Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Prayer for the Eagles

This week's post was written by my daughter Anna Kocher, artist, musician, mother of three. The photos were taken by my friend George Tallman at Conowingo Dam, a large hydro-electric dam on the Susquehanna River, crossed by US Route 1 between Pennsylvania and Maryland. I am grateful to both for sharing their work and for their wise stewardship of unexpected beauty.

In response to Senate confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of a the EPA and to the Audubon headline, The New Head of the EPA is a Major Threat to Birds and People:

When I was a kid, I remember being taught in school about our National Emblem, the Bald Eagle, and how it was in danger of becoming extinct. We learned that the Bald Eagle had nearly disappeared from the United States, and how important it was for us to reduce, reuse and recycle, etc. as our way of doing our part for the planet. What I didn't understand at the time was the role EPA regulations played in their protection.

My mother and other members of my family are avid bird-watchers and take great joy in recording their rare and unique sightings. I love to watch birds, for their beauty and freedom, but I'm not naturally a keeper of records or lists. I'm as happy watching a flock of pigeons as I am a pileated what-have-you. I always joke with my family when they get excited about a rare bird sighting, saying, "Don't even tell me unless it's a Bald Eagle!"

The other weekend my sister and I were driving home from DC, having gone down for the Women's March to be bodies in the crowd of millions of people trying to say, through our presence, "This is not ok with us. We have a voice and we are not alright with this." We were touched by the peaceful friendliness of the marchers.

After the march we spent a lovely night and morning at our brother's house, but on our way home on Sunday we hit a ton of traffic. So many others were also trying to return home after the march that traffic on 95 was crawling and I needed to get back to my kids. We took an unfamiliar detour and wound up crossing over the Conowingo Dam.

We were driving over the bridge with water on either side when all of a sudden my sister looked out and said, "Wait, what's that there?"

We both looked out and I spotted it too: a Bald Eagle, massive and regal on a branch hanging over the water. I started to scream and swerve (safely, within my lane) and we continued to look over the edge (while maintaining safe following distance). Then we saw another! And another! Eventually I had to drag my eyes back to the road, but my sister counted ten Bald Eagles!

I was so moved. I've seen a few Bald Eagles over the last few years, and have always reacted with an embarrassing level of excitement; but this was different. This was proof, with my own eyes, that a species had been successfully brought back from the brink by our society rallying, regulating, changing and choosing to do what was maybe less convenient in the moment in order to achieve a greater, future good.

If you've known me for any length of time you know that I'm not usually very political. I'm also not confrontational. I also don't like making phone calls. Doing things like speaking up about this kind of thing and making phone calls to my senators is a bit of a departure for me.

But for me, this is not about politics. I've never been a registered member of either of our country's leading political parties. It's also not about being liberal or conservative. I imagine many of you would accuse me of being too liberal and many of being too conservative.

It's about the deep disappointment and disgust I feel towards those in power for actively dismissing and dismantling those things I always, naively, thought we could all fundamentally agree upon, however different our opinions of how to achieve them: the common good, the future good, the protection of the vulnerable, the "just and proper use of your creation," as we say in my church.

Lately I've been saying a lot, old-lady style, semi-joking but mostly serious, to the possible chagrin of my family members, "Why do the wicked prosper?"

But I've been saying to myself with equal frequency the words Martin Luther King Jr. used when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's what I'm praying for, and that's what I'm praying I'll learn how to work towards.

If you've made it this far in my little speech, thank you. Pour yourself a Friday night beverage, or Sunday afternoon tea, and let me know if you see any Bald Eagles.
In peace, we pray to you, Lord God.
For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.
For this community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.
For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.
For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.
For the peace and unity of the Church of God;
For all who proclaim the Gospel, and all who seek the Truth.
For all who serve God in his Church.
For the special needs and concerns of this congregation.
Hear us, Lord;
For your mercy is great.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Our church has been working through the book of Nehemiah.

It's an odd choice for the season of Epiphany, a historic narrative from Jewish history full of difficult names and odd little details about the building of the wall around Jerusalem.

On Sunday the text was from Nehemiah 5: 
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 
Our minister, Richard Morgan, has been using Nehemiah to illuminate our life together as a congregation but also to shine a light on the larger Christian church within the context of American politics. Without naming names or stirring partisan passions, he's invited us to consider our witness and calling.

