Sunday, November 30, 2014

"And a football player shall lead them..."

Today’s collect asks us to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” Isaiah cries out for God to come down and intervene, tearing apart the heavens if need be because people are so awful. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Isaiah sees that sin holds the world hostage, and he cannot imagine how that bond between humanity and sin can be broken except through the radical intervention of the divine.

I find myself wondering how the sin of racism that grips our nation might be broken. It is Advent, and we are supposed to be full of hope. I find it hard to have hope on this. It’s not the specifics of the grand jury decision about Michael Brown’s death that causes me to despair; it is the consistency of the fractured relationship between men of color and police that is reflective of our larger systemic and personal conscious and unconscious racism.

But a reflection by Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints on the Ferguson grand jury decision caught my eye. The source—a tight end for a pro football team—challenged me to get over my own prejudice against football players… but his words stuck with me. And I want to share them with you. To let a black man take over the pulpit today, and preach the Gospel. Mr. Watson wrote:

“At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:

I'M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I'M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.

I'M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I'm a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a "threat" to those who don't know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I'M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I'M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.

I'M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.

I'M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I've seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I'M CONFUSED, because I don't know why it's so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don't know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I'M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take "our" side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it's us against them. Sometimes I'm just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that's not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That's not right.

I'M HOPELESS, because I've lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I'm not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I'M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it's a beautiful thing.

I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It's the Gospel. So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”

Advent is about confronting our sin problem through the Gospel. And Benjamin Watson’s sensitivity and insight has given me hope. We are sinful. But if we do not believe that the One who came to save us from our sin really does offer us the capacity to listen and change and be molded into better and more faithful followers of Jesus, then why are we here? And if the church is not a safe enough place to talk about and be vulnerable about our hopes and fears and insights about race, then again, why are we here? This is the season in which we anticipate God taking on the vulnerability of being human in the Christ child; as the ones who follow him, we are called to a place in which we, too, are vulnerable.

Where do you have a sin problem, particularly around issues of race? And where are you angry, frustrated, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused, introspective, hopeless, hopeful, and encouraged?

The light of the Advent wreath is to remind us that even when the days are short and the nights long, when darkness seems to be swallowing up the light, the light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Read Benjamin Watson's text at:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

And I mean to be one too?

Preached at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, 2014

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

When I was in Kindergarten Sunday School at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, we only knew two hymns. One was Onward Christian Soldiers, and the other was “I sing a song of the saints of God”. We were drilled—in a very English way by our very English Sunday School teacher—in a very low theology of sainthood. With God’s help, anyone could be a saint. It is a quaint hymn, with a text by the spectacularly named Englishwoman, Lesbia Scott, and while it was nearly taken out of the Episcopal 1982 Hymnal for being “theologically insubstantial,” it was saved by a letter-writing campaign and lives on in Sunday School classrooms around the country. Little children everywhere are being taught to aspire to sainthood, and it is one of the most-requested hymns in Episcopal Churches.

The elder asks John, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Who are all these saints? And what is the great ordeal? Is the ordeal life? Martyrdom? Extreme acts of piety? Are these beings in white officially designated saints or ordinary people who were holy enough to get into heaven?

What makes someone a saint, and is it something that most of us can—or should—aspire to? I can think of a lot of instances in which I might say, “She’s a real saint,” and it wouldn’t entirely be a compliment. Despite my early formation as a potential saint, I have often felt that saints are people who are better than the rest of us. Who don’t seem to feel the challenges of life the way the rest of us do. Who practice extreme acts of faith and piety and courage that most of us will never do. They’re special-- like super-Christians, admirable, sometimes inspiring, but not like us. And if you look at artistic renderings of saints and the stories that go along with them, they tend to highlight the distance between “normal” people and those saints—renderings of saints being martyred, stories of saints being celibate, lots of suffering, and very few smiles. Saints don’t seem to embrace joy very often. Remind me again why I’m supposed to want to be a saint?

Jesus came to save sinners; Jesus is not just for the saints or saintly among us. To be a saint is someone who is close to God, yes, but we don’t call people saints for God’s sake, we call them saints for our sakes. The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the “Philadelphia Eleven”, the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1974, when it was still against canon law to do so, writes in The Erotic as Power and the Love of God, “Heroes show us who we are not. Helpers show us who we are. As individual supermen/wonderwomen, heroes diminish our sense of relational, or shared, power. Helpers call us forth into our power in relation and strengthen our senses of ourselves.”

How can the saints be helpers—people who expose our nascent holiness, rather than heroes who create distance between the official, recognized holiness of the Saints with the big S and us poor mortals. Of course, an irony is that Carter Heyward herself is now something of a theological hero to many people. But her life has opened doors that draw out relational power, that are hopefully changing the structures of the church in ways that will “strengthen our senses of ourselves” and recognize our intrinsic holiness, as well as our potential for acts of faith that surprise ourselves.

In the Episcopal Church we have wrestled with living on the boundary of Catholicism and Protestantism by recognizing the pre-Reformation saints as saints… and then eventually adding “Lesser Feasts” for individuals considered exemplars of the faith that had the misfortune to live after the Reformation—or who were ignored for various reasons by the church prior to the Reformation. It still—frankly—told the stories mostly of people who fit at least two of the three categories of white, male, and ordained, but at least there was a sense that the door didn’t close on holiness in the 16th Century.

Our Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts was reworked a few years ago into a new book called “Holy Women, Holy Men,” which has expanded again the understanding of what it is to be holy. It is criticized for including people who would never have “made it” as a saint by the old standards. Some of them are not Episcopalians. Some of them, are to be fair, barely even Christians—baptized, but not necessarily frequent attenders of church. But if the purpose of a saint is to help us in our life of faith, then we need to recognize that it is possible to be an example of holiness and not be ordained, or a nun, or European.

Some of them confirm what I’m sure my father would think about the “disappointing liberalization” of the Episcopal Church; I remember celebrating the Eucharist at GTS on October 10 a few years ago when we remember Vida Dutton Scudder—by the time she was described as a lesbian, Socialist, labor union organizer, and pacifist, I have a feeling he would have been on his way out the door. But then you would miss the chance to hear about someone who cared about the injustice that keeps people in poverty; who stood up for the dignity of human labor; who was willing to take the risk of preaching peace during World War I; and who lived an authentic and honest life 100 years ago. And someone who was a prolific and spiritual writer, active with the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross who meet for intercessory prayer. And she’s real. She is—and was—a helper. And so are many others newly in our calendar: Nathan Soderblom. Oscar Romero. Sojurner Truth.

