Sunday, October 18, 2020

Voting with ethics, compassion, and hope.

People came to Jesus with all kinds of questions. And a question the every person who lived in Palestine struggled with was how to remain a faithful Jew and also a good subject of the Roman Empire-- especially when all the power of the Empire told you every day that you and your people were "less than."  But even today, it's a question we still struggle: how to be a faithful Christian during this tumultuous election season?

People came to Jesus for all kinds of reasons. Some people came to learn and some to challenge. Some wanted to trip Jesus up and make him look silly. So when members of two groups who typically disagreed with each other got together to ask the same question, it was just because out of their mutual suspicion of Jesus but the question was always of people’s minds and hearts.

They asked Jesus about the taxes required by the occupying Roman Empire. This question went deeper than their 1040-EZ, though. They wanted him to pick sides. His answer the lawfulness of paying taxes to the Emperor would tell people which side he was on: with the Herodians (pay the taxes!) or the Pharisees (keep the money…or put it one of the temple charities).

Remember when Jesus chased money-changers from the outer courts of the Temple? The money was already a hot-button issue! Because one could not do Temple business with pagan currency. Because the image of Caesar on the coin was considered idolatry. Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island says in his blog today that the question put to Jesus is one of division and in response Jesus offers comprehension.

When Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax, he exposes the hypocrisy of the question, because it was obvious that one of his interrogators was carrying around the coin that little pocket idol: a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and, on the obverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. A graven image…right there in their pocket!

Anyone could have answered Jesus question, even without a coin in hand. “Whose icon is this?” “Caesar.” Jesus tells them to give back to Caesar what is already his!

And we, made in the image of God are to “give back to God what belongs to God.”

Now at this point, our inner accountant gets to work. Is that ten percent? A proportionate share? How much do we give back to God? The clue is found with the word “icon” translated in English as “image” and “likeness.”

In Genesis 1:26-27, God says, “ ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and so “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Jesus puts the money question back into proper perspective. He affirmed the tax and made it all but irrelevant at the very same time! Because this really isn’t about money but rather how we live as people created in God’s image. Caesar owns the coin; but we belong to God.

Jesus says that everything we have and everything we are already belongs to God. Too often, we tend to hear this passage as saying that God’s stuff is here and the world’s stuff, or Caesar’s stuff, is there, so everybody should stay in their lane! In fact, everything belongs to God! God is to be the source and the goal and the judge of all human activity.

And so, while the state is not the church, God is over all. Which means that our ethics are not reserved just to the church or to believers, neither are our ethics a private thing. Ethics belongs in the public sphere every bit as much as in our private lives.

So much of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are devoted to showing us what ethical and just government looks like. A faithful ruler protects the people, and makes sure that the strong do not abuse or overpower the weak. The prophets castigate kings who forget that and also religious leaders who egg them on. Religion that demands obedience but not compassion is condemned by prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and, yes, even Jesus. Rulers who forget their accountability to God are treated harshly. In the books of First and Second Chronicles and First and Second Kings, rulers are graded by a kind of Michelin rating according to whether they kept the law and cared for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Some are written off in as little as one sentence: “King so-and-so did not please the Lord…” Next!

When Mary sings the Magnificat after hearing the angel, she sings about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.

As we approach another election, the airwaves are filled with news and analysis of the campaign, often focusing on the “horse-race” of who will win and who will lose. But I think when Jesus held up that coin, he was thinking of his mother’s song, the Magnificat.

Because if Jesus’ lesson of the coin, and the teaching of the Torah and Prophets, is any guide, God is interested in much more than who wins, places, and shows. The ethics, conduct, and example of our leaders is vitally important not only in day to day civic business but in shaping the soul and heart of the nation. 

How power is used—whether to build up the rich and powerful or instead to care for the least among us—is a central concern in Scripture. The prosperity of a nation, in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is deeply connected to a nation’s justice and care. Saul, the first king of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah is both anointed and held accountable by the prophet Samuel. And remember how the Prophet Nathan confronts King David over the Bathsheba affair? The prophetic tradition both blesses the monarchs and takes them to task when they start thinking it’s all about their power instead of their service. God is not interested just in who holds leadership, but in how they exercise their office.

So those Christians who treat themselves as an interest group, or use the language of the

Bible to stoke fear show us that they succumbed to temptation of power and become a kind of court prophet—a job not judged kindly in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The entire prophetic tradition reminds us that while governing is a human activity, it is up to us to be sure than our common life—secular and religious—is one of compassion, humility, and service. The price of power is that the higher you go, the more accountable we are for how the lowliest are treated. The politicians themselves put this choice starkly in front of us: either we choose people who will only look after our own interests or we choose leaders who will guide us into caring for all God’s people and creation.  

And that leads us to the core question: will we vote out of fear or out of hope? As we start to vote either in advance or on election day, remember that the power we hold in the ballot box is also a sign of our power to serve all of God’s people and our baptismal call to demonstrate God’s compassion every single day. Jesus teaches us to render to God what is God’s—because we are all accountable for our stewardship of creation and for the welfare of God’s people in what we render to Caesar.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

In Christ, our liberation is bound up in each other

Today’s Gospel contains a truth that is very hard to accept. How hard will depend on who you identify with in the story.  As long as we think of the bad guys in Jesus’ story as someone else, we can jeer and catcall and relish in the comeuppance they get. But if begin to see that the violent, greedy stewards who kill the messengers as us… well, that’s another story.

In Jesus’ parable in Matthew, a landowner gives over the operations of his vineyards to some tenants. He sends people to the vineyard to retrieve his income and to get an account about how they are caring for the vineyard. In each case, the messengers are beat up or even killed. Eventually the landowner sends his son thinking that they will respect him. But the tenants do to him what they did before: they murder him.