On Sunday, he described the outcry of the people without economic opportunity, calling out for justice. The Hebrew word for justice, "mishpat," 
goes beyond what I must do to avoid doing something wrong and goes to God's concern for all people. It's not that the rules are all being kept but that the people in the land are living in a way that is just according to God's standards that all may eat and all may work and none may be enslaved and all may have opportunity.
Richard referenced Tim Keller's focus on mishpat in his book "Generous Justice":
Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”  
Scripture is full of reference to mishpat, repeatedly linking justice to treatment of the vulnerable: 
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’  (Zechariah 7-9)
 The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17) 
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)  
According to scripture, the correct response to injustice is anger and intervention.  When Nehemiah heard the outcry of his people, the text says he "was very angry."

 Not angry at those crying out. Not angry that they dared to complain or dared to disrupt the smooth flow of commerce. 
Nehemiah was angry, very angry, at the injustice of those whose selfishness and greed had pushed others to the brink of slavery and starvation.
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them. 
The exploitation of Nehemiah's day seems mild compared to the inequities of our own.

Our Congress just approved the richest cabinet ever, including a billionaire who has used her wealth to buy influence and shape public policy in a way that has worsened segregation and undermined education for the poorest and most needy.

Our president has defrauded thousands of workers and has cheated thousands of students of both tuition and time. 

Here's what Nehemiah said to the wealthy nobles of his day:
“What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”
“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!” 
That image of shaking out God's robe is a strong one, but scripture is full of even sharper warnings to wealthy leaders who ignore the cries of the vulnerable. As Nehemiah promised God would shake out those taking interest from the poor, so God promised, again and again, to punish the powerful who mistreated the weak. 
Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
We are surrounded by the vulnerable crying out. 

Refugees turned back at our borders.

Families struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs.

Communities harmed by toxic industries.

Parents worried as for-profit charter schools syphon public money from under-resourced systems. 

Where do God's people stand: with those crying out or with those who would silence them?

From Psalm 82, a cry for justice:
God says, “How long will you defend evil people?
    How long will you show greater kindness to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the orphans;
    defend the rights of the poor and suffering.
Save the weak and helpless;
    free them from the power of the wicked.
You know nothing. You don’t understand.
You walk in the dark, while the world is falling apart.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Blessed Beggars

Last weekend my husband Whitney and I traveled to Manhattan with friends to see Martin Luther on Trial, the Fellowship for Performing Arts' most recent play,

We've been following founder Max McLean for a decade or so, since he came to perform his one-man Mark's Gospel for an event Whitney organized in his work at Scripture Union.

The words of the gospel jumped to life in McLean's performance, a rapid-fire journey through the life of Christ from baptism to resurrection.

After years of performing memorized scripture McLean began digging into other material. Several years ago, we invited friends we've known for decades to join us in Philly for The Screwtape Letters, a stylish, sardonic two-person show that captured the complex theology of C. S. Lewis and provided fuel for days of reflection and conversation.

Last year, the same six of us met in New York for The MostReluctant Convert, McLean's story of Lewis' journey into faith. We sat spell-bound in the Pearl Theater while McLean, pipe in hand, brought theology to life, capturing Lewis' brilliance, his disdain for sloppy thinking, his joy as faith broke through his lifelong inner solitude.

McLean's new play, also at the Pearl, ended its off-Broadway run Sunday. I confess, I was not as eager to go. Martin Luther is not one of my heroes, trial drama isn't my favorite, and I've been so busy lately the idea of a weekend away, even in Manhattan, seemed almost more chore than pleasure.

McLean's past plays have been one or two person shows. This one had six actors and for the first time, McLean wasn't one, serving instead as director. The play began with an imposing St. Peter sitting as judge in a trial demanded by an urbane, sardonic Satan.

According to Satan, Martin Luther was guilty of the unforgiveable sin and Satan was prepared to act as prosecutor. Luther's wife, Katie, was called, unprepared, to serve as defense attorney.

Two other actors rotated through the drama as a cast witnesses: Luther's contemporary Rabbi Josel, Hitler, Freud, Michael the Archangel, Martin Luther King, the Apostle Paul, Pope Francis.

Luther himself wandered on and off stage, writing, reading, talking, weeping, hammering his famous thesis to an invisible Wittenberg door.

