Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Mountain and the Cathedral

A Parable For Johnny B
Our story begins, once upon a time, in an ancient and far away country, when there were no towns, no cities, but only small tribes and caravans of people living on the land, wandering from place to place looking for vegetation to feed their sheep and goats, there was a sacred mountain.

When people climbed to the top of the sacred mountain they would feel the presence of God who would say,  “Love the One God who loves and cares for you always, and always care for one another, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.”

And the people would leave the sacred mountain and remember to care for others the way the One God who loved them cared for them. Throughout the years turning into ages people would come and go to the top of the sacred mountain and return with the message – to love the One God who loves them, and to care for one another, especially the others, those beyond the tribe.

As they would leave the sacred mountain many would place a stone there as a reminder that this is where they heard the message from God. Many also came who had not heard from God themselves, but had heard the stories of those who had. They too would leave a stone to commemorate that sacred place and the remarkable stories they had heard about those who had heard the voice of God. One stone was placed on top of another until over time a magnificent Cathedral was built upon the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence could be found and God’s voice could be heard.

People came from all over to the Cathedral, knowing that something important and wonderful and true was there. They would pay their respects, listen to the stories, praise the name of God and experience God’s love and care for them, and for all people, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land. Each one would leave a stone and carry the message to all to whom they were sent.

Over the years more and more people came and left stones one atop the other, until a great city was built around the Cathedral and all over the mountain, with long, winding, narrow streets, lined with homes, shops, fountains and plazas. People who came to the mountain would need to stop and ask the way to the Cathedral so as not to get lost in the back streets of the city. Each one left a stone.

The years continued to roll by, people coming and going, each leaving a stone until a great wall was built around the city with majestic gates on four sides. People now would have to find a gate they would be allowed to enter. The gates were sometimes open and sometimes closed. For many, even those who lived in the city, the top of the sacred mountain became difficult to find now that the whole mountain was covered with so many many stones to remember the message heard at the top of the mountain for so many years.

The streets were crowded and narrow and winding. There was so much noise and activity throughout the city, that soon no one could hear the directions to find their way to the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence would remind them to love the God who loves and cares for you, and to care for one another, all others, especially those beyond the walls of the city.

Far away, beyond the gates of the city, far beyond its walls, was a man, lonely in the wilderness. A voice crying in the wilderness. Above the crowded streets, above the noise of the city, above the very top of the Cathedral towers his voice could be heard soaring on the wind. So loud and lovely and lonely came the cry from the wilderness, calling people to come to the banks of the river.

First one, then another went beyond the gates of the city and followed the sound of that voice, the voice so loud and lonely floating on the winds, like music in the sky. As they came upon the man lonely in the wilderness they could hear his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Soon more and more people came out of the city into the wilderness, following the voice carried on the wind, until everyone, all those inside and outside the gates of the city were there with the man lonely in the wilderness. And the people all joined in his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” All their voices together were carried on the winds to the four corners of the earth.

Then the man lonely in the wilderness led them to the banks of a river and invited them all to bathe in the waters – the waters their ancestors had crossed so many many ages ago. As they bathed in the river, cleansing themselves, renewing themselves, he said to them, “Remember, remember, our God also speaks to us in these sacred waters. Remember, remember what he has said, ‘Love the One God who loves you and cares for you, and always care for one another, especially the others those who are poor, have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.’ This is how we prepare The Way of the Lord. This is The Way of the Lord!

"And, oh yes!  Another one is coming who will lead us all the way back to the top of the mountain. Yes, you will remember, remember, remember today, but The One who is coming will show us The Way. We have nowhere to look and nowhere to go. He will tell us that the Cathedral and the top of the mountain is here, in the midst of us, wherever we are as a community of his people.  Together.  All of us.  Including the others beyond the community. Especially the others.  Here in our midst, wherever we are, God's presence, God's voice, God's message does dwell.  Remember, remember, remember today, the one who shall come will show us the Way."

