Sunday, December 10, 2017

Repentance is only the beginning

Two weeks ago I got one of those phone calls that parish priests in New York City relish.

“Hi, I’m Jewish and I’m writing a movie and I need to understand more about the Episcopalian idea of purgatory.”

Oh. Wow. Ok, there’s a lot there. A really fun teaching conversation ensued… starting with, the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in purgatory. Yes, we believe in heaven, yes we believe in eternal life. I answered some of her questions about Roman Catholic theology and pre-reformation concepts of purgatory—admitting that as a non-Catholic, my answers might be biased. And then the caller got to the type of questions that I think all people wrestle with no matter what their religious background, and which was probably at the heart of not just the phone call, but of her film:

“Do you believe that if someone commits some sort of big sin, they really can be forgiven?”

Yeah. I do. There it is. Sins really can be forgiven. But it’s not automatic. Which is why our gospel today, the Gospel of Mark, begins exactly like as it does: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into not the story of Jesus but the story of John the Baptist, the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent.”

The way we prepare for Jesus is through repentance. And that is the beginning of the Good News—repentance is good news, not bad news, and it is the beginning of the Good News, not the end of the Good news.

Repentance isn’t enough—John is telling his crowds that his baptism of repentance is good, a necessary first step, but that what people really need is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that is coming next through Jesus.

Repentance is the first step in the Good News, but it isn’t the last. Repentance is internal. After repentance comes confession—opening yourself up to another human being and God—the external result of repentance. One that maybe we can only do if we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Saying, “I have done something wrong. And I am sorry.” And then that Holy spirit caries us even further forward: Amendment of life. “I will not do that again—and I will do whatever I can to repair the harm my actions and words have done, which may mean suffering some sort of consequences or judgment or punishment for my actions.” And then—and only then—grace, mercy, and ultimately reconciliation. Forgiveness.

Can anyone think of any situations in our world today where these steps of repentance, confession, amendment of life, consequences, and forgiveness and reconciliation might possibly be applicable?

A pastoral note: many of us are reeling as the news of the last few weeks has dredged up so many of our own stories and our own experiences of harassment and assault, and our responses to them. So many voices crying out from the wilderness that are finally being heard—and so many more that are still quiet out of fear. It is good that in some places, some harassers and aggressors and assaulters are finally being held responsible and facing consequences for their actions. And anyone who wants to can come talk to me—I am a safe space for listening to your story, I will believe you, and Jesus loves you and does not desire you to suffer alone.

But the last few weeks have left me with two concerns: one is that we do not seem to be able to distinguish between levels of sins and transgressions. There is a reason that the Roman church distinguished between venial sins—those that would not damn you—and mortal sins—those that were really serious.

And my other concern is that we don’t seem to have any sort of collective understanding of even the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Part of that is because we’ve all had experiences of people manipulating repentance and forgiveness—mimicking it in ways that are twisted and horrible; the non-apology apology, like “I’m sorry you misunderstood my actions,” or saying “I’m sorry, so now we have to move ahead like nothing happened.” Human forgiveness is a gift, not an entitlement. There has to be a different way than what we see—and I dare say, a different way than what many of us live.

For several weeks before Advent began, we heard a series of parables that all had the same ending: one character was “thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It sounds bleak and it sounds permanent. But here's the thing: I'm not sure Jesus in all his preaching sends people permanently to outer darkness.

If the inevitable result of our sin is being permanently cast into outer darkness, then we can never learn to repent, we can never heed John the Baptist’s call. Because that punishes confession, it denies amendment of life, and it leaves no room for reconciliation, grace and forgiveness. And it falsely separates people who are known sinners from those who are not. Every one of us sins—whether the world knows it or not—and every one of us would be in outer darkness. Some of us do not physically, individually commit major mortal sins. But if we think we haven’t committed those sins in our minds, we are fooling ourselves. Repentance, confession, amendment of life, reconciliation and forgiveness is for everyone, because everyone is a sinner.

Back to my filmmaker caller: I don't believe in purgatory. But the idea that accepting appropriate consequences for our actions can help bring us back to a state of grace and the loving arms of God and community is not incongruous with the gospel. In fact it is the gospel. There is a reason that John the Baptist is in the wilderness and calls people through the wilderness to repent and be baptized: it is when we are forced into the wilderness that our sins are most clear. Spending some time in outer darkness as a consequence to our sins, before we can return back to grace and mercy—that’s part of the Good News.

And the first step is repentance. What sins would you bring to John at the Jordan River?

