A Beautiful City

We live in a beautiful city.

“Beautiful City” is the name of the song that will be our anthem for today. It’s a song from the movie version of Godspell and was put back into the play when it was brought back on stage earlier in this decade. It’s a beautiful song, beautifully sung by our soloist today. And it is timely for me, as I see what is happening in this beautiful city of my birth, my childhood and pretty much all of my adult life.

When I was 10 years old my family moved to the 1600 block of Monument Avenue. My paper route was the 16 and 18 hundred blocks of Monument. The statues were a part of the fabric of my life in the city. As I walked out of my front door and looked up to my left I saw “Lee.” That’s all the plaque in the monument says… “Lee.” All the other monuments have biographical information about the subject depicted. But not Lee. I was told when I was a child that this was because the people that put up the Lee statue were certain that there would never be anyone seeing the monument that needed any biographical information about Lee; everyone would know who Lee was. One of the beautiful things about our beautiful city is that in the future there will be generations of children of color who will not be burdened with the expectation of simply knowing who Lee was. They’ll have to look him up in a book…or Google him. If they want to.

The song from Godspell begins with the verses:

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can, yes, we can)
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of men

 

Many years ago, in 1865, the city lay in ruins and rubble, after confederate soldiers set fire to it as they were fleeing Grant’s army of liberation. Out of that rubble an attempt was made to build a city of angels, false angels whose stories were twisted in a way that made them seem like angels to the defeated, but men who were in fact not angels, but remnants of a past that never existed; a past that was redefined as a struggle for something called “states’ rights.”

Perhaps that is what it was. But as the Rev. Robert W. Lee says, the sentence needs to be completed. The war was about states’ rights; states’ rights  to allow some of its humans to enslave other of its humans. And against other states rights to refuse to return those humans when they escaped. This states’ right was taken away from the northern states in the Dred Scott decision, possibly the most horrific and evil decision ever rendered in an English-speaking court.

The monuments to the would-be angels that arose after the fire are going to be gone soon. Maybe now we can actually do what the song urges us to do.

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can, yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of men (and women)

 

I have very real hope that we can. I spent many years as a lawyer working in the criminal justice system of this beautiful city. I worked mostly in cases that arose through the juvenile justice system, in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. It could be an angry and ugly place some days, most days in fact. But still, what I saw gave me hope, and still does.

What I saw in that system, as congested and frustrating as it could be most of the time, was people who cared. Judges, clerks, prosecutors, defense lawyers, social workers, foster parents, school teachers, probation officers, victim protection works, and yes, police officers. The saints of the juvenile system were ubiquitous but overwhelmed. It was, and I have no doubt still is, and exhausting place to work.

In our gospel reading today Jesus says to his disciples that whoever gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones will earn their reward. This is what we must do for all of those people in the justice system and all of the systems we put in place in our city we task with the work of making it beautiful. They are all little ones, cogs in the system; they need a cool glass of water to continue to do what they do.

We can’t continue to ask first responders and police officers to work in continually trauma inducing circumstances and expect them to be non-reactive agents of peace, especially when they have to work second jobs in order to make ends meet, and when they don’t receive the time and trauma therapy they need in order to do what we ask them to do. We can’t expect school teachers on the front lines of a complex and underfunded education system to do the same. We have to give these dedicated and caring servants the tools they need. Tools, funding, training, time, time to find the spiritual nurturing they need to develop the resiliency they need to do what we are asking them to do.

The song ends:

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build!

A beautiful city
Yes, we can, yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of men (and women)

A city of men (and women)

 

It is time to start to rebuild. The monuments will be gone soon enough. Good. May the monuments we build in our future not be statues on tree lined streets. Let the monuments be systems that reflect the care and dedication of those who work within them. I know those women and men are there. I have seen them, worked with them, argued with them…respected them. Let the monuments of our future be workers who are supported, honored and respected for the contribution they make.

Yes, we can, yes, we can, for we live in a beautiful city.

Weakness and Shame

“I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” This comment by the character we call the “dishonest steward” in today’s gospel reading is for me a profound statement of the difficulty we face in our lives as human beings in our world. This is the statement that sort of stood out in bold print as I read this parable from Luke’s gospel this week. There is a sense of genuineness to this statement, even though the rest of the parable that surrounds this statement is filled with deception and greed.

In the parable Jesus tells the story of a manager who worked for a rich man and who was being accused by his boss of “squandering his money.” It’s interesting to note that the Greek word that is translated as “squander” here is the same word that is used in the parable immediately preceding this one. That is the parable of the “Prodigal Son” in which the younger son “squanders” his inheritance.

In today’s parable, the manager is in a fix. He’s about to lose his livelihood and he has no other acceptable way to make a living; he is not strong enough to dig and too ashamed to beg. So he ingratiates himself to his bosses debtors by settling all their debts well below their face value. He does this in order to set himself up for some free meals once he gets fired by the boss.

And here is where the whole thing gets tricky. In the parable, Jesus tells us that his boss commended him for acting shrewdly. And then Jesus us gives this advice, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” If any of you can tell me what that means, please do. I have all afternoon.

But again, as I have read and reread this passage from Luke this week, the phrase that has stood out for me has been the manager’s self-assessment as he faces his dilemma.  “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” It is the most honest sentence in the entire reading and I believe it speaks a profound truth, because it speaks of our own innermost insecurities, our greatest fears. Our weakness and our shame.

Even though we know at some level that we are loved beyond measure, we still spend so much of our physic and spiritual energy dealing with the weakness and shame that seems to be an integral part of who we fear we are. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” To acknowledge the truth of this statement is to take a huge step towards living a life that is free from what the statement says. To say that “I am weak and I feel shame” is very possibly, even very likely, the first step in moving forward from that very weakness and shame. To admit this truth about ourselves is to become vulnerable, and contrary to what we may think or intuit, movement towards vulnerability is movement towards strength.

