Thursday, 18 June 2015

Fighting for $15

A SYNOPSIS OF PASTOR RON'S TESTIMONY BEFORE GOVERNOR CUOMO'S WAGE BOARD: Good afternoon. My name is Reverend Ron Garner, I am the Pastor of Memorial Congregational Church in Wantagh. I applaud Governor Cuomo for establishing these Wage Boards. It is my hope, as a faith leader, that these efforts will bear much fruit and Fast Food Workers will receive a just wage for the work that they do. You have heard the testimonies of several fast food workers and I hope that their testimonies alone will move the Governor and Legislature to increase compensation for such workers to at least $15 per hour and will allow those same workers to form unions -which is their right. Much of the testimony you hear today will share economic information and will address the cost of living on Long Island. That is important information. But as a Christian minister I come before you to speak of the importance of people of faith standing in solidarity with the working poor. Their struggle is a struggle that is as old as civilization. Economic disparity is an anathema to our scriptures and to the teachings of Jesus; although whatever economic system is in place seems to drift toward such inequity. This board’s recommendation to the governor and legislature could move the state of New York in a positive direction and alleviate, to a degree, the destructiveness and divisiveness of unjustly low wages. I urge you to take the stories you hear, the information you receive, and the statements of faith and civic leaders back to Albany so that the working poor will receive relief from the current situation. Thank you.

I was disappointed that only 3 of the more than 100 speakers were members of the clergy.  We wonder why so many people find the church irrelevant.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Rev. William Barber's "Sermon" at Stony Brook University

     This past Tuesday evening I journeyed out to Stony Brook University to hear the Reverend Dr. William Barber speak at the Inaugural Distinguished Lecture in Working Class Studies.  Reverend Barber is a powerful preacher and the driving force and founder of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina.He is one of the most important social justice movement leaders in the United States today.

     While taking root in North Carolina, the Moral Monday Movement has spread across the country with campaigns focussing on economic justice and government accountability.  Many organizations, unions, churches and synagogues came together at this event to listen to Reverend Barber and work with him to plan actions addressing economic injustices faced by Long Islanders.

     The title of his lecture was ‘The Moral Foundation of Worker Rights.’  I can honestly say that I don’t know when I have heard a more powerful preacher in my life.  His passioned and prophetic witness energized those who had gathered in the auditorium and crescendoed to a rousing standing ovation at the end of his sermon.  I think some of the academic community that had gathered expected to hear the typical intellectual lecture that you expect at such events.  But what they got, thankfully I might add, was a powerful sermon.  I left for my journey home with an uplifted spirit and a renewed sense of hope for the future.

      What was astounding was how he summarized the agenda for the Moral Monday Movement at the conclusion of his talk.  Although this isn't a verbatim from the talk, it is close and is also included in his book, Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation.

1.  Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability by fighting for employment, living wages, the alleviation of disparate unemployment, a green economy, labor rights, affordable housing, targeted empowerment zones, strong safety net services for the poor, fair policies for immigrants, infrastructure development and fair tax reform.

2.  Educational equality by ensuring every child receives a high quality, well-funded, constitutional, diverse public education as well as access to community colleges and universities and by securing equitable funding for minority colleges and universities.

3.  Healthcare for all by ensuring access to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security and by providing environmental protection.

4.  Fairness in the criminal justice system by addressing the continuing inequalities in the system and providing equal protection under the law for black, brown and poor white people.

5.  Protect and expand voting rights, women's rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights and the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law.

     I find this summary  an outstanding outline for religious organizations to encompass in their social justice work.   

Friday, 3 April 2015

Market based morality

I think we should stop kidding ourselves about the changes of heart that the legislatures and governors of Indiana and Arkansas had based on their reversals of the 'freedom of religion' bills that were amended after public outcry.  They didn't change their minds because of suddenly seeing the light or somehow instantaneously becoming more tolerant.  They only changed their minds because of the 'bottom line.'  When their states were threatened with the loss of business because of the bills they quickly made amends.  So for those of us who want to live in a more tolerant and just world this is something of a hollow victory.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Pastor Ron's Easter Sermon for 2015

