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Sunday, July 24, 2016

A clear and present danger

In all the years I've been ordained - 30 in October, if you're curious - I've rarely, if ever, been publicly supportive of a Presidential candidate.  Any Presidential candidate.

No bumper stickers. No yard placards. No buttons. No nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

At least, when I was in parochial ministry. Things are a bit different when you're not the leader of a congregation. Even so, and while my politics are pretty obvious to anyone who is paying even slight attention, I've always tried to be fairly circumspect. 

Separation of church and state, you know. It's in our constitution. Or, at least, that's what I had always thought. Turns out, it's not. It was just a phrase Thomas Jefferson used. A lot.

Funny how that happens, eh? You say something enough times and it becomes "truth".

Well, I'm sure I don't know what I'd do if I were still rector or vicar in a congregation. I think I would be having more than a few conversations with my bishop and clergy peers, my spiritual director and therapist.

So, I'm writing this to clergy leaders, yes, but also to any and all of you who exercise leadership in Christian community - especially to those of you who have not exercised leadership but have been feeling 'stirrings" about needing to stand up and do something.

As we've heard over and over and over again from various journalists and political pundits, this is an election process like no other. For example: A year ago to the day that Donald Trump gave his speech accepting the nomination from the Republican party for President of the United States,  Donald Trump said of John McCain, 
"He's not a war hero. He's a war hero 
because he was captured. 
I like people that weren't captured."

That evening, July 21, 2015, the NY Post ran a cover depicting Trump on a raft with an encircling shark lurking behind. The headline? "Don Voyage!" Post owner Rupert Murdoch said that Trump was "embarrassing his friends" and "the whole country." 

And, yet, on Thursday, July 21, 2016 - exactly a year later - when Donald J. Trump strutted to the podium to announce - in a 75 minute speech - that he would accept the nomination to be the Republican candidate for President of the United States, he did so with the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and the NY Post.  

How did that happen? 

We should not have been surprised. Donald Trump has been saying for most of his adult life that he wanted to become President of the United States. Anyone who saw his face during President Obama's impromptu "roasting" of The Donald at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner could see on this face the formulation of his plans for a candidacy run. 

Watch the clip here and see if you don't agree that Mr. Trump simply could not abide being mocked by a Black man - especially about his life's ambition. It's pretty clearly written all over the scowl on his face and the squint in his eye, the way he sat on his hands and rocked back and forth in his chair, that he set out to do something about it right then and there.

When Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President of the United States on June 16, 2015,  Mr. Trump said that Mexicans, "They’re bringing drugs.They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!" And, he proposed building a wall. A YUGE wall.

A month later, the man who has called women "fat pigs" and "disgusting" dismissed Fox New's Megan Kelley as a "lightweight" journalist who, during the Republican Presidential debates,  had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her... whatever." 

In December 2015, Mr. Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." He also wanted to round up all Muslims for deportation. He didn't say then - and still hasn't said - how he intended to do that, but that's not what's important when you're trying to "shock and awe" and instill fear and incite violence.

He has a long history of racism, from having had charges brought against him and his father as early as 1973 by the Nixon Department of Justice (not exactly known as a bastion of liberalism) for civil rights violations in housing. 

In 1986 during the Central Park jogger case,  Mr. Trump denounced Mayor Ed Koch’s call for peace and bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The five teenagers spent years in prison before being exonerated, but not before Mr. Trump spent considerable time and energy and money whipping up the crowds into a racist frenzy. 

That was 1986. Sound vaguely familiar?

Mr. Trump has also retweeted messages from white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers, including two from an account called @WhiteGenocideTM with a photo of the American Nazi Party’s founder.
He, of course, has repeatedly and vehemently denied any racism, and he has deleted some offensive tweets. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi racist website that has endorsed Trump, sees that as going “full-wink-wink-wink.”

The man who once supported Planned Parenthood and was staunchly pro-choice did say in an interview with Savannah Guthrie that he would depart from the Republican Party Platform and "allow" abortion in the case of incest, rape or the life of the mother."  

However, when asked by Chris Matthews in March of 2016, Mr. Trump said that women should be punished for having an abortion.  

He, of course, walked that back - because even the most strident pro-abortion activists cringed at a position they certainly believe but had been carefully deflecting for decades -  but there it was.

However, in April of 2016, Mr. Trump said that transgender activist, Caitlyn Jenner, could use the women's room at Trump Towers any time she needed to. I know. Go figure, right? 

