Friday, December 29, 2017

When Is It Time For Love To Be Born?

“When is the time for love to be born?”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1

The presents are all open, the wrapping paper bagged up and put in the trash. The pageants have come and gone, the crowds on Christmas Eve are come and gone. The days of gift returns and post-holiday bargains underway.  

Now we get John’s version of what we nostalgically refer to as “The Christmas Story.” John’s take is very different from Luke and Matthew.  No angels, no shepherds, no star, no manger, no Bethlehem, no Joseph, not even a mention of Mary!

With three words John links Christmas with the time before time itself, the time before creation begins: In the beginning… The very first words of Holy Scripture. The foundation of the world, of the universe itself. Words about a Word. The Word. This Word we are told “was God.” Christmas for John is the birth of the universe!

Which is fitting since it is this Word who spoke the word, “Light!” And things came to be. All things. As John tells us, not one thing came into being that did not come through the Word.

All speculation about big-bangs and the like aside, John’s Christmas Story is a much quieter affair. No crowds of people flooding the streets of Bethlehem for the census. No Choirs of Angels, crowds of shepherds, animals in the manger and so on. All we have is this poetry of John’s, God and God’s Word. But of course, that is all we really need.

Like the First Sunday after Christmas itself, things are quieter. As it should be it seems. To contemplate the Word through which all things came to be and continue to come to be ought to leave us breathless. Awe struck. Like that old priest Zechariah, father of John who was not the light; Zechariah who could not speak until John who would be Baptist was born.  

Let all the earth keep silence before him. Before the Word which is also the true light which enlightens all people. This Word who is coming into the world enlightens not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Daoist, Agnostic, Atheist. All people.

This is why we seek and serve Christ in all persons as we promise in our baptism. Because the Word who enlightens us enlightens everyone, everywhere, for all time and forever. Ever since the beginning. Christ the Word is in all things. All things. This is big news, even if it is less adorable than children running up and down the aisles in their parent’s old bathrobes!

The even bigger news, of course, is that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The word “dwell” in the Greek means something like to pitch one’s tent. Like the tent in which the Ark of God’s Covenant travelled with Israel from Egypt to the land of Promise. The Word prefers a tent to live among us, rather than a house or temple. Tents are rather portable and temporary structures. I have always imagined that this means whenever we pick up and move, the Word picks up his tent stakes and moves with us. Our God is a nimble and mobile God. He promises to be with us always. This means he is always nearby in his tent.

In many respects we are still a nomadic people, transient, racing from pillar to post in fossil-fueled vehicles. Fossils that go almost back to the time of “in the beginning” keep us on the move. Fascinating this stuff that God speaks into being by saying, “Let there be…”

As John seeks to tell this tale of Love come down to dwell amongst us all he can do is write poetry.  A Hymn to the Word. The Word which is life, light and love. It is John’s attempt to get it just right. John’s attempt to give us a glimpse of the Word’s very essence.

A poet of our own time also struggled to get it just right. Madeliene L’Engle in her book Winter Song offers another vision of Christmas. She wonders just how this Word would choose to pitch his tent among us in a world in which words like evil, hate, enmity, fear, aggression, war, nuclear weapons, cloning, murder, and darkness seem to be the daily coin of the realm.

This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn –
Yet, love still takes the risk at birth.

If we close our eyes and listen to the poets, John and L’Engle, we can catch a glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not overcome. We can catch a glimpse of the Word pitching his tent to dwell among us as risky and unlikely as that seems.

Just a glimpse is all that we need. That is all that we are given. Glimpses. No one has ever seen God. Only the Word, God’s only Son. Like Father, like Son – the Son who is close to the Father’s heart. The Son who we pray will shine in our hearts and in our lives, in all we do and say. Just a glimpse is all we get. But it is enough. More than enough to dispel a little of our present darkness and draw us ever closer to the light, the true light, which even now is coming into the world.

It is the light of all people. Everyone, everywhere. And for this may we sit quietly in the stillness of John’s cosmic nativity and give thanks. Amen. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Ghosts of Christmas!

The Ghosts of Christmas
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now
and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six….”

I return to these words of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year at this time. Or, at least I mean too. I at least take the book out. It’s because my mother sent me the little blue New Directions paper edition for Christmas 1975 since I was half a continent away from home, as I was most years back then. I wasn’t yet a priest in the church in 1975, but rather was off playing music. Usually in Maine where it really does begin to look a lot like Christmas. My bandmates and I would sometimes stay at a farm near Winslow and China, Maine, with no electricity, no running water, no telephone. Just the honking goose and ramming sheep in the barnyard, goats in the barn, and the good company of the woman who lived there with her daughters after taking off in an old school bus from Virginia and just kept driving until they found that place. A hand painted sign out front read, “Da Farm,” and the woman, who sometimes made the news in Waterville, was oft times simply referred to as the Winslow Woman!

One year she arranged for us to play at the Augusta County Jail on Christmas Eve. My bandmates played guitars, banjo and mandolin while I made do with washboard and spoons. The inmates sang along and were among the most appreciative audience we ever played for these past 50 years we have been playing. When I think back on it now after years of preaching and teaching, it must have been something like this for Saint Paul and his jail-mates who refused to give in to their imprisonment, would pray and sing songs, so moving that the jailers would join in! One time an earthquake sprung the jail doors open, but Paul did not leave. He didn’t want the Roman jailers to get in trouble. Nothing quite like that happened in Augusta that night, but it sure did feel like Christmas with the men who were being held there.

John Shea tells the story of an old priest who had one Christmas Eve sermon. Every year, people flocked to hear it again. He would seem to be talking to himself about the birth of Christ. He began softly, a low rumble like that of the distant trains I hear outside my bedroom window late at night. But this train was in the church. People had to lean forward just to hear him at first until soon he would bellow, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross!” A seemingly odd thing to say on the night of the child’s birth, which took place in a place not unlike Da Farm in Winslow, Maine. His mother and father certainly would not have been thinking of the seemingly tragic end of his life on a Roman cross. No doubt they were just happy to be together. And now – most of all – they were a threesome. At least for the next 30 years or so. And all these strange visitors. Shepherds of all things! Not just shepherds, but shepherds with tales of angels singing and a message about the child. And just like that they were gone and Mary and Joseph and the child were a threesome again.

Strange of the old priest to imply that this child of whom angels sing was born to die. But that would be the point of the story we come to rehearse year in and year out. God in this child comes to live among us as one of us to shed a little light into the darkness of this world. At the Council of Nicea, so the story goes, when Arius declared that Jesus was not divine, St. Nicholas, they say, swept across the room and slapped him. For that outburst Nicholas was put in jail until Mary appeared in his cell and freed him, for Mary knows the nature of the son she bore, and she was not going to let his defender languish in jail! In the less-fun world of theology, Mary was given the title “Theotokos,” or “God Bearer”! Thus, theology and legend combine to hold together the Christian rhetoric of Incarnation.

