Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Who are we that we might hinder God?

Peter meets Cornelius
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Peter was in trouble. He was being called on the carpet. He had to report to the home office and they were not happy. He had a lot to answer for.
Actually, I suspect Peter was pretty clueless as to how much trouble he was in. I imagine that instead he was downright giddy with excitement when he went home to report to the church leaders in Jerusalem what had gone on in Joppa. He was probably feeling somewhat mystified but at the same time excited by what he had witnessed.
So, he was probably just a tad started when he walked into Jerusalem and was immediately met with condemnation.
So, you ask, what exactly had Peter done?
He went from Joppa to another city called Caesarea and he sat and ate with a big-time Roman official named Cornelius and his household. This was the crime: Peter, a Jew ate with Gentiles and they treated each other as equals.
It gets worse. He not only told them all about the crucified and risen Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel, but then he went and baptized them!
Yup. It’s that bad. Peter treated these Gentiles as equals and welcomed into the church uncircumcised people! Can you imagine?!?
News travels faster than travel itself, and so the Christians in Jerusalem—all of them Jews because at that moment in the Church’s life, Christianity was still a mainly Jewish phenomenon—had already heard about Peter’s transgression and they were not happy.
So, before Peter can say “Guys! You won’t believe what just happened!” they are in his face. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they demanded.
Peter takes them through the whole story step by step.
Now before you start thinking that is really inside-baseball stuff, let me tell how important this is: Luke takes the time and the parchment to recount nearly word for word everything that he had written in the previous chapter of Acts. How Peter had a vision (three times!) of God spreading a bounty of non-kosher animals in front of him and telling him to eat. When Peter refuses to eat anything unclean, God says (three times!) “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”
Then Peter describes the knock on the door, and the three men at his door who said they had a vision and were sent to fetch him. Peter talks about how he and some other Christians—all Jews, remember—went to Cornelius’ home. There Peter preaches his famous “Truly, I see God shows no partiality” sermon that we hear every Easter morning. Then, to Peter’s complete surprise, these folks break into the same tongue-speaking ecstasy that he himself experienced on Pentecost. Without hesitation, he baptizes them on the spot.
That’s why he was called on the carpet! That's why he was in trouble!

Peter said to his friends “I remembered what Jesus said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” He goes on: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God?
Peter’s friends were silent. Then it dawns on them that God has given to Gentiles the same repentance, the same new life, and the same spiritual gifts that they themselves had known!
This changes everything! We would not be here now, sitting here as Jesus’ friends and apprentices around this altar, if it were not for what Peter did.
Peter is not like Paul. Peter is not an ideas kind of person. He runs on experience, and feelings, and he can be impulsive. He wants to do the right thing, and can be as brave as a lion, but he is also easily frightened…when he is confronted with contradiction, he usually folds under pressure.
But not today! 

Peter knows what it means to deny a friend. He did that once, on that awful night when Jesus was arrested before he was crucified, so he was not going there again! I’ll bet his knees were knocking when he started to tell his friends in Jerusalem what happened in Caesarea—but he did not fold and he did not deny his new friends!
God told me three times not to call profane what God made clean.
God told me to accept three visitors and not to make a distinction between “them and us.”
I saw that God gave them the same gift he gave to us!
Who was I, Peter asks, that I could hinder God?
Good question! We have a tendency to do that, don’t we? Hinder God. With our fear or our certainty...especially when the certainty is hiding the fear. Peter’s change of heart and mind was not the last time that we as a community would struggle with that what it means to draw all people into union with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

Church's like ours used to have separate seating for black and white people. Sundays are still the most segregated day of the week. Some traditions keep men and women apart. We used to veil women and tell them that their only ministries were in the kitchen or in the laundry or in the nursery.. We used to tell gay and lesbian Christians that they weren't Christian enough. And in many places we still do. And we have lots of new, creative ways to tell people how they can and cannot follow Jesus. We still find ways to call profane what God has made clean. 