We don't choose the times in which we live, but we choose how we respond. Luther lived in a time of great corruption, a time when religious leaders had compromised faithfulness to gather enormous financial and political power.

The play depicts Luther's determination to see past the fog of manipulation and corruption, his courage in calling power to account, his deepening depression and unmanageable anger when the church he loved ignored his call to repentance and renewal.

Through it all, his wife Katie defended him, challenged and confronted him, supported, fed and loved him.  Their unconventional love story was an unexpected bonus.

The trial itself spiraled to a grand conclusion, with Satan dropping his cool demeanor to shout accusations at Peter, Luther, Katie, Pope Francis, god himself.

After Satan's spectacular departure, Luther's final words, the same words scribbled on a scrap of paper just before he died, were repeated by others as they left the stage: we are beggars.

The unforgiveable sin was Satan's: demanding power, shouting accusation.

The final defense, for Luther, Peter, Katie, Pope Frances: we are beggars.

Walking back to our hotel through the lights of Times Square, watching beggars maneuver their wheelchairs along the crowded sidewalk, eyeing the sleeping shadows in the side-street alcoves, I found myself thinking of the timeliness of Luther's story.

What do faithful Christians do when Christianity itself seems aligned with power, wealth, manipulation and deceit?

How do we speak truth to power without falling prey to anger and despair?

The next morning our group met for breakfast across from Central Park, then walked down Fifth Avenue, past the machine-gunned-armed guards in front of Trump Tower, to the morning service at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church.

In his homily, (33-47), Canon Turner pulled two neighboring passages together in a way I'd not heard before, moving between the beatitudes in Matthew 5 to the third temptation of Christ in the chapter just before. 
Archbishop Rowan Williams once suggested that in order to understand the power of the Beatitudes . . . we have to look back to the narrative that precedes the Sermon on the Mount to chapter four of Matthew's gospel and the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Williams suggest that it is the third and the most terrible of the temptations that is the most compelling as we try to understand the beatitudes.
The response of Jesus is the key to our understanding of the beatitudes.
On that mountain Jesus did not choose a relationship with human power and self-aggrandizement. Instead, he chose the perfect relationship he already had with his father and which relationship he would share with his friends.
The beatitudes are not a blueprint for church life. Neither are they a stoic way of dealing with disappointments. The beatitudes are the values of the kingdom and the making visible of that kingdom on earth.
As followers of Jesus we are called to make his kingdom visible through lives that are Christlike. We are blessed when we put God first and not the values of the world.
Blessed beggars. That's what we're called to be.

By any measure, I live a life of privilege.

Comfort, education, travel, opportunity.

No beggar sleeps in the Omni, attends off-Broadway play, wines and dines with friends.

And yet, on the deepest levels, I know my need.

Like Luther, I have wrestled with depression, anger, doubt.

I have struggled to make visible the values of the kingdom and failed. And know my failure.

Daily, I review the challenges around me and acknowledge how far I fall short of the task.

My patience falls short.

My compassion is lacking.

In every real way, by any honest measure, I am a beggar.

Dependent on grace.

Deeply in need of wisdom, insight, mercy and love far beyond my own.

I read back through the beatitudes, resting in the promise of blessing for all who know and admit their need.

We are blessed when poor in spirit, knowing our need of God.

Blessed as we mourn, saddened, as was Luther, by our own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world around us.

Blessed as we grow more gentle, restraining our own privilege to allow room for others to thrive.

Blessed as we hunger and thirst, pray and plead, for justice and shalom.

Blessed as we struggle to live with integrity, loyalties clear and undivided, centering our souls on God, shining as beacons of light to a broken, hopeless world.

Blessed as we work for peace, as we live in tune with God's redemptive love.

Blessed when condemned for speaking out against injustice.

Blessed when trolled and harassed for maintaining allegiance to God alone rather than the current endorsed idolatrous regime.

Rejoice and be glad at the invitation to live as beacons of another way.

Rejoice and be glad as we live - grounded in love- as a visible challenge to the lack of love around us. 

Like Luther, we live in a time of corruption.

A time of unraveling institutions.

A time of uncertainty, confusion, discord, disillusion.

As we work for justice, we will certainly fall short.

As we struggle to live as light, we will wrestle, daily, with darkness.

What a comfort, to say, with saints of every century: we are blessed beggars. This is true. 

Wir sind bettler.

Hoc est verum.