Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Holy Week – some modern images

This year, in the days before Holy Week (the 8 days from Palm Sunday to Easter, inclusive), my thoughts turned to some contemporary images that are evocative of biblical images embedded in the Holy Week narrative. To find those images, read the Holy Week narrative, versions of which are found in the first three books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, the biography of Jesus read this year by many churches, including the Episcopal Church, that follow the Revised Common Lectionary for selecting the scripture passages to be read in worship service, the Holy Week narrative spans Luke chapters 22-24.

Here are some suggestive images.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before he shared a final meal with them. The disciples wanted to wash Jesus’ feet; his filling the servant’s role discomfited them. Today, the “dirty” may belong to a different political party, different race, or have a different sexual orientation. How can I humble myself to see that I, not they, am truly the one who is dirty? How can I allow Jesus to wash me?

Jesus is famously tried by Pilate who washes his hands of the entire affair. When individuals wrongly or falsely disclaim responsibility for a problem, they emulate Pilate, figuratively attempting to wash their hands of the entire affair. Among such individuals are climate change deniers, flat earthers, white supremacists, and those who rely upon their own “alternative facts.” Who might you add to this list?

Jesus, whom the gospels describe as without sin, was executed as a common criminal, an insurrectionist. When humans harm the planet, wantonly destroying other life forms, humans reenact the wanton execution of Jesus. Conversely, when humans strive to live Jesus’ radical teachings about loving God, neighbor, and creation then those humans become vulnerable, as was Jesus, to forces opposed to any change, actual or possible, that threatens their power. For me, authoritarian leaders and most of the world’s wealthiest 1% invariably react against changes that would bring liberation and give life to the dying, downtrodden, and disadvantaged.

Scripture reports that the Easter event begins with the discovery of an empty tomb. Is emptiness ever sufficient to point the way to God’s loving presence?

The Easter event was unexpected. The disciples had no inkling that Jesus would continue to be present with them. The disciples failed to recognize him in reading their Bibles, in sharing meals, and in one another. When I saw an angry man today, who appeared to be under the influence of some substance, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in him? When I saw a parent berating a misbehaving child, I wondered: Can I see Jesus in the parent, in the child? When I listen to egocentric politicians rant, I wonder: Can I see Jesus in that person? In other words, is God’s Easter promise to still be with us true? Or, will death and evil prevail?

What contemporary images do you associate with the biblical images? How does the story of Holy Week come alive for you?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Protest resignations OR protest retirements?

A reader of my article, “Duty at All Costs: The Ethics of Protest Resignations by Military Officers,” (Naval War College Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 103- 128) raises an interesting question regarding a military retiree being recalled to active duty and prosecuted under Article 88 of the UCMJ for “contemptuous words.” My response follows:

First and foremost, I am a priest and not a lawyer. I am completely unqualified to offer legal advice. The thoughts that follow are simply my musings about your question.

To the best of my knowledge, the military has not yet recalled and court martialed a retiree for expressing political opinions. The retired Marine recalled for a court martial to whom you refer in your letter, if my internet research identified the correct individual, was living in Japan and convicted of child pornography offenses. His case is similar to the cases I found in my quick, non-exhaustive search. Every military retiree court martialed for an offense committed while retired, whose case I read about, faced charges of criminal activity such as child pornography or sexual harassment.

However, the possibility of prosecution for expressing political opinions does seem to exist. James Joyner in a blog post, “Prosecuting Retired Generals” (Outside the Beltway, April 27, 2006 at, quotes Dean Falvy from a post at FindLaw:

Even retired officers may be at risk when they speak out – as Lt. Col. Michael J. Davidson noted in his July 1999 Army Lawyer article, “Contemptuous Speech Against the President.” Davidson noted that Article 88 may apply to retired commissioned officers by virtue of other articles of the UCMJ. No charges have been brought against a retired officer for such an offense since 1942, and most retired commentators are probably oblivious to the risk. But the theoretical possibility does exist.

Criticism is not synonymous with contempt. Furthermore, free speech is a protected right in the Constitution, unlike child pornography or sexual harassment. Recalling retirees for court martial because a retiree expressed particular political opinions or participated in the political process would, I suspect, place the Department of Defense and probably the incumbent administration on very thin ice politically. At a minimum, such a prosecution would create an explosive news story.

CAPT Michael Junge, USN in his blog post, “The Retired Admiral, the President, and the Military Profession” (Defense One, August 20, 2018 at recognizes the impracticality of recalling for court martial or non-judicial punishment an officer whose speech may have expressed contempt for the president. He argues that the military profession should be self-correcting, i.e., peers should correct one another. Failing that, the Secretary of Defense should informally but publicly reprimand the officer by using tweets, for example. Importantly, CAPT Junge defends the retired admiral’s prerogative to offer political criticism.

