Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sermon, National Week of Prayer for the Healing of HIV/AIDS

John 9, Balm in Gilead                              Lent 4                                 March 10, 2013

Spirit of Hope, Detroit, The Rev. Matthew Bode

           The prophet, Sam Cooke, has said, “There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long, But now I think I'm able to carry on, It's been a long, a long time coming, But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.” Today is a serious day. Today is Balm in Gilead Sunday. And we are here today in the spirit of the thousands, the millions who have died from AIDS. Those who have come before us, whose names were never even spoken by their families for the shame they felt. The sadness, the preventable tragedy that the world, the church, stood by and has watched as a bystander, often times without compassion, much less a sense of justice.
            Before we get into all of that. Before we understand all of these issues. Before we get too heavy, let’s recognize that a change is coming. Can we say this? As Jesus walks to the cross getting closer to Good Friday, a change is coming. God is intervening, and the spirit is even entertaining good news. Some hearts, and I am not saying enough hearts now, but some hearts are beginning to melt. Some parts of the church are becoming somewhat less blind. I know it’s not a high measure of success, but a change is coming.
            Drugs, medications, are transforming lives and the way we look at this disease. Cures and vaccinations are not here, but perhaps one day. Gay people, disproportionately affected by HIV, once completely ignored or oppressed in this world, are in some areas receiving some equity in how they are treated, and how they live in society, and even in a handful of churches. A change is coming.
            We are slowly, but surely, beginning to talk more about sex, and safe sex, even in our own churches. We are beginning, even if just a little bit, to treat the disease as the enemy rather than the person with the disease as the outcast.  A change is coming. We have recognized the scripture and held it close. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
            In our bodies. The life of Jesus may be visible in our bodies. Our imperfect, sometimes fragile, always perplexing, water-based bodies. The life of Jesus is visible in our bodies. Whoa. Afflicted, persecuted, struck down, bodies show us the life of Jesus! Blind bodies.
            I hope you heard this story from the gospel today. The disciples see a blind man on the side of the road. And being the curious students of theology and Bible that they are, they asked Jesus a question, the question asked by every three and four year-old since the beginning of time. Why? Why is this man blind, Jesus? And then they qualified it, like good church folk do. I know you caught this. Is he blind because he sinned, or because his parents sinned? See, we may think that is silly, but that was the world view of the time. God, in their mind, created all affliction, all disease, all, or at least most, bad things that befall a person. So there must have been a reason that this man was born blind. He was blind, so he must be a sinner. They were not blind, so they must be righteous. And Jesus answered, no. This man was not born blind because of anyone’s sin.
            Let’s ask that question in a different way: Jesus, why does this person have HIV? Is it because he is gay or because he is a drug user? In what way is he different from me, that I might have no responsibility to care about him, that I might know that he is a sinner, but I am not?
Has anyone here ever had it all figured out before? I mean, help me out. You know exactly what God is doing in your life. You are faithful. You have good sense about you. People even tell you that you have good sense about you. People like you. They come to you for wisdom because you have good explanations about how the world works. You have good experience. You go to church, and you are a good church person.
            Everyone in this gospel story, with the exception of Jesus and the man who was born blind, is a good church person. They know how this is supposed to work. The man is blind because of a sin, and he is getting what he deserves. I am not blind, therefore I am less of a sinner than he is. Everything makes sense. Everything is in its proper order. You belong here, I belong here. We have a structure. Let’s stick with it. We can be comfortable. We don’t have to question anything. Life makes sense.
And then this Jesus, this wandering preacher/teacher/healer person who claims to have the authority of the Son of God, helps this blind man to see. And the whole order is completely messed up, jacked up if you allow me to be vulgar this morning. I won’t go further than that. Things don’t make sense anymore. The man who was born to be over there, is now over here and I don’t know how to deal with that.
