September 23, 2017
Every day in my e-mail, I receive a brief meditation from one of the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican order based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few days before our Robert died, the monk’s reflection focused on the word “paradox.” It went like this: “There’s a paradoxical quality to living as Christians. We are called to live in this world for a time, fully engaging its joys and sorrows, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being—as if this is the only world that really matters. And we are called to live in anticipation of the life to come, as if it, too, is the only world that really matters.”
Robert loved intellectual puzzles, and would no doubt help us grapple with this paradox. Here’s my take on it: The present world, with its joys, pains, and sorrows, is indeed transitory—it is passing away—but in God’s eyes it has eternal significance, as a centerpiece of his beloved creation. This world is caught up in a plan God is working to bring to fulfillment, and God calls us, his children, to share in this work of helping restore creation to God’s intended purpose. Therefore, as we engage in this life fully and lovingly, for God’s sake, acting as Christ’s hands and feet and voices, we participate in what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In other words, the line between this world and the next is blurred, to say the least. Because of God’s presence and activity, the temporal shares in the eternal. We already have access to the world that lasts. Even as we sit here, and especially as we come to this Holy Table and feast together, the apparent gap between this world and the next is bridged, and we are united with Robert and all the saints who have gone before us, in a common life, rooted in God’s own life, rooted in a love that never ends.
September 03, 2017
The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times featured an amazing story about recent events in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It tells about both the fall and the redemption of Abraham Davis, a 20-year-old white guy with a troubled past and a poor self-image. One night, he and a friend got drunk and drove Abraham’s mother’s rickety van to the local mosque where the friend spray-painted a swastika and curses and the words “go home.” At school, before Abraham had dropped out, he had been sort of friendly with a Muslim in his class, which may have provided some consolation as he dealt with poverty and a chaotic family life. Nevertheless, he participated in the defacement of the mosque and ended up in jail, caught in the act by the mosque’s security camera.
Then, wonderfully, remorse set in. Lacking other means of communication, he wrote two letters. In the first, he apologized to his mother, who had entrusted him with the van and who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia. The second began, “Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” and apologized for his involvement in something he hadn’t really meant. Then, equally wonderfully, members of the mosque responded with forgiveness and generosity. They had done well since coming to America two or three decades ago, and they love this country, despite the difficulties they have faced. Grateful for support from their Fort Smith neighbors of other religions in the aftermath of the incident, prominent Muslims went to the local prosecutor and pleaded for leniency in Abraham’s case, which the judge reluctantly granted. Law officers wouldn’t let him go to the mosque to thank those who had interceded for him, as he desired, but through Facebook, his old Muslim friend from school assured him that all had been completely forgiven. Abraham now has a job at Goodwill, and we can hope and pray that he will begin to have a more positive sense of himself and of his own potential. Perhaps his name, Abraham, points to a future at peace with others whose faith goes back to the original Abraham, a future characterized by the fruitfulness God ensured for the patriarch, despite all odds. We hope so.
August 13, 2017
St. Peter is one of the few biblical figures whose spiritual evolution we can follow in significant detail. A later point in his encounter with Jesus highlights, I think, the dynamics of today’s passage. You may recall how, at the end of John’s gospel, the resurrected Christ appears on the beach of the Galileean sea where the disciples are fishing, with breakfast prepared for them. After he gives them good fishing advice and they haul in a huge catch, Peter recognizes Jesus, jumps into the sea, and swims ashore, with the other disciples following. At breakfast, the Lord engages Peter in a dialogue about feeding and tending his flock out of love for him. Jesus then points to a future that might well have caused Peter to wonder what he had gotten himself into: “Very truly,” Jesus says, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” This, of course, foreshadowed Peter’s giving himself fully in ministry to the point of martyrdom.
Today’s gospel account, I would say, represents an earlier stage of Peter’s spiritual awareness. Here, it is beginning to dawn on him that his life ultimately belongs not to himself but to God, who in Jesus calls him, leads him, and sustains him. Peter, by nature, may have been the classic self-reliant man. As in today’s story, he is always taking the initiative, perhaps thinking he can handle even this situation of walking on water. Of course he learns a stark lesson when his fears rise along with the wind and he begins to sink: he must rely not on himself but on the one whom the winds and the sea obey. God, not Peter, will set the agenda, call on his followers to help him accomplish it, and make sure they are safe, even as they give up their effort to control their own lives.
