Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Seat At The Table

A Seat At The Table
Once upon a time only white, European males sat at the table where decisions were made. Or, so they thought. There have always been other tables with other people making wise decisions. Unfortunately, these white, European males spread out around the world and took away all the tables where other wise men and women used to sit. Although most, if not all, of these white, European males called themselves Christians, and even crusaded to the Holy Land to make their point, but they seemed to forget some of Jesus’ core teachings, stories and parables – stories, teachings and teachable moments that were all about where to sit at the table and who to invite to the table. For the rest of us, this has been and is tragic, and it ought to be embarrassing.

In the central portions of Luke’s gospel, episodes along the journey to Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, a journey that most see ending in death on a cross, but others see as the gateway to new life, Jesus is repeatedly depicted doing and saying things on Shabbat, the Sabbath day. Shabbat is a realm of time set apart from the rest of the week. The rabbis throughout the ages have discussed and debated just what one can and cannot do, what one ought to and ought not do to observe the Sabbath day with holiness. Sabbath time is meant to be time spent with God.

And yet, over and over again, much to the surprise of all those around him, Jesus asserts that the direct pathway to God on Shabbat is by spending time with people you do not ordinarily spend time with: the poor, the lame, the sick, your opponents, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows, orphans, resident aliens and the like.

He not only acts this out, such as when he is invited to Shabbat dinner with the respectable teachers and arbiters of the law, of Torah and the Commandments, and he almost routinely spends time with someone who is sick, deformed or otherwise debilitated and heals them despite all the injunctions against “working” on the Sabbath. He as much as says, this is not work, this is how we enter deeper into the presence of God – by honoring the least of these my sisters and brothers.

And what kind of guest lectures the host on how one should find a place to sit at the table? Jesus says to his host, you may want to sit at the head of the table, but to do so risks being asked to move down to the other end. Instead, be humble and sit at the far end of the table and you may find that you are then invited to move up to the head of the table. What kind of guest does this kind of stuff?

Or, he will tell a story about a man who is having a very special dinner party. He invites the usual cast of characters – important people, people who have done things for him, people he would like to do things for him. Yet, they all have excuses why they cannot come. I have just purchased some new property, or some new animals. Or, I just got married. Or, I have to go bury my father. So the man decides to go the other way and instructs his servants to go out into the highways and byways and beat the bushes if they must to find the poor, the halt, the blind the lame and all those without resources – widows, orphans, resident aliens and all those who will never ever be able to reciprocate his hospitality and generosity. Or, so he thinks.

Jesus says to the very important man who had invited him to dinner, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

I’m going to suggest that Jesus was just kidding. Anyone who has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to your table has found it to be a rewarding experience, and that often what they have to give to you is far more precious than whatever lavish meal you may lay out for them.

I used to go down to Paul’s Place, our Diocesan Feeding program, once a week. I would lead a gospel sing-a-long and afterwards a prayer session in a back room. Time and time again I was humbled by their generosity of love and spirit and gifts of all kinds. Once I asked them to pray for us as we were adopting our first daughter from South Korea. The next week a woman brought in several hand made things to decorate her room when she arrived. I have treasured those items and carried them from church to church throughout my ministry as a reminder of where true gifts come from. We mistakenly think the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind have little or nothing to bring to the table. Yet, often they bring an emptiness, a capacity that only God can fill. They have much to teach us about such emptiness.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  Was there ever a more apt motto for our time and place right here and now in the US of A?

The prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are constantly presenting God’s case: is this the kind of Sabbath I want? Do I really need your constant worship and sacrifices in my name? No! Hallow my name, keep the Sabbath day Holy. You are to love others as I have loved you – with generosity and hospitality for those I love: widows, orphans, and yes, resident aliens. That is, all people without resources. This is the kind of Shabbat I want. This is the kind of Shabbat I came in Jesus of Nazareth to show you the way – the way to a closer walk with me.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once wrote: The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God. Jesus leads us, instructs us really, as to where that presence can be found, and in whom. We are invited to invite those to the table who can teach us about an emptiness that leaves room for God to fill us with God’s own presence.

Whom do we invite to join us at our table? Do we invite anyone at all? And if not now, when?


