Thursday, May 30, 2013

Letter to Our Senators

After being urged by Bishop Curry to become more informed about Immigration Reform legislation and write our Senators, I have done so and urge you all to do the same. You can watch Bishop Curry's message here. After doing so, you can then write Senator Hagan and Senator Burr. I will also share the letter that I sent to them both, which briefly outlines why I believe that this legislation is good for our nation, good for Christians who seek justice and compassion, and good for the furthering of God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. If any or all of my letter would be helpful to you in writing our Senators, please feel free to copy it.


I write to you, as a constituent of North Carolina and a person of faith who very much believes in the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. I ask you to vote in favor of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, commonly known as the “Gang of 8 Bill,” that will be coming before the Senate in the coming weeks.

Our current immigration policies are not good or just, and they are outdated. It is clear that some sort of reform needs to happen.

What motivates me to write you is the fact that roughly 83% of undocumented immigrants are Christians; they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and so this is a family matter to those of us in the Church. I am reminded of the plethora of witnesses from the Bible that suggest mercy and justice be shown towards the immigrant.

We would do well to remember that we are all immigrants who have come here from somewhere else (Exodus 22:21- You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.). And both Hebrews 13:2 (Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it) and Matthew 35:40 (Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me) remind us that as we treat our neighbors, so we treat God. And because the Lord is our God, we are to act so that “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:35-35).

A pathway to citizenship is a pathway to hope. We are all citizens of God’s Kingdom, and we pray, and are called, to work to make God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. This legislation at least moves us in that direction. No one bill will solve the problem forever or be perfect. But this bill is a start. Please, don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

As the prophet Micah wrote, our task is to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”This is about justice that will roll down like waters (Amos 5:24), not Republican, Democrat, or Independent agendas. I hope that when the time comes for a vote, you vote with the people whom you were elected to represent in mind; and more importantly, I hope your vote is a vote for justice and compassion towards the “least of these.”

Thank you for your service as a representative of the people.