None of the titled saints were saints while they were alive. And the saints of today sometimes work so quietly. I remember especially today medical workers treating people with Ebola, both in NYC and around the world. Regardless of whether it is love of God, or vocational passion, or whatever inspires them to love their neighbor in this extreme way, they can be examples for us of holiness. Or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I expect will be added to Holy Women, Holy Men very soon after his death—perhaps defying the 50 year waiting period instructed by the committee in charge of this book. Can you imagine what it took to believe that reconciliation in South Africa was possible? And yet he did that hard work with thousands of other people for so many years, helping the ordinary people around him to share his vision of what reconciling with their brothers and sisters might do for their nation and for their own souls. What has he taught us today about the healing properties of telling our stories of injury and abuse and having them honored; and telling our stories of injuring and abusing and seeking forgiveness? And he does it all—if you’ve ever met him—with what I can only describe as a devilish smile and chuckle. We need not lose our sense of joy and fun in the midst of a holy life.

So do I want to be a saint? I’m not sure. I want to live a holy life. I want to believe that if I am called upon to do some sort of extreme act of faith I will do so willingly. Or perhaps my life will be of more mundane holiness. But I hope someday to be at the altar of God, where “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." And perhaps they’ll also be singing:

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus' sake
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there's not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Best wishes" at the Wedding Banquet

A few weeks ago on Facebook, I saw a post by a colleague claiming this was a true story: a parishioner ran into someone in a grocery store line and somehow their church came up. And the person behind them said, “Oh, St. Swithin’s, I went there once… I’ll never set foot in that church again.” The parishioner was sad to hear that and said, “Why? What happened?” The newcomer said, “Well, when I went into the church, I was greeted so warmly, and I thought I might really belong there. And then the pastor greeted me, and we had a great conversation, and again, I thought maybe I’d found a church home. But then after the service I was speaking to some women and one of them said something mean about what I was wearing. I was humiliated, and I’m never going back.”

When my Bible study group met a few weeks ago and I shared that story in the context of today’s parable of the wedding banquet, it unleashed several deep and passionate stories from both childhood and adulthood of feeling awkward and judged by what we wore, or what we looked like. We all knew, viscerally, what it was to be excluded from a group, and to feel like we had been cast into outer darkness because of a cruelty that resonates throughout this parable.

Is the kingdom of God really just some big party where I don’t fit in because of how I’m dressed? And is God some horrible king who demands conformity and obedience at the threat of violent punishment? This parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s gospel is a very provocative parable, one that leaves me questioning both its meaning for us today on a large scale, and for us as individuals.

It has been used at times to support anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, by reading it that the Jews were the first invited guests to the banquet, and having rejected Jesus, it is now compatible with the parable for Christians to execute God’s judgment through violence. If I met someone on the street who had never heard of Jesus, never heard of Christianity, this would be one of the last passages I would point to in order to explain our faith.

When Helen Goodkin taught her class on parables a few weeks ago, she opened with a series of quotes about the purpose of parables. One was by the theologian Kenneth Bailey: “A parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, [and] then urged…to look on the world through the windows of that residence.”

So let’s climb into the house, and start looking through the windows. What is it like to live in the house of the parable of the wedding banquet, and what do we see from it?

Seeing it that way challenges me to see the world through a window in which the Kingdom of God is a place where all are invited, but that many people reject. The way the parable is written, I believe perhaps Matthew is overhumanizing God—if a king would be angry, then God must be angry. I don’t believe God is angry when we reject God. I believe God is devastated and grieving. It is God who is weeping and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness when those he has invited to the wedding banquet of his son reveal that they would rather go about their business—off to brunch, off to watch football, doing the thousand other things one might do on a Sunday morning, than to come and celebrate with them. Sitting in the house of the parable, looking out the window, I find myself sympathizing with the king who has been rejected. To be clear, I don’t like the response—the slaughter of the servants, and then the vengeance against the invitees. But if you were God, and you were inviting every human being on earth to join you in a celebration, and they wouldn’t come… what pain that must be. Now if you or I was throwing a party, and every person we invited refused to come, we would cancel the party. But for God, when the invited guests don’t come, instead of cancelling the party, the invitation is extended further—this time, not just to the important people but to everyone, with the explicit mention that those who are called are both good and bad. Everyone is invited. Some refuse to attend, but God’s invitation is extended to all.

And then we get to the second part of the parable about the man who is thrown into outer darkness because he isn’t wearing his wedding robe. We react badly to that because it sounds so unfair—maybe you could be expected to wear a wedding robe if you were one of the original invited guests, but if you were just on the way to the market it seems highly unfair to be expected to have a wedding robe in your pocket just on the off chance that someone might invite you to a wedding while you’re out.

Now there is a tradition that I cannot confirm is historical, and in fact may be a very early attempt by Christians to soften this parable, that says that at the time of Jesus, guests were given a wedding robe when they arrived. So it’s not that the man without the wedding robe just happened to be improperly dressed, it was that he was actively refusing the hospitality of his host. That puts a different spin on it. It is one thing to be expected to always have a wedding robe with you just in case someone invites you in off the street; it is another to actively reject a garment that the host wants you to wear.

Paul often uses the image of putting on a garment as a way of talking about faith. In Romans, he instructs us to “put on the armor of light” (Romans 3:12), in Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11) and “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15). If we want to be Christians but we don’t want to wear the clothes of a Christian, maybe we need to find a different party. Put on mercy, put on faith, put on armor to protect us from sin and violence and despair. Things that can be put on can also be taken off—but things that can be put on can shape who we are inside.

From my time acting, I always found that I learned so much about a character when I put on the costume. It altered how you moved, how confident you felt, how you expected to be treated. My last role at Yale was playing Desdemona, a character that doesn’t at first seem like a very natural match for me. I remember the dress and how feminine and pretty I felt in it; how it changed how I moved, how I held myself. It didn’t feel like me—at least not at first—but while I was in it, I could be Desdemona more authentically, I understood her more, and in some sense became her more.

Our faith isn’t a costume to be put on at will and then discarded when it is inconvenient. But there is something to be learned from the experience of trying on faith—trying on the virtues that Paul writes about today—trying on whatever is pure and honorable and just and true and pleasing and of excellence. We cannot sustain that by ourselves in the long term. But the daily act of putting it on, can help us inhabit it, and it can shape us, making us more the Christians we desire to be and who God desires us to be.

When I look at the parable and try to see it from the window of the whole church, a funny thing happens. It occurs to me that there’s a major character missing in this story of a wedding banquet. There’s a groom, and a father of the groom, and there are guests. Who’s missing? The bride!

Of course that omission says a lot about gender bias in the 1st century. If we were writing a parable about a wedding today, the bride would be a character--and so would the mother of the bride!  But we have a long tradition of seeing the Church as the bride of Christ. And if we look through the window of this parable and see the bride as the church, then wait a minute, we are the bride. We don’t watch the wedding of Christ and the Church from the back of the pew—we are collectively the bride. We are not invited guests, we are part of the happy couple. Let us dwell in the reflections of love and joy that imbue Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning: “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” We are getting married. And as you always say to the bride at a wedding, “Best Wishes.” Best wishes for your life wearing the garment of faith. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2014

One Alumna's Prayer

I rather unexpectedly spent my afternoon at St. Peter's, Chelsea, at a meeting of the Faculty and Students. At first I wasn't sure I should attend, as I'm neither faculty nor a student, but as an alumna who loves the institution, and after speaking to a faculty member about what was going to happen, I believed that my presence could be helpful in communicating to fellow alums what is going on, at least from the faculty's perspective. I understand that Bishop Mark Sisk is hosting a meeting this evening at GTS, and wish I could be there, but I have a 5 year old who needs me tonight. I hope the events of that meeting will also be public.

