Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Who is my neighbor?

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan, which we just heard in today's gospel reading.[1] She described the situation in vivid detail so her students would catch the drama. Then, she asked the class, "If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded, and bleeding, what would you do?" A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, "I think I'd throw up."[2]

From Jericho to Jerusalem is about twenty miles. The southwesterly pre-Roman road descended thirty-six hundred feet in elevation. Long parts of it traversed wilderness infested by notorious robbers.

Jesus implicitly criticizes two figures in his parable who had important religious roles. Levites cared for the temple; priests offered sacrifices. Hopefully, Jesus is not commenting about all religious leaders. If so, Ha’aheo, I, the altar guild, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and so forth are all in trouble. Hopefully, Jesus was painting a contrast between, on the one hand, the religious and cultural stigma of interacting with the unclean and, on the other hand, the Samaritan’s willingness to aid the man robbers had stripped, beaten and left to die along the roadside.

Samaritans were the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel, many of whom had intermarried with the indigenous population. In the seventh century B.C., the Samaritans had refused to centralize worship in Jerusalem, preferring their syncretized version of Judaism that incorporated local, indigenous beliefs and practices. Consequently, faithful Jews avoided all Samaritans.

Yet Jesus chose a Samaritan as his parable’s hero. The Samaritan bandages the victim’s wounds, takes him to an inn, spends a night caring for him, then pays the innkeeper for additional care. Two denarii equaled roughly two days’ wages, a large sum in a subsistence economy. The Samaritan also instructs the innkeeper that when he returns, he will reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expense.

A recent Pew survey identified a substantial number of Americans who live in quiet despair, depressed, mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol. Social, economic and spiritual scarcity have worryingly displaced the meaning people formerly derived from their relationships with family and friends and from serving a cause larger than self. Adults who find meaning often look narrowly inward or point to moments when they feel loved, satisfied or good about themselves. Their worldview has shrunk. On an encouraging note, high school students tend to identify themselves with the cause they serve, whether it is working for racial equality or environmental justice.[3]

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan seeks to stretch our horizons, memorably illustrating his command to love our neighbor. He calls us to break the cultural and religious boundaries and stigmas that cause us to not see or to ignore our neighbor, turning our heads and walking by on the other side of the street. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Native Hawaiians comprise just eighteen percent of Hawaii’s population but forty percent of the incarcerated. Releasees leave our prisons with only what they had when they entered prison. Unsurprisingly, over half of all releasees from Hawaiian prisons recidivate within three years. Ha’aheo has been instrumental in the backpack program, providing new releasees with some basic necessities. The Diocesan Jubilee group, which includes several from this congregation are working for systemic reform. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Nobody wants to be mentally ill. Medical researchers and practitioners do not understand the causes of most mental illness, a broad category that includes addiction, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and much more. Nor do these professionals understand how to treat most mental illness effectively. Yet many people stigmatize and avoid the mentally ill. Hawai’i’s shortage of mental health providers exacerbates the situation.

One group trying to aid the mentally ill is the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i. The Center is interfaith. Its therapists, all licensed professionals, seek, as appropriate, to integrate the client’s spirituality into the therapeutic process. Nobody is ever refused assistance because of an inability to pay. I support the Center and serve as its Board President. When the housing bubble burst and this parish experienced its own difficulties, the Parish ceased to contribute annually to the Samaritan Center. This sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan is the commercial that Heather has suggested for some time that I make for the Center. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

With which role in today’s gospel reading do you most identify? Do you want self-justification, affirmation for your spiritual journey and the neighbors you love? Do you avert your eyes and pass by at a distance from needy, hurting neighbors? Or do you stop to help, generously caring for those in need.

May we increasingly, with God's help, courageously and honestly answer Jesus’ question, “do you really love your neighbors?” with a resounding “Yes!”. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 10:29-37.
[2] Source unknown.
[3] David Brooks, “Will Gen-Z Save the World?New York Times, July 4, 2019.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Three strange sayings

The second part of this morning’s gospel reading contains three strange, widely misinterpreted, sayings.[1]

In response to someone promising to follow Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus replies, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This saying is not a glorification of being houseless nor, contrary to John Wesley, an argument for clergy to move frequently.

A twelve-year-old boy’s father assigned him some yard work. The boy hired his six-year-old brother to do the work for him. He told the six-year-old that his father had paid him a dollar to do the work, and if the six-year-old would do the job, he would let him hold the dollar until suppertime. The little kid worked hard all afternoon and got the job done. The big brother, true to the bargain, gave him the dollar, saying "You can hold this until suppertime; then you have to give it back."