The Rev. Robert Black

Sunday, May 26, 2013

May 26, 2012 - Trinity Sunday

In the name of the One God who creates, redeems, and sustains us- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
             Today is Trinity Sunday, and in pulpits around the country this morning, many preachers will ignore this fact because they assume that the Trinity is too obtuse to understand or preach on, or they’ll assume that their congregants have no interest in the Trinity. I won’t be making those assumptions today. Yes, the Trinity is rather difficult to wrap our head around, but as Christians, we claim that God is somehow the great Three-in-One; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not preaching the Trinity on Trinity Sunday is problematic.
            On Christmas, you expect a sermon on the Incarnation of God in Jesus. On Easter, you anticipate hearing a sermon about the Resurrection of Jesus. On Pentecost, you will hear sermons about the Holy Spirit. And I’m not convinced that the doctrines of the Incarnation or Salvation are any easier to understand than that of the Trinity, we’ve just fooled ourselves into thinking that we understand them. As theologian Rudolf Otto reminds us, God is “wholly (w-h-o-l-l-y) other.” Or as our forum speaker said in February, “God is really, really big; and we are very, very small.” We’re not supposed to understand the Trinity.
            And let us remember that doctrines are expressions of faith, not the basis for faith. Doctrines are not intended to be litmus tests to gauge how sincere or deep our faith is. The Trinity is not a reason to believe in God, but rather it is an expression of our belief in God. And we would do well not to get distracted by the details of the Trinity. Though it may be interesting to read and debate about modalism, subordinationism, Arianism, or tritheism, such discussions are mere distractions from the big picture to which the Trinity calls us. The aspect of the Trinity on which I’d like to focus this morning is relationship.
            Say what you want about how it is that we have a trinity of persons in a unity of being, but at the most basic level, the Trinity demonstrates that God is a god of relationship. Being in union with others is absolutely central to the very nature and being of God. And this morning I want to suggest that this emphasis on relationship is the bedrock on which our hope rests.
            We’re not really good at relationships though. Our national divorce rate hovers near 50%, and there’s no telling how high the infidelity rate might be. We are litigious society in which we constantly sue each other because our coffee is too hot, or we don’t like the decision you made. There are roughly an estimated 34,000 Christian denominations in the world, most of them coming around as the result of disagreements. We solve our problems through guns and attorneys, signs that we’re really not good at being in relationship. In his classic work I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote about this issue.
            He notes that in our world, we default to “I-It” relationships; treating others as an “it” instead of a “thou” or “you.” In “I-It” relationships, we have experiences, collect data, and develop theories. But there is no connection, as we treat each others in a very utilitarian way. What will you do for me? What can I get out of our relationship? How can you be a tool to advance my cause? We can see this happening everywhere we look, from our families, all the way up to our Congress. The saying is that we are supposed to use things and love people, but instead we love things and use people. You can even see it in our language, the way that we frame so many of our issues as “us vs them.” What I always wonder is, who are “they.” So one party blames all of our woes on the other.
Even in our debates around government, you hear people talk about being afraid of “big government.” But what we seem to have forgotten is that the government doesn’t exist, but people do. You want to talk about slashing the cost of government overhead or food stamps programs, and you’re not talking about lines in a budget, you’re talking about the jobs of countless Americans and the meals that will go missing from their tables. It’s a problem of “I-It” relationships. And so we use language that allows us to hide their humanity and forget that they are “yous” and not “its.” We have gotten so far off track, that our Supreme Court has gotten so confused that they have declared that corporations are people. We have taken “its” and made them “yous.”
What Buber suggests stands in opposition to these deficient relationships are those interactions which he calls “I-Thou.” This is about encounter, about meeting the whole essence of the other, about being transformed by relationship. The basis for these relationships is in the relationship of God to us. And though they are rarer, these sorts of relationships do still happen, but they take work. They take having more vulnerability and less judgment. Instead of quickly putting people into boxes such as “stupid,” “homeless,” “illegal,” “gay”, “straight,” “single,” “married,” “Muslim,” “lazy,” that we instead get to know their name and story. This takes time, something which our face-paced culture places a premium on. But as Buber suggest, it is only through this deep knowing that we can be transformed. And this is something that that Trinity shows us- that being in a relationship of “I-Thou” is foundational to being a person of faith.
These are the sorts of relationship which we were created to have. St. Augustine, in writing on the Trinity, reminds us that we are created in the image of God. And in being created by God, an imprint of God is left on us. He says that “we can find traces of the Trinity all around.” If relationship is central to the Triune God, then it only stands to reason that we, who bear this divine imprint, are also created to be in relationships. And consider the image of Hell which Dante describes in The Divine Comedy; it is a place of isolation from God. Dante’s vision of the worst punishment possible isn’t so much in the flames and tortures of hell, but is in the isolation from relationships that truly matter. Or think about our prison system, solitary confinement is often considered to be a place of extra punishment; because somehow, we innately know that relationship is essential to who we are.
We need each other. Being in relationship also holds us accountable and reminds us of who we are when we are dizzied by the changes and chances of this life.