July 30, 2017
From today’s gospel parables, we learn that while God’s kingdom is real and life-giving and wonderful, it is not always obvious. It may even seem hidden. One must discover it, often with a sense of joyful surprise. A farmer doesn’t see much in a tiny mustard seed, but discovers its potential to produce a huge tree that gives shelter to many birds. Yeast seems like nothing until one sees what happens when a woman mixes it with flour. A field seems ordinary and barren until one discovers the treasure within it. The pearls in a drawer all seem alike, until suddenly someone with a good eye for such things sees a truly fine one among them.
The parables suggest that one might discover God’s realm, the situations where God is doing wondrous things, by accident. However, one stands a better chance of striking pay dirt when one is on a quest; when one is looking and longing for something more. This is the mindset of a pilgrim. The twenty-six of us who participated in a group pilgrimage to England last month visited holy places knowing that God had been active there in the past but also in hopes of experiencing this in our own day. In all these places, Christians are currently engaged in regular prayer, believing that this connects them to heavenly realities and powers that are in our midst if we only have eyes to see them. We sought to benefit from their example and to engage in this life of prayer more fully than ever so that God’s wonders might be manifest in our own lives and in the world around us. Such seeking, such pilgrimage, ideally characterizes all Christians until we experience the kingdom fully and see God face to face.
May 07, 2017
“‘Join me in the Resurrection,’ Jesus calls out to us today. ‘Even now, even today—don’t wait ’til you’re dead. Come out of the small, dark, confining places of life into the broad and bright places—stand up, rise to your full height.’”
These words from Br. Mark Brown, an Episcopalian monk, point to what Jesus means in today’s gospel when he speaks of the abundant life that he came to give us, the resurrected life into which we are baptizing two beautiful children today. Their parents and godparents, and indeed all of us, promise that we will help them grow into the full stature of Christ, that we will help them rise to their full height, out of the small, dark, confining places of life into the broad and bright places.
April 16, 2017
The gospels make it clear that the tomb was empty—that nothing was left behind when Jesus was raised from the dead. Why is this important? Why should we take these scriptural accounts literally? After all, isn’t it most important that the spirit of Jesus lived on in and among his disciples and that his life and teachings have inspired generations? Some think this is what Christ’s Resurrection is all about. Well, that is certainly a big part of the story, but it misses something crucial.
It is of vital importance that not only Jesus’s spirit but his body was caught up in an amazing transformation to new, unending, glorified life beyond anything we can imagine. This transformation was altogether different from what happened in Jesus’s raising of Lazarus, the subject of a recent gospel reading. In the case of Lazarus, a corpse was wonderfully brought back to earthly life, which eventually ended in death. In our Lord’s case, the fullness of Jesus’s humanity, which included his body, was raised by the power of God to what Fr. Richard Benson called “a region of spiritual power that is altogether new.” Human nature, for the first time, became united with divinity without the limitations of bodily life on earth. Jesus could thus fully act as the mediator of a new covenant linking God and humanity in a bond that cannot be broken, a bond which guarantees life and peace, and into which eight children were baptized here last evening.
March 05, 2017
You would think that after almost 58 years in the world I could not be shocked by its hard realities, but that is not the case. At our recent diocesan convention, we heard testimony of horrifying things that happen routinely all around us. A woman from Fayetteville told of how, after being sexually abused as a child, she became addicted to drugs. To acquire these drugs, she became in effect a slave of drug dealers, who sold her body for certain periods of time. She called this “human trafficking,” which is apparently an integral part of the drug trade. I quickly add that this woman’s life has been redeemed, through the grace of God and the ministry of Magdalene House, a rehabilitation home started and supported by Episcopalians, but the situation she describes is still all too prevalent. At the convention, we also heard details about the sufferings of displaced people within war-torn Syria, which St. Peter’s Church in Conway and others in our area have been alleviating in amazing ways. I also learned that local high school students, of all colors and social classes, use heroin, and get addicted to it, much more often that I would have dreamed. Some of my shock at all this comes, no doubt, from having led a relatively sheltered, privileged life. But I must also admit that part of me doesn’t want to know these things. Part of me wants to be what is called “blissfully ignorant.”
