Sunday, November 22, 2015

True Stories

"My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

When I was in seminary, the essay question on the Early Church History final exam was always the same: “Was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 328 AD a missed opportunity or a tragic mistake?” Behind that question was the real question: could Christianity ever govern faithfully—is it possible to have a Christian “kingdom of this world”, or does Christianity become inherently corrupted by wielding earthly power? If it might be possible to govern a nation or a society according to Christian rule and doctrine, then the conversion of Constant ine was a missed opportunity—the Holy Roman Empire did not end up creating any more peace or faithfulness than any other empire. But if it would never be possible, working with the words of today’s Gospel from Jesus, to have a “Kingdom of this world” based upon his teachings, then the conversion of Constantine—and all the nations since that have attempted to consider themselves “Christian”—was a tragic mistake.

The correct answer—according to the professor, and since the test was the same every year, we all knew what to expect—was that the conversion of Constantine was a missed opportunity. Like most—but not all—of my classmates, that is the essay I wrote, and it’s a legitimate position. But in the intervening 16 years, I’m beginning to think that maybe the true answer is that it was a tragic mistake.

Miroslav Volf is a theologian who teaches at Yale; he is Croatian by birth, and grew up in Serbia as part of Yugoslavia; and has written extensively on reconciliation as both a practical and theological concept in the context of ethnic cleansing and war in the former Yugoslavia, and the shift in roles that takes one war’s victims and turns them into perpetrators in the next that makes the world so complicated. He wrote this week in a piece in the Washington Post on the question of whether religion is bad for the world:

Put the glove of religion on the hand of either a revolutionary or a statesman, and religion will be pulled into the dynamics of cohesion, control, acquisition and maintenance of power, and the marking of boundaries — and will more likely than not turn violent. In other words, align moral self-understanding of society, state and religion, and even most peaceful religion will become ready to “take up the gun.”

It’s a fabulous essay, worthy of reading in its entirety, but that passage particularly stood out for me in the context of our world today, with a group purporting to be an “Islamic State” terrorizing the world and some voices in our own nation calling for some sort of establishment of Christianity and Judaism as favored religions in our nation.

There are fundamentalist Buddhists in the process of oppressing, killing, and exiling Muslims in Myanmar and Thailand. Of all the world religions, you would think that Buddhism, with its complete focus on approaching Nirvana through setting aside earthly concerns, would be immune to political corruption. And yet. Human beings get in the way.

Jesus speaks a lot about his kingdom in the gospels—the “Kingdom of God” which is like a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, a field, and so many other images. It is not a kingdom of this world—it is the kingdom where the poor are blessed, the oppressed are free, and the blind receive their sight. That doesn’t sound like the world as it is. But it is also not completely disconnected from this world—it is very, very close. So close that for people of faith, those who follow Jesus, we encounter it daily—the kingdom of God breaks in on our earthly lives in compassion, in love, and in relationship; but also in sacrament and Word. The meal we are about to share is the foretaste of the feast to come—the taste of that banquet that we will fully encounter only in God’s kingdom.

So how can we live as citizens of this world and as citizens of the Kingdom of God at the same time, if it is not to establish the actions of our governments as acts of our religion? Because that is often a supposition of our faith: we are called to preach the gospel to ALL nations, and believe that Jesus is the way for ALL people, and if everyone in the world became a Christian, wouldn’t that solve everything? At some level, that is the supposition of the collect: “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule”. We hear “rule” and thinking “kingdom of this world” instead of “kingdom of God.”

Let’s keep looking at today’s gospel: Pilate is baffled by this idea of a king whose kingdom is not of this world. Pilate asks Jesus, "So you are a king?" and Jesus answers: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And then comes the next line which is mysteriously omitted from today’s lectionary selection, when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Pilate is a governor who knows the objective truth: Jesus isn’t a criminal. And even though Pilate knows the truth, he is swept up by the needs of the people he is governing and decides to execute Jesus anyway. He tells himself a different story, a different truth: that it is expedient for one man to die to avoid civil unrest.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories. I know for myself, the stories I tell often make me look better than I actually am. There’s another subset of stories I tell myself that make me worse than I actually am. Neither set of stories is objectively truthful. We tell ourselves stories as individuals and also as cultures, and sometimes they are more truthful than others—the Thanksgiving narrative is an obvious and topical one, on several levels. When I learned the story of Thanksgiving, it was a story about Pilgrims who came to a new land to find freedom and made friends with the Indians, who helped them out and shared their feast and everyone lived happily ever after.

That’s not the fully truthful or factual version of the story—as I think we all know today. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious and political persecution—a persecution, I should point out, that was inflicted on them by us, the Anglican Church. We’re the people the Pilgrims were running away from (!). And they came to this new land, a great and noble venture, and while some settlers got along with the Native Americans, many did not, and their arrival marked one beginning of the near extinction of Native American lives and culture and prosperity.

The less truthful stories that we inherit and create shape our identity, our self image, our actions.

But Jesus comes to us today as the truth. Calling us to truth—as Christians, as citizens in the world, in every area of our lives. Truth. Honesty. Self-reflection.

Truth is sometimes unflattering—and always nuanced. There are competing goods in our truths: the Thanksgiving story has a people fleeing persecution, and in the years after that story, those who had been persecuted become persecutors themselves. Rather like Miroslav Volf’s writings on the former Yugoslavia.

If we are followers of Jesus then we are followers of the truth, and Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. But we will need to look at all our stories and sift out the truth from them.