And, hopefully we have enough humility about ourselves to say, there’s nothing quite like a good church person who just had their realities questioned. “But, you belong over there, and I belong over here. What do you mean this Jesus brought you over here? You were a beggar. You sit on the ground. Covered in dust and dirty. In fact, I cannot even believe that is you. You cannot be one of us. You are a sinner. I am a good church goer. We cannot be together. We have never done it this way before.”
            Our church has never let those people in here before. We have always understood those people to be dirty, sinning, disgusting people. They don’t belong. They certainly must deserve their plight. We need to keep them away from us so we do not get touched by their sin. Those sick people. “Then I go to my brother And I say brother help me please But he winds up knockin' me Back down on my knees.” Ha, and right then and there, Jesus walks into church, right down the center aisle, and says, “A change is gonna come.”
            About thirteen years ago I spent a month in Tanzania. It was my second trip back there, but this time was different. A seminary classmate and I were going to spend some weeks living with and learning from caregivers and patients who were living with HIV or AIDS. We stayed with a service agency of doctors and nurses, all Tanzanians. They operated their own non-profit because at the time there were very few government hospitals who would deal with AIDS patients in a compassionate manner.
            One particular day I was doing home visits with one of the nurses. We would visit patients, walking several miles a day around the city of Morogoro, and see how they were doing. Usually we visited women because the men were too ashamed to seek treatment or help. There, like here, those with HIV are often treated like they have a social disease as much as a physical one. At the time I was pretty good with my Kiswahili, and so my nurse companion, who had quality relationships with all of these patients, had me lead some of the medical questioning. I would ask and she would listen to and follow the responses. One of the most important questions is finding out how people are eating. So I would ask them how their stomach was feeling.
            Now, in Kiswahili the word for stomach is “tumbo.” But I didn’t use that word. Instead of tumbo, I would say tembo. Now, they sound close, but they don’t mean the same thing. All day, I would ask people about their tembo, and they would laugh. Even if they were not feeling well in their stomach, they still laughed. See, tumbo means stomach, but tembo means elephant. So all day I was asking all of these patients if their elephant was hurting. Where they able to keep food in their elephant. So later I asked the nurse why she did not correct me. And she replied that everyone was having such a fun time with it, why mess that up?
            Imagine the possibility, of instead of judging one another, striving to categorize one another, we decided to laugh with one another. Instead of trying to determine someone else’s sin, we worked to keep ourselves compassionate. What if, just throwing this out there now, the church was the first place to talk about sex in a healthy, real way instead of the last? What if the church was the first place that tried to be honest instead of the place that tries to sweep everything under the rug. What if we good church people were the first people to show God’s love, and we did it instinctively. No committee meetings, no love the sinner hate the sin, dishonest, ugly platitudes designed to make us feel good about discriminating against other people, keep order but still keep people out. That phrase, “love the sinner and hate the sin,” is about the most ugly church phrase that has ever existed. We put the word love in it to hide our spite, fear and discrimination against those we label “sinner.” That’s not real love. What if we actually decided to love each other fully for who we are, no conditions?
What if we became a part of the change that’s gonna come instead of fighting against it? Part of the body of Christ instead of striving against him. Loving and embracing his people rather than stepping on them. Recognizing that Jesus’ love for all people includes you. And if it includes you, you have no reason to be jealous, hateful, spiteful, exclusive or even rude to anyone else. What if we knew that a change is gonna come? That in the cross, all things will be transformed. The outsiders become the insiders. The haters become the lovers. Death becomes life. Struggle becomes hope. Dark nights become bright days.
            Jesus told us that a change is gonna come. And then he showed us. His body became a place of healing. His touch brought people together. And it does still. Hold onto the cross, sisters and brothers. Be transformed. Be healed. It’s already started. A change is gonna come.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Condoms and the Cross