I'm glad I went. The official correspondence between the Faculty and the Board were read aloud, and while I cannot say I have a complete sense of what is going on, at least I have a much better sense of it. I know and love and respect many faculty members, while some of them are strangers to me. One faculty member I know, love, and respect is not participating in the groups's actions. I know and love and respect many board members, and some of them are strangers to me. It grieves me that people I know and love and respect are in such conflict with one another.

What I walked away with was this: both the faculty and the board are now in positions that it will be very hard to walk back from. The faculty said that they would be unable to work with the present Dean, and the Board took them at their word and understood that as a resignation. I'm not a lawyer, so can't say whether the exact wording used in the letters constitutes a resignation. To me, it feels like both the faculty and the board have jumped off a cliff, with both believing that the other group pushed them.

Is there some way for someone to take charge and help both sides take a deep breath and climb back onto the cliff? Rowan Williams used the metaphor of Jesus writing in the dust when asked to pass judgment on the woman caught in adultery (John 8:6) as a way to create a breathing space in the midst of tension where people can reflect more deeply, step outside of themselves, and see a situation through another person's eyes.

Are there those among the alumni of General who can write in the dust of this trauma? Are there alumni who will care for the current students' needs? Are there alumni who will invite the community as a whole tomodel the virtues listed on the chapel floor? Humility could mean both sides backing off; Justice is listening to everyone; Love is putting the mission of the seminary (educating students) ahead of the investment in self that each side has made. Prudence, temperance, hope, faith, and the rest are wrapped up in this, too.

Are there alumni who will work to secure:

1) An immediate return to classes and worship by all faculty and students
2) A rescinding of the Board letter "accepting" the faculty members resignations
3) An agreement for the Faculty to comply with the investigation of their allegations by the law firm of the Board's choice
4) An agreement at the October Board meeting, for some sort of special conversation to happen between faculty and board, facilitated by a trusted and neutral party (not sure who this would be… a Bishop alum who is not currently on the Board? Martha Horne? Neil Alexander? The Presiding Bishop?) to allow faculty to be heard by the Board and the Board to be heard by the faculty. A small group at that meeting including all interested parties could be appointed (elected?) to come up with a process to develop and continue a formal process of reconciliation or recommendation.

Certainly alumni can be distracted by things like the change in chapel worship schedule and our own intractable and beloved memories of what GTS was like when we were there, and wanting to return it to our own particular golden era. But I don't see who else can take any action when the Board and Faculty and Dean have reached this point. And we, too, love General and are part of its beloved community.

Keep your Brain. Lose your Mind.

I broke the law on Friday night.

To be clear, that’s unusual for me. But Jonathan and Nathan and I were driving home from a wonderful afternoon of apple picking and shopping, and decided to take the Palisades Parkway back from the Thruway to get on the George Washington Bridge. We checked Google maps—there was a little traffic, but all the routes were basically the same. And then, at mile 12.8, it happened.

The sign said, “Palisades Parkway closed 5:30pm.”

And the traffic stopped. And some people drove on the shoulder and turned around and went north. We told Nathan that doing that was against the law.

And one hour later, after travelling 1.5 miles in a WHOLE HOUR… I did the same thing. And I don’t regret it. At all.

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

Changing your mind can be a very, very good thing.

Both Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the Gospel today speak to the mind, and the need for change. The gospel is clear: both sons change their minds, one from bad to good, and the other from good to bad. When you are headed in the wrong direction, it is good to turn around. Changing your mind can be the sign of a mature mind; and it’s even linked to repentance, or turning around. Changing your mind isn’t just an intellectual activity, it’s an experiential and moral one. There was so much anxiety on the highway as Jonathan and I discussed whether to turn around or keep going… What should we do? Which way was best? As soon as we made the turn, it was amazing how good we both felt. After an hour on the wrong path, to start going in the other direction made me feel like I had wings. I wonder if the first son felt that way too—he walked away from his father, and just felt worse and worse and worse until he turned around and headed to the vineyard. And as soon as he got there and got to work, he felt better and better because he knew he was on the right path.

Of course, the second son changes his mind, too… although I wonder about that. Maybe he just lied to his dad and never intended to go to the vineyard. But if he did change his mind, it’s a good antidote to a simplistic message of being open-minded. Constancy of mind, even through challenges, is also a virtue. If you say you are going to do the right thing, and then it’s hard, it’s important to keep on going.

To the community at Philippi, the message about the mind a little more complicated. Paul asks them to “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Here it isn’t changing your mind in the sense of repenting and turning in a new direction, it’s about the entire community having the same mind. I want to leave aside our science fiction fascination with mind control—if you’re a Star Trek fan, think about the Borg, acknowledge the creepiness, and then let it go. We are called to have the same mind as Christians. But not just any mind—it’s not about conformity, per say, it’s about losing your own mind and taking on the mind of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Now usually when you talk about losing your mind it’s a bad thing…. In fact, while writing this sermon, I started to think about all the phrases with “mind” in them… Open mind, closed mind, mind-control, mind reader, hive mind, losing my mind, mind meld, blow your mind, make up your mind. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Some good connotations, some bad connotation. But the idea of the mind as unique and personal and autonomous is pretty deeply ingrained for us today. So a priest saying “lose your mind!” might be a little threatening.

A set of popular posters for the Episcopal Church in the 1980s boldly proclaimed, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door.” Totally true. We bring our full intellect and reason and backgrounds to our faith and identity. So I think my theme today is: keep your brain. Lose your mind. Having the mind of Christ doesn’t mean setting aside our discernment and knowledge—we need those to discern if we are in need of turning around and repenting; it means setting aside our ego and our selfishness. Keep your brain—lose your mind.

And like most things, we know that we are to lose our minds because Jesus does it first. In the great Philippians Christ hymn, which we read today, it is Jesus who is emptying himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus empties himself, he loses himself, to make room for us. We empty ourselves to make room for Jesus. There is a great spiritual tradition of this self-emptying; it’s called kenosis, and it’s particularly a focus in the Orthodox church. Kenosis is emptying our own will and following instead the will of God.

What would happen if we were of one mind, and that mind was Jesus? But how would you live differently as an individual, and how would we live differently as a community, if we shared the mind of Christ? And why stop at just sharing the mind of Christ? Why not also the eyes, and hands, and feet and hearts of Christ, as we bring his Gospel into the world?

In my church growing up, we closed every service (Morning Prayer, Rite I, of course) by singing the hymn “God be in my head.” There’s only one verse, so it became one of those texts, like the Prayer Book, that I knew not just by heart, but almost by body response. It begins, “God be in my head, and in my understanding,” and continues from there. It’s prayer for kenosis—to be emptied of self, and re-filled with God.