We tell ourselves stories about Islam: it is violent and oppressive. More violent and oppressive than other religions. We tell ourselves stories about Christianity: it is peaceful. More peaceful than other religions. And the opposite is true for some of us as well—we tell stories that do not acknowledge the vicious violence of some versions is Islam, and we tell stories that do not acknowledge the good and peacefulness of Christianity.

Jesus is the truth—not just the words of Jesus but his very life. So what is our truth?

He was born in a nation occupied by a ruling power.
He was born to poor parents.
Depending on which gospel you read, his family were exiled and lived as refugees in Egypt.
He healed people.
He was friends with sinners.
He was violently executed by a state, even though he had not committed a crime.
He was raised from death, and promised resurrection to all of us as well.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” Thanks be to God for Jesus, our truth.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Mouth of the Shark

I wasn’t really thinking about the current world refugee crisis in terms of historic American immigration until Nathan and I went to the Tenement Museum here in NYC on Friday. It reminded me of all those who came from Europe to flee persecution and famine and hardship and found their own hardships here; my own family arrived at various times, but I particularly remembered in my family history two German boys who came to the US in the 1880s at age 12 and 14, I believe. Their parents sent them so that they would not be conscripted into the army during the German wars of unification in that decade. Alone, they sailed from Germany to the US to join extended family members in Chicago.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of love and desperation that it would take to send your children on a dangerous voyage across thousands of miles knowing that you would likely never see them again. And yet, thousands, maybe millions of our ancestors did just that. And people are still doing it today. Getting on an overcrowded boat, walking across Europe, risking their lives from a combination of a hope for a better future and complete and utter desperation at the danger and violence where they came from.

We hear a very similar kind of love today in the Gospel. The Syrophonecian woman comes to Jesus, finds him even though he’s traveling through what was a foreign land for Jews and even though he is effectively hiding out in a home. She’s like a lot of these refugees from our perspective because we don’t know her name, or really anything about her, except that she has a daughter who “has an unclean spirit”… something is preventing her daughter from having a future. And so she finds Jesus and comes before him to seek healing for her daughter, humbling herself by kneeling respectfully before this foreign man she knows only by reputation, because she loves her daughter so much… and Jesus humiliates her. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

My people are children. Your people are dogs. Don’t take what belongs to us.

And faced with such abrasive prejudice and arrogance, she loves her daughter so much that she will do anything to heal her, even humiliate herself further.

And she says, “Please treat me as well as you would treat a dog. Just give me the leftovers.”

A couple of years ago, when Matthew’s version of this Gospel story was the reading, I preached about how it appears in this story that Jesus sins—he looks at the Syrophonecian woman, judges her based upon her clothes and her accent and her religion, calls her a dog, and then repents and restores her dignity. If any one of us did what Jesus did in this story, we would say it was sinful—and I asked how then does this story exist in the Bible of a church that historically holds to a theology that Jesus was without sin? Because for the first 2000 years of the church, it never occurred to the powers that be that to treat a foreign woman badly was a sin. Calling a woman a dog? Totally not sinful. Discriminating because of religion or language or ethnicity or economic status? Go right ahead—that’s what Christians are supposed to do!

And so in that sermon I preached the surprisingly good news that we can FINALLY see the sin in this story. Good news—Jesus sinned! Because it is only now that we look at these actions and these biases and say wait—that’s not being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. It is wrong to treat someone badly because of their faith or their gender or their race.

I’m finding this a much harder gospel story to live with this year. Partly it’s because the Proverbs reading today and the Epistle from James, where he is saying—along with Paul elsewhere in the Epistles—that we cannot make distinctions in how we treat people differently because they are rich or poor. They knew then that this was a sin… and they knew 500 years ago, and 1000 years ago and 100 years ago that the Christian is called to show NO partiality between rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. When we are faced with ANY human being, we are to treat them as Christ, whether they look like us or not, whether they agree with us or not, whether they are powerful or powerless. We already knew that.

But I think the main reason that I am finding this gospel harder to live with this year is that I’m identifying more with Jesus in this story than I want to. Usually, when a priest says they feel like Jesus, it’s arrogant and hubris, but this time it’s a really bad thing to be identifying with Jesus. Four years ago I guess I was feeling more or less positive about the fact that the world and people were getting better at not discriminating and understanding that people are people and need to be treated as people no matter where they come from, I am no longer so sure. And I find it convicting myself, because the sermon I started writing this week, when I worked on it again this weekend, sounded so very first-world-privileged. I was angry at Jesus for how he treated the woman, and I was even angry with her—in a way—because she let him do it. I wanted her to stand up and be empowered and assertive. I’m in a space where I’ve been reading Brene Brown and listening to female empowerment pop songs… and it is an incredible privilege in this world to have the time and leisure and luxury to be concerned with my self-image and not with the survival of myself and my child.

It’s not all bleak—I mean, Jesus does change his mind, and save the woman’s child. We can change. But it’s a long way to go.

Bishop Dietsche sent out a letter this week asking us all to make today “end Racism Sunday” and that was obviously intended to focus on racism in the United States. And that’s important, and related to today’s Gospel. We will be praying for that in our Prayers of the People, and focusing on Racism in our Adult Education in October. But today… here is this gospel, think about the photos and stories you’ve seen and read this week about refugees from all over the world. Think about your own story of how you or your people came to this land. Think about how each of us, and our nation, contributes to the conflicts that cause people to flee. Think about how you and our nation contribute to helping those as they flee. Think about whether you are open to welcoming communities of refugees in our city, our state, our nation—or even in our homes. And think about how we treat our dogs on the Upper East Side. And that’s not a suggestion that we should treat our dogs worse than we do now…

And then pray. And act.

