Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Work of Christmas

The Work of Christmas
This is Christmas. This is Incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the Incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself.

Note the opening words: “In the beginning….” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning God created….” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals, rocks and trees and stars and planets, etc. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the Logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers and meant something like the principle of reason that ruled the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons. And in all things. Thus our need to care for the Earth.

The Word is life, and this life is light, This light is a beacon of light that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness did not and has not overcome this light. That is there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos- is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian- and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two Thousand Years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty and rejecting strangers – can we really believe it pleases God to electrocute a human being? Or, to kill him with an injection? Do we truly believe we can bring about a greater good that reflects the life-light of God in the dark places in the world and in our own hearts through such ongoing brutalities? We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept and follow Jesus, the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent, this Word, this logos, this divine wisdom, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy Seals sent to free a group of hostages in one of the dark corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The Seals tell them they are there to take them home, get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So one of these Seals does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink has been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK – I am with you – I am one of you now – come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and He will lead us home. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin.
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the Kings and Princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among brothers
To make music in the heart

                        -Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Happy Christmas (War is Over)
We need to put the Christ back in Christmas I am told. We need to keep Christ out of the marketplace they say. The War On Christmas is back, they shout. As I ponder these things as we are told Mary ponders things in her heart I surprise myself as I find myself joining in a Scroogian, "Bah! Humbug!"

I may as well admit it: for years I would agonize on what to say on Christmas Eve. It needs to be just right to reach everyone, to touch hearts and set them on fire, to bring the Good News of Christmas alive. I would try so hard sometimes I would make myself sick - literally feverish, bed-ridden sick at just the thought of standing in front of a church full of parishioners, visitors, family and even total strangers, some just by the look in their eyes seeming to say, "Go ahead, try to make me care about this. Yes, I would rather be at, fill in in the blank: home, the party we had to leave early, the corner bar where everyone knows my name, out on the slopes....Give it your best shot!”

So just as I was beginning the annual panic attack I found myself in Towson, MD, with time to kill. Can you really kill time, you might ask? Does time even exist I might reply. So I grabbed a book, The Mood of Christmas, by Howard Thurman, long time chaplain at both Howard and Boston Universities, and an influential African American writer, theologian and civil rights leader.

I sat down at a small table in what used to be called Kenilworth Bazar and I think is now The Shops At Kenilworth. People were bustling around, buying gifts, looking at the magnificent Christmas Garden model trains, buying and eating slices of Pizza (note to self, be sure to get a slice soon), checking out Joe Bank for dads and the Fells Point Surf Shop, one of several pop-up shops for the holiday.

Thurman writes that Christmas is a mood, a quality and a symbol more than an historical event. The mood is set by thoughts and memories of people here and gone, an angel that crosses one's path, an iridescence that radiates sheer delight throughout the whole world. The quality is the fullness with which fruit ripens or flowers blossom, or a sunset over the mountains seen from the shores of the lake beneath. And the symbol is the brooding presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smoothed, tired hearts refreshed, while dead hopes stir with newness of life.

I think of my mother who moved on before Christmas last year. I was a confederate in her modest ritual of hope every week: "Please get me a ticket for the Mega Million this week. It’s up to 223 Million this week."  Dutifully I would purchase one for her and one for myself. We understood the odds, but someone has to win, right? It is as close as we ever had to an eschatolgical conversation, but it did sustain a modicum of hope however misplaced it might have been.

As I ponder all this I notice first a group of three, then another of four teenage girls walk by. These, however, are not the usual customers of the Bazar, but rather they all have those small white lace caps and long skirts Mennonites wear, with modest sneakers. No Jordan's to be seen. I look up to see more and more of these young women clutching what look like tattered music folders, while a group of young men set up a stage and sound system. Soon the mall is awash with the sounds of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from about 75 young men and women.