     Little Philip, born with Down’s syndrome, attended a third-grade Sunday School class with several eight-year-old boys and girls.Typical of that age, the children did not readily accept Philip with his differences, according to an article in leadership magazine. But, because of a creative Sunday School teacher, they began to care about Philip and accept him as part of the group, though not fully.
     The Sunday after Easter the teacher brought L’eggs pantyhose containers, the kind that look like large eggs -you remember those. Each receiving one, the children were told to go outside on that lovely spring day, find some symbol of new life, and put it in the egg-like container. Back in the classroom, they would share their new-life symbols, opening the containers one by one in surprise fashion.
     After running about the church property in wild confusion, the students returned to the classroom and placed the containers on the table. Surrounded by the children, the teacher began to open them one by one.  After each one, whether a flower or leaf, the class would ooh and ahh. One child had even captured a butterfly! Then one was opened, revealing nothing inside.
     The children were troubled and exclaimed, “That’s stupid. That’s not fair. Somebody didn’t do their assignment.”
     Philip spoke up, “That’s mine.”
     “Philip, you don’t ever do things right!” a student retorted. “There’s nothing there!”
     “I did so do it,” Philip insisted. “I did do it. It’s empty. The tomb was empty.”
     Silence followed. From then on Philip became a full member of the class.He died not long afterward from an infection most normal children would have shrugged off.
     At the funeral this class of eight-year-olds marched up to the altar not with flowers, but with their Sunday School teacher, each to lay on it an empty pantyhose egg.
     Although the four gospel writers each give a differing account of that first Easter they all agree on one crucial element. The tomb, like Philip’s egg, was empty. 
     Today, we have heard the story as told by the writer of John’s gospel. Alone, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb to discover it empty. Like the other children in today’s story, she doesn’t know what to make of this fact. So she runs to tell Peter, and that other disciple, whom Jesus loved.
"They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
     The two disciples head out running, arrive at the tomb and discover it just as Mary had said -empty, with only the linen wrappings remaining.
     What happens next seems rather abrupt for a rather remarkable event.  One disciple believes, but both simply return to their homes. Not so, Mary Magdalene. Convinced of the fact that the body of Jesus had been moved, she stood outside the tomb, weeping. The emptiness of the tomb reflecting the emptiness she must have felt.
     It is in those empty situations in our lives when the hope and joy of resurrection, of Easter like experiences, can break forth.
     An inner-city church worker in Wichita, Kansas, tells of this experience. Venture House is an Episcopalian social service reaching out to the city’s down and out.Mary was a ‘bag lady’, homeless, ill with several physical and mental problems. Her life seemed empty, just like the tomb and the soul of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter. This Mary had turned to Venture House for help. Since then she had come to know all of the staff and many of the volunteers. She had also heard that they prayed.
     One day, she shyly asked a volunteer worker to have them pray for her.‘Mary, why don’t you come by early tomorrow and pray with us?’ the volunteer invited.
     Next day happened to be a dreary, overcast Good Friday morning. Mary came and sat quietly, observing these people at prayer. A volunteer read the gospel appointed for that day -the lesson that told of Jesus’ crucifixion. As he read about the death of Jesus, the attention of the staff and volunteers was fixed on the sadness of the words. When the man finished, silence permeated the room.
Mary broke the silence by saying to the group, ‘You know, if there are people like you in the world, perhaps Jesus really was raised from the dead.’”
     Each of us in life, have to decide what we do with empty tomb experiences. Like Mary Magdalene we can be present with the experience and discover to our surprise that there is light at the end of even the darkest tunnel. Mary wept, then her weeping was turned to joy as she met Jesus in the garden.
She was able to proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Which isn’t all that different from Mary the bag lady’s Easter proclamation, “You know, if there are people like you in the world, perhaps Jesus really was raised from the dead.”
     We too, are people of the proclamation. Proclaimed in not only what we say, but how we live our lives. We see life in the midst of where others might only see empty tombs.
Like Philip we see life and proclaim. “I did do it. It’s empty. The tomb was empty.”
But, like Peter we also see something more -we see life. Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Loveless power or powerless love

I am more than ready for winter to be over!  Perhaps you are feeling the same way.  More than one of you has complained to me about this rather unsettled March.  The old adage about coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb doesn’t seem to apply to this particular year.  For me, I didn’t want to wake up on Palm/Passion Sunday with a light coating of snow on the ground.  As I write this, the day after Palm/Passion Sunday the temperature is only in the mid-thirties.

One of my favorite preachers is the late William Sloan Coffin who was the Senior Minister at historic Riverside Church in Harlem for several years.  I have a two volume collection of his sermons and often go to them for inspiration and spiritual uplift.  He was not only a great preacher with a soaring rhetoric but was also a man dedicated to issues of peace and justice -particularly in the area of nuclear disarmament.  

Easter came late in 1984 (April 22nd) and he began his sermon for that day with these ‘warm weather’ words:

What makes Easter so much fun is all the finery: the chickens, the rabbits, the lambs, the eggs, the forsythia, the cherry blossoms in Riverside Park, and now, finally, the warm air -altogether a glorious day!  But what makes Easter so exciting is the cosmic quality of it.  For Easter has less to do with one man’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power.

That’s how it is with the church in the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Over the past half century, the Christian church has lost much of its power to persuade and to convince others that we truly have ‘good news’ to share.  But yet we do.  We may grouse about those ‘Christmas and Easter’ Christians, but the reality is that even a world which for the most part seems to have abandoned the following of Jesus the mystery of powerless love still resonates with us at our deepest level.

This year, I will be preaching on the Easter story as told by the writer of John’s Gospel.  In his story, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb by herself.  She was the first Easter Christian.  But although the loveless power had crucified her Lord, the miracle of Easter was that in the end powerless love won out.  I look forward to worshiping with you on Easter Sunday.  We will celebrate our powerless love and even if the weather is cold our hearts will again be warmed.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Come on, New York Times, you can do better than this!

