Love and Judgment

91DOib3bA8L._SX569_All this week, my friend Kym and I have had a texting chain going about Advent calendars — those funny calendars with twenty-four numbered doors or drawers that people use to count down to Christmas Eve. It started when Kym sent me a link with the note, “Amazon is a minion of satan.” When I clicked on the link, I found an ad for an Advent calendar entirely filled with high-end beauty products, aptly named “Ritual.” Kym added: “not sure the message of Advent is luxurious comforts.” Then I scrolled down the link and found a calendar which contained a lego Star Wars figurine for each day of Advent, which I secretly wanted, so I sent that back. Kym didn’t think that one was quite “on point” either. And so we were off, sending them back and forth, until I stumbled upon an Advent calendar filled with our favorite perfume. Finally, I sent her my hard-earned wisdom: “We could be having a great Advent if only we did not believe in Jesus.”

We were playing, of course, with the enormous gap between Advent as a time of spiritual preparation and Advent as the lead up to Commercial Christmas. The tension between these two paths — one focused on mercy to the neediest among us, and the other on extreme shopping — is so obvious as not to need comment, even though most of us struggle in vain to balance them well. But that obvious gap conceals a more profound theological one, the gap which leads us to look back toward the sweet scene of the baby in the manger while the Biblical texts are pointing us toward the Second Coming.

At the most basic level, the reasons for this are obvious. Just about anyone who’s ever seen a baby will tell you: that face and those wriggling fingers are the finest proof we have for the existence of God. Infants move our hearts; they stir our sense of wonder and compassion, bring out our kindness and give it strength to win out over anger, exhaustion, and fear. They are everyday miracles, even without stars and angels and frankincense brought to a manger. And the Second Coming…well, it’s scary, weird, beyond our imaginations — and, for some, not even part of our consciousness.

But underneath this substitution is a significant theological danger, because while the Child in the Manger can be sentimentalized until it is far from its original evocation of self-sacrificial love, the Final Judgment is beyond our capacity to tame. That is the 440px-Stefan_Lochner_-_Last_Judgement_-_circa_1435point: Advent is about preparing ourselves for an encounter with the living God, who cannot be managed or domesticated, but only served, revered, and adored.

Christ conjures that cosmic God in his apocalyptic evocation of the coming of the Son of Man: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” (Luke 21:25) In past years, I’d have written off such rhetoric as poetic hyperbole; now, the daily news of climate change makes it seem all too jarringly possible. Which ever way you lean, Christ is summoning a God whose mere presence shakes the stars and shatters the waves of the sea.

In response, all we can do is prepare: keep alert, keep our hearts ready and our lives in order — because, and this is the good news in the Gospel — because this cosmic God is on our side. This untamable, uncontrollable God loves us, and in all these frightening portents, God is bringing us redemption, calling us to righteousness, which is God’s image planted in us.

In 1223, the young St. Francis was moved to set up a creche with an ox and an ass, then to invite people from the surrounding towns to come hear him preach about “the babe of Bethlehem.” It was the first nativity scene, and what I find astonishing about it is that there was no Christ. There were no shepherds, no kings, no holy family. There was a just a setting — a setting that pointed toward what was not visible, what never could be visible again, except in the faces of the men and women gathered around it, hungering to hear the Word of God.

I love that. It is so easy, in this season, to become trapped in the lie of our more populated creche sets; to think that we can arrange Jesus, arrange Mary, to suit our needs, our taste, our desires, and even our decor. That’s probably why the Second Commandment forbids graven images: not out of concern that we will worship them, but that they might lead us to see ourselves as the ones who can create and manipulate gods. But the theologian Howard Thurman reminds us that Jesus is a “religious subject rather than [a] religious object.” It is God, not ourselves, who is active in the life of faith. God acts upon us; God forms us; God moves us. God is not our plaything or our puppet.

What is called for is not ingenuity, but humility — the openhearted acceptance of God as God is, which alone allows us to accept ourselves and our world as we are. And in that humility is our salvation, not because God covets a groveling people, but because this world cannot actually be made to serve our raw desires for long. When we try to recreate the world in our own image, it does not take long for us to suffer a jarring collision with reality, which seeks our love, not our control.

By the time Francis created that manger, he was twenty years into a radical commitment to Christ that led him to forsake the wealth into which he was born and embrace a life of of poverty. He and those who followed him labored with their hands alongside the poor, asking no wages, hoping that they might be given bread at days’ end. They traveled from village to village, preaching and teaching and caring for lepers, and they slept in huts and in caves. They sought Christ in the lives of the poor, wrapped their own strength around tending the needs of others. They had prepared themselves to meet with joy the One who born among the poor and fled as an infant to exile in an alien land.

