Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Trinity Church gathers at 7:45 a.m and 10:30 a.m
Today I'm back on "tour" - this time trying to keep up with the Rev. Dr. John Stubbs, who serves two congregations: Trinity Church in Whitinsville and St. John's in Millville. The readings for the day can be found here; the sermon is focused on today's epistle reading. 

The scholars tell us that Paul (or whoever wrote the words we heard today addressed to the first-century Church in Philippi) is quoting a hymn in chapter two. It’d be like writing a letter to someone and then breaking into song:
St. John's worships at 9 a.m. 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ praise Him all creatures here below…
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me / I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see…
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world / be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world.
                   Silent night, holy night – all is calm, all is bright.

You can kind of hear those songs in your head, right – even if I choose not to sing them to you. They tap into something more than our intellect. They connect your head and your heart, your body and soul.

The altar at St. John's
Music does that. And we hear it differently, because we already know it at a deep level. And since it’s something we share as a community, it binds us together. We aren’t thinking it in the left hemisphere of our own left brains; we are praying it at some deep level together as members of a mystical Body.

Liturgical language can function in the same way too, even if we don’t sing it. Phrases ring bells that are cumulative. People who don’t resonate with liturgical traditions like the Episcopal Church sometimes say that written prayers can become rote, that we can say them without meaning them. And sometimes that is a fair critique. We can become mindless, rather than mindful, in our praying.

But for me, the solution to that challenge isn’t to make everything off-the-cuff and spontaneous, but rather to be present to it. Those of us drawn to liturgical prayer like it that we can go deeper and hear new things each time, with fresh ears. Such language binds us together – which is, after all, the root meaning of the word “religion.”

So back to this epistle reading from the second chapter of Philippians: we need to be aware that this is what the writer is up to – that what he says about Jesus is not original to him but is liturgical language – poetic language. A hymn:

…though he was in the form of God,
He did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
        And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
         Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
          so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
          and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Purgatory Chasm - just up the road from Trinity
He’s tapping into the collective psyche of the Philippians by reflecting on a hymn that everyone knows.  Toward what end? What does it mean to have the mind of Christ, and for us to have that same mind?

It seems clear to me, at least, that Paul does not mean that having the mind of Christ will mean that everyone will agree. In fact the only thing all those congregations that Paul writes to seem to have in common—be they in Rome or Philippi or Corinth or Galatia or Millville or Whitinsville—is that they do not agree. Maybe he’s frustrated and he’s saying, why can’t you all agree? Just do a Vulcan mind-meld with Jesus and you’ll all be on the same page?

Now Paul may have had days when he felt that way, but I’m fairly certain that is not what he’s saying here. Diverse opinions can be a challenge, but they are also a gift. What Paul is saying is to be humble. To not Lord it over one another. To not sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal but to be patient and kind and gentle with each other because the life of faith is about faith, hope and love – but especially love. He’s saying to be like Jesus or as the theologians put it, to imitate Christ.

The mind of Christ is not unanimity. The mind of Christ is about practicing humility. The hymn that Paul quotes claims that Jesus emptied himself into the form of a servant takes our minds back to that last night of his life when he wraps a towel around his waist and starts washing feet. The Lord of Lords comes into the world to serve. The big $10,000 theological Greek vocabulary word is kenosis. Literally “to empty.”

In Christian communities like this one that mean to follow Jesus, this means letting go of our own agendas, in order to seek God’s will.  

I’m re-learning about this in my work on the bishop’s staff. Anyone who has ever done serious work with congregations learns this lesson to greater and lesser extents. Most of us come to the table with some preconceived notions of what we want, what we think a congregation or diocese ought to look like. But we are not the Church alone – we are only the Church when two or three gather together. And as soon as we do that we need humility, and patience. We need to learn how to empty ourselves in order to be open to what God is up to.  

We celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism at Trinity
For me this comes down primarily to learning how to relinquish control, as we seek first the Kingdom of God rather than our own ego needs. Our home lives, too, require this same kind of kenotic love—this self-emptying love. Marriage requires it and so do the bonds between parent and child, especially as our children grow up and we need to let go and re-learn how to relate to them as adults. My two “little boys” are now twenty-four and twenty. Yet in my own mind I can see still see them as they looked on the day we brought them home from the hospital. The process of moving from that day to this one is about learning to let go – about kenosis – about relinquishing control so that each might continue to become the adult God means for them to be, not who I want them to be.

I want to suggest that this old hymn is about real life in the church and that it still holds true for clergy and congregations, for bishops and dioceses. Kenotic love is about letting go of our need to control and serving – which requires that we trust the Holy Spirit. This is how the love of Christ is made manifest in our very midst. 