The following is a portion of a poem by the Somali poet Warsan Shire; she was born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali parents, and was raised in England. The title of the poem is Home.

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well


no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet
hot blood in your belly

it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled 
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it
no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough


go home blacks

dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry

with their hands out

they smell strange


messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off


i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

run away from me now

i dont know what i've become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

This is for the kids who die...

The last time I sang “I am the Bread of life” I was at the funeral of my friend Keith. It was sung at communion, and I remember walking up past his casket, placing my hand on the pall as I sang and cried, as hundreds of people around me sang and cried and feasted. It’s the only hymn I know of that causes lots of Episcopal clergy to actually raise their hands and close their eyes and not worry so much about what they look like and am I being dignified and just sing and feel and let the music move them. We were acting out our belief that the bishop was up at the altar distributing Jesus, the living bread which came down from heaven, and that Jesus had promised to raise up Keith, who was now lying so still in his casket, just like Jesus had promised to raise up every one of us.

We were caught between heaven and earth. I love that phrase in the story of Absalom. It’s an incredibly tragic story—but that phrase. Caught between heaven and earth. Absalom gets stuck in the tree—earlier in the story we hear that he had long, beautiful hair—so there he is stuck, caught, hanging, and the writer describes him as caught between heaven and earth. Caught between life and death. Caught between the mercy his father has required and the justice he admittedly deserved. He has rebelled. He has killed his brother. He has claimed to be the king. He has humiliated his father, the king. Absalom is a troubled young man.

But he’s still David’s son. And David still loves him, and does not want him dead.

What an incredible love that must be, to survive betrayal, and sin, and denial—and still love so completely. Maybe that’s what God’s love for us is like: God loves us so much, despite our denials and betrayals and sins that God still wants us to live, not just now, but eternally. “whoever believes has eternal life…. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And so here we are, caught between heaven and earth, in that pregnant pause where we do not entirely know which way we are going to go. If the father’s love will be so strong that it will draw us up into heaven and eternal life; or if we will descend back to earth, if there is still more work to be done, more earthly bread to be shared, more paths to follow.

Absalom comes back down to earth pierced by 13 spears. The soldier who finds Absalom doesn’t kill him, because he heard David’s command. Joab, David’s hot-headed commander, the type of leader who consistently goes beyond what his king has told him to do because he believes the violence is necessary for the greater good, strikes the first blow with three spears, after which he commands his 10 armor bearers to strike Absalom as well. Eleven men strike down Absalom so that none of them can be named. None can be accused individually of murdering the king’s son. Absalom hanging on a tree, killed by a group of nameless soldiers reminds us of another man who died, hanging on a tree, killed by a group of solders. Joab, Pilate—these men gave the command, but they took shelter behind the crowd.

When news of Absalom’s death reaches David, he grieves horribly. Wailing, weeping, calling Absalom’s name, and regretting that David himself had not died instead of Absalom. Joab—and no doubt others—believe that such grief is a symbol of weakness. It’s not kingly, or macho enough. Absalom was trouble and got what was coming to him—it was his own fault.

There are a lot of children dying, a lot of grieving parents. Keith’s parents were at his funeral—he was in his early 50s—and he died of natural causes, but so many other parents are publicly grieving their children’s deaths by violence. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Those killed at the movie shootings. The church shootings. The school shootings. And we see their parents grieve, publically, and beg us not to just turn away from their grief. They are begging us to say that the deaths of their children will not be for naught. The deaths of their children will bring about change, and life, and justice.

Keith’s favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Archdeacon Bill Parnell preached about it at his funeral—about Keith’s faith that the Atticus archetype would someday bring about racial harmony in the US. I’ve just reread it-so much more powerful than I could comprehend in middle school. And I’ve also just read Go Set a Watchman, which strikes me as important, though I agree with another friend who said that she was glad that Keith did not have to see his hero destroyed. But in the climactic final scenes, as Jean Louise, the woman we used to know as Scout, is railing against her father’s prejudice and complicity in segregation, Atticus says to her, “Jean Louise, come down to earth…”

And I read that with Absalom in mind and I couldn’t help but think, no, we are not called to come back down to earth in our righteous anger and grief. We are called to go up to heaven. To cry out in grief and then to cry out for justice.

Take shelter here, eat this living bread, find strength and fortitude and courage to look, not just at what is going on here on earth but to look up to heaven. Look at what God has done for us—is doing for us—he himself is caught between heaven and earth begging us to follow him up. Begging us to look inside ourselves and cut out the parts that are dead and sick and sinful and wounded so that we can be raised.

It reminded me of the poem of the prophet and poet Langton Hughes:

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Wanting the Will of God

What did you take from the first reading today, the one from 1 Samuel? What I got was: “The people get the government they deserve.”

Before King Saul, Israel was ruled by a group of judges. They were tribal and small scale. No palace, no temple, no king. Only the tabernacle—a fancy tent—to give a home to the Ark of the Covenant.