But who are we that we could hinder God?
We are in a world that is as hungry for God as ever. We are in a world that is starving for justice. We are in a world that is desperate for peace and meaning. This is no time for a conditional, “yeah, but” gospel. Who are we that we could hinder God?
In today’s Gospel we hear how, at the last supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment. One that will re-frame and bring into focus all those other commandments. He said, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”
This is how everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: that we love one another.
How we love one another will tell people that we are Jesus’ friends and his apprentices.
That means that how we deal with each other when the chips are down is as much, or more important than how we are when things are going great.
That means that will welcome whomever God sends us.
We will choose to feed the hungry and care for the addicted and the poor.
We will stick with each other especially when things are hard and when we don’t agree.
We will give each other room and allow each other room to grow and to experience grace.
We will refrain from digging in our heels and give ourselves the right to be wrong.
We will share sacramental living through all of life’s ups and downs.
Who are we, after all, to hinder God? Instead we choose to love one another as Christ loved us—then we’ll discover along with Peter, his old and new friends learned that God, what St. John the Divine saw in Revelation, that God is making all things new!

A Sermon given on May 19, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Cough-Pillow Jesus

Yesterday, after the noonday Ecumenical Good Friday liturgy, the church was open for prayer and a few people stayed after the service or came in during the silence. And as I sat here, I found myself thinking about another period in my life where I would go to dark, quiet places and meet folks who were alone in their anticipation and perhaps their fear.

Way back in a time we can barely remember, surgeries were not drive-through. There was a time when we didn't do our preoperative tests in a walk in lab, and we didn't check in at Oh-dark-thirty and be hustled through a process like a surgical McDonald's. In those strange times, before managed care, and even before DRG's, we checked into hospital the day or even two before for all that pre-operative stuff. And it meant that we chaplains were in the practice of walking the halls in the late afternoon and early evening, surgery schedule in hand, to visit folks before their operations.

I found that the best time to make these pre-surgical rounds was about a half an hour after visiting hours ended, when people were in their room, curtains drawn, maybe the shared television would be on or not. It was in that quiet, semi-darkness when the chaplain could meet a person at that moment when they were alone with their thoughts and feelings... when anticipation, dread, questions, restlessness, or simply the "can we get this over with?" was most apparent. At one hospital where I ministered, we'd bring cassettes of funny movies, spiritual reading material, stuffed animals, and other things to help people manage their anxiety.

Those of you who have had abdominal surgery may know about cough pillows. They are firm little pillows that you hug about your chest so that when you cough, you won't go "ouch" from having the cough stress your incision and sutures. In the pre-operative instructions, patients were usually introduced to their cough pillow by the nurse.

Some clever unnamed nun somewhere came up with a cough pillow that was a doll that looked like Jesus...or at least our notion of Jesus. I have one here. It was a gift from the staff last hospital gig before I came here.

Cough-Pillow Jesus was tough. He could go through the autoclave and be wrapped in plastic so it would be sterile. He could be squeezed and held tightly without losing his shape. Kids would like to undress and dress him and fix his hair (sometimes even adults would straighten his outfit to make him more presentable!).

For me, Cough-Pillow Jesus is a perfect icon for what is happening on Holy Saturday.

Yesterday, during those quiet three Good Friday hours, I was sitting here in the church, while the whole world was going on without us. There were car horns, trucks, sirens. I heard people greet each other as they walked by, a shouted conversation from one side of the street to another. Some school kids were laughing as they cut through the church yard from here to there. Music made its Doppler sound procession as the car it came from drove past, the sound gradually getting louder and then suddenly fading away. In the distance I could hear a long freight train as passed through. The world was going on its merry way.

All I could think of were the Gospel lessons from Christmas. The Gospel of John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It also says that while He spoke the world into existence, the world knew him not.

I think that's what was happening for Jesus as he died on the cross. Sure, for the people most involved with the crucifixion, watching Jesus die, then going through the work of laying him in the grave, they were all caught up in the all that was happening. It was all their focus. Like the film we saw on Wednesday, there was drama, politics, fear, running away, covering bases, and simple horror.

But in the end, that's a pretty small circle. My hunch is that most people in Jerusalem that weekend walked by the three men being crucified wondering if they could find a place to stay, or expecting the Temple to be crowded, or if they still get a decent lamb for the holiday meal because, well, guests are coming and there are things to do.

So today, the followers of Jesus sit with the enormity of the cross asking themselves what's next But the world has moved on. Just as the community Easter Egg Hunts go on without us and without a word of cross or empty tomb, the rest of the world goes about its business.

And that's what those darkened, hushed corridors of that hospital were like long ago. Silent. Anticipating. Worried. Wondering. Mortal. And we'd hug Jesus even more tightly.

Because while all that is going on, unknown to us, but quietly, Jesus who has died has gone to the place of the dead-- and to the places of our deepest anxieties and fears, he goes to the places that we have locked away in the darkest places of our hearts, and meets us. There are no more words. There is just Jesus.