So it was, the beginning of our story. And so it is today. When you listen far above the crowds and noise, a voice can still be heard floating on the winds, beyond the gates of the city, above the tops of the highest cathedral, calling to us, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Remember, remember, remember today, the one who shall come will show us The Way.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Stay awake, don't close your eyes...

Advent 1 – Keep Alert, Keep Awake, Keep Awake
Don't lie down upon your bed
While the moon drifts in the skies
Stay awake, don't close your eyes

Though the world is fast asleep
Though your pillow's soft and deep
You're not sleepy as you seem
Stay awake, don't nod and dream
Stay awake, don't nod and dream

Words and music:Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman

This song by Mary Poppins could very well sum up the Advent message: Stay Awake!

In part, because Advent begins on a note of despair. Isaiah sounds the alarm: We implore you, O God, to intervene, to once again come among us. The people are captive in Babylon, or in Jesus’ day, under the iron yoke of Rome. It’s our fault, proclaims the prophet.  We are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. We need you here and now! [Isaiah 64:1-9]

In other words, the world is at the ends of its rope, and we realize all our self-help and so-called success and progress has not and cannot save us. We are to be those who stay awake and alert waiting, hoping, for God to intervene as we know he has in the past.

Isaiah’s final plea in verses 8-9 offers a clever argument: You made us. We belong to you. You cannot disown us, even though we often have disowned you. So, tear open the heavens! Come down! Make the mountains quake as when fire kindles wood and the fire causes water to boil! Make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Meanwhile, Paul, an apostle to us, the Gentiles, affirms to the church in Corinth [1 Corinthians 1: 1-3-9] that we now live between two Advents: God has come down in Christ Jesus. The heavens have been torn open for the Divine Voice to declare, “You are my Beloved – with you I am well pleased!” A dove alights on Jesus in the River Jordan. He then spends his lifetime among us making God’s name known to his adversaries. The nations tremble, Rome shudders, and nails him to a cross to try and put a stop to his proclamation that God is with you! God is faithful!

Further, says Paul, that’s not the end of the story. God’s gifts to us are more than sufficient for this in-between time as we await his second Advent. God will come again. Meanwhile, it is time to demonstrate unity in community for we are in a time of transition – a time of uncertainty and ambiguity. Therefore, there is no time for passivity or selfish pursuits. Rather, exercise your God-given gifts for the cause and benefit of the larger community. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.

Wake up! Keep alert! Proclaims Jesus in the Apocalyptic thirteenth chapter of Mark (24-37)!

Stringing together quotations and images from Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and others he offers healing balm.  Learn from the fig tree! Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Despite the Temple lying in ruins, this is not the end.

Pay special-careful attention: “But about the day or hour no one knows! Neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware! Keep alert!” Many make claims to know:  Political, economic, social and ecological claims of the impending end of times are made over and over again. Remember! Only God knows, says Jesus. Don’t forget that. Stay alert!

Stay alert! Stay awake, sleepy head. You’re not as sleepy as you seem. Stay awake, don’t nod and dream. Don’t listen to those who say they know the time and place! Wait upon our true Master’s return. Meanwhile, use the gifts that have been given to us to heal the world!

There are always those who will mislead us in this season of watching and waiting. The merchants of gloom shall not prevail. Advent preparation does not involve shopping, consuming, and acquiring more stuff.  Instead, says Jesus, it is time to remember, to know, that God is with us. Time itself is in God’s hands. He will not leave us alone. He will not leave us without Hope! We will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory! He is not talking about destruction. He is speaking of construction – the building up of a new, faithful, just and merciful society!

