Saturday, February 23, 2019


As I look out the window of the DC-3 as we were landing in North Aleuthra, I see the rusted-out carcasses of those planes which evidently did not make it. A one room little shack is the “terminal” and customs entry. Once out the front door, looking for a cab, across the street is another small building. On the side of that building are the words of Jesus in the sixth chapter of Luke: Love Your Enemies – It will drive them Crazy – And Cold Beer!

Perhaps that’s what he imagined among the soon to be ruins of Jerusalem, that cosmopolitan city under intense military occupation by Caesar who believes he is god: Zealots from the north, Priests and Political Leaders in the South, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, foreigners from all over the ancient world, Governor Pilate and Centurions all sitting down together to enjoy a cold-one and enjoying being with one another.

Love your enemies he says. Which in the Biblical traditions he embraced with his whole heart, mind and soul, meant something more like, “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.” [Exodus 23:4-5] Or, perhaps this from Proverbs, 25: 21-22: If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink…”

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you… Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." [Luke 6:27-38]

After reading all of that over and over again, even sitting down with a cold-one to ponder these words Jesus utters after his Blessings and Woes, the immediate impulse usually is to say, “Really, do I have to? Do we have to?”

Martin King, Mahatma Gandhi, Tich Nhat Hanh, and countless others who have tried living out of these words of Jesus would no doubt say, “Yes, it is the only way out of all of our current situations in which we refuse to allow ourselves to imagine this is sort of love is possible and productive.” The great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart reminds us, “All paths lead to God, for God is in them all equally for the person who knows it.”

Reflecting Luke chapter 6, Tich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who has devoted his life to Peace, asserts that when we look deeply into that which separates us, we see that “the person you call your enemy is also suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for him is there. Jesus called this ‘loving your enemy’. When you are able to love your enemy, he or she is no longer your enemy. The idea of enemy vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone who is suffering and needs your compassion. Doing this is sometimes easier than you might have imagined, but you need to practice. If you read the Bible but don’t practice, it will not help much. In Buddhism, practicing the teaching of the Buddha is the highest form of prayer. The Buddha said, ‘If someone is standing on one shore and wants to go to the other shore, he has to either use a boat or swim across. He cannot just pray, “Oh, other shore, please come over here for me to step across.”’ To a Buddhist, praying without practicing is not real prayer.” Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, NY: 1995) p.78-79

I believe Jesus, much like the Hebrew Prophets, Socrates, Lao T’zu, Confucius, and the Buddha before him, says these seemingly impossible things to spark our imaginations in such a way as to see that it is possible to move beyond that which seems to be hopeless. That to bridge our differences is not only possible but necessary. That to let go of the old ways and walk in the ways of the world’s great Wisdom Traditions is the only way. All this loving, doing good and praying for others, especially others we do not like at all, and do not like us, is the only way forward.

And it all begins with me – with each of us, one at a time allowing our imaginations to free us from the prison of our own hate, distrust, and self-loathing. We have got to either take a boat with others to cross the rivers of hate and distrust, or jump in and swim across on our own, not waiting for others to join us.

If we are going to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; if we are to do to others as we would have them do to us, we need to begin loving ourselves. Then, and only then, how much judging and condemnation do we have to give up and let go? If we want forgiveness, how much are we willing to forgive? Can we begin with loving ourselves just a little bit more so that we might begin to love others, even our enemies and those who hate us?

Jesus also says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” God’s mercy knowns no bounds, no boundaries, no conditions. The sun shines on the just and the unjust. The rain pours down on the good and the bad. God is an equal opportunity provider of mercy. We are to be merciful as God is merciful – as we want God to be merciful to us.

Jesus says these things, I believe, so that we might Imagine all this not judging, not condemning, all this loving and doing good is possible. When I Google the word “Imagine,” the first entry that pops up is this video of John Lennon singing the song inspired by a poem, Cloud Piece, of Yoko Ono’s:
Imagine the clouds dripping,
dig a hole in your garden
to put them in.