And so, this Advent, let us remember: the love of God comes to us, yes, and it comes with a purpose and a direction. It casts the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the satiated away. It summons us unknown.jpegfrom our preoccupation with self and with family, and urges us to embrace our “responsibility to [those] whose only claim on [us] is the height and depth of their need.” And this is a deeper and more profound spiritual challenge, not only to love the Babe of Bethlehem, who is inherently adorable, but to love those who are not: all the babies in all the mangers who cry out for our compassion and mercy. And so this judgment to which we each go is really gift: in holding us accountable to what is holy and true, it frees us from all that is not love.

In the end, love remains.

_________________

Quotes are from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.

If you want to see an actual, Kym -approved Advent calendar, click here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/documents/wol_advent_calendar_2018.pdf

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What Kind of God?

images-1At the beginning of my last year in seminary, I stepped into a class on evil. The professor, Shannon Craigo-Snell, opened the class by reading us a passage from John Calvin. I don’t have the precise reference here, but it described heaven as a place of transcendent joy and emphasized that even when our world below was shaken, still all in heaven was clear and calm and bright. Craigo-Snell put down the text and asked us, “Do you find that comforting?”

It was a day or two past 9/11, and I did not find it comforting at all.

Our nation was reeling; fire still burned in the twisted heap of steel and glass that had been the Twin Towers; trains had pulled into the station in New Haven and disgorged cars full of the injured; and I did not know much, but this I did know: if these things did not trouble God’s peace, I wanted no part of him. We had enough — more than enough — of indifference in this world. I wanted a God who cared. 

______

All these last few days, the words of the kaddish have been going through my mind:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say, Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the Name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort, to which we say, Amen. 

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel, to which we say, Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high bring peace to us and to all Israel, to which we say, Amen.

It is an astonishing thing to pray when a person we love has died, not least because it never names or even mentions the dead. At the dawn of grief, the Jew is to rise and proclaim that God is magnified (even when God seems to be powerless), that there is a plan (even when we cannot see it), that our grief does not diminish the majesty and beauty of God, who shines beyond our earthly pain, even beyond our words of comfort.

Is that what Calvin meant?


And then, there is the refrain: “to which we say, Amen.” In the world of kaddish, it is the human act of assent that binds together the transcendent God and this broken world. Please note: this is not an assent to what is broken. Rather, it is assent as a form of resistance: stitching this world back together by asserting God’s majesty and holding it up against whatever seeks to impede its way.

Is it enough?

____________

Perhaps not, but it is what we have.

____________

There is no gesture that can atone for the fact that a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor was gunned down in her synagogue in Pittsburgh. No words that can make it be all right that two differently-abled brothers who dedicated their lives to kindness and hospitality will not be in their pew next Shabbat. Just as there is no human achievement which can make up for the cartwheels that the children in Sandy Hook will not get to turn, or for the lunchtime banter that Philando will not be able to exchange, or the sermons that Clementa Pinkney will not preach. Each loss — every loss — tears a hole in the fabric of the universe — a hole we cannot repair, but can only honor with our grief and our wonder.

But we can hold onto the hope that one day, those holes will be no more. That one day, those lives will be restored. That God’s plan will be fulfilled — not because God is indifferent to our loss, but because God finds our loss intolerable.


 

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This is how God responds to what is intolerable.


Why do we force ourselves to tolerate what God cannot?

What is this thing called “freedom”?

Karl-Hoecker-album-Laughing-at-Auschwitz-(1)eIn the last week, there has been a vigorous debate concerning a few incidents in which a member  of President Trump’s leadership was refused service at a restaurant, and in which two others were heckled while trying to eat Mexican food at local establishments. The debate has focused on the idea of civility: whether and to what degree our nation is harmed when the tenor of discourse becomes rancorous.

I do not wish to engage that debate; I genuinely do not know how I feel about those incidents, or how I would locate the line at which civil discourse becomes beside the point. But I would like to take the incidents as an excuse to explore a theological issue, because underneath the actions of the protesters was an intuitive understanding of human freedom — an understanding we badly need to clarify for our own time.

You see, “civility” is only the uppermost layer that these incidents engage. The more profound issue involves freedom and accountability. It is fundamental to Christian theology that human beings are moral free agents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is all about that freedom (and its misuse): God places human beings in the garden of the world, charges them to help it flourish, and gives them free scope to do anything — eat anything, touch anything, talk to anything — except one single tree, which is barred from their reach. Giving them that commandment gives them their freedom, to obey it or to risk the natural consequences of disobedience. The very prohibition constitutes them as moral free agents.

That freedom has led too often to our harm, but it remains intact. Over the course of our lives, not one of us will exercise our freedom with perfect love; that’s what sin is about. But each of us always has the chance, in every decision, to act with love or against it. Even in situations where both options are pretty bad, still, we have the freedom to choose which seems to us better, and which seems to us worse. That freedom constitutes our human dignity: it is the fundamental way in which we have been made in the image of God, who, when Moses asked God’s name, replied, I will be who I will be.

