Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Litany after the Orlando Massacre

A Litany after the Orlando Massacre
June 12, 2016

O God, in whose image all people are made,
Have mercy on us.

O Jesus, healer and lover of all souls,
Have mercy on us.

O Holy Spirit, source of courage and hope,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Trinity, divine community, gather us as one,
Have mercy on us.

We weep as Rachel for her children,
Hear our prayer.

We weep for the innocent victims of Orlando and everywhere,
Hear our prayer.

We weep for the perpetrators of violence and hate,
Hear our prayer.

We weep over our country and our world as Jesus wept over Jerusalem,
Hear our prayer.

We pray healing for those wounded in body or spirit,
Hear our prayer.

We long for mercy and truth to make a home with each other where righteousness and peace embrace,
Hear our prayer.

Help us to end a culture of violence and the fetish of guns,
We fervently pray, O God.

Inspire our earthly rulers to break open old arguments and act for the common good,
We fervently pray, O God.

Lead us in examining our own consciences for the remnants of prejudice and hate within us,
We fervently pray, O God.

Give your LGBT… children the courage to be and the equal dignity of every human being,
We fervently pray, O God.

Keep us from acting out of our fear to brand others as enemies,
We fervently pray, O God.

Protect our brothers and sisters of Islam, that they may live in the peace which is their true proclamation,
We fervently pray, O God

Surround us with your loving arms, draw us together across lines of religion, sexual orientation, and all those many ways we separate ourselves from one another,
We fervently pray, O God.

Inspire us to act in ways that bring all people closer to your promised reign of peace,
We fervently pray, O God.

For the dead we pray,
Lord have mercy.
For the wounded we pray,
Christ have mercy.
For a transformed world we pray,
Lord have mercy.

Let us pray.
O God of deep compassion and abounding mercy, in whose trust is our perfect peace: Draw near to us in this time of anguish, anxiety and anger, receive the dead into your eternal care, comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who are wounded or in despair, turn our anger into the conviction to act, channel our passion to end our dependence on violence for our sense of security, and lead us all to greater trust in you and in your image found in the entire human family; through Jesus the Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns among us and eternally.  Amen.

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, copyright © 2016, Epiphany Esources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843. Permission is given to adapt, so long as the copyright is reserved, with the word “adapted” included.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Belonging: The Letter to the Galatians

Sermon preached at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2016. Proper 4C:  Galatians 1:1-12

          A new parishioner came to see me once. I was eager to talk with her. She had come to service a few times, but I could tell she had a certain wariness. She told me her story, which included this incident. In the late 1980’s she started taking her pre-school age children to one of the local Protestant churches. It was nominally her family church, although she had attended very little growing up. Nevertheless, she wanted to give them a faith experience.

          As is typical in a small church, she soon found herself teaching Sunday School. She surprised herself by enjoying it. About a year and a half later her marriage began to disintegrate and she left her husband, which in her case she believed was the right and even responsible thing to do.

          She also did the responsible thing and made an appointment to see the pastor to let him know what was happening and why. She did not even get in the door of the parsonage. Through the screen door the pastor let her know that he already knew what had happened. He was sorry for it, but if she was going through with the divorce she was no longer able to teach Sunday School. She turned and walked off the porch and has never attended another church regularly.

          The Letter to the Galatians is, I think, the most fascinating of all the New Testament writings. There are other major contenders for this honor, but I choose Galatians because I think it has never lost its obvious relevance to the present day.

          Paul begins his letter to the Galatians in his usual way, with a greeting in which he names the parties who are to receive the letter, and he and his companions who are sending it. In every other letter Paul writes, he then goes into a second section giving thanks and blessings for the church to whom he is writing.

          But not Galatians. Having greeted them, he gets right down to business.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ…let them be accursed and let me say it again, let them be accursed.

          Later on in the letter he will call the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched” (3:1) and he will say that he wishes those who were confusing them would castrate themselves (5:12). He is not happy, and more than that, he clearly sees what is going on as a crisis.