Popular writer and researcher Brene Brown has done a great deal of work in the area of shame and vulnerability. She has written several books on the subject but first became well known through a couple of Ted Talks that she gave not that many years ago.

In them, she described her research in the area of vulnerability as seeking and finding those people who have a strong sense of love and belonging. She wanted to know what it was that made them the way they are, and to discover what they had in common. Here’s what she had to say. “They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”[1]

What Dr. Brown is describing here is risk taking, especially in terms of a willingness to live lives of authentic connectivity to ourselves, each other, and to God. What that risk taking can lead to is a life of courage and whole-heartedness. It is not safe, or at least it doesn’t feel safe, but it is ultimately the most rewarding way we can live.

Is it possible that it is mainly our shame that can most separate us from God? Isn’t this what the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit is telling us? When God appeared in the garden looking for Adam and Eve after their encounter with the serpent God asked, “Where are you?” Adam answered “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God responded to this by saying, “Who told you that you were naked?”

God asked what was the origin of Adam’s shame, even though God knew the answer. If it is weakness and shame that separates us from God, then it is weakness and shame that is our sin, and that means that sin is not bad behavior stemming from arrogance or pride. Sin is our hidden vulnerability, that which we fear to expose. When we can create a world of love and acceptance where we can be free of the fear of exposure, we recreate Eden, we come closer to ushering in God’s kingdom, which is why Jesus said he came.

And this gets us back to that puzzling comment when Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…” It sounds like Jesus is saying to ingratiate yourself to others by means of passing around ill-begotten gains. But that sounds pretty un-Jesus like to me. Maybe he’s saying something different. Maybe making friends by means of dishonest wealth means acting as if we have things that we don’t actually have. Maybe it means being brave when we are afraid or being vulnerable when we are feeling the need to isolate. Maybe it means we need to “fake it ‘till we make it” by doing things like praying when our faith is weak and we feel distant or disconnected from God.

Maybe behaving as if we love a stranger for whom we feel no sense of sentimental warmth actually has something to do with justice rather than charity.

It is axiomatic that we can’t think our way into good actions but we can act our way into good thinking. When we walk in love, when we “walk the walk,” even when we’re not “feeling the love” we are laying the foundation for building God’s kingdom.

Let us walk this walk together, knowing that none of us are alone in our weakness, and that in community with each other and with God, we can bring about a different kind of world all together.

[1] Brown, Brene. “Transcript of “The Power of Vulnerability”” Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability. Ted.com, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Vanity of Vanities

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” I’ve been playing around with this phrase all week. What does the writer mean by this? It certainly appears to mean that everything is meaningless, or futile, which is how it is translated in some other editions of the Bible. This is also how it has been most often interpreted over the years. It doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of human life or our view of it.

The Hebrew word, more literally translated, means something more like breath, or vapor, perhaps giving the connotation of being transitory, or impermanent. Things don’t last forever. We surely know this.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts there is currently an exhibit called “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” which I highly recommend to all of you. As you walk into the exhibit, before you enter the space where the ancient artwork sits, you pass by a circular piece of art, made out of colored sand, called a mandala. The artwork is created by a group of Tibetan monks who work together for weeks in order to create this remarkable circle of sand. They use the colored sand to create incredibly intricate patterns that form a whole which is stunning in its complexity and color. There’s also a group of monks who come to visit the Unitarian Universalist church by Byrd Park and I’ve seen them create one of these amazing pieces of art there as well.

And here’s the thing. When the visit is over, or when the exhibit is over, this mandala is simply destroyed. The monks, in a very moving ritual, will systematically sweep up the sand into jars and then pour the sand into a body of water. This incredible creation, that took hundreds of man-hours and unbelievable patience to design and create, will simply be swept away. When the monks that visited the Unitarian church did this, at a ceremony where I was present, they then travelled over to Maymont where they poured the sand into the waters that flow through the Japanese garden there. The whole thing took less than an hour. This is the plan for the one at the museum as well. I find this all quite compelling.

So I ask myself, why is that? What is so compelling about it, what draws me to it, what do I really think of it? As I’ve pondered what it is that moves me about this entire ritual, I kept coming to the idea that the whole thing seems very brave, very fearless, courageous, very faithful.

I believe that so much of the dysfunction in our all too human lives is based on fear. We fear either losing something that we have or not getting something that we want. We fear this even when we have more than we need and really don’t have a reason to want anything else. This is what is so compelling to me about the destruction of the mandalas by the monks. The monks are human just like us; they share the same kinds of fears that the rest of us do. In the ritual of the creation and destruction of the mandala, they exercise, they strengthen, their faith by surrendering what they have made to the truth of its ultimate lack of permanence. All that we create is ephemeral, but all is not meaningless. And God is not ephemeral, God is permanent, and constant.

Fear manipulates us, it makes us build barns and silos where we put all the stuff we have accumulated. It tricks us into insisting that the things we think we need are permanent things, and so we spend all of our time and energy figuring out what to do with all of these things, how to preserve them.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus tells the story of the rich man who has accumulated more stuff than he has room for. His solution to this problem is to build bigger barns! Well sure, makes sense to me. Nowhere in the parable does Jesus say that it’s wrong to be wealthy, to get lots of stuff. But having stuff may not be the point.

Our barns and silos are monuments to our fears. We put them up everywhere, and we disguise them as something worthwhile and honorable. I grew up on the 1600 block of Monument Avenue. I went to Maggie Walker High School at a time when the Richmond schools were first beginning to be desegregated by what they called in those days, “forced bussing.” The irony for me of course was that I wasn’t bussed at all. I was walking to my neighborhood school. I would have had to take the bus had I gone to the “white” school, but now I got to walk to school. And that wasn’t the only irony. Another is that I literally walked through the shadow of the Robert E. Lee monument as I made my way to the recently desegregated Maggie Walker, through the shadow of a monument to the fear of losing a past that didn’t belong to us, towards a promise of a future we are still far from achieving.

