I bring greetings to Dean Baxter and members of the Cathedral Association, as well as to all the distinguished guests from our nation’s capitol and from the Lone Star State of Texas! It’s an honor and a privilege for me, a Lutheran pastor and executive director of the Texas Conference of Churches, to stand before you and to bring God’s Word to you on this day. As a child I loved to sing, “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas; the prairie bloom is like perfume, deep in the heart of Texas!” I would picture that night sky, and the prairie wildflowers, with no idea whatsoever that one day, I would come to make my home and to be a leader in ecumenical mission and ministry, in Texas. I came by way of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and can tell you that the winters in Texas are a great improvement over all those other places!
It’s especially an honor and a privilege for me to stand in this pulpit in the knowledge that The Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul is exemplary in the mission of providing a National House of Prayer for All People, in keeping with Isaiah 56:7. “Thus says the Lord: I will make even strangers joyful in my house of prayer; their offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all people.” Jesus quoted those words in Mark 11:17, while in the Jerusalem Temple. Translated into Spanish, which is the preferred language of many Texans, those words of Isaiah sound like this: “Mi casa sera llamada casa de oracion para todas las naciones.”
Texas’ great diversity is emblematic of the kind of diversity of which Isaiah spoke. Of the 20.9 million people who make up the population of Texas, 32% are Hispanic, 11.5% are African American. Asian groups and Native Americans are represented as well. Contin-ued growth in our diversity leads to projections that in the near future, those who are in the minority will increase until they will make up the majority of the population. The median age in Texas is a young 32, with 85% having been born in the U.S. 69% speak only English at home. The average family size is three. 25% are high school graduates. Along the border there is a continual struggle to cross over into the U.S. for a better life.
Texas, which once thought of itself as an independent nation, The Republic of Texas – some say it still does — became the 28th state in 1845. The largest of the 48 contiguous states, Texas has seven distinct geographic regions: the Big Bend area in the far west, the High Plains of the Panhandle, the Prairies and Lakes area, the Piney Woods on the east, the Gulf Coast, South Texas Plains, and right in the center, the Hill Country, in which the capitol, Austin, stands as the “Jewel of Texas,” where state government, education, and high tech industries fuel the economy. In the rest of the state, largely the economy depends on cattle, cotton, orchards and oil. In terms of climate, it can be snowing in the far north while it’s warm in the south, with both drought and flood affecting our homes and agriculture. Hurricanes and tornadoes are our most violent weather. Texas as a state is marked as you can see, by great diversity in culture, climate, geography and language.
Texas is the birthplace of the 34th and 36th presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as their first ladies, Mamie Doud and Claudia, “Lady Bird” Taylor. George Bush, # 41, and George W. Bush, #43, born in MA and CT, have made homes for themselves in Texas, along with their first ladies, Barbara Pierce and Laura Welch Bush. George W. Bush served as governor of Texas from 1995-2000, so that Laura was already a first lady, and their twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna were already “first children.”
The four distinguished presidents and their families from Texas fall into the category of Protestant mainstream religions that make up a part of the Texas Conference of Churches. Eisenhower was Presbyterian, Johnson was a member of the Disciples of Christ, George Bush is Episcopalian, and George W. is Methodist. These are four of the 13 communions in our membership, which also includes Lutheran, Cumberland Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of the Brethren, Religious Society of Friends, United Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox, and the Catholic Church.
Descended from the 40 year history of the previous, mainstream Protestant Texas Council of Churches, the Texas Conference of Churches was constituted in 1969, shortly after the Second Vatican Council opened a window on the world, which brought in Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches seeking to become a part of our ministry. We are now in our 33rd year of statewide, ecumenical mission and ministry. Our mission is: to enable our member communions to work together, to engage in open dialogue, to overcome divisions and misunderstandings, to engage in prayer and work for unity, and to give as far as possible, a common Christian witness and service, “doing all things together except those which we must in conscience and obedience do separately.” We seek to carry out our mission and ministry in our two commissions: The Commission on Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations, and The Commission on Church and Society.
When I reflect on the prophetic texts that provide the lessons for this day, which sound like we’ve jumped ahead into Advent and the coming “Day of the LORD,” I am humbled by the challenges that face our churches, right alongside all the potential that the diversity of our state holds for the well-being of millions of God’s people. We are, like Israel, challenged by the Prophet Zephaniah, not to rest complacently on our dregs, nor to say in our hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will the LORD do harm.” Houses that we have built we will not inhabit, and we will not drink from vineyards that we have planted. He tells us that the Day of the LORD is near, and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter with wrath, distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness. Our wealth will not save us on the Day of the LORD’s wrath. We must take care lest in the fire of the LORD’s passion, the whole earth will be consumed as the LORD makes a terrible end of all its inhabitants.
The churches in Texas are faced with the challenges of poverty, racism, and violence. How can we rest complacently on our dregs, when 15% of Texans live below the poverty level. 21% of these people are under 18 years of age, making children the most severely affected by lack of food, clothing, shelter and health care. After welfare reform only 11% of poor people in Texas receive help, mostly in the form of aid to dependent families. Before welfare reform 22% received aid. In 1994 there were five poor people for each recipient, in 2001 there were nine. In the face of these daunting challenges, the Texas Conference of Churches passed a resolution endorsing the national Call to Renewal’s Covenant to Overcome Poverty, at the Annual Assembly in 2002, in which we agreed to work toward a living wage, affordable housing and health care for all Texans, and to provide educational materials for churches to use, as we strive together toward this goal.
The expression of violence in Texas is aptly demonstrated by the fact that we lead the nation in having executed 285 people (and still counting), since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1976. Texas has executed persons whose crimes were committed when they were not yet adults, as well as people who lack the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand the nature and severity of their crimes. Texas has claimed that its justice system does not make mistakes, even though in recent years several offenders have been released from prison when DNA tests proved their innocence. Texas has sentenced a disproportionate number of persons of racial minorities to death, and has not provided public defenders of high quality to those who are unable to provide for their own defense.
In the face of all these inequities, the Texas Conference of Churches passed a Resolution Opposing the Death Penalty at the Annual Assembly in 1998, reaffirming the resolutions of 1973 and 1977, and acknowledging our complicity in the continuing use of and support of the death penalty. Further, we resolved that all our churches, members and caring citizens will continue to work in every way possible to create a humane, just and decent society. We continue to work for a moratorium on the death penalty while our justice system would undergo a review, and work to legalize the sentence option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as an alternative to the death penalty.
At our Annual Assembly in 2003 the Texas Conference of Churches will consider a resolution for which the goal is the dismantling of racism in a state that still harbors the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Another, related resolution which will be considered concerns the need to initiate a Muslim-Christian Forum in our state, alongside our Jewish-Christian Forum. This is in accord with the realization that the U.S. is now the most religiously diverse nation on earth, and that learning to co-exist with other faith traditions has to come to the top of the ecumenical agenda, if we are to avoid global war.
Indeed, we must learn to pray, along with the psalmist, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” For, as the author of Thessalonians says, “The Day of the LORD will come like a thief in the night, like the birth pangs of a woman in labor.”
It’s pretty hard to find much in the way of good news in the texts for this day — even in the Gospel according to Matthew, where he recounts the parable of the talents. Yet, I do want to leave you with a Word that will lift up your hearts. And so I say: Let us not be like the person who received one talent, and out of fear of judgment, buried it. Let us, rather, be like the persons who received the five talents and the two talents, and put them to good use in the ecumenical marketplace. Let us put our hearts and our hands together, along with all our resources — both financial and spiritual, so that when our Master comes he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
”For God has not destined us for wrath, but for the salvation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, as you are already doing.”