One of the reasons why we have a reading about Wisdom from Proverbs on Trinity Sunday is that some theologians have suggested that this personified Wisdom is, perhaps, a metaphor for Jesus. And other scholars note that Wisdom is a feminine word, sophia in Greek. And so, much has been said about the idea that God has innately feminine qualities in the Trinity. As I said earlier, that’s a detail to get lost in. But the bigger picture is that at we’re not complete until our relationships involve everyone. We need everyone to be at the table for the meal to work. We need the rich and the poor, the young and the old. We need those in jail and those in nursing homes. We need everyone in order to be complete. Relationship isn’t just about those like us; it is about gathering all who are made in the image of God.
And in having these “I-Thou” relationships, we must open ourselves to truly authentic relationships, of the sort that St. Paul refers to in today’s reading. He wrote that “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Let’s focus on the first part of that sentence- boasting in our sufferings. I also have in mind other places where St. Paul writes about boasting in weakness. And if we’re bad at relationships, we’re even worse at boasting in our sufferings or weaknesses.
We sure do love boasting in what we’re good at though. And there’s nothing wrong with having pride in your work and accomplishments, so long as we keep in mind the Reformation phrase soli deo gloria, “glory to God alone.” And we like having excuses for why we’re not perfect. I sometimes play tennis with a guy who, you’d think, could be the top tennis player in the world if things would just go his way. I’ve never seen him miss a shot without saying something like “that must of have hit a pebble when it bounced,” or “the lights were in my eyes.”
But how often do we boast in our shortcomings? None of us are the complete package; none of us are perfect. But we don’t like to admit that, and we cover our deficiencies instead of owning and boasting in them. And as St. Paul suggests, if we could own our sufferings and weaknesses, then we would gain endurance, and character, and hope. And that hope, comes through the idea of relationship which we find in the Trinity. If we can see our sufferings and weaknesses not as things that disadvantage us, but as opportunities to grow closer to and rely on others, we will also see the hope of what it means to love the way that God does.
I wonder what sort of church and society we’d be if everyone was given the chance to use their gifts? But too often we’re looking for messiah figures that seem too good to be true, and disappoint us when that turns out to be true. So people that aren’t good at management are put into management positions because they have the people skills to climb the corporate ladder. Or we elect people to Congress that are great at giving speeches, but are terrible at compromise. But what if we acknowledge our sufferings and weaknesses and then had the faith to trust in others to help us along?
If we continue to insist that we don’t need help from others, that we can handle it all on our own, we will fall out of relationships with others. What we see in the Trinity is that there is some wisdom in that idiom- “it takes a village.” We are stronger when we are together, when we can be open and honest about what we lack and need, and trusting enough to allow others to make us whole.
And there are instances where we still remember this foundational lesson from the Trinity. This connection between suffering and hope actually is what tomorrow’s secular holiday is all about. Memorial Day is a day in which we recount the stories of brave men and women who have heeded the call to liberate people from dictators and protect the American idea of freedom. And as we go to events which remember them and fly our flags, we are given a sense of hope.
I wish it could be different, that somehow this connection was more evident in our daily lives between owning our sufferings and weaknesses could remind us that deeply need to be in relationship with others, and that those relationships give us a peace which passes all understanding and a hope upon which to build our lives. But like most things that are truly important to us, it is easy to take it for granted. But for the people of Oklahoma, they are recalling this truth today- that homes and cars don’t matter nearly as much as relationships. And their hope isn’t found in knowing that their insurance policy will pay new stuff, but hope comes through the prayers of the nation, the courageous acts of the first responders, and the hoards of volunteers from around the country who will come to their town to help them rebuild. When we have funerals at this parish, there, of course, is suffering. But there is also great hope that comes through relationships- through cards sent, dinners made, and prayers. Whenever we experience a national tragedy, whether it be 9/11, bombs in Boston, or hurricanes in New Orleans or New York, we are reminded of this great truth expressed in the Trinity- our greatest hope comes through relationship with others and with God.
In being in “I-Thou” relationship with others, when we carry each others’ burdens, acknowledging our own suffering and weakness, we are doing the work of the Trinity. We are coming together as the image of God would have us do. We are being true to our created nature. And so it should come as no surprise that we find great comfort and hope when we are able to live in a way that accords with the divine plan of Creation.
The Trinity is a mystery, not to solve, but to thrive in. When we look at the big picture of the Trinity, we recall that God is relationship. Being made in the image of God, we are created to be in relationship. We only punish ourselves and those around us when we focus on “I-It” relationships which objectify others and further pushes us all towards islands of isolation. Instead, if we have more “I-Thou” relationships in which we can acknowledge our failings, weaknesses, and sufferings, we can be made whole through genuine relationships with God and others. We remember this well in our times of great need and tragedy. But for us to more fully live into the Kingdom of God, to be a more robust Church, to have more meaningful relationships in our personal lives, we need only to remember this lesson from the Trinity- that our greatest hope comes through having the deepest relationships. Amen.