Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness: the unimaginable?

In the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton sends his oldest son off to fight in a duel without his wife’s knowledge. The son is killed, and both Alexander and his wife Eliza are crushed. They move uptown—to where the Hamilton house is now up in Hamilton heights—and the song “It’s quiet uptown” describes their grief “living with the unimaginable.” The death of a child is unimaginable for those of us who have not endured it—as is being married to the person you hold responsible for your child’s death… but the song twists even that loss at the end after Alexander makes a beautiful heartfelt apology, when it conclude with the lines “forgiveness.. can you imagine? Forgiveness…. Can you imagine?”

Can you imagine?

Is forgiveness really the unimaginable? Sometimes I think it might be—for a lot of reasons. Partly because forgiveness means talking about sin; forgiveness means talking about our own sins because we are always in the middle, both sinned against and sinning. Partly because forgiveness is seen as weakness. Partly because in our culture, there seems to be an equating of forgiveness with either forgetting a wrong done to us, or saying that the wrong done to us or others doesn’t matter.

And I’m not sure that today’s Gospel passage is the most helpful in figuring out how, as Christians and followers of Jesus, we are supposed to approach forgiveness. Especially when it’s paired with the Exodus reading about God killing the entire Egyptian army, and their bodies and their chariots and their horses washing up on the seashore.

You have a great Vestry, and we wrestled with today’s Gospel passage at the beginning of our meeting on Monday. And if I could just have had a camera recording our conversation, I would just play that for you today in lieu of a sermon.

We were looking at the contrast between the beginning of today’s Gospel, where Peter comes to Jesus and suggests that forgiving someone seven times would really be a lot and far more than one could possibly expect—unimaginable, even; but then Jesus tops that by saying that forgiveness should be offered not seven times but seventy seven times. And then there is this very odd segue, “For this reason…” into the next story Jesus tells, where the King is merciful only once, and the debtor who is themselves unforgiving ends up in prison being tortured.

One section seems to say that forgiveness must be limitless; the other depicts a sort of karma where whatever you offer to the world comes back to you.

Those are different. Radically different. More different than anyone can explain away with “Oh, it’s the translation” or some subtle shade of historic criticism. I get whiplash between what Jesus says at the beginning and that last line. I want limitless forgiveness for myself… but I’d like everyone else—particularly people I don’t like—one strike and you’re out: you get what you deserve.

Not Christ-like, I know.

Our vestry shared that struggle; we like limitless forgiveness in concept—but we find it hard—unimaginable, really—to practice it. And we recognize that it isn’t always helpful, either—I don’t know how many women—and I know it happens to men too, but so far for me it’s always been women—have been in my office, having been abused by their spouse, and saying “But Jesus says I’m supposed to forgive them and go back. As a church, we have emphasized the first part of this gospel at the wrong times; Jesus does not want us to continue to permit evil seventy seven times. And maybe we’ve emphasized the second part of the Gospel at the wrong times too. Too much punishment and torture when mercy is required.

But we talked and compared and shared our collective wisdom. Learning that sometimes the deepest wounds were from people who were not intending to hurt us; learning that forgiveness was not often for the perpetrator of the offense but for ourselves. We had compassion for the slave with the great debt—the threat made against him, of being thrown into prison with his family must have been terrifying, and many of us recognized that fear can lead us into deeper sin.

Probably the earliest and deepest place we begin to learn our theology of forgiveness is in the Lord’s Prayer. In our Lord’s Prayer translations, we are accustomed to saying “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s a very minimalizing way of talking about sin—a trespass, a crossing of a boundary, but one that could be recrossed without harm. And that’s not what the words in the Gospel when Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer mean. In Matthew, on the Sermon on the Mount—the same Gospel as today’s passage, the accurate translation of the Greek is “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In the gospel of Luke the best translation would be “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” has “hamartia,” sin, an old archery term for missing the mark.

It can be helpful to think of sins as debts—as things that we owe, and that accrue interest, the longer they are left unhealed, unresolved, unrepented for. And it can also be helpful to think of sins as missing the mark—we were aiming for the bullseye, but we sent our arrow wildly off target and have to go retrieve it and try again, and hope that our stray arrow didn’t strike someone or cause too much damage.

One of the most interesting experiences when I was in the Holy Land was when our group had tea with Shafika Dawani, the wife of the Anglican Archbishop. She is a Palestinian Christian whose family lived in Jaffa until 1948, when they were forced to move to Jerusalem; they lost everything again in 1967 because they were on the wrong side of the new borders.

She recounted being taken to a reconciliation center in Bethlehem by the wife of Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians were brought together for conversation. It was obviously a type of encounter that was new to her; and she said that the very kindly and well-intentioned Israeli moderator began by saying something along the lines of, “WE aren’t going to talk about or rehash the past. We are going to talk about the future we want to see.”

But she couldn’t do that. She can’t do that. She ended up in tears—both at the event and with us—and I was left with the strong conviction that if she was able to tell her story of loss and injustice and oppression at that event; and if she was able to hear the similar stories of loss and suffering from Israelis; then and only then might forgiveness and a future open up. At the tea I mentioned Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness, which recounts his experiences as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was a TRUTH and reconciliation commission; there had to be truth first before reconciliation. Shafika’s truth hasn’t yet been heard, and so the wound grows, and forgiveness is still unimaginable.

