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Sunday, June 19, 2016

More than thoughts and prayers

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“Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you."

 (Luke 8:26-39)

A Sermon Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE


Well, I think we can safely say that this has been one heck of a week.

I don’t know about you, but I am still reeling from the death of Christina Grimmie, the 23- year old woman from NJ, a finalist on the TV program, The Voice, who was shot down after a performance while signing autographs in Orlando, Florida. 

Then, 49 people were murdered and 53 people seriously wounded in a gay club in Orlando. The murderer was a NY born American who was shot to death by police, bringing the actual total to 50 dead. 

Finally, in an horrific incident that has to be the vacation nightmare of every parent, a 2-year old boy was dragged into the water by an alligator at Disney World in Orlando and, despite his father’s heroic measures, was killed and later found dead in the water near his parent’s hotel room.

How do we make sense of any of this? It’s so tempting to move to the safety of the simplistic. Must be something about Florida, right? Is there something in the water there? Or, something in the air? Maybe it’s something about Orlando? Is this some sort of divine retribution or message?

The junior senator from FL is quoted as saying that these events happened because God was trying to send him a message about how he needs to run for reelection because his leadership is desperately needed. Imagine? It really is tempting to move into the safety of the simplistic, especially when you, personally, benefit from that position.

Some people joined one of the presumptive presidential nominees in believing the tragedy was vindication for the position to close our borders and deport all Muslims. Yes, the man who killed 49 and injured 53 in Orlando was a Muslim. And, so were the two men who set off bombs in Boston, MA. 

But the man who killed the men and women in a Charleston, SC Church one year ago this week was not. The man responsible for the mass shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater was not.  The young men who killed their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado were not. The young man who killed children and teachers in Newtown, CT was not.

There are some people who will move to the safety of the simplistic because, well, because it’s easier than employing critical thinking. It’s easier to blame one group of people than to look more deeply into the multiple facets and causes of the tragedy.

There were some days this week when I felt like I had met that man in this morning’s gospel lesson, the man possessed of many demons who lived in the country of Gerasenes, which is just opposite Galilee in Jerusalem. (Luke 8:26-39) There were so many demons that, when Jesus asked him his name, the voices in the man responded, “Legion.” 

It would seem as if “Legion” in Scripture did not really die when sent into a herd of swine who tossed themselves over the steep brink and drowned in the lake below. “Legion” seems to be alive and well and living among us in our world today.

It seems as though legions of demons have infected our country and our culture and our people. The world seems to have gone mad with violence and hatred, rape and murder. And, what we don’t do to each other, nature seems to come up from out of the abyss to do to us and to our children.  It makes no sense. No. Sense. What.So.Ever.

We seem to be plagued by simplistic thinking that only adds to the madness. We want simple answers to complex questions. We want to assign blame to others so we don’t ever have to take responsibility for the bad that happens in the world. 

Blame it on the pigs and let them be tossed into the lake. Then, we can be done with it. Wash our hands of it. Then, we won’t have to think about it anymore. Just send “our thoughts and prayers”.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have any easy answers for you about what is really going on in this story from Luke’s gospel. I also don’t have any easy answers for you about what happened this past week in Orlando and the rest of this country.

I don’t know why bad things happen to good people any more than I know why good things happen to bad people. St. Matthew’s Gospel (5:45) tells us that God “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”

What I do know is that a lot of good happened last week in Florida, too. While many people were content to “send thoughts and prayers” other people lined up for a full city block, waiting hours to donate blood. A major fast food company with a history of dislike of and prejudice for gay people brought sandwiches and iced tea to the people standing in line.

A major airline offered free airfare to the relatives of the deceased and wounded so loved ones could be together at this time of grief and crisis.

A Go-Fund-Me account started by a local gay organization has brought in over $3 million dollars to help defray the cost of medical and burial expenses.

A man who lived 1,200 miles away fashioned 49 crosses, painted them white and put the names of each one of the 49 people who had been killed on those crosses. And then, he drove them down to Orlando in his pick up truck so that the families of those who died would know that their loved ones had not been forgotten. That they were remembered and thought of and prayed for by a total stranger. 

The Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida, who has been notoriously opposed to blessing the sacred covenants of marriage between gay people organized a Prayer Vigil at the Cathedral and invited the Gay Men’s Chorus to sing in the very church where gay men are not allowed to sing in the choir and the previous dean had declined to baptize the adopted baby of a married gay couple. One of those who was murdered was buried out of the Cathedral yesterday.