I ask a bearded gentleman nearby where they are from and he says, 'Lancaster, PA. They are going on from here to Keswick Care, The Helping Up Mission and other stops around Baltimore.  "Oh come, let us adore him, oh come let as adore him...." I think, where is this War on Christmas I keep hearing about? It was on the Opinion page of The Sun the other day. Angel sounds from girls in lace caps and boys in Dockers and jeans. No, there is no war on Christmas. He is here in the marketplace, he is here in their singing, he is here in the people who stop eating pizza to stand and do nothing but listen for however long it takes for the Lord to touch us.

"Glory to God in the Highest!" Suddenly without warning the mall is transformed into a mood, a quality, a symbol of Christmas. It is suddenly a way of being. It is a way of being not in the church, but beyond the doors of the church into the ordinary hum-drum activity of people anxiously scurrying about to get ready for the Big Day! Those church doors marked, by order of the Fire Marshall, "Exit" ought to read, "Entrance," for it is beyond those doors Christ calls us to enter the mission field, his people sent, apostles and proclaimers of the Good News of God in Christ by word and deed; everything we say and everything we do.

It is a way of being that is faithful to our story. Why is the story written the the way it is anyway? A couple, at least temporarily homeless, she pregnant, he looking for kinsfolk to put them up. The kid grows up not as a great and reputable citizen of Rome, but rather a non-citizen, a typical Jew, yet atypical in that he intentionally sits to share meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners and outcasts of every possible kind. What I am thinking is that if you wanted to make up a story that would really convince people that he is the Son of God wouldn't you make it up with a more majestic story line?

But this is the God of the marketplace after all. "Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding Joy!" Listen to these young people. They get on a bus all the way from Lancaster, PA, to perform this pop-up concert among the pop-up shops so that their love of Jesus can suspend time and space for a few moments. So that hearts will be touched, and people moved, and love and hope abound. He is here. He is always here in the market place. As one wag put it, just when you think the last word in the last sentence about Jesus has been read or spoken, someone in the back row stands up, raises a hand and says, "But what about....." The truth about Jesus is not that we can never be through with him, but in fact he is never through with us!

As I hear the familiar carols, as I think about my mother and father and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and Christmases past, as I think of all those agonizing nights before the night before Christmas, I realize that were Christ to come back right now, right here, right this minute he would not have one iota of interest about putting Christ back in Christmas! I believe he would be moved to see his mood, his quality, his symbols of hope and care and love for others, all others, alive and well in the marketplace and in the hearts of all those who know him, and more importantly, are known by him! He is all around us all the time, that in fact is the Good News! He is not finished with us yet!

Know my sisters and my brothers, Jesus calls you to be with him wherever you are
He calls you to know, he is here, even now
He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit
The World needs you, The Church needs you, Jesus needs you
They all need your love and your light
There is a hidden place in you heart where Jesus lives
This is a deep secret you are called to live
Let Jesus live in you! Go forward with him!

Since he promises to be with us always, to the end of the age, there is no way that he cannot be in Christmas. He is always in Christmas no matter what, and in every other day as well. Look around this room. Look around the mall. Wherever you look he is there and The Mood of Christmas is eternal.

Merry Christmas. God bless us everyone. Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dr. Larycia Hawkins, from my home village of Oak Park, Illinois, currently a professor at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Liberal Arts school, has been suspended through the spring semester for explaining her Advent practice this year. A student had suggested to her that all female college students should wear the hijab, or headscarf, on flights home for the holidays to stand in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who are under increased discrimination and attack for doing so following the tragic attack in San Bernadino, CA, and the harsh campaign rhetoric that has flooded the airways. When challenged for wearing the hijab on campus her response, in part, was to quote Pope Francis who recently said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. School administrators defended her suspension saying that her actions and explanation had profound theological implications, and that, "By placing her on leave, the school says it doesn't believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God," he said. "The college had no choice."

