serious consequences, because the truth about the way society is constructed is revealed. 

My fellow Americans – Donald Trump is our plumb line.

He is our plumb line because his presence has revealed that the walls of our democracy, our economic structures, and our American society are cracked.  Does this mean that God sent Donald Trump to reveal the truth about our house?  Certainly not.  But we need to understand what a Trump presidency would mean for this country.  Trump is so powerful because he is a result of systemic, economic and cultural forces that have created a wave of discontent.  But more than that, he has discovered a way to amplify and capitalize on that discontent by misdirecting away from the very forces that caused the problems in the first place.

The people who are supporting Trump see the cracks in the walls.  But rather than work on ways to fix or rebuild the house, they choose to demonize and blame the problems on the very ones who have been the historic victims of this system for hundreds of years.  For centuries, whites have ignored the fact that our foundation was built on shifting sand.  They have ignored issues of social justice, choosing instead to insulate themselves within certain well-furnished rooms of the house.  What they did not realize is that while they were living a comfortable life, the house is falling down around them.  Now they are panicking and championing one whom they think can save them, when, in fact, he epitomizes all the causes and reasons for the cracked walls in the first place. 

After Amos’ prophecy, in a poetic fulfillment of the judgment, Israel was later rocked by a devastating earthquake, and their houses literally fell down around them.  What people today do not realize is that a vote for Trump will not make America great again.  It will create more pressure on an already unsteady structure.  And when the walls come tumbling down, they will not distinguish between whites and non-whites. 

IF you are a person of faith, and IF you are thinking of voting for Trump, I would strongly urge you to reconsider.  The plumb line of Donald Trump has already revealed the truth about the choices we have to make.  And that can be quite uncomfortable.  You have to be honest about where your own values are not lining up true with God’s values, especially in terms of how you treat others, and the ways you benefit from a system that favors you either because of your skin color, your gender and sexuality, your occupation, your age, or your financial level.

You may not agree with everything that Hillary Clinton has done in her 30 years of public service.  It may gall you to have to vote for the candidate who is not of your party.  You may feel squeamish about having a female hold the highest elected office in this country.  And that’s okay.  I have a few disagreements with Hillary myself. 

But I have never witnessed her engage in the kind of hateful human-bashing that I see from Trump.  My Christian values leave me no other choice than to vote against him and cast a prophetic vote on the side of the plumb line that says: “Let’s get to work.”  Let’s set about the task of making sure that the walls are true, the foundation is secure, and that justice and righteousness for all are the measurements of our success, rather than the extreme wealth of a few. 

IF you are a person of faith, the teachings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus can and should inform your vote.  As you consider the plumb line of Donald Trump, cast your vote for the whole house we all share. 

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is an ordained Lutheran (ELCA) minister and is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary.  The views in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ELCA or Lexington Theological Seminary.