And, in this country, it looks like there may be – may just be – some real movement to bring about public policy and changes in the law to at least control the sale of assault weapons to those who are on the “no fly” list. So, if your behavior has been suspicious enough not to fly on commercial airlines, you may also not buy an assault weapon.   

“No fly? No buy.” Sounds good to me.

The movement to bring a discussion about legislation to end to gun violence was started by a senator from Connecticut who organized a filibuster to bring the issue to the floor of the Senate. He was soon joined by two other senators. After a little more than 15 hours, everyone agreed to have the discussion and now a senator from Maine is working to make sure that those discussions result in legislation that is passed into law.

That’s a whole lot more than “thoughts and prayers”. Talk about tossing out demons over the sharp brink and letting them drown!

No, none of those acts of kindness and generosity – not even the effort to bring legislation to end the insanity of gun violence – is the solution to the problem of what happened in Orlando, FL or Charlotte, SC or Aurora, CO or Boston, MA.  

These are all just small but important steps in the long, complicated journey to live into what St. Paul wrote to the ancient church in Galatia: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And, that, I think, is the real message of this morning’s gospel. The real miracle is not in “thoughts and prayers”. The real miracles happen when we put our thoughts and prayers into deeds of love and care.  

This morning’s gospel tells us that, when the people saw that the man who had been possessed of many demons had been healed, they were afraid. Indeed, they were so fearful that they asked Jesus to leave them. Imagine!

Just stop and wrap your head around that for a minute. Jesus healed the man, freed him from his tormentors, set him in his right mind, removed his chains and clothed him – and the people were afraid of what they saw. 

Had they become so used to the evil and the demons in their midst that they could not tolerate the absence of them? Is it easier to deal with insanity in our midst – because, at least then, we have someone else to blame when things go wrong?

One Senator from FL said, “Look, these things happen. It was just Florida’s, turn.” Seriously? Have we become so numb, so accustomed to evil and insanity and gun violence in our midst that we think it’s simply inevitable? We must simply wait for “our turn”.

I think Jesus would beg to differ with that position. And, so should we. This is a time – this is the day, this is the moment – for us as Christians to reexamine the teachings of Jesus. It’s not the time to send Jesus away but to embrace even more closely what we know of him and our identity as Christians given to us in our baptism.  

Indeed, in place of the Nicene Creed, I’m going to ask us to renew our Baptismal vows this morning. And, when we do, I want to ask you to think about the five promises we make. I want to ask you to consider how you are living into those promises. And, if you’re not, what you can do to make a change in your life to live more fully as a child of Jesus.

Fear is the path to anger. And, anger is the path to hate. And, hate is the path to violence. And, violence is the path to suffering. We’ve seen this pattern enough to know this to be true.  Fear leads to anger which leads to hate which leads to violence which leads to suffering.

We also know that this path can be diverted. Scripture teaches that “perfect love casts out fear”.

It is time to perfect the love we have from God in Christ Jesus in deeds that push us past our numbness to and passive acceptance of the insanity in our midst and, instead, into the reality of God’s unconditional love for all humankind. 

We don’t need simplistic thinking but we do need to get back to the basics. At one time, there was a slogan in The Episcopal Church that went like this: “Love in deed is love, indeed.”

Today, this Father’s Day, might be just the time to examine what it is you believe. Now, this day when we celebrate and honor the men in our lives who serve as a reflection of God’s love for us, might just be the best time to think about how it is that we put our faith into action. Today, this day, might just be the day to take the love that is in our hearts and make of it some deed of kindness and generosity.

“Love in deed is love, indeed.” Yes, it’s a simple thought, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. It takes effort – more than just “sending thoughts and prayers”. 

It won’t protect you from the bad things in the world – like preventing hurricanes and floods and wildfires, or alligators and snakes coming up from out of the water, or bears coming out from the woods – but it’s an important place to start to change the world.

In fact, it’s the only way I know how to change the world. Love. Love in deed.

One person. One pew. One church. One city. One county. One state. One nation at a time.

It begins with me. It begins with you. Today. Now. In this moment.

And, if God has healed you, if you have been changed and transformed, hear what Jesus said to the man he had healed, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."

Amen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando: A word of hope from our history

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

If Queer people can start a riot in a gay bar in the 1969 and, in doing so, launch an entire movement to bring Pride to being Queer and start a Civil Rights Movement to insure our rights as citizens;

AND . . .