That same council gave us the words that “he suffered, died and was buried.” We repeat them every Sunday. That is, Christ’s human nature was not a sham. Unlike the Gnostics who would say that at the first moment of pain and suffering he magically left his body, climbed up to heaven to watch and laugh at his tormentors, we believe in his full humanity. Like each and every one of us, he was born, he lived and he died. He cried out in pain on the cross as any of us would. His full humanity is demonstrated by the very fact that he freely faced what we steadfastly try to avoid – suffering and death. The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.

The old priest was on to something, for as in Dickens’ tale, Christmas time is when the dead seem to return – though usually friendlier than those who take after Old Scrooge. I have found myself thinking of Christmas nights at my Grandma and Grandpa Cooper’s house in Maywood. Roy Cooper had been something of a giant in his day, working in Mr. Wrigley’s downtown Chicago bank. One of his jobs was to oversee the cash take at Wrigley field. He would take my mother to the games. He would just sidle up to a side door, knock and say “Tell them it’s Roy,” and they would go right in. But on Christmas nights that I recall he was greatly reduced by the effects of his Parkinson’s, sitting in his armchair overseeing the family opening presents around the living room. His sister, my Great Aunt Grace, would always give us “men” in the family a stick of Old Spice deodorant and after-shave! I still have to keep some in my medicine chest if only to remember her and her 50 years at Marshall Field’s flagship store. What I remember most about Roy is that he always insisted on getting the parson’s-nose off the turkey, and that no matter how advanced his disease was, he always smiled. Something we could all do well to do – smile that is!

The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross. He was born to die. Those of us who know the rest of the story know that neither the crib nor the cross could contain him. Herod sent his troops to kill all the infants around Bethlehem two years-old and younger, his entire cohort! Yet, ironically, he survives, hiding in Egypt of all places. And he says, “I am with you always to the end of the age!” This not only means he is always with us, but that we cannot get rid of him. As John Donne once preached on Christmas day: ‘His birth and his death were but one continuall act, and his Christmas day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.” The miracle of the Incarnation means to shout out: I am there. I am with you. I am your life. You are my beloved. I was born to die and rise again. Just like all those who return to be with us on Christmas Eve. It turns out that “born to die” translates into “accompanied by love.” Born to die proclaims the non-abandoning presence of God. God does not let go of the human person – not ours and not his own!

“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night,” concludes Dylan Thomas. “I turned the gas down. I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

God bless us, every one!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Let it be....

Let it be, let it be
In Second Samuel chapter 7 there is a marvelous little tale. A morality play, if you will, for those who ascend to places of power. It begins with David, once a shepherd, now a king, talking to his prophet Nathan: I live in a house of cedar, says David. Yet, the ark of God stays in a tent. To which Nathan simply replies, one imagines with a sigh, “Sure thing, do all that you have in mind.”

But, says the text, that same night the Lord YHWH Ha Shem comes to Nathan and says: Go tell my servant David, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought you and your people up out of Egypt to this day! I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. And wherever we moved about together did I ever once say, Why have you not built me a house?

Now also say to David, Enough about me! I took you from the pasture to be king. I have been with you all the way. I have cut off all your enemies. I will appoint a place for my people to live and be disturbed no more. I appoint leaders for your people. And moreover, I will make you a house! Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. By me!

It is one of the greatest humbling speeches of all time. David wants to perform a self-serving act of piety and political propaganda: Look at me. I built God a house. YHWH HaShem will have nothing to do with it and reminds David just who appointed and anointed him king in the first place. God says I will make you a house! The house David gets is a dynasty that will continue through to Jesus “of the house of David.” That is, this is where the story of the good news of Jesus Christ begins. Which goes far to explaining Jesus’ own humility as God made man. God makes himself small so as to enter into our world to shed some light on our ever-present darkness.

Jump forward some 800 or 900 years and we read in Luke 1: 26-38 that an angel, Gabriel appears to a young maid in Nazareth to proclaim some astounding news. We are told the young woman is betrothed to a man name Joseph who is “of the house of David.”

“Greetings, favored one! God’s grace is upon you!” The young woman, Mary, after Miriam, the sister of Moses who led the sisters in dancing and singing their way out of Egypt, is perplexed. She ponders these words. Mary, it seems, is a contemplative at a young age.

Then comes the most oft repeated angelic announcement, “Do not be afraid.” Which of course means that any right-thinking person ought to be afraid of what’s coming next! “You will conceive a child, a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David! His kingdom will have no end!”

How can this be, she exclaims! And rightfully so, for she has yet to know a man, any man. Look, says Gabe, nothing is impossible with God. Your relative Elizabeth has been barren all these years and yet she is already six months with child! In her old age no less! The Holy Spirit will go to work along with the Most High, and voila! Jesus shall be born!

Then Mary becomes a poet, a contemplative, and an active participant in God’s will when she says, “Let it be.” Make no mistake, these words, Let It Be, are anything but passive acceptance of her future. The ancient Chinese have a notion called wu wei (woo-way). It means something like, “doing not doing.” Which to our Western ears sounds like doing nothing. Which is to miss the careful construction, “DOING not doing.” Which means we are still doing something. But like water wanders where it will, working its way around or over anything in its way, wu wei signifies doing, as Mary says, whatever accords with God’s Word! Not according to our design as David wanted to do in building God a house. Mary knows God never asked for a house. And her son will never have a house.

As the Winter Olympics are coming up, we will hear of athletes who will ski a perfect slalom downhill as being “in the zone.” Wu Wei means being in the zone of the Dao, which biblically speaking means “in the God zone.” Were David in the zone, were David to “let it be,” he would not propose doing what God has not asked him to do. Wu Wei, Doing not doing, let it be. These are all ways of helping us to let go of what we think we know and allow God to keep us in the zone.

Anyone who has had an experience like Mary’s know what it is like. Years ago I was a musician. I once stood in Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore in Oak Park, IL. I was reading a few words in a book by Thomas Merton, On Solitude. Merton writes that solitude is like the wind whispering through the tree tops, or a light rain upon the hills. Suddenly I found myself standing on a beach with wave after wave rolling in and over me. Between each wave a voice said, “It is time for you to go to seminary.” Over and over, the waves and the voice for I don’t know how long. The cash register rang! Suddenly I was back in Kroch’s and Brentano’s. How can this be, I thought? I told my friend Bill whose father was a priest. He said, “You better talk to my father!” I did. I let it be. Four years later the Right Reverend James Winchester Montgomery was placing his hands on my head in the Cathedral Church of Saint James, in Chicago, and I was made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek – Melchizedek who is the very epitome of “let it be” and wu wei as he rides in to serve Abraham bread and wine and then rides off never to be seen again.

