our inheritance – a sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on Mark 10.17-31 and Hebrews 4.12-16, preached with the people of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints, St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, at the 9.00 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 11, 2015.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We know so little of this nameless inquirer. Save the urgency of his need, running to Jesus and the sincerity of his respect for Jesus, kneeling before him, calling him, “Good Teacher.” Still, this stranger speaks to us. Speaks for us. We who know the joys and tribulations of this world know, too, the heartfelt longing for that spiritual, existential state of eternality, its future reality and present possibility of life lived in the presence and power of God. Yes, this man speaks for us whenever we, in the words of Hebrews, seek mercy and grace in our time of need: What must we do to inherit eternal life?

And Jesus’ reply, he the proclaimer, the very presence of God’s kingdom of love and justice, surprises me: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Yet before I, stunned by his humility, can catch my breath, Jesus races on reciting the commandments; again surprising me. For Jesus, in response to a question about the eternal life of God, speaks not of the commandments regarding our reverence of God (“I am the Lord your God, you shall none other than me, worship no idols, take not my name in vain, remember the Sabbath day”), but only those concerning our human interactions (“You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, and honor your father and mother”).

At first glance, it seems that being faithful in our relationships is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Hard to argue with that. The cross, among many things, is a symbol of the intrinsic connection between, in its vertical dimension, our relationship with God and, in its horizontal plane, our relationships with one another. And the Peace that we exchange with one another is the peace of God who reconciles us in Jesus. However, given the man’s reply that he has kept the commandments and Jesus’ response of acknowledgement, looking at him, loving him suggests something else is required, something more must be done to answer his, our burning question about eternal life.

“You lack one thing,” says Jesus, his instruction straightforward and severe: “Go, sell, give, then come, follow me.” The man, stunned, daring never to part with his possessions, in ancient times a visible sign of divine blessing and the literal substance of his worldly well-being, “went away grieving.” So, too, might our response be to Jesus’ demand for renunciation whenever our possessions inhibit our answer to his call to take up our cross and follow him.

Blessedly, Jesus does not require that of us, but rather something more. Something even tougher to remember and to do. Notwithstanding his word about how hard it will be for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, note how immediately he deepens the degree of difficulty to include all of us: “Children,” (all of us being God’s children) “how hard it is to enter God’s kingdom!”

All of us, whether rich or poor, have the same problem of earning salvation. We can’t. And Jesus, looking at his disciples and us with the same love he has for the rich man, says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This is no cheap grace that allows us to be and do as we choose and God will handle the rest. Though true, there is nothing we must do to inherit eternal life; for inheritance, properly, faithfully understood, always is a gift of being in a family and never about doing something to earn it. However, there is something we must do to lay claim to our inheritance. Herein, I think, is the meaning of Jesus’ word to a worried Peter who protests the great sacrifices the disciples have made. To follow Jesus is to belong to a new family of sisters and brothers unbounded by time and space, unlimited by culture or race. This new family whose surname is Christian is our inheritance. Our inheritance that Jesus died to bequeath to us.

Will we choose to open our hands and hearts to receive it?

Will we choose to live our lives where first and last no longer have any significance?

Will we choose to love and respect one another as one and equal in the Lord today as we will be in glory?

That is all we ever must do!

race & police – a word (ray) of hope

This past Thursday, James Comey, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in a speech at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, addressed, with what I consider stunning candor, the issue of community policing and race relations. Among his remarks: “I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers…Debating the nature of policing is very important, but I worry that it has become an excuse at times to avoid doing something harder.”

Doubtless by necessity (for sometimes the obvious must be reiterated), Comey cited the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, in August and on Staten Island in July, respectively, and the December ambush shooting deaths of New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. By this, he highlighted a tragically turbulent year for minority communities and law enforcement.

Then he spoke openly and honestly, compellingly and critically of the prejudices present in how minorities perceive they are viewed by the police and in how police view minorities.

Others have addressed these concerns. Among them, President Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and New York City mayor William De Blasio; although critics have charged each of them as favoring minority groups over support for law officers. Reflecting on the even-handed balance of Comey’s commentary, given who he is and the stature of his office, I pray that our national conversation about race and the law will bear soon to blossom fruit of deeper, mutual understanding.

transition to transformation – a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany*

preaching(*and my last as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC)

The call of Samuel. A story of transition. Appropriate for us today (though I dare not presume to step into the light of biblical proportion!) as I, your soon to retire rector, preach my last sermon; my final Sunday among you, in seven days, drawing nigh.

The call of Samuel, who will become the anointer of kings, signals transition in governance writ large in biblical historical sweep from the era of judges, like Deborah, Barak (so close to Barack; who knew?), Gideon, Samson, and others, who rose up to fight enemies, then, when the threat was vanquished, receded into obscurity, bequeathing no right of succession to the reigns of Saul, David, and those following. Samuel’s call also signals transition writ small, in the details of our immediate story, in the passing of leadership from Eli, an old, infirm priest, with failing eyesight, no longer able to behold a vision of God to Samuel and the commencement of his prophetic ministry.