Archbishop Tutu’s perspective on forgiveness is also in our fall book, the Book of Joy. Chapter five is titled “Forgiveness: Freeing ourselves from the past.” Forgiveness is not forgetting, and forgiveness is not just permitting bad behavior/evil/abuse. Forgiveness is standing up and taking action to prevent evil acts; but resisting the impulse to attribute the evil as inherent to the actor. And that is as true in our individual lives as it is in a global or national context. Archbishop Tutu says elsewhere “No one is incapable of forgiving, and no one is unforgivable.”

A few moments from now, we will be renewing our baptismal covenant, and reminding ourselves of the vows made at our baptism: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?” and the answer: “I will, with God’s help.”

We are going to be in need of forgiveness. Following Jesus does not make us perfect. But sin is not the end of our stories. When we sin, repent and return. And there will be a merciful God. Peter, who begins this conversation with Jesus about forgiving as many as seven times, will need all that forgiveness when he denies Jesus three times and is then absent at the crucifixion. And yet he’s the rock of the church. At my core, at my rock, I know that God is forgiving me for my sins, and if God is doing that for me, how can I not be forgiving in return? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Love must act

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Happy back to school season! I want to do a little thought experiment right now. Think back to your senior year of high school. Remember the location, your friends, your classes, your teachers, your after school activities… and now imagine—because I assume you probably don’t remember firsthand—what you did after school on the second day of class. Maybe you drove home with friends, maybe you had soccer practice, band practice…

This week I was corresponding with a friend who is a priest at an Episcopal congregation in Westchester County, where about half her parishioners are undocumented. On Tuesday, when the elimination of DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—was announced, a 17 year old member of her youth group came to her to tell her for the first time that she was undocumented, and has been going to all her court dates without a lawyer. So on that girl’s second day of the school year—Wednesday—she came to church after school to fill out paperwork in the hopes of avoiding deportation. Her final hearing is scheduled for January 2.

That’s a lot different from my second day of senior year in high school. Her concerns are vastly different from my concerns when I was 17.

Paul writes to the church in Rome today, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

What does it mean to love our seventeen year old neighbor in Westchester? What does it mean to do wrong to her? And what are we called as Christians to do?

The introduction to the most famous parable of all, the Good Samaritan, is “Who is my neighbor?” And the story depicts what it means to love our neighbors: we do not pass them by; we help them when they need it—at our own cost, and regardless of whether they are one of “our” people or not. This is so central—and so challenging to the hearers of Jesus—that he harps on it again and again. And Paul picks it up too, here and elsewhere. One of the ways in which we enact our love of God—the first commandment—is by loving our neighbor here on earth—the second commandment.

We’re having a positive crash course in what it means to be a neighbor in our response to the hurricanes the last two weeks. There I think we see much of the best of the understanding that everyone is my neighbor—if you’re in need of rescue, you don’t care what the politics or race or religion or immigration status is of the person who is rescuing you. And if you’re the person in the boat doing the rescuing, you aren’t checking those things either—you’re doing your best to save the life of your neighbor. These are the moments that I feel like we do see our neighbors, in Paul’s words, “putting on the armor of light, and laying aside the works of darkness.” Whether it’s the furniture store owner who let people sleep in his store, or the undocumented EMT who died saving victims of Harvey, there are such stories of compassion and love in action. And the church—a community of neighbors who have a particular relationship, responsibility towards one another, is being the church. Sarah Condon went through the ordination process here 7 or 8 years ago; her husband Josh is the Rector of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Houston. Holy Spirit is now up and running, hosting teams from other churches to go out and muck out flooded homes, providing child care for the adults who are out working, and being the church. Episcopal Relief and Development will be in Houston and in Florida as long as it takes to get our neighbors back on our feet. Neighbors loving neighbors through concrete action.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to love my friend’s parishioner this week, and others in similar situations—she isn’t technically a dreamer, because she hadn’t enrolled in the DACA program, but she stood a chance of staying in the US with DACA in existence, and summed up her desires to my friend, who said, “All she wants is to go to high school and not die.” Now the odds of her staying here, instead of having to go home to Honduras where her family was threatened by violence and starvation, are slim.

But she is my neighbor. She is my neighbor because she is a human being, but she’s an even closer neighbor because she is geographically close to me, and because she’s an Episcopalian. She is one of us. Us/them language can be dangerous in talking about groups of people, but human beings need some boundaries—and some borders—as ways of holding ourselves together. They are porous, and not solely definitive, but they help us find our common identity with people who may not have other things in common. I may not speak the same language as a person; but we share a church, and that helps me see them. I may not share a political party with someone, but we share a common national identity, and that helps me see them as my neighbor. I may not share a culture with someone, but if they are a mother, we share that identity, and it helps me see them as my neighbor. And each of those expansions of our identifying neighbors are paths to the true answer to the Pharisee’s question to Jesus of “Who is my neighbor?”: Everyone.

Loving your neighbor does not mean that we must always agree, or that we must not have conflict—the Gospel passage today is testament to that. If someone has wronged you—go bring it to their attention one on one. If that doesn’t work, get another church member to witness your conversation. Conflict and disagreement in communities is natural, and not to be avoided or ignored. But then there’s the kicker: if even THAT doesn’t work, then let that person be to you as a “Gentile and a tax collector.”