If we can actually convince the medical research community to suspend the centuries-old scientific method to stop double-blind studies and fast track drugs during the AIDS crisis;

AND . . .

If we can make it possible for Queer people to create our own families by taking in foster children, adoption, insemination and surrogacy; 

AND . . . 

If we can start a Civil Rights Movement to provide Marriage Equality; 

AND . . .

If we can - after thirty long, hard, well fought years - get the venerable Episcopal Church to authorize liturgical blessings for the covenants of marriage made by Queer people;

AND . . . 

If we can actually start a movement so that people can pee in public toilets where they feel safe (are you kidding me right now?): 

Then, by God (indeed) . . . 

I think we can help to successfully complete a movement to ban assault weapons and bring about sensible gun control. 

They done messed with the wrong demographic this time.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage


NOTE: The following are the Prayers of the People which I wrote at the request of Jack Spong for the service at 3 PM Sunday, June 5,  at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown for the 40th Anniversary Celebration of his consecration as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. At the end of every diocesan convention during his episcopacy, we all rose and sang, "God of grace and God of glory," by Harry Emerson Fosdick (always to the tune of CWM RHONDDA ). It just seemed to make sense, then, to set the petitions within the framework of that great hymn. 
 
Prayers of the People
for the 40th Anniversary Celebration
of the Rt. Rev’d John Shelby Spong

The voice of one: God of grace and God of glory,

It is always a privilege to come before you in prayer. We gather together today in prayers of thanksgiving for the ministry you have given us in baptism, the priesthood of all believers, and in celebration of the prophetic witness and ministry of John Shelby Spong, the 8th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
The voice of many: For the living of these days.

Christine Mary Spong
One: God of grace and God of glory,

We praise your name and thank you that Jack’s ministry raised up and empowered lay and ordained leadership to create vehicles of your abundance in endowments and granting agencies such as ACTS/VIM, Ward J. Herbert, and George E. Rath to fund the creative ministry of people and congregations, tend to the physical maintenance of churches, and fund the higher education of children of clergy.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Many: For the living of these days.

One: God of grace and God of glory,

We praise your name and thank you for the gift of reason and intelligence and for Jack’s unwavering commitment to tend to the minds of your laity and clergy. We thank you that through the New Dimensions and the John Elbridge Hines Lecture Series, your people were able to be challenged by renowned theologians, engaging in passionate debate at diocesan conventions and local congregations, and studying the issues that challenge the church’s life as well as that of our nation in task forces whose reports set policy for our own diocese as well as the wider church.  We have learned that we are blessed to be a blessing.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Many: For the living of these days.

One: God of grace and God of glory,

We praise your name and we thank you for the gift of the Anglican Communion and our place in it as The Episcopal Church. We thank you that Jack’s leadership has called us to honor and cherish this gift, even when we found ourselves in sharp disagreement and discord which stretched the bonds of our mutual affection and Anglican tolerance. We thank you that we were able to provide hospitality and sanctuary to visiting laity, clergy and bishops from around the world, to learn from them and they from us, so that we might live more faithfully into the high priestly prayer of Jesus to be one, even as he and you are one.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.
Many: For the living of these days.

Janet Broadrick, rector, St. Peter's.
One: God of grace and God of glory,

We praise your name and we thank you for the gift of your prophets who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We thank you especially for the prophetic ministry of your servant, Jack, who took to heart the words of his mentor, John Hines, that “the Body of Christ risk its own life in bearing and sharing the burdens of those who are being exploited, humiliated, and disinherited.” We thank you that the ministry of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people found oasis and sanctuary in the Diocese of Newark at a time when their lives were not valued and their gifts in the church and to the world were rejected.  The cost of discipleship has been a challenge and a burden, an honor and a source of joy.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Many: For the living of these days.

One: God of grace and God of glory,

We praise your name and we thank you for raising up among us shepherds for your flock who care tenderly and kindly to your people. We are especially grateful for Jack’s ministry as our chief pastor who knew each one of us and called us by name, pastoring the pastors who work in your vineyards,

John Zinn, former CFO of the DioNwk
challenging our thoughts with difficult conversations and nourishing us with meals meticulously planned and cooked to perfection by him and his beloved Christine. We thank you for the blessings of kindness and generosity which create a culture of care and compassion and even greater blessing.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Many: For the living of these days

One: Holy One, we thank you for all of these many gifts which we celebrate this day. We thank you that we the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, the priesthood of all believers, the saints of God, past, present and yet to come, have been, are and will be changed and transformed by the episcopacy of your servant, John Shelby Spong and are, as such, his greatest legacy.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
Many: For the living of these days. Amen.

