Saturday, July 30, 2016

The New Self

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
-Colossians 3:1-11
Paul is addressing a divided community in crisis in Colossae. So Paul reminds them that in baptism we strip off the old self and clothe ourselves with a new self in Christ. It’s a letter that could have been written today after the past two weeks have put into relief the divided nature of our nation – a nation Martin Luther King, Jr once described as the Beloved Community. One peculiar understanding of Baptism is that we are made One with Christ and one another. Upon his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus hears a voice that says, “You are my Beloved…with you I am well pleased.” As we are made one with Him, we become God’s Beloved Community, a community with no distinctions, no divisions, no us and them, no insiders and outsiders. This is reflected in our Baptismal promises. Besides, I learned all I needed to know about baptism from a four year-old girl.

It was a special morning in Christ Church, Winnetka, IL, and all in the congregation were eager with anticipation as I baptized a little girl named Eleanor and her mother, Franny, who had not been baptized. Seeing the mother and daughter baptized together touched the hearts of us all, but God was not through with me yet.  Eleanor was about 4 years old and capable of fully participating in the baptism herself. She answered, “I will with God’s help,” to each of the questions in our Baptismal Covenant.

Afterwards, we were invited back to Eleanor and Franny’s house for brunch. As I stood there talking with someone while having a glass of wine and a piece of quiche (how entirely Episcopalian), I felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. As I looked down, it was Eleanor. I asked her, “Eleanor, what can I do for you?” To which she replied, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” Meaning, of course the cross traced with oil blessed by our Bishop, James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever. This ritual signing also represents her answering, “I will with God’s help” to a series of questions like: Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will all that you say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, not some people, not most people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor looked up at me with eager anticipation for an answer to her most wonderful question, and I said, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead.” And you really could in her smile, in her skipping off so pleased with herself upon hearing that indeed, we could still see the cross on her forehead. I thought to myself, what a great question! And then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking to someone.

The next day I went to church to do such important tasks for the kingdom of God, such as lay out the parish newsletter and deliver it to the printer. I forgot all about Eleanor’s question. But God was not through with me yet!

A week later, as I was vesting in the vesting sacristy getting ready for the family service, I felt a tug on the back of my alb. I turned around only to find it was Eleanor once again. “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” She still knew. She was still asking the question. This was the beginning of an epiphany for me as I said, once again, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead!” The gospel for that morning was the one in which Jesus says, “If you wish to be a disciple of mine, you must pick up your cross and follow me.” That is, if you desire to be part of the Beloved Community you must pick up your cross and follow me. And look where He goes: he attends to the broken and broken hearted, sinners, prostitutes, and the homes of insiders and outsiders alike.

I had always thought picking up my cross meant you had to grin and bear it when life hits you with bad stuff: like loneliness, loss of a loved one, cancer, sanctions from a group of scared Anglican Primates, job loss, …the list could go on and on with the kinds of things that cause us to say things like, “She has had this cross to bear a long time,” “and “He has had so many crosses to bear in his life.”

 Despite twelve years of Sunday School, four years undergraduate studies in religion, three years of seminary, nine canonical exams in the Diocese of Rhode Island, vocational testing, psychological exams and a week of General Ordination exams, I thought I was meant to carry a large sack over my shoulder like Santa Claus filled with all the crosses of my life weighing me down as I try to follow Jesus, trudging step by step, and at the end of the line, exhausted, I would open it, spread them all out, and say, “There they are Jesus! I have been carrying these crosses all of my life and boy am I tired!”

It took the wisdom of a four year-old girl to get me to see that worst case scenario, Jesus would stand there and laugh as he says, “Kirk, I have been carrying these for you your whole life long. This cross on your forehead is the one I want you to carry. It says that you are mine and I am yours. It says you will strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not most people, but all people. It says you are God’s Beloved. It says you will serve Christ in all persons. It says nothing can separate you from my love. This cross goes before you wherever you go. It leads you in the life of my disciples. It says I live inside of you. People can see it in all that you do and all that you say. It says we can laugh and dance and sing our way into the life of my father’s kingdom. As +Michael Curry says, ‘We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.’”