Let them be to you as a tax collector—the people who were traitors to Israel by being perceived as oppressive and dishonest stooges of Roman tax collection. And Gentiles—foreigners, non-Jews, unclean people.. If someone is creating a problem, not following the rules of the community, let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Let them be unclean and shunned.

Except: who were Jesus’ followers?

Yeah. A bunch of Gentiles and tax collectors.

Let that one be to you as… a Gentile and a tax collector, who are: your neighbors. Who you have to love.

Who is the neighbor you find it easiest to love? How do you show that love to them? How do you practically enact it?

Who are the neighbors you find it hardest to love? How do you do them wrong? How could you be more loving—move your love of neighbor from a concept to a reality?

We all have Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. They are hard to love. They don’t deserve our love; often they don’t want our love. Our active love for them includes the gentle but firm community correction and accountability described in the Gospel. But it is rooted in love, not hate. And it does not allow for us to say, “I have no need of you.” When our relationships with our neighbors are in a state of brokenness, the kingdom of God is broken and in need of healing, which is difficult work. But if we do not want to grow in loving our neighbors, if we do not want to grow closer to Jesus by doing the very thing he repeatedly commanded us to do: then why are we here?

I know I will probably find it easier to love that 17 year old neighbor in my friend’s congregation, than I will find it to love a lot of other people. As her story progresses, I hope I get updates, and if she needs a group of people to go with her and support her as she meets with authorities, I hope I will be there. Because love is active. There is a wonderful quote by Father James Otis Charles Huntington, OHC, the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, the Episcopal monastic community, “Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.” May our love shine and burn like light and fire.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Creative Civil Disobedience with the Midwives

In Israel this summer, my group went to the ruins of the synagogue at Magdala, a little town on the Sea of Galilee where Mary called the “Magdalene” probably came from. In the brand new Roman Catholic church on the site, among other fascinating iconography which I will talk about this fall when I do my class on this portion of my sabbatical, there is a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, with a mosaic behind the altar of a scene from her life in the Gospel. Now, if you were going to represent Mary Magdalene in a scene in which she is prominently featured in scripture, what would you choose? (Congregation said “Easter!”)

Exactly… If it were up to me, I would choose the resurrection appearance in John—where she weeps in the Garden, sees Jesus, and then is sent out as the “apostle to the apostles.” She’s in all four resurrection stories—but John’s gospel is the fullest story of her faith. Maybe, if you wanted a different emphasis, you could depict Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross; it’s more of a supportive role, but again, very biblically based and central to her role as a witness to Good Friday and Easter.

The church in Magdala depicted Luke 8:2, a single verse that refers to Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons had come out.” That’s not included in any of the other gospels, and it’s just a reference in one verse—not even an event or a story. Jesus doesn’t come to Magdala, meet Mary, and cast out seven demons in any of the Gospels—it’s just a throwaway line.

So here, the powerful story of a woman who is the first witness to the resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles, is diminished to an insignificant side note. That didn’t (totally) surprise me, because in our history, both as churches and as nations, we have often tended to hold up stories of men being in power, and ignored stories of powerful women. And frankly, if I’m looking for somewhere that will uphold the stories of powerful female church leaders, I am not likely to look to the Roman church… But it still saddened me. And it’s not an accident. If may not be conscious, but it is a deliberate choice, and it carries a message: this is not a place of women’s leadership; it is a place where women are demon possessed and in need of exorcism.

This is all a prelude to my central question to you today: how many of you had heard the names Shiphrah and Puah before today? (No one at 10:30am raised their hands). Exactly. And yet, before Moses delivered Israel, Shiphrah and Puah delivered Moses. And a lot of other Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah commit the first acts of civil disobedience in scripture. They quietly disobey Pharaoh; they shrewdly lie to keep themselves—and their families—safe; they fear God, and act with compassion. They give life.

Shiphrah and Puah should be household names.

But they’re not. I don’t think that’s an accident either.

Riffing on that first verse of Exodus today, “There arose in the world a church that did not know Shiphrah and Puah.” We do not always know our history of civil disobedience on the side of justice—because it has been deliberately hidden—perhaps unconsciously, but hidden nonetheless. We are hearing this story today only because it is part of the “new” Revised common lectionary that the Episcopal Church adopted about 10 years ago, which changes the relationship between the Hebrew Bible readings and the Gospels; instead of reading a Hebrew Bible reading that directly relates to the Gospel, we get an option for a series of continuous Hebrew Bible readings over a number of weeks—which is why this summer we have heard about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—and Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah.

We do not always know the stories of women of faith because they have been hidden and ignored, and sometimes deliberately erased. Sometimes it is the scripture itself that does the erasing--but sometimes it’s been right there all along! Sometimes the authors of scripture are far more open and progressive than the generations of faithful people that follow them. (And sometimes, lets be fair, they’re not.) We don’t have to invent a separate feminist Bible or something—we just have to use what we have!

