Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I am serving at two congregations: St. John's in Millville and Trinity, Whitinsville. They are at the beginning of a time of clergy transition.

In the Bible, the sea represents danger and the forces of chaos. That goes all the way back to the beginning, to Genesis, where God pushes the waters up above the firmament and then separates the sea and the dry land which is to say this: God pushes back the chaos. The flood story in Genesis is about more than steady rain for forty days and nights; it’s about the chaos breaking in again. I suspect this intuition is bigger than the Bible, however, and that the Bible is simply reflecting the human experience here. Even when we see the beauty in it (and there is nothing like a day at the beach to revive the soul) there is also nothing quite like being at sea in the midst of a storm when chaos seems to be unleashed. The power of water can be pretty scary.  

So we need to get ourselves into that emotional place to hear what is happening in today’s gospel reading: being at sea in a boat that is tossing to and fro. If seasoned fishermen are scared, it’s a doozy. And the fact that it is nighttime when Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to “cross to the other side” only heightens that awareness of danger: it’s dark, too. In addition, the Sea of Galilee represents a boundary between Jew and Gentile: Jesus and his disciples are leaving the crowds of Jewish people behind in order to encounter “the other” as they cross uncharted waters.  

So there is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading. In fact, Mark is hitting his readers over the head to make sure we don’t miss it. Storm at sea. Nighttime. At the boundary between us and them.

There are six boat trips in Mark’s Gospel, two of which are narrated at some length. The boat is a metaphor for the Church. Notice how well the metaphor works, even if it is at times a bit overused. It suggests that the Church is called to set out on an adventure by trusting the Holy Spirit, as we set sail, to blow us in the right direction. There are times when we will feel seasick and afraid: the Greek word used in the fourth chapter of Mark could in fact be translated as “timid.” It suggests that the disciples are tempted to be timid landlubbers who would rather hang around Galilee than head out on dangerous waters at night into unknown territory to encounter strangers.

Jesus is saying, however, in today’s gospel reading that the antidote to our timidity is to put our trust in Him as the One whom even the winds and the sea obey. Notice where Jesus is: he’s in the boat with the disciples.  In their anxiety and timidity they cry out because it feels as if God isn’t paying attention. But the truth is that Christ is already present; he’s already right there in the boat with them. He simply refuses to join the disciples in their anxiety.

Sleeping peacefully is a metaphor for trust in God. Have you ever noticed how sometimes we toss and turn like the sea itself when we are anxious and worried about things we usually don’t have any control over anyway? Our kid is out past curfew with the car or the bills are late or our loved one keeps forgetting things. According to the Psalmist, the anxious and the guilty toss and turn at night. But those who can come to the end of the day and pray “what is done is done, what is not done is not done; let it be” can sleep like babies.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

The key point in this narrative from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is that it makes a theological claim about Jesus: like God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, Jesus has power over the destructive forces of chaos that threaten to destroy the people of God. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The answer is that He is Jesus, the Son of God and He is worthy of our trust. We therefore need not be so timid!  We need not be afraid. We don’t have to stay close to the shore. We don’t have to toss and turn all night. We can set out on new adventures and trust that God is with us.

The disciples no doubt remembered and told this story because it helped them to overcome their fears after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In those early years of the Church’s life together as they continued to cross new boundaries, I imagine that they remembered this story for the same reason we tell stories about those times when we were afraid and it all worked out: so that maybe the next time we are in a boat and the waters rage we will be a little less afraid. So that maybe next time we’ll have a little more faith and remember that even the wind and sea obey him. That “he’s got the whole world in his hands…”

Remember that none of the gospel writers claim to be eyewitnesses with clipboards in hand. They aren’t making a documentary about Jesus’ life. That’s not the genre of what a gospel is. Mark isn’t on the shore watching all this unfold so he can write it down exactly as it happened in order to report it to us. This is so fundamentally important for us to remember if we mean to make any sense at all of Scripture.  Rather, like the whole of the gospel narratives, these stories got told and re-told orally over decades before they were written down, as the Church tried to find its way in the world, guided by the Holy Spirit. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels and he doesn’t write it down until forty years or so after the Resurrection. So already, by then, the story is laden with meaning. It has become quite literally “good news.” It’s a story that was told again and again and remembered as a word of hope. The stories get organized and shaped by communities that were facing their own boundary situations and their own challenges and fears. In the case of Mark’s community, most scholars think they lived in the very heart of the Roman Empire: a small, fledgling community of house churches in Rome. It must have felt to them at times that even if Jesus was in the boat with them that he was definitely sound asleep on some cushion in the stern. It must have felt to them at times as if somebody needed to wake Jesus up! Because as they tried to build communities that included both Jews and Gentiles, both slave and free, both male and female, it surely must have felt at times as if the boat would capsize under the conflicts that emerged.

