Saturday, June 29, 2019

You Are Loved, You Are Important

Jesus announces to his disciples that soon he will go to Jerusalem, be mocked, arrested, tortured, killed, and after three days return. Soon after that announcement three of his disciples accompany him to a mountain top where astonishingly he appears to be radiantly bright, brighter than the Sun, conversing with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming “exodus” – the same death and resurrection previously mentioned.

Then, as chapter 9 of Luke continues, we are told, “When the time was being fulfilled for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That is, the time had come for the event of his “exodus” as he had described it. And so he “sets his face” – his face is set as flint, as if carved in stone – so determined is his spirit, no matter the obstacles set before him, his commitment to God’s will, which he proclaimed in the wilderness and has confirmed by his ministry of healing and teaching in Galilee, is firm. He is going to Jerusalem to face his detractors, his enemies, and both the political and religious powers that reside in that sacred city.

He sends messengers ahead as he takes the most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem through Samaria. This route would otherwise be avoided by all his countrymen and women as Samaria was home to people of common ancestry as Israel, but yet were hated enemies all the way back to the Eighth Century BCE over events that occurred during the Assyrian captivity. Still, he who calls us to love and pray for our enemies chooses to go this way, where his disciples receive the expected hostile reception in a Samaritan village.

John and James, the “sons of thunder” wish to command “fire to come down from heaven to consume them.” Jesus rebukes them. There is no time to continue petty feuds. Besides, I’m about to teach you that some if not most of our Samaritan so-called enemies are better people and more grateful for what I am doing than some of the most honored and esteemed of our own people. Of course, referring to his parable of The Good Samaritan, and the one-in-ten Lepers who unlike the others, stops, turns and thanks Jesus for restoring him to fullness and wholeness of life. Leave the village alone. Shake the dust off your sandals and keep going. We are going to Jerusalem. Now. No time for such nonsense! It ought to be noted, that Jesus, who some people believed to be Elijah returned, in this instance is utterly unlike Elijah who slaughtered the priests and prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. Jesus is all about rescuing and sparing life, not taking it.

Then curiously, after calling people to follow him unconditionally throughout Galilee, Jesus then proceeds to discourage or actually rebuke three wannabe followers. There is now a cost to journey with Jesus. Those who wish to join the movement need to be aware of the costs.

To the first he suggests it will be a life of homelessness. The next wants to bury his parents before joining up. Despite this being a solemn obligation in Israel from which no one is exempt, Jesus rebukes him saying, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go, and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Implying that those who are not already following Jesus are as good as dead and may as well stay home to perform their duty. The third wants time to go home and say good-bye “to those at home,” something Elijah allowed his protégé Elisha to do. Again, showing himself not to be Elijah, Jesus replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
In the vernacular of the sixties and seventies, either you are on the bus or off the bus. Either you are walking with Jesus, or you are not. The stakes are high. There is an urgency to live out the Good News here and now.

We often need to be reminded that Jesus comes to announce good news to the poor, to the stranger, to the sick and the homeless – to all those at their wits end and with few or no resources. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, asks “What is that good news? It is quite simple. You are loved by God, and you are loved by me, I want to live with you, and that you are important.” [Jean Vanier, We Need Each Other, Paraclete Press, p 70] This news, this love, is what both compels and propels the journey with Jesus.

Every day we hear sabers being rattled. Iran better watch out. Journalists better watch out. Anyone approaching our border better watch out. We hear of families being separated, children sleeping on cement floors with no soap, no toothbrushes, no toothpaste. We see people risking their lives and even losing them to escape unbearable conditions in their home countries. In the name of Christ there are voices telling us that the LGBTQ community is “the biggest threat” to religious morality in America. We are urged to see all these others as just that – other, dangerous, enemies, as non-persons not fit to live among us for whatever the “reasons” that are marshalled to justify such ill treatment in the name of “the law,” or the “law of God,” which law itself is bent, ripped apart and often abandoned in favor of so-called “security.”

After a lifetime of living with people who have been abandoned by society and even their families, Jean Vanier writes, “Those who are the most rejected must be respected. … It is the fact that the Church is constituted by [their] presence … They are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security. We the Church are being touched to become people of compassion. Deep forces have been called forth from within my heart so that I can welcome you, the broken one. As I welcome you, I discover that I am broken too. I also discover that [they] are my teachers, because those who have been crushed for whatever reason are a sign of the presence of God, and where there is the presence of God, the disciples of Jesus must be present.” [Ibid, p 72]

When Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem to be crushed his mission is set – his face is set. He knows that in Jerusalem there are those who oppose his mission, but that it is urgent to confront them. His disciples wish to destroy those who are in the way. Jesus says no. There are those who will follow “if only.” To them he says no, the time is now. If you are going to follow me you must come now and be with me all the way through the Cross to Resurrection.

