Monday, February 20, 2017

Upside-down Perfection

Sermon preached at St. Thomas', Bath, NY on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017:
 Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

          We use the word “perfect” in all sorts of ways, don’t we?  Sometimes we mean “excellent,” or “great,” or “Just what I wanted or needed.”

          On the other hand, we are often quick to say, “nobody’s perfect,” or “only God is perfect.”  And we know instinctively that is right.  Perfection may be something for which we strive, but only the most arrogant among us would ever say that they have arrived at the destination of perfection.

          Yet here it is:  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  If only Jesus had said “Strive for perfection, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  But he simply said “be.” What do we do with that, other than ignore it?

          Well, it turns out that the Greek word here translated as “perfect” is just as slippery in meaning as the English word is.  Telios (τέλιος) is sometimes translated as “whole,” as doing the “whole” will of God, or “unblemished,” as in the kind of sacrifice God requires, or “undivided or unrestricted” in regards to God’s love, and, yes, it can mean “perfect.”

          Now wouldn’t it be interesting if a modern-day translation translated verse 48 as

Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole.”

What would that mean?

          To try to answer that question, let’s look at the context, because this is one of those verses of Scripture that can be misunderstood or even dangerous if you take it out of its context.

          We are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  Earlier Jesus has said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (5:17)  Ah, right there, the Greek concept of fulfill and the Greek concept of perfect have something to do with each other, and actually that statement and the “Be perfect…” statement are bookends to his argument.

          Having said that he came not to abolish the law, Jesus goes on to give examples of what he means by “fulfilling” it.  Each one starts,

You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…

He does this six times; we only have the last two this morning, but it’s enough with which to work, in fact, let’s just take the last one.

You have heard it was said, “You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

          What is normal behavior for human beings, for you and for me?  Love those who love me, or at least for whom I have respect, and have as little to do as possible with those who trouble me.  We would not want to go so far as to say “hate them,” but Jesus is here to tell us that anything less than love is hate.

          Most of the people Jesus was talking to at the time, and, I dare say, most of the people I am talking to here at this time (including myself) would have agreed with the proposition that God loves those who love him and hates evildoers, you know, the really bad ones.

          No, Jesus says, you are quite wrong. Turn what you think about God upside-down.  God does not treat the good and the evil differently.  And he wants us to see that to fulfill God’s desire for us, we have to love our enemies as ourselves and seek the good of those who persecute us.

          That, Jesus says, is how God is perfect, by loving in an undivided, unrestricted way.

          That is hard for us, extraordinarily hard.  It is neither our instinct or, by and large, how we have been nurtured.  In truth, when I contemplate it, I cannot see how it even works.

          But “how it works” is clearly not important to God.  How did loving his enemies as much as his friends work for Jesus?  It got him taken advantage of, betrayed, and murdered by his enemies.

          It is the rather bizarre Christian story that the perfection of God is shown in the failure of God.  And we cannot get away from this by quickly jumping to the resurrection.  The resurrection does not undo this bizarre upside-down perfection of God, it, to borrow a word from Jesus, fulfills it.  Remember the risen Christ eternally bears the wounds of his humiliation, so that the failure can never be forgotten.

          St. Paul remembers a time when Jesus himself spoke to him this simple truth. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 12,

…but [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

          So what does this mean for our daily living?

          First of all, for perfectionists like me, I have to let the testimony of Jesus completely undo my sense of how God and the world works.  I have to resist the mighty temptation to seek God only in my victories or successes, but to be ready to be found by God in my losses and failures, and, in the end, it is thus being found that is important.

          Second of all, our awareness of the dangers of human notions of perfection, might open up in us the chance to listen to those who differ from us.  In our current political climate, there may be nothing so important.  But it is equally true for our daily relationships, particularly with people who rub us the wrong way, or who do or think things that we find troubling or even repugnant.

          We are encouraged in this world to think of those with whom we differ as foes whose dangerous ideas must be defeated.  And they must be defeated because only we know the way that is perfect, or at least great.

          The way of God, however, which we are called to walk, is for our enemies to be the object of our love, which I think at the very least means to stay in relationship with them, because the love of God is stronger than any political ideology, or, indeed, anything that separates us one from another.

          In the end, being perfect like God is perfect, is being whole as God is whole, committed to the wholeness in which we are all held in spite of our sin, our differences of opinion, our failures, or anything else that seems to separate us one from another in this world.

          Jesus is telling us that the separations we think are so important are an illusion, and a delusion, which we must constantly and consistently act to overcome in the upside-down perfect world of God.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Religion & Politics: God's Vision for Us

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
Christ & Abbot Meno
also known as
The Icon of Christ the Friend
February 2017

A series of propositions to stir up conversation in a difficult climate for faith communities in the United States, written from a Christian and Episcopalian perspective.

