Saturday, September 17, 2016

Coming Near

A sermon preached September 11, 2016
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

The Old Testament Lesson: The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:7-14)

The Gospel: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:1-10) 

The stories that Jesus tells in the Gospel today -- one about a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep, another about a woman seeking out a lost coin – are both told as examples, or metaphors, for the way God seeks us out.

And both stories are told in response to grumbling, grumbling criticism that Jesus receives from religious insiders who witness, and object to, the radical hospitality that Jesus offers.

And so it is very interesting, and telling, that at the beginning of the story, we hear the little phrase, “coming near.” The religious authorities objected to the fact that tax collectors and sinners were “coming near.”1

Here are people at the periphery of that culture and time “coming near” to Jesus. I suppose the religious authorities would have been fine if those people – those who were at the periphery – were to have stayed at the periphery.

What offends them is the way they come near, and enter the inner circle.

About ten years ago, The Episcopal Church in general, and this particular church specifically, went through a huge “inner circle” power struggle, a power struggle that centered around two issues:

1)  whether or not being openly gay should disqualify you from being becoming a priest or bishop, and
2)  whether or not being female (whether straight or gay) should disqualify you from becoming a bishop

(with The Episcopal Church saying “no, being openly gay or female should not disqualify you.”)

As some of you who are relatively new here may not know, but as many of you do know, and as some of you experienced firsthand, this particular church literally split over it these power struggles, with the vast majority of the congregation here voting in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church but attempt to keep these buildings, and a small minority choosing to stay in The Episcopal Church and help retain ownership of these Episcopal Church properties, a legal fight not settled until March of 2014 -- and we’ve been rebuilding here since.

Because these struggles had legal implications, and because they were, at one level, about sexuality and gender, you may have heard these struggles being referred to as a legal battle, or a theological struggle, or even a “disagreement over Biblical authority.”

But the reason I refer to it as a power struggle is this:

Arguably there have been closeted gay clergy and bishops as long as there have been clergy and bishops.

And The Episcopal Church has been ordaining women to the priesthood since the mid to late 1970’s, and there have been women bishops in the Episcopal Church since 1989. That is 1989 .

So why was it that in 2003-2006 things came a head? Because that’s when we, as a denomination, agreed to allow a diocese to elect an openly gay man into the House of Bishops, and that’s when we elected a woman as our Presiding, or head Bishop.

At one level, supposedly, those controversies are about sexuality, or gender, and the way we ought to interpret scripture, but at a deeper level, those controversies, like the controversy in today’s Gospel are about power.

They are about the inner circle and the periphery:
And who gets to decide who is in the inner circle and who has to stay on the periphery.

And I mean this to be descriptive, not critical, because I know as well as anyone that when we point a finger at someone, we have three fingers pointing right back at us. And so let me be clear: the dynamic I’m describing here – the tendency to be exclusionary, to resist others coming into our power circle – is a human tendency, not a conservative tendency or a liberal tendency. It’s human nature.

And it goes way back. And it kicks up deep stuff.

At least for me it does: I call it the “middle school lunch tray cool kid table phenomenon.” Maybe it’s just me – let me know afterwards if I’m striking a nerve here, if I’m onto something with you as well – but to this day, I’m at a conference or a meeting, and I have to go down the line with my lunch or dinner tray, and then find a place at a table to eat at, and other people are already seated, I instantly regress to an insecure middle schooler.

Look: I probably come across as a confident, relatively successful guy, but all it takes is for one of the cool kids -- or what I perceive as one of the cool kids -- to “um, this seat is taken” [scoot over, block the place from being taken] and every insecurity that I’ve ever had – and even some that I haven’t had – comes crashing over me like a tsunami…I start wondering if I should have come to the conference in the first place…I hurriedly start looking outdoors for a picnic table away from everyone where I can sit alone and pretend to be checking important emails…

You may think I’m exaggerating (or maybe for you I’m just scratching the surface!) -- but here’s the thing: that is how so many people feel about approaching God. Or becoming actively involved in a church:That when it comes to the possibility of having conversational intimacy with God, or getting connected, really connected, to your church, you’re not included…
you’re too late, or too early…
that all the seats are taken…
so you might as well isolate, and act busy.