A few years ago, I learned a more uptempo version that we used at the 6pm service.

God be in my head, and in my understanding…
God be in my eyes, and in my looking,
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking
God be at my end, and at my departing
God be in my head, God be in my eyes, God be in my mouth, God be at my end….

May prayer today is that God may be in our heads, and eyes, and mouths, and at our end. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Faithful and Doubting

From today’s Gospel: “When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

The new pastor of Riverside Church was announced this week—the Rev. Amy Butler, currently of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. The Washington Post article about her call had a section that really struck me this week:

“A mother of three children ages 16, 17 and 20, Butler went through a painful divorce while at Calvary and wrote bluntly about her own challenges and doubts earlier in her tenure. Tension had risen so high at the church that Butler hired a professional coach to help.

The coach first asked her about her own relationship with God.

“The question hit hard and deep,” Butler wrote last January in her biweekly column for ABP News/Herald, an independent news service of the Associated Baptist Press. “I immediately responded: ‘I don’t think I believe in God anymore.’ ”

The coach replied: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor, and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.”

“I heard his message loud and clear: Church should never be a place where you ask questions, and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists,” she wrote.

“After that, I fired him.”

I don’t know Pastor Butler yet, but I like her.

I find it really interesting at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that when the risen Jesus is standing right in front of them, some of the apostles still doubt. I mean—I have doubts. But I like to believe that if Jesus were physically present right in front of me, wounded hands and feet and side and all, that would put my doubts to rest.

Not so for the apostles, it seems. These are the people that Jesus is giving the Great Commission to—to make disciples of all nations, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—all of which requires faith. And evidently it requires doubt as well. The church those doubting apostles founded is a place where questions are welcome—or at least should be welcome, and doubts are expected—and not just doubts that you keep hidden in your heart, but doubts that you say out loud. I hope Epiphany is a place where you can bring your doubts and be in good company.

We usually think of Thomas as the “doubting” disciple... but in the Gospel of John, where Thomas’ story is recounted, the word “doubt” isn’t actually used in Greek, as it is in today’s gospel. The gospel of John uses the word “faithless.”—Jesus literally tells Thomas when he has demanded the proof of seeing the wounds in his hands and feet in order to believe, “Do not be faithless, but believe.” Usually it’s translated as “do not doubt, but believe” but the Greek is quite clear that Jesus is saying “Do not be faithless.”

There is a difference between having doubts and being faithless.

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I’m going to assume that every person here brings some doubts to church at least some of the time. I do, too. There are seasons of spiritual dryness in my life, where it feels like prayers just vanish, and I wonder how I will hold on to my faith. Anything from doubt that God exists, to if God does exist, why does God permit horrible things to happen, to doubts questioning the exclusivity of the Christian promise of salvation, and doubting the inherent goodness of creation described in the reading from Genesis today. Sometimes my doubts come from experiencing the failures of the human institution of the church—I can believe in God, but I’m not so sure I believe in the church. Certainly, on Trinity Sunday, doubting the mysterious paradox of a God who is three in one and one in three. We all have doubts.

But are we faithless? No. We have faith. And we have doubt. We’ve got it all!

Back to the gospel: When they see Jesus, all the disciples worship. Some doubt. Which tells me that worship is active; it is where we bring out doubts. We lay them at the altar along with all our other offerings—our money, our time, our faith, our pain, our joy….. The moment you walk in the door of this church, you’ve established some sort of faith. Maybe it’s curiosity—maybe it’s an inarticulate longing, maybe it’s something substantive and long-held and considered. Maybe it’s faith more in someone else who has faith—a parent, a friend, whose relationship with you is worth setting aside your personal skepticism. But we are not faithless when we walk in the door to worship.

And in worship, we encounter the stuff of our doubts—Bible passages, creeds, prayers, sacraments. There is no hiding from the causes of our doubts in worship.

Take the first reading today from Genesis. Some Christians say they “believe” in it—by which they mean that they believe it describes a literal historic occurrence. I don’t have doubts about the Genesis creation stories being factually accurate… I know they are not factual. And yet.. we worship with this story, and I would say I believe in it because of what I have learned and experienced. And by “believe” I think what I really mean is “love.” I love this first creation story in Genesis. It helps me understand who I am and who God is. Here is a smattering of why I love it, and how it helps me in my faith.

“In the beginning….” There was a beginning. Could be the Big Bang; could be some process we don’t yet know. But there was a time before the beginning.

The Hebrew creation story differs from many other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories in that creation is not born of conflict between competing gods. There is one God; the earth and its creatures are not the offshoot of violence, or pawns in a divine battle, but created solely out of the will and desire of the one God. It’s almost like God is enjoying creating—each day recognizing what has been created as good.

Only God “creates” in Genesis; human beings make, form, etc… but only God is ever used as the subject for the verb that means to create. This story helps keep me humble.

The first thing God creates is light… but where does the light come from? Neither sun nor moon is mentioned in the Genesis story; they were idolized by all the other cultures, who had their Sun god and their Moon god. The Hebrew God creates light first, but doesn’t give primacy to the heavenly bodies. And even when the sun and moon are created on day four, it’s the “great light” and the “lesser light”. The story of our God is always in dialogue with other traditions, responding to them, sometimes coming up with different answers, sometimes coming up with similar answers.

Each day, God contemplates what God has created. And each day God considers it good. But good doesn’t just mean good… it also has the connotation of “usefulness.” Light, dark, water, plants, animals, humans… what does it mean for us to be good in a useful way? To me, that gets at the heart of our interdependence. So many things in nature which we consider beautiful have practical applications—the bright colors of the flowers that attract the pollenating bees and insects, the dark, rich soil of the Midwest,

Humankind is made in God’s image—both male and female. The reflection of God has both male and female characteristics, no matter what our pronouns have indicated about God for so many centuries in the church.

We have dominion over the earth—responsibility for it. Where the earth is wounded, it is for us to offer healing.

And finally, on Trinity Sunday, I do love that this story has echoes of the Trinity. In the beginning, a wind from God sweeps over the waters; and the word for “wind” and for “Spirit” is the same. We have the creator God, and we have the Spirit. Then God speaks to create—and the Word is one way in which we know and identify Jesus. Creator God, Spirit, Word. The Trinity in the beginning, doing a dance of creation.

Is that something to doubt? Absolutely. But it’s also something to have faith in. I pray that this week we will each have a chance to be honest about our doubts, and also about our faith.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Ascensions of Sassy Jesus and Maya

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

So begins my favorite poem of blessed Maya Angelou, who died this week. We are observing Ascension Day today; the day that Jesus rises into heaven after rising from the dust of the grave. It was hard not to make the connection… Jesus has been beaten, crucified, scorned... and now he is rising above it all.

