Sunday, September 11, 2016

Proclaim the God Whose Name is Mercy

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Church, Penn Yan, NY, September 11, 2016.  Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Luke 15:1-10.

          15 years is a long time.  Our memories dim and we have birthed a new generation since 9/11/2001.  If we are not affected by its aftermath personally, it tends to be relegated to the history books, and something we need not talk about.

          15 years is a short time, though, and we are living still very much in a 9/11 world, a world where the aftershocks of that day keep coming.

          I was rector of a parish in suburban Washington, DC on 9/11.  I could walk you through every moment of that day.  I had a congregation in which many, including myself, spent hours not knowing where our loved-ones were, living in intense fear because of the rumors that more than the Pentagon had been hit.  Thankfully at the end of the day we were all accounted for, but we were numb, like the rest of the nation and the world, at the horrific loss of innocent life.

          We then experienced the rush of unity that nearly everyone felt, a unity of grief for the loss, a unity of awe and pride for first responders, and the kind of unity that comes when you know exactly who your enemy is.  Our church was full for a prayer service that very night, and standing room only at a Service on Friday the 14th and the next Sunday.

          I do not know what it was like here, but in my world in suburban Washington that unity very quickly gave way to divisions.  My congregation divided into two camps:  those desirous of immediate, violent, revenge and those who looked for some kind of measured, thoughtful response.  Some of the latter were pacifists, but not all.

          Our congregation weathered the storm of division, because we were somewhat skilled at it, and our impulse to hang together was stronger than anything that might split us.  This was partially due that, by and large, the element of hate did not enter the conversation.

          That is not, however, what happened to our national world.  It has been painful to watch us become more and more divided, with scorn and hate of those who think differently commonplace.

          What is happening?  Well, we can look to Jeremiah today, who gives us a harsh rebuke,

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.

It is good for us to hear these harsh words, because they should serve to re-awaken our capacity for self-reflection and even self-criticism, practices which are ruled as unpatriotic by many, many people.  Our capacity to look at the big picture and take the time to reflect are almost gone in our smartphone, facebook, 24-hour news cycle world where everything must happen instantaneously.  Sometimes I despair that the simple art of conversation is dying.

          The capacity for conversation is something we Christians are called to practice and to witness to, and to teach, because it is the only way for stupid children to gain wisdom.

          We can also look to Jesus for an answer to the question of what is happening to us, and his answer leads us to the big picture, maybe the biggest picture of all.

          The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were very suspicious of the company he kept.  It caused them to question his ethics and the rightness of his ultimate purpose.  He was hanging around with the kind of people with which good religious folk were not supposed to hang around.
          So he tells them some stories:  a shepherd who looks for his lost sheep, a woman who looks for a lost coin, and a father who celebrates the return of a lost son.  His strong implications in these stories are that all God wants is a return to relationship with him and that mercy is perhaps God’s chief quality, not judgment.  The God of Jesus is a God who gathers, not scatters, unites not divides.

          This message may seem obvious to us, but it made the religious leaders afraid, and they began to act out of that fear, and, well, you know the result.

          But this message is still not obvious to most people, witness if nothing else, the phenomenon of a world constantly surprised that a Pope makes mercy his central theme, as if that were something newfangled, odd, and even dangerous. Where will this end?

          These is a seismic shift going on in the world, a breakdown of an old order and the chaotic coming together of a new one.  The world that is breaking apart is a world of certainty and order, maintained by a privileged few, where might makes right, you know who is in and who is out, and God is neatly tamed in our religious houses, blessing who we would bless and cursing those we would curse.

          Again, this may seem obvious to us, and it has been going on for at least fifty years, and most of us, if not all, welcome it.  But it makes many, perhaps most, very afraid.  And they start to act out of this fear and attempt to restore order, and as they act out of this fear, it continues to multiply, to the point where we are today.  9/11 was not the cause of this shift to a new world, it was some people’s attempt to stop it coming, and the huge irony is that we keep fighting back attempting to do the same thing—restore our sense of order—some might say, “Make America Great Again.”

          The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the labels we use to divide ourselves, including that of “sinner,” are meaningless to the God whose name is Mercy.  We cannot make a world that is great—or even good—until we can reach across all divides and live as one humanity.  And that means, among other things, breaking the cycle of violence which so affects us, from the violence of peoples and peoples, to the violence of the language we use to disagree with them.

          So on this 15th anniversary we Christian folk have two tasks which have been our tasks from the very beginning, although we have very often not been very good at them.

Teaching, witnessing to, and practicing the art of conversation.

Proclaim the God whose name is Mercy.

Friday, September 09, 2016

A Voice from the Past for the Present

I have long thought that the tide toward social justice as a matter of faith, inclusion as a principle of the Gospel, and the opening up of the church to the world began in a major way not during the time of Presiding Bishop John Hines, but of his predecessor, Arthur Lichtenberger (Presiding Bishop 1958-1964).  That is not to say that many others led in this direction much earlier than his tenure, but as PB he spoke in a way that I do not think was the previous norm.

I've been reading a collection of writings of Lichtenberger's and came across this quote from a speech he gave at the Convention of the Diocese of Missouri (of which he was bishop) in 1954.  As they say, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up:

The spirit of our time--or more accurately, the spirit of great numbers of people in our time--is a spirit of fear which demands conformity. How else can we account for the many people who still approve of the inquisition carried on by certain congressional committees in the name of American freedom? [He is, of course, referring to Joseph McCarthy and others]

We have too little confidence in our Lord's assurance, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." The demand now is not for truth but for conformity. Americanism is what this Senator or that Congressman says it is, and woe to anyone who would say otherwise! The rise of a demagogue is nothing new in the American scene, but a new phenomenon now greatly imperils American democracy. That peril lies in our timidity and fear, which has so blinded us that we cannot tell the difference between a tyrant and a patriot, between a charlatan and an honest man, between one who would destroy our liberties and one who would preserve them.

We, the people, could reduce this present danger to a harmless and unnoticed side show within a week if we would--if we but stood resolutely against totalitarian methods and objectives wherever they appear. This time, above any that I have known, requires us as Christian people to reassert the principles of freedom on which this nation was founded and by which it lives. And it is a time when we, as Christians, must keep on insisting that the Gospel is not for one corner of life marked religion, but for the totality of existence. This we must proclaim and demonstrate.

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.