Sunday, February 18, 2018

This is the sermon on guns you probably won't hear

There is a sermon you probably won't hear in church tomorrow, and that's a shame, because it's a sermon that needs to be preached from every pulpit in this nation, from coast to coast, from North to South, from city to city, from the highest mountain to the lowest valley, until we understand and our leaders finally listen.

It's the sermon that says that a society that claims to value life and freedom but brushes off death as casually as it puts on a new coat, is a society that has shaken off all semblance of morality and justice, and values nothing but power. It's the sermon that says that our nation has come unmoored. It's the sermon that says our guns have become an idol, the NRA has become the priesthood of a false religion, and our government has been bought lock, stock and barrel.

It's the sermon that says "In Christ's name, enough."

Seventeen students died at Parkland school in Florida earlier this week. Add those to the 58 murdered at the Las Vegas Strip last October, to the 49 mowed down at the Pulse Night Club, the 20 first- and second-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Remember the 33 college students killed at Virginia Tech in 2007? How about the 15 killed at Columbine High School in 1999? That number seemed so large at the time; now it almost seems like it's barely worth mentioning. There have been so many mass shootings in America that it's almost impossible to remember a time when they weren't routine, when Aurora, Colo. (2012, 12 dead); Jonesboro, Ark. (1998, 5 dead); and Erie, Pa. (1998, 1 dead), would be burned into our psyches forever.

Why do we tolerate this?

A long time ago the Phonecians worshiped a god name Moloch. Moloch wasn't a genteel god who liked to collect baubles, hear a few rhyming prayers and let people go about their business. He was a god of power. His priests promised the people wealth and good crops, military might and protection from their enemies. If you followed Moloch, you didn't have anything to worry about when other people came into your country and tried to take your place, they promised. You didn't need to be afraid of thieves, or home intruders or any threat to your well-being. If you worshiped Moloch, he had your back. All he wanted was your children.

Moloch was a right bastard of a god, but the Phonecians trusted him. There are remnants of their architecture, their literature and their art. The Israelites, when they came to the land, were appalled at what they found, and did their best to eradicate all trace of Moloch and the other gods of his ilk. The ruins we've found indicate that he had a tremendous appetite for the blood of humans, especially children.

The stories that his priests told are the same ones the NRA tells today about guns. There's a lot to be afraid of, but if you have a gun, you'll be safe. There's no need to worry about immigrants, inner-city gangs or even your own elected officials if you're armed enough. The bigger the gun, the better off you are, so why not own the kind of hardware professional troops use in combat zones? And if someone comes to town and massacres a dozen or more children? Well, that's just the price of being free. Anyone who opposes the exaltation of firearms is someone who hates freedom.

The Israelites didn't get rid of Moloch. He just hung around a while and opened shop under a new name with a new priesthood.

Our national religion makes a big deal about guns, and it's managed to convince a number of people that our embrace of gun culture is something that squares well with Christianity.

It does not.

The NRA and its acolytes spread an atmosphere of fear. There are bad people out there, and no one is coming to help you. The only way to stop them is if you are armed yourself. If they are armed, you need to be too. Put guns into every church, into every store, into every school. Fire first, and don't back down. When everyone is afraid and everyone has guns, and everyone is on edge, then we will know peace.

Jesus warns that those who live by violence will die violently, and he tells his disciples to put away weapons of violence. Rater than fearing the alien, the outsider or the stranger, he encourages us to take the risk, welcome them, and befriend them.

This is a message the church needs to shout, and that it needs to live out as loudly as it can. I don't expect to hear it.

This Sunday, most churches are going to offer noting more than an anodyne prayer for the latest victims of the latest horror show. Some will offer even less. There may be a few churches that collect an offering, but that's as far as it will go.

Six years ago, Trayvon Martin was murdered by a vigilante who stalked the teen to the point that he feared for his life and felt the only chance he had was to fight back. (Zimmerman, who was armed, shot Martin and killed him.) Few churches said anything about it that Sunday; my own pastor made a throwaway comment about it in the beginning of the sermon where pastors usually use their bad one-liners as warm-up material, and seemed surprised that anyone responded negatively.