The Song of Mary, The Magnificat (Luke 1: 39-45), also contains profound theological implications which I would argue support Professor Hawkins in her chosen Advent Discipline. An angel of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Jesus and Muhammed addresses a young Israelite woman named Miriam. Miriam, of course, was also the name of Moses’ sister and prophet who helped lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt . It was Miriam who led the sisters in dancing and singing to celebrate their new found freedom in the Lord!

Our Miriam finds herself in a profoundly awkward and yet privileged situation. Unmarried, yet betrothed or engaged, she is told she will bear a child on behalf of God. Quite sensibly she responds, “How can this be?” She is told that with God all things are possible, that her cousin Elizabeth who had been barren (much like the Biblical Hannah, 1 Samuel chapters 1-2) was already with child, and that all shall be well. Miriam says, Yes, “…let it be with me according to your word.” It is on a visit with Elizabeth that the young Miriam sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior….”

This song, The Magnificat, goes on to lay out a dramatic set of reversals such as God bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, sending the rich away empty, filling the hungry with good things, all according to “the promises he made to our ancestor Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It helps to remember his direct descendants are Isaac, the father of Jacob later named Israel, and Ishmael, Isaac’s brother and the accepted father of Islam. That is, all monotheists, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are “descendants of Abraham forever.” Forever is a very long time.

Our story, then, is that God chose a young woman to give birth to the beginnings of a whole new world. And, she chose to accept the responsibility to do this new thing – to work with God to change the world as we know it.

I have been fortunate to know young women like Mary. At St. Timothy’s School for Girls, I met students from Afghanistan who are actively involved in changing the world they live in. One girl began blogging as part of the Afghan Women's Writer's Project as a young teen. We are all familiar with the efforts of Malala Yousafzai on behalf of education for young women throughout the world, but what we don’t know is that there are literally thousands of girls like Malala stepping out with great courage and faith doing things as powerful as blogging and writing essays and poetry and songs calling women to claim their rights, to things as simple as riding a bicycle through the streets of Kabul which, it turns out, is a prophetic action that in itself has the power to change lives and minds and attitudes toward women.

My friend, I will call her Sharifa, writes on her blog, “Most of the girls, including myself, had always thought that the only attitude we could expect from people, especially men, about girls biking in public in Kabul would be negative. However, we were wrong.

“On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: “You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!”

In our Eucharistic Prayer we pray, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us…”

We see that in the thousands of women in Afghanistan writing at great risk to themselves and their families bringing about positive change in the world. We see that in Brittany "Bree" Newsome as she climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol. And we see that in women like Dr. Hawkins as she persists in her Advent discipline and witness to her Christ, the Jesus of the Magnificat, as she defends her her choice to wear the hijab in solidarity with those Muslim women everywhere who face danger and discrimination every day for simply practicing the traditions of some of the descendants of Abraham “forever.”

Whatever else The Song of Miriam, The Magnificat, may be about, it stands as a monument in poetry to the bravery of women everywhere throughout all time who not only magnify the Lord in word but in their everyday choices and actions.

I pray that Dr. Hawkins’ Advent practice will change the hearts, if not of her colleague administrators at Wheaton College, of people everywhere of all minds and traditions to look to the witness of young women all about us who call us to usher in a new world of justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people, not people just like us, but all people. For that is what truly will magnify the Lord and rejoice the spirits of all.


Afghan Women's Writers Project

Saturday, December 12, 2015

We Are Evergreen People

We Are Evergreen People

“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Or, as Stanley Hauerwas might put it, Christians are those people who have a story, conform their lives to the shape of that narrative, and who sustain hope in a world that rarely gives evidence that such hope is justified.

This brings us to the Advent Wreath – a custom that predates Christianity in northern Europe and adopted by the Church sometime after the middle ages, with the custom we now know as a ring, a circle or a wheel of evergreens decorated with candles perhaps originating in Germany in the 19th century.

