Monday, August 22, 2016

Will you choose health or disability?

The Ugly American, a 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, tells the story of an American engineer, Homer Atkins – a man with an ugly face – whom the military sent to Vietnam to build dams and roads. Homer's wife, Emma, accompanied him to Vietnam. She became curious that every woman over sixty in the village where the Atkins lived had a bent back. Then she noticed that after the monsoon season, older people using a broom with a short handle inevitably swept the debris from the streets. Since wood for longer handles cost too must, Emma found a long-stalked reed and planted shoots from this reed by her door. She tended these reeds carefully. One day when neighbors were in her house she cut a tall reed, bound coconut fronds to it and began to sweep with her back straight. When her guests questioned her about the reed, she told them where it grew. Four years later, after Emma and Homer had returned home to Pittsburgh, they received a letter from the village headman thanking them. The letter read: "In the village of Chang Dong today, the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful and bent. You will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory . . . at the foot are these words: 'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.'"[1]
In today's gospel reading,[2] Jesus attends Sabbath worship in a synagogue. A woman, who has had a bent back for eighteen years, enters. Jesus recognizes her pain, touches her compassionately, and the woman stands erect, her back healed. I think that most of us would be amazed and grateful to witness a similar cure. Some of the worshipers in the synagogue, however, object. Jesus healing her on the Sabbath violated the Mosaic Law's prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds passionately: "You hypocrites! You water your animals on the Sabbath. This woman is much more valuable than any animal." Through his words and actions, Jesus shows us who God is and God's great love for us.[3]
Jesus' passion reflects the depth of his love for his neighbor. Passionate love refuses to accept evil, regardless of its cause, duration, or the person or persons who suffer the harm. By healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus both emphasizes the personhood of women and the healing power of God's love.
Luke does not tell us why the woman's back was bent. The story with which I began this sermon about the bent backs of the elderly women of Chang Dong village in Vietnam describes a systemic evil: people could not afford long handles for their brooms and this caused women, who did most of the sweeping, to have bent backs by age 60.. Traditional Vietnamese culture devalued women and consequently the village power brokers, all men, did not prioritize discovering how to prevent women developing bent backs. The gospel's silence about the cause of the woman's bent back leaves open the possibility that she suffered from a medical problem, perhaps had a genetic defect, or was the victim of some systemic evil. Whichever is correct, Jesus' passionate love for his neighbors pierced an ethos of neglect and self-righteousness to straighten the woman's back. God calls Christians, we who try to walk the Jesus path, to love others with a similar passion, to act to end evil wherever or whenever we see it.
The healing occurred in the village synagogue. Village synagogues were small buildings, approximately the size of the open area around the chancel altar. The walls were lined with stone benches on which attendees sat. A wooden cabinet, called the Ark of the Covenant, occupied the position of honor opposite the door. The Ark stored the Torah, or whatever portion of the Torah that the village was fortunate enough to possess. The Ark also stored other scrolls the village owned, such as ones upon which the words of the prophets were written. Synagogue services began and ended with prayer. Then someone would read or recite part of one of those scrolls. A man would then expound upon the text's meaning.
The setting is important. [4] First, most village residents attended. Similar to the way in which their worship represented the essence of the Jewish village, our worship represents the center or essence of our Christian community. Second, synagogue attendees expected to hear God speak to them through their prayers, scripture reading, and teaching. Hopefully, we gather with similar expectations. Third, disagreements over the meaning of the scriptures were commonplace. More than any other major religion, Judaism teaches that vigorously debating a text's meaning sifts the chaff from the wheat, thereby distilling human opinion from God's message for God's people. In other words, Jesus healing the woman and then engaging in a disputation with some of the synagogue attendees about his actions benefitted both the woman and the gathered community.
Finally, Jesus in healing the woman laid his hands upon her. This action, which we preserve in ordaining clergy, consecrating bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist, and praying for the sick, symbolizes both giving and receiving power. By laying his hands on the woman, Jesus dramatically demonstrated God's embrace and acceptance of her as one of God's children. No longer was she an untouchable woman. Furthermore, by laying his hands on the woman, Jesus symbolically transferred the healing power of God's love to her.
Three men were walking by a river and they saw a man walking on the water coming toward them. The first one said: "Who are you?"
"I'm Jesus," came the reply.
"Well, I've got a real bad back," said the first person. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, and instantly his back was restored to normal.
The second man saw this happen and said: "Jesus, my eyesight is really getting dim. Could you do something about that?" Jesus reached out and laid his fingers on the fellow's eyes and his eyesight was as sharp as when he was a youngster.
Jesus noticed that the third man walked with a limp and asked: "What is your problem my good fellow?"
"Don't touch me!" exclaimed the man. "I'm on disability!"[5]
The choice is ours. Will we, like the woman in this morning's gospel reading, muster the courage to seek healing or will we, like the man in that last story, prefer to live in misery and on disability?