We need to tear down the barns. We need to tear them down instead of building new ones like the ones into which we stick our fellow human beings who are trying to find a better life, free from their own very real fears, by entering the abundance of what we have here in this country. These are the barns on the boarder in Texas, and the ones being secretly built all over the country. It is these monuments that are the vanity of vanities; it is God and the love of God that is permanent.

And we need to tear down the ones in our own hearts as well. Barns that hold our long-held assumptions about who is to be included or excluded, that hold our tightly gripped anger and resentment over things we cannot control, of our need for affirmation, or our fear of being truthful and vulnerable. We need to tear down the barns where we keep all of our firearms. When we go to bed on Saturday night sickened by gun violence in one place and wake up to the horror taking place again in another, it is high time that we face the societal fear that convinces us that gun violence is a price we must pay for our own safety. The safety we feel inside these barns give us an illusion of control and certainty, vanity of vanities.

We have much to learn from the Tibetan monks. They do honor to their own faith and love by the ceremonial making and disassembling of their intricate mandalas. And we have something to learn from our own faith lives as well. When we make our offering and share our meal, we are in many ways accepting the impermanence and finitude of our immediate context by giving praise and honor to the permanence of God’s love within us. This is the nature of incarnation and it is indeed what we celebrate in our Eucharist. We put into perspective that which is ephemeral, vanity if you will, and we lovingly accept that which is permanent, constant, beyond our fears. We accept that we become participants in the eternity of God’s kingdom. We accept that we are the body of Christ. We behold what we are, and we become what we receive.

Give Me That Old Gospel Music

Yesterday morning I came here to the church to listen in on the choir’s rehearsal for this morning’s service. Jimmy has done a remarkable job once again, and I want to thank him, our guest musicians and our own choir and musicians for all of the extra work they have put in.  This is a wonderful service; thank you all so very much.

As I sat and listened to the rehearsal, I was drawn in by the sheer joyous energy expressed by these musicians and in the music they were participating in. This is a Gospel Mass, and while the music is a lively expression of joy, the historical underpinnings of this music, these expressions of deep faith, come from a world of heartbreaking captivity and abuse. One may be tempted to talk about the irony of this, but I believe there is much more that irony going on here. One of the things I hear in this musical expression of joy and faith in the face of slavery and abuse, is courage. I hear a courageous ability to embrace the joy of God’s love by those whose daily lives are dominated by forces of darkness and evil in their own immediate context. Those who first formed this music did not give in to their fear.

Our readings from scripture this morning say a good deal about fear, especially our gospel reading from Luke. In it, Jesus has crossed over into the land of the Gerasenes where he encounters a man who is possessed by unclean spirits, demons who have taken control of his life. This is a man who has been kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles because of the power of the demons that possess him. When he breaks free from these bonds he runs naked to the tombs outside the city. Jesus asks him his name and he replies “Legion,” because of the multitude of demons that had possessed him.

In a very peculiar way, Jesus rids this man of the demons. He sends them over the side of a cliff after they have entered a herd of swine. It’s a strange story. I have a friend who calls this the “Devilled ham” story. It fits!

Of course, word of these strange happenings gets around quickly. The news spread to the people nearby and they came to see the man who is now clothed, sitting with Jesus and fully in his right mind. In reaction to this they become fearful. The reading says that they asked Jesus to leave them, “because they were seized with great fear.”

But why? They had been living with a man who was made so strong by the demons within him that he could break the chains that bound him and run naked, free and wild among the tombs outside the city. That seems pretty scary to me. But it is only when a stranger comes and cures him, and when they see this man calmed, free of that which possessed him, and sitting quietly with Jesus, that they become fearful. What is it that they are afraid of? Are they afraid of being in community with this once possessed man? Are they afraid to be reminded, not only of the demons that possess them, but also of the freedom available to them once they are freed from those demons? What are they afraid of giving up, and who are they afraid of being in relationship with? Do they not have the courage to share in this man’s joy?

Even the most necessary changes come with great fear. It is not hard to see why some addicts are afraid to give up their drugs of choice. They have become habituated to diminished way of life to the point that they fear any change at all. But this doesn’t seem to be what is happening with the people of country of the Gerasenes. Perhaps they are afraid of a power that is able to so quickly heal a man who had seemed so incurable. The power Jesus wielded to heal the demoniac is the power of love, joy and community. Is it possible that this is what the people are afraid of?

In our reading from Isaiah we hear God’s voice responding to the Judeans who are returning from exile and are asking God where God was when they had been vanquished. God responds by saying:

I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people,

who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;

a people who provoke me
to my face continually,

sacrificing in gardens
and offering incense on bricks;

who sit inside tombs,
and spend the night in secret places;

who eat swine’s flesh,
with broth of abominable things in their vessels;

who say, “Keep to yourself,
do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”

 

The last line appears to me to be written in bold. Is this what we do? Is this what I do? Am I so content with my conception of my own holiness, rightness, comfort, that I fear intimacy with God and my neighbor. Is it possible for me to become so complacent in my own sense of the privilege of my status quo, that I avoid the inevitable change that will occur in me as I surrender my own concept of power…to God?

The joyful music I heard yesterday, the music we hear this morning, the music that has its origins in captivity and abuse, convicts me of my own sense of safety and fear. I know, from my own experience, that being freed from the captivity of my attachments leads me to closer and more intimate relationship with God and my fellow human beings. And yet I still resist.