PS. It was more than wonderful to see all the former staff and leadership of the laity and clergy of the Diocese of Newark. Jack was very gracious and generous, as always, and gave everyone who participated in the service an autographed copy of his latest book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, which also contained a private note. It's just so Jack.  I'm already 1/4 of the way through it.

Funny thing about "the good old days". You never know you're in them until they have come to pass.

I am such a grateful debtor.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Dust in the Wind


I think the words in the Book of Common Prayer that have had the most profound spiritual effect on me are these from the Ash Wednesday liturgy. 
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
They are both sobering and terrifying, providing a sense of fleeting finiteness as well as being an integral part of something that is infinite and enduring.

I was never more aware of this than during the five years (1996-2001) I worked for Jack Spong, bishop of the Diocese of Newark, as Canon Missioner to The Oasis, the ministry with and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, their families and friends.

He was not the easiest boss I've ever worked for, but that doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means. Yes, I worked hard and traveled far, spending more time living out of my suitcase in hotels and inns than I care to remember.

In my position as Canon Missioner, I faced more hostility than I had ever previously encountered in my life, and I thought that had been quite a lot. I really didn't think enduring a court custody battle for your children could have been more violent - except for the violence of the "ordination process" in The Episcopal Church, during which the integrity of my faith and authenticity of my family were continually questioned because of the orientation of my sexuality and identification of my gender.

Turns out, those life experiences had only served to prepare me for the blunt force trauma of misogyny and homophobia that were - and still are, in fact - part of the church and the world.

As difficult as that was, I was astounded by how much hostility I took on which was actually directed at Jack Spong and his audacity, as a bishop in the church, to expose the ignorance which shapes and forms the prejudice and bigotry and oppression women and other "minorities" experience in the world and, yes, in the church.

I'm not going to lie. It was difficult to be the target of all that hostility and hatred.

Lambeth 1998 was the absolute worst. It is no dramatic exaggeration to say that there were times when I actually feared for my life - or, at least, that some physical harm would be done to me. And, all in the name of Jesus, of course. And, to "save the church" from the evils of Jack Spong and "his minions".

It was, in a word, traumatic. 

All that having been said, it is also true that it was under Jack's leadership that I was challenged to think - very carefully and with great clarity - about what I really believe, what I value, and the philosophical, spiritual and religious principals that shape and form my life and my work.

I had to ask myself - frequently - why am I doing this? Is all of this hostility worth it? Does it make sense to continue to try to put out small brush fires of prejudice when the forest is burning with bigotry? To provide small drops of water to those who thirst for justice in the midst of the killing drought of oppression?

There were times when my work as Canon Missioner was all-consuming. Times when I was away from my family. Times when, even when I was with my family, I was so preoccupied with my work that I couldn't really be fully present at one of our children's basketball game or dance recital, much less at the dinner table.

Participating in and presiding at Eucharist became a source of strength as well as a force for my transformation on an even deeper spiritual level.

It became startlingly, crystal clear to me the need Jesus had to be remembered. To leave something behind that would make the sacrifice worth it. 

To justify the pain.

It wasn't so much as being about a legacy - it's not about illusions, or delusions of grandeur - but something that turned the sacrifice into a contribution to something greater than the "I am that am" which contributes to the desire to continue the work.

I found the need to satisfy that impulse for anamnesis in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. I heard the words about being dust and returning to dust making deeper sense to me.

Looking back, I see, now, that my little specks of dust were caught up in the swirl of many particles of human dust in the justice movements of that time - to further the civil rights of people of color and women and to insure the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Jack Spong's ministry as bishop served as a vector, a carrier. A vector is what is needed to move a thought or an object from point A to point B.

That is not a ministry unique to Jack Spong. It is what bishops do.

Or, at least, what they're supposed to do. When they are actually being leaders in the church. Which means that they have to kick up some dust and stir stuff up.

Which is also why the episcopacy is called "pontifical".  It doesn't just apply to the Bishop of Rome.

It may be folk etymology but the word pontiff derives from the Latin root words pons (bridge) + facere (to do, to make), and so to have the literal meaning of "bridge-builder".

Jack's legacy is that he was a vector of justice for women and LGBT people, building bridges across parched deserts of prejudice and bigotry into wellsprings of liberation and justice.

