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.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Healing healthcare

In the gospel reading for next Sunday (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years. In biblical numerology, the number eighteen symbolizes bondage. The number eighteen also connotes a long time.

Pursuing the list of the world’s largest corporations by global revenue, I was surprised to discover that four of the ten largest U.S. corporations are healthcare focused: UnitedHealth Group, McKesson, CVS Health and AmerisourceBergen. Altogether, seven of the world’s one hundred largest corporations are in the U.S. healthcare industry (pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, health insurance, etc.). No healthcare focused corporation based in another nation made the list of the one hundred largest corporations.[1]

The list puts the size and economic power of the U.S. healthcare industry into perspective. No wonder the U.S. has the world’s most expensive healthcare and only mediocre results as measured by patient outcomes.

Persons who live in the U.S. are crippled, in bondage, to a healthcare system broadly focused on profits and not individual or social well-being. We need to heal our healthcare system now. Realistically, change generally occurs incrementally. Proposals to dramatically change the healthcare system in the U.S. are almost certainly dead on arrival. Realistic, incremental steps potentially include gradually building on the Affordable Care Act, increasing access to Medicaid and lowering the age of eligibility for Medicare.

Observers criticized Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. Proponents of moving away from a market driven healthcare system are similarly criticized for abandoning capitalism in favor of socialism. Yet sick people and their loved ones, presuming that they can obtain the requisite pricing data and appropriate medical knowledge in a timely manner, are rarely in an emotional condition to make the informed, rational choices that capitalism theoretically requires. Consequently, what advocates of the status quo defend as capitalism is actually an oligopolistic system in which suppliers and providers dictate non-competitive prices and often decide treatment protocols based upon the provider’s bottom line rather than the patient’s well-being.

[1] “The Global 500,” Fortune, August 2019, F1.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


The question of whether to support or oppose building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawai’i, has recently attracted the national media’s attention and preoccupied a significant portion of The Episcopal Church in Hawai’i (TECH). The controversy came to a head in July when TMT opponents physically prevented construction crews and their equipment from using the only access road to the site. Over three thousand protesters have spent time in the encampment that blocks access. In spite of final court approval and issuance of all relevant permits, construction of TMT atop Mauna Kea now appears unlikely.

As an ethicist, a mediator and a Christian priest, I offer three observations.

First, the discipline of ethics offers little help in resolving ethical dilemmas such as this one that have valid, rational arguments on each side. The two sides rely upon different, incompatible frameworks to justify their conflicting positions.

Proponents advance utilitarian arguments, explicitly or implicitly seeking the greatest good (or most love) for the greatest number of people. Construction and use of TMT will provide jobs and economic benefits to Hawai’i’s people, native Hawaiians and non-native Hawaiians alike. The telescope has a real if unknown and unquantifiable potential to advance science and benefit humanity. A majority of scientists contends that the Mauna Kea site will produce superior results to the alternative location in the Canary Islands. Furthermore, the Canary Island site probably entails higher environmental costs.

Opponents advance deontological claims, refusing to comprise on important principles. Construction is wrong because it would disrespect native Hawaiians and native Hawaiian traditions, thereby denying justice to already marginalized people. Pointing to God's preferential concern for the vulnerable and least amongst us, opponents argue that respecting human dignity and seeking justice negate any utilitarian calculus of TMT’s potential benefits.

TMT has polarized Hawai’i’s peoples precisely because people on both sides fail to appreciate the values, reasons and ethical frameworks that lead to opposite conclusions. Analogously, narrow ethical perspectives which ignore conflicting views, when twisted and inflamed by demagogues for personal benefit, explain much of the current political polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Second, unlike litigation in an adversarial court system that produces a winner and a loser, mediation strives for win-win outcomes. After years of litigation over possible construction of TMT, the courts finally decided in favor of construction. Proponents won; opponents lost. Ironically, native Hawaiian culture historically relied upon a type of mediation (ho’oponopono) to resolve many disputes.

