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!

 

 

On The 25th Anniversary of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Des Moines, Becoming A Cathedral

November 18, 2018

After I was elected bishop of this diocese in 1988, for the next couple of years I spent Christmas Eves and Easters away from my family. This, because in the tradition I was raised in, the Bishop was expected to be in his Cathedral on those high holy days – especially for Easter. And, in Iowa, the Cathedral just happened to be located three hours east of where the bishop lived and worked – Trinity Cathedral in Davenport!

That Cathedral had been established there for all kinds of good reasons. Iowa’s first bishop, Henry Washington Lee, had lived there and started the missionizing of Iowa from that base of operations.  Trinity was only the second church built specifically to be an Episcopal cathedral west of the Mississippi River.

But, as the state developed and the capitol was eventually established in Des Moines, it made sense for the Bishop of Iowa to live here, in the geographical, political, and eventually economic center of the state. Yet the Cathedral remained in Davenport!

Not only because of the slight inconvenience of those first Christmases and Easters spent away from home, but because St. Paul’s had functioned as a kind of “stand in” cathedral for many decades, hosting Diocesan Conventions and diocesan gatherings of different kinds and because St. Paul’s had a history of the kind of good liturgy and great music associated with cathedral churches, I began to wonder about moving Iowa’s cathedral here.

When I floated the idea there was some support –and some resistance! — here and also, of course, at Trinity, Davenport!  Here, because of a concern that “the diocese” and even “the bishop” might exercise too much control over St. Paul’s. In Davenport, obviously, because they had become quite accustomed to being the cathedral after 121 years!

But, because of the support of Dean John Hall of Trinity and Michael Barlowe who was rector here at the time and — I might add — a little politicking on my part, in 1993 we were able to pass a carefully-crafted Canon at Diocesan Convention entitled “Of the Cathedrals!”  Section 1 reads:

“The Convention of the Diocese of Iowa hereby acknowledges Trinity Church, Davenport, and St. Paul’s Church, Des Moines as the Cathedrals of the Diocese. Trinity Cathedral is recognized as the historic site, and St. Paul’s Cathedral as the liturgical center of the Diocese.” With that, we joined the Diocese of Nebraska and the Diocese of Minnesota – and a few others around the country – as dioceses with two functioning cathedrals, for similar historical reasons.

My experience and dream for a cathedral church had been formed and honed by the years I spent as Canon Residentiary at St. John’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Florida. That great Gothic church sits in the middle of downtown Jacksonville.

When The Rev. Bob Parks (later Rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street) was Dean, there had been a move to relocate St. John’s out in the suburbs thereby joining the “white flight” which was taking place out of the inner city in those days.

Bob fought that impulse and the congregation eventually recommitted itself to stay in the city as a witness to Christ’s healing and constant presence. Today (and when I was there) St. John’s boasts three senior citizen high rise apartment buildings, a nursing home, a cutting edge ministry in the heart of the inner city called Urban Jacksonville, and Jacksonville Episcopal High School.

Since I left, they have added a preschool serving the downtown area and serve a Friday Café luncheon in partnership with a local Culinary Institute frequented by business people and others from the downtown area. St. John’s is a vibrant presence known and respected by many in the city – church folk or not.

Well, the times are different today.  Government money is not as available to partner with churches and other non-profits which agree to sponsor and support such senior housing and nursing home projects. Church-related high schools and colleges are fewer and farther between.

But cathedrals still have special vocations and responsibilities today, as they always have, and as you no doubt heard from Gary Hall who knows a thing or two about the subject, having been Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral – one of our Church’s finest legacies.

I believe cathedrals should have a special relationship with the bishop and the ministry of the entire diocese in which they are located. Our family made St. Paul’s our church home during my years here. I was able to preach and preside at the Eucharist on most Christmas Eves and Easters as well as at a midweek service in the chapel from time to time.

When Mills House was undergoing some much-needed sprucing up, we enjoyed the hospitality of St. Paul’s as we officed here for a few months and Dean Barlowe and I even talked about the Diocese selling Mills House and building a second story over the office wing, having the bishop’s office down here… until we learned that structurally that would be impossible.

I believe that cathedrals should offer the best contemporary liturgy and music possible, reflecting — as far as they can —  the best of the spirit and style of churches across the diocese in which they are located. They should be models of good liturgy, great music, worship and prayer.