We read these often-enigmatic little stories and think they somehow need careful interpretation. It does not take much “interpretation” to see that Jesus’s message and mission are clear. We are all broken. We are all “others.” We are all to become people of compassion. Good Samaritans. A welcoming community offering the Hospitality of God to all. We are to go out and fish for people in need of all the love and compassion and acceptance we can muster because. Because every single person deserves love, and community, and acceptance, and to know that you are important – you are important to God and to me and to all of us. Just the way you are and for who you are. There is no time for anything else but this: you are loved and you are important.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Repairing The Breach: Reparations

Reparations. No doubt some will stop reading or listening just at the mention of Reparations for Slavery and what the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church called The Sin of Racism in March, 1994. About that same time our General Convention called parishes to hold Anti-Racism Conversations in their churches on the day of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, “until such conversations are no longer needed.” While at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, we did just that for about 10 years, open to the community. This evolved into a monthly conversation with people from around Howard County. Interest and energy faded, but the need for such conversation has not. What I learned about racism in America, and specifically Howard County, and the White Privilege I and others continue to enjoy has stayed with me.

This week our bishop, The Right Reverend Eugene Sutton testified before a congressional committee in favor of a bill, HR 40, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) that calls for the creation of a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans – a process our Diocesan Convention unanimously passed at our most recent convention in May. In the run up to our convention Bishop Sutton issued a Pastoral Letter on the Subject of Reparations (below), and on racial reconciliation, on what reparations really mean “repairing the breach”, and how the diocese might move forward together through programs and initiatives to build a better world out of the wreckage of the past. If we have learned anything in the past few years, the racial divide in America is a breach that is deep and that is wide.

It might be easy to read about all this and the hearing that took place in Congress on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865, and return to business as usual. The Holy Spirit, the subject of our attention just two weeks ago on the Day of Pentecost, however, evidently wants to keep the subject of “repairing the breach” first and foremost in our minds. How else to explain the lessons appointed for our attention just a few days after our Bishop’s testimony in Congress on the subject of Reparations?

Our first lesson from Isaiah chapter 65 depicts the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Mohammed virtually begging for our attention: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.” What an apt description of a nation that has repeatedly attempted to legislate a repair of the breach for the sins of racism and slavery, even amending the Constitution to do so. But apparently legislation does not change hearts, minds, attitudes and, most importantly, policies – such as redlining, underfunding African-American school districts, address the school-to-prison “pipeline” that incarcerates a disproportionate number of African-Americans, fair housing policies – a nearly endless list of ways that the breach may be repaired. As our resolution in convention put it: “These are some suggestions and you will have others. Is there a ministry you are passionate about that helps repair the inequalities in our society of the legacy of slavery? Do you work with organizations outside the Church that are doing this work? Do you have ideas for new ministries that would help build the Beloved Community?” That is, Reparations is not about handing out checks to individuals. It is about repairing communities and a nation that has been damaged by its past, and by its refusal to acknowledge the damage that past continues to do in widening the breach further every day.

Next comes Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 3 verses 23-29 which conclude, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul understands that God in Jesus means to put an end to all boundaries and divisions that divide people in this world. “Jew and Greek” addresses division along ethnic and religious lines. “Slave and Free” addresses divisions along socioeconomic lines, dividing those who possessed a measure of freedom from those who possessed very little. “Male and Female” addresses divisions along gender lines, which we now know is no longer a simple binary division, but that human gender identity is now recognized to span a wide spectrum of possibility. One would think that throughout the Church, and in a nation that claims to have Judeo-Christian origins, that repairing these breaches that cause us to view the world through the lens of these divisions that Paul lays out would be a primary task for all of us. The Jesus Paul knew and loved spent nearly every waking hour repairing these breaches and all kinds of divisions that prevent us from becoming The Beloved Community God desires for all of humankind.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is in the story we find in Luke 8:26-29. Jesus sets out with his disciples in a boat to continue his work on “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. There is a storm. This is a dangerous passage. After rebuking the storm, Jesus leads them to a country that is “opposite” their homeland only to find a man possessed by demons living among the tombs, whom the townspeople had chained and shackled, “but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds. Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” Instead they beg to be sent into a herd of nearby pigs, indicating we are in Gentile, not Jewish, territory. Jesus sends them into the swine, the pigs rush down a steep bank and drown in the sea. The man is found in “his right mind.” Curiously the town people are not happy about this – the man being restored to wholeness as a person. Evidently, they prefer to live with the boundaries and breach maintained, not repaired and healed, and with the man not considered “a person”.