Now, notice what comes next: Jesus doesn’t end the story but asks the ones to whom he is telling it to fill in the blanks. “What do you think the landowner should do?” They say, “Punish these brutes and put them to a miserable end!” Jesus then turns the tables of his critics and says, “the stone which builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

This parable was remembered by Matthew’s church as an explanation for why the Church was becoming more and more Gentile, while becoming less and less Jewish in their populations and in their traditions. In short, Matthew is saying “you had your chance; now there is a new chosen people in town!”

I always approach this passage with great care, because it has been the vehicle and justification for two millennia of often violent anti-Semitism and Western white supremacy.

So be careful! As soon as we begin to think that the Church or the Gospel, is our personal possession, or that we have the right answer for a “perfect” church, we are setting ourselves up to take the role of the possessive stewards in this story.

If you don’t believe me, look at how the history of the Church is filled of moments when otherwise faithful people have gotten the bit in their teeth and have run rough-shod over the very church they were trying to preserve or reform.

One hundred years ago, an Episcopal bishop named Paul Jones was driven from his office for speaking words of peace during the First World War.

Not ten years later, another Episcopal bishop, William Alexander Guerry, was assassinated in his own office by a priest of his own diocese of South Carolina, because Guerry bucked the Jim Crow segregation that had taken hold of the church when he wanted to not only desegregate the churches but elect a black suffragan bishop.

I love the identity statement of the United Church of Christ and sometimes wish it were our own. It says, “God is still speaking.” But can we discern that voice when it comes to us?  Sometimes we refuse to attend to that voice, and sometimes we interrupt that voice and talk over what God is saying to us. In either case, we essentially kill the heir hoping to receive the inheritance. 

I think of this every January when Martin Luther King’s birthday rolls around. How many of us participate with civic, religious, and business leaders, replay a small portion of his 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech—the “I have a dream” speech—tip our hat to racial equality and for the rest of the year ignore how we both participate in and benefit from a system of racial division that is still present 400 years after Europeans first set foot on this continent? Yet, as soon as someone proposes something concrete about addressing the roots of racism, let alone echoes a mere slogan, how often are we are the first to say “Yeah, but… all lives matter!”

Looking back, we remember with shame the church’s response to prophetic voices concerning racial injustice, the role of women, and the full inclusion of LGBT persons. You don’t have to look far— everyone loves Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century martyr, until we realize that his critique of “cheap grace” is really talking about our complacent use of the church and her sacraments to maintain the status quo. Everyone loves Pope Francis’ warm inclusiveness until he starts to talk about economic justice and calls on us (and his church’s hierarchy!) to live more simply. Suddenly, the cry is “what does he know?” and “Why can’t he stick to ‘moral’ issues?” as if race, peace, poverty, and economic power are somehow not moral at their core! 

And every year, we come to the Feast of St. Francis and bless our pets, which is a good thing, but we do Francis an injustice if we stop there. If we really look at Francis and his view of animals in comes much more closely to what now call "creation care." And his attitude towards the poor was both radical and deeply compassionate. Some wonder if he did not come home from the Crusades suffering PTSD, which might explain some of his stranger behaviors (like going about naked in public) but also points us to an attitude toward peaceful relationships quite extraordinary for his day--and ours! 

In a famous encounter, St. Francis of Assisi took a risk when he crossed the battlefield between European Crusaders and Arabic Muslim forces near Damietta, Egypt, and met with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil and preach his faith in Jesus Christ. He did not convert the Sultan but he opened a dialogue that would eventually lead to peace between the warring sides.

So, if we simply domesticate Francis and restrict him serving only as a patron for our pets, we will miss the radical vision for the Church as a vehicle for peace and justice to bring about reconciliation among people and nations. 

The behavior of the landowner in today’s Gospel in confronting the wicked tenants may be hard to accept, but it is familiar! It is the behavior of God! Like the landowner, God sent prophets to teach the scriptures and proclaim the demands of justice, and that message was condemned and rejected. God tries again and again until even his Son Jesus is met with rejection and death. But the voice of their prophecy is never extinguished, for nothing can stop the word of the Lord.

So how does this story of rebellious tenants and the long-suffering landowner end? We are offered two conclusions.

The first comes from those who are gathered around listening to Jesus. In their indignation and horror, they cry out that these rebellious tenants be put to a miserable death – and then be replaced with honest substitutes. They advocate exclusion and violence, an ancient and popular notion… that leads absolutely nowhere!

Jesus has another idea. He quotes the psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

So instead of fighting evil with still more evil, Jesus offers a different way. He says that it is precisely the rejected stone is the foundation something new! The Gospel, of course, is talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus, who was rejected, betrayed, and abused by those around him. Who, in his rising from death, becomes the cornerstone for a new creation rebuilt from the ground up.

There are lots of more recent examples that show how rejected stones become central to what is built.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Danish king, King Christian the Tenth, rode his horse daily through Copenhagen streets, surrounded by applauding crowds. He told the Germans that he would risk death to keep the swastika from flying over his castle, and they relented from displaying their flag there. These acts of defiance turned the king into the cornerstone of the remarkably successful Danish resistance that featured schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen who kept the Nazi killing machine off balance for years. The Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, and the resistance movement worked through strikes and other actions to deny them that. A prominent indication of their success was how a majority of Danish Jews were safely transported to neutral Sweden through the help of their fellow citizens.

Back in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos was reelected as president of the Philippines in an election tainted by widespread electoral fraud. Martial law was imposed, and Marcos made personal loyalty the criterion for military promotions and economic privilege. But the People Power movement led by Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., and, after his assassination, by his wife Corazon, stood up to the regime. When civilian protesters met military units that refused to fire on their fellow citizens, it was not long before Marcos went into exile.

Remember Nelson Mandela, who for decades was an inmate in a South African jail? He became the first elected president of the new South Africa. When he was sworn in on May 10, 1994, the former prisoner who became president vowed that “never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Once rejected, he became the cornerstone.

An Australian aboriginal activist named Lilla Watson said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” How will you and I put this truth into practice, not simply in what we say, but in how we live?