Saturday, August 20, 2016


Inclusion vs Diversity
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:10-17) In Luke’s gospel this is where we often find him. Synagogues were houses of study. Although we think of teaching and learning as work, and Sabbath, or Shabbat, is that one day of seven we are commanded not to work, the “teaching” that goes on in a synagogue is meant more as a way to enter into a deeper relationship with our Creator who, we read, also observed a day of rest after six days of work. Shabbat is a time, a sacred time, a realm of time, a cathedral of time really. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), introduces us to this other realm of time: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord.”

Most of the ancient synagogues that have been excavated in Israel are really quite small – not at all like a large assembly hall or church or cathedral – but a rather intimate space in which to have holy conversation about Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and the commandments. The longest and most detailed of the first Ten Commandments is the command to observe a Sabbath day. Jesus is engaged in keeping the third commandment.

Just then a woman with a “spirit of weakness” appears. This spirit has crippled her so she has been bent over for 18 long years, roughly half her life expectancy. Despite her condition she is determined to enter into this realm of time called Shabbat; to learn more about and enter into a deeper relationship with the God of her people. She has no agenda beyond being with her people doing what her people do this one day of the week. Jesus calls her over. Jesus initiates the action. Jesus creates a moment in which he declares, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

Liberated like her ancestors were from slavery in Egypt, like her ancestors who were set free from Exile by God’s anointed messiah, Cyrus of Persia, she immediately stands up straight and praises God – not Jesus. For eighteen years she has been unable to see another person face-to-face. For eighteen long years her world consisted of the ground immediately around her feet, or at best able to view the world on a slant. She is set free and like Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, she begins to praise God for releasing her back into the life of the community as a whole person now to be fully included in the ritual observances of Shabbat! Note: no “faith” was required, she did not ask for help, no recognition or confession of Jesus is made. She is simply fully included among all those gathered to learn and to study Torah and the Commandments – all 613 of them! Three hundred and sixty-five thou shalt nots, and two hundred and forty-eight thou shalls!

As can be expected, there are those who are not happy with all this. The leader of the synagogue launches into a pious and self-aggrandizing speech saying there is no place for such activity on the Sabbath. “There are six days on which you can come and be cured – not today, not Shabbat!” Let me re-garble that. There is no place for people like you here today. There is no place for this kind of work here today. Neither you, Jesus, nor you, old woman, are fit to stand among us today. Come back when you are willing to abide by the rules. You just are not fit to be included among us. We are familiar with such rhetoric – we hear it every day.

Jesus, as always, has a response to this arbiter of the status quo. For the commandments regarding Shabbat allow for you to untie and animal and lead it to water. The commandments allow for you to rescue people in danger of their lives. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?” Check and mate. The leader and his cronies are silenced. The rest of the crowd rejoices. The crowd’s assent marks the appropriateness of such activity as a way of making the Sabbath day holy.

Note that this is the only time the words “daughter of Abraham” appear in the four gospels. “Sons of Abraham” often is used to identify God’s people. Yet, from the outset of Luke John the Baptizer has warned people not to presume such identity confers privilege, and Zaccheus the tax collector, ostracized from the community for his collaboration with the Roman oppressors, receives the blessing of being restored, like this woman, to being a “Son of Abraham” once again, also like this woman, included with a seat at the table of God’s people.

It's about inclusion. A small, relatively unnoticed conversation took place this week with Oprah Winfrey and Ava Du Vernay on the importance of the word “inclusion,” or “included.” The two are working together on a television series about black people, similar to their work together on the movie, Selma.

"I will say that I stand corrected. I used to use the word 'diversity' all the time. 'We want more diverse stories, more diverse characters,'" Oprah told The Hollywood Reporter. "Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I've learned from her that the word that most articulates what we're looking for is what we want to be: included. It's to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made." [Hollywood Reporter-Aug 17, 2016]

This is what lies at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is what lies at the heart of the populist crowds that have thronged around Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This is what has fueled movements like civil rights, immigration reform and feminism. It is not about the protests; it is not about the slogans; it is not about diversity. It’s about a deep human desire to be included. It is about being able to sit face-to-face at the same table, swim in the same pools, compete in the same athletic events, be citizens of the same country, worship the same Creator, go to the same schools, read the same books – and participate in making decisions.

