Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Strange Intrusion

Sermon preached on St. Thomas' Day, December 21, 2013, at a Eucharist giving thanks for fifty year anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of The Rev. Peter W. Peters.  Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 20:24-29

            It is as if back in the dim recesses of liturgical history where mere mortals fear to tread, someone decided that Christmas needed not to be so happy.  So this person
The Very Rev. Michael Hopkins, The Rev. Dr. Peter Peters, The Rev. Canon Julie Cicora
surrounded the great feast of the Babe of Bethlehem with doubt, martyrdom, exile, and the murder of innocent children.  Merry Christmas!
            St. Thomas’ Day is a strange intrusion into our last preparations for Christmas.  But, of course, we should immediately recognize the work of God here.  This strange intrusion has God’s fingerprints all over it.  And the birth we are about to celebrate, as sweet as it is, is it not the feast of the strangest intruder of all?
            In a well-known and dare I say well-loved passage, the prophet Habakkuk speaks for God:  “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time…”  The prophet is somewhat cagey about just what this vision is.  He rails against injustice.  “The very stones will cry out from the wall…” against it, he says.  At length he ridicules idolatry.  “Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’”
            At the end of chapter two Habakkuk gives us all that he is going to give.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            That the vision may need to be an urging for us to shut up and listen is itself a strange intrusion.  We are all about words.  Words, words, words, and these days in our prayers it seems the wordier the better.  Yet the vision is that our first impulse is to become silence.  Good luck with that, and I do not mean just our hero for the evening, Peter.  It is a message for all of us, this preacher included.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            Of all people—since he wrote a lot of words—John Calvin seemed to know this.  He at least knows there is a limit to intelligence and the words it produces.  He once wrote, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than our own intelligence.”[1]  I certainly do not think that is an anti-intellectual remark, but our intelligence, Calvin is saying, always needs to be checked before God.  We must learn to listen as eloquently as we speak.
            Perhaps this was Thomas’ problem.  Poor old Thomas and the label “doubter” he carries about.  It should not be lost on us that his doubt leads to faith.  Doubt is not the same thing as rejection, it is more akin to curiosity.  It is one step on a journey.  It can be, of course, and often is, participating in the idolatry of our own intelligence.  In the midst of it we need, like Thomas got, a strange intrusion that strikes us “dumb” (pun intended), again like Thomas, who blurts out a few words but then is smart enough—or perhaps dumb enough—to keep quiet.
            It is, perhaps, easy to rib our friend and colleague Peter for a reliance on intelligence and words.  And I think he would be the first to tell you (although I guess I actually am) that one of the gifts of 50 years of priesthood has been that words are not always the best response, especially if you want grace to get in the door.
            And Peter is about grace.  It is his theological heart, as it was Calvin’s, and, in the end, Thomas’.  Grace may just be the word we use for the act of strange intrusion God makes into our lives, offered freely to us by Jesus and sealed forever by the Holy Spirit.  Grace is, indeed a strange thing, and an intrusive thing, when, in a world of competition and status and the idolatry of the self-made person, unmerited and unearned love arrives at our feet as a gift.  When the simple words, “You are loved,” are spoken, and our impulse is to say, “but…”  And the finger of grace appears at God’s lips and delivers Habakkuk’s vision, “The Lord is in his holy temple.  Just be quiet.”  Any protest you or anybody else wants to make about your unworthiness disappears into the silence, until the vision actually does become plain.
            Peter you have shared this vision with us, and for that we are grateful, to God and to you.  And we are grateful that we have been able to share it with you.  You know well one of the great realities of priesthood, that we who are ordained need our doubt encouraged into faith as much as anyone.  The significant impact between us has been mutual and the strange intruder has been in the midst of it all the time.
            I know that talk of the special grace of ordination is pushing your low church convictions just a bit, but, hey, you asked me to preach, and I have never pretended to have anything other than a catholic heart.  But the special grace of ordination is not about the faculty to bless or consecrate or the authority to preside and absolve, the special grace of ordination is much stranger and intrusive than that.  I have never found a better description of it than in, of all places, the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  The old woman is reflecting on color, the pain of it and the glory of it, and she eventually lands on the mystery of the prism and the rainbow of color it mysteriously produces.  And she says this most extraordinary thing.
The deeds and sufferings of light make colors.  By the time sunlight reaches us, it is beautiful old news.  We get tanned, healed, fed by the sun’s own long spent ricochet history.[2]
            We are privileged to be stewards of this “beautiful old news” which is the mercy, grace and freely given love of Jesus, that strange intrusion into our lives that call us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, and, yes, sometimes stand silently, with God.  It is a life fraught with perplexity, peril and pain, and it is tempting nearly every day to doubt its reality or simply wish it away.  But it is the long spent ricochet history of “justice and peace for all people” and “the dignity of every human being” that we cannot let go of because it will not let go of us.
            Thank you, Peter, for being our fellow traveler with this strange intruder.