Spring 1963 [from Grapefruit, Simon & Schuster Ltd (2000)]

John Lennon and Yoko Ono could imagine what Jesus was talking about. The question remains, can we? And if we can, are we ready to take the boat or swim our way to the other shore? If so, perhaps it will be time to share a cold-one with those we think are enemies but in the end are only strangers like us.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Absalom Jones - Here Am I, O Lord, Send Me

Absalom Jones - Here Am I, O Lord, Send Me
Isaiah. Simon Peter. Paul. All three are depicted as struck with immediate humility before the awesome power and presence of the Lord. In Isaiah 6:1-8 the soon-to-be prophet who finds himself in the Temple of the Lord, declares, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Simon Peter, who after fishing all night and catching nothing still submits to Jesus’ directive to put out again and let the nets down one more time, resulting in a catch that fills the nets of two boats to the point of sinking them, falls to his knees before Jesus and declares, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" [Luke 5: 1-11] And Paul, writing to a conflicted community of Christ in Corinth, describes himself: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” [1 Corinthians 15:1-11]

Humility. A quality derived from an awareness that we come from humus, that organic component of soil that contributes life sustaining properties to the soil from which we and the food that sustains us are derived. Humility describes those inner qualities that centers oneself on low self-preoccupation, not putting oneself before others, as contrasted with narcissism, hubris and other forms of pride – pride, one of the seven deadly sins.

Throughout the Biblical narrative, individuals like Isaiah, Peter, Paul and Jesus are called to serve the purposes of the love, charity and justice which consistently appear to be the primary characteristics of God’s concern for all people and all of creation. God periodically calls upon people who otherwise seem to have no qualifications other than their humility before the power and majesty of God to do the work God needs us to do. We may as well admit that the Church often is guilty of forgetting this primary characteristic of humility; the primary characteristic of those who are called to represent the love, charity and justice of God in this world. Fortunately for us, and the Church, others continue to be sent to exemplify what humble Godly service looks like. We might call them apostles of God’s infinite love, charity and justice – for apostle means “one who is sent.”

Absalom Jones was one such apostle, and this week, February 13th, we remember him in our Calendar of Saints. Absalom Jones was born a household slave in Sussex County, Delaware November 6, 1746, and died a free man and Episcopal Priest February 13, 1818. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for Blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, Mary King, and purchased her freedom with his earnings. Only after securing his wife’s freedom first did Jones purchase his own freedom in 1784.

To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” At St. George’s Church in Philadelphia he became a lay minister for their African-American membership. As he grew that membership, the leadership of St. George’s became alarmed and one Sunday segregated them to the gallery unannounced. During that Sunday service when the ushers attempted to remove them to the gallery, Jones and those he served walked out.

In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized African-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17, 1794.

The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1, that they be received as an organized body; 2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as lay reader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.
Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.”

Jones’ constant visiting and mild manner made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas’ Church grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God, responding to God’s call with humility as an instrument of God’s love, charity and justice in the Church and in the world. Like Isaiah before him, Absalom Jones responded to the call every day, saying, “Here am I, O Lord, send me.”

The following is a prayer from A Thanksgiving Sermon Jones preached January 1, 1808, in St. Thomas's African Episcopal, Church, Philadelphia: On Account of the Abolition of the African slave trade, on that day, by the Congress of the United States:

     “Give peace in our day, we beseech thee, O thou God of peace! And grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come. We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
     “And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: the whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"  [Isaiah 6:8]

Who will go for us today?

Saturday, February 2, 2019

We Are His

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” [Luke 4:14-30]

This is how it ends, the story that began last Sunday: it is ‘Jesus’ first sermon’ in his hometown synagogue. Word had spread of all the amazing things he had been doing all over the place. We can imagine the headlines, “Hometown Boy Makes Good!” But how quickly things can turn, and turn bad. Ugly and very bad. They want to hurl him over a cliff and be done with him. And why? All because they wanted a piece of him and his power. Which seems fair enough. They wanted to see water turned into wine, the lame healed, recovery of sight to the blind; the whole nine yards. They wanted to see it and experience it right here in Nazareth and right now thank you very much.

And so do we. That is all they wanted. That is all we want. We are members of his community. We are his people. We are faithful. We want a piece of the action right here, right now just like the good people of Nazareth.

They felt they deserved at least that much. Didn’t they contribute to his up-bringing? Didn’t they put up with his unusual parentage? Didn’t they go to synagogue faithfully every week? Didn’t they study God’s word every day? And pray morning, noon and night? Didn’t they feel proud when hearing accounts of his marvelous deeds that he had come from Nazareth? He’s one of us, they say! He is ours, they say! Isn’t that why we keep coming back Sunday after Sunday ourselves to eat his body and drink his blood? To claim him as our own? Isn’t he ours?

