Archive for May, 2016

The Fateful Visit

May 31, 2016

I’m glad Luke included the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth while both young women were pregnant with their sons and the notion that John the Baptist “leaped in his mother’s womb” when the pre-natal Jesus came near. What a memorable way to begin the account of these two men’s lives and their complicated relationship!

It’s pretty clear that John had a greater following than Jesus, at least in the early days. Whether or not he had spent some time in the Essene community where he was exposed to the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” John would not have been comfortable there for long. The Essenes had chosen withdrawal from the world in the face of the oppressive Roman government in typical monastic fashion. John wanted to change the world.

He rails against the Empire and even confronts Herod for marrying his brother-in-law’s wife, eventually becoming such a nuisance and possible threat that Herod has him executed. It seems clear that John and his disciples and Jesus and his disciples co-existed for some time and may have even been friendly rivals.

So popular was John that the gospel writers take some pains to make it clear that John considered Jesus his superior (even though Jesus had once said that “there was none greater than John the Baptist) and was quite content to “decrease” so that his cousin might “increase” in popularity and influence among the people.

Mary and Elizabeth must have wondered about all this. Early on, they sensed that their sons would be destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel,’ but even they could not possibly have imagined the impact their boys would have.  John, the last of the great Hebrew prophets; Jesus, the anointed one for whom they had waited so long!

Perhaps it could be said of both mothers, as Luke’s gospel has it said about Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Memorial Day and The “National” Church

May 30, 2016

We’ll see a lot of flags out on this Memorial Day. The houses on our streets are lined with them (a service provided for a small fee by a local service organization on major national holidays like this). I must confess I love our flag. I used to argue that we should carry it in civil rights and anti-war processions in the 60s because we shouldn’t let “them” have sole possession of the flag.

I don’t even mind flags displayed in the sanctuaries or naves of our churches (I know, heresy!). Of course, there are limits. When I was a curate, the parish I served processed the flags (US and Episcopal) right after the cross and torches on Sunday mornings and the acolytes would even flourish them after the first hymn while we sang the fourth verse of “America.” Now that’s over the top!

But I am not ashamed of our church’s role in the nation. Our “mother” Church of England is an established national church. I don’t agree with that polity because I think a certain separation of church and state is important at least in this country.  Yet, the Episcopal Church functioned as a quasi-national church for decades supplying more than our share of congressmen, judges, and even a few presidents.

I even believe that the Episcopal Church is a national church despite our last Presiding Bishop’s insistence that we not be identified as such because we have a presence in many countries around the world (even though we have always encouraged these formerly missionary dioceses to attain independence as autonomous parts of the Anglican Communion as soon as they can). Even our diocese in Europe is showcased by the “American Cathedral” in Paris. Oh, and isn’t our cathedral in Washington DC known as “the National Cathedral?”

I prefer the traditional designation Episcopal Church (USA) to the more-recent and to my mind presumptuous “The” Episcopal Church — as though there were no others, i.e. The Scottish Episcopal Church. What? A national designation? Shocking! I’m even OK with the preferred title in our Canons — The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA)

So, call me a conservative, but I’m fine with churches becoming incarnate in a particular national heritage and identity. I think that’s what the Anglican Communion is all about. As long as that identity doesn’t numb us to our responsibility to be critical of our nation and government when gospel principles call for it.

In fact, that’s part of what it means to be a truly “national” church!


Receive What You See; Become Who You Are

May 28, 2016

On Sunday, the Roman Catholic Church — and a few Episcopal churches — will celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Made an official observance in the Latin rite only in the 13th century, this holy day focuses on the rich and varied meaning of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, the Mass.

Maundy, or Holy, Thursday the day before Good Friday each year, ostensibly does the same thing except that the institution of the Eucharist on that night shares center stage with Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and the long night of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and trial. In recent years, the Episcopal Church has regained the emphasis on foot-washing on Maundy Thursday (a very happy development) and more and more congregations schedule a Watch before the blessed sacrament throughout the night until Good Friday morning.

All this means that there can be somewhat less emphasis on the gift and mystery of the Eucharist — which is why I wish more Episcopal (and other) churches would re-emphasize Corpus Christi which is observed on either the Thursday following Trinity Sunday or the Sunday next after Trinity Sunday which is the Roman custom these days. Even acknowledging less attendance for a Thursday observance, I would still recommend that over Sunday in order to preserve the Book of Common Prayer’s emphasis on Sunday as a preeminent feast taking precedence over virtually all other celebrations. There are Prayer Book Proper Lessons for “The Holy Eucharist” among those for “Various Occasions.”

