Evil Produces Evil; How Shall We Respond?

Luke 6:45:  The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

On Wednesday morning it was Georgia which captured my interest.  Who would win?  What would happen in the Senate?  During my morning Zoom meetings – Tea with the Pastor and the Staff Meeting, I kept an eye on the results and the day was looking better and better.  The returns were promising, the Zoom conversations had been great.  My next Zoom meeting was with the Interim Search Committee; we were having a lovely time talking with one another, making some plans for the future, when in the background of my computer screen, I saw the headline “Capitol on Lockdown”.  Suddenly a day which had brimmed full of promise, re-filled with horror.

We all had many of the same experiences – a day was proceeding, much as you hoped, and then… absolute and complete horror as we saw, together, a mob running up the steps to the Capitol, surging through the halls, driving the members of Congress into safe hiding places.

It wasn’t hard to see what that mob wanted to do – they sought to disrupt the process of certifying the votes of the Electoral College in the deluded belief that, if they succeeded, Donald Trump would simply continue to be President.  (In point of fact, if they had succeeded, Nancy Pelosi would become President until things were straightened out.)  I could almost appreciate the irony that if there’s anything they’d like less than Joe Biden as our next President, it would be Speaker Pelosi.

But there was no space to appreciate irony on Wednesday.  Actual live, theoretically human, people paraded in our Capitol wearing sweatshirts that said “Camp Auschwitz – Work Makes Freedom” or “6MWNE” (six million [Jews] were not enough).  Some of the police who were supposed to protect our government opened barriers for the mob to swarm over the building, even while others put their lives on the line.  In the midst of all this, a United States Senator was photographed encouraging the rioters. The President encouraged them as well.  Today, the Capitol is littered with debris and five people are dead.  

How do we understand and cope with the depths of depravity we saw?  How do we deal with our own anger?

On Wednesday morning, at Tea with the Pastor, we were struggling with the nature of evil – does evil really exist?  Much of the time, we believe that people are basically good.  We have stepped away from that old Puritan belief in everlasting evil.  But then come days like Wednesday, and scenes such as I described.  It is nothing but evil to celebrate the murder of Jews.  It is nothing but evil to step away from your responsibility to protect.  It is nothing but evil to incite a mob to violence, or to take advantage of that violence to make money.

But evil cannot prevail.  That is the truth of the Resurrection.  Christ rose from the dead as a sure sign that love overcomes evil.

How do we live with our feelings?  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s incredibly angry.  Over the years, I’ve learned two things about times like this, times filled with frustration and anger.  First of all, we’re still in the middle of things.  It’s natural and expected that we’ll be tossed this way and that.  it doesn’t mean we’ve been thrown off our foundations; it means that things are still happening.  But we don’t have to indulge those feelings.  If you’re angry, you’re angry, but it’s not exactly where you’ll be in seven days.  

And the second thing I’ve learned?  It’s not to make decisions before I have to, not to take action until it’s necessary.  Give yourself time to think things over, to see how it all plays out.  We’re not going to forget, but we don’t yet know all we will, especially over the next two weeks.

In the meantime, we’re not going to ignore what’s happened.  We, here in Middletown, will wait to see how things play out, but our Senators – Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy – are in the midst of things.  “This is a time,” writes Tony Robinson, “to do the right thing.”  Love doesn’t mean ignoring evil, or giving evil unlimited permission to do what they want.  All people are welcome in God’s love, but all behaviors are not.  

Bill Moyers points out that there can be no “moving on” or “looking to the future” before facing the truth. People have broken the law and they are being arrested, will be tried, and will be jailed.  Rioters have lost their jobs.  Those who instigated, encouraged and supported the riot are being investigated.  While we wait for clearness as to what happened and who was involved, we have a job.  Our work, our calling, in the midst of all this is to continue to proclaim the power of love.

Where some proclaim that it is the Christian way to “stand up for America” and try to tear down our democracy, we will continue to live our belief that the Christian way is a way of welcome.

We may still wish that evil did not exist, but today we know it does.  Out of the strength of our faith in God’s everlasting goodness, however, we will be church, love God and serve our neighbors.

Blessings, 

Virginia

August 18, 2020

Jeremiah, that Old Testament prophet, still speaks to today.  Nancy Taylor, of Old South Church, showed us how he can help us see how to live in a world turned upside down.  Today, we’re going to take it a little further.

Jeremiah wrote for a people whose world had been turned upside down.  They’d lost a war, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled that the leaders – nobles, lords, the wealthy, the religious leaders, scribes – all had to be exiled to Babylon, so that they would not revolt.  The exiles did not know when or if they would ever be able to return to their lives in Jerusalem.  Babylon wasn’t a bad place to live, but it wasn’t home.  So, they spent much of their time trying to make this new place as much like the old place as they could, trying to hold onto “the way it had always been”, living, as it were, in suspended animation until they could get back to real life.