We might start by recognizing that whomever we call an enemy comes to us bearing a gift, and that we when meet our enemy we are meeting ourselves. Because each enemy comes to us bearing some broken, rejected part of ourselves. By accepting that enemy, we accept back that part of ourselves. By continuing to reject that enemy, we remain in a fragmented state inside. Acceptance of our enemy, welcoming the other, embracing those we would cast out, means we are changed and so is our enemy as we are together propelled toward a new and unexpected creation.

We affirm in our Creed, that when Jesus was crucified, “he descended to the dead.” Before going to resurrection, he went to the place where death reigns and meets us in those places inside us, in our culture, and in our deeply ingrained history that deals death and works against life and wholeness. He meets our rejection and violence with love and transforming power. And in his resurrection, he makes it possible for us to meet our enemies with new, transformed eyes. He leads us (as our Prayer Book says) “from prejudice to truth… [delivers us] from hatred, cruelty, and revenge,” and makes all of us able and ready to stand reconciled before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone of God’s renewed creation.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Challenging Jesus On The Way

There is something strange going on in today’s Gospel. Did you notice? Maybe it struck you as odd but you shrugged it off because it doesn’t fit with how we typically read the Bible… but there it is as plain as day. Did you notice it?

Isn’t it strange how it is the Gentile woman who teaches Jesus? Yes! In today’s Gospel, Jesus the Rabbi goes to school!

This underscores an aspect of the Gospels that we often overlook: Jesus teaches, yes; and he certainly heals and shows power; but there is something else, Jesus learns and he changes. What was said about Jesus as a child—that he grew in wisdom and knowledge—is still happening for the adult Jesus in his three-year mission: Jesus learns. He grows in wisdom.  

Wisdom is a constant theme of many movies, TV shows, literature, and even graphic novels, although it rarely described as such.

Remember The Matrix? Neo undertakes a journey to discover his role in overthrowing the Matrix starting with his first meeting with the Oracle, a grandmotherly figure peering into an oven baking cookies, in an apartment where the students hang out as if they are doing their homework after school.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker learns the ways of the Force under the tutelage of the ancient Jedi master Yoda, who seems at first to be an eccentric, slightly annoying little creature but turns out to be steeped in ancient wisdom.

The film The Way, director Emilio Estevez cast his father, Martin Sheen, as a man named Tom who walks the Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James.” through northern Spain. Along the way he encounters all kinds of people and discovers the difference between the “life we live and the life we choose.”

Recently, I have been following the latest iteration of Star Trek, which is built around an older, wiser, Jean-Luc Picard. Part of the story how he imparts hard-earned wisdom to his younger cohorts—and, most of all, the wisdom that they impart to him!

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Wisdom is the personification of God’s knowledge, God’s creativity and God’s transforming love. Rather than focusing on the power of God that sends plagues to Pharaoh, parts the Red Sea or in those other “big” miraculous things, Wisdom is a way of meeting God that involves other ways of knowing. It is more intuitive, depends on our senses, and comes out of reflection, artistic expression. Wisdom is where heart, emotion, and thinking meet.

So it makes sense that when the earliest Christians looked for ways to describe their encounter with Jesus, it was the Wisdom literature that spoke to them the most. Their experience of Jesus was not just of a person who did powerful things, but their encounter was one that opened their eyes, their hearts, and their minds to the very presence and person of God. In Jesus, they experienced both the knowledge of God and the welcome of God.

This is at the heart of Jesus’ encounter with the foreign woman in today’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples went into a Gentile region near Galilee when a woman from those parts asked him to heal her daughter. At first, he flat-out ignored her. He wouldn’t even acknowledge the request.

She shouts after Jesus and the disciples. Finally, he turns to her and dismisses her saying that he had been sent only to the Jews – not to Gentiles like her. It seems to me that he is trying to let her down a little gently, but the way the Gospel writer frames this, one can't help but catch a note of irritation in his words when he says that “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you hear that? Jesus calls her a dog!

Still, with courage and desperation, she persisted. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Finally, the picture begins to make sense. Jesus commends her faith and affirms her as a beloved child of God. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across this story, it startles me because it does not fit with my picture of Jesus, who acts in an arbitrary, harsh, and unloving manner—until she changes his mind!

For centuries, preachers have struggled to make sense of it—and to explain away Jesus’ apparent bad behavior, perhaps trying to save Jesus from himself. 

Some say that the Greek word Jesus used for “dog” really means “puppy.” (Uhm, no. It doesn’t.) Some say that Jesus treated the woman harshly in order to test his disciples’ understanding of God… which strikes me as making Jesus say “I was only joking!” when he wasn’t!  

Some say that he was critiquing the cultural norms of the day… really? By being rude? The problem is precisely that this text is not in keeping with the many other straight-forward ways that Jesus chided the powers- and customs—that be.  

Here’s an idea. Maybe it was the Gentile woman who taught Jesus! And the early Church remembered the encounter because they too were learning that lesson over and over again themselves! The lesson? That God’s reign is bigger than tradition or culture and much bigger than “the way we’ve always done things.”

Remember, Jesus grew up in the first century and that he lived his early life only among Palestinian Jews. He spent almost all of his ministry among Jews – the children of Israel. His training was Jewish. His bible was the Hebrew Scriptures--what we call the Old Testament. He lived in a social and religious culture that saw Gentiles as “other,” often as unclean, or taboo.

Was Jesus was stuck in such a mindset? And then, when he came to a place where Gentiles lived, he encountered this persistent woman. And did this encounter cause him to re-think commonly accepted views about Gentiles?

Whatever happened on that road between Jesus and the woman, those early, first century Jewish Christians were starting to see their Gentile Christian companions in a new light! 

In short, in this story, Jesus is standing in for an early Church that was learning something new.