But “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus.”

Because here’s Jesus: [at table, open arms, motioning, says, “here, sit down.”]

There’s a place for you, set aside for you to listen to God in daily prayer. Come near.

There’s a place for you to become connected and actively involved in this faith community and make a lasting difference in the world: come to the Fellowship Hall after the service and see which table, which ministry you are drawn to. Come near.

But you know, it’s even better than that – with God it’s even better than being welcomed to a place at the table. God actively seeks a connection with you.

Returning to the parables Jesus tells, keep in mind that the farmer goes after, pursues the one who is lost, the woman “searches carefully” for the lost coin.

It’s as if we’re still in the cafeteria line, trying to decide between fresh fruit or French fries, and the One Whom You Most Want to Sit With is suddenly standing next to you, saying, “hey, do you have anyone to sit with? I was hoping we could sit together and catch up.”

When you are welcomed, that’s one thing. And it is nice. But when you are sought out? It’s more than having your ego needs met: there’s a deep psychological and spiritual need being addressed: that you were lovingly created. That no matter how far you feel you have strayed from God’s fold,
Not matter how lost you think you are,

God is a God who searches, and searches, and seeks you, and invites you, and invites you and invites you.

THAT is the point, or at least the power of these parables: God is a God who searches out…this Gospel is about the long, loving reach of God.

Created in the image of that God, THAT is the kind of people you and I are called to be, and THAT is the kind of faith community we are called to be:

A people and a place of not only welcome…but invitation…
A place where all can come near,
A place where power re-defined and
inside and periphery are turned inside out and upside down,
A place where Gods’ love and God’s people,
By God’s Love,
welcome, and not only welcome but invite, and not only invite but search and find, so everyone knows God’s loving embrace.

1.   I owe this insight to G. Penny Nixon, Feasting on the Word, pg. 71.  (updated)


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Keep Calm and 9-11, and Remembering

Not long after it was rediscovered, the British "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster became commercialized, and then ubiquitous, and then trivialized.

Sorry for some fancy vocabulary words, but when something gets commercialized - when something starts being thought of principally for its financial gain or becomes profit-oriented, and then it becomes ubiquitous - it's found everywhere, becomes inescapable - you can bet that thing will soon become trivialized: we will start to think it is less important, significant, or complex than it really is.

That poster is a great example of this dynamic.

Originally printed with the intention of keeping the British population encouraged during what they knew would be relentless German "blitzkrieg" bombings of civilians, the poster went from 75 years of obscurity to a coffee cup and t-shirt mini-industry in only a couple years. In the past 15 years, it became a meme. And sure enough, it soon became satire, and trivialized.

Today, I'll bet few people know the poster had a solemn and important origin: to boost human morale in the face of a relentless, merciless enemy.

"Keep Calm and Carry On" is a good example, but of course I'm not just talking about that poster.

Take something - say, Christmas, or Easter, or the image of an empty cross, or Christianity itself: something that is designed to boost human morale in the face of a relentless, merciless enemy -- and commercialize it. Then make it ubiquitous. Very soon, people will think it is less important, significant, or complex than it really is.

This is why another fancy vocabulary word is so important, and that's the word anamnesis or "remembrance" - the calling to mind or recollection of something from history.

Each Sunday during the Eucharistic prayer we recall Jesus taking bread and wine and saying "do this in remembrance of me."

When we remember, we not only recall, but we participate in God's saving actions -- actions designed to boost human morale in the face of relentless, merciless evil. 

This Sunday at The Falls Church Episcopal, we remember the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks with a moment of silence and tolling of the church bells before the 9:00 and 11:15 services begin, and with a special prayer during the service.

