any questions?

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.34-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

From the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem on that occasion we annually commemorate on Palm Sunday,[1] he has been embroiled in one fight after another with Pharisees, Sadducees,[2] and Herodians,[3] chief priests, elders, and scribes, all, through serious questioning and subterfuge, seeking to discredit him. They have challenged his authority[4] to preach and teach in God’s Name and to act as a prophet, driving the usurious money changers and sellers of animals from the temple.[5] Jesus, in turn, has confounded them with parables that expose their duplicity[6] and, in one stunningly scathing declaration, beginning, “Woe to you,” condemning the unrighteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.[7]

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Our gospel passage depicts the last gasp challenge of Jesus’ adversaries before being silenced, daring to ask no more questions. A testy lawyer proposes a test, “What is the greatest commandment?” A tough, trick question. By this time, the written code of God’s Law numbered 613 commandments; 365 “thou shalt nots” and 248 “thou shalts.” The lawyer, in effect, dared Jesus to choose wrongly and thus shame himself in the face of the people. Jesus, always standing on a higher plane, summarizes all of the laws; first and foremost, “Love God.” then adding a necessary corollary for all who dwell in time and space, that is, in relationship with others, “Love neighbor.”

A lawyer questions Jesus, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Now, we, who breathe the ether of life in this world, often equate love with our emotions; how we feel. Even more, our degree of loving often is based on the scale – and our often unconscious determinations – of our likes and dislikes. Still more, given our fundamental human self-interest, our recognition of love often is rooted in our awareness of the benefits we derive.

I know or think I know these things based upon years of pastoral ministry listening to others speak of their lives and loves and a longer number of years coming to know myself. To wit, I love Pontheolla because of who I have become through her. I love fine food and wine because they satisfy not only my hunger, but also my palate. I love good writing because it speaks to my intellectual curiosity and stretches my imagination.

Ah, but the love of which Jesus speaks, indeed, the love that Jesus is and demonstrates is never inwardly self-focused, but always outwardly other-focused on God and neighbor. And Jesus’ love does not emanate from emotion, but rather is a work of the will, the power to choose and to choose constantly. For this reason, Jesus’ love calls us, he calls us to love with our hearts, souls, and minds; all that we are, for it takes all that we are to be constant.

Jesus calls us to act benevolently, first toward God who first loves us, then toward all whom God hath created; yes, our families, friends, and acquaintances, those within our associations of birth and choice, those we like and the like-minded with whom we agree and strangers and those we don’t like and with whom we disagree, even those who have harmed us who we might call “enemy.”

So, let’s admit it. Jesus’ love is impossible for us. For how can we, sensate creatures, who know most (all?) of what we know through our physical senses, love God who is intangible Spirit? And how can we love our neighbors as ourselves, as we wish to be loved, for our neighbors, even our nearest and dearest, being other than we, at some point, are bound to do unto us as we would not desire, and so, too, we toward them?

Ah, here is the genius of Jesus in linking these two commandments. Our love of God is made manifest, real, tangible, visible in our love of neighbor, and our love of neighbor whom we can see is to love God whom we cannot see.

Any questions?

 

Illustrations:

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

A lawyer questions Jesus (Un avocat interroge Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 22.23-33

[3] Matthew 22.15-22

[4] Matthew 21.23

[5] Matthew 21.12-13

[6] Matthew 21.28-32. the Parable of the Two Sons; Matthew 21.33-45, the Parable of the Vineyard

[7] Matthew 23.1-36

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I’m sorry…another thought

O’er the years, along with Pontheolla’s patient and persistent nudging,[1] it occurs to me that there was…is another elemental influence upon me, teaching me to learn how to say, “I’m sorry.” My life as a pastor.

In this role and responsibility, many times I have said “I’m sorry”, yes, for things I didn’t do or say that I should have done or said or for things I did do or say that I shouldn’t have done or said, yet also and mostly as my earnest expression of sorrow in response to life’s difficulties endured by the countless people who have confided in me.

O’er the years, as I reflect, most folk who have shared with me the anguished chapters and verses of their lives didn’t expect or desire that I do anything other than to lend love’s listening ear. From these manifold human encounters, there is an image, a scene of life’s drama fixed in my remembrance; one that has occurred over and over again…

Having poured out her/his soul’s anguish, s/he sits, hands tightly clasped, head lowly bowed. For some time, and then more time, all is silent and still. Slowly, s/he raises her/his head, her/his eyes searching, finding, gazing fixedly into mine. I softly utter the words, “I’m sorry.” In nearly every instance, s/he replies as softly, “Thank you.” And more than half of the time, s/he adds, “But why are you sorry? You didn’t cause this.” And I respond, “I am sorry because if I could, I would move heaven and earth for this not to be so for you.”