Let it be. After some hemming and hawing I let it be, and here I am. It took a lot of hard work, it wasn’t easy, but my life was changed. It’s no coincidence that near the end of The Beatles phenomenal ride in the world of popular music that Lennon and McCartney would write:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be, let it be

Mary and her child would know plenty about times of trouble. And yet, they consistently let it be. Let it be with me according to your word. It is a wisdom as old as the Dao itself, which is to say the Logos, the Word that was with God and that is God in the beginning. The wisdom is in the words, whether they be “doing not doing,” or “let it be.” We need to listen to the ancient wisdom and know, all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. With God, nothing is impossible!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

How Do We Walk?

How Do We Walk?
“In poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason,” writes Walter Brueggemann. “Poetry will open the world beyond reason. Poetry will give access to contradictions and tensions that logic must deny. Poetry will not only remember but also propose and conjure and wonder and imagine and foretell.” [Devotions for Advent, Celebrating Abundance, p 14]

When times are tough, Jews write poetry. Isaiah is a Jewish poet. A voice, says Isaiah, declares: In the wilderness imagine a highway, straight, level, the hills made low, the valleys lifted up so as to make the journey home direct, safe, and swift [Is 40: 1-11]. Wilderness is another word, a metaphor, for exile or captivity. The people are displaced in Babylon, a long way from Jerusalem. The world is suddenly and frighteningly unfamiliar. Life has been disrupted. Yet, the poet imagines that there is a way out, if only we can imagine it and prepare for it!

A herald of good tidings, good news, proclaims the word that the God of the Exodus “comes with great might…He will feed his flock, He will gather his lambs and gently but swiftly lead them home again. The Hebrew word for this herald is mabasar, in Greek evangelion.

We are meant to notice that the word for this herald, this voice, is used by the Gospel of Mark at the very outset, in the very first sentence: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The beginning of the ev-angel-ion. Isaiah used it in the wilderness of Babylon for his imagined herald. Thank goodness for my high school homeroom teacher Mr. Baker and his Etymology course!  The Greek prefix ev, or eu, means good, angel means message or messenger, all of which we translate as “good news;” which in turn in old English becomes “god-spell,” or “gospel.”

Mark chooses this word carefully, for in the Roman Empire evangelion referred to a messenger from the Emperor announcing the “good news” that new territory and peoples had been captured by the Empire. Evangelion was, in essence, Roman Propaganda! Courageously Mark now turns the word in its current first century usage on its head to proclaim the coming arrival of the one who will strike blows against the empire – one Jesus Christ, who incidentally is the Son of God; the God of the Exodus, the God who motivated Cyrus of Persia [modern day Iran] to lead the people on the superhighway back to Jerusalem. Evangelion is now to be Godly propaganda!

Notice what a bold move Mark makes. Co-opting the Emperor’s chosen method of communicating news of his recent conquests to announce that there is coming a new authority – an authority that will energize us to defy the machinations of the Empire and return to “the way of the Lord.”

John picks up where Isaiah leaves off, and even borrows, with some changes, Isaiah’s poem. As John has it, Isaiah’s voice itself is now “in the wilderness.” And all the people of Judea and Jerusalem head out into the wilderness to hear the voice. And John is that voice. “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

“The Way.” The word means “good path,” a way of expressing the Hebrew halakha, which in turn means “how one walks.” Gustav Mahler, the composer, was a rock star in Vienna! He was the Mick Jagger of his day and age. Stories are told that people would follow behind him on the streets of Vienna and try to walk the way Mahler walks.

How do we walk? What is the way of our walking? That’s what John is talking about. This is what Advent is all about – walking in the way of the Lord. Mark declares that this is the beginning – a word meant to recall the very first words of the Bible, “In the beginning God creates…” Attending to our way of walking is a new beginning to things. The old ways of walking are not working. John says the command words are “repent” and “forgive.” To turn our lives around by walking and talking forgiveness. Do we walk in the way of the Empire? Or, in the Way of the Lord.

The first Christians were not called Christians at all. They were called the People of the Way. The way of walking like Jesus. Which was utterly unlike the ways in which the Romans walked. To repent means to recognize that we are already “in the wilderness” with John. We need to go down to the river and be washed. To let go of the ways of the Empire and to return to the ways of The Lord. This is as true today as it was back then.

It calls for an enormous public works project say Isaiah and John! Look at the highway projects, the reduced lanes, the reduced speed limits, the earth movers, the enormous effort necessary to make a highway straight and level. Don’t curse the highway projects. When you are stopped in a long line of cars waiting for the sign-holder to turn the sign from STOP to SLOW, remember what Isaiah and John proclaim – Prepare the way of the Lord. In this case, prepare a place within ourselves and within our community, our nation, the world, a landing strip if you will, for the Lord to come and once again dwell among us. For debts to be relieved, prisoners released, bind up the brokenhearted, comfort those who mourn, rebuild the ruins and devastations, and repair our ruined cities. It’s a big project Isaiah sees necessary to repair the world.

Isaiah and John, timeless poets of God’s Word, remind us that Advent is a time of hoping, receiving energy and resolve for the mission ahead. The mission is tough, but our God is not hidden, not indifferent and not powerless. And we are God’s people, God’s beloved community. We will once again escape the clutches of the Empire and walk in the way of the Lord! 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Mountain and the Cathedral

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

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

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

As they would leave the sacred mountain many would place a stone there as a reminder that this is where they heard the message from God. Many also came who had not heard from God themselves, but had heard the stories of those who had. They too would leave a stone to commemorate that sacred place and the remarkable stories they had heard about those who had heard the voice of God. One stone was placed on top of another until over time a magnificent Cathedral was built upon the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence could be found and God’s voice could be heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Stay awake, don't close your eyes...

Advent 1 – Keep Alert, Keep Awake, Keep Awake
Don't lie down upon your bed
While the moon drifts in the skies
Stay awake, don't close your eyes

Though the world is fast asleep
Though your pillow's soft and deep
You're not sleepy as you seem
Stay awake, don't nod and dream
Stay awake, don't nod and dream

Words and music:Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman

This song by Mary Poppins could very well sum up the Advent message: Stay Awake!

In part, because Advent begins on a note of despair. Isaiah sounds the alarm: We implore you, O God, to intervene, to once again come among us. The people are captive in Babylon, or in Jesus’ day, under the iron yoke of Rome. It’s our fault, proclaims the prophet.  We are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. We need you here and now! [Isaiah 64:1-9]

In other words, the world is at the ends of its rope, and we realize all our self-help and so-called success and progress has not and cannot save us. We are to be those who stay awake and alert waiting, hoping, for God to intervene as we know he has in the past.

