Monday, July 22, 2019

The 11th Commandment

I did something out of character when I turned 55.  I threw a birthday party for myself.  Some of you even attended and a few of you, sensing I was in way over my head, pitched in and helped.  John Rector grilled burgers and I remember Wanda Rector and Cindy Cowan at the kitchen sink cleaning dishes.  Much of the rest of the 3-hour gala was and remains a blur.  It went by so fast and it felt like all I did all evening was say hello to a guest and then move on to another and then another and then another and then it was over. 

After the dust settled and after I recovered from the trauma of it all – which took several days and not a little bit of therapy – I asked different people if they had similar experiences when they hosted a party.  Did they feel run ragged greeting people and making sure everything was going smoothly?  To a person the answer was yes.  And how about you?  How many of you find hosting a party to be a lot of work?  I find the author Richelle Goodrich’s insight to be spot on: “Announcing [you intend to throw a party] is kind of like issuing a hurricane warning!”  I turn 60 in just a few months, but don’t worry about saving the date!  I don’t sense another party is in the offing.

Today’s lessons invite us to ponder the Christian virtue of hospitality – in these readings, at least, ones arising more spontaneously than my planned effort at 55.  Paul writes to the church in Colossae, a small, close-knit group of family and friends who welcomed the Apostle into their homes during his missionary journeys.  The Gospel reading finds Jesus a guest in the Bethany home of Mary and Martha, which is an easy day’s walk from Jerusalem.  Along with their brother Lazarus, the sisters appear to be some of Jesus’ closest friends and most ardent supporters, although the biblical record tells us very little about how they met and bonded.  Still, several times when Jesus is at the Holy City he visits and/or stays with them.  In our first reading, set centuries before this, Abraham is establishing a new home in Mamre, thirty-some miles west of the Dead Sea, when three mysterious figures appear in front of his tent.  Abraham and his wife Sarah go to great lengths to welcome the trio and extend every kindness to them.

Hospitality is one of the most important virtues and values in the bible.  It is so vital that if there was an 11th Commandment it most likely would address treatment of a stranger.  Here is just a small survey of teachings from our sacred texts:
  • Among the initial commands given to Moses is this: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21).  It harkens back to what I said in last Sunday’s sermon about the ability to empathize being at the core of all morality and ethics.

  • The Old Testament book of Leviticus develops this theme with specific examples: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (19:34).  “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard.  You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (19:10).  This commandment takes me back to the sermon when I told you about the people who were arrested in Arizona for leaving food and water in the desert for migrants.  As their defense they cited the right to free expression of their religious beliefs.

  • The prophet Isaiah speaks for God: “Is not [the fast I desire] to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house?”  (58:7)

  • Among the things Job lists to defend his righteousness is this:  HospitaliThe alien has not lodged outside, for I have opened my doors to the traveler.”  (31:32)

  • Jesus teaches we are to invite the poor, the hungry, and the needy into our homes – those who do not have the ability to repay us – because in so doing we will find ourselves blessed and in addition will be recipients of the same in heaven (Luke 14:14).  For Jesus, the more down and the more out a person is, the more you are to extend every welcome.

  • The author of the Letter of Hebrews, building on a tradition established in today’s lesson from the Old Testament, writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (13:2)

  • The story of Abraham’s visitors does not end with today’s reading.  They leave his home and go to the village of Sodom where they meet Abraham’s nephew Lot.  Like his uncle, Lot extends the hospitality of his home to them.  But the men of the village gather at night outside the door and demand the visitors be given to them so that they can have “relations” with them.  This evil kindles God’s wrath and the town is destroyed.  The story has been cited as evidence the bible condemns all forms of same-gender relationships.  But Scripture itself interprets the violent, aggressive actions of the Sodomites differently.  The prophet Ezekiel writes this: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  (16:49).  In short, the sin of Sodom was the absence of hospitality
These few verses constitute the briefest of surveys of the bible’s teaching related to hospitality.  And while I do not recommend inviting complete strangers to stay in your home, each of us is called to ponder what it means to be open to the person who is “other”.  What does it mean for our church to be open and hospitable?  For our neighborhoods?  Our community?  Our nation?  What does it mean to have a heart open and hospitable toward the stranger and the alien?  It goes without saying, these are not just theoretical questions.  They are at the very heart and soul of the most current and pressing events in our national life. 

When the Episcopal Church is at its best, one of the hallmarks of our ethos is we do not tell our membership how to vote or which stance is the “Christian” one in political debates.  At our best, we lift up the biblical witness and encourage each person to come to an informed and faithful position.  It is up to you to determine how biblical mandates are to be interpreted in our day and it is up to you to determine how much weight you will give to them. 

