Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lord, Make Us Instruments of Your Peace

For the past thirteen years I have served as the rector of a parish that takes its name from a thirteenth-century Umbrian, Francis of Assisi. This weekend as we celebrate our patronal feast day, I am particularly mindful of his encounter with Sultan Elek-al-Kamil in 1219.

For those whose history of the thirteenth century may need refreshing: this was a time when Christians from Europe got it into their heads that the “Holy Land” (which was at that point part of the Muslim world) ought to be recaptured and Christianized. It was, in other words, the time of the Crusades. So Francis sails across the Mediterranean to Egypt where he is given a pass to travel behind enemy lines to meet this Sultan.

When he gets there, he stands in front of him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ — with words. Trying to proselytize a Muslim in the midst of the Crusades was grounds for on-the-spot decapitation. But Kamil, a wise and moderate man, was impressed by Francis’ courage and integrity. So when Francis finished telling the Sultan all about Jesus, Kamil replied:

Listen, Frank: I have my own beliefs. And as a Muslim, I’m as firmly convinced of the truth of my own faith as you are of the truth of Christianity. So can we just let that be? But listen: why don’t you plan to stay here for another week or so and we can get to know each other a little better?

And so he did. And over the course of that time together, Francis became equally impressed by the religious devotion and compassion of the Sultan. In other words, each learned something real about the other beneath all the propaganda. And by all accounts, both of them were changed.

For Francis, the way to God was clear: the way to the Father is through the Son, and the way of the Son was about death on a cross outside of Jerusalem, a death that birthed a new creation. Francis travels to the Middle East because for him that good news brought about such radical change in his own life that he wanted to share it with others. He wanted to preach the gospel at all times, when necessary with words. (Even if in so doing he might lose his head!)

Yet, without sacrificing his own deeply held convictions, Francis also remained open and willing to listen to the deeply held convictions of the Sultan. That allowed him to engage a real person and not a straw man. He remained humble enough and patient enough and kind enough and loving enough to listen and not just talk.

This suggests to me a model for evangelism that is not just about telling other people what we believe and then insisting that they must believe as we do. Francis respected the Sultan’s dignity as a child of God. When we listen, we are saying something just as important about our faith as when we speak. We are also just as likely to be changed ourselves as to change anyone else’s mind. I cannot help but to wonder how the history of the world would be different if there were more Christians like St. Francis along the way (and fewer Crusaders) and more Muslims like Kamil (and fewer Jihadists.)

This takes us to the very heart of the St. Francis Prayer. It is too easy for us to pray that prayer and let it hover in midair. But as we allow the peace of Christ to cast out fear in our own lives we are called to let it move through us as we live into our vocation to be instruments of God’s peace in the neighborhood and beyond. We don’t need to go halfway around the world anymore to be peacemakers: many of us just need to take the risk of traveling halfway around the block. Where there is misinformation (and the bearing of false witness surely must in our day include spreading lies on the internet)we dare to speak truth. Where there is hatred, we sow love.

We honor Francis, I think, not only by blessing animals and being better stewards of God's good earth, as important as those are. We honor Francis, and serve Christ, when we risk authentic encounters with people of other faiths, especially Muslims.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Arriving Where We Started

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T. S. Eliot)

I have a friend who is a painter and I have told him more than once that on occasion I am jealous of his work. He and I both know I am not nearly patient enough to ever be a decent painter, so I'm not about to make a career change. But what I envy is that his work has a defined beginning, middle, and end. You walk up to a house where the paint is peeling and when you are done, it looks terrific. And by "being done" I mean a week or two or three later.

My work isn't like that at all. Some have compared pastoral ministry to "planting seeds" and that is a good, Biblical, metaphor. But even farmers have a beginning, middle and end to their work that basically extends from late spring to early fall. Sometime around Memorial Day you plant some seeds and by Thanksgiving you are eating pumpkin pie.

The gestation period in ministry is almost always much longer than that, which requires a level of patience that I do not naturally possess. But I am reaching an age where every now and again I get a glimpse that gives me joy, and courage, and hope for the journey.

Today was such a day. This afternoon I drove to New Britain, Connecticut where many important events in my life occurred. My work as Protestant Campus Minister began in the Fall 1989 - my first "real" full-time work following seminary. One year later, our first son, Graham, was born there. And three years after that, I was received into the Episcopal Church (from the United Methodist Church) at St. Mark's, New Britain and (re)-ordained a deacon at the cathedral in Hartford. At that point (in June 1993) I accepted a position to become Assistant Rector at a parish in Westport, CT. I have been back to New Britain only once or twice since then, and it's been at least a decade since I was last there.