When I taught at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, with girls from 24 different countries, I did not see my role as imparting knowledge, but rather helping young women to shape world views to equip them to sit at the table of the future where the world's decisions will be made; to be included, to be valued as persons who have something to contribute. [Ibid]

This is what the Jesus movement has always been about: to set us all free from whatever restricts our view of the world and others. We are all, at one time or another, the woman crippled by weakness, bent over staring at our own toes unable, or unwilling, to stand up and see, really see the world about us and rejoice at “all the wonderful things God is doing!” (Luke 13:17) God has given us the choice, the power really, to include all people at the table.  We will look more like God’s community, Sons and Daughters of Abraham, when we do. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Listen Without Ceasing!

Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Jesus said, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

This seems to be just where we find ourselves as a nation: unable to interpret the present time. Largely, I suspect, because we do not listen to one another, and we rarely tell our own stories. We simply do not take the time to stop and listen, really listen, to one another.

Then we look at what is happening in the world around us and simply react. Perhaps because on social media that’s what we have been trained to do. React. We see a post that moves us positively or negatively, and then we react – often without even thinking to check on whether or not the post we are reacting to is real or falsified. We share things without checking our sources. We simply react because it is as easy as pressing “Enter” and moving on.

Jesus was acutely aware that both the religious and political leadership of his time had no idea what people were experiencing – working class people we would call them today: farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and the like. An elite class in Jerusalem lived in isolation from the am ha’aretz, the people of the land. The people whose tithes offered at the Temple sustained the elite class in Jerusalem.

Jesus, like the historic prophets before him, repeatedly called upon people to stop and look, rather than simply react to events. He calls the people among whom he lived to interpret the times in which they lived under the military yoke of Rome and the isolated leadership in Jerusalem.

It feels a lot like a day reading the paper, watching or listening to the news, scrolling through Facebook or a Google, Yahoo or AOL newsfeed. A glance at the comments below any given article reveals often angry if misinformed responses: conspiracy theories, racial epithets, bigoted world views and the ugly underbelly of life in these United States.

It takes true control not to wade into the digital cesspool as it widens and spreads hateful and often desperate feelings of hopeless apocalyptic visions of a world in decay.

So this week I have arranged with the congregation I am visiting this week, St. Philip’s, Annapolis, MD not to preach but rather to listen to what the people can tell me about their stories and what the events that pre-occupy us day-to-day feel like and mean to them. St. Philip’s is an historic African American congregation in The Episcopal Church. After spending last Sunday among them I knew I wanted to gain some insight into what they feel about events like Ferguson, Freddie Gray, the political campaigns, terrorism, community policing, even the Olympics.

Yes, even the Olympics. The significance of Simone Manuel being the first African American woman to win a Gold Medal in Swimming is, I imagine, obscure to most of us. Yet, the history of public swimming pools in America offers many lessons that can inform all of us as to what the signal accomplishment of this strong young woman means for interpreting our time. Or, the emergence in the twitter universe of complaints, believe it or not, about Gabby Douglas’ and Simone Biles’ hair for goodness sake! These are the world’s best gymnasts representing our nation honorably, proud to be American athletes, getting grief about their hair.

Seriously, now is a time for listening. Long, patient listening without reacting. Listening without ceasing. We need to unplug from the digital universe and sit down with one another and listen to one another’s stories. The time for countering opinions and arguments is over. We need to hear how people come to these opinions and feelings about others.

This cuts across all manner and category of “others.” Christians need to listen to Muslims need to listen to Jews need to listen to Atheists. Straight people need to listen to gay people need to listen to transgender people. Whites need to listen to Blacks need to listen to Latinos need to listen to Arabs need to listen to Asians. Management needs to listen to labor. Elites need to listen to those without resources. The lists go on and on. There is much work to be done.

We need to listen if there is a ghost of a chance of getting past seeing one another as “others.” Listening without reaction. Listening with empathy. Listening in Love and Care for one another. Listening without ceasing. We cannot possibly interpret the present time which is a crucial time for us all without stopping our digital reactions to just listen and get to know one another. I look forward to listening tomorrow morning at St. Philip’s grateful at their willingness to set aside the time to do this. Pray for us. Then pray for us all to find ways to do this wherever we are.

The world needs us to do this. Our communities need us to do this. Our nation needs us to do this. God needs us to do this. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Do Something New In My Life, Oh Lord!

