August 18, 2019
You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Forty years ago I entered seminary, after a year at Harvard preparing, I thought, for a career in academia. “The History of American Civilization” was the name of my department, which sounds a little puffed up. Everywhere else they called it American Studies, which is what I had majored in at Amherst College. I took courses like “The History of the South Since the Civil War,” and “Race and Ethnicity.” I wrote papers on immigration and assimilation. My college honors thesis was on busing. I had lived it and was for it academically.
I left all that to be a priest.
At SUMMA last month I was lecturing about our faith as an intellectual tradition. Traditions, by definition, have core beliefs and practices. To illustrate the concept, I asked the class, “What might we say is the core of the American tradition?” I was thinking along lines of some truths we have held to be self-evident. With something else in mind, a bright student raised her hand. “Racism,” she declared. There was a murmur in the room.
There was a wonderful movie out last year called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It was a documentary about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers’s word to children was “I love you as you are.” He knew that children often feel unlovable. As we all do, in his lower moments Mr. Rogers felt that way himself sometimes. One of his sock puppets was a tiger named Daniel. Daniel, in a low mood, sang of his own un-lovability. But the song was a duet. In a soothing and insistent voice, Lady Aberlin sang back with reassurance. You are lovable, I know because I love you. Back and forth they sang, insecurity/assurance, unbelief, and gospel. The larger truth was clearly in the voice of reassurance but this greater truth was gentle with the insecurity, careful not to drown it out. The whole truth was in that interplay of unbelief and love.
“The History of American Civilization” is a duet. 400 years ago next week a boat with twenty slaves aboard arrived in Jamestown. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, invites us to remember and honor “those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty.” Slavery and liberty: those two counter ideologies shaped our history.
Martin Luther King called them “the two dominant and contradictory strains in the American psyche.” In colonial America, slavery had the head start, as Dr. King points out. “Our democratic heritage was the later devolvement. . . .Democracy, born in the 18th century, took from John Locke . . . the theory of natural rights . . . and imbued it with the ideal of a society governed by the people.” King quotes Thomas Paine: “We have the power to begin the world over again.”[i] Now we were singing a duet.
August 04, 2019
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
That was Paul preaching to the baptized in Colossae. If he were preaching to the baptized here, he might quote our Prayer Book: “We were buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection.”[i] Set your minds on that.
Then Paul lists some earthly things we need to bury, beginning with “fornication” and ending with greed. Fornication is a mean old word that once was abused and now is mocked. The word in biblical Greek is porneia, from which we get “pornography.” Off-screen, porneia is sex unconstrained by love. Bury that, says Paul.
Greed is our thirst for more, which could mean more power and attention, or most anything. Money is the main attraction, as Jesus warns in Luke. A man asks him for help in an inheritance dispute. According to the law (Deuteronomy 21:7), the oldest son receives a double portion. This man, presumably a younger son, asks Jesus to overrule that statute, which seems unfair. “An unjust law is no law at all,” he might have said, anticipating Augustine. Jesus keeps the dispute at arm’s length: “Who made me your judge?” Now Jesus tells the sad story—at least, I find it sad— of the wealthy farmer who dies on the day of his retirement. “I will say to my soul . . . you have everything you need. Eat, drink, be merry!” daydreams the gentleman, just before he croaks.
Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Thus says the Lord.
Porneia and greed are on the old list of seven deadly sins. (Sloth, anger, pride, gluttony, and envy are the other five.) Sins are passions unconstrained by habits of mind and spirit, called virtues. Virtue is a good old word that now is often mocked. It shouldn’t be. Virtues are to sin what healthy habits are to sickness, the ounce of prevention that can save the pound or more for a cure. Thomas Aquinas listed seven virtues. Four are philosophical, three are theological––“philosophical,” from Aristotle: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, and “theological,” from scripture: faith, hope, and love; philosophical for the mind and theological for the spirit.
Prudence is forethought. “If I do this, I will probably get that.” Prudence is our first defense against the dark arts of porneia. Without prudence in sex, people get hurt.
Temperance is what Goldilocks was looking for in bowls of porridge—the mean between too little and too much, too cold and too hot. Greed is an intemperate regard for money.