Living into this new creation of Jesus isn’t easy. It requires courage and patience and incredible trust and its messy trying to get there. And so I imagine someone saying:

Remember that night when Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee at night and it felt scary to them? Remember how Jesus calmed the waters and stilled the winds and calmed their hearts and called them to fidelity and trust? I have this sense that he’s here, right now, with us—that it’s still true. That he’s alive and hasn’t deserted us at all; that he is here among us as a non-anxious presence among us. Maybe we will be alright too…

And so it goes, from generation to generation. Good news gets passed on as the wind and waters rage around us.

Now what I’ve done so far is called Biblical exegesis. Some teaching. Most congregations like this. They find it interesting. But the move to preaching sometimes looks like meddling and I’m about to make that move. I am a guest here so I don’t know what waters are raging around you in your personal lives right now. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Nevertheless, preaching must ask the question: what does this have to do with us?

Right now, our nation is polarized and preaching into that polarization is not easy. I think underneath our polarization, however, there is a lot of fear. People on the left and on the right and in the middle are afraid, even if we are afraid of different things. I think we need to try to get underneath the political talking points to that fear. At our own southern border we encounter some of the same challenges and opportunities that the disciples did on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We encounter our neighbors. And the Bible is clear: we are called to love our neighbor.
Immigration issues are complex and a fifteen-minute sermon isn’t going to develop a comprehensive immigration plan. That work lies beyond us and surely beyond me. But as the preacher today my job is to remind you all that we are people in the same boat, even if we get our news from different places and even when we disagree on political issues. We come here to remember that we are called to love God and to love our neighbor. We come here to remember what we learned in Sunday School, that Jesus loves the little children of the world. All the little children of the world; they are precious in His sight. Do you believe that? Perhaps in the midst of this storm we need to cry out: wake up Jesus, save us. Or at least remind us again you are with us in this boat.

If I were to ask you all today to take a 3x5 index card and write on it all the things you are afraid of right now for your congregation, I suspect the answers would not be that surprising to me. It’s always been hard to find and to afford good clergy but right not that’s a bigger challenge than it has been in a long time. What will happen next here? And how will it serve God’s mission? I wish I had a ready-made answer for you on that but I don’t. What I can say is that you need to be asking these questions together.

A lot of people in the world and in the church are afraid of a lot of things right now. And frightened, anxious people don’t tend to use their brains. They tend to be reactive. And also to act like functional atheists. What I mean by that is that we may feel like the boat is going down. But we forget that God is with us, already, in the boat. That is the heart of the Christian faith: that God is with us in Jesus; Emmanuel.

The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s fear. This story, like so many in the Gospels, is about trust, and in particular it’s about where we put our trust. Whom do we call out to when we are scared? If we call out to Jesus, we may have to wake him up because he doesn’t share our anxiety. He’s relaxed. He’s calm.

Whatever comes next for Trinity and St. John’s and whatever comes next for this nation of ours will emerge from honest and difficult conversations that are rooted not in fear, but in trust. In knowing that God is with us. In knowing even the wind and the seas obey him. That is still good news from one generation to the next. It doesn’t make the journey easy. It doesn’t mean there won’t be storms that come along. It does mean that by the grace of God we can learn to be a little less afraid and from that place, when the winds die down and the sea is more still, we can listen to our better angels and act and speak from a place of faith, not fear.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Prophetic Imagination

And the poets down here don't write nothin' at all;
They just stand back and let it all be.
(Bruce Springsteen, "Jungleland.")
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Remember to "sing to the Lord a new song." Literally and figuratively speaking. Our lives can be songs, songs of praise to the God who created us. (Brother Mark Brown, SSJE)  

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I have been doing a lot of blogging this past week or so. I write in order to figure out what I think and I've been trying to make sense of things in a world that does not make a lot of sense to me right now. 

One of the nice things about blogging - in some ways more than preaching, which is also another way I think - is that you get more feedback and comments as a blogger, especially on Facebook. One wise colleague commented on my post about The Loss of Empathy that the Whos in Whoville got together and sang. The very next day, the word from the Cowley Fathers (shown above) was "Sing." I paid attention to this and remembered some things...

Walter Brueggemann has been a prolific writer and thinker who has much to say about Old Testament Theology and the Church's Vocation in a post-Christendom context. I was fortunate to call him my teacher when I did my doctoral studies at Columbia Theological Seminary where I took courses with him on Jeremiah and the Psalms. 