He has been married three times - twice to women who were not born in the United States (read: immigrants) - and has reveled in his reputation as a "lady's man". Indeed, three women have brought charges of sexual assault against him. As if that weren't enough, he has made lascivious remarks about his daughter, Ivanka, who is the "public face" of his respect for women.  

During her speech at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka told us that her father was "color blind and gender neutral," even though the weight of evidence does not support that assertion.

And, for an apparent variety of reasons and despite his sexual immorality, his three marriages, his vulgarity and impertinence, reportedly 78% of (white) Evangelicals support him and endorse his candidacy. 

As if all of this weren't enough, it is important to remember that Mr. Trump's friend, mentor and lawyer was none other than Roy Cohn - Senator Joseph McCarthy's (of whom it was asked "At long last, sir, have you no decency at all?") right hand man - helped the Rosenberg's to the electric chair for spying and helped elect Richard Nixon.

It is nothing short of amazing to me - and, apparently, most of the rest of the Free World - that this man, this racist, misogynist bully, this political demagogue who won't apologize even when it's clear that he is wrong - is the Republican candidate for President of the United States.

Actually, when you read the Republican Party Platform, it isn't exactly so much of a surprise.  Among other things, "We the People" seeks to reverse the SCOTUS decisions on Roe v. Wade, Marriage Equality, and the Affordable Care Act, defends their unique interpretation of the Second Amendment gun rights, seeks to "ensure honest elections" (read: further erosion of the Voting Rights Act) and yes, even gives mention to and is supportive of "The Wall." (I am not making this up.)

So, what is the responsibility of Christian leaders in these very perilous times? 

I think it is important, now more than ever, for Christian leaders to promote conversation and dialogue in Christian community.  

I know. I know. That sounds so lame, right?

Not when you consider that fear and anxiety and anger do not promote community. Indeed, it is the very mixture of toxic human waste that drives us apart from each other, increasing suspicions of each other and promoting tribalism and nationalism - the foundational building blocks of Fascism. 

This is part of what we're seeing in Trump's strategy. We've seen it before. It's the tactic of the demagogue to make enemies of each other. It's divide and conquer. And, it works.

That's why conversations and dialogue in communities of faith are critically important. It's a wonderfully subversive way to move people from their reptilian brain response and into an ability to think critically, engage one's insight and participate in creative, imaginative problem solving.

These conversations might include but not be limited to 
+ Christian identity, religious principles and moral values.   
+ The identity, principles and values of a democracy
+ The imperatives of the Gospel
+ The responsibilities of baptism
+ The nature and character of Christian leadership 
+ The public practice of theology.
This could be prompted by a series of sermons followed by conversations on the topic. Or, it could be an evening presentation by a variety of community leaders followed by conversations and dialogue. 

Or, perhaps, it could be an ecumenical or interfaith event with people from a variety of religious backgrounds presenting their perspectives on these or similar issues.

More important, even, than these conversations is the creation of an environment were people feel secure enough to express their opinions and listen to those of others. 

That will take enormous trust in the religious leadership so if it hasn't already been established, it will be critically important for clergy to be mindful of this developmental task. 

One of the reasons Mr. Trump has gotten as far as he has is due to the fact that he excels at raising anger, anxiety and fear. I believe Christian leaders need to be mindful that many of the people sitting in our pews and coming to our altar rails are experiencing these emotions. 

Indeed, I think it is absolutely critical for Christian leaders to acknowledge their own anger, anxiety and fear. And, we need to name it - yes, sometimes out loud and publicly - observing and monitoring how these emotions affect our own behaviors. 

This is the time when our own established support systems and wellness programs - including spiritual direction and pastoral care - are absolutely critical to our ability to lead effectively.

More than anything, this is the time for leadership. Strong leadership. Leadership that doesn't deny the anxiety but neither does it feed it. Leadership that understands that courage is the ability to keep walking, even though fear wants you to stand still. Leadership that calls people together when fear and anxiety want to keep them apart. Leadership that stands up to bullies. Leadership that speaks truth to power. Leadership that risks propriety for notoriety. 

Leadership that, to paraphrase one of the saints of the Civil Rights movement, no longer accepts the things we can not change and changes the things we can not accept. 

Leadership that, in the words of one of my mentors in ministry, does three things: name the pain, touch where it hurts, offer hope. 

