Monday, December 11, 2017

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Attitude for Advent

In seminary, I was a member of the Advent police, who tried, somewhat in vain, to keep the campus from beginning to celebrate Christmas too early.  We took this very seriously, but then we took everything very seriously in seminary.  Looking back, I call all that seriousness tedious, but at the time it seemed as if we were saving the church from degradation.

Advent for us was about discipline, the discipline of waiting, a defiance of the rampant consumerism that was the lead-up to the world’s Christmas.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with the defiance of consumerism.  There’s every biblical warrant for that stance to be a significant part of Christian living, although I know very few Christians (including myself) who are very good at it.

Instead of discipline, though, I have come upon another word to use for Advent.  That word is disruption.  I’ll confess that I learned the word from Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann.  One of his many books is Disruptive Grace.

Our lives being disrupted has much more to do with Christmas than discipline.  What was and is and will be the coming of Jesus into the world and into our lives but disruptive.  What we celebrate at Christmas is an intervention, the intervention of God in our lives and snaps us awake like those foolish virgins in the parable from Matthew’s Gospel.  “Help!” we cry, “We are out of oil.”  In our case, the oil of which we are found wanting is our attentiveness to the things that truly matter in this world, “Glory for God and peace for humankind,” as the angels sing.  Not just peace for the world, but peace in our own living rooms, and the way we interact with others in our communities.

There is much resentment and meanness in our current way of being with one another.  Everybody knows it, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.  We just go on exacerbating it with the kind of judgment that Jesus taught us was simply none of our business.  We might pray for a renewed intervention, but that will mean a significant disruption in our lives—the disruption of love, of mercy, of gentleness.

For all the moral dilemmas in our world that need solving, what we actually need most is the disruption of our attitude by the baby of Bethlehem.  I am reminded of a line from a Christmas Carol, which I will quote even though we are only midway through Advent:  “O hush your noise and cease your strive, and hear the angels sing.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

I give you thanks...

For my home, for the love of my husband, John, and for Lucy and Tica, the animal companions who share our lives.

              For my family, my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, who brighten my life.

              For my life and my health, and the opportunity to have the time to tend closely to it.

For our church, for my ministry with the children, and the children themselves, for what we teach each other.

For my writing and the graduate program of which I am a part, for its affirmations and its challenges.

For the Finger Lakes SPCA, for my work as treasurer, for our new building, and for our Minis, Sparrow and Sweetie.

For the beautiful place where we live, for the hills and valleys that bring me peace.

For enough income to tend our needs and allow us to be generous.

For the power of resistance in an anger-fueled world.

For the mercy and grace of God, on which I depend.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Angels & Archangels

St. Michael the Archangel
(c) Minhhang K. Huynh
When my parents chose my name, I don’t think they thought they were giving me the name of an archangel, the prince of angels in the Bible, a Jewish name, meaning “Who is like God.”  I’m certain they just liked the name, as did countless others in 1961. In my high school class of 42, there were three Michaels.

On my Name Day, September 29th, I wonder about my archangelic heritage, and about the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” with whom we say we join in singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” at every Eucharist.  I don’t have any trouble believing in angels, in non-human spiritual beings that exist beyond our sight, although “believing” might not be the right word (it probably is not a coincidence that belief in angels is not required by the Nicene Creed).  Angels seem more in the realm of imagining and wondering, so that they, like God, never leave the realm of holy mystery.

I have some trouble in the notion of “guardian angels.” I mean, I can imagine them, and would even like to do so, but if they exist it is clear to me that some of them are not good at their job at all.  I much prefer the notion of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd c. c.e.):  "A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, 'Make way for the image of God!'" (Deut. Rab., 4:4)  I strain to hear them and wonder what the world would be like if everyone so strained and acknowledged the givenness of this divine favor.

It puzzles me that so many people talk as though a human being, when he or she dies, becomes an angel.  I hear this a lot, especially when it is a child who has died.  “God needed another angel.”  Besides the fact that I imagine God already has all the angels that God needs, this takes away the profound truth at the heart of the Jewish and Christian traditions (at least) that our humanity is saved, and our humanity exists in the next life.  Jesus did not become an angel when he ascended into heaven. He took his body, and ours, there.  He prays for us there in his body.  The body is not evil, to be cast off. It is part of our being made in the image of God.