[1] Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958).
[2] Luke 13:10-17.
[3] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 132.
[4] The various elements important for healing are adapted from Dale A. Matthews with Connie Clark, The Faith Factor (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), pp. 223-247.
[5] Source unknown.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Digging for bedrock

Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest, Jungian therapist, prolific author, and professor at the University of Notre Dame. In perhaps his best-known book, The Other Side of Silence, he summarized his experiences working with Notre Dame students
When [students] first came in to talk, it would be about some book or idea. If I passed muster in that situation, then in another hour of listening and talking I might hear about problems with parents or a brother, or in the dormitory; their sense of loneliness and isolation and problems of identity. And after that test I might then be admitted to a room full of sexual fears and tales of sexual peccadillos, some not so minor. But there was still another level of sharing which I found only when they were quite convinced that I would not doubt or ridicule or pressure. It was then I was admitted to their religious experience, their sense of the presence of God, their feeling of closeness and desire to serve and know Him better. (p. 16)

As Kelsey elegantly describes, religious beliefs and spiritual experiences reside at the deepest level of the self. Not only does sharing our religious beliefs and experiences with another person require becoming vulnerable, but, contrary to our prior presumptions, discovering that some of our beliefs or experiences do not rest upon bedrock can shake, if not completely shatter, our religious identity.

Jesus appreciated the importance of building one's life on spiritual bedrock (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Unfortunately, Jesus failed to provide his followers with a clear statement of what constitutes that bedrock. Episcopalians tacitly acknowledge that omission. At ordination, new deacons and priests affirm that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation, a commitment without a definition of salvation or statement of what is necessary to obtain salvation. Furthermore, the Creeds, often interpreted in divergent and contradictory ways, offer no reliable guidance for distinguishing between bedrock and densely packed sand.

Three factors dramatically redirected my search for bedrock from which to derive theological and ethical norms: the historical-critical study of the Bible; recognizing that other sources of knowledge as well as the Bible inescapably inform theology and ethics; and globalization. Historical-critical studies launched the twentieth century quest for the historical Jesus, a figure no longer identical with the Jesus depicted by harmonizing the four gospels. Clashes between other fields of study and theological/ethical studies fueled both growing secularism and underscored the inadequacy of a literal reading of Scripture, e.g., progress in understanding race, gender, and sexuality contradicted traditional Christian teachings on those topics. Globalization exposed Christian exclusivity as tenuous if not indefensible and became another catalyst for reexamining Christian theology and ethics. Collectively, these three factors have been widely perceived as requiring a fresh evaluation of whether the purported bedrock upon which Christianity had constructed its theology and ethics was truly bedrock or simply densely packed sand. As theologian Mark C. Taylor in his book, About Religion, observed, "It is obvious that we are living during a time of extraordinary transition: something is slipping away and something is beginning."

Consequently, it is unsurprising that many theological and ethical precepts that Christians regarded for centuries as bedrock have lately been shown to be sand. The Episcopal Church's rejection of remarriage after divorce unless the spouse had committed adultery, limiting ordination to men, and teaching that same sex unions are inherently sinful illustrate sand historically perceived as bedrock.

The whole Church, including Episcopalians, has frequently avoided confronting issues raised by contemporary biblical studies, other sources of knowledge, and globalization. Sometimes a desire to avoid conflict resulted in clergy pandering to parishioners' deeply held beliefs, a phenomenon James Smart described in his 1970 book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Other times, clergy mentally shelved seminary content in order to preserve cherished theological ideas acquired before seminary. Still other clergy have struggled to integrate contemporary biblical studies, knowledge, and globalization into their ministries but lacked the skills and parishioners' trust to overcome the fierce resistance they encountered when people realized that the changes required jettisoning beliefs widely considered the bedrock of the Christian faith. Whatever the explanation, Christians have largely acted like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the problems would disappear. They were therefore shocked when theological and ethical changes seemed to occur virtually overnight, although decades of debate preceded acceptance of these ideas.

