Friday, February 24, 2017

Thin Places

Thin Places
Up on a mountain top: first Moses, then Elijah, and now Jesus. Mountains connote being closer to God. The Celts called places like this “thin places” – thin in that that which separates the earthly from the divine is closer, more easily accessible.

So, Moses takes dictation from the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah hears a “still, small voice.” Jesus hears the same voice he heard at his baptism, as do Peter and John and James: This is my Beloved with whom I am well pleased – Listen to him!

Emphasis on “listen.” For how are we to hear if first we do not listen? Listening is an active task. One must choose to hear to be listening. And one must empty or still one’s mind to really listen. Just looking at the text (Matt 17:1-9) one can almost hear the Lord’s frustration in imploring the disciples to listen. The same frustration that followed his dictation to Moses of the commandments only to have the people below already worshipping a golden calf.

Idols: religion cast in money. Psalm 115 gets at this problem of idolatry. Our God is in the heavens. You don’t have to like it, you don’t get to vote on it. What a God! Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but they cannot speak. Eyes but they cannot see. Feet but they cannot walk. Ears but they cannot hear. “And they do not make a sound with their throat.” This is meant to make us laugh because the Hebrew literally says they cannot clear their throat. Um-hmm-hmm. And what the psalmist knows is that any god that cannot go “Um-hum-hum-hum” will never get you out of exile, slavery or the wilderness, and certainly cannot save or redeem you in any sense of those words.

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany ends much the way the season began. Those who have ears will hear that. Epiphany begins with our Lord’s baptism where an off-stage voice says, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased,” and ends with those same words followed by, “Listen to him!” Exclamation point, bold, underlined in italics!?!

If we take the time to listen, if we still our minds, empty our minds, stop thinking ahead to formulate a response and simply listen, just what do we hear?

So far this Year A in Matthew we have heard a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. We are to be peacemakers. We are to let our lights shine. We are to love our enemies and pray for them, for our God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. And we are to be merciful.

Tough orders in tough times. In just the past week Neo-Nazi, White Supremacists, so called Alt -Right hooligans distributed Anti-Semitic leaflets right here in Bel Air, Maryland. While across the country Jewish community centers received credible bomb threats, and a Jewish cemetery in Saint Louis, MO was vandalized, grave markers knocked over. Hundreds of them. All this in the midst of deportation raids and ongoing racial tensions.

Just how are we to love those who do these immoral and threatening acts in the dark of night? When we don’t even know who they are since they do not commit these acts in the open? And just what words do we pray? What does our love consist of?

A friend of mine, and a great musician, Daryl Davis, offers one example in his documentary on PBS, Accidental Courtesy. Daryl is African American and was raised, one might say, color-blind since when he was young his family moved around the world a lot. His first encounter with racism happened as a young Cub Scout. He asked himself the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

As an adult Daryl has gone across the country asking just that question as he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan and other White Supremacist movements. Many of them now count Daryl as a friend. And many have left the life of white supremacy. Why?

Because Daryl listens to them. He wants to know about the origins of their hatred for African-Americans and other “minority” peoples. He gives them permission to lay it all out. Eventually they begin to ask him questions and before you know it they are in a relationship. As love in the Bible means doing something helpful for someone else whether or not you like them, Daryl was offering them the kind of love most of them have never known. Once they are in relationship the walls come tumbling down. The idols of hatred, fear and bigotry are destroyed, or at least neutered!

Daryl also employs his musical talent to draw them in. Music is a kind of prayer. Daryl loves and prays for his perceived “enemies,” and many, not all, experience a change of heart. I would submit this is The Life of the Beloved – one who is a peacemaker, one who is merciful, one who listens and prays for and loves others – all others, as heinous as they may seem.

Jesus is the light of the world. He calls us to be light to the world. What would our neighborhood, our county, our state, our country and the whole world be like if more of us would take the time like Daryl Davis does to seek out the other – those who are radically, utterly unlike ourselves? To love and to pray for those utterly unlike ourselves?

It is like creating a thin place, a space in which God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever you might like to call that which is greater than we are, can enter into relationships and allow real change to happen. Lives change. Attitudes change. Society changes.

Just as we are God’s Beloved, so is everyone else. The kicker is that means everyone!