Like those in Colossae, we live in a seriously divided world, a seriously divided nation, and a seriously divided church. Over time I have eventually found ways to share Eleanor’s story and turn its lessons into a song: Eleanor’s Song. I am so grateful to Eleanor, who now is an adult, married her beloved Charles, the two of them doing their best to address the divided nature of the world in which we live. Later today I will let her know that I told you her story and taught you her song. Knowing this makes a difference in her life, and in turn in the lives of those around her. That is how it works when we remind ourselves who we are and whose we are and what it truly means to follow Christ as we strive to become the Beloved Community of Love. Put on the new self. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Be Still

The Word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. Deut 30:14
I suspect we tend to think of this Word Moses speaks of as Biblical texts. Or, as the commandments themselves – the first Ten with which we are familiar, and the other 603 scattered among the first five books of the Bible, not so much.

Some Christians might go with the Beatitudes, or Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew. Or, the two Jesus discusses with a rich young man or scholar of the Law: To love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might (Deut 6:4-5); and Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

Yet, the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel stretches our understanding of this Word which is near you: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 1-5

So this Word that is so near it is in your mouth and in your heart is God – and as it turns out, in John’s understanding this Word that was in the beginning before anything was made that was made, this Word that was and is God came to live among us as Jesus. I will leave the parsing of all this to the theologians and biblical scholars.

Two wonderful stories illustrate all of this for us. The first in Genesis chapter 18 we find three visitors come to see Abraham and Sarah to deliver startlingly surprising news: after decades of barrenness Sarah is to have a child. The news is so startling that we are told later as Sarah overhears this news she laughs – so hard, some commentators say, she fell over with laughter. And it did came to pass, and they named the boy Isaac which translates roughly, “he who laughs.” And off go the three visitors. The story begins by saying, “The Lord appeared to Abraham….” The same Lord who is the Word in the beginning, who literally speaks creation into being, arrives as three men, three strangers for whom Abraham and Sarah prepare a meal.

Much later this same Word which was in the beginning leaves off telling a story about a Samaritan to a young scholar of the law, walks to another town and enters the home of Martha and Mary. Like Abraham, and according to household custom, Martha sets about preparing a meal. Mary evidently is more interested in sitting at the feet of the Word to listen. Martha asks what at the time would have been a reasonable and conventional question: should not Mary be helping me prepare for you. The Word has other needs it seems. He replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

This strikes us as rather harsh at first for after all, Martha was about the business expected of all women in their time and place. Yet Jesus, the Word, introduces a revolutionary idea which we might miss if we were not paying such close attention to what he says: choice. He says “Mary has chosen” to be with me. You can choose to be with me too seems to be the sense of it. Also revolutionary is the fact that Jesus has now chosen two unlikely persons in a row to introduce to us radically new perspectives: first in the previous story a Samaritan is the model of compassion and redefines what it means to love our neighbor and be a neighbor; and a woman is praised for not fulfilling her customary social role! To love a neighbor one must first be a neighbor, and it is a good thing to stop doing things others think we are supposed to do and simply sit and listen – listen for and to the Word. The word that is near you. We not only need to do these things, Jesus needs us to do these things – or in the latter example simply sit and be attentive to the Word.

Like Martha we allow ourselves to be distracted as the world competes for our attention with things that are conventionally considered important, dangerous, upsetting, scary, late breaking - all things we call news – news that is in direct competition for what the early followers of Jesus called good news. At all times and in all places, the Word is near us, in our mouths and in our hearts. Like Mary we can choose to put ourselves in a place where we can simply sit and listen.