Isaiah’s final plea in verses 8-9 offers a clever argument: You made us. We belong to you. You cannot disown us, even though we often have disowned you. So, tear open the heavens! Come down! Make the mountains quake as when fire kindles wood and the fire causes water to boil! Make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Meanwhile, Paul, an apostle to us, the Gentiles, affirms to the church in Corinth [1 Corinthians 1: 1-3-9] that we now live between two Advents: God has come down in Christ Jesus. The heavens have been torn open for the Divine Voice to declare, “You are my Beloved – with you I am well pleased!” A dove alights on Jesus in the River Jordan. He then spends his lifetime among us making God’s name known to his adversaries. The nations tremble, Rome shudders, and nails him to a cross to try and put a stop to his proclamation that God is with you! God is faithful!

Further, says Paul, that’s not the end of the story. God’s gifts to us are more than sufficient for this in-between time as we await his second Advent. God will come again. Meanwhile, it is time to demonstrate unity in community for we are in a time of transition – a time of uncertainty and ambiguity. Therefore, there is no time for passivity or selfish pursuits. Rather, exercise your God-given gifts for the cause and benefit of the larger community. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.

Wake up! Keep alert! Proclaims Jesus in the Apocalyptic thirteenth chapter of Mark (24-37)!

Stringing together quotations and images from Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and others he offers healing balm.  Learn from the fig tree! Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Despite the Temple lying in ruins, this is not the end.

Pay special-careful attention: “But about the day or hour no one knows! Neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware! Keep alert!” Many make claims to know:  Political, economic, social and ecological claims of the impending end of times are made over and over again. Remember! Only God knows, says Jesus. Don’t forget that. Stay alert!

Stay alert! Stay awake, sleepy head. You’re not as sleepy as you seem. Stay awake, don’t nod and dream. Don’t listen to those who say they know the time and place! Wait upon our true Master’s return. Meanwhile, use the gifts that have been given to us to heal the world!

There are always those who will mislead us in this season of watching and waiting. The merchants of gloom shall not prevail. Advent preparation does not involve shopping, consuming, and acquiring more stuff.  Instead, says Jesus, it is time to remember, to know, that God is with us. Time itself is in God’s hands. He will not leave us alone. He will not leave us without Hope! We will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory! He is not talking about destruction. He is speaking of construction – the building up of a new, faithful, just and merciful society!

Walter Brueggemann writes, “Advent proclaims that God will act in us, through us and beyond us, more than we can imagine because newness is on its way!” Stay Awake, sleepy heads! This is not the end, but just the beginning!  Though the world is fast asleep to these truths, be those who remain alert, awake and engaged! [Celebrating Abundance – Devotions for Advent, p4-5]

Living God, visit us in this season of Advent with your Holy Spirit that we may do those things you have gifted us to do, kingdom things we did not know we had in us – neighbor things, things; that reconcile and heal; things that build up, not things that tear down and divide. May you act in us, through us and beyond us, more than we can ever imagine! Newness is on its way among us! Help us to stay awake to Advent truths! Help us to embrace and live into the newness, your newness, the newness of unity and love for all. Amen. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

What A Funny King We Have

Christ The King Sunday 2017
This is the Last Sunday of the Christian Year, Christ the King Sunday - the final word on just who Jesus is. We have four gospels and a collection of letters and an odd piece of Apocalyptic literature all offering a wide variety of answers to the question Jesus himself poses to all who would be a follower, a disciple, of his: Who do you say that I am?

Ezekiel, a prophet of Exile, writes: Thus, says the Lord God – I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out [Ezk 34:11]. Further on, he says, “…I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with Justice [v.16]. Seems they even had “fat cats” back then! It was bad and bloated leadership of Israel that had resulted in the Exile. Who are these “sheep” the Lord God seeks out? Psalms 23, 95 and 100 all declare, “We are his people, we are the sheep of his pasture.” Then comes the great vision of Matthew chapter 25. Following several parables warning us to be ready for the return of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, verses 31-46 offer a detailed and surprising account of just who Jesus is.

Take note of all the names by which he is identified in this vision: Son of Man, shepherd, one who separates sheep from goats, Lord, king, and finally a long list of who he is and where we can find him and serve him – those who are thirsty, hungry, in prison, strangers (resident aliens), and naked. He is The Lord God, The Shepherd, of whom Ezekiel speaks, and and at the same time, he is the least of those among us; he is shepherd and judge; he is Lord and King!

What an odd king we have, those of us who claim his name as our own. He had no army, but instead orders his followers to put down their weapons. He has no territory, no home, and yet he hosts people, all people, to share meals with him, no questions asked. He wrote no books, left no written record, nothing but a long series of odd stories. He had no money but depended upon the generosity of others. He wielded no political power, but instead spoke truth to power and was eventually the victim of state sponsored capital punishment, left to hang on a cross.

As a brochure notes in the Abbey Church in Bath, “What stood out to those who knew him, who saw him, who experienced what it is like to be in his presence was his teaching that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death.  Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. Jesus also foretold that he would be raised to life again three days after his death. When, three days after he had died on the cross, his followers did indeed meet him alive again; frightened and defeated men became fearless and joyful messengers.

“Their message of the Good News about Jesus is the reason this Abbey Church exists. More importantly, it is the reason why all over the world there are Christians who know what it means to meet the living Jesus, and believe that He alone has the key to human life.” Not kings, not captains of industry, not the wealthy or politically powerful, but Jesus is the key.” As Matthew’s vision declares, this Jesus is served among “the least of these,” the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the prisoner.

About six years ago I was invited to play drums in a monthly jam session at the late Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. I was there every month for about two and one-half years. My first time there I discovered that it was just two doors down from Christ House on Columbia Road, a shelter and health-care center for homeless men. My long-time mentor and friend in ministry, The Reverend N. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in D.C. inspired the founding of Christ House, and when he retired from active ministry he and his wife Mary Cosby chose to live in Christ House with the homeless men who live there.

I would drag my drums into Chief Ike’s early so I could visit Gordon and Mary for a few minutes every month. Out in front of Christ House, right on the sidewalk, there is a small plaza with a statue of Jesus designed by sculptor Jimilu Mason. It is a life-sized bronze of Jesus on his knees with a wash basin looking up to wash the feet of any who willingly submit to his doing so. In fair weather and even foul, every evening when I was at Chief Ike’s, some of the men of Christ House would sit around this image of Christ – the very people Jesus lived to serve.