Mediation proceeds by identifying the real concern(s) behind the issues and multiple options for resolving a conflict. For example, is the real issue for native Hawaiians their quest, their demand, for sovereignty? The U.S. illegally annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898 after expat merchants, plantation owners and others overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Unlike Native American tribes, the Inuit and Eskimos, the U.S. has never recognized native Hawaiians as a sovereign nation. Can several of the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea, whose technology is outdated and whose useful lifespan may have been exceeded, be demolished to permit TMT to be erected in their place? Are there other, not clearly identified, central concerns? What alternatives to TMT as currently planned are possible?

Third, as a priest I lack the authority, knowledge and wisdom to resolve the conflict over constructing TMT. I’m not an expert environmentalist, trained labor economist, world-renowned astronomer or other credible authority on any of the issues. I’m not a native Hawaiian. I live on another island. At the most, I’m a stakeholder at the third or fourth remove.  Nor do I have the wisdom to decide who should and should not sit at the table to identify the pertinent issues and then to resolve the conflict.

Priests and, importantly, all Christians can prophetically call for justice and reconciliation. Several aspects of justice are especially relevant. Justice emerges out of a Christian vision of God's beloved community, an inclusive community that embraces the earth and all that dwells therein. God desires justice because God loves all. Queen Lili’uokalani was Hawai’i’s much-loved last monarch and a genuine follower of Jesus. TECH has authorized her local remembrance as a saint; congregations often sing a hymn she authored as a prayer during their services. Before and after the overthrow, Liliuokalani insisted that all people – regardless of race or ethnicity – be allowed to enjoy the shaded coolness and beauty of her palace’s grounds. This practice cohered with the Hawaiian culture’s openness to intermarriage and acceptance of all people. The subsequent racism that has plagued Hawai’i came from Caucasians. They, not native Hawaiians, defined a native Hawaiian as someone whose bloodline was 50% or more native Hawaiian. Hawaiians traditionally defined a Hawaiian as someone shaped by aloha for the land, the sea, and the people. It’s an inclusive vision of the beloved community that Jesus would applaud.

Justice depends upon people having some degree of agency. Without agency, persons are devalued and disrespected. Without agency, justice is impossible. Only a small minority of Hawaiians harbor any hope that the U.S. will cede the Hawaiian Islands to native Hawaiians for them to form a completely independent country. Most native Hawaiian demands for sovereignty actually express their desire for respect and to have their voices heard. These demands are integral to God's preferential option for the marginalized and most vulnerable. The culture of white racism introduced to the Hawaiian Islands when Captain Cook exploited Hawaiians thinking he was a god continued with the expat overthrow of the monarchy and plantation system that devalued non-white labor persists today.

Lastly, justice connotes fairness. In some conflicts, compromise is inherently impossible. TMT will either be built or not; there is no middle option of building only half a telescope. When confronted with such an issue, experienced mediators seek to package several issues together. Packaging issues allows all parties to win on some issues, lose on some issues, and compromise on others. Nobody receives the entirety of what they want, but everybody receives some of what they deem most important. Living as God's beloved community requires this type of compromise. Fairness requires that all parties, affirming their identify as part of the beloved community and exercising some measure of agency, view the final agreement as fair and just.

When mistrust and alienation characterize relationships, beloved community does not exist. When identity politics, of which racism is one form, distort relationships, power imbalances undercut agency. And when those factors persist over time, fairness and justice are possible only through reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires parties working to incorporate those alienated into the beloved community, embracing everyone as full and equal members, fully and equally respecting the dignity and worth of every member. In addition to more usual emphases on repentance (turning from sin) and reparation (trying to repair the harm done), reconciliation also requires sharing power and agency equitably. No voice is always heard more often, more loudly or more dominantly. These steps necessitate emotional and value shifts by both those with and without power. Forgiveness is the hopeful act of believing, tentatively trusting, that the parties engaged in reconciliation are sincere, supported by evidence of genuine repentance and practical steps taken toward reparations. Too often, people with power are loathe to share. Conversely, people without power may develop a conflicting sense of power and agency, cherishing their role as outsiders, reluctant to let go of grievances and integrate into the beloved community.