Walter Brueggemann writes, “Advent proclaims that God will act in us, through us and beyond us, more than we can imagine because newness is on its way!” Stay Awake, sleepy heads! This is not the end, but just the beginning!  Though the world is fast asleep to these truths, be those who remain alert, awake and engaged! [Celebrating Abundance – Devotions for Advent, p4-5]

Living God, visit us in this season of Advent with your Holy Spirit that we may do those things you have gifted us to do, kingdom things we did not know we had in us – neighbor things, things; that reconcile and heal; things that build up, not things that tear down and divide. May you act in us, through us and beyond us, more than we can ever imagine! Newness is on its way among us! Help us to stay awake to Advent truths! Help us to embrace and live into the newness, your newness, the newness of unity and love for all. Amen. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

What A Funny King We Have

Christ The King Sunday 2017
This is the Last Sunday of the Christian Year, Christ the King Sunday - the final word on just who Jesus is. We have four gospels and a collection of letters and an odd piece of Apocalyptic literature all offering a wide variety of answers to the question Jesus himself poses to all who would be a follower, a disciple, of his: Who do you say that I am?

Ezekiel, a prophet of Exile, writes: Thus, says the Lord God – I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out [Ezk 34:11]. Further on, he says, “…I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with Justice [v.16]. Seems they even had “fat cats” back then! It was bad and bloated leadership of Israel that had resulted in the Exile. Who are these “sheep” the Lord God seeks out? Psalms 23, 95 and 100 all declare, “We are his people, we are the sheep of his pasture.” Then comes the great vision of Matthew chapter 25. Following several parables warning us to be ready for the return of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, verses 31-46 offer a detailed and surprising account of just who Jesus is.

Take note of all the names by which he is identified in this vision: Son of Man, shepherd, one who separates sheep from goats, Lord, king, and finally a long list of who he is and where we can find him and serve him – those who are thirsty, hungry, in prison, strangers (resident aliens), and naked. He is The Lord God, The Shepherd, of whom Ezekiel speaks, and and at the same time, he is the least of those among us; he is shepherd and judge; he is Lord and King!

What an odd king we have, those of us who claim his name as our own. He had no army, but instead orders his followers to put down their weapons. He has no territory, no home, and yet he hosts people, all people, to share meals with him, no questions asked. He wrote no books, left no written record, nothing but a long series of odd stories. He had no money but depended upon the generosity of others. He wielded no political power, but instead spoke truth to power and was eventually the victim of state sponsored capital punishment, left to hang on a cross.

As a brochure notes in the Abbey Church in Bath, “What stood out to those who knew him, who saw him, who experienced what it is like to be in his presence was his teaching that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death.  Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. Jesus also foretold that he would be raised to life again three days after his death. When, three days after he had died on the cross, his followers did indeed meet him alive again; frightened and defeated men became fearless and joyful messengers.

“Their message of the Good News about Jesus is the reason this Abbey Church exists. More importantly, it is the reason why all over the world there are Christians who know what it means to meet the living Jesus, and believe that He alone has the key to human life.” Not kings, not captains of industry, not the wealthy or politically powerful, but Jesus is the key.” As Matthew’s vision declares, this Jesus is served among “the least of these,” the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the prisoner.

About six years ago I was invited to play drums in a monthly jam session at the late Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. I was there every month for about two and one-half years. My first time there I discovered that it was just two doors down from Christ House on Columbia Road, a shelter and health-care center for homeless men. My long-time mentor and friend in ministry, The Reverend N. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in D.C. inspired the founding of Christ House, and when he retired from active ministry he and his wife Mary Cosby chose to live in Christ House with the homeless men who live there.

I would drag my drums into Chief Ike’s early so I could visit Gordon and Mary for a few minutes every month. Out in front of Christ House, right on the sidewalk, there is a small plaza with a statue of Jesus designed by sculptor Jimilu Mason. It is a life-sized bronze of Jesus on his knees with a wash basin looking up to wash the feet of any who willingly submit to his doing so. In fair weather and even foul, every evening when I was at Chief Ike’s, some of the men of Christ House would sit around this image of Christ – the very people Jesus lived to serve.

Each month I would sit with them for a half-hour or so and just talk. When I would say I was a friend of Gordon and Mary I was instantly made to feel at home, part of the Christ House family. They were always interested to know about my life in music and ministry. Gordon and Mary had dedicated their lives after WWII to serve those in greatest need in our nation’s capital. Here we were, washing one another’s feet, actively living out the vision of Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I always got much more out of it than they did. Especially in the late spring of 2012 after the tragic shooting in my church office in Ellicott City that resulted in the death of my two closest colleagues in ministry. These men, along with Gordon and Mary, washed my feet, healed my wounds, held me up, and knew at an elemental dimension just what it was I was going through.

