Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis in the USA

On so many levels it has been exciting to see Pope Francis in the USA. His deep compassion for the environment, immigrants and the poor, along with urging us all to work together for the common good is important and refreshing in the current social and political climate in America.

On other important issues, however, I have been deeply disappointed. Not a word on the role of women in the church of today, and a clear shot at women’s reproductive rights in his speech to Congress. And don’t get me wrong, I was born and raised in the Land of Lincoln, but I might agree with a colleague who suggested that Harriet Tubman may have been and even better choice than Abraham Lincoln for an American who lived her hopes and dreams in a concrete way, not just in political theory and declaration. Personally, Sojourner Truth would be my choice. Her “Ain’t I a woman…” speech delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851, for me still sadly defines the struggles for equality women face both here and abroad.

I was also disappointed to hear him take up the cry for the so-called need for “religious liberty” in this country, a wedge issue of the conservative and evangelical right who dare to claim that Christianity is under attack in this country. All fifteen or so Republican primary candidates have taken up this cry, despite the U.S. Constitution’s “no religious test” clause in Article VI paragraph 3. The American Catholic Bishops have joined onto this wedge issue which was unabashedly validated by the pope in his address to the joint houses of Congress.

I think, however, the greatest disappointment is his choosing to canonize Fr. Junipero Serra during this historic and important visit. Fr. Serra oversaw and aggressively put in place the Church Mission system along the California coast. It was a successful evangelization program that sadly depended on enslaving the native peoples of this continent resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of American Indians. For a pontiff so sensitive to the humanity and needs of all people, this canonization can only be seen as demeaning of the Native peoples of the American continent whose ancestors were victims of the Mission System.  Further, there does not appear to be anything that distinguishes Fr. Serra’s missionary efforts apart from other zealous church missionaries of the same period. To have justified his choice to go through with the canonization by saying that “we cannot measure the actions of those in the past by the criteria of today” I found to a facile and disappointing moment in his address to Congress.

Each time I see the logo, “Pope of the People” on the television coverage I find myself contemplating how it is that our Native Peoples, women and all persons of other religious beliefs outside Christianity seem not to be included in the hope and vision of a pope who clearly has the broadest vision of inclusion of any pope in my lifetime. To be clear, I truly love much of what he has brought to the world-wide conversation on the role of religion in our common life together. My hope and prayer is for a pope one day who as a “Pope of the People” is a pope that can be a pope for all people everywhere. But that just may be asking for too much. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Take Off Your Shoes

Take Off Your Shoes
James 4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Mark 9:37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
We might ponder just how these two statements point us toward the same reality. Drawing near to God has long been at the heart of human yearning. And a close reading of the Biblical narratives, and indeed most other religious scriptures, depicts a God – whether that be YHWH, Allah, Krishna, the Dao, Jesus – who seeks to draw near to us as well. We often feel alone, distant from the ultimate ground of our Being, and many religious thinkers (Elie Wiesel is one) suggest that often God is alone as well. There seems to be a gap, a distance, that needs to be bridged.

A foundational story, of course, is that of the shepherd boy Moses tending his father-in-law’s flock. A bush bursts into flame. A voice from the fiery bush calls to him to come near. But first, “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is Holy Ground.”[ Exodus 3: 5] Moses takes off his shoes and life as he knew it was changed. I often wonder what I might have done. Would I take off my shoes and approach the voice in the bush? Or, would I turn back and run? Moses was already on the run from having murdered a man. Perhaps he was tired, exhausted, from running. Perhaps it is when we are most tired that we finally take off our shoes and approach the voice in the fiery bush.

Sometime later we see a group of disciples, followers, trying to draw nearer to God in Christ. He is explaining to them for the second time just what it means to draw near to God: to walk in the way of the cross. They don’t understand and are afraid to ask. Instead, not having the advantage of reading the Letter of James as we have had, they argue about which one among them is the greatest. We may as well admit, we are more drawn to such arguments than we are moved to draw near to God. It is become a national past-time, which we watch and then discuss, analyze and debate for days afterward until finally comes Election Day.