Shiphrah and Puah are our good news today—tell us, sisters from so long ago, how can we be midwives? What should we do when we are tasked with committing acts of injustice—how can we refuse to carry them out? How can we be surrounded by frightened leaders—and have the courage in everyday life to do what is right. What rules and laws that we encounter have been created to oppress people—and how can we creatively disobey them to give life?

And how do we tell this story to our children, especially in the context of the larger story. At Vacation Bible School this week, where we were focusing on Bible stories about heroes, I wish we’d had this story—we should have little girls and boys wanting to be like Shiphrah and Puah.

And that larger context matters too: “A new king arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” The new pharaoh did not know the dreamer. He did not remember his history—he did not know that Joseph was the savior not just of Israel but of Egypt, and that Egypt and Israel were friends! The new Pharaoh had inherited a history that held up the wrong things: it held up the power of Egypt—but did not remember that the power of Egypt was interdependent with the power of Israel. The history Pharaoh knew did not hold up Joseph, and so Pharaoh knew him not and enabled his own destruction by setting the stage for Moses. Instead of working with the people of Israel, Pharaoh was frightened of them; and as they grew ever more numerous, Pharaoh grew more and more frightened, more and more threatened, and became crueler and crueler in how he oppressed them, until finally there was no veneer of “These are just slaves who must work,” but Pharaoh is literally decreeing that all their male children will die.

Pharaoh fears people—even though he is powerful and the king and has no real cause to fear the Israelites. But the midwives fear God. Even though they are poor and vulnerable and would have good cause to fear Pharaoh. And because they fear God rather than Pharaoh they deliver those babies, they hear their first cries, they give them into the waiting and loving arms of their mothers, and they follow God’s calling to life rather than death. And it strikes me as curious—from the distance of over 3,000 years—that Pharaoh’s fear focuses on the male children, when it’s the Israelite women who are doing all the acts of disobedience. It’s Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Moses’ mother who are planting the seeds for rebellion—not the men. Pharaoh’s fear is misplaced, in so many ways.

And that fear informs so much of why the women’s history is quieted. It does not take anything away from Moses’ story leading the children of Israel out of Egypt to also tell the story of Shiphrah and Puah as important. We can have both examples. It doesn’t take anything away from Saint Peter, and his role as the rock of the church (today’s Gospel reading) to also have Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles. If we assume that the stories that are below the surface are subversive, they will be—but if we bring them into the light and celebrate them, there will be room for all of us. Israelites and Egyptians.

Where do you see yourself in this story from Exodus today? There’s lots of choices—Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Israelites, the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’s sister and mother… where do you see your story and their story intersecting? And what do you fear? Do you fear God more than people?

I wrote a prayer for Shiphrah and Puah this week; I couldn’t find one already written—like I said, they aren’t in a lot of things. But let us pray and let them guide us:

God of all people, give us the courage of Shiphrah and Puah. When we see unjust power, help us have the courage and creativity to disobey and give life rather than death. Give us faith that our actions—small though they may seem—can bring about freedom, if not for us personally, then for the generations that follow us. We ask this in the name of God who loves us, Amen. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination"

Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
quien a dios tiene nada le falta
Nada te turbe, nada te espante
solo Dios basta

Those are the words of Theresa of Avila, the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun who suffered many illnesses and visions and recorded them for our spiritual edification. In English:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us.

When Jesus tells the disciples today, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” It is the chant of Teresa’s words that come to me. Peaceful, soothing, almost like a mother’s lullaby. Words that when you are afraid—and you have good reason to be afraid, because you are on a stormy sea and you don’t know how you will make it to shore—you can sing to sooth your nerves, calm your soul, and give you strength and courage for whatever comes next. I read the following from a guide for the counter-protestors in Charlottesville yesterday: “If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.”

Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid.

Earlier this week, I commented that I suspected that whatever sermon I started writing was likely going to change based upon the events of the week; how right I was—but I thought I was going to be preaching to a congregation that was mostly concerned about the nuclear sabre rattling with North Korea; I hadn’t anticipated that we would be reeling from images of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. But the Good News speaks to both: Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid. If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.

What is it like to step out of the boat and onto the water—with the wind still blowing? It sounds like something a hero would do.

A week from now, Epiphany will begin our Vacation Bible School. This year’s theme is Hero Central: discover your strength in God. We picked it because it had some good bible stories and because we haven’t done a superhero-themed VBS before—and maybe in at least my case, because this was the summer of Wonder Woman and I figured that for once the concept of “heroes” would be just as potent and popular with girls as it is with boys.

But the curriculum asks, “Who are God’s heroes?” and “What makes someone a hero?” Each day, we learn a Bible story and one piece of what makes a hero: God’s heroes have heart, God’s heroes have courage, God’s heroes have wisdom, God’s heroes have hope, and God’s heroes have power. And it's very clear that we are all called to be God's heroes.

I am finding our VBS theme far more relevant to our world, the news, and our lives than perhaps I had expected this week. Sabre rattling and war posturing; the torchbearing white nationalists that surrounded a prayer service at an Episcopal Church with torches chanting hateful slogans on Friday night (a church whose rector, Will Peyton, is known to many of us from his years on the staff of St. James, Madison Avenue). There are a lot of examples of what I consider anti-heroes surrounding us. People who do not seem to exhibit heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and power.

