An Unexpected Hour!

August 12, 2019

 As I have shared with you before from this pulpit, one of the great privileges I have had in my ministry has been the opportunity to visit several Anglican dioceses in Africa. During my time as Bishop of Iowa, of course, I visited our companion Diocese of Swaziland a number of times. When I was the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, I was able to travel to the Diocese of Cape Town, South Africa, and once accompanied the Presiding Bishop to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

I had, of course, heard of the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa and of the vibrancy of these new Christians’ faith, even in the face of war and persecution. Now that the Diocese of Iowa also has a companion link in South Sudan, we are even more aware of the terrible events in that new nation and share their sadness and deep concern – for our friend, Archbishop Samuel Peni and for so many others there.

Of course, one of the reasons for the vibrancy of the Christian faith in parts of Africa is that it is so new to so many. While European missionary work has been going on in Africa since the 19th century and, of course, northern Africa has an indigenous Christianity which stretches back to the earliest days of the church’s life, nonetheless millions have been converted to Christ in the last few decades on that great continent.

So, when you experience the church in Africa, it’s as though the Christians there are actually living The Acts of the Apostles, complete with massive conversions, reports of healings and exorcisms and, of course, the persecution which looks for all the world like what the early Christians went through at the hands of the Roman Empire! And one thing you can’t help but be impressed with is the excitement and even the urgency with which they practice the Faith.

I’m always reminded of that when I read today’s Gospel…where Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet…blessed are those… whom the master finds alert when he comes. (And) know this: if the owner of a house had known at what hour a thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12 passim)

We have here two ways of describing how Christians should remain on the alert for what we call “the Second Coming” of Christ or “Judgment Day.” The first: how workers should behave when the boss is away – they should keep working, be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them, and be ready for the CEO’s return. The second image: how a homeowner should remain vigilant all night long, lest the house be broken into – since burglars don’t usually call for an appointment before they show up! You have to be alert! As, apparently Representative Elijah Cummings was a few weeks ago when his house was broken into!

Jesus’ point here, of course, is that we only have so much time to get our work done here on earth. That argument was particularly compelling in the first century when Christians expected the Second Coming of Christ to happen very soon. From what we know of the early church, some Christians used this as an excuse not to work at all. I mean, why bother if Jesus is going to show up tomorrow?

St. Paul, in his letters to the Thessalonians, and Luke in sharing Jesus’ metaphors in this Gospel, takes the opposite view. If he’s coming back soon, get busy! New Christians, like those I met in Africa, often have that same sense of urgency because they (like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Pentecostal groups) still look for Jesus to return at any moment.

It’s harder for Western Christians, like ourselves, who have long since made peace with the fact that it may be a long time until Christ’s Return, harder for us to keep that sense of urgency. But let me tell you, my beloved, as one who lost his first wife to an unexpected heart attack at the age of 54; and as one now married to a woman who lost her eldest son during his first days in college in a tragic climbing accident, I can tell you for a fact: We never DO know the day or the hour!  God might not yet be ready to judge the earth. But you and I might meet our Maker on the way home from church this morning! Or as victims of a mass murderer should we find ourselves in a Wal Mart…or a pub…or a school…or a church!

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour! We still need to have the urgency and the sense of purpose those early Christians had, as our sisters and brothers in Africa still have! For it is our hope and our expectation that Jesus Christ will one day judge both the living and the dead – as we say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed – so let’s be good stewards of whatever time we have left! Let’s get busy! Busy doing what? Our Lessons from Scripture today tell us:

From Isaiah:   Get busy and cease to do evil, get busy learning to do good; get busy seeking justice, get busy rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.” (Isaiah 1) Working for an end to violence and oppression in all its forms!

From the Psalmist: “I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices, your offerings are always before me…Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me, but those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50) Get busy walking in the way of love. Because, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God!”

And, from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. ” (Hebrews 11:1) Get busy keeping the Faith…no matter how bleak things may look in our world today. Because faith is our only hope! And love is the only answer.

In other words, as we live our lives day by day, as we await the Coming of Christ or even the completion of our own journeys here on earth, we are to (as the Methodist founder John Wesley is reported to have said) “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you ever can.”

So, we are not only to offer God the sacrifice of thanksgiving here in the Eucharist each Sunday but to offer sacrifice by walking in God’s ways every, single day.  And we are to keep the Faith, like our ancestors did, no matter what challenges we may face in this sinful and broken world.

Be dressed for action, dear friends, and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return…You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!

A Rule of Life…in the midst of life…

August 4, 2019

When I was the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, working out of our Church Center headquarters in New York, I used to attend Daily Morning Prayer in the Chapel with members of the staff.  One day, we had just completed a weeks-long, course-reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes (which we had as our First Lesson today). This is Wisdom literature filled with rather depressing words like these:

“…it is an unhappy business that God has given human beings to be busy with…all is vanity and chasing after wind…I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it all to those who come after me…What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1) Emptiness.

The officiant that day was Brother James of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory who worked in the office of Anglican and Global Relations. When he finished the reading, he said, “The Word of the Lord. And thanks be to God that – in our lectionary – we do not have to hear from this bitter old man again for two years!”