The themes of Corpus Christi are several. First, the body of Christ willingly given up into the hands of his adversaries as the final witness of his willingness to hand over even his life rather than return evil for evil, violence for violence.  Secondly, the body of Christ sacramentally present in the broken bread of the Passover/Last Supper which — along with the blood of the poured out wine in the sacrament —  available to us yet today as one way he fulfills his promise to be with us “to the end of the ages.”

And, thirdly, the body of Christ made up of the baptized each and all of whom have received spiritual gifts intended to be used to build up that same body charged with the responsibility of being his continued presence in this broken world. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.” (St. Teresa of Avila)

Whether or not your church observes this marvelous feast on Sunday, remember to gather as the body, to be fed by the body, in order to disperse and be that body for the world.

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast!


Critical AND Supportive

May 27, 2016

Received  the expected push-back from my post yesterday; my first-ever one critical of Hillary Clinton. Let me be (to quote Bernie Sanders) as clear as I possibly can be — I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton for President of the United States. I pledge to her campaign on a recurring monthly basis, I made phone calls for her before the Iowa caucuses, and I will do so again this summer in the run-up to the election. I believe she may be the most qualified candidate to run for president in the history of our country.

But I refuse to believe that one cannot be critical of any candidate, while at the same time supporting her/him — enthusiastically, not simply as the lesser of two evils. Apparently the New York Times (also supportive of Clinton) agrees with me, writing in today’s editorial “Hillary Clinton, Drowning in Email,” that she is doing herself no favors by not simply saying unequivocally that she is sorry (to my knowledge, she has never said that –only that “it was a mistake.” Not the same thing) and that she will never make that same mistake again.

“This defensive posture,” the Times states, ” seems at play in the email controversy, as well as her refusal, for that matter, to release the lucrative speeches she made to Wall Street audiences. The reflect she is revealing again now — to hunker down when challenged –is likely to make her seem less personable to many voters, and it will surely inflame critics’ charges of an underlying arrogance.”

I want Hillary Clinton to be the strongest possible candidate she can be because the stakes in this election could not be higher. The greedy, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, climate-change-denying Donald Trump has just secured the nomination of the once Grand Old Party and even his fiercest opponents are rallying to his cause to assure a Republican victory.

What I once believed might be a record-setting victory for the Democrats over almost any of their seventeen original candidates, I now believe likely to be one of the closest in our history. If women and their supporters, African Americans, Latinos, unions, young people, and the highly educated do not band together, work for the Democratic nominee, and turn out in large numbers actually to vote in November for that nominee, we could be in for an incredibly depressing and regressive four or eight years.

For us to win, Hillary Clinton will need to live up to the highest of her ideals, not the defensive, self-protective instincts of her political persona.

You’ve Got Mail!

May 26, 2016

Hillary Clinton is not perfect. She is not only a strong-willed and ambitious person, but often seems incapable of the simplest act of contrition for things done or things left undone. Witness the latest release of information from the State Department about her infamous e-mails and their server.

While clearly part of a decades-long lack of oversight and appropriate scrutiny of e-mails by State Department employees, Ms. Clinton’s particular decisions with respect to personal accounts and servers seems over the top. The ongoing F.B.I. investigation may shed further light on this, and I sincerely hope she will agree to appear before them to testify should she be asked.

The campaign’s response so far seems pretty inadequate, largely repeating what they have said before about her not being the first one, about the fact that everybody knew what she was doing, etc. etc. etc. But, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results from the public is the definition of…what?

I don’t know exactly what she needs to say to make this go away. She has admitted that it was a mistake and that she would not do the same thing if she had it to do over again. What she has not said, to my knowledge, is simply to say, “I’m sorry. I screwed up. It was not done for any nefarious reasons and I do not believe any national security information was compromised. I hope that you can forgive me for this bad decision. And I can assure you I have learned from my mistakes and I will never do anything like this again.” Full stop.

Perhaps the reason she seems incapable of doing this is that she has been the target, along with her husband, for decades now, of that “vast, right wing conspiracy” (which, believe me, dear reader, is as real as the earth revolving around the sun) which has taken every flaw, every mistake in judgment, every bad decision and sought to weave them into a narrative of lies and deception and treason which paint a picture of the Clintons as public enemy numbers one and two.

Nonetheless, part of her own narrative is that she will not sink to their level and that the test of real character is that, when you get knocked down, you keep on getting right back up again. But, when the wounds are at least partially self-inflicted, the better part of valor is to start with:

“I’m sorry.”


Reserving Judgment in Baltimore

May 25, 2016

So, Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore’s state attorney, has come under fire from both sides after a judge acquitted Officer Edward Nero of all charges in the death of Freddy Gray, the 25 year old Black man fatally injured in the back of a police van while in custody.