Left unchecked and unnamed, my privilege will prevent me from surrendering to my need for God and my need for community. I am like those returning from exile to Jerusalem who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” If I am not diligent in naming and casting out my own fear of losing what I think I am entitled to, I become an unwitting participant and contributor to the malevolent spirit of our times. The current zeitgeist is bathed in fear. We are far too afraid of losing what has never belonged to us, and our fear builds a wall that keeps us from that which is available to us.

Let us join together in our song of joy. Let us surrender our fears and welcome God’s freeing power; a power that allows us to embrace a loving relationship with all whom God has made.

My song is more joyful when I sing it with all of my brothers and sisters. Welcome to our church.

Amen

An Invitation

ahna-ziegler-558904-unsplash“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. With these words of Jesus we begin our pilgrimage into this season of Lent. In a few minutes I will be inviting you, on behalf of the church, to the observance of a holy Lent. My remarks this evening will be short. The Ash Wednesday liturgy is powerful and speaks for itself; but I would like to share a few thoughts before we move on with the service.

We hear that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. And as we are invited into Lent, we are asked to do so by “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.” Lent is often spoken of as a time of repentance, and as we join together tonight and celebrate this liturgy, you will hear a very strong sense of repentance and turning away from sinfulness. But there is a caution to be heard in all of this. I sometimes fear that too strong a focus on our past wrongful behavior can lead to an anxious piety or a manufactured humility. It occurs to me, given the placement of Jesus’ statement in the service, that maybe what this invitation to self-examination is more focused on is a self-examination to help us find where our treasure is, so that we can know our own hearts.

It may be that our “sinfulness” has very little to do with any inclination on our parts towards evil and more to do with our misplaced view of what our treasure truly is. It is not an easy thing to be a human being. Formed from the dust and inextricably tied to the earth, we are also enlivened by God’s heavenly breath within us. We have one foot on earth and one foot in heaven and we sometimes don’t know how to keep either one where it belongs. It’s as if we’re on a pier with one foot in the boat and gradually the boat is moving further and further away. Any moment we’re going to lose both footings and fall in the water!

If we over-emphasize the part of us that is tied to heaven, we tend towards those sins which can be defined in terms of the greater overall sin of pride. We may claim a self-righteous piety or a special gift or gnosis which we use to lift ourselves up and exclude others. These are those things that Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 when he said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

If we over-emphasize the part of us that is tied to the earth, we tend more towards those sins that can be explained in terms of the overall sin of idolatry, putting earthly things in the way of our more desirous and healthful relationships, our relationships with our friends, family, our church and our God. These are the sins that are associated with attachments and addictions, things that we try to use to fill that hole inside of us that can only really be filled by God and God’s love.

In neither case are these sins associated with anything like what we would think of as evil or malevolence. They are instead sins that are more closely tied to our emptiness and fear, and our lack of understanding of where our true treasure lies.

In a discussion I had recently we talked about what it meant that Jesus, after healing some of the people he healed, would say something like, “Your faith has made you whole, go and sin no more.” Was his statement to “go and sin no more” an admonition or an instruction to wipe away the evil from our lives; to stop acting so badly? Or was it something else entirely?

I think it may have been something different from an admonition, I think it was more likely something like an invitation and a gift of profound grace and freedom. For God to tell us that we are able to “go and sin no more” is to be told that we are free, that we are loved, that we are going to be okay, so we can now focus on what our true treasures are. Imagine an addict as he begins to face a decision to quit his addictive behavior and to imagine a life without being tied down to the substance to which he is addicted. At first it is a decision that is wrought with fear and anxiety. “How can I live without it? How can I make it through the day?”

But as the addict comes to realize that he will be able to live a life free from this thing that has tied him down and enslaved him, dominating every aspect of his life, imagine the sense of freedom he must have, the sense of joy he can take in the promise that he really can “go and sin no more.”

So yes, the invitation to the observance of a holy Lent is an invitation to self-examination, and even an invitation to look deeply at our faults and the sins of our past. But it is much more than this. It’s an invitation to find our treasure, to find our freedom, to know God’s love. It is an invitation made even more poignant and remarkable because it is offered to us as we prepare to be marked with the ashes that are put there to remind us of our mortality. It is an invitation to participate in eternity, in the resurrection, in the love of God that has no end.

Please stand…

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

I’m sure most of you know of Robert Frost who is one of the most beloved and well-known of all American poets. Frost lived from 1874 to 1963. He was known for his depictions of rural life in New England, where he spent most of his life. He used these depictions and his command of American colloquial speech to examine complex social and philosophical themes. He is well known for such poems as Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road Not Taken. He was awarded four Pulitzer prizes for his books of poetry.

Another of his most well-known poems is called “Mending Wall” which tells of a yearly ritual performed by two adjacent landowners, presumably in Frost’s native New England. Each year in the springtime the two neighbors meet and walk along the stone wall that separates their property, each walking on his own side of the wall. They pick up the rocks and stones that have fallen on their own side of the wall, replacing them, often precariously balancing them, back on the wall.

One of the two protagonists, the one from whose viewpoint the story is being told, expresses some disdain for this annual exercise; to him perhaps an exercise in futility. He expresses this to his neighbor, asking him why they’re doing this. He points out that he grows apples, and that his neighbor grows pine trees, and his apples are never going to cross the line and eat his pine cones.

The neighbor responds with a line that may well be the most often quoted line in all of American literature. He says, with the practical Yankee logic and wisdom which Frost so loved to utilize in his poetry, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

In our gospel reading for this morning Jesus has arrived at his home town after having begun his ministry elsewhere, in Galilee. Jesus has been travelling the countryside, spreading the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom. He has been preaching the good news, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and his reputation as a great healer and spiritual master has grown. The people in his home town are certainly aware of this growing reputation of their local boy.

