Monday, January 16, 2017

Five Truths for the Who Oppose the Hate that seems Ascendent

Inspired by several different people, including The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1.  We can only absorb prejudice and hatred together.

I'm reading a lot of people in deep personal distress.  It needs to be shared, and in some way other than social media.  Find a group where you live. Found a group where you live. Hook into a networks like Sojourners or Van Jones Dream Corps.  So also...

2.  We can only practice resistance and organize for change together.

See #1.  These are separated because they are separate steps in the process of transformation.

3.  Don't be surprised when institutions fail us, but by all means do not give up on them.

Institutions have already failed us.  They will not save us.  It is the widespread (and deserved) mistrust of institutions that has gotten us into this mess. When institutions are weak and mistrusted it leaves holes for ego-driven individuals to walk through to "save the day."

4.  Those in this country who have traditionally held power are not going to give it up easily.

We cannot take that power back from them, we can only diffuse it with faith, hope, and love, acted out in myriad ways, but especially through non-violent resistance.

5.  Think Globally but Act Locally.

In the localities that elected Mr. Trump people have bought that notion of a liberal elite because they have little experience that proves otherwise.  It just may be that progressive people living in areas that voted for Mr. Trump is where the most important work needs to be done.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"When slumbering giants of injustice emerge.."

Words from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his collection of sermons, Strength to Love, writing which every preacher should have close at hand in the days ahead.

"At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the green herb.  When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man.  But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.  When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life's dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Gratitude for 2016

Not many people are writing pieces with this title. "Good Riddance 2016" is more like it, and I might very well say the same if all I had to contemplate in the waning days of this year was the state of our country and the world. I care deeply about both, but for my own sanity's sake, I need a different focus.

For us at 67 East Main, this was our first full year in our Hornell home. We are happy here, John's ongoing exception to temperatures below 60 degrees notwithstanding.  We are all of us healthy, the dog and the cat inclusive.

I am grateful for a relatively stable year in regards to my mental health.  Being "disability retired" has certainly been a Godsend in giving me the time and space I need to keep centered.  Off and on through the year I have felt some urgency about "what's next," although at year's end I am much more relaxed about it.  I am certain I cannot go back to the work I was doing, being a full-time parish priest.  That saddens me. I never thought it would happen. But I have mostly come to terms with the truth in it.  2017 will be interesting in terms of how my life continues to unfold.

I am especially grateful for the time spent with family this past year.  I think I missed only two or three sports events in which our nephews participated. Watching them play, and play well, has been, and continues to be, a joy.  Most Wednesdays I join our "family lunch," which includes my parents, my great aunt Ann, and various other aunts and uncles and friends who pop in.

I have also enjoyed the little opportunities to exercise my priestly muscles, filling in on Sundays for various Southern Tier clergy and teaching some at St. Thomas', Bath, which is our home base.  It is good to be back in that space and that community, which nurtured me into the Episcopal Church some 35 years ago now.

As to the theme of this blog, what new glory have I been changed into this past year?  It is the glory of being more assured than I have ever been that I am loved for who I am and not for what I have accomplished. Anyone who knows me, knows that this transition has not been an easy one, and no one will be surprised that it is an ongoing project (see, I can even turn being loved into something which I must accomplish!).

At year's end, I got a new tattoo (yes, I already had one). It happened that my tattoo-artist nephew, Rob, got my name for Christmas, and I asked for a new tattoo.  The image is to your right.  Some may wonder if it catches me in despair, but what it actually proclaims is that I am not giving up seeking and being found. Two pieces of scripture inspired the choice:  First, Psalm 130, "Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication."  Second, the moment after the "prodigal son" hits bottom and knows he must seek home anew, that his story is not to end in a stinking pig sty.

Hope is not cheaply bought. It is elusive, and many other things come disguised as it.  Of one thing I am sure, and that it is born in the depths, and perhaps that is the glory into which I am trying to grow as this old year gives way to the new.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bah, humbug on "Blue Christmas"

Around for many years, but increasingly popular, are services in December called “Blue Christmas,” “The Longest Night,” or “When Christmas Hurts.” Their purpose is to give people for whom Christmas is difficult, to have a moment for grief, reflection, and to receive a word of hope. I’ve been to them. They can be beautiful, pastoral and, indeed, hopeful.

But I think it is a tragedy that the church feels it should have them.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it is a tragedy because people should not have to grieve this time of year (or any time, for that matter). I think that it is a tragedy that the church is so co-opted by the uber-happiness culture of this time of year that they cannot integrate grief or lament into its regular worship. Should we really need worship that is especially tailored for people who are having mental health issues so that they feel “safe” coming to church this time of year (or again, any time of year)?