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the general confession is so eloquent at identifying the ways in which we sin. As a spiritual exercise in inspiring our repentance, I going to read it slowly so you can apply each line to your own life, your own sins. There is one line I disagree with theologically… see if you can spot it, but take it as a whole, and listen for the voice of John the Baptist calling from the wilderness of repentance.

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Book of Joy, Part 3

This day (pages 125-188) focuses on topics most of us prefer not to think about: loneliness, envy, suffering, illness, and the fear of death. And yet—there is laughter and joy throughout. We often avoid those topics in conversation because we don’t want to make people uncomfortable.. and yet maybe if we talked about them more, they wouldn’t hold such power over us.

The author describes living in New York City as an experience of being lonely while surrounded by people. (125) That matches my experience of most aspects of city life—I do not know my literal neighbors, even though I am privy to overhearing many aspects of their private life. Where are places and what are the ways we can find true community and friendships in our city? What are the positive times you enjoy being alone?

The challenge of “sympathetic joy” (140) or mudita instead of envy is a good one for us. Where do you take pleasure in the success of other people? What are the things that make you jealous? Are you more envious of temporal success/possessions, or of relationships and personality? What are the things you have no control over—and what can you use to inspire action?

To me, the story of the Tibetan who found the greatest threat during his imprisonment was the potential for the loss of compassion for his Chinese guards (155-156) is one of the most haunting stories. I cannot imagine being so centered that I would not give in to hatred and anger at being imprisoned and tortured. But I also found it inspiring: if I don’t assume the worst, maybe I can be surprised by people’s resilience and compassion. And if I don’t assume the worst of myself, perhaps I can be that person responding with resilience and compassion in the (much lesser) trials I face.

Every religious tradition finds a way to move people from fear of death to comfort with death; yet our fear continues. How comfortable are you with the thought of your own death? Do you have medical directives? Have you told family members what you want for a funeral? Can taking such practical steps make you more comfortable with our mortality?

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Things that are God's

Back when I was living at General Seminary, I got to go to a lot of lectures and public events where the speaker would conclude and there would be a Question and Answer session. We’ve all done this, and we’ve all had the experience where some guy then gets up—it’s almost always a guy—and instead of asking a question of the expert, they give their own not-so-brief lecture on the topic and end by asking a question that often boils down to, “And since you’re a learned scholar, don’t you agree with me?” The whole purpose of the question is to draw attention to how smart they, the questioner, are.

These Pharisees in the temple with Jesus today are that guy.

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

They butter Jesus up with false praise; and then ask him an impossible question that is designed to make everyone around them say “Wow! Those Pharisees are so smart to come up with such an AMAZING question to trap Jesus!”

Taxes were as big a deal—maybe even a bigger deal—in Jesus’ time as they are now. There was a major revolt in Israel when Jesus was a boy about Roman taxation; and after Jesus’ earthly ministry, in the year 70AD, taxes will be one of the main causes of the revolt that leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Rome. Taxes were a challenge because they were being paid to a foreign occupying government—why should normal people have to support their oppressors? And because the tax collectors were corrupt and violent—Jews who were turning against their own people and who collected not just what Rome demanded but extra for themselves—it was an even worse system. And taxes were paid with Roman money, which as Jesus points out, has the head of Tiberias on it, and on the reverse side says, “Tiberias Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.”

Son of the Divine Augustus. Son of God. The money says that the emperor is the son of God.

The Pharisees think Jesus will either bring down the wrath of the Romans by saying it is wrong to touch the coins that proclaim blasphemy; or he will bring down the wrath of the crowd by saying “Sure, pay the tax.” There is no right answer to this question… until Jesus creates his own answer by asking them to produce a denarius.

This was the moment that I didn’t really pick up on in all the times I have heard this story, until reading a commentary this week is that not only does Jesus “best them” with the words of his answer in a moment, but look what he does: he asks if anyone has a denarius, and they produce one.

Where does this story take place? They are in the temple. You aren’t supposed to have Roman money in the temple. You have to change it into sheckels. He exposes the Pharisees as hypocrites because they are carrying around denarii. They are saying they are pure and unsullied by the world… but they’re not, the hypocrites.

And then he gives them the famous answer that drives them mad: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

If we understand Jesus’ response to mean that there are things that belong exclusively to the state and things that belong exclusively to God, we are misunderstanding Jesus. Jesus is saying that there are things that have the head of state on them, and if there is no conflict with God, then you can give them to the state; but if there is conflict, it should be very clear that ultimately everything belongs to God.

It all belongs to God. Caesar may have his name on some things, but the ultimate owner is God, not Caesar. We may have our names on things, but the ultimate owner of our stuff, our money, our very lives, is God. And what we do with everything of God’s that we currently have possession of—our lives, our time, and, yes, our money—is theological. It says something about our relationship with God, and gratitude for such gifts. So our use of money is not neutral. It has value and morality and it can bring us closer to God, or it can push us further away.

