Thursday, July 28, 2016

Will anger or mercy keep America great?

Everybody, it seems, is angry at somebody these days, although has not that always been true?  We are also caught up in a lot of anger toward groups of people who are different from us and from whom we strongly sense a threat to “our way of life,” or our security, or simply because they are wrong and stupid.

Politics, it is said, is about the art of compromise, and that is true. But it also is the art of division, of getting people to choose up sides.  Actually this impulse of politics usually comes first, and then, when we are clear about our divisions comes the art of compromise.

Of course the problem is that the art of compromise is a significant aspect of politics about which many people are angry.  Members of congress who engage in it are quickly labeled apostate, challenged and driven from office (Eric Cantor being a good example).  The former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was often angry at President Obama. He even sued him, but the two remained friendly, so Boehner remained suspect because he did not allow his anger to turn into hate.

The language of hate follows upon the language of anger, when the latter is devoid of mercy.  Some may cry “foul!” for my introducing a religious concept into the conversation, but it also has a history in American political rhetoric.  A couple times recently I listened to the whole of “America the Beautiful,” Katherine Lee Bates’ hymn for the country she loved and wanted us to as well. It is the second verse that has moved me in my recent hearings.

                O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
                Who more than self their country loved,
                And mercy more than life!

A patriot is one who loves country more than self, and mercy more than life.  What does that mean?  An internet search found almost exclusively the interpretation that “mercy” is a stand in for God or for the grace of God as saving us, more than we ever can by our own deeds.  Maybe that is what Bates meant, but she also chose that particular word, mercy.

Mercy is about the capacity to love even when wronged, to forgive and be able to accept forgiveness.  It is the value at the heart of our hearts that, in one of my favorite definitions of forgiveness because it is so provocative, we recognize “That we are not, at bottom, radically different from those who harm us.” Most of us, including myself, do not want this to be true, and, when we fell hurt and angry, find the thought an abomination.  Of course I/we am/are better than he/she/them.  It is the “natural” way of things.  There would, however, be no authentic Christian faith without mercy and forgiveness at its heart, and precisely this kind of turn-the-world-upside-down.

The United States as a political and social experiment also depends on the value of mercy—that I remain convinced that those who differ from me or more like me than different from me, that even in our profound differences, we can be patriots together. We might even learn to love our differences rather than be suspicious of them or even hate them.

There are plenty of incidences in the Bible where God gets angry with his people, even to the point of wrath and judgment.  But the key to the Bible’s story is that never tells the whole truth about God, and that is that God can never let go, and God asks the same of us with each other.  It’s hard work when the world is not clearly stratified into hierarchies based either on birth or wealth or behavior.  I think that’s the one thing our founding fathers and mothers knew:  that this grand experiment of a free society of equals would be very hard work indeed.

Katherine Lee Bates knew that we would need to love mercy more than life itself for this beautiful dream to come true.

When we say, “I’m angry!” Jesus says “Be merciful just as God has been merciful.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

Looking for a Lost Story

The following essay was written while attending Beyond Walls at Kenyon College. It was on the prompt "looking for a lost story" in the lyric writing group.

Prompt:  Looking for a lost story

As the family genealogist, I wander cemeteries looking for ancestors whose names I know.  They are comforting places, and also troubling ones.  The peace of connection laid alongside the sadness of lost stories.

I did the awful thing the other day of reading the profile of my former parish as they search for my replacement.  Of course, I was looking for myself, hoping, I guess, for a nice obituary.

“The Very Rev. Michael W. Hopkins became rector of Two Saints in 2004 and resigned for health reasons in 2014.”

I rifled through the pages looking for more that I did not find.  The pain again of a lost story, in which meaning was made and unmade and remade, woven and torn apart and re-woven.  Gone.

Death.  There are many kinds.  My mother called this morning to say my Uncle Donnie had died.  Two of her three brothers gone in the space of a year.  She had done as much to raise them as her mother had.  There was a hollowness, a lostness, a death, in her voice.

Memory is a tricky thing. It loses more than it keeps.  There is a story I do not know of an uncle returning home from the navy in Vietnam. He brought me a sailor suit.  I love the photograph of the two of us in identical uniforms.  I was four years old.  I smile when I see the photograph but weep for the lack of a story.

We all lose so much. Stories abruptly end and in our pain we do not savor them, much less remember them.  It is as if death frightens us so much that it seems better if the story is lost.  A lost story should mean lost pain. But it does not.  The need to forget is a cruel trick we play on ourselves, and it makes God weep.

Some nights when I cannot fall asleep I course through the animals we have lost:  Prosper, my first cat; Serge our first cat together; Cuthbert our first dog and loyal friend; and Festus, our greyhound we lost a little over two years ago.  When I first found myself doing this, I tried to stop it.  I didn’t think prolonged mourning would do me any good.  Yet I have not stopped, so on occasion I remember, I smile, I grieve.  I tell myself stories, stories that are not lost.

Last year I started planting flowers around a monument in one of the cemeteries of my hometown.  Growing up, my grandmother tended to this year after year.  After her death in 2004, my sister tried to keep it up for a couple years but she couldn’t see the point.  When I moved back near to home it seemed like something I should do, although I myself was not sure what the point was.  Fewer and fewer people go up to that cemetery that sits on a little rise above the local school—Highland, it is called.  My grandmother was the last of our relatives buried there, in the plot of my great-grandmother’s family, the Henderson’s.  I plant the geraniums and try to check on them once a week.  Somehow it seems like something that ought to be done, a kind of protest against the losing of story.  Such a protest, I think, is like drying God’s tears.