But like many of us, I think even Walter has one or two really clear thoughts and the rest grows out of that. I can't say I've read everything he's read because, quite frankly, I can't read as fast as he writes. But I've read a lot of his work. And for my money, a good chunk of what he has to say can be found in Finally Comes the Poet, which was published nearly thirty years ago. The rest, I think, is clarifying what he said there and if you don't know Brueggemann very well, I think it's still the place to start. 

Poems are songs. The psalms are poems that can be sung as prayers but Brueggemann's point is that the prophets are also poets; that they are more than social critics. They are people who can imagine the world as "otherwise." It is poetic imagination that allows them to see when things have gone off-track because they can imagine what might yet be. It is poetic imagination that allows them to hope, and to sing of an alternative reality. This poetic imagination is not unlike that of those who marched for Civil Rights, singing "We Shall Overcome."

So, just one quote from that amazing book that I think points to a way forward from the posts I've been writing of late on Religion and Politics and the need to cultivate empathy. Left alone those may feel overwhelming. But I think they are more like the tilling of the soil, to help identify the work that the Church is called to - which is ultimately about finding our voices and learning to sing a new song (again.) So, here it is - almost an answer to Springsteen's plea in "Jungleland" about the silent poets:
There are many pressures to quiet the text, to silence this deposit of dangerous speech, to halt this outrageous practice of speaking alternative possibility. The poems, however, refuse such silence. they will sound. They sound through preachers who risk beyond prose. In the act of such risk, power is released, newness is evoked, God is praised. People are "speeched" to begin again. Such new possibility is offered in daring speech. Each time that happens, "finally comes the poet." Finally. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Loss of Empathy

The word empathy comes from two Greek words, em-pathos: literally to feel with, even to suffer with, another. It's similar to the word compassion (which comes from two Latin words) but some linguists say empathy is the stronger and more particular word of the two. It's about the ability to identify with someone else's pain. It's the antidote to narcissism and self-centeredness. (See The Parable of the Grinch, by the prophet Seuss.)

Based on my very unscientific reading of Facebook posts and the comments on those posts about immigrant children being taken from their mother's arms and placed in cages, empathy seems to be in short supply in some quarters. You can watch Corey Lewandowski and judge for yourself. I won't even provide a link to the vile Ann Coulter. And when Rachel Maddow did show empathy and break down on the air, the NRA went after her. (I also made the huge mistake of reading some of the comments being posted by trolls that suggest she was acting.)

In her poem, "Of the Empire," Mary Oliver begins by saying that "we will be known as the culture that feared death and adored power." She concludes that history will look upon us and note that...
our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
The ability to experience empathy can be cultivated and taught. We can encourage soft-heartedness. We can pray. We can listen. We can pay attention to the needs of others. We can work at loving God and neighbor.

But to be very honest, it's exhausting. At least it is for me. I understand the desire for some to just turn it all off and to stop reading the news (especially when it's so hard to even know what is true) and to just think happy thoughts. Focusing on what is happening in our country is, quite literally, depressing.

I empathize.

And yet, I keep blogging and talking and engaging and trying to stay informed. Because it's not a game. Because real people's live are being harmed on a daily basis. There is no undoing the scars already created by the terror for children who have been taken from their parents at the border. And when I hear someone say, "get over it - kids in our own country get taken from their parents when there is a divorce, or when a parent goes to jail" - all I feel is horror. I wonder what kind of monster is uttering these Fox News talking points and if it's a person I thought I knew, I actually feel physically ill. I feel like crying like Rachel Maddow.

There is no doubt some gaslighting going on in that kind of response. But even if we take it at face value, can we not also feel the pain for children who have had a parent incarcerated or suffer through a messy divorce. Do we want to increase that kind of pain in the world so that even more children are traumatized? We do all realize, don't we, that these events leave scars that may never heal?

The heart is hard these days, for sure, and at least two-sizes too small. Perhaps the first order of business is to listen more closely to the children and to allow empathy to grow and soften our hearts. If their voices make us cry, then that is at least a starting place. Only then will we be able to tackle the hard political challenges that we face as a nation in serious trouble.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Religion and Politics: Finding Our Voices

Last week I set out to write some posts on the theme of "Religion and Politics." I've appreciated the supportive feedback on the first three posts. While I suppose this could go on for much longer,  I'm going to offer this one final post in this series, below. If you've missed the first three and are interested you can find them here and here and here.

I want to be very clear: I believe in the separation of Church and State. But I believe that separation exists primarily to protect religion from government; not the other way around. And it does not exist to keep religious people (including the ordained) from having political opinions, hopefully informed by the Gospel. To be convincing in the public arena, however,  we need to speak not "in the name of the Lord" but in ways that also resonate with those who may not share our faith convictions, but are committed to matters of justice.