          So what was going on? I would say it was about belonging. How do you set the boundaries so that you know who may legitimately call themselves Christian and who may not?

          Paul’s opponents fervently believed that following Christ involved following the Jewish law as he had done. First and foremost this meant the requirement of male circumcision as prescribed by the Law, going all the way back to the patriarch Abraham. Male circumcision was a distinctly Jewish mark of belonging, unknown (and even outlawed) in Greek and Roman culture where Christianity was spreading.

          Paul makes clear in his letter, however, that this crisis is not simply over circumcision. It is about the very nature of the gospel. His bottom-line goes something like this:

You can be sure you are saved if you follow the Law as laid out in the Torah. In other words, your behavior saves you.

          This way of thinking was what Paul called a “different gospel,” although he goes on to point out that it is actually no gospel at all. There is no “good news” in having to follow a law that no one can possibly follow.

          Instead, the Gospel Paul proclaims is this:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:19b-20)

          In other words, we are saved not by any work of ours, but by Christ’s work of sacrificial love. I do not know I am right with God by the things I do, but by the thing Christ did, which was ultimately not an act of judgment, but of love.

          Paul goes on to make clear what the consequences are of these two different ways of believing:

If you believe you are saved by following the law, then you can belong only when you do so. Break the law and you are out. For those proclaiming this “different gospel” it made sense that you could be a descendent of Abraham only by doing what Abraham did.

But that is not the Gospel. The Gospel, Paul said, is that you are a descendant of Abraham if you have the faith Abraham had, that is, if you depend on God for your salvation, not your own good behavior.

          And if that was true, then the circle of the followers of Abraham was one that only got wider and wider, so he will make what was then the most astonishing statement that

Having faith means we do not live under the thumb of judgment. You are all children of God through faith. In baptism (which was not a work, but a statement of faith) the seemingly natural separations that exist among us do not exist anymore—there is no longer Jew or Gentile, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.

          God is not the great accountant in the sky, keeping track of sins so that he can determine who is in and who is out. No, God is not in the accounting business, he is in the adoption business.

          Live in freedom, Paul says, not fear. But remember that all God’s adopted children are free, and the only way that can work is if you live by this single commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do not work at loving one another you will be overcome by conceit, competition and envy and you will end up back where you started.

          This debate about whether right behavior or right love is what saves us and calls us together in community has gone on in the church ever since. In many ways the issue has never been settled.

          In one last attempt to make it as simple as possible, it is the difference between being loved because our behavior has earned it, or being loving because we were loved first. To put it in the language of belonging, it is the difference between belonging because our behavior has earned it, or belonging because God recognizes us first as brothers and sisters of Jesus.

          It is obvious by now that I believe my parishioner’s story is an example of how the church clings to the behavior-earning belonging model. Unfortunately, her story is not an aberration. I could tell you stories like hers all day long. And many of you could as well. No church—whether denomination or individual congregation—is free from this struggle.

          It is the most natural thing in the world to want to draw a circle around ourselves with clear behavioral boundaries.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul will actually use the word “unnatural” to describe the boundary-crossing life we are called to live as a church (Romans 11:24). It does seem something like unnatural to say that no one earns their way into the church, but it is the truth and we must proclaim it, and, even harder, practice it.

          Holy living is first and foremost holy loving or it is meaningless, a “different gospel” that is no gospel at all.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Speaking of Glory...

Speaking of Glory, our trip last week to Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon was filled with encounters with unspeakable Glory (I think that is the best kind--when something puts you beyond words). As I look at this picture, taken on my 55th birthday (a landmark with Glory all its own), it almost looks faked, like standing in front of some blown-up picture postcard.  It was, however, the real deal.

Look what happens when God's ruach blows through Mother Nature's handiwork! (ruach is Hebrew for spirit/breath/wind).  I'm talking about the Canyon, of course, not the "little" guy in front of it. But then, the "little" guy is so very grateful to be in this place at this time.  I look happy and I am, although there are still many days when I struggle for this state of being.