There are two collects, or prayers, for Ascension Day, and both wrestle with what to do theologically with this new distance between us and the ascended Jesus. The one we used today prays that as Jesus has risen to heaven, “so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.” It’s about how even though we are physically on earth, spiritually we should rise up and join him. The other collect says, “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” We are on earth, Jesus has ascended, but don’t worry—he’s still down here dwelling with us. It’s two ways of approaching our faith—neither of them wrong—one way is to try to rise above the sin and violence and struggles of earth; the other is to remember to bring Jesus into that sin and violence and struggle. Which sounds more familiar to you? Hopefully we do both; I think I’m probably better at bringing Jesus into the muck than I am at rising above… Maya Angelou you just couldn’t hold down… as one friend said upon her death, “Usually, when someone dies we say “May she rest in peace and rise in glory,” but I bet she’s doing more rising than resting.”

The disciples aren’t so sure how to deal with this new distance either. They look up to heaven like they would like to rise but have no idea how to follow Jesus... and they no longer recognize his abiding presence with them on earth. The Ascension marks a turning point in Jesus’ followers. They have been his disciples, his students—but now they are being sent out on their own as apostles.

For many people, this is a season of graduations…. the Ascension is not exactly graduation from Jesus-school; but it is a commencement of a new phase in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples—now apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and then he’s gone. You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait, we’re not ready yet.” But they are indeed witnesses. Think of what this group of men and women had seen and heard in the past 3 years:—they’d seen people healed by faith, they’d heard the sermon on the mount, heard “love your enemies,” and “do this in remembrance of me.” And now the person who led them, who corrected them when they were in error—which was most of the time--who taught them everything they know, is gone up into heaven, with some vague promise of a Holy Spirit for future guidance. And they are left as the witnesses, the ones to testify and tell the story and spread good news throughout the entire world. Blessed are the poor. I am the way, the truth and the life. Jesus has been raised from the dead. And they are going to be persecuted and shunned and know violence while they are witnessing—they must bring Jesus back down into those experiences and also rise above them.

We are apostles and disciples all at the same time. We are never finished learning, and are always sent out into the world to proclaim good news. Our knowledge, like that of those first apostles is incomplete; we, like them, would like to be able to ask just one more question, to have Jesus stay for just a few more minutes while we get some clarifications on our faith. But we’re not as unprepared as we think. We, through those first apostles, have witnessed what they witnessed—the healings, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, the resurrection. And we are witnesses of God’s action and love in our own time and place as well. We are witnesses of grace in our personal lives, witnesses of a Gospel and a church broken open to include all people, and witnesses of that promised Holy Spirit, the comforter that does not leave us lonely when Jesus ascends. We are witnesses that the One who was beaten and downtrodden and who rose like the dust of the streets of Jerusalem.

It seems like that should be enough to testify to God’s abiding presence on earth—even in the pain and the violence and the sin. It should be enough to testify that God’s heart is breaking in Santa Barbara over the deaths of young people; that God’s heart is gladdened at the release of a young soldier in Afghanistan. And it should be enough to carry our hearts and minds up with him as he rises with his pierced hands raised in blessing upon us.

“Still I Rise” is a poem I can hardly hear without hearing Maya Angelou’s voice—it is such a witness to who she is and was; her suffering and injustice and pain held in tension with her beauty and confidence and sassiness and joy. But what if we heard Jesus speaking through her words? “Sassy” isn’t usually the first word I think of when I think of Jesus… but his confidence in his identity when faced with a crowd or the powers that be was sassy. I want to worship a sassy Jesus. He would not give earthly powers the authority they thought they deserved… and they couldn’t stand it so they killed him. Since then, he has been misrepresented and misunderstood for centuries by the inheritors of those very same powers—but we are left to be his witnesses to the other truth. The truth that he could be absolutely broken by the powers of this world, and still rise because neither they nor death could hold him down.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Praying in the Name of Jesus and the Nigerian Girls

Deborah, Awa​, Hauwa,​ Asabe, Mwa , Patiant ​, Saraya ​, Mary, ​ Gloria, Hanatu ​

Do you know what those names are? 10 of the Nigerian girls kidnapped a few weeks ago. Last week we heard about Jesus our Good Shepherd, who is the one who calls us each by name so that we can follow him. I’m going to be naming 180 of these girls throughout the sermon so that we can remember them in prayer.

Yanke, Muli, Fatima, Eli, Saratu, Deborah, Rahila, Luggwa, Kauna, Lydia ​

It seems like nearly every conversation I’ve had with a parishioner this week has involved some sort of response to this kidnapping—anger, grief, questioning “Where was God?” It is evidently on everyone’s hearts and minds—how can they be saved? What is the right response in the face of such evil… and when we are geographically so far away?

Gloria, Tabitha, Maifa, Ruth, Esther, Awa , Anthonia, Kume, Aisha, Nguba ​

There is power in a name. When demons are named, they retreat; when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name after the resurrection, she recognizes him. We know the power of names today in memorials—the Vietnam Memorial, the September 11th Memorial… we list the names as a way of remembering each individual who died—they are each unique, each had a family and friends, people who loved them, people who grieved for them.

Kwanta, Kummai, Esther, Hana, Rifkatu, Rebecca, Blessing, Ladi, Tabitha, Ruth ​

We get to hear Stephen’s name in the reading from Acts today—the first Deacon of the church, and the first martyr of the church. He has just given a long sermon in front of the council testifying to his faith in Jesus, and the response of the crowd is to stone him. Stephen dies in a way that mirrors Jesus—he commends his soul to God, and pleads for the forgiveness of his executioners.

Safiya, Na’omi, Solomi, Rhoda, Rebecca, Christy, Rebecca, Laraba, Saratu, Mary ​

We don’t often have the courage and dignity of Stephen—we don’t take the risk of proclaiming our faith boldly, no matter the consequences; and when we are faced with a hostile crowd we don’t hold on to our faith; we don’t look up to see the face of God; and we don’t usually pray for those who are hurting us to be forgiven.

Kauna, Christiana,Yana, Hauwa, Hadiza, Lydia, Ruth, Mary, Lugwa, Muwa ​

The crowd that stones Stephen is unnamed. Stoning is designed to be a nameless way of executing someone—no single person has to take responsibility. It was interesting to compare this with a hooded executioner some centuries later; or with our more recent executions by lethal injection in this country. The people controlling the drugs are still anonymous, hidden behind a wall from the witnesses to the execution.

Debora, Naomi, Hanatu, Hauwa, Juliana, Suzana, Saraya, Jummai, Mary, Jummai ​

The nameless crowd do lay their cloaks at the feet of Saul. Saul, who persecutes Christians until he is struck blind by Jesus on the road to Damascus and changes his name—at God’s instruction—to Paul. How many times in our lives do we want to literally change our names so that we can change who we are—to reorient ourselves towards a new identity? Perhaps towards one that is more Godly, more faithful, more forgiving.

