Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis in the USA

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Take Off Your Shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Filled With Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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