Jesus arrives at the synagogue and, as told in last week’s reading, reads

scripture from the scroll which has Book of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After he says this he puts down the scroll and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The home town crowd was delighted. They must have been wondering what took him so long to finally make it back to them. As the scripture says: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

But the words of his listeners were more than simply words of praise for the local boy done good. By his response we can tell that Jesus hears more than this. There is perhaps a sense of jealousy that Jesus has started his ministry, his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom, away from them. Jesus sounds as if he also hears a sense of inappropriate ownership in Jesus now that he’s home. He’s back now, and so he can stay here, heal and cure his home town folks. “You’re back with us now,” they seem to be saying, “so you just stay here and fix us, your own kind.” It could be said that the home town folks are trying to build a wall around themselves and Jesus, so they can keep him where he belongs, with them. This is what Jesus picks up on when he says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'”

Jesus is having none of this of course; no walls, no fences. He speaks of two great prophets of Israel, who did not “heal their own.” Elijah was sent by God to bring food to a widow in Sidon, in the land of the gentiles, the enemy, at a time when there was famine in Israel. Elisha cleansed a Syrian, an enemy, when there were many lepers in Israel. “God’s love is too big for you to claim for your own,” Jesus is saying. “It is not for you and you alone.” God’s love is too deep, too broad, too high, to be walled in and claimed for ourselves. God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The only way that we can avoid God’s love it seems, is to claim it for ourselves exclusively, to put restrictions on it, tests to be able to claim it. In other words, to build a wall around it.

The home town crowd’s reaction to this is remarkable. They weren’t annoyed, the weren’t miffed, they didn’t begrudgingly try to understand the point Jesus was making. They were none of these things. Instead, the scripture says they were enraged. They were filled with the kind of rage that engenders a mob-driven desire to grab Jesus and throw him off a cliff. They were filled with the kind of rage that can only come from a deep and overwhelming fear. Fear that the only way to keep God’s love and healing power it is to claim it exclusively for ourselves, when the great irony is, claiming it for ourselves is the only way to lose it.

Frost’s poem begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” This is why the wall needs to be mended every spring. The wall falls down; there is something that doesn’t like it.

The main character in the poem goes on to say this as he walks with his neighbor:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

 

Nature is what it is that doesn’t love a wall. God is what it is that doesn’t love a wall. The natural course of all walls which are left unattended is for them to crumble.

Is it time for us to stop attending to our walls? Is it time for us to stop feeding our fears? Do good fences really make good neighbors? Or isn’t it more likely that God has something else entirely in mind for us, the children of God, created in the image of love.

Preaching the Bible

People who do what I do for a living, preachers, are often admonished that we mustn’t preach about politics from the pulpit. The reasoning behind this, I suppose, runs along the lines of the old saying, “Don’t wrestle with the pigs, you just get dirty and the pigs like it.” In other words, we mustn’t lower the level of discourse in the church to the mundane and profane world of earthly politics.

Some have disagreed with this. The eminent 20th century theologian Karl Barth once famously said that preachers should walk into the pulpit with the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Walter Brueggemann would likely say that we don’t have to talk about politics, all we have to do is talk about justice and the politicians will squirm.

I for one am resistant to talking about politics from the pulpit. My reasoning has something to do with the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.  This is a doctrine that protects both church and state from being too much of an influence on the other. I never have been too comfortable when the government and any particular religious institution get too cozy with each other. I believe that the community of faithful people, all faithful people, is at its best when it presents itself and behaves in such a way as to make the dominant political and cultural forces of our world kind of uncomfortable. I like the idea of governmental leaders of any party, as well as industrialists and CEO’s, saying about people of faith, “I wish those people would shut up.” This is why I make fun of things like Sugar Pops and Hummers. I don’t mind fighting the culture wars but I’m not one to lightly dive into the political waters from the pulpit.

All of this having been said, I feel the absolute need to respond to something that was said in the political world, by a politician, last week. In justifying a new policy of separating children from the parents of people seeking asylum in this country, our Attorney General cited biblical authority, specifically Romans 13. I felt blindsided by this. I shudder at the idea of misusing biblical text to justify a policy as cruel and hateful as this one. Even so, I will still resist the temptation to talk about politics from the pulpit. So instead, I’m going to talk about the Bible.

Romans 13 says this:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

I once had a seminary professor who said that there were three things you needed to consider whenever you’re trying to interpret what any given passage of scripture means. These three things are context, context and context. You can’t simply pick out a line of scripture and assign to it a meaning that is truth and law for all time and in all places. There’s a term for that, it’s called proof-texting, and it must be resisted. And there are all sorts of contexts, historical, literary, the context of to whom the passage is addressed. I want to focus this morning on the last of these, Paul’s audience, the people to whom Paul was directly speaking.

The letter to the Romans was written some time around the year 55 of the common era. There was no Christianity as we know it…nothing close. Paul’s audience was a small and downtrodden group of people in Rome, mostly Jews, who had begun to follow Jesus Christ. They still considered themselves Jews and as such, they were being persecuted where they lived. The emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome a few years earlier, making these people “illegal.” (imagine that.) There was a new emperor but that new emperor was Nero, so there was not much future in that either. The members of this group of persecuted people were isolated and afraid, but also angry and possibly feeling rebellious. Paul was telling them to stay out of trouble, let the powers be; he was trying to save their lives.