The cultivation of the virtues has been called the cure of souls. They cure like both medicine and salt. Passions are the fuel that power us through life, while mind and spirit are the scouts who climb the tall tree to see what lies over the horizon and plot our course. Our lives do consist in an abundance of these emotional, mental and spiritual possessions—and they don’t croak when we do.
July 14, 2019
There is a sweet little movie out I liked so much I saw it twice. It’s called “Yesterday” and it is a love letter to the music of the Beatles. It goes like this. Some cosmic wires get crossed and all the world’s lights go out for twelve seconds. On a pitch-black street our hero Jack, a young musician, is knocked from his bicycle by a bus and sent flying through the air—a shock that throws him out of phase with the rest of the world for those twelve seconds. When the lights come back on after Jack comes to, the whole universe has changed except for him, it seems. He is going to learn that for the world it now is as though the Beatles hadn’t happened. Jack finds this out when his friends give him a new guitar to replace the one that got busted in his accident. He unwraps the guitar and they ask for a song. “A great guitar deserves a great song,” Jack says. He sings “Yesterday.” Moved to tears, his friends think he wrote it. So we are given to imagine a world that hasn’t heard the Beatles. Jack will show the world what it's been missing.
Approaching Jesus, a lawyer asks him:
Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
John, the Beatle, wrote a song inviting us to imagine life without that question.
“Imagine there’s no heaven, its easy if you try.”
John was right about that. It is easy to imagine there’s no heaven, “above us only sky.” Oblivion is easy for us to wrap our minds around. For a few seconds, we empty them and think of nothing. Conceptually, heaven is a tougher nut to crack. Our brains were made in time for use in time, not to grasp eternity. About the best we can manage is thinking of eternity as a very, very long time. But, as St. Augustine pointed out, time itself is one of the Eternal God’s creations. Eternity somehow transcends before and after. God sees tomorrow just as clearly as he sees yesterday. It is hard to imagine our life in that—our hope is mind-blowing.
Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
The question seems audacious. Who are we to inherit eternal life from God?
But Jesus doesn’t treat the lawyer’s question as ridiculous. He engages in a little back and forth that culminates in his story of the Good Samaritan. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was set upon by thieves, who beat him, stripped him, robbed him, leaving him half-dead. Of all the stories ever sung or told, this one is high on the list of the world’s most cherished. What “Yesterday” was to Lennon and McCartney, the Good Samaritan is to scripture. Its had a little longer ride atop the charts.
Let’s play for a moment with John’s imagined world without religion. The cosmic accident occurs again, the lights around the world go out, the bus hits Jack, who wakes up in a hospital. His friends come by and ask him how he’s doing. He says: “I’m all right, I think, thank God.” The friends are puzzled. “Thank who?” they say. “God,” Jack says perplexed. “Who dat?” Later, Jack googles God and nothing comes up. It autocorrects to Cod and the screen fills up with North Atlantic fishing scenes and old pictures of Kennedys sailing boats on the Cape. So we imagine no Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad, or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As it was in Narnia, winter always comes but never Christmas. Imagine our world where we had never heard the story of the Good Samaritan. That would certainly have changed my monthly drive to Little Rock many years ago.
June 30, 2019
For freedom, Christ has set us free.
St. Paul’s declaration rings loud like bells on Independence Day. Then, in Luke, we face the fact that freedom is no holiday. Christ turns toward Jerusalem, warning would-be followers of emotional pain and physical distress.
For freedom, I use Walker Percy’s definition in his fifth novel, The Second Coming. Will Barrett, the protagonist, remembers the moment a light came on inside his head.
What was my discovery? That I could act. I was free to act . . . to turn right or turn left or sit down on the culvert.[i]
Freedom is power to do either one thing or another. Go right, go left, sit down: your call. Laws are constraints on freedom. To the Galatians, Paul was emphasizing their religious freedom. Faithful Jews had been constrained by divine law to circumcise their newborn males and to abstain from foods including pork and shellfish. Paul declares that life in Christ is free from those particular constraints.
As Americans today we float on a historic rising tide of freedom. In 1689, John Locke’s First Treatise on Government undermined the belief that our natural condition is servitude to kings. Using expert logic step by step, Locke led readers to understand freedom as a birthright. According to Locke, we give it up only to a limited extent when people voluntarily join with others in society, to the benefit of all who join and their descendants. In America, that idea would spark a revolution.