But they have seen enough of the world to know that the important nations have kings. And they want one. They tell Samuel, their prophet that they want a king. The Lord tells Samuel to warn the people what it will mean to them to have a king: they aren’t actually going to like it when the king takes their grain and their children to work for him and sends them into battle. They won’t actually like it when they are oppressed and exploited and realize they have given their autonomy over to someone who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

Have you ever seen a group of people who were determined to do something heed the warning of a lone voice? They never do. After Saul and David and Solomon, there is a long slide in Israelite and Judean kingship, with descriptions of “And King so-and-so did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” with dire consequences for the people as their nation is chopped up and conquered and sent into exile.

The people listen to Samuel’s description of what it will be like to have a king and respond, “we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."

That is a spectacular verse. Here is the first thing is wrong with their plea: they want a king “so that we also may be like other nations.” Torah is dedicated to distinguishing the people of Israel from the other nations. It is to make them better than other nations. They are the chosen people of God, and they are the ones who have a covenant with God in which they promise to follow the Lord and obey his law, and the Lord promises to lead them into the Promised Land. And yet—as if they are 12 year old girls—the people want to be like everyone else. “Everyone else has a king, why can’t we?”

This is as true today as it was 3000 years ago: when we try to deny our own identity and be like everyone else, we can lose our faith. Our path as Christians is not to conform ourselves to the world, but to conform the world to the Gospel. Now we don’t go about that in the same way that some religious groups do—we don’t dress like the Amish or the Hasidim, who seem to have gotten stuck in the 19th Century; and we don’t reject God’s continuing revelation through learning and science and experience and reason, so we do not believe that our faith froze 2000 years ago and can never be changed. But it is sometimes a challenge to walk the path of asking “How is the Gospel relevant today?” without asking, “How can I make the Gospel sound like something that is popular today?” I have to believe that it is possible to be a Christian in the 21st Century and follow a faith that is both relevant and illuminating to my life as who I am—and allow that faith to challenge me not to give in to every trend and modernization. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention will be attempting to draw that line in a few weeks when they meet, and consider many issues and topics that some people might consider “trendy,” while others consider them a part of that continuing revelation. My father uses a phrase perhaps best understood by the 8:30 Rite I service about the Episcopal Church: he says we are “Trendier than thou.”

And here’s the second thing wrong with the Israelites statement: they want a king so that he “may govern us and go out before us and fight out battles.” If we expect anyone else to fight our battles for us, we are in trouble. Following the Lord is not easy, and it is not something that we can subcontract out to experts, whether they are kings or priests. I can’t read the Bible for you. I can’t pray in place of you. The people want the king to take the risks for them—but that’s not the king’s role. It is the role of the whole community—the ekklesia—the church to follow the law, to do the ministry of the Gospel.

The people get what they want. God gives them a king. Saul is a disappointment to everyone involved, including Saul, I think. It’s a rather sad story.

We are challenged as human beings to discern the difference between the frequent error of a group of people and the wisdom of a discerning and loving body. There is no simple statement that can be made such as “crowds are always wrong” because sometimes the crowd is not wrong. We fundamentally believe that it is in the church—which is a collective body of people—that God’s Word is heard and shared. We see in the world that sometimes it is a popular uprising that brings about justice, freedom, and truth. And we see the opposite, where peoples and nations and religions use the power of their numbers to inflict pain, suffering and oppression.

Another crowd in error gathers around Jesus today in the Gospel. Jesus’ family wants to hide him because they think he’s insane—a fair enough assessment. The Scribes think he’s possessed. Jesus is now the lone voice, and he has a much more oblique message than Samuel.

Here is a story that we hear with our 21st Century ears and think, “What on earth could this possibly mean for us?” Some weeks in the lectionary, I imagine that those of you who are playing close attention to the biblical readings periodically thing, “Gosh. I wonder what Jennifer is going to do with that!” and this may be one of those weeks. Beelzebub? Satan? “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” What sounds like Jesus instructing us to abandon our biological families? What does any of that mean?

Satan is not particularly popular in the Episcopal Church, but he certainly dominates a big swath of evangelical Christianity. We are too modern to believe in demon possession a la “the Exorcist”. But we might do well to remember the reality of evil. At the baptism we did last week, when I was preparing the parents and godparents, I reminded them that we still have a small vestige of the ancient exorcism rite in our baptismal liturgy; it isn’t all positive affirmations of following Jesus—it’s also the explicit renunciation of evil, Satan, and everything that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.

And then Jesus tells this parable of the strong man, which at first sounds rather disjointed from what comes before. Reflexively, we assume that any time there is a householder or a strong person in a parable it is God, and a thief will most likely be Satan. But this parable is the opposite of that. The strong man of the parable isn’t Jesus, it’s Satan. Jesus is the thief. Jesus is saying in this parable that he has bound up incarnate evil and is plundering Satan’s house for every soul that has fallen pray to sin and death.

I don’t know what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, so I’m not sure that I can help you avoid it. Scholars disagree too—but the author of Mark probably intends something along the lines of conflating Jesus’ spirit—which is holy—with Satan or a demon. I’m less interested in the idea that there is one sin that is unforgivable—and that sin appears to be directed against the divine—than the line before it: “People will be forgiven for their sins and for whatever blasphemies they utter.” There appears to be universal forgiveness for sins other than the one unforgivable sin. Here we do not conform to the world, because the world does not believe in forgiveness. The world believes in punishment and shame and denial.

