Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How silently the wonderous gift is giv'n

Sermon for Christmas Day, 2013

John’s Gospel is all about light and darkness, both literal and figurative. Today on Christmas we hear “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”; at Easter the Marys will go to the tomb while it is still dark and then Jesus is raised and it is day. It’s never just about physical darkness or light—it’s always also about spiritual darkness and light. Today is the day we celebrate the light coming into the world in a new way, and darkness being banished.

With that in mind, listen to this quote: "… I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence."

Any guesses as to who wrote that? It’s Helen Keller. The icon of a woman who knew what it was to live in darkness and silence, but who managed to discover light and her voice. And who knew God as “the light in my darkness, the voice in my silence.” It intrigues me that once she had language, she would no doubt have read the Bible in the King James Version, in which that verse from John’s gospel today is “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

How can you comprehend what light is if you live in darkness? And yet somehow she did. The light in her darkness was God, and in her darkness she did comprehend what that light was, even before she had words to describe God. I have trouble comprehending how I would be able to recognize God without having heard a single story, or having a single word to describe anything. But it inspires me that she could. That even as we celebrate Jesus born as the Word of God, we realize that words are not necessary to know the Word. That we can leave some of our intellect and education behind and discover God as pure experience, to be comprehended not by our minds but by our hearts and souls.

Last week I read an old sermon by Barbara Crafton, a colleague and friend. I learned from it that Helen Keller knew Philips Brooks, the Episcopal priest and noted preacher who wrote the text of our Christmas Carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” She was a teenager and he an old man when they met, but they corresponded through letters and impressed one another. Barbara wrote:

“Yet Brooks recognized that Helen and he did the same thing. Reaching out of the total darkness of her isolated life, Helen was already touching people's hearts with her courage and noble spirit, already challenging people to look at what could be. She lived in silence. She lived in darkness. But out of her silence the Spirit burst forth with grace and power. And out of her darkness, light shone. This was what Phillips Brooks had dedicated his life to bringing about: Let the people hear of what can be. Let them know what astonishing good can come from God, even in the face of terrible sorrow.

In one of her letters, Helen told Bishop Brooks that she had always known about God, even before she had any words. Even before she could call God anything, she knew God was there. She didn't know what it was. God had no name for her -- nothing had a name for her. She had no concept of a name. But in her darkness and isolation, she knew she was not alone. Someone was with her. She felt God's love. And when she received the gift of language and heard about God, she said she already knew.”

Barbara questioned whether Brooks might have had Helen Keller in mind when he wrote the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” because it deals with darkness and silence so compellingly. I did the math of when the hymn was written—it was before he met Helen Keller, so she couldn’t have inspired it—but it’s still an insightful reflection on the darkness and quietness of the gift of the Christ child. Maybe somehow he comprehended what light would mean to someone who lived in darkness; what sound would mean to someone who lived in silence; when he wrote:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There are so many ways in which we may be blind and deaf today; and yet God can enter in. God comprehends light and dark; illumines our darkness before we can even find the words to name darkness or light. May this Christmas be a time to comprehend the Gift we have been given: the Word made flesh; whether it comes with silence or loud noises; whether in light or dark, whether in words or in pure experience. Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Unwrapping the Gift

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2013

I only peeked inside a gift once. Sometime before my ninth birthday, I rooted around in my parents’ closet and found a book about guinea pigs, which clued me in to the idea that I was going to get a guinea pig for my birthday. But other than that, I’m pretty good about not snooping, because I really don’t want to know what’s in the box until I open it—the not knowing and anticipation is part of the excitement in getting a present, and then the satisfaction of opening it, seeing, and playing with it or wearing it or whatever you do with the kind of thing it is.

There’s this little baby lying in a manger tonight, wrapped in a bunch of rags. And hearing the angel’s words to the Shepherds and to us, we know that this baby is a gift. “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.” It doesn’t look like a savior. It doesn’t look like a messiah. It doesn’t look like the Son of God. But it is. And over the next 33 years, layer upon layer of gift wrap will be taken off until finally there is Easter morning and Mary Magdalene can see the risen Lord and cry out “Rabbi!” Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, maybe even the angels—they look at this gift of a child and don’t quite know what it is. It certainly is a gift—every child is a gift—but even with all the prophecies, with all the strange dreams and angels and visitors—there is no way for them to really know what they’ve been given. The fullness of it only comes with the teachings, the life Jesus lives, his death, and his resurrection.

We have the privilege of knowing the rest of the story tonight. But do we really know what we’ve been given in Jesus? The English writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” (from What’s Wrong with the World) I think we’re still mystified by what it means that God gave us his son. There’s a line in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet is waiting for Romeo to show up after they’ve been married, “O! I have bought the mansion of a love, but not possess’d it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed!” Different context, but I feel like that’s sort of where we are. 2000 years of theology and Christian living after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, we still haven’t fully possessed what it means that God has granted us salvation. We don’t yet enjoy living in the mansion of love, even though that’s where we are. In theological terms, this time we’re in is often referred to as the “already-not yet”…. We have already been saved, but we have not yet come fully into God’s glory. Jesus has already come, but we have not yet managed to accept it.

Jesus lived and preached and taught things that are difficult for us to follow. Sometimes we can’t really believe that yes, we’ve been forgiven for our sins, that yes, we’ve been promised eternal life, that yes, God loves us enough that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus does die for us. And sometimes we find it difficult to really love our neighbors; to share what we have; to respond with compassion rather than self-interest. It’s rather like we’re looking at the gift but afraid to play with it. We’re afraid to fully invest ourselves in cherishing it and letting it in to every corner of our lives. We’re still in the anticipation phase—or as if we’ve gotten a gift and we put it up on a shelf where we can look at it, but don’t take it out of the box.

Let 2014 be a year for you and I and everyone to unwrap one more layer around this prince of peace lying in the manger. Take Jesus down off the shelf and see what he can do. What layer of wrapping could you undo this year? Could you discover Jesus the teacher—and truly follow his teachings about love and justice? Could you discover Jesus the healer—and let him heal your wounds and restore your life? Could you discover Jesus the bringer of Good News—and turn around and share that good news with a world in need? Could you discover Jesus the man who prayed—and let his prayers enliven your own prayer life? Or could you discover Jesus the man who forgave sins—all of our sins, things done and left undone, known and unknown, and slip out from the burden of guilt and sin?

