Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Poetry Sunday 2017 - Links to all the poems I mentioned

On Sunday, May 14, 2017 I preached a sermon called, "Poetry is Resistance." Here are all the poems I read from or mentioned during the service:

For the Call to Worship I read a gently edited version of Wendell Berry's poem "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." You can find it on the web here.

For the Chalice Lighting we used a version of the Langston Hughes poem "Youth" as it appears in Lifting Our Voices, the new UU anthology of readings for worship. You can find the poem on the web here.

The first reading was William Stafford's "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border," available here.

The second reading was "Write-Ins for President" by Leath Tonino. (See below)

During the sermon, as an example of poems that offer resistance in the form of direct confrontation I referenced poems that Unitarians and Quakers wrote in support of John Brown after his raid on Harper's Ferry. You can read some of those, including poems by Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, and John Greenleaf Whittier, here.

During the sermon, as an example of poems that offer resistance through the claiming of an identity with self-love I referenced Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, especially the last lines of the poem, "i found god in myself & i loved her / i loved her fiercely."

As another example of self-love as resistance I talked about how much I love the song "i" by Kendrick Lamar. His performance of this song on Saturday Night Live is tremendous!

I concluded the sermon by sharing the poem "Revenge" by Elisa Chavez. You can read it here.


"Write-Ins for President" by Leath Tonino

I elect that bull elk in the Snake River.
I elect that raven in Canyonlands National Park.
I elect autumn moonlight on metal roofs.
I elect the strand of barbed wire that fell from the post and is
now woven into the tall brown grass.
I elect the tall brown grass.
I elect my neighbors' cat - the neighbors who are always cursing one another and screaming hateful things - because every morning he sits with me on the fire escape and watches the sunrise without meowing.
I elect the feeling of boots laced tight.
I elect potatoes cooked however.
I elect Vermont's faded, sagging, leaning, crooked-in-the-best-sense-of-the-word barns.
I elect rain improvising songs on a busted junkyard piano.
I elect the ghost of my grandfather Dean, bcause the man never wanted to be anything but a farmer, or so says my grandmother Betty.
I elect my grandmother Betty, because at ninety-five she takes the long view.
I elect the hungry mouse who stole my snack but did so honestly, out in the open.
I elect the thump-thump-thump of many wagging tails.
I elect the dream I once had of a monkey riding a flying goat, a dream in which I understood intuitively, instantly, that a monkey riding a flying goat foretold the healing of all wounds.
I elect the tears on my cheeks when I woke up.
I elect crushed mint.
I elect littered napkins folded together by the wind and placed, as if by magic, at the base of a street-corner trash
I elect a climb of Precarious Peak that made me, and will forever keep me, humble as a pebble.
I elect that which can't be written in, that which will guide us forever, ever forward, regardless of who lives in some white house.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Considering Economic Protest (1st post in the series)

Every dollar you spend you spend is a vote for Trump. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the Republican-led congress. This is a striking statement, but I believe it to be true in two ways. First, Trump campaigned on the promise of job creation and economic growth. Every dollar you spend is helping him to accomplish that goal, thereby legitimizing his presidency. Second, when our lives are business as usual – when we shop, spend, consume, and vacation like everything is normal – the political order of the United States becomes normalized.


The presidency of George W. Bush provides a good example of how destructive policies can be masked by economic normalcy and how politicians depend on economic normalcy as a form of consent.

Just a few weeks after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed a still-reeling nation and urged Americans to “go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” What are we to make of this message to the American people? Was it an effort to return a traumatized nation to some semblance of normalcy or was it an admission that the gears of our society depend on people spending money?

