Saturday, November 21, 2015

“My kingdom is not from this world.”

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Or, more simply, the Feast of Christ the King. I have always found this to be the most curious and at the same time mysterious of all Christian observances. I remember standing in Bath Abbey and reading the following words: “Who is Jesus? Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2,000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home…He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.”

He is a funny kind of king, Our King of the Universe, isn’t he? It’s even more curious when you consider what Verna Dozier calls the three falls of human kind. First, of course, is the business in the garden and eating the forbidden fruit. Next, she writes, comes that moment in time when the people of God demand of Samuel, last of the Hebrew Judges and first of the Hebrew prophets, that he petition the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them a king. Up to that moment the loose confederation of twelve tribes depended on Judges, un-elected and non-hereditary leaders appointed by God, to lead them in times of crisis and great peril. These were ad hoc judges, twelve of them, one from each of the 12 tribes, and one of them was a woman, Deborah. Samuel asks God for a king, and God replies that kings are really not a great model of leadership. Samuel tells the people God’s response, but they whine all the more, “Everyone else has a king, why not us? We want to be like everyone else!”

God finally relents, and Saul is anointed King over all of Israel. It does not end well. God eventually has to resort to sending more and more prophets in an attempt to bring the kings and the people back to the basics of being God’s people.  As we know, God finally comes himself in Jesus only to discover for himself just how recalcitrant the creatures created in his own image had become.

The Third Fall, of course, is when the Church becomes the Empire as Constantine adapts the Church to become the enforcer of the Emperor’s will. The Church, which had existed for well over 200 years as an alternative to life in the Empire, as the Israel of God, if you will, over against the Land of Pharaoh, suddenly becomes that which it had opposed.

We all know the results, many of which are not good: crusades, expulsions, Inquisition, anti-Semitism and complicity in The Holocaust, which The Second Vatican Council acknowledged, apologized, and urged us to move on in a more inclusive manner including the importance of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. Yet, it remains difficult to give up the goodies and privileges of being The Empire.

Christ The King is the newest of all church liturgical observances, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to growing nationalism and secularism. Pius XI wanted this feast to inspire the laity, writing, “The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal….He must reign in our minds…in our wills…in our hearts…in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

In our Baptismal Covenant we are asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answer, “I will with God’s help.”

So here we are on the Feast of Christ The King, in a country that indeed embraced the Biblical ideal of non-hereditary kingship for governance, a country populated nearly entirely by immigrants, many of whom came to these shores fleeing warfare and persecution, pondering, debating really, just how wide and how broad our definitions of justice and peace for all people really is. We find ourselves reacting without much reflection on just how we might wreak military vengeance on those who threaten the lives of innocent civilians with acts of horrendous and indiscriminate violence, while at the same time we threaten to close our boarders to those who are suffering the same violence first-hand.

Christ the King  Sunday means to ask us, in the context of our present lives, how ought we to serve as “instruments of justice unto God”?

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has addressed this place in which we find ourselves: “In times like this fear is real.  And I share that fear with you. Our instinct tells us to be afraid. The fight-or-flight mentality takes hold…  And yet, especially when we feel legitimate fear, our faith reminds us “Be not afraid.” The larger truth is that our ultimate security comes from God in Christ.”

Bishop Curry goes on to remind us that “In the Book of Leviticus, God says to the people of Israel that, ‘the foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’  Accordingly, we welcome the stranger.  We love our neighbor.  The Episcopal Church has long been committed to resettling refugees in our own communities fleeing violence and persecution.” For over 75 years this has been the work of The Episcopal Church in partnership with dioceses, congregations and government agencies.

He concludes, “But Jesus calls us to go even further: not just to love our neighbors and our kin, but to love our enemies.  This is particularly difficult when we are afraid. But even in the midst of our fear we stand on the solid ground of our faith and proclaim the faith of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.  In practical terms, this may mean finding strength in prayer, or in our neighbors, or in our churches, or in acts of solidarity with others who live in fear.   This is the hope that casts out fear.”