Into that setting came the word from Jeremiah:  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)  Eventually, he says, you will come home, but not for a long time, so settle in and live where you are.  That sure sounds like the world we’re in right now – turned upside down by COVID, turned upside down by recognition of racial divides, turned upside down by organizations busy building dividing walls of hostility, turning us on each other.

Whenever I think about what’s going on these days, I flash back to fourth grade and the stories about those who went west in wagon trains across the prairies.  You probably read the same stories…. brave pioneers, wonderful Conestoga wagons loaded to the gills with the stuff of their old lives?  Do you also remember how as the wagon trains made their way across Nebraska, the trails got more and more difficult?  Muddy? Rocky? Deep ruts?   And the pioneers had to choose – which was more important – getting there? or keeping their stuff?  Because they couldn’t have both.  They could go back to home with their stuff and give up their dreams or they could toss the heavy stuff that was weighing them down, toss it off the wagons, toss it to the side of the trail.  As the pioneers traversed the Great Plains they cast off more and more of their former lives in order to move ahead into an unknown future.

We’re traveling a new trail these days, a trail to a new way of being a country, and we’re in the middle of the part where we have to decide.  Will we hold onto all that’s familiar, even if it weighs us down so much we can’t move beyond yesterday’s prejudices and assumptions?  Or will we toss that old stuff over the side, and with lightened hearts and renewed hope, will we move into a different way of being – a way where everyone has a safe place at the table?  It’s hard; there’s no doubt about that.  If you’ve ever moved, you know how hard it is to give up stuff you’ll not need again.  But if you drag the old stuff, the stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, won’t be needed… well you won’t have space for the new stuff that fits your new life.

In these tough days, we are dumping a lot of stuff that has held us back, and letting go of it all is hard.  Our favorite joke is no longer funny.  The trust we’ve had in our law enforcement has been betrayed by a few bad apples, and in some parts of our country, the bad apples are winning.  We have to toss aside the belief that “someone else” will guard our guardians, and take up the responsibility of supporting our good police.   

We are traveling into a new land, not just because of the COVID pandemic, but because of things we have seen, things we have learned.  We can’t just close our eyes, click our heels, and be taken back to last year’s reality.  We are here, now, and have to live today.  In this reality, Jeremiah says to us, build homes, plant gardens with seeds of faith, and hope, and love; work hard and reap a harvest for a new reality.  In this new world, we are more open to hearing the stories of hardship, the realities of wrong-doing, and responding with God’s everlasting love.

May it be so!

Pastor Virginia

August 6, 2020

August 6, 2020

Matthew 14: 13-21 “You give them something to eat.” 

When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick.

Toward evening the disciples approached him. “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.”

But Jesus said, “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.”

 “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said.

Jesus said, “Bring them here.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.

I met with the Diaconate on Monday afternoon to make plans for this Sunday’s outdoor worship service (you’ll be there, right?  In the parking lot, 10am, bring a chair… about 30 minutes, with Communion????)

And we also talked through their idea to hold an Exit Interview with me, to get a sense of what went well during the interim, and what might have been better.  We’ll be doing that in the next 10 days or so, before I am done.    As we were working on what might be asked, I asked them what they wanted to come of this interview.  That question made me think of this reading.

We all know this as the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and often the focus is on the miracle of coming up with another food.  In my Quaker First-day School, the emphasis was on the miracle of the generosity of those who had food put away and brought it out to share.  Today, though, I want us to think about why the disciples came and asked Jesus to send the followers away.

What did Jesus want to have happen when he responded to the disciples?  What had they wanted?

Well, it looks to me as though the disciples wanted to handle things easily, without being too involved.  “Send them all home, let someone else feed them. . .”  And Jesus wanted them to take responsibility, to take charge of the feeding effort.  Think of the disciples as tired, hungry, and fearful that things were spiraling out of control.  They had no food, they had no money, and they had no sense of their own abilities, power, authority.

Jesus wanted them to understand that their faith gave them authority, gave them power, and made them responsible.

You all are on the edge of starting a new relationship, welcoming your next settled pastor.  What do you want to have happen as a result of that new relationship?  What will she want of you?  Why will you ask for those things?  How will each of  you, all of you, exercise your authority, your power, and take up your responsibilities?

Blessings, Pastor Virginia

 

 

August 4, 2020

August 4

John Lewis decided on the kind of life he would live. Jacob had to make that decision; we all have to make that decision.