During the Every Member Canvass we did last fall, a word that came up over and over again from people in how they described Epiphany was “family.” I understand that to be a good thing. Many of us do not have our biological families nearby, and so Epiphany becomes part of that family-by-choice, rather like Jesus describes today. I never had biological brothers and sisters… but if Jesus asked me “who are your brothers and sisters?” I would look at you. At its best, family is where you belong, where you are loved, where you are safe, and where you celebrate and mourn and are supported and support others. Flip side: where there aren’t expectations and you can be locked into a single identity, and where there can be that sort of collective misunderstanding that is reinforced again and again that leads you to demand a king. But Jesus says something today about with whom to create these new families: “whoever does the will of God.” So it isn’t the will of the family that we are to follow, it is the divine will. Which means we will have to be humble and listen to the whole family—and probably those outside it—as we step forward on our path. Our call is not to do the will of the church, but the will of God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Marking the Sheep

I’m from New York City. I have no firsthand knowledge whatsoever of sheep or shepherds, or wolves … however, my last name is Reddall. It’s English. I grew up being told that our name came from being the people who worked in the “Red Hall.” But a few years ago I joined a Facebook group of people who share the Reddall surname—most are in England or Australia—and discovered that some of them believe that our name comes from being the people who used the “raddle” stick to mark sheep with red ochre dye to make sure you got to the whole flock if you were breeding them or giving them medicine or dividing the herd. So it may be that I have shepherds—or more likely, hired hands--far, far back in my ancestry: specifically the people who marked the sheep.

Which when I think of it, is what I do as a priest. I mark Christians—I seal them with oil in baptism and in our prayer book say, “So-and-so, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I declare that through the vows and waters of baptism, and the chrismation of the holy oil that you are one of Christ’s sheep—you belong to his flock. Unlike the big red ochre marks on the sheep’s wool, our marks aren’t visible—but nor do they wash off.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Part of the joy of being here is to meet more members of the flock--and specifically, to encounter this wonderful ministry of the Anglican Church in Qatar where it is our marking as Christians that so clearly cross the boundaries of the world--boundaries of language and nationality, of different levels of education, and within this complex, wide differences of denomination and tradition. A very scattered flock has gathered together. And to be with you, and to remember that it is the same baptism that seals each of us and unites the New York Epiphany with the Qatari Epiphany is a joy. Here we are, the sheep following the one shepherd.

And at its ideal, that is an honest delight. But we all know in our churches that the flock does not always get along. And that those differences of the world--not to mention differences in theology and practice--make it very hard to see the unity of the flock. I friend in New York who is a Lutheran Pastor who once said that on his worst days he wants to have a ministry to furniture and dishes, because you can polish them and arrange them to perfection and they stay where you put them. Ministry with people is so much more complicated.

I was blessed to be part of a choir singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms this March. I’ve spent much of my life as a choral singer, but had never sung this work before. Three movements, each a combination of two Psalms, all sung in Hebrew. They were commissioned by Chichester Cathedral in 1965, so this is the 50th anniversary of their composition.

The second movement is a commingling of Psalm 23 and Psalm 2. It begins with a solo voice—characterwise, a shepherd boy, a young King David—singing psalm 23, perhaps the most familiar Psalm of all.

Adonai roi, lo echsar. Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini; Al mei m’nuchot y’nachaleini,

naf’she y’shovev, Yan’ chei ni b’ma’aglei tsedek, l’ma’an sh’mo. Adonai roi, Adonai roi, lo echsar.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters, (break)
He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,
For His name's sake.

It is pastoral and beautiful and lyric. And then all the trebles come in and continue the prayer for a few more verses.

And then chaos and violence destroys the beauty of the pastoral landscape. The men’s voices come in with the opening of the second psalm: La! Ma! Lama ragashu, lamaragashu goyim, lamaragashu

Why do the nations rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His anointed.

You could hear it as the urban vs. the pastoral; conflicts between Christians; conflicts between the life that our faith teaches us and the life that the world teaches us. And there is this moment where the tenors are sort of bellowing the word “yahad” over and over again in a taunting way… it means “together” and it’s the taunt of those rulers who are taking counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed. You hear it and you feel ganged up on; you feel the anxiety of playground bullying on a grand scale. They are together. The enemies. A pack of wolves. We are just a lowly shepherd boy and a few sheep—how can we possibly prevail?

And then the sopranos and the voice of David enter again, with the direction, “Blissfully unaware of threat” to complete Psalm 23 while the men continue their percussive singing until the men and violence fade away. It's a fascinating theological statement--by music--about confrontation with evil. The treble voices of Psalm 23 don't sing really loudly and try to drown out the wolves; and they don't alter their melody. They just continue to faithfully pray, and eventually, the wolves themselves wear out and go away. And I would quibble with the "blissfully unaware of threat" direction--we are not called to be ignorant of the threats facing us. But we are not called to panic at them. We are left once again with just the treble voices completing the psalm, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

The piece is an incredible testament to the hope and confidence that the shepherd will keep the flock safe even when beset by the pack of wolves.

The Chichester Psalms end at the conclusion of their third movement with verse 1 of Psalm 133: “Behold how good and pleasant it is when breathren live together in unity.” And so the very last word is, “Yachad”, “together.” With all the voices in unison. The word that was so taunting before because we were alone and scattered and the enemies were together is now our word. Now we are the ones who are gathered together. One flock. Under the one shepherd. Yachad. It is such a blessing to be yachad with you.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Courageous Thomas

I had old friends who loved adventure travel, and saved up for a long trip to the Galapagos Islands in September 2001. On September 11, they were snorkeling and birdwatching 600 miles from the nearest newspaper, TV, or phone. It took days before they heard what had happened here, and they missed the trauma of it all. They had no unending replays on TV, no personal fear of attack, and when they got home, they said they were absolutely baffled, because the world had changed, and they intellectually knew why, but they hadn’t changed in the same way as every other person they knew. The resurrection was just as important a moment for those who encountered the risen Jesus as September 11 was for us. And in his own way, Thomas has missed the experience of resurrection rather like my friends missed 9/11.

