Sermon for a Vigil to Witness the Lives of Undocumented Workers

The other day a congregational pastor friend and I hosted a dinner for our softball team.  It was our first year as a team and we decided to celebrate with a pig roast.  We decided to roast a whole pig in part for amusement, but also for the more serious reason of shortening the distance from farm to table.

We didn’t hunt the pig down, of course.  The closest thing to hunting we do is going to the grocery store, and I generally leave my spear and hunting cap at home.   Although we did cut the meat directly from the pig, I’m sure we missed something by not slaughtering the pig ourselves.

One of the blessings of our commercial economy, and its sophisticated system of coordination, is that we can get lots of what we want for very little.  We don’t spend a lot on food; we have many objects which make our life comfortable for cheap.  But the system is so complex that all the little agreements and exchanges that bring things into our lives and food onto our table become invisible.   A child knows that milk comes from a store; they are less likely to know that it came from Bessie, who lives on an Amish Farm or in an industrial dairy farm.

All along the way are persons and agreements that are rendered invisible and easy to ignore.   It makes it easy for products to get made, to be sold, and to buy.   We don’t think about how products become the things we buy, perhaps because we’re busy and careless, our lives are fragmented and we don’t have time to see.

Some of us, in the midst of having to pay attention to everything all the time – might even enjoy invisibility.   But invisibility is often the first step to  diminishing the humanity of another person, implicitly indicating they are unnecessary even though our entire system requires the work of people we have not seen and do not know.  They are, in many ways, offering their lives to us.

So we have this vigil.  Let us recognize here, this small gathering, that we don’t know how we’ll transform policy or  the souls of the farmers who employ our friends.  But as we light these candles and bear witness her we are simply saying:  we see you.  You are not invisible to us.   When Jesus is crucified the church demands us to look:  do you see Him?  Look.  Just look.    This is what was required for the sake of your peace.  Let it not be invisible any more.  Let it be seen and known by you.

As the church we are called to see what had once been invisible; a system where we are all willing participants, complicit and cooperative, in violence.  But we do not end there.  Elaine  Scarry writes that the body under torture is voiceless.  The  pain cannot truly be known by another person.  Through the constant imposition of pain, and the tortured becomes separated from his or her own physicality, dissembled and diminished.

And our responsibility as a church is to offer that voice.

We may not get it right.  We may not have the perfect policy answer.  We tread with great humility in the atriums of power that can impose their will for the sake of either profit or justice.   But we can say something.  And through this voice,  we reassemble the body, and it looks a lot like a body with whom we should be familiar.

We may not always know what to say.  Perhaps we just begin with a gesture – pointing to what had once been invisible.  Or may be just say “I am.”  The first step of becoming visible.  “I am.  I exist.  I am how food gets on your table.  I am here.”   This is the voice of the voiceless.

It may give us life as well.  It is as the Father says to us, “I am.  Here.  With You.”  This is what we say this evening.   “I am.  Here.  With You.”  It may not alter the world in its entirety – that, perhaps, is for God.  But we by seeing them, by hearing them; by giving them a voice, we offer a little  space, breathings space, the possibility of salvation.  “I am. Here.” they say.  And as the Father says, as the Son says also, “I see you.  I am here.  With you.”


Gratitude and the Commercial Society

Are we losing our ability to express gratitude?

Is it perfunctory and ritualized?  The casual way we say thank you to a clerk or the worker at the DMV?   Perhaps our fees are enough gratitude; more seems cloying or inauthentic.  Simply handing over the cash without robbing the person on the other side fo the counter is good enough.

And it’s amazing that we do so.  The everyday exchanges we make without fear of violence is remarkable.  Strangers who look different from me take my money and give me french fries, shoes, and repair my window panes.

But when I cater an event, I usually thank the volunteers – not the caterer himself.   When the church throws a potluck, I have a long list of individuals to name when I’m addressing the crowd.  But all a caterer asks for is to have a sign and a few business cards.

Admittedly, sometimes I appreciate the “holy indifference” of a commercial society.  I don’t need to thank Anne for the awful Smuckers meatballs she made.  If people like the caterer they can get her card.   If someone is thankful for the caterer, they get her business.

When I hand over the cash, however, I don’t need to feel anything.  The exchange is done.  I’m free of the need to feel gratitude.   I don’t feel gratitude for my phramacy; I do feel thankful for my doctor.

I also don’t go to the DMV and feel gratitude; I rarely hear gratitude about schools, but for particular teachers.  WE’re in the habit of blaming the state for whtever goes wrong:  we take pot-shots at the post-office or the DMV, without considering the amount of work that both institutions do, or at the percentage of successes they have.  But governments are less responsive, surely, to the information pricing gives.  One expresses gratitude to a government by reelecting officials rather than buying the products over again.