Note that in the vision in Matthew 25 the sorting out of sheep and goats is for all people of all nations, not just Christians and Jews. The criterion is not “belief in Jesus,” whatever that might mean. The criterion is not membership in the Church. The criterion is not discipleship as described in Matthew’s story of Jesus. The criterion is simply the treatment one gives to other human beings. That is who Jesus is, says the story: the people you serve, that is where God is to be found. And as I discovered, they are the people through whom Jesus loves you. Eternal life, it turns out, is in service to others. Especially the least of those whom Jesus loved.

A church, a society, a nation will be judged against this single criterion: the treatment of other human beings. How we care for those most vulnerable is what counts. The difference between the sheep and the goats in this vision is not a matter of seeking the face of Jesus, but rather of visiting people and taking care of them. You don’t even need to believe in or even know who Jesus is. We need to serve the least of these because in the end knowing them will heal us.  

One can imagine those who first heard Jesus share his vision of God’s eternal life were shocked to find out what the criteria will be. It reminds me of a film about Mother Teresa in Mexico setting up a mission to serve the poor. A business man from the U.S. shows up with “his people” to give her a check for thousands of dollars. She is too busy to accept the check. He keeps trying to give it to here. She keeps serving the poor. He is totally perplexed. Finally, she tells him, “We really don’t need your money right now. What we need and what you need is to join us in helping these people here and now.” He wanders away with his people, all of them still perplexed.

“Jesu, Jesu: Kneels at the feet of his friends/silently washes their feet, master who acts as a slave to them.” What a funny king we have. A king like no other. He is ours, and we are his – the sheep of his pasture. if only we seek and serve those he seeks to be his own, our lives will never be the same again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sleeping Bridesmaids

Wake Up!
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”
- Archbishop William Temple
We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So, someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake [Matthew 25:1-13]? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves. So we fall asleep.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. Trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or, race home to watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

What are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or, are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age [Matthew 28:20b]. No waiting required. Not only is he here, but that we can never get rid of him! Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night. When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

- Archbishop William Temple

Saturday, November 4, 2017

All Saints Day 2017

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday that Being Merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. On All Saints Sunday we remember some of those in the life of the Church who have exemplified being merciful, being peacemakers, as examples of what it means to follow Jesus. They often embody faithfulness through acts of militant non-violence.

The New Testament frequently refers to all the faithful as “saints.” In our Baptismal Vows we promise to follow and obey Jesus. He often goes places we rarely if ever go, and spends time with people we rarely if ever spend our time.  Jesus encourages us to neither flee the powers that mean to dispossess us, nor to take up armed revenge against them, but rather to resort to the sorts of acts of militant non-violence he employed to challenge the system. Over time, those faithful who did just that, challenge the prevailing political, social, religious and economic systems of their time and place, have come to be called Saints with a capital “S”.

All Saints Day is one way in which the church recalls the history of humanity in a way very different from the way it is usually recalled in secular society. It has been observed that Alexander the Great, for instance, was called “the Great” because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time. People like Alexander are usually remembered on their birth date. We are those people, however, who believe that “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in heaven.” [BCP 382]

Instead of Alexander, we remember Hugh of Lincoln, whose feast day comes up on November 17. Hugh refused to accept the office of Prior of the Carthusian Foundation until King Henry the Second had housed and fully compensated every peasant who had been evicted in order to build the new monastery. And Hugh, alone among bishops in England during the 12th Century, faced down and quelled anti-Semitic lynch mobs such that among England’s major cities, Lincoln alone was free of Jew-murdering riots. 

On July 20th we remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman, American women both black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, who stood against the oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which God calls all God’s children. Four women who stood and acted against the social and religious norms of their time to secure jobs, the vote, property ownership, access to ordination and freedom from slavery for women in America and in the church. It was Sojourner Truth who said the immortal words, “Ain’t I a woman!” Words spoken at the Women’s Conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Words that continue to echo through ages right down to our own time.