But mostly we remember our purpose as a church and our calling as individual Christians by "keeping calm and carrying on" -- by participating in normal, celebratory Sunday worship, by charging ahead with our Ministry Fair after each service, and by getting more connected to the ministries of the church.

Because the best way to boost human morale in the face of today's challenges is anamnesis - to keep remembering to find practical, every day ways to "Love God and Love one's Neighbor as one's self."

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Labor Day Resolutions?

Labor Day - this Monday -- means different things to different people.

To many workers, it retains its original meaning - a welcome break from physical labor in the form of a Federal holiday.

To other workers, Labor Day is synonymous with "Labor Day Weekend" and means a picnic, barbecue, or one last relaxing weekend getaway.

And for many of us, Labor Day and the end of summer means the resumption of Fall routines. In that sense, Labor Day is more of a "New Year's Day" than January 1st, because -- with the resumption of school and more predictable work patterns - early September is the time of year we get back into habits and routines.

So if this is a time for you to develop new eating, exercise, and sleep patterns, why not new spiritual habits as well?

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to join me in making "Labor Day Resolutions," using some time this Monday to think through your daily and weekly habits, and deliberately schedule time for weekly worship and daily prayer and Bible reading in those habits.

I invite you to join me in carving out time - now, before the calendar really fills up! -for you and God to be alone together: fifteen minutes to half an hour a day to sit alone in uninterrupted silence. (If you need help developing a prayer ritual, here's one good way to start; and here is a resource for guides to reading the Bible.

There are few guarantees in life, but I promise you this:

If you set aside daily time to develop conversational intimacy with God, and stick to it, you will find God

  • stirring your heart, 
  • redirecting and better marshaling your energies, 
  • calming your mind, and 
  • filling you with a grace and a peace that you've never known before. 

I guarantee it, because God promises it.

And prayer is always response: response to God's prior invitation and initiative.

So: what's your response?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jesus and Miss Manners

Many visitors to The Falls Church Episcopal comment on how hospitable - warm, friendly, welcoming - we are.

I've not been here long enough to be able to take any credit for that - it's part of the DNA of the 2007-2012 "continuing congregation" that we've all inherited -- so I feel free to brag about it!

Extending a wide-open welcome to everyone is more than just good manners. As we'll see in this Sunday's gospel (and explore further in my sermon), the reason we, as a church, extend a wide-open welcome is biblically based -- particularly Jesus' vision for a faith community.

Jesus lifts our eyes to what a faith community can and should be.

He paints us a picture of the heavenly banquet, God's Kingdom come, God's will being done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

It's a place where the ways we normally define ourselves - wealth, occupation, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, politics - still exist, but are so far on the periphery of our focus that they don't really matter.

A commitment to hospitality means refusing to fall into the societal/cultural trap of dividing up the community.

We're far from perfect at it, but we do strive to be a place that transcends the differences and categories that define, and divide so much of our culture.

We strive to be a place and a people who know, from Jesus, that religious rules and regulations that perpetuate misunderstanding and human suffering, no matter how long they've been around, are not from God.

As disciples (apprentices) of Jesus, we strive to be a place and a people where "me first" attitudes are replaced by a willingness to serve.

And, inspired by the Gospel, we strive to be a place and a people that sees God's kingdom coming, God's loving will being done, right here in Falls Church, right now.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Jesus vs Religious Hypocrites

As we'll see again in this Sunday's gospel, if there was one thing that drove Jesus up the wall, it was religious people. Especially religious hypocrites.

And on the other hand, when Jesus encountered moral failures and social rejects, he had nothing but compassionate and forgiving words for them.

Again, I invite you to read, for yourself, any one of the gospels - especially one of the first three so-called "synoptic," or thematically similar gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke -- straight through, in one sitting, and then ask yourself: what image of Jesus emerges from that reading?