Somewhere along the line we got shy, however. Somewhere along the line we got scared of losing our tax-exempt status. Somewhere along the line we silenced the prophetic voice that runs through both the Old and New Testaments. I think this goes back further than the 1950s or even the 1770s. I think the key date to remember is 312: the conversion of Emperor Constantine. 

We inherited Christendom models of thinking about the faith that privatized and truncated it, and reduced it to a small box we could fit it into on Sunday mornings. Both liberal and conservative voices bought into the norms of Christendom and the place of privilege that Christians enjoyed in North America until very recently was seductive. There were, of course exceptions along the way: the Anabaptist traditions and the Black Church remembered an older, pre-Christendom way of being Church. But the so-called mainline denominations are only now catching up. 

On a more personal level, amid all the noise, it's hard to know what to say. I know I've been struggling and perhaps not very successfully with finding my voice. That may seem laughable to those who know I am rarely at a loss for words. But it's too tempting to become reactive. There are assaults from many directions. But as a follower of Jesus (who also deeply values and needs interfaith companions, including people of good will who have no religions faith) what is harder is to find the word that needs to be spoken. The right word of hope, and healing, and truth that points us toward love of God and neighbor, rather than adding fuel to the fire.

In my last post I quoted Karl Barth and in this post I have begun with some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Together they remind us that we are not in altogether uncharted territory. The Church has struggled before to find it's voice in the midst of propaganda and lies. One of the books that has left a deep mark on my faith is Bonhoeffer's Life Together, written as lectures for seminarians who would take on leadership in the Confessing Church. That book was written to help people speak up at a time when the silence from Church leaders was deafening.

God's politics is not Democratic or Socialist or Republican or Independent. But when we claim Jesus as Lord we are insisting that "Caesar" is not. That claim has profound political implications. God's politics is about caring the for poor, and speaking up for those who have no voice. It is about love of neighbor. It is never about finding ways to defend or justify taking children from their parents and putting them in cages. That's an easy question to answer: Christians don't do that. It's only seems to be a harder question when our allegiance is misplaced, which is just a polite way of saying when we have turned from the living God to false idols.  

Perhaps that is the place from which we find our voices again: by getting clear about whom we serve. As the modern-day prophet, Dylan, put it so clearly: "you're gonna have to serve somebody."

We face some very serious and very challenging issues and the voices of all matter. Christians do not have a monopoly on the truth. But if we are to offer anything at all, we have to find our voices again. We have to speak the truth, in love. We will not all agree on matters of policy. What should our immigration policy look like and how do we do that in more just and humane ways? That's not an easy question to answer and we'll make mistakes along the way. But those who serve the risen Christ know that we are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor, and those are non-negotiable commitments. We know it's wrong - that it's a sin - to put children in cages.

Our work is never to defend the policies of the Empire. It is to offer an alternative way to be in the world, rooted in the commitments we made at Holy Baptism. If we aren't prepared to do that we may as well close up shop. But the world might actually need for us, in this time and place, to speak up.

Because not to speak speaks volumes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Religion and Politics: Preaching Good News in an Age of Propaganda

"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "what is truth?"  (John 18:37b-38)
Jesus' exchange with Pontius Pilate in John's Gospel seems backwards. We expect answers to be responses to questions.  But here, Jesus says that his mission - his purpose - is to testify to the truth and that everyone who belongs to the truth will listen to his voice. Pilate responds to that statement with a question that here, at least, goes unanswered.

What is truth? 

I've found that many of our political arguments these days are in fact about which sources we take to be credible. In an era of so much misinformation, spin, and even outright lies, we don't know who to believe. Facebook posts go on and on with both liberals and conservatives quoting from the sources within their preferred bubbles. But we talk past each other. We can't debate the issues because we can't agree on the "facts."  On more than one occasion in this past week I've seen someone ask with no small amount of frustration: who do we trust to give us news, rather than propaganda? Why is it so hard to even agree on the "facts?"

As a preacher, I'd ask a follow-up question: what does the good news look like in a time of so much fake news? Because if the preacher challenges deeply held beliefs, even in the name of Jesus, there is bound to be some push back.

What is truth?

Karl Barth once said: "take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from  your Bible."  It's that second part of the quote that many forget to add, but Barth knew well what it meant to live in an age of (Nazi) propaganda.

Preaching is about connecting the dots from what is happening in our world - in this time and place - with the message of the Cross. But they are not equal conversation partners. The Word of God grounds us in the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, which is to say that it points us to the One whose voice is trustworthy. Listen to Him! What does the Risen Christ say about children in cages? I think that's actually a very easy question, unless we have co-opted Jesus into his own America First cage.  Faith is hard, and getting to truth can be complicated. But this is a gimme! We learned it in Sunday School: Jesus loves all the little children of the world. And all means the poor brown ones too.

