Saturday, September 24, 2016

You Must Remember This...

‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ - Luke 16:19-31

A nameless “rich man” in Hades sees the poor man Lazarus whose needs he ignored in this life sitting beside Father Abraham and begs Abraham to send Lazarus from the angelic realm to warn his five brothers not to do what he had done – ignore the plight of those without resources. Abraham’s reply in essence is: all they need to know has already been said by Moses and the prophets – if they continue to ignore them, sending someone back from the dead will be of no use.

That is, we already have enough information on what we are expected to do in this life. It appears that all things necessary for salvation can be found in Moses/Torah and the Prophets. No need to send more messengers to do what? Repeat the same message? Yet, that is exactly what happens with Jesus Christ the Son of God. Our God is a God of second, third and even fourth chances: in the immortal words of Jonah, the man who became fish food, “…I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

I sometimes find myself wondering just what makes a Moses or a Jeremiah or a Paul or Timothy take the time and the risk to devote their lives to deliver the message: Love God; Love Others, all others; and begin by Loving yourself as I Love you.

At the end of the day it boils down to two things. First, God in Christ says to us, to all, to all the “others” in this world, “You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.” As I have written countless times, this is the Good News. When we are in our deepest moments of self-doubt, despair, loneliness, misunderstood, unloved, disrespected or any other place in which we find it increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other, remembering this can make a difference, the difference – all the difference in the world as we used to say.

This is in all accounts how the Gospels, the Good News of God in Christ, begins. As Jesus aligns himself with all of humanity, a humanity in need of washing away all the old stuff so as to begin again to live a life that respects the dignity of every human being, he comes up out of the water of the River Jordan and an off-stage voice declares, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From that moment on Jesus carries this message to all people: rich and powerful people, the poorest of the poor, the neediest of the needy, the lost and abandoned and all who live lives of self-doubt, loneliness and despair.

When he is asked to share with them the meaning of life he tells stories that are meant to remind them of what has already been said over and over again by people like Moses and the Prophets. His mission is one of recollection, a mission of re-membering; remembering all the things we forget when life and the world around us comes crashing in on us leaving us paralyzed – emotionally if not mentally and physically. You are Beloved; there is a God who is well pleased with you. Remember this and love yourself so you can get back to loving others.

Then there is the summary of all this given to me by my spiritual guide and colleague, The Reverend Pierre Wolff: We come from Love; We return to Love; and Love is all around. Science today has confirmed – we all come from the same place. There is no such thing as race. There is no real substantive difference between people, nor between people and all other creatures. We share some 90+% of DNA with earth worms for God’s sake! All the elements that make up the world about us and the universe in which our Earth, this fragile island home, spins around a star come from just one place, just one moment in time, a “singularity” as some call it. Some call it Big Bang. Some call it God. Some just call it Love. And science confirms it will be as the Bible says – eventually we all return to that place from whence we came. We might as well call it Home for that is, after all is said and done, where we spend whatever it is we call “eternity.”

Meanwhile, we live in between – here and now. What the great spiritual wisdom of all ages and all kinds strive to say is that even while we are here and now, in between, that same Love surrounds us on all sides – if only we will stop doing whatever it is we are doing long enough to see this, to feel this, to know this, to remember this, to re-member this.

And the great Good News is that we can choose to participate in the Love that is all around. Clearly some choose not to participate. Others forget to participate. We tend to live, as another of my spiritual guides once put it, in a state of amnesia. We sleepwalk through life. We need something to break us open, to wake us up, to re-connect us to the Love that is all around; to live lives of re-connecting others, all others, to the Love that is all around, the love from whence we come to which we will eventually return.

We can all be like Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, Timothy and the countless numbers of those who came to believe: You are God’s Beloved; God is well pleased with you. We come from Love; We return to Love; and Love Is all around. We must remember this. The consequences of forgetting are too costly. And truly unnecessary. You are Beloved. You are of Love. Take a moment every day to remember this, and as the Anchoress and Mystic Julian of Norwich once put it, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Managers of Injustice

A week ago I was returning from St. Stephen’s, Crownsville and decided to pick up a pizza on the way home to watch the Ravens’ opening game with the Buffalo Bills. I phoned in my order to Ellicott City, and on the way through town stopped to pick it up. The man behind the counter said, “You are Kirk?” Yes, I said. “Kirk Douglas! Do you know Kirk Douglas?” Yes, the actor, I have seen a number of his films.” He went to get my pizza saying, “Michael Douglas! He is a good actor too, yes!” Yes, I said. As he was bringing my pizza back he said with a smile on his face, “Greed is good! Right? Gordon Gekko, Wall Street! Great film!” That’s right. Greed is good. It’s the American Way, and off I went with my pizza.