Do that - read a gospel straight through - and I'll bet you'll be surprised.

Because the picture of Jesus that emerges from such a reading is not as someone who was primarily a miracle worker or healer. It is not Jesus as primarily a teacher or preacher.

Rather, it is Jesus as someone who was primarily a provocateur: someone who deliberately, repeatedly, provoked the religious-status-quo.

Considered in one reading, the hallmark of the gospels is not (as we suppose from hearing the stories in bits and pieces) primarily about healing-the-sick, feeding-the-crowds, or teaching the disciples. Rather, it is proclaiming "the-Kingdom-of-God-is-at-hand" -- a topsy-turvy, radical re-orienting of the world and the world's priorities.

And the central theme of this "Kingdom-of-God-at-hand" is chesed: merciful loving kindness.

However, throughout history, that merciful-loving-kindness is in competition with the same religious institutions and religious people who are here to practice it. That's one of the saddest ironies, and one of the most hypocritical of all hypocrisies, known to humankind.

But - as I hope to explore further in my sermon this Sunday (August 21st) at The Falls Church Episcopal - it doesn't have to be that way. Not with you. Not with me. Not with us.

We're called to something different.

Monday, July 25, 2016

"Lord, teach us to pray"

A sermon preached July 24, 2016
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:1-13)

I think prayer is evangelism.

Here’s what I mean by that: people are drawn to people who pray well. People are drawn to churches that pray well.

People – thousands of people at a time – were drawn to Jesus. When the first disciples noticed Jesus praying, and when he was done, they said, “Lord teach us to pray.” As if to say, “We want what you have: We notice your contagious joy, your courage, your calm power and authority, your tender compassion. “Lord, teach us to pray.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Each word is important.

Lord: it means someone who has power, authority, influence. A “lord” is someone you follow, give your allegiance to. “Lord” should remind us of the first commandment: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.”

The bible doesn’t say there are no other gods. The ancient Israelites knew there were dozens, if not hundreds of gods competing for their affections and loyalties. What the Bible says is the Lord God is the only God who will love you back: it’s the nature of false gods to promise more and more to you and deliver less and less, but it’s the nature of the Lord God to give back to you more than you even ask or imagine.

Lord, teach us: I said prayer can be thought of as evangelism. That is, if we have this attitude of people who are wiling to be taught.

We have much to learn. A “Jesus as teacher” attitude puts us in the position of humble apprentices, people admitting we don’t have all the answers, or even most of them, but we are eager to learn.

So Jesus’s disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

And Jesus says, in response, “when you pray, say, “father, hallowed be your name.

Right off the bat, this wonderful tension, this beautiful paradox of our relationship with God: on the one hand, God’s name is hallowed, holy, divine, sacred, other. God is God and we are not.

On the other hand, we are to relate to this hallowed, holy, divine, sacred other God as Father. Or more literally, “abba,” daddy, loving tender parent. 

(a word about language: if you had or have a good, healthy, loving relationship with your earthly father and the metaphor of father-child is useful and encouraging, makes you want to have conversational intimacy with God, run to God and God’s open loving accepting arms – then use it – but if  you’re one of those many people who for whatever reason did not have a good healthy, loving relationship with your earthly father – if, when you think of your father you think of scolding or shaming or cold indifference or distance or worse, abuse – then please remember that all language about God is metaphorical and choose some other metaphor as your operative one.)

What all of us should remember is, as the author John Eldredge points out, that Jesus could have used any number of other biblical metaphors to describe our relationship to God, and three of the most popular ones at the time were

potter and clay,
shepherd and sheep, and
master and servant.

You see, Jesus could have referred to us as clay in the hands of a master potter, no relationship there at all, just an inanimate object to be molded.

He could have referred to us as sheep cared for by a shepherd, a little better but very different creatures, and if you know anything about sheep, not a very flattering image to have of yourself.