Preaching that ignores the world we live in is not preaching. This is why preaching cannot be simply "spiritual." We need to wade into the issues of our day and we need to take sides, not as partisan political operatives but for the sake of the truth which will set us all free. That begins and ends with learning to listen for that trustworthy Voice in the midst of so much shouting. It begins and ends with discernment.

The Preacher points the way, so that the community can go out to love and serve the Lord. As the meme above rightly reminds us, preaching is not an end in itself. The task of the preacher is to get us headed off in the right direction, so that God's people might be not merely hearers of the Word, but doers of it.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Religion and Politics: Quoting Scripture

This is the second part of a series. The first post can be found here.
Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart
Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! 

(Antonio to Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3)
The Bible doesn't say that God helps those who help themselves. That's Ben Franklin, in "Poor Richard's Almanac." That doesn't prevent people from quoting that "scripture" however. The truth is that the overwhelming witness of the Bible is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Icon by Kelly Latimore: See Leviticus 19:34
Similarly, there are some who think the Bible says that the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose; this may be true but it comes from Shakespeare, not the Gospel of Matthew.

Having said this, however, it is also true that in Matthew 4, when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness by the devil, the devil does quote scripture to Jesus in tempting him. Jesus responds with his own scriptural quotes, a practice that continues to this day and raises the question: which parts of Scripture are pertinent in a given time and place? How do we interpret the Word of God?

My Facebook page has been lit up with this back and forth: the White House Press Secretary and the Attorney General quoting from Romans 13 while most of my progressive friends are quoting from Leviticus (somewhat ironically!) about how we are to treat the alien in our midst.

Years ago when the neighboring New Hampshire Diocese of The Episcopal Church elected an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, we held numerous forums for discussion in the parish I served. One man who had never before ever come to a Bible study in the previous five years I'd been there showed up with a red-letter King James Bible (that did not show much wear) to tell me that he only believed what "the good Lord himself had written in the Saint James' Bible." I resisted the temptation to tell him it was the Bible translated during the reign of King James and had nothing to do with the brother of our Lord.

There is a prayer that comes from my tradition that says that we are called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. Wrenching texts out of context to hurl at one another is really not the way to engage in dialogue. In fact one might rightly ask what place this has in civil discourse. I suspect Jefferson is turning over in his grave right about now! And I tend to agree with my more secular friends, both conservative and liberal, that our public discourse ought to be focused on political arguments, not theological ones. Leave the arguments about Scriptural interpretation for Sunday morning!

Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid. So if we are going to turn to Scripture we need to engage it all - not just look for a quote to bolster our political ideologies. (This is true on all sides and people can be just as guilty of this on the right and on the left in my experience.)

I don't question the piety of Attorney General Jeff Sessions but I respectfully challenge his theology, shaped in the Jim Crow South. Quoting Romans 13 about obeying civil authorities is sketchy to say the least. It's exactly where (white preachers) went when King was making the Biblical case for civil disobedience of unjust laws. Before that it's where Anglican loyalists went during the Revolutionary War as well: obey King George, they said. That's what the Good Book says! Also popular in apartheid South Africa...

Anyone who attempts to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture will realize it's not a list of aphorisms or rules. When it comes to empire, most of the Bible is written by those who are being oppressed by unjust imperial rules, from Egypt to Persia to Babylon to Rome. When Jesus says "render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar" he's being ironic and clever. He's really asking people to think about how much of their lives they are willing to let belong to Caesar (who claimed to be lord) and how much they are willing to give over to the one who says, "Follow me." It is bad exegesis to use that text to defend imperial power or as an excuse to avoid generosity during stewardship season.

In Paul's Letter to the Romans there is a socio-political context that cannot be ignored: those followers of Jesus, for whom the claim "Jesus is Lord" is a political claim (Caesar is not the lord of me!) were in danger. They have to figure out how to thread the needle: how to be both citizens of the empire and know where their true allegiance lies. That's a challenge for every generation of those who follow in the way of Jesus.

So there are other texts I'd invite the Attorney General to pray about. Throughout the whole of the Old Testament and the prophets there is a witness, including in Leviticus 19:34. As well as Matthew 18:6 and 19:14. But the goal isn't to see who can find the most quotes. The goal is to see that Jesus was right when he summarized the whole of the Torah and the Prophets by putting together Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Love God. Love your neighbor. Even if it requires disobeying the civil authorities for making unjust laws.