  1. God’s sovereignty over life is total.      We pray, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 355).  We read, “’I am Alpha and Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:8 & 21:6). The creation is God’s gift to us and we are called to care for it in line with God’s dream for it.
  2. God's vision for humankind is not only heavenly and eternal, but earthly and present.  We pray, “Our Father…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We read, “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27, where Jesus uses both Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18). How we treat the neighbor is one of the (perhaps “the”) fundamental themes of the Scriptures. It is an unwavering part of our covenant with God (see also the Ten Commandments).
  3. Politics is both an integral part of our life and a vocation to which some are called.
    As does everything, politics falls under the sovereignty of God, and, therefore, it is among the things we think and do to which we are responsible to God. “Politics” is fundamentally how we order our life together, again, being responsible for carrying out God’s dream.
  4. God is no respecter of political parties.      We read, “I (Peter) truly understand that God shows no partiality…” We are, however, responsible for our participation in political parties, as we further read, “…but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
  5. This “no partiality” applies to the church also.      People from all walks of life are called together to struggle in common to live in the “fear” of God and do “what is right.” “Fear of God” in the Bible does not refer to being frightened by God, but acknowledging that God is, in fact, sovereign over all life and has a vision for how life is to be lived.
  6. Politics, from the church’s perspective, is primarily about relationships.
    One of the ways the church is called to be a light to the world is to be a community where difference is both accepted and celebrated, and where relationships are built across those differences. We are committed as the church to act in “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor. 13:13) together. There ought to be nothing that is too hard to talk about in church because the members have a first and foremost commitment to love each other. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
  7. We struggle as friends, not foes, to discover the truth.      As we struggle together to think and do what is right, we acknowledge that discovering the right truth and the right way is often difficult. We acknowledge with Paul that “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). None of us has the whole truth or knows precisely the right way. It is easy to turn from struggling together as friends to striving against one another as foes in a contest that is “win/lose.”
  8. We cannot be rid of politics, but we can refuse to be caught in rigid ideologies.      When we become foes, who no longer seek to understand each other, but to win the battle against each other. We assume that we (as opposed to “them”) have found both the truth (meaning there is no more need of searching) and the way (meaning we have been shown the only right path). We must always be ready to “go home by another road” (Matt. 2:12). Ideology is idolatry, being sure of anything more than we are sure of God. (Again, see the Ten Commandments).
  9. Where politics and religion meet for the Christian is in the values we uphold.      The values we uphold as Christian have their basis in truth, though we struggle to more clearly understand and live them, which is never anything but a lifetime’s work. For Episcopalians, the groundwork for these values are found in our Baptismal Covenant (BCP, pp. 304-305). For Jesus, these values always support human beings and not institutions and ideologies, even when the latter are church or Bible-based. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
  10. It is imperative that we have ongoing conversation about those values.      The constant question for the Christian is how our values apply to our daily life, including the political decisions we make or support. To have such conversations we must be ever better practitioners of humility, holding our personal ideas and even convictions “lightly.” This acknowledges that we can be at least somewhat wrong about everything. We must never be ready to cast the first stone (John 8:1-11).
  11. We can dare to have these value conversations.      They may at times be passionate, but we rest in the knowledge that we are all loved by God and are called to love each other as God loves us, with mercy and grace. St. Paul was a passionate man, but he also proclaimed “gentleness” as an essential community value (Phil. 4:5).
  12. In the United States the institutions of religion and government are separated, but the conversation about values must go on.      To avoid such conversation is to invite the hardening of our ideologies and lapse into a system of “ins” and “outs,” where the only value is majority rule. We have been headed in this direction for quite some time; the current tensions did not begin with the latest election cycle. We in the church must call ourselves back to the fundamental question, “What’s love got to do with it?” This is not a conversation to have only if we have time and only if we are feeling especially brave. It is the conversation which our lives are called to be (see, for example how Jesus turns a question about a noun into the necessity of a verb in Luke 10:25-37).

One method of conversation recommended is that of "Continuing Indaba."  

Copyright © 2017 The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins. Published by EpiphanyEsource, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, Permission to print and share is given, so long as this copyright statement is attached.

Friday, February 03, 2017

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment: Be Careful What You Pray For

In my days as a parish priest, the Johnson Amendment to the Tax Code prohibited my church from
endorsing candidates for political office, and that included me, acting in my role as a leader of that church.  That's what it did do.  Here's what it did not do:

It neither prevented us from discussing political issues, nor voicing opinions about them, including issues that were part of ballot initiatives.  In fact, the Johnson Amendment does not prohibit a church's endorsement of a "yes" or "no" vote on ballot initiatives.

It did not prevent me from putting a bumper sticker on my personally owned car, or a candidate yard sign in front of my personally owned house.  (if either the car or the house were church-owned property it would have prohibited me).  Many clergy do not want to be associated with a particular candidate in any way.  That is their choice, and in many congregational situations it is a good one.  However, that choice is not demanded by the Johnson Amendment.

If we want to be able to endorse candidates while preaching or teaching, or hand out flyers that endorse candidates, we can do that, but with a consequence: we cannot claim tax-exempt status.