The people who are arguing that government workers should not be engaged during their private time are adhering to the custom that federal employees check their politics at the office door. There has been a lot of cynicism about that concept in the blogosphere 646and in certain media, but I am the child of federal workers, and I can say that they and their colleagues did their best to render faithful and informed service to this nation under Presidents and Congresses of both parties. And they kept confidential what was meant to be kept confidential, and they spoke their opinions to the national leadership both when they agreed with what was being done and when they disagreed in principle or thought they had a better way to accomplish the goal. I was and am proud of them for honoring this tradition, and I continue to believe that it is the best option for our nation.

But I also knew there were orders they would not have followed, situations in which they would have resigned their posts rather than assist in actions or policies which they felt to be fundamentally misguided. Our nation allows for that, too: even our soldiers, who are part of the strongest tradition of obedience in our nation, are expected to disobey if they are ordered to massacre a group of civilians or to commit torture, and we condemn them if they do not. Indeed, we more than condemn them: we put them on trial and hold them accountable.

This boundary points to the fact that our status as free moral agents does not stop when we enter our office door or step onto the floor of a factory or even when we march onto a field of battle. In every circumstance, we still have both the freedom and the obligation to choose what we are willing to be part of and how we are willing to act. We are never reduced to obedient parts of a machine, people who must only hear and obey; we are always called to live in consonance with divine love.

I was born into a Jewish family, and one of the challenges of being born with that Karl Hoecker album Laughing at Auschwitz (7)heritage is knowing that my ancestors were slaughtered by nice people. (I say that without irony.) Most of the people who killed my ancestors were loving parents, good citizens, careful cooks, lovers of good music, churchgoers, people who were kind to their friends. I would probably have socialized with them without any qualms at all. In fact, the pictures attached to this post are of Nazi concentration camp workers, doing things I enjoy doing: eating blueberries, laughing in the sun with their friends, tending small children, playing with a dog. They lacked only two things: courage and integrity. And when the war was over and they were put on trial in Nuremberg and held to account for their actions, each person said more or less the same thing: We were only following orders. We did what we were told.

Without courage and integrity, even the best of us can be led to commit irreparable harm. Without courage and integrity, it is impossible for us to claim and inhabit our freedom. To me, the most harrowing thing about this policy of separating parents from children has been the fact that our border agents were willing to carry those orders out. I know what it is to be under pressure; I understand that they have to feed their own families, and that sometimes we make compromises to meet those obligations. But ripping toddlers away from their parents is so far on the other side of any red line I can imagine being willing to live with that their compliance takes my breath away.

It is possible, of course, that some of them support this policy and can carry it out in good conscience. That is also an issue: when cruelty is deliberately embraced as a tactic, we are all the poorer. But whatever those hecklers, those protesters, that restauranteur thought they were doing, they held out to our nation’s leadership and to the rest of us a reminder that no authority in heaven or on earth overrides the freedom of conscience of even one human being: on earth, because God has endowed us with moral freedom, and in heaven, because God is bound by God’s own decision to offer us this gift.

I will close with some words from Vatican II: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and, therefore, bearing a personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2).

 

A Cathedral in Time

Light-and-Sun

I have a confession to make: Over the years, I have preached the Sabbath as a matter of duty, but without great conviction. For most of my life, nobody I knew honored it — literally, not one person. And I empathized. I’m a single working woman, trying to manage the same pressures of time and occupation as the people I’m preaching to: when you’re working fifty hours a week (or more) and trying to care for a home, tend animals or children, see friends at least once a year, keep up with the news, volunteer for causes you support, and be a good citizen, something has to go — and that something is, most often, reflection. And besides, I’m a priest; I work on the Sabbath. It’s the one day I can’t take off.

The first time I got a sense of what I might be missing was when I moved to New Jersey, to a town in which a large number of my neighbors were Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The first Saturday I lived there, I woke up and took the dogs out. Something was different. It niggled at my mind. As the day went on, I realized what it was: noise. There was no sound of cars, no leaf-blowers, lawn-movers, television sets, none of the usual Saturday-morning occupations — just the occasional soft sounds of conversation from families out for an afternoon stroll. Adults pushed seniors in wheelchairs or babies in carriages. Small children danced around their parents, while teenagers talked to one another. Everything I saw — every single thing — was about cultivating rich relationships, the kind of relationships that all too often get squeezed out of our lives by the eternal press of Busy. And it kept on like that, week after week, year after year: one day in which our humanity was more important than our usefulness. One day in which we could remember who we are.

Jonathan Rosen, the author of a wonderful and rich essay named The Talmud and the Internet, writes of computers as “a cathedral not in space but in time, harder to see, but no less grand.” It’s as good a description as any of the Sabbath: a cathedral we build to fence off time so that we can offer ourselves to God and to one another. It’s a beautiful idea, and, I have come to see, a deeply necessary one.