So I spent four years doing ministry in higher education, work in which I found great joy and satisfaction, and then it was over. The students I met as freshmen graduated and within a few years every student I had known there had also graduated. I think at this point it is unlikely that there are even faculty members kicking around who would remember me and the work I did there.

The main reason that this ministry was such a joy for me was because of the amazing young people I got to know, including Char (Curtiss) Corbett. She was one of those kids you spot across campus with a mile-wide smile and a heart of gold. She got involved in campus ministry, particularly in the alternative spring break programs we ran in Appalacia and with the Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. One day I was with Char and some other students, eating some pizza, and I asked her if she had ever considered ordination. She almost choked on her pizza! I told her I was serious. She said, no; she didn't see herself doing that. Today, roughly twenty years later, I sat in the congregation at South Church in New Britain at Char's ordination. It felt like being at a child's wedding and I think I wept more than I ever have at anyone's wedding, or funeral.

Now I need to be very clear here: while I was one tiny moment in Char's faith journey, it was very clear to me that this wasn't about me. I may have planted a seed but others have tended it, and helped weed, and prune, over many years since. She is both recognizable as that wide-eyed eighteen year old I once knew and quite different: very close to forty now, a wife and mother and now ordained pastor. While we have stayed in touch over the years, especially after she entered Andover Newton Theological School, I am aware that there have been many others who have had a far more significant influence on her than I ever did.

Still, when I left South Church, I drove past Central Connecticut State, the same road I took to work for four years. And I saw it with new eyes, eyes of wonder. I felt like at some level I was, quite literally, back at the beginning - back where my own ordained life began, as Char's now begins. And yet from this vantage point, having arrived where I started, I felt somehow able to see it for the first time. I could see my work there through a new set of lenses; knowing how the story has turned out (at least to this point) makes it clear why I did that work in the first place and why I hope it mattered.

And of course it matters still, not just at ordinations. Ministry, I think, is about moments in time when heaven and earth touch and that is not about us; but by God's grace we are there as witnesses at such "thin places." And every now and again we get a chance to circle back again, and celebrate God's grace and mercy and love.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passage of Time

The psalmist notes that the "span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty" and then I wonder if it is possible that this anonymous psalmist could possibly have been my grandfather when he goes on to add, "...yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone." (Psalm 90:10)

One of my favorite poets asks on a summer day, "tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" (Mary Oliver) Still another poet offers this advice: "the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time." (James Taylor)

Lately I am aware of the passage of time: my "baby sister" turned forty last week and while she insists that she doesn't feel much older, her older brother sure does. My oldest son turns twenty this week; I was only a little bit older than he is now when I first met Hathy - in May we'll celebrate 25 years of marriage.

The psalmist's actuarial study suggests that I'm solidly in "middle age" at forty-seven. My father died at thirty-seven, so already I have "outlived" him by a decade. While I certainly have had and do have other role models in my life, sometimes it feels like I am blazing this trail of mid-life on my own - without a map.

But what I'm discovering is that there is much to enjoy, and much for which to be grateful. Since time, like an ever-rolling stream does bear all its sons away, it seems the only thing to do is to go with the flow and try to pay attention.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The lectionary is a way to read the Bible in public worship, as we come together each week for common prayer. It’s a template, organized on a three-year cycle. What that means is that the same readings that we heard today come up every three years: we last heard them in September 2007, and they will not be read again until September 2013.

This also means that these are the very same readings we heard nine years ago, on the weekend after September 11, 2001. Some of you may remember, as I do, that there were people here for worship that weekend that I’d never seen before (and whom I have not seen since.) They came, I imagine, looking for a word of hope and comfort in the midst of events that were too frightening to comprehend. You could have heard a pin drop when the lay reader got up to read from the fourth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, these same difficult words we heard today:

For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

What struck me, more perhaps in hindsight than in that moment, was that as brutally harsh as Jeremiah’s words sounded as they filled this room, that they also seemed to capture where we were emotionally. We, too, had just beheld what can happen when people put their talents to work for doing evil rather than good. We too, beheld a city in ruins. Jeremiah of course, did not have lower Manhattan in mind when he spoke nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was speaking about the city of Jerusalem being “waste and void” because of the devastation caused by the Babylonian army. He was speaking of the temple, not the towers, being brought to the ground. Even so, on that September day nine years ago it seemed as if the gap between Jeremiah and us had been closed, and we were together in our confusion and grief and fear and anger. The biggest theological question of all was right up front as well: where was God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophet is not only the one who hears God’s voice, but the one who can feel God’s heart. Heschel had no patience with the “god” of the philosophers – Aristotle’s famous “Unmoved Mover.” As Heschel read the Bible (and especially the prophets) he discovered what he called the pathos of God. The God of the Bible, he said, is a God who loves us even when we do behave like stupid children who have no understanding; a God who loves us even to the point of His own broken heart. Jeremiah imagines God more like a frustrated Parent than an Unmoved Mover: “I’ve done everything I can,” God says. “I created humanity in my own image. I gave them the gift of Torah, a gift “sweeter than honey.” How on earth could they have messed things up so badly?”

