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

TMT

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.