The summer after I graduated from college I was working as an office temp to earn some money before I joined the Episcopal Urban Intern Program where I’d was going to be getting just a really modest stipend for a year. One of the other temps was really pregnant. No husband, no boyfriend, having the baby on her own, and we did our best in the office to celebrate with her. When she finally gave birth and got out of the hospital, we went over in a group and I’d asked her if she needed anything. She asked for a $20 phone card—remember phone cards?—and the way she said it, and the fact that it was—gasp-$20!—made me think that I was just the messenger—I’d get the card, deliver it to her, and she’d pay me back for it. Of course that’s not how it worked out, but as I went with my co-workers to the dingy hotel room where she was living, paying for it weekly, with her newborn baby, I don’t think it even had a hotplate, I realized that the $20 that I thought had so much value to me had much more value to her. That I had the capacity to be generous in a way I hadn’t quite understood, until I could see that whatever I was going to do with that $20 was not as important as helping a new mom reach out and call her family. I wouldn’t have said at that time that I was “giving to God”… but I was realizing that my sense of possession and ownership over “my” money that I had “earned” wasn’t entirely accurate. I was putting the money where it belonged, giving it away, because it didn’t really belong to me. And now, looking back, I can see that yes, I guess I was giving it to God.

“Give to God the things that are God’s.” How do I give to God? What do I have that God wants? It’s kind of profound to think that God wants what I have—it means that I must have value. Next week on New Consecration Sunday we get to put a number on one of the ways we give to God—the church is definitely not the only way to give to God. But it is one way, and it’s a way that has value. You have the capacity to be generous in a way you may not quite realize either. The last two weeks, I have been so moved by Eddie Kwan and Christian Vanderbrouk’s words as they reflected on why they give to Epiphany because they both so clearly demonstrate in the story of their lives that this church has value to them and their faith in God. (I’m sure Dick will do the same in a few moments). I give to Epiphany not because it’s some direct line to the divine presence, but because I know that the things my generosity provides are opportunities for people to encounter God. Opportunities for people to encounter not just who they are, but whose they are: they are God’s.

And we are coming up to a time when we are going to have to be making some choices about what we value at Epiphany; because of our budget deficit, we are going to have to choose between prioritizing A and B; between program X and program Y. And the thing that frightens me the most about this is that we might be cutting off those opportunities for people to encounter God. Which is why I am so eager to have us all give a bit more so that we don’t have to set those values against one another, when I believe they work so much better together.

But the thing that gives me confidence and courage is that God is a lot bigger than Epiphany’s budget. It all belongs to God. God’s power is great enough that there is no way for us to stop God’s action in the world, whether on the corner of 74th and York or around the world. We belong to God, and God belongs to us, wherever we go, and whatever we are doing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book of Joy, Part 2

Each Thursday I will be attempting to post a few reflections and questions on The Book of Joy, one reflection for each “day” depicted by the book. Please use the comments feature to add your own reflections! 

Covering pages 83-123 on fear, anger, grief and despair

On page 83, the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama come to one of their few fundamental disagreements. They agree that anxiety is natural, but disagree, about whether anxiety is avoidable or unavoidable. The Dalai Lama teaches that anxiety can be banished through strong practice; the Archbishop believes that attempting to banish anxiety gives it more power, because it causes guilt whenever you naturally feel anxious. Have you developed “mental immunity”?  Do you feel guilt when you are anxious or feeling strong negative emotions? In what ways do you set aside anxiety and negative feelings so that they do not dominate your actions? 

Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it (94), to which the Archbishop adds that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act despite it.  When have you been courageous? What kind of fear did you need to triumph over to act in a courageous manner?  What are you afraid of now? What would it look like to take courageous action to address the cause of that fear? 

It is noted that fear is made more manageable by the connected lifestyle in traditional cultures (96-97).  Despite having fewer opportunities, and real threats to life and the future, people have less anxiety and fear. In our fragmented, modern life, there are both more opportunities and more anxiety. How do you see that mix of opportunity and anxiety playing out in your own life? Are there ways of making the human connections that are the root of traditional culture in our modern life?  Are we able to see what we truly need and what is truly worth pursuing, and not give in to our culture of covetousness? 

The Dalai Lama offers a challenge to the identity politics of our own day (p. 100) when he speaks about the need to set aside our own distinctiveness in order to relate on the most basic human level to others.  Is there a way to relate on that human level and still hold on to our particular identity and history? 