But it took the last year in the life of our nation for me to see just how necessary it is. You and I are living in a field of constant manipulation, in which advertisers, politicians, meme-creators, and businessmen want us to do anything at all but think. An example: this morning, a woman I have known for years posted an article that asked, “Why didn’t liberals care about kids at the border under Obama?” My first reaction, of course, was that they had; there was considerable outcry about the need to respond compassionately to the wave of unaccompanied minors. My second was to remember the lack of compassion shown when those kids were transported by bus into their new hometowns in Red states, and when the buses were met — all too often ( but then, once is too often) — by mobs of angry people yelling at them to go home.

But my third reaction is the one that matters: I pulled back and was able to see the strategy that was being used here. You see, my friend who posted that article is a woman of deep compassion. But the article was doing everything possible to push her to avoid engaging that compassion: it worked to deflect its readers’ attention away from the actual issue — children who were in desperate need, both during Barack Obama’s presidency and now, during Donald Trump’s — and re-focus it into pointing fingers at members of the opposite political party and blaming them for all the problems of the world.

More and more of the content we are being fed works like that: it tries to deflect us from what matters, turn us around, and whip us into a storm of mutual recrimination.  And it works, largely because we do not pull back long enough to realize how we are being used. Or just how destructive these tactics are, both to our nation and to our humanity.

The truth, of course, is that many of the problems of our time have no simple cure. They are large and intractable, and no one — not one president or politician or talking head or think-tank leader or innovator — has the answer that will make it go away. Putting together a suggestion for improvement is risky, precisely because any suggestion will be so imperfect, so incremental compared to what’s really at stake. And so it’s safer — politically safer — to encourage us to blame one another than it is to risk the chance of failure.

But incremental improvement is still improvement, and the big problems can be bent into better trajectories only when we are willing to work together. Divide and conquer may win elections, but when it becomes our modus operandi as a nation, we all lose. And in our effort to resist being drawn into that tempest of finger-pointing, sabbath is among our best tools. We begin to remember the humanity of others when we take time to remember our own. We regain the capacity to live from our better selves when we set aside time to be with the people and things who nourish them. We remember that before God commanded us to work, he gave us life, and that his most fundamental teaching is not that we win, but that we love.

Heart in the stone fence

A House Divided

 

Jesus said, “If a kingdom be divided against itself,
that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself,
that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

You’d have to be willfully blind not to notice that these are anxious times in our nation. Whoever you are, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to a-house-dividedescape the sense that we are a house bitterly divided: by political affiliation, by race, by degrees of wealth and of education, by gender, by national origin, by ideals of the good life and of who should be included in it. Each day, the rhetoric gets more heated, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of crimes, sending out clickbait, comparing one another to Nazis. Every day and every night, our pundits go at it, on Fox, on CNN, on Breitbart, on CNBC and NPR, tossing around names and strategies as if they were calling a boxing event: Pelosi, Schumer, Trump, Obama, Ryan, Bannon, Republican, Democrat, Centrist, Extremist, asking, Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win?

With due respect to everyone in the room, I’d like to suggest that if that’s the question we are asking, we are all going to lose. As the pledge of allegiance reminds us, we are called to be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and we stand or fall together. We have never lived fully into that aspiration — for the first seventy years of our nation’s history, women, African-Americans, and poor white men were not allowed to vote — but we have been guided by that sense of liberty and justice in such a way that we have, gradually and at a high cost, pushed against our own limitations in an attempt to extend liberty and justice to all. That’s why it is so frightening now to hear ourselves demonize one another, speak of fellow citizens as if they were enemies of all that is good and honorable and true. It is contrary to the better angels of our nature, and it is damaging to our republic. A house divided cannot stand.
The causes of our division are manifold, rooted in history and economics and regional ideology and the different ways in which we think of identity, but I think that underneath it all is a deep-rooted spiritual malaise, one which is illuminated by our reading from Samuel — our fundamental ambivalence about our freedom.
The scene opens when Samuel is in his old age. Samuel had been called by God as a child and had led the people of Israel faithfully and well, but now they come to him and demand a king, saying, “We will have a king over us, that we may be like the other nations.” (I Sam 8:20) It seems like a reasonable enough request, to be governed like other nations. What could go wrong??

The answer lies in what came before the kingship, when Israel was not like other nations precisely because the other nations were led by men, but Israel was led directly by God. When the Hebrews came out of Egypt, God dwelt among them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God signaled when they should march and when they should remain in camp. And while Moses governed the people day to day, when there was a particularly vexing issue, he could enter into the direct presence of God and ask for wisdom. Following Moses’ death, Joshua appeared, then a series of men and women who are known as judges. Judges arose on an ad hoc basis, mostly when Israel was facing some kind of threat. Each was called directly by God; each led Israel for a time; but none passed on the leadership to their offspring. They were more like presidents than kings: chosen for a season, with the understanding that they would not be in leadership forever.

