Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Gun Control: A Religious Issue

A verse in our psalm today may sound excessively cynical, but in light of the moral failures of King David it resonates with a certain understandable world-weariness:

“Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”

Do you recall how, in last week’s installment of our summer reality series “David, Shepherd King”, God was heard to say to the young King, “Are you the one to build me a temple to dwell in?” David’s moral failings lend an explanation to that divine hesitation.

And speaking of world-weariness, isn’t there a hint of it in those opening words, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” It’s as if we’re chained to a recurring cycle of violence. The narrator suggests that even illustrious David gets lumped into the downward-sliding failure of imagination that finds it easier to fight wars than to build peace. Perhaps this endless procession of wars accounts for David being the one able-bodied Hebrew male not on the battlefield, the day his wandering gaze took in the profile of beautiful Bathsheba. He had delegated military command to others. A certain distance was creeping in between his decisions and the actual horrors of the front line, a numbing of the sense of personal tragedy that actually defines the human cost of war.

So we are treated to a tawdry episode in the afternoon of this stay-at-home king. Time seems fast-forwarded as this fling becomes a pregnancy. What follows is heart-breaking. David calls home Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, who has been fighting at the front. Pretending that he wants to hear about the war, David really wants Uriah to return to the embrace of Bathsheba, to eventually explain this pregnancy. Uriah is too principled, too loyal, too noble to have private pleasure while his brothers are engaging the enemy.

What a contrast between these two men! David slides into moral collapse. One ploy after another fails to get Uriah back in bed with his wife. One falsehood paves the way for the next, until the last dreadful step is taken. We are nearly three thousand years distant from this treachery, but we catch the heartbreak, once as a loyal valiant foot soldier is betrayed by his king, again as that disloyal king sinks into the sewer.

The complaint of the psalmist fits the occasion. “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good.” The psalm-writer even connects this world-weariness to the cynicism that says, “There is no God,” though he makes it clear that this is a foolish conclusion to draw. Still, he makes his point: in the absence of human goodness, God is felt to be absent.

The psalmist’s complaint gives us language to consider what happened in that movie theater in Colorado. I can imagine two reactions that remind me of what the psalmist says. One is how the victims may have felt the absence of God in those moments of sheer terror and searing pain. The other is how instantly we have seen human goodness in the stories of victims using their bodies to shield their loved ones.

But to my eye, and to my heart, the good that is absent in this tragedy is caused by our national failure to regulate the purchase of assault weapons. When kings go out to battle, when sovereign nations engage on battlefields, when police forces secure dangerous locations, they may need assault weapons. But when activists opposing regulation insist that anyone able to pass current background checks is entitled to own the kind of weapon that James Holmes brought into that theater, we should be worried that we’re in full ethical collapse. To say that current screening is enough is shown to be false with every mass shooting we experience. And if someone wants to try to convince me why would we want to live in a society in which anyone may own such a weapon, perhaps he can also tell me which of the nine circles of hell our society now occupies?

By caring more about the NRA lobby and voter backlash, our lawmakers have been disloyal to the rest of us, and negligent in fulfilling their duty. Isn’t it time to encourage them to take the risk that will, over time, diminish the risk taken by innocent movie-goers, students attending school, mall shoppers, laborers at their workplaces, people walking in their own neighborhoods?

Social commentary like this may not be your favorite style of sermon to hear on a Sunday. I have felt free to offer it today because of the apostle’s prayer in the letter to the Ephesians, that we may have the power to comprehend—or is it his insistence that we do have the power to comprehend--what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love God gives us in Jesus Christ.

That call to comprehension invites, no, it requires us to ask how gun control is a subject that belongs in churches and synagogues and mosques. Is gun control a religious issue? 91,300,000 results from googling that combination of words suggests that it is. Let me sample two.

“The Economist” magazine observed recently that when we Americans speak of our rights, many of us believe they are given to us not only by our Constitution, but by God. That bears some thinking. Does God give rights? Or does God give grace? Either way, does God not also give us responsibilities? That gun control will require careful, creative, political thinking is self-evident. That it deserves careful, creative theological thinking—who knew?

Some Roman Catholic commentators know. Popular Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin wrote recently in “America” magazine that gun control is as much a reverence for life issue as the others that his church consistently addresses: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. He also suggested that there’s something wrong with Christians praying for the victims of gun violence, without also using their God-given intelligence and courage to minimize the incidence of gun violence. Within hours of posting his views about gun control as a religious issue on Facebook, Martin had to shut down comments on the page because of the vitriol his views provoked.