It’s important to remember that we may feel, or lack, gratitude in part because of the system of relationships we’re in.  Commerce and government can economize gratitude, diminishment, or price it.  For some, the state diminishes the impact of gratitude by regularizing social welfare; commerce does the same by pricing it.

Gratitude is worth cultivating, and one way is through parties.  It’s easier to justify gratitude when there’s a celebration than when in a long line at the DMV.   Markets don’t need to do this, although corporations are more likely to through making good will gestures to the community and funding charity events.

I’m not likely to express gratitude to Apple, thought I might like their computers; or to Honda because I drive one; or to my high school.  I appreciate those who gave me advice about the computer, came with me to buy a new car, and taught me how to write.   All of these relationships happened within the context of engaging other institutions.    But I suspect paying a service fee may quantify the amount we are gratified; but it can replace that emotion, rather than develop or harness it.  This is oen of the spiritual dangers of capitalism, in spite of its many blessings.

I’m broadly grateful that we live in a commercial society; I think it would be stronger if our public institutions mitigated the “winner-takes-all” elements of our culture.  I’m skeptical that people who make more than $4 million dollars a year are more deserving of their wealth than the needy.  It seems to me that those making that kind of money would have a great amount of gratitude for being citizens of the country, and support this country’s institutions.  But perhaps instructing people in gratitude may inspire resentment rather than promote generosity.   Or we may be inaccurate assessors of the real price of the objects we value.

At the very least, it may have merit that in all our encounters to bless the usefulness of the persons before us in our economic and political life.

Holy Week

It’s Holy Week.

I want to take this time to thank you for patiently reading the words I send. One of the challenges in our modern society is that we have technology overload; and the economy of attention means that we are too often distracted.

There are hundreds of internet tools designed to help manage information: Digg, StumbleUpon, News Feeds and blogs and telemarketing and facebook and tons of websites that will make you more informed, slimmer and more charming.

So you get a cheer for reading this letter. And its almost the end of Holy Week, and I hope to see you at least on Sunday to celebrate the party.

For, as Kool and the Gang said in the cosmic soundtrack, “its a party going on right here. So celebrate. It’s all right.” When you think of Easter, consider that song. It’s an Easter song.

Let me review this week.

Maundy Thursday, its all about the mandate: love one another. It’s Jesus’ seder, where he remembers that as the captain of the ship, he’s going to the pirates instead of us. Whatever happens, tonight remember those who have sacrificed for us so that we have been freed. We’ll be having a dinner here at the church, and then the church remains open all night for meditation.

Good Friday: the passion, with betrayal, the rivalry, the envy, the fear, all that makes up human nature laid right before us. We are stripped naked and vulnerable. Let the illusions be stripped; all that is absent be revealed. The moment of panic, of terror of being alone, the fear of being judged, of being judged wrongly, of being unable to escape.

And then the whisper Saturday night. After the long night of the soul, the possibility of love.

Easter: may we have forgotten all the evil done to us;
that we have no reason to envy any other person. We have been rescued by the simple voice that is constantly urging: what you do matters; your life counts; every hair on your head; that we may stand up again and see the horizon before us and welcome what comes.

We have been liberated from fear by love’s perpetual, creative power that makes our bodies move like magic, from the strength of a young body or the will of someone who needs a cane. Every time make a mistake, lose a little hope, we fall, and yet we do not end the journey there. We stand up again. And it will be alright. Love has conquered death before. And for that reason why not again? Let’s celebrate.


Palm Sunday

This Sunday we celebrate two important stories: the parade of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the passion. The passion isn’t about Jesus’ carnal desires, which are the object of literary speculation, but about his Suffering. The root of the word “passion” is “to suffer.”

Like the dangers of falling in love.

According to scripture Jesus marched in on a donkey. People were shouting and cheering. They thought it would be an end to empire; that miracles would suddenly become commonplace; that the world would be turned upside down. Little did they know how they would be disappointed.

Whether parading for the Yankees, balloons shaped like people, the Irish, or balloons shaped like the Yankees or the Irish, parades lift the spirit. We get to be a little proud. We wear fancy clothes (Or perhaps, as in Brazilian Mardigras, we wear fewer clothes), and we strut and preen or watch those who like to strut and preen. We witness the pride of all those people who like to show off.

It’s one way of celebrating togetherness.

Jesus’ parade, however, is a little different than most parades. First of all, Jesus isn’t exactly royalty. The mount isn’t a clydesdale, its an ass. We’ve all seen parades where people are on trucks; imagine parading on a small thirty year old Raleigh three speed (although I’m sure you can put a few flowers on the basket).