If each of us unwrapped just one more layer around the baby in the manger tonight, what a difference it would make in the world that God loved so much that he sent that baby. When the world sees Christians behaving like Christians, it gets excited. See the joy around the response to Pope Francis—suddenly, a role that had been pigeonholed as judgmental and out of touch with ordinary lives has come to life with compassion and humility. We could have a larger conversation about whether the Pope is actually managing to change in the Roman Church—but just at the level of how he presents his faith to the world, I am convinced that the world knows a real Christian when it sees one. We know a real Christian when we see one. And not only do we recognize it, we like it. We see it and we know oh, yes, that’s what Jesus was talking about. That’s who that child in the manger really is.

Tonight the gift is a baby. Even if you don’t really like babies, when you see one, and it looks up at you and smiles you can’t help but smile back. So too with Christians. Even if you don’t really like them, when they act like Jesus, it’s hard not to smile back, to feel warm, to want to be a Christian in return. So maybe our work tonight is not just to unwrap the Christ Child and reveal him to ourselves; maybe our work tonight is to allow ourselves to be unwrapped—to be shown for the gift we are to the world. May we be as unselfconscious as a baby in our smiles and our reaching out to touch the world. We have good tidings of great joy to bring to the world, and when the world hears those tidings, have confidence that heaven and nature will sing; that the lowly will be lifted up and the mighty brought low; and that peace will prevail. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Guilt is Good

My sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2013

 I don’t think John the Baptist would have an Elf on his shelf. For those who don’t have kids, Elf on the shelf is the trend of Christmas 2012 and 2013 where you get this little elf that sits in your house and you tell your kids that the Elf is going to report to Santa every night on whether the child has been naughty or nice… the elf is Santa’s Big Brother style spy. If you’re good—you get presents. If you’re bad… look out. There have been moments this week in Nathan’s behavior where I really would have liked to be able to say something like, “If you do that, the Elf will know and tell Santa!” so I totally get why this is a fun family activity and I don’t want anyone who has an Elf on the Shelf to feel bad… but I think it’s a very different take on sin than what we get today in the Gospel with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Elf on the shelf is about never sinning.. at least visibly. You can only sin in the next room over. You are naughty or you are nice. It’s about who you are, not about how you handle your inevitable sin.

John the Baptist is crying out “repent!” In Greek, the word is metanoia, and it means to turn around. To repent is to turn away from our sin and go in a different direction. That’s different from experiencing God as spying on us and judging us. Repentance is about self-judgment. Repentance is about using our knowledge of good and evil—discerned from God’s revelation through scripture, through the laws and mores of our time, through the response of our neighbors, and our own hearts—to determine that we have done something wrong or sinful, and choosing to turn away from it. He preaches his message of repentance—and the crowds come by the thousands, confess, repent and are baptized.

And those crowds include “many” Pharisees and Sadducees. John takes them to task for coming and joining in the ritual… He doesn’t seem to experience their presence as genuine; perhaps they’re only there because baptism in the Jordan was becoming trendy—a 1st Century Elf on the shelf. But I find it interesting in Matthew’s gospel that the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming not just to be voyeurs, but to be participants. They are coming to be baptized. They are coming to confess their sins and repent. Allowing for some skepticism, it speaks to me that even the people who were relatively powerful at that time and place, and who were religiously privileged, felt that something was lacking—that John’s message of repentance was something they needed, too.

What interests me today is what brings them there. Why is the message of repentance so compelling to so many people—both then and now, because our conversation at Bible and Brewskis this week was one of the more vibrant we’ve ever had when we brought up sin and repentance. What brings us to the Jordan? What brings us to a place where we feel a need to repent? What is it about speaking openly about our sins that is actually compelling and cathartic—instead of trying to hide them?

Dr. Brene Brown is a social worker and researcher whose work on vulnerability and shame went viral after she gave a TED talk in 2010. It’s available on YouTube, and I highly recommend it as a good way to spend 20 minutes—perhaps as part of your Advent preparation. I find her work resonates with a lot of people and is helpful when we think about sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness. Dr. Brown bases some of her research on people who are “whole hearted” on distinguishing between shame and guilt.

Perhaps against our cultural instincts, guilt is good. It’s a like a little take off on Gordon Gecko: Guilt is good. When you do something wrong, you should feel guilty. You should feel bad. Guilt can make us do good things: apologize, make right our mistakes, repent and change direction so that we don’t do the bad thing again. Guilt can inspire us to connect more deeply to the people around us. But you feel guilt because you have done something bad, not because you are something bad.

When we do something bad and feel like we are something bad because of it, that’s not guilt, that’s shame. Shame is not helpful. Shame prevents us from connecting to others, isolates us, and inhibits our ability to apologize and truly repent. When we act out of shame, we do not experience metanoia—we do not turn around. We move blindly forward, because we don’t believe we—or our circumstances—can change. I would add theologically to Brene Brown’s research to say that when we act out of shame, we do not believe forgiveness is a possibility—and if we don’t believe forgiveness is a possibility, then you should just deny and hide your sins because there is no way to be free of them.

John raises the stakes of our anxiety this week with his binary clarity about wheat and chaff. The wheat is valuable and the chaff needs to be burned. We hear this and assume that either you are wheat or you are chaff. You’re naughty or nice. But think back to Brene Brown’s work on guilt and shame. A person who feels guilt says, “I am a grain of wheat that has chaff around it that I need to let go of and burn.” They know they have value—and also know that not everything about them has value. There are some things we need to let go of, and consign them to the flames. The person who lives out of shame says, “I am chaff and I have to cover that up so no one will realize it and throw me into the fire.” They do not recognize the kernel of grain inside themselves, and aren’t willing to risk starting to burn off the chaff so that that grain can become visible.

God calls us this Advent—and always—to let go of our shame. To bear fruits worthy of repentance, because we are worthy of repentance. We are worthy of forgiveness. You are God’s beloved child, and you are worthy of forgiveness from God; you are worthy of forgiveness from your neighbor; and you are worthy of forgiveness from yourself. We are so worthy that God sends his Son to us this season, to be born in that stable, to teach and preach and heal, to die, and to be raised.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” To abound in hope means to believe in the possibility for forgiveness. To abound in home means to believe in our infinite worth as children of God. May this Advent be a season of hope abounding in each one of you. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Open Door

In the novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King, a time traveler finds a portal from 2011 to 1958 and uses it to prevent JFK’s assassination, thinking that would also set in motion a way to prevent the Vietnam War and the assassination of MLK. It’s such a natural thought in any of our lives—if I could prevent the one really bad thing from happening, wouldn’t that take away many of the other bad things? But as any Star Trek fan out there knows, that type of trying to control the future contradicts the Prime Directive, which is that you can’t try to alter the future or it screws everything up with unintended consequences. Stephen King evidently worked with the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to explore dystopian ideas of what might have happened if JFK was not killed: in his novel: the Civil Rights Act is not passed; Governor George Wallace ends up being elected President; by the time the main character returns to 2011, the world has suffered a nuclear holocaust and is in the process of ending. I guess it is a Stephen King novel, after all.