Those of us who choose to be light in a dark world, peacemakers, and merciful will do well to ponder these things. Lashing out and hateful rhetoric only goes so far and eventually makes things worse and more divided. Being merciful is hard work, but good work and necessary work. Will we be those people who harden divisions between peoples? Or, will be merciful peacemakers?  

Kurt Vonnegut once said that being merciful was the one good idea we have been given so far. There may be a second good idea, but he does not venture to say what it will be. He believes, however, that music, that ineffable art form that moves the human spirit in very deep ways, very well may be the second good idea being born. If nothing else, let’s play and sing and listen to music so that we may be a part of God’s second good idea being born, all the while becoming merciful peacemakers. God needs us. Jesus needs us. The world needs us to do these things. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Third Way

The Third Way
 “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5: 48
We simply do not understand the Bible. Of what does God’s holiness consist? As stated from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, our God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

The translators employed, i.e. paid by, King James manipulated the scripture in places to favor the king. So they translated, “Do not strike back at evil in kind,” as “Do not resist an evil doer.” Making the sense of the entire passage in Matthew 5: 38-48 virtually meaningless. For Jesus is all about non-violent resistance. Jesus resists playing into the hands of the Roman oppressors, and counsels his followers, that would be you and me, to do the same.

“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil in kind.” Or, “Don’t react violently against one who is evil.” That is, the tradition teaches proportionate response. If your opponent takes an eye, you are to take ONLY an eye and no more, for this is to reflect the holiness of a God that desires to relent from punishing. Jesus pushes it one step further: Do not meet violence with violence. Do not strike back in kind.

Walter Wink in his little book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2003) argues that we have a choice in how to respond to evil and injustice. The standard responses are Fight or Flight. Jesus, argues Wink, offers a Third Way – Nonviolent Resistance. Nonviolent Resistance is a way of living into our inherent imgao dei, being created in the image of God. It is a way to live into the holiness of God by responding to people with the kind of compassion and desire for the good and justice for all people (as outlined in part in Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18, 33-34), which is what God desires for the whole world, everyone and everything therein.

Yet, thanks in part to those in King James’ employ, we do not understand what it means to “turn the other cheek.” One needs some knowledge of the time and place in which Jesus says this. Jesus is not commanding docility or even neutrality, both of which concede power to the one striking you. Jesus lived in a right-handed world in which one in a position of power and authority would strike one across the cheek with the back of the right hand. Roman soldiers would backhand non-citizens; masters would backhand slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.

Wink observes what we have are sets of unequal relations in which retaliation would be suicidal, and submission is to concede the injustice. Jesus’s third way is to turn “the other also.” This, in effect, invites another blow, but this time it needs to be either with the left hand, which was prohibited and only to be used for unclean tasks, or with the open palm or a fist, which in that culture acknowledges you as an equal, a peer.

So, to turn the other cheek robs the oppressor “of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow did not achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not deny or alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’” [Wink, pp 15-16]

Similarly, if you give up both your coat and the undergarment in court you embarrass and humiliate the one suing you. And if you carry a centurion’s backpack an extra mile, you humiliate the Roman soldier since by regulation he can only ask you to carry it one mile or be subject to discipline himself. One might see that Jesus, in addition to advocating nonviolent resistance, robbing the oppressor’s power over you, while also making a mockery or burlesque of those repeated attempts to abuse power in ways that are unjust and corrosive of society as a whole. It is a way of unmasking the ultimate futility and poverty of power.

Then we are ordered to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, for even God sends sun and rain on the bad as well as the good. To be created in the image of God, to have the kind of compassion and desire for the good of all people, especially widows, orphans and resident aliens, is the kind of “perfection” to which God calls us. Not getting A+ on all our work, but going the extra mile in exposing the falseness that surrounds us. It means adapting these principals of nonviolent resistance to any and all similar circumstances. Wink cites the example of the South African Apartheid government’s desire to demolish a shanty town. They waited till nearly everyone left for work and brought in the bulldozers. Three women remained at home. They were ordered to leave. Instead they marched out to the bulldozers and perhaps sensing the prudery of the farm boys, stripped themselves bare. The army and the bulldozers fled.

I keep going back over and over again to Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33-34: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Jesus understood this and lived this all the way to the cross.