There are anti-heroes in scripture, too. Look at our readings today: In Genesis we begin with a story about a father preferring one son above the others; out of jealousy the other brothers conspire to kill their brother. “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Who are the heroes of the Joseph story? It’s not Jacob, who sets all this in motion with his disaffected parenting. The point of the Joseph story is not that 9 of the brothers are heroes because they take bold action. Nor is it that Reuben is a hero because he saves Joseph’s life by sending him into the pit, and nor is it Judah who decides he'd rather sell his brother into slavery than kill him.  And that’s the hard one because I bet there are a lot of us who identify as Reuben and Judah—not quite as bad as the other brothers. But Reuben and Judah are not heroes of the story.  They are is not the ones who gets out of the boat and walk on the water.  Being "less bad" is not heroic. 

Joseph is the hero of the Joseph story—the one who is beaten and oppressed and imprisoned is the hero. The dreamer is the hero. He is the one who shows heart and courage and wisdom and rises into a place where those who were oppressors are forced to come begging to him for help.

And let’s admit it: Joseph, the hero, isn’t all that fun to be around. His dreams that show his brothers bowing down to him aren’t easy to hear. His dreams later, warning Pharaoh of the years of plenty and the years of famine are not easy to hear. That’s true of real heroes today, too: they may not be pleasant to be around, because they speak hard truths.

And Joseph ultimately helps the people who had oppressed him. That’s hard—and another qualification of a hero in my book. Joseph has heart. And I bet he sang while he was in the pit. Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

It strikes me that the Charlottesville white supremacist rally was called there because of the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now, I’m from California, so I didn’t grow up in the south, and only knew General Lee as the car from the Dukes of Hazzard, but it seems that the issue of who is a hero is central here: some people, mostly in the South still believe that it was and is heroic to fight to defend slavery and oppression. However, in a little research yesterday, I did find a redeeming quote from General Lee about monuments for the Confederacy: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Amen. Now take it down, like General Lee would have wanted.

It was not lost to me that the roots of the need for the Raising my Voice-Kin graduation that we celebrated yesterday at Epiphany begin right there in the time of slavery, and the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration is one of the most vicious forms of institutional racism today. And I am a white priest and I must name that racism from this pulpit because it cannot be only our sisters and brothers of color who are responsible to end racism. It is white people who need to stand up and decry white supremacy in all its forms—the institutional and the public. Let me be absolutely clear: it is impossible to be a white supremacist and a Christian.

Have courage. I am here. Do not be afraid.

What about the Gospel? I will give Peter credit as a hero, but is it because he has the courage to walk on the water? Or is he a hero because he cries out “Lord, save me!” Maybe both.

It is lonely climbing out of the boat and walking on faith. The other 11 disciples don’t manage it. They are supportive, but they’re scared. It is dangerous. But when Jesus says, “come,” we need to go. Once you get out of the boat, walking on faith, you may sink from time to time. Ask for Jesus. Jesus will save you. It’s ok to sink some—you’re not Jesus. But to follow Jesus we need to get out of the boat—which is heroic. And that is out of every one of our comfort zones. Heroes don’t get to be comfortable.

I had decided a few weeks ago to sing a Hildegard of Bingen chant today as my offertory anthem. She’s a hero of mine---she was an 11th Century German scientist, nun, preacher, composer, and justice leader. The chant I chose is a celebration of Wisdom. God’s heroes have wisdom! Hildegard began having visions in her mid-40s, and was an amazing woman-licensed to preach by the Roman Church, a healer, founder of convents and an incredibly creative person. But also so full of courage. “God’s heroes have courage!”

One example of this is that at age 80, Hildegard allowed the burial of a man who had once been excommunicated in the churchyard of her convent in Rupertsberg; when commanded to disinter his body because authorities said he was still excommunicated when he died, she refused to exhume the body, and instead removed all traces of its burial so it couldn’t be disturbed by others. Hildegard engaged in creative civil disobedience and she accepted the consequences: in response, Catholic officials denied Hildegard’s convent the right to hear mass and to sing the offices; the nuns were forced to speak their prayers in a low voice. The interdict was only lifted six months before Hildegard died. (read pg. 123-125, silence and “womanish time” She wrote one heck of a letter to the authorities to protest this silencing:

Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of His honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution. Moreover, let those who hold the keys of heaven beware not to open those things which are meant to be kept closed nor to close those things which are to be kept open, for harsh judgment will fall upon those who rule, unless, as the apostle says (cf. Rom 12.8), they rule with good judgment. (Letter to the Prelates of Mainz)

She closed that letter with an image that is challenging to us today, but I think is worth hearing and contemplating in our own time:

This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. But the strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice so that it might fall defeated.

A “womanish” time. To Hildegard, who evidently used that phrase often in her works, it was a time when the male leaders of church and state were incapable of virile leadership. And yet, she balances out that negative image of womanhood with one where Hildegard sees herself as a woman warrior, bringing spiritual discipline and growth to a church in the absence of their official leaders.

We may live in a womanish time, by Hildegard’s definition. And we may live in a time when both male and female spiritual warriors are called to battle injustice so that it may fall defeated.

Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us. 

Go to the following link to hear the chant of Nada te Turbe

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Jesus and Dumbledore with us in the Wilderness

Last week I preached about an important location in scripture: the mountaintop. Today we get two more important locations: the wilderness, and the Garden of Eden. I seem to be focused on locations… must be time for me to travel.

