Saturday, December 24, 2016

Unwrapping the gift of Saint Nicholas

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

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

My thought: “Santa was Turkish.”

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

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

Don’t punch a heretic for Christmas.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"You will be given the opportunity to testify"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sinners having contempt for sinners

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

For whom do you have contempt? I’m going to guess that in this particular season of our lives, every one of us has had contempt for at least one person, and probably for at least one if not several groups of people. If you don’t think you have, and yet you have found yourself saying something along the lines of “I just can’t believe those _______ believe/do that,” you’ve probably had contempt for someone.

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Good news: yet again, Jesus is talking to us. All of us. Let he that is without contempt cast the first stone. I struggle with contempt. I struggle with not despising those who I view as ignorant; or hateful; or hypocritical… and I fear the vulnerability of admitting those groups/people for whom I am inclined to have contempt from a pulpit. But it’s honest.

How do I appreciate and value my education without having contempt for those who are less well educated; how do I celebrate my ideal way of life—one that is welcoming to people regardless of their gender or sexuality or race, however imperfectly I actually embody it in reality—without having contempt for those who are biased against those groups; especially when the biases of those for whom I have contempt put the safety of myself and my friends at risk?

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance’s provocative new book about his life growing up as a hillbilly in Ohio and Kentucky, before escaping poverty, joining the Marines, and graduating from Yale Law School. He’s a conservative commentator with whom I don’t have a whole lot in common, politically or culturally, but he’s very good at describing communities for whom I might be tempted to have contempt with honesty and sympathy. He wrote in the Atlantic a few months ago:

“A few Saturdays ago, my wife and I spent the morning volunteering at a community garden in our San Francisco neighborhood. After a few hours of casual labor, we and the other volunteers dispersed to our respective destinations: tasty brunches, day trips to wine country, art-gallery tours. It was a perfectly normal day, by San Francisco standards.

That very same Saturday, in the small Ohio town where I grew up, four people overdosed on heroin. A local police lieutenant coolly summarized the banality of it all: “It’s not all that unusual for a 24-hour period here.” He was right: in Middletown, Ohio, that too is a perfectly normal day.”

If I do not live in a section of the world where four people overdosing on heroin in a weekend is normal… how can I possibly know enough to have contempt for the members of that community, and the choices and values they espouse? When I ask myself “How did we get to this place as a people?” JD Vance offers some explanations that are uncomfortable for me… but have the ring of truth.

Jesus explains our contempt by telling us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is the person who is outwardly very devout and successful—but trips over his ego on his way to the goalposts and crashes spectacularly. All he had to do was stop at “God, I thank you.” If he had just done that… and left off the “I thank you that I’m not like all the other people, and I thank you that I’ve done all the right things.” He’s praising himself—not God—in his prayers.

And we have the tax collector, who by virtue of being a tax collector we know is corrupt and takes bribes and profits off the occupation of his own people by a foreign government. It is the Pharisee’s beliefs and actions that cause the tax collector to be ostracized and isolated; it is the tax collector’s actions that put in peril the life and faith and stability of the Pharisee. There is a huge chasm between these two men, despite some outward similarities—they are both men, they are both Jews, they are both worshiping in the same place, and in their own way, each of them has power.

And yet because the tax collector is the one who is penitent, because he is the one who stands there, head bowed, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is the one Jesus says goes to his house justified.

Because he is the one who knows who—and what—he is. He knows he is a sinner.

The sin of the Pharisee is that he doesn’t know he’s a sinner. Their sins may not be equal, but they are both in sin, just like all of us. But the great joy and mercy and surprise of God is that both of them are redeemable. Both these men are children of God. They are equally loved by God.

And so are you.

We are supposed to emulate the tax collector’s humility and penitence, but not his sin. And we are not supposed to emulate the Pharisee’s arrogance and self-exaltation—but what the Pharisee is doing is good! It is good to tithe and to fast and to pray! We should do those things—but we are called to do them in service of praising God, and not praising ourselves.

Jesus does not say today: the sins of the tax collector do not matter. Throughout scripture, Jesus hangs out with all sorts of sinners—tax collectors, women, centurions, Samaritans… but for those whose identity in scripture is based upon a sin—the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, etc. there is always an open welcome—but the invitation is not to stay as they are, but to be changed. To follow Jesus, they need to give up their prior sins—you cannot follow Jesus and STILL be exploiting people. The tax collector goes home justified—but if he goes home and is not changed, if he goes back to bribery and extortion…. He will no longer be justified. Jesus still will welcome him back, again, repentant—it can take a lot of tries to let go of sins that are profitable by worldly standards—but to follow Jesus we have to turn away from our sins, not just repeat them endlessly.