Jesus’ response is classic. “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.” My favorite theological word, “all.” That would be everyone and everything that comes from the Word, the Logos, the source of all things, seen and unseen – and we now know that some 95% of the known universe/creation is unseen – dark matter and dark energy. All.

Then believing that a visual metaphor may be more effective in making his point, he places a child in their midst and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” A child becomes a placeholder for the Almighty!

To which our modern response is usually something like, “Awwww….isn’t that sweet,” since our devotion to children and puppies far surpasses our commitment to draw near to God and the Way of the Cross! The power of his prophetic action lies in the fact that children in 1st century culture had the status of just one tick higher than a slave or even a dog. There was no Toys R Us. There was no baby-proofing of houses. If they survived infancy, so be it. If not, so be it.

By placing a child in the disciples midst, Jesus makes a statement of radical acceptance of all people among his followers. If you wish to draw near to God, if you are going to be first among my followers, you must welcome those who spend their lives at the very bottom of human society. To have any chance of seeing God you must welcome all into your midst, into your heart, into your life. Archbishop William Temple once said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

Jesus may as well be saying, “Take off your shoes, for these filthy urchins, these Gentile women, these lepers, and blind, and demon possessed people are whom God loves and cares for deeply – and that is who I am. I am who I am!”

We need to take off our shoes. This is the Bible’s way of saying we need to realize the presence of God in all persons and all things, including, of course, the very earth we stand upon, our fragile island home. There are not a lot of role models in our culture, or in the world for that matter, that live out of the kind of humility that asks us to take off our shoes. I remember before entering the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount I had to take off my shoes. To enter a mosque, one must first take off one’s shoes. To enter a home in Japan and many other cultures, one needs to take off one’s shoes. It is a sign of respect. And it becomes more and more of a social equalizer given the time and money we spend on getting just the right pair of shoes to go with our “outfit” or with the persona we  like to project about ourselves.  The vast majority of humans on Earth do not even own one pair of shoes, let alone a closet full.

Taking off our shoes is just one way of recognizing and accepting the nearness of God, the nearness God desires with us. Accept all children and God is near. Accept the sacred and holy nature of the very ground we walk and God is near. I suspect there are many many ways in which we need to “take off our shoes.”  The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.

Woody Guthrie left thousands of song lyrics that he never put to music. Frank London of the Klezmatics put this one to music. It is a hymn, a psalm really, capable of bringing us all closer to God, closer to one another and closer to ourselves.

Words by Woody Guthrie, 1954, Music by Frank London (The Klezmatics), 2003

Take off, take off your shoes
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
Take off, take off your shoes
The spot you’re standing, its holy ground

These words I heard in my burning bush
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
I heard my fiery voice speak to me
This spot you’re standing, it’s holy ground

That spot is holy holy ground
That place you stand it’s holy ground
This place you tread, it’s holy ground
God made this place his holy ground

Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground
Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground

Every spot on earth I trapse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I trapse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Every spot it’s holy ground
Every little inch it’s holy ground
Every grain of dirt it’s holy ground
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground
Words © Copyright 2001 Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Filled With Love

Kim Davis. A name we should all be familiar with by now. A county clerk in Kentucky and an Apostolic Christian. A visit to the official website of the Apostolic Christian Church, on the tab titled Lifestyle, we learn that Apostolic Christians are to be “doers of the Word, not just hearers,” as we read in the Letter of James just last Sunday. In her attempt to live that out as she best understands it, Kim Davis has refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For this fact I cannot open my Facebook news feed without scrolling through at least several postings excoriating this woman, insisting she comply with federal law or resign, and labeling her a hypocrite for being on her fourth marriage herself, and having been a known adulteress in the past. Some Christians rise to her defense and point out she has been born again and ought to be forgiven. Others, including Christians and non-religionists, mock and deride  her by passing on mean spirited memes. Perhaps we need to review the gospels

Kim Davis is an all too familiar character in the Gospels. I think of the woman caught in adultery in John – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” says Jesus. And the Samaritan Woman at the well, perhaps one of the most broken persons in all the gospels, having been married several times, and the man she lives with now is not her husband. Yet, she is commissioned by Jesus to be the first evangelist – to return to her village and tell people about Jesus.