I was obviously reminded of that novel this week in the context of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, but there are moments in today’s gospel that remind me of the fundamental premise of wanting to control or redo the future in the cries from the crowd for Jesus to “save yourself” and from the criminal to “save yourself and us.” When reality is bad—and it often is—we want to be saved from it. We want to deny death and suffering the short term victory, and ask ourselves “what if” questions… what if JFK had not died? What if Jesus had not been crucified? What if he did “save himself?”

Could there be some kind of alternative reality where Jesus reigns not just in heaven but on earth? There exists some of that desire in the feast we are celebrating today, the feast of Christ the King. Maybe Jesus could become the Palm Sunday king, riding on a donkey and being hailed by the crowd… maybe the Roman Empire could have been overthrown and Israel liberated and… and… then what would have happened? But no. We can try to force the trappings of earthly power onto Jesus, but it is clear to me that his mission was not to be an earthly king.

We don’t need to rewrite history, because the reality—as bad as it is at the foot of the cross in Golgotha, and as bad as it is at the foot of our own crosses—is going to be redeemed in a way the people who stand at its foot cannot even imagine. There would be no end of death without Jesus’ death; no promise of life without his resurrection. When we expect Jesus to act in a concrete, earthly way—like an earthly king might intervene, with military power or self-interest or earthly might, we will be disappointed. When we expect Jesus to intervene as the King of Glory and King of Peace, in the phrase from the hymn we sang before the gospel—through forgiveness and mercy and eternal life the way he does today—then we will be satisfied.

Which is not to say that we cannot and should not attempt to intervene to prevent suffering and death; it is our very faith in Jesus the calls us to intervene—to act with compassion, with peace, with fortitude for justice. We on earth are the ones who are called to intervene in the earthly way—not God. Where humanity sins and causes suffering, we are the ones who fail. But even that is not impossible to redeem.

Look at the two things Jesus says in the gospel today: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Both are statements of incredible power—who has the power to forgive sins? Who has the capacity to promise us a place in paradise? They are not statements of earthly power, but they are statements of profound power—far more than any earthly being can offer.

Consider especially that Jesus is offering forgiveness to the men who are crucifying him. I remember learning that in order to receive forgiveness, you had to repent, and promise amendment of life. Are these men repentant? Good heavens, no. No one says “I’m sorry.” None of them promise not to crucify anyone again. Jesus is pleading for forgiveness without those signs that we consider important today. Grace is offered before we even know enough to ask for it.

What Jesus’ kingship is about is the promise that we are forgiven for our sins even before we know they’re sinful. It’s about the promise that we will be with him in paradise whether we die on a cross or in a hospital bed; it is about the promise that he is, in the words of the wonderful George Herbert poem that was the text of the hymn we sang before the Gospel, a “King of glory, king of peace.” The second verse of that poem has always spoken powerfully to me in the context of this gospel:

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.

I will praise Jesus; I will offer Jesus my best; and Jesus will clear me of my sins—even when they return again and again. We’re not so different from the thief. At our best we know that we need saving. At our worst we’re more like those who are crucifying Jesus—we don’t even know we need forgiveness. But to Jesus, they’re all the same. They’re all forgiven.

The Episcopal priest and author Barbara Crafton wrote a series of seven poems on the last words of Christ; here’s an excerpt from “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” speaking about that thief who stands in for us and our salvation:

“It has long been clear to him that
Most would not reach out and take the gift.
Most would stand outside and knock.
On a door already open.
But for this one on the right, status is not on the table.
At the end of life, this one is free to ask,
Because there is no harm in asking,
And you never know.
At the end of a life that knows it needs saving,
When there is no longer any chance for amends
The one on the right just asks for the gift
And, as always, the answer is yes.”

With Jesus our King, when it comes to grace, forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, the answer is always yes, and the door is always open. We don’t even have to knock. We need only take a first step and walk through.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

God of the living, church of the living

“Mommy, who owns the church?” asked Nathan about two weeks ago. These are the questions you get with a precocious 4 year old. But I’ve played this parenting game before, and I know you’re supposed to answer a question with another question: “Well, who do you think owns the church?” “You?” Out loud, I said, “No, definitely not me.” Inside I thought, “Yeah, sometimes it feels like I own this building…” But I continued out loud, “I guess you could say that all of us own the church. Or that God does.” “All of us own the church, like, me??” Big grin. Nathan sees himself as part-owner of the church. Not bad for a conversation before 9am.

And the perfect introduction to a sermon on a day when we are celebrating our role as stewards of all that has been entrusted to us, including the Church of the Epiphany. 

All of us—and God—own the church. And not the building—or at least not just the building—but the ministry here, the worship here, the pastoral care people get when they are ill or someone they love dies.   

You can see a little of the same sense of that in the reading from Haggai this morning. Most of the Hebrew prophets preach doom and gloom—shape up, or God is going to destroy us. Haggai—all 3 pages of it—is a celebration of how wonderful it will be to complete building the temple after the exile. He prophesies that there is just a little more work to be done, and that then it will be like a huge gravitational pull for the nations that surround Israel, bringing joy and prosperity and honor. The temple isn’t just a building—it’s the place where God lives. And it’s the place where the people will finally be able to gather to pray in a way that they hadn’t been able for a full generation. Haggai is basically saying, “don’t give up!” to his community—that the effort and cost will be worth it, and to never lose sight of the big picture of what it will mean to have a functioning temple again.  

I know I need to spend a little time explaining Levirate marriage—the practice the Sadducees bring up in the Gospel today where a woman who is widowed without children would be “married” by her brother in law to bring up children for her dead husband. Despite how odd it sounds to our ears in our own cultural context, it was in its own way a very good form of stewardship. I got some laughs on Facebook this week for suggesting that perhaps the stewardship lesson was “If you have a spare wife in the family, it’s good stewardship to have someone marry her” but at a larger level that was true for its time and place. We live in a different context today. But it was in the interests of the family to have each of their sons have children—they needed to tend the land, to have another generation to pass it down to—and once a woman was widowed, the only alternative to a second marriage was poverty. Better to be married by your husband’s brother and remain with his family than to be turned out on the streets. Better to have vicarious children for your husband who will care for you as you age than to die alone and childless. 