Genesis 32:22-31   “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Last Thursday, along many others, I watched the Homecoming (funeral) service for John Lewis, live-streamed from his home church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  Speaker after speaker shared his or her remembrances.

As I listened, this line from Genesis kept coming back to me…. “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  In the story in Genesis, it’s clear Jacob is wrestling with God, wrestling with his future.  Wrestling, wrestling with tomorrow.  Wrestling with good.  Wrestling with evil.

John Lewis was a champion wrestler – wrestling with the racism of his beloved country.  His wrestling began when he was a teen, with the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and it never stopped.

I’m struck by the lesson for all of us to stick with it, to keep going, to get up after we’re knocked down.  George W. Bush said:  “[John Lewis’s] lesson to all of us is that we must all keep ourselves open to hearing the call of love, the call of service, and the call to sacrifice for others.”  Barack Obama added:  “You only pass this way once; you have to give all you have.”  Two former leaders of our world, two faithful Christians, testifying to the truth that life calls forth from us a constant readiness to wrestle with questions of right and wrong.

We don’t all have the opportunity to wrestle with the major problems of the twentieth century in a public way like John Lewis did.  But we all have the opportunity to wrestle.  Little issues, big ones, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is whether we turn towards, or turn away from.  As Barack Obama said, “You only pass this way once…”  Give it all you have.

Blessings,
Pastor Virginia

If you didn’t see the service you can catch up with either the whole service, or the eulogies, here:

A recap:  https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/31/politics/john-lewis-atlanta-funeral-service/index.html

The whole service: https://livestream.com/historicebenezerbaptistchurch/events/9236743

President Obama’s eulogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1pKoCq1bn0

President Bush’s eulogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwvvt_mzV_Q

President Clinton’s eulogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIubZ3IC4Gk

 

 

July 28, 2020

Romans 8: 26-39  “If God is for us, who is against us?”

At the end of April, 1965, I drove from Parris Island, South Carolina to Santa Ana, California.  The first leg of my trip crossed South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, going right through Selma, Alabama.  I don’t remember if I went through downtown Selma, across the Pettus Bridge, but it’s quite likely.

It was six weeks after the confrontation at the Pettus Bridge.  Six weeks since John Lewis had been beaten crossing that bridge.  I wasn’t all that aware of the world outside my doors, but I knew enough to know that white women with Yankee accents weren’t welcome in Alabama.  it was less than a month since Viola Liuzzo had been murdered in Selma.  

I scrupulously followed the speed limits and drove through town with the windows rolled up and no stopping allowed.  I did not feel safe until I got to Vicksburg that evening.

On Monday, I watched the arrival of John Lewis’ body to lie in state in the Rotunda of the US Capitol.  And I cried.  There was a time when we all lived in fear, Blacks most of all, in the South.  We still fear, but not like then.  John Lewis believed that change would happen.  And it did.

No one claims we’ve gotten to the Promised Land on racial issues.  But, oh my, the changes.  St. Paul wrote in Romans 8, “if God is for us, who is against us?”  The “us” is the cause of equality and fairness.  The “us” is Black people who have been beaten, reviled, killed, ignored.  The “us” is all of us who live in a system that makes it all seem normal.

If God wants us to live as a people without dividing walls, who can stop us?  Not bullying or beating, not fire or noose, not systematic brutality or deficient education, not the habits of the ages, not the casual acceptance of the way it’s always been.  

If God is for us, who is against us? 

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 

Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A Meditation on Christian Patriotism

July 4, 2020

The Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

U S Constitution Section 2, par 3  Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons

Romans 7:15-20 (The Message translation)  I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.  But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.

June 22, 2020

June 22, 2020

Yesterday, in the sermon we heard from Nancy Taylor, she talked about being part of the Third Reconstruction – first, the Reconstruction after the Civil War, second, the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s – and today a Third Reconstruction.

The Reconstruction that is happening today is that us and them are becoming we.  The dividing walls of hostility are dissolving right before our eyes.  The fear and the pain, so long our eyes have been closed to, has now become ours.  It is no longer something that we turn away from.  No longer do we view each story of police brutality as an aberration, something one-off, something surely provoked by bad behavior.  Today, with horror, we’re realizing that even with the very best of intentions, we still have not seen, have not heard, have not understood what has been right before us.  We are beginning to understand that we no longer have the option of closing our eyes – either we struggle for equality or we stand against it.  The middle ground is no more.