Prophets like Jeremiah push us way out of our comfort zones. But they do so for a reason: they are trying to push us hard enough and far enough out of our denial so that we will take another look at our lives and the world around us, so that we will see the parts of ourselves and the world that we would prefer to cover up. They do this not to depress us but to wake us up, so that we can truly live. When tragedy strikes, we ask, “where is God?” The answer that the prophets give is one we don’t usually want to hear: that God has been holding up God’s end of the bargain, and the real question is this: where are God’s people?

Most of us can’t bear too much reality, and we don’t really want to hear about the pain of the world. Denial is one response; getting numb is another—and we have any number of options in our time to help us get numb. Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you need to shout.” I’ve always thought that is as good an image of what the prophets are up to as any. They seem like mad men at times, shouting away. But they have the difficult task of breaking through our defenses to get us to see what we prefer not to see. Nine years ago our collective defenses were ripped down, and so Jeremiah’s hard words hardly needed for the preacher to say more. But what about today, on these waning days of late summer nine years later?

When I thought about what to say as ministries start back up again this weekend, I confess that I thought a lot about avoiding Jeremiah altogether for something happier. But as I prayed and reflected on these texts, I realized again that Jeremiah lived through hard times and he refused to sugarcoat the realities of the pain and hardship of the Babylonian Captivity. This first decade of this millennium has also been a very difficult and polarizing time for our nation and for the wider Church as well. We are not immune from all of that here at St. Francis. It seems to me that we come to church not for sugarcoating but for a dose of reality, and that our several callings to ministry take us not to some dream world that we wish existed but more deeply into this world, with all of its warring madness and all of its challenges. It also seems more obvious to me on this ninth anniversary of 9/11 more than any that have gone before that we’ve not yet grieved, and because we have not yet grieved we have not moved on. We are collectively, as a nation, stuck.

From the perspective of hindsight we know that the road ahead for Jeremiah and the Babylonian exiles would be a long one, as in something like a half century or so. We don’t like to hear such things, of course, in a culture that wants “closure” as fast as possible. We want someone to make it all better for us as quickly as possible and in the absence of a quick fix then there is always blame, or denial, or getting numb. But it is worth remembering that even through those decades of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah was able to imagine the dawn of a new day, and to speak of hope. If you can stay with that old bull-frog of a prophet all the way to chapter thirty-one, you do find good news. There he begins to talk about the day when God at long last will write the law not on tablets of stone, but on people’s hearts. That law is the law of love.

As followers of Jesus Christ, love is a non-negotiable. We are held in love and because of that we are called to love others. It is the core value that defines who we are and if we can’t live out of that core value in difficult times then it is really nonsense to pretend that it matters. If we cannot live out of and into that love when times are tough it’s nothing more than sentimentality. Love is not the same as being nice, or of liking everyone. Faithful people in Jeremiah’s day as in ours will and do disagree on many things. But in the Church, at least, we are called to disagree without polarizing and demonizing the other—for Christ’s sake. It is in this world that nearly a decade after 9/11 remains fearful, embittered, and grieving that you and I are called to serve, to speak up, and to act as “instruments of God’s peace.” It is in this world that we are called to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words. As in Jeremiah’s day, and centuries later in Corinth, so we too must remember that the law of love “is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude…it does not insist on its own way but strives for the truth.”

I didn’t agree with former President Bush on very much. But I admired and respected him when he went to the Washington Islamic Center on September 17, 2001, less than one week after 9/11. There, as you may recall, he said that Islam is a religion of peace and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had nothing to do with the teachings of Islam or the sincere Muslims of the world who deplore terrorism. He went on to say that those who inflict harm on innocent Muslims are “just as wrong” as those who carry out terrorist attacks.

Nine years later, as a nation we seem to be in danger of forgetting that insight. In places like Gainsville, Florida and Murfreesboro, Tennessee and even at Ground Zero itself we are in danger of acting like the First Amendment applies to everyone except Muslims. We are in danger of letting fear and ignorance and blame beat down our better angels.

As Christians, you and I are called to do better than that: we are called to love our neighbors even when we may not agree with them. This past week, in the midst all of the talk about burning Korans in Florida, the American Bible Association said it would stand in solidarity with Muslims by offering a program to give away two Korans for every one burned. This gesture was, it seems to me, a courageous witness rooted in Biblical faith. Maybe the only good thing that came out of this last couple of weeks of media circus in Florida is that people on the right and on the left were united in the belief that burning books, and especially holy books, is never a good idea.

Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us. My job as a preacher and pastor—and our work as “all of the people” called to share ministry in Christ’s name—is to remind one another of what we already know: that perfect love really does cast out fear.

There is a prayer found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer that to my mind fits for this occasion. We remember, of course, those who died on 9/11 and we pray for their families and friends. But out of that reality may we also offer a prayer for the whole human family as we remember the work God has given us to do. Let us, then, pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


On this ninth anniversary of 9/11, I have been reading from The Holy Qur'an. It remains an enigmatic and confusing book for me, a confessing Christian. (Then again, at some level so, too, does The Holy Bible remain, for me, enigmatic and confusing!) But the Bible tends (mostly) toward narrative, which the Qur'an does not. (For me it feels more like reading Leviticus or Proverbs than, say, Genesis or Mark's Gospel.) And even when the Bible leaves me bewildered, more than forty years of reading and teaching Scripture has left me with at least a skill-set that I simply don't have when it comes to the Qur'an.

Nevertheless, I am working on it because I believe that Jesus commands me to encounter "the other" with at least some basic understanding and respect, on the path toward neighborly love.

Two Surahs have caught my attention on this day:

"Say: O ye that reject faith! I worship not that which ye worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your way, and to me mine." (Surah 109 Al-Kafirun)

"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah/God* hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah/God heareth and knoweth all things." (Surah 2 Al-Baqarah 256)

* It is worth remembering that "Allah" is not a proper name that Muslims give to God, but the standard Arabic word for God. Arabic speaking Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians also use the word "Allah" to speak of YHWH and the Abba of Jesus.

Taken together, these two Surahs suggest, if not respect, at the very least tolerance for people of other faith traditions. I am sure that there are other parts of the Qur'an that could be quoted to argue differently, as there are also verses from the Bible that could also be quoted to make the case that there is only ONE way to God. But for my own part, I can say "amen" to these words, and even hope that they lead us toward deeper understanding and respect for one another. They are a modest proposal for a modest beginning to live and let live - and that's a start in the right direction.

With the (Christian) Process Theologians, I like the image of God as "divine lure." Even God, that language suggests, does not force faith. Instead, God invites. If God doesn't force God's own self on us, but leaves us free to say "yes" or "no" - then it seems to me that people of faith must, at the very least, show that same respect to one another. That's a place where we might begin - or begin again.

In exploring the sacred text of Islam, I am not forgetting to say my own prayers, especially this one from The Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in the bonds of love, and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Week When Faith Can Unite Us (John Borelli)

John Borelli works at my alma mater, Georgetown University. A couple of years ago another Hoya, my friend Chris, and I went together to the program that John runs on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Christian leaders (most but not all pastors) read from and discussed the The Holy Qur'an; Muslim leaders (most but not all imams) read from and discussed the Holy Bible. And we had joint sessions that were held together as well. It's a great program that I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Islam.

John Borelli, Special to CNN

Editor's note: John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives to Dr. John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, served more than 16 years in ecumenical and interreligious relations at the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He serves also as national coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the U. S. Jesuit Conference.

This is no ordinary week. Take a look at the calendar.

If you follow developments in the arena of religion and public life, you have probably noticed.

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the High Holy Days for Jews, falls this week, as does Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration of the breaking of the monthlong Ramadan fast for Muslims -- two special times of holiness for many Americans. Then, at week's end comes the ninth anniversary of 9/11, a day commemorated with sober religious and secular observance.

These important days have overlapped, coincidentally, during a time of heated religious controversy and discourse, and an upwelling of spiritual support, as well, centered largely around Islam.

The calendar confluence seems designed to offer an opportunity for hope, for re-aligning priorities, for soul-searching and commitment.

This was demonstrated for us in a number of remarkable interfaith statements of spiritual and civic solidarity made this week -- from Christians, Jews and Muslims, playing across TV screens in news broadcasts and coursing through cyberspace.

In Washington on Tuesday, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Union for Reform Judaism declared that it is no longer an option to be silent about growing animosity toward Muslims in our society.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick added that attacking one religion in America is attacking them all.

In New York, two imams joined two rabbis and three leading Christian clergy, including Timothy Dolan, Catholic archbishop of New York, to deplore the recent polarization and lack of civility and to affirm that anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity, or anti-Islam have no place in their communities.

Likewise in Chicago, Illinois, and Boston, Massachusetts, the same strong guidance was offered by religious leaders of all three traditions. The outpouring was truly notable.

And this is no mystery, given the long summer of broad national debate about Islam and the rights of Muslims.

