Is It Too Much To Ask…

In one of my favorite movies ever, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey) says to Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter)

“Just a minute… just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? Why… here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”

Today, it seems Mr. Potter is alive and well and living everywhere in society. Today, I met a woman who — though she’s disabled, she can’t get disability. Though she can’t work, she can’t get social security, though she was left a house, she now pays an exorbitant amount to rent it, and the list goes on.

Why? Because the state she lives in has a law that said she had to prove she was disabled for longer than she has. Because that same state has a law that distinguishes between physical and emotional disability, though there are supposed to be parity laws. Because the people who bought her house are, in my mind, greedy. Because she has no, or can’t afford, health insurance. Society has failed this woman, though her faith community is trying to help, they can’t do it forever. Is it too much to ask that she get what she needs? Apparently, yes.

It has been illegal to be poor since the Reagan years, when he stated “some people want to be homeless”. While that may actually be true for some individuals who are homeless, no one but the mentally ill want to stay in the freezing cold. Mental health coverage, despite some progress, is laughable. Lots of people can’t be seen if they have Medicaid, or if they have a high deductible, or high co-pays, and (by definition) their judgement is impaired. AND THIS IS BEFORE TRUMP.

Elsewhere, people can’t afford housing, people can’t afford a lawyer if their rights are removed, and if a person actually does make a bad choice, they’re in the system for life, where the government and society blames them for needing help, and justifies it with the sentence, “there’s only so much money to go around”. While that is possibly true, I tend to doubt it, and — of course. — we’ll never find out.

“And he’s telling us all about the deal he’d give us if he could , but he just can’t” — Bruce Springsteen, in the song “Used Cars”….

If you listen to the Russia Scandal, you hear numbers being bandied about in the billions regarding money laundering. The new Republican tax plan, which was supposed to help the middle class, will increase the debt by a trillion dollars. For years and years, we have been told that, if we want money for education, or fire departments, or police stations, we must fix the debt. Now, suddenly, we don’t? Can someone explain how this works?! For years, it was a running joke that we have wanted “the military to have bake sales while teachers and schools have what they need”. Over the last 40 years, the gap between them has only gotten worse. It’s not about resources, ( and I dare say, it’s never been about resources) it’s about priorities . While your average person will spend years paying for their cars, the rich want a tax break on their private jets. The list of indignities here is too large to list here (or, frankly, anywhere).

The final straw for me was Sen. Chuck Grassley saying, last week, that the new tax plan makes sense because it differentiates between “those who invest their money, vs, those who spend it on “women, booze, or movies”. Is it really too much to ask that people have housing, food, and clothes, medicines, health care and some fun every once in awhile? Is it too much to ask that most people work one job and make enough money to have a life? Really, is it?

Resisting with Peace,

John

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God’s Math: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Sermon given at the ecumenical Thanksgiving Service, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Pine Meadow, CT 11/21/2017  “God’s Math”

It’s funny how things stick with us.  When I lived in Rochester, NY may years ago, my roommate was about 6’5” and not particularly heavy. He, however, always thought of himself as “fat”, because apparently he’d lost a lot of weight at some point. He would say, “once a fat boy, inside, always a fat boy”.

As someone who grew up as “the nerd” at my school, I have always felt that Christianity was the place for weird people. Not “bad”, mind you, but weird, as in “unique”, “sticking out”, “different”. If you think about it, we believe some pretty weird things. If we just look at our texts this evening, you’ll see what I mean.

Starting right off, we believe that one Being – God created everything we see. We can argue about the seven days thing or not, but the “fact” of our faith is that we believe that God created all of this. We believe that a God we can’t see made everything we can see. We believe that God made us.  We believe that there are consequences for a nation that doesn’t do either of those things – believe in God or follow God’s way as told in the commands and commandments. Then we believe that consequences are only to bring us back to our rightful place, not to utterly destroy us. Coming in December, we’ll be asked to believe in a virgin giving birth, and a star that kings followed. After that, we’ll be asked to believe that God came here, healed us, taught us how to be, was killed for it, and then rose again. How many of you have literally seen God? How many of you have seen an actual miracle – like healing people’s leprosy with just a word. And – at the very crux of our faith — how many of you have seen a resurrection from the dead? And yet, that’s what we believe– we and our ancestors for between 2,000 years for Christians and 4,000 years for Jews.  See what I mean?