Finding the bedrock upon which to develop Christian theology and ethics is a daunting and ongoing task. Some Christians persist in arguing for an unrealistically expansive view of that bedrock. Others, like me, favor a minimalist understanding of Christian bedrock. In view of contemporary biblical studies, continuing advances in human knowledge, and globalization, the theological nucleus that constitutes the bedrock at the heart of Christian theology seems reducible to three elements: love God, love others as yourself, and follow Jesus to learn how to love God and others. Understanding even that brief credo entails looking through a glass dimly. For example, to what reality does the word God refer? Hence, searching for bedrock is an ongoing endeavor, which Paul Tillich labelled the "Protestant Principle."

Rethinking Christian bedrock inevitably ignites controversy. Globally, disputes about ecclesial authority, sexual mores, and biblical hermeneutics have brought the Anglican Communion to the precipice of schism. Locally, disagreements about biblical hermeneutics, sexuality, and other topics have prompted a minority of Episcopalians to leave this Church for another church. Future clashes may focus on questions about the extent to which virtual Christian communities can or should replace physical communities, the desirability of ecumenical and interfaith unity, etc.

I find digging for bedrock exhausting. Finding time for theological reading and conversations means leaving other important tasks undone. Even then, I am constantly aware of how little reading and excavating of the detritus atop the bedrock that I actually accomplish. I am also keenly aware of how inadequate my efforts to describe Christian bedrock are. Nevertheless, we must dig for bedrock. Otherwise, the exodus of people who recognize the sand that prior generations regarded as bedrock will simply grow until Christianity twenty or fifty years from now is a tiny remnant, resembling the Flat Earth Society more than it does Jesus.


Rethinking Christian bedrock is an iterative and collaborative process. No single Christian, not even a Pope, can authoritatively define Christian bedrock. My July contribution to the Episcopal Café's Magazine (“Life after Death,” Part One and Two) contended that critical-historical biblical studies, advances in knowledge, and globalization require reconsidering Christianity's historic teachings about life after death. My musings prompted a lengthy rebuttal posted in The Living Church blog that defended the Church's historic teachings. Both the rebuttal and most of the comments on the Café's website opposed my attempt to rethink the meaning of life after death. Sadly, no respondent proposed an alternative reconstruction of Christianity's historic teachings about life after death. Failing to conduct fresh excavations to uncover Christianity's real bedrock condemns the Church to a slow, lingering, and irreversible decline that will inexorably culminate in its own death. The Church's only hope, as Bishop Spong declared in one of his book titles, is to change or to die. I, for one, prefer the challenge of change to death.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Discerning God's activity in the midst of conflict