Slavery has left us with a Legion of demons. Note that Jesus addresses the demons and finds a solution - a solution that comes with a cost. The healing of the breach cost some people considerable assets with the loss of the herd of pigs. And to exorcise the demons Jesus had to cross ever ethnic, religious, socio-economic boundary of his day. Nevertheless, the good news is that the Diocese of Maryland has decided to address the demons, and asks every congregation to join the process and hard work of repairing the breach. And now has invited the nation to do the same.

One wonders, however, if our nation is ready to address the demons that continue to keep us chained and shackled to the sins of generations of slavery and racism. Has the Lord, as depicted in Isaiah, captured our attention yet?

I am ready to be sought out by those who do not ask, to be found by those who do not seek me, says the Lord. I say, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that does not call on my name. I hold out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.

The Lord is ready to help us. Are we ready to be helped? Are we ready to do the hard and costly work of repairing the breach?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

That Which We Do Not Know, Knows Us!

That Which We Do Not Know, Knows Us
That’s it. Every year clergy all over the Church and World do one of two things: Find a substitute preacher for Trinity Sunday, or, scour our bookshelves and the internet for some new angle on preaching about the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Scouring the internet was extremely disappointing as there are so many bad websites with perfectly horrible information beginning with assertions that the idea of the Trinity is Biblical despite it never being mentioned once in the entire Bible. Oooops! So, after a lifetime in the church, seminary, being ordained since 1983 and preaching any number of sermons on Trinity Sunday, none of which I looked up this time around, this is the best I can ever come up with: That which we do not know, knows us.

All the theology and metaphors and images of the Holy One, or perhaps Holy Oneness is better, of all the religious writings of all the world’s and history’s religions, the truth of the matter is that that Holy Oneness that knows us better than we know ourselves transcends all that can be said – that Holy Oneness loves all of creation, every atom, every planet, every star, every creature and wants to be known by us and by all. All. All is all. We get glances. The stories, myths, poems and doctrines catch glimpses and sparks, and yet…and yet.

The Holy Oneness that knows us and loves us is not a doctrine, not a myth, not even a truth, as much as we would like to say it is any one of those. We sometimes say Salvation came to us as a person. Those who knew him in life, in death and his resurrected presence never heard of anything like the word “Trinity.” It would be several hundred years later when yet another tin-horn dictator, emperor or whatever you want to call him demanded a definition of the Christian God. Once again, Hubris disguised as leadership! The solution did in fact not end at Nicaea in 325, but rather was amended in 381 in Constantinople and is therefore officially called The Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed – we’re just too overwhelmed or too lazy to say all of that every Sunday so we shorten it – just as we always end up shortening whatever it means to experience and describe the Holy Oneness whenever we glimpse it, usually in the most unlikely places at the most inconvenient times. Sometimes there just are no words.

I’ve struggled with the Trinity since I was fourteen. After two years of Confirmation Classes I was asked to sign a copy of the Creed we call Nicaean. I hesitated, and raised some questions about my discomfort at doing so: it sounded rather exclusive to me then, and struck me as somehow not really getting to the heart of it. And how could it? It was conceived to refute several ‘heresies’ of the time. That is, it is negative theology really saying that whatever others had to say about the Holy Oneness does not count. I was told, “Look, just sign it because we already have a Bible with your name engraved in gold on the cover to give you in front of your parents and the whole congregation.” I signed it. I regretted that for years after and even contemplated calling the church to pull it from the files so I could burn it.

Over time I came to some peace with aspects of this Creed and what it tries to express – which is really more about being in relationship with the Holy Oneness in a variety of ways, and three in particular which can, with some exegetical skill and gymnastics, be construed from a few Biblical texts. For instance the third word of the Bible in Hebrew is “Elohim” – as in, “In the beginning God/Elohim created the heavens and the earth….while a wind/breath/spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” Elohim, the word for God, is plural. Once again it is plural in verse 26 when the Holy Oneness says, ‘Let us make man in our image .. so God created them male and female in his image.’  There is something inherently communal about the Holy Oneness, a part of which is mentioned in verse 2 as the “ruach” of God: the wind, breath or Spirit of God. If the Holy Oneness is a community, then we are created to be in community with others. All others.

Interestingly, hundreds, perhaps a thousand years later, the Fourth Gospel quotes Genesis 1 and tells us that “In the beginning was the Word,” a logos. Later this Word is identified as Jesus Son of God who comes to dwell among us – again in community. This Jesus or logos or Word was there before “in the beginning,” and all that was created and continues to be created comes through this Word who has a “like father like son” resemblance to the Holy Oneness that creates all that there is, “seen and unseen,” or “visible and invisible.”