Since then, freedom has by fits and starts expanded over time. At the start, only property-holding white men had the vote. Now, voting is a birthright. A civil war, and the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, plus the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, accomplished that expansion. After his success in 1965, Martin Luther King kept pushing, now for expanded economic freedom. Dr. King remarked that a black man had finally won the legal right to buy a hamburger in a southern restaurant––now King wanted to make sure that man had some money in his pocket he could buy it with. Fifty years ago this past week, the Stonewall rebellion in New York opened another front in freedom’s expansion. The world is better now because of it. By “better” I mean more happy and fair. We have pushed, tested, and debated freedom’s limits through our American experiment, with good results.
The great HBO series, John Adams, ends with Adam’s admonition to Americans:
Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.
June 16, 2019
The boss said, ‘Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you.’ And I said, ‘Callahan?’ And he said, “nope, Irwin.’ And I said, ‘I don’t reckon you’ll find anything on Irwin.’ And he said, ‘You’ll find it.’ . . . We clocked off five miles more, and I said, “But suppose there isn’t anything to find?’ And the boss said, ‘There is always something.’ And I said ‘Maybe not on the Judge.’ And he said, ‘Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’ Two miles more, and he said, ‘And make it stick.[i]
My college roommate’s father wrote those lines. Robert Penn Warren was his name. All the King’s Men was the title of the novel. The “boss” was a fictional facsimile of Huey Long. In 1947, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Now a second quote, non-fictional.
Five years earlier, King had come to Montgomery in search of a quiet but socially relevant pastorship. Then, through no initiative of his own, he had been caught up in something larger than he had ever imagined. The vision in the kitchen had given him the courage and faith to accept that, but even when the protest ended, he realized that he was not free, that he could not and would not escape from the responsibility of the larger role into which had been cast. After almost three years of struggling against himself, he realized that this decision . . . was not really his to make. It was made for him, whether he wanted it or not.[ii]
David Garrow wrote those lines in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1987, Bearing the Cross won the Pulitzer Prize for history. I spent last year reading Martin Luther King, including Garrow’s book, where Garrow’s admiration for King shone from cover to cover. In my year of reading King, I spoke of him often in Sunday sermons and I am sure my admiration for him shone through too. I think that without Martin Luther King the United States might have been split irreparably. More than anyone outside the bible, it was he who taught us not to judge by the color of skin, but by the content of a person’s character. By no means is that the only thing he taught or did, but it alone would have merited his Nobel Prize.
About fault-lines in the content of Dr. King’s character I haven’t said much. I did say once that his weakness was marital infidelity and his was a severe case. That was not a secret.
I bring it up now because while we were in England last month newspapers there were covering a story that the press back home was mostly kept under wraps. David Garrow has published new research that shows Dr. King in harsh light. As a recognized authority on King, he said, he felt duty-bound to report it. On a local scale, I feel the same. As often as I’ve praised King from this pulpit, I now feel obliged to reckon with ugly information Garrow brings to light concerning Dr. King’s promiscuous, and frequently inebriate, entanglements with women, not his wife.
June 02, 2019
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Those words are from the Book of Revelation, with its description of the End Times.
In the Bible, when Jesus speaks of end times, he forecasts separation: of two standing in the field, one will be taken and another left. He advises we pay no attention to the television preachers who believe they know when it will happen: “About that day and hour no one knows,” not even him, he says. Expect the unexpected: like a thief in the night, the Son of Man will come. So be ready, wakeful.
What are we to make of such apocalyptic promises and warnings?
In part, we know that they are true—that each of us will die and that this end may arrive like a thief at an unexpected hour. One is taken; one is left. Any good lawyer will tell us all the ways we need to be prepared. Scientifically, we know the]] sun and earth are also perishable, and the universe itself won’t last forever. Science is full of apocalyptic warnings, without promises.
The Bible folds its warnings within promises.