The parable, and accompanying sayings, in Luke (16:1-13) is often called The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Shrewd Manager, or the Rogue Manager. This has been a puzzling story for interpreters almost from the day Jesus spoke it. The sayings at the end seem to be attempts to make sense of it. Jesus often features disreputable characters in these tales, but this one takes the cake – and still, after seemingly ripping off his master is praised by the master for his “shrewdness” in handling the people of “this generation.”

A clue comes in the first saying in verses 10 and 11 in the words “dishonest wealth.” Then it all concludes with the immortal words: You cannot serve God and Wealth – or as the Greek text has it, the personification of wealth, Mammon.

Sharon Ringe in her commentary, Luke [Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox: 1995] suggests that instead of the Master calling him the “dishonest manager,” the Greek text reads “manager of injustice.” And when the master commends making friends with “dishonest wealth” the text ought to read “wealth of injustice.” Let’s go with this. [p.213-14]

What is being talked about is managing tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The master is an absentee land owner. The manager collects what is the master’s due from the tenants and sharecroppers, which is usually an onerous percent of the harvest. The manager does not receive a salary. Rather, he adds on a commission to be paid by the farmers and sharecroppers and passes on to the master what he is his by arrangement with the tenants. The owner has heard “charges,” rumors, that the manager is squandering his property so serves him notice and orders the him to settle all accounts. The manager cannot see himself digging ditches or begging, so he calls farmers in one at a time and reduces their accounts figuring that by doing this they might invite him in for a meal now and again. The tenants are happy, and so it seems is the master! This is surprising, but the “manager of injustice” has managed what was typically an unjust arrangement in the first place masterfully (no pun intended)!

“Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” And just like that the story is about being welcome in the household of God’s eternal Love! Furthermore, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches? ...You cannot serve God and Mammon/Wealth!” A saying so important that it also appears in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Manager of Injustice in all likelihood deducted his own commission from the accounts. That is, he sacrificed what was in fact his due, his only source of income, on behalf of the tenants who were already being taxed to the max. He not only makes an attempt to make life more just for them, but does so by sacrificing his own money. His commendation begins to make more sense in the context of first century tenant farming.

The story then becomes, however, one in a nearly endless series of such tales, actions and sayings by Jesus about what it means to follow him in God’s Way as opposed to the ways of “this present generation,” which are forever portrayed as unjust for most people at the hands of a few who own all the land rights.

In Friday’s Baltimore Sun was a commentary piece [Deplorable, American and redeemable-Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editorial Page Editor, 9/16] that featured the results of a Pew Research Center survey of 16 countries including the U.S. Although 65% of Americans surveyed said they saw us as tolerant, many of the outsiders, Canada, 4 Asia Pacific and 10 European countries, did not agree. We also saw ourselves as optimistic and hardworking, as did the other countries, but they also viewed us as “arrogant, and a good many see us as greedy and violent to boot.”  There is our “friend” Gordon Gekko once again.

Despite many of us being raised not to talk to others about religion, politics or money, Jesus, it seems, did not get the memo. Those are the things he talks about most, with his views on money outweighing everything else he talks about including the Kingdom of God. In fact, and most especially in Luke’s gospel, he appears to say over and over that our participation in God’s Kingdom is directly related to how we handle our money and resolve issues around “wealth of injustice.”

So the story means to ask us: are we willing to cooperate with the kinds of economic inequities of the present age? Or, like the manager of injustice, are we willing to make the kinds of decisions with our individual and corporate wealth that reflect our participation in the “new economy” of God’s Kingdom which Jesus proclaims and commends?

Taken together, this story and the sayings at the end appear to presuppose that the wealth we handle, great or small, is not our own but is wealth God wishes all the world to share. Being good stewards it seems entails becoming managers of injustice in the cause of economic justice for all people. There are people taking this seriously: JK Rowling just fell off the world list of billionaires because she has given away so much of her money. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are busy doing the same while urging others to follow their lead.

Will it be Gordon Gekko’s, “Greed is good!”? Or, do we take the Good News of God in Christ’s declaration that we cannot serve both God and Wealth seriously? Will we too become managers of injustice?

How we answer these questions makes all the difference in the world – the world for which Jesus was born, crucified and raised from the dead. “Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Amen. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016


We sometimes think of the life of faith as a journey in which we are searching for God, Allah, the Tao, the Great Creator Spirit, a Higher Power, or simply the meaning of life. The Gospels take a different approach and portray whatever your idea of a Higher Power might be becomes one of us and comes searching for us. It is, says Jesus, like the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep, or the woman searching for the one lost coin. There are other sheep and other coins, just as there are other women and men, but the God Jesus addresses as Abba, Father, is searching far and wide for every one of us.