I spoke about the mountaintop and nature in idealized terms, but the wilderness in scripture is not the John Muir, idealized wilderness where we get away from it all. The wilderness in today’s gospel is not where you go to get away from it all; it’s where it all comes to get you--beasts, starvation, heat, lack of water, etc.

But the wilderness also has a purpose. It is where Moses leads the people of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. It is where the prophets go to prepare to preach the Word of the Lord. The wilderness is the place of testing and temptation, but also the place of self-reflection, and the discovery of strength. The wilderness is the place where we confirm God’s call to us; where we confirm that we are indeed the People of God, the Prophet of the Lord, the beloved Son of God.

The Garden of Eden is in some ways the opposite of the wilderness. Eden is paradise—it is a garden, enclosed by a wall, with Adam installed as its gardener. The punishment for eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is expulsion from the garden—is being sent into the wilderness.

But they are not entirely different; there are still angels in the wilderness. And there is still sin and temptation in paradise. Real life means coming in contact with serpents and Satan, as well as angels and divine voices.

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Spending time in the wilderness is part of the spiritual life. Lent is 40 days in a wilderness of sorts—40 days of reflection, self-examination, and contemplating what temptations come before us. 40 days to help us confirm and determine our calling as followers of Jesus.

And as we embark upon this wilderness journey of Lent, I ask us to reflect on what our temptations are today. What tempts us to move away from God, instead of coming closer to God? I want us to think about the temptations that Jesus faces today, but in the opposite order that Jesus faces them today:

Satan tells Jesus to kneel before him, and then Satan will give Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world. Well, that sounds familiar. It is a real temptation to believe that if we just kneel down briefly to evil, we will be able to take up power and use it wisely; to believe that when Satan offers us the power to do spectacular actions, we should do it; to believe that power derived from evil can be used in service of the good. . Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful book about the temptation and identified this one as the temptation “to lead rather than to be led”. I’m a leader in the church, but I am a leader precisely because I remember that I am a follower of Jesus. God is the real leader, not me, and not Satan.

The second temptation, to jump off the pinnacle of the temple as a way of testing God’s ability to cushion our fall strikes me in a new way this year. I feel like this is the temptation to nihilism for me—the temptation to just check out, give up, and step off the temple tower because I no longer care. It’s the temptation to apathy; the temptation to put our heads down and say if some injustice doesn’t affect me then I can ignore it.

The first temptation, to change stones into bread, is the one that is always most challenging to me… I mean, if I could turn stones into bread and feed every hungry person wouldn’t that be good news? Here in our own context, if I could magically find all the money to solve Epiphany’s budget issues and improve our ministry, and fix our building… wouldn’t that be good? But I think what Jesus is resisting here are easy solutions to hard problems. God doesn’t solve the problem of sin with an easy solution. God allows his only Son to be executed to redeem us from our sins. We can’t solve our problems without self-sacrifice and effort. Jesus shows us to how to resist.

A few months ago I went back and reread all the Harry Potter books; I originally started reading them about the time that the third one came out… but once I got into it, I became one of those people who bought each new hardback book on the day it came out, capped by buying the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the airport in Dar es Salaam on my way home from visiting our Carpenter’s Kids partners in Tanzania and reading it immediately, completing it somewhere between Dubai and NYC.

I loved them before. But reading them this year was even more poignant because of how JK Rowling deals with the challenge of evil in the world. They are, like Narnia, the great Christian books about the power of love over evil—I know there are many Evangelicals who believe the books are evil because they feature magic, but to me they are profoundly linked to the Christian story. Last night Nathan and I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (because he’d just finished reading it), and Dumbledore’s words at the end of the movie, when Lord Voldemort has returned, sent me scrambling to find a pen and post-it note: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we will all be faced with the choice between what is right, and what is easy."

Because that is that temptation, isn’t it? In the Harry Potter universe, but in our own lives as well. In Harry Potter, that challenge of the choice between what is right and what is easy is explored in the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, which I really encourage you to go back and read. Harry and a small group of friends choose what is right—at great cost to themselves. The followers of Voldemort, the death eaters, gain strength, by doing what is easy. The really interesting part upon rereading it, for me, was how the great institutions of the day—the Ministry of Magic, the press, even Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry—are torn between following their instinct for self-preservation, and doing what is right. All too often, they choose what is easy, even though they know it is not right, because they believe it is in their ultimate interests. It is people who are outside the institutions, and who resist being coopted by the institutions, who are able, eventually, to conquer evil through the power of love and self-sacrifice. People who over and over again, make the choices on the side of love.

Last week when our group was discussing Hillbilly Elegy, we spent some time on one of JD Vance’s key themes: that his friends growing up, and many people in Appalachia and beyond did not believe their choices mattered; they didn’t believe that if they worked hard, they would get ahead; or that if they quit jobs, showed up late, etc. they would suffer.

Jesus is telling us today—along with Dumbledore—that our choices matter. We are faced with temptations that we can choose to resist, or that we can choose to give in to. There is a theological paradox in this: our choices matter, but even when we choose evil, Jesus is still there to redeem us. As Paul writes in the passage from Romans today: “one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” God’s choices, and God’s actions are the most central and profound act of love; but in the meantime, the choices we make either move us closer towards the kingdom of God, or further away.