And who is my neighbor? Oh, that's a good one. Jesus says all means all. Luke 10:25-37

Friday, June 15, 2018

Religion and Politics: Reclaiming Jesus

This is the first of what I hope will be several reflections on a basic question I am asked from time to time: what is the relationship between religion and politics? Actually, more likely I'm told that religion should stay out of politics, but I choose to take that as a question for discussion. For a deeper and more communal response, I commend this document to you, written four years ago by our Diocesan Social Justice Commission, of which I was then a part and one of the writers.

For many reasons (including but not limited to the Establishment Clause intended to keep church and state separated) I think religious communities ought to guard against becoming partisan communities or backing particular political candidates or agendas. Fifty years ago The Episcopal Church was sometimes known as "the Republican Party at prayer." The fact that this was generally perceived as more or less accurate is a good reminder that "getting political" is not a new thing. The Episcopal Church has changed, however. (So, by the way, have both major political parties!) If anything, the Episcopal Church may now be perceived as "the Democratic Party at prayer" while Evangelicals have taken over the G.O.P. But there is hardly any apolitical religious affiliation, and it is both dangerous and unbliblical to avoid political questions,which affect real people's lives.To preach spirituality apart from people's real lives and the economic, social, political, racial and ethnic challenges of a particular time and place is to ignore the meaning of the Incarnation and the witness of Biblical faith.

I am an Episcopal-Christian and I am a Democratic- American. Both denomination and party are adjectival for me: a way into what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the United States. There are reasons I've chosen both to be an Episcopalian and a Democrat but my allegiance is always to Jesus the Christ, and to the nation that has given me so much freedom. I don't have to disparage Pentecostals or Canada, however, to be who I am. As an ordained leader, however, I am clear (and try to make it clear to others) that if they are, let's say a Republican and a Presbyterian, that I want to engage in conversation and that I don't confuse political and theological opinions with the common quest for truth.

The goal is for religious people to address real life issues. Sometimes those will be perceived as partisan, but the agenda is rooted in Holy Baptism, not electoral politics. There are concerns we need to speak up about if we are serious about our faith. For more conservative folks this includes (but is not limited to) opposing abortion rights and respect for the traditional nuclear family. For more progressive folks this includes social justice issues such as economic injustice. It's the nature of the human condition in general and perhaps religious people in particular to be hypocrites, but that's a separate question. (For example, evangelicals might condemn President Clinton's marital infidelities and ignore President Trump's.) When this happens it often reveals an underlying partisan bias, rather than a true act of faith. But if you believe that marital fidelity matters in politics then it is not "partisan" to apply that standard to elected officials - as long as the standard is applied fairly. Otherwise one begins to lose credibility...

One response to religious hypocrisy is to want a more apolitical religious faith: faith that is spiritual but neither religious nor political. But this ignores what Biblical faith really is. It is heretical. Let me offer a few examples.

1. The Bible claims that God created the heavens and the earth and that humankind is set "in the garden" to tend to it; to be good stewards of it. As I read that narrative (not literally, by the way) I see it is a call to care for the earth. If human decisions are harming the earth then Christians need to pay attention to the best science available to us and act. We need to also join with others who share this concern for the earth. In a partisan political climate this will be perceived as "political" which is why there needs to be clarity. If one party, at a given moment in history, believes the scientists and one does not, then talking about our responsibility to the earth will sound like taking sides. It is. But it's not partisan; it's an act of faith.

2. If you don't know the Bible I hardly know where to begin but again point you to a Diocesan Social Justice study document, found here. There are "strangers" (including immigrants and refugees) all the way through it and you just have to trust me on this - or start reading. Abraham was a wondering Aramean who went to a new land. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. The Torah insists that hospitality to the stranger goes to the heart of Biblical faith. Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt because of a brutal dictator. As an adult itinerant preacher, Jesus  spoke about the hospitality of a Samaritan man. As a preacher, then, when I hear about refugees and immigrants, the Biblical faith that has shaped my imagination kicks in. In this case I think both parties have failed, by the way. But only one party has allowed it's more extreme wing to demonize the stranger and work toward building bigger walls than bridges. Naming this is an act of moral courage; not political partisanship.

3. Jesus talked about money more than anything except the Reign of God. You can look it up. Jesus was not a capitalist. Nor did he ignore the fact that what he called mammon could become a false god - something that could become an idol for people of faith. Jesus never said "greed is good." He did say, "blessed are the poor." He did challenge the rich young ruler to give it all away. Talking about money (or economic policies that hurt the poor) is a part of what it means to follow Jesus. If at any given time in human history one political party is more interested in the poor and middle class rather than the rich getting richer and people of faith support tax policies and minimum wage laws that help the poor this is not a partisan act; it's for the love of Jesus.

