30 July, 2006

Onward Christian soldiers

(originally written before going away for a week)

Twice now in a month I've run up against a serious problem with the hymns in church.

In general, I think hymns are some of our greatest theological stuff. Written on the cover page of my prayer book/hymnal is this quotation from one of my seminary professors: "in thirty years of ministry, I've never once heard the congregation walk out the door of the church humming the sermon."

Part of the stealth evangelism of hymns is that we don't memorize them, and they're complicated, and so we find ourselves carried along by the music, not paying particularly careful attention to the words.

But I do sit down and pay careful attention. If I'm going to lead the congregation in worship, that includes singing. I've got a big voice, and I love to pray while singing. But, for the pre-written parts of the order of worship, I want to know ahead of time what prayers I'm leading, and I study them in advance of Sunday.

At St. Thomas, in July, we're basically taking requests from the congregation. We put voting cards in the pew sheet one day, and the music director tallied up the votes. The end result has been fun, since we've been able to sing a bunch of old favorites. It's also been funny at times...we did Christmas hymns, Easter hymns, lenten hymns... and only occasionally would they directly correlate to the lectionary texts for the week. That's okay. It's been fun.

Until this morning.

This morning, the congregational choices were hymns 561 and 562.

stand up, stand up for Jesus, the trumpet call obey
forth to the mighty conflict in this his glorious day
ye that are his now serve him against unnumbered foes
let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.

and this:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

um...yes, acually, we are divided. And it's doctrine we're divided about.

This morning, before we got up to go gather as the church, the nation of Israel (funded and supplied by the United States) dropped bombs on Qana, killing 54 people, including 19 children. And it's at least in part a religious war. A war we're participating in, secondhand. More about that later.

I've always been able to justify the words to "Onward Christian Soldiers" this way:
the first verse clearly describes a liturgical procession. And that makes the theological statement a reversal of worldly values, i.e., the only kind of war Christians wage is in church, by opening the doors to anyone who would come in, by proclaiming the gospel of the one who said to turn the other cheek. It's an anti-battle.

But this morning, it was too much. The words to the hymns seemed to say "we're going to come kick your butt in the name of Jesus."

Instead of singing, I hung my head and walked in and out of the church in silence.

and wept, just a little, even though I tried not to.

14 July, 2006

Writing sermons is hard, Part 5

Sometimes, I just don't have any guts.

For example:

This week's gospel reading, Mark 6:14-29, tells the story of Salome dancing so provocatively before the king that he makes a rash and exorbitant promise.
In today's world, something in the neighborhod of $60 billion is spent on pornography each year, $3 billion on child pornography. Over 10% of all web sites host pornographic material.

and I'm not going there.

This week's gospel also tells the story of John the Baptizer, thrown into prison by the king for being a danger to the state, and left there without possibility of parole. There are now approximately 450 people held at Guantanamo Bay--some have been there for years--with the Supreme Court only recently granting the possibility of their release after trial.

Since I live in San Antonio, Texas, I'm not gonna go there, either.

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.

04 July, 2006

in order to form a more perfect union

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This weekend's holiday is called "Independence Day." It's a day that celebrates something more than an event, something more than the historical memory of the founding of our country, something more than fighting for own government separate from the British crown. I think this holiday celebrates something far deeper, something that is at the heart of American values and American character.

Independence is almost a part of the DNA of Americans. We teach independence to our children. We teach it in our schools, and we teach it in our homes. We teach that this is a land of freedom. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of choice. As long as we abide by the laws of the land, we can go anywhere we want to go and do anything we want to do. We can do wise things and we can, if we wish, do foolish and destructive things.

This is a country where a man born in a house with a dirt floor can, and has, become the President of the United States, so beloved to our national understanding that we carved his face on the side of a mountain. This is a country where a young man with little more than an idea, and ambition, and some luck, can and has become the richest man in the world.

But our freedom has its dark side. If we are free to do anything we want to, we are also free to leave undone some things which ought to be done. We are free to walk past the poor and the homeless. We are free to ignore the sick. We are free to ignore the children without parents. We are free to ignore anything we choose. You and I live in a society where we are free to not even know our neighbors.

So, how are we to govern this great collection of autonomous individuals?

Enter democracy. The great experiment. The great pride of America, and some would say our most valuable contribution to the world.

I'll admit it, I grew up in this country. I only know one way to live. And that is a democratic way. A way that acknowledges the basic freedom and basic worth of everyone else. A way that allows every person to have a say in how we live our lives together. It's slow. It's cumbersome. It's frustrating sometimes. But it's what we have.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My first real experience with democracy was not a particularly pleasant one. Now, to tell you this story, I have to make a bit of a confession. When I was a kid, I was, well, something of a geek. A nerd. A dweeb. A dork. At the tender age of 12, I was one of the founding members of the local junior high school Star Trek club.

Keep in mind this was before "Star Trek: the Next Generation" and all of its spinoffs were created. We had old trek: ridiculous overacting, cardboard sets, aliens made of flashy blinking lights. There were a couple of movies out, and a series of paperback fiction books set in the star trek universe. The members of the club would gather and watch old episodes, reruns which aired at 10:00 at night on weekdays, and play a board game called "star fleet battles," and... well...you know what Trekkies do. And for those of you who don't, maybe it's better that I stop right there.