In short, Jesus’ parade seems more like a parade of fools than an imperial parade. Although it doesn’t seem that the crowd quite gets the shift, the notion of triumph is radically trained. It is not merely about status, but a ironic twist upon status. Jesus is busy giving a wave to all his fans thinking, There is more to life than just being on top…. or its the beginning of the end, which is just another beginning.

The second half of the service this Sunday will be the passion: its the central story of the faith. It is not, however, just an intellectual exercise; nor is it meant to be a series of mere facts. The story is about you: being in character in this drama that includes Jesus.

This is one of the reasons we assign people parts in the liturgy. People take the role of Judas, of Peter, of the servants. Although we hope that those who take the role of Judas don’t get too into the character, the hope is that we can understand how at any time we can take such a role. It is the root of making choices: to see how we play in our own personal dramas. And yes, I get to play the part of the HIgh Priest.

I really don’t like it when priests play Jesus.

We change the roles up a bit: but this is a drama where you have a part. You witness the life of Jesus Christ. You shout it out to crucify him, because that is, sadly what you’d probably do. That is the warning for each of us.

The idea that this week is central to humanity’s story is to presume we do not interpret our lives as if they are propositional statements, as if the art that is our lives is reduced to mathematical propositions about the universe.

This week is a time to look at how we live what we believe. incomprehensibly, When people use the word “faith” it seems that we are insistent about knowing exactly the content of one’s “belief system.”

But there are some days, darkly cynical days, that if someone asked me about my “belief system” I want to offer a big guffaw: “Ha! beliefs? I wish I could say that I knew one thing for all time forever.”

What we can say is this: “let me tell you a story.”

You would be one of the characters.

Rapture Ready!

Daniel Radosh, in his book Rapture Ready, offers an entertaining, enjoyable enthography of the Evangelical community.   It’s free of the political color that often frames the discussions about Christian fundamentalism.  The reader is treated to excellent stories about how evangelical Christians engage popular culture.  Radosh is charitable, curious and non-judgmental, offering witty insights about the nature of popular faith in contemporary culture.

On Obama’s Conservatism

Obama was able to do what no president has been able to do since Teddy Roosevelt tried a hundred years ago.

He succeeded because he’s a conservative.

Against what many people claim, Obama is far more institutionally conservative than most progressives.  He works within institutions.  He build relationships.  He is skeptical about broad ideological claims.   He understands the nature of personal power.  It’s in his community organizing background.  It’s also a traditional part of conservative thinking.

He didn’t impose a plan.  The plan came from congress; it was developed in committee.  He appropriated some of the policies from Republicans.  The plan created was politically moderate, imposing modest restrictions upon various parties.  Everyone had to give.  It was written after every stakeholder had its say.

Obama was patient.  He was more patient than the left, who wants everything immediately.  His patience allowed the Republican party, alas, to dissemble.  They could not offer a coherent plan, and the foot soldiers were revealed to also be incoherent, if not also adolescent and racist.  Their claims were often imaginary, the hyperbolic product of resentment and fear.  Obama’s patience – a conservative trait – exposed the opposing side to be uninterested in serious matters of policy.

Obama was also strategic.  Republicans are right to note that the proposal, as is, is probably a bit inaccurate when it comes to future costs.  There will have to be more government involvement to manage the competing claims of the various parties involved.  They are also going to have to confront the fact that plenty of their constituents – registered Republicans – will benefit from broader health care, especially lower-middle class race populists.

I think it is relevant that a black president passed this reform.  This reform will especially impact poor Americans, both black and white.  They will be indebted to this bill.  It is a very practical way, especially, our government can diminish the impact of racism.

Yes, Obama may be more sympathetic to the progressive cause.  But his success is not because he’s a progressive.  His success is because he’s a conservative.  He is not motivated by ideology or political correctness.  He moves once he has built relationships with people who represent institutions.  This will irritate both liberals and race-populists.  But it is why he is successful.

If more progressives were as conservative as Obama, they’d have a lot more success.

The Flood, Easter and Anger Managment

In scripture, one idea that returns over and over is that of “covenant.” The myth is like so: God punishes humanity for its sin, sees what he has done, and promises never to punish humanity ever again, and makes a covenant with all life. The symbol of that covenant is the rainbow.

Although I’m sure we all breath a sigh of relief that God has made such a promise to protect all life, I still find the story a little disturbing. I find destroying an entire civilization a bit… a little extreme, perhaps over the top, and – if I may say so – a little psychotic. And then He wants to apologize?

