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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Many Are Called

Many Are Called
There is a common misunderstanding of the Christian Bible that goes thus: the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and unforgiving, while the God of the New Testament is forgiving and loving. Apart from being illogical since the God of the whole Bible is one and the same God, this misunderstanding has caused plenty of mischief throughout the history of the Church and is just one seemingly benign idea that forms the creation and foundation of Anti-Semitism. Which, regrettably, is on the rise around the world, but most especially here in the United States of America. This makes it our problem the longer we insist on perpetuating this gross misunderstanding as fact rather than the fiction, and rather lazy fiction at that, that it is.

Enter two stories that seemingly reverse this common misunderstanding: The Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-14, and Matthew’s version of The Wedding Banquet parable in chapter 22: 1-14. Succinctly put, YHWH, the God of the Exodus, is portrayed as repentant and forgiving, while the “king” in the banquet seems particularly violent, wrathful and unfairly judgmental.

Jesus continues his teaching with the chief priests and Pharisees with the now familiar, “The kingdom of heaven is like this…” A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends his slaves to call the invited guests to the feast. Weddings are times of celebration and delight, while feasts in the Bible are seen as a foretaste of the culmination of all things.

Suddenly the story takes an odd turn since the invitees cannot be bothered to come. He sends a new group of slaves who say the oxen and the fatted calves have been slaughtered, the tables are set, the wine has been ordered. You don’t want to miss this. Again, some choose to go about business as usual while the rest rape and kill the messengers! Their behavior is so outrageous, writes Richard Swanson in Provoking The Gospel of Matthew, that the whole story is interrupted, and slaughtered animals left hanging, while the king mounts a military campaign to destroy the invited guests and burn the city to the ground. It is fair to ask that after all this violence just how much joy can there be as the wedding resumes? Surely it will be a day his son and daughter-in-law will never forget as the sound and fury of the day’s destruction will be forever ringing in their ears. Likely not the happiest days in their lives unless they are a very odd couple.

One can be assured those first hearing Jesus tell this story remember the burning of Jerusalem to the ground by Rome which always stands as the background to all gospel stories. Matthew chooses to include this story as the ongoing crisis with Rome continues to challenge the life of the communities of God’s people. The king declares the invited guests as unworthy of the banquet and sends his surviving slaves to go out into the streets to “invite everyone you find…the good and the bad,” to the banquet. So now there are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good fish and bad fish, worthy and unworthy filling the banquet hall.

Jesus is always meeting with mixed crowds throughout the arc of Matthew’s story. When he does he continually points out that amidst the crisis with Rome there is a fork in the road, and there is coming a great sorting out. Those sorted to the right will end up in the dominion of God, those to the left end up in the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth (Mt 25:31-46). Enter the oddest turn in the narrative of all: the king spots a man who is not wearing a “wedding garment.” This in itself does not seem odd since the man was hauled in unexpectedly off the streets, but the king’s reaction renders the man and the listeners speechless!

The king has his servants bind him hand and foot and carted out to be thrown into the outer darkness to wail and gnash his teeth. How on earth do the servants know their way to the outer darkness? What coordinates does one enter into the GPS to find your way there? All because he is in jeans and sneakers? And what does a wedding garment look like anyway? Not exactly a lesson of acceptance and forgiveness. It all sounds rather like wrathful and unforgiving.

Perhaps the garment represents authentic discipleship, or producing the fruits of the kingdom – or more simply living in God’s way as outlined in the commandments all the way back in Exodus. Perhaps those without a garment are like those people at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for days for Moses to return from his tutorial with the God of the Exodus. Expressing their impatience, inexplicably Aaron, Mose’s older brother, gathers all their gold jewelry, melts it down and casts it in the image of a calf, declaring, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron, the priest immediately violates the commandments against other gods and idols! Yet another odd story. Note carefully, this idol consists of money cast as religion. May those who have ears hear and beware! We may think this stuff is primitive, but this kind of idolatry is still with us to this day. There are always new golden calves enchanting and distracting people every day.