But the Sadducees’ question isn’t really about Levirate marriage practices—it’s really about resurrection. And it is at some level about how who we are as earthly living creatures has to do with who we will be as resurrected, heavenly creatures. How does who we are now relate to who we will be? And how do those who have died before us relate to who we are now? And finally how is it that “God is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” 

And that starts to get into a really interesting question of stewardship for me. Because one of the most concrete ways we are linked to our forebears in the faith is through the institution of the church. Through these walls. Who owns the church of the Epiphany? We all do… but “all” includes not just Nathan and me and you but everyone who was here before and left their mark on it. It’s Hugh McCandless whose “word burned like a lamp” as we learn from the inscription over there, and the woman who gave the money to pay Lot Jones’ salary the first year of our existence in 1833, and the Russells who as a father and son team were wardens and vestrymen for something like 70 years straight. The church belongs to all of us, living and dead. And that is both a blessing and a curse. We have a goodly inheritance—were it not for the generosity of those church members in the past, we would not be here. They paid to build this building. They raise the funds in our endowment which are currently allowing us to spend some years intentionally moving our school and parish towards financial independence and sustainability.  

But relying too much on the past can make it seem at times like God is the God of the living in a church paid for by the dead. The flip side of that is that at times it feels like we are shackled by the choices and decisions of our forebears. While made, I am sure with the best of intentions, the Episcopal church as a whole is struggling with the cost of maintaining aging buildings that in many cases no longer suit our missional needs. The 75th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of our present building was 3 weeks ago, which is a lovely anniversary, but hardly a day goes by that I don’t ask myself “Why didn’t they put in a bathroom on the main floor???”. This building has beauty, and it has served us well, but even after the renovations we did this summer, there is so much more to be done to match our facility with our mission, because our mission is so different now than it was 75 years ago.  

The Church of the Epiphany is a church of the living, and we serve the God of the living. I believe that it matters what we do here. Our ministry matters to the lives of so many people we touch—whether it is the hungry person who is served a good dinner on Wednesday night, or someone seeking God who encounters a safe place to explore their faith at the Arts and Spiritual Direction group on a Tuesday night; or the community that forms when our choir rehearses and sings together; or the child who learns unequivocally here by the welcome they receive that they are an “owner” of this church. 

And we do all of this—feeding the hungry, growing in faith, worshiping and building a welcoming community not because we’re nice people or a social service organization but because we love and follow Jesus. The Jesus who loved us first, the Jesus who loves us as we are, not just as we present ourselves to the world. The Jesus who challenges us today—and every day—into ever growing in our generosity, ever growing in our spiritual life, ever growing in faith.  

Our stewardship theme this year was “Real people, real faith, real friends,” and I think it’s the best one we’ve ever had. Epiphany is a place where you will find real people—honest, authentic flawed, but basically good people who aren’t trying to be somebody else. Epiphany is a place where you will find real faith—where “we’ve always done it that way” is not a mantra, where we are always looking for new ways to invite people into our midst, and where we worship the living God in awe and beauty and prayer. And finally, Epiphany is a place where you will find real friends. Relationships that will deepen your life. Look around you. These are the people who will love you when you’re down, who will celebrate with you when you’re up, and who will work side by side with you for the sake of the Gospel through it all. 

In the last year, with the changes in my life, I have been very conscious about that gift of support and love from all of you. And I have worried about money in a way I haven’t for years and years. Facing questions of “will I have enough?” and “Can I still be so generous?”. And I’ve wrestled with my personal budget, and my time, and actually think I am being a much, much better steward of myself and my life now than I have been in some time. And out of that comes my gratitude. Thank you, Jesus, for putting me in a place where my son knows that the church belongs to him. How could I not be grateful for that? And how could I not respond with generosity in my giving? So that line item in my budget stays. And even grows. 

Generosity is not a characteristic just of the dead. It was not easier to give 100 years ago. There was no more certainty about life and jobs and investments and businesses. I want to be like the prophet Haggai, saying over and over again, “Take courage.” “Take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” So take courage, and work. Something that our bishop, Andy Dietsche, said yesterday in his wonderful convention address stuck with me on that topic: “Jesus expects us to be hardworking grown ups.” We do have hard work ahead of us. But we’re grown ups. We can do it with God’s help. And with Jesus’ love. For the sake of the living and those yet to be living—because we are the stewards of their time as well as our own. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gospel Whiplash

My sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2013

In a week when as your priest I was working with our Budget Committee on thinking about the 2013 and 2014 budgets and our building committee working on the budget for our construction projects, and facing a Vestry meeting tomorrow night, I don’t think I could have asked for a worse parable to preach on than today’s Gospel. Be assured that your Vestry, Budget Committee, Investment Committee, and everyone else in parish leadership try to be shrewd and honest stewards of our financial life.

There’s a temptation to try to make today’s Gospel reading make sense, and come up with one single point that the whole thing is guiding us towards. I don’t believe that’s possible. Or at least if it is, I am not a good enough scholar or preacher to do it. But it is a good opportunity to just remember, briefly, how the Gospels stories were put together.

The person we know as Luke who “wrote” this gospel was really more of an editor. He took the Gospel of Mark and a group of Jesus’ sayings known today to scholars as “Q” and some other material about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and put it together and shaped it into a story that told the Good News of Jesus as he understood it. So if things seem disjointed or contradictory, it’s because they are. Jesus can tell a story about a manager who acts dishonestly but shrewdly with his master’s wealth and then Luke can combine that with some other sayings of Jesus on the topic of wealth that completely contradict what looks to be the point of the first story. So if you felt like you had theological whiplash by the end of listening to the Gospel today, it’s with good reason. There really is a story saying one thing followed immediately by some verses that say the exact opposite.

I did, however, read a great sermon on this Gospel passage online this week by Sarah Dylan Breuer, a lay Episcopalian in Massachusetts ( . She did an interpretation of this story based in its historical context that went something like this:

A very rich man lives in a big city with an income from the estate he owns in the country. His manager runs the estate, and all the work of the estate is done by the peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. So they work as tenant farmers, buying everything they need from a sort of “company store” owned by the landowner at prices far above what they’re worth. Since the harvest is never enough to pay their rent and their debts at the store, they slip further and further into debt. The manager collects the rents, enforces the debts, and is generally unpopular with the peasants—from whose ranks he probably came.

The landowner fires the manager because of rumors that he was squandering the landowner’s resources. The manager has made his fortune—such as it is—by unjustly supporting the landowner over the peasants, so he has no good place to turn—until he gathers all the farmers who owe the landowner money and declares that their debts have been reduced from an amount that would be impossible for them to pay to something that maybe they could actually do at some point. He doesn’t say he’s about to be fired and that this is his idea rather than the landowner’s idea.