Apparently, since this was the second trial so far without a conviction, Freddy Gray’s advocates are mad at her. And, Mosby’s mostly-white, critics say that all this is proof that she had no business bringing charges in the first place.

How anyone could think that no one is guilty in the death of this hand-cuffed and un-seat-belted prisoner thrown from side to side in a wild ride in a police van is quite beyond belief. And those of us who remember Marilyn Mosby’s eloquent and impassioned speech in bringing charges (including murder) are still moved by the thought that justice might indeed finally be done.

I still believe that is possible. There are still five trials to go and the next one, on June 6, will be a critical one since it will be for the driver of the van, Officer Caesar Goodson. It was he, perhaps above all the others, who had “hands on the weapon” which took the life of Freddy Gray in such a brutal manner.

In any case, it is important to reserve judgment on all this until the legal proceedings are completed. All the family has asked for is justice. And the justice process is only now underway.

Drone Warfare – Part Two

May 24, 2016

I shared in this space yesterday my unease with drone warfare as it is being carried out by the United States these days. All I could conclude with was the thought that we need a serious conversation about this technology and some restrictions put in place. I should have waited a day until I opened my May 25 edition of The Christian Century (arguably the finest Christian publication on the market today).

Kenneth Himes, a Franciscan and associate professor of theology at Boston College, has written a new book entitled Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing. According to the thoughtful review by Brian Stiltner, an ethics professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut: “…Himes concludes that the tactics of targeted killing ‘is neither always to be permitted nor always to be opposed.'”

“What officials should do instead is to bring drone policy into the light of day so it can be controlled by the standards of just war and international law. Himes argues that political leaders should be more careful in choosing targets and less reliant on drones overall. He recommends the elimination of signature strikes (in which the individual is targeted on the basis only of suspicious behavior) and the creation of a nonpartisan independent commission to review targeted killings.”

This seems completely sensible to me and the least we can do to bring some manner of sanity and oversight to this new method of “distance warfare.” I hope someone sends a copy of this book to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump immediately.


Drone Warfare

May 23, 2016

According to Reuters, “…President Barack Obama confirmed on Monday that the leader of the Afghan Taliban had been killed by an American air strike, an attack likely to trigger another leadership tussle in a military movement already riven by internal divisions…The president authorized the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a remote region just within the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan…”

I am quite conflicted as to the use of drone warfare. On the one hand, it avoids putting U.S. military personnel in harm’s way and limits our interventionism to a kind of “police action” (or rather, targeted assassination) rather than full-scale invasions,”boots on the ground” which looks to all the world like nation-building and occupation.

On the other hand, the likelihood of civilian casualties is higher and the covert nature of authorization by the President and a handful of close advisers rather than a military operation with all its debate, checks and balances seems to me to leave wide open the possibility of abuse, particularly were this policy to continue under, say, a President Trump (a frightening prospect!).

I also worry about this development opening up a wider use of this technology in the years ahead. Surely it will not be long before our enemies have the knowledge and material to construct such drones of their own (if they do not already have such). Then, what is to prevent home-grown terrorists, either as part of an overseas movement or simply one of our right or left wing extremists, building their own right here in the U.S. and targeting, for example, the President of the United States on one of his speaking tours or while on vacation in Hawaii?

I am not a pacifist and even believe, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that under certain circumstances, even assassination may  fall under the moral rubric of our “responsibility to protect” and be preferable to launching a full scale offensive like the invasion of Iraq in order to effect regime change of a brutal dictatorship. But, this is a slippery slope at best and I believe we need a huge conversation about drones culminating in very strict guidelines and oversight as to just how and when such instruments of modern warfare should be used.

Communities Of Love

May 22, 2016

On this Sunday when we remember that we Christians are “Trinitarians” (people who believe that God has been revealed to us in three ways – as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit), it’s sort of interesting to see how that understanding developed over the centuries. And our Lessons from Scripture this morning, give us perfect lenses through which to view all this.

We know that one of the founding beliefs of the Jewish people was their conviction that there was only one God.  Contrary to other religions of the times which taught that there were “many lords and many gods,” the Jews believed that there was just one. In fact, their ancient creed, the Shema, stated it well: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one!” Can’t put it much plainer than that!

Yet as their faith developed over time, they began to see that, while their God was still one, the nature of God was more complicated than that. And so we get passages in the so-called Wisdom Literature like the one we had today from the Book of Proverbs in which something called the “Wisdom of God” takes on almost a character of its own. This “personification” of Wisdom actually speaks in today’s Lesson:

“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always…” (Proverbs 8 passim)

There are other passages like that in the Old Testament and throughout the Apocrypha (which was written after the Old Testament but before the New) – books like Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon. There’s still only one God, but he’s interacting with Someone “up there!”