Why not?  Tax-exempt status is the legal and constitutional way (although some have argued about whether the latter is true) that government on all levels supports religious and charitable institutions. Some would say this reality means that tax-payers support these institutions, and that may be true in the sense that if the church, for instance, paid taxes, perhaps everyone else's taxes would be less.

It is a trade-off, and one on which the church and other charitable institutions have come to depend, and not just financially.  It also protects us from becoming tools of politicians and political parties, which means it keeps our voice independent.

You might be thinking that your church is surely smart enough not to become the instrument of a political party.  You might be right.  You also might be wrong, because something would come into play that tends to corrupt institutions from without and from within:  money.  If I have the right to endorse a candidate, I also have the right to support them financially. Can you see the potential mess, the possibility of back-room deals?

The Constitution separates religious institutions and the state.  Government may not endorse any specific religion or religious institution.  Originally many thought it was a necessary provision because government should not be dictating religious conscience.  Perhaps more importantly, however, it has protected the freedom of religious institutions.  Now there is always going to be tension in the relationship causing arguments about such things as whether or not the church should be forced to follow employment laws or whether or not candidates may speak from church pulpits.  We figure these things out as we go along, as we do, through the judiciary, on all issues raised by the Constitution.

The tax-exempt status/non-endorsement of candidates firewall is not perfect and it can be frustrating at times.  But we ought to consider carefully just what we mean by religious freedom and understand how the current system protects that freedom much better than the removal of the firewall would.

It occurs to me that we could, of course, keep our tax-exempt status and be given the right to endorse and financially support, but we would be hypocritical to do so, and I do not think people as a whole would stand for it for long.

And then there is that tried and true pastoral advice:  be careful what you pray for.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Biblical Values for Our Day: On Building or Tearing Down Walls

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. (Paul to the Ephesians 2:14)

The preacher at the inaugural day prayer service, using the story of Nehemiah from the Hebrew afterward, he tried to explain that building walls was not the point of his message, although he also said, "There is nothing unbiblical about building a wall and protecting citizens."  So the wall image was not the main point, but it still was a point.
Scriptures, proclaimed that "God is not against building walls."  In an interview

I think he is wrong. I think God is not a builder of walls, and, in fact, Jesus came to tear walls down.  Why? For precisely the reason, St. Paul says.  Walls are about hostility and Jesus is about peace, not peace as security (protection) but peace as in making "both groups into one."

Walls built for political purposes do not have a very good history, particularly in the last hundred years or so.  They have a dual effect: they keep people out, but they also keep them in. More to the point the people inside the wall (usually the builders) begin to think, our side of the wall good, outside the wall bad.  Sometimes walls, or fences, are used to delineate boundaries, this side mine, other side yours.  Is that so bad? Didn't Robert Frost say that "good fences make good neighbors"?  He did, but I think he was wrong also, unless the fence you build can be easily breached (or at least leaned over) so that neighborliness can be encouraged and maintained.  Fences can be a place where neighbors talk to each other.

If you haven't heard before, neighborliness is one of the prime biblical values.  The last six of the ten commandments are all about maintaining neighborliness, or, we might say, the common good.  Israel struggled all of its biblical life to figure out how this worked.  The political and economic leaders, and even the religious leaders, kept getting it wrong.  Sometimes Israel was so afraid of surrounding peoples that they could only treat them as enemies (and, surprisingly enough, they thought this idea was God's in the first place).  Sometimes, like in the days of Nehemiah, the concern was to keep the purity of the chosen people.

The use of Nehemiah to bless the agenda of the economic leader now become political leader, was a horrible choice, and not just because of the wall Nehemiah built.  It was the purity code that was established at the same time, that not only forced Israelites to marry only other Israelites, but deported the non-Israelite spouses and their children that already existed.  Nehemiah, the governor, and Ezra, the priest, went on a purity purge, to uphold the belief that Israel was the chosen people, God's special people, intrinsically better than all other peoples. (Read about this in Ezra chapters 9 and 10.  Ezra is the companion book to Nehemiah).

However, that was only one stream of thought at the time, albeit the one held by those in power. Another possibility come out of the closing chapters of the prophet Isaiah, clearly from the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.  Isaiah's vision is of a special people only insofar as they are a "light to the nations."  Their "specialness" is not about their purity, but about there practice of justice:

Is this not the fast I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house...Then your light shall break forth like the dawn... (58:6-8)

This is a very different vision than Nehemiah's, a radically different vision, so radically different, that God says:

Do not let the foreigners joined to the Lord say, "The Lord shall surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." ...I will give, in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (56:3-7)

When Jesus comes on the scene, it is the values of Isaiah that he preaches, not those of Nehemiah.  Isaiah is quoted frequently in the Gospels, Nehemiah never.

Walls are not a biblical value. Hostility toward and fear of the other is not a biblical value.  Neighborliness, a neighborliness that pushes against all our boundaries and makes us one, is, in the end, the only biblical value that really matters (see also, "Love your neighbor as yourself.")

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.