Then there is our woman in Mark chapter 7: 24-30, the Syrophoenician Woman – that is a gentile from what was Syrian territory in the Roman Empire. Her daughter is not well. She is desperate to find help. Jesus, we are told, was by himself having just fought with his co-religionists over the traditions of the elders. [Note- the defenders of the Traditions of the Elders and what has been called the Purity Code in Leviticus (no shellfish, no clothes of mixed fibers, no meat and dairy together, etc) are constantly portrayed as challenging Jesus, and not once does he side with them – Christians take note!]

Jesus is trying to get away from it all but it is not to be. We all know what that feels like. He “notices” that there is this woman, this gentile woman. We need to know that at that time a man was not to be seen with a woman not his wife in public or private. Most especially not a gentile woman. She knows this we can be sure. She is taking a tremendous risk just to be approaching him. Yet, she is of an undivided heart and a heart filled with love, and her single minded mission is to get help for her daughter who is beset with a demon. She asks nothing for herself. Despite all of our pretense as moderns to not believe in demons, we may as well admit we all know what that feels like as well.  She begs him to help. She has heard the stories. All other avenues of the health-care delivery system have failed her. She pins all her hope on this stranger, this Jew with whom she ought not to be seen.

Then it happens. I have been in Bible Study groups who insist this just did not happen, could not have happened. He calls her and her people in Syria dogs.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The children, of course, are the children of Israel; the dogs would be gentiles. It turns out that our Lord and Savior knows a thing or two about prejudice and bigotry, not to mention the fine art of insult. Suddenly he appears to revert to the traditions of the elders. Perhaps this will send her on her way, he thinks.

Then it happens. Perhaps the single most important moment in all of Biblical scripture. She does not wither. She does not withdraw, tail between her legs. Her heart is filled with love. She knows no fear. “Say to those of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong and do not fear,” declares the prophet-poet Isaiah.

This woman from Syria is strong and fearless as she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She will be happy with crumbs. She gives it her best shot. And with that the earth and time and God all stand still. There is an axial shift in the operation of the known universe. Jesus is moved. Jesus is deeply moved.

Jesus is moved enough to drop the traditions of the elders once and for all, set aside his prejudice, drop his fear of “the other,” and he grants her request. The child is made whole once again. The demon is gone. The food that he has to give, the bread that comes down from heaven, is now to be shared with all people without any concern for who they are or where they are from. For all things and all people are from God. We come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around.

Jesus was changed. And so have we. It may surprise you to know that in the Sunday Lectionary in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer this story is omitted – as are most stories about women of faith. Not until we as a church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary have we heard this woman’s story read in church. It took as a massive a change of heart and mind to make the change and allow this woman’s story to be told – a story that very likely changed the entire focus of our Lord’s, of God’s, mission.

It strikes me that in light of this story, heaping scorn, mockery and derision on Kim Davis is exactly what we as disciples of Jesus ought not to do. We ought to pray for her. For she, like us, is a member of the body of Christ. When one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. She strikes us as strange and as “other” as the Syrophoenician Woman was before Jesus. No doubt, her heart is filled with love and she is doing the best she can to live her life as an Apostolic Christian. What this most critical story in the New Testament tells me is that we are compelled by our baptism in Christ to love her with all our heart. This would be just as true for the Muslims I see excoriated every day on my newsfeed, and for all the anti-Democrat and anti-Republican screed I must wade through every day. It is easy to throw stones. It is difficult to live with a heart filled with love.

The night of Shock and Awe as the US invaded Iraq, March 19, 2003, a musician in Maine, Joyce Anderson wrote this song.  I think it could be the Syrophoenician Woman’s theme song. It is all about how we view “the other.” May it become our song as well.