Is it possible to righteously use these two words in the same sentence? Condoms and the cross.  The former labeled by the church a sign of human depravity and immorality, our fall from grace and God’s disappointment in our loss of purity. The second is the most venerable physical sign of Christian orthodoxy and the place where we believe that we become reconciled to God. Those who value and appreciate one certainly would not value the other, would they?
 Not long ago, our Detroit church restarted a small safer sex kit distribution program that will grow over the course of the year. It reaches church members, those who take advantage of our food pantry and community kitchens, athletes who use our gymnasium and more. Of course the kits include condoms and other items that make for safer and better sex, as well as educational materials and a sentence or two of scripture intended to remind recipients of the love of God and love of neighbor. Thanks in part to Gospel Against AIDS and the energy of members of our church and community, the program has so far been a success.

Some have asked us why we would distribute kits with condoms. Of course the easy and most accurate answer is, “Because people need them.” Many Christians, however, do not accept that reasoning. Even in 2013, it seems that the vast majority of churches in most denominations, maybe even most faith groups, still have a very hard time talking about sex and sexuality. Our modern Christian cultural rhetoric has taught us that things are changing and the forever held value of abstinence, sex only in the context of marriage, has fallen in the past generation or two. (Ask my family elders born out of wedlock in the 1950s and 1920s about the long-standing practice of abstinence!)  It is a frightening time to be in the church when it appears that our values and long standing cultural teachings are being challenged by every television show, advertisement and pop culture icon.

Nevertheless, the beauty of being a Christian is not found in declarations of righteous and unrighteous behavior, but in the person of Jesus who walked among the people and turned the eyes of the church to the needs of those who surrounded him. The religious leaders attacked Jesus for allowing people to do the work to get something to eat on the Sabbath and for touching people scripture and the religious leaders deemed unclean. I am certain they would have condemned him for handing out condoms as well. He always turned the argument, however, from ideological purity to the needs of the people.

We are in a world, in 2013, with a rapid expansion of HIV. It is our call as church to meet the needs of the people with compassion, love and life—changing power. We walk with people in their lives, all of us changed when we authentically love one another as neighbors. The traditional teachings of the church, of abstinence-only sex, are so far from the reality of our culture that it is time we understand the needs of the people and respond rather than living in the ivory towers of supposed moral righteousness.

It is immoral for the church not to respond to the spread of HIV. In fact, it is doubly immoral for us not to respond because we are responsible as an institution for discouraging honest talk and loving behavior. In the 1980s and 1990s we, as church, contributed to the isolation of HIV patients and led a supposed moral crusade against those who did not live what we determined to be righteous lives. Even if we did not actively isolate those with HIV, or those at greatest risk for the disease, we were silent when others who called themselves Christians did so. As in any crusade, many people died.

As HIV takes a breath, digs in its heals and begins to grow again in this era, we as Christians have the chance to redeem ourselves and live our faith. When we talk about sex openly in the context of trust, respect, honor, love and honesty rather than on the platform of religious purity, we are more authentic to the faith. We also stand a better chance of changing peoples’ lives for the better.

When we offer safer sex kits, a wall comes down. In almost every case, whether received by members of the church or strangers, a bit of unhealthy fear of the church and religion begins to fade. We are able to have a real relationship with each other, and even with God. The cross is the place where fear goes to die. Liberation and freedom take fear’s place. The cross is the perfect symbol of the power of transformation. As church, may we be transformed by the cross enough to be honest with ourselves, our own people and the world around us. Honesty for us means we need to distribute safer sex kits. It is time we loved people as much as our ideologies.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Guns, Fear, Faith

My first scare with a gun caught me completely off guard. A person in my community took a head first dive into a deep depression, finding solace in nothing but a bottle. The depression had become so severe that someone close to him came to me for support and to investigate what was going on in his apartment. No one had heard from him for weeks and we went to find him in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon. We heard no response after knocking, so we opened the door with a key, making sure to make as much noise as possible as not to alarm him. The apartment smelled like bad body odor. Empty bottles of cheap vodka lined the one wall and the person we came to see was at least thirty pounds lighter than the last time I saw him. His drunken stupor was disturbing enough, along with his anger at us for interrupting his day. He lifted up the pillow where he had been laying and revealed a black handgun. While I know very little about handguns, I knew it carried at least a few rounds in the clip. Thankfully his severe drunkenness had taken away any physical or mental ability to use it.

Guns are a part of life in Detroit, and in all of our major cities. After twelve years doing work in this city I love, very little about guns is shocking. Even after living in four different neighborhoods, all considered safe, it is not uncommon to hear gun shots, mostly young people shooting into the air as a cheap form of fireworks and entertainment. When I recently approached a neighbor and told him my house would be empty for a week while on vacation, he made it clear he would be protecting it with his shotgun. What can a person say but, “thank you”?