[1] I found this quote on the Internet, but have been unable to trace its exact origin.
[2] Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), p. 274.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monday in Advent 2: The ways untrod

There's a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod... (The Hymnal 1982 #75)

The beginning of this hymn gives me a different perspective on the "wilderness," an important biblical image.  Usually we think of the wilderness as the wild place, the threatening and dangerous place.  "The ways untrod" say something different to me.  This is wilderness as the unexplored place, and not just any unexplored place, but the place to which we are being called, the place that needs our exploration.

Of course, the unexplored place may indeed by wild, threatening and dangerous, but not necessarily.  It is certainly the risky place, because it is always the place where our status quo is challenged and re-formed.  Go into the wilderness, physical or spiritual, and you will not be the same.

What is unexplored for you?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saturday in Advent 1: Justice

O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and  love, delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release,
till by God's grace our warring world shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.
(Hymnal 1982 #597)

This is not a hymn found in the Advent section of our hymnal but it certainly could be.  I suspect the compilers of the hymnal did not want its use confined to Advent.  Yet it does express Advent longing.

The text reminds us of our call to work for social justice.  Not all agree that the church should be about this business, because there is no way to do so and not wade into politics.At our Diocesan Convention last month, a resolution from the Public Policy Committee of the Diocese questioning the use of the Common Core curriculum (the subject of a forum at Two Saints on December 15) passed easily, but not before someone suggested we had to vote no because of the separation of church and state.  That is a misunderstanding of not only the Constitution but also the Bible.

Social Justice is the Christian's business and the Church's business.  So, of course, is the personal growth of each one of us in our relationship with God.  They are not mutually exclusive.  I'll quote these words from Walter Brueggemann's book Peace tomorrow:

[God's dream] is concerned not only with joy but also with justice, not only with love but also with equality, not only with happy persons but also with nurtured environment.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Monday in Advent 1: Lo he comes

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. (Hymnal 1982 #66)

[This Advent I am going to reflect most days on my favorite part of the season:  the music.  Advent hymns are plenty. In the Hymnal 1982 alone there are 24,and for only a four week season!]

Advent begins with talk of Jesus' second coming, judg
ment, and the vision of the reign of God in justice and in peace.  After 2,000 years, one might think that the promise of Jesus' return might have worn thin, and perhaps it has for some, or even many.  But, as in many things in life, it may be more about the journey than the destination.  And maybe that is why we keep singing these songs.  They are songs of longing and expectation, the deep desire for the Dream of God.  It is the longing that matters, to be free and at peace.  Advent reminds us of this longing, invites us to revive it.  It seeks also to stir us up into action, action that brings freedom from fear and sin, and the peace of which  the angels sang in Bethlehem.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Healthy Hospitality Hour Suggestions

These suggestions were developed by the Williams Wellness Initiative and have been approved by the Vestry.
Williams Wellness Initiative Logo

Here are some suggestions to help make hospitality hour an especially healthy time.  It’s not necessary that everything at coffee hour meet all these suggestions on any given day.  