And when God meets us in that place--that sometimes scary place--and holds us, lifting us away from death and isolation and anxiety, into a new life. An Easter life.

But today, there is waiting. And we hold on knowing that in Christ, God has entered that holy, empty space.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

“Son of David! Have mercy on us!”

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 10:46-52
October 28, 2018

It has certainly been a harrowing week, hasn’t it?

First comes the news of an angry, ideologically driven man who mailed bombs to people all over the country with whom he disagreed.

Then a white man in Kentucky walked into a grocery store and killed two African-American customers before being apprehended by another customer.

Yesterday, another angry, ideologically driven man entered the Tree of Life synagogue during their weekly worship services in Pittsburgh and killed at least eight people and wounding many others, both worshippers and police.

In between, over two thousand people (and many more on-line) gathered at the National Cathedral to inter the earthly remains of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beat up by two men and left to die twenty years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, precisely for being gay.

And yet... Our highest civic leaders can’t quite bring themselves to condemn the violence—even when that violence is done while parroting election slogans.

And top it all off, yesterday I heard about a young man, an African-American who was raised in the parish, who went to a Halloween party at a bar in Easton, and was called a "snowflake" and asked to leave—they even threatened to call the police on him!—after he objected to the management that other patrons, white patrons, were wearing black-face, and parroting racist language. In my own neighborhood, there is a home whose annual Halloween display includes the representation of a lynching. Hatred, fear, division, are in the air, and it is not “all in good fun!” Not even at Halloween.

As I said, it’s been a harrowing week. I truly feel the desperation and helplessness behind today’s Gospel, where the blind Bar Timaius cries out to Jesus “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Today’s Gospel lession is very the fulcrum of Mark’s Gospel--smack dab in the middle of the Gospel. All the wonders and miracles of Jesus lead up to this, and his journey to Calvary flows from it. Mark is telling us that this incident, in fact the whole Gospel of Mark, is a story of spiritual sight. Through Christ, Mark is showing us, we move from blindness to sight.'
Even in his blindness, it turns out that Bar Timaius saw more than everyone around him. He had the sight of faith. Just as in Mark’s day, we suffer from spiritual blindness and are in desperate need of Jesus’ healing touch. But first we have do as Bar Timaus did… name it, own it, go to Jesus and act on it.

Our blindness is fear. Fear is as old as human sin, is as real as ever today. In our fear, we are willing to listen to people who stoke that fear with hatred and give us easy slogans and simplistic solutions.

After the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue yesterday, Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh wrote,

The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring … to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and [someone] chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society….
…This terror is added to the great heap of such crimes we have witnessed in the past. Yet our hope is not dimmed, and our obligation is clear: “Behold, I set before you this day, life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Choosing life is no small thing. It is not just positive thinking or being “nice.” To choose life means that we do not choose death; that we consciously turn away from the things that deal death. Choosing life means renouncing fear, renouncing hatred, renouncing the use of division to gain and keep power.

Jim Wallis, the evangelical preacher and founder of the Sojourner’s Community, wrote this:

Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) The opposite of what Jesus said is also true: Without the truth we are easily enslaved by false ideologies that demand belief. Jesus clearly connects truth with freedom, and that is key here both in our personal lives and in any test of the health of the body politic. Truth sets us free, but lies enslave us. If you care about freedom, you must care about the truth….
…Timothy’s second epistle warns about people who “having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Those myths and lies can lead to justifications for practices and policies against “the other.” 

Wallis asks if we have “itching ears” who will be drawn into the siren song of tribalism, division, and hate, or will we follow Jesus’ mercy and so receive our sight.
Friday, Bishop Gene Robinson asked the same question of us at Matthew Shepard’s memorial. Confronting fear and hatred is not easy and is never over, but it is always what Jesus invites us to do.

Our parish community does important, but largely unsung, interfaith work. It is not just being “nice.” Yesterday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh shows how vitally important it is.
Last night, our parish hosted an interfaith dialogue between Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and B’hai members of our community. We talked about the role of heritage and tradition in forming our sense of identity in the community.

This afternoon, at 12:30, Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton will hold a service of mourning and reconciliation to which we are all invited. If you are at all available, please go and share with our Jewish sisters and brothers at this painful moment.

And next Sunday, at least eight different faith communities will gather at Temple Covenant of Peace for Easton’s annual Interfaith Choral Festival. 