So, when we read Jesus saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” the people really speaking were those early Christians who saw themselves as an extension of Judaism, who perhaps wanted to stay in that bubble. And I think that the Gentile woman is standing in for all those brand-new Gentile Christians who were saying “what about us?” I see her words as a mirror held up in front of us-- of whatever our common understanding of Gospel or Church might be!

Jesus’ mind might have been changed, but the real news is that the early Church—the Church of Matthew’s Gospel—was definitely changed! They were going out from Palestine into the wider world of the Roman Empire; and they were leaving the Synagogues of the Diaspora and going into new communities, and discovering over and over again that Jesus’ teaching, the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God was changing people in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. They were discovering people about whom they would say “…Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And in that they found healing!

In this transformation we see the challenges and inner struggles faced by every succeeding generation of Christians. Their transforming, God-provoked re-imagining of a long-held, commonly practices mirror and inform the struggles we experience ourselves in a troubled culture during this excruciatingly troublesome year.

Amid a global pandemic, struggles over our long history of racial inequality, the ways we understand Jesus, the Gospel, and the role of our faith must necessarily be challenged.

This past Friday, two branches of the Church recognized the sacrificial witness of two very different saints on the very same day. The Roman Catholic Church recognized the witness Saint Maximillian Kolbe and the Episcopal Church’s calendar remembered Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan Daniels was a seminarian who grew up in Keene, New Hampshire and attended the Virginia Military Institute and eventually the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass. In 1965, he answered the call to go to the South and help register disenfranchised black citizens to vote. And on August 14th, he was jailed in Haynesville, AL, along with six other Freedom Riders including a Catholic priest. After six days in jail, they were released but while waiting for a ride, they were confronted by a deputy sheriff who aimed his shotgun at a young girl, Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her aside and was killed in the blast. The priest was wounded trying to protect the others. Ruby Sales continues to be an activist for civil rights and justice to this day.

Maximillian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest in Poland who overcame his early, learned anti-Semitism and when the Nazis invaded his country sheltered Jews fleeting the Holocaust. For this he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1941, when a prisoner escaped, ten other prisoners were rounded up to be executed. Kolbe stepped in and volunteered to die instead of one of the others. He is remembered as saying "I want to die in place of this prisoner." And on August 14, 1941, the Nazis took Franciszek Gajowniczek out of the line and executed Kolbe instead. He was canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.

I don’t know if I would ever have the courage of either of these two saints, but their example inspires us to seek faith where it will be found, to speak out against racism, tyranny, and bigotry in all its forms. The story of the Gentile woman challenging Jesus is the story of the Church—of us—being challenged every day to see the face of Jesus in the faces of all the people God gives to us every day. It is this unexpected wisdom from unexpected places that reminds us of our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons whoever and wherever they may be.

From a sermon given on Sunday, August 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, PA, for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15 A, Track 1).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Finding faith in unexpected places

Have you ever stopped to ask for directions?
These days, I depend on the GPS in my phone which suits me just fine because (I have been told) that I have to be in complete desperation to finally break down and admit to a total stranger—let alone my spouse!—that I am lost! When I have asked, I have found that there at least two ways people give directions: one is by landmark and one is by precise distance and direction.
The first is “go the third elm tree, the one at the fork in the road with the hound dog sleeping under it….”
The second is “go ½ mile north, and then at Route 137A, make a left.”
When you’re lost or in crisis, sometimes Mr. Precision is a real comfort: just tell me what to do!
But there are other times when the landmark method is at least as accurate, if not more colorful. The trouble is that you don’t know how accurate the hound-dog-guy is until you round the bend, approach the fork in the road and then see the tree and the dog, right where he said it was.
Either way, it’s an act of faith. One is faith in the precision, and the other is faith in, well, the art of the direction.
So, if you were going to give someone directions to God, which would you be? Would you choose precise, or describe the landmarks? If you shared your spiritual story, how would you describe God’s presence in your life? Or talk about the way you connect with God? How precise would your language be?
While I have been trained in Mr. Precision—to rattle off the Catechism—I am kind of drawn to hound dog and the elm tree approach. Because the truth is, there would be a lot of ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and some foot shuffling. The hesitation is neither shame, nor uncertainty, as it is trying to find the right image.  Because I’ve found out that everyday there is the discovery, and the recognition that we are always at least a little lost, and everyday, there are little signs of redemption.
When Jesus describes God’s reign, the Kingdom of God, and he uses landmarks. He uses simple stories. Jesus, and then Matthew the Gospel-writer, tell us what living under God’s rule is like.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard plant in a wheat field. It’s like a little yeast in a little flour that makes a great big loaf of bread.
It’s like seeking or having a treasure that possesses you.
The kingdom of God is like a net that hauls in all kinds of fish, and other things, too.
All of these parables are about how something useless or out of place becomes the hallmark of God’s kingdom. If Jesus is the rejected stone that become the chief cornerstone, then the stands to reason that the kingdom of God is like, a weed, some leaven, a hidden or longed for treasure, or like being drawn into a fishing net, like it or not.
When Jesus talks about mustard seeds in this parable it’s the size of the plant not the seed that’s important. Mustard plants were considered weeds in the Ancient Near East. Like any weed, you can’t get rid of them and they grow like mad. So the parable says the Kingdom of God is like … a weed that someone sowed in the field. It may be a small seed, but in a garden or farm field it stands out like a sore thumb. And it turns out that the birds like it for shade. In our little garden, this weed might as well be as big as a Cedar of Lebanon! What was once a lamentable eyesore is now a great tree which gives shelter to all the birds!
Think about it… Jesus says the kingdom of God is like…a big weed!
The second parable is equally strange. For Jews of Jesus’ day, leavening bread was a symbol of corruption because they did not have our filtered and purified yeast in those days. Leaven came from moldy bread. So…the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like…some yucky leaven that a woman hid in the dough. Something that was corrupted has become the source of abundance. The kingdom of God is like leaven.
The two stories of people with treasure talk about people who find treasure: one finds it by accident, hidden in a plot of land, and the other finds exactly what he is looking for. In both cases, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like that: once the desire for God gets in us, we crave it as badly as the greedy man wants gold. God’s Spirit owns us that much!
Jesus says that God’s grace is a like a fisher’s net. A net that catches fish, sure, but also old tires, and empty cans, and God knows what else! The kingdom of God is like being caught up in a net.
What strange, unexpected images Jesus uses!  If you think that the Kingdom of God is like a perfect earthly monarchy, think again!  The people who thought that the Kingdom be filled with people behaving themselves and being good, and only come when our side wins, are going to be surprised! Jesus has given us some very different landmarks. His parables are like telling us to keep going until we see the fork in the road by the hound-dog tied to a big shade tree.
Why does Jesus talk like this to tell us what the kingdom of God is like? Because in God’s reign, God takes the unexpected, the unclean and the unwanted, and turns all of that into abundance! Like a big shrubby weed with all those birds in an otherwise perfectly sown field.
Life in God’s kingdom owns us, even as we do everything to own it.  Seeking and having the pearl of great price changes us. We are owned by the faith we posses.
Life in God’s world is at once diverse and irresistible. We are all caught up in it as in a net.
I don’t know about you, but I am not so hot at giving—or taking—direction. There are times in my life when I want, when I need, the precision of distance and direction. But much of life lends itself to the poetry of landmark and story. Turns out that God has room for both.
How would you describe God alive in your life? To what would you compare it? Jesus is says is like something we want that is hard to describe, but when we see it we know it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A yoke of blessing

Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Paul says we want to do right but sometimes we do the evil we wish to avoid. It is a contradiction that every Christian must face if we are to live our baptismal lives and grow into the full stature of Christ.
I remember a few years ago, a video went viral on the internet and I think that today its’ message is still relevant. It came from Thailand. The vignette begins with a young boy who is caught stealing from a shop on a busy street. The shop-owner has the boy by the arm and she is calling for the police when another shop owner, the owner of a small restaurant, stops the woman. He sees that in the boy’s hands are a bottle of cough syrup and a package of pills. “Is your mother sick?” The boy nods petulantly. The man calls over to his young daughter and tells her to get a packet of food for vegetable soup. She rolls her eyes but she does it. The man pays the woman for the stolen medicine and gives the boy the vegetable soup.
Thirty years later.
In the same restaurant, the same man is having a busy day. His daughter, now grown, calls to her father and he looks up and there is a man begging for some food. He reaches over and hands the beggar a bag of vegetables for soup and then yells ‘Next customer!” Suddenly, he holds his head and falls over backwards.
Cut to the intensive care unit in a hospital. The daughter sits next to her father who is unconscious. She agonizes over a medical bill that will require her to sell their little restaurant. The camera shows a sign hanging on the door of the place that reads “For sale! Urgent!”
The next day she is at the bed-side when a nurse hands her an envelope. It is a medical bill. She opens it, her face filled with worry. And inside she finds that all the charges read “zero.” At the bottom of the bill is a note: “Paid in advance thirty years ago with a bag of vegetables and some analgesic.” And it is signed by the physician.
Then the screen interweaves the interaction on that street thirty years ago with the journey of the young man through medical school and with various patients.
This little vignette, which strangely enough was the ad for a bank in Thailand, is not simply a “pay it forward” message. It is an example of the impact we have when we live life from the standpoint of faith, of gratitude, and compassion.
Jesus’ yoke and his burden are summed up this way. Our lives are meant to be for others, for compassion, for grace, to be vessels and signs of hope. The burden and yoke of Jesus is to be aware of the presence of God in others and to live accordingly.
The parable of the man in the video points out that a life oriented towards compassion changes both people and the world.
The point of a yoke was to harness the strength of the ox to pull a plow across the earth so that seed may be planted in the furrows. The yoke makes the burden possible. If you’ve ever been to the Canal Museum at Hackett Park here in Easton, you may have seen the two mules pulling that large barge up and down the canal. The animals worked, sure, but the harness, the yoke, makes the work possible, put the energy to use.
The other thing a yoke does is steer. The farmer walks behind the oxen who wear the yoke to direct them so that the furrows are straight and that their pace is even.
Jesus calls us to learn and do his work. He gives the burden of compassion and he also steers us in the way that makes the most of our energy and gifts.
Paul’s epistle today reminds that sometimes we try really hard to do right and we still mess up. But instead of despair, the Apostle reminds the Christians in Rome (and us) that we are learning and are given the power to grow and change and effect change in our lives, to bring compassion to the people around us living under the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the end, the idea is that compassion, being alert to the people and world around us, giving each other a break, and humility will be a normal part of our living. Sometimes we aren’t very good at it, and other times we are the beneficiaries of compassion and grace that we might not deserve.  The yoke Jesus offers trains us and guides to be better able to walk the way of Jesus, naturally and spontaneously, planting seeds of love along the way.
That is our prayer and our calling, that in taking on Jesus, we will take on the important work of receiving the blessings brought to us and becoming a blessing to everyone God sends our way.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Our loving, liberating, relational God