Theologically, I believe that reconciliation is always possible. Realistically, I know that is improbable. The process of reconciliation allows the dialogue that permits movement toward fairness. Perhaps too much time has passed since debate over TMT began; perhaps an originally unnecessary urgency now surrounds the decision; perhaps positions have hardened too much because of pre-existing alienation and power imbalances. As a Christian and a priest, I prophetically call for stakeholders in the TMT dispute to heal the divides in God's beloved community, to share agency and power equitably, and to seek a just, fair solution to the broader issues that fracture and harm our culture, the Hawaiian culture.

We, the Church and its priests, will improve our success rate as reconcilers if we proactively discern where and when God may heal brokenness. Identify the next issue(s) likely to further splinter the beloved community or the wider culture; then prophetically, preemptively, call for reconciliation, forgiveness and justice. Reconciliation resembles healing an infection: it is best done before the bacteria develops a resistance to antibiotics.

The national and local attention focused on the TMT controversy demonstrates the power of a small, still emerging element of God's people to reclaim their own agency and in doing so to reshape the prevailing narrative, moving the larger society toward a fuller embodiment of justice. For this, everyone – regardless of their views about TMT – can give thanks.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

What is your attitude about money?

Recently, I read Ken Honda’s book, Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace with Your Money. I don’t recommend reading the book. I do recommend pondering his basic question, “What is your attitude about money?”

Honda suggests that many, perhaps most, people live with attitudes of fear and anxiety about money. These people fear they will have insufficient money to fulfill their wants and needs; they are anxious that their money will not afford them adequate security against hunger, houselessness, etc. He contends that our individual attitudes of fear and anxiety originate in a broader societal attitude of scarcity. Never will there be enough money for all to be happy and for all to live abundantly.

Honda believes that money symbolizes energy. A person may achieve happiness by becoming a “money magnet,” i.e., someone whose persona attracts the flow of money. Once a person becomes a money magnet, then s/he person needs to manage their money in a way that produces personal happiness.

He describes himself as a self-help author focused on the connection between money and happiness. This best-selling author has sold seven million books in Japan. He characterizes the book that I read as pointing to the Zen of money.

Although Honda consistently emphasizes the importance of generosity as a help in learning to hold money loosely and as a source of happiness, I found his message strangely at odds with the Christian attitude toward money. His thought does resonate with the “prosperity gospel,” a warped interpretation of Jesus’ teachings premised the idea that God wants everyone to enjoy material wealth.

Christianity, understood more traditionally, teaches that money, per se, is unimportant. Money is a tool for facilitating exchanges (e.g., buying food) and storing value. Money is not a source of happiness.

Happiness always and only comes from a person’s relationship with God, a relationship frequently manifest in our relationship with other people, with creation and with self. Abundant living, as Honda acknowledges can be found in impoverished people, e.g., a person who has chosen a monastic lifestyle or among the people of Bhutan, often identified as the happiest people in spite of their very low incomes and levels of wealth. Research in the U.S. and other developed nations consistently suggests that above a certain income level (now about $75,000) a higher income is no assurance of increased happiness.

By ancient design, communion wafers resemble a coin in shape. The IHS imprinted on many communion wafers represent the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Latin, evocative of coinage minted with the monarch’s name or bust. (The dollar sign, incidentally, is a stylized form of the IHS symbol.) And as with; money, the bread and wine of Holy Communion are called species.[1] In other words, God claims our money as God's own because all things ultimately belong to God, creation’s author. As Jesus said, one cannot serve God and mammon.

Consequently, each person, according to Jesus, is God's steward responsible for using her/his talents, time and treasure in a Godly way. Life is not about me. Life is about us, us understood in its broadest, most inclusive sense. (For more on caring for creation, cf. Restoring God's Earth: A Year of Personal Action.)