And having contempt is a sin. I can love you as a child of God, and not despise you, and still recognize and respond to your sin. That is the faithful response to sin. If you espouse hate—I will not stand by idly and say that is alright—I will confront you again and again, and do everything in my power to prevent your sin from harming others… but I will not imagine that I understand why you hate. And I will not demonize you for your sin. Because you still have value and are still a child of God.

And because you know what, I’ve got plenty of sins of my own. Take the plank out of my own eye before I try to take the splinter out of yours. Today’s gospel is an invitation to honest self-reflection. It is the words of the tax collector that haunt us, words that turn into the Jesus prayer over the centuries: “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That prayer, and variations on it, tell us to whom we are praying (Jesus), what we need (mercy) and who we are (a sinner). It’s simple and memorable. Use it as a mantra to follow Jesus’ invitation into self-reflection this week. And because I know that we remember things better when it goes with a song, we are going to sing a version of this written by Isaac Everett, who used to do the music at our evening services, to get it into our heads so that later this week, this melody will come back to you and you’ll remember: I’m a sinner. Have mercy.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don't lose heart

So are we really having a parable today about an important man who “who neither feared God nor had respect for people” pitted in conflict against an older woman who is persistently “bothering” him? Thanks, God….

When the deacon finished reading today’s gospel, I bet most of you felt like it was a good story, right? Jesus tells a curious parable about an unjust judge and a widow, and there is resolution in the end. The widow walks away with justice, we feel satisfied that the vulnerable have been protected, and if we are a little disturbed by the way Luke equates the unjust judge with God—if, perhaps, in our own prayer, which Luke tells us this parable is about, we have experienced God to be a similarly taciturn and unresponsive figure—we sort of skip over this with the idea that if the widow can have her claim satisfied, then perhaps our own prayers will find favor with God as well, so long as we keep at him.

Parables weren’t told to make the people who hear them feel good about themselves. Parables are meant to get at uncomfortable truths that are otherwise inaccessible—truths that when they are told directly create resistance and might get you killed, but when they are told as a story can create illumination and self-reflection. So if we feel self-satisfied or unchallenged by a parable, we probably aren’t hearing it right.

I spent some time this week reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus, which is her exegesis of many of Jesus’ parables—his short stories. I left the chapter about today’s parable more confused than when I started—which is probably healthy and what a parable is supposed to do.

To start: if you think about how the Bible came to be, we know that Jesus said all sorts of things, and people repeated those stories, and eventually wrote them down, and eventually someone—or some community—who became known as Luke took a couple different sources of the things that Jesus said and did and formed them into the Gospel of Luke. We know the author of Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark, because Luke includes pretty much all of that Gospel, and that the author of Luke had access to a set of sayings by Jesus that is known as “Q,” which the author of the Gospel of Matthew also had, because both Gospels include very similar sets of sayings of Jesus. How they located those stories and how they interpreted them differed—as an editor, Matthew, Mark and Luke (and John—though his Gospel is totally different) had a lot of leeway in encouraging their readers to understand what Jesus meant by a certain story or parable, often by how they fit within the narrative, and what specifically they depict Jesus as saying. The most obvious example might be the Beatitudes, which in Luke begin, “Blessed are the poor…” and have a real focus on earthly poverty and worries, but in Matthew begin “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” which is something very different. Editors, and the choices they make, matter.

Today’s parable is only found in Luke. And if you look at how the parable fits in the narrative, you can see Luke’s hand at work. He introduces the parable: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Now, if you had not read that, I bet that when you read the next section, the actual parable, you would not think that the parable was about prayer. The parable itself is just the next quote from Jesus, beginning with “In a certain city…” and ending with, “…wear me out by continually coming.” What follows after that is also Luke’s interpretation, cloaked as Jesus’ interpretation.

So we are left with just the widow and the judge. Now, when you heard this parable, who did you think was the good character? The widow, right? … We know about widows from scripture—widows are vulnerable and poor and protected by the law. There are lots of widow characters in scripture, so we have a stereotype of “biblical widow” in our heads—and it’s a good stereotype. We also know she’s the good character because she is seeking justice. God is always on the side of justice.