It’s not just police brutality, you know.  It’s putting the little black kid in the back row of his elementary school class.  And then, finally seeing him, thinking of him only as an addition to the basketball team.  It’s not noticing that we’ve never met a black teacher, or not noticing that – even though there are people of color in our community – we don’t actually know anyone well enough to have lunch with them.  It’s not wondering why there are no black people at our beach.

In some ways, we’re waking up the way we did around homosexuality.  I used to hear people say “there are no gay people here,” when, if we’d only used our eyes and good common sense, we would have realized that Aunt Marie didn’t need to have a roomie, and that the two of them were a couple.  And it was embarrassing to realize how we’d closed our eyes to what was right in front of us.  But this is worse.  Worse, because it took more effort to ignore people, who by their skin color, should have been just as obvious as the nose on my face.  But it was as if they were invisible.

I know this is hard for many of us.  It’s easy to get caught up in worries about protecting the police, or looters, or any of the many alternative stories that are going around.  It’s challenging to look at our world and think about what this might mean for us.  Those walls we lived behind were part of what kept us “safe”.  Except, you know, those walls didn’t so much keep us safe as keep us ignorant.  And ignorance is never to be confused with safety.

Today, it is time to work to change our world.  It is time to see the pain, to hear the need and to make a difference.

Blessings, Pastor Virginia

June 17, 2020

June 17, 2020

Proverbs 4:20-22
My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight; keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.

We don’t often spend a lot of time with the Book of Proverbs.  There’s no plot, no real stories, no narrative arc.  Just one piece of advice after another.  There’s not even much mention of God – just Wisdom, and lots of it.  But there’s a reason Proverbs is in the Bible; it’s full of good sense.  Today’s reading is just one example.  It’s a warning to us all.  You can see the warning when you ask yourself, why is this here?

These words warn us that it’s all too easy in our world to stop listening to God’s words.  It’s all too easy to lose sight of our ultimate purpose, to step away from the path for whatever reason.  So the reading for today tells us that, in order to avoid losing our way, we should be intentional about reminding ourselves of the way.  Be attentive to God’s words, it says.  In other words, read the Bible on a regular basis.  Make those words as familiar as a favorite song, so that when we are faced with choices – as we inevitably will be – the guiding words of our Christian faith come to mind.

We believe that we have been created by God in order to help build communities of love, justice and mercy.  In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul writes:  “knowledge puffs us, but love builds up.”  Again, in Colossians 2, he writes:  “I want their (believers) hearts to be encouraged and united in love.”  I John 4 tells us “Beloved, let us love on another, because love is from God. . . whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  Further on, John writes: “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Jesus himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, said:  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  As for justice, in Luke 3, Jesus said:  “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise…”

Love is our foundation, justice and mercy are the two forms of our activities.  And daily, steady, consistent reading of our Bible helps ground us in the words which form our faith.

Blessings, Pastor Virginia

June 13, 2020 Gone With The Wind

I Corinthians 12:26 –  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Years ago, I was helping a church craft a mission statement.  We worked hard and got it down to something like this:  “Open Hands, Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”.  We were having an all church meeting to discuss the proposal when one of the more outspoken members said “I have a problem with this!”  We asked what the problem was, and it turned out he was uncomfortable with the idea of open doors.   And then one of the old folks of the church turned to him and said, “Just who do you want to keep out?”

I’ve been chewing over all that’s been happening and wondering how we could examine what we’re seeing and hearing without getting into nasty, friendship-ending arguments.  I’m wondering if one path might not be in reading stories together.  Here’s part of why I’m suggesting that:

Have you ever seen or read Gone With The Wind? It tells us things that just aren’t true.  GWTW tries to glorify an armed rebellion against the United States, and moreover attempts to suggest that slavery was pretty good for the slaves.  But it’s a good read and a classic movie, so folks still watch it and absorb that picture of the world.  GWTW is a powerful, though false, story.  What about some stories which tell truth from the Black perspective?

What would happen if we read some books written by Black people, written about the Black experience?  Would they give us some insight into what’s going on in our world?  Would they give us a way to talk, without getting into arguments?  I hope so.

Here’s what I’m suggesting:  let’s all read a book.  And then let’s talk about what we read, about the ways life in that book differs from our lives.  Let’s talk together about the problems the people in the book experience.  And we’ll see what we can learn from that.

The book I’m suggesting is Blanche on the Lam, by Barbara Neely.  It’s available on Kindle (free, if you have Kindle Unlimited, $7 if you don’t), and at Amazon paperback for $14 ($12 at Alibris.com).  It’s a murder mystery, and a pretty good one, mostly set in North Carolina.

We’ll talk about this at next Wednesday’s Tea With the Pastor, so if you have feedback, bring it there or send me an email.

Pastor Virginia