The answer is no, not if we are celebrating the liturgy that is given to us (I speak as an Episcopalian), and no, not if we are telling the biblical stories that are given us to be told this time of year.

Let’s start with the biblical story. Of course, the birth of the Savior of the world, the Prince of peace, and God-with-us is over-the-top good news. We are rightly led to sing “glory to God in the highest” along with the angels who greet the shepherds. It is right to say that the door to joy, what Jesus called “complete joy” and “abundant life,” has been opened. Heaven has leaked onto the earth. There really is not any better news available. As John says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”

Wait. Full stop. John did not say that the light has overcome the darkness so that it is no more. When we tell these stories we rip them out of context, and it is no wonder a lot of people who use to be “Christmas and Easter” Christians just aren’t showing up any more. By leaving out the darkness that exists, by only allowing light at our Christmas celebrations, we are telling a massive number of people that their experience of reality should not exist, not if their true belief in this story creates such light that their darkness should flee away.

But that is not the story, it is an aberration of the story. There is a darkness to the Christmas stories. Jesus is born in a barn. The angels proclaim an ambiguous peace, “to those whom God favors,” or something like that, but not simply peace to all on earth. Later on in the story the aged Simeon will say that this child will be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart. And don’t even try to wring only joy out of Matthew’s version of events, with Herod waiting in the wings to let loose his deadly paranoia and the holy family becoming refugees while a whole generation of Bethlehem boys is slaughtered.

I don’t want Christmas to be a downer, I only want it to be real. I want it to acknowledge the darkness into which the light has come to shine, and the struggle we are all asked to join to keep it shining enough that the darkness does not overcome it. Any true news source will tell you about the aching reality for most of the world that this struggle is.

I have often thought it was something akin to a miracle that we still celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas (at least some of our traditions do).  It should not be lost on us that on the night and day we celebrate when the light of light came into the world that we feel compelled to tell the rest of the story: in Paul’s words, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” There is room for lament and grief in every Eucharist because of that very fact. Paul does not say that we proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes again. We may very well believe in that resurrection, but Paul knows that we live between Good Friday and Easter Day, that “alleluia” is a shout in the darkness. It is even the word spoken at our grave. There is room for grief in that exquisite moment we almost always just let slide by, when we say something like “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven…” I wish we could pause just for a moment there and let our grief (which, contrary to popular belief, we never gain closure over, nor should we) spill out and give our imaginations time to summon our beloved dead, who sing with us “Holy, holy, holy.”

I’m not asking for much, really. Just do not tell me that everything is all right, even if for one night. Everything is not all right, and some of that not-all-right-ness lives in me (and most of the people in the world). Engage me in the struggle for hope in this not-all-right world, don’t try to smother me with cheap joy.

It is quite possible that Blue Christmas services are good things for some people, and I won’t think any less of you if you have one or go to one. But please, I am really begging you, make room for me and my grief and lament and struggle with depression and all the *%$# of the world in a real Christmas.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Judgment Running Into Mercy

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12.

          Just as there is no getting to Easter without going through Good Friday, there is no getting to Christmas without an encounter with John the Baptist. There is no getting to the babe that brings salvation without the judgment with which John seems to be so obsessed.

          Increasingly I hear the cry for a judgment-free Christianity.  We must let go of phrases like “the wrath of God,” or “the fear of the Lord.” They are only turn-offs and keep people out of our churches, so it is conjectured.

          And surely most—perhaps all—of us cringed during John the Baptist’s final words this morning, “and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Certainly it is not something we would put on a banner and hang outside the church to attract visitors.

          As is often the case, we need to get clear about the Bible’s and the church’s use of terms. Just what is judgment and why do we still need it, if indeed we do?

          I came across a quote that pertains to this question from one of Anglicanism’s finest theologians and preachers from the mid-20th century, Austin Farrer. He emphasizes that judgment, like death, is not the final word of Christianity. He says,

Advent brings Christmas, judgement runs into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God. We are not, even, condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God.

In Christmas terms, Farrer says,

Love shares flesh and blood with us in this present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a better substance than our vanity.[1]

          When it has something to do with the Christian faith, judgment is simply one of the things that love does, any love, really, and does it as part of a process whose fulfillment is love itself.

          There is a judgment that has nothing to do with Christian faith.  It is
  •  Judgment that is motivated by anything but love, that is, judgment that is motivated by prejudice or fear or hatred.
  • Judgment that is pronounced as the last word on anyone or anything.
  • Judgment that is solely the expression of power that one person or people has over another, often based on an illusion of some privilege we should have over someone different from ourselves.