But listen to his unsympathetic response. He knows what they are thinking before they even say it. He goes to great pains to remind them that our God works in mysterious ways. That God’s power is often focused on strangers far outside the friendly confines of our cozy little communities of faith. He reminds them that Elijah was sent to a foreign widow in Zarephath; that Elisha cleansed a dreaded Syrian of all things. A Syrian! There were people in need right here in our own community. Yet, he reminds them, God has always looked out for those in need beyond the community of faith, beyond the boundaries of our towns, our countries. God’s power is not ours. He is not ours. Rather, we are his.

They don’t want to be reminded of the Biblical story, the story of the community of faith. They want to run him out of town on the proverbial rail, tarred and feathered, and leave him for dead at the bottom of the cliff. Just as the people had done when they heard Jeremiah, the young prophet, and hurled him to the bottom of a well to be done with his constantly proclaiming the Word of the Lord! And you should see the bottom of those town cliffs in Israel. Often, they are garbage dumps. They want to hurl him into the garbage dump. Amongst the fires and the ashes that are always burning down there. Yet, somehow, he manages to get away. He escapes like his people had escaped from Egypt so long long ago in that first Exodus, that first Passover.

All this because they really did not hear him in the first place. Our Lectionary suspects we have missed it as well. This must be why we get this story two weeks in a row. He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” “This scripture” is the 61st Chapter of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s care and reversals of fortune for all those in need. The operant word, as always, is “all.” They did not want to share God or God’s care with “all.” God’s care is ours. This Jesus is ours. They do not want to hear about a God who cares about Syrians and Zarephathians and all those foreigners. We want God’s power and care right here in Nazareth and in Nazareth only. He is one of us. He is ours. Make Nazareth great again!

They miss what he says. “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Our hearing ought to result in our participating in welcoming strangers, even Syrians and Zarephatians and gentiles of all kinds from all over the world. Our hearing this Word ought to result in our doing the work Jesus does, and, he will tell them later at his Last Supper, those who hear God’s Word will do even greater things than these – greater things than Jesus did. [John 14:12]

Jesus reminds them that as covenant partners with God going all the way back to the wilderness, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments, they were the people appointed and anointed by God to live their lives in such a way so as to be God’s demonstration community of faith, hope and charity for all people; or, as Paul would have it, God’s community of Love. [1 Corinthians 13]

What he is saying with all these stories and proverbs is, in effect, “Get with it. Turn water into wine yourselves. Bind up the brokenhearted. Give hope to those without vision. Liberate the oppressed. Release people from their debts. God has given you the vision of the Year of the Lord’s Favor. Live that kind of life. You don’t need me around here. You are already God’s people called to do God’s work, just like me.”

He is also saying, “Do not think that just because you are faithful and in covenant with God that you have some kind of lock on God’s power. You do only in the sense that you give that power to others. Real others. Really other others. Like Syrians and Zaraphathians and all manner of strange other people outside of Nazareth; outside of our little demonstration community.”
That is, our God is not a God who lives only in Israel, our country, the Christian tradition, the Church, our denomination, our parish, or whatever boundaries we wish to set. God is not ours. Jesus is not ours. We are his. And we are to go beyond the boundaries we set just as Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah did. Jesus, Paul and all those who have truly heard the Word of God in their hearing, in their hearts and in their lives, know this and live this.

God calls us to work where and when God pleases. If the scripture is to be fulfilled, it must be in our hearing it, our embodying it, our acting upon it – literally, our ‘being’ it. And to become the fulfillment of the Word of God we need to let-go of all notions that Jesus, the hometown kid, is ours and begin to figure out what it means that “we are his.” He has a special claim on us, not we on him.

What he said that day in Nazareth is just a true today: Live the life Isaiah proclaimed and God will see to it that all your water is wine. And not just wine, but good wine. Wonderfully good wine that will warm your hearts and make you glad that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed you to do these things and more. All these things and more. And our cups will be filled to overflowing, and all the world will see that the Good News of Christ shines through all that we say and all that we do. This is how we will become a community of Love, a people of faith, hope and charity – a people who know that we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Amen.