O’er the years, listening, loving, I have been taught by others who took the exquisite risk to open their souls to me to sorrow with them as if their anguish were mine own. Though I would want no such thing for them, I would want nothing other for me than to be and to bear with them in their pain.

 

Footnote:

[1] See my previous blog post, I’m sorry… (October 23, 2017)

I’m sorry…

No one arrives at any place or state of being of good or ill without the help or hurt of countless – some sometimes known, perhaps most oft unseen – hearts and hands. This is one of the functional lenses and operational axioms through which I view and interpret life in this world, particularly human behaviors or misbehaviors.

In my own experience, I was raised in a household of loving parents who, I believe, given their – in my mother’s case, strict and in my father’s, unsettled – upbringings, in their zeal that I be formed and shaped to be an ethically responsible person tended to be incessant in their criticism and intermittent in affirmation and acceptance; all with a decidedly Christian moral overlay. Though they did not succeed in bridling what they duly observed was my rambunctious spirit, perhaps in a manner they did not intend, they nurtured my skepticism, verily, my uncertainty about the intentions of others, especially those nearest and dearest. Hence, I travelled the course of adolescence and arrived at adulthood with a long practiced and perfected guardedness. Though I was often outwardly gregarious, I maintained a private inner world of reserve; one of the less than commendable manifestations of which was (not an inability, but rather) a lethargy about admitting fault. To acknowledge wrongdoing was to expose myself to more censure; the daily dosages I received in my household being more than enough.

I share this, yes, to confess that it took a long time before I developed the ability and willingness to employ frequently those two sacred words essential to all human relating: I’m sorry. (Pontheolla has been and continues to be my finest, fairest teacher. O’er the course of more than 30 years, she, with muscular, matchless patience, has taught me the mutual benefit of saying, “I’m sorry,” and then, in response to her probing, searing question, “For what?”, to dig deeper, exposing more of myself, indeed, my self to profess with naked honesty my wrong; which is to say, more than my acknowledgement that she was hurt by whatever I did or said or didn’t do or say.)

This comes to my mind and heart as I reflect on the latest episode of President Donald Trump’s seeming inability and demonstrable unwillingness to say, “I’m sorry.” His words of condolence proved less than consoling for Mrs. Myeshia Johnson on the occasion of the death of her husband, Sergeant La David Johnson. Notwithstanding the public and unpleasant contretemps between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Johnson and her supporters, it seems to me that Mr. Trump, recognizing that his intention did not satisfy Mrs. Johnson’s expectation (as always is the risk in every human interaction), would be fairly and faithfully served to say, “I’m sorry.” That he has not (cannot?), I, reviewing my own history, sympathetically am led to wonder. Where and how in his nurturance was he hurt making the art of apology beyond his capacity and desire?

me, too?

Harvey Weinstein, American film producer and studio executive, has been exposed publicly as a long-time serial sexual predator who, wielding the power of his professional largesse, used, misused, abused his position to force his wanton intentions upon women. Weinstein stands and falls in a sorrowfully extended (interminable?) line of notable men, long known by some in their inner circles, who have been abusers of their prominence to assault, for their personal needs and gains, the values and virtues, minds and bodies, souls and spirits of women.

Yesterday, scrolling through my Facebook feed, I read and wept over the numbers of women who responded to the post: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Among my FB friends answering “Me, too” were woman I love and respect and one I most love and respect, my wife, Pontheolla. I know her. I know her story. Therefore, her affirmation of her union with women who have been harassed or assaulted was no surprise to me. That does not mean that this, her reminder of her pain, does not hurt; her, first and foremost.

Yet, as an introspective sort, my next thought was to ask myself (one who shares the same birth year as Weinstein and, to some degree, a similar cultural sensitivity or rather insensitivity): Paul, have you sexually harassed or assaulted a woman and, upon soulful reflection, must you be compelled to attest: Me, too?

Upon that soulful reflection, I answer “No”. However, that does not mean that I, in some way, by thought, word, or deed (or two of the three or all three), have not demeaned and dismissed a woman as my lesser. For, I know, I have so done. For this, I repent.

the separable individuality of suffering

A friend, Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania – though we’ve never met in the flesh, via Facebook we have connected and, even before, I, having known of him, Episcopal Church circles trending toward small, have admired his life and ministry from afar – today, in a FB post, wrote: Monday will be two weeks since the horrific violence in Las Vegas. Have we forgotten? Have we moved to the next news cycle? Let us embrace His Kingdom.