Distinguishing between political opinion and contempt is often difficult. Consequently, courts have generally exempted the authors of comments directed at prominent political leaders from libel suits. Indeed, legal opinion is divided over whether the comments of the admiral in question were contemptuous or merely strongly worded political opinion.

Recalling and prosecuting even one retiree under the UCMJ for expressing his/her opinions would invariably create a “chilling effect” on retirees exercising their first amendment right to free speech and on their active participation in the political processes as a citizen. The chilling effect might deprive political leaders and voters of valuable advice, e.g., that the U.S. was actually losing and not winning a long-fought war. If that occurred, the real measure of a retiree’s convictions and courage would become whether the retiree chose to resign from the military, thereby forfeiting all benefits a military retiree receives but regaining the freedoms all civilian citizens enjoy.

Of course, the less prominent a retiree is and the smaller the audience his/her comments attracted, the less probable any punitive action becomes. Any action, of course, presumes that someone in a position to act knows of the comments, in itself a rather unlikely presumption.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What's next?

The Presiding Bishop’s canonically required visit to my diocese (Hawai’i) occurs in late March of 2019. His visit, following his well-established pattern, will primarily consist of several events, most open to the public, intended to renew and revitalize the diocese and its people.

Reflecting on his upcoming visit, which certainly builds on Bishop Curry’s skill as an exhortative preacher who energizes his hearers, I wondered, what next? How does this diocese, or other dioceses post-visit, capitalize on whatever renewal or revitalization that they may experience and move forward? Alternatively, do Bishop Curry’s diocesan visits simply provide a one-time injection of spirit that dissipate without producing any substantive long-term gains?

Critiquing The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) long-term numerical decline and other organizational problems is easy. I’ve penned such critiques, as have others. To date, these critiques appear to have prompted few changes, much less reversed the decline.

Consequently, perhaps Episcopalians collectively should do what Bishop Curry has done as an individual: play to our strengths. Appreciative inquiry argues that flourishing organizations emphasize their strengths rather than weaknesses or problem solving.

Appreciative inquiry’s starting point is a focused version of what Hawaiians call “talking story.” In congregations (both parishes and missions), talking story might consist of attendees (not just members!) discussing what attracted the person to that particular congregation and what keeps the person returning. Also, what has the congregation done in the community of which its attendees are proud? For dioceses, talking story might connote congregations describing what they learn and the benefits they receive from the diocese and other diocesan congregations. Additionally, what does the diocese do to make a difference in its geographic area and/or member congregations? Similarly, on the provincial and national levels, people could talk story by sharing what why they personally find rewarding by participating in the province or national church, what they perceive the province or national church contributes to dioceses and congregations, and ways in which they believe the province or national church changes the world for the better.

Talking story locally, in dioceses, and nationally will create new narratives about Episcopalian congregations, Episcopal dioceses, and TEC. Concentrating on problems, lamenting lack of growth or diminished influence, and so forth attracts few and energizes even fewer people. The path to life abundant lies in using our God given gifts (strengths) to incarnate God’s love manifested in Christ more fully as individuals and as the gathered body of Christ.

When I consider what drew me to the Episcopal Church and what keeps me involved, among the concepts that cluster at the center of my thinking are:

·       Acceptance and inclusivity that are the building blocks of community

·       Affirmation that I am beloved child of God

·       Pastoral sensitivity that emphasizes helping one to live more completely in the light, respecting the individual’s journey without inappropriate judging

·       Celebrating beauty in the cosmos, persons, and worship

·       Compassion, practicing love for my neighbor locally and globally

·       Working together for justice

Individual lists of what drew the person to an Episcopal congregation and what causes the person to continue participating, may be different. And even if the words are the same, the specifics will differ. Talking story and building narratives is not about creating lists. The process is about actually listening to one another, learning the specifics of how, for example, a person experienced acceptance and why that was a memorable element of the person’s spiritual journey. Similar guidance applies to dioceses, provinces, and TEC as they talk story.

God does not ask anyone or any part of the body of Christ to be something they are not or to do something impossible. God gives individuals, congregations, and dioceses particular gifts expecting that those people and organizations will use their gifts to do great things for God. Incidentally, doing great things for God stands in sharp contradistinction to popular prosperity gospels that masquerade as Christianity, pseudo gospels that simplistically equate health and wealth with God’s agenda.

According to 2017 parochial reports, average Sunday attendance for TEC was 556,774 people in 6447 congregations organized in a nationwide network of dioceses. TEC’s more than 1.7 million members annually contribute in excess of $1.3 billion to its congregations and dioceses. A politician would think s/he had died and gone to heaven to have that many volunteers in an organization that reaches into almost every U.S. community and has those financial resources.