Many people like to provide some special foods they want to share. As long as an effort is made to also offer some healthier choices, it should be possible for coffee hour guests to find some things they can safely enjoy based on their own health needs.  

  • Avoid saturated and trans fat. Saturated and trans fat can particularly show up in processed foods and commercial baked goods (even crackers). Because of the health risks, the federal government requires that food labels list the amount of saturated and trans fat per serving. Look for foods with zero saturated and trans fat 
  • Offer healthy beverages, especially to children. Avoid high sugar and low nutrition beverages such as soda and punch in favor of more nutritious beverages like fruit juice. (Since fruit juices are often also high in sugarconsider using small glasses or diluting the juice a bit.) Sparkling water is a calorie-free option. 
  • Make lower-sodium options available. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often great in this regard. 
  • Downsize portions. For items that can be portioned out it can be helpful to make smaller servings availableThis can be especially easy with desert items as many can be cut into smaller pieces. 
  • Recognize the diverse needs of our community. For example, some of us have to be very careful about salt intake but it may not be a problem for others. Similarly, some can safely enjoy reasonable portions of dessert treatsothers cannot safely eat sweets at all. Some of us avoid cheese because of the fat in it; others welcome a little cheese to balance out sweeter foods (like fruit). Some people may not tolerate lactose or glutenSo it’s helpful to provide a variety of different kinds of food.  
  • Reduce sweetsAvoid having too many kinds of sweets or large quantities. Cutting sweets into smaller portions or placing them on a separate table can help most people eat more moderate portions, or avoid them altogether if needed 

The State of Racism in America

[Episcopal News Service – Jackson, Mississippi] Racism is ingrained in U.S. culture and, despite substantial progress, Americans must remain vigilant about their tendencies to exclude those they define as “the other,” agreed participants in the Nov. 15 opening session of “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America,” a two-day gathering sponsored by the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Mississippi.

Read more.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New Mayor

Let us welcome our new mayor-elect with prayer not only for her but for our beloved city that together we may build a just community for all:

O God of the city, we pray for our sister and mayor-elect Lovely as she prepares to take office.  Give her and all those with whom she works the vision of a just and thriving city, the wisdom to plan for it, the eloquence to proclaim it, the courage to act on it, and the perseverance to see it through.  Give all of us who live in this great city, and those who love it and desire the best for its people, the grace and strength to join together, across the many lines that divide us, to build One Rochester for One People.  We ask this in the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Right On School Video

Thanks to Madeline Gamble for sharing how the Right on School helps kids continue learning through the summer!

Right On School from Episcopal Diocese of Rochester on Vimeo.

What is the bird doing in church?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on October 20, 2013, St. Luke's Sunday and the annual Children's Sabbath (Proper 24C):  Psalm 121 and The Children's Charter for the Episcopal Church

          I was thinking, “I have had this conversation way too many times.”  We were sitting in my office, two parents and myself with their two children, one a young girl of four or so and the other a newborn boy.  They had been members of the parish for only a few months.  We were meeting about the baby’s impending baptism.  But we were talking about his father’s concern about his daughter’s receiving communion.

          The family had come from a parish where children did not receive Communion until the age of seven or eight when they had a “First Communion” class.  That alone was still somewhat shocking to long-term Episcopalians who had grown up in a church where no one received Communion until they had received Confirmation.

          What had happened was that little Ann had been coming to the Altar rail each Sunday, and dutifully done as she had been instructed and, under the watchful eye of Mom or Dad, folded her arms across her chest to signal that she wanted a blessing.  But a couple of Sundays before our meeting to talk about her little brother’s baptism, Ann had been in church alone with her father, and as I stepped in front of them, Ann’s father was distracted by someone who had stumbled on their way forward and Ann did fold her hands across her chest, but with a smile as wide as it could be, held out her hands.  I smiled back and gave her Communion.

          Dad was now telling me how troubled he was by what I had done.  He kept saying, “But she does not understand what is happening.  She does not understand what is going on and does not know to show the proper respect.”  My response was that knowing she was there to be fed was a long way down the road to understanding about as much as we can about a mystery.  He was not buying it.  “She was only imitating other people,” he said.  She doesn’t know enough to have a relationship with God.”

          Exasperated and tired I did something unhelpful.  I asked Ann, “Do you know what is happening when we have the bread and wine in Church?”  I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth.  She was shy and just froze.  Her father left feeling vindicated in his opinion.

          But Ann, it turns out, had heard the question perfectly well, and, during the week, she had drawn an answer to the question and given it to her parents, and they had her give it to me the next Sunday as they arrived for church, which she did quite proudly.  She had drawn a crude table with a man who was obviously meant to be a priest behind it.  There were candles on the table, about the same proportion of the candles on our Altar table.  There was a cup of sorts, and a little mound of something that was obviously bread.  All by itself that would have been a very lovely picture for a four year old to draw.
          But there was something over my head.  I looked at it for some time and finally decided it was a bird.  I said, “Ann, what is that.”  “A bird,” she said.  OK, I deserved that.  “What is the bird doing in church?” I asked.  “Oh,” she said, “that is the Holy Spirit, coming down to be in the bread so that we know Jesus is here.”

          I looked at Ann’s mother, “Did you…?” She shook her head.  “Where?”  She shrugged her shoulders.  I looked at Dad. He held up his hand.  “I know, I know, I get it,” he said.  And not only did Ann receive Communion from that day forward, but so did her baby brother on the day of his Baptism a couple weeks later.

          Children do have a relationship with God.  It is actually quite easy for them, which is probably why Jesus suggested that we all need to become like them if we are going to be able to comprehend and enter the kingdom of God.  For me, that is mostly about imagination. Imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts to us but we, tragically, learn not to trust it.  “It’s only your imagination.” At some point as we are growing up we become convinced that only seeing is believing, and it is our equivalent of being thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

          And it creates a huge problem, because without imagination how can we possibly believe in a God whom we cannot see.  Without imagination how can we ever possibly be, as the hymn says, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”[1]

          “I look my eyes to the hills,” says the pilgrim psalm we said or sang a few minutes ago.  What would have those pilgrims have seen there, going to or leaving from Jerusalem?  They would have seen the shrines of other gods, which were numerous in those days, very popular and almost always found on the hilltops.  They would have offered a much more “seeing is believing” kind of religion.

          But the pilgrims ask, “Where does my help come from?”  And they know the answer, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  But there was the problem, and why those shrines to rival gods stayed in business.  The God of Israel could not be seen, nor could he be controlled.  It was too easy not to understand his ways, and he was proud of it. Through the prophets he bragged, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways.”

          Barbara Brown Taylor writes of this dilemma. She says,

The reality in front of our eyes is not deep enough to contain its creator.  When we sense God’s presence, we glimpse another reality, one that we may enter only by the door of our imaginations.[2]

          Which says to me that we need our children in the church. We need them not only to grow up and continue to be the church.  The children of this or any parish are not our future.  They are our present.  And we need their imagination, which has not yet undergone the suppression that most of ours has, to show us the way to God.  The last attribute of the Children’s Charter of the Episcopal Church says

The church is called to encourage children’s ability to show and share God’s love and grace in the church and in the world.

          That is not a sweet sentiment.  It is the truth.  And more than the truth, it is vital to our own journey of faith, because we think that we have to teach children about God’s love and grace in order for them to share it, but that is not the truth.  We need to find ways to encourage a faith which is as natural to a child as is their imagination.

