Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

see? see!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 17.11-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016

Today, as on all Sundays, we gather for worship; the word, a contraction of “worth” and “ship.” Thus, we gather to worship the only One worthy of our adoration, God, the creator and preserver of life, now and forever.

That is why we have come. That is what we are doing. In our coming and doing, what do we see? Here. Now.

A people gathered. Yes.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

In this sacred space, unassuming in its straightforward Greek revival and semi-Gothic design and yet, in that eclectic simplicity, profoundly serene. Yes.

With our material resources of  prayer books, hymnals, service bulletins, and foremost our human resources of ushers greeting us at the door, worship leaders guiding us through the liturgy, and all of us raising our voices in song, opening our hearts in prayer, lifting our hands to receive the bread of life and with our lips, tasting the wine of heaven. Yes.

Yet again I ask, what do we see? Not with our physical eyes, but with spiritual sight. For to see with that gift of God’s grace is to know more fully, to be more faithfully what we do this day.

Blessedly, we have companion to point the way…

the-healing-of-ten-lepers-guerison-de-dix-lepreux-1886-1896-james_tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Of the eleven protagonists in our gospel passage, he is one of ten who has no name. He introduces himself to Jesus and to us by his condition, his affliction. Leprosy. A horrible life-altering, inevitably death-dealing and contagious disease, resulting in exile, banishment from the community. Later we are told one additional detail. He is a Samaritan. That cultural designation telling us that his fellow lepers likely are Jews. That fact demonstrating the proverbial insight that misery loves company and that shared suffering perhaps more than any other motivation can eradicate societal, racial barriers, in this case, quelling the historic animus between Jews and Samaritans. That fact explaining why these beleaguered souls, cast out of their respective societies, welcome nowhere, dwell in the no-man’s land “between Samaria and Galilee.”

(I digress. Truth be told, there is no “region between Samaria and Galilee.” That’s akin to saying there’s a place between Laurens and Spartanburg Counties. There’s not a place, only a boundary line. Yet, this scriptural detail emphasizes for us that for those suffering from leprosy, their exiled existence was like that of ever walking a fine line, never to step again on the soil of their birth, families, and former lives.)

Jesus encounters the ten afflicted with leprosy “on the way to Jerusalem.” That fact alerting us that the denouement of his story is soon to be written, the closing curtain of his life and ministry soon to be drawn, his destiny soon to be fulfilled with a final showdown with the secular and religious authorities proclaiming, confronting them with his status quo destabilizing, status quo destroying word of God’s unconditional love and universal justice for all.

There in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”, a middle place, a liminal space, a threshold between one state of being and the next, we behold something about God’s kingdom and realm, God’s life and nature: wholeness.

The action quickens. The lepers cry for mercy, Jesus, observant of the law, bids, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” who, from the time of Moses and Aaron were given charge to pronounce those afflicted with leprosy ritually unclean and, when healing had occurred, to proclaim their restoration to the community,[1] and they, on their way, are healed.

Nine, doubtless thrilled to be cured, continue on their way. “One of them,” this one, this Samaritan, seeing he is healed, recognizes Jesus for who he is, the bringer through his proclamation, the bearer in his person of the activating, animating saving word of God’s kingdom. Seeing he is healed, he “turns back, praising God,” prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks.

See? This is what we do today! Turning back for a moment from the daily courses of our individual lives, gathering in this sacred space as one body, one voice praising God, prostrating our souls at the feet of Jesus, our only Lord, no one else, nothing less, and giving thanks. All so to rise, returning to the world of our lives as we know them, yet to see with newly, spiritually refreshed sight.

To see in every good pleasure of this life a reason to render all glory to God…

To see in our worries and woes a reason to rely on God for solace and strength…

To see in the gifts of life and health and wealth opportunities for service with others…

To see in the face of family and friend, stranger, even enemy another child of God…

To see in our past, even our darkest days of failure and fear, the pathways that brought us to this new day…

To see the world around us with its daily triumphs and tribulations and behold God’s saving hand in all of it…

To see in the farthest horizon of an always uncertain future the possibilities of hope…

To see our faces in our mirrors and no matter how our day has gone, whether revealing our brightest virtues or our darkest sins, most probably both, and behold the countenance of God’s beloved…

This is what it is to see ourselves, others, and all things with the eyes of our faith. Our faith, as Jesus said to that Samaritan, so he says to us that makes us well, whole, healed, saved!

See? See!

 

Photographs: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan); Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, façade

Illustration: The Healing of Ten Lepers (Guérison de dix lépreux) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnote:

[1] See Leviticus 13.2-3, 14.2-32

belief matters

The list of announced and probable Democratic, Republican, and third-party and independent candidates for the U. S. presidency grows. Seemingly, by the day.

These aspirants for the highest office in the land have begun to articulate their political viewpoints and policy concerns, with more details to come in the ensuing days, weeks, and months. I also anticipate that we will hear statements of the candidates’ beliefs – their perspectives on God and their personal histories regarding religion and faith. We will hear these sacred stories because we will ask. For, I think, we Americans care that any potential President of the United States believes in God and not especially, but rather particularly, decidedly in a Christian God. (Remember the 2012 presidential campaign and the intense scrutiny of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, whether it was a Christian religion and if so, how much, and if not, how far removed? With John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1960 election, we resolved that Roman Catholicism was, indeed, acceptably Christian despite some skepticism about undue papal influence over Roman Catholic office holders; though JFK has been our only Roman Catholic president.)

If my characterization of our American predilection, indeed, prejudice about religious belief and presidential candidacy is accurate, then, it seems to me, it signifies that a need-not-apply banner, verily ban is imposed on Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, in a word, all other religions and faith traditions, and, needless to say, agnostics and atheists. Although I am a Christian and an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I find this problematic.

America, from the time of its founding and before in recognition of Native American societies, has been, is, and will be a richly heterogeneous tapestry of peoples and cultures, together embracing, embodying varieties of religions and non-religions, theistic and non-theistic beliefs and rituals. To make Christian profession a sine qua non for a presidential contender is necessarily exclusionary and, in my mind, not in a self-evidentially commendable way. For we eliminate the possibility of hearing, honoring different worldviews. Moreover, we commend, compel a candidates, depending on the audience, to form and frame their religious views in ways that potentially violate individual integrity (and, truth be told, no matter what candidates say about their Christian beliefs and values, as human, their behavior and, in fact, what they truly believe will fall short and distant from what “Christian” means in the understanding of any given voter). Furthermore, we also put ourselves as a nation in the position of failing to esteem one of our sacred liberties enumerated in Article One of our U. S. Constitution, the freedom of religion, which also inherently bears within it a freedom from religion.

Now, some do cleave to the viewpoint that America is a Christian nation. (Of course, it depends on what one means by that statement. That most Americans are Christian? That our national formative documents, principally, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, prove that intent of our founding forebears [and that, of course, can be a matter of interpretation]? That America, by official governmental enactment, should be made a Christian nation, thus, a theocracy?) However, for me, in the light of our national origins and historical evolution, again, ever and always a richly heterogeneous tapestry of peoples and cultures, I respectfully disagree. I also disagree with our national request, demand, whether publicly declared or tacitly understood, to have our presidential candidates be Christian.