In the end, I refuse to let go of a belief in angels because I refuse to let go of wonder, of the belief—no, expectation—that there is a larger life, that there is more to reality than can be seen with the eye or comprehended with the mind, a realm of being I get a glimpse at in prayer, in song, and in worship.

One of my favorite hymns takes us to this place of wonder:

Ye holy angels bright, who wait at God’s right hand,
Or through the realms of light fly at your Lord’s command,

Assist our song, for else the theme too high doth seem for mortal tongue.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sermon: Who Do We Say We Are?

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Church, Penn Yan, NY on the 13 Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017.  Proper 17A:  Matthew

           This morning’s Gospel does not make much sense separated from last Sunday’s Gospel, so I am going to begin by reminding you of how this story begins.

           Jesus and the disciples have been wandering in Galilee and they come to its northernmost point, the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Specifically, they are on the road to Caesarea Philippi.

           The site of Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site for the worship of Baal and later the Greek God Pan. Augustus Caesar gave the city to King Herod, who built there a temple to Augustus. Herod, in turn, gave it to his son Phillip. At that time the city was called Panion. Phillip rebuilt the city and re-named it for his two favorite people:  Caesar and himself. It became the seat of Phillip’s governance of that region, left to him on the death of his father.

           Jesus and the disciples are walking into this politically-loaded Gentile city, a place where the rule of Rome and its puppet kings was on display for all to see and experience.

           With this setting in mind, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. Who do people say that I am? They give him a variety of answers, but then you can almost sense him stop walking, turning to them, and asking. “Who do you say that I am?

           Again, you can almost see the disciples shuffling their feet, looking furtively at one another. Who’s going to say something? It is Simon, who has the nickname “Peter,” from the Greek word for “rock.” Rocky steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

           Jesus bestows a blessing on Peter and tells everyone that on this “rock” (pun intended) his followers will organize themselves, and he gives Peter, if you will, “the keys of the kingdom.”

           Strangely enough, Jesus also instructs them not to tell people about this Messiah thing. Why is that?

           For the children of Israel, “Messiah” meant “anointed one” (in Greek, the same word is “Christ”). It was a prophetic and a royal title. Only prophets and kings were anointed in ancient Israel. In addition, “Son of God” was Caesar Augustus’ favorite name for himself. They were headed into a city where there was a temple to that son of god.

           The question, “Who do you say that I am?” was a loaded one. The answer put Jesus on a collision course with the power of the state. His disciples, and Christians for all time, were going to have to be clear about just who was the primary authority in their life.

           Jesus then starts the process of re-working the Messiah image for the disciples. As Messiah, Jesus was not going to be the conquering hero, restoring Israel to its former, independent, glory. Quite the opposite, he was going to be the Messiah who suffered and died.

           Peter is beside himself. “No,” he says, “God forbid it. That is not going to happen to you.” And in an instant Peter goes from rock star to an instrument of Satan. Jesus’ declaration should remind us of the temptation story, where Satan tempts Jesus with, among other things, political power, the kind that was many people’s expectation of what the Messiah would do. Jesus had said an emphatic no then, and he says and emphatic no now.

           Furthermore, he says that this way of changing the world—that appears positively insane to his followers—will be how his followers live and face the world around them. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

           What we usually do with this story is individualize it. It is up to each one of us, as followers of Jesus, to be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do say that I am?”

           That’s all well and good. But what if the question is also a communal one. What if it is a question that the church must answer, and not just about Jesus, but about ourselves? Who do we say that we are?

           St. Paul taught us to answer the question, “We are the body of Christ.” Jesus taught about the “kingdom of God,” suggesting that was our true citizenship.

           Who do we say that we are?

           There are many ways to go in tackling that question, but let me suggest just one by reading the Collect for Labor Day,

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives; So guide us in the work we do, that we do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord… (BCP. P. 261)

           Who do we say that we are?

           We are people always committed to the common good, cognizant that our lives are linked to all other lives.  This is as old as the tales of Genesis, which taught us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We cannot subscribe to any movement that puts some people “first” above anybody. To do so denies our very identity.

           Just an example. I encourage you to wrestle not only with the question of who Jesus is for you, but what the church is for you, and how we are the church in the world.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Rocky Road to Radical Relationships

The primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter any matter of their identity is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”).  It is, “How can we serve you?”

I wrote those words two days ago, and received an excellent request from a friend:  “I need some practical advice on enacting these words from your writing when we are dealing with Trump supporters or other non-believers.”