The father, a wealthy banker who worked seven days a week, came home late that afternoon. He spotted his youngest son with the dollar.

"Where did you get that?" he asked.

"My brother let me hold it since I did his work in the yard."

"You're holding it?"

"Yes, he said I have to give it back at suppertime."

"That's crazy," the father said. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You worked hard all afternoon and just get to hold your money?"

The boy looked at his father and said, "But, isn't that what you're doing too?"

The child was right. All we get to do is hold our money and other possessions for a while.[2] We are temporarily God's stewards of our possessions; possessions are important only for what we do with them.

Jesus invited another person to follow him. The person replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus responded, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Burying the dead is a religious duty. After Jesus’ crucifixion, some of his followers hurriedly buried his body and then they returned on Easter morning to finish their ministrations. Jesus obviously is speaking metaphorically, not literally.

Benedictine monasteries attach special importance to serving one another at mealtime: "servers … bring the food … the monks are encouraged … not to ask for anything they need, but always to look out for a neighbor’s needs. (… in a famous story, a monk as he eats his soup notices that a mouse has dropped into his bowl. What is he to do? He is to pay attention to his neighbors' needs, not his own. So, he … [calls a] server and [says], 'My neighbor hasn't got a mouse.')"[3]

Psychological and biological research teaches us that self-love is inescapable. Yet healthy relationships look to the well-being of the other person even as we love ourselves; healthy relationships are future oriented rather than clinging to a broken past or an impossibly romanticized version of the past. Let bygones be bygones; let the dead bury the dead.

Another of Jesus’ followers said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say goodbye to my family." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus is not anti-family; he intends us to hear this saying, like the previous two, metaphorically rather than literally.

Remember Peter. He looked back, regretting his decision to follow Jesus. He denied Jesus not once but three times.[4] Yet, Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus had said to Peter – whose name means rock – you are the rock on which I will build my church.[5] Similarly, at the height of Roman persecution of Christians, the Church defined apostasy – abandoning the faith – as the unforgivable sin. Roman ferocity, however, caused apostasy to become so widespread that few Christians remained. Those survivors eventually relented and allowed apostates, after an arduous repentance, to return to the Church.

Eugene Peterson, whose Bible translation The Message was a bestseller a couple of decades ago, rightly and wisely described the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Outliers, promoted the idea that ten thousand hours are required to master any art, skill or discipline.[6] Thus, for example, if you spend two hours a week on Sundays cultivating your spiritual life, and another two hours during the week, you will require fifty years to accumulate ten thousand hours of practice. Our spiritual lives suffer because we rarely acknowledge our lack of commitment and practice; we live superficially rather than delving deeply into the mystery of God.

A Persian proverb first observes that a person comes into the world crying while all around people are smiling, then encourages people to so live that they go out of this world smiling while all around them people are crying. Be good stewards of your possessions, holding them lightly in trust for their true owner, God; love so deeply that your relationships fill others with life and hope; commit yourself so completely to God that your death finds you smiling and others crying. Amen.

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

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019

[1] Vv. 57-62 of Luke 9:51-62.
[2] Jamie Buckingham, Parables (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 1991). Adapted.
[3] David Steindl-Rast, The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pp. 79-80.
[4] Matthew 26:69-75.
[5] Matthew 16:18.
[6] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008).

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Independence Day and Veterans

A friend, another military veteran, told me that often he felt angry when people thanked him for his military service. I have since noticed that I sometimes react with uncertainty, discomfort, or even anger. After reflection, I identified several different sources for these reactions.

First, the comment “Thank you for your service” often seems gratuitously glib. I’m proud of my military service. I enjoyed performing a job that was personally rewarding and that allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives while supporting a cause greater than self-interest. Many times, the thanks come from people in such an oft-handed manner that I wonder if the person has ever really thought about the sacrifices that people in uniform make almost daily, e.g., the long hours with no overtime pay, frequent and extended separations from loved ones, and going into harm’s way. I wonder how many of the people thanking me begrudge paying their taxes, would never consider volunteering for the military, and think that government bureaucrats (this includes numerous military personnel, especially senior ones) routinely waste large sums of tax dollars.