Men of anger, men of war
My heart is filled with love
Tell me what you are fighting for
My heart is filled with love
This death I see won't make me numb
My heart is filled with love
Every boy a mother's son
My heart is filled with love
Raise your voices, spread the news...
Buddhist, Christian, Moslem, Jew...
They all teach the golden rule...
Do unto others as you'd have them do...
I will not fear these foreign tongues...
There is a place for everyone...
I cannot make my will their own...
But fear can turn a heart to stone...
I do not know my neighbor's name...
I love that stranger just the same...
Hope is rising from this place...
Divine wisdom, amazing grace...
Men of anger, men of war...
Tell me what you are fighting for
My heart is filled with love
My heart is filled with love
My heart is filled with love
©2003 by Joyce Andersen/JoyScream Music
Written the night of March 19, 2003

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit and Life

"This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" - John 6:60
For five weeks now we have dwelt within the sixth chapter of the fourth gospel, an extended meditation on bread, manna, spirit and life. Those of us in the preaching trade wonder why it is the lectionary insists on our taking in the entire chapter week after week, ever challenged to find something new, something fresh, something relevant to proclaim. Yet, here in the waning verses of the chapter we hear even the disciples admit that the teaching on bread is difficult; who can accept it? Jesus replies to their frustration, our frustration, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:61-63

One has to admire this about Jesus, even if you don’t choose to follow him: whenever he senses we are beginning to “get it” he turns it up one more notch – he finds some new way to challenge our already challenged hearts and minds with the next “what if.” After nearly 60 verses on the essential efficacy of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he goes on to say that “the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It turns out there is more to eternal life than Eucharist.

Archbishop William Temple in his seminal look at the fourth gospel, Readings In John’s Gospel, teases out the essence of what is being said here. Why not, after all, talk about receiving the Sprit in the first place? Why all this extended metaphor on bread – on body and blood –  if after all is said and done, the flesh “is useless”?  Temple’s argument suggests it is as if the compilers of John could foresee our own time when the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble and are crammed with facile books on the “spiritual life,” and urgings to simply contemplate the beauties of nature, as fine as that may be, instead of accepting the ascended Spirit and Life of the crucified one through eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

But, says Temple, we are not only to receive him in some general way, and recollect the scenes from his life which we already prefer to remember, but we must “receive him in the fullness of his self-sacrifice, that we may be united with him in the self-emptying of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).” That is, we can easily fall into the delusion that mere taking by mouth the consecrated bread and wine is in itself to receive eternal life. The flesh and blood, even of the Son of Man, is not all of it. The flesh and blood of the Ascended One, though, are plainly not just matter, for the Ascended One is not seated somewhere far-off, but rather is here in the midst of all human suffering, for He has suffered Himself.

To give in to mere materialism, then, is not our calling, but rather to become Spirit and Life, his Spirit and his life, a life of self-sacrifice and self-emptying. The temptation, however, is always there to depend solely on our selves rather than out of the radical dependence of manna season as exemplified in the wilderness and the early church. Manna season, typified by everyone getting enough, no one gets too much, and, as in the Book of Acts, all resources are allocated for the good of the whole community. This is the Biblical world view.

The Bible goes to great pains to make clear what happens when one holds back resources that are meant for the good of the whole community. In the book of Joshua when a battle is lost the special prosecutor determines it is because one man, Achan, has held back in his tent some of the booty of a previous battle for himself; material that was meant to sustain the whole community. In chapter 2 of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira withhold the profits of selling their property from the early Christian community and, as they are found out they drop dead when they admit to the Sin of Achan. No wonder the disciples regard this teaching on bread as so difficult!

Today we call this Sin of Achan and Ananias and Sapphira the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a sad little woman who imagined a lonely life of isolation, one individual pitted against all others, competing for the stuff of the world, stuffing one’s tent for one’s own self-interest. It is a kind of radical materialism. You can read all about it in her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. Rand magically transforms the western canon when she turns the Sin of Achan, Ananias and Sapphira into a Virtue with a capital “V”.  Some believe this to be “the American Dream.”  Oddly, she seemed to have believed this kind of radical materialism would somehow combat the materialism of Totalitarian Communism.

The Objectivism of Self-Sufficiency is in direct conflict with a Biblical World view of collective dependency on what the Lord seeks to provide on a daily basis. Even Jesus, when asked how to pray, suggested that we pray for “daily bread.” Jesus imagined a return to Manna Season and radical dependence on God’s daily bread. Jesus lived among us as an example of self-giving and self-sacrifice.