So the farmers think the landowner is generous—and so is his manager. When the landowner returns to the estate he gets a surprise: the peasants are cheering for him. They love him and shower him with gratitude. He can’t really go back and fire his manager and tell them it’s all a mistake—that he’s not really generous, that he really does want to keep them in servitude. So he claps the manager on the back and says in effect, “well done.”

Well that makes it sound like a different story, doesn’t it? It’s still complicated—the manager is acting on the side of justice not out of a sense of compassion or out of some high moral claim but out of self-interest. But he’s also a little bit of a Robin Hood character, righting the wrongs of an oppressive system. Sort of. At the end of the parable, the peasants are still tenant farmers and are still in debt. But if the shrewdness of the manager is done—however unintentionally—in service of good, as a way of taking “dishonest wealth” and doing something honest with it then maybe we see that the manager is not serving wealth but serving God. It might make us ask ourselves, when is it more faithful to God to be dishonest than honest? Think Oscar Schindler, abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad, and any number of other examples of people who used deception for good ends. Stories about people who break the rules for the greater good make great movies.

And then we get to the next verse, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” and then the whiplash happens. Didn’t we just hear a character commended for their dishonesty? Stop being so confusing, Jesus!

Well, one thing we might understand it are different strands of moral theology, or ethics. I’m no hard academic theologian, but because every one of us makes moral decisions every day—from what form of transportation we use to how we invest our money to how we relate to our co-workers and neighbors to how we raise our children—it’s good to have a grasp of some of what millennia of philosophers and theologians have written and where we fit on that spectrum.

One way of looking at our moral universe as Christians (or really, as anything—this isn’t just for Christians) is as an absolutist. Absolutists believe there are certain acts that are absolutely right or wrong in all circumstances. If it is a moral absolute not to kill anyone, then it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are—it’s never right to kill, even if it would save more lives, or be a just punishment, or be in self defense. The closing verses of this Gospel today sound more absolutist—you must always be faithful with wealth, no matter where it comes from and if it is honest wealth or dishonest wealth. Absolutism can be derived from two different sources: from rules or laws which must not be broken, or from consistent virtues within yourself. The gospel verses today seem to sound more like they derive from virtue—a person who has the virtue of honesty will always be honest; someone who can act dishonestly will never reliably embody the virtue of honesty. The advantage of an absolutist world view is its consistency and clarity; the disadvantage is the injustice it can create in the results when absolute principles come in conflict with one another. If it’s an absolute to tell the truth, and an absolute to love your neighbor, those conflict when you’re trying to hide runaway slaves, or rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Another strain of moral theology is called consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that it is the results of our actions that matter—so sometimes it might be best to do something wrong, if it has a good outcome. The reading of the parable of the dishonest manager that Dylan Breuer worked on is a good example of consequentialism: does the manager cheat his master? Yes…. But because the consequences are good it is justified. It appears that the landowner in this parable is a consequentialist as well, since he commends the steward’s dishonesty. Consequentialism has the capacity to be pragmatic and compassionate. But consequentialism can also slide into moral relativism, where there are no absolutes and people just make up their own rules to suit their circumstances.

Where do you fall, in your own moral life? Are you more of an absolutist or a consequentialist? If you have absolutes—what are they? And what challenges them? If you’re more of a consequentialist, what are the guides that inform which consequences you think are worth breaking the usual moral codes for?

I would say that the way today’s Gospel puts these two approaches to the moral life next to one another should provoke us into realizing that Jesus’ will always leave us always struggling in discerning which actions are right or wrong. Understanding the Gospel is not simple—or we would not have such contrasting words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. His hearers in the first century struggled to understand how to follow him, too—particularly around how to handle wealth, because it’s a topic Jesus spoke so frequently about. If there are too many absolutes, we are not being shrewd enough. If we leave aside all our absolutes then we may not be able to be trusted. We may serve wealth—or power, or ourselves, or fame, or evil, or any other idol—and try to point to a positive consequence to justify it.

The moral absolute for Christians is to serve—and love—God with heart, mind and soul. But how we see the world has such an influence on what we see—do we see our stories as more like the parable as we first heard it this morning, or as more like something with the interpretation of Dylan Breuer, with shades of history and motivation? That is the shrewdness I believe we are called to bring as Christians—most of us are not called to be shrewd in business dealings. But we are all called to be shrewd in how we see the world—in not taking things at face value but at looking for the real story at the heart. Because a story about how a manager stole from a rich man can turn into a story about how a rich man stole from a lot of poor people when you really listen to it. That kind of shrewdness is serving God faithfully, and hopefully leads to grace and to being what this gospel refers to as the “children of light.”

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Growing Disciples of Jesus

My sermon from September 8, 2013

“Mom, I hate you.” I know the day is coming when Nathan will say that. And I have a sneaking suspicious that at some point Nathan, a child of two clergy parents, will be saavy—and audacious—enough to point to today’s gospel reading as justification. “Mom, Jesus said I had to hate you if I wanted to be his disciple. Sorry. I mean, you want me to be Jesus’ disciple, right?” I will no doubt groan and bang my head against the wall. 

I struggled with the circumstances that assigned this Gospel—seeming to be pretty anti-familial relationship—for a day in which we are blessing the backpacks of children who are returning to school this week. Would it have been too much to ask for “suffer the little children to come to me?” 

But so let’s tackle it: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Challenging words—seeming to contradict every attitude we would expect to hear about family life from a Christian pulpit. “Whoever comes to me and does not love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” That sounds better, right? The gospel is all about love!  

The gospel IS all about love…. But let’s think about what we know Jesus lives and says about families in the Gospels:  

His mother was a poor, teenage pregnant girl who got someone who wasn’t the father of her baby to marry her. 

Jesus left his birth family and then publicly denied them in favor of his disciples—a new familial unit, formed on the basis of friendship rather than blood relationships. 

Jesus doesn’t appear to have been married (though there’s no way to be certain) which would have been his familial obligation. And he doesn’t seem to have had children—again, there’s no way to be certain—but having children would certainly also have been a familial expectation and obligation. 

Family life in general in the first century was something very different from what we would consider family—if you want to know more there’s a wonderful book called Jesus’ Family Values by Professor Deirdre Good from the General Theological Seminary. Among other points she makes is that there is no word in Greek for “family”; the closest is oikia, which is closer to household. A household would include blood relationships, but also slaves, adopted children, and clients.  