During this Lenten series in the wilderness, may we strive to choose what is right over what is easy.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Unwrapping the gift of Saint Nicholas

My aunt made me a stole shortly after I was ordained, telling me “This is for the Christmas children’s service.” It’s kind of quilted and the main panels have a manger scene, complete with sheep, cows, a camel, angels, the star, Jesus in the manger… and a large man with a white beard wearing red. Mary and Joseph are nowhere to be found—but I’m pretty sure that’s Santa Claus at the manger. It is perhaps the least religious nativity scene ever—and yet I wear it every year, because I love my aunt.

Since my son is almost eight and is wrestling with his almost-disbelief in Santa, Santa has been on my heart and mind. He’s also been in the news a bit lately—there was a little kerfuffle over Santa at the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis because for the first time there, Santa was being portrayed by a man of African descent. Many people thought that Santa reflecting the diversity of the children he was greeting was wonderful; other people probably just didn’t care; and a few people were hateful and cruel and racist. “Santa was white” they said, among other things.

My thought: “Santa was Turkish.”

I believe this is a year where we might want to unwrap the gift of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. He was born, as I said, in what is now Turkey in the late 3rd Century, and was acclaimed as a bishop because he was such a man of faith. There are many stories—and many variants of stories—of the miracles he performed, but perhaps one of them is most pertinent and isn’t a miracle at all—it’s just an act of mercy. He reputedly provided dowries, secretly, one at a time, for three daughters in a poor family, so that they could each be married rather than being forced into a life of prostitution. Later, during the persecution of Diocletian in 303, Saint Nicholas was beaten, tortured, and jailed for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus.

Still later, having survived the persecution, the newly Christian emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea to determine a clear creed for the new state religion of Christianity. The Council was called in large part by the perceived need to silence a bishop named Arius who history remembers as a heretic because he believed Jesus was not fully divine. According to legend, at Nicea, Saint Nicholas was so overcome by anger at the Arian heresy that he punched Bishop Arius in the face and ended the debate.

Don’t punch a heretic for Christmas.

The man we know as Santa Claus was a faithful follower of Jesus in a challenging and changing era of history, which led him to be a generous defender of women and the poor; to sacrifice his safety and freedom for his faith; and to uphold his beliefs in debate that was—shall we say—passionate and vigorous, rather than being polite.

What kind of Christian will you be in the challenging and changing era of our own? Jesus is born today, and we join Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds along with Bishop Nicholas of Myra and so many other Christians through history to marvel at this thing which has taken place. Here is Jesus, the Christ child, the savior of the world, born into the most vulnerable of circumstances: displaced, threatened, and mortal. On these tiny shoulders laying in the straw rest the salvation of the whole world.

Which could be bleak… or it could give us the most profound hope in the world. This baby did it. This baby grew up and lived and taught and died and rose again, and offered the promise of peace and love and eternal life to the whole world. There is nothing we can do—there is nothing anyone can do—to turn that clock back, and take away that promise. God’s work is done tonight.

And we don’t need to be miracle workers or magicians or wear fancy red suits to follow Jesus. We need not magically create presents or hop down chimneys; or dwell in a fairytale north pole. We can see injustice in our own time and circumstances and respond generously and with mercy like Bishop Nicholas. When our faith is in conflict with worldly powers in our own time we can hold firm like Bishop Nicholas, even at peril of our own lives, trusting that our witness matters. Our witness to that child lying in the manger tonight matters to the world, it matters to us and it matters to Jesus. So go out and share the good news with a world that is sorely in need of good news; share the news that the Prince of Peace has been born once again, as he was in first Century Bethlehem, in fourth century Turkey, and now tonight, in the midst of a world still torn by war and fear. "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"You will be given the opportunity to testify"

Before I preach anything else today, there are two things I want to say: “I love you,” and even more importantly, “God loves you.”

We have in the scriptures today two passages about response to national trauma. In Isaiah, we have an incredibly beautiful vision of the new heaven and new earth, written after the people of Israel had been conquered and sent into exile in Babylon and returned about 70 years later. The arc of Isaiah is clear: suffering comes to people, but if you wait with faith, restoration will come. It will be OK.

And then in Luke, we have a passage written for a people in the midst of national trauma. The temple has been destroyed. Violence is reigning. No one feels safe. And people don’t know what to do. Life has not been made right, things are not OK, when Luke is writing his Gospel. You notice how the Good News is different for people when they are in the midst of trauma vs. when they have come out on the other side of it?

So Luke’s Jesus preaches that the temple—the central institution of the people of Israel and the focus of their worship—despite all its size and wealth and history, is going to come crashing down. And there is going to be war and violence, and false prophets, and fractured families, and the people who call on the name of Jesus will be arrested and brought before civil authorities. Life is going to be awful.

This is intended as good news, because the people who are hearing it recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. And it has some comfort: “Do not be terrified…” Jesus says, because by the time it all comes to pass, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

But the verse that has haunted me in this passage all week is: “…you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Where are you willing to go for the sake of Jesus’ name? And what will your testimony be?