I didn’t choose today’s readings any more than I chose the tweets making headlines this week.  Still, one speaks to the other.  I’ll let you decide how and determine what you will do with it.  I’ll close with a bit of good news: as you ponder the biblical witness of hospitality you will find nothing in it to suggest you are required to come to my house and wash the dishes!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Empathy, Ethics & "Inheriting" Eternal Life

St. Jerome, writing in the 4th Century, referred to the twenty-mile passage from Jericho in the Jordon Valley to Jerusalem as the Red Way or the Bloody Road; such was its notorious and dangerous reputation.  Beginning well below sea level and rising to the heights of the Holy City, a traveler climbed almost a mile in elevation during a day-long journey.  When Tom Coxe and I were there last September our bus strained at times with the grade even though we were on well-paved roads. 

There isn’t a single path from Jericho to Jerusalem, but many.  We walked a portion of a downhill trail following a ridgeline.  It was an easy decent, but we did not go as far as the end where there is an impossibly steep descent into the Jordon Valley.  The land itself is little more than a series of unimaginably barren, deep, deep ravines.  There is no way to image the dry, rocky landscape until you see it.

The path we walked most likely is not the route Jesus would have taken.  He, like most people of his day, walked up and down the Wadi Qelt, a dry streambed winding its way through the bottom of a ravine.  We could see for miles and miles in all directions from our vantage point at the top of the ridge, but down in the wadi, with its twists and turns, a traveler would have no idea what waited beyond the next boulder or bend. 

At the beginning of our walk our group was ambushed by a small band of locals hawking various wears.  In Jesus’ day the Bloody Road earned its name because of the countless number of ambush points it afforded for those who meant harm.  Those who sought to sell us a kufiya headdress or leather belt were a far cry from the bandits who preyed on people passing by on their way to or from Jericho.

In today’s Gospel reading a person approaches Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The text indicates his motive in asking is not entirely spiritual.  He wants to “test” Jesus.  Jesus, in turn, asks the person what he reads about this in the law.  “You must love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and you must love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Correct,” says Jesus.  “Do this and you will live.”

The questioner could have followed up by asking Jesus to elaborate on what it means to love God completely, but instead chooses to inquire about the other stipulation: “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds by telling what is perhaps his best-known parable.  Even if you do not know the story or the source, the phrase “Good Samaritan” still stands in our day for a person who reaches out to help another in need.

Jesus sets his story in the Wadi Qelt.  Those listening know instantly this is a place of potential danger.  The robbers who fall upon the traveler may be the bay guys in the story, but they are not the villains.  Like the wadi, they are there to set the stage for the action that follows. 

The parable has four main characters – the victim, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  Although it is a small detail, it is important to note each is going “down”, meaning each person has left Jerusalem and is headed to Jericho.  They were moving from the sacred and holy to the secular and ordinary.  Today we might tell this part of the story by saying, “A certain person was on his way home from church when he was attacked and others who were on their way home from church passed him by.”

Far from being uniformed, morally bankrupt, or under-resourced, as a demographic priests and Levites are solid, educated, middle-class professionals who either work in the church or attend it on a regular basis.  They are upstanding people and solid citizens.  In a very real sense, they are not much different from you and me.   

They may have had legitimate reasons for passing by the victim.  Perhaps they had important business to attend and could not afford to be delayed.  Some note interacting with the injured person ran the risk of making them ritually unclean, thus rendering them unable to fulfill religious obligations until undertaking an elaborate process to address their defilement.  It is possible they are afraid of being attacked themselves and scurry pass to avoid trouble. 

A perceived threat has a powerful way of shaping a person’s ethical perspective and response to a situation.  It activates in us an ancient response for self-preservation at the expense of all else.  It diminishes our ability to recognize humanity and nullifies our ability to be compassionate. As fear saturates our spiritual being we become more and more self-concerned.  And as this happens we want our religious environment and teachings to validate our actions. 

Religion, at its worst, is a tool in the hands of those motivated mostly by self-interest.  How can I justify the things I do?  Where can I find happiness and peace?  What must I do to inherit eternal life?  From Jesus’ parable we learn he believes deeply devout people can and do use their religion to shield and shelter them from what matters most.  The tale-tell sign of such a person is his or her indifference to the suffering of other people.  When this kind of indifference becomes widespread it works is way into our political debates and even becomes a part of our social fabric. 

I sense in me a numbness to human suffering because I am incapacitated by its magnitude.  The priest and the Levite invite our scorn because they sidestep a person in need.  Our modern world makes us aware of so much more than the human suffering at our side.  We see need in our neighborhood.  We hear about it in our region.  We know about it throughout our nation.  We are aware of it around the globe in a way the people of Jesus’ day never were.  It is easy to understand why we want to build around us a wall of reasons and rationales to keep us from being overrun by the suffering of the world.