This is what Biblical religion is all about. Our “perfection” will be in finding new ways of adapting the strategies of Jesus’ Third Way. Fight and/or Flight will not get the job done.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


The Bible is a mixture of history, literature and theology. It is the history of a people’s relationship with their God, told through a great variety of literary genres, and shaped by a variety of editorial points of view – which is what “theology” is really: a way of viewing and understanding one’s relationship with the God of the Bible and others. All others.

Another way of talking about “theology” might be to say that it is a people’s best shot in a given historical time and place to make sense of our relationship with the God of the burning bush, the God of creation, the God who says, I chose you not because you were so numerous, “It is because the Lord loved you and kept an oath that he swore to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deut 7:8

As the Sermon on the Mount continues, we find Jesus speaking about “swearing oaths.” He is not talking about dirty words, but rather is interpreting the commandments of the God of the Passover and Exodus in the light of present circumstances – the people are once again enslaved to a new empire whose god and king is Caesar. In particular, going back to Deuteronomy chapter 5 and the command not to swear an oath in God’s name wrongfully or lightly.

Others in the Kubicek household will confirm that I cringe while watching HGTV, and the owners of a house see the makeover of their home for the first time and the first words out of their mouths are almost always, “Oh, my god!” Which, regrettably has been reduced to the letters “OMG” on social media and texts. This is what Moses is talking about in Deuteronomy, and this is what Jesus reiterates in the Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard it said, ‘Do not swear falsely in the Lord’s name,’ but I say, Do not swear at all!”

Jesus is practicing a form of interpretation of the Bible and its commandments sometimes called putting a hedge or a fence around the Torah, the commandments of God. The idea is that you propose a more stringent command that it meant to keep you as far away as possible from the original command which had to do with swearing oaths in the name of God.

Names were understood as power in the ancient world, and as such the practice can be seen to continue to this day. Think of how corporations and businesses pay huge sums of money to have their name affixed to a sports stadium or a skyscraper. Names stand for something and someone and convey authority. So it is that Moses inquires of the burning bush, “What is your name? Who shall I say sends me to negotiate with Pharaoh and my people?” Moses knows if he is to succeed in his assigned tasks he needs to back it up with a name. Poor Moses! The answer he gets is even more mysterious than a bush that burns and is not consumed: I Am Who I Am! Tell them I Am sent you!

This is where language fails us and we are left to the world of metaphor and even poetry to even begin to express what it is we know about our relationship with one who is beyond mere words, the one who defies being pinned down in a few words. Jesus understands what is at stake here – the misuse of God’s name to further one’s personal desires, beliefs, agenda and quest for power over others.

So sure, OMG seems harmless enough, but represents a cheapening of God’s name, God’s power, God’s will. Over against all the other so-called “swear words” we might use, and they are many, OMG may well represent our culture’s and society’s ultimate cheapening of God’s holy name, giving tacit approval of using God’s name for all of our favorite personal and political desires, beliefs, agendas and plays for power and authority.

Jesus knows what Moses knew, which is that there is one, and only one, commandment that is repeated twice. The tenth. Thou shalt not covet, and in case you did not hear me, thou shalt not covet. One might argue that this command against coveting lies at the heart of all the commandments of God – for it is our endless desire for more and more and more that leads to anger that becomes murder, lust that becomes adultery, disrespect that becomes divorce, and unfettered lust for power that becomes idolatry.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the keenest theological mind of the 20th century, observes that the longest of the ten initial commandments is the third – the command to observe a Sabbath Day once a week. He goes on to suggest that Sabbath, taking time off from desiring, acquiring and consuming, is the antidote to our innate covetousness – which covetousness leads us into all sorts of temptation. And yet, we struggle to take even one day off, so tenured are we to an economic system driven by promises that unfettered covetousness will bring us true happiness.

When the Psalmist in Psalm 119 devotes the longest poem in the Bible to meditating on God’s Word and Commandments, he is on solid ground in proclaiming that this is the ultimate source of all happiness: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!”

When we do meditate on God’s law we find just in the book of Deuteronomy the following: this way of “walking” entails canceling the debts of the poor (15:1-11), pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (17:14-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity (19:1-7), offering hospitality to runaway slaves and refugees (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24: 14-15), and leaving part of the harvest in the field for those who need it, those who are hungry (24:19-22).