Well, we all broke out into similar laughter, agreeing with what he said on that particular occasion. But I’m actually glad we have books and passages like this in the Bible — because biblical literature is no “Pollyanna, keep-smiling-be-happy, fantasyland” account of human existence. The Bible is about the real world! Virtually every human emotion and life circumstance can be found somewhere in pages of the Bible.

And lots of it can be found in the 150 Psalms, like the one we had today: “For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them. Their graves shall be their homes for ever, their dwelling places from generation to generation, though they call the lands after their own names.” (Psalm 49:9-10)  This is Reality Therapy, friends!

The one who wrote the Letter to the Colossians (our Second Lesson today) had no illusions about human nature.  The list includes anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lying (among other things). If he was writing today, he would also include the sins of racism and xenophobia which lead to mass shootings like the one yesterday in El Paso (it’s too soon to know the cause of the one in Dayton) and he might also include the cowardice which keeps the U.S. Congress (and all of us, really) from doing something about it!

And then Jesus tells a story in the Gospel about a greedy landowner who could only think to build bigger and bigger barns to store his abundance rather than sharing them with those who might not have enough. He’s not criticizing the man for his savings account in old age or making plans for the future, but for making the mistake of believing that he can save himself at the expense of others, taking advantage of his own “rights” at the expense of the rights of others.

No, the Bible doesn’t flinch at taking a hard-eyed look at life – the good, the bad, and the ugly! What saves it from being a wholly negative set of documents is that the authors are always looking for God and God’s presence in the midst of the tragedy and suffering of daily life! Even the Book of Ecclesiastes ends with these words, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…Fear God and keep (the) commandments); for that is the whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

The Psalmist begins his song with words like these: “Hear this, all your peoples; hearken, all you who dwell in the world, you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.  My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and my heart shall meditate on understanding.” (Psalm 49:1-2)

The author of Colossians counsels us in the midst of pain and struggle to “…seek those things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3) Keep an eternal perspective even in the midst of struggle in this broken world!

And Jesus also challenges us to keep our attention focused on God lest we end up like the selfish landowner who thought his many possessions would save him, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21)

Scott Peck, the author of the pop-psychology text “The Road Less Traveled” so popular back in the 1980s began the book with these words, “Life is difficult!” Yes it is, and Christians – except for those deluded enough to follow the “prosperity gospel” – have never had any illusions about that! The question is, how do we survive…and thrive…in this difficult life?

The best spiritual director I ever had was a Franciscan sister named Mary Dingman.  I would meet with her monthly and pour out my heart and soul with the joys and sorrows of being Bishop of Iowa… and a husband… and a father…and a son – all of which roles were more than challenging at times. But, in almost every situation, rather than engage in problem-solving or amateur psychology, Mary would simply ask, “So where is God in all this?”

She knew, as all good spiritual directors do, that her job was not to “fix” me or my problems, but help me identify and rely on the Presence of God who can be found in every circumstance life presents – if we have eyes to see. And that’s the one thing the Preacher of Ecclesiastes got wrong. Life is not all “Vanity” (emptiness). Life is Presence.

For God is present everywhere and in everything – even in the midst of tragedies like El Paso and Dayton, God is present in the courage of the first responders and medical personnel and the families of the victims. May God also be present in helping us not to give up the good fight for responsible gun control in this country and against the evil forces which keep this from happening.

If you’ve not seen the statement on all this issued by the clergy of our National Cathedral, even before these two most recent mass murders, I encourage you to do so. It’s a model of the kind of things we need to be saying and doing as church!

The spiritual disciplines and practices which Christians follow (and which I hope we can talk about in Spirit School after Community Hour today) – practices like prayer, reading the Bible, celebrating the Eucharist – are all simply ways of helping us pay attention to God. And to bring our minds and hearts back to God when they stray. Developing a Rule of Life for yourself, a pattern of how you will pray, read Scripture, come to church – these practices can bring your attention back to God in the midst of real life, of the real problems and difficulties that life presents.

Because Christianity is about this life…every bit as much as the life to come. And God knows…we need to know that today.

Making The Ephah Small And The Shekel Great

July 20, 2019

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We had some very tough words from the Lord, delivered through the prophet Amos, in our First Lesson today: “The end has come upon my people…The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day…the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place…”

“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.  I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation…I will make it like the mourning for an only son…” (Amos 8 passim) Tough words!

Clearly, the prophet is announcing a severe judgment that is coming upon his people. We often tremble at harsh judgments like those when we hear them read out in the Old Testament, or even in the New!  But it’s important for us to hear and understand who those judgments are being pronounced upon! The prophet also makes that clear:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain and the Sabbath that we may offer wheat for sale?”

God’s judgment is coming on those Old Testament “corporate giants” who are taking advantage of the needy and the poor, and who cannot wait for another work week to begin so that they can continue to overcharge the people and cheat them out of their rightful earnings:

“We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…”

You see, back then, the ephah was used to measure wheat, while the shekel was used to weigh coins.  The seller would measure the wheat by the ephah and receive in exchange silver weighted by the shekel. So, by making the ephah small and the shekel great, the merchant gives the buyer less wheat and receives in return a larger amount of silver.  In other words, the poor folks, trying to buy bread, were being cheated! Sound familiar? The system was just about as rigged in that day as it is in ours. But Amos is telling his people that the Lord is about to bring judgment on that kind of practice. And I believe the Lord is still standing in judgment on those who take advantage of the poor in our day!