Paul elevates singleness above married life, and that is interesting because in some way, what Jesus is saying here is that you must be as if you were single—and did not have children, or were attached to living parents—in order to follow him. He’s not saying that only single people can be his disciples, but rather that whatever our familial and household ties are, in order to follow Jesus we may need to give up our primary attachment to them, because our primary attachment will now be to him. 

Jesus talks a lot about being “born anew” and part of that new birth is—in a way—getting a new family. It’s getting the family of the church—our brothers and sisters in Christ, as we are adopted as children of God. And in order to be adopted by the new Christian family, some family relationships had to be altered—the disciples occasionally say longingly to Jesus that they have left “everything” to follow him; and certainly they are depicted as leaving their parents and livelihoods and hometowns. Perhaps only temporarily, or for a season. But just as we expect our children to love us parents most when we are young but hope that when they become adults they might find a special adult to love more intimately; we can expect that we—and our children—should grow to love Jesus more than us. 

Which brings us to the backpacks. 

Because this gospel isn’t just about families, it’s about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We aren’t blessing backpacks today because it is cute and the kids are adorable—though both of those are true. We’re doing it because we want our children to be disciples of Jesus and have a relationship with God like that depicted in Psalm 139. We want these children—who belong to all of us because they are part of the Christian family—to know that Jesus doesn’t just live at church, and you come visit him every Sunday (or occasionally on a Sunday). Jesus is with you at school. Jesus is with you at home. Jesus is with you when you’re scared. Jesus is with you when you’re excited and happy. When your parents love you—part of that love is Jesus. When you love someone—part of that love is Jesus. That deepest darkest secret you have inside of you that you don’t want anyone to know because if they knew they’d hate you? Jesus already knows—and he still loves you. That part of your body that you don’t like and that embarrasses you and you try to cover it up so one notices? Jesus made that part of your body, and he thinks it’s beautiful. You are marvelously made by God, and you are his disciple. Being a disciple is costly—but it is so worth it. 

What would happen if our children actually became disciples of Jesus lived the life depicted in the Gospel today? A lot of parenthood currently seems to be focused on “What if I fail?” What if we changed the question around and asked, “What if we succeed?” What if our children were Jesus’ disciples—more than we are—and they did take up their crosses and follow him… what if they DID give away ALL their possessions to follow Jesus? What if they did love Jesus more than they love us?  

A friend and I saw the movie The Butler on Friday night, and it was a striking example of this interpretation of the passage. Both the title character and his son believe in the full equality of blacks and whites; but because they approach it in radically different ways, their relationship is sundered. The father is gentle and patient, asking respectfully and repeatedly for a raise for the serving staff of color at the White House (which he doesn’t get until the 1980s), and determined to avoid the dangerous racism of the deep South; the son full of urgency and risk-taking, a freedom rider who risks his life in protests and deliberately dedicates himself to challenging the status quo of the deep South. They are so angry at one another for so many decades that it would be fair to say that they hate each other.

It isn’t until the end of the movie—a Hollywood ending, but if you can’t have them in Hollywood films, where else can you count on them—that the father really comes to realize that he has been incredibly successful in raising his son, and that the real values he sought to instill in his son really did take—it’s just that those very values led him down a different path than he ever would have chosen for his child.  

May that be true for us, too. I hope that Nathan does love Jesus more than he loves me; I pray that he will take up his cross courageously, even if it leads him into greater risk than I, in my love, would want for him. And I pray that I will be enough of a disciple to trust him and God. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Take a seat

A sermon from September 1, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany

My experience in the church has been one of consistently being asked to take a “higher” seat—at least as is often perceived, if “higher” means closer to the altar. I began as a child in a pew, and then sang in my church’s children’s choir starting when I was six, and moved up to the choir pews. When I was 11, I became the first female person to read a lesson at my church (we were pretty conservative) and got to stand at the lectern. After college I was invited to preach, and learned what it was to stand in the pulpit; and then I was ordained and got to move up to the altar; and then you all invited me to move from being an associate rector here to being your priest in charge. “Friend, move up higher” indeed.  

This theme of “invitation” keeps leaping out at me in today’s gospel. Jesus is teaching about how to receive an invitation to come to his Table; and also how to extend our invitation to those who are not yet seated. It’s also good to point out that Jesus offers this parable from the position of guest himself. He’s at the Pharisee’s table as a guest who has been invited… it makes me wonder where Jesus is sitting as he tells this parable. Has he taken a high place because he is the great rabbi who everyone is watching closely? Or did he sit in the lowest place, and is this parable inspired by his own experience of being asked to take a higher place?  

This parable is about God’s table—but Jesus isn’t the host, even at God’s table. Jesus is a guest, and Jesus is the meal. The place of host, the ones who must actively invite people to God’s banquet, whether it be the Eucharistic feast or the community of Christ’s body, is placed upon us. And while we’re out inviting the poor and the lame, we also must remember to invite Jesus. As it says on many popular wall hangings, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present,” but we must be conscious of Christ’s desire to be actively invited to our table—not because Jesus won’t be there if we forget, but because we must remember to leave a place for Jesus in the midst of our busy-ness of being church, and must remember that the food we are serving and consuming is God’s Word, which is the reason for gathering in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to step back from the business of church—the meetings, the fundraisers, even the worship, and consciously ask ourselves, “Have we actively made room for Jesus here, or are we so focused on our goals of getting stuff done that we haven’t had time to pray, or to read, or to listen, or to notice his presence?”

So we start by first consciously inviting Jesus. And we need to think about what it means to be a guest—because we are guests as well. But since we are also often hosts, how do we invite others into our table fellowship—both in the church and elsewhere in the world?

I wish that my experience of receiving steady invitations were true for all in the church and the world. But I suspect that most of us have some experience of being on the other side; the side of feeling excluded, like we aren’t welcome, and like an invitation that should be offered has not been, and the host, whether an individual, an institution, or a church, has fallen short. And then what? Jesus doesn’t really offer an answer in today’s Gospel for what the poor and the lame and the marginalized should do if the host fails to invite them… nor for that matter what the brothers and friends and rich people should do if they’ve been ignored by the host in preference to the marginzalized masses.  