Each month I would sit with them for a half-hour or so and just talk. When I would say I was a friend of Gordon and Mary I was instantly made to feel at home, part of the Christ House family. They were always interested to know about my life in music and ministry. Gordon and Mary had dedicated their lives after WWII to serve those in greatest need in our nation’s capital. Here we were, washing one another’s feet, actively living out the vision of Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I always got much more out of it than they did. Especially in the late spring of 2012 after the tragic shooting in my church office in Ellicott City that resulted in the death of my two closest colleagues in ministry. These men, along with Gordon and Mary, washed my feet, healed my wounds, held me up, and knew at an elemental dimension just what it was I was going through.

Note that in the vision in Matthew 25 the sorting out of sheep and goats is for all people of all nations, not just Christians and Jews. The criterion is not “belief in Jesus,” whatever that might mean. The criterion is not membership in the Church. The criterion is not discipleship as described in Matthew’s story of Jesus. The criterion is simply the treatment one gives to other human beings. That is who Jesus is, says the story: the people you serve, that is where God is to be found. And as I discovered, they are the people through whom Jesus loves you. Eternal life, it turns out, is in service to others. Especially the least of those whom Jesus loved.

A church, a society, a nation will be judged against this single criterion: the treatment of other human beings. How we care for those most vulnerable is what counts. The difference between the sheep and the goats in this vision is not a matter of seeking the face of Jesus, but rather of visiting people and taking care of them. You don’t even need to believe in or even know who Jesus is. We need to serve the least of these because in the end knowing them will heal us.  

One can imagine those who first heard Jesus share his vision of God’s eternal life were shocked to find out what the criteria will be. It reminds me of a film about Mother Teresa in Mexico setting up a mission to serve the poor. A business man from the U.S. shows up with “his people” to give her a check for thousands of dollars. She is too busy to accept the check. He keeps trying to give it to here. She keeps serving the poor. He is totally perplexed. Finally, she tells him, “We really don’t need your money right now. What we need and what you need is to join us in helping these people here and now.” He wanders away with his people, all of them still perplexed.

“Jesu, Jesu: Kneels at the feet of his friends/silently washes their feet, master who acts as a slave to them.” What a funny king we have. A king like no other. He is ours, and we are his – the sheep of his pasture. if only we seek and serve those he seeks to be his own, our lives will never be the same again.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sleeping Bridesmaids

Wake Up!
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”
- Archbishop William Temple
We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So, someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake [Matthew 25:1-13]? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves. So we fall asleep.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. Trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or, race home to watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

What are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or, are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age [Matthew 28:20b]. No waiting required. Not only is he here, but that we can never get rid of him! Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night. When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.
“The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

- Archbishop William Temple

Saturday, November 4, 2017

All Saints Day 2017

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Kurt Vonnegut once preached on a Palm Sunday that Being Merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. On All Saints Sunday we remember some of those in the life of the Church who have exemplified being merciful, being peacemakers, as examples of what it means to follow Jesus. They often embody faithfulness through acts of militant non-violence.

The New Testament frequently refers to all the faithful as “saints.” In our Baptismal Vows we promise to follow and obey Jesus. He often goes places we rarely if ever go, and spends time with people we rarely if ever spend our time.  Jesus encourages us to neither flee the powers that mean to dispossess us, nor to take up armed revenge against them, but rather to resort to the sorts of acts of militant non-violence he employed to challenge the system. Over time, those faithful who did just that, challenge the prevailing political, social, religious and economic systems of their time and place, have come to be called Saints with a capital “S”.

All Saints Day is one way in which the church recalls the history of humanity in a way very different from the way it is usually recalled in secular society. It has been observed that Alexander the Great, for instance, was called “the Great” because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time. People like Alexander are usually remembered on their birth date. We are those people, however, who believe that “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in heaven.” [BCP 382]

Instead of Alexander, we remember Hugh of Lincoln, whose feast day comes up on November 17. Hugh refused to accept the office of Prior of the Carthusian Foundation until King Henry the Second had housed and fully compensated every peasant who had been evicted in order to build the new monastery. And Hugh, alone among bishops in England during the 12th Century, faced down and quelled anti-Semitic lynch mobs such that among England’s major cities, Lincoln alone was free of Jew-murdering riots. 

On July 20th we remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman, American women both black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, who stood against the oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which God calls all God’s children. Four women who stood and acted against the social and religious norms of their time to secure jobs, the vote, property ownership, access to ordination and freedom from slavery for women in America and in the church. It was Sojourner Truth who said the immortal words, “Ain’t I a woman!” Words spoken at the Women’s Conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Words that continue to echo through ages right down to our own time.

And finally, one of my favorites, Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome, who was executed in the year 258 by the same Roman Empire that crucified our Lord two centuries earlier. During the persecution under the Emperor Valerian, Laurence was instructed to lead the Romans to the treasures and treasury of the church. Laurence is said to have assembled the sick and the poor to whom, as archdeacon, he had distributed the church’s relief funds. He presented these people to the prefect and said, “These are the treasures of the Church.” For his faithful act of militant non-violence, he was executed and is remembered on August the tenth each year.

The Church Calendar is filled with people like these who followed and obeyed Jesus in their own time and place. In nearly every case these people stood against the powers that be or led the way to reform the governing powers and especially the church itself. They tend to look and act a lot more like Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Jane Fonda, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Rose McGowan, Malala Yousafzai, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez than most Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests or me. Saints are people in whom God’s Mercy and Peacemaking qualities can be recognized here and now, in our present as in our past. 

Our Book of Common Prayer Calendar lists some of them by the dates of their death, which we recognize as the beginning of their eternal lives with God and with us. We, like them, are called to such a life here and now. When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant we promise, with God’s help, to shape our lives out of the traditions these Saints represent. They are the very kinds of people Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the hungry, the meek, the pure in heart, and those who mourn. The beatitudes are statements of fact, not imperatives. They urge us to recognize the presence and blessing of the reign of God here and now in those who faithfully follow and obey Jesus, and most especially among those whom he loved.

Each time we recommit both our lives and our resources to the life Jesus calls us to live, we do well to remember this vision offered in Hebrews chapter 12 verses 1-3: “Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God. For consider him that has endured such hostility from sinners himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, an ordained minister and saint of the early twentieth century American church writes, “The man who wrote this little treatise from which this is quoted saw the history of humanity summed up in the live spirits who had the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God to be more dear, substantial, and attractive than the edible and profitable present. (Read Hebrews 11.) So, he calls on Christians to take up the same manner of life, and compares them with men and women running a race in an amphitheater packed with all the generations of the past who are watching them make their record. But he bids them keep their eye on Jesus who starts them at the line and will meet them at the goal, and who has set the pace for the good and fleet men and women for all time.”
       -Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Principals of Jesus (YWCA, NY:1916) p.188-189

All Saints Day: Jesus calls us to recommit ourselves and our resources to such a life of mercy and peacemaking, here and now; this day and every day. Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Faith, Hope and Charity

We pray, “…increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity;
and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command….”
Deuteronomy is the final chapter of Torah and the journey from Egypt to a new homeland. Throughout Deuteronomy Moses summarizes the 613 commandments, how to be God’s people Israel. Just before he dies the God of the Exodus shows him all the land of promise, and reminds Moses that he will not enter that land stemming from a lapse of faith on Moses’ part earlier in the wilderness sojourn. Moses who has been quite skilled in arguing with God offers no complaint, dies at the ripe old age of 120 and is buried we-know-not-where. After 30 days of mourning, the people move on with Joshua appointed by Moses to be their new leader. [Deut 34:1-12]

Sometime later, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, just days before he is to die at the hands of Israel’s Roman oppressors, being pressed by a group of Pharisees to summarize the 613 commandments of Torah as Moses had done. Jesus offers two: Love God and Love neighbor, commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus respectively learned along the forty-year wilderness sojourn. If you love God and neighbor you will embody a life of faith, hope and charity.