In President Bush’s first six months in office he signed major tax cuts into law. As part of these cuts, taxpayers received refund checks for several hundred dollars. Then came 9/11. The war with Afghanistan came a month later and the invasion of Iraq came a year and a half later. It is worth noting that the only Americans asked to sacrifice in these wars were the men and women of the military who gave years of service and often their lives or limbs or psychological health, not to mention the sacrifices of their families back home. It is worth noting that no American was asked to skip a vacation or put off buying a new car or buy fewer presents over the holidays to pay for the war. The whole thing was put on a government credit card. I contend the war in Afghanistan would have been fought differently and the war in Iraq not fought at all if American taxpayers had been expected to foot the bill in real time.

In 2006, with a recession looming, Bush again addressed the nation, urging us to “go shopping more.” Two years later he would leave office with the country in the midst of its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, with the financial lives of millions of Americans in shambles due to the fraud and greed of under-regulated Wall Street financial institutions. The Republicans were swept out of office in 2006 and 2008. Economic crisis played a key role in fueling political change.


This recent history is worth remembering. What keeps our nation running – and what keeps our politicians in office – is the willingness of everyday Americans to “go down to Disney World” and “go shopping more.” Looking back on those Bush years, one wonders if we squandered some opportunity by going about business as usual. Did living our normal lives help to normalize war, torture, corruption, attacks on our constitutional rights, and financial misconduct that severely damaged the global economy?

If anything describes the presidency of Donald Trump, it is the words “not normal.”

If you need help understanding the degree to which his presidency is not normal, just read Amy Siskind’s weekly articles tracking ways that Trump violates what would be normal in a democracy.

It is not normal.

In the face of such an abnormal administration, perhaps it is time to reclaim our power over what we do that keeps things running normally. Perhaps it is time to claim the power of economic protest.

The next entry in this series will consider what such an economic protest might entail.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Sermon: Renewed to Life

Opening Words

The poet and priest John Banister Tabb composed these words about being renewed to life.

            Out of the dusk a shadow,
            Then, a spark.

            Out of the cloud a silence,
            Then, a lark.

            Out of the heart a rapture,
            Then, a pain.

            Out of the dead, cold ashes,
            Life again.

John Tabb’s incredibly brief poem is a poem of faith. In eight short lines it expresses the hope and the possibility of rediscovering life amidst devastation. But, the poem has always left me wanting more. So, I decided to try my hand at composing a few poetic variations on this poem. Maybe you’ll be inspired to try your own hand at writing a verse or two.

            Fearful silence, then a voice,
            Then a song.

            An empty street, then a group,
            Then a throng.

            Out of frozen ground, a thaw,
            Then a shoot.

            Into fire-swept land, a seed,
            Then a root.

            Out of sep’rate lives, a risk,
            Then a care.

            Out of scarcity, a trust,
            Then we share.          


Ezekiel 37:1-14. The vision of the valley of dry bones.

As the hymn puts it, “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer yes to life.” My sermon on this morning of this brand new year is about answering “yes” to life, about being renewed to life. The first part of my sermon this morning actually begins in the realm of public health. From there we’re going to move into the realm of theology and spirituality, but we’re going to start in the realm of our contemporary world. It is impossible to separate theology and spirituality from the world we’re living in, so that is where we’re going to start.

I read an article in the New York Times last month that grabbed my attention and possibly inspired me to preach on this topic this morning. The article’s headline read, Life Expectancy in U.S. Declines Slightly, and Researchers Are Puzzled. The article went on to say that in 2015, the average life expectancy of people in the United States decreased by about six weeks. To put this in perspective, to find the last year when life expectancy in the United States declined you would have to go all the way back to 1993, so nearly twenty-five years ago.

But 1993 was a very different year than 2015. If you were to ask a group of public health experts why the average lifespan decreased in 1993, they would all give you the same answer with a very high degree of certainty. 1993 was the peak year of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the decline in average lifespan could be attributed to that single cause. But the public health experts quoted in the Times article are a lot more uncertain about why exactly life expectancy fell in 2015.