In today's gospel reading,[1] Jesus, the Prince of Peace, surprisingly declares that he did not come to bring peace on earth but division and, by inference, conflict. He then challenged his hearers to interpret the signs of the times. Palestinian peasants predicted the weather by reading the sky. Clouds rising in the west over the Mediterranean meant rain. A southerly wind indicated scorching heat would arrive from the Arabian Desert. Jesus spoke plainly: “You hypocrites! You claim to put God at the center of your lives. Yet your emphasis is on the things of this world and not the Kingdom of God. You do not know how to read the signs of the times to understand what God is doing in your midst.” His words haunt us twenty centuries later. We claim to be religious, spiritual people. Yet, do we see God acting in our midst? Can we identify what God is doing in the world today?
This morning, I want us to discern the signs of the times in both national events and the life of Holy Nativity. If I were to preach a series of sermons on this text, we could also helpfully focus on discerning the signs of the times globally, within Christianity in general and The Episcopal Church in particular, and in our families and individual lives. In every setting, we can discern God's activity by identifying ways in which justice has increased, love has extended its transforming reach, and new life has flourished.
In the last few decades, the US has experienced what many observers call culture wars. Illustratively, many Christians who once regarded themselves and their religion as core elements of US national identity and ethos now feel marginalized. During my lifetime, public schools ceased to begin the school day with prayer and a Bible reading. Governments removed the Ten Commandments from public buildings. Church attendance has dropped precipitously. Today, retail businesses are not only open on Sundays but may also sell alcoholic beverages. Many states have legalized gambling and the use of marijuana. Concurrently, sexual mores have changed. Pre-marital sex is widely accepted and alternative lifestyles are affirmed.
Consequently, large numbers of Christians, especially theologically conservative Christians, believe that godless secular forces are waging war against Christianity. Concerned Christians first responded by organizing groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. More recently, Christian feelings of persecution have hardened into an angry rejection of experienced politicians.
This reaction, I believe, misreads the signs of the times. When I look at the US in 2016, I see a much more profoundly Christian nation than existed in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, my fifth grade public school class said the Lord's Prayer together at the start of each school day. The exercise made a travesty of prayer. Students were visibly disengaged from any effort to turn toward God. I think that my experience is symptomatic of a nation that outwardly acted Christian while inwardly valuing privilege, making money, belonging to a church for its social advantages, and defeating Communism.
In 2016, environmental stewardship is a priority. Compared to 1960, people are now far more likely to be judged by the content of their character than by the color of their skin, gender, ethnicity, or gender orientation. Jim Crow laws are gone. Misguided calls both for excluding immigrants based upon their religion or nationality and for building walls to exclude immigrants trigger a much more negative reaction today than they would have fifty years ago. People's primary motivation for being active in the Church is that they value belonging a community committed to walking the Jesus' path, spiritual growth, and loving their neighbor. In sum, justice has increased, love has extended its reach, and new life is flourishing. As Jesus' resurrection poignantly emphasizes, God is defeating evil.
Holy Nativity during the last couple of years lived through severe conflict. Out of the ashes of that conflict, I also discern clear signs of God moving in our midst.
First, I see people returning to Holy Nativity, committed to this community and its ministries. The heart of a Christian congregation – any Christian congregation – is not the building, the priest or pastor, or any program or ministry, but Jesus.
Second, I see people reconciling with one another. Reconciliation does not mean papering over past disagreements with polite platitudes. As Jesus reminded his hearers, conflict is inevitable. However, Jesus' followers both try to avoid framing disagreements in anger and turning against a brother or sister because of a disagreement. Reconciliation starts by recognizing that almost everyone involved in the conflict wanted what he or she prayerfully believed to be best for Holy Nativity. Reconciliation continues when individuals own their misplaced anger and hard feelings, confess those failings to God, and work to heal broken or damaged relationships. I observe reconciliation as the Holy Nativity ohana again cultivates respect and trust for one another as members of God's beloved family. We gather as sinners who need a hospital, not as saints seeking a safe haven.
Third and finally, I discern signs of new life in this community. If you were on campus Tuesday, the first day of the new school year, then you saw an exciting vitality. This academic year Holy Nativity School has chosen the word inspire as their theme. Visit your school and be inspired. Last week, if you read the Banyan Tree, the parish newsletter (and if you do not receive the Banyan Tree, please give me your contact details and I'll ensure that you are added to the distribution) featured a report on the ten goals that the Vestry set for the next eleven months. Among these goals are developing a program to incorporate newcomers into our community, creating a quarterly fellowship program, revitalizing worship, improving communication, and initiating the search process for a new rector. Those goals are marks of renewed mission, marks of new and restored life at Holy Nativity, and, most importantly, signs of God's activity in our midst.
In sum, I see at Holy Nativity signs of justice increasing, love growing, and new life beginning to flourish. For us, like Jesus before us, conflict is a catalyst that transforms the agony and apparent defeat of crucifixion into the glorious victory of resurrection.


[1] Luke 12:49-56.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Changed from nomads into pilgrims