And yet society tells us a different story. It tells us we should believe in what we see, and what we know, and what we can prove. Society tells us to believe in ourselves as the maker of all things, as the ruler of all things, as the owner of all that is around us, including each other if we have enough money or fame or power. And boy, does this society love money and fame. In fact, right now, the world teaches us that you can never have enough of them! Which brings us back to weird.

We live in this society, but we believe Christian things. We value different things. Sadly, this Thanksgiving, as the new Boston Declaration points out, we in this room, are probably weird (in the best kind of way) to other Christians living in this country. Real Christians are now weirder that weird. If you can remember math and picture a Bell Curve, you would see that Real Christians are two standard deviations off of the norm according to society, in this day and age.

But God’s math is different than ours. God’s version of the Bell Curve puts Christians in the center of what’s valuable. It sees the rich, the famous, and the powerful on the far outskirts of what should be the norm.  God could care less if you have money, or power, or fame. God is not impressed with your fur coat or how good you are at avoiding taxes in offshore accounts. God is not impressed by buildings or monuments with your name on them, or how many medals you have won. God is not impressed with all of the trappings of this life.

God is impressed by care. In God’s math, if you have two coats and you give one of them away, you are richer than you were before. In God’s Algebra, you and you and you are equal. What ever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other.  If you give kindness to people, there is more kindness in the world, not less. If you give hope to another person, there’s more hope in the world than there was when you started.

Last year, around this time, my friend Rick and I went to see The Chapin Family Reunion as a benefit for WhyHunger , an organization that helps to feed people in sustainable ways, and The Harry Chapin Foundation which supports the arts on Long Island among other things. In short, the organizations support caring and awe in the world. It was one of the best nights of my life, not because of the flash of the performers, or the fame of the people on stage, or the volume of the music – 100 watts of POWER! It was a night of kindness. People in the parking lot were polite parkers, people in the audience brought cans of food, people on the stage sang about hope, love, joy, and treasuring people. They even sang a song about a man who had been put down by the media, and they let the man himself sing it, restoring a part of his soul in the process. When Rick and I left, we felt loved, because we had loved others. The kindness filled every fiber in our being and we remembered that we had power to change the world by healing it.  We were fed by feeding others. That is how God’s math works. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi,

When we give thanks to God by giving to others, we affect the world in ways unseen, but always felt. When we act in loving ways, we don’t get tired, we gain energy. When we are awed by the beauty of nature, and seek to protect it rather than own it, many more people can experience awe. When we see each and every person around us as worthy in God’s sight, we realize our worth to God as well, and the world changes some more. Think about the people you actually know in your life who are the kind of Christian I am describing. Are they famous? Are they powerful? Are they stingy? Do you care about their money? No. Are they important to their community? Yes. So very much.

And there are more logical “jumps” in God’s math. When everyone has enough to eat, there is the chance for peace in the world. When the lonely are remembered, there is less cynicism about the old or the younger generation and more faith. When we think of others, our belief in ourselves rises.  This is the way it has always been.  This Thanksgiving, as the world gets weirder and weirder and makes the world a less thankful place, brothers and sisters, I encourage you to get weirder to it. Share with each other and receive more than coupons. Feed others and sleep better at night, because the world is that much more peaceful.  Love people that other people despise and see them become people you want to be with. Spend time with the lonely this Thanksgiving and see a smile break out over a board game – remember those?

One final thing: If you do it without making a fuss or seeking fame, in God’s math, you’ll become known and loved among people here on earth (and the angels in heaven, if you believe in that kind of thing).

God set up the universe to run one way. Society sets it up another way. Any day now, we’ll stop trying to fight God’s way of love, mercy, and kindness. In the meantime, let’s just be weird. Amen.

Ban Assault Weapons 

I have wondered what to say about the violent murder of church folk in Texas, and the violent murder of people in Las Vegas, and the violent murder of whoever was before that, and before that, and before that, 

Today, as I heard the story of all of the Christians who are “keeping the faith”, it finally hit me. There are people who will lose their faith in God due to the tragedy. There have been, and will continue to be, people who wonder where God was in all of this death — whether it took place in a church or not. They shouldn’t have to. 