This time, researchers can’t identify a single problem driving the drop, and are instead pointing to a number of factors from heart disease to suicides... Dr. Peter Muennig, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University… said that popular theories for the decline… fail to explain a problem that feels broader… “If you actually dissect the data, neither of those arguments hold,” he said. “This report slams it home that this is really a mystery… A 0.1 decrease is huge. Life expectancy increases, and that’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”

If school hadn’t been closed this past week I would have taken this story over to the Gillings School of Public Health and asked the professors over there what they thought about these findings. This claim about public health experts being puzzled and stumped really grabbed me. It speaks to the complexity of the problem.

I want to place this broad story about public health alongside a number of other public health stories I’ve been reading over the last couple of years, stories about a rising number of deaths in the United States from suicides, from alcoholism, and from heroin and opioid abuse. There have been numerous stories over the past several years chronicling this epidemic, but a New York Times story from a year ago goes a step further and breaks down the frequency of these deaths along racial lines.

The major causes of excess deaths are from suicides, drug abuse, and alcoholism… But while deaths from [drug abuse] have increased among middle-aged whites, they actually decreased for blacks and Hispanics. The same pattern holds for deaths from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. The suicide rate for whites was four times that of blacks.

So, I’m going to ask for all of us to sit with this. I’m going to ask for us to resist the urge to explain this in a simplistic way. If this was simply a reflection of economic factors, you wouldn’t see results that are skewed by race the way they are. It’s not simply economic determinism; not all countries behave the same way when conditions are similar.

I bring up these news stories about this dip in life expectancy that our nation experienced in 2015, and about these current epidemics of suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, in order to establish a context for my remarks about theology and spirituality. When I talk about being renewed to life, let me be clear that I am not just speaking metaphorically. I want to talk about life literally as well as figuratively.

My good colleague in eastern Tennessee wrote something some time ago that I find provocative and true. He writes, and here I’m loosely paraphrasing that he frequently encounters people who he describes as “the walking dead.” The walking dead. They are people whose life is centered on awaiting their own death. They hold an apocalyptic view of the world. The world is coming to an end. The world is about to be destroyed. And they hold an apocalyptic view of their own life. Their life is racing towards its end. Their own destruction is imminent. And so they choose to live in such a way that hastens this destruction, that speeds it along.

And, my friend says that his ministry is to show the world another way of being, another story, the way of the transforming power of love, the way that says that love conquers death, not in the sense of stopping death from coming, but of filling life up so full of love that love becomes the main thing and the power of death is taken away. This transforming power of love, embodied in beloved community, embodied in resilient relationship, renews people to life. Transforms them. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.

So, what does it mean to come alive? What does being renewed to life look like in the context of our lives, in the story we find ourselves in? This image of the walking dead, is this image that my friend described familiar to you at all? Is this a reality that you recognize?

For me, these stories about public health statistics, and the stories of the real people, families, communities, evoke that Biblical image from the Prophet Ezekiel, that image of the valley of dry bones. “O Mortal, can these bones live again?” Like the Prophet Ezekiel, how do we take those dry bones and knit the sinews back together, reconstitute flesh and skin, and breathe the breath of life back into the dead? How can we be renewed to life? How can we be renewed to life?

At about the same time that I was reading those alarming stories about diminishing life expectancy and epidemics of self-harm and addiction, there were other stories, happier stories, that I stumbled across and filed away for future use.

One of those stories was about a Harvard public health study of 75,000 people whose lives were tracked over a twenty-year span. One of the interesting findings was that attending religious services is correlated with longer life expectancy. The researchers found that among the people they tracked, those who attended services once or twice a month had a 13% greater chance of staying alive, those who attended every week had a 26% greater chance of staying alive, and those who attended more than one church function a week had a 33% greater chance of staying alive. See you all next Sunday.

What’s interesting is that this study did not show a correlation between spirituality and longer life expectancy. The correlation is with community. And then there was another study in which Harvard and Yale collaborated to study the effects of singing in choirs. They found that singing in the choir was correlated with better health and increased life expectancy. Another examination of the benefits of community singing claims that singing regularly causes you to appear younger in age. We’ll see who shows up for choir on Wednesday.