And finally, one of my favorites, Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome, who was executed in the year 258 by the same Roman Empire that crucified our Lord two centuries earlier. During the persecution under the Emperor Valerian, Laurence was instructed to lead the Romans to the treasures and treasury of the church. Laurence is said to have assembled the sick and the poor to whom, as archdeacon, he had distributed the church’s relief funds. He presented these people to the prefect and said, “These are the treasures of the Church.” For his faithful act of militant non-violence, he was executed and is remembered on August the tenth each year.

The Church Calendar is filled with people like these who followed and obeyed Jesus in their own time and place. In nearly every case these people stood against the powers that be or led the way to reform the governing powers and especially the church itself. They tend to look and act a lot more like Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Jane Fonda, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Rose McGowan, Malala Yousafzai, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez than most Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests or me. Saints are people in whom God’s Mercy and Peacemaking qualities can be recognized here and now, in our present as in our past. 

Our Book of Common Prayer Calendar lists some of them by the dates of their death, which we recognize as the beginning of their eternal lives with God and with us. We, like them, are called to such a life here and now. When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant we promise, with God’s help, to shape our lives out of the traditions these Saints represent. They are the very kinds of people Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the hungry, the meek, the pure in heart, and those who mourn. The beatitudes are statements of fact, not imperatives. They urge us to recognize the presence and blessing of the reign of God here and now in those who faithfully follow and obey Jesus, and most especially among those whom he loved.

Each time we recommit both our lives and our resources to the life Jesus calls us to live, we do well to remember this vision offered in Hebrews chapter 12 verses 1-3: “Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God. For consider him that has endured such hostility from sinners himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, an ordained minister and saint of the early twentieth century American church writes, “The man who wrote this little treatise from which this is quoted saw the history of humanity summed up in the live spirits who had the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God to be more dear, substantial, and attractive than the edible and profitable present. (Read Hebrews 11.) So, he calls on Christians to take up the same manner of life, and compares them with men and women running a race in an amphitheater packed with all the generations of the past who are watching them make their record. But he bids them keep their eye on Jesus who starts them at the line and will meet them at the goal, and who has set the pace for the good and fleet men and women for all time.”
       -Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Principals of Jesus (YWCA, NY:1916) p.188-189

All Saints Day: Jesus calls us to recommit ourselves and our resources to such a life of mercy and peacemaking, here and now; this day and every day. Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Faith, Hope and Charity

We pray, “…increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity;
and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command….”
Deuteronomy is the final chapter of Torah and the journey from Egypt to a new homeland. Throughout Deuteronomy Moses summarizes the 613 commandments, how to be God’s people Israel. Just before he dies the God of the Exodus shows him all the land of promise, and reminds Moses that he will not enter that land stemming from a lapse of faith on Moses’ part earlier in the wilderness sojourn. Moses who has been quite skilled in arguing with God offers no complaint, dies at the ripe old age of 120 and is buried we-know-not-where. After 30 days of mourning, the people move on with Joshua appointed by Moses to be their new leader. [Deut 34:1-12]

Sometime later, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, just days before he is to die at the hands of Israel’s Roman oppressors, being pressed by a group of Pharisees to summarize the 613 commandments of Torah as Moses had done. Jesus offers two: Love God and Love neighbor, commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus respectively learned along the forty-year wilderness sojourn. If you love God and neighbor you will embody a life of faith, hope and charity.

Then Jesus, much like a Pharisee himself, asks them a question about whose son do you think the Messiah will be. They say, “The son of David,” the great military and warrior king. Surely one of his descendants would throw off the Romans and inaugurate the new age of God’s kingdom. No more of these ineffectual kings the very idea of which God had told the boy prophet Samuel would not work out to any satisfaction. Kings always end up forsaking faith, hope and charity and believing only in their own power which inevitably results in a kingdom of covetousness as represented by David’s son Solomon. We are told that Solomon’s household provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides harts, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl, and a partridge in a pear tree! [1 Kings 4:22-23] What Solomon represents in the Bible is the kingdom of covetousness, over-consumption, at the expense of the common man and woman. The very opposite of what Jesus represents, who says of Solomon [Mt 6:25-29] that with all his conspicuous consumption and covetousness Solomon was not as well off as a flower in a field or a bird in the air!