When Jesus tells a parable he invites us to see the world through the eyes of each character in it.  In the priest and in the Levite we recognize who and what we are not to be, and yet in them we see much of ourselves.  There are times when we engage the world as the Samaritan and through selflessness and self-giving become a conduit of amazing grace. 

How do we act and react more like the latter than the former?

Jesus invites us to see the world from the perspective of the victim.  He invites us to ask a simple question: If I was in his position how would I want to be treated?  Some may say by traveling alone he was asking for trouble and he got exactly what he deserved.  This may or may not be accurate, but as he lied there injured and bleeding I doubt he was hoping someone would come along to tell him why he was to blame for all his miseries.  Plain and simple, if any one of us was the victim in this story we would want someone – anyone! – to stop and help us. 

The ability to empathize – to put oneself in the position of another in order to see the world from his or her perspective – is at the heart and core of all morality and ethics.  And, according to what Jesus teaches in today’s lesson, it represents one half of what is required to “inherit” eternal life.  We fulfill the law as our thinking and actions shift from how a person’s situation impacts us and our life to imaging what the other person needs, wondering how we might be a part of the answer, and then acting upon it.

Monday, July 8, 2019

God's Advance Team

Shortly after graduating from college Josh King was on a tour of the White House when he asked the guide to tell him a little bit more about his job.  “Well,” the guide said, “I travel everywhere the first lady travels and make sure everything is perfect.”  It turns out the person giving the tour was the Director of Advance for the President’s wife and in that moment King knew what he wanted to do with his life.  Since then he has worked on the advance team of numerous politicians, doing something like roadies do at concerts and set directors do for movies.  He makes sure everything at a politician’s appearance is just right to entertain, impress, and inform while coming off without a hitch.   

Well, that at least is the goal.  While it wasn’t his call, King was on the advance team for Michael Dukakis when the presidential candidate took a ride in an Abrams tank wearing a helmet way too large for his head.  Designed to make Dukakis look capable of leading the military, it came off looking goofy and did more to sink Dukakis’ campaign than any other single event or factor. 

Most often the work of an advance team does not go as badly.  On July 4, 1993 I found myself on a connecting flight making a brief landing to pick up passengers in Moline, IL prior to heading on to Chicago.  It was late afternoon and I was puzzled because the fences around the runway were jammed with cars and people.  The airport – no bigger than a bus terminal – teemed with activity.  All the hubbub was more than puzzling until the pilot announced Air Force One was scheduled to land at the field in twenty minutes.  Then-President Clinton, on his way to an Asian summit, did a fly-over to inspect Mississippi River flooding and was scheduled to land and meet briefly with people affected.

It was a classic piece of advance work undertaken on short notice.  The team contacted local media outlets, rounded up flood victims and farmers for the president to meet, converted an airport hanger into a cozy Middle America setting complete with hay bales and tractors as a backdrop, and made sure everything related to the optics, the lighting, and the sound came off without a hitch, which it did.  By the grace of God, my flight picked up our three passengers and received permission to get out of Moline just after the massive 747 press plane landed and only minutes before Air Force One touched down and I was able to watch the story on 11:00 o’clock news from my home.

I noted last Sunday our Gospel readings from Luke have entered a portion of the text known as the “Travel Narrative”, covering the time from when Jesus determines to head toward Jerusalem for the Passover to the day he enters the Holy City riding on a donkey.  Although this unfolds over just a matter of several weeks, Luke devotes fully one third of his writing to the events that happen during this time.

The reason this period becomes so fertile and significant can be traced in part to a decision Jesus makes at the outset.  He commissions seventy of his followers to go out in teams of two to visit all the villages and hamlets he will pass through on his way to Jerusalem.  His advance teams (if you will) have important work to do.  Much of it is related to reconnaissance.  They are to figure out who in a village will welcome Jesus and who will not.  Jesus instructs them to move on if no one in a particular place is receptive.  Time is too short for him to waste even a precious second on those who are not interested. 

The advance teams work to create excitement for Jesus’ visit in places they are welcomed.  This surely accounts for the numerous times so many people turn out as Jesus is passing through a particular village.  The advance notification afforded locals plenty of time to prepare.  Those in need of healing have time to ponder if they will present themselves to Jesus.  Those who have sinned must contemplate whether or not they will approach Jesus – thereby risking condemnation and humiliation either from Jesus or (more likely) from the local population.  Religious authorities must mull over their particular response based on if they perceive Jesus to be a holy person or a threat to their power.  Because of the work of the advance teams a lot has been simmering by the time Jesus enters a particular village.  One way or another, his visit will be memorable. 

There is one more thing to note about these advance teams.  While they are not Jesus, they carry with them something of his authority.  They pray with people and bring about healing.  They confront the works of evil and bind things causing torment in people’s lives.  They don’t just prepare for the work of Jesus, they participate in it. 

Considering the mission of these seventy followers helps us to understand certain aspects of our role as Jesus’ disciples.  Perhaps nothing is more important than remembering the distinction between our calling and God’s work.  Just as the sower in Jesus’ parable is responsible for the lone act of scattering seeds while God is the one who is responsible for the soil, the rain, the sunshine, and all the conditions required for growth, we too are called to set the stage for God’s work in a person’s life, but we are not called to do the work only God can do. 

Perhaps you know someone who is lonely or hurting or afraid or discouraged.  Most of us think “if only there was something I could do,” but ultimately it is only God who can make things right and whole in a person’s life.  Still, you can invite a person to attend church with you.  You can bring someone to a parish event.  You can encourage a grandchild to sign up for a session at camp.  In short, you can do a lot of advance work. 

You can welcome people who come here on a Sunday morning.  You can commit to do something necessary for us to have a good and Godly worship service by singing in the choir, serving as an usher, reading a lesson, preparing the altar, teaching a class, or any of a host of other things.  One of our best “advance team” ministries involves collecting children during the final hymn so they can gather in the tower entrance to ring the bell after the service.  It allows our children to do their own advance work by announcing to downtown Suffolk St. Paul’s is alive and well and gathering in God’s Name, while letting the Baptist, Methodist, and Christian churches nearby know our service is over well before theirs!  

As God’s advance team, we are charged with making St. Paul’s a comfortable place to gather in God’s presence.  It is our responsibility to present quality worship on a consistent basis so that every person who comes here knows the One they have heard about and desire to meet is present in this place at this moment.

As we do the advance work of preparing the way for God to act we find (just as the initial disciples did) we participate in the work God is doing.  That we are helpful and effective is often mysterious to us, and yet time and again those who prepare the way for God to work are thanked for making a difference in a person’s life.  Has anyone ever said to you, “I don’t know how I could have ________ without you”?  If so, then be assured you are a part of God’s advance team.

We who are called by God to this work and ministry view it as our dream job.  To be of service to God by brining and welcoming others into God’s presence… well, could anything in life be better than this?


Monday, July 1, 2019

Sauntering to Jerusalem

Well, it finally feels like summer has settled in here in Suffolk.  Hot weather, combined with school being out, gets one to thinking about… a vacation!  And vacationing means hitting the road, which makes today’s Gospel reading perfectly timed.  It launches us into a new section of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Biblical scholars refer to chapters 9-19 as the “Travel Narrative” of the book.  Fully one third of what Luke writes about Jesus covers the time from when he sets out for Jerusalem to the day of Palm Sunday when he enters the holy city riding a donkey.

Luke describes the beginning of this journey in a telling way: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  The days drew near refers to Luke’s sense that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem because it was his destiny, his mission, his time.  Perhaps to be taken up refers in part to the elevation change of going to Jerusalem, which is located on one of the highest points in Israel.  It certainly refers to being lifted up on a cross to be crucified.  It may also refer to his eventual Ascension into glory at the right hand of the Father, an event Luke describes in the Book of Acts (the second part his writing project).

The most telling part of the verse is Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.  It harkens back to a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 

I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.

Therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.       (50:6-7)

Luke gives us an image of Jesus setting out toward Jerusalem with a kind of grim determination – a resolve which will not yield to any distraction.  Like a father driving the family car who refuses to stop for a bathroom break, at the outset Jesus approaches his journey more like a march than a pilgrimage.  He allows no time to say goodbye to family, no time to attend to burial arrangements, and no time to call down wrath on those who are rude to him.  To one person who wants to join him Jesus warns there will be no comfy provisions and no cushy accommodations (think again of the parent who warns, “We are not going to stop for anything until we get to where we are going!”).  One scholar notes to set your face life flint “implies that you’re expecting some opposition” and it means you “regard these difficulties as worthwhile when you consider what they will lead you to.” 

The American mountaineer Jon Krakauer writes this about scaling the world’s highest peak:

Let’s not mince words: Everest doesn’t attract a whole lot of well-balanced folks.  The self-selection process tends to weed out the cautious and the sensible in favor of those who are single-minded and incredibly driven.

Without a maniacal focus reaching the summit would not be possible.  Some journeys simply require a person to forsake all else in order to reach the desired goal.

All of this got me to thinking about so many people on our parish prayer list who are mounting an assault on one type of challenging crisis or another.  What they face makes climbing a mountain seem as easy as strolling down a shaded country lane.  Like Jesus setting out for Jerusalem, the path these folk are on is not one they choose.  It is put on them and if they are going to get to a place of health again they will have to set their faces like flint for the journey. 

Given how Jesus begins his travels anything transpiring along the way is both unexpected and notable.  During the time he has set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem, many things in fact do happen.  Jesus…

…trains others how to minister as he does.

…instructs those who ask questions about such things as moral responsibility, wealth, relationships, humility, forgiveness, care for the poor, perseverance, self-righteousness, and eternal life.

…gathers in the homes of friends.

…teaches his followers how to pray.

…heals people suffering from chronic, debilitating, and often stigmatizing illnesses.

…is joined by scores of new followers who accompany him on the way.

…and responds to challenges posed by religious authorities.

In short, Jesus learns how to transform his march into a pilgrimage.  In a march, all that matters is to get to where you are going as soon as possible.  A pilgrimage, on the other hand, is a journey to a holy destination, but it is what happens along the way that changes you. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.  Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind these are all a drive towards serving the God who rings our hearts like a bell.  It is as if God was waiting to enter our empty, perishing lives.

This is a discovery we find not only during our difficult trials.  It is a something we can experience every day if we approach all of life as if it is filled with holy possibilities. 

Perhaps the answer lies in learning how to saunter.  Now, in our day we think of sauntering as a leisurely, aimless stroll, but this is not accurate to its origins.  In the Middles Ages, when people on pilgrimage to Jerusalem passed through a village on the way and were asked where they were going, they answered “a la sainte terre, “to the Holy Land.”  Thus they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.

Jesus may have set out for Jerusalem with his face set.  He was determined, yes, but also grim and maniacal.  But along the way – as we will see in our readings throughout this season of Pentecost – he learned to saunter.  He opened himself to those around him as well as to every possibility and opportunity that presented itself.  Jesus learned to find holiness on the way to the Holy City. 

This is my prayer for you: that you learn to saunter even and especially when your face is set to that place you must go; even and especially when you have nowhere you have to go, or if you have nowhere at all to go.  May you always be open to the holy moment in which you live and move and have your being.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Anomie or Moral Rigidity

In 1893, Emile Durkheim, who is created with founding modern sociology, published a brief work detailing differences he observed in the labor force.  One group of workers, he noted, was required to perform repetitive tasks while the other needed to employ a wide variety of skills, disciplines, and actions.  Durkheim named the first type of labor Mechanical Solidarity and detailed how its redundant nature discouraged innovation and adaptation to changes.  He named the other Organic Solidarity and stated its multi-faceted approach fostered and valued new ideas and methods.

Through his observations Durkheim determined these two basic groups in the labor force were unable to exist in harmony with one another.  Coining the phrase “anomie” (or normlessness), he stated the mechanically inclined could not tolerate the open-endedness of the organic approach.  Those immersed in organic labor felt stifled by the closed nature of the mechanical approach to work. 

Durkheim continued to develop his thinking about anomie and took it in new directions in an 1897 book studying suicide.  He found that just as resistance to change and change occurring too rapidly had an impact on the workforce, so too societal anomie influences our lives more than we realize.  There is a human, psychological cost when norms are lacking as well as when they are too rigid. 

Durkheim learned a diminishing of clear values and codified behavior causes people to experience a sense of alienation and purposelessness.  Life feels frustrating, confusing, and even disturbing because one is not sure how to live and act.  It is as if there is no clear-cut path forward, no guidebook to tell you how to do it, and no shared vision of what life is to look like.  Think of it as the exact opposite of Ozzie and Harriet and the 1950s. 

A common example of anomie occurs every time a child acts up in a checkout line.  If ten people are watching there are at least fifteen difference ideas as to how the parent should handle the situation… and no matter what the parent does, it will be deemed improper by those watching.  This, in a microcosm, is what it looks like and feels like to live in anomie.  Things are changing so much so fast our norms cannot keep up.

While some manifest anxiety in response to this, others opt for rigidity.  They hold hard and fast to the old ways and remember nostalgically (if inaccurately) a time when everything felt more settled and sure.  So, for example, some pine for the return a Father Knows Best era when role expectations were clearly defined and followed.

In a time of normlessness everyone feels adrift and unsure because society lacks a consensus about how to act and behave.  And while periods of rigid norms offer clarity, those who do not or cannot abide by them are pushed to the sidelines or expelled from the community.  The question I want to pose is this: Is there a third way, a way striking a balance between normlessness and rigidity?

Let’s use all of this as a lens through which to look at this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.  Travelling by boat, Jesus and his followers come ashore in the land of Gerasenes.  It does not appear to be their destination, but a ferocious overnight storm has blown them to this pagan land on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. 

They disembark, perhaps to catch their breath after a harrowing experience, and immediately are confronted by a demon-possessed, unclothed man.  Local townsfolk are so disturbed by him they have taken to chaining him in a nearby cemetery.  The crazed and tormented individual begs Jesus for relief.

The text does not tell us Jesus’ initial reaction to the situation.  Perhaps he was startled.  He might have been afraid.  Maybe he was annoyed.  We are not told.  But here is one thing to note:  Jesus is in a pagan land, in a cemetery, in close proximity to a herd of pigs, speaking with a possessed person.  All four are forbidden in Hebrew law and any one of them will make Jesus “ritually unclean” and prohibit him from public worship until going through an elaborate cleansing rite. 

This episode bears similarities to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  In it, a priest and a religious scribe both avoid an injured person, in part to avoid becoming defiled.  It is only the foreigner from Samaria who demonstrates compassion for the man in need by treating one different from him in so many ways as a neighbor.  Well, to use an expression common to us, Jesus does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk.  He lays aside all the rules and regulations and frees the man of all that torments him.

It is easy to sympathize with the locals.  You cannot have a crazy, possessed person running amuck on the streets.  Certain behaviors and standards need to be upheld.  But their response to banish him and confine him in such an inhumane manner is the picture of moral rigidity.  It is a retreat to the way things “should be” that does not grapple at all with the way things are.  Everyone feels better once the threat of his disturbances is removed… well, everyone except the possessed man.

A truly normless response to the situation would be to allow the man to behave as he will.  Jesus could brake off his shackles and send him back into the town unchanged as a statement no one has the right to treat a human being in such a manner.  After all, “to each his own” and “live, at let live.” 

Jesus rejects both moral rigidity and anomie; striking a balance between these two extremes by focusing on the humanity and dignity of the possessed man.  His compassion, leading to the man’s healing and freedom, becomes itself a new kind of normative behavior.  Jesus elevates compassion above ritual purity and demonstrates it supersedes property rights and economic prosperity (just ask the pig herders!). 

So much is changing in our society and standards of behavior simply have not kept up.  We live in a time of anomie with all its effects on well-being outlined by Durkheim over a century ago.  Many feel like a rudderless ship at sea being tossed about and blown to and fro.  Jesus offers to us a new ethic of compassion based on human dignity and flourishing.  His words and his actions invite us in every situation to ask “What does this human being need?”  To ask, “If I was in his or her position, what would I want people to do for me?”

Have you heard of the advocacy group called No More Deaths?  They have mounted a humanitarian effort to leave food, water, blankets and other provisions in desert regions along our southern border in an effort to provide relief aid for migrants seeking to enter our country illegally.  Last March four of its volunteers were found guilty of federal misdemeanors and sentenced to probation.  Earlier this month a jury was unable to render a verdict in the trial of Scott Warren, an Arizona schoolteacher who provided aid and shelter to pair of migrants who were in desperate condition.  Warren’s defense attorney argued he was exercising his religious beliefs by doing unto others as he would have them do unto him.

The immigration crisis facing our country is not a challenge easily solved or understood.  I know good Christian folks who state emphatically people trying to enter our country illegally should not receive humanitarian aid and if they die in the desert it is their own fault.  I know other people of faith who advocate for completely open borders.  I believe the group No More Deaths is navigating a path between rigid morality and normlessness by addressing human need and real suffering.  It feels to me like a Jesus action in the midst of this ongoing debate.

Where in your life do you sense what Durkheim called anomie and what might a compassionate response focused on human need look like?  How might this give you a sense of meaning, direction, and purpose in a world changing so rapidly you yearn for guidance?

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Unexpected Gift

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?  (Ps. 8:4)

In his short work, Wife Wooing, John Updike tells the story of a husband who after seven years of marriage and three children is still stirred as at first by the sight of his wife.  Sitting with his family around the hearth on a Sunday evening, the husband silently ponders his wife’s beauty as she reclines in the glow of the firelight.  The reader can sense the husband’s desire growing as he nestles beside his wife in their bed, but the story takes an unexpected twist when she falls asleep while reading (of all things) a biography of Richard Nixon. 

In the morning the husband wakes and goes to work where he is confronted with a particularly vexing mechanical problem.  He struggles all day long, but can find no solution.  He brings his work home at night where he is the picture of preoccupation.  His wife makes a meal, tends to the children, puts them to bed, and slips off quietly to draw a bath.  After a time she enters the study where her husband is absorbed in thought.  As she leans over to kiss him he catches the scent of her perfume and then tastes the freshness of toothpaste on her breath.  “Come to bed,” she says in a way that suggests to the reader this night will end differently than the last.  And then Updike ends the story with the husband’s stunning insight:

An expected gift is not worth giving. 

Do you agree?  Updike contends an expected gift often is received as routine or as obligation.  It does not have staying power because it does not surprise.  But an unexpected gift, well, it can take on a life of its own that lasts and lasts and lasts a lifetime.  And even more, at the heart of all profound religious experiences there is, I think, an unexpected gift. 

Before I was a father I was an uncle.  I enjoyed playing with my nephews and nieces and when they were hungry or sticky or whiney or stinky I enjoyed giving them back to their parents.  I loved them (and still do), but my feelings as translated to actions lacked the depth and intensity of a parent. 

Perhaps the single most remarkable experience of my life happened in the instance the nurse handed my first daughter to me and I held her in my arms.  In the time it took my heart to skip a beat I was changed forever.  I can’t even begin to explain the connection I felt, but I know I don’t have to because every mother and father here knows exactly what happened to me.  It was something I absolutely did not expect; a gift from beyond.  It lit an eternal flame of love in me that still burns just as intensely and mysteriously as it began.  I knew when I first held my daughter nothing would ever mar the love I felt for her in that moment. 

All of this came to me as unexpected gift and though I am far removed from that day it is as vivid in my mind and in my soul as it was on that early September day in 1991.  Beyond being a very human moment, it was a completely holy moment.  When God comes to us God always comes from beyond as unexpected gift.  This is the essence of all authentic, true, deep religious encounters.

Why us?  Given God’s incredible nature and our seeming insignificance, why does God even consider us?  This, I think is what the psalmist pondered at a very deep level as he or she wrote the Eighth Psalm. 

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?  (Ps. 8:4)

In Genesis Chapter 1 we read how, as each day of creation is called forth, God looks at it and realizes it is good.  On the six day, God creates humanity and calls us “very good.”  It is as if God is taken by surprise at the intensity of love and affection God feels as a response to holding us for the first time.  Is it any wonder so many of us identify with God most closely as Father, a parent figure?

Why does God, who brought forth all of creation, consider humanity so highly?  The answer, I believe, is because God felt an unexpected, special bond with us from the moment we came into being.  God’s love for us – for you – is passionate, eternal, mysterious, and unshakable.

I did a Google search this week, asking if it is possible to surprise God.  No, said one site, because God knows everything.  No, said another, because God has planned out everything (don’t even get me started on this kind of theology).  No, no, no said site after site until I said phooey and closed the search tab. 

I’d like to think the God who gives the unexpected gift waits eagerly to see how we will respond.  In our best moments I’d like to think God is surprised, just as every parent is often caught off guard by the awesome wonder that is a child.  And I’d like to think the unexpected gifts we offer to one another come as surprise to God. 

And what about today?  Why are you here?  I suspect for most of us, this time of worship is an encounter with the expected.  We expect to speak with certain friends.  We expect the music.  We expect the readings.  We expect the sermon (with or without a joke).  We expect the sacraments.  We expect to make an offering of a certain amount of money.  We even expect to be home by noon.  So much of what we receive at this time is exactly what we expect.  There is a reason our prayer books fall open to the same page week after week.  And don’t get me wrong; we need certain daily and weekly rhythms to give our life order and meaning and cohesion. 

But where is the unexpected?  When does God, the holy God, overwhelm us with what we do not anticipate?  When does God woo us and open us to deep intimacy with the Holy?  Can we in some way prepare ourselves in heart and mind to receive what cannot be anticipated? 

And the flipside of these questions involves our gift-giving to God.  If an expected gift is not worth giving, and if much of our worship is an offering of the expected, does it hold value for God?  Is it possible to surprise God with an unexpected gift?  I sure hope so and this thought alone stirs my imagination.  What unexpected gift might you offer to God and how might the effort lead to things that surprise you?  How might the offering of something deeply authentic help us to meet God in the unexpected moment? 



Monday, June 10, 2019

Life is Too Short to be Little

It has been a long time since I first heard this quote by Benjamin Disraeli, but it has stayed with me over the years.  The 19th century British Prime Minister and statesman is widely remembered for saying, “Life is too short to be little.”  I imagine there were plenty of times in his life when his own wisdom was forged and put to the test.  Being a public and political figure does not come without its challenges.  But then again, neither does life.  It has a way of tempting us to be petty, to be afraid, to doubt ourselves, to hold a grudge, to be resentful, to be vindictive, to make a mountain range out of a molecule, to worry ourselves into a fit... to be little. 

Life is too short to be little.  It is full of great and grand possibilities and you do not want to miss your chance at them.

It has been ten days now since we all rose on a Friday morning and headed off to work or the day’s rounds, many of us thinking of that comforting refrain, TGIF.  As the clock ticked passed four in the afternoon we wrapped up loose ends before launching into our weekend with its plans.  This normal and natural conclusion to the workweek came to a horrific end for many in Virginia Beach with the shootings at the Municipal Building 2.  And now, ten days later, we know much about twelve people most of us had never met.

Quita traveled the world and spoke at least two languages.  The Virginian-Pilot said of her, “Playful exchanges on Facebook reveal glimpses of a woman who was adventurous, fun-loving and curious.”  Tara was born in Portsmouth and graduated from Old Dominion with a degree in civil engineering.  She lived in Great Neck.  Mary Lou was a devoted grandmother who was planning on taking her two grandchildren to Disney World in the near future.  She was a devout member of a Roman Catholic Church and volunteered as a cheerleading coach at Ocean Lakes. 

Alex emigrated from Belarus in 2003 and also graduated from ODU with a degree in civil engineering.  Co-workers said he was a “model professional” when dealing with the public.  A friend described him as the kind of person who would do anything to help you.  Alex’s twin brother, sister-in-law and niece live in Virginia Beach and their mother split time between the two homes.  A friend said of Kate, “She loved her husband unconditionally, and always stood up for what was right.  She was a ray of sunlight that led so many in the right direction.  She was selfless, smart and, most of all, a loving mother.”  Rich, the oldest of eight children and father of two sons and two-step sons, is remembered as a kind and friendly person and a leader who put the needs of others first.

Chris was a bagpiper whose affable personality reminded many of Fred Rogers.  One person remembered him as “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”  He was a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Kempsville and will be buried from there this afternoon.  Keith, though soft-spoken, had a powerful singing voice and loved being a part of his church’s choir.  Always the protector, he led seven people to safety during the shooting and was killed when he went back looking for others to help.  Joshua was a loving uncle who, in 2011, published a children’s book on protecting yourself from strangers.  He always had a smile on his face, but friends also say he was still recovering from the pain of a recent divorce.

Missy lived by herself in a townhouse she kept well maintained.  She was married to her job and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A friend said she was still grieving the death of her parents in 2014 and 2016.  She was one of those people who called her mother at the same time on the same day every week.  Bobby was awarded eight different times for his service to Virginia Beach.  He was a devoted family man who was looking forward to spending more time with his loved ones once he retired.  Bert, a respected contractor, was known all over Hampton Roads.  He thought nothing of stopping whatever he was doing to help a neighbor with a repair problem.

What strikes me about these twelve people is the bigness of their lives.  They were eleven public servants and a contractor – not a collection of the famous or the influential or the affluent – just twelve everyday people.  And yet, without notoriety until their tragic deaths, they lived truly remarkable lives.  Sure, none were influential enough to shape the direction of world events, but each person – in his or her own way – made this world a much better place for many.  Their lives, though cut short, were by no means little.

I suspect this is true for each of us.  We do more than we know, mean more than we realize, and matter in ways we don’t quite understand.  Today – The Day of Pentecost – the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It manifests God’s presence in us to empower us to do special things and mobilizes us to undertake great works.  The Holy Spirit is God in each one of us reminding us life is too short to be little.   

Chances are you don’t think of your life as being extraordinary nor would you describe yourself as being filled the Holy Spirit.  We are Episcopalians, after all.  But the truth is you are both.  As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (3:20).  You may not ask for it and you might not be able even to imagine it, but God’s Spirit is at work in you.  And because of this, your life is truly remarkable, dearly precious, and absolutely essential to the common good.

Nipping away at this reality is not the shortness of life.  It is the temptation to be little.  It is the temptation to be dragged down into the muck and mire of all those things that suppress the brightness of God’s Spirit in you.  It is the temptation to dwell on the worst of life rather than to live into its best.  It is to undersell the part you have been given to play in this grand drama of life.

I make it a point not to learn much about the perpetrators of mass shootings and I absolutely abhor how popular culture plays on our fascination with them.  I shun any and every movie, book, documentary, and TV show seeking to capitalize on our lurid attraction to their heinous acts.  As such, I am the last person qualified to speak on what motivates a person to commit such a horrific act.  It does seem many are drawn by a desire to be known for something.  They have gone through life sensing little more than their littleness and, in some twisted way, believe an act of mass murder will make them big in the eyes of the world.

Thankfully, with each sad occurrence, more and more we focusing less and less attention on the shooter and honing in on the stories of the victims.  And what we are learning from them is how ordinary people are leading exemplary lives.  We are learning to draw inspiration from lives tragically cut short. 

The heart-breaking events of a week ago Friday only amplify the message and meaning of Pentecost which we celebrate on this day.  God’s Spirit moves in each of us calling us to remember life is too short to be little.  May you be aware of the power of God’s Spirit in your life working in ways that touch the lives of many.