Last week in his convention address, Bishop Dietsche outlined a series of apolitical Christian values that we uphold in the Episcopal Church as followers of Jesus. When Bishop Dietsche is on, he’s on, so I will read them word for word:

“The equality and dignity of all persons of every race and gender and sexual orientation, for we are every one of us made in the image of God and redeemed by the One who took our flesh upon himself and dwelt among us. Who said, "I came that all may be one, as the Father and I are one."

The welcome of the stranger at the gate, remembering that once you were strangers in Egypt. And more recently, immigrants on the American shore. Christians claim solidarity with the oppressed, the vulnerable, the refugee and the outcast who stand at the gate and knock.

Compassion and relief for the poor, and economic justice for those who are shut out of the human possibility of the abundant life, all in the name of the One who said, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Because they cannot repay you."

A commitment to non-violence, and to peace, and to the sacrifice of self-interest for the sake of that peace. Render to no one evil for evil. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And the gracious stewardship of creation and all that God has given into our hands.”

Those are truths to which we are Christians are called to testify. No matter who you voted for on Tuesday, every time you see a woman, a queer person, a person of color being harassed, that is an opportunity to testify. That is Jesus reaching out to you and asking, “Are you with me?” Every time you hear someone advocating violence, that is an opportunity for you to testify. Every time you hear someone denigrating the full humanity of our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, that is an opportunity for you to testify.

And testifying comes at a cost. I know I’m going to have some tough conversations with family members over the next few months—I already had one. I have spent the last year trying to find the courage to speak up more often, but I am recommitting myself, out of my faith in Jesus, to risk those relationships, with people I love, because I dare not stand by silent. Jesus says today, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends” and he knows whereof he speaks—remember what happened when Jesus himself went and preached in his home synagogue? They tried to throw him off a cliff.

And I know there are probably some people here who believe those concerns are overblown—but hear me as your priest: friends and friends of friends have been harassed this past week in ways that are emboldened from the week before. A threatening and vulgar note on the windshield of a gay priest; a head of an Episcopal School at a conference I just attended who had to go contact parents after an incident of white students at his school harassing students of color; Asian friends of friends having people come up to them on the street and say “go home.”

Which is not to say that this is in any way new—I was reminded this week that it was only in 2000 that the state of Alabama amended its constitution to allow for interracial marriage. And do you know how many Alabama votes voted against that amendment? 40% . Sixteen years ago, 40% of Alabama voters believed that marriage between a black man and a white woman should not be legal. So this is not new. But it is emboldened. Harassment of students of color in schools is real. Painting swastikas on buildings is real—just last night here in NYC at the New School. Someone driving down the Deegan in the Bronx flying a Confederate flag on the back of their truck earlier this week is real.

What would Jesus do in this reality? He wouldn’t deny it, and he wouldn’t be silent. And he would stand with those who are harassed and oppressed and violated, as he did while he was on earth. These are all opportunities for every one of us to testify.

And I don’t know—yet—how we can find the places to have the learning and conversation that so clearly needs to transpire between urban and rural people in our nation. I don’t know how we can gather people in a space that is sufficiently safe for everyone to listen to each other. As a woman, I struggle with having to have the same conversations over and over about why I am fully able to be a priest; I’ve gotten to a point after all these years of just avoiding the situations in which I need to have the same conversation for the millionth time. And if some guy grabs my ass in a bar, I do not attempt to have some sort of constructive “learning conversations” with him. I get away. But somehow, Jesus wants us to find ways of having those conversations, and maybe the church is one of the few places where we can find space to have them. I hope so. I hope we can figure out how to do that. If I didn’t believe in Jesus, I don’t know that I could believe in the conversion of hearts. But I follow Jesus, and that’s what he did over and over again—he called the people you wouldn’t necessarily want around and changed them. So I keep my faith.

Per the New Consecration Sunday guidelines, I was supposed to be giving a stewardship sermon today, and talking about giving as a spiritual practice. The Good News today demands something different. But I will point out that this Gospel passage describing the destruction of the temple immediately follows the story of the Widow’s mite. It when Jesus calls attention to the generosity of the poorest of the poor that people start to talk instead about how beautiful the building is and Jesus breaks the bad news: the building is coming down. But that widow’s generosity is not in vain, even if the building does come down. Because that widow gave because of her relationship with God, and no building can get in the way of that.

The last few days, wearing a safety pin has been one way of identifying yourself as someone who will be a safe companion to people who are afraid right now. I have some ambivalence about whether this is just a way for white people to feel better about themselves. If you wear a safety pin but you don’t testify, you’re missing the point. But if you need to wear one not just as a witness to other people but as a reminder to yourself of your charge to testify to your faith, then please… wear it.

Jesus speaks a lot in the Gospel of John about “abiding” with his disciples. He is with them, dwelling in them and through them. That concept of abiding with people is so important, and that’s what those safety pins mean. Here’s a full testimony from someone who has been advocating for them:

If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train.
If you're trans, I'll go to the bathroom with you.
If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone.
If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources.
If you're a survivor, I'll believe you.
If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.
If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.
If you're a LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken.
If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.
If you're tired, me too. 

If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.

We have work to do. A lot of work. But we will do it together. And by our endurance, we will gain our souls.