When faced with events like those of this past week in Europe and in Africa, I turn to scripture, I turn to prayer, and I also turn to poetry. Friday was the birthday of Pauli Murray, born in Baltimore, a civil rights activist, a founder of the National Organization of Women, a founder of CORE, the first woman awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale, and the first ordained African American woman in The Episcopal Church. Also a poet, I find these words of hers address where we find ourselves on this Feast of Christ the King.  They seem to hint at the kind of kingship our Lord embraces.
I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the river of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge:
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.
      -Pauli Murray, Cambridge, 1969


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Be Here Now

Be Here Now
I get up each morning with our puppy Bella, take her out, and then the two of us crash on the living room sofa: she sleeps on top of my legs while I scan my phone for overnight emails and my newsfeed on Facebook. The other morning I discovered that as a faithful Christian I need to be up in arms over this red Starbuck cup as it is the opening salvo in this year’s alleged, “War on Christmas.” Even at 5:30 in the morning I am awake enough to look at that and say, “Really? Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead so I could get angry, protest and boycott a coffee shop over a paper cup? As the morning unfolded the story was on all 12 flat-screens at the gym.  As I read here in church a few weeks ago, I needed a trip to the Bunny Planet!

Fortunately I think our lessons for today offer some perspective on this kind of thing. The reading from the Book of Daniel 12: 1-3 dates from the time of the Greek occupation of Israel about two centuries before Christ,  and reflects on the time of the 6th century Babylonian Captivity. It is an example of Hebrew Apocalyptic literature with the main theme being:  just as YHWH, the God of Israel, had saved Daniel and Israel from captivity in Babylon, so God will deliver Israel from the Greek Empire. The Greeks had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. Sacrifices could no longer be made there. The religious and cultic life of Israel had been halted. So in the final chapter of Daniel, the promise is made, You shall be delivered.

Fast forward to Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem exiting the Temple – which Temple by the time this Gospel of Mark was written already lay in ruins at the hands of the Roman Empire. The disciples are pictured in chapter 13 as awed by the grand scale of the Second Temple:  “…what large stones and what large buildings,” they say.  The likes of which they had never seen in the region around Galilee! The buildings and stones effectively conveyed the very real sense that Jerusalem was the center of power:  political and religious authority dwelt among these great buildings.

Jesus warns them not to be fooled, not to be so impressed, for soon, he says, not one stone “will be left her upon another,” as it is to this day. Then, of course, they want to know when it will happen and what will be the sign or signs.  Essentially his usual kind of enigmatic answer boils down to this if we were to read the all of chapter 13: don’t worry about it; it’s in my Abba’s, my father’s, hands; just do the work I have given you to do – feed people, heal people, and proclaim the good news that God’s Kingdom, God’s Shalom is even now breaking in. Things are already changing. Be part of the change you want to see here and now. New Testament texts radically change the nature of apocalyptic promise: instead of You shall be delivered, the message in Christ is, Your deliverance is already under way!

I believe this is one way of saying what most religious traditions have said throughout the last four thousand years: do not worry about tomorrow; do not worry about yesterday; be here now; dwell in the eternal Now,in the present moment, for this is where we are meant to be. This is where we are meant to love God, love neighbor, and accept that we are God’s Beloved. It is significant that ancient Israel was literally the crossroad of the Silk Road which meant that people from all over the world travelled through there. The Buddha, Lao Tso, Zoroaster, not to mention the Hebrew prophets, Socrates and others had already begun the revolution in human thinking and world view – all of which was passing through the world of Jesus every day.

What I take out of this today is that these Red Cups are simply a metaphor for all kinds of unimportant so-called issues trying to monopolize our time and attention. What I believe is our best practice for not getting hooked into worrying about when the Day of Lord is coming is to be about the things God in Christ calls us to do. And what Jesus does more than just about anything else is to take time every day off by himself to be still and be with Abba, his Father. One such practice found in every religious tradition is what some call Mindfulness Meditation, Centering Prayer, or Contemplative Prayer. Some Buddhists call it sitting Zazen. A practice which by any other name usually means sitting still and simply being attentive to one’s breathing.

Breath in the ancient world was understood as the source of life. We breathe in, we breathe out, and this sustains us; when we stop breathing, life stops. It has always fascinated me that Hebrew, Greek and Sanskrit all have a single word that means breath, spirit and wind: ruach, pneuma, and prana. In the Bible ruach became associated with YHWH, the God of Israel. We now know that everything in creation did come from one source – all that exists throughout the universe is made up of particles from either the Big Bang, or exploding stars, which may be the same thing.

