Thursday, September 19, 2019

Justice and jury duty

Several weeks ago, the State of Hawaii selected me for jury duty. After three days spent waiting and observed, I, along with fifty plus other jurors, was dismissed. The jury had been empaneled without requiring our services.

The process evoked several musings.

First, the number of persons in the jury pool who expressed their displeasure with being called to serve disturbed me. Juries constitute a vital check on the power of prosecutors and the judiciary. Without juries of citizens – one’s peers – the criminal justice would become the exclusive domain of professionals. Invariably, systems relegated to professionals tend over time to abuse their power. They may opt for shortcuts to expedite outcomes, including infringing upon individual rights. This well-intentioned infringement is amply documented in the pressure on prosecutors and public defenders to plea bargain as frequently as possible to avoid the costs and time jury trials entail. In short, occasionally serving on a jury seems a small price to pay for preventing drift toward a police state.

Second, the process provided a lesson in how systems, even well-intentioned systems, devalue and abuse the powerless. Jurors must attend. The Judge initiated bench warrants for the approximately forty no-shows. Jurors are paid $30 per day while on duty. Jurors with salaried positions or regular, hourly positions still receive their regular income. Jurors who work irregular hours, paid by the hour, typically lose their income during jury duty. Self-employed jurors (gig workers, freelancers, small business owners) earn only the $30 per day while serving. In contrast, district judges in Hawaii earn slightly more than $200,000 per year. Lawyers bill by the hour; hourly rates in excess of $300 are common. Consequently, the criminal justice system places a premium on the time of judges and lawyers, resulting in potential jurors spending many hours waiting. If jurors earned minimum wage or more, the criminal justice system would place more value on jurors’ time; citizens might also be more willing to serve as jurors.

Third, the jury pool appeared diverse with respect to gender and race, but not to economic status. Appearances may be deceptive. However, only one or two in the jury pool of 140 plus persons appeared as if they earned $200,000 or more per year, in a state in which over 10% of the population earns that amount. High earners may have identified ways in which legitimately to avoid jury duty. If true, then the jury does not reflect Hawaii’s socio-economic composition. Similarly, the jury pool did not seem to include persons from Hawaii’s lowest socio-economic stratum. Since the jury pool seems drawn from registered voters, perhaps, these persons, like some high earners, may have failed to register to vote. Linking voter registration to issuing driving licenses and state ID cards will (1) increase voter registration, (2) assist in keeping voter registration lists current and (3) expand the number of people eligible for jury duty to resemble the state’s population more closely.

Friday, September 13, 2019

With whom will you dine?

A man “organized a dinner at his church to raise money for famine relief in Sudan. About 80 people signed up to come. He had tables set for various-sized groups – as small as six, as large as 15. People came in and took seats at random. Then the servers came out. The smallest tables were served first. They received an abundance of rich, sauce-laden food, hot, tender, tasty. The servers were polite, attentive, quick to bring more food at the slightest indication that it was running low. They were quick to do the guests’ bidding, and usually anticipated their wishes.

“Next, some of the larger tables were served. Theirs was a sparse, messy, bland meal. The few dishes were brought out in no particular order. The servers were curt and hurried. There were no seconds.

“Two of the largest tables were served second to last – after the few guests at the first tables had already had all they could eat and their dinner plates, piled with uneaten food, were whisked away and replaced with rich desserts and coffee. At the large tables, the servers plunked down, with rude haste, one bowl of rice in the middle of each table. No one got a plate or bowl. There were no utensils for serving or eating. The waiters never came back.

“The very largest table was served last of all. They got a bucket of water. There was barely enough to go around. The water was brown and lukewarm. If you wanted some, you had to drink it from a wooden ladle, passed along with the bucket. Most people didn’t bother.

“At first the people at the largest tables, the last ones served, complained. Several people got up and spoke to the servers. The servers ignored them. Some went to … the organizer. He ignored them. He and the servers paid attention only to the guests who sat at the smallest tables and who had received the most. The servers would come around often to those tables, ask if everything was pleasing and agreeable, and did they need anything else? There was much laughter, banter, politeness.