Cathedrals should offer a ministry of hospitality, not only to diocesan conventions and state-wide meetings, but a place all members of the diocese should feel is their “church home” when they are visiting or working in the “see city.” In Jacksonville, St. John’s offered a daily Eucharist presided over – not only by the Dean and Canons – but by visiting clergy from across the city.  Parishioners and non-parishioners alike attended those services.

When – as is so often the case – cathedrals are located in an urban center, they should be part of the city itself and active in ecumenical and interfaith witness when they occur. When that “see city” happens to be – as it is here – the state capitol, cathedrals have a special role to be a voice for the Church speaking truth to power, be that the governor, the state legislature, or the judiciary.

Cathedrals are often impressive church buildings offering a visual statement of the majesty of God and forming part of the beauty in the landscape of the city. But Jesus warns us about being too caught up in that aspect of our life in today’s Gospel,

“As (he) came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’” (Mark 13:1-2). The transitory nature of earthly monuments!

Some attention will always need to be paid to bricks and mortar, and there is much to be said for visual witnesses to the presence of God in the city. But the heart of a cathedral, like any Assembly of God’s people, is our commitment to the Risen Christ and our witness to him! As the author of Hebrews wrote:

“…since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:20-25)

Hearts in full assurance of faith…holding fast to the confession of our hope…provoking one another to love and good deeds…meeting together and encouraging one another

Those are the marks of any Christian community, not only a cathedral.

But surely a cathedral is called – in a special way – to hold them high.

Thank you for being willing to rise to that challenge 25 years ago. And let me encourage you to find new and even better ways to carry it out over the next 25.

I’ll see you on the 50th!

 

 

The Widow and Her Mite: Exemplar or Victim?

November 11, 2018

Sort of wish I hadn’t agreed to preside at the Eucharist today for Elizabeth – especially after I took a look at the Gospel where Jesus tells us to: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk about in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (Mark 12)

Now, I think Jesus was talking about an attitude of mind and heart more than he was about ecclesiastical haberdashery, but you get the point. In a liturgical church like ours, we have to always keep in mind that “uniforms” like vestments and clerical collars are about designating functions and roles – NOT about spiritual superiority or oppressive hierarchy. But we must always be vigilant to assure that one does not turn into the other — Because they certainly have throughout much of our history.

I am glad that I got to wrestle with the second part of this particular Gospel reading though, because I’d like to use it as an example of how Scripture can always be looked at in a variety of ways, and that that’s part of why it can be fresh and new in every age and in different contexts. And I’m grateful to a young emerging church pastor named Doug Pagitt for his little book Flipped in which he talks about how “flipping” certain passages of Scripture from how we have traditionally understood them can challenge us in new and exciting ways.

In one chapter he takes on our Gospel reading for today. And, I’m going to quote him directly just so you’ll know I’m not making this stuff up! Doug writes: “About a year ago, I Flipped a story of the widow who gave all she had. At my church, Solomon’s Porch, we use an open discussion group on Tuesdays to put together the sermon for the following Sunday”.

“We are reading this story, and I was telling the group how I had used it at retreats. A man who was visiting had joined us for the evening. When I finished talking, he said, ‘I think you have that story totally wrong.’ As he explained himself, I knew he was right.”

“He suggested that Jesus wasn’t using this woman as an exemplar of faith. Instead Jesus was pointing her out as a victim of the temple’s requirements. Because this was a Temple tax, not a freewill offering! Jesus wasn’t saying, ‘Be like this woman.’ He was saying, ‘Be careful or you will be like this woman. The system will leave you penniless and broke. It will take all you have and leave you with nothing to live on.’ It was as if he were saying, ‘For the rich, this system works fine. But for those who have given all they have, they end up with nothing.’”

“This guy pointed out the verses that preceded this story.  Jesus was in the temple issuing warnings: ‘Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers.’ Then a widow came along and proved Jesus’ point!” (Flipped, by Doug Pagitt, Chapter 6)

And the verses which follow directly after this passage strengthen the argument, “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings?’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2) Those verses, and the warning about the scribes, form the bookends to the story of the widow who gave to the Temple treasury “all she had to live on.” Interesting!

Now, I’m not here this morning to convince you to throw out the traditional interpretation of this passage, the way most of us grew up understanding it. I am here to suggest that sometimes “breaking open the Word of God” with a group, or even by regular Bible study yourself, can reveal some surprising things.

I’m here to suggest that interpretation from “below,” from the grass roots, from faithful people just like this guy who visited Doug Pagitt’s Bible Study can revolutionize our understanding of Scripture! Catholic Christians in the “base communities” of Latin America have been telling us this for decades! These poor people, meeting in small Bible study groups in which they apply the plain reading of Scripture to the oppressive situations in which they live, gave birth to Liberation Theology which applies to so many in our world today.