The unfolding proposal to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan has been one focus. But Muslims in other cities are also encountering new difficulties as they try to build centers and mosques. The pastor of a small Christian community in Gainesville, Florida, the Dove World Outreach Center, threatened -- and then backed away from -- making September 11 "International Burn a Quran Day."

There is a reason these issues are so resonant and challenging for Americans.

Nearly every adult American knows what she or he was doing on that day in 2001. Especially for today's 20- and 30-year-olds, 9/11 is a defining event because they experienced it and other developments involving terrorism, uncertainty and war at such an impressionable age.

Such events (for an older generation it might have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy) set the tone for our lives and color our vision of ourselves, the world, God and whatever else is significant to us.

We Americans live in a self-centered, post-9/11 world. Heightened security complicates our lives; the amount of time we are daily on camera still surprises us. We are at war in the Middle East, struggling with an economic downturn, a depressed housing market, a tough jobs picture and polarization in our society growing more acute and heated each day.

Trying times. Worldwide poverty is on the rise, and violence afflicts so many in our world, whether through weather, more altered by climate changes, or human interventions that seem to leave less and less room for mercy.

When a small group commits violence against others, whether in the horrendous proportions of 9/11 or as an act of desecration against another's holy book, the world experiences the effects instantaneously and deeply. It wants to react, to respond.

But this year, we are fortunate to be able to view these extraordinary times together through the lens of our faith tradition, in our devotions and our shared humanity.

We become mindful. Fasting reminds Jews, Muslims and Christians to break with routine and re-consider what defines us for what we are and how we deal with present events as peoples of faith.

The Ramadan fast, following the lunar calendar, begins a few weeks earlier each year in the common calendar. It ends with the celebratory Eid Al-Fitr, or breaking of the fast.

In 2001 it fell on the weekend of December 15 and 16, just two months after the attacks. Pope John Paul II invited Christians to a special day of fasting with already fasting Muslims on December 14 -- the last Friday during Ramadan and the second Friday of Advent that year. He urged all to pray with fervor for a stable peace, based on justice, and for adequate solutions to present conflict -- among the deepest values of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Nine years later, Eid Al-Fitr coincides with Rosh Hashanah, when Jews begin their annual looking backward and forward, re-examining their lives and what is of real consequence to them in their relations within Judaism, with God and with the world.

Jews look ahead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which they will observe on September 18 with fasting and intense prayers. Muslims have acted similarly for a month, gathering in mosques to recite portions of the Quran, praying for others and straightening out themselves and God. Christians attempt this in Advent and more so during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.

It is as though the coincidence of holy days and 9/11 at the end of Labor Day week this year drew Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders to unison as this important week began.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Borelli.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I Don't HATE Glenn Beck! (Really)

Yesterday I was at a gathering with some ecumenical clergy friends from Holden: together we are truly a microcosm of the wider church, representing the spectrum of faith and practice in the church today. One of my colleagues (who is also a Facebook friend) made a comment something like this: "I'm not a fan of Glenn Beck, but I don't hate him the way Rich does."

Everyone laughed, of course, including me. I have been a bit obsessed with Glenn Beck's rantings and ravings lately, I admit. But I do not hate the man. Really. In fact, here is the thing: I do not know the man. If he were my brother-in-law, or next door neighbor, or a parishioner, I don't know what I would think of Glenn, the man. The piece that I have read that comes closest to what I think is an accurate description of what I imagine that person to be like "in real life" was written recently by Kathleen Parker, who I think rightly diagnoses him as a "dry drunk."

All I can really know is the clown-face he presents to the public by way of his right-wing persona. And it is fair to say that I'm not fond of that persona. I know him mostly by way of John Stewart, who loves to skewer him. But even though I 'm a huge Stewart fan, I don't take him at face value. So on occasion I turn on Glenn Beck "live" so I can see him unfiltered and watch him at least until my blood pressure gets dangerously high.

While I sometimes wonder if he really even takes himself seriously, I do worry that others do; and I think in an already polarized and fearful world he doesn't help matters. I don't hate Glenn Beck. But I find his ideas dangerous and I am genuinely mystified as to what some people (including some of my friends whom I do know and totally like) see in him.

First he told his viewers to "run" from churches that preach social justice. More recently he's taken on liberation theology. As a pastor I know something about both, and I dare to believe I know more about both topics than Glenn Beck does. In taking him on, I may be "taking bait" that would be better left alone. But in challenging his ideas, this is not the case of a pastor venturing into the politics of the day. Rather, Glenn Beck is trying to claim the mantle of "theologian" and it seems that clergy like yours truly ought to respond by saying, "he has no idea what he is talking about." One is entitled to one's own opinions, as the saying goes; but not one's own facts.