Eminent historian and film maker, Ken Burns, recently said in a CNN interview that we are living in an "incredibly perilous situation right now," adding, "Asking this man to assume the position of President of the United States is like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747."

The danger is clear and very present.  

Let's not give into it. 

Let's not eat of the bread of anxiety. 

Let's move forward. Together.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Revolutionary Love

A sermon for Pentecost VII - July 2, 2016
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

It’s an interesting gospel for this holiday weekend.

Here we are, celebrating the birth of this nation with family cookouts and picnics and, of course, fireworks. And, there is Jesus, commissioning 70 brand-new disciples, urgently talking with them about mission and ministry what to do about rejection.

I find it irresistible not to imagine the urgency of the early mission of Jesus and compare that with the urgency of the founders of this country in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

I should note that, in American, we call it the Revolutionary War. In Britain, it’s still called “The War of Independence”.  That’s because the British did not see America as a nation; it was referred to as “the colonies.”  Some folks there still do, when they want to be pejorative . 

British school children, I’m told, still do not learn about the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere’s ride. What is discussed in textbooks is the effect the war had on Britain.  It was just “independence” you see. Nothing more, nothing less. As if we were naughty adolescents, throwing a tantrum because we refused to contribute to England after the Seven Years War between England and France through outrageously high taxes.

“No taxation without representation,” as a succinct complaint of the problem made perfect sense to people living on this side of The Pond. To our founders it was the oppression of occupation by a foreign government – not unlike what the Hebrew people  in Jerusalem were experiencing under the occupation of their country by Romans.   

And, like the Romans, the British, at the time, simply did not understand the complaint. We were “their” colonies. They believed they could do with us as they pleased. (For now, I’ll refrain from modern examples of occupation, but I'm sure you can name a few without breaking a sweat.)

There’s a revealing story about a conversation between King George III and then Prime Minister William Pitt.  George asks, “What of the colonies, Mr. Pitt?” Pitt reminds him that, “America is now a nation, sir.” And George answers, “Is it? Well, we must try and get used to it. I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs . . . . .”

As the Brits would say, “Right.” Or, “Well, there it is, then.”

It was a Revolutionary War because, among many issues, it was the first war where thirteen independent colonies joined together to overthrow rule by a foreign monarchy. 

That had never been done before. And, what resulted was, in fact, revolutionary. What emerged was an independent nation. The sentence – “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" from the Pledge of Allegiance – was not lightly or irreverently penned. Those independent colonies eventually became states, which became part of  “The United States of America”.

That’s pretty revolutionary.  Which is precisely why there was so much resistance to it.

Jesus had another revolutionary mission in mind. He did not pursue a military overthrow of the oppressive forces of Rome. That would have been a fool’s errand. He had other, higher-minded goals. 

His revolution was not economic or political to be achieved by military might. Rather, his revolution was that of the heart and soul of a nation, with the establishment of a spirituality that would redeem the religious leadership of Judaism from its cozy, symbiotic relationship with Rome and begin to establish a freedom from the law of the land and religious tyranny, into a life in the spirit of the religious laws. 

His mission was a way to reestablish the soul of a nation of oppressed people – not for the short term, but for the long haul.

That’s pretty revolutionary. Which is precisely why there was so much resistance to it.

What has any of this have to do with us, today? 

Most of us here in this church this morning are living pretty comfortable lives. Oh, we want more – that’s just human nature. And, some of us need more – better economic security, easier access to quality health care, equal employment opportunity with equal compensation. There are still injustices in our country and in our world.

But, most of us did not go to bed last night with the distant roar of hunger in our bellies. Most of us did not wake up this morning with anxiety about how we were going to feed our children. Yes, we worry about ‘home grown terrorists’ as well as those who may come into this country to overthrow what they believe is a “godless nation” of a democracy and turn it into their own theocracy. 

That said, we are still the greatest free democratic nation in the world, founded on “liberty and justice for all.” The working out of those principles is not without struggle, but those remain the principles to which we adhere and for which we strive.

It’s still a pretty revolutionary idea. Which is why there remains so much resistance to it.

I am struck by the words of Jesus to the seventy which come at the very end of this passage from Luke’s gospel. 

The 70 have been commissioned and sent out “as lambs in the midst of wolves” with instructions to live simply, trusting in the kindness of strangers; to cure the sick and proclaim that the Realm of God has drawn near to them.   

And, when they experience rejection, they are to “kick the dust from their sandals,” proclaim peace and move on.