Now more than ever, this kind of public interfaith and ecumenical work is essential to our community’s spiritual and civic health.

In these violent, dangerous times, people of faith must daily choose to overcome hatred with love, to choose companionship over division, and peace over violence.  And that is just in our community.

Our Ark Community Meal, and two of our local social service agencies, ProJeCt and Safe Harbor, were all founded when the several faith communities joined together to address the unmet needs of the poor, the homeless, and the dispossessed.

Each of these remind that service in Jesus’ name required us to stop, confront our blindness and fear so that we may be agents of healing and blessing.

If we are going to allow Jesus to heal us, we must first acknowledge the blindness of hatred, violence, and fear that infects our culture. Having acknowledged it we must stop and seek both forgiveness and healing. This is why Friday’s internment of Matthew Shepard in the National Cathedral is so important because that space, the same space where Dr. Martin Luther King preached his last sermon, brings symbolic and real safety to everyone who has been cast out, and stands as a beacon against a culture that uses division and falsehood for the sake of power.

When we talk about Trinity being “a church for all people,” we are not just talking about a place that does great coffee hours. We are responding to Jesus’ healing ministry and choosing to call out and condemn racist, homophobic, and sexist hatred whenever it appears. We must, as people of faith, hold accountable leaders, celebrities, and politicians who choose the language of division over unity and love. As followers of Jesus, we offer a spiritually hurting world another way… the way of love, the way of Jesus.

Bar Timaius’ cry is our cry: “Son of David! Have mercy on us!” And we are not silenced. His healing is also our healing. As we go with Jesus to confront evil, we also bring healing and blessing to all God’s people.

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

Monday, July 23, 2018

Wrap up of 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas

This is a version of the ENS wrap up of the 79th General Convention that took place in Austin, Texas, as it appeared in our parish newsletter. A few people have asked me to re-post it on my blog because they found it helpful and wanted to share. Thanks to the diligent folks who compiled this and reported on the goings-on at General all did a great job!

Responding to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to “Follow the Way of Jesus,” deputies and bishops at the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, met from July 5 through 13 in Austin, Texas. 

The Convention acted on a record number of resolutions on key issues such as immigration, prayer book revision, Israel-Palestine, and readmitted the Episcopal Church of Cuba as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. Convention also passed a $134 million budget for the next three years.  

In addition, the legislative processes were overseen by a resident pigeon who was a social media presence with a steady flow of light-feathered moments amid the often-intense and passionate debates on the key issues before the church. 

Outside the legislative chambers, several events brought together bishops, deputies and visitors to mingle, socialize, pray, worship and advocate, with a public witness against gun violence and another outside an immigrant detention center challenging the actions of the U.S. government in its enforcement of immigration policies. A revival service at Austin’s Palmer Events Center on July 7 drew a crowd of more than 2,500 people who listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s rousing sermon about how “God is love and gives life.” 
In his opening sermon on July 5, Curry challenged every Episcopalian to embrace the “Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-centered life” as a way to help the church enter into a new era of spiritual growth. 

$134 million budget adopted Convention adopted a $133.8 million 2019-2021 budget that reflects the presiding bishop’s priorities of evangelism, racial reconciliation and justice, and creation care. The priorities have been referred to as the “three pillars” of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. 

Full ENS coverage of the budget process is available here. 

Full access to trial-use marriage rites Convention agreed on July 13 to give all Episcopalians the ability to be married by their priests in their home churchesgiving full access to two trial-use marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples approved by the 2015 meeting of General Convention 

Resolution B012 provides for: 
  • Giving rectors or clergy in charge of a congregation the ability to provide access to the trial use of the marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Resolution A054-2015 and the original version of B012 said that clergy could only use the rites under the direction of their bishop. 
  • Requiring that, if a bishop “holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples,” he or she may invite another bishop, if necessary, to provide “pastoral support” to any couple desiring to use the rites, as well as to the clergy member and congregation involved. In any case, an outside bishop must be asked to take requests for remarriage if either member of the couple is divorced to fulfill a canonical requirement that applies to opposite-sex couples. 
  • Continuing trial use of the rites until the completion of the next comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. 
Full ENS coverage of marriage equality is available here. 