To think of and describe a God who is both one in three and three in one is almost impossible to accurately describe, so we fall back on analogies. And that can be… well… embarrassing.
Every year for a few years now, someone will inevitably post on social media (at least in my on-line silos) a Lutheran Humor video showing St. Patrick trying to describe the Trinity to a couple of Irish peasants. It’s like a three-leafed clover, he says, or how water can be ice, or water, or vapor, and so on. And each time, the peasants object, saying how he has just committed some classic heresy (“Oh, Patrick! That’s modalism!” “Oh, Patrick! That’s partialism!” “You’re the worst Patrick! I mean, really!”). Finally, Patrick gets exasperated and blurts out a rapid-fire recitation of the Athanasian Creed, to which the peasants say “Well, okay. Why didn’t you just say so?”
We get ourselves all tied up in knots. Even in our own parish named for the Trinity, there are only two symbols of the Trinity in the whole place… the big window over the high altar which, while lovely and which is meant to invite us through the Sacrament into the Gates of Heaven, also depicts God as the Old Guy, the Crucified Dude, and the Bird. The other image is so high up on the wall at the opposite end of the church that it is out of reach. Which is too bad, because if you think about it—or really, stop trying to overthink it—it is really rather simple.
If you read the scriptures enough, and listen carefully enough, one truth becomes inescapable: Godself is best known in relationship.
That is for me the chief witness of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We see it again and again: From Genesis where we hear about God walking in the Garden looking for Adam and Eve who have hidden themselves out of shame, to God’s encounter with Moses on the mountain, to the voices of the prophets, right down to the incarnation of Jesus, and even to the vision of Revelation where heaven comes to earth and God gathers all people. The very nature of God is relational. And we, being created in the image of God, are by our very nature relational beings.
This is why the dual crises we are facing now cuts so deep. They are crises of relationship. The global COVIS-19 pandemic that keeps us apart is a crisis in relationship. We are not made to be kept apart because we are built in the image of a relational God.
And the stark revelations (to white society, that is) of deeply ingrained racism in all aspects of our society reveals an ongoing abuse of power that distorts the fundamental dignity of each person, shows us how deeply the sin of racism is a sin against our relational God.
Bishop Frank Logue of Atlanta writes:
“Before God created everything we see and know, there was a communion of three separate persons of the Godhead who created you out of love, for love. Not just one being, but relationships and communion, before time and forever. This is why you were created: to be in healthy, loving, generative relationship with God and all creation. And out of this web of relationships comes both your salvation and the redemption of all creation.”
The word Trinity never appears in the Bible. Yet in today’s Gospel, the Great Commission tells us to baptize new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We read a different Trinitarian formulation in Second Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
The word “racism” doesn’t appear In the Bible, either. It’s not on any of the Apostle Paul’s lists of sins in his epistles, Jesus doesn’t utter the word from his sermons on the mount, on the plain, or from the boat.
But Scripture tells us a lot about oppression and the work of God to break its power and free people from it From Moses thundering before Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” to Isaiah proclaiming a fast from injustice, to Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple, we see that when God seeks to heal human sin and bring us back into relationship, racism is at the heart of what God seeks to eradicate and heal.
The first Christians weren’t deep theologians, at least not in the academic sense, when they started following the way of Jesus. They prayed and fasted, they cared for widows and orphans, they held everything in common, they told others about the Risen Jesus. Not because of some treatise or manifesto, but because it seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. It was the right way to live, and the right way to be with each other.
It turns out that renewed relationship was a key sign to those around them of God at work in their communities. And when they baptized and brought a new person into their community in “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” they were speaking of a God who is known in relationship.
The creation story that we heard this morning reminds us  that our very humanity, our very diversity, the qualities we share and the things that are unique, are in their essence part of imago dei, the image of God.
This is why the coincidence of global pandemic and our corporate rage at racism and all kinds racial violence in the deaths of Breanna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many more is so very important. Because we are made in the image of our relational God, the sin of racism cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human. Racism destroys and distorts human ecology on its most basic level, by regulating and destroying relationships.
In his classic book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese describes the lengths to which slave owners would go to distort and destroy the relationships among the people they enslaved. They would break up families, take away children, change their names, regulate what enslaved people could learn, even manage and control how enslaved people would care for their sick and bury their dead. Why? Because they knew if the people they enslaved were to experience unhindered relationships, they would find their dignity, discover their courage, and break out of their bonds.
Every oppressive regime knows this—from Jim Crow to the Holocaust to the Gulag to the reservation system and the so-called Indian Schools, to el los desaparecidos—the pattern has been repeated. And as soon as the oppressors teach people in bondage to read the Scriptures (thinking it would pacify them) it is always the beginning of the end. Because the Scriptures introduces oppressed people to Moses, Jeremiah, Ruth, Micah, Isaiah, Mary, and Jesus. At the heart of the scriptural narrative is a people seeking liberation following a God who is present, empowering, and relational.
Jesus time and again quoted the heart of the Law: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The great commandment is relational. We love God and we love people in a deeply interconnected web of relationships. When we come to love God more, we find the heart for people that God has, and so the love of God draws us to other people. Loving other people fully means seeing them as God sees them, and so loving people can also draw us to God. And that is how Godself is best known in relationship! God’s people are best known in our communion with one another. That is why we were created: to live in holy relationship with God each other, and creation. It why respecting the dignity of every human being is at the heart of our baptismal promise.
God is a relational God, and God is also a God of hope! Hope is faith that looks forward. The present pandemic and our (apparently newfound) consciousness of the sin of racism is driving us to appreciate and re-evaluate our relatedness and see the ecology of our relationships differently.
Early Christians practiced their faith well before they landed on the language of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They experienced the fullness of God in the communities where they lived. We are invited also to live out our faith now and let our language flow from that. At the same time, we are invited to see the language of the Trinity not as some distant theological concept but as a gift to us from people who have walked this same path ahead of us.
We are God’s people made in God’s image. And just as God cannot be contained to one image, so we cannot be contained to one culture or expression. And as the fullness of God is found in relationship of the Trinity, so the fullness and grace of humanity comes when we discover liberating, life-changing, and loving relationships that overcomes privilege and break down the barriers of racism making us more fully the people God made us to be.

Trinity Sunday worship at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA may be found here

Sunday, May 31, 2020

It's time to leave the upper room!

It’s time to leave the upper room! We have been stuck here too long. We’ve gotten used to the risen Jesus coming to us; to the Holy Spirit coming to us. We are okay with sending someone else out to deal with the consequences of crucifixion and coming back with reports of empty tombs.