As the debate about gun control and regulation escalates this year, the reality of gun life in our cities has not surfaced in the largest media outlets. Fear of guns and fear of gun owners tend to dictate the boundaries and terms of our discussions. What if we stopped living in fear?

Not long after I came out of the closet as a gay person to one of the congregations I served, a very mentally unstable person threatened me over the phone. Twenty minutes of rambling, psychotic messages were left on the church voice mail, including a gun threat. She was certain that someone would be bringing a loaded gun to the next church meeting. The police and a lawyer friend diffused the situation. In our world, guns are most often used to intimidate, threaten and create fear.

Faith and wisdom lead us away from fear and into confidence. The roots of all of the major religions lead us to find peace in God and one another. Of course true faith and wisdom are not ignorance or naivety, walking into dangerous situations without an understanding of that danger. Rather, they are a counterbalance to the irrational nature of fear and its cousins, ignorance and hatred. Guns, and especially assault rifles and high magazine clips and all the related weapons that go with them, are sold on a premise of fear, ignorance and hatred, depending on America to empty our individual and collective wallets. Gun manufacturers want us to be afraid. Our fear, especially of one another, makes them more rich.

More guns do not create more safety. If there was a gun on me the day I was carjacked, I would not be alive today. An addict needed a fix and my car and my wallet would get him closer to what he needed. The broad daylight boldness of his offense rocked my world for weeks. The small revolver in his hand remains burned in my mind. Somehow the federal debate about guns has yet to speak to this reality. Gun advocates would want me strapped. A gun however would not heal my fear, but increase it. Fear makes people dangerous.

It would be irrational and impossible to gather up all the guns and destroy them. It is far too late for that. Still, we must acknowledge that the cold, impersonal nature of firearms helps us remain cold and impersonal with one another, and allow us to threaten those whom we fear, almost completely devoid of conscience. Most guns are for people who are afraid. They are afraid of the uncertain and uncontrollable nature of life, and in America, we work to control everything.

The first gun I fired was put in my hands by my grandfather. It was a shotgun for game birds and I was about seventeen years old. That lesson taught me about respect for the weapon, safety for me and others and how not to be afraid of something with which I was not familiar. The lesson was about a gun. Now, in this time, let the debate be about people, that we may respect each other, build safety for all of us and not be afraid of people with whom we are not familiar. Guns do not allow us to achieve these goals, and in fact push us backward toward fear. No civilization has ever survived on fear. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

All You Gotta Do Is Say Yes

Preached this sermon on Sunday, September 2nd at Spirit of Hope in Detroit. It comes from Song of Solomon, chapter 2, verses 8-13.