From my own perspective, free will and the belief that human beings are empowered by the Spirit to make a difference in their own lives, to stand up for themselves, are God’s work in this tragedy. 

That said, and the freedom that comes from it, what should we do? I could write a complicated article about domestic violence, trauma, mental health resources, the NRA, and weighing those against the 2nd Amendment. … 

Few things anger me more than politicians using vague theology to justify their support for a economic lobbying group (the NRA)… God shouldn’t be used to sell death, so…

Bullshit! Enough. Enough already! It’s not all that complicated! It’s just not. Evil exists, violence exists, weapons exist. The ingredients have been there since cavemen threw rocks at each other. We cannot stop all violence or killing, though we are called to try.

What we can do is limit the damage that the combination of human nature and weapons do. If people want to hunt, or defend themselves, or even have a revolution against the government (how I read the 2nd Amendment), let them do it. Let them do it one bullet at a time. The likelihood that we’ll need violent overthrow of the government should be incredibly small. Everything else only needs one bullet at a time. 

Assault weapons are weapons of war. If we don’t want to have wars on our streets, they shouldn’t be allowed. If people want to get violent against the government and traditional, let me remind them that the early patriots became free without assault weapons. Furthermore, guns that can impersonate assault weapons with an added piece shouldn’t be sold either. 

I’m a pacifist (though not a vegetarian), so I wouldn’t own any weapon. For those who want compromise, this is my compromise. I’m done arguing with killers and those who enable them. 

Resisting with Peace,

John



Walls (For Karl, In Germany)

(Written at Checkpoint Alpha, between East and West Germany)


What if the walls we build keep us in

Rather than them out?
Is that freedom?

Or is that security?

Which do we long for more?

We fear that the government is selling us the other one.
If we can walk

From one place to another

We might see things

Someone else doesn’t want us to.
We might remember things 

Someone else doesn’t want us to.
We might love people 

Someone else doesn’t want us to.
We might…we might…

But those other people, they might… they might

They might think badly of us (We might think badly of us)
Without walls, 

there is no possession,

there is no allegiance, 

There is no control

There is no anger
And yet, we speak of freedom 

and building walls.

Random Thoughts On People’s Economic Lives

I just came back from Boston on Sunday and got into discussions with friends. All of them had something to say about housing, of all things. They were talking about owning a home for the first time. They weren’t complaining. They were, in fact, proud of themselves for making the move. The conversation then got interesting. Since each of them was single, there was no need for a 3 Bedroom house or an acre of land to put it on. They could buy small. When I asked how much they were going to pay for their little place in Boston, numbers between a 1/4 to 1/3 of a million dollars was what they said. In my mind, me being married with kids, they weren’t even buying a house. They were buying a garage or an in-law unit or a condo-sized place. These were intelligent hard-working people, and in my mind, they were paying way too much for way too little. My days working with the homeless sprung to mind, and I explained how the problem with, say, losing your job, was that it cost triple to move back in to a place — first month, last month and security deposit. Each of us understood that, in Boston, anyway, that was about $5,000!

Who can live like that? One tragedy and you’re not coming back economically. People don’t save money because they don’t make enough as it is. One hit and it’s all over without a lot of help. I’m not sure, but I would have to guess that the IQs of these people are above average. They work hard and continuously, and they have good jobs — or reasonably good ones anyway. If they’re above average, then people who are average can’t even afford that. The American Dream — a house, a car, 2.2 children, white picket fence — is so far out of reach as to make it the American Fantasy. Housing is a basic need. I don’t know how anyone in Boston can afford their basic needs.  The same is true, of course, in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, which are more expensive than Boston.

There is something terribly wrong when people can’t afford to their basic needs. 

Beyond that, though, so much of the American Dream aka “normal life” is simply unaffordable to most Americans. Included there are:

  • A pro baseball game with the family
  • A pro football game for one or two
  • A pro basketball game
  • A movie for the family
  • Snacks for the movie 
  • One ticket to a Broadway play
  • A concert at a club or arena. 

At even $15.00 per hour, you have to work a full day to take the family out to the movies for two hours!  Now, you can’t afford your basic needs and it costs too much to avoid the fact. 