Glenn Beck's "theology" (if one can really call it that) is focused almost exclusively on a narrow personal morality rather than neighborly love. So when Christians speak of "social justice" or God's "liberating love" and turn to the Exodus story, the prophets, and ultimately to Jesus of Nazareth (who said we would be judged by how we treat the "least of these" among us)they are on way more solid footing with Biblical faith than Beck is.

That doesn't mean that "social justice" is the sum-total of the Christian gospel, or that "liberation theology" is the only way to do theology. It is, however, to say that those who mean to take up their cross and follow Jesus are saying yes to the Kingdom of God, which is not only about getting to "heaven" when we die, but about the work of doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God right now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Douglas John Hall

I first encountered Douglas John Hall, emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, when I read his book, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context at the beginning of my D.Min program at Columbia Theological Seminary; I think it was in the Fall 1999 or 2000.

Hall is the featured writer in a series I always enjoy called "How My Mind Has Changed" in The Christian Century. (Sept 7, 2010 issue) CC has run this series at intervals since 1939; over the twenty-five years I've been reading The Christian Century the reflections in this series have been humbling and provocative (with just one notable exception, where as I remember it a Biblical theologian took the opportunity to challenge the whole premise of the series and said, essentially, I haven't changed my mind at all!)

Hall, in contrast, ends the essay he entitled "Cross and Context" with these words: "probably if I am granted more years beyond my present 82 my mind will change again. But I hope that it will always be change for the sake of distinguishing a living and therefore modest faith from the great temptation of all religion, which is to imagine itself true."

But here are the words which I think speak to our time and to the challenges the Church faces, words I want to continue to ponder and ruminate on and live by:

Instead of clinging to absurd and outmoded visions of grandeur, which were never Christ's intention for his church, serious Christian communities ought now to relinquish triumphalistic dreams of majority status and influence in high places and ask themselves about the possibilities of witnessing to God's justice and love from the edges of empire - which is where prophetic religion has always lived. Instead of mourning their losses or naively hoping for their recovery, Christians who are serious about their faith ought to ask themselves why all the metaphors Jesus uses to depict his "little flock" are metaphors of smallness: salt, yeast, light - small things that can serve larger causes because they do not aim to become big themselves.

To this I would simply add Amen and Amen!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

For Labor Day (from The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 261)

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I was the first of the Simpson clan to graduate from college. My grandfather, who worked his whole life for the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company used to like to tell me that he was glad I had that opportunity, "so that I would not have to work for a living." He meant it (honestly) as a compliment; and I received it in the spirit with which it was intended. I work hard, but relative to the work my grandfather did, I don't work that hard to make a living.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have our "work-for-pay" link up pretty closely with our "vocations." But even clergy know that it is never a perfect match. A fairly high percentage of my work week is rewarding and meaningful and even uses the gifts God has given me. But within every week there are priestly responsibilities (or at least rectorly ones!) that are less life-giving. Even so, being a priest is not the equivalent of my total vocation: I see being a son, brother, parent, father, friend and neighbor as also part of the "work" that God has given me to do, even if I don't get paid for it.

Still, when all is said and done, it is essential for the vast majority of us to have an income, and it is better for society if that income is "just" and fair. If we get paid to put bread on the table for work we actually enjoy doing, well so much the better.

Labor Day is, for me, (as the prayer above says so well) an opportunity to reflect on community, and why we need each other. I can't do surgery. And I really am not very good at growing tomatoes or carrots either. I wouldn't know how to kill a chicken and de-feather it. I can sew a button if I need to but I couldn't make my own clothes if my life depended on it. So I need other people to do those things that sustain me--even if I don't know their names. Every day, from the moment I wake up and drink that first sip of coffee, and then take a shower (if the plumbing in my house goes I assure you I need to pay a plumber) and get each and every moment of my day I am dependent upon others.

And so are you, my faithful readers. Who started saying anything other than this? Who started spreading the lie that we are self-reliant and need no one but ourselves? That we make our own destinies. We need each other because our lives are interconnected. We don't all have to know how to fix the electricity after an ice storm like my grandfather did. But somebody needs to know how to do that, and they need to do it well, and faithfully, because the rest of us depend on them.

Whether we preach, teach, mop floors, care for the sick, dig ditches, run multi-national corporations, or coach Little League we are called to do the work we have been given to do, work that hopefully aligns with our natural gifts and inclinations, for an old-fashioned and seemingly out-of-vogue reason: for the COMMON good. May we remember that today.

