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Invisible God

November 24, 2019

God is normally invisible to human beings, and also inaudible and undetectable to human taste, or touch, or smell. Angels are thought to have more sensitive receptors—but we are naturally blind and deaf to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. 

Obviously, this is a gift. 

Imagine how different life would be if God were always tapping on our shoulders and staring at us from the rear view mirror. “Take a left here, you’ll save ten minutes and reduce your carbon footprint.” Morally and spiritually we would be a world of Peter Pans, stuck in childhood. As things are, we can grow up and come into our own as beings in God’s image who can think for ourselves and do as we see fit, as though God had retired and moved to Florida. We call this freedom. 

Obviously, it is also a problem. 

Divine invisibility opens the gates for human error and confusion. We are governed by people no better or wiser than ourselves. We get lonely often, and in trouble sometimes, and would appreciate a reassuring touch or a helping hand from heaven. 

Church is an answer to this problem. Here we surround ourselves with sights and sounds, and offer things to taste, touch and smell that have been blessed to stimulate our minds and open our hearts to God’s presence in our midst, and purpose for our lives––and to raise awareness of his almost palpable assistance. 

Karl Barth said it: God “is never sleeping but always awake; never uninterested but always concerned.” [i] 

And invisible does not mean inactive. 

Allow me to be personal and specific. From beginning to end my time here has seemed to me to have been invisibly scripted in key respects. There were events around my coming, my staying, and now my going that have called me to do things that I had not planned and, but those events, would not have considered doing. 

2013: “The dean is leaving: will you help us?” “No, I can’t do that.” Inaudibly, a still, small prompt: “Why don’t you just reconsider?”

2015: The new dean was on his way. They would be announcing it at any minute. Again, a prompt: “He ain’t coming. Are you going to leave them in the lurch?”

Spiderman and the Christian Life

November 17, 2019

Today in with both our Old Testament and Gospel reading we hear prophecy. Prophecy tells us what will come and how we get there. 

We can glean from these readings that we need help – we have a problem with sin that we need help outside ourselves to solve. We are not powerful enough. But God is. But what becomes fascinating is that Jesus came, lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected from the dead, and though we live in the miracle of our Christian faith, we still are fallen – we sin, we have separation through sin with God, self, and others.

We hear from Jesus in our gospel reading, referred to as apocalyptic warnings, that there will be an ushering in of God’s ultimate reign. This comes to us either when we die; Jesus said to the thief on the cross beside him, “today I will see you in paradise,” or when Christ returns. 

In Isaiah we hear the need for help and looking forward to the Messiah and in the gospel, we hear of Jesus’ second coming. Through both we hear of renewal, healing, recreating. 

Simply put, Jesus came and needs to come again. Even for God, it takes more than one visit to heal and deliver us from sin. Take that in for a minute. Even for God, it takes more than one visit to heal and deliver us from sin. We can glean a bit the magnitude of the problem of sin and how much help we need. 

Witherington, in his commentary on Isaiah (Isaiah Old and New) articulately asserts: “a single bringing of help and healing and some resurrection back to life in this world would not solve the whole problem…There would need to be a further and final coming of the messiah, a final redemption of the earth…not back to the old mortal life, but forward to the immortal life.” (Kindle Loc 6592). 

The Christian life is multidirectional: Jesus came, looking back – we have been saved. In our present we literally are a new creation in Christ, the old is gone and behold the new has come…but in our limitation we are as Paul puts it in Philippians, “working out our salvation,” looking around in our present reality - we are being saved. And as we transition into eternal glory the reality of what we already have will be fully accomplished, looking forward – we will be saved. 

Looking back, looking around, looking forward. 

We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved. 

What in the world? 

A few theological terms help us understand our present, this place where we are being saved.

Home Run

November 10, 2019

Jesus debates the resurrection: “Resolved, the dead are raised.” Jesus argues the affirmative: yes, the dead are raised. His opponents are the Sadducees, who don’t believe that. 

For me, this reading brings back memories. My first sermon ever was on this text. It was November, 1980 at Christ Church, Hyde Park in Boston, my second year in seminary. I told them about my sister Caroline’s husband Robin, who was dying from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-nine. I dedicated my sermon to him, a month before he died. 

Let’s see how this debate unfolds. 

From their side, the Sadducees serve up a reductio absurdum. Are the dead raised? No, because that would lead to an absurd result. They tell their story of the unlucky widow who married, then buried, seven brothers in succession. If the dead are raised, she’ll find herself married to them all, which is crazy. Claim, evidence, warrant: they’ve met the burden of proof. 

The ball in his court, Jesus must offer a rebuttal. He might have countered that Jacob was married, at the same time, to Leah and her sister Rachel, and no one called that crazy. That argument would have been about two thousand years before its time, and Jesus doesn’t use it. Instead, he rebuts by dissolving his opponents’ premise. The Sadducees have assumed that marriages made in this life would continue in a new one. Not so, says Jesus Christ. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in the life to come neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That is to say the least an interesting disclosure and­­––voilà––by resolving the absurdity it meets the burden of rejoinder. 