It is after Saul of Tarsus encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus that he is transformed from being an instrument of the Empire in arresting and harassing followers of the Christ to become the Apostle Paul, an evangelist for the Gentiles. And it is Paul in his epic thirteenth chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth who offers his own summary of the commandments as faith, hope and charity. Modern translations have it as faith, hope and love, but I stick with charity because as the King James has it the rhyme scheme is better (abide these three, but the greatest of these is charity), and because we tend to think of love strictly in romantic terms, witness how often this is read at weddings, even those outside of the church! Yet, charity connotes something more like what Leviticus really means by love for neighbor: doing something helpful or useful for the other, even if you do not know them or even like them. And Leviticus, as does Jesus in Luke’s parable of the The Good Samaritan, extends neighbor to include resident aliens and even our greatest enemies. Very inconvenient to be sure, but startlingly relevant to much of today’s political rhetoric here in the USA which is described by some as a “Christian nation.”

I was once in the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Rochester, NY, which has a gigantic stained-glass window depicting Lady Charity, larger than life, bounding out of the window with tremendous enthusiasm. Nearby were windows depicting Paul saying, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” and “The God of Love shall be with you.” I was to be leading a Stewardship session in the Cathedral and I said, “You really just need to bring people from all over the diocese to look at, experience and discuss these three windows to find out what stewardship, faith, hope and charity are all about.”

It is this same Saint Paul to whom I appealed when asked by my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor to find a passage in scripture that describes my vision of parish ministry. I settled on the earliest of Paul’s letters, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, verses 4-8: “…but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never used either words of flattery, as you know, or a cloak for greed, as God is witness; nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”[RSV]

Here Paul epitomizes both love of God and love of neighbor, and the essence of faith, hope and charity. Paul acknowledges that there are those apostles and missionaries of the Gospel who think it is all about them. Yet, he recognizes that this is the very problem with kings over against allowing God to raise up leadership ad hoc as needed as was done from Abraham to the time of Moses and Joshua, and the period of Judges that followed until the people begged Samuel to convince God to give them a king. The results were not good as Solomon epitomizes.

Living in community, Christian or otherwise, means leaving one’s personal concerns at the door. From the very first time I read this part of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians I have gone back to it and back to it to remind me of my task here and wherever God sends me. As Paul acknowledges just prior to this in chapter 2, it has not always been easy or pleasant. The task is to not let that get in the way of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and to do so with one’s whole self. We are all called, not just the ordained ministry, but all people everywhere I believe are created to live lives of faith, hope and charity. It is not easy in an atmosphere of a 24/7 news cycle and an as yet unfettered internet that rarely offers evidence that faith, hope and charity are justified.

Yet, as that other rabbi, almost a contemporary to Jesus, Hillel put it: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And, if not now, when?

It is humbling every day that I wake up and attempt to live up to Paul’s ideals of being an Apostle – one who is sent to bring others into God’s Beloved Community, as Martin Luther King, Jr so eloquently put it throughout his struggles for civil rights and for the poor. As we pray, faith, hope and charity are gifts, and as such we need to cherish them and employ them to the best of our ability. As Paul writes elsewhere to the church in Rome, the whole world is standing on tip-toes eager to see faith, hope and charity become a reality for all people, all creatures and the planet Earth itself. If not now, when?