YHWH, the God of the Exodus, understandably is angry and threatens a holocaust against the people, inviting Moses to head off with him to find new people to “make a great nation.” Moses, who back at the burning bush allows that he often does not know what to say, suddenly becomes the most eloquent and skillful of public speakers, chastising The Lord: “Seriously, God, how is it going to look on your resume where it says you led thousands of people into the mountainous wilderness only to wipe them off the face of the earth? Do you honestly believe that this will inspire others to join with you in making a “great nation”? Repent and remember the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, that they will have plenteous descendants and live forever in the land you have promised them!” So, sings the psalmist in Psalm 106, he would have destroyed them had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath from consuming them. Standing in the breach.

God must like to be challenged as much as he likes to challenge us, because we are told that this God of the Old Testament repents, forgives the people their idolatry, and pledges to remain in relationship with them no matter what. Both the worthy and unworthy alike are welcomed back to the banquet table. Thus begins our knowledge of the compassionate and merciful God who is  slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil (Jonah 4:2).

The questions for us all: Are we living our lives worshipping golden calves? Religion cast as money? Do we wake up each morning and put on our wedding garments of authentic discipleship so that we might address ourselves to producing the fruits of the kingdom? Are we ready to face the Last Sorting (Mt 25: 31-46)? Many are called, says Jesus, but few are chosen. Who among us are the sheep, and who are the goats? Who among us is willing to stand beside Moses in the breach on behalf of those in need? The world and everything and everyone therein awaits to see just who we are and whose we are. We are those people who are called to bear witness to the God of the Old and New testaments who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil. He calls us to do the same. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Violins Violence Silenc

“VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE,” is a neon light sculpture by Bruce Nauman that has been wrapped around the outside of the Baltimore Museum of Art since the 1982-83 exhibition of his neon works. It was a gift of the Nauman Galleries to the BMA, and therefore to Baltimore, the community and the world. The words light up forwards and backwards in multi-color rhythm that is both confrontational and meditative all at once. Violins interrupted by violence results in silence? Violence often results in violins, as in funeral music, as well as in silence? Or, as art critic Gregory Volk once suggested, it may represent both the silence of victims of violence and the silence of those who choose/chose not to bear witness or to oppose the violence.

It seems to be one work of art that continues to have relevance to a week like the one just concluded: the violence of 58 killed and nearly 500 wounded in Las Vegas by one man and a cache of weapons; the violence of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of two uniquely powerful hurricanes; the violence of political rhetoric that seeks to deafen and numb the population into unbearable silence. I find the confrontational violin concertos of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg hauntingly playing in the background as I struggle not to fall into symptoms of PTSD such events like Las Vegas threaten to precipitate ever since gun violence ended the lives of my two closest colleagues in ministry one afternoon in the offices at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City: Brenda Brewington and Mary-Marguerite Kohn. And then I recall Nauman’s neon sculpture endlessly, relentlessly, lighting up back and forth: violins violence silence silence violence violins. And I thank God that I have music to listen to and music to play as I struggle to make sense of it all.

How long have the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words as they are also known, been around? Articulated in Exodus chapter 20 and reprised by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 5, these words are meant as a gift to outline a Way of Being One’s True Self in the World. They not only outline a way of acting but more importantly a way of Being – they confer identity – they give shape to what it means to be “created in the image of God.”

I am forever indebted to Abraham Joshua Heschel who once observed that in the Deuteronomy version the command for Sabbath comprises nearly one-third of the text of the Ten Words, and that only one commandment is stated twice – the Tenth: thou shalt not covet, and in case you did not hear me the first time says YHWH, thou shalt not covet. And yet, we live within an economic system that is defined by covetousness -  the need for more and more of everything. Advertising: an entire industry devoted to making us more and more covetous.

So, Heschel suggests that the Sabbath, a day off, is not at all a religious command or ritual. It is an alternative to the 24/7 relentlessness of a covetous economic system that often drives people to violence. Sabbath is a periodic withdrawal from the dominant economic system; the unfettered need to produce, acquire and consume more and more stuff – be it money, products, or property. Our very identity is wrapped up in this “stuff” – my car, my home, my clothes are carefully curated to say something about who I am. I often joke about the creation of the Self Storage industry – lockers, most as big as a garage, in which to store our excess “self.” But it is no joke. For covetousness eventually leads to violence somehow. Sabbath is meant to break the cycle of covetousness long enough to remember who we are and whose we are.