Laraba, Hauwa, Confort, Hauwa, Hauwa, Yana, Laraba, Saraya, Glory, Na’omi ​

So many of these girls are named “Hauwa”. It’s a name I didn’t really know—but it’s the Arabic version of Eve. Eve who dwells in paradise, until she is expelled with Adam for our collective original sin of wanting to put ourselves in the place of God. Eve who is scapegoated for centuries by men as the cause of sin. I wonder what aspects of Hauwa make it popular in Nigeria—if it is just the sound, or some aspect of Eve’s story that resonates. Perhaps families name their girls Hauwa because they wanted them to grow up in paradise.

Godiya, Awa, Na’omi, Maryamu. Tabitha, Mary, Ladi, Rejoice, Luggwa, Comfort ​

The epistle of Peter today contains the verse, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” I wonder what was wrong with the stone that caused the builders to reject it. Jesus was rejected for being too soft, too peaceful, too humble. Jesus questioned too much, and didn’t do what the authorities wanted him to do. Perhaps, in his own human way, he was frail and cracked. And yet now he is our firm foundation.

Saraya, Sicker, Talata, Rejoice, Deborah, Salomi, Mary, Ruth, Esther, Esther ​

Contrast that damaged cornerstone with the stones for stoning Stephen. What is the purpose of a stone—is it to build or to kill? Jesus himself changes Peter’s name from Simon to Peter because he intends Peter to be the rock of the church; Saul to Paul; Simon to Peter. New life and ministries coming from new names.

Esther, Helen, Margret, Deborah, Filo, Febi, Ruth, Racheal, Rifkatu, Mairama

My friends and I sometimes refer to the first half of the Gospel today as the “funeral Gospel”—we read it at so many funerals. I love it because I find its vision of heaven expansive—there are many dwelling places, for many sorts of people, not just a single structure. I often find that either the person who has died is a person of faith and their family who are planning the funeral are not; or that the person who has died was of ambivalent faith and the people planning the service are people for whom faith is important. To have the vision of a heaven where maybe some people live closer to the center of town and others are more towards the edge is good to me. There’s a home for everyone that will keep us in community but also keep us diverse.

Saratu, Jinkai, Margret, Yana, Grace, Amina, Palmata, Awagana, Pindar, Yana ​

But I heard another interpretation of that image this week—there are many dwelling places in heaven, and we don’t get to choose which one we live in, or who our roommate is. We are thrown together with people who are so different from we are in a way that we avoid on earth. There is something to that, too.

Saraya, Hauwa, Hauwa, Hauwa,Maryamu, Maimuna, Rebeca, Liyatu, Rifkatu

Jesus is going before us to prepare a place where the things that prevent us from truly being one people—and following one Lord, one faith, and one baptism—will be washed away. Where relationships that would be unimaginable in this world are part of paradise. We could be in paradise with these girls—or maybe even their kidnappers. Sauls, before they become Pauls.

Naomi, Deborah, Ladi, Asabe, Maryamu, Ruth, Mary, Abigail, Deborah, Saraya ​

It’s a chilling thought. The idea that the men responsible for this have names. And are still human beings even if they are acting in such an inhuman way. That they too are descended from the Adam and Hauwa of paradise, that the sin that banished us all from the Garden is to have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil—because now we know what is good, and we know what is evil, and we can name what has been done to these girls as evil; these were not actions done out of ignorance.

Maryamu, Zara, Maryamu, Lydia, Laraba, Na’omi, Rahila, Ruth , Ladi, Mary ​

But still, in the Eden myth, we only know the difference between good and evil because Adam and Eve were unable to follow the one command of God—there was only one thing they had to avoid doing, and that is precisely what they did. Avoiding sin is so hard for us humans.

Deborah, Hauwa, Hauwa, Serah, Aishatu, Aishatu, Hauwa, Hamsatu, Mairama

In the Gospel today, Philip wants Jesus to give him proof. He wants to see the Father. He wants his doubts and fears satisfied. But faith is not about having our doubts and fears satisfied. It is tempting to say to God, with the offer of prayer that Jesus invites in the Gospel, “Jesus, in your name I ask you to release these girls in Nigeria.” Because Jesus says that whatever you ask in my name I will do. It is completely understandable to make this a test like Philip’s test for Jesus: If you just do this one thing, then I will believe—then I will be able to follow you.

Hanatu, Monica, Margret, Docas, Rhoda, Rifkatu, Saratu, Naomi, Hauwa, Rahap ​

Jesus is not holding the girls captive, though. Men are. It is not for God to descend from heaven and create some sort of supernatural rescue; it is for us human beings to intervene; to declare the preciousness of life, especially female life, not just in this instance, but in so many others. Because if we were to name all the women and girls and boys and men kidnapped and sold from their families around the world every year, we would be here all day.

Hauwa, Ihyi, Hasana, Rakiya, Halima, Aisha, Kabu, Yayi, Falta, Kwadugu

Jesus, we pray in your name, and in the names of all the girls we have named today, not as a test; not as a proof of our faith, but out of love. Please, help us human beings find a way to release these girls, your children, from the men who are holding them. And help us find a way to value life enough that no person will be stolen, or kidnapped, or trafficked by another one of your children. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

In the womb with Nicodemus

Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, hoping to escape the notice of his friends and family. I suspect that Nicodemus had been spending a lot of time at night awake since hearing about Jesus, what he’d done and what he was saying. The passage right before this is the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem and chases out the moneychangers and says “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!” and claims that he will be able to raise up the temple in three days. I wonder if Nicodemus was there that day and heard his words and even as he disapproved of the outburst, thought to himself, “He’s right. We’re doing this wrong.” And he’s been thinking about it since.

Night can be a scary time. In the darkness we lose the ability to control and focus our minds and slip into doubt, shame, fear, guilt. I know that the night is when I have my darkest moments, the thoughts that won’t stop circling around, the fear or guilt or anxiety that takes hold every time you close your eyes and say to yourself, “I am going to fall asleep right now.” I wonder if Nicodemus had been having those nights for a while. Wondering if this Jesus was the answer to the prophecies, if he might be the Messiah. Knowing full well during the day, when he was safe with his Pharisee colleagues that this Jesus was a dangerous man, but then at night, at home, at 2am, feeling the twinge of doubt. Waking up and not falling asleep so he lights a lamp and goes to read his Torah and fill his mind with words so that it will chase away the doubt. But eventually he goes to see for himself. Surely once he’s actually met the guy, this mysterious hold Jesus has on him will stop, he’ll be able to sleep, because then he’ll know that Jesus is just another rabble rouser, just another Messianic nutcase like all the other ones.

Nicodemus arrives, is appropriately humble, and Jesus responds by spouting really confusing words. They debate about being born from above —it must have felt good and familiar to debate theology, Pharisees loved to debate. Nicodemus takes the part of the realist: I cannot climb back into my mother’s womb, I cannot be born again. As they talk past each other, you can hear Nicodemus sighing with relief. This guy’s crazy. I will be able to sleep tonight.