Caroline grieved Robin’s death intensely, then married Jim and they have been happy now for almost forty years. I imagine they are glad not to have to worry or haggle over who will be married to whom in paradise. Deciding who will be buried next to whom is hard enough. 

Now Jesus serves another argument, which boils down to a logical proof built from premises in scripture his opponents would accept. How did God identify himself to Moses? Everybody knew the answer: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob die? They did. So here is the proof, dear Watson, a simple matter of deduction: 

God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

Therefore: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who died, were raised.

For Luke and his early Christian readers, this little debate is merely academic. They all know what is coming. This is chapter twenty in Luke’s gospel. We are already in Jerusalem, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. That the dead are raised will very soon be seen in Jesus Easter morning. For “proof,” observation beats logic seven days a week.

Grammar School

October 27, 2019

Growing up, our family dinner table was a forum, no holds barred and no topic out of order. School, politics, religion, war, sports, race: you name it and we would argue it. The table referee was Dad, who mostly listened, but would throw a flag for two infractions: (1) bad grammar and (2) self-righteousness.

“Me and Charles are going camping.” Stop. “You mean: ‘Charles and I are going camping.’ What about Fred?” “Eddie and him got mad last time because Charles wouldn’t let us go to sleep.” Stop. “You mean ‘Eddie and he got mad.’” Those were five yard penalties. Changing the subject, I complain about a girl at school “Barbara Melvin is a stuck up snob.” Stop. “So now you’re too good for Barbara Melvin?” Fifteen yards for a personal foul. 

Bishop Keller seldom quoted scripture to his children, but Jesus was his guide, who also called fouls on those, I quote: who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

The Pharisee prays “thank God I’m good,” while Jesus approves the other man, a remorseful tax collector. This is the story of the prodigal son in miniature.

I would like to say a word on the Pharisee’s behalf.

Where would we be without the righteous? If right-doers, feeling disrespected, went on strike worldwide, the world would come unglued and so would churches. I remember a Mother’s Day sermon at the Fort Smith Ninth Street Baptist Church, an African American congregation. My friend, their pastor A.J. Parish, preached the story of the prodigal son, but with a twist. For Mother’s Day, he praised the older son, the boy scout. He showed up on time for work, said his prayers, and paid his bills. True, he sulked when his bad boy little brother came home broke and was welcomed back with open arms. Let’s not be self-righteous about that. “Thank God for that older brother!” Rev. Parish shouted, “who didn’t waste his father’s heard-earned bread and give his poor mother sleepless nights for years.” The church house resounded with laughter, claps and loud “Amens.” 

Let’s stay with that point for another minute. There is a grammar to good living in society. It’s how we solve Freud’s problem of the id. I love repeating C.S. Lewis’s description of that problem as he met it in the demons of his own psyche. I looked inside myself, he said, “and there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”[i]

Those demons are cruel masters if we let them take charge.

Our parents quickly train us not to give these instincts full expression—we learn that grammar of good living at the dinner table––and if our parents fail our neighbors or the law will try to teach us. In Freud’s terms, we fold our primal id into a law abiding ego, for our personal safety and the public good.

Then comes life. We grow up, leave home, and drama, tragedy, and comedy ensue. Some never learn the grammar and are constantly in trouble. Some know it, keep it, then rebel midlife. Some get tired of pushing that big old rock up that same steep hill. Some think it is a rigged game and refuse to play, self-righteously.

Tequila Sunrise

October 06, 2019

Retirement’s approach has had me thinking back through my years in ministry. There have been forty of them if we count the three in seminary, which let’s do, because forty has a ring that thirty-seven doesn’t. 

Ministry is faith at work. “Increase our faith!” say the apostles to the Lord. Jesus indicates that they should have enough already, because the tiniest seed of it works wonders. “You have that much, don’t you?” Then he changes the subject to work. “Get used to it,” he tells them, because, like slaves, an apostle’s work is never done. The minute you kick off your shoes off and pick up the remote control, comes a knock, a ring, a text. There is a problem somewhere, or a need, and it won’t wait.

My grandfather, “Favoo,” thought ministers only worked one day a week. At Sunday dinner my grandmother, “Bubba,” would mention that Pastor Jones was on vacation.  To Favoo vacation for a pastor was redundant. Ministers need time off like Rockefellers need more money. 

I will admit that being a priest is not the hardest job I’ve ever had. After college graduation I needed temporary work and signed up for substitute teaching in the Little Rock public schools. My beat was Junior High School. Compared to that, being Dean is easy street. (What’s the protocol for breaking up a fight between two girls?) 

Favoo was an oil man. I never considered working in that part of the family business. I don’t know if I would have been any good at it or not. The oil business is a blend of science and high stakes poker. I might have been too cautious to succeed—a nickel here, a dollar there, but never all in.  

Before seminary, the two careers I did try on for size were farming and teaching, by which I intended teaching in an ivory tower, not substituting at Pulaski Heights. I worked on the farm most summers, starting at age thirteen. My first day on the job I was handed a shovel and pointed towards the calf barn, which hadn’t been shoveled, it seemed to me, since I was born. By the age of twenty I was competent with tractors, farm chemicals, and spray rigs. One difference between farming and most other jobs is that anyone driving by can see where you started and where you stopped and know how much you did that day. If you don’t get it planted, or don’t get it picked, there’s no pretending. On the farm, lazy has no place to hide. 