What we proclaim with our lips, then, may we live in our lives. Always with God's help. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Anne Frank's Witness

One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we'll be people again and not just Jews! (Anne Frank, 11 April 1944)

Today I had an opportunity to visit the secret annex where Ann Frank lived with her family. Like many people I read her diary - many years ago. But being in that space today was very moving for me and those whom I am traveling with in Amsterdam.

I found this site which gives some sense of the experience. Apparently a million people a year go to this museum - I know this morning we arrived at opening time (9 a.m) and still waited for forty-five minutes to get in. Even so, not everyone can do this - so in the absence of being here I commend the site to you.

Many years ago I visited Dachau It was a powerful experience and the sheer magnitude of what happened there was overwhelming. Today's experience was similar but different; at the end of our time there it felt so personal. Anne felt so close and present. While it is difficult to hold both this experience and that previous experience together, it seems that someone in trying to do just that we discover the reason that we must never forget - and commit ourselves to being agents of healing and reconciliation in the world. As Anne's father put it in 1970:
We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it's everyone's responsibility to fight prejudice. (Otto Frank, 1970)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was with the people of Trinity Church in Shrewsbury. The Scripture readings appointed for today can be found here.

Have you ever been in an ecumenical setting when it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer? If you don’t clarify how you are going to do it, then the Roman Catholics will invariably stop at “…but deliver us evil…” waiting for the priest to interject something before continuing. And when you get to that part about trespasses, the Baptists and some others will be talking about debts. And even at the end it’s only us Episcopalians and the Lutherans who extend forever to “forever and ever…”

It’s a great image of our diversity and unity in the Body of Christ that we don’t even agree precisely on how to pray the one prayer that Jesus taught us all to pray. There is a solution, and that is to pray the contemporary ecumenical version – which may get you equally into trouble with everybody!

You know what Garrison Keiler says about those of us who ask for our trespasses to be forgiven? He says that “when you pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ it sounds as if everyone is hissing at one another!” 

What is sin anyway? The image we get of sin when we pray using the English word “trespasses” is of a forest where the land is posted, and it says, “no trespassing.” To trespass is to “step over the line” - to transgress a boundary. Well, sin is like that sometimes, isn’t it? We cross the line and we go where we aren’t supposed to go, and when we do we hope the one upon whom we have trespassed doesn’t have a loaded shotgun. The goal is to get ourselves back on track as quickly as possible, back to a no trespassing zone.

Sometimes sin is like that. But when you talk about debt and debtors and a God who forgives our debt, a whole different notion of sin comes to mind. If you get into debt—I mean real serious debt—it can feel like you are drowning. If your credit cards are maxed out and the interest rate is something outrageous like 17%, then paying the minimum amount due every month is never, ever going to get you out of debt. So you start sinking deeper and deeper into what may feel like quicksand. That’s a very different image than trespassing, isn’t it?

The truth is that sin can be like both images, not either/or. Sometimes it is about crossing over a line and sometimes it is like being in a pit and not knowing how to get out of it. So it’s not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather about having both images before us when we think about sin.  The problem, though, is that we get locked into the habit of praying it one way. “Trespasses” just sounds more Anglican. We might almost even think that’s the word Jesus used until someone reminds us he was a first-century Jew who didn’t speak a word of English.

I wonder what it would be like to pray the Lord’s Prayer for a liturgical season like the Baptists do: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We’d stumble for sure which is part of what change does to us – because old habits are familiar and they are hard to change and we might even have a whole lot of emotional energy around such a change. Don’t worry, I’m not going to impose that on you today or in this season. What I’m wanting to do is to raise the question of how language shapes what we believe. And to notice that the Bible, including Jesus in today’s gospel reading, talks a lot about debt and debtors.

So Peter asks Jesus about how many times he should forgive someone who hurts him. “Is seven enough?” he wants to know. Jesus tells him it isn’t nearly enough—and tells him maybe he should start to think about a far bigger number, something like seventy times seven…

And then he tells Peter a story, because stories are better than rules. Stories have the potential to change our hearts. And this story that Jesus tells about forgiveness today isn’t about trespasses but debts.

The thing is that we live at a different time and a different place than where it was first told. So before we can hear the story, we need to do a little math. (Are you ready? I bet no one told you there would be math today in church, did they?)

One talent equals approximately fifteen years salary. One denarius equals one day’s salary.

So we need to convert these amounts into dollars and cents if we are to have any chance of getting the point today. So let’s say that the median family income in a town is $92,000. In fact this is not some mythological town – I Googled median income in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and that is the number reported by the last census. But I’m not great at math so let’s round it up to keep it simple and say that the median household income in this town is $100,000. For a person making $100,000 a year, one talent (remember: fifteen years of wages) is equal to $1.5 million.