As unsettling as that must have been to Fr. Martin, he might have concluded that he’s doing something right, to have caused such a stir. But this issue in this country will always cause sharp reaction. When we try to catch this wind in our sails, we will find it a rough crossing. But it’s time. It’s time that we stop persuading ourselves that our five-fish-and-two-barley-loaves worth of convictions aren’t enough. It’s time to make the crossing.

And I believe we will find Jesus walking right nearby, and will hear him say, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jesus wants to take his disciples on a retreat. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Does that sound good to you? Want to go along?

Or are you enough of a Type A person that you might need talking-into going on retreat, even though it’s Jesus who’s inviting you? Type A’s might say, “Last night’s sleep is all the rest I need—I’ve just got too much to do! Put me in a place without electronics for a few days? I’d go nuts.” While some of us might say, Sign me up!

Isn’t it worth noticing that once the apostolic band arrives at their destination, their plans are hijacked? In its own way, this comforts me: that I who often have good intentions to pray more and scurry less, have a Savior who knows what all that is about.

And he is remembered as being eminently accessible. Ahead of time, I mark a day off in my calendar with a great slash, steer clear of the office, and let my calls go to voicemail— but he sees a great crowd, and has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and poof, he’s calling the circle together, revealing to them the centering presence of God.

And the twelve? “Forget it, boys,” I hear Simon Peter say, in a hushed voice: “No rest for us today.” Blessed are the flexible, for they shall inherit… much more to pray about.

But, you know, retreats come in all shapes and sizes. Our summer Sundays @ 9 offer a short hour of gaining some degree of perspective on ourselves and how we live. And even if a scant hour may not seem to deserve being called a retreat, these gatherings have blessed participants with an opportunity to go deeper in discerning what is essential for living a compassionate life, and to feel the support of kindred spirits in community.

So too did Thursday evening’s sampling of Servant Leadership, a model of adult Christian formation for ministry. Nicole, a lovely young woman from St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield, led us in two hours of reliance on the divine presence to be at the center of our circle, about fifteen people, eight or nine from here, one from All Saints, three or four from St. Stephen’s.

She led us into a centering upon God by some guided deep breathing. She modeled attentive and compassionate listening, and attentive and compassionate silence. She invited us to speak intentionally. She wasn’t leading us by expertise or careful scripting, as much as by trust and courage. She got us talking about our lives, and though sometimes we reverted to talking about our opinions, she kept returning us to our lives.

And when I say “she”, I mean both Nicole and the Holy Spirit she often gently invoked.

This was no small thing, that a perfect stranger should get a roomful of people talking about their lives, not to compete but to support and collaborate.

She introduced us to a concept of serving that goes something like this: If I relate to you by assuming that you are weak, I will set out to help you.

If I relate to you assuming that something in you is broken, I may set out to try to fix you.

But if I want to serve you, I will start with the assumption that there is wholeness in you, and I will respect that becoming wholeness.

I take this to mean that the service to which Christ calls me draws me into relationship that starts with my openness. This was symbolized, that evening, by a gesture Nicole made with her hands. It is an engaging but mysterious gesture (the very same one we make in receiving communion, our hands open to create a place and a moment of meeting).

This was felt by some to be a controversial gesture. Am I begging, when I extend that gesture to you? You could read it that way, even if I mean to commune with you, that is, to communicate my openness to meet your openness, to enter the mystery of giving and receiving that defines our common life in Christ.

If you experience the gesture as begging, you may retreat (as in beat a hasty retreat), for who likes being begged-from?

But Nicole stood her ground, allowing the mystery in what is already a familiar gesture, at least among sacramental Christians. And what does it matter? We’re trying to express an attitude.

You have made this gesture countless times. Approaching Jesus’s table, you have made a table of your hands, an open space for communion through your senses of sight, touch, and taste. If someone makes that sign toward you, you become the priest or the minister of communing, communicating, community-building. Which makes me think Nicole is right to use it as an effective symbol of servant leadership.

Let me quickly dispel the impression that Servant Leadership is about navel-gazing. At Thursday’s gathering, someone said that this model of ministry resembles the Dream Center. Have you heard of that? The Dream Center could be seen as a good example of where Servant Leadership, broadly understood, could take the church. Here is the Dream Center’s story.

Pastor Matthew Barnett assumed the pastorate of Bethel Temple in Los Angeles in 1994 at the age of twenty. After a life-changing encounter with God, he helped Bethel Temple transition from a traditional-style church to a servant driven ministry that grew into what is now known as The Dream Center.