One way of doing this goes by many names: contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and mindfulness meditation are just a few of the practices which are at the core of all the world’s religious traditions. It is one religious practice we do all share in common – when we choose to do so. It is one of the first things The Very Reverend James C. Fenhagen, Dean of the General Theological Seminary taught us as incoming freshmen. The practice is easy. Find a quiet place to sit. Take several deep breaths to clear the mind and relax the body. Close your eyes. Repeat a word or phrase several times – I use a verse from Psalm 46: Be still, and know, that I, am God. Then sit silently for 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes. When enough time has been spent in silence, repeat the phrase three more time, open your eyes and reflect on what it feels like to do and think nothing. At first it may feel odd. When thoughts come along in the silence let them, and then perhaps gently push them aside with the word or phrase silently. Over time the Lord will appear to you. You will become aware of just how close the Word is to you in your mouth and in your heart. As a daily practice it helps us to be attentive to the Word that is near to us.

We all want to know what to do about all that is going on about us – just like Abraham and Sarah who were on a journey to they knew not where until the Lord said, “Here you are, your new home.” Just like Mary and Martha waiting to find out what more life had in store for them living in a dangerous and occupied territory. Like Martha, as we hear the news we want to do something, but we know not what to do. We can choose to begin with sitting in silence and just listening – we will hear each breath in and each breath out. We may hear our hearts beat. We just may hear the Word that is near to us in our hearts. In the silence. In the silence. This will prepare us well for whatever else needs doing as we are tossed too and fro like the disciples’ boat upon the tempestuous sea. The Lord will come to us as he did to Abraham, Mary and Martha. Be still, and know, that I, am God. Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Question Is Not, "Who is my neighbor?"

 “And who is my neighbor?”
I am not sure where to begin. As most of you know I am no stranger to gun violence.  Almost every day this week we have been confronted with death. For me it has been bracketed by the deaths of two friends: Elie Wiesel (87) and Jess Manalang (25). Elie and Jess were both beacons of light in what sometimes feels like an increasingly darkening world. Also this week two young African American men were shot by police: Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, 32, in Minneapolis. Then the sniper attack on police in Dallas, TX, killing 5 officers and wounding another 7 officers and civilians. Those killed include: Brent Thompson,43; Patrick Zamarripa, 32; Michael Krol, 40; Michael Smith, 55; Lorne Ahrens. It is important for us to know their names and pray for them, their families, our nation and ourselves so as to not generalize this in the abstract but to know just who and how many people’s lives have been disrupted by the pain and tragedy of this week.

We find ourselves swirling in questions about race relations, community policing, white privilege, gun violence, gun rights, gun control, and off the radar for most of us is a nationwide and worldwide rise in anti-Semitism along with a rise in White Supremacist groups.

Into the realities of this world comes what we call The Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10: 25-37. We are so familiar with this story that perhaps we miss its point. It might better be called “Who am I?” Or, “Who are we?” “Or, to what degree are we good neighbors?” It’s not about “the other” – it is about us.

Our text says a lawyer asks Jesus a question. Most likely he is a Pharisee, a scholar of the law of Moses and the ancestors of modern day rabbis. The answer is Love God and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The scholar asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This reminds me of students in my classroom who would ask questions about an assignment like, “How long does it have to be?” This really translates as, “How little can I get away with?” The Pharisee expects and wants there to be a limit on the concept of neighbor: how little neighboring can he get away with!  Instead of answering Jesus tells a story about a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road.

Two other experts on the law of Moses pass him by: a priest and a Levite. They were adversaries of the Pharisees and came from the Jerusalem aristocracy and religious cult leaders. The nice interpretation of their non-action would be that they did not want to become ritually unclean since they had such important religious responsibilities in nearby Jerusalem. They should not make contact with a dead or near dead body. We are not told why they pass by, however. Perhaps they fear the robbers are still lurking about.

Then comes along a third person. Surprise! He was a Samaritan. He is already in hostile territory for Samaritans were treated as an inferior ethnic minority. He would also be constrained by the same ritual regulations regarding touching a corpse, but also lives under the same command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He is moved with pity, or compassion may be a better translation. He not only binds up the man’s wounds, but arranges a place for him to stay and pays for his continuing care. There is a health-care parable somewhere in here that is relevant to another of our national conversations.