But, no. It is time to leave the upper room. 
It’s true that a lot happens in that space: from Holy Week all the way through the Easter Season, we’ve been hearing about all the that that went on in that upper room in Jerusalem. And even though those events shaped the church for years— centuries! —to come, the truth is that it is time to leave. It’s time get out!
I know we’re all a little stir-crazy right now. Zoom and YouTube are great but they are not the same. Many things are different.
I want to get out and travel, even just go out to eat, and while I can do a lot from my little perch, and the grill is wonderful, it’s not the same. I love singing with our choir and how another member digitally turns our separate voices into the choral music for our on-line worship, it is not the same.
The thing is that it won’t ever be the same again, ever!
A lot of people are angry about that. I get it: we did not sign on for this. But here is where the experience of those disciples, those friends and apprentices of Jesus, is instructive.
The disciples did not sign on to be cooped up for weeks on end in their upper room. They followed Jesus as he walked around Palestine teaching and healing. They loved handing out bread and fish that seemed to spring like a gusher from baskets that started with just two donated fish and three loaves. They loved the crowds when he taught from hills, on plains, and from boats. They were astounded when Jesus raised Lazarus and the sick little girl from death and when healed the Centurion’s servant from afar. They probably got a laugh out of Peter’s reaction when some guys cut a hole in his roof to lower down a sick man from Peter’s upper room!
But when things turned sour, the disciples turned that upper room from which they had heard Jesus teach and where they probably planned all their travels around the holy land, into a shelter. A hiding place. A spiritual quarantine. They hid there and hunkered down.
Okay, after the last supper and the foot washing, maybe that made sense. They thought they were marked men and feared being arrested and they had no place to go after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It was their hideout. It soon became their tree-house.
Because after the resurrection, when they decided they could venture out to the temple to pray, they still did not go very far! They always came back to the same upper room! They only gradually became less isolated but only a very little bit. 

God is nothing if not persistent, look at all the ways that God came to them in that little space. The Last Supper happens in the upper room. Jesus washes the disciple’s feet there. As I said, after the crucifixion, that’s where they hid. They agonized and worried and grieved there.
When the two Mary's and the other women left their male companions in the room and dared to go Jesus tomb to do their sad work, it is they who burst through the doors with the first news of the resurrection! It was from the upper room that Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to see the Empty Tomb, and it was to the upper room that they returned. The Risen Jesus arrives there and gives the remaining apostles the authority to teach, forgive, and heal just as Jesus did.
And it is in the upper room where the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit and start to speak in a variety of languages so loudly that even those passing by on the busy street below stop and listen in amazement.
The problem with upper rooms is that they can become hiding places. The disciples could have reveled in their newfound spiritual gifts and insight and stayed home. It could have become a dark, smelly, closed in space.
Instead, it ended up being an incubator of Gospel imagination and the home-base for a brand new community!
In our upper rooms, we will see our best selves and, I hate to say it, our worst selves will be also be revealed. We’ll get tired, bored, exasperated, even angry. And when that happens, we will be showing off our deepest anxieties, rages, and fears. It won’t be right… but it is not unexpected. We will be tempted to get lost in the echo chamber of social media and build our own little silos where only people who share our opinions and who stoke our fears reside. We’ll have to find new strategies to temper our inner impulses and urges.
And that is why it is important to remember those disciples in that upper room. That little space may have contained the disciples— and everything they brought with them—but it could not lock out Jesus or bar the Holy Spirit! It became the testing ground for their own proclamation and power until finally the room was just not big enough… they had to go out into all the world because God’s Spirit, and God’s people whom he inhabits, just can’t be cooped up any longer!
Being cooped up is not simply a matter of bothersome inconvenience, where we bicker about wearing masks. The message of Pentecost is that God has the power to break down walls that we have so desperately and urgently built up between each other.
Pastor & Professor Dennis R. Edwards
Pastor Dennis R. Edwards, associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago talks about the frustration he feels towards the white church in the wake of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, the threat of the use of the police by a white woman to threaten Christian Cooper, Minneapolis police officers brazenly and deliberately executing George Floyd with an illegal and immoral (and unnecessary choke hold) and of the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately harms black and brown people.
In his essay in Christianity Today, he talks about the power of God to break down these walls. He says:
Acts 16:35–40 is the epilogue to a powerful story of God’s deliverance. The imprisoned Paul and Silas were singing hymns when an earthquake hit around midnight. Such was the power of the quake that the prison doors were opened, chains fell off prisoners, and the fear that overcame the jailer resulted in his conversion, along with that of his household.
“We could reflect a bit on God breaking people out of prison, but instead I want to highlight the epilogue, which tends to get overlooked in sermons from Acts 16. The morning after the earthquake, the jailer told Paul and Silas that the magistrates had released the apostles and they could “go in peace.” But Paul and Silas did not peacefully walk away. Instead, Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves” (Acts 16:37). Some of my friends argue that Paul’s concern here is the propagation of the gospel. Perhaps, but the text doesn’t say that. What we do see, however, is Paul’s agitation over the violation of his civil rights as a Roman citizen (a point he brings up strategically in Acts 21:39 and 22:25–29).
“At the very least we can acknowledge that injustice demands a response to people in power. (For more on this, see Esau McCauley’s theology of policing.) Paul called the magistrates to account for their actions, and we must do the same. We should be outraged over injustice, and people in positions of authority need to feel our anguish.”
Our problem is much bigger than being stuck at home, bored. The co-incidence of pandemic, and of racial and police violence has revealed that we are locked into systems and a way of thinking that assumes that my welfare depends on someone else's servitude; that my privileged place in society must, by definition, come at the expense of another.
When the Holy Spirit comes on Pentecost, it is not simply to make people better pray-ers, church-goers, or even to make people nicer. The Holy Spirit breaks through the walls of disciples hiding place and propels them to suddenly speak in the languages of people other than themselves. 