Bishop Gutiérrez, for me, an incarnation of passion for God’s love and justice, reminds me ever to remember, to “embrace” the sorrows of my sisters and brothers, in the instant case of his post, the October 1 mass shooting. His clarion call of loving and just remembrance gives me pause to reflect on how, if not easily, inevitably I do “(move) to the next news cycle.”

Thinking about this, I turned to Pontheolla and asked, not to induce her guilt, but rather as my reality-check, “Honey, when was Hurricane Harvey?”[1] She answered, “I don’t remember exactly.” I replied, “Neither do I.”

I repeated my question concerning Hurricanes Irma[2] and Maria,[3] the Mexican earthquake,[4] and the current California wildfires.[5] Her answers, the same. My replies, the same.

I wonder. Is this not true for any (all?) of us?

Do we not move on unless and until “it” (whate’er the tragedy) is our immediate experience or that we are vitally, viscerally connected because our loved ones, those near and dear to us, have suffered?

Do we not move on given the press, the pressure of our daily inundation through the 24-hour news cycle that continues to operate under an ages-old mandate, “if it bleeds, it leads” (which is to say, suffering, more than good news, sells, therefore, dominates the headlines)?

Do we not move on, for suffering hurts and there is only so much that we, psychically, even physically, given our own trials and tribulations, worries and woes, can tolerate?

I suspect that for these reasons, perhaps primarily the separable distance of tragedy not personally experienced, the painstakingly honest answer is “yes”, we do move on.

Yet, Bishop Daniel, I want to do as you implore…

I want not to move on…

I want to stay, as damnably discomfiting as it is, in the pain of the tragedies of others.

Why?

At most, for I want my mind and heart, soul and spirit never to be inured, desensitized to the hurts of others, so to be able and willing to act where I can, when I can, how I can for their good, and

At least, for I believe that the sufferings of my sisters and brothers, whate’er the tragedy, as easily, perhaps as inevitably could well have been mine and could well one day be mine.

 

Footnotes:

[1] mid-late August

[2] August 30-mid September

[3] mid-September-early October

[4] September 19

[5] early October-ongoing

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

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!

 

Footnotes:

[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941

continuing becoming…

“Honey, is something the matter with me?”

This is the question I asked Pontheolla after another restless, sleepless night channel-surfing among CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC following, fretting over the news of Hurricane Harvey’s relentless approach to the Texas coast, then, making landfall, stubbornly, punishingly, injuriously, fatally dumping catastrophic amounts of rain…

And this after equally fretful, restless, sleepless nights following the August 11-12 unrest in Charlottesville perpetrated by an unabashed and public display of vociferous and violent white supremacy and neo-Nazism…

And this after equally restless, sleepless nights and weeks and months of following what I view to be, at its heart and in its soul, a feckless, reckless presidential administration driven by the impulses of a man enamored by the self-manufactured mythology of the power of his personality.

Me: Honey, is something the matter with me?

Pontheolla: Why do you ask?

Me: I’m struggling. It feels like…it is like everything troubles me.

Pontheolla: What do you mean?

Me: Down in my belly and in my bones. I’m angry, but mostly sad.

Pontheolla: About what?

Me: Not what. Who.

Pontheolla: Who then?

Me: Those…all those hurt by the force of nature and human hands.

Pontheolla: Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re becoming who you were meant to be.

For 40 years, since my ordination in 1977 as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then, in 1978, as a priest, I have served as a Christian minister. Knowing that I possess (or…and am possessed by!) an irrepressible selfish streak (ask Pontheolla!), oft I’ve thought, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that God called me into ministry knowing that the self-sacrificial nature of the work would…just might be a sanctifying, sanity-inducing balance to my overweening egocentricity.

Pontheolla’s incisive observation has helped me to see that one of my prayers truly, painfully has been answered…

During this past Lenten season, as a personal, spiritual discipline, I wrote a prayer a day. On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the 34th day of Lent, reflecting on Colossians 1.21-24,[1] I wrote, in part:

O Jesus…seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I…love to go my own way…so to liken my life unto mine own image. O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…can…will sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

With joyous pain and painful joy, I believe that Jesus has answered my prayer. And though I also believe that I cannot be rid of all of my, at times, selfish self-interest, for such is the character and curse of the life of the flesh in this world, I pray that I, down in the depths of my belly and bones, continue to become, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[2] description of Jesus, “a man for others.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, (Christ) has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime. In Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrificial living and dying, as he described Jesus, so he was, too, “a man for others.”