The fact that Paul was directing his words to this particular group of people is immensely important. Paul was talking to the poor and downtrodden. (The poor and downtrodden are those most favored by God in the scriptures by the way, but that’s another sermon.) Paul was most assuredly not talking to those in power. The emperor Nero wasn’t reading Paul’s letter to the Romans

There are probably hundreds of times that Romans 13 has been used to justify ugly abuse by government. In the 18th century the passage was used in the American colonies by clergy in the Church of England (that’s us folks) to condemn any talk of American independence. This is interesting to note with the 4th of July right around the corner. In the 19th century the passage was cited by preachers in the American south to justify the continuation of chattel slavery. In the 20th century Romans 13 was preached by those who supported Nazi Germany and later by those who were behind South African apartheid.

All of these uses, or misuses I should say, of these few lines of scripture, depend upon the lines being taken utterly out of the context in which they were written. In order to use this passage in these ways one must completely ignore the fact that the audience was the poor and persecuted downtrodden and not the powerful. To say that Paul is telling those in authority that they can do anything they want, since God put them there, is more than ludicrous. It would mean that we should have never ended slavery in this country and never fought the Nazis in Europe.

Last week, the United States Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (you can’t make this stuff up) cited Romans 13 to justify a policy under which armed governmental agents are tearing apart families, taking small children away from parents who are seeking asylum in this country. In doing so, he is interpreting this out-of-context piece of holy scripture in a way that says that because he is acting under the authority of the US government, then God approves of this policy. He is wrong, As I say, it is more than ludicrous. It is wrong; it is sinful; it is evil. This is not politics. This is inhumanity.

I believe that it is important for people of faith, especially leaders, to speak out against policies that dehumanize our brothers and sisters, of any nationality or faith or situation in life. I fear that there is a tendency, especially among those who are new to faith or who are wrestling with faith issues, to hear something like what is being said from Washington, and then to dismiss the bible and any biblically based faith tradition as supportive of these evil policies. Please don’t fall into that trap. This is why I feel I must speak to this. History is rife with those who have attempted, sometimes, sadly, successfully to hijack the bible and to justify all sorts of human misbehavior, nearly always committed by those in power or authority, against those who are poor, weak or different. Don’t allow those who use good to commit evil to undermine your faith.

We can’t solve the world’s problems from the north side of Richmond. But as Desmond Tutu once said, “I can’t solve world hunger, but I can feed that guy.” Together we can keep our faith and do the next right thing that is in front of us. Let us do that and trust in God. It’s hard some days; I know it is. But it’s what I’m learning how to do. Let’s help each other out to do the same. Amen.

The Canaanite Woman

Our reading this morning from Matthew is considered by some to be one of the most difficult passages of any gospel for us to really wrap our brains around. One of the main things that troubles us is Jesus’ behavior towards the Canaanite woman who approaches him for much needed help; her daughter is possessed by a demon. I want to talk about this, but first let me say a few things about the rest of the reading.

First, there is the matter of the Canaanite woman initiating contact with Jesus in the first place. In approaching Jesus and speaking to him as she does, the woman violates all sorts of the societal norms of her time. Her behavior is not comfortable for those who observe it, she is not respecting the proper boundaries. She is described as a Canaanite who lives in the land of Tyre and Sidon. This says a lot. She is a gentile, she probably worships either pagan gods or Herod. As a Canaanite, she is member of a group of people, a tribe, who were historic enemies of the Israelites, the people the Israelites displaced when they first came into Cana under Joshua.

To make matters worse, women in those days had no business engaging men they don’t know, especially in public. She shouts, she is insistent and she has a daughter who is possessed by a demon. This last fact more than likely makes her personally ritually unclean, an untouchable if you will. Some in modern times might declare that she is indeed a nasty woman. (and yet she persisted).

The Pharisees with whom Jesus argues in the beginning of the reading would certainly say she was unclean, ritually impure. By violating the norms that she is violating, the rules that have been set down and followed for generations, she is defiling; she represents a defiling presence in the face of Jesus and his disciples.

This brings us to the first part of our reading for this morning, and Jesus’ comments on what defiles. Jesus makes it clear in rather graphic terms that the things that we take in are not what defile; that instead it is the things that come from our hearts when we are not centered in God that defile.  It is hatred and mistreatment of others, things done with malevolent intent, killing others, sexual exploitation of others, lying, stealing, slandering.

The literal translation of the word that is translated as “defile” is to make common. In other words, it means to attempt to take away something’s or someone’s special status as a creation of God, to de-sanctify.

All of the created order stands in special relationship to God, all people stand in special relationship with God. We are created in God’s image. We defile something or someone when we deny that relationship. Indeed, we defile the entirety of God’s kingdom when we attempt to disqualify anyone or anything from their rightful connection with God. When we claim a special status with God to the exclusion of others, we defile. Those who assert the superiority of their tribe by driving cars into those they deem as inferior are those that defile. And they don’t just defile the ones they hurt, they defile themselves and everyone around them. They defile the Kingdom of God.

The Canaanite woman would have been seen as someone who was denying Jesus and his disciples their rightful special status with God by her behavior. She was not treating them with the dignity that the rules of the day demanded. She was a woman daring to talk to a man. She was a gentile daring to talk to a Jew. She had an unclean daughter and dared to talk to a great healer. She was denying Jesus and his disciples the inherent privilege of place and status, and so many in her context, actually pretty much everyone in her context, would have said she was defiling them.

And this brings me back to the very first thing I said about this passage. We are uncomfortable with the way Jesus treats this woman at first. The first thing he does is ignore her. That doesn’t sound like Jesus to us. The disciples tell him to send her away because of her shouting. They do not like her potentially defiling behavior. Here is where Jesus says those things that make us so uncomfortable. He says he is sent only for the lost sheep of Israel. He basically calls the woman a dog after she came and knelt before him and pleaded for his help. This doesn’t sound like Jesus to us.