“You tyrant,” sings the Psalmist this morning, “why do you boast of wickedness against the godly all day long? You plot ruin; your tongue is like a sharpened razor, O working of deception.  You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth. You love all words that hurt…” Sound familiar? Have you watched the news lately?

You see, God expects the kings and presidents and rulers of this world – whether they be captains of industry or politicians – to govern justly, for the good of the people. Both the Old and New Testaments recognize that we have to live in systems where some people are placed in positions of authority over us.

In the Epistle to the Colossians this morning, St. Paul writes that, in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1)

Now there was a time when the Church “spiritualized” the words “thrones and dominions and rulers and powers” and even said those things were the spiritual powers in heaven – like ranks of angels. That is not what St. Paul is talking about! When he says, “thrones and dominions and rulers and powers” that’s exactly what he means. The thrones of earthly kings.  Dominions like nation states. Rulers like those who lord it over people.  And the “powers that be” who seem to control everything in this world!

Paul says that those things exist, all right, and that God accepts that, but they are supposed to serve God for the benefit of the people! Not to oppress and take advantage of the people for their own well-being! When they do – in Old Testament times or today – they stand under the judgment of God!

So, how are our governors and rulers and fat cats supposed to behave? How are they supposed to know how to behave? Well, believe it or not, the simple Gospel story we had for today tells us how. They are to listen for the Word of God!

Once again, we often miss the point of the wonderful Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42) we heard a few moments ago. It’s often interpreted as meaning “Well, some of us are Marthas and some of us are Marys.  Some of us are activists and others are more contemplative by nature.” But that’s not what the story says!

In this case, Jesus rebukes Martha for her busyness! Oh, it’s a gentle rebuke. He says, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”  

Martha was not just taking care of business. She was distracted by her busyness and complaining about her sister for not helping her out! Maybe we can all sympathize with that, but the point of the story was that Mary was the one who recognized that she was in the presence of the very Word of God in Jesus, and nothing was going to keep her from paying attention to that Word.

Our busy lives can distract us too from hearing and paying attention to God’s Word. But if we miss hearing it, for most of us, the damage will be done primarily to ourselves, maybe our families. But when our leaders either refuse or forget to listen to God, the results can be devastating. People suffer. Some people die.

So, let’s never forget to pray for our leaders. But let us also never forget to call them to account, like the prophet Amos did in his day. For “the time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

Scary words.  Words that may describe our times! But there is still time for our leaders – and for us – to change.

 IF we take time to listen for the Word of the Lord!

Blogging The “Debates”

June 28, 2019

Well, the first round is over! The first round of “debates” (read “forums”) between the Democratic candidates for President in 2020. All 20 of them! And there are more, but only 20 qualified under the rules for the televised events this week.

While it is way too early in the process for me to decide on a candidate, I thought I might log my early reactions while they are still fresh in my mind. I read an article recently which suggested leaving aside — for now — the elusive quality of “electability” since, in the age of Trump, nobody knows what that actually is any more.

Instead, the author suggested that we focus on three things in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses (at least): does the candidate have the character you would like to see in a President; does the candidate share your values; could the candidate, if elected, do the job. That seems completely sensible to me and I have ranked six of my favorites, so far, below who seem to meet those criteria.

Elizabeth Warren — Early on, she would not have been high on my list. But she is easily the smartest, among the toughest, has a compelling personal story and a “plan for everything!” Even if a number of them are aspirational and — short of flipping the Senate to Democratic control as well as winning the presidency — have little chance of being signed into law, they address the right issues, particularly income inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. This senator and former Harvard professor knows economics!

Kamala Harris — She was a favorite early on, but seemed to fade off my radar screen for a while. That all changed on Thursday night! She was strong yet measured, not afraid to take on Joe Biden, and I loved her line when the other candidates trying to out-shout each other, “The American public doesn’t want to see a food fight, they want us to put food on their tables!” With America’s “original sin” of racism still front and center in 2019, the very act of electing not only the first woman President, but the first woman of color would be amazing.

Pete Buttigieg — While the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not likely to become the eventual nominee, he is one impressive individual! As smart (if not as experienced) as Elizabeth Warren, he has a calm and measured demeanor and balances his military background with progressive ideas both on foreign policy and domestic issues. While light on foreign policy experience, I can see his personality repairing our damaged relationship with allies around the world with the best of them while being tough enough to stand up to our enemies. His courage in standing out there as a married gay man is matched only by his articulate apologetic for a progressive religious faith in the face of the hypocritical use of particularly Christianity by Trump and his minions in the Republican Party.

Cory Booker — Much of what I said above about Kamala Harris could be reiterated about Senator Booker. His vision is upbeat and positive (even more than hers) and he still believes in the possibility in working “across the aisle.” This is not a naive optimism, however, and he knows that there is a limit to this possibility as long as the Senate remains in GOP hands. I am impressed with much of what he did while mayor of Newark and the fact that he still lives “in the hood” lends great credibility and integrity to his stances on such things as income inequality and gun control.

Julian Castro — For a relatively young man, Castro has solid experience not only as the mayor of San Antonio but as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama. He had the earliest, and likely the best, approach to dealing with immigration which, if Donald Trump has his way, will be front and center in the 2020 election. The issue is personal for him as the only Latino candidate and his vision is broad, including getting “upstream” of the immigration problem by reaching out (with a kind of Marshall Plan?) to the countries in Central and South American to help stabilize them and mitigate the terror which causes so many to flee to the North. By the way, along with a number of other well-educated candidates, his Bachelors from Stanford and JD from Harvard says volumes!