The truth is, we live in times that are marked right now by profound spiritual darkness. Our federal government has embarked on a relentless campaign against immigrants of color, it has placed abusive and racist men in positions of power, and it is led by a man of vulgar appetites with no regard for the truth, nor for justice. The church in America can choose either to embrace this darkness and call it "light"; to focus on "spiritual things" like truth, morality and principles of clean living; or it can call out evil in high places.

The NRA's tireless advocacy to sell more guns is one place we can start. The casual acquiescence of our leaders to the NRA's culture of death is a second.

It's a sermon our country needs to hear. Let's start preaching it.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Tenderly

Got a call this evening from someone feeling upset, overwhelmed and anxious. We talked for close to 40 minutes, and I hope at the end of the conversation that things were better than they were at the start.

Truth is, we're all broken; and the pain goes down far below the surface, sometimes into caverns where dark things lurk. Maybe it's an injury a friend once dealt us, maybe it's the fear stirred by the toxic air our president is brewing, or maybe it's the trauma of having to hide our true selves. It doesn't matter; the darkness is real, and so is the pain. "The darkness and the light are alike to you,: the psalmist writes. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made.'

Jesus, it should be remembered, never came for respectable people. He came for hookers and thieves, for traitors and sycophants, for the filthy, for the ignorant and for the unemployed, not to give them better manners or to make them acceptable, but to remind them that God was on their side. He knows where the pain is rawest, and he touches us there tenderly.

God willing, let us remember who his people are, and let us follow his example.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Advent: Presence

My atheist friends may disagree, but I think it's fair to say that we spend most of our life searching for the Presence of God.

In some ways it's like the hour before lunch. Nothing drives us to food like hunger; to water, like thirst; to friends, like loneliness; to justice, like oppression. It's the very absence of God that makes us want to experience his presence. It's that very moment of need meeting satisfaction that glows with the light of heaven.

The gospels tell us that Christmas is when God saw our need and pitched his tent among us, making our life his and his life with us. We enter the Presence of God not when we cloister ourselves away with other like-minded people, but when we follow his example and shelter the immigrant from deportation, speak up for the woman being sexually harassed, reach out to the lonely with a call and offer of friendship, oppose favoritism for the wealthy, and resist evil in places both high and low.

At that moment, a miracle occurs. In meeting the need of another, we experience the Presence, and so do they.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 2017: Open

I've met people (and I'm sure you have too) who claim that by following God, they've been kept from illness, from calamity, from poverty and everything else. Blessed, blessed, blessed, that's the only way they know how to describe themselves. It's like they started sneezing and can't stop,and so they keep getting blessed over and over.

I'm always wary of snake oil faith. I can't speak for other religions, but truth is, Christianity presents a danger in being open to the things of God. Up until the point the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, her life was safe and ordinary. She knew whom she was getting married to, knew where she would live, had a solid reputation, and could comfortably predict what life would bring her.

She could have smacked the angel upside the head with a skillet and told him where to take his announcements, or calmly informed him that he had the wrong address and wanted her next-door neighbor, Bertha.

But she was open, and even if she had the sense not to run down the street excitedly screaming that she was going to have a baby and he would be the messiah; her life still got overturned.

Pregnant before she got married? There goes the reputation.

Joseph insists he's not the father? She'll be lucky to get out of this alive.

In a couple years she'll even be a refugee, running for her life from the king in the middle of the night, hoping they can find someone who will shelter a growing family and not send them away empty-handed.

Being open to the works and wonders of God is a dangerous thing.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Regarding the Nashville Statement

I'm going to say something that may shock you. Being gay isn't about sex.

I swear to God.

That's not the impression you would get from the signatories of the Nashville Statement, freshly released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Nashville Statement -- so called because it was written and signed in Nashville -- is an attempt by certain prominent evangelical leaders to draw a line in the sand over the cultural shifts in the United States the past 50 years.

It makes the sort of strident condemnations that we've come to expect from such groups: adultery is bad, polygamy is bad, premarital sex is bad, transgenderism is bad, homosexuality is bad. The whole thing is couched in a series of 14 affirmations and rejections that focus on what the signatories presume is the "clear meaning" of the biblical texts, all focused on the configuration of people's genitals and what they do with them in private.

"Clear meaning" becomes more suspect once we consider cultural and literary context in an attempt to understand what the biblical authors actually were talking about, and how to apply those principles in our society. But that doesn't seem to matter here.

What the Nashville Statement and its signatories miss is that gay people are, well, people, with the same desires and life goals as other people.

