sue God?

a sermon, based on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 and John 1.6-8, 19-28reached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel, after nearly fifty years of captivity in Babylon, were free. For a second time, they would journey to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah marked the auspicious occasion with this word of hope: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…anoint(ing) me…to bring good news to the oppressed…the brokenhearted…the captives…(and) all who mourn.”

By contrast, stories of this past week from around the globe screamed the sorrowful news of the daily revivals of ancient animosities, civil unrest, escalating terrorist violence, and, perhaps most ominously, steps forward and backward and forward again toward the threshold of war with North Korea.

Reading Isaiah, then looking at the world, where is the good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning? It’s been 2500 years! Plenty of time for God to bring this glorious vision to light and life. Sometimes, when I think things never will get better, I feel like suing God for breach of promise!

But one thing gives me pause. My belief that we humans bear responsibility for the state of the world. Yes, we pray: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and…come among us…we (who) are sorely hindered by our sins…to help and deliver us.” Yet what seems an honest confession of our need can sound like our abdication of our accountability; our all-too-facile admission of our failings so to absolve ourselves of our guilt and grief over the mess we have made of this world. Perhaps we should sue ourselves, declare moral bankruptcy, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes, as the circumstances may warrant)!

However, accepting our responsibility immediately raises the question: For what? And if the “what” are the big and abiding problems of our world – hunger, homelessness, economic disparities between rich and poor, the destruction of the environment, racism, sexism – then every one of us, whether one individual, one community, one congregation, one nation, with limited energy and resources, immediately is overwhelmed.

So, what do we do?

John can help us. To the question, “Who are you?” he confessed, declared, “I am not the Messiah!” that is, in common parlance, to say, “I’m not God!”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

John then described himself in terms of his life’s mission: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”, thereby, reminding all of their responsibility. If the vision of good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning had not then and has not yet dawned, perhaps it was they then and we now have not done all we could do to bring it to light and life.

Thus, in response to the question, What do we do?, which is another way of answering the question, Who are we?, following John, we are to be those who always are mindful of our responsibilities for and to the world. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill our responsibilities. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job, individually and communally, is to be aware and alert to human need and to our resources (not worrying about what we don’t have and acknowledging what we do have!) and to our commitment to respond, and then in the name of the One for whom we Advent-wait, to make straight the way of the Lord, that is to say, to do something.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnote:
(1) Full text of the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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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.

Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

a monumental issue

In an August 13 missive, my bishop, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,[1] shared her reflections on the recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, involving a demonstration by groups of white supremacists centered on their protest against the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.[2] Opening with the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that”, Bishop Budde wrote with clear-eyed passion about “our nation’s demon of racism” that “(spews) hatred and (incites) violence.” She continued with her approbations of the heartfelt convictions of those in the Charlottesville community who mobilized and marched in peaceful counter-demonstration; their presence in the streets a public incarnation and witness to the value of human equality.[3]

Bishop Budde ended her reflections, writing: “…the symbols and monuments of the Confederacy serve as touchstones and rallying sites for racial hatred…There are, in my mind, only two morally defensible options: either remove Confederate symbols and monuments or contextualize them with the truth of their origins and a broader narrative of our past to include the voices we’ve silenced and the stories we’ve never heard.”

I am a historically-minded-and-hearted person. History, the chronicle of human events, words, and deeds in time and space, is a primary lens through which I perceive reality. I also, perhaps as a congenital Gemini-esque quality, strive to understand the perspectives of others, all others, even and especially those with whom I disagree.

Given these aspects of my nature, as elemental to me as breath, I wrestle with the issue of what to do with monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate flag.[4] For I understand that these symbols represent, for some, the reprehensible reality of institutional slavery and, for others, irrefutable and irreplaceable markers of their treasured history and heritage. Hence, I understand the impassioned cry to remove them and the stalwart call to keep them in place. I also understand (or I think I do) how difficult, perhaps well-nigh impossible it is to separate attitudes and feelings of animus from either position, thus, to leave the monuments in place or to remove them is for one or the other an act of oppression.

All this said I am not an indifferent observer. I am a person who identifies – in part by choice, in part perforce by the classifications of society – as an African American. Yet I am the literal fruit from Hispanic roots on my father’s side blended, on my mother’s side, less than five generations past, with white seed.

All this said, having run back and forth many times along the continuum of thought and feeling, I believe that the monuments to the Confederacy are to be removed[5] from parks and streets. This, for me, is one of the lessons of Charlottesville. For it is one thing to behold in a statue of General Lee a historical figure, no more, no less. It is another thing to see a symbol of the subjugation of a people. It is still another thing to remember with reverence a past cause. And it is yet another thing to perceive an anamnetic[6] rallying cry that compels the calling of that past cause into the living present, which, I believe, the forces of white supremacy seek to do.

And if any of the monuments are not demolished, then let them be displayed in museums or perhaps on a Civil War battlefield, in each case, affixed with plaques and other memorabilia detailing the histories of those who lived and fought and died on both sides of the war and the stories of those who lived and died in slavery.

For, it seems to me, that sometimes the best or, perhaps better said, wisest way to address the past, particularly a troubled past is not to parade its images in the public square unembellished by critical commentary, but rather to present them, if at all, in the simplest, starkest light of truth.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Although I have retired and reside in South Carolina, I remain canonically (that is, by the rule of law of the Episcopal Church, officially) resident in the Diocese of Washington, where I served two parishes in Washington, DC, for a total of nearly 27 years, the bulk of my active full-time ministry.

[2] Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) American Civil War commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (1862-1865)

[3] The complete text of Bishop Budde’s reflections can be read at: https://www.edow.org/about/bishop-mariann/writings/

[4] Also known as the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, and the Southern cross.

[5] By “removed”, I mean through the decision-making processes of elected and representative municipal bodies and not via the self-authorized vigilante actions of citizens.

[6] My made-up word drawn from the Greek anamnesis, which generally infers an act of remembrance that goes beyond a cognitive recollection of a past event or era, but rather actively seeks to recall, indeed, to recreate that past event or era in the present.

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

a little BIG thing

Another hot and humid South Carolina day…

I stood, more or less (more, I confess, less) patiently, in a line at the store; my cart half-filled. The air-conditioning system on the blink (really?) offered no respite from the sweltering weather.

Before me, a young black man, a can of soda in his hand; his pants slung low, exposing more (too much more!) than the waistband of his brightly-colored boxer shorts, his tank top at least two sizes too large, hanging loosely from his narrow shoulders.

Before him, an older, portly white man, his suspendered trousers high on his waist, with two carts, each a psalmic “cup running over” with groceries.

“What a contrast in age, race, and style,” I thought to myself, that is, when I wasn’t grumbling about the heat and the length of the line moving at the pace of a geriatric arthritic tortoise.

Finally, we neared check-out.

The older gentleman turned to the young man behind him, looking up-and-down, his countenance quizzical (I imagined: curious? disdainful?). “My dear young sir,” he said, his Southern drawl molasses-thick, “you only have one item. You go ahead of me.” I couldn’t see the young man’s face, but I heard his voice, his tone registering surprise. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

America’s tenaciously long-lived racial divide wasn’t healed. Nor the ill of ageism overcome. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself. Spontaneously, I smiled. This little act, both in the giving and in the receiving, in a big way, fortified my hope, my trust that, in a world and time of increasing anxiety and anger, particularly in the public square and directed at “the other”, civility lives.

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

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”