Appomattox Day (April 9th)

April 9th is the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War. On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. What would have been the empire of slavery, a divided United States, a former shell of its intended self, was not to be. The rebellion built on treachery, treason, racism, and economic self-interest was over.

The war, in an official sense, of armies engaging in the field, came to an end. One hundred years later, in the wake of the Voting and Civil Rights acts, a low-level guerilla war was still being waged across the former states of the Confederacy. Poll workers were murdered. Protesters were brutally attacked. Violence was still commonplace for those wanting to exercise the rights guaranteed by a war fought a century earlier.

In many ways, that’s where we are today. Stalled in the present, angry at being challenged about the lies we believe, and comfortable living as a backward dwelling past people. We find our identity in early 20th-century soldier statues to a war no living remembers. Our cars fly a flag that symbolizes so much hate that it can barely be contained in the Chinese made stickers that dominate our bumpers.

This is who we are in the 21st century south on Appomattox Day. We are not free people. We are held captive to our own racist imagery and the ignorant notion that hate isn’t hated. The war never ended. We pretend Lee won, Jackson lived, and Confederate raiders make life a living hell for the impoverished thousands who can’t come to swallow the “heritage not hate” red pill being offered by our neighbors.
No, you cannot erase history. Lee surrendered. Take down your banners. Remove your monuments to racism, brutality, and defeat. The war is over. On the scale of death and carnage America witnessed, no one can be said to be victorious.  People talk about the “religion of lost cause”.  Hate is the original lost cause.  You are worshiping hate.

Heritage is remembering a family recipe, not recalling a distant relative who fought to keep human beings in bondage. There is no honor in dying to keep rich men rich and slaves in chains.  Today, I want to give thanks and remember how we were saved by a drunk from an Ohio.  I’m grateful the God-fearing Episcopalian from Virginia lost.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Unpopular Opinions for August 26th, 2017

1. What good is a 20 minute sermon on loving one’s neighbor (or other specifics of Jesus’ teachings) when many in our congregations have spent Monday to Friday as disciples of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity learning a vocabulary of fear and reasons to despise others?

2. After hours of daily radio broadcasts plus television with Tucker Carlson in the evening, how can the church of Jesus Christ present a different way to look at reality when so many people attend the Church of Fox News (and its offshoots)? Jesus, preachers, and mainline Christianity can’t do it.  We’ve lost this battle.

3. A Christian worldview contrasts from a Sean, Rush, Tucker, Fox News, or Breitbart worldview. A Christian worldview is incompatible with most of the dominant American consumerist culture.

4. Here’s the answer to the first question; it does no good. If our sermons don’t echo sentiments or reinforce ideas in line with what millions of people are hearing from their weekday Sunday School lessons from Rush or Sean, people will leave our churches and take their money.  It’s already happening. It goes by other names (opposition homosexual clergy and gay marriage) but this is what we’re witnessing. Jesus following isn’t a popularity contest.  We can’t argue with people who are convinced they’ll be waving to us from Heaven on our way to Hell.

5. Will those who remain in our churches do the hard work of preaching the Good News or just complain about their neighbors? I’m not certain. Jesus was willing to die. Memes are far easier to post.

6.  Love is hard.  We can love harder.  Be a living sermon.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Food for Thought-Christmas Looks Nothing at all Like the Hymns We Sing

Slide1 Christmas relies heavily on stereotypes. We have the stereotypical Santa, the stereotypical elf, and our well-worn images of the holy family in the manger. Chief among the Christmas stereotypes are the angels. The angels appear in white, winged, and sporting halos. In our more contemporary renditions of angelic glory, one usually finds a person in a bed sheet, wings that appear to be robbed from an over sized Muppet, and a halo created from pipe cleaners or clothes hangers. If we go one step further with our angelic imagery, the heavenly messengers might be playing harps. Where on Earth has this strange hodge-podge of faux togas and heavenly harps come? One culprit is the well-worn Christmas hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”.

In the second line we read, “From angels bending near the Earth, to touch their harps of gold.” The angels bend “near” the Earth (never coming too close) to touch their harps of gold. They don’t want to come to close to Earth, only near enough to play these overpriced instruments in such a way that we, who live and dwell in the Christmas chaos may hear their joyous words. Here’s the thing. Edmund Sears, the man who wrote these words, was big on the world being solemn and still in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth. “The world in solemn stillness lay,” and the opening stanza, “it came upon a midnight clear,” all point to a world of total peace and tranquility. We got the impression of shepherds and others waiting for the cosmic pin to drop, so the real celebrations could rightly begin. How silent and still was a young woman going into labor? What were the sounds of Jesus’ cries, Mary’s pain, and Joseph’s worry? Could he have been more wrong? Unlikely, I say.

Has the hymn ever taken a long hard look at the reality of Christmas? It’s a cauldron of stress, fatigue, obligation, noise, and constant activity. In the way we lead our lives, there is nothing solemn or still about the modern American journey toward Christmas. Is this because we’ve taken the Christ out Christmas? No, it’s simply how we live 365 days a year. We are a culture which thrives on image over substance. Christmas is list of yearly traditions and manufactured obligations we’ve convinced ourselves must be done in order to have something we believe represents an ideal we’ve never really encountered. Christmas doesn’t look like the world presented in “It Came upon a Midnight Clear”. Hymn such as this tell the story of a sanitized world, a “Silent Night” which never existed. Their lyrics point us to staged recreations (sometimes in our minds and often in nativity scenes) of an event which looks nothing like the reality we claim to remember or want restored to our collective psyche. In a world full of turmoil, chaos, and pain we’ve sung ourselves into a complacency which fits our expectations and deepest desires. We meet a Jesus who will not challenge our complicity in the cultural marathon called Christmas (circa 2014). We encounter an infant who seems light years away from challenging our beliefs about the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the sick. We sit in church and sing words that don’t match the reality of Christmas because these songs are the weigh stations we use to measure how much Christmas resides in our souls.

I will sing “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” in church over the coming days. I will stand behind my pulpit; ask my congregation to turn to page 218 in the United Methodist Hymnal, and sing from verse 4, “The whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” In the back of my mind, I’ll be saying, “Yes, Lord, I want to send back this song and exchange it for a new one.” I want to send it back so we can sing of Christmas as it is not as someone wanted it to be. Is that the right thing to do or think? I don’t know. I’m an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and I’m not sure I know how to do Christmas “right”. I’m not certain what Christmas is supposed to look like. My guess, however, is that it doesn’t look like what we think we’re celebrating.