Our Pharisee/lawyer/scholar would be utterly shocked, as would anyone listening and those who first read this story. How could it be that this alien, this ethnic minority person, one also under the cultic purity laws, would step out of his comfort zone to show mercy, compassion and ongoing care for someone he does not possibly know? Jesus asks his interlocutor, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man beaten by the thieves?” “Why, the one who showed mercy.” He seems unable to come out and say, “The Samaritan,” so strong is the ethnic bias. “Go, and do likewise,” Jesus responds.

Can I re-garble this all? The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” This implies that there is an out; that there are those we are allowed to exclude; that there are certain criteria to be considered “my neighbor.” The question is, “What kind of neighbor am I? Who am I in this relationship of neighboring?” To have a neighbor one must first be a neighbor. “How am I, how are we, at neighboring?”

I recall my friend and neighbor, N. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in D.C, saying there are two Americas. In reality we are learning there are many Americas. We need to stop pretending and begin to face into this fact: we are not so good at neighboring.

Philando Castile was the 123rd black man shot and killed by police in 2016, an ethnic group that comprises 13% of our population. Compared to 238 white men shot by police, a group that makes up 62% of our population, a group almost 5 times as large as the Black population.

As we let that sink in, while still in shock at one black man’s response, Micah Xavier Johnson, to specifically snipe white law officers, I think of the irony that someone named after the Hebrew Prophet Micah could do such a thing. Micah who wrote, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I ask myself how can I, how can we, be better at neighboring? We might begin with going beyond what Archbishop William Temple said of humility: The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God. We need to say the source of humility, justice and love of neighbor begins with realizing the presence of God in all people. I am only a neighbor as I begin with this premise: all men, women and children are my neighbor – not the people next door, or those in my church, or those who look like me and act like me, but all people.

We are called by our baptism to strive for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being We need to have conversations about neighboring, about race, about guns, about privilege, about bias and bigotry, as often and in as many venues as we can.

Back in the ‘90s The Episcopal Church asked every parish to open its doors once a year on the MLK Jr Holiday to the whole community to have conversations on race, and to do so until such conversations are no longer needed. I will bet not one parish is still doing this, and suspect very few ever did! Now we need to do this at least monthly if not weekly. The sin of racism, and its twin white privilege/entitlement, is alive and well. We can no longer afford to be like the lawyer with Jesus asking, “Who is my neighbor?” As the song says, “All are neighbors to us, and you.” Until we come to such a realization, all our weeks will start to look like this past week. Amen.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Elie Wiesel - In Memoriam