But the guy in Jesus’ story owes his lord ten thousand talents. So he is in debt $15 billion.
Using the same median household income, a person making $100,000 a year is making about $2000 a week – or about $300 a day. So if the second guy owed the first guy 100 denarii – that is 100 days worth of work,  that’s something to the tune of about $30,000.   

Get it? The first thing we are meant to do is laugh, because Jesus is funny. He’s a first-century Jew prone to middle-eastern hyperbole to make a point. This guy, let’s call him Charlie, is in debt $15 billion. And his buddy, let’s call him Jack – he owes Charlie $30,000. And what happens? Charlie is forgiven a $15 billion dollar debt and then goes looking to collect from Jack.

The first debt is an absolutely ludicrous amount, a debt which even Bill Gates would have difficulty forgiving - $15 billion. And it’s forgiven! The second amount, while no small potatoes, is something far more reasonable by comparison—something that actually could be forgiven, an amount that it is reasonable to expect might be repaid- $30,000—a little over three month’s salary. The kind of debt some of you might accrue if you are not careful. So this guy is forgiven a huge debt with lots of zeros, and then goes after the guy who owes him $30,000. When you put it like that, what happens? I think we are supposed to laugh. Are you insane?

What Jesus is doing, of course, is turning the tables on old Rocky—Peter, the Rock upon whom the baptized community is built. Remember the story is another response to Peter’s question: how many times do I have to forgive someone. As many as seven? Seventy times seven?

But Jesus turns the tables Peter, and on us. He’s saying you can’t have it both ways. You can’t rely solely on God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness for yourself and then treat others by keeping score. You can’t say, as one pop star used to sing, “oops, I did it again” when you cause someone else pain and then turn around and demand “justice” and “an eye for an eye” when you are hurt.

Peter knows that conflict will be a part of our lives until the end of the ages: in our families, in our congregations, in our schools, in our workplaces. Until Christ sets things right and all is made new and every tear is wiped away, we will hurt each other and be hurt. So he’s wondering about how often he should forgive the jerk who hurts him. But Jesus invites Peter—and people in every generation—to ponder how much forgiveness we need in order to get through a week. All of us—if we paused to consider this parable and tried to live out the implications in our daily lives—would be forced to acknowledge that we have been loved and forgiven by God and by our neighbor for so much.

And yet very often we become miserly when we are the ones asked to do the forgiving. If we aren’t careful, we can tend to magnify the hurt done to us and we can tend to minimize the hurt we cause others. So Jesus is consistent in this parable with that old advice he gave about stopping ourselves from finding the splinter in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own. The parable works in much the same way, I think. He invites us to turn that telescope around and to notice just how much we have been forgiven—by God to be sure, but also by others who have loved us in holy, life-giving ways. And then to live that way with others. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. It’s the story of a strained and eventually shattered relationship that causes the boy, Paco, to run away from home. Like the father of the prodigal son, this father in this story longs to welcome his son home, and so he goes in search of him. When he comes to Madrid he places an ad in the newspaper which reads:

Dear Paco,
Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon.
All is forgiven.

The next day, at noon, there are 800 Pacos at the newspaper office—all apparently seeking forgiveness from their fathers.

We live in a world that is in desperate need of forgiveness. In a world of shrill demands for perfection, Jesus offers hope for the world. Nobody said it would be easy. But put the word out: Paco, John, Catherine, Ron, Susan, Jack, Louise—all is forgiven. All is grace.

Come then and eat: you are all invited guests at the Supper of the Lord, this great banquet table is set, and all are welcome. All is forgiven, and all are loved. Taste and see that the Lord is good and know that we have, all of us, been forgiven so much. And then go and forgive others, as you have been forgiven, with a glad and generous heart. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Feast of Paul Jones

Today is The Feast of Paul Jones in the calendar of Holy Women, Holy Men. The collect and readings for this day can be found here.

For the first three hundred years of the church’s life, the path of non-violent resistance was the only accepted norm for all baptized persons. If a Roman soldier or police officer, for example, wanted to become a Christian, they had to renounce their old work and find new employment before they could be baptized and become a part of the community. In those first centuries, the interpretation of what it meant to follow Jesus was that an “eye for an eye” belonged to the past: the new commandment was to love one’s enemies and to “turn the other cheek." Yes, even if they sought to harm you. That was "what Jesus would do." 

It’s important to remember the context: the Church clearly saw itself as radically counter-cultural. They were not yet worried about the difficult decisions that those who govern needed to make. The concern was to make a visible witness to another way to live in the world: the witness of peacemaker.