The circle or wheel of life is a part of spiritual practices ranging from Buddhism in the Far East all the way to the native peoples of what would come to be called the Americas. This circle represents the circle of life and the eternal cycle of seasons, while the evergreens represent the persistence of life in the midst of the bareness of winter. The candles, of course, burn as symbols of light in a world which literally is getting darker and darker until the sun begins to return day by day beginning with the winter solstice.

Sometime around the 4th and 5th centuries Christians established the celebration of our savior’s birth to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a festival leading up to the increasing light of the solstice. December 25th was the conclusion of Saturnalia, and the Church hoped to attract non-Christians by celebrating The Feast of the Incarnation on that day. Customs like the wreath with candles and actually bringing an evergreen tree into the house eventually were adopted and given a Christian re-interpretation.

The greenness of the branches and the light of the candles have come to symbolize that Christians, like Christ, are to be those people who sustain the hope of life in the midst of death and light in the midst of darkness.

A story from the Cherokee people pre-dating European immigration to the Americas well illustrates the kind of people Jesus calls us to be. It is sometimes called, Why Some Trees Are Evergreen. John Shea, a priest from my native Chicago, tells it this way.

When the plants and the trees were first made the Great Mystery gave a gift to each species. But first he set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to whom.

“I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights,” the Great Mystery told them.

The young trees and plants were so excited to be trusted with such an important job that the first night they would have found it difficult not to stay awake. However, the second night was not so easy, and just before dawn a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees and the plants whispered among themselves in the wind trying to keep from dropping off, but it was too much work for some of them. Even more fell asleep on the fourth night.

By the time the seventh night came the only trees and plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.

“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Mystery. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.”

Ever since then all the other trees and plants lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake.

This tale, concludes, Shea, talks about greenness in the midst of barrenness and associates this greenness with the ability to stay awake. “Staying awake” is standard code in spiritual literature. It means remaining aware of our life giving connection to divine reality even when inner and outer forces militate against it. Just as the light in the darkness reminds us of this truth, so does the green-leafed tree in the leafless forest.

When we light the candles of the Advent Wreath and gaze at the vigilant greenness of its branches, we are to remember who we are and whose we are. In a world that appears to be overrun with darkness, barrenness and death dealing, we are those people of God who stay awake and sustain the truths of light and life as ever present realities. When others are obsessed with fear and darkness we are to be those people who stay awake and sustain visions of hopefulness.

We are to be evergreen people for one another and for the world. The future, says Father Teilhard, belongs to those to give the next generation reason for hope! We are called to gaze upon the Advent Wreath and become the kind of people it has symbolized for thousands of years: a people of life, of light and of hope.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Parable For Johnny B

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

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

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

As they would leave the sacred mountain many would place a stone there as a reminder that this is where they heard the message from God. Many also came who had not heard from God themselves, but had heard the stories of those who had. They too would leave a stone to commemorate that sacred place and the remarkable stories they had heard about those who had heard the voice of God.

All who climbed to the top of the mountain left a stone as a token, a reminder, one stone on top of another until over time a magnificent Cathedral was built upon the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence could be found and God’s voice could be heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Apocalypse Now!

Apocalypse Now
“There will be signs in the sun, moon , and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…people fainting from fear…look at the fig tree…heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away….Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21: 25-36

It’s the First Sunday of Advent. We tend to misconstrue what the season is about, and we also misconstrue what passages like this one from Luke mean to convey. We need a key – or in this case keys –to unlock the purposely hidden contours and meanings of such images that confront us this week.

First, as to Advent: it is not primarily about preparing for Christmas or the birth of Jesus. Shocking, to be sure, but from its inception it is meant to prepare us for that longed-for day when Jesus, as he promises, will return to judge the living and the dead. Adventus Rex literally translates as the Coming of the King. What is often called, and is referenced in the Nicene Creed, The Second Coming.  Charles Dickens and the advent of Department Stores are responsible for the commercial economic engine Advent has become.