It is as if that we’re being told, “Look God’s peaceful now. He used to be violent. Aren’t we glad he changed?” I am. Although there are times where I wonder if people (or God), really change. Should I be looking over my shoulder to see if God has it in for me? Isn’t God changeless?

So why is it that God gets really angry at his children? He threatens punishment, even though scripture also says he is, most of the time, slow to anger.

Let’s first admit that this anthropomorphic soldier God is useful to a point. It’s not absolutely useful, but it provides a little object for the imagination. We can be thankful that a former soldier God wants to become a peacemaker. I think of the great Indian King Ashoka, who after seeing the rivers of bodies and blood that he was responsible for, gave up all war and built his kingdom for the sake of peace and prosperity for all his people. We don’t need to end the story with God being a man on a chariot. God is fundamentally a peacemaker. It may seem, on our worst days, that God has it in for us. But our trust is that he wants us to thrive.

It might be that we had not learned from the story of Cain and Abel. They had competed for God’s attention. God chose a favorite. And Abel was killed. What does this say? Violence is a consequence of believing that we have to compete for God’s attention.

We don’t. There may be people who prosper more than we do, who seem to have the abundance of God’s blessings; but we are still expected to care for each other. It was a violent society that the scriptures say God wanted to cleanse.

To me our current financial mess (What’s next? Our Pensions?), looks a lot like a world-wide deluge. Might our civilization crumble if credit disappears? Our promises in the future, based upon the immaterial photons of light, the LED screens that represented the great wealth we thought we had, now gone.

The cash we thought was there was a ghost. We built castles with it; we asked it to fund our universities; we even played poker with it and took its money. And now, it has vanished, and the pundits hope that the ghosts will once again return.

But there is one road to salvation – and that is trust. The rainbow that the scriptures tell us that God gave is the Lord saying, “trust me.” If you think trust makes no sense, you would be absolutely right. There are few good reasons to trust: nobody wants to open their books; they won’t take risks to hire; they won’t expand. People do not trust each other’s accounting; they withdraw and withold from each other. They’ve been burned, and they won’t get burned again. And with that the whole economy can come crushing down. They are justified in their suspicion, and with that, the flood begins, and we will all be drowning.

What happened during the flood? A violent world was destroyed, and replaced with a new differentiation of animals, a new tribal system that brought peace and order.

The scriptures, however, give some clues as to what this might mean. In Peter “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” We have all been touched by the flood, but through this, we are brought up and out and another stage of peace will come before us.

We are reminded that trusting one another means we are responsible for each other; that we invest in each other; that we empower one another. And it makes little sense – our instinct is to flee, to demand our own needs get satisfied first, to wait for others to save us.

There is a brighter future on the horizon, that will come out of being baptized in the current disaster. We might not see it now. but as the deluge begins, it is our trust in each other, that web of relationships that God has invited us into, that will lift us up and sustain us in these coming days. Peter indicates that even the righteous, the ark itself, was baptized by the flood. But this was just a prelude for what we will see.

Why Does Beck Hate Christians?

Although I really should be finishing my doctoral thesis, I want to note that if Glenn Beck is talking about Social Justice Churches, we must be doing something right.

Being mocked by him is a badge of honor, and it gives us a chance, perhaps, to do some skooling.   The tag line:  Why does Beck Hate Christians So?  Jim Wallis, the go-to liberal evangelical, challenges Beck to read the bible.

Even Mormons disagree with the man.

Just remember, the man is an entertainer.

That said, there is some truth to the idea that Justice is a lot harder to identify than injustice, and that the keys to the kingdom offered by God, and not through the state.

And now, back to writing.

Being a Good Ancestor

I was thinking about the phrase Samantha Power used in a commencement speech: “Be a good ancestor.” This phrase is wonderfully suggestive. It implies that we have some agency, some responsibility, an ability to make considered, deliberate choices – in spite of our normal familiar, habitual acts – that can change the world.

What we call the church’s traditions are our attempts to be good ancestors. We want people to seek peace; to break bread with our neighbors; to see through other people’s eyes. Of course, sometimes our tribal patterns run counter to our traditions. And every religion has several traditions at work, some of them contradictory.

Granted, I don’t think there are always clear answers to what makes being a “good ancestor.” Often, I think that the best we can hope for is that good decisions for us now will lay the foundation for future generations. As we are often broken, we make mistakes, and have everyday failures, being a “good ancestor” doesn’t mean being a perfect ancestor. It may just mean what Jesus implied throughout his ministry: don’t be deceptive in your practices; don’t worry so much about the future; recognize that God’s love does not require lifestyles that are costly for our relationships or for the planet. The love that God has imbued within creation is enough for us to live at peace with one another.