Second, verbal affirmation is occasionally nice to hear but actions speak more loudly. Saying “Thank you for your service” is no substitute for fulfilling a citizen’s responsibilities to vote and to communicate opinions to elected leaders. In the U.S., civilian politicians, not the military, decide the conflicts in which the military will fight. Currently, the U.S. is waging three de facto wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Military personnel regularly go into harm’s way in two of those theaters. Yet polls show that only a minority of Americans supports U.S. involvement in these conflicts. Furthermore, Congress has funded most of the $1.3 trillion cost to date for these three wars through budget deficits rather than risk voter outrage over tax increases. Tomorrow’s citizens will pay the bill for today’s wars.

From a Christian perspective, terming any of these conflicts a just war is problematic. One requirement of a just war, for example is that the war has a reasonable chance of success. Neither the wars in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, in spite of eight plus years of U.S. occupation and billions of dollars, has succeeded in establishing a secure, stable, and prosperous democracy. For example, the Afghan war is now the longest war in U.S. history. The approximate $120 billion that the U.S. will spend in 2011 on the war in Afghanistan represents $4000 per Afghan and dwarfs the projected 2011 Afghan GNP of less than $20 billion. Development spending from the U.S. and other nations will total roughly $2.5 billion this year in Afghanistan. Yet the Afghan government remains mired in corruption, actually governs relatively little of Afghanistan, and wants us out.

Fought with an all-volunteer force (and private contractors!), the wars have not ignited a political firestorm of opposition as the Vietnam War did. Few Episcopalians serve in the U.S. military, as, similarly, do few children of politicians and few graduates of elite colleges and universities. Following GEN Petraeus’ 2007 Congressional testimony, coverage of the Iraq war on the evening news dropped from 25% of broadcast time to 3% by mid-2008.

Why is the Church so silent about these wars? If more Episcopalians served in the military, would the Episcopal Church – its leaders, clergy, and members – speak more volubly and vociferously about these wars? What would Jesus say about the U.S. fighting wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? True support for our troops entails ensuring that the military fights only morally justifiable wars.

Third, true support for the troops includes caring for the troops. Cards and care packages are nice. A warm welcome home for units returning from Afghanistan and Iraq represents a healthy morale boost and moral improvement, sharply contrasting with the unwarranted abuse that many personnel received when they returned home from Vietnam. These are easy, positive steps.

However, effective caring also requires improving government policies and programs. More than 7200 American military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; tens of thousands more veterans have returned home physically or mentally wounded, sometimes permanently disabled. These casualties constitute an underfunded emotional, social, and financial liability. Programs to help returning veterans reintegrate into their families and into society are a good first step, but much remains unknown about how best to do this. (One good resource for dealing with PTSD is Unchained Eagle led by Episcopal priest Bob Certain; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also developed a valuable congregational resource, Care for Returning Veterans.) Many Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities are ill equipped and staffed to aid women veterans; the VA lacks sufficient resources to assist the growing number of wounded veterans. The Church and a grateful citizenry will rightly advocate for military veterans and their families, adequately funding programs for warrior reintegration, healthcare, education and employment benefits, family adjustment support initiatives, etc.

Finally, the Church has a unique role to fill: helping returning warriors, especially Christian ones, to deal with their guilt for having committed, assisted in, or witnessed acts that in peacetime are immoral but that are necessary elements of warfighting, e.g., killing. In the early Church, the Church sometimes required a Christian returning from a just war to abstain from Holy Communion for as long as three years as an act of penance and moral rehabilitation. That seems excessive. Conversely, simply welcoming the returned warrior with open arms and verbal thanks for a hard job well done compromises the Church’s moral teaching and fails to honor the veteran’s often real and spiritually healthy feelings of guilt and uncleanliness. Private confession and pastoral counseling can help. More importantly, TEC can beneficially develop a process and liturgies for reintegrating returned veterans into the Christian community, perhaps most appropriately linking these to the Lenten journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

The Fourth of July offers a great time to celebrate not only American independence but also military veterans, thanking them in word and deed, remembering them in our prayers with the Collect for those in the Armed Forces of Our Country:

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Healing our demons

Last week, when I was walking through downtown at about 5 pm, a woman and I attempted to cross a street simultaneously, but from opposite directions. Heading directly toward one another, she angled slightly to her left and I concurrently angled to my right; then we did the reverse, she moving right and I left. We repeated our dance several times as we each politely sought to avoid colliding. When we were only a couple of feet from each other, she looked up; I chuckled bemusedly, realizing that our politeness had unintentionally created an impasse; she, after a moment, changed her expression from wary concern to a smile, and we passed pleasantly.