I’ve been reading the Bible daily for just under fifty years! Following the lectionary I read several Psalms and a couple of chapters of Scripture each day. I am constantly surprised at how, paying attention to the context of the passages, learning something about the historical situation in which they were first written, and applying them to real-life situations we face today can “blow us away” with fresh insight and new interpretations.

Our Jewish sisters and brothers know this so well which is why they engage in Torah study and argue endlessly about the meaning of each verse and each word as they seek to apply ancient wisdom to the world in which we live. The Book of Hebrews says, “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Reading the Bible every day sheds light on the thoughts and intentions of my heart most every morning and evening. So, whether you understand the widow in today’s Gospel as exemplar or victim, do know that Jesus was no fan of the religious establishment of his day. He was a faithful and practicing Jew, but – like the prophets before him – he spent a lot of his time criticizing the chief priests and the Temple hierarchy.

He knew that God does not live in a temple made with hands and that, while religion is an essential part of life, we must be constantly vigilant that it is not misused to lay heavy burdens on people and manipulate them through threats of hellfire and brimstone or fear of God’s judgment, or ecclesiastical rules and regulations.  For:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had…all she had to live on!”

And perhaps, just perhaps… that’s NOT what God had in mind…after all!

 

 

From Where Is Our Help To Come: A Vigil

October 31, 2018

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” This verse from Psalm 121 formed the text for a powerful reflection by a young rabbi, the first woman to head an historic Iowa City synagogue, as she spoke to some 250 of us gathered for a vigil on the University of Iowa campus. We were there to remember 11 faithful Jews slaughtered at their worship in Pittsburgh and 2 African Americans gunned down at a convenience store in Louisville.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” she said again. “Jews and African Americans need help in this country today, my brothers and sisters. Where is our help to come from?” She knew perfectly well that the next line in the psalm is “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

But, as a line from the contemporary song she led us in at the close of the service reminds us: if God is to build this world in love, WE must build this world in love. We are the hands and feet of the Holy One in this time and in this place.

The vigil service was hastily put together, as were so many across the nation, but scores and scores of people of all ages, races, faiths and no-faith walked through the light rain to stand with our nation’s Jewish and African American communities in their grief and to pledge our support.

A Muslim woman, well known in Iowa City and head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, officiated at the entire service after beginning with an appropriate reading from the Qur’an.  Community members lit thirteen large votive candles while the names and brief remembrances were read for each of them.

The Mayor of Iowa City spoke, actually quoting the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a recent sermon in reminding us that the only solution to our problems was Jesus’ Summary of the Law “Love God, Love your Neighbor (and, while you’re at it, Love Yourself).” An African American couple who lead a local community effort known as the Johnson County Interfaith Coalition spoke of their fear that, when their young children grow up, they will still be hated…and killed….because they are Black.

Token notes of solidarity came from our two state senators and lone Democratic congressman, apparently too “busy” to make it to the vigil in person.

And one of the most powerful reflections came from a leading community activist and Presbyterian minister who began by acknowledging his concern as a “tall, white, privileged, Christian male” that he could have anything meaningful to say in such a gathering.

“My tribe has had it all — wealth, power, privilege. But my tribe is dying. And people who look like me are very afraid. Yet death throes can be dangerous. Be careful, my friends, my tribe is dangerous.” It was a moving moment of contrition, confession, and lament. A humbling moment of truth telling.

Yet, there was hope in the service — hope in the haunting and ancient Jewish music and chant; hope in the Muslim readings, hope in the Christian prayers. And, most of all, hope in our commitment to stand together and not to be afraid to act.

A white-bearded rabbi, dressed in the black hat and suit of Eastern European Jews passed out “mitzvah” cards with a half a dozen “good deeds” we could do, indicate them on the card, and send them back to him to forward to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; good deeds done that these lives might not be lost in vain.

We concluded with a contemporary Jewish song, led by the young, blonde, European rabbi, complete with her guitar as we lit candles and held them high aloft, pledging to build this world in love…that God may build this world in love.

Let us no longer leave the most vulnerable among us, asking the question, “From where is our help to come?”

Suffering, Submission, and Servanthood — Really?