Contrast Ayn Rand’s vision, one which is proclaimed loudly by some members of congress to this day, with the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, valedictorian of his class, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary to study to become a priest and disciple of Jesus. As a seminarian he went south to join in the Civil Rights movement. He and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to protest some stores that only allowed white customers, were arrested and placed in a jail in nearby Haynesville. A few days later they were freed without bail, but left in the streets of Haynesville without transport back to Fort Deposit. As Daniels and some others, including a 17 year-old African American girl, Ruby Sales, went to buy a Coke at a nearby store. A man with a shotgun took aim at Ruby, Daniels pushed her aside and took the blast himself which left him dead and saved her life. She has gone on to live a long live as a civil rights activist. Spirit and Life, self-sacrifice and self-giving.  Johnathan Myrick Daniels gave his life on August 20th, 1965, fifty years ago this week, and just eight years after Atlas Shrugged.

Two worldviews: Objectivism vs The Gospel of Spirit and Life. The relevance of all of this needs no explanation. Just ponder the news every day. We live in the sixth chapter of John for more than one month every third year because it would be too easy to forget just what it is Jesus is talking about. This teaching is difficult. It takes time for us to take it in. We live in a world that is driven by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a world driven mad by markets and visions of self-sufficiency.

Maybe a world that has lost touch with the kind of collective spirit imagined in the Bible drives people to extreme acts of violence. Maybe self-sufficiency is not all it is cracked up to be. Maybe a world that has walked away from Manna Season has crushed our spirit. Has it ever occurred to us that in our drive for self-sufficiency we actually create evildoers? It is worth thinking about as we ponder what we need as a vision moving forward from what looks more like Mass-Murder and Violence Season than Manna Season.

Temple concludes that the purpose of this long and sometimes strange discourse on bread is meant to remind us of our total spiritual dependence on Christ, to guard against any sense of materialism or magic in the Eucharist which is our main means of effecting our spiritual dependence on Christ, and to secure that our dependence on Christ is inseparable from his redeeming sacrifice and life of self-giving and self-emptying. No wonder it is so bewildering. It is patently counter-cultural. And yet, it is the life of the Biblical worldview of some 3,000 years, oft maligned, but infrequently adopted and lived. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. When will we be moved to return home? Amen.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eternal Life Is Now

John 6:54 – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…”

Eternal life. The one who says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “have eternal life.” Not “will have,” but “have.” Yet, we tend to think that eternal life is something far off, something conferred after life, after death.

In the words of William Sloan Coffin, chaplain at Yale and then pastor at Riverside Church, New York City, “We are on the road to heaven now if today we walk with God. Eternal life is not a possession conferred at death; it is a present endowment. We live it now and continue it through death.” William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p170

Or, as another theologian puts it, eternal life has nothing to do with “timelessness and death, but is full-filled life here on earth that makes us yearn it will never end. Living life to the fullest as disciples brings great joy in the present and a hope for the future.” Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, p 291

Eternal life is life lived with, in and through God in Christ here and now – this is eternal life. I suspect it comes about only as we savor the meal. I suspect it only comes about if we savor the Word of God. I suspect it only comes about if we take the time to sit down at the table with Him and linger awhile. We need to savor His flesh and savor His blood if He is to live in us and we in Him.

Christian faith would be so much easier if it were a matter of mere belief or intellectual assent. Our rather scandalous, carnal and incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. He intends to course through our veins, be digested fully, and nourish every nook and cranny of our hearts, bodies and souls! He wishes to consume us as we consume him. We Christians are a bloody bunch!

He wants all of us. He wants us to have all of him.

Like the manna in the wilderness, those who sit at table with Him, those who linger and savor each moment, there will be enough. For every one there is enough to go around. Everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, if you try to store it up it sours. There is sufficient bread and wine to give eternal life for all of us, with baskets and baskets left over.

We moderns are not usually inclined, says John Booty, to give thanks for that which is sufficient. But this is exactly what Jesus has in mind.This is why we call this Eucharist – literally Greek for Thanksgiving.

The real question for all of us is whether or not we are willing to take time out of our daily lives, even on our Sundays, to linger with the Word of God? To savor the fullness of life He means to give us? Are we ready to accept this eternal life right now? Are we ready to begin here and now to commit to “living life to the fullest as disciples?” Eternal life is a present endowment.