Bernie Sanders — I have let Bernie slip under the tent on this list because he has been consistent for so long about the economic issues involving Wall Street, big Pharma, and “the billion-ayres” of the top 1 %. While I am no fonder of his grumpy old-man persona than I was when he ran against Hillary Clinton, it is perhaps understandable in one who has fought this battle for so long while watching the country move farther and farther to the Right in these last years. If some of his “tax the rich” solutions seem unworkable (and they do to me, most days), one need only hearken back to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt to see that those reforms were opposed just as fiercely by the rich and powerful, particularly on Wall Street and in the big banks. The mood of a majority of the country was ripe for such changes in those days. Will it be in 2020?

Well, those are just some initial thoughts. I shall be following the race with great interest in the coming months, but will save my phone-calling and door-knocking until the Democratic Party has decided on its ticket. Then, I will — once again — work my heart out. Because NOTHING…NOTHING…is more important to me than defeating Donald Trump!

Lydia: Equal To The Apostles

May 27, 2019

She really had felt very little when her husband died. It had been a loveless, arranged marriage between the two families and he was a good bit older than she. So it was almost liberation when a mysterious illness took him within a matter of weeks. It felt like liberation not least because she had played a major role in developing their dealership of the expensive purple dye used in the clothing of the very wealthy in her community.

The dye came from the eastern Mediterranean from the secretions of sea snails found in that part of the world. It cost so much because it took something like 12,000 snails just to produce a gram or two of the dye. Her husband had the connections to import the precious blackish liquid, but she was the one skilled in soaking the wool for hours until the dye was fully absorbed so that it didn’t fade easily and colored the basic material for the garments shaped and woven into cloaks and togas for their customers.

It was those same customers who almost demanded that she take over the business after her husband died, even though she was a woman. They had come to depend on the quality of her work and there weren’t that many such artisans in their Roman settlement just across the Aegean Sea from Athens. She was a Greek Macedonian herself, but had long since become accepted and even respected in her adopted hometown of Philippi.

The first few years after her husband’s death had been extremely busy as she built the business into an even more successful enterprise. She was willing to take risks in the pricing of their products her husband had never been willing to take, and even increased the purchase price of the purple cloth, a cost most of her customers were happy to pay for. She had to do that because she was not only a business woman, but the mother of three growing children which she increasingly needed assistance to take care of as the work load increased in their expanding market.

But, after a while, even the success of her burgeoning enterprise failed to slake the deep thirst for purpose and meaning she had always harbored deep within. This couldn’t be “all there was” to life! So she began attending the local Jewish synagogue in town. She’d always been attracted by the dedication and commitment of the small Jewish community in her area. She had not known much about Jewish theology outside the fact that they claimed the existence of only one God — One they believed had liberated them from bondage in Egypt centuries before and had preserved them as a people through an even more recent Exile in Babylon.  Her initial attraction to Judaism was the centrality of family and the home, something she’d always longed for, but had never really experienced.

So, each Sabbath day she would join the other “God fearers” seated in the back of the synagogue. These were Gentiles who, while not quite ready to take the leap and become Jews themselves, were enthralled by this ancient faith and found that the practical moral and ethical teaching of these rather stand-offish people made sense and actually seemed to improve the quality of their lives to the extent that they were able to observe the commandments and follow the wisdom of Jewish teaching.

When the weather was nice, the community often met just outside the gates of the city down by the river. The breezes were pleasant there, and many seemed to appreciate praying by the waters which reminded them of the place the Red Sea and the Jordan River had played in their own history. They had been brought into freedom more than once by passing through water just like this!

It was in this unlikely location that she first heard the man Paul and his companions expound on the Torah and prophetic readings for the day. They seemed to believe that the mysterious figure of liberation hinted at throughout the Hebrew Bible had actually appeared.  His name was Jesus and he had lived and taught in Palestine only for a few years before being executed by the Romans because they had feared that his followers would proclaim him as their king and challenge the authority of Caesar and his puppets, King Herod and the governor Pontius Pilate.

But, according to Paul, death had not been able to contain the man or his message and rather than scattering like the disciples of so many so-called Messiahs, this community of Christ-followers was growing and expanding across the Mediterranean world and forming cell groups to live a kind of counter-cultural life and to spread the teachings of this charismatic figure.  Paul himself had once persecuted this group, but an experience of Jesus transformed even him and he now considered himself a disciple equal to those original Twelve who had been hand-selected by the Teacher.

Paul, and his friend Luke, said that this Jesus was not like other rabbis and prophets who had come before, but that there was a contemporaneous quality about him. He wasn’t just a deceased martyr or even an historical figure. His Spirit – which some called “the Paraclete,” the “Advocate” – had been poured out on his followers and seemed to inspire them to teach has he had taught and even do some of the same amazing things he himself had done!

She saw that in Paul and Luke and the others. And she soon wanted more than anything else to have the kind of peace, and joy, and love she saw in them become part of her own life and that of her children.  So, she and her family began attending not only the synagogue on the Sabbath but began joining the so-called “Christians” for the common meal they shared after the sun went down and the Sabbath was over.