And then Jesus says something very different, something outside the realm of debate. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” He is speaking not as a Rabbi, not as a debater, but as one with authority. He’s speaking the way a son speaks about his father, with knowledge and confidence. God gave his only Son. Suddenly Nicodemus is thrust out of the safety of theological debate and into a different part of reality; I’m sure he had a son; perhaps he had an only son. And he loved him. And he would not give up his son for anything. But God was giving a son. And it sounds like that son is Jesus. It still doesn’t make sense, but it holds his attention in a new way.

What is it about John 3:16—and verse 17, which is less well known, but an important development of the themes in verse 16—so memorable and essential to our faith? A colleague at my Bible study this week said that his mother grew up singing a song with the chorus, “John 3:16, John 3:16, John 3:16”… it has been meaningful long before televised football games with posters and In-and-Out Burger cups with citations on them. It is a verse that can cut through darkness and bring light. John 3:16 and 17 testify to our value to God. God loves us. A lot. Enough to send us Jesus to illumine God’s love for us. God loves us enough that God wants to save us, to give us eternal life, to bring us into glory with God. Jesus is not here to condemn us—that would make God a horrible trickster—sending his son just to prove how bad and undeserving we are. God loves us and desires good for us. That is profoundly reassuring.

It’s not that what happens in the first part of this story isn’t important—it is vital. To be born “again” or “from above”—the Greek word means both of those—is a central part of Jesus’ good news. And Nicodemus’ insistence on thinking literally is one of the hallmarks of our misunderstanding of Jesus—Jesus talks about spiritual things and we respond with earthly things. Jesus speaks in metaphor and we respond with literalism. Belief in Jesus will change us. Belief in Jesus will bring us from darkness to light; from the womb to birth.

So what if we stick with Jesus’ metaphor of rebirth, and think of this darkness in which Nicodemus comes not as an anxious night, or a place of evil, but as a womb? It is dark. It is confining. But it is nourishing. It is giving him the strength, the food, the growth that he needs in order to go through a traumatic but ultimately necessary and worthwhile process of birth.

I know that I’m not a fully mature, fully formed Christian. And I suspect that most of you are not, either. Have I been born again? Maybe— when someone asks me that question in the grocery checkout line, the answer is always “yes, I was born again at my baptism.” But that might be thinking like Nicodemus a little too much. The person of today who asks you, “Have you been born again?” is asking about a salvific moment—did you have the experience, the moment, the encounter that saved you? But being born again isn’t a moment, it’s a lifetime. Certainly in the literal sense of having been baptized, received the holy Spirit, and believing in Jesus. But I’m not sure if I can really, truly, fully say that I have been born “from above.” In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m still in the womb—rather like Nicodemus.

Nicodemus makes only one more appearance in the gospel of John. When Jesus is taken down from the cross on Good Friday afternoon, Nicodemus arrives with a hundred pounds of oils and ointments with which to anoint his body. He is carrying all the expensive oils that a father would give to his only Son, if his son died. The disciples are all gone, hiding in their own darkness, but Nicodemus shows up, in the light of day, and stands in for God the Father as well as for Joseph and tenderly honors the body of this son. Nicodemus has been born from above, and also born into the light. He has been born into dramatic action and witness to Christ as God’s son, the beloved. So can we, if we let the birth process unfold.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Leviticus and Love

There’s an intriguing photo online of a man with a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22 on his arm. Leviticus 18:22, a chapter before the reading from Leviticus that we read today, states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” As the person who made the photograph go viral noted, it’s a shame the man who had Leviticus 18:22 tattooed on his arm was evidently unaware of Leviticus 19:28, a few verses after today’s reading, which states: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you.”

When it comes to biblical law, everyone picks and chooses, even the people who would consider themselves to be biblical literalists. We do, too, and I struggle with today’s reading from Leviticus because I really, really like it. It rings true to me about the desire of the God I worship and who knows and loves me. And I’m not used to liking Leviticus. I’m accustomed to saying that it is rooted in its time and place and culture, and that we should not use it as a guide for our faith. What I expect to find in Leviticus can be summed up in that photo online: laws that have been incredibly harmful to people about sex, gender, slavery and violence; and laws that are just sort of quaintly irrelevant to us today—tattoos, food laws, mixing two kinds of seed in a field or two kind of fabric in your clothes.

But there is more to Leviticus than what we are used to hearing. It’s not all about sex, stoning, and food. It’s about becoming holy by imitating God—or at least by imitating God as experienced by this particular people in this particular time and place. That call to holiness mirrors the end of the Gospel text where Jesus calls on us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. One goal of the faithful life is to be like God—humbly—not thinking that we ARE God, but in the process of seeking to align our wills and actions and desire with those of God, to become holy, to become blessed, to be at one with the divine.

So what are the hallmarks of God in this passage from Leviticus? God is generous, God is honest, God is kind, God is just, God loves. And so we are holy, we are like God, when we are generous, honest, kind, just, and loving. And the way we become holy is entirely about how we interact with our neighbors. If we have a field, we leave some of the harvest to be gleaned by our neighbors who are in need; when we have business transactions with our neighbors we deal honestly--we do not defraud, we do not steal. When we sit in judgment, we are swayed neither by earthly power nor by earthly want, and distribute justice. We love our neighbors enough to reprove them, and we refuse to take vengeance upon them when they wrong us.

So how can we embrace this vision of justice without being just the polar opposite of someone who prooftexts using other verses of Leviticus?

Well, we’re Christians. We follow Jesus. And that means that we view the law—and all the Hebrew Scriptures—through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus. We great every Hebrew Bible law with the words Jesus uses today: “You have heard that it was said…” and then we listen to Jesus’ answer. We prioritize what Jesus prioritized. Jesus had nothing to say about tattoos; he had nothing to say about homosexuality; he had a lot to say about justice and love.

There are two clear links between today’s text in Leviticus and in Matthew’s Gospel. The first is love. That sounds trite and easy and overdone, and as I was working on this sermon I kept thinking to myself, “Come on, you can’t just say it’s all about love, that’s like punting on third down!” but it’s not, really. As the collect today says, “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.” The climax of what we hear from Leviticus today is that all of these instructions from God about how to interact with our neighbors stem from loving your neighbor as yourself.

Following the law through justice, generosity, honesty, and fairness is the living expression of love. Loving your neighbor as yourself means being able to put yourself in the other’s shoes and if you have a field to imagine what it would be like to be in want; if you sit in judgment to imagine what it is like to come before the judge; to imagine what it is like to be the victim of slander and gossip. And if you are in want, to know that the food left in the field is yours out of love; that justice is yours out of love; and on and on. And in the Gospel that moves from just loving your generic neighbor to actively loving your enemy. Not only are we called to be just and generous and honest with the people who reflect those virtues back to us; we are called to be just to those who treat us unjustly; to be generous with those who are miserly to us; to be honest with those who lie to us.