What does this present endowment of eternal life look like? Our Baptismal Covenant gives us a sort of job description as to how we as a community of disciples are to live life to the fullest as we answer five questions.

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? More simply put, will we read the Bible, get together with others, take communion and pray. Discipleship is not a life for loners – we are companions in the Way – literally “those who share bread.” Jesus does not send his disciples out to do the work he gives us to do on our own – he sends us out in pairs.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? The Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, frequently counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” We are to be those people who persevere in resisting evil – which means first we must recognize evil. And, we are to acknowledge our “manifold sins and wickedness” as we used to say, say we are sorry, and move on with our eternal life lived with God in Christ. Not a lot of public role models on this one. We as a people repeatedly are forced to spend millions of dollars to investigate and coerce people to say, “I am sorry, I did it, I won’t do it again.”

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? That is, does everything we say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? What is that Good News anyway? As I read the gospels it is that we are God’s Beloved – each and every one of us. That’s it. God could have said something else: If you’re very very good I will love you. Or, if you are very very sorry for not being very very good I will love you. Or perhaps worst of all, I love you, now get back in line before I change my mind! God says quite plainly, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Once we accept and embrace and embody this news eternal life really begins!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? This is, believe it or not, the most controversial of our promises we make. Underlying this question is the assumption, the belief, that there is in fact something of Christ in all persons. This should not shock us since the whole story begins by saying male and female we are all made imago Dei – in the image of God. So we are to recognize this and serve this in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons. All. We truly need to spend time contemplating just what “all persons” really means.

And then comes the real kicker: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? There it is again: all people and every human being. Note the verb, to strive: to devote serious effort or energy, to work, to labor, to go all out for justice and peace for all people. If there was ever a time in the world, in our country, in our major cities, in our neighborhoods in need of people who strive for justice and peace the time is now. Now is the time for eternal life lived with God and out of this job description we call our Baptismal Covenant. To this we all say, “I will with God’s help.”

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” – our manna – His flesh and his blood. The daily bread he offers us is the opportunity to strive for justice and peace for all people; to respect the dignity of every human being; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to make sure that everything we say and do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.

It is a tall order, this eternal life we are given. It is a gift for which we give thanks. We need only accept eternal life to have it right here and now. After our prayers will we give God in Christ – the Word of God – the necessary time to give us the daily bread we need to satisfy our deepest hunger and deepest thirst? Will we linger at the table and savor His presence? Will we seek God’s help to fulfill the promises of our discipleship? Not even God knows the answer to this question – only we do.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

Christ Church, West River - I am the bread of life part 2
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal …Ephesians 4:30
John 6: I am the living bread that came down from heaven

This week I find myself thinking about and singing this song by Ed McCurdy, a folk singer, who wrote it in 1950 in the early days of the Cold War and the aftermath of WWII which concluded once and for all with the dropping of nuclear weapons over two cities in Japan.  McCurdy’s song has been recorded by countless musicians from Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio to Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Mason Proffit, John Denver, and artists all around the world.  It is probably one of the least known most recorded songs in music history.

I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
Music and words: ED MCCURDY
Performed by Johnny Cash

An historical note: as the Berlin Wall was finally being dismantled in November 1989, Tom Brokaw directed the NBC cameras to focus on a group of school children on the East Berlin side of the wall singing, Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.

We come from love, we return to love and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming, a coming home to God. We are God’s Beloved – signed and sealed by water and the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

This of course is directly related to the immutable fact of our creation: imago Dei – in the image of God.

So if we are imago Dei, and we are God’s Beloved, perhaps some time spent contemplating just what this means about who we are, whose we are, and what, if anything, we ought to be doing.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to make two key promises: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

To which we respond, I will with God’s help.

To serve Christ in all persons we need to truly accept that all people, not some people, not most people, but all people have something of Christ in them already. This is a bold assertion, and one not without controversy. But if, as John’s gospel has it, the Word, the logos, was with God and is God “in the beginning,” and all things came to be through this Word, and the Word is Jesus, God who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, there is no one and no thing in all of creation that does not have some of the Word, the logos, the Christ, within them. All people are imago Dei.