It paints a vivid picture of both the warnings: The Sun became black as sackcloth . . . and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth (Rev. 6:12) and the promises: And the sea . . . and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged . . . according to [their] works. (Rev. 20:13) And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven . . . and I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men . . . and God shall wipe away all tears . . . and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow . . . nor pain . . . for the former things are passed away. (Rev. 21;2-4)
Marcus Borg, the late influential scholar, often advised us to take the Bible “seriously, not literally.” If he would have said instead “we should always take the Bible seriously, though not always literally,” then I could agree. Sometimes seriousness requires the literal interpretation. Jesus’ death on a cross is an obvious example. His resurrection is another.
What about the Second Coming—should we interpret it literally or not?
Richard Hooker, the great Elizabethan theologian, advised that taking scripture seriously means reading it in faith, with reason. At points, the Bible's interpretation is uncertain. At these points, reason looks for guidance from elsewhere in the scripture where the meaning is more clear. Light a candle from the campfire at the center, take it with you to see a little better in the woods.
May 12, 2019
In the Book of Acts, we meet Dorcas, a woman “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” In baptism, responding to five covenantal questions, we promise to perform the same.
Here is the first question. “Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?” We answer: “We will with God’s help.” That is a promise to stay actively involved in church. Coming to Sunday church is a good work.
I know not everyone agrees. Bill Gates, for example, has said for the record that he finds better ways to spend a Sunday morning. Richard Dawkins sees Gates’s bet and raises him a dollar: faith is dangerous he claims, and to “implant it in the mind of children is a grievous wrong.” So let’s test my claim that coming to church is a good work.
That coming to church is work, I am sure we can agree. For those who come with children, the work multiplies by two, per head. The question isn’t “Is it work?”––but “Is it good?”
“Good” is an important word in the Christian faith. Let’s define it. According to Aquinas, “everything is good so far as it is desirable.” Things can be desired, he continues, in different ways. If something is desired for its own sake, he calls it “virtuous;” if it desired for the sake of something else it is “useful;” and if it is desired for the satisfaction of an appetite he calls it “pleasant.”
Is coming to church pleasant?
You may have heard the old joke about the fellow whose mother told him he had to go to church. I heard it in the sermon when I was installed, at the age of twenty-eight, as vicar of Trinity Church, Van Buren. It goes like this:
One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, "I'm not going."
"Why not?" she asked.
“I'll give you two good reasons," he said. "(1), They don't like me, and (2), I don't like them."
His mother replied, "I'll give you two good reasons why you SHOULD go to church: You are 59 years old, and (2) you are the priest.
I have been regularly attending church for sixty-four plus years, thirty-seven of them wearing vestments. Looking back, I can report that coming to church is often very pleasant, but in all churches there are days, and in some churches, there are years when it is not. I might guess that extra sleep would be pleasant more reliably so I will not claim that going to church is good because we like the way it makes us feel. That isn’t guaranteed.
April 21, 2019
Yesterday, my son sent me a New York Times Easter interview, asking for my comment. The interviewee was Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary in New York.
For the Times, Nicholas Kristoff asks for her thoughts about the resurrection: “Happy Easter Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection. I have problems with that.”
Her answer is agnostic. “Those who claim to know whether it happened or not are kidding themselves,” she says. “But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
Kristoff follows up: “What happens when we die?”
Again, the answer is agnostic. “I don’t know!” she says. There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.” End quote.
My faith is. My faith is tied both to the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the promise of the afterlife. And so is my belief that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed. I pray from the bottom of my heart that throughout my ministry I have been clear on that.
I have always liked to read and write. One of the things I’ve loved about the ministry is that reading and writing are included in the job description. Of the writers I’ve read, perhaps the greatest is Marcel Proust, author of In Remembrance of Things Past. I spent some time with that novel early in my ministry.
It felt very relevant to my work. Proust saw what good and evil lurk within the human heart and he believed that the heart and mind, conscious and subconscious, are the stage on which the real drama of human life is set.
Proust's explorations were into what he called "states of soul". The scenery, at times, is scary. This writer is especially attuned to the dark life underneath the sunny boulders of pious sentiments. Understand Proust and I promise you will never be shocked by murder, no matter how friendly a neighbor the accused might have been, nor how sunny his television personality.