I have come to see that my human dust was a small part of that turbulent wind storm of justice.  I have come to believe that the small specks of the dust of my work and ministry helped to contribute to disturbing the peace.

That's what justice does. It disturbs the peace of the self-satisfied and those in power.

I learned that justice is, as Cornell West is quoted as saying, "the public face of love".

And thus, I am a few small dust particles of the windstorm that was - and is - Jack Spong.

It helps me to make sense of all that horrific prejudice and bigotry and hopefully, contributes to an understanding of what has been and what still needs desperately to continue. 

That's good enough for me.

Tomorrow at 3 PM at St. Peter's Church in Morristown, NJ, I will take part in the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the consecration of John Shelby Spong as 8th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (NJ). 

Jack honored me by asking me to write the Prayers of the People for the occasion. I will be printing them here after the service.

Until then, I am both heartened and humbled to know that I am Dust in the Wind of the ancient song of justice. It helps to think that my ministry provided a few new notes to an old gospel hymn, and perhaps, a bit of understanding as to why the work needs to continue. 

As Jack would say, "The only way you can worship God is to is by daring to be all that you can be and not bound by the fears of yesterday."

To that end, I have and will continue to worship God with my whole heart and my whole soul and with my whole mind and with all my strength (Mark 12:30).

I am the priest I am today, in part, because of the experience of Jack's episcopacy.

I know that the work of - the struggle for - justice continues.

I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

And, even at the grave, my song will be Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Litany of Praise and Thanks for Political Correctness


For those of you who are enviably, blissfully unaware of the goings on of The Episcopal Church and the seemingly incessant natter in our corners of Social Media, well, kudos to you. 

Over at the General Convention FaceBook page, there is a discussion about being 'politically correct' which was prompted, believe it or not, by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Yes, that Clarence Thomas. You remember. The one appointed to the SCOTUS when Anita Hill should be serving in his place.  

Yes, that Clarence Thomas. 

The usually Silent One on the bench speaks. 

And now we know why he usually keeps his head down and his mouth shut. 


Justice Thomas was the speaker at the Commencement Ceremony at Hillsdale College where he was roundly quoted by Fox News media outlets as having said this: 
“I admit to being unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic and unapologetically a Constitutionalist.”

 “Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness.”
Well . . . .!

There is an angry troll (isn't there always an angry troll?) who reports that he was, "for 50 years an Episcopalian" (isn't that always the case with angry trolls on Episcopal social media) who is now a member of a conservative mega-church (of course) which has . . . wait for it ... "changed his life". 

Right?

He loves nothing more than to stir up negative conversation and derision among Episcopalians (Because, you know, his life has been changed. Imagine what he was like before he knew Jesus!).

He says he's "moved on" from The Episcopal Church but all the evidence points to the contrary. 

Anyway, he posted a meme of Clarence Thomas and his quote and, well, the conversation has been, shall we say, "interesting".

Of course, there was push back. And, of course, there was push back against the push back.

Which, of course, led to many verses of the predictable sad chorus of "The church shouldn't be in politics."

Yes, some Episcopalians said that.

Which, for some, translates to mean: "This conversation really makes me uncomfortable."

Truth is, there has been some interesting - if not unintentional - distinctions made between being "political" and "politics" and the role of each in public service, public discourse and religion.

So, after lots of back and forthing and forthing and backing, I felt called to write this Litany of Praise and thanksgiving for Political Correctness.

I share it with you now and ask that you join me in prayer.
A Litany of Praise and Thanks for Political Correctness in The Episcopal Church
I give thanks and praise to God for all of the  Episcopalian Presidents of the United States who have put their faith into political action and service to this country, including George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

I give thanks and praise to God for all of the incumbent Episcopalians who presently put their faith into political action and service to this country as US Senators, including Angus King (I-ME), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as now retired John Danforth, (R-MO) who also served TEC as deputy to General Convention.

I give thanks and praise to God for the political action of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose sacrificial witness and work helped to bring an end to Apartheid in South Africa.

I give thanks and praise to God for the political action of Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership brought thousands of clergy and laity from thousands of churches of various denomination - including The Episcopal Church - to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the desegregation of schools. His words continue to inspire many Episcopalians to dismantle racism and end prejudice and oppression in the name of Jesus.

I give thanks and praise to God for the many Episcopalians - lay and ordained - who marched and protested and participated in political street theater and testified before congress to pass legislation to get treatment and research for People with AIDS.