And while we are at it may we also remember all who are unemployed and underemployed: may they and their families not lose hope in the midst of troubling times.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Living the Dream

Only very rarely have I posted sermons on this blog, especially in their entirety. But for two reasons I want to post my sermon for this weekend, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

First: when I try to teach the Bible to undergraduates I try to get them to read one text very closely, which is how I was taught to read, pray, and preach on the Bible. I think this is basically right and yet the Gospels are part of a larger narrative, an unfolding drama and the way we read the Bible in Church and preach on it (in little pieces) sometimes means we lose the flow. So I am being a bit "cute" here by talking about how people are away in the summer but the desire to review these important chapters from Luke, from the Christological declaration at Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem is a sincere - and I think important - one.

Second: readers of this blog will recognize many different threads here from the past month's ruminations. In fact, while I continue to enjoy blogging, my best "theology" is still in the pulpit where I try to reflect on the place where Scripture and culture intersect. Issues of community, what it means to be Church, how we treat our Muslim neighbors, the "costs of discipleship" all come together at some level in this sermon, or at least I hope they do. After we remember and honor the dream there is still one thing more to do: to live it!

Here then is my sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

A lot of congregations, including this one, experience a drop in attendance during the summer months. Unlike some of my colleagues I don’t get too upset about it; I just figure that all those churches up in Maine and New Hampshire and on the Cape are packed in July and August!

Back here in the suburbs, it’s customary to have something like a Welcome Back Sunday or a Rally Sunday early in September. Next weekend, church school will resume and we will commission lay ministers. We will, so to speak, “rally the troops.” And the week after that we’ll have a big parish picnic which will give us a chance to welcome each other back and begin again. Labor Day weekend is sort of an in-between week—almost, but not yet; the last weekend of summer and the first weekend in September as we return to our fall worship schedule.

Time has not stood still, however, since May. The long season after Pentecost has continued to unfold; in fact, today is the fifteenth week since Pentecost. We have continued to plod along in what the Church has sometimes called “Ordinary Time,” trying to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ by traveling to upstate New York for work camp or knitting prayer shawls in Fellowship Hall or making crafts for the Church Mouse Fair in October. The sick have been visited, and we have had baptisms, weddings, and funerals over these past fifteen weeks, trusting God’s Holy Spirit to continue to burn in us and blow through us. Much of our lives, it seems to me, is “ordinary time” with ordinary stuff that needs to get done.

All the while, we have continued to gather to hear the Word proclaimed and to share the Sacrament together, making our way through Luke’s Gospel. On June 7 we reached a turning point in that narrative as we read from the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There we heard Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi. “You are the Christ,” Peter said. But Jesus told Peter and the others not to tell anyone, at least not yet. And then he started talking about suffering and death. They weren’t ready for a Christ, a Messiah, like that. They wanted a superhero that would kick the Roman army back to Rome and here he was, insisting on being a servant, even to death on a Roman cross. That didn’t sound like very much fun.

Not too long after that, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51)—code language in the gospels that reminds us where that journey will end, on a cross outside the city walls. And the disciples continued to follow him there, perhaps more because they had no place else to go at that point than anything else. They still didn’t understand what he was up to. At some level, they still thought that his march on the capital was supposed to bring about regime change and that they would end up with cabinet positions.
So over these past few months we’ve been “on the Way.” We’ve been invited to walk along with Jesus and the disciples from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way we’ve heard Jesus telling stories like the one about a man who behaved like a neighbor. It’s an easily misunderstood and trivialized story, but like so many of Jesus’ parables, it is in fact earth-shattering. A good, righteous, upstanding citizen asks Jesus how far neighborly love needs to extend. Is he supposed to love people who disagree with him politically or theologically? Is he supposed to love even sinners? Is he supposed to love illegal immigrants? Is he supposed to love people who don’t worship, as he does, in the Temple?

Jesus has this way of turning things around. He could say, as he does elsewhere: yes, you have to love everyone, even Samaritans. But that would leave the polite, sophisticated lawyer still feeling smug and holier-than-thou. Alright, he might say, I guess I can try to do that…Instead, however, Jesus tells him a story—a parable that leaves him with vertigo. Suppose, Jesus says, a nice young lawyer like you gets mugged and beaten up and left in a ditch to die. And because you have been beaten beyond recognition your well-dressed neighbors drive right on by, pretending that they don’t even see you. And then this guy who is on his way to the mosque, a guy on the FBI’s watch-list—he stops his car, gets out, and helps you out. Of course your first reaction as you see him coming toward you is that he might finish you off. But no; he goes way above and beyond the call of duty and treats you like family. What’s it like to experience neighborly love from someone you have been taught to fear like that? How does that rock your world?

Jesus leaves the lawyer, who begrudgingly admits that “he guesses the man did behave like a neighbor”, pondering what would need to happen in his life for him to “go and do likewise.” And he leaves us with the same question, a question that never gets old because whether your society demonizes Samaritans or Muslims the story has the potential to be endlessly new and transformative.