The first thing to say is that, like most things Christian and/or spiritual, we are talking about process.  This is true, for instance, with forgiveness.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes. They may (and usually do) have their moments of revelation, for example, when you can say to another, “I forgive you.”  Yet even that definitive statement does not signal the end of anything. It is rare when there is not more processing to do, both internally and externally.  There is also the great truth that forgiveness is a two-way street, with responsibility and accountability on both sides.

So, what about my friend’s question?  How do we enact the words, “We are here to serve you,” with people who seem so vastly different from ourselves and do not particularly want relationship with us?  I think there are several things to say about this, summed up in the title of this essay.  The road to radical relationship is a rocky one.  My apologies for resorting to a list here.  I do not intend for it to be taken as “steps.”

1.      I have introduced the word “radical” as a descriptive of the kind of relationship we are after, the kind of relationship I think Jesus wants us to pursue with others.  The word “radical” comes from the Latin word for “root” (think of “radish,” a root vegetable).  Radical relationships are those that get to the root of the matter. This must be true in at least three ways.  First, the root of any relationship we build as Christians is love, defined by Jesus as the kind of love that would involve the willingness to give up one’s life for the other (John 13:15).  Second, I must bring to this love the root of myself, inasmuch as I am aware of it, and I must address the root of the other, inasmuch as he or she is aware of it, and together we must be willing to go deeper.

2.      I do not myself have a great deal of success engaging people who are from the other end of the political spectrum, with whom I do not appear to share any values.  But that’s not just me.  We live in a time when the divide is deep and it is filled with all kinds of evil things like mistrust and fear (the cause of most hate) that keep us reactive and unwilling to be with each other.  The white supremacist’s desire to live in a country where the races are segregated is just the extreme manifestation of that fear.  This is the “rocky” part. We have not only become deeply divided, but the divide itself has taken on a life of its own.

3.      St. Benedict teaches us the beginning of radical relationships:  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ” (RB 53:1).  If you want a “first step” this is it, and as first steps go, it’s a big one.  The Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer says the same thing with the promise that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (p. 305).  Step One is an open, non-defensive stance.  It’s the “non-defensive” part that is so difficult these days.  We tend to be ready to be defensive even before we meet someone.

4.      The further part of this welcome is that we must be ready to listen and not to talk.  We have to assume (and this, too, can be extraordinarily difficult) that the other person means well, has a story to tell, and wants to be listened to.  Again, we must be ready to do non-defensive listening.

5.      When it is our turn to talk, it is better that we tell our stories about how we have come to believe what we do.  After years of arguing propositions in the church and lgbtq issues, I firmly believe that we did our best and most decisive work when we told our stories.

6.      The last thing I will say is that we must be ready for rejection.  Fear is a powerful thing and the anger that results from it is even more powerful.  Our attempt at relationship may be completely rebuffed.  This reality may be the norm, given the present climate.  But we have no mandate from Jesus other than to keep trying.  The bottom line, I think is this:  “How can I serve you?” is first and foremost is an invitation to tell me who you are.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

C'mon Christians: It's Time to Get Serious About Who We Are

Whatever you think of the Trump administration, they are handing progressive Christians a golden 

opportunity for us to get serious about who we are.  This means finally throwing off the mantle of the “quasi-state church” of mainline Protestantism and risk our lives for the sake of the gospel.  At least two things are required of us from the beginning.  They are only a start, but I believe they are a significant start.

We must get clear that we are first and foremost the People of God, citizens of God’s realm or kingdom, with Jesus as our one and only Lord.  Individually we are many things. Our identities are rich with diversity, and we claim this as part of God’s creation.  We cannot, however, put the word “first” in front of any of them.  In particular, in the present moment, we are not “Americans First” nor can we buy an “America First” agenda.  Our common baptism puts us on an equal footing with brothers and sisters across the world. It also gives us a “human agenda,” the dignity of human life. This agenda calls us even outside our Christian tradition.  It gives us a biblical worldview that is as old as Genesis:  we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.  Our human agenda is the Common Good, in which we love and live sacrificially. The point of human living is not to die with the most wealth.  The point of human living is to serve the common good, from which we have the right to exclude no one.