Compelled by a vision to impact all of Los Angeles by addressing people’s physical and spiritual needs spiritual needs in unique and practical ways, The Dream Center has grown into a phenomenon that now reaches more than 40,000 people each week through its multiple church services and various need-centered outreach ministries.

Services and programs offered include residential rehabilitation programs for teens and adults, a shelter for victims of human trafficking, a transitional shelter for homeless families, mobile hunger relief and medical programs, and a foster care intervention outreach. Programs such as adult basic education, job skills training, and life skills counseling continue to establish The Dream Center as a vital community development resource.

The Dream Center’s record of success has led to the launch of over 100 independent Dream Centers nationally, as well as internationally. I hear there is one in Pittsfield now.

The Center’s mission is to directly impact the issues that afflict the community, one square block at a time, by reconnecting isolated people to God and a community of support by providing free human services that address immediate and long-term needs in the areas of homelessness, hunger relief, medical care, mental health and education.

Its vision is a community of resilient people whose lives have been redeemed by God’s love, who share that love with others to transform and restore broken lives to wholeness.

Servant Leadership… the Dream Center… these make me think also of The Friendship Center in North Adams, founded and supported by North County residents (including a growing number from St. John’s), providing food assistance to more than 600 families, instilling this outreach with respect for the wholeness of each person.

When King David proposed building a house for God, a proper temple, it is said that God asked where that idea had come from. A tent had been good enough for many years, that and a traveling tabernacle (you remember that last Sunday we heard the story of David escorting that holy object into Jerusalem with his ecstatic dancing). Besides, says God to David, the whole point of this relationship is that I am making you a house, a people, an ongoing community reliant on my presence.

This is also the apostolic vision we hear in Ephesians, that the holy temple God desires is the reunited human race, a reconciled community with all its warring factions cooperating as one new humanity which has already become flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. His call to serve invites us to recognize and respect the growing wholeness, to participate in the becoming of all God’s people.

This wholeness, this becoming, is fed by the abundance of God’s grace. Still, we may wonder where does it call come from, all that free stuff and food and volunteerism vitalizing the Dream Center and the Friendship Center?

We like to say, Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there is God’s will being done, there are many ways— as many as there are servant leaders willing to rely upon God and each other.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Makes Me Want to Dance

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

What shall we do with these readings? I see what to do with our second reading, from Ephesians. But what’s to be learned from its bookends, two vignettes from the lives of two very different kings, one so renowned (David) that churches have him in their stained glass windows, the other (Herod) so vilified that (as was said of a particularly tyrannical Roman emperor), who would even name a dog after him?

Both of these action-packed episodes occur at royal occasions of celebration, though there’s a wide gulf between the momentous historic milestone of Israel’s installing the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, and Herod’s pathetically vulgar birthday party.

At the first of these events, David shows his stuff, his moves. His ecstatic dancing suggests that the Spirit of God is in him. Enthusiasm rules: “en theous”, in God, inspired. But is this how heads of state are expected to behave? Well, this is not the House of Windsor. Nor is it in keeping with Hebrew expectation. This holy break-dancing is pure Canaanite fertility cult behavior, and it’s what you get when a shepherd is made a king, a king savvy enough to know how to impress the locals. That this story has been kept in the Hebrew Bible also says that Israel was quietly pleased that their new king could boogy.

At the other royal event, self-indulgence dominates. Herod is like a feral cat playing with a mouse, John the Baptist, whom Herod has kept alive because of a perverse sort of admiration: John has fearlessly confronted the corrupt king. John embodies the courage of holy convictions which Herod lacks. John claims to know what is good and true and Godly, all categories in which Herod is clueless.

In each story, there is an ice-cold moment, a stabbing sense of uh-oh. David has succeeded to the throne of his late father-in-law, Saul. Saul’s daughter, Michal, was David’s wife earlier in his career until a rift opened between the two men, and though Michal tried to remain devoted to David, Saul broke them up by giving her to one of his allies. It couldn’t have taken long for David to replace her in his affections, and, when Michal sees him doing his splits and twirls, she despises him, setting the stage for more pain to come.

That’s one uh-oh moment. The second, of course, is when Herod loses his control of the Baptizer’s fate by forgetting that two other feral cats are prowling his banquet hall. And when he goes overboard in his gratitude to his daughter Herodias (who also had some remarkable moves and was apparently the entertainer who sprang out of Herod’s birthday cake), when he promises her the sky, she puts a storm cloud in it. Prompted by Mummy Dearest, she asks for the assassination of her mother’s old enemy, John the Baptist, and Daddy, all caught up in pandering to his guests, obliges.

What do we do with these stories? Darned if I know—but they’re so dramatic! How can a preacher not at least nod to them in passing?

In passing to what? I have it in mind to make sure you know some of what happened last week, as the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Indianapolis.

Here is where our second lesson is useful, with its insistence that the inheritance we have gained from God in Jesus Christ is graciously, freely, bestowed—and not to a few, but to all who welcome the embrace of Christ whose work is to gather up all things in himself.

So I’ll start with news that makes me want to dance: As of the first Sunday of Advent, same-gender couples may have their committed relationships blessed in the Episcopal Church.

It is how the Episcopal Church does things to first provide the words, the form, the liturgy by which a previously unrecognized pastoral need may be met, then make that pastoral care available to people who seek it. So not only a really splendid blessing rite, but also materials to help prepare couples, and teaching materials inviting all members into theological reflection were authorized by this General Convention.

Implementation of these provisions will be under the direction of the diocesan bishop, and will occur in parishes that choose to host blessing ceremonies, where they will be administered by clergy who choose to implement them. I so choose!

The resolution (which carried in the House of Deputies by 78% in the clergy order, and 76% in the lay order, and in the House of Bishops by a vote of 111 to 41) states that no one “should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities” for objecting to or supporting such blessings.

It is my hope that St. John’s will choose to host such pastoral care of same-gender couples as we now provide for heterosexual couples, seriously engaging the one, as we do the other, in careful spiritual preparation, focusing their attention not just on a ceremony to take place on one day, but on the resources they will need to fashion and support a lifelong, faithful, monogamous, joyful, fruitful and holy union.

At last week’s Vestry meeting, I proposed, and Vestry approved, forming a small team of Vestry members to work with me to offer opportunities this summer and fall for parishioners to examine more precisely what has been authorized, and to provide a respectful forum for parishioners to express where they are on this subject. I expect that our Vestry members’ participation in these gatherings will help guide them as they discern how St. John’s will choose, as that decision will be in their hands.

The Anglican Covenant, drafted over the past several years with the intention of defining and safeguarding the unity of the international Anglican Communion, and was designed to be ratified by the various national Anglican churches, hasn’t been received with much warmth in a number of countries, now including ours. We declined to take a position on it, but have chosen to remain in the international conversation in other ways.

Positive investment in the Palestinian Territories was overwhelmingly supported. While the Deputies urged vigorous and public corporate engagement with companies in the Church’s portfolio that contribute to the support of Israel’s occupation of the Territories, our Bishops pulled the plug on that.

A pilot student loan program was approved for seminarians who agree to devote three years of ministry in under-served areas of the Episcopal Church.

Convention directed the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations to initiate dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Mormon Church “for the… purposes of friendship, goodwill, mutual understanding” and in anticipation of our next General Convention to be held in Salt Lake City in 2015.

Approval was given to relocate the Episcopal Church Center, which has long been in Manhattan, though no new location was named and no authorization was given to sell the building at 815 Second Avenue.

And a Development Office for the Episcopal Church was created, to solicit major gifts and other grants (is this one of our last steps before we can claim to have entered the 21st century?).

While many other actions were taken, the last I’ll mention is Convention’s approval of new rites and prayers for the care of beloved animals, providing liturgies (for example) for times of transition, as when a companion animal dies or when a guide dog retires from service. When this resolution was debated in the House of Bishops, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, commented that she was glad to see that a prayer for whales has been included.

She, by the way, will complete her nine-year term at the next Convention, and a nominating committee was elected last week to prepare for the election of her successor to what is, for sure, a whale of a job.

In a closing press conference on Thursday, our Presiding Bishop gave a message that may sound a bit triumphalistic, but sure is good to hear: “The Episcopal Church is healthy, it’s becoming healthier, and it’s poised for an even more significant impact on the world around us. There’s no stopping us. Watch out, world. We’re coming.”

Monday, July 9, 2012

What is Necessary?

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) includes II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

One suit, one sport jacket, two pairs of dress slacks, two pairs of chinos, a pair of shorts, four polo shirts, five dress shirts, three bow ties, one cassock alb, one clergy shirt, and four pairs of shoes… not to mention all the incidentals. Such was the load I lugged to New Orleans, several days ago, for the black tie optional (and rather grand) wedding Diana and I attended.