Elie Wiesel – In Memoriam
September 30, 1928-July 2, 2016
We must always take sides.
 Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
 Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
            As I entered the religion department at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, I was curious about the roots of Christianity and made what would be an important decision: Jesus was Jewish, I reasoned, so I took Introduction to Judaism taught by adjunct professor, Rabbi Stanley Kessler. One of the first books we read was Night, by Elie Wiesel. Having grown up with a father who had done counter intelligence in WWII and spent time in Europe rounding up Nazi war criminals, the book gave existential reality to the evil and dangers my father had faced. My life was changed.
            I became a religion and Judaic Studies major. My senior year thesis was on the works of Elie Wiesel up to 1971. No one on the religion department faculty really knew who he was, so it was arranged that a graduate student, Bernice Saltzman would be my advisor which was the beginning of a lifetime friendship. Bernice guided me and mentored me and arranged for me to see Wiesel speak on several occasions where in turn I was able to speak with him, and she eventually sent him a copy of my paper. He sent a kind and encouraging note through Bernice.
            In 1980 I went to seminary in NYC, the Wiesel’s home city. I would travel up to the 92nd Street Y every year to listen to his lectures on Biblical characters, Talmud and the Holocaust. At the end of each evening we would talk, and he invited me to call his secretary and arrange for us to get together. It would be three years later when we finally got our respective calendars in sync.
            It was between graduation and my ordination. I went to his apartment in NYC. We sat in his study, side by side. I was, of course, in awe, and was looking at floor to ceiling bookshelves loaded with books, and stacks of books on the floor in front of the bookshelves, some two or three rows deep and three or four feet high! He asked me about my teachers in college and seminary. From time to time the phone would ring. He would answer and take a message. After about the fourth call he looked up at me and said, “Now you know the real Elie Wiesel – I am Marion Wiesel’s social secretary!” After all he had been through in the camps and afterwards there was still a sparkle in his eye and a sense of humor. A lesson in there for us all.
            I told him that I had studied with Rabbi Kessler. He knew Stanley. I told him that while in college I had approached the rabbi to explore conversion to Judaism, which at the time seemed more direct, less encumbered with doctrine – and maybe I was just ashamed at being part of a Christian community that largely stood by and said and did nothing in those years of The Final Solution. I told him that Rabbi Kessler had encouraged me to embrace my Christian tradition, that it was a fine and sacred tradition, that we all worshipped the same God, and that the world did not need another Jew, but rather some Christians who liked and respected Judaism. Wiesel took a long pause to take that in. He did that from time to time in our conversation. It was almost as if he were Elijah ascending in a chariot of fire, or the Silver Surfer cruising the universe for a shred of meaning in a world that is so often on the brink of madness. “Stanley was right,” he said after the long silence. “You would not have made a good Jew!” Whew, I thought, I am still on the right track. Then he said something that still shakes me to my very core. “You know, Kirk, I could not do what you are doing. I could never become a rabbi. I don’t believe I could take on the kind of responsibility for a community of people as you are about to do.”
            It now felt like I was surfing the cosmos. The floor had fallen out from under me. We were both just suspended in time and space. Elie Wiesel – not a rabbi? And if he could not do what I am setting out to do what makes me think that I can? My mind was awash with these and other thoughts. A short time later he ushered me out the apartment door to the elevator and we said goodbye. Before the elevator arrived he opened the door one more time and said, “Didn’t you have a coat when you came.” Sure enough, I the starry eyed student had floated out of the master’s home without my coat, without my wits, but with a fresh and honest appreciation for what my ordained life was to be like. That was spring 1983.

            The year that President Ronald Reagan was “tricked” into visiting and honoring the SS dead in a German cemetery I was home visiting my parents. Wiesel had been to the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. He took time that evening to tell the president just how wrong that was. My father respected him for that and turned to me and said, “Our politicians are just not as sophisticated as those in Europe. That’s why the Kubiceks left to come here to get away from all of that!”

We kept in touch throughout the years. At each parish I served I began a yearly Yom Ha Shoah Service and invited survivors and liberators to come speak to my congregations. I participated in Jewish-Christian dialogues in several settings. I never lost my passion for bridging our two communities, and now the third Abrahamic tradition, Islam. One thought has sustained me throughout my years in parish ministry and six years teaching in an international girl’s boarding school: a telegram he sent me the day I was ordained a priest in December of 1983. It read, in part, “Dear Kirk Alan Kubicek, May this day mark the beginning of a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves...” For this and for his witness to Speak Truth to Power throughout all of his 87 years I give thanks as he enters the realm of becoming something like one of the Hasidic masters he wrote so much about for me and for anyone who has taken the time to read even one of his books, attend one of his lectures, or simply ponder what sort of human integrity it took for a teen-aged boy from a ghetto in Sighet, Maramures, Romania, to have survived the Holocaust and become one of its first witnesses and chroniclers. Eliezar Wiesel now becomes one with the cosmos he has so often traveled searching for answers to questions that should never have to be asked in the first place. Elie Wiesel who once said, “God created humans because he loves telling stories and asking questions.” Shabbat Shalom! And thank you.