Now back among the hills and fields of the Southern Tier of Western New York, spring is springing. The hills are developing that light green cast as the leaves begin to poke through the buds. What a wonder creation is. There is such glory in the desert we spent several days exploring last week, and such glory in this very different landscape I see out my window this morning.  It makes me think of one of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poems:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

In the late 19th century, Hopkins could already see the damage done to the creation by humankind, although 125 years or more later we might not be so sure that "nature is never spent." And yet, nature, the creation, is still charged with the glory of God.

Here's a couple more pictures:
The Verde Canyon:  Oasis in the desert.
A sample of the red rocks that surround Sedona, Arizona, which was home base for us.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Gracefully Loved, Gratefully Alive

Today, April 4, 2016 is the 50th Anniversary of my  Baptism.  I was just shy of five years old, but I have no memory of it.  The oldest of my sisters, Leann, was baptized at the same time. She was a bit over a year  old.  It happened in a country Methodist Church, where my Hopkins' grandparents belonged most of their lives.  It has become the most important day of my life, which may seem very strange, but let me tell you why.

No matter what has been going on in my life, spiritually or otherwise, I end up going back to that day.  I must admit that at first this was a discipline based on my theological understanding of Baptism, but it very quickly became a natural habit.  This habit was formed by what I began to find as I tried too go back to that moment of which I have no memory.

What I began to find was real relationship with God, and by that I mean that I discovered God as wholly and holy gift.  My relationship with God is neither something I created nor is it something I earned, it was simply given to me, and my job since that day, through many fits and starts, tosses and turns, deep awareness and blissful ignorance, has been to be grateful.

Over time I have discovered that being grateful is what it is all about, and by "it" I mean life, everything.  I can talk about and write about the intricacies of Christian theology and understanding the Bible, but when all is said and done, this simple truth is the core:  I am gracefully loved by the force that created the universe and for that I am grateful.

Now, of course, I have many days when I forget this truth, and many days when it is hard to accept it, and many more days when I struggle with the fact that the person who just annoyed me is equally graciously loved.  This simple truth does not always make life easier.  I struggle with it, and that is where my participation in the Christian community, my study of the Bible, my experience of the crucified and risen Jesus, and my life with my husband and family comes in.  They all help to remind me that I am, indeed, graciously loved and my only lifelong pursuit is to be grateful.

I am grateful for my baptism, and I wouldn't want it to have happened in any other way.  I do not need to remember it; I simply need to use it as my reference point for striving to be as fully alive as God would have me be.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Nothing is Impossible for God

Sermon preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          Why did it have to happen this way?

          Maybe there is a clue in an odd juxtaposition today, a liturgical collision, if you will.

          On the Christian calendar today—March 25—is usually the Feast of the Annunciation when we tell the story of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the miraculous conception of Jesus.  This alignment is rare.  It has happened only 3 times in our lifetime, including today, and it will not happen again in this century.

          What does it mean for these two events of Jesus’ life to be on the same day?  I am struck mostly by Gabriel’s primary message to Mary that echoes down the ages to us:  “Nothing will be impossible for God.”

          We usually think of this as a statement of hope, perhaps the definitive statement of Christian hope.  But what if it not only points to the ability of God to bring miracle to human life, but the ability of God to embrace the entire reality of human life, even to the point of the suffering and death Jesus experienced on the cross?

          What if Gabriel was saying, “It will not be impossible for God to experience the greatest depths of human rejection and suffering”?  “Nothing will be impossible for God” is not only about the miraculous birth, but also the horrific death.

          It seems to me this brings home a question I think we all need to contemplate on this day.  Do we really want a God for which this day is not impossible?  Do we really want a God who suffers and dies?

          Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?  Wasn’t it enough to teach us about the kingdom of God?  Wasn’t it enough to give us a Golden Rule and a Summary of the Law, a Sermon on the Mount and a bunch of pithy parables?  Weren’t they enough to make the point?

          Why did Jesus have to suffer and die, for his life to be made a sacrifice?  We might be inclined quickly to say, “But Easter made it all better!”

          We all have a tendency to want to jump over today and go straight to Easter.  Why must we stay here?  What good is Good Friday?

          I was reminded of these questions by a dear friend of mine, a priest, who lost her oldest daughter, age 34, to a strange liver disease several years ago on Palm Sunday.  She wrote to several of her friends later that week,

When it comes to Easter joy, I fear that I no longer know what I'm talking about.  Everything I've previously written now seems to me as if penned by some stranger in a foreign tongue. . . . I am humbled, this year, not to be able to rush the resurrection.  To have to live it.  Breathe it. Weep it. Wait it. Hope it. Live though it as a mother dies to the pain of her labor so that she may bring forth new life.

          The truth is that we live in these three days all our life, not just Easter.  The suffering of Good Friday is our constant companion in this life.  Bombs in Brussels, politicians cynically playing on our fears, sudden death of the young, or the old, for that matter, mental illness that robs you of normality again and again.  Much of life is actually lived in tomorrow—Holy Saturday—the day of waiting, of teetering on the edge between hope and despair.

          Easter is our hope, and we Christians dare to proclaim that it is our reality, but we have to be honest enough to say, it is so only by faith.  Easter is a glimpse of all our Good Fridays undone, enough of a glimpse to give fuel to hope and even to joy, but never enough in this life to make Good Friday go away altogether.  For that we still wait.

          Why did God have to do it this way?  Do we really want a God who had to do it this way?

          The answer is often given to us in the logic of a theory of atonement that says it had to happen this way to fulfill the requirements of God’s law.  Jesus had to sacrifice himself for the sins of the whole world, because God requires bloody sacrifice for sin.  And because Jesus was also God’s Son, the sacrifice of his life was enough for all.

          That is one answer, with some biblical authority to back it up.

          But there is another answer.  Jesus’ death is not only about sin, but also, and perhaps mostly, about suffering.

          How can we trust a God who does not know the absolute depths of what it means to be human?  How can we trust a God who has never been rejected, who has never suffered, who has never died?  How can we trust a God who has never lived the reality of my friend and her daughter, and all our realities of life falling short of what we had hoped and dreamed?

          Jesus’ death on the cross is about God’s utter solidarity with us.  Jesus did bear the sins of the whole world on the cross.  That is important to me.  But what is more important to me is that Jesus also bore the suffering of the whole world on the cross.

          This is why I am a Christian, because nothing is impossible for God, even this day, even bearing the suffering of the whole world.  And because of this reality—Good Friday—I can trust this God enough to believe that Easter is possible.  I can hope for a day when it is all undone, and you and me and all who have suffered are so sure that there will be no more Good Fridays that we cannot stop singing and dancing for joy.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Do Not Presume One of the Thieves was Damned

Sermon preached on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016  at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  John 19:1-42

          When I was in college in Plattsburgh, I became friends with a local family who attended the same church I did.  The father of the family happened to be an Episcopal priest who was the protestant chaplain at Dannemora State Prison (yes, the prison that was in the news not long ago).

          On the grounds of the prison is a very beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Dismas, the good thief.  Early Christianity was fascinated with the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, and gave them names:  Dismas, the good thief, and Gestas, the bad one.

          These names are taken from the fourth century apocryphal gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus.  In that apocryphal gospel, after Jesus has died, Dismas goes on to accompany Christ on his journey to Hell to redeem the dead. This occurs between his death and the resurrection.  It is what is referred to when we say the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead,” or, in more traditional language, “he descended into hell.”

          Luke’s story of Dismas and Gestas seems obvious.  It seems like a picture of the choice before each one of us.  Be like Dismas and associate yourself with Christ or be like Gestas and reject him.  If you accept him you will join him in paradise.  If you reject him you will be left hanging.

          There is a saying attributed to St. Augustine (although no one has ever been able to find it in his writings) about the two thieves that is intriguing and may open up another possibility:

Do not despair one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.[1]

          Now what these two lines mean depend on where you put the punctuation. The oldest Latin forms of it that exist do not have any punctuation.  One assumes there should be a semi-colon after despair in the first line: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.” It doesn’t make sense any other way.

          If you put a parallel semi-colon after “presume” in the second line, the line becomes a warning:  “Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”  But if there is no semi-colon it means an entirely different thing: “Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.”

          What if that is what is being said?  What happened to Gestas, the “unrepentant thief?” The Bible is actually silent.  We assume that he went to hell. We have always assumed he went to hell.  But do we need to reserve judgment?

          Can the news be this good?

          I spoke earlier of the Gospel of Nicodemus’ story that Dismas, the good thief, accompanied Jesus to hell to preach the good news to those trapped there.  That story rose up among the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection. The First Letter of Peter refers twice to the story (3:18-20 & 4:6).  It seemed to answer a question that troubled early believers. What happened to all those who had died before Jesus was raised from the dead?  There was a special concern for Adam and Eve and for those who died in the great flood when God had destroyed the earth.

          So the story was told of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection.  It is sometimes called “the Harrowing of Hell.”  I mentioned its sneaking into the Apostles’ Creed, but it also plays a part in Christian art—especially Orthodox icons.  Orthodox icons of the resurrection do not show an empty tomb with a triumphant Jesus.  No, Orthodox icons of the resurrection are really icons of the harrowing of hell.  The icons show the results of this visit to the dead, show Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell.  He is hauling up Adam with one hand and Eve with the other.

          Our eyes might role at the quaintness of the story of Jesus’ entering hell, but the image is a powerful one, and its meaning even more so.  No place and no one is out of reach of the love of God in Christ Jesus.  That, of course, would mean Gestas too, and, by the way, you and me.

          A writer in The Christian Century a few years ago, David Cunningham, commented on the story of the two thieves this way:

While we are busy dividing up the world into the saved and the damned, God is at work on an entirely different project: reconciling the world—the whole world—to one another and to God’s own self.[2]

          The good news of the cross is this good: do not presume one of the thieves was damned. Do not presume that Gestas was left hanging.

          As Luke tells the passion story we are meant to appreciate the words of the good thief and reject those of the bad.  But who among us has never asked his question in some form or another:

If you are God, why don’t you do something to get me out of this mess?

          Gestas was a sinner, yes, indeed, but no more so than you or me.  We judge him at our peril.  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was as much for him as for anybody.  If he was in hell, Jesus and Dismas were there to lift him up among the redeemed.

[1] I found this in an article in The Christian Century by David Cunningham: “The Fate of the Other Thief: “Do not presume,” March 23, 2010, p. 30.  The idea for this sermon came from that article.
[2] Ibid., p. 33. Cunningham teaches religion and directs the CrossRoads Project at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Psalms for Week of Lent 5

Fifth Sunday in Lent:  Psalm 114
#Psalm114 uses the power of memory to proclaim God’s power of liberation. Given that freedom is a desire of God for us, what holds us back?

Monday in Lent 5:  Psalm 117
#Psalm117 is a short, summary announcement of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. How does this work as a statement of your faith?

Tuesday in Lent 5:  Psalm 124
#Psalm124 “If the Lord had not been on our side…then…” When have you experienced that the Lord has been on your side…your “help” (v.8)?

Wednesday in Lent 5:  Psalm 135 (1-10)
#Psalm135 sings the memory of the chosen people’s inheritance, albeit by acts of violence. Does grace have to occur at the expense of others?

Thursday in Lent 5:  Psalm 138
#Psalm138 gives thanks for God’s enduring faithfulness to “the lowly” (v.7). All people have purpose. What is your purpose? How do you know?

Friday in Lent 5:  Psalm 146
#Psalm146 asks us in whom we put our ultimate trust, look to for justice, care and sustenance. Does this mean we should distrust anyone else?

Saturday in Lent 5:  Psalm 147 (1-12)

#Psalm147 gives thanks for return from exile, from the feeling of a broken heart. Have you ever felt God’s presence lift you out of such a time?