           God does not judge in any of those ways, although you will find instances in the Bible where God is certainly tempted to do so and a couple extraordinary places where he does so but then is said to “repent.”[2]

          These things are hard for us these days, because, although people by and large do not wish to be judged, even by God, they often retain the right to judge others and practice it rather freely. We are bombarded by urgent requests to make judgments that are not carefully considered and are often based on half-truths, if any truth at all.

          It is a biblical value that we not rush to judgment about anything or anyone, without knowing the whole story, including our own motivation to judge. That is precisely what Jesus means by “judge not lest you be judged.”[3] And what is amazing about this saying is that it is said in the midst of Matthew’s Gospel where judgment abounds. It is almost as if Matthew’s community cannot quite match its experience to Jesus’ radical teaching, but feels obligated to report it.

          Truth to tell, we, the church, continue to struggle with it. We are called to be a people of moral seriousness, who pay close attention to the consequences of our actions, and are ever clearer as we grow to the ways we fall short of God’s dream for us.  Yet we often get so caught up in this that we do, in fact, slip into judgmentalism and seem to profess a religion that is far less merciful than is the God supposedly at the heart of the matter.

          Ultimately it is not so much talk of judgment and God that keeps away people, but the way the world sees us behaving with one another. “See how they judge one another,” is more likely to be the observation of the no-affiliated than “see how they love one another, and even more so, “see how they judge the stranger” rather than, as St. Paul says this morning, “see how they welcome the stranger.”

          John’s call to repentance is not a call to each one of us simply to feel guilty about our sins, it is a call to accept a new way of being, a new way of being with one’s self, and, more importantly, a new way of being with one another.  And this is not a call from a crazy man in an ancient desert wilderness. It is a call to Christians in every age, including our own to realize a simple truth.

They will know we are Christians by our love, or they won’t.

          I suspect we are going to have plenty of opportunities to practice and express our clarity about just what, as a matter of faith, judgment is, and what it is not. And we will need to be brave about it, because right now the forces of judgmentalism are strong, and even believe they have a right to be in control and to exercise power.  As Jesus said to us last week, “This will be an opportunity to testify, and the basic testimony will be this:

The only legitimate judgment is part of the process of love that ends in justice, redemption, and belonging.

[1] From The Crown of the Year, quoted in Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas, compiled by Christopher L. Webber (Morehouse, 2002), p. 2. Farrer died in 1968.
[2] For example, see the story of Jonah.
[3] Matthew 7:1, parallel at Luke 6:37.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Jesus Said There'd Be Days Like These

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: Matthew 24 & 25

          All of us have experienced, at some time in our life, being in crisis. The death of a loved one, the discovery of serious illness, having the well-being of your family threatened, an act of nature that turns your world upside down, a relationship you thought you could trust in and suddenly that trust is broken, a way in which you thought the world worked that doesn’t work anymore, or, like the man and the woman in our Gospel reading who get left behind, feeling abandoned and alone.

          When we are in such a crisis, it is hard to see out of it. Sometimes we lash out at the nearest person or thing to blame, or we turn the lash on ourselves and sink into feelings of worthlessness and despair, and almost always we look for an easy answer to set the world right again.

          Blessedly, most of the time something happens that causes us to look outside the moment we are in and see the larger picture. Leonard Cohen, who died a couple weeks ago, describes what often needs to happen, in a song he called simply “Anthem,” originally from an album called appropriately for us this morning “The Future,” whose cover features broken shackles.

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers aloud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack, in everything
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack, in everything

That’s how the light gets in

        Cohen has captured many things in this song, but chief among them is knowing this tendency we have when in crisis to accept only the perfect. That, he says, is the primary thing we must give up. It causes a kind of blindness, this clinging to the perfect, that does not allow us to see the light coming through the imperfection of the moment, the crack, as he says, that lets the light in.

          Our country is in a crisis currently, but it is, as I see it, one of very long duration. It has lasted at least all of my adult life. It seems acute now, revolving around a particular personality, but this personality is the product of years of cultural shift in which some have been demanding an end to their feeling left behind, which is causing a whole other group of people to fear that they are now the left behind ones. For the last fifty years and more a huge cultural shift has taken place, and is still taking place, and some people are terrified by it because the way they understood how the world worked is ending.

          There are many ways in which the election that just occurred was inevitable, especially given the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, both of which thrive on a sense of crisis continuing, and where the truth is what we want to believe, not what is. And it does not look as if it will end, as different approaches to issues, and different ways of interpreting what is happening to us, and different experiences of what is happening to us, harden into barriers that may not be crossed because on the other side of the barrier is not a fellow citizen trying to get by and make some sense of things, but an enemy who wants to destroy our way of life.

          We have deepened our crisis into an apocalyptic moment, when the future of our lives, our country, our world, seems to be at stake.

