Sunday, September 30, 2018

"let my life be given me, and the lives of my people"



Sermon Preached September 30, 2018 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, CA
Proper 21, Year B, RCL

“let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”

This morning our first appointed reading is from one of the few books in the entire bible named for and starring a woman, the book or scroll of Esther. The text tells the story of a strong and beautiful woman who stands up for herself and her oppressed people, saving their lives and overcoming their enemies.

The book begins with the King of Persia, in a scene reminiscent of the tv show Game of Thrones, throwing out his wife, Vashti, for disobeying his orders. Queen Vashti refused to be objectified and shown off at a 7-day men’s only drunken party the King was hosting. Harriet Beecher Stowe, called her action “the first stand for women’s rights”[i] and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and generation...by her disobedience; for "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."[ii]
 
The king decides at the encouragement of his staff to host a Beauty Pageant of sorts in order to pick his next wife. Mordecai, who works in the King’s citadel and raised his cousin Esther after her parents had died, ensured that she was among the women competing to be the next Queen of Persia. She’s favored by the King and becomes Queen Esther. Meanwhile, a new official named Haman is placed in charge of the citadel and demands all who work for him to bow to him, but Mordecai due to his piety refuses to do so. When Haman discovers this, he vows to have all Mordecai’s people killed and gets the King to agree to and fund the genocide. Mordecai begs Esther to do something. She requests that Mordecai and their people fast for three days after which she will go to the King and plead for their lives. Which brings us to today’s passage in which Esther says, “let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request.” She saves the lives of her people and the man who had sought to destroy them is executed on the very contraption he was planning to use on Mordecai. 

Resistance to patriarchy and women standing up, confronting the powerful and bringing about a change of fortune for themselves and those they love is our tradition, not just a part of it. Reading the Book of Esther felt particularly meaningful this week as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford courageously spoke of the violence and suffering she experienced as a teenager and as Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila confronted Senator Flake in the Capitol elevator. Wealthy, powerful, drunken, xenophobic men ruled the roost in ancient Persia, and their contemporary counterparts in Washington thank God are being challenged by numerous Vashti’s and Esther’s.
That is good news.

In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to look inward within themselves rather than being overly concerned by the actions of others who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In this time of such profound consequence, for some of us it is easier to point out the wrongs and hypocrisy of others, and harder to look at the ways we ourselves have fallen short, failed to confront misogyny, been complicit in acts of violence or defended the powerful rather than the powerless. 

Esther said to the King, “let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”


May we, like Esther and all those within the #metoo movement, find the courage and the voice to speak our truths and to stand up to those whose privilege and power keeps them and us from living into our fullness.

My husband Matt is visiting family in Virginia this weekend and when I shared today’s readings with him, he reminded me of what a hero Esther is for the Jewish people and how her triumph is celebrated at the spring festival of Purim. In Matt’s mind, Esther’s story is forever linked with that of a Holocaust survivor, Arie Torner, who volunteered as an usher at Matt’s synagogue until he passed away when Matt was 14. Out of a group of nearly 1000 young men subjected to horrific experimentation by the notorious Dr. Mengele during the Holocaust, Mr. Torner was one of fewer than 20 survivors. On the day of Matt’s bar mitzvah, Mr. Torner, who was by then 70 years old, advised Matt, “speak loud and clear, so everyone will hear you.” Matt wrote later in a poem for the temple newsletter, “I know why he wanted me to speak up.” People of goodwill of all faiths recognize the deep importance of the notions of speaking up for justice and compassion—of remembering the past, and celebrating unity and the dignity of every person.

A recent article explaining why a major company’s CEO banned PowerPoint and bullet points from meetings and instead had employees read lengthy narratives and customer reviews, reminds us why sharing our stories is so important, according to the article in Inc. magazine by Carmine Gallo:

Anthropologists say when humans gained control of fire, it marked a major milestone in human development. Our ancestors were able to cook food, which was a big plus. But it also had a second benefit. People sat around campfires swapping stories. Stories served as instruction, warning, and inspiration.

Recently, I've talked to prominent neuroscientists whose experiments confirm what we've known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and--most important for leadership--people recall and retain information more effectively when it's presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.

This Sunday may we deepen our appreciation for the transformative power of story, the stories of Vashti and Esther, and all those who bravely step forward to speak their difficult truths of past abuses and violence to save their lives and this nation’s.