The seventy returned with joy because of the miracles they had performed. Jesus reminds them of the source of their power and gives to them a spirit of humility, saying that, whether they succeed wildly or fail miserably, God’s love is theirs. 

“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” says Jesus. No matter what, God sees. God knows. God understands. God loves.

Revolutionary ideas are bound to fail all along the lines from inception to reality. Martin Luther King, Jr., wisely taught that “the arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice”. 

We, as a nation, have not always remained true to our goals and ideals. Our history is stained and tarnished by the capture and slavery of Africans and the tyranny and oppression of Native Americans as well as the denial of civil rights to people of color and women and LGBT people.

I think this is what is meant by the words in the Preamble of the Constitution, “ . . in order to be a more perfect union.” We are not perfect. We were never conceived to be perfect. We were created to be “more perfect” – to cast ourselves into the crucible of the refiner’s fire until the arc of history bends toward justice.  And that refiner’s fire is in the free expression of ideas and the controversy and tension that arise from those differences. 

That freedom - used responsibly - is the essence of what it means to be a democracy.

It is in that spirit of humility and expansiveness of freedom and God’s love that I offer this closing hymn as a meditation on this revolutionary idea of being part of something greater than ourselves – this revolutionary notion that “all men” – all people, male, female, young, old, black, white, brown and every shade of God’s glorious palette of creation, gay, and so-called straight, rich and poor, from every nation and people and tongue and tribe – are created equal, even if they do not receive equal treatment under the law. 
The words come from a variety of sources: Poem Lloyd Stone wrote vs 1& 2. Vs 3-5 were written by Methodist Georgia Harkness. The tune is “Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. Wesley has graciously agreed to play it for us. I’ve included the words as a bulletin insert.

As you celebrate today and tomorrow and enjoy the great bounty of this nation, I bid you to remember the words of Jesus. Remember that, no matter what, your names are written in heaven. Remember that God sees. God knows. God understands. And, God loves. Unconditionally.

And, remember the words of this song. Carry them in your heart, so there might be there planted the revolutionary idea of peace in your life, peace in your family, peace in this nation and peace in the world.

For such peace is the product of revolutionary love. 

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country --
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth's kingdoms,
thy kingdom come, on earth, thy will be done;
let Christ be lifted up 'til all shall serve him,
and hearts united, learn to live as one:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
myself I give thee -- let thy will be done.

Words: Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. 
Tune: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius

Sunday, June 26, 2016


A sermon preached at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton 
Note: After I preached this sermon, after the Creed and the Prayers, the Confession and Absolution, came the Passing of the Peace and the Announcements, at the end of which the young girl who had been crucifer asked if she could make an announcement. I'm guessing she's around 14, maybe 15. She looked very nervous but absolutely determined. 

She took hold of my hand and, in a faltering voice said, "Can I ask you all something? Can I ask you all to pray for the people of Orlando. I mean, everyone who got hurt. Everyone who got killed. They need our prayers. No one should die - no one should get HURT - just because of someone they love." She would look at me every now and again for reassurance. I squeezed her hand and nodded affirmation. "Look," she said, "I know your generation thinks differently about this. Mine doesn't. So, well, at least you can pray. Okay?"

Everyone in the congregation nodded their heads. And then, they applauded. 

You know what? With determined kids like this, I think the world is going to be okay.

This is a sermon about determination, which is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit, which brings much fruit.

I remember a time, early in my years of ordination, when I felt called to preach on a particularly difficult topic in the church and in the world: domestic violence. Not too many churches were preaching on it – at that time, or since. A woman in our neighborhood had been shot to death in her home – in her own bed - by her husband from whom she had gotten a restraining order. This was just two months after the city council had turned down a permit to open a shelter for women and children affected by domestic violence. The issue generated no small amount of controversy.

As it happened, the Epistle that Sunday was from Ephesians 5:22-33 which begins – just begins: “Wives submit to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” Well, you know, the preaching door just doesn’t get opened much wider than that.

What I remember about that sermon was what people – men and women – said to me afterward. “I knew we were in for a barn-burner because you could see it in your face. Your jaw was set and you got into the pulpit with authority.”

Well, that wasn’t my memory. At all. What I remembered was being really anxious and thinking, “Well, here goes. I just may get run out of town after this sermon.”

That’s because the sermon not only went headlong after the sin of domestic violence but how the church is complicit in that sin by offering passages like the one to the ancient church in Ephesis – and, offering it out of its historical and complete context, leading people to believe that the bible sanctions the subjugation and mistreatment of women. 

Scripture doesn’t do that any more than it sanctions slavery for the modern Christian.

So, I set my face toward the pulpit and preached a sermon that made a few people uncomfortable, yes, but it also got a few people to rethink the issue of domestic violence and what we, as Christians are called to do about that. 

What I learned is something I’ve heard Bishop Jack Spong say that is absolutely true: The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.

And, I learned this: Determination is its own form of inspiration.

I have a new granddaughter – the youngest of six  - who is just about ready to turn the corner on 15 months old.  As I watch her gaining more and more physical ability to walk and gain control over the use of her body, I delight in her ability to risk and dare to explore more and more of her world.

I especially love it when she is trying to learn a new skill – or perfect an old one like opening up a box or a door. Her face is absolutely fixed with determination. I don’t think she’s aware of it. She is just fully focused on the task at hand. And, without that sense of determination, that energy, that focus, she’s less likely to achieve her goal.

Sometimes, when I watch her – as I have watched my other grandchildren and their parents before them – I wonder just how much technology has helped us and how much it has hurt us.

I know I risk sounding like an old foggie here so I want to be clear: I’m not saying that technology is bad. Indeed, I think the technological advances we’ve made and have available to us are, well, downright miraculous. I’m saying that these advances have improved our lives in innumerable ways. 

I’m saying that I am deeply grateful for cell phones and bluetooths and texting (but not while driving, of course) and lap tops Apple Watches and iPod Nanos and yes, even FaceBook.  

What I’m saying is that I fear we’ve allowed it to become the tail that wags the dog. What I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, what will “make America great again” – whatever that means, really – is not someone or something to do more things for us.

Rather, I’m saying that we need to rediscover – as individuals and a nation and yes, as a church – the kind of determination which allows us to focus our energies and stand firm in what it is we say we believe and take the risks involved to achieve what we’ve been called to do.

What I’m saying is that determination and focus is a force of energy which carries with it its own energy which attracts more energy. I’m saying that that kind of determination is inspiring to others.  Determination is what makes people and nations and churches great.

There are people for whom just getting out of bed in the morning requires them to “set their face” into the day. People with disabilities. People who struggle with depression. People who struggle with various addictions to alcohol or drugs or gambling or food. People who are filled with paralyzing anxiety. People who are struggling with jobs that do not pay enough to pay the bills. People who battle every day to make a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes against all odds.

We don’t hear much about those struggles – especially in church – but they are real. You and I know that to be true. They may not be aware of it, but their determination to overcome obstacles and challenges is inspiring. Indeed, some people require as much determination and focus as we see in Jesus as he sets his face on the task he’s been called to do.

I believe that the gospel can inspire us to stand firm in our beliefs and values and principles and find the determination we need to meet the challenges of this life. That’s because I believe the Bible is not a rule book but a guidebook. Let me say that again: The Bible is not a rule book but a guidebook. St. Paul reminds us that we are no longer slaves, bound by the law, but rather called to live by the Spirit.

Determination is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit.

There is so much in the world that is deeply troubling – gun violence, war, poverty, fires, floods, mudslides, and disease. At times – especially of late – the world seems to have gone mad with massacres and economic instability and a kind of political rhetoric that makes your hair stand on end. It can shake you to your very soul. 

In times such as these, we need inspiration. We need determination. We need to set our faces toward the challenges life brings to us and stay focused on that which calls us to our better selves. Now, more than ever, we need determination to stand firm in what we say it is we believe and trust the Spirit to guide us to all truth.

St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us that the Spirit bears much fruit. I don’t know about you, but now, more than ever, I need that fruit. 

I suspect we all could use more love. More joy. More peace. More kindness. More generosity. More faithfulness. More gentleness. More self-control.

The only way I know how to achieve these is through determination to live in the Spirit and by the Spirit and with the Spirit. Because the alternative is, well, no alternative at all. Not for those who profess to follow Jesus.

Come. Let us set our faces toward the Spirit.  Because, determination is its own form of inspiration. And, inspiration is a gift of the Spirit. And, in the midst of all of the challenges and struggles of this life, there is a bounty of the fruit of the Spirit, a banquet to which God has invited us to feast.

Let us determine not to eat the bread of anxiety but, rather, to feast on the fruit of the Spirit.



Sunday, June 19, 2016

More than thoughts and prayers


“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."


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!