Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

on sin & evil

In these immediate post-Charlottesville days, the air is filled with two words: sin and evil. (As I recollect, the same was not true following the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; but I digress.)

As I listen and read, it occurs to me that the application of these terms is dependent on where one stands, one’s foundational and formative worldview, that fundamental lens through which one perceives and understands reality. It also occurs to me that most often most speakers and writers employ “sin” and “evil” without definition, leaving me to labor to intuit their intent.

Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian who believes in God, as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth through the eternal Spirit, as unconditional Love (generosity, magnanimity) and Justice (equality, impartiality) for all, always and in all ways.

Therefore, for me, the word sin, derived from the Greek hamartia, meaning, “missing the mark”, conjures the image of an archer whose arrows (figuratively, one’s aims and aspirations) fall short of the bullseye of the target; a metaphor, in Christian theological nomenclature, for God, the source, the center of life and, in existential terms, for authentic, faithful living that is true to the purpose of one’s creation, which is to be loving and just.

Poneros, one of the Greek words for evil, interestingly, I think, originally was associated with the exhaustion of long and hard work so to be no longer fit or functional (for example, a HVAC system that breaks down, its warranty expired, and replacement parts no longer available, which Pontheolla and I had to replace recently; but I digress!). Poneros, when imbued with an ethical dimension regarding human behavior, connotes thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions that are not godly, not loving and just.

In the light and shadow of Charlottesville, again, speaking always and only for myself, this is non-exhaustive (painfully, sorrowfully, doubtlessly to be continued) list of sins and evils:

  • anti-Semitism
  • bigotry
  • hate crimes
  • hatred
  • homophobia
  • Ku Klux Klan
  • misanthropy
  • misogyny
  • neo-Nazism
  • prejudice
  • racism
  • terrorism (foreign and domestic)
  • violence
  • white (or any other color) nationalism
  • white (or any other color) supremacy

swordplay

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17

a sermon, based on Matthew 10.24-39, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

“Do not think that I come to bring peace…not…peace, but a sword”

14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Jesus! This is a hard word! So hard that I sometimes wonder what happened to Jesus between his birth and this point in his ministry. Peace was the purpose of his coming. When Jesus was born angels sang: “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace.”[1] When Jesus spoke of blessedness, he identified peacemakers as God’s children.[2] So, what’s up with this sword?

Now, I also remember at the start of his ministry those who gave him the most trouble were the people of Nazareth. An ostensibly triumphal return home swiftly soured as they, with the contempt of familiarity, criticized his teaching and him.[3] That must have been hard! Worse, his family wasn’t supportive. They believed he had lost his mind and tried to restrain him and take him home, presumably for his own good. That must have been hard![4]

So, I wonder. Did Jesus begin with visionary hope and idealistic zeal, seeking to breathe into a world of iniquity and inequity a word of peace about a kingdom of integrity and equality, then suffer manifold Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or find himself caught frequently in that poetic fell clutch of circumstance or simply have too many bad days, all of it knocking him off message?

On more serious reflection, “not peace, but a sword” is not contradictory to Jesus’ message and ministry. Rather, it is a faithful word. Though conflict was not Jesus’ purpose, it was a product of his ministry; for he challenged the powers-that-be, which always bears the bitter fruit of conflict. Thus, he warned his followers to expect it.

From the earliest days of the church, to be a follower of Jesus meant ostracism for some, even from their families; death for others. Because of this hard word, no one who became a Christian later could say: “No one told me about the high price I might have to pay!”

But what does “not peace, but a sword” mean to us in our day and time? Where, when is the sword of conflict for us?

Under the rubric that one biblical passage can illumine another, the Epistle to the Hebrews offers another metaphorical sword reference. God’s word is described as “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow…thoughts and intentions.”[5] I focus not on the sword or source of division, but on the character of the division: inward and deep, personal and precise; involving differentiation, slicing-and-dicing between and among realities so closely bound as to be practically inseparable.

I believe the sword of conflict arises in our lives – whether as individuals, families, communities, nations – and first within, whenever we conceive of an idea or claim a hope or behold a vision of who we desire to become or embark on a life’s mission to fulfill it. In other words, whenever we engage any activity involving definition and decision, there is the sword of conflict. For whenever we choose one thing, it means, demands letting something else go. Depending on the issue, that can be a hard thing. And when the choice is made, there arises another external sword of potential conflict with other individuals, families, communities, nations who question, challenge the choice that has been made of an idea or hope or vision or mission.