He could have referred to us as servants to a master – that’s a stage many Christians are stuck in – and while at least here both the servant and the master are human beings, the relationship is all about commitment to duty, following orders, being obedient, receiving instructions and carrying them out.

No, the metaphor Jesus uses – the way Jesus wants us to pray to God – is as child and parent.

As Eldredge points out, children live in the same house, eat the same food, share the same name, and the fortunate ones receive support and unconditional parental love.

And they grow up understanding the world to be a safe and secure place.

And something people in Jesus day and time would have understood right away, as Paul would later write about in Romans (8:17) is “if we are children of God, then we are heirs – we get God’s inheritance. A father’s intention, a mother’s intention, is to pass on what they have to their children…everything that God has, we have access to.  That means everything that Jesus had, you have: his humility, his love, his forgiveness, his ability to heal and work miracles – it’s all available to you!

That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray “your kingdom come” – and as the Gospel of Matthew adds – God’s will be done on earth, right here, right now, as God’s will is being done in heaven. As a child of God, everything that Jesus had, you have available to you: his wisdom, his strength., his joy, his union with the father – all these things we receive in our own life.

But wait, there’s more: later in this passage Jesus uses the metaphor of friend, going to God as a friend, and as Eldredge points out, this opens up an even deeper level of intimacy: 

we’re companions; God knows what’s on our heart, and we know what is on God’s heart. With friends there is conversational intimacy. There is giving and receiving.

There is forgiving and being forgiven.

Want some good news this morning? Jesus is here giving us a daily prayer, a prayer to say each and every single day of our lives: Give us, each day, our daily bread. And in that same breath he says “and forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

In a prayer meant to be prayed daily, we are to ask for forgiveness and for the grace to forgive others. That means God, the one who created us, knows we are in need of not just daily food shelter water and clothing, but that daily forgiveness. God knows you and I are going to sin, and be sinned against – that we are going to screw up, and be screwed over by other people, every day of our life. Maybe you’ve seen the daily prayer making its rounds, meant as a joke, that goes like this,

“Dear Lord,

So far I've done all right.
I haven't gossiped,
haven't lost my temper,
I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I'm really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God,
I'm going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I'm going to need a lot more help.”

Well, exactly.

I think Jesus would approve of that prayer.

Jesus knew, in teaching us to pray, that God knows none of us gets this thing called life, or the Christian faith, or church, perfectly, and so each of us, all of us, can pray, each day, “forgive me, and help me forgive – and if it’s not too much to ask, don’t bring me to those times of trials – lead me not into those temptations -- in the first place.”

So: prayer as evangelism.

Pray like that, as an individual, and people will be drawn to you.

Pray like that, as a church, and people will be drawn here, as they witness more and more people

·      filled with contagious joy,
·      courage,
·      calm power and authority, and
·      tender compassion.

Lord, teach us to pray like that!


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Martha and Mary and Deep Canoe Paddle Strokes

The Gospel appointed to be read this upcoming Sunday is the story of Jesus being a guest in the home of Martha and Mary.

While Martha and Mary are sisters, the two of them have very different reactions to Jesus' presence in their home.

On the one hand, Mary sits and listens to Jesus. On the other hand, Martha "is distracted by her many tasks."

Martha approaches Jesus and says "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."  

But Jesus answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." 

What a great reminder to not allow our busy-ness to get in the way of sitting still and listening to God. 

I've long wrestled with the "Martha-Mary dynamic." I'm frequently torn between indulging my inner Martha -- being driven...accomplishing...working hard...getting things done - and indulging my inner Mary -- taking time on a daily and weekly basis, and during vacation time to listen to Jesus in

Once on retreat, I told my spiritual director (a Jesuit priest) that with as much work as there is to be done, I had trouble giving myself permission to pray, and rest. 