Getting Christ’s church around a table takes more than just a good guest list—for some of us it requires asking for a place at that table, too. The only reason I was invited to “come up higher” to read a lesson on that Sunday morning 25 years ago is that women throughout the church were asking, nay, demanding their place at the table in the leadership of the church. How can you get a seat at the table if the lowly are not invited, and nor do they ask to be seated out of fear that their plea for a place at the table will be greeted by the shut down verse of “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” which is a verse I’ve personally had thrown at me as a barrier to my serving in a role I had earned fair and square. Now, I certainly wrestle with embracing humility, but I assure you that this was not one of my many times of being full of myself. I know I’m not alone in that experience of running up against this verse. By asking to be at the table, those who are marginalized are often told that they are exalting themselves—they’re asking for too much, they’re being uppity, they’re obnoxious and demanding. They should be patient and quiet until they’re invited, even if no invitation seems to be forthcoming.   

It was poignant to be reflecting on this Gospel while watching the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Talk about all the challenges of taking your place at the table; being told to wait; insisting again and again on the justice of having a seat. Or think of the labor struggles that resulted in this weekend’s observance; to let workers have a voice in their pay, their benefits, their hours, their working conditions.  

Asking to be a full person at God’s table is not exalting yourself. It exposes the sins of our churches and institutions, showing the limitations of our own hospitality, but we must ask for our place at the table. African Americans didn’t always even have a place at the communion rail next to their white brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church; women didn’t have a place at that table right there within living memory. Laborers still in many parts of the world do not have the ability to advocate for being treated with dignity and as human beings—there is no place for them at the table of 

You often don’t get anywhere in this world without asking, because we do fall short in offering invitations, which makes this gospel far more challenging than it might at first appear. Perhaps we’re afraid that once the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind show up and sit down, we won’t recognize what the gathering looks like—because it will look different, and sound different, and smell different, and speak a different language. 

And what of the friends, the brothers, the relatives and the rich neighbors, who have seemingly been replaced at the table by the poor, the crippled, and lame and the blind? Is Jesus asking us to replace one group of people with another group of people, swapping those marginalized by society for those somehow marginalized by God?

I have confidence that God marginalizes no one; but God does balance out the powerful and the lowly, bring the one down and the other up so that both are sitting, perhaps, at a perfectly round table, where there is no high or low, there are only neighbors encountering one another as equals. There might be less elbow room once everyone is there—but at a feast, why not be close to your neighbor? That’s what God’s table looks like—and that’s the invitation that we are called to extend as much as possible to this part of God’s table. Come take your place at the table. Come sit and eat, as both guest and host, partaking of the meal which is Christ’s body and blood, binding us in communion with one another and with Him. And as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” There are angels in our midst, at this very table. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Our neighbors Trayvon, George, and Malala

Take a moment to think about the neighborhood where you grew up. The little section of Calle Miramar about 3 houses up and down the block from my parents’ certainly developed my ideas of what a “neighbor” was—I’m sure your neighborhood did, too, and “who is my neighbor?” is the central question of today’s gospel. 

In my case, there were the favorite neighbors—the families with kids around my age who felt like real neighbors. There were the nice neighbors without kids—I didn’t have much to do with them, but knew them by name, and had the occasional BBQ or block party. And then there were the slightly scary neighbors, the Garens. Mr. Garen’s house looked like a junkyard, and he owned 5 ancient baby blue Cadillacs that the whole neighborhood complained about because they were parked in front of everyone’s houses.

 So geographic proximity made for one definition of neighbor in my childhood (if you lived more than 3 or 4 houses away, you weren’t a neighbor, you just lived on our street), but it was sameness that was really important for feeling neighborly. People with kids felt more like neighbors to me than those without; people who seemed like my family even if they didn’t have kids felt more like neighbors than the Garens and their contravention of the aesthetic standards of the street. 

Jesus has a very different idea of what a neighbor is than I grew up with. Proximity is secondary, but not insignificant: you can be called upon to be a neighbor to anyone near you at any moment. And sameness is never a characteristic needed to make a neighbor. Very few things in the Bible are simple; or have “plain meaning” as the fundamentalists call it. But love God and love your neighbor are about as close as I can imagine to something that is simple, fundamental, and complete. Hard to do—but easy to interpret. Because everyone is my neighbor. Or maybe better put: I am everyone’s neighbor. It’s not about seeing others as my neighbor as much as it is about my acting as a neighbor to them. My childhood definition was entirely about how I saw our neighbors—not about how I saw myself acting towards them. Being a neighbor is not about how your neighbor is acting to you. Which is why we can’t say, “You’re being mean to me and you’re not acting like my neighbor so now I don’t have to love you as my neighbor.” We are called to act as neighbors to everyone, even those—especially those—who do not act neighborly to us. The same Jesus who says “love your neighbor” is the Jesus who says “love your enemy,” so there really isn’t an option other than love.

So how do we do that? Well, when Jesus asks the lawyer “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” he is pointing to the law as a basis for receiving eternal life—and the law has the right answer. Love God, love your neighbor. One of the primary ways we love God is by showing love to our neighbors, who are made in the image of God, so the two commandments are linked. But as the following parable points out, the law is insufficient to compel people to be neighbors. Just because you know the law doesn’t mean you won’t walk by the man in distress. The priest and the Levite know the law, and they pass by. There has to be something more than law to be a neighbor---and the necessary additions to the law in the Gospel today are love and mercy.

Loving our neighbors is hard. I found an old Peanuts cartoon this week online that showed Linus saying, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” People are easier to love in concept than they are as individuals. Everyone agrees with “Love your neighbor”—even the lawyer debating Jesus—so long as we get to choose who our neighbors are and who they are not. We don’t want to love someone we don’t have to. We don’t want to love someone we don’t like. We definitely don’t want to love someone who is actively hurting or frightening us.

 But again, I think we can get distracted by perceiving love as an emotion rather than an action. Let go of needing to feel love for your neighbor—and instead consider what it would mean to BE a neighbor. To act lovingly—even if you don’t feel it. 

There have been some stunning and wide-reaching examples of what it means to be a neighbor—or fail at being a neighbor—in the news this week. I was only going to refer briefly to George Zimmerman’s trial this morning; but in light of last night’s verdict, it seems to cry out for a little more reflection. Mr. Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin are both our neighbors, and we are called to act as neighbors to both of them. Their interaction centered on a neighborhood—Mr. Zimmerman being on the “neighborhood watch.” His volunteer job was to identify people who looked like they were neighbors—and people who did not look like they were neighbors. And this is not to say that neighborhoods and law enforcement should not be watchful and work to keep neighborhoods safe; a “watch” is fundamentally observational, not confrontational. Just as the law to love God and neighbor is insufficient for salvation without love and mercy, so the Florida laws to guard our homes and our neighborhoods and to stand our ground seem in this case, to be insufficient without love and mercy.

