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.

my birthday tributes

June 8, 2017. My 65th birthday. As humans reckon time, an important historical, social, and personal benchmark.

I am in a contemplative, and, in part, melancholy mood.

Yes, I am happy (not a word, given my intense early-in-life-and-unto-this-day-awareness of an inner shadowy specter of sadness, I oft employ) to be alive at this time in this world with, all things told, a preponderance of blessed memories, present contentment, and future hopes.

Yet, thinking of my immediate family, I ponder being an orphan and wonder why, beyond the reality of my being the youngest of the four, I am alive, whilst they are not.

WRA 1976

My brother Wayne. Between the two of us, the finer human being. Daily he abides with me in the harrowing (sorrowing) absence of his presence and the hallowing (sanctifying) presence of his absence. I love you, Wayne. Because of you, I have a resident, resonant sense of my better self.

Lolita & William c 1940My father, William, and my mother, Lolita. It took quite the while for me, well into my forties, to see through the veil of my childhood and adolescent disappointments, ever looming, actual and imagined, as haunting reminiscences of the deprivations of my want and need, to behold and honor how rich and real was your love for me. I love you, Dad. I love you, Momma. Because of you, I am.

Easter people

a sermon, based on John 17.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

Jesus looked up to heaven and said…[1]

On the night before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death, he gathers with his disciples for a last supper. Following John the evangelist’s narrative of that night, Jesus washes their feet, giving them an example of self-sacrificial, slavish service that he bids they imitate.[2] He tells them again and again who he is in relation to them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”[3] and “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”[4] In preparing to depart, in preparing them for his departure from them, he gives them his final instructions, chiefly his one and only commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,”[5] his promise of his abiding presence with them, within them in the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,[6] and his warning of their coming sufferings for his sake.[7]

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…

Here, Jesus prays to God not in some faraway place, not on a mountaintop, not in a garden not apart and away from his disciples, but right there, at table with them, in their presence, in their hearing. And there, in prayer, Jesus defines for them and for us the heart, the point, the greatest gift of Easter: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.

And what, Who is the God Jesus makes known? Following the revelations unfolded in the Gospel of John…

God is divine logos, Word; the animating power of the universe. The Word that became our flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus, no longer to be far off, but ever near.[8]

Jesus who went to a wedding feast and changed limpid, life-giving water into vibrant, soul-stirring wine, revealing that God wills to be at the center of our times of joy as well as our moments of sorrow.[9]

Jesus who met with Nicodemus[10] and the Samaritan woman,[11] speaking to both of spiritual things, revealing that God reaches out to all people, the high and the low, the greatest and the least.

Jesus who healed those with broken bodies,[12] fed those with hunger-bloated bellies,[13] forgave the woman caught in adultery, saying, “sin no more”,[14] raised Lazarus from the dead,[15] revealing that God wills all be restored to wholeness and righteousness.

Jesus who promised another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to abide with us, within us,[16] revealing God’s presence and power to continue Jesus’ ministry of love and justice.

Jesus who prays, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There is an ancient legend of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. All the heavenly hosts, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, greet his arrival, welcoming him home. The angel Gabriel asks, “O Son of God, what have you done to continue your work on earth?” Jesus answers, “I have disciples whom I called to learn from me. Now, as apostles, I have sent them into the world to teach.” Gabriel, alert to a potentially serious, perhaps fatal flaw in the plan, frowns, asking, “O Son of God, what if they, frail and fearful, forget and fail? What then?” Jesus answers, “I have no other plan.”

We are Easter people. We know God and Jesus. We have eternal life. Therefore, we, in this world, in this day, in this time, in our generation, with God at the center of our lives at all times, are to reach out to all people with hands and hearts that heal and feed and forgive and give life to the dead.

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 17.1

[2] John 13.1-15

[3] John 14.6

[4] John 15.5

[5] John 13.34, 15.12, 17

[6] John 14.16-17, 26

[7] John 15.18-21, 16.2

[8] John 1.1-4, 14

[9] John 2.1-11

[10] John 3.1-17

[11] John 4.7-42

[12] John 5.1-9, 9.1-7

[13] John 6.1-13

[14] John 8.1-11

[15] John 11.1-44

[16] John 14.16, 26

love, the only…

a sermon, based on John 14.15-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

In this Easter season, as we continue to contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, we are invited to consider the immediate, incarnate, in-the-flesh-of-our-daily-living connection between loving Jesus and being obedient to Jesus. Thus, it is important to ask, “What commandments?” And Jesus reminds that it is easy to remember, for there is only one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] Lest we miss the point, he tells us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[2]

Love – and though we’ve said and shared this many times before, let us recall that by “love” we are not talking about our feelings about others or our affections for others, but rather the power to act in benevolent regard on behalf of others – is the only commandment of Jesus…

Love is the only measure of obedience to Jesus…

Therefore, at the proverbial end and beginning and middle of every day, there is only one question that a disciple, a follower, a lover of Jesus need ask: How did I love and (given our human weakness, unable always to fulfill our best intentions, and our human waywardness, able always to follow our self-interest) how did I not love?