New plan for liturgical and prayer book revision Convention adopted a plan for liturgical and prayer book revision that sets the stage for the creation of new liturgical texts to respond to the needs of Episcopalians across the church while continuing to use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

Resolution A068 originally called for the start of a process that would lead to a fully revised prayer book in 2030. The bishops instead adopted a plan for “liturgical and prayer book revision for the future of God’s mission through the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” 

The bishops’ amended resolution calls for bishops to engage worshipping communities in their dioceses in experimentation and creation of alternative liturgical texts that they will submit to a new Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision to be appointed by the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies. 

It also says that liturgical revision will utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity, and will incorporate understanding, appreciation and care of God’s creation. 
Meanwhile, General Convention also adopted a resolution that allows all congregations in the Episcopal Church to use optional, expansive-language versions of three Rite II Eucharistic prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

Resolution D078 provides alternative language for Prayer A, Prayer B and Prayer D. The changes are available for trial use until the completion of the next comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. 
Full ENS coverage of prayer book and liturgical revision is available here. 

Responding to the voices and stories of women The voices and stories of women played a significant role in the workings of the 79th General Convention, from a liturgy where bishops offered laments and confession for the church’s role in sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse to Resolution D087 that allows deputies to bring infant children on the floor of the House of Deputies to feed them. 

Full ENS coverage of gender justice issues is available here. 

Acting on immigration If there was one issue that defied any expectation of controversy at the 79th General Convention, it was immigration. 

Bishops and deputies arrived in Austin last week on the heels of a national uproar over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward immigration, particularly the decision to separate children from parents in detention. And despite the administration’s reversal on family separations, immigration policies continued to be a hot-button issue, including in the border state that hosted the Episcopal Church’s triennial gathering. 

But if the country remains divided over what to do about immigration, the thousands of Episcopalians gathered at convention presented a unified front in support of families who have been separated, those facing deportation and immigrants in general – through prayer, testimony, action and the unobstructed passage of legislation. 

Convention passed three resolutions on immigration issues. Resolution C033 puts the church on record as respecting the dignity of immigrants and outlines how public policy should reflect that belief; A178 takes a forceful stand against family separations and treatment of immigrant parents and children; and C009, titled “Becoming a Sanctuary Church,” encourages Episcopalians and congregations to reach out to and support immigrants facing deportation, including by providing physical sanctuary if they choose. 

One of the defining moments of this General Convention was the prayer vigil held July 8 outside the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility little more than a half-hour outside of Austin. A massive gathering of more than a thousand Episcopalians prayed and sang in support of immigrant parents and children who had been separated. 

ENS coverage of immigration issues is available here. 

Challenging injustices in Israeli-Palestinian conflict General Convention wrapped up its consideration of resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with mixed results due largely to the House of Bishops’ unwillingness to take many of the bolder steps urged by the House of Deputies. 

Of the 15 resolutions submitted on Israel-Palestine going into General Convention, only six passed both houses, though the successful resolutions still touch on the plight of Palestinian children, the status of Jerusalem, the disproportionate use of lethal force on both sides and ways the Episcopal Church can press for peace through its investment decisions. 

Bishops and deputies, even those arguing for a tougher stance against the conditions of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, took pains to affirm Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, citing longstanding church policy toward the region. And while the bishops rejected the most controversial resolution, D019, saying it amounted to a dangerous “divestment” from Israel, they did join the deputies in passing Resolution B016, which echoes D019 in its use of the phrase “human rights investment screen.” Unlike D019 however, Resolution B016 includes no timeline for action by Executive Council or any reference to church complicity in the occupation, though it ultimately could result in the church pulling money out of companies that do business there. 

Full ENS coverage of Israel-Palestine issues is available here. 

Welcome back, Cuba Convention voted to admit, or readmit, the Episcopal Church of Cuba as a diocese by passing Resolution A238. The Diocese of Cuba is set to join Province II, which includes dioceses from New York and New Jersey in the United States, Haiti and the Virgin Islands.

Full ENS coverage of Cuba is available here and here. 
Compensation for deputies’ president Convention agreed to a plan to pay the president of the House of Deputies for the work of the office. 
Resolution B014 passed with no dollar figure attached but agreed to pay the House of Deputies president director’s and officer’s fees “for specific services rendered in order to fulfill duties required by the church’s Constitution and Canons.” 

Full ENS coverage is here. 

And in lighter business… 
Impeccable pigeon captivates 79th General Convention with real, digital presence 
Pigeon confesses to avian hijinks, feathered fun, fluttering of the spirit.