We also heard about Mary and Martha this summer, two sisters trying to figure out how to balance “being” and “doing.” And we heard Jesus teaching his disciples—teaching us—to pray: “Abba: hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…” We heard about a family dispute over an inheritance and we heard about a man who thought he could postpone living until retirement only to drop dead a week after his big retirement party. We heard Jesus giving a stewardship sermon in August, telling us that we should be mindful about where we keep our assets and that it ought to be in a place where moth and rust can’t eat away at them. Basically he says that the more we have the more fearful we become about losing it all, so he suggests that we just give it all away and along with that giving attitude let go of our worry and fear as well. “Where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there will your hearts be also.”

And then meek and mild Jesus started to go a little “John the Baptist” on us. He began to speak in the twelfth chapter of Luke about bringing fire to earth and division within families. As if we need any more of that! And by the thirteenth chapter of Luke, he is talking about weeping and gnashing of teeth, and of course an old familiar theme: that the last would be first and the first would be last. This kind of talk really began to make people squirm and so Jesus finds himself increasingly in conflict with “the-powers-that-be.”

Last weekend I worshipped over at Immanuel Lutheran Church; it’s nice sometimes to have a chance to sit in the pews and see how the other half lives. But I heard the same gospel reading you did here (or in Maine or on the Cape or wherever you may have been!)—about how by this time the Pharisees were “watching Jesus closely.” They were keeping a very close eye on him so that when he screwed up they’d get him good. Jesus, in turn, is watching them just as closely. He sees how they jockey for position, how they try to find the place of honor at the table, how they worry so much about making sure that they are first.

One of the reasons I wanted to be with the Lutherans last weekend was because they are in the process of calling a new Associate Pastor over there, and he was preaching and I thought on that last weekend of summer it would be nice to be able to see this guy who will, I hope, soon be a colleague. As Lutherans are wont to do, before he preached the “adult” sermon he did a children’s sermon. He had all the kids line up in front of him because he wanted to bribe them with gifts. And then he did something very cool. After he got them all lined up, he went to the back of the line and started with the last kid. Everyone got a gift: but the last were first, and the first were last.

It made me wonder about what it’s like on the playground to be the last kid picked for a kickball game, not just once or twice but day after day and week after week and year after year. And then I began to wonder what it is like for people who live their whole lives feeling like they are in last place, well beyond the playground. As hard as it’s been to be a Sox fan this season, what would it be like to be a Baltimore Orioles fan? And far more seriously: what it is like to feel trapped in the cycle of poverty that leaves you without hope. Whether you live in parts of Worcester, or Rochester, NY, or in San Salvador or East Jerusalem—what does it do to your psyche, to your soul, when you lose hope? Imagine what good news it is in all of those places when Jesus says, “in the Kingdom of God we’ll begin at the back of the line? The last will be first…And imagine also how disconcerting that must feel for those who feel entitled to always being first.

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus. I have a feeling that most of the people in those large crowds were people who had spent a lot of time in the back of the line, or at the back of the bus. And they were beginning to walk with a little bit of a lightness in their step as they traveled with Jesus: walking with a little more hope, a little more courage, a little more joy. And then this enigmatic-demanding Jesus turns to them and says the words we heard today:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Simply put, Jesus tells them that discipleship is hard and nobody should pretend that it isn’t hard. He says that the real work will require not just spectators but followers who are willing to make sacrifices, disciples who are committed to the cause of God’s reign on earth No doubt that cause will experience setbacks and disappointments along the way. But it is a cause that has an end in mind—the vision articulated by the prophets of old and the visionaries like John of Patmos: of God’s Shalom, of peace on earth and good will to all. The problem is that the only way to get there is by way of the cross.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly five decades ago, “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” Unearned suffering is redemptive. That was not a popular idea in the early part of the first-century in the midst of Roman imperial power, even among Jesus closest friends. And it didn’t get the biggest applause lines on the mall in 1963, either—not like the words, “I have a dream.” And yet for Dr. King—and more importantly for Jesus the Christ—God’s dream of a world where the last are first and the first are last doesn’t come easily and it doesn’t come without a cross. It doesn’t come without some unearned suffering along the way. This sounds scandalous to some and foolish to others; but it is God’s way…

And so we begin again: we are ready to “rally the troops” and to “welcome one another back in the name of Christ.” But as we do all that, may we remember that what we are called to isn’t a nice social club that makes us feel good about ourselves. Like the witnesses who have gone before us, we are called to take up the cross and to follow Jesus: until the bells of freedom really do ring across this and every land for all people, until the last are first, and the first are last.