What are you angry about? Can you identify ways in which that anger is rooted in fear? Have you attempted (like the Dalai Lama, pg 105) to train your mind to handle anger more productively? What positive actions has righteous anger helped you to take? 

Disney/Pixar’s film Inside Out is probably the best film representation of the importance of Sadness to allowing us to experience Joy in our lives.  When has sadness drawn you closer to people? (pg. 111) 

“All these things [rape, murder, violence] happen, but they are unusual, which is why they become news. There are millions and millions of children who are loved by their parents every day.  Then in school their teachers care for them. Okay maybe there are some bad teachers, but most of them are really kind and caring. Then in the hospital, every day millions of people received immense caring. But this is so common that none of it becomes news. We take it for granted.  When we look at the news, we must keep this holistic view.” (121, Archbishop Tutu) What are five ordinary, positive things you can identify in your life? How do you give thanks for them? Where can you share those stories to create an ethos of gratitude rather than fear and complaint?   

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Book of Joy, part 1

Each Thursday I will be posting a few reflections and questions on The Book of Joy, one reflection for each “day” depicted by the book. Please use the comments feature to add your own reflections! 

Day 1:

One general theme that struck me in the beginning of the Book of Joy are the photos and the descriptions of the physical interactions between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop (his “mischevious spiritual brother”).  They are playful and physical with one another—the Arch kissing the Dalai Lama, the exchange of scarves, the dancing. They also joke with one another and have mock arguments and disagreements. What do you see in their interactions?  Is there a physical aspect of friendship/community/healthy relationship that is important and contributing to a joyful life? Is play—verbal and physical—a key aspect of a joyful life?  With whom are you physical? How and where do you play? 

The relationship between suffering and joy is a theme throughout the book. In this section, there are descriptions of the Arch who “…cries easily and often, for that which is not yet redeemed, for that which is not yet whole” (pg. 13) and the Dalai Lama stating “The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can.” (pg. 14)  What suffering in your life is of the “daily disaster” sort? What are you capable of controlling, and what is out of your control? 

Later, the Dalai Lama quotes an ancient Buddhist teacher, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” (pg. 36) And later, from a scholarly work: “The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.” (pg. 49) How do we shift our anguish into compassion by observing the suffering of others, and by cultivating gratitude? 

The place of faith can be helpful or unhelpful to joy practices; in discussing the refusal of South Africa to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend the Archbishop’s 80th Birthday party, the Arch says, “A spiritual leader is something that should be taken very seriously.” But he also quotes the result of a UN Panel, “There is nothing wrong with faiths. The problem is the faithful.” (pg. 70) How does your faith help or hinder you in your search for joy and happiness? 

The Holy Men agree about happiness: “…joy is the far greater thing” (pg. 32) How do you see the difference between happiness and joy in your own life? Can you remember being joyful even when you were suffering in some way

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness: the unimaginable?

In the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton sends his oldest son off to fight in a duel without his wife’s knowledge. The son is killed, and both Alexander and his wife Eliza are crushed. They move uptown—to where the Hamilton house is now up in Hamilton heights—and the song “It’s quiet uptown” describes their grief “living with the unimaginable.” The death of a child is unimaginable for those of us who have not endured it—as is being married to the person you hold responsible for your child’s death… but the song twists even that loss at the end after Alexander makes a beautiful heartfelt apology, when it conclude with the lines “forgiveness.. can you imagine? Forgiveness…. Can you imagine?”

Can you imagine?

Is forgiveness really the unimaginable? Sometimes I think it might be—for a lot of reasons. Partly because forgiveness means talking about sin; forgiveness means talking about our own sins because we are always in the middle, both sinned against and sinning. Partly because forgiveness is seen as weakness. Partly because in our culture, there seems to be an equating of forgiveness with either forgetting a wrong done to us, or saying that the wrong done to us or others doesn’t matter.

And I’m not sure that today’s Gospel passage is the most helpful in figuring out how, as Christians and followers of Jesus, we are supposed to approach forgiveness. Especially when it’s paired with the Exodus reading about God killing the entire Egyptian army, and their bodies and their chariots and their horses washing up on the seashore.

You have a great Vestry, and we wrestled with today’s Gospel passage at the beginning of our meeting on Monday. And if I could just have had a camera recording our conversation, I would just play that for you today in lieu of a sermon.

We were looking at the contrast between the beginning of today’s Gospel, where Peter comes to Jesus and suggests that forgiving someone seven times would really be a lot and far more than one could possibly expect—unimaginable, even; but then Jesus tops that by saying that forgiveness should be offered not seven times but seventy seven times. And then there is this very odd segue, “For this reason…” into the next story Jesus tells, where the King is merciful only once, and the debtor who is themselves unforgiving ends up in prison being tortured.