Furthermore, faithful stewards acquire an attitude of thankfulness (Honda calls this arigato, the Japanese word for thank you). Honda fails to link thankfulness to stewardship. Thankfulness transforms anxiety and fear into peace, trusting that our security and well-being depend not upon money but upon relationships. A young Mao Tse Tung reportedly said, “Money is the father and grandfather of the mean of spirit.”[2] Thankfulness develops as we cultivate mutually life-giving and loving relationships with others, with the world around us and with our innermost self. Thankfulness points toward life’s deepest mystery, that which we call God.

[1] Mark C. Taylor, About Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 154.
[2] Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), p. 434.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

How big is your worldview?

How big is your worldview?

I write looking out over an urban area, beach park, and expansive views of the Pacific Ocean framed by Oahu’s mountains, all of which are eroded remnants of long dormant volcano craters. I generally read the New York Times, Washington Post and the Guardian (a British newspaper) every day. Although the reporting covers the world unequally, articles cover the permanently inhabited continents. My world’s boundaries extend far beyond the small Pacific island on which I live.

Before I write, I generally circumambulate the beach park that I can see from my window, a walk of about four miles. At ground level, my view toward the ocean is largely limited to grass, sand, palm trees, beachgoers, a lagoon formed by a coral reef and the ocean for a few miles beyond the reef.

While walking one day this week, I mused about globalization. In the eighteenth century, communication moved at the speed of a person, perhaps aided by a horse or sail powered vessel. Relatively few people ever travelled outside the local geographic area in which they were born. News traveled slowly. Steam, the telegraph, the internal combustion engine, radio, TV, the jet engine, transistors, the internet – a growing stream of inventions accelerated communication, sped up travel and lowered the cost of travel, and broadened horizons. Today, most people are more aware of the rest of the world than ever before. A diminishing minority of people live without knowledge of the rest of the world.

Intentionally narrowing one’s perspective on the world by paying attention only to one’s immediate surroundings and the people with whom one has a special relationship (either family, long-time friends or caregivers) works for the very young and the very, very old.

For the rest of us, intentionally narrowing our perspective courts disaster. Two sets of issues illustrate the looming danger. First, a person who blithely ignores all information about climate change, pollution and other environmental hazards may not diminish his/her quality of life. However, the consequences of those irresponsible actions for future generations are dire. Indeed, the consequences of those irresponsible actions for the present are increasingly dire. Second, military and terrorist threats are now global, easily crossing formerly formidable defensive topographical features such as oceans. As airport security checks and other intrusive, defensive measures remind us: the threats are real. My neighbors include all living people.

Politicians, leaders and people in every nation who prioritize self and their nation above everyone else expedite the end of the human race and perhaps of all life forms on this planet. White supremacists, religious nationalists and all forms of xenophobia pose a real threat to the whole world.

Our one hope for humanity is expanding our definition of “neighbor” to include all people, all life forms and the earth itself.

Biologists, psychologists and other researchers doubt that genuine altruism – care for another that does not benefit the caregiver is possible. Instead of advocating altruism, adopt an ethic of reciprocal altruism. Care for others believing – knowing – that your life and well-being are impossible without active concern and care from others.

For example, a mother cares for her newborn until the child is able to fend for him/herself. Mothers often have a partner to aid in the time demanding and costly endeavor of childrearing. Parents sacrifice for their children because they (or their genes) know that the parent’s genes live on through the child. Without parental care, probably no child would survive.

Parental care alone is generally insufficient. Few parents have the knowledge and ability to feed, clothe, shelter, provide medical care, educate and otherwise nurture a child from birth until adulthood. Parents rely upon others for assistance with those tasks. Historically, we can trace the slowly expanding circle of mutual concern that provided the assistance from the nuclear family to the extended family to the clan to the tribe and then to nation. In the twenty-first century, that circle must extend to all humans if we are to survive.

The wisdom that Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan rightly understood points to a far more profound truth than Jesus’ contemporaries could have ever imagined.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Martha or Mary?