A long section is titled "Swann in Love." We tour the stages of romantic love almost as though they were on display at Epcot Center. Circle the lake from the left, starting with Infatuation. Don't miss the gift shop here. Continue moving clockwise through Desperation. Enjoy an extended stay at Bliss: this scenery is exhilarating and you won't believe the special effects. Jealousy is next, a good place to stop for a bite to eat. Next is Betrayal. Be sure to enjoy a ride on the Tower of Terror here. Then follows Desolation, a long exhibition. Will it ever end? Finally, we are released into Recovery. Some tourists step right back into Infatuation for another go. More sensible or experienced travelers kiss the ground in Recovery and vow never to return. Many, however, do.
April 14, 2019
The gospel is music. It opens loud with a joyous aria: the birth of God.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, being found in human form.
St. Paul said that: Philippians, chapter 2, verse 6.
From its exhilarating beginning, the score rises, falls, and rises between two themes: passion/resurrection. Passion is the solemn underscore, and today through Friday it fills the room with mournful cello, pounding drums, discordant cymbals. But even today and all through the week, just at the border of our range of hearing, a single, tight violin string holds the resurrection note: faint but taught, thrilling. A nightmare unfolds from the garden, through the courts, into the streets, out of the city and up the hill, and all through the tumult, that glorious note does not relent.
Next Sunday that note will open like a flower and fill the room with resurrection brass and timpani. But still, today’s events will insist on being heard – a soft, low, cello passion chord that gives the resurrection music bottom.
In the dance of these opposing themes – over-score and underscore, passion/resurrection – we hear the gospel, and in the gospel, we are shown the meaning of our lives. In that meaning, we are saved. We are saved that we might play music, sing it, live it.
The last time I preached I quoted this from Karl Barth:
In the Gospels, everything runs to meet the passion story, yet… everything in he passion story runs to meet the resurrection story, and … nothing can be understood except from these two, or better, from the turning point between [them].[i]
Our own lives, in all their parts, move to meet the resurrection through the passion. The way of the cross, we call this, which is the way of eternal life. On that way, we endure our nights in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thing we were afraid of happens. We call the doctors or police. They can’t help us this time. There is nothing left to do but follow Jesus to the garden, drop to our knees and pray his prayer. “Father, if it be thy will, take away this cup.” Sometimes God does and sometimes not.
I think of my mother as a newlywed lying still for a solid week under doctor’s orders. “It’s polio. Do not move. In seven days we’ll know if you will walk again.” “Father, if it be thy will, remove this cup.” That time, God did remove the cup. In seven days, she walked.
[i] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Volume 1, part 2, page 56.
April 06, 2019
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
That is St. Paul, from his first letter to the Corinthians. Scholars estimate that letter to have been written “in the late winter or early spring,” 55 A.D. The last supper Paul describes had taken place twenty-two years earlier, at that same time of year. When a story is written down while people remain alive who had witnessed the original event, we say it is written in “living memory.” That can stretch to more than eighty years. Most if not all of the New Testament was written within living memory of Jesus.
Concerning Phyllis, I am going to start with a story some of you have heard, of something that happened, involving her, not quite a quarter century ago—still easily in living memory. I wrote it. I remember it, and I am still here. So is one of the two principal participants, the other being Phyllis. The story begins at a celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how the last supper lives in sacred memory, which it will do forever.
One Sunday morning at St. Margaret’s church, Janie McDonald arrived early to prepare the flowers on the altar. I use the term altar loosely; St. Margaret’s was meeting at that time at Cinema City, Breckenridge Village, where our altar consisted of a standard folding table suspended on a board raised on packing crates, covered by a bedspread. Janie stood by while the altar crew put the thing together.
Janie, unbeknownst to anyone, was in a grim state. She was upset, pained, frightened. The date was October 22, 1995. Janie had dreaded that date for years.
This has to do with Janie and her father. Janie and her father shared a birthday – September 22. How delightful it had been for Janie’s father to receive a baby daughter for his birthday. Growing up, how much fun it had been for her to share that birthday with her Daddy. The birthday was emblematic: they were close in every way. They looked alike and seemed to feel and think alike. All their friends in Stuttgart knew Janie for her Daddy’s girl.
On October 22, 1968, Janie’s father committed suicide. Their ages at the time were symbiotic: Daughter was 14, father 41.