Cars now cost 25 or 30 thousand dollars.

Health insurance can cost that same amount every year, and cost $5,000 in medical bills (deductible) before it kicks in.

Medications are so expensive that if we didn’t have insurance, I couldn’t afford mine

My family is ok. Most of my friends are ok, I think. In the context of poverty, though, lives simply don’t work economically. 

Does racism or sexism or homophobia matter? Well, if you can’t get or keep a job because of them…. yes, it does. Why would a woman stay at a job where she’s harassed? Let’s see, hmmm….

Put this against the agenda items that Congress and the President are pressing for and see why people gave up on government or are so angry about so much. 

I don’t have solutions, but I know where the problems are. Just saying, I noticed.

Resisting with Peace,

John


That’ll Teach ‘Em! — I Hope Not

If there is one thing everyone agrees on regarding Barack Obama, it is that he is Black. Some will point out that he’s mixed race, so “not totally Black”, but few, if any in America, are mad at him for his being White, so I’ll stick with my first statement. Bill Clinton not withstanding, Obama also really is the “first Black President of the United States”. Love him, hate him, agree with him, disagree with him, it is true that he was the President of the United States.

Donald Trump, according to the historian at NBC News, is the first President in American history to try to actively undo the work of his predecessor. It is now widely believed that Trump’s entire agenda — at least the parts he’s been successful at — are all related to destroying Obama’s legacy — from the most inane to the most extraordinary achievement. From the Paris Climate Accords to Obamacare and the Iran Deal to the restrictions on the mentally ill owning guns and the removal of flooding regulations, birth control, DACA and so on, Trump is trying to pummel Obama’s legacy into submission.

For those who believe in such things, Obama is the ultimate example of an “uppity n-word”. He is an example of how far we had come in American diversity/race relations. He was the classic example of what a Black Man can achieve in this society, the ultimate proof that African-Americans are not only human, but someone for all Americans to aspire to. Intellectual, kind, decent to those who are not like him, scandal-free and so on. If you can think of a Black stereotype, Barack Obama’s existence denies its reality.

It is also well-known that Mr. Obama was merciless in his roasting of Trump at a White House Corresponence Dinner a few years back. Reality TV star Omarossa, now on Trump’s staff said, in essence Mr. Trump didn’t like that humiliation and wanted revenge for Obama saying what he did … after Trump had lied and berated him for months about “not being born here”.

To sum up: Barack Obama is Black, and was President — a problem for racists everywhere. Trump apparently hates him, and is doing anything to remove examples of Obama’s power he can. Here’s the tricky question, though: Does Trump hate Obama personally or racially? The answer to that question determines the moral of the story and the narrative for a whole country.

If Trump only hates Obama, then he’s just petty, vengeful, and spiteful. If Trump hates Obama because he is Black and was President, however, the moral becomes something very, very different.  In that case, the lesson Trump is trying to teach American Blacks is that Whites can — and will — erase any attempt at racial “uppity-ness” you can come up with, because we can erase the best of you. Go ahead, believe in yourselves and we’ll remove any trace of you.  In that case, Trump becomes a racial vampire, sucking the life out of a whole culture. In the words of Bob Marley, “every time that I plant a seed, he say ‘kill it before it grows’”.

The first option is horrible, contemptible and beneath the dignity of a PresidentThe second one can not stand. It simply cannot be left out there, like a flowering weed, if America is to live up to its full potential. We must remember all of the things that our former President has done for the country — and more than Trump wants us to forget. We need to tell our children that a Black man can save the earth if he pays attention to science, that he can decrease violence in the world with his actions regarding guns,  that he can save the country from bankruptcy, both after a crash and before a storm. We need to tell out children that a Black boy can be a leader, can be compassionate, can do the right thing with the stroke of a pen, or with arms that held parents after the Newtown massacre. We need to tell our children that a Black father can stick around, and raise two brilliant and decent daughters. We have to remember them, because they are all true and because they matter. 