My list of “necessities” could have been longer: I could have brought my tuxedo. I chose to slip through that loophole, figuring that my vestments would cover me at the ceremony, and candlelight at the reception would make that black suit look formal enough—and a Williams bow tie would be all the gilding my lily required.

But did I ever flunk simplicity! My packing list was a polar opposite to our Lord’s marching orders. Except for going out two by two. That we did.

I filled two suitcases and a shoulder bag in an effort to fit a social occasion (actually, several social occasions, all part of Guy’s and Lacee’s gracious wedding weekend, which started on Thursday evening and ended Sunday, taking place in five different venues ranging from a Po’Boy bar to a cathedral). Diana and I did a pretty good job gauging what it would take to fit all those settings; but if you had watched us hauling our bags through the Albany Airport parking lot (from the outer rim of Longterm), you might have thought of something else Jesus said, right in keeping with today’s Gospel. I’ll paraphrase it, to make my point: Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who would lug half his wardrobe to enter the kingdom of God.

To enter anywhere, one must fit through the doorway! While the kingdom of God will never shut out a person who chooses to enter, our stuff won’t fit along with us. And choosing to enter that kingdom requires certain attitudes toward stuff. It has to fit our mission.

Jesus also told a parable about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Royal henchmen were sent out to compel his subjects to attend. This one poor bloke didn’t have time to go home and change out of his overalls; and didn’t the king single him out and expel him for not being properly dressed for the occasion. More on this in a moment… but doesn’t it seem as if nothing is simple, not even simplicity?)

To be a guest at any table, at any celebration, is to be honored. It is to be given the gift of inclusion, belonging, mattering to the host. If that’s the receiving side of being a guest, there is also a giving side: the giving of a wedding gift, the giving of time and effort and expense in traveling… and also the giving of response (one might even call it responsibility) to contribute to the festivity by one’s attitude, appearance, and behavior.

Clothing is not irrelevant to the celebration and blessing of a rite of passage, such as marriage. The apostle Paul, coaching the Christians at Colossae, used clothing as a metaphor for living one’s faith. He did this also in his letter to the believers in Rome, when he urged them to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, suggesting that our Savior’s intimate love is the finest, most enduring apparel we can wear. So, in his letter to the Colossians (which Guy and Lacee chose to be read at their service) Paul counseled, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.”

There is clothing used as a figure of speech to represent attitude, behavior, and personal mission. Something like this is going on in that parable I mentioned: to take your place in the kingdom of God, you must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. You must clothe yourself in his grace, and allow it to work: for power is made perfect in weakness.

Which brings us back to today’s Gospel, where Jesus is asking his interns to consider what they need to fit… not to fit into the society they’re returning to serve, but to fit the calling he has given them.

Our Lord’s teaching style is bold, confrontational, paradoxical. He doesn’t engage us gently with sweet reason. He would spare us endless trial and error, by issuing clear orders that cut to the chase.

Here’s what you won’t need to do, in order to do what matters most to me, he explains. You won’t need to make reservations for lodging on the road: I want you under the roofs of seekers just like yourselves, so that our fellowship may extend into the world.

Nothing personal, but you won’t need to put your trust in what you can prepare and control ahead of time. Leave the thermos and picnic basket at home: I need your hands free to be my hands. I want your attention to be on what matters to the people you’ll be touching, not on protecting your own possessions. We’re doing what we’re doing because God is at work in society, and needs us to do our part. Reach your empty hands to God to free and fill them with the Spirit’s power. You can’t do that and be holding onto your wallets—or your smart phones-- at the same time.

Care first how your choices fit you for the calling I have given you. Do you remember when I called you from many preoccupations in the work you were doing? Matthew, when you were a tax collector holding every poor soul to what he owed… Peter, John, James, when you were working around the clock following the fish wherever they ran and ran you ragged… Now I’m sending you back into your old neighborhoods, and you have something newer and finer to offer than the old compulsions. But it’s a spiritual authority I’ve given you. Be aware how your choices serve not your fitting-in, but the making you fit for the calling I have given you.

Be outstanding—stand out—in ways that people will notice and be drawn to: Trust the God of surprises to have an abundance that will meet and exceed the needs around you. Open yourselves to learn how to gain access to that abundance. Remember that you will see clearly only with your heart—anything truly essential will require this kind of seeing, and the reaching I teach you.

To practice that reaching, take with you a walking staff. The span you create when you thrust it forward, the short distance between your extended reach and your perceiving heart, that is how close I call you to draw to my people, your neighbors, that you may know them as I know them, and love them as I love you.