I share these stories about coming to church, singing in the choir, community not just to provide a more joyful counterpoint to those other stories about addiction and death, but because I believe that community – beloved community – can be one of the most important parts of being renewed to life.

How does this work? How does beloved community renew us to life? Beloved community, for one thing, diminishes our existential loneliness. Even if you one of those people who would never, ever come up and place a stone for Joys & Sorrows, you’re reminded that you’re not alone in facing grief, or dealing with a tough medical challenge. You’re reminded, as well, of the milestones coming up on the horizon.

Even more than that, beloved community helps to inspire us to live our lives for the sake of others. For the person we bring a meal to after their surgery. For the person we don’t want to miss. For the people at the soup kitchen who count on us being there every Wednesday at noon. My colleague Victoria Safford has a wonderful meditation about a man who comes to church every Sunday.

Why do you come, John? In all kinds of weather, when you’re well and when you’re not, when you like the guest speaker and when you know you won’t, why do you come every Sunday? I asked him. His answer was straightforward, just like the man himself. “I come, he said, because somebody might miss me if I didn’t.”

And, beloved community renews us to life by reminding us that others will show up for us, will keep showing up for us.

There’s another part of being renewed to life, which has to do with being willing to cast one’s own lot with the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the discarded, the disreputable. There is a spark of life that I recognize in those who do this.

Many years ago I had the chance to meet Sister Helen Prejean, the nun played by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking. Sister Prejean has spent her life working to end the death penalty and ministering to those on death row. When she entered the room it was like a spark of life had appeared. It was the same way when I met Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of an organization called Partners in Health that does AIDS work in rural Haiti. He carries this spark of life with him.

I was doing a little brainstorming about people I’ve met or learned about who I associate with this spark of life and one name popped into mind that was surprising, and provides an opportunity for a humorous digression if that’s okay.

One of my first religion professors as an undergrad was this professor of ancient Christianity who everybody loved. This professor had done his Ph.D. on the life of Shenoute of Atripe, a larger than life church father who led a monastery in Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. And the professor would tell us these Shenoute stories during class. I think he must have convinced dozens of us to learn Coptic so we could enter this world. The stories he told us were of two kinds. One kind of story had to do with fistfights that broke out at church councils. Shenoute was a rough and tumble monk who attended the Council of Ephesus as the bodyguard of the Bishop of Alexandria and punched the Archbishop of Constantinople. (Yes, bishops came with bodyguards and councils frequently turned into brawls.)  

But our professor would also tell us these other Shenoute stories. Shenoute was famous for opening up the monastery he ran. He sent his monks out into the community. He assigned monks to monitor the dump and to rescue discarded babies; his monastery became an orphanage. His monastery ran a soup kitchen that fed thousands of peasants daily. And advocacy on behalf of the poor was the major focus of their communal religious life. It was these stories that my professor told that made this ancient figure feel so very alive to us. We’re renewed to life by entering the arena, by putting our own lives side by side with the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Remember, the Buddha had to leave the palace to discover life.

There’s a third part of being renewed to life that I want to talk about. That’s life in the sense that James Baldwin talked about life, of letting go of the stuff that keeps us from being truly alive. Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” When he wrote these words he was talking about race hatred, that racial resentment keeps us hidden from life, diminishes life. For Baldwin, being renewed to life involves facing the pain of confronting the ways racism has diminished us. Along these same lines, Balwin writes,

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

In this New Year, may we be renewed to life:

May we find deeper and more fulfilling life by discovering the life-giving power of beloved community.

May we be connected to life by entering into relationship with the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

May we be responsible to life, not by denying the fact of death, but by facing the pain that we imprison our very lives in our attempt to avoid.


Repealing the ACA Will Hurt the CrossFit Coaches Who Keep You Healthy

Fitness buff and exercise enthusiast Paul Ryan is determined to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is how many who work in the fitness industry get their insurance.