While he was Dean of Duke Divinity School, L. Gregory Jones and his eleven-year-old son “were driving home from soccer practice. [He] was talking with his son...about his team and the drills they had done that evening. [The Dean] did not anticipate the turn [their] conversation was about to take.

“‘What does Divinity School do anyway?’ [the son] asked....

“[Jones] told [his son] that a Divinity school is a place where people go to learn how to become ministers. [He] mentioned the name of some ministers [his son] knew, then added ‘They came to divinity school so that they could study the Bible, learn how to preach and lead worship, and develop the skills necessary to be ministers of a congregation.’

“‘Oh, ’he replied. [The Dean] thought this had settled the matter. But then [his son] spoke again. ‘Dad,’ he asked, ‘Don’t you think a divinity school ought to spend more time learning about God?’”[1]

That story has the same message as this morning’s gospel lesson.[2] Like Martha and Dean Jones, we sometimes become so focused on serving God and doing God’s business that God seems distant. Jesus praised Martha’s sister Mary for doing the one thing that was needful: learning about God.

This morning’s epistle lesson expands on that message, teaching us about God as revealed in Jesus Christ.[3] First, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. We repeat that claim every time we say the Nicene Creed: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” The image of God in Jesus is spiritual, an image of light and of love.

“A mountain guide, Michael Zanger, once told of leading some men up Mount Shasta. One man was having great difficulty breathing. His face coloring was unusual. Frequent stops for rest did not seem to help. As they continued to climb, his breathing was punctuated by coughing and spitting froth mixed with blood. To make matters worse, a sudden snowstorm confined them to hastily erected tents. Michael thought the man might die of heart failure.

As he lay there, Michael revealed that they could call for rescuers because he had a cell phone. The man showed interest. “‘Would you make a personal call for me?’ the man asked.

“Michael thought to himself, ‘This man thinks he’s critical, and he wants to speak to his loved ones one last time,’ so he said, ‘Yes.’

“‘Well,’ said the man, ‘Would you call my broker in San Francisco and ask what the value of my stock is today?’”[4]

To see God, make spending time with Jesus a daily priority.

Second, remember that church in all of its programs, events and relationships should be about Jesus. Richard Halverson, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, once summarized the history of the Church this way:

In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women who centered their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Later it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. Finally, it moved to the United States, where it became an enterprise. We’ve got far too many churches and so few fellowships.[5]

Too often, small congregations are either tight-knit, closed groups bound together by love but unable to welcome new people or simply a group of persons who gather on Sundays with no real ties. The challenge is to be family, a loving family who welcomes and invites newcomers to belong. Our love for one another and for others embodies Christ and reveals God to us.

Third, Jesus reveals God to us by reconciling us to God and to one another, filling us with peace. Two weeks ago, I briefly attended the Thursday evening centering prayer group that meets in Monteiro Chapel. Then, I stepped out into the courtyard to attend an event organized by our School’s Development office. Alumni, parents, children and faculty were celebrating the best of Holy Nativity School. Among those attending were individuals supporting and opposed to recent changes in the School’s administration. People experienced reconciliation and found peace in their love for one another.

Together, our centering prayer group and School represent Martha and Mary. We do not have to choose between them. Life has seasons. In one season, you may be like Martha, seeing Jesus by actively serving and loving. In another season you may be like Mary, looking at Jesus to delve deeper into the mystery of God. And in some seasons, you may be part-Martha and part-Mary. But always, seek reconciliation with God and your neighbor that you may savor the peace that is beyond all understanding. AMEN.

Sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2019

[1] L. Gregory Jones, “One that matters,” The Christian Century, 20-27 May 1998, p.544. Changed from first person to third person.
[2] Luke 10:38-42
[3] Colossians 1:15-28
[4] Gary Anderson in Eileen h. Wilmoth, 365 Devotions (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 1993).
[5] Quoted by Harry N. Wendt, Address to the Chicago Synod Assembly, ELCA, 14 June 1997.

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.