In the fourth century the context changed rather quickly and dramatically. First, Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian, issuing the Edict of Milan in 313. That edict brought an end to the persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire. It made it “cool” to be a Christian and many converted. Just sixty-seven years later, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Sadly, Christians have never seemed to do a whole lot better with power than non-Christians, and so once they had power it wasn’t very long before they misused it. Those who had previously been persecuted became the persecutors, now with the power to label dissenters as “heretics” and “infidels.”

In the midst of that cultural shift, St. Augustine was one of the first great theologians to re-think Christian perspectives on war. He (and later Aquinas) developed what would become the principles of just war - an approach that would have been unthinkable to those earlier Christians. But times had changed. Now the empire was “under God,” so to speak. So how to think through those hard ethical questions which, to be honest, the early church did not face? For a war to be just, they discerned, there must be just cause and a just intention. War must always be a last resort, i.e. all diplomatic means must be exhausted. There must be formal declaration, limited objectives, and proportionate means. Finally, there must be noncombatant immunity.[i] That last principle, of course, was a lot easier when battlefields were contained.

Just war theory is still taught and debated at West Point and Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, as well as in ROTC programs and OCS programs across the nation. Soldiers are held accountable to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and when, for example, a soldier knowingly harms innocent civilians (as at My Lai) they are held accountable.

There is a third approach to war that has also been a part of our heritage. It’s akin to what Muslims call jihad, i.e. “holy war.” It’s hard to deny that it has roots in the Bible—especially the Old Testament. It is the sense that God is on the side of the true believers. We don’t have to go back as far as the Crusades to find examples of this approach, either. In the bloodiest war this nation ever endured, both north and south claimed to have God on their side. And, I think, in the war on terror as well we have at times heard language that more closely resembles the language of Holy War than Just War: it has been framed as a battle between good and evil—at least by some.

Today is the Feast of Paul Jones. It is for me a sad story, in terms of how Paul Jones was treated. It does not speak well of the Church I love. Paul Jones was born in 1880, the son of a priest in the rectory of St. Stephen’s Church in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania - just about an hour from where I grew up. Think about that: he was born just fifteen years or so after the bloodiest war in the history of this nation. He became a committed pacifist and advocate for social justice. And then as Bishop of Utah, he said that he opposed all war, including the United States entrance into World War I—the “war to end all wars.”

Now I don’t know if Paul Jones was right to oppose that particular war or not. I lean toward pacifism myself, but I find my own views somewhere between there and a more Niebuhrian sense that sometimes war is a necessary evil, as long as those principles of just war are taken seriously. I pray daily for the men and women in our Armed Forces and give thanks for their willingness to serve in what is no doubt a violent, unsteady and confusing world. I do believe that it is possible to be a Christian and to bravely serve in uniform.

But I also think that if we cannot speak for peace in the church, then where? There has to be room in the Church for the prophetic voice and for the path of non-violence. Bishop Jones was not treated well for his views by the Church. He was, in fact, run out of town. He was pushed out of the House of Bishops for following his conscience and for refusing to serve Caesar above God.

Let me say it again: I don’t know if he was right. But the Church must be a place where if we are going to err, it will be on the side of non-violence. If we cannot tolerate the questions that the Paul Joneses of the world raise in the Body of Christ, then we are in big trouble. 

Pacifism is not the only Christian response to war. But it always must remain as a viable response to war—and maybe even our default. The burden of proof must always fall on government to show why a war may be justified. But the Church exists to create at least a space for dissent—to offer an alternative voice. The Church exists to create a space where we can pursue the truth, because as today's gospel reading puts it succinctly, only the truth will set us free.

There is no such thing as a war to end all wars. A hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, it seems almost quaint and certainly naive that anyone would have said so. The roots of World War II seem to have been in World War I - and the Cold War followed World War II - and what is now unfolding in the Middle East has a lot to do with the politics of the second half of the twentieth century. 

So I don’t know if the world would be better or worse if the world had heeded Paul Jones in his day. I suspect there wasn't much chance of that happening, in fact. But I know the Church would be better off if he'd continued to bear witness to the light in the midst of that dark hour. I know this: the Church is diminished when we silence the prophets in our midst. The search for truth is compromised when we silence the voices that challenge the status quo. For if we who pray for peace on earth and claim to follow the Prince of Peace cannot object to war, then who will?

[i] The summary of the principles of “Just War Theory” is taken from an article entitled Onward Christian Soldiers? Christian Perspectives on War,” by Timothy J. Demy, Th.D., Commander, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy.