Thursday, June 24, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Let me be clear: I have no quarrel with the myriad ways people have before them in a post-Constantinian context to choose practices that are meaningful to them, and no desire to force Christian burial on anyone. But the suggestion that Christian Burial is focused on death, rather than life, just ain't so!
In a few hours I will preside at the Burial Office and celebration of Holy Eucharist for a man whose life was just two years shy of a century. I guarantee we will be there not to focus on his death, but to celebrate his life. Moreover, we will be gathered to set his life in a larger context. I often tell families planning for the funeral of a loved one - especially if their loved one was an active member of my congregation and they are not - that while a funeral is indeed about the deceased it is not all about them. The Burial Office is an Easter liturgy, which is to say that we celebrate Christ's victory over death. Even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! If we leave a Christian funeral and do not feel that we have celebrated life then it's not been done right, or we weren't paying attention.
But here is the thing: sometimes "celebration of life" is code-language for denial of death. It means we don't want a corpse present, or even ashes, because that would be "such a downer." We want to gather to celebrate the life of the deceased, but we are scared out of our wits about their death because it suggests that one day we, too, will die.
But to truly celebrate life, we must be willing to face death. Easter morning doesn't begin at the empty tomb: it begins with the Lenten reminder that we are all dust and it passes through the hard realities of Good Friday. Celebrating life actually means something more than denial when you acknowledge the pain and grief of death.
Now my point here is not to pick a fight with a local columnist. My larger point is that there is good news here that Christians have to share with the world. There is something in the tradition worth claiming and affirming and offering to a culture that denies death: the good news that life is stronger than death and that hope trumps despair. The good news that nothing in all of creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. My hope and prayer today, as people who are not regular members of my parish leave, is that they will know that they were indeed there to celebrate life and that it may even mean that they ponder anew how they will choose to live their days.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
I am proud of that American heritage to welcome the stranger, to make room for the one who is different and to recognize the gifts that each wave of immigrants brings to this country. But deeper still than that pride of country, I am a Christian. The story of my faith is rooted in the story of people who were strangers in a foreign land, a people called to remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. As they entered the Promised Land they were reminded that this experience must define them in each new generation as they related to the stranger in their midst: "You, too, must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:19) That word is variously translated as sojourner or alien but the meaning is clear: to move beyond xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and toward love of the stranger. That doesn't require theory, but practice. And practice involves real people, and real life is messy.
Eric Baldaras is a rising sophomore at Harvard College. He came to this country - illegally - as a four-year old. I don't imagine he had a lot of say in that decision. Even so, after arriving here he did what immigrants have done in this country for over two hundred years, he did what we told him we wanted him to do. He worked hard and succeeded in high school, was admitted to Harvard, and seems to be thriving there. Now his immigration status has been discovered and he may be deported back to, well, where exactly? Could anyone seriously argue that Mexico is his "home?" What could he possibly remember about the town of his birth. This is his home, this is where his community is.
I don't for a moment pretend that the legal issues are easy to sort out here, or that immigration policy should be based on emotion. But in the end, immigration policy is about who WE are, not just about those we choose to let in or turn away. If we are to err, may it be on the side of hospitality and love of neighbor.
Monday, June 14, 2010
The reflections below are an edited portion of a sermon preached this past weekend at St. Francis Church. The full manuscript can be found on the church's webpage. http://www.stfrancisholden.org/documents/NabothsVineyard.pdf
This month all of our Old Testament readings come from First and Second Kings, vignettes from the ministries of two prophets: Elijah the Tishbite and his successor, Elisha. Last weekend, we heard about Elijah and the widow of
Today we have an opportunity to explore a much darker side of the human psyche: in the story of Naboth’s vineyard we encounter the antithesis of neighborly love: envy and greed. These emotions are sadly just as real a part of our experience and perhaps more familiar. If it is true that the poor who have next to nothing often have the most to teach us about generosity, then it is also true that sometimes those who seem to have everything still feel like it is not enough. In the twenty-first chapter of First Kings, Ahab and Jezebel take what doesn’t belong to them, without regard for human life. It’s an all too familiar story of how easily the powerless are abused by the powerful. When you combine the human propensity to want what does not belong to us with the power to do whatever you want and get away with it, innocent people will always suffer. Most of us are not thieves. But many more of us have some experience with the corrosive sin of envy. Like Ahab, we may even have pouted or stewed once or twice over wanting something that we can not have. But usually we are able to stop short of just taking it, if for no other reason than that we don’t want to risk jail time.
So that’s where the story of Naboth’s vineyard begins: with the corrosive power of envy. Noboth has a vineyard that Ahab wants. He has plenty of wine, but he hopes to convert Naboth’s vineyard into a vegetable garden and grow heirloom tomatoes and organic cucumbers. The problem is that Naboth is not at all interested in selling: it’s the land he grew up on, the land his parents and grandparents sweated on. It’s not about the money for him. It’s about being connected to that hallowed ground that his parents and grandparents farmed. Unfortunately, however, his refusal of the king’s offer (which we are told was a reasonable one) will cost him his life. Our narrator suggests that Jezebel practically taunts her husband: “so who’s the king here anyway?” She takes care of things, and before you can snap your fingers Naboth has been set up, convicted, and murdered. It isn’t clear whether Ahab knows of this plan and goes along with it or if he has chosen to have plausible deniability or if in fact he knows Jezebel all too well and she is doing his dirty work. It doesn’t matter really; because in the end dead is dead and Naboth is dead. The issue here is about power—it’s about the king and queen’s belief that they are above the law. Ahab has his heirloom tomatoes.
It is into this breach that the prophets speak on behalf of God and those who have been silenced or disappeared. Some of us have been taught to think of the prophets as fortune tellers, as people who made predictions about a future messiah. But the core vocation of a prophet is to speak the truth to power. And that is exactly what Elijah does here. He tells Ahab and Jezebel that there are consequences for their actions; that what goes around will one day come around, and that what they have done is reprehensible. Elijah has the chutzpah to say these things, even at great risk to his own life. But it should come as no surprise that the powerful don’t tend to enjoy having truth spoken to them, especially when it doesn’t jive with the narrative they have been feeding the media and perhaps even themselves. And so this will get Elijah in some trouble, as it always gets prophets in trouble, right down to our own day.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible was given to me in January 1998 by a very dear parishioner at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut as a going away present just before we moved to Holden, Massachusetts. I pulled it off of my shelf recently to re-read an essay in it by Phyllis Trible in preparation for some summer preaching from I and II Kings. The article is entitled: "The Odd Couple: Elijah and Jezebel." I love Trible and the article is classic. But in so doing I felt inspired to read the rest of the book which includes writings by Jewish and Christian women writers - really very fine stuff.
I first read Susan Howatch's amazing fictional series that is part theology, part history, and part mystery at least a dozen years ago now--maybe longer. I devoured the entire series at the time. A while back I decided I'd go back and re-read the entire series but got distracted along the way. This summer, however, I'm determined to go back and start again--at the beginning--with Glittering Images. (A friend of mine just had some pretty major surgery and shared that during his recovery he was reading this series for the first time.) This first in the series is about a Church of England priest named Charles Ashworth; I'm hoping I'll get through at least the second one as well, which is called Glamorous Powers and is about another priest named Jon Darrow.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Red is the liturgical color for celebrating the feasts of martyrs, and this week has a lot of red days. Yesterday, June 1, marked the feast of Justin, who was martyred in 165. Today we remember Blandina and her companions, martyred in Lyons in 177. Blandina's murder was particularly grisly: shown above she was "half-roasted" and then thrown half-alive to the bulls for refusing the renounce her faith.
Tomorrow, on June 3, Charles Lwanga and 31 other Roman Catholic and Anglican martyrs of Uganda are remembered. The collect for the day begins by noting that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." One cannot pray for these nineteenth-century martyrs without being mindful of the terrible persecutions that would face the twentieth-century Church under Idi Amin. I know two people whom I count as friends who lived through that time; they are among the most faithful people I have ever known in my life.
I would never suggest that faith in the suburbs is easy; it is not. We are all shaped by context, however, and the whining I sometimes hear from the House of Bishops to the pews and across ecumenical lines about the challenges of being a post-Christendom Church sometimes sound rather hollow and embarrassing when compared with the witness of Justin, Blandina, and Charles. In fact, that is what the word martyr means in Greek: to be a witness.
Walter Brueggemann's introduction to the Old Testament offers the metaphor of a courtroom where testimony and counter-testimony are presented. Witnesses are called to the stand. Each of us is called to bear witness to the truth within us.
In our context, bearing witness to that truth is very unlikely to get us killed. On the other hand, given that post-Constantinian context of North American Christianity--where it is very easy for the Church to mirror the dominant culture by offering an anemic spirituality of self-help, self-fulfillment, self-realization--speaking the truth about historic Christianity can be a risky business. It may lead us to stand with martyrs even closer to home, in places like El Salvador--places where speaking the truth may lead our religious beliefs and practices into the messy and dangerous world of international politics.
The martyrs inspire us, if we dare, to be witnesses to the communion of saints, to speak in the presence of the white-robed martyrs who have sacrificed their lives for Christ and the Church that bears His name. Their blood calls us to be accountable to the faith that is in us and to a more bold, courageous, and prophetic vision.
I don't think we need to go looking for trouble, and I don't think that Justin or Blandina or Charles did. But when trouble finds us, there is no doubt risk involved in being faithful.