Then Jesus, much like a Pharisee himself, asks them a question about whose son do you think the Messiah will be. They say, “The son of David,” the great military and warrior king. Surely one of his descendants would throw off the Romans and inaugurate the new age of God’s kingdom. No more of these ineffectual kings the very idea of which God had told the boy prophet Samuel would not work out to any satisfaction. Kings always end up forsaking faith, hope and charity and believing only in their own power which inevitably results in a kingdom of covetousness as represented by David’s son Solomon. We are told that Solomon’s household provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides harts, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl, and a partridge in a pear tree! [1 Kings 4:22-23] What Solomon represents in the Bible is the kingdom of covetousness, over-consumption, at the expense of the common man and woman. The very opposite of what Jesus represents, who says of Solomon [Mt 6:25-29] that with all his conspicuous consumption and covetousness Solomon was not as well off as a flower in a field or a bird in the air!

It is after Saul of Tarsus encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus that he is transformed from being an instrument of the Empire in arresting and harassing followers of the Christ to become the Apostle Paul, an evangelist for the Gentiles. And it is Paul in his epic thirteenth chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth who offers his own summary of the commandments as faith, hope and charity. Modern translations have it as faith, hope and love, but I stick with charity because as the King James has it the rhyme scheme is better (abide these three, but the greatest of these is charity), and because we tend to think of love strictly in romantic terms, witness how often this is read at weddings, even those outside of the church! Yet, charity connotes something more like what Leviticus really means by love for neighbor: doing something helpful or useful for the other, even if you do not know them or even like them. And Leviticus, as does Jesus in Luke’s parable of the The Good Samaritan, extends neighbor to include resident aliens and even our greatest enemies. Very inconvenient to be sure, but startlingly relevant to much of today’s political rhetoric here in the USA which is described by some as a “Christian nation.”

I was once in the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Rochester, NY, which has a gigantic stained-glass window depicting Lady Charity, larger than life, bounding out of the window with tremendous enthusiasm. Nearby were windows depicting Paul saying, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” and “The God of Love shall be with you.” I was to be leading a Stewardship session in the Cathedral and I said, “You really just need to bring people from all over the diocese to look at, experience and discuss these three windows to find out what stewardship, faith, hope and charity are all about.”

It is this same Saint Paul to whom I appealed when asked by my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor to find a passage in scripture that describes my vision of parish ministry. I settled on the earliest of Paul’s letters, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, verses 4-8: “…but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never used either words of flattery, as you know, or a cloak for greed, as God is witness; nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”[RSV]

Here Paul epitomizes both love of God and love of neighbor, and the essence of faith, hope and charity. Paul acknowledges that there are those apostles and missionaries of the Gospel who think it is all about them. Yet, he recognizes that this is the very problem with kings over against allowing God to raise up leadership ad hoc as needed as was done from Abraham to the time of Moses and Joshua, and the period of Judges that followed until the people begged Samuel to convince God to give them a king. The results were not good as Solomon epitomizes.

Living in community, Christian or otherwise, means leaving one’s personal concerns at the door. From the very first time I read this part of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians I have gone back to it and back to it to remind me of my task here and wherever God sends me. As Paul acknowledges just prior to this in chapter 2, it has not always been easy or pleasant. The task is to not let that get in the way of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and to do so with one’s whole self. We are all called, not just the ordained ministry, but all people everywhere I believe are created to live lives of faith, hope and charity. It is not easy in an atmosphere of a 24/7 news cycle and an as yet unfettered internet that rarely offers evidence that faith, hope and charity are justified.

Yet, as that other rabbi, almost a contemporary to Jesus, Hillel put it: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And, if not now, when?

It is humbling every day that I wake up and attempt to live up to Paul’s ideals of being an Apostle – one who is sent to bring others into God’s Beloved Community, as Martin Luther King, Jr so eloquently put it throughout his struggles for civil rights and for the poor. As we pray, faith, hope and charity are gifts, and as such we need to cherish them and employ them to the best of our ability. As Paul writes elsewhere to the church in Rome, the whole world is standing on tip-toes eager to see faith, hope and charity become a reality for all people, all creatures and the planet Earth itself. If not now, when?

Saturday, October 21, 2017


To whom ought we pay tribute? The Empire? Or, God? It’s a trap. And we easily fall into it ourselves. But not Jesus. It is commonly understood that Matthew 22:15-22 has to do with the question of paying taxes – specifically, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Just one glance at the questioners and one knows something is up. The Pharisees and their followers often question Jesus, but this is the first time we see them side-by-side with Herodians. This is an unlikely pairing since the Pharisees are observant Jews seeking to maintain their Jewish identity and integrity even under Roman domination. While Herodians support and were beneficiaries of the Empire. Pharisees did not consider Herod and his line to even be Jewish, while the Herodians side with those who had access to wealth and military power. Like Henry Kissinger who called power the “ultimate aphrodisiac,” they agree that wealth and military power constitute the only religion that matters. And, oh yes, they bear the name of Herod, associating themselves with the political descendants of the king who slaughtered all of Jesus’ contemporary co-religionists. That should be our clue that conversation is neither innocent nor safe. It’s a trap.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” says Jesus. This is the real trap! An observant Jew would not have a denarius in his or her pocket since it bears a graven image and announces that “Caesar is God.” The very fact that they can produce the coin exposes them as hypocrites, posers, opportunists. Anyone with this coin is breaking at least two of the Ten Commandments. Then Jesus poses the real question: “Whose icon (eikon) is this, and whose title?” That is, “Whose image is on the coin?” They answer, correctly, “The emperor’s.” Then comes the all too familiar, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Astonished, the hypocrites leave with their plot to entrap him in tatters, exposed as the posers they are. They realize this is no longer about taxes.