In a system with temporary leaders, true authority remains vested elsewhere: with the people, and, in the case of the Hebrews, with God. That’s why, when the Hebrews demand a king, God comforts Samuel, saying, “They have not rejected you. They have rejected me.” (I Sam 8:7) The one thing that the system of judges required was faith: faith that God would raise up leaders when they were needed, and faith that the people would come to one another’s defense when those leaders called. It was a system that endowed the Hebrew people with powerful freedom — freedom to make choices, freedom to respond to the Spirit of God.

Samuel brought that lesson home when he tried to warn them of the dangers of monarchy. He shows them what it will look like when the resources that are meant to sustain everyone — food, drink, livestock, human labor — are diverted instead to serve the whims of one man and his family and their overweening need for power and for display. He gives them a choice between an egalitarian society and one in which the many serve the needs of the few — and the Hebrews choose the latter. They opt to David_BeheadingGoliath_4206-1080x575surrender their freedom for what they believe to be security. When they ask for a king, they ask for a strong man, a leader who will “fight their battles for them”— as if any king could fight a battle without an army! The truth was that the Hebrews were going to be fighting their own battles, either under the leadership of God or of a mortal man. And yet, they feared the demands imposed by freedom. They renounced responsibility for their own lives, and displaced it onto a leader.
Looking at America in the 21st century, it is hard not to suspect that we may have engaged in a similar displacement. A strong sense of personal and civic responsibility lay at the roots of our national project. In the 1830s, when Alexis de Toqueville visited the United States, he was astonished at the culture of civic volunteerism. He wrote, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate…As soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.” He described, in other words, a vibrant civic culture, one in which Americans worked together for the common good, even though most of them did not yet have the right to cast a ballot.
If you look at the United States today, that spirit of engagement has drained away, replaced by the more-or-less complete privatization of our lives. The unrelenting pressures of the job market have eroded the time we have available to give to one another. When we do get home, the temptation is to grab whatever time we have to be with our families, or just turn on the television and zone out, or ingest a substance and zone out, or go shopping and drown our anxieties in a flood of unnecessary consumer activity. If we do notice what is going on around us, we flood the internet and social media with commentary — none of which actually engages the tools we have been given, as citizens of a democracy, to effect real change. And if all that seems isolated and hollow, mental health professionals will give you pills to dull your pain, rather than engaging in costly talk therapy that might motivate us to change our lives. In contrast to the promise of our democracy, many of us feel sharply disempowered, too small to make a difference even for the things we care about, and too focused on our own survival to care that our neighbor is drowning. And then we become frustrated and bitter that our government is not managing to do what we, ourselves, were meant to be doing for one another.
The Bible reminds us, however, that human nature is not weak, but strong, infused with the image and vitality of God. Adam and Eve did not understand this: when the serpent whispered to Eve, “You shall be like a god,” she forgot in whose image she had been made. To lure her to transgress, the serpent offered what she already had in full measure, and in agreeing to be seduced, Adam and Eve became in fact the debased and weak creatures they thought they had been all along.
But in Christ, God has restored our agency. He has healed our human nature and returned to us our power and our strength and our courage and our hope. When God raised Jesus from the dead and left the disciples and Mary Magdalene to peer into an empty tomb, he showed us that all our anxieties are paper tigers. The bad things of this world may leave scars in our flesh, but they cannot contain the life of God that surges within us and lifts us from the ashes and frees us to claim our freedom.
Witness St. Paul: born in Judaism, he persecuted the early disciples of Jesus, encountered God and underwent a radical conversion, and spend the rest of his life traveling all over the Roman Empire — on foot, by boat, in danger, in peace — proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, until he was captured and brought to his martyrdom.
Paul was propelled by a strong faith: faith in God, yes, but, more specifically, faith that God would use him, Paul, to make a difference in this world. For Paul, conviction and action were inseparable: “I believed, therefore have I spoken.” (II Cor 4: 13) He knows that belief is a verb, not simply a disposition of the heart, a verb which propels us outward in the service of others. “All things are for your sakes,” he writes, and then he explains the source of his strength: “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for a weight of glory eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 4:16-17) Paul has his security, a security that is found not in the size of an army or the strength of a warrior, but in the unbreakable promise of God: that even if Paul’s body, his earthly tent, is dissolved, “we have a home prepared for us, eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 5:1) He knows that no power on earth can destroy him, that no loss on earth will be final, that even death will not have the final word. And knowing these things, he takes courage — courage to speak what is true and to do what is right.
Paul shows us the true nature of Christian faith: it propels us out of our private sanctuaries (which too easily fetter us in isolation) and turns us back to the world. Always, we are tempted to surrender our power: to God, to man, to the state, to a leader. But what if we are not meant to surrender it, but to use it? It is, after all, the power to do good, to use our creativity in the service of the welfare of everyone in our society. And that is not a matter of forcing everyone to become Christian, but of being a Christian to everyone — of honoring them with Christ’s own love. There is only one place in which
Jesus speaks of the criteria by which we will ultimately be judged, and his criterion is si
mple: “as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”(Matt 25:40)