I believe that Jesus, his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional love and justice are ultimate matters of life and death, in this world and for the next. I believe that to follow Jesus, to bear his gospel, to share his good news in our thoughts and feelings, intentions, words, and actions is to experience conflict within ourselves and with others, for all of it flies in the face of our inherent human often selfish self-interest.

I believe that in following Jesus, if we never or rarely have known conflict, internal and external, then we’ve been following someone or something else. For to follow Jesus is to hold in our hands the sword of our own conflict.

So, beware and take care.

 

Illustration: 14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.14, my emphasis

[2] Matthew 5.9

[3] See Matthew 13.54-58, Mark 6.1-6, Luke 4.16-30.

[4] Mark 3.21

[5] Hebrews 4.12

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

the greatest power

a sermon, based on Matthew 28.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection, April 16, 2017

Easter is about power. The greatest power in this world and the next. Power, to quote my namesake apostle, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[1] Power in the words of the song, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”[2] Power over death. The power of love.

I behold this power in this morning’s gospel, perhaps paradoxically, not in God, who, save for “an angel of the Lord”, is absent. Nor in that angelic messenger who descends “like lightening with clothing white as snow.” Nor even in the risen Jesus who suddenly appears with words of comfort.

Where do I see it?

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.”

There is power!

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Mary and Mary loved Jesus to the end. They believed in him and his impossible dream of the coming kingdom of God. They didn’t run away like the other disciples, the men. They stood by Jesus throughout his agonizing final hours. They hoped, fought against that unbeatable foe, death. They watched him die. They bore with savagely broken hearts their unbearable sorrow. Theirs was a love that endured all things.

Then, loving Jesus beyond the end, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. The entrance sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers with little sympathy, verily, hostility for them. Theirs was a love that runs where the brave dare not go. Love that never leaves. Love that ever lives. Love that never dies. Love that raises the dead! For in their living love, Mary and Mary were the first to hear the Easter message, “He is risen!” and the first to see the risen Jesus.

Today, I pray we see that Mary and Mary could see Jesus because they, in their bearing-believing-hoping-enduring-all-things-love, mirrored and matched, embraced and embodied the love of a God who risks everything, even life itself, for our sake.

Today, I pray we, trusting that God’s love is already embodied in us by virtue of our creation –  whoever we are from wherever we come with whatever we believe – will see in the risen Jesus who we are by virtue of his salvation and, thus, that we are to be as he is, living incarnations of unconditional and universal love and justice in this world.

When we see, believe, know that, then not only can we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” but also we are risen, indeed! Alleluia!

 

Illustration: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the women peering into the tomb, which is empty save for the presence of “an angel of the Lord” clad in white, who tells them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here,  for he has been raised”, bidding that they, “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28.5, 6). (Although Matthew mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, Tissot depicts three women. I believe his biblical reference is Matthew 27.56, speaking of the women who had followed Jesus and witnessed his death: Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.) Also, the soldiers Pontius Pilate had dispatched to keep watch at the tomb (see Matthew 27.62-66) are depicted having reacted to the appearance of the angel, as Matthew recounts, For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (28.4).

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.7

[2] From The Impossible Dream from The Man from La Mancha; words by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh (1972)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 39, Good Friday, April 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Good Friday: O Jesus, through Your life and ministry, especially with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the least and the last, all whom You claimed as first in the sight of Your Abba, Father, You confronted and convicted the status quo of power and privilege held in the hands of the few and lorded over the many.

For this, You, Love and Justice incarnate, by fear and hatred were condemned and crucified.

For this, You, Who welcomed all, were deceived by one of Your own with a betraying kiss from bitter lips, despised by those into whose hands You were led, denied and deserted by Your followers and, as You, from the Cross of Your suffering and dying, dared to cry out, by God.[1]

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

As the prophesied sword of anguish pierced the soul of the watching, weeping Blessed Mary, Your mother,[2] by the power of Your Spirit, erect and establish Your cross at the heart of my living, that I, dying to my selfish-self, never abandon You in the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the last and the least, the still constantly crucified of this world. Amen.