Being gay isn't about whom you have sex with, it's about whom you love. Like heterosexuals, gays want to be with someone they love, to spend their lives and grow old together. The little things that matter in a straight relationship -- reading a book or playing a game together, sharing a meal, having a conversation when you come home from a day on the job, sharing what matters to you, making plans together, the touch of a hand, and having someone to hold you when you're upset, scared or lonely -- those are things that matter in a same-sex relationship as well.

Article X is the killer, though. According to this statement, it's not possible to be a Christian and support your best friend's decision to transition from male to female, nor to affirm the happiness another friend has found with her fiancee. Do these things, and you've left the fold. You're an apostate.

This is some serious stuff. It requires a response.

I thought about all the great times I've had with my best friend, who was born David but is now Jennifer. There's the time Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened to sue us. One afternoon at college as she was listenig to "The Acapella Project 2," I opened her door just to say "This is really cheesy" and then shut it just as quickly. I stood at her wedding, and she stood at mine. We've been there for each other through divorce, head injury, three kids apiece, and even an unfortunate escapade with white Christian rap.

I thought about another friend and our late-night conversations over the Internet when she was working and I couldn't sleep. There's been snark, there's been laughter both out of control and out of bounds, a cascade of puns and an exchange of books. She's been there when I've stood on the brink and the void threatened to swallow me; and I've seen the high cost that can be exacted by the attitudes celebrated in this Nashville Statement, when her family discovered she was gay.

Or there's Darren, one of the friendliest and most drama-free people I've ever worked with in the theatre world. I've found him to be a rock: supportive, professional, flexible and a joy to work with as an actor, as a stage manager and as a co-producer.

These are the people the authors of the Nashville Statement say I have to reject in order to go to heaven with them.

But I think of all that I've been through with them, and the kind of people they are, and I find that I must borrow a sentiment from Huck Finn.

"All right, I'll go to hell then."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Naked before the throne

It's getting late, but there is a murmur of restless expectation in the air. Across the valley, people are gathering to hear the prophet.

They file out of their homes, they leave their businesses unattended, and they abandon the market. As the crowd builds, it flows uphill like a storm breaker on the shore toward the mountain, where the prophet has gone with his students. The water rises, and then it crests at his feet, and the people grow quiet. The prophet is speaking.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," the prophet says, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"Poor in spirit." A susurrous like falling leaves ripples through the crowd as the phrase tumbles past Jesus' lips. These are a people who know poverty. The fishers among them may catch a hundred fish in the morning, and be left with only ten to sell by the time the tax collectors have taken their ill-gotten share.

The carpenter or stonemason may work all day, six days a week to provide or his family and his wife may labor all day caring for the children and buying and selling at the market, and still every day is a struggle to survive. Poverty is an old, familiar and unwelcome guest in their lives. He eats their best food, wears through their sandals, and leaves holes in the roof so that the rain gets in. They know poverty.

But poverty of the spirit. Do they know that?

There's Miriam, told at the age of 13 that she would marry a man three times her age and not the boy whom she loved, so that she ran away to the house of her father's sister and caused a scandal that her community still hasn't forgotten. Three years later, she is still not welcome in her father's home and continues to live with her aunt. Yesterday morning she heard that the boy she gave all for has married her worst enemy. Poverty has been eating away at her insides ever since.

Or there's Eliezer, who had studied for years under Rabbi Zecheriah to become a rabbi himself. He had studied Torah for years, memorized the Books of Moses, the psalms and even the scroll of Isaiah, only to be found that he could not become the rabbi he had dreamed of, and would have to become a scribe instead. His spirit is as impoverished as they come.

Then there's old Noach, named for the famed prophet on the Ark. He's a dissolute drunkard who wakes up every morning ashamed of what he has made of his life, and drowns his shame once he has begged enough coins to buy a fresh skin of wine. Poverty of the spirit is all he has left.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The words are more than an invitation to follow, to believe, or to have faith. They are a declaration. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, because they know their need for love and restoration, for peace and a new dream to replace the one that failed, and even for forgiveness. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them because they have lost everything that matters to them, and now they are finding that what matters is taking hold of them.

Miriam may never see her father or mother again. But in her aunt's house and afterward, she may discover a contentment and a level of support that she never knew was possible at her father's house. Eliezer may never become the rabbi he had hoped to be, but he may discover a new dream that will allow him to wonder and discover truths he had never imagined.