The healing of our divided house does not rest in the hands of any leader, but in ours. We are the ones who know the needs of our communities; we are the ones who have the capacity to respond — to give, to care, to act. There is no king or strongman or president who can save us from that responsibility, and no savior will do so. After all, it is our very God and savior who has given us that freedom, who has commanded us to love our neighbor and our enemy and the stranger at our gates, to name them our brothers 2015-Monterrey-Day-2-4787-1600x720and sisters and mothers. This world is in our hands, and that is a daunting challenge. But we are in God’s hands, and with God, all things are possible.

** De Tocqueville quotes are from Democracy in America, 1835, 1840. The analysis of our contemporary culture is indebted to Bruce E. Levine, “Are Americans a Broken People?”, rawstory.com, June 5, 2018.

 

How, then, shall we go on?

rubens_apostel_mattiasThat is the central question which confronted the disciples in the dark days following the crucifixion of Christ, and it is their answer we honor today as we commemorate the Feast of St. Matthias. The election of Matthias as a kind of substitute apostle to take the place forfeited by Judas is remarkable, not for its occurrence, but for its context. The world of the of disciples had been shattered. For three years, they had lived in community and in hope, they had learned and grown and prayed; all that had been ripped away in the brutal slaughter of the man they had hoped would save them. They had come to the time of need; they had failed to protect the one they loved; they had learned that were not the men they had hoped to be.

The task that was before them forms the central work of Lent: to find a way to emerge from our self-made tombs and live. Over the last few days, I have heard a number of preachers talk about the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. Each of these is a form of what the church calls mortification — not a word that sounds like we should seek it out! We hear an echo of it when we say to a friend, in great embarrassment, “I just about died,” but in the context of our life of faith, it means putting to death the things that are killing us.

St. Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor 6:12) He is speaking of the distinction between the freedom we have been given in Christ— which is absolute, and the uses to which we direct it. In Christ, we possess absolute freedom of self-determination, but paradoxically, exercising that freedom requires us to choose a self-imposed restraint, deliberately fostering in ourselves those qualities which will build up our souls in love, and denying the clamoring impulses of our false self —- the one which cries an incessant chorus of “Me! Me! Me!” The one which might lead us to put our own desires before the needs of others, denying them what they need to thrive — or even what they need to live. And we have seen, as did the disciples, that sin is not a joke, that it’s not sneaking the last brownie from the fridge. It’s a cancer that will metastasize and destroy what we want to love as long as we tolerate its presence in our midst.

And so the disciples gather. They huddle in an upstairs room and try to chart a course forward. And they choose to act in hope. They reclaim the original vision as their own; they assess the damage that has been done (the loss of one of the Twelve); and they decide to pick up the work with their own hands. Then they establish some criteria (it must be someone who is deeply steeped in Christ) and place the ultimate decision into the hands of God.

It is significant that, in Luke-Acts, the disciples undertook all this before the coming of the Holy Spirit. They committed themselves and their lives to God in sheer faith, and only afterwards received the power to change their world — and ours. They did not know whether it would work. They did not know whether God would still be there for them. But from the bitter self-knowledge revealed in their failure and their shame, they claimed and chose the kind of people they were determined to become.

That is the path of repentance, the royal way of Christ, and it is the only road that leads into new and holy life. And if the first few steps seem forbidding, and if your strength seems weaker than your will, do not fear: Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” if only we press ever on into his infinite and unbreakable love. (Phil 3:21)

 

The Crucified People

Todi-Umbria-Italy-Stock-image-1024x669In her haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula LeGuin describes a city that is a kind of utopia. Omelas is beautiful; set by the seashore and lush with trees, graced with harmonious architecture that delights the eye while it fosters community among its inhabitants. Life there is good: food is plentiful; the streets are peaceful; the pace of life is moderate; and days of work are punctuated with festivals which gather all in the city, young and old, for dancing and music and athletic competition and mutual joy.

In all this beauty, there is but one blemish. When they are in the last years of their childhood, each resident of Omelas is told of a room in the heart of the city. There, in darkness and in filth, a single child dwells in utter squalor and isolation, in a closet among mops and brooms, sitting in its own ordure. Each resident of Omelas knows that the child’s suffering is the price of the flourishing of the city, and of their own joy. Some come to see the child; most prefer not to. But among those who go to see, a few — barely a handful — do something astonishing: they choose to leave Omelas. LeGuin writes, “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not look back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

LeGuin’s story captures a fundamental truth, or, rather, two: That the price of our societies is too often the suffering of others, and that this condition is, or should be, intolerable to us. Underneath those two statements is a third: Societies based upon suffering repel those who are good. Outside the pages of fiction, of course, it would be difficult to imagine a society in which only one person suffers. (In this is revealed the poverty of our collective imagination.) But when poverty and violence become endemic; when the rich profit from the desperation of the poor; when people lack access to clean water (in the 21st century!) or work that affords them dignity; when agents of the state gun down innocent men, women, and children on the streets and go unpunished; and when it becomes clear that those with “mass and majesty”* in a society accept these things as the price of their own comfort; and when the struggle to change these conditions has proven utterly futile; _76385then people with courage and intelligence and grit and gumption pick themselves up and head toward other societies, places which hold out hope of a better life, or seem to.