Words, words, words. What do we do with our words. Can I start by talking about myself for a minute, or something that happened to me? It has to do with words. I put up a blog posting on the Huffington Post. Or, and I don’t say this to brag or whatever it may sound like, but they asked me to write something specifically for the national party conventions that started last week with the Republicans, and continues this week with the Democrats. They wanted me to talk about poverty, and how we think it will or won’t be covered by the major parties.
          So, you know me well enough to know that when I write for things like that, I can be a bit direct. Well, because sometimes we just need to say what we need to say. People with lower income have less and less power every year in this country, and at some point people are going to get together and really change the way things work in this country, rise up, and maybe even topple the powers that be. I used some more dramatic language than what I just said now, but you get the idea.
You may know that as on most news sites, there is a place at the bottom of the article, or essay or blog to write comments. So some people wrote some comments. In fairness some were supportive. But some were not so much. And while I should know not to read the comments, well, I did.
          In fact, I admit to having a minor obsession over checking what people are saying about what I write. And, as you know, in internet comments, it quickly becomes not just about what was said, but about the person who wrote the article in the first place. Some insinuated that I should not be a priest, and that I am a communist, and other such things. While my article was certainly serious, there was a part of me that wanted the commentators to take a chill pill. Relax for a minute.
It happened because the people who wrote, at least in my estimation, refused to address the issue of poverty with any sense of compassion, much less empathy. But knowing that doesn’t really help me. These words, these hurtful words, designed to be hurtful, got to me for a few minutes this week. Maybe words have gotten to you sometimes. Maybe you have been attacked, whether by a total stranger or by people who are very close to you. Maybe those words were intended to hurt you, and maybe they were just carelessly put out there and intentional or not, made you feel bad. Words have power. Some say sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Well, I think words do hurt. We can ignore some, even most bad words, but sometimes they get through. Sometimes they affect us.
So when I saw Song of Solomon this week for today’s scripture I was thrilled! You have no idea. Or maybe you do. After all that ugly stuff here is something beautiful. The beauty of God and love just poured out there! We get to talk about love for just a minute. In fact, the surprise for me was, this is the second time in a week I am preaching from this text. I preached this text last Sunday afternoon at a wedding, on the Detroit River, with beauty all around. People and nature, and the river, and all of it.
Today we get to read some love poetry from Song of Solomon, otherwise known as Song of Songs.
          You know we have an open mic here at Spirit of Hope, the third Sunday afternoon of the month. Among all the things that come across the stage we have some love poetry that comes to us at Spirit Spit Open Mic. While I love poetry, sometimes, I hope I am not confessing too much here, I don’t know the difference between good stuff and not so good stuff. To put it simply, sometimes I know good poetry, and sometimes I don’t.
          Especially when reading poetry, it is hard to know, at least for me, what is good and what is bad. Are these beautiful amazing words of love? “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”
Are these beautiful words, designed to transform love in our hearts, expressing the deepest beauty of the soul, or is it an easy to memorize cheap poem recited after a few drinks to manipulate you into bed. These are the things I don’t always know? Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I am talking about. How many people have used fancy words, luxurious words, words you thought someone wanted to hear, but not necessarily what you actually meant, to get what you want?
What if the people who put together the Bible put Song of Solomon in the Bible, so people of faith would have a tool, a poem if you will, to help them go to bed with someone? I wasn’t there. I don’t know why it was put in!
          Song of Solomon is in the same category as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. None of these books talk often, and certainly not directly, about God; and they really don’t talk about Jesus. They are laden with wisdom and love and thanksgiving, and sage advice, observations about the world.
          Wisdom literature is generally considered the parts of scripture that are most feminine, and written in a more feminine voice that other parts of scripture. In wisdom literature there are times when the male actively pursues the female, almost aggressively. And there are times when, well, the female actively pursues the male, almost aggressively. This part, in the woman’s voice, saying, “come to me, come to me.  It is spring, come out to me. Implying, my arms are open. My heart is for you. Come to me, my love!
          And the beats of Floetry start to groove in the background. "Loving you has taken time, taken time, But I always knew you could be mine. I recognize the butterflies inside me. Sense is gonna be made tonight, tonight. All you gotta do is say yes, say yes, say yes." (from Floetry, "Say Yes")
          Is it getting hot in here? Don’t look at me like that. This is all scripture here. Don’t hide. See, we usually talk more easily about other parts of Scripture, such as when God wants us to do something, or God does something to us. But, can we handle it when all the Spirit is putting out there through scripture words of intimacy, and love, and floetry, if you will?
          Sometimes, maybe you have experienced this, the church doesn’t always talk well about intimacy, and sex and love and how people get close. We do but we don’t. We give a long list of the things you are not supposed to do. But we don’t talk about the things that God wants us to experience. I hope you hear that we are beyond just romantic love here, beyond what it means to love a husband or wife, though that is in here too. As is evident in this scripture, as well as in the rest of Song of Solomon, and Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, God uses words to help us get closer to one another. God uses words to bring us closer to the Spirit. Intimately. Sharing ourselves. Sharing our deepest, most distant secrets, and feelings. You know, the things we have shoved so far away that we forget sometimes that they are even there.
          Intimate, like Jesus touching those he is healing. Intimate, like praying with someone at their bedside when they are sick. Intimate, like laying hands on those who need to know they are anointed by the Spirit. Intimate, like us working together, doing the love of God in our community. Getting to know one another not just as people across the aisle on Sunday morning, but as sisters and brothers.
          That’s why I love these words. Oh, these words do amazing things. These are good words. Good words of invitation. Good words that balance the sharp, biting, noise that comes across our television screens, that are pointed at us when we are in conflict, that are used to harm and hurt you, or us, or your neighbor. Good words are here. Good, loving words. And they are saying, come in, come closer, come to know me, come along. The winter is over, it is time for spring!
          Words that reflect the relationship that God has with us. The relationship that Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have with us. So close to us. So intimate. Never with a word that will harm you. Never with a word to make you feel ugly or insignificant. Never with a word that makes you feel less than you are. Never with a word to turn you with anger or hatred to your neighbor. Never with a word that moves you away from God, but only closer.
          Come into the space with good words. Loving words, and a loving spirit. This is the place where words should not hurt you. And they lead you to the living word. Lead you to the word of peace. Lead you to the word of freedom. Lead you to the word of righteousness. That one word, that we say. That name Jesus. That means more than any other word we can utter. In that word, we have everything we need. Maybe not to fix everything that is wrong in our lives, but that leads us to peace. That loving word. That intimate word.
I invite you today to know that word, and be doers, and not just hearers. You are invited into the Spirit. Invited into the love. God is proposing to you today. All you gotta do is say yes, say yes, say yes. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Poverty and National Party Conventions