It was at one of those meals that she found herself asking how she might join their movement. Within a very few weeks, she and her children were immersed in that same river by which the Jewish community prayed and, when they rose up, the water streaming from their faces, they knew that nothing would ever be quite the same again!

Well, that may not be exactly how it happened for Lydia of Thyatira about whom we heard in our First Lesson today.  But it must have been something like that. We do know that, in gratitude for the new life she and her family had been given, she invited Paul and Luke to use her home as a kind of base of operations for their Philippian mission.

We also know that she is considered a saint in several Christian traditions, including our own, and that several Eastern Orthodox churches designate her “Equal to the Apostles,” inspiring icons to be written in her honor.

I think for us she may at least be considered an extremely courageous, first-century woman and a seeker after truth. If Luke’s account in Acts is correct, we may also see her as an example of one of the earliest women leaders in the Christian church, starting by providing hospitality to Paul and his companions – an act which in and of itself underscores her courage since it placed her and her household in some danger. Maybe she is patron saint of the sanctuary movement!

I close with the prayer written for Lydia in our most recent addition of the liturgical resource Lesser Feasts and Fasts and with the intention that we may have the courage to follow her good example.  Let us pray:

“Eternal God, who gives good gifts to all people, and who teaches us to have the same spirit of generosity:  Give us, we pray, hearts that are always open to hear your word, that following the example of your servant Lydia, we may show hospitality to all who are in any need or trouble, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”

Easter is that Big!

April 21, 2019

 A number of us here at New Song are devotees of Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan author and teacher on the spiritual life. He runs something called the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico and you can sign up for a daily e-mail reflection of his by going to their website – cac.org!

This group recently held an international conference in Albuquerque entitled “The Universal Christ: Another Name for Everything!” A bit of an overstatement perhaps! But over 2,000 people showed up in person and another 2800 or so of us from several continents joined the live stream over the course of four days.  Lectures and presentations by Richard Rohr and others were interspersed with liturgies and times of contemplative prayer as well as opportunities (for those who were there in person) for small group interaction.

The overall message was that union of humanity and divinity that we Christians have seen in Jesus is but one shining example of a truth that has been present from the beginning of time and across all religions and none:  Namely that every single created Being throughout all eternity and in every Universe is in God and that God is in everything! Rohr calls that part of the “Perennial Wisdom” – that which is simply true, and which has been experienced in many ways by many cultures and many religions – perennial wisdom!

When we Christians say that “the Word became Flesh” in Jesus, we are simply recognizing a unique example of the fact that Spirit and Matter have never been separate in the first place, and that we only experience things that way because of some pretty dualistic and body-denying theology that most of us grew up hearing from pulpits and in religious classrooms. Spirit is good; flesh is bad! We need to be “saved” from that!

What we need to be “saved” from is not so much “original sin” (often wrongly identified as sins of “the flesh!)  but from the blindness that keeps so many of us from seeing the Oneness and the beauty of God’s Creation everywhere. We need to be “saved” from that!

Another dimension of the universal nature of God’s love and God’s grace is what we are celebrating here on this Easter morning – the Resurrection! One of the other presenters at this conference was John Dominic Crossan who is a Roman Catholic biblical scholar and author of a number of books on the Historical Jesus.

Crossan’s contribution to the concept of the Universal Christ was to point out that, while most of Jesus’ life and ministry are described in some detail in the Gospels – the healings and miracles, events like the Transfiguration, the trial and execution of Jesus on the Cross, even experiences his followers had of him after the Resurrection such as Luke described in today’s Gospel — the actual moment of Resurrection is never described in the New Testament.

So it remained for artists to try and give us pictures of what it must have been like. Initially, icons and paintings only showed symbols of Jesus rising from the tomb – the Chi Rho symbol (which looks to us like an X and a p – the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek) or the familiar IHS abbreviation. Later, there were depictions of Jesus stepping out of the tomb, perhaps trailing his grave clothes behind him.

All those were depictions of an individual Resurrection – Jesus! The Eastern Orthodox Church soon developed an even richer way of showing the cosmic significance of the Resurrection by paintings and icons of what Crossan calls the Universal Resurrection. I have an example of one of those icons which I have placed on the Altar so you can take a look on your way up for Communion or after our liturgy today.

Icons like this show Jesus rising from the dead all right, but he is not alone. Instead he is grasping the hand of Adam and Eve and leading them – along with figures representing all of humanity out of death and Hades into New Life.  The 17th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert must have seen one of these icons when he wrote: “Sing his praise/ without delays/ Who takes (you) by the hand/ that (you) likewise with him (may) rise.” Or, as a contemporary Orthodox theologian puts it, “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transformation of the world.” (Patriarch Athenagoras).

 It’s the kind of thing our Lessons from Scripture were trying to hint at today:  In our First Lesson, “Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all’!” (Acts 10:34)

And in our Epistle from the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so ALL will be made alive in Christ…For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (I Corinthians 15:19 passim)

These icons attempt to show all this symbolically. Jesus is bringing with him Adam and Eve, representing all of humanity; also David and Solomon and John the Baptist, representing the Jews. He’s leading out St. Paul and some others who had not even died at the time of the Resurrection. This shows the symbolic nature of the icon’s message. It was not intended to be literal, but symbolically true!