And his name has been punished throughout history for it. “Doubting Thomas,” he is called, known more for his doubts than his faith, and unfairly cast as a symbol of faithlessness. After all, the other apostles all saw Jesus in the flesh before they came to belief; and the reason they are all hiding in an upper room the night of the resurrection is that they didn’t fully believe Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that she had seen the risen Jesus and so were still afraid. Thomas gets a bad rap.

And so does doubt. The Greek word translated “doubt” in today’s gospel, is apistis, which really means “without faith.” At least in English, there is a lot of difference between having doubts and being without faith. I have faith. And I have doubts. Faithful people have doubts, and if they don’t, then they aren’t faithful. Faith is specifically a belief in something that is unsee-able and unproveable. If you have doubts about your faith—you are welcome here. If you have no doubts at all, this may not be the church for you. People who do not have doubts about their faith can turn into people like the Westboro Baptist “church” who picket soldiers funerals and –this weekend—Virginia theological Seminary for caring about all of God’s children and not just those that the Westboro folks consider pure.

Thomas does come to faith on a different timeline than his fellow apostles. We worry so much about missing out. About letting opportunity pass us by. But God doesn’t worry about those things. Jesus comes back the next week and gives Thomas what he needs to believe. We can pass up opportunity after opportunity to meet God, and there will always be another opportunity. God is far more patient than we are.

When we baptize babies, it’s always an opportunity to think about what we—their parents and godparents, their family friends, and their church community—desire for their life of faith. We are all taking vows today to support Charlie Urquhart and Charlie Davis in their life of faith. What of today’s gospel story do we want them to have? It’s pretty obvious, but I would be so pleased if both of them turned out to have a faith like Thomas.

This is the third of three times that Thomas speaks up in the Gospel of John; in chapter 11, he is the one who says to the disciples that they should go with Jesus to Bethany, where Lazarus has died, even if it means that they will die with him. He seems to have faith then. And courage. He recognizes that following Jesus and being a disciple is costly, and he is ready to lead others on that path.

In John 14, When Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house, and tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, it is Thomas who asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is asking a question that is probably on the minds of all the disciples. He wants to believe—he wants to understand. And he has the courage to ask the question. He’s not “doubting Thomas.” He’s “Courageous Thomas.” How many times in our lives have we hesitated to ask a question out of a fear that it will show our ignorance… and have regretted it? Thomas asks, rather than regrets.

And then we get to today’s passage, and Thomas’s proclamation of “My Lord, and my God.” Thomas comes to faith late, but he was still sent, led by the Holy Spirit, and he went farther than any of the other apostles. The myth of Thomas is that he went to India; I always thought that was just a myth until I went to India. There’s good evidence that Thomas actually made it there; or at least someone did in the first century, because there have been Christians in India since then. Some forms of Christianity in India are the type we might normally think of; colonizing Europeans bringing the Gospel to the “natives”. But other churches are indigenous. Thomas may very well have arrived, as the legends say, in 52 AD, when all of my ancestors in Germany and England were still worshipping trees. Thomas founded a church that lasted as a witness to the resurrection, to his claim of “My Lord and my God.”

So that would be a good faith for the Charlies. But there is a lifetime ahead of them to discover it. Thomas’s call to us is one of patience. We may not be on the same timeline as those around us in our faith. Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow. Sometimes we demand proof, and sometimes we realize that we didn’t need it. But always praying with our collect today: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” Our lives display our faith. Thomas’s faith was on display in his life. May our lives proclaim that same faith.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Miss, why are you crying?"

“Miss—why are you crying?” It was late on a Friday night last fall, and I had been out with friends and heard bad news. Now, alone in the backseat of the taxi, I was sobbing unexpectedly. The taxi driver didn’t ignore me. “Miss—why are you crying?” I admit I had a moment of vanity… “He called me ‘miss’ instead of ‘ma’am’”. But I was grateful for the comfort. It sounds a lot like the angels and Jesus today speaking to Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I told him why I was crying, and he further showed his compassion, in the only way he could, by handing me a paper towel to mop up my tears. And he got me home safely. It was one of those wonderful New York City moments, where you become intimate with a stranger in an instant, a stranger who I’m sure was from a different country and a different faith than I, and yet who blessed me by his capacity for compassion and caregiving.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary Magdalene’s response to the questions posited by Jesus and the angels about why she is crying is interesting. She doesn’t say she’s crying because her rabbi has been killed. Those tears have already been shed. The reality that he has been executed has sunk in. She is weeping because on top of all that, his body has been stolen. She had a ministry, a final act of love in caring for his body and properly anointing it and wrapping it for burial, and giving him the dignity that was stolen from him on the cross. And that has been stolen away. And that is why she is weeping. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary is in a dark place of grief and confusion. The gospel passage begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” In the Gospel of John, when the author writes it is dark, it has nothing to do with the position of the sun. Darkness in John’s gospel is cosmic, spiritual, moral, and intellectual. It is dark because Mary Magdalene, Peter, the beloved disciple, and the entire world do not yet know that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But it will not be dark for long—as John’s gospel proclaims in the first chapter, “the light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it.” Light will triumph today.