Here's what he said in response: 

"John: sitting still - just doing nothing, just contemplating, praying - will accomplish a lot more than activity, because it is in times of silence, retreat, and contemplation that we align ourselves with God's purposes. Then your actions - the ones that flow out of that quiet - will be like the deep canoe paddle stroke, changing direction with minimal effort, versus the day (and the life) of a hundred quick energetic strokes at the surface. You must believe this. So whenever you find yourself unable to rest...unable to just be...feet tapping, agitated, ready to 'just get out there' it's a major warning sign that you are not in tune with God." 

Maybe you need to hear that as much as I do...? 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Irresponsible to be Silent

A sermon preached June 19, 2016
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

(“Dear Lord: Carry your word into the most protected parts of our hearts.”)

Today I don’t have a traditional sermon. I certainly don’t have a sermon about Father’s Day, but now that I’ve mentioned it, happy Father’s Day. Today, instead of a traditional sermon, I feel led to share some things that have been on my heart this past week.

I’ve been your Rector here since August of 2012. Those of you who have been here a long time know that my preaching style is almost always “expository,” a fancy word that simply means you take a passage of scripture, and having studied it during the week, you show – or expose – its meaning and relevance as best you can, and then you sit down, trusting Holy Spirit will be hard at work simultaneously translating for each of you what you need to hear on any given Sunday.

One of the implications of this style of preaching is I tend not to preach “topical” sermons, and I don’t preach “politics from the pulpit.” 

Part of the reason, by the way, I don’t preach politics from the pulpit comes from the fact that my first real job out of college was working on Capitol Hill for 2 ½ years, and I was briefly assigned to a presidential campaign, and I worked as a lobbyist/issues person for a year, then as a press secretary and speech writer back in Indiana, involved in a statewide campaign.

Even as an entry-level legislative aide, I developed, and have kept, an appreciation for the fact that most issues are complex and nuanced. And that more than one person can be correct on an issue. And that even if someone is wrong, at least it’s possible to be honestly wrong.

I also realize there are lots of experts in this very congregation: editors, writers, legislative directors, policy wonks.

It strikes me as presumptuous and naïve for preachers to try to tell you what, specifically, to think or how, specifically, to take action on a particular issue.

So I promise not to stand up here and offer a particular specific solution to any particular political problem, saying that "we must all go out and support HR1234” as the way to address this particular problem. In fact, I’ll go further: when it comes to political problems we face, I promise not to offer any solutions whatsoever.

But is that – being too political, weighing in too often on social justice issues – really the side of the cliff I’m in danger of falling off of?

Here’s what I wrestled with this past week: is my silence from the pulpit and in my weekly e-news messages sending an inadvertent message of indifference?

Last week I said there are so many times we find ourselves in a situation where we witness a wrong, and we know it has to be made right, but out of fear that we come across as judgmental, out of a fear that we’ll offend,

we get cold feet…

we go into our conflict avoidance mode,

we decide to wait it out,

not because we’re being patient, but because, if we’re honest, because we don’t want to rock the boat: we lack the courage to speak up, speak out, say something.

But then along comes something like what happened exactly a week ago Sunday in Orlando – except there hasn’t been “something like” what happened there, it set a new horrible modern American record.

Picture a Venn Diagram, with three circles:


And the overlap part is a perfect storm that seems irresponsible to be silent about.

Sure, we offered prayers during Prayers of the People last week. For some of you, that’s enough. I get that: you don’t come to church to hear what you hear all week long.

Especially when we add to that Venn Diagram the fact that we’re in a particularly toxic presidential campaign,

and add to that our culture -- especially inside the Beltway -- of shaming and blaming, of polarization, divisiveness, and name-calling -- that we’re all tired of and want a respite from...

...well, it is any wonder that out of a fear that I’ll offend, that I get cold feet...

That I go into conflict avoidance mode,

I decide to wait it out,

not because I’m being patient, but because,

if I’m honest, because I don’t want to rock the boat: I lack the courage to speak up, speak out, say something.