This opening salvo of the Creed curiously lands us in the realm of that other discipline of human meaning, science. Over the last one hundred years or so scientists have learned a few things about the heavens and the earth, and what we call the entire universe. Edwin Hubble, for whom the telescope is named, made a startling discovery: there are galaxies other than our own, and the universe is still expanding. This led the Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaitre to assert that the universe must have had a starting point. Which in turn led George Gamow in 1949 to formulate the Big Bang as that starting point, still a working theory that has been modified along the way. A woman, Wendy Freedman and her team of astrophysicists in 1998 concluded the Bang that banged happened roughly 13.7 Billion years ago. And beginning around 2003 or so, thanks to the telescope named Hubbel and other technology, an energy that cannot be seen has been detected that is expanding the universe, and gravitational forces that hold galaxies together that also cannot be seen: for lack of better terms, Dark Energy and Dark Matter respectively. Dark Energy is estimated to make up some 70% of the known universe, and Dark Matter makes up some 25%, leaving the kinds of matter from rocks, planets and stars, to atoms, electrons, quarks, gluons and the rest making up a mere 5% of the known universe. What we can see, touch, detect and measure is only five-percent of it all.

Which means that those clerics back in 325 and 381 seemed to have gotten it right: whatever you want to call the Bang that Banged, for our purposes the Holy Oneness, created everything seen and unseen, visible and invisible – and the unseen-invisible dimensions of creation make up 95% of it all. All. The parts we cannot see hold things together and at the same time stretch everything apart into further creativity. Some call this “mystery.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most important theological minds of the 20th Century calls it amazing and that all of this ought to call us to Radical Amazement. According to Judy Cannato in her book of the same name writes about, “Heschel, who said that wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of a religious attitude toward life and the proper response to our experience of the divine. The insights that connect us to the Holy One come ‘not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable.’ Living in radical amazement brings us into the space in which ‘great things happen to the soul.’” [Cannato p10]

I now embrace the Creed as a call to Radical Amazement! This Radical Amazement means to call us into relationship with the Holy Oneness who banged the bang! Which is dimension of the Holy Oneness I can fully embrace, and makes me happy I never retrieved my copy of the Creed with my signature to burn, because I am constantly radically amazed at what life, death, resurrection, relationships and most of all the eternal drive toward Love offers us.

It ought to be acknowledged that those Creedsters did not really talk of God as three persons, but rather as having three “personas.” A persona, in the Greek that some of the Creedsters were speaking back in Nicaea and Constantinople, is an evident characteristic of someone, or the role an actor plays in a drama on a stage. Back then one actor could play several ‘personas’ by changing masks. When Harper and Kirk Alan Jr were young, I had make masks for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their interpretations of these personas were themselves radically amazing! The Son was pictured as the Sun wearing sunglasses, so bright is the light of Christ’s Love! And recalling that on Pentecost, just a week ago, the arrival of the Spirit included fire, that mask looks perhaps a little more like the guy pictured down-under, and yet still captures the hearts set on fire that day in Jerusalem that sent many people on their way to spread the Word, the Logos – the News that the Holy Oneness wants to become our companion in this journey we call Life!

Really, we all have multiple personas, which is one way that we are made in the image of God who is Elohim. I’m a man, a son, a father, a husband, a priest, a drummer and on it goes. We all are made in the image of the diversity of all the creation that the Holy Oneness set in motion billions of years ago and which continues to expand and come together to this day, to infinity and beyond! We are each of us embody this radical amazement which is built into our DNA and the delicate intricacies of our bodies and minds.

Trinity is a day for all creation to rejoice that there is not a sameness to everything or everyone. That life and reality are not static, but dynamic and still changing. That there is some of the Holy Oneness in us all if we will only take the time to be aware of that. And that the Holy Oneness wants nothing more than to Love all of creation, all creatures, you and me, and for us all to Love the Holy Oneness in return. We do that by continuing to change with the universe on one hand, and to allow ourselves to be brought closer to the Holy Oneness and one another in the Love with which set all this in motion.

One last thing to think about: my friend and companion in the way, Richard Chiroff, M.D., near the end of his life believed with all his heart and mind and soul that the Dark Energy that keeps the universe and all therein expanding is the Holy Spirit. Works for me. I know the Holy Spirit keeps expanding me in ways I never could have imagined. I would not be here right now without it! How about you?

In the end, it all comes down to this: That which we do not know, knows us! Let’s find ways to make time in our all too busy lives to know the Holy Oneness however it chooses to reveal and disclose itself to us!