Note the actions of the tenants of the vineyard in Matthew chapter 21, The Parable of the Vineyard. They live and work in a vineyard that is not their own. Yet, when the owner sends servants and even his own son to collect his produce, the tenants become violent and kill one after another so as to take possession of the vineyard for themselves. Covetousness begats violence, which results in silence and the violins of funeral music. Once again this is a parable that means to hold up a mirror before us and help us to see a way beyond violent solutions.

Saint Paul, in writing to the Philippians in chapter 3 comments again on the need for a change of mind – a radical reassessment of past, present and future. Everything I have accomplished and acquired in my otherwise exemplary past is rubbish he says. Actually, this is a genteel alchemy of translation, for the Greek text of his letter calls it dung. In a this tightly argued part of this letter he seems to say that the Good News, the Gospel, is not an answer to all the problems in our lives. Rather, the Good News of God in Christ means to disturb all my settled answers, we might say “my ideology, or my theology,” and sends me searching for new answers and new solutions!

I have not reached the goal, he says, but I press on, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – that which is the “unseen” of our creed – because God in Christ has made me his own. I have been overtaken by Christ. All that I think I already know is dung. What is important lies ahead.

What the Ten Words know is that unless we break the cycles of production, acquisition and consumption, unless we break the cycles of debates that hide behind “this is what I know and I am not changing my mind,” we cannot lean forward into a future in which violence itself is silenced. So important is Sabbath Time, suggested my friend and mentor Gordon Cosby, so relentless is the pace of life today, that I may need Sabbath Time once a day instead of just once a week. To literally, physically withdraw from the 24/7 busyness of covetousness for a period of time each day to simply Be with God and rediscover my True Self once again.

A self that is molded and shaped by the statutes, the law, the commandments that give “light to the eyes, wisdom to the innocent and right judgments” as Psalm 19 invites us to sing! “More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb…above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then I shall be whole and sound and innocent of a great offense.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer!”

Shabbat shalom. The need for heart-full meditation. There can be no shalom, no peace, without Shabbat. There can be no shalom without seriously allowing our entrenched ideas and ideologies to be let go and reimagined. There can be no shalom as long as the means to mass violence are so readily available as a presumed “solution” to a current problem. I look at Las Vegas and weep. God looks at Las Vegas and weeps. Yet, our leaders in Washington, DC, effectively remain silent. A silence that only begats more violence and the need for more funeral violins.

Violins Violence Silence. When will we be able to turn off those relentless neon lights once and for all because they will no longer have meaning? 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

God's Humility/Our Humility

God’s Humility/Our Humility
I confess I have succumbed to the magic, convenience and speed with which the internet can bring my need to consume right to my doorstep almost instantly. As soon as the algorithm suggests “Something you may be interested in,” just a few clicks and the book or CDs and just about anything else appears. Yet, when I look back over the years of my life, it his most often been those times when I take the time to wander in a bookstore or a record store, finding, picking up, reading a few lines, reading a few liner notes, that has propelled me to purchase a book or some music that has had a lasting impact on my life. Record stores have all but disappeared, and book stores, especially local bookstores, are few and far between. And yet, they are essential to my life, essential to our life, essential to our life together, a life “together” that in part, due to the same internet that has all but obliterated delayed gratification, is also devolving us into further and further isolation and fragmentation from one another and living in community.

            Enter The Humility of God by Ilia Delio: a Franciscan Perspective. Just as I found myself pondering for the incalculable umpteenth time these words of Saint Paul in chapter 2 to the Philippians, I came across her book on God’s humility and ours while wandering around St. Bede’s Bookstore: “4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

            A God who humbles himself. A God who empties himself.  This is the mind we are to have among ourselves. Not individually, but among ourselves: humble and self-emptying. Look not only to our own interests, but those of others. Then these words in the introduction caught my eye and led me to purchase the book: “The humility of God is really about God’s relationship to the world and God’s fidelity to the world even when everything in the world seems to fail.”p 1

            In our present circumstances we don’t need to sketch out the myriad ways in which everything in the world seems to be failing: society, politics, the eco-crisis, even the world of sports. All seem to be in free-fall at the same time. We used to turn to ancient wisdom to bear upon our present circumstances and to help us to lean into a better future. Now, however, we are urged by all sorts of cultural messages to abandon the wisdom of God, and now we are even urged to abandon the wisdom of Science as well. An “ethic,” if we can call it that, of individualized go-it-on-your-own “morality” in which your own happiness and achievement is all that matters urges us to look only at the present. This is characterized by fetishizing selfish desires, the need to control and manipulate, and an obsession with knowledge. What the Bible traditionally calls idolatry. Worse still, we have replaced God and Science with political ideologies. If it’s not the apocalyptic violence of Isis it is the Randian Objectivism of unfettered greed, consumption and acquisition of consumer capitalism. There is little or no down-time to browse for books or to simply listen to the universe that lies within.