September 23, 2018

I’ll never forget one of my most humiliating moments as a parish priest…and there were many! It was “stewardship Sunday” and I was preaching about the need to give sacrificially, to remember that the tithe (10 percent of our income) is considered the standard in the Episcopal Church, and to remember the needs we all knew we had in our congregation. After the service, an elderly woman – faithful and longtime member – came up to me said:

“I’ll try to do better, Father. I’m working toward a tithe, but it’s hard to make ends meet. But I really will try harder…!” Well, of course, I could feel my face redden. I hastened to assure her that she was doing just fine and that my words had not been directed to her, or people like her, but to those in our parish who quite obviously had plenty in the way of material wealth and yet likely put less than she did in the plate each Sunday.

Well, that was…awful! And I vowed to be more careful in how I framed my stewardship sermons in the future! But it did serve to remind me that often our sermons, and even our readings from Scripture, can be heard by the faithful – and certainly by newcomers — in ways that they were, in all likelihood, not intended to be understood by the preacher, by Jesus, or by the authors of the Bible. I think of that especially today as we listened to Lessons about suffering and submission and servanthood.

In the Wisdom of Solomon we hear of the Suffering Servant who carries out God’s will by his suffering. In the Alternative Reading from the Old Testament this morning the prophet Jeremiah speaks of being led “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” (Jeremiah 11:19) which the first Christians heard as foreshadowing the death of Christ. The letter of James tells us to submit ourselves to God. (James 4:7) And, in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 9:35) Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Now, those of us accustomed to hearing words like these in church perhaps understand that Suffering Servants like Jeremiah were prophets of non-violent protest when they spoke of not resisting or being like a gentle lamb led to slaughter. James was taking on the wealthy and privileged in his community who could well afford to learn about submission to something greater than themselves.

And Jesus was chastising his self-serving followers who were vying for privileged positions on his right and left hand and who had yet to learn the lesson about washing one another’s feet when he spoke of being last of all and servant of all. All good lessons for us!

But what about those in our midst who have had no choice in their lives but to suffer, to be led like a lamb to the slaughter? What about those who have been taught that “submission” to authority is the only way to stay alive? “Be a submissive woman or a submissive slave in order to show your submission to God.” What about those who know all too well what it is like to be last of all and servant of all – because that’s been their lot in life from the day of their birth? What about them?

Perhaps we all need to remember that, when we hear suffering servants like Jeremiah being led like lambs to the slaughter, they were not above also showing flashes of anger in words like these: “But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind/ let me see your retribution upon them, for to you, I have committed my cause!” (Jeremiah 11:20-21)

Perhaps we need to remember that the same James who counseled submission to God also wrote, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That shows some initiative on our part in our relationship with God…not only submission.

And perhaps we need to take special care to remember that the One who counseled being last of all and servant of all lived that reality out in his own life, not because he had to or because it was his lot in life, but because he chose to!

This is the son of God we’re talking about here who (as Paul writes later): “….though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” (Philippians 2:6-7) Jesus relinquished power in order to empower others!

Again, none of this is to say that non-violence, or submission, or servanthood, are necessarily bad things. Our hymns and lessons celebrate that today. They’re all part of our Christian vocation. But so is righteous anger! So is resistance to submission (even submission to God sometimes – as Moses and the prophets sometimes show as they dared even to argue with God as part of their very prayers lives!). And so is the refusal to settle for being last of all and servant of all – unless you have chosen that Christ-like role – not because someone put you in that place!

 

We just always need to be sensitive, dear friends, as to how our sacred words may come across to others. We need to be careful to put things in context and not assume that our religious language and our “God talk” is immediately accessible to people of all backgrounds and all experiences.

And through our sermons, and our teaching, and by the way we live our lives, we must be ever-vigilant so that we do not make it harder for people to fall in love with God rather than easier.

Because we have become part of the problem…rather than part of the solution!

 

On Labor Day: Save Our Labor Center

September 3, 2018

Ostensibly because of the need to trim the budget, the University of Iowa administrators announced not long ago that they intend to close the UI Labor Center which is the only unit in our state university system that specializes in research and development for Iowa workers.

The Center was established in 1951 and built by the contributions and support of generations of Iowans. It provides direct education for over 2500 Iowa workers across the state each year on such issues as health and safety laws, anti-discrimination rights, and leadership skills.

Continuing education students then bring those learnings and skills back to their workplaces and communities to strengthen Iowa’s economy. This extends the reach of the Center to impact thousands more.

It is a model of public-private partnership because it is sustained by funds from program fees, competitive grants, and a small but essential university commitment. Now the university is trying to hijack the only university funds across the state that are committed to serving Iowa’s workers.