And not just speak, but to walk with them and to be with them, and to be the Good News with them. Too often we think of Pentecost (and for that matter mission and evangelism) as a process of getting the other to be more like me, or (failing that) to accept their lowliness.
No! Pentecost is the signal and reality that God’s reign is for all God’s people! That in Christ, as Paul would later write, there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.” The miracle of Pentecost is that God values and holds up all God’s people in all their variety and expression.
When the Church participates in racism or racial violence it locks out the gift of the Spirit, and kicks Christ to the curb. When we are silent, it is worse: we condone the very forces of evil that Christ came to overcome. We lock ourselves into to our own upper rooms.
The Good News is that the Holy Spirit is never locked out of our upper rooms, whatever they may be!
In fact, God is propelling us out into the world to confront the powers of sin that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. And that means we both listen to the science that tells us how to deal with this virus, and we listen to the voices of the marginalized and recognize our part in combatting the sin of racism. And when we get out and confront the evils of race, class, and the abuse of power to favor the few, we are participating in the same work of the same Spirit who  through Christ, heals and renews  us, all people, and all creation.

It is time to get out! It's time to leave our upper rooms.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Another pesky kairos moment

There has been a lot cynical eye-rolling and snide remarking about President Trump's recent comment to the press which amounted to an attack on Governors in those states observing strict physical distancing guidelines including the closing of non-essential businesses and organizations. He said that they ought to "let" the churches be open.

Several religious leaders respectfully cleared their throats stepped up to the mic and said "we got this."

Of course, this was a typical off the cuff remark without reference to the actual guidelines the states have put out, completely unconscious of the guidelines most religious leaders have set out which are often more stringent than the governmental regulations. 

In our parish, this has meant that we have not met for formal corporate worship in our church since the Fourth Sunday in Lent... we are now (as I write this) in the Seventh Sunday of Easter. 

Those remarks raised a host of legitimate questions about church-state entanglements and the role of the president in encouraging expressions of faith, and so on. But that is not what caught my attention.

When I heard the President remark that governors ought to allow us to reopen, my first response was "Wha? You call this closed?" 

That is, after I looked up from whichever screen I was on while interacting with a parishioner or having a meeting or Bible Study or putting together worship or holding an on-line prayer service or writing something for one of our parish electronic or dead-tree publications.

Of course, and I am not the first to observe this, the problem is with an understanding of what "church" means. If you read the New Testament accounts and pay attention to history of what the Church does best-- heck, if you look at the soup kitchens, food banks, pastoral visiting, on-line & televised worship (even before the pandemic!) and small groups you discover that we Christians are a magnificent hybrid. We are hard to pin down.

That's because we, the Church, are a community that is at once gathered and sent. We are tight knit body that meets in time and space, and is also dispersed into society and the cosmos. We form institutional expressions of every size and shape--from magisterial to town-meeting to face-to-face-- and we are intimately personal and relational. 

What do you expect from a community simultaneously founded on incarnation and eschaton? Where we journey through parted seas, wander in the desert, revel in God-with-us while looking forward to meeting the Lamb at the Throne -- all at the same time! From the immediate, intimate relationship between the holy and the human; that balances a rich history, the immediacy of the present, and the vastness of unfolding future, Christians travel in the places where kairos (God's time) and chronos (our time) meet. 

So how can a virus close that?

There is a little line in the Episcopal Church's Burial Office that always catches my breath. I always try to put a little extra "oomph" into my spoken delivery hoping that it will not be a throw-away or bounce off the emotional armor that grieving people must necessarily build. It found in the Proper Preface of the Holy Eucharist for "The Commemoration of the Dead" and it goes like this:

"For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed not ended...."

We generally interpret this in much the way it's seen in a Tom 'n' Jerry cartoon. You know, when Tom uses up one of his nine lives and out floats a ghostly version of himself and he will be issued either a harp or a fire extinguisher.

But the Christian Hope is that in Christ all things will be filled, fulfilled, completed, and made whole. This is much more than harps in heavenly clouds; but when God, who has overcome sin and death in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gathers to Godself all creation and finally and fully heals all the breaches between us and all humanity, creation, and God's own self. I believe that this is not just a once and done deal, but an ongoing, always unfolding experience. It is at the same time wondrous and bewildering, because we are stuck in chronos while participating in kairos

This epidemic has caused all kinds of disruption. The business leaders and economists who preached disruption theory as the key to innovation must be getting impatient-- maybe even eating their words?-- because right now disruption doesn't come in an explosive moment of insight and energetic invention. 

Nope. Disruption has arrived in the requirement that we do... nothing. In a society built on progress or innovation which is understood to be dynamic and in motion, being still and being solitary is at best weird and at worst painful. The novelty has worn off and we are getting antsy. 

Still, we must "sit and stay" before we can get our treat. So let's use our antsy feelings and turn that energy into something. There are active things to be done: walking, running, excericising; and also bringing food to the homebound, to soup kitchens, and pantries; making calls to the lonely or isolated; sending cards; and so much more. And there are the things we never had time to do, or could not clear the decks to get around to: contemplation, prayer, writing or journaling, painting or drawing, learning new music, even trying new radio or video experiences. This disruption of our rhythms is also a chance to re-set.

And in all this, the Church doesn't just happen, it is. We are. We have another moment of free grace-- that used to just arrive when we stood in line or was stuck on hold-- where we can choose between exasperation or presence, between impatience or appreciation. Between profanity (in the truest sense) and holiness. 

So for those whose notion of church has not yet grown past the big gathering in the big room, this is a chance to experience something more. Of course, for those who never really delved into the meaning of things, for whom life is nothing more than reactivity and chance, this will seem strange, even laughable. Their impatience is understandable. But, as Scrooge would eventually learn after his own Christmas pilgrimage, it's better that they have their malady in laughter than in more disagreeable forms. 

I can't wait for the moment when we can all gather back in our big rooms and beautiful churches and have worship with all the loud singing, proclamation, and praise we can muster. For now, though, here is our chance to revel in the mystery and wonder of living in an in-between time.