“After a while, it became obvious to everyone what was happening. The church was being given a taste of how the world works – its lopsidedness, its patch rhythm of muchness and emptiness, of affluence and desolation. Some got to experience, and all got to witness, the hunger of the hungry.

“The offering for famine relief was good that night.”[1]

Holy Nativity’s neighborhood stretches from Kahala to Hawaii Kai. Many in this affluent area are lost sheep, not so much persons desperate for food or shelter but starved for spiritual food. Our immediate neighbors may appear hale and happy. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Get to know them; really listen to them. Then you will learn of their health concerns, addictions, financial worries, broken relationships, fears for their children, the numerous days they awaken to wonder why they live, and so forth. They need God’s loving, life-giving presence.

One in five Episcopal congregations is growing.[2] Holy Nativity can easily join the ranks of those growing congregations. This beautiful, architectural award-winning campus offers an important potential connection with God. Each of you, and your relationships with one another, are similarly another potential point of connectivity with God. Yet another potential point of connectivity with God is the gift of God's life-giving presence in our celebration of the Eucharist. According to theologian Ilia Delio, “A eucharistic community should be a new energy field, a new pattern of relatedness; the joy of being a eucharistic people is the renewal of energy for the sake of transforming relationships in the cosmos.”[3]

To grow, we individually and collectively must:

·       Invite: ask people in a non-judgmental way to visit Holy Nativity

·       Welcome: wear your nametag, speak to people you don’t know, make our worship as visitor friendly as possible, and so forth

·       Connect: involve newcomers in our various ministries and missions, even offering to let the newcomer take one’s place

Fr Chris is spearheading this initiative for us. Congregations do not grow serendipitously or by accident. Congregations grow because leaders intentionally promote growth-oriented policies and programs.

Few first century shepherds owned their flock. The flock may have belonged to the village or to a wealthy person, perhaps from Jerusalem or another affluent community. If, at day’s end, a sheep was missing, one of the shepherds would search for the lost animal while the other shepherds took the flock home. If the sheep could not be found, then the shepherd or shepherds responsible for the flock bore the cost, perhaps eight days’ wages, perhaps more. In a subsistence economy that excluded women from the paid workforce, a shepherd who lost a sheep, and his family, depended on the charity of neighbors or starved.[4] No wonder Jesus’ anecdote of a shepherd searching for, and then finding, a lost sheep resonated with his hearers.[5]

May you and I, walking in Jesus’ footsteps, eat with today’s sinners and tax collectors; may we genuinely rejoice when persons lost in the dark of disease, despair, despondency, or debt join us in feasting at God's table. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2019
Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Mark Buchanan, “Go fast and live,” The Christian Century, 28 February 2001, pp. 19-20.
[3] Ilia Delio, The Emergent Christ (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011), Kindle Highlight Loc. 1646-52.
[4] William Barclay, “Luke,” Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, n.d.), pp. 122-123.
[5] Luke 15:1-10.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Crash is Coming

A friend sent me this email which links to the Crusty Old Dean bewailing the continuing numerical decline of The Episcopal Church (TEC):

Most of what he writes, makes sense to me. But until at least 20% of the TEC power structure agrees with his ideas, nothing will happen. I say 20% because it’s the minimum for voices dissenting from the status quo to compel attention to their views. Of course, there is a gap in time between 20% and 50.1% but we have to start somewhere.

In response, I wrote that I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic about Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in particular:

·       The quality of leadership continues to decline, a decline compounded by some dioceses creating local alternatives to seminary (my anecdotal assessment);

·       There appears to be no increase in the number of congregations that are actually growing;

·       Too much money and other resources are wasted on governance at the diocesan, provincial and national levels (not quite as bad as in the military, but too many headquarters for the number and size of the frontline units, often siphoning the best leaders out of those frontline units for other positions);

·       Busyness masquerades as productive work and leaders resist naming that busyness for what it is, finding business as usual more satisfying and within their area of expertise than actual transformative leadership;

·       The continuing secularization of society (is Marianne Williamson’s candidacy for the presidency a final hoorah for widespread interest in spirituality – or self-help that is labelled spirituality – in the US?).