          Some Native Americans call imagination—this ability to see more than we can see—“looking twice” at the world.  You look once and you see what you see, and it alone can be wondrous.  But Jamake Hightower, a Blackfoot Indian, says, “You must learn to look at the world twice if you wish to see all there is to see.”[3]

          In our Christian tradition we have a word for this as well, “Sacrament,” which is not just the name for rites that we conduct or the primary symbols that we use, but is a way of looking at the world.  "The world is alive with the glory of God,” wrote the great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But only when our imaginations, like those of children, are enabled to look twice.

          I know that sometimes in church, children can be distracting, and it frustrates us when they do not seem to be paying attention and aren’t learning quickly enough how to be adults in church.  And we do, of course, need to pass on our tradition to them, or it will be no tradition at all.  But we also have to admit that being an adult in church is not all that it’s cracked up to be, that it means, among other things, that we have a harder time seeing what is really going on here than they do.

          “And a little child will lead them,” said the prophet.  And sometimes we need to let that happen.

[1] From Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love divine, all love’s excelling.”
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 44.
[3] Quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 45.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Echoes of a Bomb and the Sound of Gunfire

This past Sunday was the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young girls died, one of the great tragedies of American history.  The hurt and the outrage echo through time, growing louder and louder rather than fainter, as it passes through the violent death of children, hundreds of thousands of children.  We should be able to hear nothing but this echo, but it seems clear to me that we hear very little.  Our hearing is stopped up by denial that has been elevated to a lifestyle.

According to a counter on the website of Slate magazine, whose accuracy I have no reason to doubt, a minimum of 158 children, 414 teens and 7,469 adults have been killed by gunfire in the United States of America since the Newtown, Connecticut massacre on December 14, 2012.  This number represents only those deaths reported on in the media and then reported to Slate.  It is only the tip of the iceberg.  In 2010, the last year for which we have accurate statistics, 31,076 people were killed by a gun in the US.  That's at least one every twenty minutes.

Twelve in several minutes yesterday in Washington, DC. None of them children, for which we can be grateful, but will any of us be surprised when the next school shooting comes across our televisions, computers and smart phones?  No.  We do not want them to happen. We are not that crass.  But we expect them to.  We have decided that 158 children dead in nine months is an acceptable cost of our so-called liberty, which,in reality, is an idolatry of the power one feels when you hold a loaded gun.

I cannot believe that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and their colleagues would stand for this state of affairs for a moment.  Amazingly enough, we do (and I count myself).  Since Newtown the gun lobby as been totally successful in stymieing any advancement in gun control.  Supporters have simply given up, and so, it seems, have the rest of us.  If the "mainline" churches want to speak their value and proclaim their commitment to the Gospel "on earth as it is in heaven,"  than why haven't we taken over Capitol Hill?  There
are still several million of us, surely we could keep 5,000 people at a time on the steps of the Capitol until something is done to put the love for our children ahead of the fetish for our guns.

The echoes of Birmingham are the screams of the children of Newtown.  Can't we hear them?

Pray for us Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The March on Washington & The Episcopal Church

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.  Commentators are calling it a turning
point in American history and I believe they are right.  I believe it also was a turning point in what we tend to call the "Mainline" Protestant Churches (1) in this country.  Everything I write from here on out is in the nature of a thesis.  I do not know if I am right, but I think I may be.

The Episcopal Church in 1963 was very much part of the American establishment and was called by many "the Republican Party at prayer."  Like most churches in its day, it saw as a primary part of its mission to make good citizens, and good citizenry generally did not include rocking the boat in any way.  There were some cracks appearing in that monument to what amounted to de facto established religion, but it looked as if any radical change was a long way off, if it was possible at all.

In the Spring of 1963, Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger wrote a "Message to the Church," to be delivered at Pentecost.  He wrote of "recent events in a number of American communities" that "underscore the fact that countless citizens have lost patience with the slow pace of response to their legitimate cry for human right.s" (2)  In a definitive sentence in the piece he wrote:

It is not enough for the Church to exhort men to be good.  Men, women, and children are today risking their livelihood and their lives in protesting for their rights.  We must support and strengthen their protest in every way possible, rather than give support to the forces of resistance by our silence.