We are those people called to recognize that, accept that and serve that in all persons. We do that by striving, not simply being in favor of, but working, striving and bringing about justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

This week we stop to reflect on three very important anniversaries. August 6 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law – thus fulfilling the promises of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution which were enacted as a result of the Civil War. I watched a film clip of President Lyndon B. Johnson urging congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. As part of his speech he concludes, “We shall overcome….we shall overcome.” A song Pete Seeger adapted from the labor movement, who in turn had adapted it from a Negro Spiritual. Pete Seeger and Martin King had a dream, fueled by the Word of God, that one day all the people of the United States would be free, participating citizens.

August 6th was also the 70th anniversary of the US dropping a nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Today, August 9th commemorates the dropping of a second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki. Under orders by President Harry S. Truman, the US became the first and only country in history to use a nuclear weapon, and to use it to kill over 120,000 men, women and children, non-combatants, and to level two entire cities, leaving thousands more to live with the consequences of radiation sickness and what today we would call PTSD.  
In a blinding flash of white light, two cities and the people therein were incinerated. Most, if not all, were non-combatants.

It is perhaps an irony of history that August 6th is also the Feast of the Transfiguration – commemorating that event on a mountain top in which Jesus was seen by Peter, James and John to be blindingly white, dazzling in the sunlight, talking to Moses and Elijah. These events are forever linked.

The further irony, pointed out by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in their book, Resident Aliens [Abingdon Press, 2014 25th Anniversary Edition], is that President Truman was considered by many to be a faithful Christian, a faithful Baptist – the man who on the Feast of the Transfiguration inaugurated the threat and actuality of Nuclear Holocaust.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” We have been incorporated into the Body of Christ. We are to become the bread of life for the world. Jesus urges us to love our enemies. Jesus urges us to respect the dignity of every human being – not some, not most, but all human beings. Jesus says we cannot live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from God. The bread of life that comes down from heaven that we need to hear this 9th day of August come from Isaiah, a fellow prophet in the tradition of Elijah:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

How are we to be people of the Word of God as we reflect on these words of Isaiah and the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth?Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urges us, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal.” It is very difficult to imagine that what happened in Japan in 1945 does not grieve the Holy Spirit.

Digging around the internet I discovered that Ed McCurdy’s original lyrics concluded this way:

Last night I had the strangest dream, I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war
When I awoke, ‘twas but a dream and peace a dirty word
I tried to tell them of my dream, but not a word they heard

And then I got me fighting mad, and I knew just what I’d do
I’d fight non-violently for peace, until my dream came true

Ed’s dream is the dream of God for all people – a world of justice and peace and dignity for all people.  This is the essence of the living bread that comes down from heaven. This is the daily bread God wants us to have, to accept as gift from the one who calls us to be his beloved. This is the daily bread we are to become – living bread for the whole world. It’s a complex world, we all get that. But the bread we are given to shape all that we do and all that we say promises that we can live up to our belovedness, we can act as if we truly believe we are imago Dei, created in the image of God. There is much that can be done non-violently to make the dream come true. Together we can make a world in which everyone is closer to God, closer to one another and closer to themselves.

Where have all the flowers gone…..
When will we ever learn,
When will we ever learn


Friday, July 17, 2015

You Are God's Beloved

You Are My Beloved
Proper 11B- Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

When I got a listing of the lessons and hymns for today the Gospel was listed as Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (The Feeding of the Five Thousand). Then I went and read the selected verses and lo and behold, no feeding, no five thousand. What we are left with is the prologue and epilogue to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which story, by the way, is told and retold six times across the four gospels. Twice in Mark alone if you don’t mind it being a mere four thousand the second time.

This means, I am guessing, to focus us on the fact that the people need good shepherds. Had the feeding story been included we could contrast feasting with the good shepherd with the previous story of what it is like to feast with a notoriously bad shepherd, Herod. With Jesus everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, and there are leftovers for tomorrow, like the story of manna in the wilderness with Moses and his crowd of escapees. With Herod, a notoriously bad shepherd, if you are person of extraordinary faith, you lose your head – literally, as in John the Baptizer meeting a nasty end. I think we are meant to consider, the way Mark lays it out, just who would be the good and bad shepherds today.