Do Something New In My Life

The past few weeks have really been rough. I find when I think about it all too much, too long, I begin to lose heart. Amidst political rhetoric that encourages hate, fear, racism and isolationism which only brings out the worst in people I begin to feel low. With weekly and almost daily police killings of unarmed young black men, and then the isolated ambushing of police by yet by a couple of other black young men, my heart gets to feeling low. The sheer number of guns in America and the seemingly endless gun violence on our core city streets, in schools, in homes gets my heart to feeling low. I find I need to find a release. Like the psalmist in Psalm 33 laments there is no king, no strong man who can save; there is no horse, no army that can save. As Jesus lays out there is no abundance of goods, no number of barns filled with goods, that can save. When I get to feeling low, when God’s people get to feeling low we need to sing! Singing gets us out of ourselves and our low feelings and begins to reconnect us with the One, the Lord, the Holy One in whom we put out trust. We sing: Help me Lord, help me I pray/Help me Lord I’m feeling low!
A Tale of two bishops. First, I recall one afternoon in the Diocese of Connecticut. The clergy were gathered for a day with the bishops: Arthur Walmsley was about to retire as Diocesan Bishop; Jeffrey Rowthorn and Clarence Coleridge were Suffragan bishops. As expected Bishop Walmsley delivered a heart-felt farewell address. Much to our surprise, however, Bishop Rowthorn announced that he was being transferred to the American Cathedral in Paris! As exciting as that sounded, we all realized at once that Bishop Coleridge, the first African-American bishop just elected in Connecticut, home diocese of our church’s first bishop, Samuel Seabury, was now the only remaining bishop in a diocese that for some time had needed three bishops. As there was a lot of murmuring and wondering and even worrying, Bishop Coleridge quietly but steadily took his place at the podium. Then he said, “Fear not, little flock…[pause]…for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” (Luke 12::32) Pandemonium broke out with cheers, applause, laughter and relief as he recalled for us all Jesus’ address in Luke chapter 12 reminding all who would be disciples of his that true Christian leadership comes from within for those who give away their possessions, give alms and be rich in the treasures of God’s incoming reign of justice and peace for all people. That where our treasure is, there will be our hearts also!
The second bishop is the late Bishop of Atlanta and one-time rector of Baltimore’s Church of the Redeemer, Bennett Sims. I was at a stewardship conference in Atlanta. He was about to retire. We were at lunch. He was to be our speaker. He received a lavish introduction for he had written a book on Servant Leadership and started a School for Servant Leadership inspired out of his experiences of being a GI in Japan shortly after we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yesterday, our Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) was also the day we dropped the first of those two bombs, Little Boy and Fat Boy. Seeing the devastation in those two cities and meeting the people had fundamentally changed Bennett Sims’ life. He took the podium and gave perhaps the shortest and most important presentation I had ever heard.
First, he thanked the man who had given his introduction, but allowed that at this stage in his life he was looking for something more of a conclusion! Then he said three things:
“Of all the money I have spent on myself, I would love to get most of it back.
Of all the money I have given away, I don’t care to see any of it again.”
“We are created to give. So when we ask people to give,
we are doing them a favor by asking them to be the persons
God created them to be.”
“The only thing that can rebuke the rising tide of Consumerism, Greed and Violence in our culture will be an increase in Christian Giving.”
Which brings us back where we began: Overwhelmed and feeling low about what is going on in our culture; what has gone so wrong; where has our focus been; where does it need to be? There is a direct line between that which causes us to fear and that that frees us from fear. It is called stewardship, which is about much more than money and possessions. Yet, Jesus issues several warnings throughout Luke chapter 12 about the dangers of focusing on acquisition and consumption and what the tenth commandment calls “covetousness,” and offers us a way out.
The Bible is relentless in reminding us that if we put our faith and expectations on so-called “leaders” we will be disappointed every time. If we commit and recommit ourselves to becoming Christian stewards of all that we are and all that we have, we can rebuke the rising tide of consumerism, greed and violence. It is a call to do something new with our lives, something wonderful, marvelous, beautiful and heavenly with our lives. Fear not little flock! Our Father in heaven is determined to give us the kingdom. He is a loving and giving God. He has created us in his image to be loving and giving people, male and female he has made us in his image. Now is the time to do something new in our lives. For where our treasure is our hearts will be also, striving for justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. My sisters and brothers, it is time for us all to do something new with our lives!