As an American who is horrified by the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act I’ve made a commitment to find out how this law touches people in my life and to speak out on behalf of those whose access to health care is threatened. Over the last month I’ve been asking people how they get their health coverage. One group of people I decided to talk to were CrossFit coaches. I joined CrossFit more than two years ago when I moved to North Carolina. I’ve spoken about the amazing difference it has made in my life. I wondered whether the coaches who have had such an impact on my health have access to health care so they can take care of their own health.

I reached out to more than a dozen CrossFit coaches who coach at a half-dozen different boxes (gyms.) What I found is that most CrossFit coaches don’t receive insurance from their employer – most are employed part time – but are on their own to find insurance however they can. For some coaching is a part-time side-gig and they get health insurance through their main employer. Others work in the fitness industry without benefits but get coverage from a spouse or partner’s employer. But numerous coaches told me that they get health insurance through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.

One coach wrote to me about her experience trying to find affordable health insurance. “The only reason I can currently afford healthcare is because of the marketplace. Before the ACA went through I just assumed I would be able to find a job that would provide health coverage. But I was incredibly incorrect. The only job I could find that did provide it paid barely over minimum wage so I chose to leave it after not being able to pay bills. A good number of coaches do go without health care coverage but all of the ones that I know who have it and are not employed outside of the fitness industry have either catastrophic coverage or go through the marketplace.”

Another coach told me that he also get health insurance through the ACA exchanges. He earns a living by coaching at multiple boxes, working as a personal trainer, and offering fascial stretch therapy and other services to athletes. The ACA makes this possible.

About a third of the coaches I reached out to are insured through an individual plan either purchased through the exchanges or on the open market. As one coach writes, “I’m afraid of what will happen when the ACA is repealed. What will happen to my current coverage?”

Coach Natalie, one of the coaches who has health insurance because of the ACA. 

I am glad to report that all the coaches I spoke with have health insurance. However, many of them told me that they know of others who work in the fitness industry who go without coverage. In recent years there have been stories of elite CrossFit athletes who’ve suffered injuries and had no health insurance. The most well-known is Kevin Ogar, who suffered a severe spinal injury at a fitness competition. Ogar, who did not have health insurance, worked part-time as a CrossFit coach and part-time for Whole Foods.

It is an embarrassment and a political and moral failure that anyone in our country lacks health insurance. It is ironic and tragic that many who work in the fitness industry – the coaches and trainers who devote their lives to helping people become healthy and fit – are in danger of losing health insurance because of the Republican agenda to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is the man leading the charge against the ACA. You can find story after story about his intense, P90X and CrossFit-inspired workouts and his enthusiasm for physical fitness. Ryan is covered by a government-provided Cadillac health insurance plan. But he seems to care only about his own health. He has no qualms about screwing over the young people who work in the fitness industry.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Health Care Story

Recent news demonstrates the crucial difference the Affordable Care Act makes in our nation. According to recent reports, a record 6 million Americans signed up for coverage in 2017. And, earlier this month Vox ran a depressing story about a poor community in Kentucky that voted overwhelmingly for Trump despite the fact that the ACA has helped many in the community to receive insurance.

Earlier this month I wrote about the importance of speaking out and offering Moral Counsel by telling the stories of those who depend on the Affordable Care Act. But before I share some stories about people in my life, I want to tell you my own health care story.

My own health care story is largely one of privilege. All my adult life I have had health insurance. I was covered while enrolled as an undergraduate and graduate student.  Immediately following grad school I found employment as a Unitarian Universalist minister and have been employed non-stop for 14 years.

But one incident from the very beginning of my ministry haunts me. When I entered the ministry in 2003, most UU ministers were on their own to fend for themselves to obtain their own health care. For many this meant purchasing an individual plan. At age 25 I moved to a new city to begin my first ministry. The first thing I did was to apply for an individual plan with Blue Cross / Blue Shield. I filled out all the paper work to apply for the plan and a few days later received a letter in the mail saying that I had been rejected.