Jesus would have grown up with that kind of thinking and certainly by the time John tells of his life in the 4th Gospel, we hear him say things like: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16 passim)

So here, the Wisdom of God (now called “the Spirit of truth”) takes on something of the character of God and so we have the Son speaking, not only of his Father, but of the Spirit who will guide us into all truth.

Writing just twenty years after Jesus’s earthly ministry and perhaps four decades before John finally wrote his Gospel, Paul refers to those same three entities in his Letter to the Romans: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 8 passim)

Now none of this is a fully developed Trinity. In fact the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible – Old Testament or New. It took another three hundred years for the church to wrestle with just how Jesus could be said to be the Son of God and what that might mean. And to figure out just what or who this Holy Spirit was anyway! By the year 325 AD we already had something called the Apostles’ Creed which took all this a little further. And in the year 381 we have the Council of Constantinople producing what we call the Nicene Creed and which we recite in the Eucharist every Sunday.

But what does all that mean? And why should we care? I think it means, that while there is only one God, the nature of that God is complex. There something like “community” in the Godhead itself! And, if that is so and if we are created in the image of God, then we are made for community as well.

The book of Genesis says that it is “not good for the man (OR the woman!) to be alone.” So the story tells about the creation of the first human family. Eventually, in the Bible, God draws some of the descendants of this family into a nation called Israel. Out of that nation comes a Messiah who forms around himself yet another community, the community of the apostles. And that community develops over time into what we call the church.

Dear friends, our relationship with God is never “me and God.” It is “us and God!” There really is no such thing as a “solo” Christian and it’s why all those wonderful people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and who attempt to hammer out some kind of relationship with God apart from the church are doomed to failure.

If even God is a community, it should be no surprise that we need to be part of a community ourselves. So, when you get up on Sunday morning some weeks and just don’t feel like ‘coming to church,’ remember that we need you to be here! Even if you don’t feel like you need it yourself, we need you…Because it’s not “me and God.” It’s “us and God.”

My old friend and mentor, Dean Alan Jones once said that there are three images which sum up Christianity – a woman and her baby…the ruined man on a cross…and a community of Persons. Today we celebrate those three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the model of a community of love…May our families, our communities, and our church be the same!







The Diabolically Shrewd Mr. Trump

May 21, 2016

Watched Donald Trump’s address to the National Rifle Association yesterday on CNN. Embarrassed to fall victim to the media’s 24/7 coverage of this megalomaniac, but I really wanted to see whether he would acknowledge his flip-flop on gun control. Of course, he did not. The scariest thing was to see how he won over this somewhat-mixed audience, some of whom no doubt remember that he praised Obama’s speech after Newtown and used to support a ban on assault weapons.

There was very tepid applause at the beginning, but as he began to go back and forth between his prepared text (mostly statistics…mostly wrong) and his usual campaign stump speech, first some applauded louder, then some began standing to applaud, more participated in the “standing O’s” and by the end everyone appeared to be on their feet.

This due to manifold lies about “Heartless Hillary” Clinton’s wish to repeal the Second Amendment (lie), collect our guns (lie), and release violent criminals back on to the street (lie). This despite the face that even he admitted some discomfort with the number of guns his elephant-slaughtering sons possess. Guess that was mitigated by his reminding the audience of his license to carry and a veiled threat to fire should anyone try to “hit Trump.”

The man is diabolically shrewd however. He pointed out that, while Hillary wants to take away everyone else’s guns (again, a lie) she and Bill are protected around the clock by gun-toting Secret Service agents. If she wants to persist in banning guns, Trump suggested, her body guards should “disarm immediately.” Standing ovation. Now, you must admit, that has a certain simplistic logic which appeals to lots and lots of people who lack the ability or the will actually to think things through!

Unsaid, of course, is the fact that Secret Service agents (like the police, the military, and others who lawfully carry weapons in the performance of their duties) have extensive background checks, participate in regular training on the gun-range, and could actually expected to hit something besides innocent bystanders should they ever be required to discharge their weapons.

Trumps’ support among white males (the overwhelming majority of the NRA audience) continues to be formidable. With early polls indicating that Hillary Clinton’s “lead” may have slipped from ten points to about six, I believe the only hope we have is for women, African Americans and Latinos, college educated folks and young people to stand together early and often to get out the vote and assure a solid defeat for this dangerous and unstable Republican candidate.

Get it, Bernie? Hang in there until the last ballot is cast, if you must. But stop giving the GOP ammunition to use against Hillary in the general election. And, as soon as you can in good conscience do it, throw your complete and unwavering support behind the most qualified candidate ever to run for the presidency.

By the way, the National Rifle Associations’ leadership (without consulting the membership) endorsed Donald Trump. Surprise, surprise.