Even worse, this action is being taken with no prior discussion with the Labor Center, University of Iowa faculty, workers, students, or community partners! We are being urged to contact UI administrators and faculty and urge them to protect the small amount of university money that has been committed for decades to research and education on issues that matter most to Iowa worker.

You may do so by contacting:

UI LAW SCHOOL DEAN KEVIN WASHBURN: 319-384-4658/ KEVIN-WASHBURN@UIOWA.EDU

UI PRESIDENT BRUCE HARRELD: 319-335-35-3549/ BRUCE-HARRELD@UIOWA.EDU

 

For more information see: saveourlaborcenter.com

Facebook: “Save Our Labor Center”

Or be in touch directly at savrourlaborcenter@gmail.com

 

Was Ever Another Command So Obeyed?

August 19, 2018

The seven little verses we had as our Gospel reading today are arguably the most controversial and hotly debated ones in the whole of John’s Gospel! The debate, of course, is about just what is meant by Jesus talking to his followers about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood!” John tells us that some of his original audience “disputed among themselves” about it. And we’ve been “disputing among ourselves” about it ever since!

Generally, Catholic scholars have taken the text quite literally and cannot understand how anyone could miss the clear Eucharistic significance of these verses. In medieval times this approach morphed into complicated Aristotelian formulations about just “how” the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist could be Christ’s flesh and blood.  One idea was that of transubstantiation which understood the physical attributes of the bread and wine remaining the same, but the inner “substance” being transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  This was an attempt to rein in some kinds of popular piety with people having visions of “bleeding Hosts” and all kinds of other rather unpleasant manifestations. But it didn’t do much good! Those things continued.

Protestant scholars mostly rejected any sacramental understanding of this passage and preferred to interpret it as meaning “accepting Christ”, his very Being and Life, into one’s heart by faith and becoming one with him. “Those who…abide in me and I in them.” So, unfortunately, a lot of the debates about this passage have been clouded by 16th century theological positions and arguments that Jesus, and even John, could not have possibly known – or cared less – about!

What both these approaches miss is the fact that these verses occur only in the last-to-be-written, most “spiritual,” most theological of the four Gospels – the Gospel of John. This book was written seven or eight decades after Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead. All four Gospels were, of course, written after the fact and each of them reflects something of the life and experience of the first-century churches in which their authors lived. But this reaches a high-point in John’s writing. He and his church community had decades to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, to participate in the great sacraments of the church, and to try and figure out their significance.

John is also a master story teller. Virtually every account in the book has two or three levels of meaning he wants to convey. Even the miracle stories are called “signs,” indicating that they point beyond themselves to something else, something even greater. We also need to be reminded that John does not tell about the institution of the Eucharist at all in his account of the Last Supper Jesus had with his friends.

There is no Breaking of the Bread or sharing of the Cup at their last Passover meal in John.  All the emphasis is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet as a sign of his servanthood…and theirs. This chapter, this 6th chapter of John which we are reading over these summer Sundays, is John’s way of talking about the Eucharist, the Eucharist he and his community celebrated together, and how they had come to understand it.

Historically, Anglican scholarship has been reluctant to get sucked into the debate about just “how” the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist become Christ’s Body and Blood. We have tried to hold together the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) with the Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal, a reenactment of that Last Supper Jesus had with his friends.  The sentences of administration in Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer make this very clear. When the priest administered Communion, instead of what we say today, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of heaven,” the lines were these:

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” The first sentence was very Catholic (The BODY of Christ); the second very Protestant (Take this IN REMEMBRANCE…and feed on him IN THY HEART BY FAITH…with Thanksgiving).

Queen Elizabeth the First, who was no mean theologian as well as being a superb politician, may have put it best when asked to explain how she understood all this:  She replied, “Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and brake it; And what his words did make it; That I believe and take it!” Isn’t that wonderful? It’s a very experiential view of the Eucharist!  Whatever Jesus meant at the Supper on that last night…that’s how I understand it!

I guess that’s always been my view. I have received the Eucharist regularly for well over half a century. Sometimes daily, often several times a week, rarely less than weekly. And my testimony is that this is surely more than a play-acted meal. And these Elements more than merely bread and wine. Because of the One who first instituted it, and because of the centuries of faithful disciples passing along this tradition, when we participate in this action we surely encounter the Risen Christ…we know not how.

Perhaps the brilliant liturgical scholar and Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix put it best:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. (We) have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination…; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why (we) have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christ(ianity), (we) have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei-the holy common people of God.

YOU!

 

 

 

 

 

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