The reason they gave for rejecting me was that in the previous year I had filed insurance claims to pay for counseling. This, I was told, made me a bad bet. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a counselor, but in this case I had seen a counselor because it was highly recommended for those preparing for ministry. Those preparing for ministry take counseling classes, work as chaplains, and practice pastoral care as student ministers. Under supervision we are strongly encouraged to seek counseling as a means of developing self-awareness and self-understanding. Not having been in counseling is seen as a mark against prospective ministers.

So there I was, stuck. I was in a Catch-22. I needed to go through counseling to become a minister but I couldn’t get health insurance as a minister because I had been through counseling.

In response I spent a good chunk of the next several weeks calling the insurance company to challenge the rejection. I worked my way up the ladder, pleading my case with one person, then his manager, then her manager. I wrote letters of appeal. Finally, BC/BS caved and offered me insurance. If things had been otherwise, if I had actually had had a pre-existing condition like a chronic disease or a history of cancer, I would have been stuck. I was only able to receive health insurance because I was privileged. I had the time and language skills to call, persuade, and advocate for myself. I also had the privilege of health.

In 2003 the reason I could get insurance, the reason I could start the job I had been hired to do, was that I was in good health and could prove to the insurance company that I was a good bet to earn them a profit. This arbitrary situation improved four years later when the denomination created a health plan available to UU church employees.

But one that experience from 2003 still troubles me. For those few weeks in the summer of 2003 I felt the anxiety of someone not able to access health insurance. I am horrified by efforts to make health insurance less accessible for the citizens of our nation.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Moral Opposition to the Repeal of the ACA

There has been much conjecture about what will become of the Affordable Care Act (and Medicare, and Medicaid, though those will be the topic of another post.) The New York Times recently ran an article suggesting that congressional Republicans may delay the effective repeal by up to three years. Politico reports that a schism is forming among Republicans who disagree about how to go about repealing the ACA. Writing for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum argues with extreme optimism that the repeal will not succeed. He claims a repeal of the ACA would effectively end the market for individual insurance plans thus making it too unpopular to pursue.

What is not under debate is that the incoming administration and the Republican controlled congress will make health care worse in the United States. Insurance will become less available and more expensive, services will be cut, and harm will fall hardest on the poor and the sick.

Christianity, like all major world religions, offers a moral commandment to care for the sick. Christianity, like all major world religions, offers a moral commandment to care for the poor. There is no doubt in my mind that the health care decisions this government will pursue will be deeply immoral. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will kill a lot of people.

I believe that what is needed is a widespread campaign of moral counsel. Perhaps our politicians are too shameless to be shamed, but such a campaign might shame and disgust those who voted them into office.

Here is what I propose and what I ask you to do over the next six weeks:

1) Find out who are the people you know who get their health insurance through the exchanges and have health insurance because of the ACA. Thanks to the ACA approximately 20 million more Americans have health insurance, so you definitely know someone. I’ve actually started asking people where they get their health insurance.

2) Get permission to write their stories. Talk about who they are, what they contribute to their communities, what having health insurance means to them, and how screwed they’d be if they lost their health insurance. Then publish these stories on Facebook, blogs, and social media.

3) Call your local newspaper and local TV station and demand that they report on the faces and lives of the Affordable Care Act. Contact national news stations and publications and demand the same types of stories.

4) You get bonus points if you share the story of a Trump voter who is insured through the ACA. (There are millions of Trump voters who are in danger of losing their health insurance, too.)

5) Stay in touch with the people you write about. Document their pain, their hardship, their vulnerability, and the harm done to them.

6) If someone you know dies due to lack of affordable health care, make sure that fact gets named at the funeral. Make sure the obituary names lack of affordable health care as the cause of death.

7) Share this post. Help it go viral.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon: Disobeying Herod

Call to Worship

The season begins with a star.
A symbol of hope and love.
A sign that portends new possibilities.
The in-breaking of light in a time of darkness.