I brought the church van to her house in our neighborhood. She and her five children needed to get out of the house in the middle of the afternoon while her boyfriend was out looking for some drugs. The one hundred year-old wood frame house was falling apart. The front door was only partially on its hinges and most of the windows were either broken or missing. The house stank. While the electricity was on, neither a single fixture nor outlet was safe. About a year later, when another family was in the house, it burned to the ground.
On this particular summer afternoon we loaded the van with all the clothes worth saving, along with some personal items. I stored them in the basement of the church, away from the sight of church members, lest expose her to embarrassment. She found a shelter, and eventually got herself on her feet. Her children today, are at many different levels of health, mentally and physically. Thousands of Detroiters live this life every day. Millions are in similar situations all across urban and rural America. What is going to happen when these millions of Americans realize they are a growing minority, perhaps future majority, stop working just to survive, and revolt against a nation that does not have their interests in mind?
As the transfer of wealth from poor and middle class to rich increases in size and scope never seen before, our national leaders have grown incapable of speaking the word, “poverty.” If we hear it even once at either of the national party conventions this year it will be a shock. At the same time, right wing Christian leaders give these same national political leaders cover by keeping them focused on issues like opposition to gay marriage, abortion, wars against contraception, blaming women for rape, attacking Islam and making up fake causes like battles for religious freedom. (By the way, all of these causes raise both the politicians and the religious right huge sums of money.) Meanwhile, they use tiny portions of vast resources to start conscience soothing food pantries while ignoring the root causes of poverty and the growing power of the super rich.
The Christian right may be damning itself to hell, but the rest of the country does not need to go with it. Christian history and theology is founded on building power for those on the outside. Jesus, the embodiment of God on earth, went to the places of deepest division and not only brought healing, but gave power to those who never had it before. When the empire of Rome took everything away from them, Jesus gave it back.
Make no mistake about it; the number of outsiders is growing. While the major parties speak about the middle class, shrinking from sixty three to fifty-one percent of the population over the past two decades, they must also speak about the poor. As voter suppression through de facto poll taxes, the purging of voter records and unconstitutional targeting of communities of color grows, so will the anger.
            When the economic and political elites of Detroit got together to begin to address poverty and the disempowerment of its citizens, their most creative solution was the building of casinos. The casinos further drain our local wealth and add to the poverty in our neighborhood. The powers that be did not come to the citizens of our community offering expertise on Swiss bank accounts, advice on starting a superpac nor an outline to start a ponzi scheme. Most of us stopped believing in our economic and political leaders years ago.
Our nation’s history says we only prosper when we expand and not contract ourselves. Ironically, it is also the message of Jesus. We prosper when we expand the inner circle and the number of people connected to the resources of our economy, our political system and our educational institutions. It is happening outside of traditional structures. In Detroit and elsewhere we are building our own businesses, at the beginning edge of creating our own food supplies and at the very start of bringing together communal interests at a large scale. Those living with low incomes have always done this. People of color, women, the LGBT community, communities of the disabled and many more outsiders have always been the creative centers of survival and hope. However, as the numbers of outsiders grows, so does our willingness to work together and form new partnerships, perhaps more than we have seen before this generation. Micro-development, the building of local power and resources, will be the key to the next generation’s building of wealth in communities of low income.
            The poor, such as the woman who fled her own home that summer day, will have their power. It may take a generation or two, but as Dr. King reminded us, the arc of the moral universe bends, and it bends toward justice. Will justice come through the working together of community, the leaders and the people they serve, or will it come with non-violent or violent revolution? We have not hit rock bottom yet. As wealth continues to be distributed from the poor to the wealthy, people are beginning to wake up. It may take another generation or two, but if we continue on this trajectory, revolution will come and it will change America forever. The need for a President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson is necessary. Their commitment to addressing poverty and strengthening the power of those falling through the safety nets saved America in their respective generations. Anything less than such a commitment from the major parties and their candidates for any office will leave those on the outside wanting. So far, the party conventions appear to be a repetitive exercise of political masturbation, a lot of noise and excitement without touching a single person and producing no results. The future of America is held in tension, and if things keep heading in the direction they are, those of us preaching nonviolence and peace in communities of poverty will soon lose all authority, and maybe we should. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Christians, Heretics, and Fried Chicken

