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.