But of course, if we're a club, we have to have officers with funny titles. I was one of the founding members, and since we used Space-navy vocabulary so as to be spiritually closer to our galactic heroes, I was the Rear Admiral. Or something. This, of course, allowed us to send coded messages to each other and sign them with our appropriately grand titles, which I'm sure caused no end of amusement to the math teacher who confiscated a note that I had been passed, intending to read it to the class, only to find that it consisted of a string of coded gibberish signed impressively at the bottom by "Vice Admiral Morgan." I seem to recall my friend John ordering me to make up an entrance exam for the club, testing prospective members on their devotion to the cause by their knowledge of the inner secrets of Trek.

It was fun for awhile, but then we grew, and attracted more members... and there was grumbling in the ranks. Grumbling that swelled into a full-blown hostile takeover. I don't remember what the argument was about, frankly, it was probably just something silly, or else just arguing for the sake of arguing, which is not unheard of among teenaged boys. But I do remember that, being Americans, freedom and democracy and all that, we finally decided that we would do was to take a vote to elect the fleet admiral of the club, whose word was thereafter to be obeyed instantly and without question. And nobody thought that was weird.

So we took a vote, and, lo and behold, my friend John was out. And I also suffered the indignity of demotion. And it was sorely tempting to take our, um, phasers, and go home, so to speak. But what could we do? We'd voted, like we agreed to, and lost. But...we still liked Star Trek. So we stayed in the club. And we still stayed up late and watched reruns, and still played games and practiced our Spock-isms. Live long, and prosper.

I learned that year that sometimes democracy is a pain. Especially when you lose, or feel like you've lost, and you have to live with what the other side wants.

But then I grew up, and learned that we do that all the time. The modern American political system is pretty much evenly divided into two major political parties. I'm an independent voter, myself, which means that my candidate loses with distressing regularity, or the vote on the bond issue, or the change in the law, or the amendment, goes the opposite of how I wanted it. The thing is, I never stop being proud of my country. (and if that pride is a sin, then so be it.) I am occasionally ashamed of the behavior of my government representatives, sometimes even people I voted for, but I don't stop being proud of America.

And, more importantly, I never stop needing the people I live with, even when I disagree with them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Listen to some wisdom from Paul, written to Christians in Corinth.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Let's be clear: Paul is talking about the church at Corinth, not about the current government of the United States, or about the problems the church is having in convention trying to decide on which road to take. I don't think we can read Paul's letter, from another time and another culture, addressed to somebody else, and read it as if it were written to St. Thomas in San Antonio. But I do think that Paul says something wise, something that we can hold on to: we need each other.

Here's the truth: the church is divided on the issue of human sexuality. Good people of faith, sincerely trying to discern God's will, do not hear the same thing. Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, all four orders of ministry in the church, are in the same boat. And while I might wish for the discussion to be easier, it's just not. So what do we do about it?

we acknowledge that we disagree on something. There were recently votes taken in convention, and resolutions passed and failed, but by narrow margins rather than by overwhelming majorities.

as a part of the realization that we do not see a clear way forward, we continue in discussion. Bishop Lillibridge has clearly stated that we in West Texas will continue to be a part of the Windsor process, which means that we continue in dialogue.

we realize that, while the way forward is ambiguous, we all are invited to be a part of the kingdom of God revealed here. This is the difficult part.

When I came down here, just over a year ago, to interview with Chuck and with the vestry to see if I might be a good fit for St. Thomas, this question came up. Chuck has given me permission to share my answer to the question back then with you today; I think I said something to the effect that until we hear the Holy Spirit speak clearly and decisively, until our Bishop asks us to move decisively one way or the other, or until convention speaks with something more clearly approaching a unanimous voice, that we have to realize that this is an unsolved issue. And while it is unsolved, I think our doors have to remain open to anyone who walks through. Old, young, gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white, brown, green, and chartreuse, everybody gets a seat at the table, and everybody plays nice. And we have to do the difficult thing of living and working alongside people who are believers in the gospel of Christ Jesus who don't agree with us on the details.

Now, I don't know, but I believe, that the founders of our country would approve of that. The writers of the Constitution were all religious people, of varying denomination. They knew what is was to argue and lose. The wording of the constitution itself bears the marks of reasoned discussion and disagreement. But they had read the words of St. Paul to Corinth, and I think that they understood that they needed each other, when they began the Constitution with we, the people...in order to form a more perfect union.

There is something in the noblest part of the American character that knows this. There is something in us that wants to reach for the great society where hunger and poverty and sickness and abuse and neglect are no more.

This is our chance, as the church, to remind the nation what the noblest aspects of freedom are, and to disagree with one another with honor,
acknowledging that all people are created in God's image,
treating all people with dignity, respect, and courtesy,
and, as Paul says, outdoing one another in showing love.

This holiday, join me
in giving thanks to God for the freedoms we enjoy,
in giving thanks to God for the peoples of many lands and cultures who have come together to create, out of their differences, this great nation.
In giving thanks to God for the richness and diversity of our heritage.

Let us remember that our work is not yet done, and rededicate ourselves to difficult work--the formation of a more perfect union.