The incident was memorable because she obviously expected some type of negative confrontation. The incident, in a small way, symbolizes the widespread polarizations of contemporary life. When somebody is different than we are, we too frequently stigmatize the person and treat them as an outcast. This happens, from both perspectives, between Democrats and Republicans, Trump supporters and opponents, self-identified pro-choice and pro-life people in the debate over abortion, those for or against the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and so forth.

This morning’s gospel reading describes a demoniac ostracized by his local community because he has harmed property but also, implicitly, the psychic well-being of others.[1] The Gerasenes – Gentiles – had banished the man from their midst, chained him, and forced him to live as an animal. Jesus found the man living naked in a cemetery, having broken free of his shackles.

Biblical scholars offer two different diagnoses of the demoniac’s condition. First, the man may have suffered from mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depression. Before the late nineteenth century, people lacked the scientific knowledge and vocabulary to diagnose mental illness or even neuroses. Today, we remain far from completely understanding mental illness; regrettably, we and our society continue too often stigmatize and even ostracize the mentally ill.

Second, biblical scholars suggest that the demon possession in today’s reading may point to an obsession that has become a metaphorical demon. Evil is real. We may personify evil as a horned devil or fallen angel with a legion of followers dubbed demons, but, in fact, evil is a spiritual force in individuals and groups. Remember a time when a wicked thought took root in your mind, luring you with a fascination to think and do what you knew was wrong, enticing you one-step at a time, until you discovered you had acted or spoken in ways that you regretted even as you did it. Remember a time when a group of children, teens, or adults emboldened by the misdeeds of one, lost control, and committed acts that none would have dreamt possible. The actions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust are the most horrendous, frightening, and extreme example of this dynamic. More commonly, I've seen nice children and teens suddenly form a little mob, turning against one of their number who is overweight, unpopular, or wearing an out of style piece of clothing. We adults are no better. I've seen work groups and small religious groups turn vicious, smiling as they verbally cut and stab one another. Evil is real and the metaphor of demon possession points to that reality.

Jesus, a practicing Jew, crossed boundaries and reached out to the Gentile Gerasene demoniac. He saw a human, not an animal. Jesus, most appropriately from a Jewish perspective, sends the demons, who beg him not to condemn them to the abyss (connoting the place of death), into a herd of ritually unclean swine; the swine then rush into the watery deeps, an English phrase translating another Greek word for abyss. Demons clearly belong in the abyss. Then Jesus welcomes the man to his team, instructing him to tell everyone about being healed. Jesus lived a welcoming, inclusive, genuine hospitality.

This morning’s epistle reading reminds us that in Holy Baptism we are “clothed with Christ.”[2] Being clothed with Christ is another way of saying that our character, that is our values and habitual patterns of behavior, should imitate those of Jesus. Set within the context of today’s gospel reading, being clothed with Christ has two meanings.

First, we are to have compassion and strive to heal the mentally ill. Illustratively, Holy Nativity reenacted Jesus’ healing the demoniac through both its generous Easter gift to the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i – truly a gift to help raise the metaphorically dead to new life – and through its ongoing concern for housing the homeless, many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness, including addiction.

Second, we are to bridge divides that polarize and separate. The preeminent sixteenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker commented that our affirmation the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation does not mean that all things the Bible contains are necessary for salvation.[3] These latter topics he labelled adiaphora, the non-essentials.

Sadly, this congregation, like our larger society, has a history of bitter disputes. Like each of you, I see through a glass darkly and have no claim to infallibility. God's people here, and everywhere, inevitably disagree over issues that seem important yet are not essential for salvation. When those disagreements occur, remember the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus recognized him as a human, saw in him the light of God's image, no matter how tarnished, restored him to the community, embracing him as a disciple.

Disagree. But then metaphorically, cross the aisle. Smile at one another. Embrace one another as brothers and sisters, clothed in Christ.

May our symbols of God's grace – water, light, bread, wine, word, and touch – exorcise your demons and fill you with new life. And when the service is ended, go, and tell others what wondrous things God is doing in this place. Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 8:26-39.
[2] Galatians 3:23-29.
[3] John Barton, “Richard Hooker and Puritans: Of sundry things, in the light of reason,” Church Times, 14 June 2019.