But first, as is so often true in the world, there is confusion and a lot of running around, too and from the tomb. Both male disciples are still in darkness as they leave the tomb. It’s not until Mary has stayed at the tomb, waiting, kneeling and weeping that the light dawns. Jesus says, “Mary!” And then she knows—she knows who this is, it’s not a gardener, it’s Jesus and she exclaims, “Rabbouni! Teacher!” and she must fall to the ground and grab his feet, the hem of his robe, and her tears of grief are turned to tears of joy.

The light dawns for those who are weeping and grieving in faith. The light dawns for those who are tenacious in their suffering, and do not give up and go home and settle for the way things are. Mary knows that she has a calling to care for Jesus’ body, and she will not rest until she has convinced someone—whether an angel, a gardener, or anyone else—that they must direct her to where her Lord is laying. And by following her calling, she discovers an even greater calling. Mary Magdalene is known as the “Apostle to the apostles,” the apostolorum apostola; the first person to carry the news of the resurrection and share that light with another person.

May we all have that tenacity in our passion for caring for the dead. Mary cannot change the reality that Jesus has been unjustly executed. But she can return some measure of dignity to his body. Peter and the beloved disciple do not share that call, and so they go home still in darkness, perplexed and not feeling like they can do anything. They are hopeless and helpless.

It is easy to feel hopeless and helpless because of the darkness of the world. The last few months one source of darkness for me is the recognition that the world has begun persecuting Christians again in the last year in a way that feels new to me. Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and now Kenya are being martyred for their faith. Our liberal Protestantism may make us hesitant to stand up too strongly in opposition out of a fear of being perceived as anti-Islamic. But it is not against Islam to say that murdering anyone for their faith is wrong; it is not against Islam to say that when Christians are being displaced by the thousands, Christians who live in places of privilege and safety should pay attention and speak up.

But how do you do that? How do you show the compassion of asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and listen to the pain and offer solace and comfort constructively, while still being faithful to the Prince of Peace, and not responding out of hatred? It’s tricky. The response of the Gospel to suffering and injustice is that Jesus does not rise unscathed, unscarred. Open wounds mark his hands and feet and side—as John’s gospel will make very clean in the story of his interaction with Thomas next week. Jesus bears the marks of suffering on his very body and still, still rises to bring us with him. How then do we show our faith in the one who was crucified?

If we just go home after seeing unjust killing; if we turn off the news, click on the next article, and move on about our days unchanged; If we do not wait at the tomb and demand dignity and compassion for the victims, then we remove ourselves from the opportunity of meeting Jesus and having our tears turn to joy and laughter. And this is true not just for the martyrdom of Christians—it is true for all unjust deaths, many of which are far closer to us geographically than Libya or Kenya. We are called as Christians to follow in Mary Magdalene’s footsteps and bear witness; to wait at the tomb and weep and be present so that we can greet the risen Lord when he comes and proclaim that at death life is changed, not ended.

Shortly after the execution of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya back in February, an artist named Tony Rezk wrote an icon of the martyrs that was stunning. It is in the style of a traditional Orthodox icon, and the 21 men, in orange robes, kneeling on the sand, are being greeted by in heaven by Jesus and two angels who are giving them crowns and shouting “Axios!” the Greek word for “Worthy”. The image, and its wide sharing as a way of remembering the lives lost and gathering support to stop such violence in the future, reminds me of Mary Magdalene’s presence outside the tomb. The dignity and honor that was not afforded those men in life was being offered in death. Each name is listed on the back of the icon, that we may say their names and chant “Axios” for each one in our prayer.

Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya wrote a letter to his church and the world after the attack this week in Garissa, ending with this sentence:

“We will not be intimidated because we know and trust in the power of the cross, God’s power to forgive our sins, to turn death into the gate of glory and to make us his children for ever.”

In the face of so much bad news, in the face of so much violence and war and persecution and injustice and darkness, how can we possibly laugh or sing or celebrate? We laugh, we shout “Alleluia” today along with Christians all over the world, in places of power and in places of persecution, precisely because of what Archbishop Wabukala writes: we all trust in God’s power to turn death into the gate of glory, and make us his children for ever. We are God’s children, as Jesus says to Mary, “I am going to my father and your father, my God and your God.” Our father, our God, knows each of us by name, and calls us by that name that we may turn and face him and say “Rabbouni”, teacher; and in response, when we make that turn, the heavens will proclaim “Axios,” worthy. Amen.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Alone in the Garden of Gethsemane

A meditation for a Labyrinth Quiet Day, portion of which were adapted as my Palm Sunday sermon this week. 

To the best of my knowledge, the story of the garden of Gethsemane never comes up in the Sunday lectionary on its own. It may show up in the year we read the passion according to Mark, depending upon what version you’re using, but in that case it’s a precursor to the crucifixion, so there’s no chance to really sit with it as its own story.

But if there is a story in the Gospel about my experience of prayer, this is it. And it’s a story I need to hear again and again.

I spend much of my priestly ministry being positive. Of course God hears your prayers. Of course spiritual growth is possible. I know sometimes it feels like you’re spiritually dry and distant from God, but just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean that God is not there, waiting for us to reach out in a different way.

Gethsemane allows me to give in to all the bleakness that—sometimes—undergirds the (very real) joy I experience in my ministry as a Christian.