In our day, it is relatively easy for some, including myself, to live an “anesthetized” existence. We can retreat into cocoons of privilege, avoiding encounters with those who are different from us and with those suffering from deprivation, violence, and discrimination. Trying simply to “live for pleasure,” as one of Oscar Wilde’s characters put it, we can inhabit a dream world in which there are no problems “out there” with which we need be concerned. Sometimes religion itself is used as a means of escape. As the Episcopal priest Robert Fruehwirth recently wrote, we sometimes approach practices such as prayer, Bible reading, and enjoyment of liturgy and music simply as means of having what might be called a “nice religious or spiritual experience.” We may even serve the poor and pursue justice mainly as ways to feel good about ourselves, rather than as ways truly to engage with God and the world around us.
January 29, 2017
Today we have a gospel treat: the famous Beatitudes, Jesus’s list of conditions of blessedness at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Traditionally, the Church has read this gospel at the Eucharist on All Saints’ Day. It’s a happy coincidence that we are also reading it on the day of our annual parish meeting, which is a local gathering of saints, followers of Jesus sanctified in baptism and sealed by the Holy Spirit, who come together to give thanks for what God has done, is doing, and will do among us.
Despite Protestant reluctance to focus on saints, in response to historical abuses of this practice, Christians through the ages have loved hearing the details of saints’ lives, just as we enjoy learning about each other through fellowship in church and through other means such as Facebook. Christianity naturally focuses on the particularity of saints’ lives and experiences because ours is an incarnational faith. God, we believe, came as a particular person, born of a particular human mother. God in Christ has manifested his presence, by means of the Spirit, in the lives of countless particular individuals, no two of whom are exactly alike. Preeminently in Jesus and also in each of his unique followers, we see the glory of God’s marvelous works; we see what God’s power can do in and through those who believe.
November 27, 2016
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
These lines from T. S. Eliot’s 1942 poem “Little Gidding” highlight the paradoxical nature of what we are doing here at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of the church year. We begin a new venture in our life with Christ and with each other when the calendar year is winding down and as we move toward the darkest time of the year, before the light starts returning at the end of December. We make a beginning, yet the Church appoints readings that have us thinking about the end, when Christ will come in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.
To make a good beginning, we must think of the end, both the end of what has gone before and the end that is to come. This gives cosmic significance to the present moment, helping us realize what time it is. It is, as today’s readings declare, the moment for us to wake from sleep. It is the moment for us to prepare for nothing less than the coming of the Lord.
November 13, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After last Tuesday’s election, perhaps we are more ready than ever to hear an apocalyptic gospel, such as we have today. Whatever we may think about the election results, they amount to a political earthquake. Familiar circumstances and ways seem to have been swept aside, or at least challenged. We seem on the precipice of changes we cannot predict, which make some uneasy, if not fearful.
An apocalypse is a revelation or uncovering of something, often in the midst of unsettled circumstances. When Jesus presented the apocalypse in today’s gospel, during the last week of his earthly life, Jerusalem could not have been more unsettled. He had long predicted that his own people would betray him to their Roman overlords, who would kill him. The imminence of this was finally dawning on the disciples as they stood marveling at the temple’s grandeur. Instead of offering them illusory comfort, however, the Lord told them bluntly that everything to which they might cling for security would be shaken or undermined—the temple itself; leaders or would-be leaders; their physical well-being; their freedom; and even the support of family and friends. It was like someone telling us that the Capitol in Washington and this Cathedral, which symbolize what we love most, the things that seem to promise security, will be reduced to dust and rubble. It would shake us just as the death of a loved one shakes us, profoundly threatening our sense of security and even our sense of identity.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.