As a priest I have watched death happen many times. Most times, I would say, it is a slipping away, but once and awhile I have watched someone “come alive” quite intensely, usually without words, but as if in a final struggle, and then, always, a look of peace, even happiness, the gone.  I am not sure what the brief alertness means except as a last grasp of story and the profound desire, “Remember me.”  Remember my story.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Edmond Lee Browning

Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning (PB from 1985 to 1997) died this morning. Twenty years ago he and Patti retired to a blueberry farm in Easter Oregon, where once I had the privilege of spending a day with him along with the Integrity Board. I remember the Browning's as more than gracious hosts, who clearly delighted in our company.

I presented Bishop Browning with the Louie Crew award on behalf of Integirty,
assisted by The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton (l) and The Rev. Susan Russell (r.)
When he was installed as Presiding Bishop at Washington Cathedral, I was living in suburban Chicago, Illinois, during the time I stepped back from seminary, having done 1984-1985 at Nashotah House in Wisconsin. I was contemplating heading back into the process, but truly unsure whether or not I wanted to run the gauntlet of the ordination process as an openly gay man and someone living with clinical depression.I knew I was called to be a priest, but I did not know if I could pursue that call in the church I had come to love, The Episcopal Church.

After his election at the 1985 General Convention, Bishop Browning said these now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) words, "This church of ours will be open to all; there will be no outcasts."

Those words gave me courage. Those words gave me hope.  Those words kept me in the church and shaped any ministry in which I have been engaged. My gratitude for them has no bounds, and for the man. He wasn't perfect and there were some difficult times during his tenure, and many of us were disappointed that he did not help the church go faster on gay and lesbian inclusion. On the other hand, we absolutely would not be where we are today without him and his partner in ministry, Pamela Chinnis, President of the House of Deputies.

Bishop Browning after consecrating Bishop Harris.
I watched him ordain and consecrate Barbara Harris as a bishop, the first women to be so consecrated anywhere in the Anglican Communion. That took courage.  At his last General Convention, I watched him preside at the Integrity Eucharist, for which he took a good bit of criticism.

His heart was open to so many.  The church's heart opened a great deal during his time with us. It was painful at times, and I have never been able to imagine how costly to him, but he bore it and helped us bear it.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Elie Wiesel

 Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87 on Saturday.  Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he was a Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively of his experience in the camps (he spent time in Birkenau, Auschwitz and Buna, and was liberated from Buchenwald).

Wiesel's first book, written in 1955 after ten years of silence concerning his experience, is called Night. It is his story of life in the camps. It is a horrifying read, but also a must read, perhaps ever more so as the distance of time begins to fade the memory.  The Holocaust is an event that cannot be forgotten. The future of the world depends on it.

I first read Night in a European History class in college. I am certain I have read it more times than any other book, and it changes my life every time I do. It has profoundly affected my understanding of and relationship to God. In truth, I believe the Holocaust is the event that changed Theology for ever, although that change has been mightily (and, unfortunately successfully) been resisted, particularly by Christians.

How has it changed theology?  For two major reasons, I think.

First of all, the Holocaust confronts the church with the truth that anti-semitism and anti-Judaism have been a cancer at its core almost from the beginning. I do not believe the Holocaust is conceivable without this cancerous distortion which has over history produced more pogroms and holocausts of differing proportions than can be counted.  To believe not only that the Jews killed Jesus, but that they have remained personally responsible for this atrocity throughout history is our sorry legacy as Christians.  There can be no atoning for it, except in perpetual humility and constantly renewed deference to God's chosen people.

Second of all, our understanding of God has to be affected by this massive challenge to any facile understanding of God's goodness that the Holocaust brings. Perhaps the most-quoted passage from Night comes in a dialogue between a fellow prisoner and Wiesel after they witness the hanging of a young boy along with two adults at Buna. The thousands of prisoners at the camp were forced to watch this horror, and then pass by one by one to see the victims up close. Wiesel writes,

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...

For more than a half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look at him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is he? Here he is--He is hanging here on this gallows..."

That night the soup tasted of corpses.

For me this profoundly moving passage has meant that over and over again I have to allow my easy understandings of God and how God relates to the world has to die over and over again.  There can be no easy resting on God's omnipotence, goodness and triumph over evil.  There must always be the question, "Why?" Nearly everyone has the experience of asking, "Why?" when personal or global tragedy strikes.  The Holocaust means that it is always a legitimate question; there is no disobedience or heresy in asking it.  It is a question with which we must frequently wrestle, and it is a question we must take care never to answer definitively? To do so suggests a control and an understanding to which we can never attain.

There is also a strong sense that suffering must be allowed into the heart of God, and, in Christian terms, into the life of the Trinity. I know that I am treading on potentially heretical ground here, something called "patripassionism," the claim that God the Father suffered when God the Son suffered, a notion theologians have deemed to have been impossible for centuries.  An omnipotent God cannot suffer.  Any God that makes sense to me after the Holocaust, and after the suffering of individuals, including my own, that I have experienced over time, has to know suffering at his very heart. Creation itself requires it, if we make any claim that God is both responsible for it and remains a partner in it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler, participated in a plot to assassinate him, was jailed and eventually hung for it, wrote from prison that "only the suffering God can help."

Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God inn the world:  God is the deus ex machina.  The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only a suffering God can help. (Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, enlarged edition edited by Eberhard Bethge (1971), p. 361.)

I am an Easter Christian, but not one which can ever experience Easter without Good Friday.  Easter is our hope. Good Friday is the world in which we live.  There can be no Easter triumphalism.  In Easter we say the powers of death have been defeated, that now nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Easter proclaims God's ultimate future in which we can trust, and it is the power to live through Good Friday, but only through, not around.

Some random thoughts on the death of Elie Wiesel.

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.