Now what if I told you the word “justice” wasn’t in the parable in Greek?

The word for what the widow is demanding—per Amy-Jill Levine—isn’t justice. It’s vengeance. The widow is asking the judge to avenge her. We don’t know if her cause is just. And we don’t even know if she is a poor widow—she seems to have plenty of time on her hands to harass the judge persistently—perhaps she’s a wealthy widow—they did exist. How would it change how we hear the parable, if it were about a wealthy avenging widow?

When the judge responds, he uses a boxing term for why he is relenting… when he says he is afraid the widow will “wear him out” what he’s saying is that he’s afraid she’s going to hit him in the face. He says he will give the widow vengeance out of fear of her… it’s one thing when the judge relents and gives out justice, which he should have given anyway. But what does it mean when the judge gives out vengeance? And as Levine points out, while not fearing God is never a good criteria in 1st Century Judaism, to “not have respect for persons” could mean—positively—that the judge does not render his judgments based upon bribes and responding to the status of his complainants.

I’ve destroyed another Bible story for you, haven’t I?

It’s quite possible that neither character in this parable is savory or someone we should be emulating. A few weeks ago we heard the similarly unsatisfying parable of the unjust manager… the parable ends and you ask yourself, “What am I supposed to learn from this??”

The sayings like this parable that are in scripture that are so confusing and at odds with so many of our expectations about Jesus’ theology are probably the ones that Jesus actually said… because even Luke has to try to frame this parable with an interpretation that is a real stretch. Luke is so uncomfortable with it, that he tries to make it about prayer… “Keep praying. Don’t lose heart.”

Following Jesus is not easy. And maybe one gift of this parable for us today is that as Jesus challenges the stereotypes of his own day—the good widow, the evil judge—so we are called to challenge the stereotypes of our own day. Following Jesus does not provide us with clear answers about everything. Following Jesus does not give us perfect people to celebrate or perfectly evil people to despise. God can be present in changing minds and hearts. And God can be present in faithful persistence. The people we perceive as good can still desire vengeance; the people we perceive as bad can still do the right thing—even if it’s for the wrong reason.

And the people who mold our traditions can sometimes add to them very wisely. “Pray always, and do not lose heart,”is not the message that may go best with this parable… but it’s a good message, one that I needed to hear in this season. We prayed this morning for our upcoming election. And we are going to keep doing so every Sunday until November 8. We are going to be persistent. We are going to pray always, and not lose heart.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Dear Friends,

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  Matthew 3:18

49 innocents shot dead, targeted because of their sexuality; 53 shot and wounded; one shooter dead after a hateful rampage of terror.

We should pray for those who have died, and have compassion on those who are grieving, injured, traumatized, and frightened in the wake of this violence. But if we only pray, and take no action, we are not following the way of Jesus. Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus “has compassion” on someone who is suffering. Every time he has compassion, he acts to alleviate that suffering. 

We have taken some small actions at Epiphany today. The pride flag is now flying over Epiphany’s door.  Hatred of and violence against GLBT persons has no place in the church or our world. The Episcopal Church welcomes all people.  But as yesterday’s shooting makes clear, there is so much work to be done in seeking justice and equality for the GLBT community, and in changing hearts from ignorance and hatred to love and respect. If you have never been to the Pride parade in NYC, perhaps this year you can take action by joining us in passing out water to the marches, or find a spot with the Episcopal Church’s float, and add your witness to the message that Jesus loves and honors all loving relationships.

I have also added a “Blessed Ramadan” sign to our outdoor sign.  Muslims are not just our geographic neighbors at Epiphany; they are students at our Day School and employees of our parish. One staff member told me this morning that she had goosebumps because she felt so loved and welcomed here. They are members of the Epiphany family.  And they are routinely being demonized as a group for the actions of a few, and are also vulnerable to hatred and violence. We are called by our baptismal covenant to “Respect the dignity of every human being,” and our well wishes to our neighbors are part of that respect.

There are other actions to be taken in the days ahead, and I invite you to speak with me and other parish leaders about what those actions should be.

In my high school youth group, one of our favorite songs was “Lord of the Dance,” which includes the following lyrics, apropos for a tragedy in a dance club:

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black,
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body; they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance said he
And I lead you all wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance said he

I give thanks for Jesus, who leads us in this dance of life, and am grateful for all who continue to dance in the face of sorrow and grief.

In Peace,