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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". 


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.


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."

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
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

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.”    


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.