To ask and answer this question, honestly, confessionally, especially the “not” part, is to open ourselves to judgment. Yet, praise God, this judgment is not that often most debilitating human disapproval of us by others or, at times, even worse, ourselves! No! This is the judgment of Jesus. The One who loves us unconditionally! The One who died for us self-sacrificially! The One who was raised from the dead for us that we have life eternally![3] And whenever Jesus points a judging finger at us it is always to help us see more clearly who we are, where we are in relation to him, all so that he can call us to come closer to him. How close? Abidingly, abundantly, inseparably, interminably close: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…(who) abides with you, and…will be in you.”[4]

“Advocate”, from the Greek parakletos, variously translated comforter, counselor, teacher, testifier, and, literally, one who comes alongside. Jesus, the Word of God in flesh,[5] was, is our first Advocate. Because of Easter, because of the resurrection of Jesus, he promised to send and has sent another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will commemorate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, who, as God’s presence and power, abides within us.

It is by, for, in, through, with (pick any preposition, the truth is the same!) the Holy Spirit that we can love Jesus and can keep his commandments and can ask ourselves that critical question “How have I loved and how have I not loved today?” and can place ourselves under his judgment and all that we can believe, can know that we are loved by God now through eternity.

Because of the everlasting Easter-love of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us in gratitude declare again, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 13.34-35

[2] John 15.12-13

[3] Here, I have in mind the Apostle Paul’s grand declaration that the One who can (is able to) condemn us is the same One who has saved us, thus, we need not, need never fear: If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?…I am convinced that…(nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-35a, 38a, 39b, abridged and amended).

[4] My emphasis

[5] See John 1.1, 14a: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

 

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

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

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)

discerning the Body

a sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of the tradition bestowed by Jesus that the Christian church, ever since, has understood as instituting the Eucharist.

On this Maundy Thursday, I bid that we focus on why Paul wrote as he did.

Looking at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately preceding words,[1] we see that his reference to the received tradition is an admonition to the Corinthians who had forgotten the table hospitality of the common agape or love feast. The Christians of Corinth, during their weekly gatherings for Eucharist, also would partake of a common meal (consider it an ancient potluck supper!), the food and drink brought by the various members. However, the practice, thus, the problem arose when folk ate and drank all of their provisions, leaving nothing to share with late arrivers, often slaves, servants, or laborers, in other words, the poor, who, thus, would be deprived of anything to eat.

Paul’s point about tradition, therefore, isn’t about Eucharistic etiquette. He isn’t instructing us to use the words, “This is my body…This cup is the new covenant in my blood”, over the bread and the wine (though we do!) or that we must use bread and wine (though we do!). And Paul’s point isn’t about Eucharistic theology. He isn’t theorizing about why we do Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus (though we do!). Paul’s point is about love and justice or rather its lack. He challenges the Corinthians’ indifference to the unconditional and universal care for all within the life of the community.

Looking again at the biblical context at Paul’s immediately succeeding words (words that the lectionary framers must have considered too harsh to be read in the polite company of the Christian community gathered for Eucharist!), we see the seriousness, the severity of his challenge to the Corinthians and to us: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”[2]

One meaning of “discerning the body” is to see that the Eucharistic bread is the body, the real presence of Jesus through which he provides us with a physical means for our spiritual consumption of his very nature. Yet I believe that Paul wants us to see the holy presence, the sacred body of Jesus not only in the bread, but also in the gathered community, which is the body of Christ.[3]

Look around you. Behold the body of Jesus in us. Behold the body of Jesus is us.

Therefore, this Maundy Thursday and every time we gather, three things I pray…

That we see Jesus in us

That we see in the bread and wine spiritual food that we partake to strengthen our souls and spirits to love one another…

That, in that strength, we leave this place to seek, to see, and to love Jesus in every person we meet.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See 1 Corinthians 11.17-22

[2] 1 Corinthians 11.29 (italics added)

[3] See 1 Corinthians 12.27: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.