I give thanks and praise to God for the many, many bishops and priests and deacons and laity in The Episcopal Church who stood up against religious organizations like The Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church who contributed millions of dollars to prevent the civil right of Marriage Equality in this country.

I give thanks and praise to God for the group Bishops Against Gun Violence who bring the force of the moral authority of their religious beliefs to bear in the efforts to control gun violence.

I give thanks and praise to God for the work and witness of The Episcopal Church with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) which insures that a calm, confident, moral voice of religion is heard in the vitriolic, hateful, violent battle of the arena of women's reproductive health.

I give thanks and praise to God for the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) for working to keep Episcopalians informed of the ways in which they can put their faith into action - directly as individuals or with other groups and organizations and congregations as well as indirectly through political action - in issues of social justice like poverty, hunger, immigration and peace.

I give thanks and praise to God for all of the independent justice organizations in The Episcopal Church which bring the needs of the world to the church and the care and concern of the church to the world, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Advocates, Episcopal Network for Economic Justice, Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Episcopal Urban Caucus, Episcopal Women's Caucus, Integrity, TransEpiscopal, and the Union of Black Episcopalians.

I give thanks and praise to God for all of the elected deputies - past and present - who put their faith into the political action and the legislative process of General Convention.

May God continue to bless the sacrifices they make to be a witness and serve God's people in the world through The Episcopal Church.

I give thanks and praise to God for all Episcopalians who put their faith into action in daily acts of mercy and justice and kindness, without fanfare or recognition, apart from any political party or political affiliation or what they consider politics, and all in the name of Jesus.

I pray that we may all continue to put our faith into action in whatever ways we feel called to do, and that we may continue to have conversations, even when they make us uncomfortable or upset or frustrated or angry, secure in the knowledge that it is always correct political action to take the risks of our faith and honor the Christ in each of us by serving the Christ in others.

Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost: The Body Electric

Pentecost. The day Jesus sent the gift of his Spirit. Tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples. Everyone spoke in his own language and yet everyone understood.

The birthday of the church.

Yes, yes, yes, and Yes.

I remember sitting in a class on John's Gospel at Weston School of Theology - which, at the time, shared faculty, classroom space and a fabulous library with the Episcopal Divinity School - with a wonderful Jesuit scholar and one of the authors published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Near the end of the very last of his wonderful lectures, he asked us to turn off all our tape recorders (Do people still use them?). Then, he asked us to put down our pens and pencils (A few of us had computers. No one had laptops. Yet.) and close our notebooks. He took a deep breath, put his glasses on the end of his nose and said, "You never heard me say this . . . .".

Which, of course, insured that we'd never forget what he was about to say.

He took another deep breath and said, "From everything I've studied, I do believe that Jesus knew - in the very center of the intersection of his humanity and divinity - that his life and ministry, his death, ascension and resurrection, had all been so that the Holy Spirit could come."

"Yes," he said, "to answer the question that is dancing around in your heads, I'm saying that, as important as the gift of Jesus was, he was not as important as the Holy Spirit. Just as John the Baptist knew that he must "decrease" so Jesus could "increase," (Jn 3:30), Jesus knew that he must do the same for the Holy Spirit."

He quoted Jesus in John's Gospel to further support his claim: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come." (Jn 16:12-13). 

"The church has got it all wrong," he said. "It's not about Jesus. It's about the Holy Spirit." 

"If you want proof of that, just take a look at some of the hymns the church sings about the Holy Spirit.  Music that sounds more like lullabies and speak of the Holy Spirit as a 'murmur of dove's wings' so miss the mark."

"If we paid any attention at all to what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit, we'd be spending less time in church looking at the cross and more time dancing in the wind."

I remember the room being really, really quiet as we let that revelation sink in. 
The Episcopal version of 'speaking in tongues'

After more than forty years of Pentecost celebrations in the Church - red balloons, red dresses, red ties, red socks, strawberry shortcake and red Kool Aid at coffee hour and all that perfectly dreadful, practically anesthetic music - I think that Jesuit professor was right. 

Indeed, experiencing Episcopal liturgies on Pentecost remind me of what Jack Spong once said: 
"The Episcopal Church will not die of controversy. The Episcopal Church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy."
Indeed.

The more I think about the significance of The Holy Spirit, the more I think about the fact that every time Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit it was always in connection to two things: on-going revelation and eternal life. 

It was never about his body. It was always about the Spirit. 