And the second link between the Gospel and Leviticus today is the admonition towards holiness or perfection; as in the Gospel verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I struggle with the idea of seeking perfection—I’m too Lutheran in my theology—simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and a sinner, means that we know we’re never perfect, we’re always sinners, and are only justified through God’s grace. That is indelibly the center of my theology. So how can Jesus be asking us to be perfect? The Greek word translated “perfect” is teleios; the root is telos, or end. The implication of the Greek word teleois has to do not with being flawless, but with having reached your end; being complete and mature. Be complete, as God is complete. If holiness is being like God, being holy means being spiritually complete. Still a sinner. Still imperfect. But complete because the parts of ourselves that are lacking are filled in by God. And that is the ultimate blessing.

This passage we hear from the Gospel today is towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Which begins with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God….”

The Beatitudes aren’t just about divine karma—suffer now and get rewarded later. It is about how it is through what the world perceives as weakness that we become blessed, holy, like God. How it is in the absence of something that God fills us to completion. Because our holiness derives not from ourselves but from God. God says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Not “You shall be holy if you do all the things I tell you to do.” We are holy, because God is holy. We are complete because God is complete. That is our telos, our goal. We are holy, because we can’t help being holy, because God is holy.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Justice as Sacrament

The Gospel stories we tell during the season of Epiphany are often about some visible manifestation God’s presence as Immanuel, God-with-us. The Magi following the star find the child revealed as King; at the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descends as a dove; Jesus performs his first miracle by changing water into wine at the Wedding at Cana; and the season after Epiphany always ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the mountain, flanked by Moses and Elijah. Each of these stories is almost sacramental in the way that we teach how sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” There is some outward visible thing that is the manifestation of God’s presence and grace.

We call our parish newsletter The Manifest not because it’s a list of cargo or a list of stuff to do, but because it’s an obvious sign of God’s presence. The reflections and ministry contained in The Manifest are reminders and signs of how God works in the world. I even looked up the English word "manifest" this week to discover that it comes from Latin manifestus which means to be caught in the act. Epiphany is about Jesus getting caught-in-the-act of being divine.

In this week’s gospel, that is less evident—it’s the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. At first the focus isn’t even on Jesus, it’s on us: we are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world. In what follows, Jesus is speaking again not about himself, but about the Law, the Torah. Jesus is saying (contrary to Paul--if you were hearing this and thinking that this sounds different from what you're used to hearing in church, you're right!) that he has come to fulfill the law and that his followers still have to follow the law; in fact, even just following the law isn’t enough, because—as we will hear next week in the Gospel—it’s not just what you do, it’s what’s in your mind and heart; it’s about your intentions as you follow the law.

To understand this better, turn to the passage from Isaiah. Here we have the voice of God speaking about God’s disappointment in how the people are following the letter of the law but not the spirit. They are fasting outwardly; but not for the benefit of the whole people. This is where we get God’s definition of what God wants us to accomplish in our fasting, in our observance of the law:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”

The purpose of following the law is justice. Which is very true in Torah—these laws have acts of compassion written into them: care for the orphan and widow wasn’t something to do in excess of the law, but actually written into the code itself.

So what if we saw justice as sacramental; justice as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace? Then justice becomes the manifest sign of God’s presence in the Gospel today: when wrongs are righted, God is there. When the poor are lifted up, God is there. When the oppressed are freed, God is there.

So how is God manifestly present here at Epiphany? What is the sacrament of justice that we send forth into the world? The quick answer in many of your minds is probably the Wednesday Dinner Program, where we feed over 100 hungry people a meal every week. I’d answer that yes and no… and hear me out as to why…

Feeding someone a meal is not justice. It’s charity—it’s love. And that is not bad. In my Manifest article last week, I wrote about the virtues listed on the floor of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological seminary: caritas, or charity/love, is the central virtue from which all the others spring. But justice is something different than love. Justice is changing the way a system works—it’s breaking the yoke of oppression or ignorance or discrimination. I would say that our Wednesday Dinner Program is primarily a work of charity. We feed people. We respond with compassion to the sea of need we witness. And it is part of the Isaiah passage about what life will look like if the people truly follow the law: “If you offer your food to the hungry
 and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness 
and your gloom be like the noonday.” Justice is what builds upon that foundation of loving, compassionate response.

We have a social worker here now on Wednesdays to help connect our guests to some services, which is the beginning of justice, but the only way that our dinner program can really move from being just a ministry of charity and into a ministry of justice is to have every person here—and every volunteer—start asking themselves, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” And that question—and the answers—move it from being a loving and compassionate response to need to being a just response.

Because once you start asking the question, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” it reveals injustice. It reveals a system with a lack of mental health services; a system with a lack of quality childhood education; a system of poor parenting and broken families that doom kids to an adulthood of poverty and low wage jobs; a system of racial discrimination; a system that sends soldiers off to war and doesn’t adequately care for them when they return; and on and on. It’s in answering those questions that justice takes root.

And this takes us to a tension between Isaiah and the Gospel today. Isaiah is focused on following the law in a way that does not draw attention to itself—because he is responding to what he perceives as people following the law not out of the love of the Lord but out of the desire to look important in the eyes of their neighbors. The Gospel writes about not hiding your light under a bushel basket. Which is it—are we supposed to do justice quietly in secret, or celebrate it and put it out for the world to see?

We sing “This little light of mine” at the Day School chapel services this year, and “Put it under a bushel, NO!” is always the most enthusiastic verse. Because it is in doing the work of love publicly that justice becomes possible. Justice requires conversion, and conversion requires inspiration. One form of inspiration—not the only one—is seeing someone get caught in the act of being Christly.

Christians get caught in the act of being un-Christly all the time. Far, far better to be caught in the act of being the hands and feet of our Lord. As we do every Wednesday evening. And those acts of love have to be the beacon that inspires justice—both in our own conversations and in our conversations with those outside the church.

All the while, though, we should be cognizant that this Gospel passage is also the basis of John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon where he created the image of the new World as the shining City on a Hill by which all the rest of civilization would be measured; there is something very good about the ambition of the American Exceptionalism that he set on its course; that this would be the land of justice and freedom that would be an example for centuries to come. If you read Winthrop’s whole sermon, there is actually quite a lot to disagree with—he completely objects to the idea of equality, for instance—but the confidence with which we are called to act boldly in service of justice and liberty is sound. So long as it doesn’t then take us back to Isaiah, where the people have become complacent and arrogant and do the letter of the law—say they are fasting for liberty and justice—when in truth they are doing the opposite. Being the shining city on the hill (or, I might add, living in the glow of the Olympic torch) isn’t about covering up the injustice and oppression in our midst; it is about bringing it to light, and by illuminating it compelling the community to break out of the yoke of “it has to be this way” and discover the liberty of faith: faith that when God is manifestly, sacramentally present, all those questions about why our guests on Wednesdays need a meal are actually answerable. I want our dinner program to be an act of love AND a step towards justice.

So go out this week nourished by two sacraments: the sacrament of the Eucharist where Jesus is manifestly present in bread and wine, giving us strength and fortitude that as we are loved by him we can love others; and by the sacrament of justice. Go out and get caught in the act of love; let your light shine; and let the light inspire the questions—even the uncomfortable ones—that that can guide us from charity to justice. Amen.