As difficult as it may be for us to accept this, it is true. The life of faith is realizing this is true. We might say, ‘Why does God, Allah, Abba, search for me?’ One answer can be found on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer: Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body….” It occurred to me one day after many baptisms that if that is true, and I believe it is, than when we come through the waters of baptism the voice Jesus heard at his baptism by John says to us, “You are my beloved….I am well pleased with you.” And so I now believe that at every baptism there are seraphim and cherubim flying around one’s head, singing into your ears, “You are God’s Beloved….God is well pleased with you!” This is who we are. To be imago Dei, created in the image of God is to be God’s Beloved. This is precisely why it is God who is forever searching for us. This is precisely why John Newton, a former slave trader who saw the sinfulness of his life and worked to end the slave trade in Great Britain wrote the immortal words, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost and now am found/Was blind but now I see!” Somehow aboard a ship with a cargo-hold crowded with human beings created in the image of God, God found John Newton and the world was changed. Newton learned that not only was he God’s Beloved, but that every single person and creature on Earth is God’s Beloved as well.

For me it happened one day at the first baptism I ever officiated. I was the curate at Christ Church, Winnetka, IL. It happened that a four year-old girl named Eleanor was being baptized and her mother Frances was also being baptized. It was one of those moments that just screamed “precious,” but as the day would unfold it became more theologically important because afterwards we were all invited back to Eleanor and Frances’ home for brunch. That’s where God found me – I, just fresh spanking new out of seminary and quite sure I knew everything there was to know about things like baptism and communion. That would change very soon. As I was standing and having a conversation with someone while eating a piece of quiche and enjoying a glass of wine – so very very Episcopalian – I suddenly felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. I turned and there was Eleanor with an excited and eager expression on her face as she asked, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?”

She meant, of course, the cross traced with oil blessed by our bishop, The Right Reverend James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever – fully incorporating her into the Body of Christ and into God’s Beloved community. The cross that also was a sign of her answer to five very basic questions: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? To which Eleanor had replied with the rest of the congregation, “I will with God’s help.” Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will everything you say and do  proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all people – not some people, not a lot or most people, but all people – loving your neighbor as yourself? And perhaps most demanding of all, “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? To all of which she had replied, “I will with God’s help.”

All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor waited eagerly for an answer to her question. “Yes,” I said, “We can still see the cross on your forehead!” And we could as off she skipped with a big smile on her excited four -year-old face! And I thought to myself, what a great question for all of us. Can others see the cross on my forehead?  But then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking with others. By the next day I had forgotten what was perhaps God’s most important question for me. Fortunately, like the shepherd and the woman in the stories about the lost sheep and lost coin, God was not through with me yet. Enter the proverbial 2x4!

The next Sunday, a week later, there was a tug on my alb as I was vesting for church. It was Eleanor again, asking, a week later, if we could still see the cross on her forehead! That’s when I got it. The gospel that day was the one that says that anyone who wishes to be a disciple of mine must pick up their cross and follow me. After 12 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, and a week of General Ordination Exams I had labored under the misconception that Jesus was talking about all the difficult, lonely and disappointing things that happen to us in this life. We say, “She has had this cross to bear for so long.” Or, “He has had so many crosses to bear!” And I labored under the accompanying misconception that at the end of a life carrying all these crosses of mine and trying to keep up with Jesus who is always moving forward at a rapid clip to reach out to those in deepest need, I would lay down all my crosses and say, “Here they are, Jesus. I have carried them the whole way and am exhausted and cannot go on.”

It took a four year-old girl named Eleanor to help me to see that at best Jesus would laugh and say, “Kirk, I have carried all those for you since the moment you were incorporated into my Body! This cross on your forehead, the one that goes before you wherever you go, is the one I want you to carry. It says you are mine and I am yours. It says that we can join with Miriam and the sisters who danced and sang their way out of bondage in Egypt into the freedom of a new land. It says nothing can separate you from my Love. It says you are my Beloved and I am well pleased with you. It says you will join with me in striving for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Everything you say and everything you do will proclaim my Good News for all people that they too are my Beloved and that I am well pleased with them, and people will see the cross on your forehead.”