Also left out is the moment when Jesus asks the disciples to feed this “great crowd” for whom he has compassion, we see the disciples pleading the gospel of scarcity and urging Jesus to instruct the crowd to go shopping and let the market forces do their magic. Jesus of course has none of this and says sit them down in green pastures like we read in the 23rd psalm, and feed them yourselves. That’s what my father’s kingdom is all about – compassionate interdependence, not rugged independence. My banquets, and the heavenly banquet, are not going to be at all like those with Herod and all the other bad shepherds. We are to be all about hospitality, not hostility, generosity, not the exercise of power and manipulation. We are to welcome people, all people, not tell them to go away and take care of themselves. We are here to care for one another.

Then he sends them ahead, because remember, he is looking to get some rest from it all. They’re in the boat, a storm comes up, while he is doing his centering prayer he sees they are afraid and walks by the boat. The text says, “He intended to pass them by.” That sounds strange to us until we recall that God instructs Moses to stand in a certain spot while “I pass you by,” and God tells Elijah to stand in a certain spot and “I will pass you by.” So “passing by” is God’s way of saying, “Hey fellas, it’s Me!” As usual the disciples don’t get it. They think he’s a ghost. Worse still, we are told, they do not understand about the loaves. You can just about see Jesus shaking his head, holding his head in his hands. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn. The text says they are hard-hearted. (hard-heaerted in Biblical terms means hard-headed since the Bible understands the heart as the home of knowledge while the head is the home of feelings)

This is where the epilogue picks up. Just as the crowds got to where he was going to rest before he did in the prologue, so they do it again in the epilogue. If you have ever seen the Sea of Galilee you understand. You can see all around the lake and no matter where Jesus tries to go, people can see where he is going even if the disciples have no clue. Note also they are bringing the sick, the halt and the lame from all over and “laid them in the marketplace,” exactly where he refused to send them at dinner time. Seems he intends to transform the marketplace into a kind of health-care exchange.

It’s astonishing really. He does nothing. He says nothing. There are no requirements, no talk about “faith.” Note the absence of any mention of the disciples who are still befuddled about the bread. The people are pictured as merely touching the “hem of his cloak.” “And all who touched it were healed.” The Gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, Lord Christ! What are we to make of all of this?

For one thing, perhaps, we are meant to be those who understand about the bread. After all, he teaches us to pray for bread that is given daily, not storehouses filled to overflowing. But then, just what is this daily bread?

If I had to hazard a guess I would say it is love – not just love, but the love of God. For me one of the keys to Mark’s gospel is in the very beginning. There is no birth story. Rather, a full grown Jesus steps onto the scene and joins in the Baptism of John. When he comes up out of the water, a voice says, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Now as we all know, on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer it says by water and the Holy Spirit those who are baptized are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Which I take to mean, when we are baptized there are tiny cherubim and seraphim flying around us whispering in our ears, “You are God’s Beloved! God is well pleased with you!” As we “grow up” we forget we ever heard that good news. Things happen. We lose faith in ourselves. We lose faith in others. We simply lose faith.

That’s when we need to be more like the people in the prologue and the epilogue to this story: we need to hurry and rush to those places to which Jesus goes to get rest before he even gets there, wait for him to arrive, and then touch the hem of his garment. The bread and the healing we need are to remember who we are and whose we are: We are God’s Beloved. God is well pleased with us! To internalize this good news I turn to Buddy Holly and the Grateful Dead and begin to play and sing:

I am well pleased with you

I am God’s Beloved
God is well pleased with me

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
I’m gonna love God night and day
You know our love not fade away

Our Love’s bigger than a Cadillac
God ain’t never gonna take it back
God’s love’s bigger than an SUV
No one can take it away from me
You know our Love not fade away

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
Then come on down to Jordan’s stream
Up in the Sky what do you see
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me
The Holy Spirit comin’ down on me

I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
A love to last more than one day
A love that's love - not fade away
A love that's love - not fade away
            -Buddy Holly, Norman Petty, adapted by Kirk Kubicek
              Copyright Sounds Divine