“Whose image is this?” With this one question Jesus asserts that this is not at all about paying taxes. It is about who we are and whose we are. For Jesus knows, as the Pharisees and even the Herodians should know, just as we should know, that from the beginning, we are all created in God’s image – male and female we are created in the image of God. Imago Dei. Not the emperor’s. Not the Pharisee’s. Not the Herodian’s. Further, for those of us who are baptized we each bear another image on our forehead – the cross of Christ traced with oil blessed by our bishop as a sign. It is a sign reminding us to whom we pay tribute in all things. We believe that the bond God establishes in Baptism is “indissoluble.” This makes us God’s Beloved forever, just as Jesus is declared God’s Beloved at his baptism by John in the River Jordan.

Now it is true that since we are created in the image of the perfect love of God, we have the freedom to choose – we can claim our belovedness, or we can deny it, but it remains indissoluble just the same. This question of “image” runs through the entire Bible from beginning to end. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of The Beloved, at one point pulls together a number of scripture passages that address this belovedness of ours into one statement. One might call it a Beloved Creed that distills the very essence of what it means to be human.

I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your partner, your spouse … yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.
            -Life Of The Beloved, p. 30

One hopes that the astonishment of the Pharisees and the Herodians comes from some recognition that this is what Jesus is really talking about, not some mundane question about taxes. One hopes that they came to some deeper awareness as to not only who they are, but whose they are? Are we the Empire’s? Or, are we God’s? And if we are God’s, then to whom are we to pay tribute? And, how?

The oldest Eucharistic Prayer in our Book of Common Prayer, Prayer D, dates back to the days of the early church, and has been authorized by many denominations for use if we ever get back together and share communion with one another as one church again. There is a paragraph about Jesus that gets at the “how” question.

“And, that we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” BCP p. 374

This offers some clues as to how we are to live into our being “created in the image of God.” We are to live no longer for ourselves. This is a radical and revolutionary assertion in a culture of me, myself and mine. And God’s Spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind, is given to energize us to complete Jesus’ work in the world, “to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” Not some, not most, not a lot, but “all.” All people, all creatures, all things are to be fulfilled. This is His “own first gift” for all of us who bear his image on our brow. It is His tithe. The tithe is always from the first fruits. It is what is given first of all before all other commitments.

We are meant to note that this text about images operates subversively in every context in which governments act as if citizens have no higher commitment than to the state. Whenever and wherever the divine image is denied, persons are made by political circumstances to be less than human.

As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once declared about Goliath, there are always Herodians among us calling us to deny and subject our higher calling to baser and lesser instincts. We may pay the tax, but that does not mean we belong to Caesar. Our primary loyalty, says Jesus to his questioners, is to God and no other. As Saint Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait upon his Son whom he raised from the dead.”

You are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with you. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Many Are Called

Many Are Called
There is a common misunderstanding of the Christian Bible that goes thus: the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and unforgiving, while the God of the New Testament is forgiving and loving. Apart from being illogical since the God of the whole Bible is one and the same God, this misunderstanding has caused plenty of mischief throughout the history of the Church and is just one seemingly benign idea that forms the creation and foundation of Anti-Semitism. Which, regrettably, is on the rise around the world, but most especially here in the United States of America. This makes it our problem the longer we insist on perpetuating this gross misunderstanding as fact rather than the fiction, and rather lazy fiction at that, that it is.

Enter two stories that seemingly reverse this common misunderstanding: The Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-14, and Matthew’s version of The Wedding Banquet parable in chapter 22: 1-14. Succinctly put, YHWH, the God of the Exodus, is portrayed as repentant and forgiving, while the “king” in the banquet seems particularly violent, wrathful and unfairly judgmental.

Jesus continues his teaching with the chief priests and Pharisees with the now familiar, “The kingdom of heaven is like this…” A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends his slaves to call the invited guests to the feast. Weddings are times of celebration and delight, while feasts in the Bible are seen as a foretaste of the culmination of all things.

Suddenly the story takes an odd turn since the invitees cannot be bothered to come. He sends a new group of slaves who say the oxen and the fatted calves have been slaughtered, the tables are set, the wine has been ordered. You don’t want to miss this. Again, some choose to go about business as usual while the rest rape and kill the messengers! Their behavior is so outrageous, writes Richard Swanson in Provoking The Gospel of Matthew, that the whole story is interrupted, and slaughtered animals left hanging, while the king mounts a military campaign to destroy the invited guests and burn the city to the ground. It is fair to ask that after all this violence just how much joy can there be as the wedding resumes? Surely it will be a day his son and daughter-in-law will never forget as the sound and fury of the day’s destruction will be forever ringing in their ears. Likely not the happiest days in their lives unless they are a very odd couple.

One can be assured those first hearing Jesus tell this story remember the burning of Jerusalem to the ground by Rome which always stands as the background to all gospel stories. Matthew chooses to include this story as the ongoing crisis with Rome continues to challenge the life of the communities of God’s people. The king declares the invited guests as unworthy of the banquet and sends his surviving slaves to go out into the streets to “invite everyone you find…the good and the bad,” to the banquet. So now there are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good fish and bad fish, worthy and unworthy filling the banquet hall.

Jesus is always meeting with mixed crowds throughout the arc of Matthew’s story. When he does he continually points out that amidst the crisis with Rome there is a fork in the road, and there is coming a great sorting out. Those sorted to the right will end up in the dominion of God, those to the left end up in the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth (Mt 25:31-46). Enter the oddest turn in the narrative of all: the king spots a man who is not wearing a “wedding garment.” This in itself does not seem odd since the man was hauled in unexpectedly off the streets, but the king’s reaction renders the man and the listeners speechless!

The king has his servants bind him hand and foot and carted out to be thrown into the outer darkness to wail and gnash his teeth. How on earth do the servants know their way to the outer darkness? What coordinates does one enter into the GPS to find your way there? All because he is in jeans and sneakers? And what does a wedding garment look like anyway? Not exactly a lesson of acceptance and forgiveness. It all sounds rather like wrathful and unforgiving.

Perhaps the garment represents authentic discipleship, or producing the fruits of the kingdom – or more simply living in God’s way as outlined in the commandments all the way back in Exodus. Perhaps those without a garment are like those people at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for days for Moses to return from his tutorial with the God of the Exodus. Expressing their impatience, inexplicably Aaron, Mose’s older brother, gathers all their gold jewelry, melts it down and casts it in the image of a calf, declaring, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron, the priest immediately violates the commandments against other gods and idols! Yet another odd story. Note carefully, this idol consists of money cast as religion. May those who have ears hear and beware! We may think this stuff is primitive, but this kind of idolatry is still with us to this day. There are always new golden calves enchanting and distracting people every day.