They are using our name again, calling themselves Christian. They stood in line for chicken to support the practice of “repairing” gays and marginalizing us to the point of destruction. They say they stood in line to defend the first amendment, the right to speak. However, I critique the leadership of Chick-fil-A because I embrace a faith that goes beyond the amendment of one nation’s constitution. Rather, I believe in a value system of love that is eternal and a corporate understanding of justice for all people.

Chick-Fil-A Controversy: Gay Activist Plan Fast Food Protests

Some customers stated that they were in line silently standing up for their faith. If part of my faith was to deny certain groups of people adequate housing, access to medical care, good jobs and then send that same group to “repairative camps,” you would rightfully call me a hate-monger. I will just call them heretics. Centuries ago the church would burn heretics at the stake. In my worst moments I just hope they go home with heartburn.

I am a Christian. Unfortunately most people believe the haters like Mike Huckabee are the Christians. Haters believe that following the beliefs and teachings of Jesus, arguably the most justice-orientated, inclusive and loving person in history, leads them to stand in line at Chick-fil-A to condemn the faggots, dykes and queers. Little do they know they are heaping hot barbeque sauce upon their own heads.

The lines around the building and blocks of Chick-fil-A were a reminder to those of us who are progressive Christians how far we have to go. The disheartening day of August first was depressing even by the standards of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement for liberation. Bigotry came out of the closet in force that day.

Be not dismayed, however. Yes, we have been beat up, stepped on, abused, bullied, murdered and marginalized for too long. For every two steps forward there is one step back. We are the ones who end up on the crosses of contemporary religious hatred. However, we know we are hated because we are making progress. We need to turn up the heat. Progressive Christians need to come out of the closet, and we need to do it in mainstream life every day, not only when a convenient culture clash hits social media.

Haters and heretics are mad because we have the media tools and compelling arguments to turn the tide from hatred into love. We no longer accept hatred and discrimination as Biblical law. We will not remain in “our place,” which really makes the haters and heretics hotter than the oil in a fryer. Yes, the real Christians are not hating, but loving. We are not seeking Biblical law to keep others out, but believe in justice that holds everyone in.

For those who just want to eat their sandwich in peace, I apologize for this interruption. You probably did not make it to the end of this posting anyway. The opportunities for cultural change are not always planned or convenient. Sometimes they do not even make any sense. Nevertheless, here we are, searching for something better, bigger, more loving and more hopeful than the narrow messages of television Christianity.

Unfortunately, many have been led astray, convinced that their prejudices are the Word of God. There is part of me that actually feels for the people outside all those Chick-fil-As.  All those people stood in line around corners and across parking lots, searching for righteousness and something to believe in.  In the end, however, all they got was a chicken sandwich.