For Christ, too, the suffering of even one person was intolerable, but he did not walk away. He went towards it, embraced it, took it upon himself and wore it like a cherished garment. He bore it all to the place of utter desolation, and then he went into the dark room and he sat in the place of abandonment and he bowed his head and submitted to it all. He went to the room of suffering we had created for one another, and he took our place there. St. Augustine writes, “Coming from another realm, what did he find here other than that which abounds here: struggles, sorrows, and death, for this is what you have here, what abounds here. He ate with you of what abounded in the poor dwelling of your misery. And he invited you to his own splendid table, the table of heaven, the table of the angels, where he himself is the bread.” (Sermon 231,5)

Christ’s action has consequences for us beyond even our salvation. The old language of Book of Common Prayer states that he “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” One oblation, once offered, full, perfect, and sufficient. Those words were written to address a theological controversy, but they carry moral weight. He allowed us to inflict all our suffering on him so that we would not inflict it on one another. Not again. Not ever. Not in Haiti. Not in El Salvador. Not in Fergusson. Not in Flint. Because those suffering children, those crucified peoples? Christ lives in them, closer than their breath.

Just as he does in us, when we go to the place of pain and lift one another down from the cross.

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* Auden, “The Shield of Achilles.”

The image at the end is by Ruth Councell.

The title is taken from Jon Sobrino.

The Myth of Innocence

CharlottesvilleToday is an eerie day. Yesterday was a day of horror: marchers with torches, KKK members with robes and flags and foolish-looking shields; clergy in robes facing miliamen in body armor, carrying huge guns; the sudden hurtling of a gray car into human flesh and bone.

Today, all is calm, as if waiting. Is that it? Are thousands of racists going to march through one of our cities, threaten those worshiping in a church, engage in domestic terrorism, and then…nothing? No forceful denunciation of hatred from the White House, no mass marches around the country….nothing?

A few days ago, I read these words from James Baldwin. They were hard to hear, but I also immediately recognized them as true:

White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded — at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can….I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.  (The Fire Next Time, 1963)

The truth that Baldwin articulates is more readily apparent today, after we have seen the confederate flag flying next to the Nazi one, than it was the day before: the truth of the willed indifference of many white people to the suffering to which we collectively subject our black neighbors, both those of us who will that suffering and those who are appalled by it.

I was born in 1968, when the Civil Rights act had already been signed into law. I have never known a world in which the different peoples of America were not equal in the eyes of the law. And I have spent my adult years unlearning the optimism which that fact once gave me. I have spent them learning to see that, under certain pernicious circumstances, equality before the law counts surprisingly little in this world.

At this point, my fellow white Americans fall into roughly three groups: there are those who have embraced a racist ideology, whose numbers, I continue to hope, must inevitably shrink; there are those who act for the creation of a better and more equal world, whose numbers, while growing, remain too few; and there are those who persist in believing that the problem of systemic racism has been solved, or that it never existed, or no longer exists. They cling to the myth of their innocence.

It is to that third group that I am addressing these words:

After these last years, you have to be willfully blind and deaf to pretend that there is no problem, and that you are not complicit in it.

You have seen a man choked to death for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk.

You have seen the police officer who killed him fail to be indicted.

You have seen a man shot to death for complying with the instructions of a police officer at a routine traffic stop.

You have seen the police officer who did that exonerated.

You have seen poisoned water flowing from the taps of a majority-black city, while no one rectifies the situation. For three years and counting.

You have seen the police descend in force on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, bludgeoning them and beating them and using tear gas and rubber bullets.

You have seen Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists descend on Charlottesville with torches and heavily armed militia, and you have seen one of them drive a car into a crowd of unarmed civilians, and you have seen the police fail to suppress them with beatings or tear gas or rubber bullets. In fact, you have seen the police fail to suppress them at all.

You no longer have the excuse of ignorance.

Much as it pains me to admit this, the members of the so-called Alt-Right, which is simply a fancy word for racists, did one thing right at Charlottesville: They did not pretend they were powerless to effect change.