Second, we must get clear on the reality that free speech may be an American value, but Christians have a particular take on it.  There is for us, always accountability.  Speech that seeks to undo the vision of God for this world, including the dignity of all and the service of the common good, is not okay with us.  It participates in evil, which is anything that draws us from the love of God and neighbor which are our primary commandments.  If we are not, as Jesus said (being perfectly serious, I think), to call anyone a “fool,” than we are certainly not to use hate speech against anyone.  If you call yourself a Christian, then you are accepting the biblical value that we are not to call our neighbors anything but our neighbors.  Of course, we can disagree with them, but any disagreement we have is trumped by “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Christians have been infected over the centuries with the evil thinking that they are better than everyone else because of our allegiance to Jesus, and we have baptized our national citizenship in the same evil.  But the primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter their identity, is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”).  It is, “How can we serve you?”

When we get clear about these things we risk pissing people off.  They will say we are being political.  They will say this is not the way the real world works.  They will say that we are advocating an “anything goes” society.  The antidote is to read Jesus and St. Paul, both of whom were accused of the same things.  We cannot give into our fear.  We have to stop wringing our hands on the sidelines wishing that everyone would just get along, and quietly telling them so.  We do have at least two lines in the sand to draw.  One is that we belong to God first.  Two, we have zero tolerance for hate.

If we get clear about these things then we can have productive conversations about our purpose, God’s mission for us.  But this conversation is worthless if we are not clear about who we are, first, and what our values are, first.

Who Do We Say We are?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Back to School

Written on the plane on my way to start an MFA program in Creative Writing:

First Day of School

The yellow school bus that picked me up was number 21.  I have that flash of memory from my first
Off to School Again
day of kindergarten in 1966.

Was I nervous?  Was I scared?  What did it feel like to be leaving my mother and baby sister behind?  This was it. There was no pre-school or day care center in those days.  We just got on the bus that would take us to the school building for the next 13 years.  And, yes, it was the same school building for 13 years.

I remember my school room and can still point it out 50 years later.  It was a large room—the largest classroom in the school. There was lots of light, a bathroom of its own, and a small stage area (well, an area one step above the rest of the room).

My teacher’s name was Mrs. Amelia Lynch.  She was a short, older woman with an air of both authority and kindness.  I liked her.

I remember construction paper houses on one wall. Each one had one of our addresses and phone numbers (only four numbers in those days) on it.  It was a major task to remember where we lived.  I suppose that’s done much earlier now in these days when kindergarteners begin the rudiments of algebra and chemistry.

Shapes and colors were also important.  I remember endless sheets of them on which we had to match the same shapes and/or the same colors.  Occasionally, we would be asked to match different shapes and colors.  There seemed something sinister about these that played with difference.

We got grades using stamps with animals on them.  A lion was “excellent.”  “Good” was either a sheep or a dog, I cannot remember which.  Goats were somewhere below that.  I got lots and lots of lions, so many that I really wanted one of the other ones, and I figured out that if I got a few wrong I would get one of them.  The act was so distressing it required a teacher consultation with my parents. I was mildly scolded but I think they were more amused than concerned.  I went back to the lions.

So here I am 51 years later, heading off to school, feeling like its kindergarten all over again.  This time the bus is replaced by an airplane and the mile ride to school by a thousand miles.

I’m hoping Mrs. Lynch will be there—a firm and steady hand that makes me feel safe and like I belong.  I’m longing for direction and even steeled for criticism. Of Course, I am also terrified of rejection.  It’s not that I think I will get anything deliberately wrong—there will be no cool animal stamps to tempt me.  But after all this time, all this life lived, I know I will seek ways to be different.  But I am sure of my address and phone number, and the way home.

I have no idea what my psychological state was in 1966 (does a five-year-old have psychological states?).  A picture exists, and I don’t look anxious or afraid, but then my look is fairly inscrutable.  I certainly do not seem overly impressed by the liminal state of the moment.  That was probably for the best, because if I had been aware the picture might be of my mother dragging me onto that bus.

I am more aware today?  I am, are I not?  I did not fight to keep off the plane or linger at the car unable to let go of my husband.  There is, however, something ominous in the air—or is it abject terror that I have managed to tightly control, at least for now?

This is a liminal moment, a time of significant transition.  It has been coming ever since February 3, 2014 when I choose to go to the hospital rather than to work.  As I tell people of this new step, I hear myself saying, “I will not go back to parish ministry,” statement that both comforts and energizes me, but also leaves me a little uneasy.  Am I denying who I am and the thing I have done very well in spite of my illness?  Or is who I am evolving with the realities of my life, like most human beings?  Is this just a move from one form of mission to another?  Time will tell (at least I am hoping that it will.

What I have right now is my favorite prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.