Here’s what I think is happening. I think there is a very good reason that this story of the Canaanite woman immediately follows the interaction with the Pharisees about purity and defilement and immediately precedes the second feeding miracle, the second feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew, when Jesus feeds the gentiles. Jesus was a teacher. Mary Magdalene identified him as such when she first recognized the risen Christ. She said “Rabouni!” which means teacher.

And this moment, when this woman of questionable ritual cleanliness kneels before Jesus and begs him to heal her possessed daughter, is a profound teaching moment for Jesus. Jesus in his ministry didn’t hesitate to teach by using extreme measures, hyperbole, even anger, as when he destroyed the tables of the money changers. So Jesus blatantly insults the woman, calling her a dog. In doing so he exposes the shallowness of the rigid rules of exclusion the Pharisees insist upon, and exposes the ugliness of taking these rules too far. I imagine that even the disciples were made uncomfortable by Jesus’ comment to this woman who was kneeling before him. I imagine they learned a powerful lesson when he healed her daughter.

She persisted and Jesus said to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” I don’t really think that Jesus was swayed by her pithy retort about the dogs eating the crumbs. I think Jesus intended on healing her daughter all along. I think that Jesus was being a teacher. The fact that he next went on to heal others in that same region, and then feeding the masses of gentiles, lends credence to this.

And what is the lesson learned? Well, perhaps they are legion, to turn a phrase. But at the least Jesus teaches us of the ugliness and pettiness of our insistence that our tribe is the one with the greatest connection to God. There is no theological or biblical basis for us to ever judge anyone. In fact, we are pretty much specifically instructed not to. Those who go too far down that road, those who over-identify with their tribe and forget that we are one human family, created in God’s image, run the risk of committing horrendous acts of defilement, or having such acts committed in their name. Our relationships, as strong as thy can become when grounded in God, become much too fragile when we even glance down that road.

And finally, Jesus teaches us that we can expect and even know that God will be God in the end. God is the God we know in our hearts, the God who wrote the law in our hearts, the God of radical acceptance, radical abundance, radical forgiveness and radical grace.

Thanks be to God….amen

Pleased to Meet You

There’s a quote I saw recently that must have gone around on the internet a while back. I heard it and then had no problem finding it again with a simple search. So, if I found it on the internet it must be true, right?

The quote goes like this: “Someone once told me the definition of hell; on your last day on earth, the person you could have become will meet the person you became.” I’ll read it again…

I find the quote compelling, and the idea of meeting the person we could have become is very intriguing to me. But there is something that I don’t like about the quote, something I had a hard time putting my finger on. I’m not sure that I can perfectly articulate my strong ambiguity but let me give it a try. I find the quote overly negative in a judgmental sort of way. Whoever wrote it chose to talk about meeting the person who we could become in terms of Hell or punishment. I think it serves us much better to think of meeting the person who we have the potential to become as a moment or time of grace, a profound gift, an encounter with a vision of pure redemption and even salvation.  And I don’t think we need to wait until the end of our lives to envision such an encounter.

Think about what it means to live up to your fullest potential as a human being, a child of God. What is the best there is within us? We know some things that it is not. At least I hope we do. It is not fame or notoriety; it is not material wealth; it’s not power. If we believe it is these things, and strive all of our lives to attain these things, we are sinners. We are idolaters. We worship things that are not God or of God. However, if we are presented with these things as a result of fulfilling a God-given call, and if we are good stewards of what we are given, well then that’s different. It gets complicated. And yet the question is still there; what does it mean to become the person we *can* become.

Today we baptize a baby. It’s a perfect day to baptize a baby. We celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus in our liturgy today and today is youth Sunday; all of or service participants are young people…except me. (I felt I needed to say that before somebody else did!) So today is an especially appropriate day to do what we are about to do. It’s a beautiful service, full of some of the most powerful language there is about what it means to be a Christian. We all reaffirm our own baptisms by promising again to worship, repent, proclaim, love and respect the dignity of every human being. We hear the promises made by the Godparents on behalf of the infant being baptized and, in the first thing in the service that we do together, as a congregation we make a very profound promise. We promise to, through our prayers and witness, to “help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

Now *that* is a promise. It’s a promise that brings me back to that internet quote I was talking about. We are about to pledge to help Emma Grace to become the person she is capable of becoming. The struggle in our lives, for all of us, is to become the person we *can* become, and we reach for that goal when we grow into the full stature of Christ.

This, for me, is the nuts and bolts of the incarnation, the true meaning of God made human in Christ for all of us as individuals. God, by becoming fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has planted the seed within the deepest soil of our being. When we, with the full help of our communities, create a life for ourselves that allows us to at least try to grow into the full stature of Christ, then we become whole and we become the person we want to meet on that last day.

Have you ever heard the expression that “you are what you eat”? This brings up another story I read, from the Native American tradition; here it is:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What are we feeding ourselves? What are we feeding our children? Are we feeding them, and ourselves, the food that will nourish the good wolf; that will grow us and them into the people we want to meet when we meet ourselves; the best that we can become?

We are today. In this beautiful, existentially enriching and nourishing, mystical and mysterious combination of Baptism and Eucharist, surrounded and assisted in our worship by young people, we are taking in the most nourishing food our faith, our church, has to offer. By baptizing this baby, and in reaffirming our own baptismal vows, we are bathing in the healing and nourishing waters of redemption, reconciliation and new life in Christ. We are sharing with the newly baptized the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ and promising to do all in our power to support Emma Grace in her life in Christ. We are promising to feed her, and each other, the good food, the nourishing food, the food that will allow the good wolf to grow if you will; to allow her and us to become the person we want to meet when we encounter our truest selves.

And in sharing the Eucharistic feast, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are keeping those promises. We open ourselves to the sanctification of God’s Holy Spirit in a way that will allow us all to grow into the full stature of Christ and become fully ourselves, the people God intended us to be.