One section seems to say that forgiveness must be limitless; the other depicts a sort of karma where whatever you offer to the world comes back to you.

Those are different. Radically different. More different than anyone can explain away with “Oh, it’s the translation” or some subtle shade of historic criticism. I get whiplash between what Jesus says at the beginning and that last line. I want limitless forgiveness for myself… but I’d like everyone else—particularly people I don’t like—one strike and you’re out: you get what you deserve.

Not Christ-like, I know.

Our vestry shared that struggle; we like limitless forgiveness in concept—but we find it hard—unimaginable, really—to practice it. And we recognize that it isn’t always helpful, either—I don’t know how many women—and I know it happens to men too, but so far for me it’s always been women—have been in my office, having been abused by their spouse, and saying “But Jesus says I’m supposed to forgive them and go back. As a church, we have emphasized the first part of this gospel at the wrong times; Jesus does not want us to continue to permit evil seventy seven times. And maybe we’ve emphasized the second part of the Gospel at the wrong times too. Too much punishment and torture when mercy is required.

But we talked and compared and shared our collective wisdom. Learning that sometimes the deepest wounds were from people who were not intending to hurt us; learning that forgiveness was not often for the perpetrator of the offense but for ourselves. We had compassion for the slave with the great debt—the threat made against him, of being thrown into prison with his family must have been terrifying, and many of us recognized that fear can lead us into deeper sin.

Probably the earliest and deepest place we begin to learn our theology of forgiveness is in the Lord’s Prayer. In our Lord’s Prayer translations, we are accustomed to saying “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s a very minimalizing way of talking about sin—a trespass, a crossing of a boundary, but one that could be recrossed without harm. And that’s not what the words in the Gospel when Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer mean. In Matthew, on the Sermon on the Mount—the same Gospel as today’s passage, the accurate translation of the Greek is “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In the gospel of Luke the best translation would be “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” has “hamartia,” sin, an old archery term for missing the mark.

It can be helpful to think of sins as debts—as things that we owe, and that accrue interest, the longer they are left unhealed, unresolved, unrepented for. And it can also be helpful to think of sins as missing the mark—we were aiming for the bullseye, but we sent our arrow wildly off target and have to go retrieve it and try again, and hope that our stray arrow didn’t strike someone or cause too much damage.

One of the most interesting experiences when I was in the Holy Land was when our group had tea with Shafika Dawani, the wife of the Anglican Archbishop. She is a Palestinian Christian whose family lived in Jaffa until 1948, when they were forced to move to Jerusalem; they lost everything again in 1967 because they were on the wrong side of the new borders.

She recounted being taken to a reconciliation center in Bethlehem by the wife of Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians were brought together for conversation. It was obviously a type of encounter that was new to her; and she said that the very kindly and well-intentioned Israeli moderator began by saying something along the lines of, “WE aren’t going to talk about or rehash the past. We are going to talk about the future we want to see.”

But she couldn’t do that. She can’t do that. She ended up in tears—both at the event and with us—and I was left with the strong conviction that if she was able to tell her story of loss and injustice and oppression at that event; and if she was able to hear the similar stories of loss and suffering from Israelis; then and only then might forgiveness and a future open up. At the tea I mentioned Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness, which recounts his experiences as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was a TRUTH and reconciliation commission; there had to be truth first before reconciliation. Shafika’s truth hasn’t yet been heard, and so the wound grows, and forgiveness is still unimaginable.

Archbishop Tutu’s perspective on forgiveness is also in our fall book, the Book of Joy. Chapter five is titled “Forgiveness: Freeing ourselves from the past.” Forgiveness is not forgetting, and forgiveness is not just permitting bad behavior/evil/abuse. Forgiveness is standing up and taking action to prevent evil acts; but resisting the impulse to attribute the evil as inherent to the actor. And that is as true in our individual lives as it is in a global or national context. Archbishop Tutu says elsewhere “No one is incapable of forgiving, and no one is unforgivable.”

A few moments from now, we will be renewing our baptismal covenant, and reminding ourselves of the vows made at our baptism: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?” and the answer: “I will, with God’s help.”

We are going to be in need of forgiveness. Following Jesus does not make us perfect. But sin is not the end of our stories. When we sin, repent and return. And there will be a merciful God. Peter, who begins this conversation with Jesus about forgiving as many as seven times, will need all that forgiveness when he denies Jesus three times and is then absent at the crucifixion. And yet he’s the rock of the church. At my core, at my rock, I know that God is forgiving me for my sins, and if God is doing that for me, how can I not be forgiving in return? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.