And the truth it is trying to convey, the truth the New Testament is trying to convey, the truth that Easter is trying to convey is that the promise of Eternal Life is not for a select few. Our Prayer Book Catechism says that when Christians hope for eternal life, we hope for “a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.” (BCP 862) That’s pretty dry theological language. The icon says it better! So do these lines from one of our hymns today…

Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine / He comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time.

Christ is alive! His Spirit burns through this and every future age/ ‘til all creation lives and learns… his joy, his justice, love, and praise. (1979 Hymnal #182)

Easter is that big, dear friends! Easter is Universal! And THAT calls for a celebration!

Final Reflections On Cuba…and How YOU Can Help!

January 31, 2019

Our guide in Cuba, The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, joked, “We Cubans speak the worst Spanish in the world! People can always tell I’m Cuban. We speak a kind of slangy Spanish and have a tendency to omit the last syllable of our words.” Luis reflected how poignant it is to return to the land of his birth and yet, each time, no matter how familiar it all feels, he knows he does not belong there anymore. This is the tension all immigrant live with — love for the land of their birth, love for their new home of residence.

Continuing with some of the history, Dr. Leon pointed out that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 dramatically changed things for Cuba. The Soviets had been Cuba’s “best friend” and economic supporter for many years, buying sugar at inflated prices and selling oil to Cuba at a low price. When the USSR fell, so did Cuba’s economic safety net.

During this time, electricity barely existed. Human need increased greatly as one U.S. dollar equaled 150 Cuban pesos. In 1994 the first serious demonstrations against the Castro regime took place. In the midst of the rioting Castro announced that “whoever wanted to leave, could go.” More than 35,000 took the opportunity, most heading to the U.S. Men, women and children packed into small boats, makeshift rafts, and set out for Florida in the largest exodus from Cuba since the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Eventually, both governments called a halt to it because it was so dangerous and many people lost their lives at sea.

With so many Cubans now in “exile,” lots of money was sent back to the island nation by these immigrant families. Some 800 million dollars provided a huge economic boost throughout the 1990s. Castro began loosening up the economy and some entrepreneurs began to emerge.

And today, tourist dollars are essential. For example, a dentist may earn 900 a year, a tour guide may earn 400 a day! If you have U.S. dollars, you are OK, if not, you’re in trouble. Many have moved from the rural areas to Havana and there is a serious housing crisis. Four generations may live in one house, usually rented from the government.

We saw the poverty in Havana, but even more so on a visit to Cienfuegos, a city on Cuba’s south coast. We did visit a simple art gallery (outside of which we were entertained by lively music and dance in the street) and an amazing graphic arts studio where we were able to purchase a lovely print. Many businesses are a combination of government ownership and private entrepreneurship.

Our local guides were very careful in their criticism of the Castros. One young man, who is lecturer at the University, “moonlighting” as a guide, was more openly critical of the corruption in the Castro regime but is more hopeful about the newly-elected President Miguel Diaz-Canel. He is a career politician, but at least is not a member of the Castro family, putting to rest the idea that the Castros would try and put in place a family dynasty.

One older guide we had was a linguist by training. He said that he had studied Russian languages, but that is no longer so necessary in Cuba (!) so he is now a guide! I asked him if there are any wealthy people in Cuba today. He said, “Oh no, we are all equal in Cuba.” Then, with an eye-roll, “But some are more equal than others!”

So, the poverty is real, the 1956 Chevy’s fun to look at, but obviously the result of the Cuban embargo in place basically since 1959. One of our guides pointed out that there are three eras of automobiles in Cuba — American cars of the 1950s, Russian cars from 1960-1990, and Chinese cars since then. “You can tell from that who our friends have been,” he chuckled.

Yes, the poverty is real. Yet, there is universal health care and education and Cuba exports their doctors all over the world to help in emergency situations and natural disasters. Many of those physicians send money home to their families and communities. Homelessness is rare as people are taken off the streets by their families (which remain strong) and in government shelters. It is all a very mixed bag.

My hope is that the Trump Administration and its successors will reverse the tightening of restrictions and return to a path of openness explored by President Obama. It would be a shame for American tourist dollars to turn beautiful Cuba into another Miami Beach, but there are other forms of investment and their only hope is to develop many more trading partners than China, Venezuela, and Belize!

Episcopalians (and others) can help by joining The Friends of The Episcopal Church in Cuba (www.friendsofeccuba.org) Their stated goals are to:

+Continue transforming our churches into vibrant community centers that include as many people as possible.

+Restore and develop the physical infrastructure of our properties.

+Create an Episcopal campus of vibrant worship, and sustainability education (ecological, economic, and spiritual)

+Unleash the full potential of the team (of ordained and lay ministers)

+And, finally, pursue new sources of funding

 

It is also possible to find Companion Parishes with the Episcopal Church in Cuba. For more information contact admin@friendsofeccuba.org (203-858-5794)

As I said to the Sunday morning congregation at the Cathedral in Havana: “My wife Susanne and I first visited Cuba in 2004 with a delegation from the National Council of Churches to meet with the Cuban Council of Churches, an ecumenical body. We fell in love with Cuba and the Cuban church on that trip. We are still in love! Gracias for welcoming us back again!”