            As the Exodus saga continues to unfold [Exodus 17:1-7], the people who have escaped the Empire of death in Egypt first complain about the food situation and the God of the Exodus provides Manna – note, the economic distribution plan stipulates that each day everyone is to get enough, no one can gather too much, and if you try to gather more than your family needs it rots and putrefies. This is why Jesus teaches to pray for bread that is given daily. Still not trusting that the God who liberated them from slavery AND provided food, it seems, they begin to complain about needing more water. Granted, we should feel some sympathy for them as water is essential to human life, especially in the Sinai wilderness. Yet, the story means to hold a mirror up to us as a nation obsessed with more. This poem from Mary Oliver holds up the same mirror:
This morning the redbird’s eggs
have hatched and already the chicks
are chirping for food. They don’t
know where it’s coming from, they
just keep shouting, “More! More!”
As to anything else, they haven’t
had a single thought. Their eyes
haven’t yet opened, they know nothing
about the sky that’s waiting. Or
the thousands, the millions of trees.
They don’t even know they have wings.

Our insatiable appetites for More! More! have pushed God, Religion and now Science away from the table. The ideologies of More! More! make it impossible to “have this mind among ourselves,” a mind of self-emptying humility that cares for the needs of others, for the neighbor, the stranger, the immigrant, the hungry, the poor, and all those who seem to live their lives on the cross with our Christ.

Then there is the story of two brothers [Matthew 21:23-32]. The father asks the first to go and work in the vineyard today. He says, “I will not.” But later changes his mind and goes. The father asks the second the same. He says, “I go, sir.” But he does not go. Asks Jesus, “Which one does the will of the father?” The chief priests and elders who have tried to trap him with questions about authority answer, “The first!” So proud of themselves! He then tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes who listened to John the Baptist and believed him will go into the kingdom of God “ahead of you” – for “even after you saw [him] you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Evidently, it’s about changing our minds. The one thing we just hate to do. It’s about having minds of self-emptying humility as exampled in the God who bends down to dwell among us – Emmanuel, God with us. A God who empties himself, taking the form of a servant; the God who humbles himself unto death, even death upon a cross so as to stand with the most broken, most isolated, most lost among us. We are mistaken if we think for one moment that Jesus came to save us from the world, for he comes even now to save us for the world and to save the very world itself from us.

Delio asserts that the primacy of such a God of humble self-emptying “did not come because of human sin; rather, from all eternity God willed to love a finite other as a more perfect expression of his love. Jesus would have come, therefore, even if there had been no sin. The meaning of the Incarnation is not about sin, but about the love of God.” p 3

We are meant to realize that God comes among us to heal us and make us healers and peacemakers “for humankind and the earth itself.” To become healers and peacemakers we need to welcome the God of self-emptying humility and science back to the table, back into our everyday lives. Abandoning all futile attempts to get More! More! we can embody such self-emptying humility among ourselves so there will be enough for everyone, not too much for anyone, and the Earth itself shall spring forth in bountiful bread and water to sustain us and renew itself. Science and Religion will be our partners into further uncovering the mysteries of life and how to sustain it while leaning into the future with hope and trust.

Near the end of her book Delio issues a sort of invitation:
When our inner world can welcome a God of humble love, when we can believe that God loves us in our brokenness and incompleteness, our weaknesses, our failings, then we can realize that “that which sustains the universe beyond thought and language and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression is the same thing.” * The source of the universe and the source of our lives is the same source: the unconditional, surrendered free love of a humble God. When we find this source in our own lives then we can find this source at the heart of the universe.
-Ilia Delio, OSF, The Humility of God – p 163

*Yann Martel, The Life of Pi, p 48