He recommended three actions by Episcopalians:  First, to get involved and be informed. Second, give money to support the struggle.  Third, take action, including urgently cleaning up our own house.  He ended by saying:

So I write with a deep sense of the urgency of the racial crisis in our country and the necessity of the Church to act.  Present events reveal the possible imminence of catastrophe.  The entire Christian community must pray and act.

A year and a half later, in October 1964, at the Church's triennial General Convention, Bishop Lichtenberger acknowledged that his conviction was not shared by everyone in the church.

During the past several months I have received [hundreds] of letters criticizing our National Council, or the House of Bishops, or me for expressing our opinions--or urging people to take action--in areas in which they say are not religious. (3)

In many ways over the last 50 years, the Episcopal Church, and Mainline Protestant Christianity, has been struggling with this very divide expressed by Bishop Lichtenberger.  The reality is that the conscience of the Episcopal Church was awakened in 1963 and 1964, and hundreds of clergy and lay people went to the South in aid of the civil rights movement.  By 1967, the Church's General Convention voted to hold a Special Convention to tackle its participation in the civil rights movement and that 1969 Special Convention put in place the General Convention Special Program, which committed significant funds to civil rights organizations.  Yes, there was significant backlash, but "justice" was now firmly in the vocabulary of the Episcopal Church and the status and rights of Blacks, Women, Gay and Lesbian persons, and others would occupy debate right up to the present time.

At the same time, the Church began a dramatic shrinkage that continues, though somewhat abated, in our day. This is paralleled in all the Mainline Churches.  Many theories of the causes of this shrinkage have been put forward, and most of them tell a part of the truth.  Certainly the Church's strong commitment to civil rights over a broad spectrum of persons has been a major factor.  Those who were comfortable with the old establishment's strict divide between religion and politics have clearly become a minority voice where they exist at all.

This journey has been painful, but so has the struggle on a national level.  This journey has been polarizing in both the church and in the country in general.  And in most of the mainline churches that has meant leave-taking on a significant scale, as domination by a conservative political agenda has been supplanted by one of a liberal political agenda.  The dilemma has been that those with a conservative bent are far more likely to attend church than those of a liberal one, thus only exacerbating our decline.

I wish there would have been a way to hold us together.  I do not delight in the leave-taking of anyone.  But it is true that we are becoming a more consistent church and a more mission-oriented church.  In many of our churches those who are left have a determination to remain and to act in the name of Jesus unlike anything we saw when our church was twice as large.

Returning to Dr. King and the March on Washington, the Episcopal Church, and much of Mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States learned to dream from him.  We learned that the journey with the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ was not a static one, but one that requires a constantly renewed imagination and the ability to apply the Good News to situations the Bible never could have foreseen, although it continues to give us authoritative guidance.  It does not tell us what is right and wrong in many given situations of our time, but it does give us the lenses with which to examine those things so that we can make our own determination in the grace of God.

The Church has never been the same since 1963-1964.  There is sadness in that from the loss of people and parishes, and,perhaps, prestige.  But Dr. King promised that with faith, if we steadfastly climbed toward the mountaintop, we would see the promised land, and that we could build a world where "little black boys and black girls will be able to hold hands with and little white boys and white girls hold hands."  All of us know that we are not yet there, and for institutions like the Episcopal Church, built on the foundation of white privilege, our progress has been in fits and starts, in movements forward and movements backward, moments of great hope and moments of deep despair.  But the dream has taken root in us and lives among us and supplies the energy we need to keep climbing the mountain together.

(1)  The Mainline Protestant churches are generally considered to be the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ,the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),  the Reformed Church in America, the Moravian Church in America and the Society of Friends.  From 1965 to 1985, the membership of these churches fell from 31 million to 21 million.