I was saddened today to here that Dr. Walter Wink had died at the age of 76.  This was especially sad for me when I heard that Walter died of complications from dementia.  As my mother has descended into dementia, I am very aware of that painful process.
And, I have a bit of righteous indignation at the New York Times who followed three paragraphs on Dr. Wink's 'open and affirming' stance on homosexuality with a paragraph of apparent rebuttal from Robert A J Gagnon.  In Dr. Wink's obituary 'The Times' didn't need to point out that others didn't agree with his stance and they certainly didn't need to put it after Wink's opinion and then move on to Wink's powerful stand on "militant nonviolence." 

Professor Gagnon is a respected New Testament theologian at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Perhaps the New York Times felt that his disagreement with Dr. Wink on this subject would at least not reflect the more hateful and frightening anti-gay protestations that sprung from North Carolina this past two weeks.  But, I think if 'The Times' had wished to frame the argument more honestly they would have used the video clip that has gone viral.  

Pastor Charles Worley represents how angry and frightened homophobes can become.  Most folks don't read or hear Professor Gagnon's opinions, but when taken to their hateful conclusion lots of folks see and hear Pastor Worley.  'Hanging or fencing in the LGBT community until they die' grabs attention.  Professor Gagnon might have wanted to have a civilized discourse.  But in this society, civilized discourse is pretty much left to NPR and PBS.  

Here is the offending portion of the obituary:            
"In 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles, Dr. Wink became “one of the most important social and political theologians of the 20th century,” in the words of Sojourners, an ecumenical Christian magazine.
On the subject of gay rights, he acknowledged that in at least three instances the Bible categorically condemned homosexuality. But he argued that Jesus, who never commented on homosexuality in the Gospels, would have naturally supported a marginalized group.
Besides, he noted, modern people do not follow the Bible to the letter in all things, like its endorsement of slavery. Moreover, he criticized specific interpretations of biblical language, saying, for example, that the word sodomy as used in the Bible referred to anal rape, not consensual sex.
Sodomy, he wrote, has “nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting persons of the same sex is legitimate or not.” And he insisted, “There is no biblical sex ethic.”
Many theologians bridled at his interpretations. Robert A. J. Gagnon, writing in Christian Century in 2002, said Dr. Wink ignored clear evidence of biblical antipathy to homosexuality. He said Dr. Wink’s insistence that the Bible offers only sexual mores and no sex ethic was supported only by 'sheer ideological fiat.'"

I'll take Dr. Wink's "militant nonviolence" and his opinion on homosexuality over that of Pastor Worley and Professor Gagnon any day.  Scholarly debates and rantings from the pulpit aside, the ethic of love for those most marginalized always wins out. Well done, good and faithful servant, Dr. Walter Wink.  Rest in peace.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The dangerous brilliance of political rhetoric

Let's face it.  No one in the United States wants to be called a 'socialist.'   After living in the United Kingdom for nearly ten years I became used to a culture where being labeled a socialist wasn't the kiss of death politically and some even considered it a badge of honor.  Tony Benn, a socialist and my favorite British politician, wasn't even afraid to call Karl Marx, somewhat tongue in cheek,  the last biblical prophet.  But he knew the difference between socialism and Marxist social analysis and the former totalitarian Soviet regime.  He unflinchingly says,  "The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin's Russia: it's like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain."

But in the United States even a hint of socialism shuts off any political dialogue and has even infiltrated and poisoned the waters of many a religious well.  That became abundantly clear when I challenged Glenn Beck's ill-advised comments about social justice.  Although much public opinion in the form of emails, phone calls, and messages left on the church answer phone supported my counterpoint that 'Jesus preached social justice';  there was a quite vitriolic and spirited group of folks that labeled not only my opinion but me as being [a] socialist.  Although I never mentioned the governments role, or lack of one on my sign, I was attacked for being a big government, bureaucratic loving, bleeding heart socialist.  

I have thought about that often as our church has started a vegetable garden in support of a local food pantry.  Its really hard to get anyone to object to such a project no matter what their ideological position.  But there is a danger in such projects.  It allows those who want a reduced government role in helping those most in need in our society to subscribe to facts that simply aren't in evidence.  Ask anyone in the trenches of supporting those most in need in our society and they will tell you that all of the resources of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, civic organizations and individuals cannot meet all of the needs of our society.  With all of them in play, many folks would still go to bed hungry.  Add in the fact that a recent budget passed by the House of Representatives will make drastic government cuts in the social safety net, and the problem will only become more intense.

But by throwing the word 'socialist' about, the political rhetoric has silenced too many people of faith.  I am happy that my congregation provides much food and will soon be providing fresh organic vegetables to people in need.  But I hope I won't let poisoned political rhetoric silence the need to continually prophetically speak the truth.  The government has the primary responsibility when it comes to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and providing healthcare for those who will still not be covered by weak Obamacare.  If that makes me a socialist, so be it.  I hope it also says that I am a Christian.