And Noah? He may always remain a besotted drunk in the alleyway. But he'll never be turned away or shunned by anyone who loves him.

Knowing spiritual poverty is only the first step. It's the beginning of a journey, yet it's a place that they will return to again and again. We first become aware of our poverty when we become aware of need to follow Christ, whether for forgiveness from sin or just because we realize that he has the answers we're looking for.

Our sense of poverty is renewed later when we encounter teachings that are difficult to come to terms with, even true ones. It deepens once more when we realize the inadequacy of our understanding, and how our faith structure fails to comprehend the world, such as when we see and comprehend the suffering of others.

At some final point, everything collapses before our eyes, and our spiritual poverty is complete. St John of the Cross called this the Long, Dark Night of the Soul. I've heard other people call it being ruined for life. It's the point where there is nothing left, except a voice that says "Follow me" and you have to decide if that's enough.

This is only the first, the least of the Beatitudes, and it is more than I can handle. Kyrie leison. Christ have mercy upon us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Praying with your back to the wall

It must have been May 1993 when I found myself stranded at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I'd been living in Petionville, Haiti, for the past six months and was on my way to Pittsburgh for a visit with my parents, and to Minneapolis, Minn., to visit the mission's headquarters, before going to visit my church in Easton, Pa.. During the next weeks I was expected to raise my missions support, but first I had to get home. And that was proving to be something of a problem.

I'd left Port-au-Prince on time and arrived in Miami when I'd expected, but that's where my plans had broken down. A downpour had delayed flights leaving Miami, and now here I was at JFK, my connecting flight long gone and the airport terminal closing for the night.

“I'd like American to provide me with a hotel voucher for the night,” I told the service agent behind the desk.

“It's not the airline's policy to provide vouchers for delays or missed flights caused by weather,” she said for the tenth time.

“I understand that,” I said for the tenth time, matching her polite tone and professional demeanor for polite tone and professional demeanor. “But I'd like you to make an exception and give me one anyway.”

“I can't help you,” she said.

“Then is there a supervisor who can?” I asked.

My request may have been impertinent, but it wasn't like I had much choice. Depending on how you looked at it, home lay either 1,000 miles south, six hours to the west, or two hours away, but in the day before cell phones, there was no way to get there and no way to contact anyone. I had less than $50 in my wallet, no credit cards, and a duffel bag full of clothes and personal possessions.

Either American Airlines was going put me up in a hotel room, or I was going to be outside the airport in twenty minutes, trying to stay awake all night in the streets of New York. I'd lived the previous six months in a country under military rule, and even I had no desire to try that. My situation was that desperate.

Desperation can drive us to uncanny levels of audacity. My chief recollection of my interaction with that customer service agent is how utterly calm I was as I acknowledged that I had no right to ask for the break I was asking for, but I was asking for it anyway. Unlike other passengers on the flight with me, I never once lost my cool.

This encounter with the airline came to mind recently at a Bible study where we were looking at Luke 11 and Jesus' teachings on prayer. This being Jesus, he never could just give a straightforward answer to a simple question. No, he had to tell a story.

In this particular story, a man whose guest had arrived at an unexpectedly late hour, had nothing to feed him. This put the host in a bad situation. In ancient cultures having a guest carried with it a serious obligation to provide for their safety and well-being. It didn't matter if the guest had arrived after sunset, failing to provide a meal would be more than merely awkward or unfriendly. It would be unspeakably offensive, a devastating failure to meet an obligation.

So, unwilling to dishonor himself and offend his guest, the host ran to a friend who he knew could lend him enough bread to cover his failing. Of course, things never run smoothly. The hour was late, and the friend already had shut the door and gone to bed, and did not want to get up.

But need compeled the host, and so he barraged his friend with requests for help until the friend, mindful that the entire village could overhear the pleas for bread and his own steadfast refusal to help, finally gave in. He got out of bed, grabbed the loaves of bread and gave them and anything else the host needed, just to get him to quiet down and not shame the friend in front of the entire community.

With this story, Jesus taught a pretty simple lesson about prayer. Be persistent. Don't give up. Don't be afraid to be pushy. There's even a suggestion that God will feel put on the spot by your need and actually may change his mind about how he responds to your request. (I always did wonder if the relationship was strained afterward, due to the scene the two men made.)