OMG! Just look at what meditating on God’s law and walking in its way can lead to: doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.

More importantly, spending time examining the history, literature and theology of the Bible can lead us to making the world, God’s world, the world God holds in God’s hands, a better place, not just for me and my kin, but for all people, everywhere, in all times and all places. Amen. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

I'm Gonna Let It Shine

Absalom, Pauli, Ruby, Rosa, Martin and Bayard
Imagine standing in a pervasive darkness – mid-winter is such a time - wars, rumors of wars, struggles in the streets, natural catastrophes, not to mention the painful darkness of our nation’s cities day and night, and the darkness of fear and loss and uncertainty that threatens to darken from within. Darkness can be a pervasive state of being.  

Imagine a single source of light casting a beam, a laser-like beam, through the darkness not casting light in all directions, but throwing one bar of light through the darkness. A narrow band of light shining through the darkness, not vanquishing the darkness, neither vanquished by the darkness. Like moths we may be drawn to the light, light that reveals what is truly all around us. Or, we may choose to continue to hide in the darkness preferring not to see beyond the narrow confines of our own little minds, beliefs and fears.

Or, think of the Earth – it turns in a light, as the poet W.S. Merwin reminds us in his poem, Nocturne, “that is not its own/with the complete course of life upon it/born to brief reflection…”
The earth does not produce light for the universe, it reflects the light of the Sun. As we turn, we move from light to darkness to light and to darkness over and over again, 365 times a year. Any light that we make on earth is recycled Sun light stored as coal, oil, natural gas, tallow, beeswax, all of which can be made to produce light - but its source is still the Sun.

Then there is the light of the Son, the Word, the Son of God, Jesus. Jesus who says, “You are the light of the world.” We are light. We can light the world. Like the Earth itself, we are not the source of the light. We can, however, reflect the light of the Son, the light that St. John tells us the darkness cannot apprehend, cannot comprehend, cannot control, cannot vanquish. As we reflect the light of the Son of God we become the light itself.

In every age there are those who reflect this light and become this light. People like Isaiah and St. Paul. People like William Wilberforce, Hannah Moore and the Abolitionists. In this month of Black History we recall names like Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. Another would be Pauli Murray, the first African American woman made a priest in our church. These words about being light in the world inspired the likes of Martin King and Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, and countless others who stood amidst a world of darkness and shined the light of Christ into every corner of this darkened land to secure freedom for all people - be they black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.

Like the earth, they were not the light itself. When Jesus says that "You are the light of the world," he means that as the earth reflects the light of the sun, as we recycle the stored light of the sun, we are to reflect the Light of Christ - we are to absorb and store his light within us such that whenever it is needed, we can be the "light of the world,” so that we may “let our light shine before others…” all others at all times and in all places.

And Lord knows, the world is in need of a powerful lot of light! Jesus has chosen us to shine his light into the dark corners of this world - to open the eyes of those who cannot see the injustices that are wrought upon God's people in the names of power, corporate interests, national security and any number of sources of darkness and its sister, oppression. Absalom Jones, a man, a slave, who worked to secure his wife's freedom before his own, a man who would not sit in the balcony but would one day stand at the Altar of the Lord, reflected this light. Sister Pauli who herself would stand at that same Altar to let the world see and hear that a black woman could represent the light of Christ to the world reflected his light.

Each of us carries at least a spark of the light of Christ. Gather our sparks together and we can light the whole world!

We sometimes forget the power of a simple song to shine light into the world. Whenever I listen to Paul Robeson sing it, This Little Light of Mine reverberates through my heart and soul to remind me why I was washed in the blood of the lamb at Baptism - to join my light with that of Absalom, Pauli, Ruby, Rosa, Martin and Bayard, and with each and every one of us to be regenerated as reflectors of this light into all the dark corners in these cold and dreary days of winter and darkness.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…
Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…
All through the night, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…

In order for light to be seen, we must go where darkness exists. If you want to look at the stars, writes Annie Dillard, you find that darkness is necessary. No person, no country is the source of this light. But there are those who turn to this light and reflect this light. When we join with them it creates more and more light, less and less darkness. There is no time to hide in the darkness. The time is now to shine in the darkness. Amen.