The season begins with a star.
            A North Star for our moral compass.
            A light shining in the valley helping somebody to find their way home.

The season begins with a star.
            It called out to the wise men of the ancient story.
            It called out to seers, mystics, and prophets.
            It called out to poets, artists, and activists.
It calls out still, leading us towards hope, towards peace, towards love.

The season begins with a star.
            Come to behold.
            Come to envision.
            Come to nourish yourself for the journey.
            Come, let us worship together.
Then go into the world and tell them what the star means.

Chalice Lighting
"Tell them the star means wisdom
Tell them the star means kindness
Tell them the star means understanding
Tell them the star means tolerance
Tell them the star means sacrifice
Tell them the star leads to a vision of a fairer world."
(Last line of Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting are from Celebrating Christmas: An Anthology, Carl Seaburg, editor.)

Ancient Reading        Matthew 2:1-12

Modern Reading       Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

It is worth noting in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke the story of the birth of Jesus is located, is situated, within a particular political context. In Luke what causes Mary and Joseph to set out and travel towards Bethlehem is that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, has called for a registration. In Matthew, the political context is this awkward and fraught moment in foreign relations. Foreign dignitaries have arrived in Judea, gone to King Herod, and told him, we’re here to meet a newborn child, a child who is the rightful King of this land and this people, for we’ve read the signs in the heavens and those signs announce that your reign, Herod, is illegitimate. We want to meet the King. It’s not you. (I’m embellishing a little bit here.)

And Herod responds, deviously, “You know, I’d like to meet him, too.”

Historically, Herod was a Jewish King who ruled Judea for more than thirty years. During his reign, Judea was a part of the Roman Empire which meant Herod ruled at the pleasure of the Roman Senate. If he didn’t make Rome happy, then he could be removed. As King he ruled with what we might call a conflict of interest. He was beholden not to his own people, but to a foreign power.

Historians’ opinions of Herod as King are polarized though few deny that he was a tyrant and a brutal despot. His critics describe him as a madman, an evil genius, and as someone who would do whatever it takes, no matter how immoral, to pursue his own limitless ambition. Herod was intolerant of dissent. He deployed secret police to spy on the population. He banned protests. He used his power to brutally persecute his opponents.

Herod’s personal life was embroiled in scandal, largely centered around him having his own family members killed when they got in his way. Herod plotted to murder his first wife and then later executed her. After his mother in law accused him of being mentally unstable and unfit to rule he had her executed as well. Herod also had tax problems. His use of tax revenues to furnish lavish gifts upset his Jewish subjects.

Historians who take a more positive view of his reign emphasize that he built a lot of impressive buildings. Indeed, this is true. Construction in Judea was uniquely prolific during Herod’s reign. He sponsored an enormous addition to the second Jewish temple; he constructed a massive port on the Mediterranean coastline that was a true wonder of engineering; and he built several key military installations including the fortress at Masada. On the other hand these projects were completed at the expense of impoverishing those he ruled through excessive taxation.

In Matthew, wise men come from the East, following the star. They’re identified as magi. We might imagine them as Zoroastrian priests, learned scholars, astrologers. Though the text in Matthew is silent, later tradition would embellish these descriptions, with different branches of Christianity telling the story in different ways. There were three wise men, or twelve. They’re given different names in different sects of Christianity. They are said to have all came from Persia, or from Persia, India, and Babylonia, or from Europe, Asia, and Africa, or even from China. They are imagined as sorcerers, wizards, kings, saints.

But, in the Gospel story, they come from the East. They visit Herod. With profound insecurity and devious cruelty, Herod enlists the wise men in reporting the identity of the child. The wise men journey to Bethlehem, visit the child, pay him homage, and present him with gifts. And then, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So they disobey. They disobey Herod and take a different route home.