Every day, all over this nation, people of genuinely good will carry out our lives, comment on the racism we see around us, and feel powerless to make a difference on less than a very small scale, particularly under this President. But those bigots did not take refuge in a sense of powerlessness. They knew that they had power: power to march and power to make their beliefs known and power to organize and power, even, to elect a president. And their commitment calls our bluff, my friends. If the forces of evil and division believe that they have power and act on it, it is no longer acceptable for the forces of love to sit around wringing our hands. We, too have power: power we can create, power we can leverage, power we can use to make this country a less brutal place.

Too long, white Americans have clung to the myth of innocence. But Christianity isn’t about innocence: it’s about knowing the face of evil, and choosing what is good.

Inaction is also a choice, my friends, and it is a choice not to reach for what is of God.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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(For clarification, those are militia-members, not representatives of a national or state government.)

 

Junk

sugar“Is that sugar?” The little boy’s eyes were bright with curiosity. “Why is there sugar in a museum?” The adults with him, who appeared to be his mother and grandmother, remained silent, but the boy asked again, “Why is there sugar here?” The two women looked at each other darkly. I felt for them. The four of us were standing on the first level of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and that sugar was part of the exhibit on slavery. How do you tell a small child that a whole world lost its moral compass so badly that for hundreds of years, they would have been willing to buy and sell and beat and kill him in order to get that sugar, so that their cakes might be light and fluffy, and their coffee not too bitter (at least, to those who were privileged to drink it)?

It wasn’t only the sugar, of course. There were also glass beads, and iron bracelets used as a form of currency, and rum. Junk, in other words. Items whose value was purely symbolic, and luxuries we could easily have done without. In all that dark place, telling the history of a dark institution, it was impossible to avoid noticing that pretty much the only thing of value was the people: the beautiful, dark faces of the visitors, the ones who were living images of God.

In many ways, it was the reverse of an ordinary museum. We are used to going to museums and seeing items of wondrous beauty and incomparable value: Monets and Raphaels and golden crucifixes and manuscripts whose artistry is beyond compare. In
those museums, it is easy to believe that the items on the walls are what is invaluable, irreplaceable, worth our sacrifice of one another. But the truth is wholly different. boy

Compared with you, compared with even the junkie on the street, those items are dross. It is you Christ came to save, not them. You who are the treasure of God’s heart. You, and all the others who breathe this air and walk this earth for so brief a span of time.

How will you honor God’s presence in them today, in them and in yourself?

What junk will you sacrifice so that they might flourish?

Liberty

George Washington Birthday Header_f49e7c49-3eff-4e44-9f65-0bb44c63c1e8Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, as I did, the Revolutionary War becomes an intimate friend. After all, we were minutes from the homes of George Washington, George Mason, and Lighthorse Harry Lee, and an easy day-trip from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The old part of our town had been an important Revolutionary-era port, and it was not unusual to see bellringers in colonial garb walking down the sidewalks, or parades of minutemen with canon and fife.

At school, too, our curriculum was dominated by early American history; we studied the Revolution, read books like Johnny Tremain, and even learned how to churn butter and to spin and card wool, just like our Founding Mothers.  We learned all the great stories: Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin with his kite and key, and, best of all, Patrick Henry at the Second Virginia Convention, crying out, “Give me security or give me death!”

Actually, that’s not what he cried out. The Founding Fathers and Mothers of our nation understood that certain things mattered more than the paltry security of body. Freedom to think, to grow, to learn, to set one’s own course — these were the inalienable rights of a human being (however they defined a human being), and those who fought for our freedom placed their lives, their livelihoods, and the well-being of their families into the balance in order to achieve that liberty.

The Constitution, too, reflects those priorities, beginning with these famous words: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Security, here, is one good among many, and does not even take precedence: liberty, justice, and the general welfare of those in the Commonwealth all take their place alongside it.

Today, we hear talk of security far more often than we do of liberty. (Indeed, the word itself has gone out of fashion.) In the name of security, we are increasingly asked to abide the curtailment of those very liberties for which our nation’s founders spilled their blood.

But liberty, by its very nature, entails risk. Freedom of speech risks the possibility that someone will say something mean. Freedom of association risks the possibility that people may congregate for nefarious purposes. Freedom of religion means giving other people the right to worship in ways that offend you, or not to worship at all. Freedom of the press involves the possibility that a paper might publish an article that is not true — and the only check on such behavior (other than a libel suit) was and remains the determination of citizens to obtain their news from sources that have proved worthy of trust.

Liberty, by its nature, entails risk — and so does life. There are no guarantees. There is only the question: what kind of world is big enough for your heart? And the related question: what will you do to obtain that world for yourself and for others?

And so, this Independence Day, let us consider for a while what it means to be free: what you’d be willing to surrender and what you must never surrender if you wish to live as a free person upon this earth. Because whatever liberty is, we do know this: it is easily lost, and most difficult to regain. Treasure it, today and always.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!                                                             — Patrick Henry, 1775

For freedom Christ has set you free.                                        — Galatians 5:1