The Christian faith is and has always been better than that, even if the church has not. Defined by love, upheld by hope and driven by a sense of justice, people of faith are standing up every day, even without headlines. It is with a sense of anticipation that I await the day when even the heretics are converted to believers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Of Rolexes and False Prophets

Of Rolexes and False Prophets

On occasion, on a day of exceptional clarity and humility, it is possible to see one’s own holy judgment.  It happens when I catch myself in a lie and again when I refuse to forgive someone who betrays me.  But most recently it happened when a very slight, but very real internal smile fell upon my heart at the robbery of one of Detroit richest clergy members.  With sincerity I tell you, the smile only came after I learned he was physically well, bruised but not broken.  However, when the dust cleared and all that was left was a press conference, the smile was real.  I lay before you my confession:

The Detroit Free Press reported that the Rev. Marvin Winans was robbed at a gas station in Detroit by a group of young men, all in the light of day.  A clearly unashamed act of violence and perpetration of ugliness, the young men did what they could to destroy their victim’s ability to hold on to his possessions, much less his dignity.  At the loss of his 2012 Infinity, Rolex watch and a wad of cash, he was left as a Biblical traveler on the side of the road.  Finally, a person who recognized his celebrity invited him into her car and carried him to his church home.  Ironically, the new church home, a reflection of his lost Rolex, is not yet completed due to years of financial backs and forth.  When the final bricks are laid, it will be an honor to the Winans name.

Perfecting Church and the Rev. Winans are part of a theological movement known disparagingly by its critics as prosperity ministry.  An extra-biblical theology, prosperity roots itself in a particular kind of American capitalism, the kind that made slavery profitable and women’s suffrage a threat.  (Women tend to vote for policies that help the poor more often than men do.)  This particular brand of capitalism, endorsed by slave owners and prosperity ministers alike, upholds a false theology that claims God blesses through wealth.  In fact, it often, even usually does not matter how that wealth is obtained.  As long as one has it, one is blessed by God.  Rich people are blessed.  Poor people have yet to receive their blessing.  Your blessing is achieved while becoming a slave to the pursuit of more stuff. 

Prosperity ministry relies on self-absorption and the orientation of life toward the acquisition of material goods, such as Rolex watches.  When a person’s core value is the acquisition of wealth, it makes sense that people who do not have wealth, will do whatever they need to get it.  The Rev. Winans recently lived through the obvious result of his own preaching.  While I certainly do not know the circumstances of the young men who perpetrated this crime against the reverend, it can safely be assumed that they wanted what he had.   They wanted their blessing too. 

The pastor showed his own self-absorption by hoping his robbery will be a sign for the city to turn around, and that even the governor is calling him to assure it.  A glaringly noticeable absence in his public comments is recognition of the suffering of others, beyond his own person, of the hundreds who have been victims of crime in Detroit this year alone. 

Prosperity ministry contrasts itself with a theology of the cross which stands in the hope of the giving of oneself.   Most importantly, the theology of the cross stands in the giving of God, that God gave up everything to save the people.  Accordingly, Christians are called to give of themselves in their time, their possessions and their wealth in the pursuit of love and justice for the world, and value the same things as Jesus.   Namely, we are called to value people over material goods. 

Life in Detroit is hard, yet rich with the opportunity to touch lives with words and actions.  Life in Detroit is the holiest ground for a true gospel of the cross.  The only way to see the amazing life of the city is to give up oneself.  Selfish living is the beginning of the emptying of hope. 

When pastors, preachers and politicians speak about the downfalls of our city from the cowardly built walls of ex-urban security, they expose the idiocy and selfishness of their own selves.  When the true prophets of large churches climb into the pulpits they will encourage the members of their vast, upper middle class congregations to move their lives to Detroit.  They will encourage their membership to pay Detroit taxes, to build and rebuild neighborhoods and become the holy population base necessary to have a thriving city that truly loves its own people.  Unfortunately, so far we are only hearing the pompous and impotent cries of holy men (almost always men) rallying around the useless cries of lost moral values.  The word justice, other than for the return of their Rolex watches, never crosses their lips.  A true prophet however, would move his or her wealth blessing into the city, and leave its profit as a prophetic witness to the struggle of equity for the poor, and the young men who no longer see hope in wealth.