I tell this story wherever I go. Because it is the story God searched me out and gave me to tell. Sure, he had to hit me over the head with the proverbial 2x4, but after all our God is a God of second chances. Telling this always reminds me of just who I am and whose I am. And reminds me that to follow in the Way of Jesus is a journey that never ends as we strive for Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, but all people. And so I can let Eleanor know that there is a whole new part of Christ’s Body, the Church, that has heard her story and are now asking themselves and others, “Can you see the cross on my forehead?” Amen.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Cost of Love

The Cost of Love
While at General Theological Seminary in NYC our Christian Ethics Final Exam had the following essay question: All you need is love. Defend or critique this statement. It was 1981. The Beatles were still around, although John Lennon had just been shot and killed in NYC the year before. It seemed an apt question at the time. It still is.

My colleague and Spiritual Director, the Reverend Pierre Wolff, teaches: We come from Love, We return to Love and Love is all around. God is Love. Love is God. Created as we are, imago Dei, in the image of God, we are called to become the love that is all around – that is, we are to become the light and life that emanates from this Godly Love. We are to bring light and life to the world about us. That we are called to be included in the love that is all around. That is what we call Grace. This grace, this love, this light and this life is all given, and yet, comes with a cost and responsibility.

A group of concluding sayings at the end of the fourteenth chapter of Luke (14:25-35) serve as a reminder of this cost and responsibility.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Yes, this sounds harsh to modern, post-modern, post-enlightenment ears. Yet, spoken in a world in which there was little or no understanding of people as individuals with individual rights, one’s identity was defined by one’s family, clan and tribe. One’s identity and survival was tied to family, clan and tribe.

This means everything you say and everything you do reflects on the rest of your family, clan and tribe. This has positive ethical dimensions of course. As in the Confucian societies in China and throughout Asia such responsibility engenders respect for elders, filial piety and always being aware that one’s behavior, actions and words, represent those among whom you were born and live and move and have your being.

Yet some, like Confucius, Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus and Mohammad, all recognized that tribalism comes with a dark side as well. Defending the honor of one’s family, clan, tribe, and the tribal gods, too often becomes a matter of violence and eventual warfare. Jesus and Mohammad in particular, drawing upon the Abrahamic tradition of abandoning tribal gods to worship one God, sought to bring people together into one tribe, one clan, one family and one God. The result was the end of inter-tribal warfare in specific regions and over the longer arc of history the birth of the nation state. Like tribalism itself, the nation state comes with its own set of positive and negative dimensions.

One man, a German Christian theologian, was teaching at Union Seminary in America during the rise of Nazism back in his home country. Among other things, Nazism was a movement motivated by asserting the power of one particular tribe, white Aryan peoples, over the power of the nation state and all other peoples. While attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in nearby Harlem, New York City, Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. proclaim a notion of “cheap grace” in his sermons, a term that Powell had coined himself.

This struck a chord within Bonhoeffer. He went on to write The Cost of Discipleship as a way of analyzing just why one of the strongest of Christian nations and cultures was resorting back to such wanton and violent tribalism, racism and anti-Semitism.

According to Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer says, is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to cheap grace, "costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'" Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more "secularized", accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society.  [Wikipedia: The Cost of Discipleship]

Bonhoeffer obviously learned much from the protest culture of the African American church and adopted its anti-temporal power ethic when he, against much good and loving counsel, returned to Germany to fight against the Nazi uprising, which ultimately led to his execution in a Nazi prison. His understanding of the kind of Love Jesus calls us to live aligned him with martyrs throughout the life of the church. He exemplifies the cost of Love, Grace and Discipleship.

One need not do a thorough analysis of what is happening in America and the world today to see that a variety of tribalisms are asserting themselves. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the Alt-Right movement attaching itself to the current presidential campaign asserting the kind of White Supremacy openly in ways that have not been heard from for several decades.

Were Bonhoeffer alive today he might remind us that, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” [The Cost of Discipleship] This is in fact what the Black Lives Matter movement and others are calling us to do. He also wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” [The Cost of Discpleship]

I do not remember just what I wrote for my Ethics Final on “All you need is love.” I do know, after time spent in Philip Turner’s Christian Ethics class, that more than just love is what we need to follow in the way of Jesus. That his words about family are a call to remind us that we are in the end one world, one family with one God, the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob. That we come from Love and we return to Love. That we are to become the Love of God that is all around. That all of life is a homecoming, a coming home to God – the God who is Love – a love that respects the dignity of all people, not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. A love that strives for justice and peace for all people. A love that came with a cost on the cross, and a love that is just as costly today as it was one day outside the walls of Jerusalem when state sponsored capital punishment and execution took the lives of three young men, to assert the power of the state over the power of love. That Love, like Grace and Discipleship, comes at a cost. Yet, not to pay the cost will be and is even costlier in the end.