Esther said to the King, “let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bank in the Sky - Honoring 5 years of ministry at Church by the Side of the Road by the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll



Sermon preached October 15th, 2017 at Church by the Side of the Road, Berkeley

Exodus 20:18-26
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come o nly to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
22The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

When Pastor Carroll invited me to preach this week on his 5th anniversary as your pastor and told me what the passage of scripture was that you have been studying, I was honored and delighted to say yes. Pastor Carroll has been an important friend and ally during my 3 ½ years as Program Director at California Interfaith Power & Light, he’s served as a member of our steering committee and has been a key connection between our work to address climate change as a moral issue and the wider church, both locally and nationally. This passage of scripture we read this morning is a reminder that the liberating God our ancestors came to know as sojourners in the wilderness, is profoundly connected as Creator of all things with the earth and sky, and cannot and will not be contained in any way by our man-made objects, the scripture says, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make yourselves gods of god.”
We might wonder what is the relationship between silver and gold --- what is similar about them, they are both things that take a great deal of effort to find, they are extracted from the earth through mining and blasting and this activity requires violence and slavery, even to this day, the extraction of gold, silver and other substances from under the ground including oil and gas requires economic exploitation and a kind of violence to the earth. This God our ancestors worshipped did not free slaves just to have them worship idols made from the violence and sweat of gold and silver mining.
Perhaps God was like some of the climate activists that Pastor Carroll and I work with who chant slogans like “keep it in the ground.” They know that continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels is dangerous for our health and this planet’s. Every year average global temperatures are getting higher and higher which scientists know is a consequence of the buildup of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. A large amount of those gases come from the burning of fossil fuels, from cars, trucks and airplanes. The work Pastor Carroll and I have been doing together has been to help faith communities understand the serious reality of global warming and advocate for change. It’s a good thing that many of our faith traditions’ roots are in the story of counter-cultural communities, cells of resistance to the oppression, violence and idolatry of empire. Pastor Carroll is among a growing number of faith leaders all over the world who are standing before God’s people and saying we must connect the dots, we must realize that our collective actions have consequences, that our attachment to certain ways of life, our addiction to fossil fuels, our consumerism and throwaway culture is idolatry and we are all paying far too heavy a price. Catholics, Buddhists, and Baptists, Episcopalians and Hindus, Methodists and Congregationalists, Unitarians and Trinitarians, Jews and Muslims, more and more religious leaders are speaking up and saying what we know:
That the earth has a fever --- and parts of our once vital and vibrant body are already dead. A few years ago at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art an artist powerfully illustrated the extinction of the once abundant passenger pigeon.  Elizabeth Kolbert in her sweeping book The Sixth Extinction--which scientists say we are in the midst of--writes about how humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape is suddenly and dramatically reducing the diversity of life on earth. Because we are so profoundly interconnected and reliant on our common home --- acidifying and rising seas, extreme weather events, drought, floods, wildfires and the spreading of vector-borne diseases are already having profound human implications. Author Rebecca Solnit says we should call it what it is: violence she writes: “Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”

