a message for my people…

Note: Following my February 1, 2015, retirement, I entered, as I’ve written in this space previously, my “rehirement;” since December 20, 2015, being privileged to serve the good and gracious folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, as their part-time Priest-in-Charge.

At the start of each month, we publish an e-newsletter, The Epiphany Star (well, by what other name would a missive from Epiphany Church be called?). Usually, my message pertains to the seasons of the church year or a coming event. For September, given the tremulous tenor of our times, I have been given different words.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

My Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As I survey the world around us, the words of Thomas Paine, who wrote at a time when the American Revolution seemed unsure, come to mind, which I paraphrase: These are the times that try (our) souls…

Though every historical age has its weight of woe, our time seems…feels to me particularly burdened.

Globally, we Americans are engaged in our longest war, in Afghanistan, with no sign of its end, and

The terrorists’ malevolence, which, save for 9/11, not so long ago seemed still far beyond our shores hath drawn closer, indeed, hath come ashore…

Nationally, however you voted in our last presidential election and whatever your political sympathies, daily we are witnesses to the roiling, tempestuous waters of our federal government in which the Leviathan of rank factionalism swallows the fair seagoing spirit of bipartisanship, and

We behold a renewed rise of cultural and racial turmoil that perhaps many of us, surely I, had thought, had hoped that we, as a nation, had resolved, and

The storm with a benign name, Harvey, has unleashed catastrophic horror on Texas cities and towns, especially Houston, and damaging the home of our own dear Bill and Marilyn Ladd.

At times like these that try our souls, one thing we, each and all, can do is pray; lifting our minds and hearts, souls and spirits in petition and intercession to God.

Recently, during a Sunday announcement, I shared this 6-fold pattern upon which most of the Collects in our Book of Common Prayer are constructed:

  • Our call or address to God
  • Our citation of an attribute or act of God
  • Our prayerful request
  • Our anticipated result should God grant our prayer
  • Our invocation of the Name of Jesus (or of the Trinity)
  • Our “Amen”, meaning, “so be it”

I offer this prayer for our daily use (I also encourage you to write and pray your own):

O God of glory and grace, from your almighty hand all good gifts are given to your children and your creation: We pray you spread abroad your Spirit of solace and strength that we, empowered and emboldened, in all our living may do your will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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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.

when free speech ain’t free

This past Wednesday, February 1, Milos Yiannopoulos, the editor of Brietbart, a conservative news and opinion network, which some describe as trafficking in right-wing propagandist and, equally purposefully, incendiary misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric, was scheduled to speak at the University of California Berkeley. Demonstrators gathered to protest his appearance. Outside agitators unaffiliated with the university committed acts of violence. A number of people were hurt and multiple thousands of dollars of damage done to buildings and grounds. University administrators, citing the concern for public safety, cancelled the event.

Speaking always and only for myself…

For nearly 65 years (and, blessedly, day by day, I continue to count!) I have slogged through the twilight and, at times, illumined trenches of my thinking, the fetid and, at times, fecund furrows of my feelings. I (in addition to being unabashedly alliterative!) am a theological existentialist and a socio-political progressive with dyed-in-the-wool-of-my-soul-and-spirit pluralist and inclusive leanings. In all this, I recognize, indeed, respect “the other”; all those who think and feel differently. In this, I believe in the freedom of speech, even when it offends my sensibilities and sensitivities.[1] I believe in the free exchange of ideas, even those that provoke my anger. I believe in granting others, through the courtesy of civility, a hearing, even when I disagree and, perhaps especially, when I disagree strongly.

Why?

Because I live to seek truth; that which I consider “real” that allows me to make meaning for my life, to make sense of my existence. And my quest for my truth is constant. And, as I cannot think and feel all things and as I share this planet with countless folk who think and feel differently, I strive, sometimes with ease, sometimes with difficulty, to remain open to what I might, indeed, can learn from others with other worldviews, and

Because, though I constitutionally do not agree, verily, viscerally cannot agree with Mr. Yiannopoulos, to prevent him from giving air to his views eventually, inevitably restricts the right of free speech for all. For to deny any one the occasion for expression, at whatever time and for whatever purpose or cause, is to promote an atmosphere where another at another time for another purpose or cause can be denied that opportunity, and

Because I think that an environment characterized by fierce animus toward “the (whoever and whatever) other” encourages the identification of persons chiefly by their perspectives or positions on issues, which, in turn, nearly inexorably leads to the denial, dismissal of their essential humanness, and

Because I feel, I fear that in this fractious time in the history of a fractured America a climate of the demonization of “the other”, especially those who dwell on the far reaches of either side of the philosophical-political continuum, will compel moderate voices to withdraw from the public arena of engagement and debate, thus impoverishing our civic discourse, and

Because, then, freedom of speech won’t be free…

But perhaps it never is. Freedom of speech bears the cost of the sacrifice of those in ages past who offered it as bequest to their heirs of future generations and of those in this day and time. Again, speaking always and only for myself, freedom of speech bears the cost of my sacrifice of the security, even sanctity of my worldview by having occasion to listen to those whose words do not substantiate or justify my truth.