Jesus is with his friends, then he leaves them to go alone further into the garden, and he prays. And there is no answer. And then he returns to his friends and they are useless, asleep, not able to do the one thing he asked of them. And then he moves back to his place of prayer, and prays the same thing he just prayed; he is frightened and alone and does not want to face the betrayal and cross that he knows is imminent. And there is still no answer. He returns to his sleeping friends one more time, and then back to the place of prayer for the third time. He prays again, ever fervent. And still no word of comfort, no miracle, no hint of God. And then he gets up, wakes up his friends, and heads out to meet Judas.

That absence of divine response is disturbing. It’s so disturbing that in the window showing the Gethsemane scene in this chapel, the artist has depicted Jesus at prayer with an angel hovering over him. He couldn’t really just be praying alone, with no answer.

The movie The Passion of the Christ takes the same discomfort and turns it in a differen direction. Jesus goes to pray, only once, and his prayer is met by Satan. There is no back and forth with the disciples; but Satan debates with Jesus, and then when a snake slithers away from Satan towards Jesus, he stomps triumphantly on the snake’s head and kills it.

If only evil were so easy to identify and vanquish. And if only our prayers were met with such direct response, even from Satan, where we can debate and argue and clarify our thoughts and prayers and take action. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert, he answers him—and vanquishes him. Gethsemane is perhaps parallel to the temptation, but it is different. Jesus is still having three specific trials, but instead of being with Satan, they are with nothingness.

It’s one thing to be confronted by evil. It’s another thing to be confronted by absence, or at least the palpable experience of absence. This week for our adult education class we read The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal’s exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation based upon his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and in it he clings to a statement by another character that “God is on leave” during their suffering. In Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time books, the great evil, the Echthroi, which means “enemies”, attempt to bring beings and the world into nothingness. They do not try to convert good people to evil, they “Ex” them out, un-name them, reduce them to un-being.

Jesus is confronted with the absence of God both here at Gethsemane and on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where Gethsemane speaks to me of the labyrinth is in terms of the repetition of the same journey while searching. We walk in to the holy place, we don’t get what we think we want or need… we walk out again… and then sometimes we do it again. It’s almost like pacing. And here I see pacing not as just a nervous habit—though it can be that—but as the way we, when feeling spiritually stuck, can try to jump start our spiritual lives through movement. It’s intentional pacing, a pendulum swinging, the physicalization of the search. But it’s also movement that is interspersed with periods of stillness. Walk, then pray. Walk, then pray.

We follow the same path in search of God over and over, and we often do it alone. Friends can only support us in our spiritual journey so far. Gethsemane is just a brief foretaste of the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus to come. But abandonment is part of the faith journey too—we fall asleep. We don’t do all we can to support Jesus. But that failure does not make us worthless. That failure and the ability to repent and return to faith make us the very people on whose shoulders the Gospel rests.

I’ve watched some friends go through tough times, and it’s hard to be that inner circle. It’s hard to know when to stay awake, when you need to sleep, when you should tell Jesus that you will not wait at a safe distance but that actually you’re going to go with him deeper in the garden so that he will not be alone. We need not only identify with Jesus in this story—the disciples are also on a journey with him.

Gethsemane prods us into contemplating the questions we bring to our prayer journey. Most of us don’t have the grace to pray what Jesus prays: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Our prayers are more like “Please please please please I will do anything just so long as you let this cup pass from me.” Most of our prayers are, “I want.” The hardest prayer any of us may ever pray is “Not what I want.”

Gethsemane takes away the self-help aspects of Christianity and modern churchgoing—come to church and your life will be better! You’ll feel more centered! You’ll be a better person! And challenges us to have faith not because of what we are going to get out of it in the short term, but because it is the path to which we are called.

The unanswered question for me is if the silence means that what God wants is for his son to go to the cross. Many years ago, a young man at this church told me that he had been praying the same prayer for 17 years and God still hadn’t answered it. I must have been tired that day… but I answered—too bluntly—“Maybe God has answered and the answer is no.” He didn’t come back to church. But both the young man’s question and my answer assumed that God’s answers to prayers are binary: yes or no. God may be more subtle. I wonder what God’s response to Jesus’ prayer today might be, if it were articulated in words; the character of the God I believe in would not say to his son, “I want for you to drink the cup of crucifixion and suffering.” Perhaps, “The cup is not the cup I want, but it is the cup that is necessary because I love you.” As a parent, I do find myself in these positions sometimes, where my son wants me to do something that will help him and I have to say no—because he needs to learn how to do it on his own, or because I realize that suffering is part of the human condition and he needs to learn to experience it and keep going.

When Jesus has made this journey, the next one begins. Even when we are stuck, and feel like our questions haven’t been answered the way we want and we are unsatisfied with the quality of our prayer, our mission and our witness still lies ahead of us. It is good to keep going back to the center and seek the answer. But that search is not infinite. And that search is not some sort of orderly preliminary to further spiritual life. You don’t have to graduate successfully from Gethsemane to go to the cross; It’s not a video game level to be won so that you can unlock the next task. The next task is still there, and it takes perhaps even more courage and faith to move on without the assurance of completion of the prior experience, but sometimes we are called to do that. My call as a Christian is not dependent upon my clarity, my certitude, my ability to hear the voice of the divine, my capacity for spiritual pyrotechnics.

That's the good news of Gethsemane. The journey continues.

So get up. Let us be going. Our next journey is at hand.