The Horror and the Glory

Jeiwsh MemorialI’ve been asked to speak at the Jewish Community Center in Richmond tonight, as people of faith gather to “Stand Together” in unity with Jewish brothers and sisters who are still trembling after the horrific shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday.

The shootings were horrific.  There is no way to minimize that.  When I read the reports in the newspaper my stomach clenched like a fist.  But I’m a pastor, and part of my job is to help people deal with the tragedies of life.  At breakfast this morning I tried to help my wife, Christy, whose voice broke as she read her post on Facebook, inviting her friends in Richmond to join us at tonight’s event.

I said, “That’s one problem with the news.  In journalism the rule is, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’  And so we end up with a lot of bloody awful news on the front page of the paper.  If that’s all we see, we might think the world is a bloody awful place, and in Pittsburgh last Saturday it was, but most of the time–most of the time–it’s not.”

And then I shared with her part of Brian McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that I had been reading the night before.  After several chapters in which he points out the problems with Christianity as it currently exists McLaren writes:

There is so much right with Christianity. Sunday by Sunday, caring ministers prepare sermons into which they pour their hearts. Week by week they care for their flock, visiting the sick, honoring the dead, welcoming new life, nurturing those in need of counsel, challenge, recovery, or encouragement. Church musicians practice and prepare a weekly feast of beauty. Faithful people show up and generously show kindness to one another, from sharing after-church coffee and baked goods to preparing epic potluck dinners to cooking nourishing meals for the hungry and lonely. Hospitality abounds. Mission flows. People give money, year after year, so staff are supported, buildings are constructed and maintained, and the good news is spread in word and deed.

And then he writes:

There is so much right with the world. The sun faithfully does its work, bathing us in life-sustaining energy. The moon faithfully does its work, lifting tides and letting them fall, and no one worries it will fail. Water faithfully does its work,the lifeblood of our planet, circulating from cloud to rain to stream to river to sea to cloud. Creatures do their work as well, filling the earth with life and song, sharing the gift of life through death and birth, through nesting and migration, through pollination and germination, each specimen a living miracle if we have eyes to see. Your body, a civilization of cells more sophisticated than any megacity, works amazingly well amazingly often, your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your eyes seeing, your mind aware. There is so much right in humanity. Children play. Adolescents fall in love. Young couples marry. Lovers entangle their limbs, breath, and dreams. Babies are conceived and born and nurtured, through their smiles and cries teaching their parents to love in ways they never knew they were capable of. Friends laugh, plan adventures, throw parties, stick together, weep at gravesides after a lifetime of shared joy. Farmers grow, harvesters pick, transporters transport, grocers distribute, and meals of unimaginable variety and delight are prepared and eaten. Entrepreneurs plan and launch new ventures. Colleagues work side by side as managers seek to steer their companies toward success. Researchers seek cures, discoveries, solutions, understanding. Teachers teach and children catch the gift of curiosity. People are honest. They make promises they keep. People take vacations. They watch the surf, ride horses, cast lines, take hikes, swim, ski, bike, sail, and slow down so they can remember they are alive. Grandparents and elders watch all this, their eyes brimming with tears of joy. There is so much right in the church, in the world, in humanity. There is so much good. And so much beauty. When we see it, even a tiny glimmer of how precious it is, our hearts swell in gratitude and awe.

It seemed to help Christy, and it was a good reminder to both of us that what we see on the front page of the newspaper doesn’t reflect all of reality.  It is part of it, true.  And it is often the part that demands our full attention and our faithful response.  I’m going to stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters tonight.  But when I wake up tomorrow morning I want to wake up in a world that is also filled with the glory of God.

And I pray that glory may not be eclipsed by whatever I find on the front page.

–Jim Somerville

My Political Agenda

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In the past few months my preaching has been criticized by some for being “too political.”  Others have criticized it for not being political enough.  I really don’t believe my preaching has changed, but the political climate of our country has.  It’s red hot right now; you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

So, I want to make my political agenda perfectly clear.  I don’t want anyone to have to guess at what I’m “up to” in the pulpit or try to decode the “secret” messages in my sermons.

My political agenda is people.

It begins with the conviction that every person is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and sometimes that conviction is tested.  I went for a jog when I was in DC for a preaching conference a few months ago, and saw a man sleeping in a doorway on 14th Street.  He was turned away from me.  I couldn’t see his face.  But I could see that he had wet himself during the night and the empty bottle beside him suggested he may have been too drunk at the time to know or care.  And yet, there was the image of God lying in that doorway.

It’s not only homeless drunks who bear God’s image: it’s everybody.  It’s wealthy white businessmen reading the Wall Street Journal and poor Hispanic women bringing them coffee.  It’s the man who collects your garbage on Monday morning and the woman walking her freshly groomed poodle in the same alley. It’s the Muslim accountant who works down the hall and the transgender kid waiting for the school bus.  Every one of them is made in God’s image.

If you look for it, you can see it.

My political agenda continues with the conviction that we, as a society, have a responsibility for those people.  That’s what “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” means (Matt. 22:39).  I’m not sure what the most loving thing we could do for that man sleeping in the doorway might be, but I think we need to be asking that question.  I think our politicians need to be asking that question.

In the Gospel of Luke, the preaching of John the Baptist begins with a quote from Isaiah: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low” (Isa. 40:4).  It’s the good news that when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven there will be a great leveling.  As Mary sings in the Magnificat, “God will pull the high and mighty off their thrones.  He will lift up the low and lowly” (Lk. 1:52).  And when Jesus preaches in that Gospel he doesn’t preach on the Mount, but on the Plain—a level place.

It’s a reminder that every person is made in God’s image.  In God’s eyes no one is more important than anyone else; no one needs to be sitting on a throne while someone else grovels at his feet.

Every person is precious. 

I can’t tell you which political party best represents that view, but as Election Day approaches I can tell you that when politicians talk, I listen.  I listen to hear if they are concerned for all people, or only some people.  I listen to hear if they have any plans for lowering the mountains and raising the valleys of disparity.  I listen to hear if they care about the man sleeping in the doorway on 14th Street.

In this week’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)  Are there any politicians like that in America?  Any who care more about others than about themselves?

Because I’d vote for somebody like that.

 

–Jim Somerville