Churches like this one, synagogues, mosques, temples and sanghas, faith communities of all sorts can provide spaces for us to come to terms with this violence and idolatry, by confession and prophetic confrontation. Together we can grieve the tragedy of what we humans have done and confess our complicity in and our idolatry of a system that is causing violence every day to our fellow human beings and to our shared home. I encourage you when you pray for the victims of hurricanes and wild fires to add a prayer of confession, for our blindness to the reality of climate change and our need to repent, to change direction and commit to become better educated and to choose more wisely.
Later on, in Scripture, Moses says to the ancient Hebrews our adopted ancestors just before they cross over into the land of promise, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Moses urges them to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live” and warns them “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Can you imagine on this day, if Moses came among us and turned to the witness of heaven and earth to ask whether we have chosen life and death, blessing or curses?  If Moses were to see the devastating wildfires of Northern California, the powerful record breaking storms that have hit the Caribbean, Florida and Texas displacing thousands of people, what would he say? Surely, Moses would not want us to dig up more coal in Utah--one of the dirtiest of fossil fuels--carry it through already polluted communities on trains and ship it overseas where it will be burned further warming our planet and harming ourselves and our global sisters and brothers? Moses would urge us to choose life, and hopefully be encouraged to know that Pastor Carroll and other East Bay pastors have worked hard to urge the city do all it can to keep coal out of our communities and fossil fuels in the ground. Moses would hopefully witness the many ways that Pastor Carroll, Green the Church and Church by the Side of the Road are choosing life, by advocating for green workforce development, by speaking up on behalf of science, and standing up for environmental protection.
One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had at CIPL has been working with a USF student from China, Judy, who was not at all acquainted with the complexity of American religious life but she needed no introduction to the ways our work related to the dangerous air of her homeland, where she said in some cases children rarely see a blue sky or stars at night. When she graduated from USF a few years ago Judy was so grateful for her time serving with us at CIPL that she wore a sash declaring her support for our cause, a young woman born in a country with no freedom of religion and serious environmental and health problems aligning herself with our movement. Pope Francis, tweeted back in August, “The Gospel is Good News filled with contagious joy, for it contains and offers new life.”
For me the story of Judy is all about the good news, she saw that the work of IPL was good news to her people, to all people and this became contagious. Who doesn’t want and deserve clean air, clean water, and a safe and comfortable environment in which to live?  Today we are celebrating the prophetic ministry and leadership of the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, who for the years that I have known and worked with him been an essential friend and partner to the interfaith climate movement. Not only is he a gifted spokesperson and highly networked disciplined organizer, he is a man of deep faith who in whatever meeting or assembly whether with legislators in Sacramento or before a crowd at a climate rally in Oakland, speaks from a place of compassion and care -- for justice and what is right. He has been courageous, like Moses before Pharaoh, and challenged other pastors to recognize the peril that our planet is in and our moral responsibility to speak out and act if we are who we say we are. Pastor Carroll’s good news message, that all people of faith, can be bearers of hope, can be people who are a blessing and not a curse to one another and to God’s creation.
One of the things I’ve appreciated most about my work with Pastor Carroll is his putting up with my fascination with golden era gospel music, one time he said to me, when I asked him about a particular piece of music, he said yes, that’s the music my grandmother listened to, so I guess he thinks I have dated taste. I will always cherish the time we spent planning the Green Jobs Fair held at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church this spring, after Pastor Carroll mentioned that the church was connected with the Pointer Sisters nearly every time I was on my way there on BART I’d put in my earbuds and put on their hit song, “Yes we Can, Can” which for me was a kind of mantra. Here are the words:
Now's the time for all good men
To get together with one another
We got to iron out our problems
And iron out our quarrels
And try to live as brothers

And try to find peace within
Without stepping on one another
And do respect the women of the world
Remember, you all had mothers

We got to make this land a better land
Than the world in which we live
And we got to help each man be a better man
With the kindness that we give

I know we can make it
I know darn well, we can work it out
Oh, yes, we can, I know we can, can
Yes, we can, can, why can't we?
If we wanna, yes, we can, can
Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Singers have provided me with a kind of soundtrack these past few years. There have been many gospel singers, especially women who have given me a kind kick in the rear to keep working on the difficult and sometimes confusing effort of getting the faith community involved in the climate movement. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and even Whitney Houston each came out of and stayed closely connected with the church. I think for me Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Sisters’ unique approach to gospel music in their time, of bringing the church’s music into the world, putting away the church robe and wearing dinner party clothes I especially relate to because in my work with IPL I have been seeking to bring something of the church into the world, and vice versa the world into the church. I’m no scholar of this music, but I am a fan and I find myself now more shaped by this music than the music I learned at church growing up or at church camp.
The Clara Ward song with lead vocals by Henrietta Waddy, Bank in the Sky, to me is a reminder, like our passage from Exodus, that we human beings have a responsibility to consider how our lives are either a blessing or a curse to others and ourselves.  God brought the people out of bondage to school them on the way of freedom and blessing, how they could create among themselves a community with God alone as ruler, and the people sharing and living in a way that ensured that the vulnerable were cared for, the earth and debt were kept in balance and the stranger respected. Bank in the Sky is a song that feels especially appropriate in our era of climate disruption, of rising seas, and toxic air, it’s a song that challenges our human greed and idolatry and reminds us to put our faith in the God of Heaven and Earth, here are just a few of the lyrics:
“Do you have an account? In the bank on high? In the bank in the sky? If you have an account, you can put in tears, if you have an account, your vision will clear, you can put in sorrow, and get joy tomorrow. You can deposit weeping...
You can put in prayer."
Faith leaders like Pastor Carroll, movements like Green the Church, congregations like Church by the Side of the Road have an essential role to play in this time of climate chaos, of idolatry run rampant. Together climate minded people of faith can remember our roots and our call to choose life, to seek to be a people of blessing rather than curses. We can maintain our accounts in the Bank in the Sky ---- where we can deposit great riches for our souls, "that are more precious than silver and gold.” If our bank is in the sky, then it’s not in the ground or industries that are a curse to our planet’s health. Together we can climb higher mountains, and we can get over.
 
-Rev. Will Scott