Karen Armstrong has authored several bestsellers on comparative religion. Raised a Roman Catholic, in 1960 she became a nun at eighteen and remained in a convent seven years. She left her order and the Roman Catholic Church convinced she was an agnostic if not an atheist. Over the next several decades, she felt lost, unsure of what to do with her life. She tried broadcasting and teaching, but neither was a good fit. Then she decided to write a book about God and religion. The decision seemed ill timed and ill advised. Secularism was elbowing faith of all flavors aside. And who was she, an ex-nun and unbeliever, to write about God? Yet the decision felt right, so she persevered. Her first bestseller, A History of God, led to more bestsellers. With each book, Armstrong moved toward a deeper and more mystical understanding of God. Her autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, is appropriately subtitled, My Climb Out of Darkness.[1] Her struggles taught her three great spiritual principles that are also form the heart of today's scripture readings.
First, life is a journey. Armstrong describes her journey toward God as climbing a spiral staircase. The metaphorical staircase is spiral because as we move toward God we repeatedly experience situations that push, move, or lure us in a helpful direction. Only in retrospect did she realize that her decisions to become a nun, broadcaster, and university professor were wrong for her because she had been following another person's path instead of having the wisdom, courage, and strength to follow her own unique path. Faith is not so much a set of propositional truths, but a journey toward God.
The epistle to the Hebrews identifies Abraham as a paragon of faith.[2] Too often, we misunderstand the epistle's definition of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We interpret those words out of context, equating faith with theological tenets in our creeds and catechisms. Instead, Abraham's faith connotes his firm belief that God has promised him an inheritance of valuable land. With no map, no GPS, and not even knowing his final destination, he embarks on a journey to claim his inheritance, confident that God will lead him to it and then give him possession.
Furthermore, Abraham believes that God has also promised him that he will be the father of many nations. Now Abraham is both a realist and possibility thinker. He and his wife, Sarah, are old and childless. She’s well past childbearing age. He scoffs at God for this absurd promise. So, he follows local custom, taking Sarah's slave, Hagar, as a concubine, impregnates her, and then designates her son, Ishmael, as his heir.[3] Ishmael, in fact, becomes the father of the Arabs. But God's plan was for post-menopausal Sarah to give birth to Isaac, through whom Jews trace their lineage to Abraham. Sadly, the Abraham narrative fuels centuries of territorial conflict between Abraham’s Arab and Jewish descendants who both claim title to the Promised Land. In sum, Abraham so fully trusted his relationship with God that his faith took his life’s journey in a God-ward direction.
Second, compassion invariably characterizes any journey that leads toward God. Armstrong learned from her study of religion that the closer a person moved toward God, the more the person practiced an ethic of compassion. Her own experience of moving in a God-ward direction echoed her observation.
Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah teaches the same lesson. Isaiah insists that God "is more concerned with [humans'] behavior in their social relationships than with the formal worship offered to [God]."[4] The reading is probably a sermon Isaiah preached during worship in the Jerusalem temple, a setting evocative of our worship.[5] Isaiah boldly reprimands the congregation for the injustices he had witnessed, presumably shocking his hearers who believed that their ritual cleanliness (equivalent to Holy Baptism and church membership), regular prayers, and generous giving assured them of God's favor. Isaiah boldly and insultingly compares his hearers to Sodom and Gomorrah's rulers.
He concludes, "Come now, let us reason together. … If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land." That is, be a person who does good things (loves God and other people in situationally appropriate ways), seeks justice (strives to be fair with others), rescues the oppressed, defends the orphan, and pleads for the widow (protectively care for the most vulnerable). In sum, God's priority is who we are, how we live, not our religious activities.
Third, journeying toward God and practicing compassion changes the person from a nomad into a pilgrim, and from floundering in darkness to savoring life abundant. As Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."[6] Karen Armstrong experienced this transformation. Once she began to follow her own path, she imperceptibly, especially at first, moved toward God. The continuing growth of compassion toward others and all creation reinforced and accelerated that growth until she was living a rich, fulfilling life.
For those of us who seek to journey toward God following Jesus' teachings yet remaining faithful to our individual calling, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are steps on our spiral staircases, moving us inexorably closer to God while nurturing in us an ethic of compassion.
One of the most memorable baptisms I have performed was that of a mentally challenged young adult when "Happy Days" was a popular sitcom. Immediately following his baptism, this young man, deeply devoted to the Church and overflowing with joy, emulated his other role model, the Fonz, and spontaneously gave the thumbs up signal accompanied by the Fonz' distinctive grunt.
A woman brought “her little daughter to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue while on her regular shopping trip to Manhattan. When her daughter asked her why there were homeless huddling by the doors, her mother explained that not only did the church welcome all people, but it also felt a particular responsibility for the poor. Because of this loving inclusion, she explained, the cold and hungry were offered a place of rest in the church, a sanctuary from the harsh world outside. The young daughter pondered her mother’s words.
“After receiving communion, her mother hurried back to her pew, afraid for her daughter who was talking to a homeless man. As she approached the two, she heard her little daughter say to the man, ‘Are you hungry? If you are, there is enough at the altar for everybody.’ Joy filled the mother’s heart.”[7]
Jesus exhorts his disciples to exercise constant vigilance because loving God and our neighbors, just like other relationships, can be fragile. May we faithfully journey as pilgrims, cherishing moments in which we experience the intensity and depth of God's love; may those moments inspire us to live compassionately.



[1] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (New York: Anchor, 2004).
[2] Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
[3] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 111-112, 119-121.
[4] R.B.Y. Scott, Exegesis of Isaiah, Vol. 5, in The Interpreter's Bible, edited by G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 170.
[5] Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.
[6] Luke 12:32-40.
[7] Donald B. Harris, That’s How the Light Gets In (Williamsburg, VA: Credo Institute, 1994), pp. 204-205.