It occurs to me as I write this that Hillary Clinton is the same symbol for women that President Obama was for Blacks. Trump, the Republican men and some women, are trying to undo any gains the women’s movement has made and Hillary is the perfect example of how far a woman can go in this country. For the same reasons as above, we must tell the stories and remember the successes of women to prove equality to men. Trump hates Hillary as much as he hates Obama. Let him not steal the souls of little girls, teenagers, or adult women simply because he can demean them or grab their genitals.  If we are to have the strengths that women bring for our country, we cannot let this man or any other one boil her entire time in office to Benghazi and Monica Lewinsky. We must tell the true stories of everything she has done in her career. We must tell our children that girls can be Senators and Secretaries of State, that they can defend democracy, that they can make a difference in keeping people healthy, that they can change the world.

We must remember and tell the truth, as much as Trump and cohorts want us to forget and deny. Truth and gifts are too important to lose.

Resisting with Peace,
John

An Island In The Stream

[Editor’s note: this is e-news “blast” for First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC, in Goshen, CT, where I am an interim minister.  I’m sharing it with the wider world because I think we all need it.]

One of the unique parts of my time here (in my third interim) is the fact that frequently I have had to have two sermons, one “regular” and one related to a crisis. I believe that this has happened three times in my 10 months here. One was after the events at Charlottesville, one was after hurricanes, and this week would have been the third, after the massacre in Las Vegas.

I have been at a loss for words after this one because it happened so fast and  in the midst of so many other things going on in the world – things which moral people should all have an opinion on, and a faithful response to. With regards to the Las Vegas shooting, I have had absolutely nothing to say until my drive here today, as I listened to various podcasts (hour-long news programs that I download daily).

So here’s what I have:  The world is crazy now, full of impossible-to-predict tragedies. We usually like to “get out in front of them”, see what’s wrong, and correct it before disaster strikes. We can understand, for instance that pollution ruins our environment, so we take steps to avoid catastrophe. We worry about carbon emissions, so we try to decrease them.

When storms in life like hit Houston, or Florida or this most recent tragedy in Las Vegas, there is no way to prepare for them because they have never happened before.   We humans have become – through little choice of our own – reactors rather than actors. If we don’t see tragedy coming, there is nothing we can do but be.

That’s where the church comes in. If nothing else, the church can be. It can exist as an island in the floods of bad news like, like a hospital where people can get immediate care, like a beacon of hope and comfort for the world around us.

While Christianity used to be a huge piece of land in our culture, it’s now, just an island for many. Still, we need an island of safety, a place where we can get together and heal, a place where we can simply rest from the storms, a place where we can feel the calming presence of God in the middle of chaos, a place where we can simply hold each other until the storm passes — a place where we can get our lives together once again. When we have done that, we can return to the world with a stance and a plan.

          For a long time in this country, people have talked about the decline of the church, the decreasing size of congregations, and the loss of givers and care that seems to go along with it. We feel it all around us as our children go off to this or that sporting event on a Sunday. As bars open so people can drink and malls open so people can shop, people go elsewhere to “just be”.  But it is a hollow form of community, based on alcohol and/or money. There is no meaning in a bar, there is no way of life to be found in owning the latest fashion. There is no healing in competition.

But for people in this little town in the middle of nowhere, all of those things exist. You can come here with no money and be fed in all kinds of ways. You can hang around with a crowd and make sense of your life. Your kids can learn about and practice love.  Within these walls, you can expect to find comfort, healing, community, friendship, great music, and faith in something bigger than yourself and – with any luck – a good sermon, too!  These are the things the Spirit provides. That is what the Church does. That is why the church exists.

We’ll never kick you out if you’re not prepared, if you don’t have money, if you don’t agree with everyone’s politics. You don’t have to do anything to be here but be in times like this. Since human beings often can’t do much of anything to cope with modern life’s tragedies, that’s a good thing. To the extent that it’s possible, and  to the extent that you feel led to, share your Self and your gifts here. Make pies. Teach a kid to dance. Learn to pray. Pass the Peace of Christ. Teach forgiveness, donate time and/or money.  The world needs this little island of faith because it needs the God who lives here. Simply by existing, the church says “there is another way to do life” – we don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to be hateful, we don’t have to be isolated. As people like you let their lights shine, the world will know that it can change, and it will.

May God bless you this week until we meet on Sunday for worship. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

 

Peace,

 

Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau