Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope and The Common Good

I just listened to Pope Francis' address to the United States Congress and to all of us who call this country our home.  It was a brilliant speech and very moving.  I was especially struck by his use of
the phrase "the Common Good" over and over again.

I think we need to be clear what are the enemies of the Common Good, particularly in the political arena.  Ideological thinking, I believe, is the greatest of these.  By thinking I mean the adherence to a set of ideas as absolutes which divide the world into those who are for us and those who are against us.  The temptation, of course, is not just a political one, but also a religious one.  The temptation is to raise the convictions of belief and value that I hold to the level of closed revelation, absolutes that must be adhered to in order to be a "good" American or person of faith.

The biblical story is one in which the People of God are constantly challenged by this temptation, assuming that God demands these kinds of choices.  Yet in the end, as Francis I think is saying, there is only mercy, love and blessing.

Over the course of the biblical story, God's desire to bless his people is God's desire for the common good.  The act of blessing is too often thought of as the making special of an individual or group of persons above others.  Yet that is not at all biblical.  The heart of blessing is gratitude and generosity; I cannot bless that for which I am not grateful and toward which I am unwilling to be generous.  To bless is to not only wish the best for another, but to commit one's self to making the best come true.

There is no blessing without the common good.  And the "common" in "common good" is in the realm of the mercy of which Francis so often speaks.  The mercy of God makes the embrace of God and the desire of God for our well-being wider than even our powerful imaginations can fathom.

I this political season I long for these core values to find expression.  In a world beset by religious ideology (which I believe is an oxymoron) I long for the same.  Even though I am not a Roman Catholic I am grateful for the voice of this Pope calling us to these values, unafraid of where those values might take him and the world.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Taking Up Your Cross: Committing to the Values of the World to Come

Remembering Father Kenneth Leech (1939-2015), who died on September 12.  Fr. Leech was one of the great prophetic voices in the church in our time.  It was a privilege to be in his presence, but also to read his books, all of them leading in some way to transformation of thought and action.  I am struck that yesterday's Gospel reading included these words of Jesus;

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34)

And today, September 14, is the Feast of the Holy Cross, when we pray:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him...

A book of Fr. Leech's to which I return again and again is We Preach Christ Crucified.  In it, he has this to say about Mark 8:34 and the radical call to take up our cross.

Like many of the 'hard sayings' of Jesus, this sounds impossible.  It is only possible through the power of the cross itself by which we have in fact been crucified.  This is what Paul means when he speaks of the destruction of the old self.

[Romans 6:6-8] We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin...But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

It is only through solidarity in the cross that we can attain solidarity and communion with God in the life of the new age.  There is no short cut.

What does it mean to bear the cross?...To be a Christian is to be signed with the mark of the cross, the baptismal mark of incorporation into Christ.  To bear the cross in solidarity with Jesus is not to endure some mysterious kind of suffering which is thrust upon us, still less is it a way of describing an interior psychological attitude or orientation.  It is a path freely chosen, the social reality of committing oneself in this world to the values of the world to come.  This is clearly a call to lose on's life for the sake of the gospel. It is not a call to imitate Jesus as a figure from the past but to follow the risen and present Jesus of today....To respond to the cross is to follow, to share; it is to be a disciple.  it is to respond to a new and amazing relationship of co-operation with God which is utterly different from the relationship of slave to master. We are sealed not as slaves but as children, as inheritors of the Kingdom of God.  [We Preach Christ Crucified, pp. 60-61]

Thanks be to God for Ken Leech: rest in peace and rise in glory in the world to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Political Correctness

A particular presidential candidate these days is getting much traction over his fight against "political correctness."  As I understand it, he means to claim that he has the right to speak however he wants, whenever he wants and to whomever he wants.  This is the essence of freedom of speech and politicians' enslavement to political correctness is one of the fundamental factors in keeping America from being "great again."

Freedom of Speech is, of course, a constitutional right, and, I, for one, do not want to see much limitation of that right.  As the saying goes, you cannot yell "fire!" in a crowded theater.

But here's how I think it works:

The Freedom of Speech, as well as all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, is not a set point in the universe; it is a dynamic thing.  Individuals, groups of people such as families or affinity groups or communities of any kind are constantly negotiating what Freedom of Speech is, and, what is more to the point, what the consequences are for it.

Now you are, of course, free to assert that there should be no consequences of free speech, but that is simply not true, even in the world of "shoot-from-the-hip" presidential candidates.  Speech is always being negotiated because community itself is always being negotiated.

The pejorative "political correctness" (it is almost always used pejoratively) implies that some force is keeping me from saying certain things that also has the effect of keeping me from speaking the truth.  "Political correctness" always has the hint of conspiracy about it.

Part of the negotiation of community, and of free speech, however, is individuals and groups of people having the right to define themselves.  They get to decide what it means to treat them with respect.  Donald, for instance, does not want to be called Don.  He insists on being treated with a high degree of respect and a fundamental part of that is the speech you use around him and especially about him.  In one sense, that does not make him special at all.  We all do this.  It is part of the negotiation of community.

When you call a woman a "bimbo" much of America (one hopes!) is going to call you on it for using a demeaning and disrespectful term.  You can continue to use it; that's your right.  But you can neither expect the larger community just to shrug its shoulders, nor, if you persist, can you stop others from calling you a bully.

Freedom of speech as a fundamental right of every American has to constantly be negotiated with another fundamental value (at least):  the dignity of every human being and the right of our society to shape one of the great aspirations of our Constitution:  "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility...[and] provide for the general welfare."

So-called "political correctness" should not be a pejorative, it is simply a manifestation of individuals or groups of people aspiring to these high values.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jesus says it is time for some humility

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:18

Dear White Christian America,

If we are ever going to get off square one in talking about race in this country (not talking about talking about race, which we do endlessly) then we should take some 3,000 year old advice from King David of Jerusalem, the purported author of Psalm 51.  We need a troubled spirit and a broken heart.

This is different (please, please hear this) than guilt.  There may (probably) or may not be (unlikely) things we need to feel guilty about in regards to race, but we cannot possibly know that without first listening and conversing with our black and brown sisters and brothers.  My own experience is that for the most part they do not want our guilt. They want our ears, our spirits, and our hearts.

In other words, they want our acceptance that things are not as they should be and our grief that they are not.  Yes, it is grief that is necessary for our participation in this conversation and not our guilt.  Grief may be what we most need to enter into true conversation, because grief almost always humbles us and defuses our defensiveness.  Grief is a great equalizer across the human spectrum.  This is true in a way that guilt can never be.

Grief takes us out of the realm of right and wrong, a deadly realm in which we seem to get ourselves more and more mired.  We live increasingly in a quicksand of bombast, defensiveness and mistrust (and often demonization) of those who are different from us or those with whom we disagree.  We will never have an actual conversation that moves us forward as long as we are stuck in this mess.

One of our current presidential candidates puts forward the desire to "Make America Great Again."  We Christian people know (don't we?) that greatness is born in humility.  We believe in a Savior whose troubled spirit and broken heart (Remember his weeping over Jerusalem?  His grief in the Garden of Gethsemane?) was the path to greatness. St. Paul put it this way, "Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself...being found in human form he humbled himself."

My fellow Christians if that is how our salvation was won, do we expect our greatness as a nation to be won any other way?  Do we expect that continuing to build "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" will be done any other way?

Most of the time these days I despair that we will ever be able to come together as a community across racial lines, the divide is so deep and ugly and angry.  The quicksand seems too deep, and we have been stuck in it too long.  But let's have a little faith, my fellow Christians, a little humility, an acknowledgement that reconciliation is necessary not deciding who is to blame is enough movement of our hearts and spirits for God to pull us out of the muck.

It is actually what our God does best, but we are free people and we need to ask for help, acknowledge that we need help and offer our broken hearts.  Without that kind of humility nothing changes.

Faithfully yours,
A White Christian American

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Prayer for Uncles & Aunts

Uncle Bud is second from the left.  These are the siblings
of my mother's generation:  l to r:  Patricia (my mom),
Harold (Bud), Donald (DJ), Barbara, & James (JJ).
Written in honor of my Uncle, Harold "Bud" Johnson, who died on July 23, 2015 at the age of seventy.  Uncle Bud was like glue--he brought people together and helped hold them here.  The family level of extroversion has dropped dramatically with his passing to the next life.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
for the gift of the brothers and sisters
 of our mothers and fathers.
We call them uncles and aunts, funny words.
You use them to bless us, to show us our own glory, your gift to us
Our parents give us wings and teach us to fly.
Our uncles and aunts teach us to do tricks in our flight, and the many ways of landing we will need.
Most of these are safe.
Their job is delight and wisdom that sometimes we will listen to
because they are not our parents.
It is a kind of learning to grow up sideways.
In the mist of the roots of our language
it is no surprise to us at all
that the word "uncle" was once a verb
that the word "aunt" comes from the same source as the word "adventure."

The sadness is that as we grow we inevitably lose them
and their joy at seeing us--and we them--becomes memory.
As you bless them in the life beyond this life
bless us also to keep their memory in our wings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Torn Down Walls and Open Doors: the Struggle to be the Church

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath,NY, on July 19,2015. Ephesians 2:11-22

I want to begin by reading from a letter that has “gone viral” on the internet. Some of you may have seen it. It is entitled “A Letter on Why We are Breaking Up or Why I am Leaving the Church I grew Up In."

Dear Church,

If I told you: “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would be lying to the both of us.

It is you.

I know this is hard for the both of us, but it is true. You see, I’ve moved on. I’ve found a church that respects not only me but everyone around me, and it is really nice. I now realize what I have been missing out on all my life.

See, I know you are the church that my mom wants me to be with, the one she wants me to raise my children with, to grow old and die with, but my mom is part of a generation that is getting smaller and smaller every single day. Even though us breaking up will hurt her, I know she will understand.

Frankly, you aren’t a nice church to be a part of. You discriminate. You won’t let me participate in higher church positions because I am a “woman” and not worthy. You made me work the nursery during the summers because I was a girl, while my cousin got to teach the youth groups because he was a boy. Not cool, church.

Also, you are way behind the times. This new church I met (It’s the Episcopal Church, just to inform you) loves all of my friends equally. When I told my priest that my best friend was gay, he was totally cool with it. In fact, as of last week, my best friend can get married in my new church – full on married, with all the sacraments. You, on the other hand, you just weren’t very accepting. You told me he was going to hell. Not cool, church. Not cool.

Also, I am a bit worried as to where you are headed. You rarely help the poor, church, you pour all your money into making bigger buildings, larger parking lots, and more room for a dwindling congregation. Right now, just outside your walls, churches are being burned because of race, kids are going hungry, and the wealth-divide grows more and more with every passing day.

This gospel you taught me, the one that is focused so much on money – money as a reward for faith, having no money as a response to being a sinner, debt being a sign of a polluted soul – isn't the real good news. No, you judge too many people for things they cannot control, and you raised me to do the same. I can’t live that way anymore. I can’t live with you anymore.

Don’t call me selfish for abandoning you, and don’t tell me that my soul is in danger when it isn’t. I have never felt more sure about anything since I decided to move. I see an inclusive church, one I can understand and one that, in turn, understands humanity. I see a place where I can actually make a difference for Christ, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. I can make a difference because I am human.

You’re founded on something I just can’t support – a closed door.

So I’ve decided to move on. I’ve found a new church. I’m breaking up with you.


This young woman understands perfectly the heart of the Gospel that St. Paul is proclaiming to the Church in Ephesus in this morning’s reading. Jesus breaks down the wall, and it stays down. Jesus opens the door, and it stays open. Jesus is not a wedge issue. Following him does not divide us from others. Jesus, Paul says, is “our peace.”

Now in Christ Jesus, you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

The Christian Church was scandalous in its early days in the same way its Lord had been scandalous, the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners, touched and healed the unclean, and treated women and foreigners, even religious heretics, as equals.

No matter what your status in the world, the early Christians included you in their gatherings on an equal footing. Paul said this most famously in his letter to the Galatians.

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed by Christ. 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 (Galatians 3:26-27).

Observers of Christians in these early days called their gatherings “unnatural,” “subversive,” and in the Book of Acts St. Luke tells us they were known as “these people who are turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

All of these epitaphs because Christians refused in their gatherings to observe social boundaries. Unfortunately, it did not last long. We can actually see it begin to erode in the later New Testament books, when women and slaves begin to be reminded of their “proper place.” And in every age since, anyone labelled “sinner” has frequently found themselves outside the door, with no access to the table at which Jesus has always and everywhere wished to eat with them (or us, that is).

We love our walls, the doors that close and protect our fortresses (the buildings we call church). For over fifty years in the Episcopal Church we have struggled to tear the walls down and open the doors wide. The struggle has cost us because many of our members could not tolerate a greater and greater openness.

But breaking down walls and opening doors is clearly our high calling from the Lord who is our peace. And maybe, just maybe, if we get over our timidity about telling the world who we are and whose we are, people like the young woman who wrote that letter will hear the good news in a different, attractive, transformative way.

It is two of the promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant: We will seek and serve all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and proclaiming to all in word and deed the good news of God in Christ.

And that good news is as simple as this: all walls have been torn down and all doors have been opened.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Full and Equal Claim

Thirty-nine years ago, in 1976 (when I was still in high school), the Episcopal Church said through our General Convention

Resolved, that it is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God and have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.

For 1976 this was a fairly bold statement, although Episcopal clergy and lay people all over the country had been working toward it for the previous ten to fifteen years. Among them was Dr. Louie Crew, founder of Integrity.

The 1976 resolution was a promissory note to the Church's "homosexual" members. Thirty-nine years later, with the passage yesterday of canons and liturgies that provide for equal marriage, the note has been substantially paid (which should not be taken as the end of the struggle, for there is much work to do after legislation has passed as our African-American and female members have taught us).

Nevertheless, I rejoice today, and John and I rejoice. Many worked hard over these past thirty-nine years. John and I were among them, for the past 30 years. Today we are grateful and humbled.

The only grey side of today for me is a statement by Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh, who said during the debate in the House of Bishops, “We have not been talking about this for 40 years; we have been having a pitched battle."

That statement is political rhetoric; it is not the truth. How has this change occurred? Yes, it has occurred through the democratic processes of the Episcopal Church and some of the exchanges in that process were certainly heated, and some saw them as a battle. But the "political" process would have been impossible without real, sacrificial witness on the part of countless LGBT Episcopalians and our allies during these thirty-nine years. And yes, that included dialogue with those who disagreed. I participated in more of them than I can remember, although I do remember one in which Bishop McConnell (then a humble parish priest) not only participated in but hosted.

These thirty-nine years have been a testimony to some basic biblical principles:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)

Then Jesus said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath."

[Jesus said,] Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, adn will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

[Peter said,] "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."..."If then God gave them the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God" (Acts 10:34-35 & 11:17)

[Paul wrote,] "For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of youas were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is not longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.: (Galatians 3:26-28)

You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus...the only thing that counts is faith working through love." (Galatians 5:4-6)

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against these things. (Galatians 5:22-23).

As many times as I have had the Bible thrown in my face, words such as these have helped me keep my eyes on the prize. And these are not simply proof texts for me, but I have had the exquisite pleasure of living these realities in community with the parishes I have served and the people with whom I have worked and prayed across the country, and, indeed, around the world.

One could say that no the promissory note has not been paid, but it has come due, and the payment due is the unfettered proclamation of the Good News that the God we follow, who we know in Jesus Christ, and who has given each of us a share in the Holy Spirit, is the God of mercy, grace, and love for absolutely everybody. Everyone has a full and equal claim on the love of God.