The body is the vehicle. The Spirit is about what was, what is, and what will be. 

The body is what is - flesh and spirit. 

The Spirit is about revolution and new life which leads us to and prepares us for Life Eternal, which is the gift of the life, death, ascension and resurrection of Jesus.  

Pentecost is more of a mystery than the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus combined. 

It is also the point of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. 

Because it's all about The Trinity and The Trinity is all about relationship with God and each other in Christ, empowered by The Spirit. 

If asked to point to one song that captures the essence of the mystery and meaning of Pentecost, I wouldn't be able to name anything in the 1989 hymnal of The Episcopal Church - or, in fact, any hymnal authorized by The Episcopal Church. Yes, I'm including "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

If asked, I would most assuredly point to the final song in the film "Fame". 

Inspired by Walt Whitman's  1855 poem, "I sing the body electric," Whitman asks, "And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?" 

It's the question at the heart of the mystery of Pentecost.  I don't think the song directly answers the question, but it points us closer to an answer than anything the church does on Pentecost. 

So, on this Feast of The Pentecost when we celebrate in great thanksgiving the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, I offer this song. 

Try to remember and never forget:
We are the emperors now
And we are the czars
And in time
And in time
We will all be stars
 Happy Pentecost!



I sing the body electric
I celebrate the me yet to come
I toast to my own reunion
When I become one with the sun

And I'll look back on Venus
I'll look back on Mars
And I'll burn with the fire of ten million stars
And in time
And in time
We will all be stars

I sing the body electric
I glory in the glow of rebirth
Creating my own tomorrow
When I shall embody the earth

And I'll serenade Venus
I'll serenade Mars
And I'll burn with the fire of ten million stars
And in time
And in time
We will all be stars

We are the emperors now
And we are the czars
And in time
And in time
We will all be stars

I sing the body Electric
I celebrate the me yet to come
I toast to my own reunion (my own reunion)
When I become one with the stars

And I'll Look back on Venus
(I'll look back on vanity)
I'll look back on Mars
(Ill at this path)
I'll burn with the fire
(burn)
Of 10 million stars
(fire inside)
And in time (And in time)
And in time
And in time (and in time)
And in time
And in time (and in time)
And in time
WE WILL ALL BE STARS

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Ordinary Resurrections

John 14:23-29. Easter VI Year C May 1, 2016
The Episcopal Church of St. George, Harbeson, DE

The gospels in this Easter seasons always seem to work especially hard to “prove” the resurrection. See?  Jesus not only appeared to the disciples, Thomas actually put his hand into his wounds. See? Jesus is not just walking on the road to Emmaus, he’s on the beach, actually eating actual fish with his disciples. See?

Last week and this week find us back in the Upper Room with Jesus and his disciples, reliving some of what Jesus is reported to have said and done. This portion of John’s gospel ends with these words, “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe.”

The lectionary readings from the Acts of the Apostles are a wonderful response to the Gospel readings in Easter season. Whether or not you believe in the actual, physical resurrection the disciples were so eager to prove, it’s hard to deny that something was happening – some spirit was on the move – in those early days and months and years after The Resurrection.

This morning, we meet Lydia, the merchant of purple cloth.  She had been sitting with a few other women, outside the gate of the Greek city of Philippi, down by the river, at a place of prayer.

She had been listening to Paul, Silas and Timothy talking about Jesus and, Paul says, “The Lord opened her heart.” 

She and her household were baptized right then and there – probably right in the waters of the river. After her baptism, she “prevailed” upon Paul and the other disciples to come and stay at her house.  Later, we hear she also gives them shelter after they are released from prison.

I want to stay for just a little bit on this image of Lydia from the Book of Acts because I think it “proves” more about the power of The Resurrection of Jesus than any physical evidence.

The first thing I want to point out is that this woman, Lydia, has a name. That ought not be a huge distinction but, well, how many women are actually named in Scripture – Hebrew or Christian? Not many.

After The Resurrection, women’s names pop up around every corner. The gospels name several women at the empty tomb: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome,  and Mary, the mother of James, as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them" (Luke 24:10 - no doubt a few other 'Mary's' and probably Susanna) . All four gospels report that women were the first to discover the empty tomb.

In the Book of Acts and some of the Epistles, there’s Lydia, Phoebe, the deaconess, and Junia, a fellow prisoner with Paul. There’s Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila, Paul’s "helpers in Christ", and Tabitha, also called Dorcas, whom Peter raised from the dead.