Further, current scholarship suggests that the name of the God of Israel, Yahweh, was in part an attempt to imitate human respiration: the sound of breath coming in and going out. If this is true, the first word we say when we are born, and the last word we say when we expire for the last time is the name God.  Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to see as the mystics see, points out that there is no Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Taoist or Buddhist way of breathing. There is no American, Russian, Chinese or Afghani way of breathing. There is no rich, poor or middle class way of breathing. We are all breathing the same air, the same particles, that have been in existence since the beginning of the universe. We are breathing, and in fact we are made up of, star dust. The playing field is leveled with this single realization, this single practice of attention to our breathing in Contemplative Prayer. It is the gateway to living in the present moment. It is

 a practice that frees us from worry about the future or the past, but rather centers us in the here and now. Or, as Richard Alpert, or Baba Ram Dass as he is known today, has put it: Be Here Now.

As simple as that sounds, it can be hard work. So much in the world about us intentionally tries to take us out of the eternal Now so as to sell us some product, some idea, some ideology that will save us from Red Cups destroying our Christmas.

I used to begin each class at St. Tim’s with a minute or two of Mindfulness Meditation or Contemplative Prayer. Sit still, feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Repeat a word or phrase (mantra) a few times, and then simply be attentive to each breath in and each breath out. Sit for two, three, five, ten or even twenty minutes. Then slowly return, perhaps repeating the same word or phrase you said at the beginning. If you are uncomfortable closing your eyes, and that’s OK, just try what my yoga teachers call soft focus a few feet on the ground or floor in front of you.

Back when I was younger this sort of prayer or meditation was considered far out! Now there is science to back up the claims that this truly improves our well-being, improves overall health, sharpens the mind, and helps to detach or unhook us from all the distractions that try to monopolize our attention. Like our myriad electronic devices. I was waiting for a plane in Kansas City, and as I looked at the queue every single person in the dual lines at Southwest were eyes glued to their phones, scrolling with their thumbs! For this, I thought, we evolved to have opposable thumbs? Seriously?

Be here now. Do not worry about the future or that coming Day of the Lord. We shall be delivered just as Daniel and Jesus were delivered! Focus on the present moment and the work God in Christ gives us to do. That will be enough for today. Tomorrow we can always begin again. Amen.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Halloween – Really All Hallows Eve, the Eve of All Saints Day which is followed by the Feast of all Souls in the church tradition. Three days set aside as leaves are falling, the earth begins (in the northern hemisphere) its long glide into dormancy, darkness, coldness, with only the evergreen trees and shrubs watching guard as sentinels and protectors of the light and energy stored in their chlorophyll tinted carbohydrate molecules. It is a natural time of year for the contemplative among us to ponder the eternal cycles of birth, death and rebirth that mark so much of our experience of life, being, in time.

This three-day observance begins with pranking, merry making, disguising our “selves” and our fears of our mortality, death, by literally taunting and making fun of it all! As the Reverend Sam Portaro reminds us, ‘our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” (The Brightest and The Best). Perhaps this is also the power of late-night TV, winding down after the evening’s news of the brutalities of the day with one’s comedian of choice to settle our troubled hearts and minds for a good night’s sleep.

All Saints and All Souls then beckon us to recall the lives of those who have gone before us and made life a little better for others by confronting the powers of evil and death in large and small measure – offering some assurance that we too live lives that matter, that make a difference, if only we can live with a small measure of the intention with which the saints and souls we recall exemplified.

Three days in the fall – beginning with children as goblins and superheroes hilariously “scaring” us in their annual extortion scheme to gather as many carbohydrates as humanly possible to make it through the cold and dark of winter. The laughter, the celebrations, the parties then dissolve into serious reflection on how our lives fit into the lives of those who have gone before, and vice versa. The prophet Isaiah garnered meaning as he watched fallen leaves blow across his path. Three days offered as gift – the gift to stop and ponder life and death and how they really are all one and the same – two dimensions of an eternity lived in the heart of God’s eternal love – a love that knows no end. A love that surrounds us on all sides at all times.  Take time to watch the leaves fall swirl. Take time to remember our ancestors. Laugh at our fears, rejoice in the cycles that promise new birth, new life, as the dormancy of winter will once again blossom in spring. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

God's Shrewd Economic Plan

Proper 23 B - Hebrews 4:12-16/Mark10:17-31
God’s Shrewd Economic Plan
“Then who can be saved,” they said to Jesus. How often we ask ourselves that very question. Oh yes, day to day we put on a good face and project an image of confidence to the world around us. Like the man who seeks Jesus out to ask how he might inherit eternal life, we like to believe we know all the answers and have done all the right things.