People of faith can and will disagree on big and small matters. When I was a parish priest and universal healthcare was being debated, I told my parishioners that for Christians, caring about healthcare for all was part of our Baptismal Covenant. How we felt that might be best implemented was a political challenge and there might be serious and healthy policy disagreements. One didn't need to agree with Obamacare to be a Christian, then or now! But one cannot be a faithful Christian and say, "let 'em eat cake!"

I want to say one more thing and then I'll let this first post go. As I say, it may lead to some others but at this point I don't have that all planned out. In the Trump era the stakes have gone up and polarization is high. It's not personal. Rather, it's about a president who is not focused, so far as I can tell, on any of the values stated above. I believe "America first" is a heresy. It's not what Christians proclaim when we say every human being is created in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect, from Canada to North Korea.

"America first" is also, in my political and theological opinion, a short-sighted and unhelpful way to be among the league of nations. I could hold my political opinions to myself if I didn't believe it so violates what I believe as a person of faith, that a child coming to our borders from Central America with a mother looking for political asylum should not be put in a cage. It has disgusted me to read the defenses of this policy especially when the Bible is quoted to defend them. It is, therefore, as a Christian leader that I affirm the need to reclaim Jesus. That means that I cannot be silent in the face of a path that I believe leads away from the Reign of God.

For more about the Reclaiming Jesus movement, see here.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Let Your Light Shine

Today I was with the good people of Southwick Community Episcopal Church, the newest parish in our diocese. Recently they said goodbye to their founding pastor. My work is to now help them to navigate through a time of transition and ultimately to call their second rector. On this Second Sunday after Pentecost, I compared their challenges to that of the first-century Christians in Corinth. My sermon manuscript can be found below. 

I’d like to take you with me this morning on a trip halfway around the world to the city of Corinth, in modern-day Greece. We’ll travel back in time, to the latter part of the first-century. There we would find a congregation that was facing some serious challenges. St. Paul – before he was a saint and was just an itinerant preacher—had come to evangelize Corinth roughly seventeen years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We may think in our mind’s eye of Paul on a whirlwind tour, the first-century equivalent of a Billy Graham crusade. But a more accurate analogy is of a guy like Taylor Albright; a church planter. Someone who starts talking with people on the streets, and ultimately convinces them to start a church. In fact, in many important ways, I don’t think Corinth is all that different from Southwick, except that the winters are a lot milder around the Mediterranean Sea. Paul most likely stayed in Corinth for about eighteen months, preaching and teaching and calling forth and equipping leaders and planting seeds of hope. And then he moved on to other places, like Connecticut. (I mean Ephesus and Galatia.) 

As you know they didn’t have any church buildings yet in the first-century. They figured it out as they went and they met in each other’s homes. Probably there were no more than 150 or so Christians in Corinth when Paul wrote his first letter, two or three years after he had moved on. 

Reflect on that for a moment. I’ll wait. I’m told you all expect long sermons here but today I’ll use some my time for you just to take this in. Imagine those first-century Corinthian Christians as not so different from all of you. Of course they lived in a different time and place and they spoke a different language. But what they were facing as a still relatively young congregation whose founding pastor had moved on was not so different than what you all are facing right now. I hope that in reflecting on that you take some comfort in remembering that you are not the first Christians to be in transition. Recall that Paul reminded those Corinthians again and again that it wasn’t about him or Apollos or anyone else, but about the risen Lord. And I suspect that Taylor preached the same thing while he was here because now, as then, it’s all about Jesus Christ who is the Church’s one foundation. St. Paul preached Christ crucified, always. And so do we.

Paul had spent a year and a half building a congregation. Yet less than three years after his departure there were some who were forming factions that were tearing at the very fabric of that Christian community. Would it surprise you to learn what it was the Corinthian Christians were fighting about? Human sexuality, morality, legal disputes, worship, authority questions, and theology. It seems in other words that there was no “golden age” of Church history. Within the first five years of the existence of the Corinthian Church (and only about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus) the Church was fighting about issues we still haven’t fully resolved two thousand years later.
Maybe there is a clue in there for us: namely that the goal isn’t for a congregation to become a conflict-free zone, nor a place where everybody agrees. Rather, we are called to deal with conflict in healthy rather than destructive ways. To build up, rather than tear down. And always, always, always to love one another. As our Presiding Bishop likes to put it, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.

