Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Choose life

We  are slow gathering today.  A visitor has arrived looking for a service. She regularly sings at Lafayette Avenue Church in  Brooklyn, a vital church where my friend David Dyson (another Pittsburgh guy) is pastor. She’s got a Sunday off and is out to see what’s  in her neighborhood. I know that Jim and Holly are over at Jan Hus today to hear Janie Spahr, one of the early leaders of the More Light movement that grew from West-Park across the country and across denominations.  Oh, and Janie began her ministry as an urban pastor in Pittsburgh. (See a pattern here?)  
I grow increasingly anxious that this might be that day, the day I fear more than any other when no one will show up.  When a bank of lights go out and I can’t seem to find the right circuit breaker, I’m about ready to give up. But the lights come on, the people come and we’re ready for worship.  
Andre chants the psalm in his improvised  jazz style and  we respond. The scriptures are read. 
There’s much to talk about.  it’s been quite a week. An inspiring moment in Egypt. In eighteen days, a dictator overthrown. The people did it. No one else. Not the military, not the US, the people...Although we don’t know what comes next, the way in which this revolution was fought and won gives hope for Egypt’s future and inspiration for people everywhere.
Voting continued in Presbyteries this week to reverse the part of our Book of Order that effectively has been used to exclude  lgbt  people from ordination at every  level of our ecclesiastical life. For the first time ever the  yes votes  are in the majority. Only by 5, 34-29, and there are still 110 to go, but it is a promising  moment, a hopeful moment. I ask the congregation that if any one has Presbyterian friends in other parts of the country that haven’t voted yet, now’s the time to call. I point to the rainbow flag hanging from the balcony. Remind the congregation of our legacy. This time the struggle can be won. 
This week my friend David Bos. of Louisville died. He had been a founder of  the Community Ministries and Neigborhood Organizations and later Presbyterian Association for Community Transformation national networks. He was a true pioneer in ecumenical community ministry. And he almost singlehandedly led the denomination into support for single payer healthcare leading to a series of workshops all across the country to increase understanding and support for just healthcare. And David was a friend of ours. Every time he came to New York City he would worship with us,through good times and bad. Last fall he was with us to give us support in our new project. He will be missed.
The framework for what I have to say is the quote from Deuteronomy 30:  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. It come from the almost the end of Torah..The children of Israel are standing at the edge of the promised land. It’s as if after 40 years, God is asking them one more time, are you ready? Really ready?
Choose life. This quote was a motto of the nuclear freeze movement back in the 80’s. I pointed to the two balconies  and remembered how the 1982 march against nuclear proliferation was planned right here, within these walls. And over  a million people marched in New York City in support of the Second UN Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament.
The passage can be dangerous. On the one hand, it can be misread can as a  prosperity gospel. All that equating life/prosperity, death/adversity. It’s all about following other gods. We do that all the time. I told them of my conversation with the mad prophet on the street last week. How all sins flow out of that first one.
For me, what brought this passage to concrete reality was  9-11.. When we served there as a congregation and toured those smoldering acres of death and destruction in a Stygian landscape. I realized that this is the basic choice we must make life? or death?  My clergy group last Wednesday had debated, can we really choose? Traditional reformed theology would argue that even our capacity to choose is  a function of grace...and yet.....As I’ve reread Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I realize again the importance of our choices. So for others, I’ll grant grace and not judge, for myself, my community, it will be the power and capacity to make choices. 
For we do make choices. We chose not to sell. We chose to remain here. We chose to come back heat or no heat. And we choose to be here every Sunday. It’s about choosing life. The classic Hebrew toast? L’haim. How do we cheer in Spanish?

That’s the context in which I look at the Gospel, Matthew 5: 21-37. It’s a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. This year, because of our long Epiphany season, it’s the longest longest stretch we ever have with the Sermon on the Mount..(Pastor Drummond at West End told us of a friend that preached on it for a whole year.) It’s about a community in 70 CE trying to figure out how to live after fall of the Temple. And I’m convinced that for Jesus, it was part of his project to make the  Jubilee real. (Jubilee in the Torah every 7 times 7 plus 1 years forgive all debts, restore everyone to community and begin again.)
I remind them that Jesus is speaking to disciples, people who have already made a commitment. Jesus looks at tradition, then ups the ante. For him, the Law is all about the heart of the matter.
Want to talk about murder? Even anger harms. I’ve seen in communities how  anger can be used to  intimidate, to push the other around. It’s  also good to admit that sometimes anger is exactly the appropriate response.  And we need to acknowledge it, own it, or it can devour us. The issue is not denying it or even controlling it, but learning to actively manage it.
The need for reconciliation? Especially  before communion? Can you imagine what that might be like? If you had to leave the table and go be reconciled with someone before sharing in the eucharist? Hope and I were all day in a Presbytery “reconciliation” process yesterday. It’s hard work. Necessary, but hard. 
Talk about divorce?  In Jesus’ day, this was an issue about community, (divorce still impacts our community life today) and justice. The issue at stake  here is economic justice, so that women would not abandoned, driven to the margins. 
This is all in the context of Jesus’ use of  hyperbole. This is an answer to those who say they take the Bible literally. (But there are reports that some actually  do do this.) Why only right eye?  The right arm? Do we assume that if the left causes you to sin it’s ok? 
As for lust in the heart, it’s about objectification. Remember Jimmy Carter? How this admission affected him? Still, I’m going to come down on the side of choice again. It does make a difference. Like anger, feeling it is not at issue. What matters is what you do with it. 
We know how the world is. What Jesus gives us is a vision of something better.....a vision we can work towards. 
Finally, we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no....whose word can  be counted on. And both what we say yes to and what we say no to are important. And sometimes we have to say no to get to yes. And in all these choices, it’s about choosing life.
Marsha reminds people of the need to give, to get 100% members giving to show our commitment to our own life, and to meet our challenge grant. And we make plans for the afternoon IAF Assembly. 
Andre leads us in a version of kum ba ya that brings the song out of the world of cynical reference and back to its powerful South African roots. It rises from the bottom up.
As usual, when  the doors are open, after services there are  visitors who want to see the church.  So I do my best enthusiastic tour guide . I’m still amazed by the  number who say they’ve lived here all these years and never been inside. Opening that front door is a basic necessity. When  they ask where the money will come from, I say politicians who’ve made  promises. Com   nunity groups that have made promises And people just like you.
Time to lock up and head home.
Later that afternoon, I swing by the church in my van. Marsha and Deacon James are waiting for me on the steps. We’ll swing by 78th and pick up Arcadia and Hope and be  off to East New York for the Assembly.  We’ll go to St. Paul's Baptist, the church made famous by Johnny Ray Youngblood in Upon this Rock, where the Nehemiah Houses were born. Where faith based community organizing turned a neighborhood around. We’ll join with over a thousand others to hear Senator Schumer and Congressperson Weiner promise  to join us in the fight to preserve Social Security as it is and improve the  system's responsiveness. And new schools’ Chancellor Kathy Black promise to meet with us within two weeks to further our agenda for more just public education. And on the way home, we’ll talk about how we could get our own council member to a greater level of public accountability. It all begins with relationships. 

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