Saturday, October 21, 2017


To whom ought we pay tribute? The Empire? Or, God? It’s a trap. And we easily fall into it ourselves. But not Jesus. It is commonly understood that Matthew 22:15-22 has to do with the question of paying taxes – specifically, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Just one glance at the questioners and one knows something is up. The Pharisees and their followers often question Jesus, but this is the first time we see them side-by-side with Herodians. This is an unlikely pairing since the Pharisees are observant Jews seeking to maintain their Jewish identity and integrity even under Roman domination. While Herodians support and were beneficiaries of the Empire. Pharisees did not consider Herod and his line to even be Jewish, while the Herodians side with those who had access to wealth and military power. Like Henry Kissinger who called power the “ultimate aphrodisiac,” they agree that wealth and military power constitute the only religion that matters. And, oh yes, they bear the name of Herod, associating themselves with the political descendants of the king who slaughtered all of Jesus’ contemporary co-religionists. That should be our clue that conversation is neither innocent nor safe. It’s a trap.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” says Jesus. This is the real trap! An observant Jew would not have a denarius in his or her pocket since it bears a graven image and announces that “Caesar is God.” The very fact that they can produce the coin exposes them as hypocrites, posers, opportunists. Anyone with this coin is breaking at least two of the Ten Commandments. Then Jesus poses the real question: “Whose icon (eikon) is this, and whose title?” That is, “Whose image is on the coin?” They answer, correctly, “The emperor’s.” Then comes the all too familiar, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Astonished, the hypocrites leave with their plot to entrap him in tatters, exposed as the posers they are. They realize this is no longer about taxes.

“Whose image is this?” With this one question Jesus asserts that this is not at all about paying taxes. It is about who we are and whose we are. For Jesus knows, as the Pharisees and even the Herodians should know, just as we should know, that from the beginning, we are all created in God’s image – male and female we are created in the image of God. Imago Dei. Not the emperor’s. Not the Pharisee’s. Not the Herodian’s. Further, for those of us who are baptized we each bear another image on our forehead – the cross of Christ traced with oil blessed by our bishop as a sign. It is a sign reminding us to whom we pay tribute in all things. We believe that the bond God establishes in Baptism is “indissoluble.” This makes us God’s Beloved forever, just as Jesus is declared God’s Beloved at his baptism by John in the River Jordan.

Now it is true that since we are created in the image of the perfect love of God, we have the freedom to choose – we can claim our belovedness, or we can deny it, but it remains indissoluble just the same. This question of “image” runs through the entire Bible from beginning to end. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of The Beloved, at one point pulls together a number of scripture passages that address this belovedness of ours into one statement. One might call it a Beloved Creed that distills the very essence of what it means to be human.

I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your partner, your spouse … yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.
            -Life Of The Beloved, p. 30

One hopes that the astonishment of the Pharisees and the Herodians comes from some recognition that this is what Jesus is really talking about, not some mundane question about taxes. One hopes that they came to some deeper awareness as to not only who they are, but whose they are? Are we the Empire’s? Or, are we God’s? And if we are God’s, then to whom are we to pay tribute? And, how?

The oldest Eucharistic Prayer in our Book of Common Prayer, Prayer D, dates back to the days of the early church, and has been authorized by many denominations for use if we ever get back together and share communion with one another as one church again. There is a paragraph about Jesus that gets at the “how” question.

“And, that we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” BCP p. 374

This offers some clues as to how we are to live into our being “created in the image of God.” We are to live no longer for ourselves. This is a radical and revolutionary assertion in a culture of me, myself and mine. And God’s Spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind, is given to energize us to complete Jesus’ work in the world, “to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” Not some, not most, not a lot, but “all.” All people, all creatures, all things are to be fulfilled. This is His “own first gift” for all of us who bear his image on our brow. It is His tithe. The tithe is always from the first fruits. It is what is given first of all before all other commitments.

We are meant to note that this text about images operates subversively in every context in which governments act as if citizens have no higher commitment than to the state. Whenever and wherever the divine image is denied, persons are made by political circumstances to be less than human.

As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once declared about Goliath, there are always Herodians among us calling us to deny and subject our higher calling to baser and lesser instincts. We may pay the tax, but that does not mean we belong to Caesar. Our primary loyalty, says Jesus to his questioners, is to God and no other. As Saint Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait upon his Son whom he raised from the dead.”

You are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with you. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.