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?