 

The Episcopal Church in Cuba

January 30, 2019

As far back as 1875, the Episcopal Church has had a history with the Cuban people, beginning with pastoral care provided to a Cuban exile community in Key West, to missionaries to Cuba in the 1880s, to the opening of three churches and one school in Havana in 1888.

However, the real establishment of the Episcopal Church in Cuba did not occur until 1902 following the 1898 War of Liberation when other Protestant churches got started as well. By 1904 our church had begun establishing co-ed schools and bilingual education providing a revolutionary step forward from the Roman Catholic parochial schools then in existence. The Episcopal Church grew rapidly because of these efforts.

Throughout the decades the church flourished in the cities and among ex-patriots as well as among the Cuban people themselves. “From 1939 to 1961, under the episcopacy of the Rt. Rev. Alexander H. Blankenship, partnerships developed new trends in ecumenical activity in the Evangelical Council of Churches and participation in theological education with other churches in the Union Evangelical Seminary.” (Historical Reflection of Partnership in Mission by The Ven. Juan Ramon de la Paz Cerezo)

Progress was halted in 1961 when all church property (all property generally!) was nationalized and Bishop Blankenship was kicked out of Cuba. And in 1966 The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. shamefully ruptured relationship with the church in Cuba as we were played like political pawns in the anti-Communist hysteria and reaction against Fidel Castro’s Cuba. This act of betrayal was not rectified until 2018 when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted unanimously to accept the Cuban church back into the fold of the Episcopal Church. I’m surprised (but happy) that they even wanted to be part of us again!

From 1966 until 2018 the Anglican Church in Canada played a heroic role in maintaining contact with the church in Cuba and a Metropolitan Council, consisting of the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the Primate of Canada provided oversight and council. Strangely, no minutes were ever kept of these Council meetings, so we will never know what some of those discussions and actions were!

A test of the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Cuban church will be the necessity of raising some 800 million dollars to pay back pensions to clergy who are barred from being in the Cuban social security system (another example of the “soft persecution” endured by Christians in Cuba) and are at the mercy of family and friends in retirement. By canon law, all Episcopal clergy must be provided with pensions, so we will need to guarantee that for this reunited diocese as well.

Our delegation visited the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana on Sunday January 20, 2019. The presider at the Eucharist was The Rt. Reverend Griselda Delgado del Carpo, the first woman in the Cuban episcopate. She spoke only in Spanish, but it is obvious that this is a strong leader with a vision and commitment which will serve her and her people well! The liturgy was in Spanish except that the Gospel was also translated into English and the preacher preached a fine, bilingual sermon all by himself!

A number of us were invited to bring greetings during the time of announcements and we were welcomed with love and enthusiasm both in the Eucharist and in a festive coffee hour which followed the liturgy. In my next blog post, I will have some concluding thoughts, including how one can join and participate in the Friends of the Episcopal Church in Cuba. See http://www.friendsofeccuba.org

 

Pilgrimage To Cuba

January 29, 2019

The last time Susanne and I were in Cuba was in 2004 with a National Council of Churches delegation. We were there to celebrate the opening of the first Christian church since the Revolution in 1959. It was a Greek Orthodox Church and Fidel Castro actually handed over the keys of the property to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and we were there to witness the “transfer!”

Castro even attended a lecture and reception that evening where Bartholomew — sometimes known as the “Green Patriarch” because of his environmental advocacy — delivered a passionate address, seemingly well received by Fidel. The next day we met with the Cuban Council of Churches where we learned something of what it was like to be a Christian under the Castro regime.

We were told that there was no real active persecution (unless you were a political dissident!) but that Christians were denied preferment in jobs or educational opportunities. A kind of “soft persecution,” if you will.

This year (2019) we returned to Cuba on a cruise sponsored by Educational Opportunities and The Friends of the Episcopal Church in Cuba. Our host was The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, a Cuban by birth who had been sent to the United States in 1960 under the “Peter Pan” initiative of Church World Service and grew up in adoptive families and boarding schools of the Episcopal Church. Luis was later ordained a priest in our church (I actually was one of his canonical examiners in Central Florida many years ago!) and eventually became the Rector of St. John’s, Lafayette Square (the “Church of the Presidents”) from which he recently retired.

Luis delivered three lectures on-board before we arrived in Cuba. The first was a brief history: The island was occupied by indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Spain conquered Cuba shortly after Columbus’ arrival and decimated the native tribes. A series of rebellions during the 19th century failed to end Spanish rule, but after the Spanish-American War in 1898 Spain withdrew and Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.

As far back as 1818 Spain had opened Cuban ports to the U.S., and John Quincy Adams became the first American President to write of wanting to annex Cuba. From that time, the Cuban people have been wary of the United States’ “designs” on the island nation. Two fateful points were included in Cuba’s constitution which remain to this day: (1) the U.S. can intervene in Cuba whenever it thinks necessary; and (2) the base in Guantanamo Bay was established! This, due to the Platt Amendment.

Jim Crow laws were eventually imported to Cuba. Most restaurants only served “whites.” Percussion drums were banned because of their African influence. Protest against this began by dancing in the streets to the beat of drums (the government couldn’t arrest hundreds at once!). These dances were the birth of the Conga line!