So how can we be neighbors now to those affected by the verdict of this trial? How can we be a neighbor to those who feel endangered; to those who are wounded again by racism; how can we be a neighbor to Mr. Zimmerman, who we are also called to love, because he is made in the image of God? How can we bring our country and society closer to a place where my son, Nathan, will not need to experience fear or privilege in a different way than, say, the sons of Theodora Brooks, the rector of our sister parish in the South Bronx who has two boys around his age? I know there are some concrete actions around here: there is a 6pm march at Union Square; a petition to the justice department you can sign online; we can reexamine our own racial biases—perhaps it’s time to do an anti-racism training here at Epiphany; we can pray—which is not doing nothing; we can pray for justice, for mercy, for forgiveness, for healing, and for change.

With such a powerful negative example of people failing to be neighborly in the news this week, there was one inspiring positive example from another teenager of color who was shot unjustly: Malala Yousafzai’s day at the United Nations this week inspired me, and her voice addresses so many of the issues surrounding her neighbor Trayvon. Here she was, this girl advocating simply for the education of women in her country—and really—around the world—who had been, as it were, set upon by robbers and left to die by the side of the road. But the neighborhood of her home and the world stepped forward to be good Samaritans to her, to get the medical care she needed, and to give her the ability and the platform to advocate now on the world stage. Here is an excerpt on themes from today’s gospel:

Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.

Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohamed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.

I am so grateful that Malala is our neighbor. And I am so grateful that her witness can inspire us to be better neighbors. Just as violence only made her ambitions, hopes and dreams stronger, I pray that last night’s verdict might make our ambitions, hopes and dreams for our nation and our people stronger. To grow to a place where skin color does not inspire fear, nor grant undue privilege, and where loving our neighbor and being neighbors are not dependent upon similarity or law, or proximity, but only on our love for one another. Amen.

Watch Malala's entire speech online at



Sunday, June 30, 2013

"For Freedom, Christ has set us free!"

 “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."”

For all my struggles with Paul’s epistles, when Paul is good, he’s good. IN this little passage (that’s really two verses stuck together with a bunch of omissions in between) we get the following: the freedom of a Christian derives from God. Freedom is something to be used—not hoarded. Freedom is a constant struggle—you never arrive at freedom without the risk of slipping backwards into oppression. Christian freedom is an opportunity for love—not for self-indulgence or individualism. And finally all law—which is related to freedom--is summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we are most free when we are most loving—counterintuitive, perhaps, to our 21st Century American ears, which tend to focus on freedom to be an individual rather than freedom to engage in community.  

Last week, I went to the Four Freedoms FDR memorial on Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech was part of the State of the Union address which he offered on January 6, 1941—the Feast of the Epiphany, mind you…. It’s worth hearing the whole quote, and it’s a good prelude to celebrating July 4 this week in the context of today’s reading from Galatians: 

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."

Freedom of speech; freedom to worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear. No distant vision of the future, but something that is possible now. Even now, over 70 years later that vision lingers just far enough in the future that you can imagine what it would be like, even if you can’t imagine how we would get there from here. And these are gospel freedoms—every one of them, in its own way, is something that Jesus taught, whether it was by his giving authority and speech to women, or his desire to worship and practice his faith differently than many in his religion did, or his constant attention to the poor, or his faithfulness to die without giving in to the temptation to raise his hand in violence. 

What struck me most upon reading the quote at the memorial was the repeated phrase, “everywhere in the world.” I cannot be truly free unless you are free; and you cannot be truly free unless I am free. So long as there is a woman in this world who cannot speak for fear of her husband or family or government, I am not free; so long as there is a man who is forced to worship a God he does not believe in, I am not free; so long as there are children who are starving, we are not free; so long as families hide in fear from militias, and terrorists, and drones, none of us are truly free. It is not enough to say, “I am an American so I am free”… both because not all Americans experience being an American as freedom, but also because citizens around the world do not share the freedoms many of us take for granted, and so our freedom is only a shadow of what it might be. 

On Wednesday, after the Supreme Court rulings were announced, my Facebook feed lit up with many celebratory comments from gay friends and straight allies; but one from a friend in California named Anna was particularly striking: “Twenty years and two kids into our lives, Steve woke me this morning to propose that we get married.” Anna and I went through the ordination process together in Los Angeles, and at the time, she and her male partner were not married out of principle: they would not get married until their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters could get married. The diocese of LA had a lot of problems with that—they couldn’t figure out how a priest could function in a heterosexual relationship—and she was pregnant at the time—without being married. Eventually they figured it out, and Anna has been an ordained proclaimer of the gospel in urban parishes ever since. Anna and Steve chose to share the burden of being a non-married couple—with its financial costs and legal risks—until all their friends were free to do so—maybe not “everywhere in the world” as in FDR’s speech, but at least everywhere in their state. Part of Christian freedom is that when we are offered freedoms that are not offered to all—when we are given privilege or rights that exclude others—we sometimes offer our witness by standing in solidarity with them, to physically enact the spiritual reality that our freedom is dependent upon one another, and not ours alone.

The section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we heard today continues with the discussion of the desires of the flesh vs. the fruits of the Spirit; you can interpret that he wants us to be free from the desires of the flesh—and that big huge list—so that we can enjoy the fruits of the Spirit.

Now, I do not believe that we can take at face value Paul’s dichotomy between flesh and spirit in the 21st Century. Not all those vices in that list stem from what I’d think of as “flesh”…. Look at it in your bulletins, because I don’t want to have to read that whole list out loud again. But every one of those vices he lists puts self ahead of the neighbor. What Paul calls desires of the flesh, and what I’d call desires of the unhealthy self (because there are some very healthy desires of the self!) are desires that break or fracture or impair our relationship with our neighbor. They are desire that inhibit true freedom.

The fruits of the spirit all require relationship with a neighbor—and those are worth reading aloud again: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I think of all those fruits of the Spirit with Anna and Steve’s non-married relationship—both towards each other and towards their friends. Faithfulness, patience, love… and now freedom in community.

As Christians we are called to work for freedom—everywhere in the world. Freedom to love; freedom to vote; freedom of speech; freedom from want; freedom from fear; there are so many freedoms Christ calls us to. 

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate, and I remember the preacher, David Hurd, gave me the charge of Romans 12:15 to follow: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” and David added, specific to me, “Sing with those who sing.” I’m ready to weep with those who are weeping over this week’s Supreme court decisions. Today, however, I’m going to go rejoice with those who are rejoicing, and join the Episcopal float in the Gay Pride parade. If anyone wants to join me, I’ll be heading downtown after the service. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” and today is a good day to celebrate that.