There’s Sapphira who, with her husband Ananias, is not exactly a role model of Christian behavior. (Read about them in Acts 5:1-11) There’s also Rhoda, a young girl of the house of Mary, who was first to recognize Peter after his release from jail, Damaris (“a believer”), and Persis, an early Christian, much beloved of Paul, along with Julia, Olympas, Chloe, Lois, and Eunice.

That there are so many women named - by name and not just profession or social status – especially given the low estate of women in antiquity – says to my mind that something is happening – some Spirit is moving – something is changing hearts and minds and transforming lives.

As I reflect on John’s gospel, it is Lydia - this merchant of purple cloth, noted to be the first European convert to Christianity, who listened to and considered carefully what Paul and the disciples were saying about this Jesus and his Resurrection who -  captures my attention.

It is entirely possible that her name was not actually “Lydia”. Rather, she may be so named because she was from the province of Lydia. So “the woman from Lydia” became “Lydia”. It’s also not clear if she was a businesswoman or an simply an agent (a “buyer”) and whether or not she was a former slave, a widow or an independent woman.

No mater her social location, what is clear is that she was smart and accomplished. 

Which means she took some risks in choosing to be baptized and follow Jesus. 

Which begs the question: Why?

Why, when you are successful and fairly comfortable, would you risk all of that to follow the teachings of a Rabbi who got himself crucified?

Why, when you are a woman of precarious social standing in a patriarchal culture, would you give shelter in your own home to men like Paul, Silas and Timothy after they had been jailed?   

She was neither a Jew nor Roman. She had never met Jesus, much less heard before of his story.

What compelled a successful, intelligent, savvy businesswoman to believe, sight unseen?

What compels you, sight unseen, to believe in Jesus?

What, if not the power of The Resurrection? What, if not evidence, sight unseen, of the full and real presence of Jesus as made manifest in the Holy Spirit, moving and changing hearts and minds and transforming lives?   

Sometimes, it is the little, seemingly insignificant things that are most compelling.

I confess that it is the story of these women – witnesses to the Resurrection, some of them sight unseen – who strengthen my spirit and my faith in the power of The Resurrection. 

None of them really accomplished much - well, except, of course, that a woman actually getting named in ancient scripture is not exactly insignificant.

A few of them went to prison with Paul. Most of them are simply noted for their generosity and hospitality, their strong faith and willingness to risk – to speak out and tell the truth: 

Yes, I have seen the Lord. 

Yes, it IS Peter at the gate, back from prison. 

Yes, I will give you shelter after you have been released from prison.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need hard, cold, physical evidence of The Resurrection to believe in the power of The Resurrection, the power of the spirit of Jesus to change and transform lives. 

It really doesn’t matter to me whether Jesus rose physically, bodily from the dead. I don’t need to put my hands in his side or eat fish with him on the beach.

Neither do I need grand acts of generosity or daring risk of life to believe that you believe. 

Sometimes, it is enough just to get up every morning and do what needs to be done and live into our lives despite all challenges that await us.

These are the “ordinary resurrections” of life. “Anastasis” is the Greek word for resurrection. It means, literally, “standing up again.” 

If you pay attention, you’ll find that life is filled with “ordinary resurrections”. 

There are times when just getting out of bed in the morning and standing up again is a miraculous ordinary resurrection. Anyone who has struggled with depression - or, financial difficulties, or unemployment, or chronic family illness, or death - can tell you that this is true.

Thomas Merton writes of the first chirps of the waking birds at dawn outside the widows of his hermitage. “They begin to speak,” he says, “not with a fluent song” but “with an awakening question” that is their state at dawn. 

They ask God “if it is time for them to ‘be.’” God, says Merton, answers, “yes.” Then, “one by one,” they wake up to be birds.”

Sometimes, our faith is like that: Just a few chirps in the early morning darkness of the day. Sometimes, our one act of faith is to ask God if it’s okay to be, if it’s okay to trust in the power of The Resurrection. 

And, then, trust that God will say “yes”. 

And then, it will be time for us to wake up and be all that we were created to be, trusting in the power of The Resurrection – sight unseen – to risk and dare our way through the challenges of this day and dream a dream of our way into the next.

Or, as Jesus said to his disciples, “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe.”    

Amen. 

PS - I'm very grateful for the work done by Lindsay Hardin Freemen, whose study and writing on Women in Scripture grounds me even as it inspires my curiosity and delight.