          Jesus told us we would have days like these, and in the midst of the strange writing we call apocalyptic in chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel (with similar chapters in Mark and Luke), he is trying not to frighten us, but to give us ways to resist. He says, in particular
  • Don’t follow after someone who says he or she has it all figured out and can fix everything; that is, someone who talks like a messiah. In spiritual terms we would say, practice discernment. In practical terms we might say, do not go down every rabbit hole that is pointed out to you.
  • When everything seems to be coming unglued, do not get caught up in anxiety. Keep Calm and Keep Loving. The temptation will be for your love to grow cold, he says.
  • Third, in the part of chapter 24 we just heard, keep alert and be ready. This is such an important point that to emphasize it he tells two short parables at the end of chapter 24 and a long parable at the beginning of chapter 25 with the same message:  Keep awake, stay alert, always be ready.

But ready for what? What is the antidote for getting stuck in crisis, be it personal or communal?

The second parable in chapter 25 is that of the talents. Be ready to use your gifts for the purposes of God is the message.

And then the climax of these two chapters, the parable of the sheep and the goats with that great admonition, “As you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The antidote to any crisis is to reach inside for your own well of gifts, which includes strength for doing things you never imagined you could do, and then use that strength to better the life of someone else, because in doing so, Jesus says, you will find me. In Leonard Cohen’s words, find the cracks in your own life and in the lives of those around you, forget about perfection, and let the light shine through.

          It’s Advent and we talk of learning to wait for and watch for Jesus to come again. My image of Jesus coming again is that one of these days enough of us will be serving enough others of us, assuring one another’s justice, that somebody will suddenly notice that the Lord of the universe is working right alongside of us.

          Times of crisis come to each one of us, and they come to us as a people, and sometimes they seem never-ending.  It is tempting to insist that Jesus come back and get us out of this mess we have created for ourselves.  But I suspect Jesus has been there all along, in the midst of us, as we have been working to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, or weeping because we refuse to see the cracks in everything that let his light, and ours, and those we might even describe as enemies, shine through.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Biblical Values for Our Day: Care for the Stranger and the Alien

Then I will draw near to you for judgment: I will be swift to bear witness against…those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5

Among the primary issues in the election just past have been immigration, the taking in of refugees,
and the presence of people who are Muslim in our midst.  In the days ahead it will be critical for Christian people to be clear about their values in regard to these “problems.”

In the translation of the Bible we tend to use (the NRSV), the word “alien” occurs 125 times and the word “stranger” 51 times.  Clearly the Bible has something to say about those in our midst who are considered aliens or strangers.  Two key verses, one from each Testament, sum up nearly the entire use of these words:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

[Jesus said,] I was a stranger and you welcomed me…I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. Matthew 25:35, 43.

There are really two values here:  One, never to forget that you were once aliens and so treat aliens as you were treated (actually, the implication is “better than” you were treated).  Two, one of the ways we find Jesus is our encounter with the stranger.  Both of these obviously relate to what is known as the “Golden Rule,” Do to others as you would have them to do you (Luke 6:31).

Two of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant apply here as well.  We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves,” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)

In addition, when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling the story of a person in the religious minority. The Samaritan is being neighbor and is neighbor himself (Luke 10:29-37).  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

The Bible does not use the words “immigrant” or “refugee.” Why not? It is because these are modern concepts that depend upon our understanding of borders and nations.  The Bible has a lot of trouble with borders and political entities. Jesus, in particular, ignores them all together, and Paul goes about as if they did not exist. And, in fact, anything that smacks of nationalism is not a biblical value.  The ultimate movement of the Bible is to include, not exclude, right through to the Book of Revelation, whose witness we proclaim in Canticle 18 from the Prayer Book (from Revelation 4 & 5).

With your blood you have redeemed for God, from every family [or tribe], language, people, and nation, a royal priesthood to serve our God. (see Revelation 5:9-10)

One of the principles in the history of the church that grew out of these biblical values was the rule of “sanctuary,” that church buildings were a temporary safe place for everyone, and that the church had an obligation to those who sought sanctuary to get them to a more permanent safe place.  One theory about why are doors are bright red is to mark the place as sanctuary. This notion took the form of the Underground Railroad during the time of slavery.

We should be careful to note that this flagrant breaking of the law (helping slaves escape to a safe place) was done by Christians convinced that the law was unjust and therefore could not in their conscience be followed. This was done at the same time that other Christians (including some in the north) were certain beyond all doubt that slavery was a biblical institution. The divide among Christians as to how they interpret the Bible is nothing new.

I am deliberately not going to say, “What does that mean we should do? That is a question that deserves prayer and discernment. My purpose has been to make clear what the biblical values are that we hold so dear. I invite conversation from all sides of the political spectrum!