Well, I’m not asking you to agree with me, and again I promise not to offer any solutions, but surely it is possible to tell the truth, but tell it in love.

Besides, as the Gospel reminds us today, Jesus – and the Body of Christ the Church, you and I – have power over that which would "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." And the power to bind and to loose the evil powers of this world begins by naming them: Legion, for they are many -- not by pretending they aren’t there, or by looking the other way.

And here is the truth in regard to gays, guns, and Latinos. (Guns first, then Latinos, then gays).

Guns: I was going to say that our culture has a gun problem, but even to say “our culture has a gun problem” is politically charged, because it sounds like I’m advocating specific stances about which people of good will can honestly disagree.

So I won’t say we have a gun problem: I’ll say something we can all agree on, and that is we have a violence problem in our culture.

We glorify violence.

We have violence as entertainment in the movies and on television.

But here’s the thing: our violence problem is exacerbated by the fact that it has become too easy for someone intent on killing innocent people to kill lots of them very quickly.

I don’t know, and won’t pretend to tell you, what must be done about that.

But something must be done about that.

Latinos: our culture also has a racism problem. It’s a racism problem that goes all the way back in this nation’s history: As we will acknowledge later this fall in a series of events, and with the placing of a new marker, historical evidence points to the conclusion that our historic church was built by slave labor -- race-based slave labor. And the legacy of racism is with us today. It’s just aimed at different minorities in different decades.

I don’t know what the solution to racism is.

But I do know this: that demagoguery and fear-mongering feeds racism, and it is not Christian behavior to support anyone running for political office who spouts demagoguery and fans the flames of fear-mongering.

Gays: it’s easy to point fingers at other people, without realizing we have three fingers pointing right back at us.

I regret to say that in this very church, and from this very pulpit, year after year in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, words were spoken and a theology (sociology) was preached that caused harm and hurt to gays and lesbians. That may or may not have been the intent, but intent does not equal impact, and harm and hurt to gays was the impact. Although I was not here, and although this church is now unapologetically an ally of gays and lesbians, I repent of the harm that has been done here, and I resolve to be more outspoken whenever the dignity of a gay or lesbian person is not being respected. 

As a Facebook post by Alex Drake[1] puts it, in part,

Here's the thing you need to understand about every LGBT person in your family, your work, and your circle of friends: We've spent most of our lives being aware that we are at risk. … 

When you hear interviewers talking to LGBT folks and they say "[what happened in Orlando] could have been here. It could have been me," they aren't exaggerating. I don't care how long you've been out, how far down your road to self acceptance and love you've traveled, we are always aware that we are at some level of risk.

... When I reach to hold Matt's hand in the car? I still do the mental calculation of "ok, that car is just slightly behind us so they can't see, but that truck to my left can see right inside the car". If I kiss Matt in public, like he leaned in for on the bike trail the other day, I'm never fully in the moment. I'm always parsing who is around us and paying attention to us. …

Over the last few years, it started to fade a little. It started to feel like maybe things were getting better. A string of Supreme Court decisions. Public opinion shifting to the side of LGBT rights. Life was getting better. You could breathe a little bit. … This weekend was a sudden slap in the face, a reminder that I should never have let my guard down, should never have gotten complacent... because it could have been US. … Those little PDAs you take for granted with your spouse. They come with huge baggage for us. Every single one is an act of defiance, with all that entails.

So do me a favor. Reach out to that LGBT person in your life. Friend, co-worker, or family. Just let them know you are thinking of them and you love them. That will mean the world to them right now. I promise you.

To admit we have a violence problem exacerbated by guns,
to admit we have a racism problem,
and to admit we have a long way to go toward full acceptance of gays and lesbians,
is not political.

It is speaking the truth -- I hope, in love --
that Orlando can be a wake up call to all of us
to do a better job of keeping our baptismal promise
to respect the dignity of every human being. 


[1] The full post is