In other words, the time has come to stop looking back, wistfully focused on what our congregations, dioceses, and national church used to be. Capitalize on the renewal and revival that Bishop Curry is trying to engender in the Church. Look to the present. Who are we? What draws us together? What keeps us together?

Then, living into those new narratives, dare to dream about how we can build on our present strengths and past successes to achieve new and future successes for God? What is next for your congregation, diocese and The Episcopal Church? Lastly, after designing plans to turn those dreams into reality, work in our parishes, dioceses, provinces and TEC to deliver the projects, programs, and other initiatives we have designed to a broken, hurting world desperately in need of God’s transforming love. Even as we transform the world, we will discover that we ourselves are transformed and have become part of a transformed Church.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


One day, the eighteenth-century Polish rabbi Baal Shem-Tov and his students were standing on a hill when foreign troops invaded their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to Heaven and cried out, "Oh, if only I were God."

A student asked, "But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?"

The rabbi answered him, "If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand."[1]

In today’s gospel reading,[2] many in the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus were galvanized by news of a recent tragedy: Pilate's soldiers had killed some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Why would God allow this? Similarly, why had the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen people? Why did God allow that to happen?

Our questions echo the crowd’s questions. Why did God allow two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to crash, killing all aboard? Why did God allow the slaughter of fifty worshipers in two New Zealand mosques? Why an unending war in Afghanistan? Why cancer? Why any tragedy?

The day had been long and the sun hot. Moses was dusty, thirsty and tired. All day his only companions had been the bleating, cantankerous sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He had led the flock from the wilderness to the mountain called Horeb, that is, desert. It was an arid place, of parched ground and few shrubs. His father-in-law said that it was the mountain of God, but Moses simply hoped to find better grazing for the flock and perhaps a spring.

That was when he smelled it: the aromatic smoke of the cassia; incense like he had smelled in the temples of Egypt; incense like his father-in-law used when he prayed to the God of Horeb. Moses shook his head to clear his mind, thinking the smell a daydream. Yet the smell persisted. Slowly, he looked around. He was startled to see a thorn bush ablaze. Yet the bush itself did not actually seem to be on fire. There was fire, but the bush was not burning. Was he daydreaming?

Forgetting the sheep, intrigued and yet wary, he took a couple of cautious steps towards the fire when a voice came from the fire: "Moses, Moses!" He stopped abruptly, still not sure of what was happening.

Again, the fire spoke, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

Moses was afraid, his body trembling. He held his head in his hands, afraid he was losing his mind, afraid that this bush really was a god speaking to him.

Again, the fire spoke: "I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered the oppression of the Israelites. He remembered the cruelty of the overseers. And he remembered his outrage and how he had killed an overseer who was brutally beating an Israelite slave.

Yet again the fire spoke: "I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered how the Israelites had turned on him in anger. They did not want his leadership or his help. He remembered fleeing Egypt and finding sanctuary with Jethro. And he remembered Zipporah, his wife, and the good life they shared.

Was this some strange dream, brought on by heat and exhaustion? Who was he, a hunted man, despised and rejected by his own people, to lead them out of bondage to freedom?

"I will be with you. This will be a sign to you: bring the people to worship me here on this mountain."

That is no sign, Moses thought to himself. How am I to convince the people to follow me out here into the desert? And what is supposed to happen when and if we get back to this mountain? Anyway, bushes do not speak. Bushes burn when ablaze. This was not right. Whose voice was this?

"I am who I am. Tell the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'"

That was no answer. But Moses even then knew he would go. The fire's power had reached into his spirit and burned unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Once he had tried to free the Israelites on his own and failed; now he would go to Egypt and try again, this time filled with hope and power from knowing that God went with him.[3]

Moses’ renewed commitment to improve the plight of his enslaved fellow Israelites prefigured Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. Land for Jewish peasants, as in Hawai'i today, was precious. People cut down an unproductive tree to use as building material or firewood. Granting the unproductive fig tree another year, with fertilizer and care, emphasized that God lovingly and unfailingly offers persons opportunity after opportunity to become productive, i.e., to grow in love for God and neighbor.

This Lent, remember, and re-live in your imagination, your failed attempts to love your neighbor and God. Assured of God’s love and forgiveness, let go of those failures. Dare to move the seemingly meaningless suffering and tragedy in life, to pause in those moments when you think God might be speaking. Dare to try one more time to love God and neighbor. May God use our remembering to cultivate within us a new awareness of God's abiding presence, that we might not be barren but that Christ's love and strength might help us to truly love our neighbor all of our days. AMEN.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019

[1] Robert H. Schuller, Turning Hurts into Halos (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), pp. 218-219.
[2] Luke 13:1-9.
[3] Exodus 3:1-15.