Some congregations are exciting places in which persons experience healing, community vanquishes loneliness, meaning displaces anomie and despair, the disadvantaged receive help and individuals live more abundantly. Unfortunately, these congregations seem few and far between, regardless of whether they display an Episcopal flag or symbols of another denomination or religion.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Our Mother, the Church

St. Augustine advocated reading all Scripture as allegory. In the last several centuries, that interpretive principle has largely fallen into disrepute. In general, allegory allows an interpreter too much latitude, resulting in texts being twisted and misinterpreted to serve the interpreter’s purpose.

Thus, in four plus decades of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon based upon an allegorical understanding of a text when the text was not an allegory. This morning, however, I want to approach today’s gospel reading as an allegory in spite of the incident’s almost certain historicity.

When I first looked at the passage to prepare this sermon, my immediate thought was that the woman symbolizes the Church.[1] The Greek word ecclesia translated into English as church is a feminine noun. In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul identifies Jerusalem as our heavenly mother, another metaphor for church.[2] Identifying the woman with the church is a reasonable interpretation.

When we call the church our mother, we point to three truths. First, each of us initially encountered God through the church. We learn about Christianity from another person, whether directly in conversation, preaching or teaching or indirectly through a Bible, prayer book or online materials written and published by others. Second, the church, analogous to how a human mother shapes her children, shapes our theology, spirituality and liturgy. We are Anglicans, shaped not only by Holy Nativity, but also by the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and its mother, the Church of England, which itself is a daughter of the Roman Catholic Church. Third, the church is our mother because the church sustains us in good times and bad. In Holy Baptism, a person is anointed with oil to symbolize the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, who sustains and empowers each person.

The gospel reports that the woman was crippled for eighteen years. In biblical numerology, eighteen symbolizes bondage. Holy Nativity – our church, our spiritual mother – sometimes appears to live in bondage to a negative narrative. We may be in bondage to memories of a congregation that once numbered twenty-seven hundred, filling three Sunday services or memories of a crippling fight over the last rector that hurt emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Jesus healed the crippled woman by summoning her and then laying his hands on her. Our mother the church similarly is a metaphor for the living God who created us as Christians, saved us from bondage to meaninglessness and crippling, self-destructive behaviors and then sustains us in the face of every evil and every difficulty.[3] Hear this morning gospel’s as God speaking directly to you, individually and as this gathered congregation of God's people: Come to me; let me heal you; stand up straight. God is even now healing Holy Nativity’s negative narrative. Healing occurs one person at a time, not in violation of the sabbath, but pointing to a more profound understanding of sabbath as God's claim on us.

Today’s collect reminds us that God calls us to unity.[4] We are one people. Differences – gender, gender orientation, race, physical ability, preference for one rector or one theological perspective, perceptions of what God is calling us to do – all of those differences and others are unimportant. We are one people. Rather than divide our unity, our differences should enrich our unity.

The reading from Jeremiah reminds us that God has called us to ministry and mission.[5] Do not say, adapting Jeremiah to our situation, we are too few or too old to serve. One excuse is no better than another. The measure of a church’s success is not its Sunday attendance or its budget. The real measure of a church’s success is whether the congregation is about God's business. We are literally Christ's body, his voice, feet and hands. Like Jesus, God calls us to seek out the crippled and the bound, confident that God will use our words and actions to heal and liberate them, even as Jesus healed a crippled woman.

The chapel of Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte in North Carolina, has one of the world’s most unusual baptismal fonts. The font was hollowed out of a huge stone on which African slaves had once stood to be sold to the highest bidder. The font’s inscription reads: "On this stone men were sold into slavery. From this stone men are now baptized into freedom."[6]

May we individually and collectively change our narrative from one of defeat into a narrative of joyful new life in Christ, called to unity and called to heal a broken, crippled world. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 13:10-17.
[2] Galatians 4:26.
[3] Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
[4] Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 16, the Sunday closest to August 24.
[5] Jeremiah 4:11-10.
[6] William Willimon, "Remember Who You Are," Upper Room, 1980, p. 61.