(2) Found in Lichtenberger's book, The Day is at Hand, published in 1964.
(3) Also found in the above.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Receive the Kingdom as a Little Child

This was Jesus' adamant recommendation (Mark 10:13-16) and I have always found it to be both powerful and puzzling.  Yesterday I had an experience that made it even more powerful and, perhaps, from puzzling to startling.

I had the privilege yesterday of baptizing a baby in the NICU at Strong Hospital.  Isabella was born at 5.5 months and weighed 1 lb. 2 oz. at birth.  That was a week and half ago and she does not weigh a whole lot more than that still.  As I carefully reached into the incubator and brushed her tiny head with a wet finger I heard myself saying the words and felt myself on fire.

Isabella has been given a 50/50 chance at survival, which seems incredible to me given how tiny she is.  Her family has already given their heart and soul to this child and they are headed for a potentially long and hard journey.  Of course our prayers are that they will get just that.  Please, if you read this, keep Isabella in your prayers, as well as her parents and grandparents.  Her great-grandmother is our own Carolee Conklin.

There could hardly be a more vulnerable human being than this tiny baby.  She will spend the first months of her life on death's door, but also on life's threshold.  Commitment to this much vulnerability requires an extraordinary amount of vulnerability itself, a living with and in helplessness, utter dependence upon others for her well-being and our own.

And all of that, it seems to me, is what Jesus was talking about.  It is usually said that he was talking about trust, because children are more quick to trust than adults.  This goes way deeper than trust.  This is surrender, surrender to those whose gifts we depend on, and surrender to the giver of those gifts, and the one who will stay with this child come what may.  It seems to me that those are the dynamics of the kingdom of God, and why we struggle with it so much.

The staff in the Strong NICU are absolutely amazing, by the way.  Thirteen years ago our nephew spent time there and a pediatrician parishioner of mine in Maryland said he could not be in a better place.  It's still true.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jason & deMarco Mini-Concert on October 20th

Jason and deMarco are returning to St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Sunday, October 20th. They will be singing during our 10 am service. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Equal in Every Way

Sermon preached at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on the Eve of Independence Day, celebrating a new step forward in equality (the striking down of DOMA):  Colossians 3:10-17, Luke 13:22-20

          “Equal in Every Way,” was the headline in the Democrat & Chronicle           “Equal in Every Way,” was the headline in the Democrat & Chronicle this past Thursday.  It took my breath away for the third time in twenty-four hours.  The first was on Wednesday when the ruling was announced, and the second when I read Justice Kennedy’s decision later that day.  A few words from it deserve to be quoted:

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state­-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, …. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law…. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state­ sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects …, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives

          Wow.  He got it (so I can’t for the life of me understand why he did not get the Voters’ Rights Act).  Anyway, it was one of those “I never thought I would see this day” days.  And what I felt myself overwhelmed with was gratitude.  So we are here this evening, doing what the Church in the sacramental tradition does whenever it wants to say thank you, celebrating the Eucharist together, that word that all on its own means “thanksgiving.”

          A reporter asked me if we were holding this Service to make some kind of statement.  I said, “Yes, a very simple one, ‘Thank you.’”  As Christian people that is our bounden duty and service.  Is it a helpful side effect of saying public thanks that at least some of the world gets to see and/or hear that not all Christians are opposed to equal marriage?  Sure.

          Because my husband John’s name and number were on the press release, it was he who got the call form a Roman Catholic gentlemen who was very concerned that our church was not reading the Bible and listening to the church’s teaching.  You know, it’s true, because they’ve told me so, that many traditionalist Christians actually believe that people like me stand up on Sunday and say things like, “Whatever you do, do not read the Bible. Only believe what the world is telling you!”

          No, we read the Bible and it is the same Bible as you, I have said, but we read it with different assumptions, and both of us need to be very careful about what those assumptions are.

          The Gospel reading we just heard is a very fine example.  If you assume that the Christian religion is primarily about exclusivity and judgment than you cannot hear it when Jesus actually makes a mockery of that religion.