This ancient story opens with a remarkably current observation: “God’s word was rare in those days.” At this point in the biblical narrative, long since there had been no pillars of fire or clouds of smoke to declare God’s presence, no parting of waters to demonstrate God’s power. So, in our post-modern era, long after the crumbling of our trust in our institutions, when was the last time since Martin, whose life and legacy we celebrate this weekend, have folk, nearly universally and absent of any hint of absurdity, claimed to have heard God’s voice? God’s word is rare in these days.

Back to Samuel. God’s word is rare. However, “the lamp of God has not gone out.” Literally, it’s night and the temple sanctuary light is lit. Metaphorically, a glimmer of light amid the surrounding darkness is a sign, however slight, of the people’s hope.

For what? That the silent God will speak. And God calls, “Samuel! Samuel!”, who, thinking Eli has summoned him, rises and goes to his mentor. Three times, back and forth, Samuel, meaning “God has heard”, comes to Eli, meaning “my God.” And Eli, though feeble and ineffective, incapable of corralling his incorrigible sons, finally recognizes that God has heard the people’s cry, instructing the boy how to answer when God next speaks: “If God calls, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant listens’” (Such faithful counsel given what oft seems to be the way we pray in practice: “Listen, Lord, your servant speaks!”)

God declares that the mantle of leadership will be stripped from Eli, who, after long, faithful service, must depart in disgrace, and placed on the shoulders of Samuel, so young and unfamiliar with God’s ways, who must deliver the devastating word. And reading on in the story, what was true of Eli will be so for Samuel; in his dotage, his deceitful sons will betray their father’s faithfulness and the people will demand a reckoning.

Yet is not this, all of it, true always in all ways for all people: Transition, compelled by time and circumstance, from imperfect leadership to imperfect leadership. So imperfect that the cynical among us (or any of us when cynical) can find relevance, feel resonance in Nathanael’s question: What good can come out of (pick a place or person, principle or point of view)? Nothing is perfect; able to satisfy every desire. No one is perfect; able to intuit and meet every need or to meet every need even when known.

Eli. Flawed in his blindness, unable to behold a vision of God.

Samuel. Flawed in his youthful inexperience and, in his maturity, his indiscretion in the repetition of inherited patterns.

Martin, an icon of modern day prophetic ministry, daring to speak truth to power, his voice silenced by an assassin’s bullet. Flawed, his reputation sullied by marital infidelity and charges of plagiarism.

And though well I know my flaws, I cannot define all of my deficiencies in your eyes (for how can I know?). Nor do I dare imagine those of my successor, although I know, as human, she or he will have them.

What I do daresay is that we, each and all, are like Nathanael. Trusting our assumptions and expectations, we are inclined to respond with contempt when faced with anything or anyone that challenges what we think or calls into question what we believe we know.

It’s a good thing always to remember that it’s hard to know, to be certain of anything. It’s a good thing never to confuse our convictions with truth, with God. Although related they are (we hope!), our convictions and truth are not the same. For truth, for God, yea, life itself, we ourselves are filled with miracle and mystery, which are not riddles that by reason we can wrestle to resolve, but rather that which we never fully comprehend. Truth, God, life, we always are larger than (hence incapable of being contained, confined by) our convictions.

So, in moments when we are confronted with contradictions to our convictions and we ask, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” might we, like Nathanael, our raging skepticism in hand, go out to see, for…

It’s hard to believe that Messiah would come from a tiny town like Nazareth.

It’s hard to believe that God would speak to a young, unseasoned boy, Samuel, and not to the learned, long-serving priest, Eli.

It’s hard to believe that Martin, with prophetic voice, holding up to America a mirror of justice reflecting what she is meant to be, but has not yet fully been, could pierce the conscience of a nation.

Perhaps none of this truly involves matters of transition, but rather a miracle of transformation. A transformation that occurs when one experiences the mystery of being known. When that happens, one can recognize a call to be greater, larger, truer than one previously may have believed or allowed one’s self to be. Nathanael, known by Jesus, was called to confess him as Messiah. Samuel, known and named by God, was called to prophesy. America, reminded by Martin of her identity and destiny to grant liberty and justice for all, was called to repent, an act of atonement still in the making.

Perhaps this – transformation, which means being changed – is why it’s easier to cling to our assumptions and expectations, especially when something or someone challenges, calls into question what we think we know. Transition is hard. Transformation harder still. Easier to try to remain as we are. But I don’t think that has anything to do with me knowing myself, we knowing ourselves, we knowing our community of St. Mark’s, our world, or God.

2 shout-outs to 2 sisters

Two friends, each I consider a dear sister, have written books about things that matter to me. Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, Being My Mom’s Mom: A journey through dementia from a daughter’s perspective (Infinity Publishing, West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, 2012) and Susan Mann Flanders, Going To Church: It’s Not What You Think (St. Johann Press, Hayworth, New Jersey, 2014). (Regarding the first, full disclosure, I penned the Forward and served as principal editor.)

BMMM book coverIn Being My Mom’s Mom, Loretta offers a vividly detailed view of her evolving relationship with her mother Doris, stricken with dementia; a daily bond involving the role reversal of care-giving so very common to Baby Boomer-aged children for their increasingly long-lived parents. She writes with poignant passion about moments of transition and the attendant difficult decisions, engaging and uproarious humor of instances when the adage, laughter is the best medicine, is proven true, and sage counsel with detailed guides to information that people now and in generations to come have found and will find not only useful, but essential. With the advent of her book, Loretta, a person of wit and wisdom, and a vivacious presence, increasingly is in demand as a speaker on the subject of dementia and how to navigate that always uneasy, uneven path of becoming parents of our parents. With my mother, Lolita, years ago diagnosed as suffering from dementia of the Alzheimer’s-type, Loretta, again a dear sister, is a kindred spirit; one with whom I share an inherently heartrending, undesired and unchosen, yet absolutely necessary journey.

GTC book coverSusan is an Episcopal priest. Indeed, I am privileged to serve as rector (chief pastor) of St. Mark’s Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where Susan was the Associate Rector some years ago. Now retired as rector of St. John’s Church, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland, Susan has penned an extraordinary narrative. At its heart, Going To Church is autobiographical; Susan revealing in honest and generously personal terms her pilgrimage toward her realization of a call to ordained ministry. With the soul of a pastor and preacher, a theologian and teacher, she also offers a powerful testimonial to her progressive faith, one rooted in panentheistic soil that flowers in a belief in a God both immanent, a part of all creation and within us, and transcendent, beyond all time and space. Hers is a spirituality that is both existential, seeking meaning of life in this world, and cosmic, peering with clear-eyed vision into eternity’s far horizons, and making pertinent connections between the two. Susan, as an incisive truth-teller, is a relentless critic of all fussy, dust-laden religiosity of form without daily relevance. Yet, too, as a lover of the church, she, with a hopeful heart, offers an appealing portrait of a Christianity of spiritual and practical consequence for our post-modern era. As a bountiful bonus, Susan shares her sermon text, entitled The Will of God, based on that horrendously difficult story of Abraham’s God-ordered sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22.1-14). Here Susan, my trustworthy sister, does not perform some exegetical hocus-pocus, straining to find something, anything to make palatable that which is intellectually and spiritually inedible. Rather she sharpens our focus to behold in the story a divine challenge to greater faithfulness in our relationships with all peoples.

Loretta and Susan, my dear sisters, I salute you!

revelation & discernment

The masthead photograph on my brand spanking new blog page – observations of mind and heart, soul and spirit – is a sunrise at Haleakalā (“house of the sun”); that massive shield volcano that stands at the east of the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Early one August 2011 morning, Pontheolla and I, with our dear friends Loretta and Tim Veney, and scores of others, made the over 10,000 foot trek to the top. For hours, we waited. George Harrison’s words came to mind (doubtless I was not the first for this to happen) as he sang of light and the rightness of the return of clarity, “here comes the sun.”

This photograph of that mountaintop moment is a symbol for me of revelation, the usually outward communication of something hitherto unknown or faintly realized (or once known and needing to be remembered) and discernment, the inward apprehension or grasp of that which has been disclosed.

In my life, the experience of revelation coming to me (literally dawning on me) and discernment coming up in me most oft is accompanied by discomfort. Revelation and discernment for me arise on occasions when I’ve been compelled by dint of circumstance and chance (generally, I confess, not choice!) to step outside of my familiar. (In this, the circuitous and serpentine trek into the darkness and frigid temperatures at the top of Haleakalā is more than a metaphor!)

And that – revelation and discernment – is largely what I propose my blog to address as I offer observations of mind (thought) and heart (feeling), soul (life’s animating, immortal force shared by all living things) and spirit (that über-presence and power, some speak of the divine, some of God, that connects us throughout and beyond time and space to all that was, is, and will be).

In defining these my terms (perhaps risking tying myself into inextricable knots!), I do not believe and ne’er can I suggest that I have the first or last word. About anything.  Ever. Therefore, it is with the deepest humility, aware that on most days and at most times, awed by the ever expanding immensity of knowledge, I can claim honestly to know nothing, and with the highest respect for you that I dare share what I think I behold about life in this world.

I am grateful

The other day, I took part, mostly as a privileged listener, in a conversation between two persons. It was not an easy dialogue, the purpose of which was to delineate differences and disagreements with the aim, if possible, of coming to a new and mutually satisfying resolution. The speakers were clear and concise in stating the nature of their individual concerns and open and forthcoming about their attendant feelings of frustration with each other. After a time, both, perhaps aware of having said, at least up to that point, all that needed saying, fell silent. After a time, and then more time I felt moved to offer an observation: “Each of you has been honest about your feelings of unhappiness and neither of you has spoken a word imputing to the other any negative intent or motive. Rarely have I been blessed to witness such grace of conviction and kindness. I thank you.” The conversation continued toward resolution, indeed, in my view, reconciliation. I did nothing to facilitate (and dare not claim any credit in arriving at) this pleasing conclusion, which, from the beginning and to the end, was in hands and the hearts of the conversationalists. I am grateful, again, to have beheld the wonderful fruit that can come when folk first strive, and then persevere to speak and to listen with clarity and charity.