Reacting

photo-police carMany of you know that I recently attended a preaching conference held at VTS, my old seminary. It was a very positive experience for the most part and I felt that I got a lot out of it. One of the things we had to do was to submit three sermons that we had preached in the past for someone who was an experienced preacher and teacher to look at and to offer suggestions. (That’s a nice way of saying “criticize”.) My person was a gentleman a bit older than I who had a lot more experience in preaching than I do. He had some very nice things to say, and also offered some suggestions. One of these had to do with a couple of my cultural references. It seems they were too dated. He suggested that I find some more modern references to make whatever point I am making.

So today I want to bring up a song written and performed by the Kingston Trio. Hey….I’m a slow learner. The song, The Merry Minuet” is one that they performed live in 1959. But the thing is, it is highly relevant today, some would say that it is frighteningly relevant today. It speaks in a humorous way about the human condition, the lot of mankind. I say humorous, but the thing is, it’s one of those songs that when you first hear it, you laugh…but then that laughter gets more and more uncomfortable. One day, not in church, I’ll play the whole song for you. But the bridge, the middle part, goes like this:

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.

Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch

and I don’t like anybody very much…[1]

 

We’ve all had days like that… But here’s the thing…here’s what I believe is a very important thing to take from this song. In the song’s overall trajectory, about the state of the human condition and about how we see one another, the song is not really speaking the truth. It is not our nature to hate. We are not born that way, we were not created by God to be that way, Jesus Christ did not become incarnate and enter into the essence of our human nature for us to be that way. If we hate, we learned how to hate. And if we learned how to hate, we can unlearn it. We can unlearn it by doing what God wants us to do, by being fully human, created by God in God’s image, created in love…created for love.

I refuse to be despondent. Or perhaps I should say that I refuse to remain despondent. When I go to bed with one violent shooting on my mind and wake up to hear about another, I feel all of the negative emotions and I, like any other human being, seek someone or something to blame. Brene Brown, who speaks and writes so eloquently about shame and redemption, said it very well:

I woke up this morning looking for someone to blame. Someone to hate. Someone who I could make the single target of my fear about the officers killed in Dallas and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was such a desperate feeling to want to discharge the uncertainty and scarcity. Then it dawned on me that this is the exact drive that fueled what’s happening right now.

Instead of feeling hurt we act out our hurt. Rather than acknowledging our pain, we inflict it on others. Neither hate nor blame will lead to the justice and peace that we all want – it will only move us further apart. But we can’t forget that hate and blame are seductive. Anger is easier than grief. Blame is easier than real accountability. When we choose instant relief in the form of rage, we’re in many ways choosing permanent grief for the world.[2]

 

I’ve spoken before about the differences between our reactive tendencies and our thought out responses. We react in ways we have been trained to react. Many of us learned as children to react in shame by either shaming ourselves or the perceived other. We learned this in order to survive. But when we sit with our losses, when we let God into our depths, we become the humans that God created, free to truly grieve and finally to grow.

The parable Jesus offers today speaks of what our shame and fear can lead us to and also what we can become when we let go of that shame and fear. The priest and the Levite acted, or failed to act, primarily out of fear and shame. They feared losing what it might “cost” them to “get involved”, they were ashamed of their own fears and limitations; they didn’t know what to do.

It’s a valid question…what can we do? It all seems so big, hunger, poverty, violence. One thing we are not allowed to do is cover our heads and build walls. The Prophet Amos tells us that.

In the magazine “Weavings, A Journal of the Christian Spiritual life”, Christine Valters Paintner writes:

An…ancient wisdom saying from the desert fathers advises, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” We need to stop feeding the consumer machine, which tells us our worth according to the newest gadget we have purchased (while we throw the last one in an ever-growing landfill.) We need to stop perpetuating the cycles of violence by denouncing war while we relentlessly judge ourselves and the people we encounter every day.

We need to go off to our metaphysical desert or wilderness to reevaluate our priorities. More than likely this is an oasis of silent moments in the midst of a day full of competing priorities. We are called to remember what it is that really nourishes our hearts. What comes to mind when you ponder that question? What makes you feel nourished, fed, and alive?

Never underestimate the power of small kindnesses in daily life to transform our corner of the world. Instead of moving through our days with gruffness and anger, we can commit to treating each person who crosses our path with respect and dignity. The grocery clerk, the bank teller, and our own holy selves will thrive under this loving gaze. These are some of the concrete ways we can respond to the devastation we see reported on the news in places faraway, by remembering the love we can offer right here and now. The doorway of the heart is open. [3]

Desmond Tutu, in the film “I Am” says it this way. He says, “No, you can’t solve global hunger.” Then his eyes brighten, and he smiles broadly, and he says, “But you can feed that guy.” [4]

It is not our nature to hate, to blame, to shame. It is indeed our human nature to commiserate, to help, to value other life. The Kingston Trio song is cautionary, it frightens us in a humorous way by giving us a glimpse of what we can become if we forget who we are, who’s we are. The church, you and me, the body of Christ, exists in the world to remind us all of who and who’s we are, beloved children of God, worthy of respect, dignity and justice, loving God and loving each other, and remembering what Jesus says. The kindness of one Samaritan to one person in trouble can change the world. We must take care of our neighbor.  We must go and do likewise…

Amen

 

[1] The Kingston Trio. The Best of the Kingston Trio. Capitol, 1962. Vinyl recording.

[2] Brene Brown. (2016, July 8), I woke up this morning looking for someone to blame: [Facebook update] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/brenebrown/?fref=nf

[3] Paintner, Chistine Valters. “The Unraveling Towards Love.” Weavings A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life XXXI.4 (2016): 4-14. Print.

[4] I Am. Dir. Tom Shadyac. Perf. Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. Flying Eye Productions, 2011. DVD.