Racism still exists in Cuba. All the leaders of of European descent. In 1933 Batista was an army officer who helped put in place a new government. In 1952, he decided to stop being the puppet master and to become President himself. In 1953 Fidel Castro, a young attorney, led an unsuccessful revolt. He was (for some reason) released from prison and moved to Mexico. From 1956-1959 he returned to eventual revolutionary victory.

Most of the revolution took place in the eastern part of the island, far from Havana. The U.S. had mixed reactions to Castro. He was popular in certain progressive circles because he sought to oust the dictator Batista, but the U.S. government initially supported Batista. Finally, we embargoed arms sales to his government and it fell in 1958.

Castro took over the 1959 and “nationalized” everything in 1960. In 1961 an attempted coup — the Bay of Pigs invasion — was repelled by Castro. When the U.S. didn’t really do anything about that, many families who could afford to do so sent their children to the U.S. or left themselves. Some 14,000 children were evacuated, including our host and guide, Luis Leon.

1962 featured the Cuban missile crisis and John F. Kennedy’s game of chicken with Nikita Khrushchev which many of us remember so well. In 1965, Fidel allowed anyone who wished to leave the island and thousands did.

In my next blog post, I will continue to relate the history, particularly as regards the Church in Cuba, described by Dr. Leon, and tell something of our visit to the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana on January 20, 2019.

 

God’s First Language Is Silence

December 30, 2018

On the First Sunday after Christmas Day, we always have the Johannine Prologue as our Gospel Reading as the church tries to provide some theological content to the sweetly human story of babies and birthdays, mothers and mangers.  The first eighteen or so verses of the Fourth Gospel have always fascinated biblical scholars.

When I was in seminary (which was right after St. Paul graduated!) the popular scholarly opinion was Rudolf Bultmann’s — that the Prologue was an early Gnostic Christian hymn which had been quoted and adapted by John to reach out to Greek speaking philosophical types to convey the eternal significance of Jesus, The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Most scholars today reject that understanding and believe that the concept of “the Word” (Logos in the Greek) was a very Jewish understanding. God’s “Word” is to be found all the way through the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with the Book of Genesis in which God “speaks” the creation into being. God “said,” Let there be light and there was light!

And the prophets were understood as proclaiming God’s “word”, God’s will, to the people of Israel. And, finally, there is the Wisdom tradition of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon where “the Word” was another way of describing God’s “Wisdom”.

In this kind of literature “wisdom” was given almost a human, or at least personal, character and often seen as being feminine in nature – Sophia…Wisdom. It was this “Wisdom,” this “Word,” this eternal principle of rationality, that John saw “incarnated” (en-fleshed) in the man Jesus. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he wrote. And we will sing in our offertory hymn today, “Good is the flesh that the Word has become.”

Whenever I read John’s Prologue, I am reminded of the famous insight of the 16h Century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, Juan de la Cruz, who once wrote: “The Father uttered one Word, and that Word was His Son. He utters Him forever in everlasting silence. In silence the soul must hear him”

We would probably be a little more sensitive in our use of language today and might render this quote something like: “God uttered one Word, and that Word was Jesus Christ. God utters the Christ forever in everlasting silence. In silence the soul must hear.”  Whichever way we wish to state this, the point is the same: God’s first language is silence! And, if we want to grow in our relationship with God, we need to find times and places for silence in our lives.

That is, without a doubt, easier said than done in today’s busy, noisy world!  We wake up to our phone’s alarm, check our email and messages; turn on the TV news while making our coffee, listen to the car radio while driving to work, and spend our day peering into one kind of computer screen or another – perhaps one we received as a Christmas present last week!

It’s not even surprising anymore to have to step out of the way of someone walking down the street staring into their phone while at the same time listening through ear buds to their play list. Or to observe a table full of four friends having lunch together, while each one is giving his or her phone their undivided attention.

I recently read a book by Nebraska’s Republican Senator Ben Sasse entitled Them: why we hate each other and how to heal? He makes the usual point about our political tribalism and what it is doing to our country, but probes deeper to ask about the deep seated loneliness so many people today feel, and the loss of our sense of community –

From declining participation in everything from Rotary clubs to softball leagues to church membership… and how we seek to make up for that in some of the ways I just described above – social media and play lists. Senator Sasse recommends a spiritual discipline I have since adopted – turn the damn phone off!… for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. It’s a beginning!

And that actually reminds me of a similar discipline suggested by my spiritual mentor, Alan Jones, years ago. To seek out times and places for silence – one hour each day, a “Sabbath” day each week, and at least a three or four day retreat each year. I would commend that pattern to you as we prepare to enter this New Year.

Spend 20 minutes, twice each day, being quiet. You might use the simple method of Centering Prayer (which a number of us here at New Song practice). Sit quietly and comfortably in the awareness of God’s presence; use a simple sacred word like “Peace” to return to that presence when your mind wanders. And that’s all there is to it! But do it daily…

Or, learn the Lectio Divina method of Bible reading in four steps: 1) read a passage of Scripture, 2) focus in and meditate on one word or phrase which jumped out at you, 3) talk to God about it in prayer, and 4) rest in silence for a few minutes at the end.

Or, find some other way to center down into silence and rest in the Presence of God – with no agenda, no particular request or desire, just happy to “be still, and know that God IS God….and that we are not.

It will be the best gift you receive this Christmas.

For God uttered one Word and that Word was Jesus Christ. God utters the Christ forever in everlasting silence. In silence the soul must hear!