I’ll get to today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to this community. But before I do that, I want to remind you of an image we take for granted that comes from his first letter to these same Corinthian Christians: we are the Body of Christ. Paul invites those Christians to inventory their spiritual gifts and to see the abundance with which they have been blessed. Implicit in that reminder is that they have enough; God has given them all that they need. He then invites them to imagine what it might take for them to use those gifts for building up the Church. And then in the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of that first letter, he reminds them to identify and then use those many and varied gifts given by the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the health of the Body. We say it all the time but Paul noticed it first; that although we are many members, we are one body. He reminds them to use their gifts toward the end of faith, hope, and love—but especially love.

Paul is able to discern the Holy Spirit at work in that congregation even in the midst of difficult challenges. He’s able to see those folks as living members of a living Body and then he calls on them to live like they believe that too. This now brings me to today’s reading, from the fourth chapter of his second letter. He reminds them that it’s not about them. He reminds us that it’s not about us. He reminds them and us that we’ve been entrusted to proclaim the good news about Jesus.

And then – notice this – he goes back to the very beginning. Back to the creation story in Genesis. Back to the story of God who says “let there be light.” And there is light. There is darkness and there is light; one day. There is that light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it and will not overcome it. He says that light shines in us. In you and in me. However imperfectly, he says we are lights in the world and we are called to let our little lights shine. And to not lose heart. To shine in first-century Corinth and to shine in twenty-first century Southwick.

We do not proclaim ourselves: we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “let light shine out of darkness” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.

Praise God. Alleluia. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! And then that little word, “but.” Have you ever noticed what happens in your brain when you hear that word? I find sometimes I forget everything that’s come before and focus only on what comes after. Someone says, “you look, great, but…have you put on a few pounds?” “I loved that sermon, but…”

Sometimes it’s a rhetorical device and people really do mean to say the harder thing, but they figure they’ll begin with something sweeter to make the medicine go down. But I don’t think that’s always true. And I don’t think we are meant to ignore what comes before the “but” here. It really is that same light that was there at the dawn of creation, the light that has shone in the darkness through some tough days that is in us. Jesus’ light shines in us.

But. We are formed of the clay of the earth and as such, we are like clay jars. We are like earthenware pottery which might glow if there is a light in there but it’s not always so obvious. It’s not like a lightbulb. You and I are not like lightbulbs. Sometimes it’s challenging to see the light. Nevertheless, we need to remember that it’s there: in us, and in our neighbor. Even in our enemies. Even in the people who drive us nuts. We carry this light in earthenware pots, Paul says. So, then, hear these amazing words once more, words that I find to be good news even after two thousand years, words that lift me up when I am feeling most worn down in life and most discouraged about the Church.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed. We are always carrying in the body – in our own bodies and in this collective Body, the Church – we are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

So that. There are another couple of little words, like but, only better. We do this work – we accept this work of being followers of Jesus, we accept the challenges and the pain, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. So that the light might shine through us, however imperfectly.

I was ordained thirty years ago. I’ve been at this a while now. I’ve served as an ecumenical campus minister, as an associate in a big church in Connecticut and then, when I came to this diocese twenty years ago, it was to serve as the fifth rector at St. Francis in Holden. I stayed for fifteen years. During my time there the parish celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. Many of the founding members were still alive when I got there. I tell you this because I have some experience in a relatively new congregation; St. Francis started as a mission in the 1950s – not the 1850s. I’m hopeful about your second rector, and someday even your fifth rector.

Five years ago I joined Bishop Fisher’s staff. In a nutshell that’s my ordained experience: campus ministry, parish ministry, diocesan ministry. Thirty years. And so now I want to say something to you born out of those three decades of experience and particularly the past five as I’ve crisscrossed this diocese: Southwick Community Episcopal Church, your best days as a congregation are not behind you; they are ahead of you. I love Taylor Albright and we’ve been friends for a long time and we served together on the Bishop Search Committee that brought Doug Fisher to our diocese and over the years we’ve had a beer or two together.

Taylor served you well. But like Paul in Corinth, we all knew eventually that Taylor would leave. And the million dollar question is: who are you now? Or more accurately, who is God calling you to become now? What I love about my job as a canon is that I get to see the Holy Spirit at work in the midst of transitions like this one and I find when I’m doing this work I feel very close to the work of the first-century Church which also had to figure out the next thing, after Jesus was gone and after Paul was gone. Being second-generation disciples is hard but vital work and you are now engaged in that.

What can you do? Pray. Pray hard. Pray like you believe God is listening. Pray like you believe the Holy Spirit is guiding you and breathing new life into you. Pray like you believe you are the Body of Christ and that you are called to let the light of God shine through your body formed from clay so that the light might shine in the darkness. Pray like you know, and believe, so that the good news about Jesus will be shared in the neighborhood. Keep on working at faith, and hope, and love. Especially love. Love God, and love your neighbor, because if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.

The rest will fall into place.