 

Footnote:

[1] I also recognize that freedom of speech (indeed, any freedom) is not absolute. And though there are historically, legally accepted limits on human expression (e.g., libel, slander, obscenity, and sedition), my taking offense is not one of them!

summum bonum

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12, and 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

micah-exhorting-the-israelites-to-repentance-gustave-dore-1832-1883

This word of the prophet Micah is the Hebrew Bible’s magna carta, great charter of life, supreme expression of the summum bonum, “the highest good” of human living.

Amazingly, though scriptural, it’s not especially religious; as religion may be conceived as the creedal declaration or ceremonial possession embodied by (or, worse, entombed in) some sacred institution.

Not for Micah. A “good” life, a “good” religion always involves action, therefore, is always less about what we confess with our lips or symbolize in our ceremonies and always more, in accord with our confession and our rituals, what we profess with our lives.

We “do justice.” Knowing our human longing for fairness, we act equitably toward others. We “love kindness.” Knowing the nature, the reality of human suffering, we act compassionately with others amidst their travails. We “walk humbly with God.” Knowing our personal strengths and weaknesses, our bright lights and dark shadows, we act humbly, with little sense of privilege, even less entitlement, striving to live at one with our Creator, the creation, and all creatures.

At the heart of Micah’s prophecy, this idea of moral instruction as fruit, not seed; in other words, as the articulation of what already is, not the expression of an ambition for what ought be is a lens through which we can view the Beatitudes – Jesus’ description of blessedness, the Christian magna carta, charter of life, summum bonum, verily, the Christian way to fulfill, to do Micah’s word…

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

To be poor in spirit is to recognize the nature of life in this world – so fundamental that it is the first state of blessedness from which all else flows – that there is little to nothing of circumstance, chance, even our choices (always in response to circumstance and chance) that we command or control. Thus, we, knowing our constant need for God, walking humbly with God, act; mourning with others who grieve, for always with someone, sometimes ourselves there is grief, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for always somewhere there is evil and within us, the temptation to do evil, making peace, for always, both without and within us, there is conflict, even being persecuted on the side of the suffering against the will of the strong, for always someplace there is oppression.

But back to Micah. For grander epiphanies await us!

This great teaching, “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, is set within the context of conflict. A trial. God calls the people to answer for their failings of disobedience, which are so severe that God summons “the mountains…and (the) foundations of the earth”, creation itself, to listen.

Yet God, in making this divine case against the people, is not wrathful, wanting to punish them. Verily, in a stunning reversal, God is not the plaintiff, but the defendant raising a question about divine conduct, asking the people to voice their complaints, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?”

This is a God who, in calling the people to account, wants, wills to be held accountable. This is a God as judge who wants, who wills to be judged.

This is a disruption, a destruction of all legal tradition, all juridical convention! This is beyond any traditional, conventional institutionalized, religious understanding of God’s nature, God’s being and behaving. This, therefore, is outside of any customary conception of the divine-human relationship.

What is “this”? God rises to the summum bonum, telling us, showing us the highest good! God does justice, loves kindness, walks humbly with us! The chiefest epiphany, revelation of which, as Paul proclaims, is “Christ crucified.” Our God ascends to the summum bonum by being raised on a self-sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death for us.

It is this God, our astounding, worldly-wisdom-defying-and-destroying God to whom we in the awe of gratitude would make offerings, the greater, the better – from a “burnt-offering of one young calf” to “thousands of rams” and “tens of thousands of rivers of oil” to “my firstborn.” And our God answers, “No, I don’t want your gifts. I want you.”

So, then let us do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, which is Micah’s way of echoing Jesus, indeed, Micah’s way of our fulfilling, doing, being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.

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This was the original end of this sermon…until a sleepless late last night into this morning as I pondered President Trump’s executive order banning travel to American shores of folk from seven Muslim-majority nations – an act that heartened his supporters and horrified his detractors and sparked protests at airports around the nation of many proclaiming welcome to immigrants and refugees and provoked judicial temporary restraining orders to stay the implementation of the ban; this last, ensuring legal jostling and jousting for some time to come.

I recognize and accept the risk of saying anything that, for some of us, may cross the line from spiritual to political matters. However, I believe that politics, from the Greek polis, city, and, by extension, the human community, is concerned with how we, in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” – think and feel, intend and act – together. Moreover, as a Christian pastor and preacher, as your pastor and preacher, I also recognize and accept my responsibility to share counsel with you from God’s Word of how we “live and move and have our being” in this world.

Now, I never will tell you what to think. I entrust that to your individual, inner spiritual and ethical bearings as guided by the illumination of God’s Spirit. I will share with you a view, a vision of how to think.

And based on this day’s scriptural passages, I submit to you that the tension has heightened excruciatingly between border security and national safety and our anthemic American identity as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; a land and home, from inception, save for our Native American sisters and brothers, populated by immigrants; some arriving of their free will and others brought captive.

And though here in Laurens, South Carolina, for most of us, the subject of immigration and the concerns of refugees may not rise to the apex of our lists of daily pressing issues, perhaps even of our mildest interest, the values, the virtues of justice as unconditional equality and honoring the God-given dignity of every human being as our Baptismal Covenant bears witness always call us to act wherever we are with whatever we have and however we can for the least, the last, and the left out.

How you, I, and we do that is for your, my, and our discernment. But, in the spirit of Micah, do it, we must.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

Micah exhorting the Israelites to repentance, Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)