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

 

Illustrations:

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34: And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Amidst his sorrow, sensing his abandonment by God, I take great heart that Jesus did not abandon, forsake, or otherwise forswear God. For Jesus, relying on scripture (Psalm 22.1; my emphasis), cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His abiding address to God as “my” I interpret as his bounden belief in and continued call upon the One in whom he placed his ultimate trust.

[2] See Luke 2.25-35 (especially verses 34-35, my emphasis): There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

eternal life today!

a sermon, based on John 11.1-45, Romans 8.6-11, and Ezekiel 37.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

Lazarus is sick. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus.

At this point in John’s gospel about the marvelously magnanimous and miraculous Messiah, if I were reading it for the first time, to the question, “What would Jesus do?” I would expect him to rush to Bethany. But what does Jesus do? He delays! Two days! Then goes to Bethany, arriving after Lazarus has been in the grave four days, which is a biblical way of saying Lazarus is really dead![1] (Martha, later, speaks of the stench of her brother’s decaying body, which the King James Version renders more dramatically, “He stinketh!”)

The disconsolate sisters express their disappointment, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus cries at the grave of his friend. Some bystanders say sympathetically, “He really loved Lazarus” and others, more skeptically, “Why couldn’t, why didn’t he save Lazarus?”

Jesus testifies that his love for Lazarus is a power greater than death. To Martha’s declaration of belief in the resurrection from the dead, Jesus responds with this momentous word, “I am resurrection!”

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This word, the opening exhortation of our burial rite,[2] expresses the heart of our Christian theology: Yes, we die, yet, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have eternal life.

Eternal life. Often understood as life after death, life beyond the grave, particularly in an exalted tranquil state of existence. Yet I say to you that eternal life is not only about dying with the hope that we will rise again like Lazarus, like Jesus on some future, everlasting tomorrow to dwell with God, but also to live with God today! When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life,” he means now!

Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God – God’s life, the realm of God’s being and doing, God’s unconditional love and justice for all – is at hand.[3] Available today! Not only did Jesus come teaching, he came reaching out with arms of love to all in acts of justice for all.

This Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life” today!

This Jesus came to Bethany and comes to Laurens today! This Jesus comforted Mary and Martha and comforts us today!

This Jesus raised Lazarus and raises us today!

This Jesus loves us justly and just loves us today!

This Jesus lived and died and rose again to call us not merely to worship him, saying, “Lord, Lord,” but to follow and serve him as people of love and justice today![4]

As Christians, eternal life is not merely a matter of living and dying, then being raised from death to live forever. Eternal life is living life now filled with God’s Spirit.

So Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!”[5]

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

So Paul wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit is life…and the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

So God set Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, they came together – bone and sinew and flesh – but there was no life until God sent ruach, wind, breath, Spirit!

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883)

God’s Spirit gives life. Spirit-filled life is God’s life. God’s life is eternal life. Therefore, we don’t have to wait until tomorrow on that “great gittin’ up mornin’” in heaven![6] We have eternal life today!

So, may this song be our daily prayer:

Breathe on (us), breath of God,

fill (us) with life anew,

that (we) may love what Thou dost love

and do what Thou wouldst do![7]

And:

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us).

Melt (us), mold (us), fill (us), use (us).

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us)![8]

 

Illustrations:

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883). Note: Doré depicts the resurrections of the dead in various stages of the reconstitution or re-membering of their bone, sinew, and flesh; in the foreground, skeletal remains and in the background, on the left, fully enfleshed figures. Note also Ezekiel silhouetted against the clouds.

Footnotes:

[1] According to an ancient Jewish belief, the soul stays near the body for three days after a person’s death, then departs, never to return to the body.

[2] I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord and I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord (The Burial of the Dead, Rite One and Rite Two, respectively, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 469 and 491).

[3] See Matthew 4.17 and Mark 1.15

[4] Here, I refer to Matthew 7.21: Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

[5] John 3.7

[6] A reference to the rousing Negro spiritual, In Dat Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’

[7] From the hymn, Breathe on me, Breath of God, verse 1; words by Edwin Hatch (1835-1889); my alterations

[8] From the hymn, Spirit of the Living God; words by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977); my alterations