When confronted with this kind of scripture I recall what my first mentor and teacher Dr. John Gettier taught us: The Bible is at once history, literature and theology. Every passage needs to be assessed from each of these three perspectives. This has served me well!

First and foremost the literary dimensions of these kinds of sayings in the Bible. It helps to know two words: eschatology and apocalyptic. Eschatology, according to Brendan Byrne(The Hospitality of God- A Reading of Luke’s Gospel), eschatology is teaching or speculation about the future, and specifically a final “end of days” when the entire  universe will be transformed by the hands of God. Apocalyptic literally means “revelation” meaning its content is revealed by an angel or a vision. Apocalyptic is typified by vivid imagery depicting cosmic upheavals and often a battle between good and evil. In all cases apocalyptic means to encourage a sense of hope and faithfulness among God’s people that the current difficult and dangerous times will ultimately be overthrown with the triumph of God. Meantime, we are to keep the faith, or, in the words of the transcendent Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, the message of eschatological apocalyptic might be summed up in two words: Perseverance furthers!

The historical context of this passage in Luke is hinted at way back in chapter 17: writing somewhere in the decade of 80-90ce, Jerusalem and The Temple lie in ruins having been burnt to the ground by the Roman Empire in the year 70. Although the gospel places this discourse before the time of Jesus’ death, Luke means for his listeners to hear it in the time of the Church which extends to our present day. It is a kind of double message: 1) Yes, Jesus is coming –adventus- soon, but 2) do not be alarmed that it is not just yet, more calamities and sufferings must take place before the ultimate end. This “Yes, but not just yet” space is where we currently find ourselves. These views are not conflicting but complementary.

The theological construction of Luke moves from Temple to Jerusalem to the Coming of the Son of Man: baby Jesus is taken to the Temple to offer the appointed sacrifices, Jesus returns as an adult to Jerusalem to confront the principalities and powers, and the time of the Church anticipates his return to gather all things together into the reign of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is “not of this world.”

In the meantime what are we to do? We are to “Be on Guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” That is, in this “Yes, but not just yet” time believers are to continue our mission to others to the ends of the earth, which will mean enduring the hostilities and sufferings of the present time.

That this “generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” the word “generation” can mean the twenty or thirty so years of a human generation, but it can also describe an entire era marked by a certain quality which could encompass all of human history. (Luke by Sharon H. Ringe) We can never know just which Luke meant to convey, but the overall historical and literary context suggests that we put an end to such speculation as to the “when” and focus instead on our appointed mission and the assurance by our Lord and Savior himself that we can remain confident in God’s faithfulness to all generations, “according to the promises he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:55)

For us there is the macro context of what is happening in the world about us: wars, indiscriminate terrorism, climate change with its attendant intensifying of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like, not to mention age-old problems of hunger, poverty and the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

On the micro level, here at Christ church we have undergone calamities of bursting pipes, a departing beloved rector, priest and friend in Jesus, difficulties understanding the machinations of the church and diocese, and the always occurring loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, and overall seeming loss of control over our personal affairs and lives. To this Luke preaches a gospel of encouragement in the midst of what seems like hopeless chaos.

The uniqueness of the Christian story is that at its center is a God who chooses to be with us in the midst of all that life throws at us, and an invitation to be a community of love and hospitality amongst ourselves and at the same time intentionally shared with others – all others, with the emphasis on all.

The very last words of the Bible, at the very end of the very eschatological and apocalyptic Revelation to Saint John the Divine, are, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”  This is our Advent – not that of the marketplace, but that of confidence and assurance that our God is with us and will one day, we know not when, transform all of us and the entire universe of creation anew. Remember, perseverance furthers! Until that day we are to be faithful and alert during these “Yes, but not just yet” times we live in. We are those people who know he is here, even now, in our prayers, in our communion, in our hearing the Good News and in our singing.

See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising, See the Son Rising
He is here
He is here in the city, he is here in the streets
He is here in our singing, he is here in the people that we meet
Alleluia he is here


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.