          “Lord, will only a few be saved?”  It was a question from either someone who was worried about how to get in good with God or a rhetorical question from someone who wanted to justify herself.  The assumption is exclusivity and judgment.

          And it sounds like that is just what Jesus gives them, but pay attention.  Jesus does something in this passage that he does all the time.  He gives the questioner what he wants to hear—aha, there is a narrow door, difficult to enter.  Good, the door will strain out all the evildoers.

          But then Jesus turns the image on its head and says to the self-justifiers, “Your assumption of exclusivity is the narrow door that will keep you out.”  Because there is going to be a party, of people from places and times you cannot imagine—from north and south and east and west.  And you will be weeping and gnashing your teeth because of the people who are at that table whom you are sure were an abomination to the Lord.  You thought you would be first in all your moral uprightness and they would be last because they were unrepentant sinners.  But you were completely and utterly wrong.

          And folks who read the Bible and find a definition of marriage that is one man and one woman are only reading what they want to find.  It is not there.  At most you can say that it all began with one man and one woman, Adam and Eve.  Not Adam and Steve, as they say.

          Well, there was a black preacher in Washington, DC back when John and me lived there, who confessed to his congregation one day that he had been saying that all his life.  And he had to confess that it had suddenly dawned on him:  But who made Steve?  Somebody had to make Steve?  Where did Steve come from?

          And that’s the sum of the religious argument, isn’t it.  Who made Steve?  If homosexuality is a natural part of human creation, than the answer is God.  And if the answer is God….

          So let me say it loud and clear.  The Episcopal Church said it first in 1976.  Gay men and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people are children of God.  Their love for one another is no more or less sinful than any other people’s love for one another.  They deserve a full and equal place in the church and as citizens of this country.  Love is love is love.  The love between two women or two men can produce the fruits of the Spirit as outlined by St. Paul in Galatians, and if they can do that then they can be used for the glory of God, and if they can be used for the glory of God, then…well, you get the point.

          I know I am preaching to the choir, but the choir can say, “Amen.”

          To believe that love that glorifies God and helps fulfill Jesus’ most fervent prayer that the kingdom of God come “on earth as it is in heaven,” is still inherently sinful because of the genders of the participants is to miss the main point of the Gospel.  It is not biblical to say that God sees gay and lesbian couples as inherently sinful.  It is, in fact, wicked to do so, and about as close to a sin against the Holy Spirit as any of us should ever want to get.

          Yet that is the message that people in 37 states are still getting, and it serves only to demean and weaken families of all kinds and causes the self-inflicted death of untold numbers of young people who think they do not deserve to live because God hates something that is at the very heart of who they are and that they cannot change.

          Which is why, of course, we are by no means done, especially in the church.  Even progressive churches have a ways to go.  Yes, we in the Episcopal Church can practice equal marriage, but only as a “generous pastoral response.”  Our Prayer Book and Canons still define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

          I have spent my entire life as a gay man—30 years now—trying to change the church and being blamed for its decline.  First equality for the black people and then ordination for the women and then openly gay couples in the pews, it is no wonder that God fearing people have left the church in droves goes the argument.

          I have two things to say about that.  First of all, I suspect that God does not care half as much as we do about the number of people in the pews.  Second of all, what God does care about is love.  It is the only thing that matters. It is the only thing that has saved us; it is the only thing that is saving us; and it will be the only thing that will save us forever.  And if it has taken draining the pews for the people of God to get that and develop the urgency to act on it, then so be it.

          “Christ is all in all!” proclaims our brother Paul.  Forget about dividing the world up into categories, good, bad or indifferent.  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. And be thankful.”  It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

          Thank you, God for bringing us a little closer to your kingdom, even if it was two steps forward and one step back.  Just give us the courage and the urgency to tell the truth about love and live it like the life of the world depended on it. Because it does.