When it comes to where the rubber meets the road, Jesus asserting that one must give it all away and follow him strikes us as simply impossible. And like the man in the story, we are shocked and go away unhappy at best, frustrated and defeated at the worst.

How true are the words from Hebrews: “ …the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints and marrow; it is able to judge our thoughts and intentions of the heart. Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

Deep down inside we know this to be absolutely true. We just wish Jesus, the Word made flesh, would save his ability to judge our thoughts and intentions for someone else. Anyone else. Anyone else but me. Anyone else but us.

Can’t it be enough simply to love Jesus? The disciples thought it was enough to simply follow him around – to have left home and all that means – family, friends, support, a bed of one’s own, the means to make a living.

It is curious, isn’t it, how Jesus is always upping the ante! And yet, from beginning to end his program hinges on the foundational belief that in God’s reign the last will be first and the first will be last.

Now if Bill Gates with all his billions represents the first in this world let’s say at number 10, and the poorest of the poor are at number one on a scale of one to ten, can we even begin to imagine, as Jesus urges us to do, what it would look like if this world were turned upside down?

Try to imagine what it is like to live at number five? Why number five? Because those who live at number five will likely feel the least disruption in their lives as the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down!

So the ultimate question may be, How do I get to number five? How do we as a society get to number five? What does the journey to number five look like?

Now most of us, not all of us, live somewhere nestled in around number 9, except on April 15th when we all argue ourselves down to an eight-point-five or eight! This is something to think about right there – this massaging of numbers, financial casuistry if you will, to pretend we are not as affluent as we are one day of the year.

So what does an individual and a society need to do, need to change, to scale things back to number five?

This may be where the power of the word of God comes in: time spent reading, listening to, and meditating on the Word of God will work like a two-edged sword, dividing soul from spirit – judging the intentions of our hearts. As the author of Hebrews observes, Jesus has in every respect been tested as we have, and is willing to offer us grace and mercy to find help in making this journey from nine to five.

One suspects it will be a journey that once and for all chooses to be about the common wealth, rather than individual wealth – the salvation of the whole world, rather than
individual salvation.

The man before Jesus evidently felt his salvation was in all that he had – not all that he was. At the end of the day, says Hebrews, and Jesus, it is who you are that matters more than what you have.

This is so difficult to grasp in a culture that urges us to grasp for all the gusto we can get! We place so much of our identity in the things we have, the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the house we live in and so forth. We consume and acquire so much stuff necessary to who we see ourselves to be that we run out of space and have to put it in self-storage – where we store our excess self! It is so difficult to grasp that letting go may be the most important lesson of all on this journey from nine to five.

If so, we just might discover as we read, listen to, and meditate on God’s word, that God’s own economic plan, a plan that revolves around The Tithe and The Sabbath, is truly the meaning of life we have been looking for. There are at least Four Holy Habits: Tithing, Weekly Corporate Worship, Daily Prayer and Study with God’s Word, and Keeping Sabbath.

These habits enable us to draw near to God, and as the Letter of James urged a few weeks ago, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” James 4:8 Which leads us to a closer understanding of what Jesus answers when they ask, “Who then can be saved?”

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Drawing near to God seems to be the best way to make the journey. In the end, the meaning of life cannot be learned or understood. What is needed is fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding. The Four Holy Habits is a good place to begin a way of living that transcends understanding, placing us, as they do, before the Word of God, living and active!

Who then can be saved? As the late William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury once put it: “I have been saved. I am being saved. I hope to be saved.” It is a journey, a process, shaped by the Holy Habits that draw us closer to God, closer to others and closer to ourselves.  Amen. 

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