The text tells this part with one short sentence, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” But, you can easily imagine all kinds of questions:

What were the risks to disobeying Herod?
Did the wise men put their own freedom on the line?
Did they risk their own lives?
Would there be the diplomatic repercussions?
When the wise men returned home, would their homelands be at greater risk of incurring the wrath of the Roman Empire and its armies?
What exactly was the content of that dream, of that vision, that came to the wise men?
Did the dream come to all of them or only to one of them?
And, most importantly, how did they find the courage, conscience, conviction, and commitment to say, “No. We are not going to do this. We will disobey”?

People who study life under authoritarian regimes write about what is necessary for people to resist and to disobey. From her studies of authoritarianism, Sarah Kendzior offers the following advice for those facing life under authoritarianism.

Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today.

Write your biography, write down your memories… Write a list of things you would never do. Write a list of things you would never believe.

Never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing. And if the answer is no? Don’t do it.

Perhaps it is as simple as this and as difficult as this. Perhaps what gave the wise men, the magi, the strength and courage to take that other road, to disobey and not return to Herod, and not reveal the identity of the child born in Bethlehem was simply that they each possessed a strong moral compass. They knew who they were and what they valued, what they could never do and what they could never believe. They knew this deeply.

Another scholar of authoritarianism, Yale history professor Tom Snyder, offers this advice about obedience,

Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked… Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

For Professor Snyder disobedience is a conscious choice that we need to remember we always have.

As I think about the wise men another source of strength and resilience comes to mind that may have been helpful in causing them to resist, to disobey Herod. Remember, traditions tell us that the wise men came from Persia, India, and Babylon, or from Europe, Asia, and Africa. The wise men are often depicted as coming from different cultures, as having different skin tones, different religions. And, maybe you’d think with their different ethnicities and different languages that one of them would cave, one of them would falter, one of them would say, “If I take the road back that Herod told me to take, I could get on his good side. I could earn all his favor for myself.” But, that’s not what happens. The three of them walk together, take the other road together. Today we’d use the term solidarity. We’d say they practiced solidarity with one another. I think of Rev. William Barber. I’m pretty sure if William Barber met the three magi he’d tell them that they are the beginning of a fusion movement!

For a fusion movement to work we can’t sell one another out. We can’t be in it only for ourselves, our own well-being, our own rights, our own survival. We have to realize that our fates, our freedoms, our lives are tied together. That none of us can be free until and unless all of us are free.

Yesterday, I went to Raleigh for the Justice and Unity rally. I saw a few of you there. We had more than 1,000 people gathered in a park proclaiming our resistance to the KKK march that was happening over in one of the distant corners of our state, proclaiming our resistance to white supremacy, bigotry, and hate in all its forms. The speakers at this rally were mostly people of color, mostly young people. They included immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ. It was inspiring. These gatherings are important. I’m convinced we are being called to show up, that we are all being called to show up in numbers one hundred times as large. One thousand times as large. But, being there yesterday and hearing those speakers reminded me of all the people to whom I am accountable, the people for whom I would disobey Herod. The people with whom I would disobey Herod.

The magi disobeyed by refusing to return to Herod. They took another road instead. But, there is a way of disobedience that is beyond what even the magi did. That form of disobedience is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was a major part of the Confessing Church resistance movement in Germany during the Third Reich. Listen to these words by Bonhoeffer,

[T]here are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. "Do good to all people." In both these courses of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.

According to Bonhoeffer, disobedience can take the form of jamming a spoke in the wheel itself, of throwing a wrench in the machine, of pouring sand in the gears until they jam and falter.

Remember those words of Tom Snyder. “Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked.” Obedience, consent, going along are like oil lubricating the gears. Disobedience and dissent grind the gears down.

Like the wise men of the ancient story, like the wise ones through all history, let us pledge to disobey. Inspired by the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, let us pledge that,

[We] will not hold the bridle
while [Death] clinches the girth.
And [Death] may mount by himself: 
[We] will not give him a leg up.

So may it be. Amen.