YHWH, the God of the Exodus, understandably is angry and threatens a holocaust against the people, inviting Moses to head off with him to find new people to “make a great nation.” Moses, who back at the burning bush allows that he often does not know what to say, suddenly becomes the most eloquent and skillful of public speakers, chastising The Lord: “Seriously, God, how is it going to look on your resume where it says you led thousands of people into the mountainous wilderness only to wipe them off the face of the earth? Do you honestly believe that this will inspire others to join with you in making a “great nation”? Repent and remember the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, that they will have plenteous descendants and live forever in the land you have promised them!” So, sings the psalmist in Psalm 106, he would have destroyed them had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath from consuming them. Standing in the breach.

God must like to be challenged as much as he likes to challenge us, because we are told that this God of the Old Testament repents, forgives the people their idolatry, and pledges to remain in relationship with them no matter what. Both the worthy and unworthy alike are welcomed back to the banquet table. Thus begins our knowledge of the compassionate and merciful God who is  slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil (Jonah 4:2).

The questions for us all: Are we living our lives worshipping golden calves? Religion cast as money? Do we wake up each morning and put on our wedding garments of authentic discipleship so that we might address ourselves to producing the fruits of the kingdom? Are we ready to face the Last Sorting (Mt 25: 31-46)? Many are called, says Jesus, but few are chosen. Who among us are the sheep, and who are the goats? Who among us is willing to stand beside Moses in the breach on behalf of those in need? The world and everything and everyone therein awaits to see just who we are and whose we are. We are those people who are called to bear witness to the God of the Old and New testaments who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil. He calls us to do the same. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Violins Violence Silenc

“VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE,” is a neon light sculpture by Bruce Nauman that has been wrapped around the outside of the Baltimore Museum of Art since the 1982-83 exhibition of his neon works. It was a gift of the Nauman Galleries to the BMA, and therefore to Baltimore, the community and the world. The words light up forwards and backwards in multi-color rhythm that is both confrontational and meditative all at once. Violins interrupted by violence results in silence? Violence often results in violins, as in funeral music, as well as in silence? Or, as art critic Gregory Volk once suggested, it may represent both the silence of victims of violence and the silence of those who choose/chose not to bear witness or to oppose the violence.

It seems to be one work of art that continues to have relevance to a week like the one just concluded: the violence of 58 killed and nearly 500 wounded in Las Vegas by one man and a cache of weapons; the violence of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of two uniquely powerful hurricanes; the violence of political rhetoric that seeks to deafen and numb the population into unbearable silence. I find the confrontational violin concertos of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg hauntingly playing in the background as I struggle not to fall into symptoms of PTSD such events like Las Vegas threaten to precipitate ever since gun violence ended the lives of my two closest colleagues in ministry one afternoon in the offices at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City: Brenda Brewington and Mary-Marguerite Kohn. And then I recall Nauman’s neon sculpture endlessly, relentlessly, lighting up back and forth: violins violence silence silence violence violins. And I thank God that I have music to listen to and music to play as I struggle to make sense of it all.

How long have the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words as they are also known, been around? Articulated in Exodus chapter 20 and reprised by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 5, these words are meant as a gift to outline a Way of Being One’s True Self in the World. They not only outline a way of acting but more importantly a way of Being – they confer identity – they give shape to what it means to be “created in the image of God.”

I am forever indebted to Abraham Joshua Heschel who once observed that in the Deuteronomy version the command for Sabbath comprises nearly one-third of the text of the Ten Words, and that only one commandment is stated twice – the Tenth: thou shalt not covet, and in case you did not hear me the first time says YHWH, thou shalt not covet. And yet, we live within an economic system that is defined by covetousness -  the need for more and more of everything. Advertising: an entire industry devoted to making us more and more covetous.

So, Heschel suggests that the Sabbath, a day off, is not at all a religious command or ritual. It is an alternative to the 24/7 relentlessness of a covetous economic system that often drives people to violence. Sabbath is a periodic withdrawal from the dominant economic system; the unfettered need to produce, acquire and consume more and more stuff – be it money, products, or property. Our very identity is wrapped up in this “stuff” – my car, my home, my clothes are carefully curated to say something about who I am. I often joke about the creation of the Self Storage industry – lockers, most as big as a garage, in which to store our excess “self.” But it is no joke. For covetousness eventually leads to violence somehow. Sabbath is meant to break the cycle of covetousness long enough to remember who we are and whose we are.

Note the actions of the tenants of the vineyard in Matthew chapter 21, The Parable of the Vineyard. They live and work in a vineyard that is not their own. Yet, when the owner sends servants and even his own son to collect his produce, the tenants become violent and kill one after another so as to take possession of the vineyard for themselves. Covetousness begats violence, which results in silence and the violins of funeral music. Once again this is a parable that means to hold up a mirror before us and help us to see a way beyond violent solutions.

Saint Paul, in writing to the Philippians in chapter 3 comments again on the need for a change of mind – a radical reassessment of past, present and future. Everything I have accomplished and acquired in my otherwise exemplary past is rubbish he says. Actually, this is a genteel alchemy of translation, for the Greek text of his letter calls it dung. In a this tightly argued part of this letter he seems to say that the Good News, the Gospel, is not an answer to all the problems in our lives. Rather, the Good News of God in Christ means to disturb all my settled answers, we might say “my ideology, or my theology,” and sends me searching for new answers and new solutions!

I have not reached the goal, he says, but I press on, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – that which is the “unseen” of our creed – because God in Christ has made me his own. I have been overtaken by Christ. All that I think I already know is dung. What is important lies ahead.

What the Ten Words know is that unless we break the cycles of production, acquisition and consumption, unless we break the cycles of debates that hide behind “this is what I know and I am not changing my mind,” we cannot lean forward into a future in which violence itself is silenced. So important is Sabbath Time, suggested my friend and mentor Gordon Cosby, so relentless is the pace of life today, that I may need Sabbath Time once a day instead of just once a week. To literally, physically withdraw from the 24/7 busyness of covetousness for a period of time each day to simply Be with God and rediscover my True Self once again.

A self that is molded and shaped by the statutes, the law, the commandments that give “light to the eyes, wisdom to the innocent and right judgments” as Psalm 19 invites us to sing! “More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb…above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then I shall be whole and sound and innocent of a great offense.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer!”

Shabbat shalom. The need for heart-full meditation. There can be no shalom, no peace, without Shabbat. There can be no shalom without seriously allowing our entrenched ideas and ideologies to be let go and reimagined. There can be no shalom as long as the means to mass violence are so readily available as a presumed “solution” to a current problem. I look at Las Vegas and weep. God looks at Las Vegas and weeps. Yet, our leaders in Washington, DC, effectively remain silent. A silence that only begats more violence and the need for more funeral violins.

Violins Violence Silence. When will we be able to turn off those relentless neon lights once and for all because they will no longer have meaning?