In my experience, that's often where the lesson ends. A former pastor of mine often cited this passage in his sermons in which he encouraged us to ask God for what we wanted. His point: God loves us, and wants to give us good things. We just need to ask.

In this vein Pastor Weber loved to cite an exchange between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Scott Raleigh. “Why do you ask for so much?” Elizabeth asked Raleigh in this conversation. “Because your majesty keeps giving me what I ask for,” Raleigh replied.

With no disrespect meant to my former pastor, nor to Sir Walter Scott Raleigh, there is something missing from such a lesson: a sense of desperation born of need.

It is desperation that drove the host in Jesus' story to plead for bread late at night. In the culture Jesus lived and taught in, failing to give his guest something to eat wasn't just a faux pas. It was a massive insult. When Nabal refused to give provisions to David and his men, it was an act of war. It wasn't just a kind favor that the host was asking his neighbor to help with, it was a stark necessity.

The same extremity of need is evident in other examples of prayer earlier in the gospel of Luke. Parents brought children afflicted with unclean spirits to ask for healing because the seizures threatened the lives and health of the children. A woman had spent a fortune trying to find relief from nonstop menstrual bleeding that had made her miserable, left her ceremonially unclean and kept her husband from her for years, and so she hoped just to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. Lepers wanted to return to the communities they had been driven from, the leader of a synagogue ruler was watching his daughter die before his eyes. These weren't people asking for gravy on their potatoes. They were people driven by extreme need.

Of course, this story being one of the parables of Jesus, it's not enough that it illustrate his lesson in a memorable way that we can still talk about thousands of years later. The story also has to end in a jarring way that makes us wonder if we're even talking about the same thing Jesus is.

After he finished his story, Jesus asked his listeners two interesting questions, and then made an astounding statement.

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (No one.)  “Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Don't be ridiculous.)

“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!”

Where did that come from? During the Bible discussion and study meeting last Tuesday one attendee suggested that Jesus was saying that he would send the Holy Spirit to people who believed in him. That may very well be true, but it feels like it's beside the point. This entire passage has been rooted in concerns such as meeting earthly needs such as bread for the body, and avoiding the snares of money by avoiding debt and forgiving debtors.

This isn't a pivot to a more spiritual theme or an appeal for an individual decision to have faith. It's Jesus cutting to the chase in the way that he does and drawing the line of connection between our faith and the earthly need of others. It's a reminder to us, who like to separate spiritual things from practical matters, that the two are inextricably linked. The Lord's Prayer, which includes a request for the day's bread, begins with the pledge “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

So what is Jesus saying? The first time the gospel of Luke mentions the Holy Spirit, is when the angel Gabriel promises the birth of Jesus, after telling Mary that her son will re-establish the throne of David forever. There are more prophecies, linked to the Holy Spirit, that promise that Jesus will overthrow the established order of things as he ushers in the Kingdom of God. The writer even claims that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism.

When he returns from wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus declares the purpose of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The connection between the Holy Spirit and the acts of mercy and compassion that Jesus performs in the gospel could not be clearer.

And that is what we see happen over the ensuing chapters. Jesus comes promising to usher in the Kingdom of God and restore things to their intended state. He heals all those who are sick without asking for payment, and without considering whether they are deserving of such charity. He casts out unclean spirits, he welcomes sex workers and immigrants into his company, and he feeds the hungry. There is no one so low that he will not lift that person up.

Receiving the Holy Spirit then isn't just a mark of personal salvation; to receive him is to step into the shoes of Jesus and commit to alleviating the suffering of the world around us. Just as Jesus proclaimed release to captives, healing to the sick and liberty to the oppressed, asking to receive the Holy Spirit is to put ourselves into the spot of the man whose friend came asking for bread when it was inexcusably late to come around asking for favors he had no right to ask for, and who gave it to him anyway.

God's goal, after all, is not for us to be happy. What is happiness, after all? It's a will o'the wisp that vanishes before we even can lay hold of it. God's great dream is not to see us happy and carefree, it is to enjoy a relationship with us.

And however awkward things might have been the next morning between the host and the friend he pulled out of bed, one thing is certain: The host will never forget what his friend did for him, and he'll be sure to repay the kindness whenever and however often the opportunity arises.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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