In parish ministry it does. The workload is mostly up to the priest. There is no limit to the work that could be done, or to the places where it happens: church office, home study, hospital, here and there around the town—so most people don’t have much more than an educated guess about how hard a given priest is working. Over time, the truth will out and parishioners wise up to who’s shoveling and who’s snoring in the hay barn.  

Chosen People

September 22, 2019

My mother died four years ago yesterday. 

From childhood, I remember her explaining how it works in heaven. At dinner in heaven we will eat with forks and spoons, but with handles too long to feed ourselves. With a three-foot arm and a four-foot spoon you could feed your foot but not your mouth. You can do the math, or try it, or take Polly Keller’s word, which is what I did. In heaven, it is written, “they will hunger no more.”[1] So how does it work? Mother explained. Each person feeds another from across the table. Dinner is a dance with forks and spoons, a feast of laughs and songs. In hell, she mentioned, the same food and silverware is on the table, but no one thinks to feed the other, so everyone is hungry all the time.

I don’t know where my mother got her intel, so we’ll just have to wait and see about the long-handled forks and spoons.

In the meantime, churches operate like that, financially. There is no end of ways that you can spend your money: a newer car, a nicer place to live, a trip. But you give freely to support the ministry and life of this Cathedral, which in turn we give back out for free: prayers, visits, counsel, classes, breakfast, laughs and songs. That’s how it works at Trinity Cathedral.

To what end? 

The “cure of souls.” We are animals, but more: we think. We are thinkers, but more: we love. Animal, rational, and spiritual: our souls combine those three dimensions. What a piece of work! What I call soul, Martin Luther King called personality, explaining that whatever in law or life enhances personality is just, whatever tears it down is not. We affirm the soul here, and feed it, and hand it a four-foot fork or spoon. 

In this morning’s gospel Jesus gives astonishing advice. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, he suggests, so that when the money is gone these friends, I quote, will “welcome you into the eternal homes.” I wonder, did Jesus say that with a wink? In Game of Thrones, that was the kind of thing we might expect to hear from Little Finger, the master of tit for tat. We know that Jesus Christ did not practice tit for tat, nor believe that we can buy our way in to heaven—so the answer almost has to be yes: Jesus was smiling when he said this, and people who knew him laughed. 

Turning serious, he says this:

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.

Summum Bonum

September 08, 2019

In retrospect, it was on Easter Sunday 1974 that I became a disciple.

It was my freshman year at Amherst College. You may have heard me say that the stupidest creature on planet earth is a college freshman. I was speaking on evidence of my own experience. On Easter Eve, I lost badly at beer pong and from there my night went south. Sunday morning, I stumbled out of bed to go to church for Easter service at Grace Episcopal on the town common. I arrived late. Sounds of brass, timpani, and “Welcome Happy Morning” floated towards me through the open door. When I heard them my heart filled up and tears poured out. Music does that to me. It opens the floodgates. This was an emotional epiphany, that I wasn’t being true to things I knew and felt to be important, that were in those sounds floating through the door. I was mad at my stupidity. It had been months since I had been to church. No one else I knew was going. We freshman had other fish to fry. But I decided that day to start. Grace Church offered a Eucharist late Sunday afternoons, in its small chapel, usually just four or five people with an old priest. From that Easter forward through the next three years I always went alone and almost never missed. I believed the music and I followed.

Jesus turned to them and said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Do I hate my father, God rest his soul? Quite the opposite. The worst pain I’ve felt in sixty-four years of life was watching his slow decline into dementia. I love my father. I love my mother and my sisters too. (Today is my late sister Neil’s birthday, I pray in heaven.) My most difficult night as Dean was the night before my mother died on our farm in Louisiana. It was a Saturday night and I had a wedding. I was scheduled to preach the next morning. The call came that mother was very sick. “How sick?” It was hard to say, but it might not be long. “How long?” No one knows. So do I go or do I stay?  I had gone another time and it had been a false alarm. I decided to stay for the wedding and Sunday morning church, then drove fast to Louisiana.

Weighing options, choosing as best one can—such is the life of a disciple. Mother waited until I got there, then, surrounded by her children, died. There is no hate in any part of that—just love.

Do I hate my wife? Obviously not. That would be a broken promise and unanswered prayer. Right on these steps I promised Julie I would love, comfort, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both would live. At the rail our promises were blessed: Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts. Forty-one years later we are going strong.

Do we hate our children? Are we nuts? They are our pride and joy. We love their spouses too. We adore our grandchild Rosie. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a father tells his son his love for him is like the grace of God: “Your existence is a delight to me.” Our love for our children is God-like. We know this as disciples.

Balm in Gilead

August 25, 2019

[We] have come . . . to the city of the living God, . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.1

The sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  The blood of Abel takes us back to the Genesis story about the conflict between two brothers.  It speaks of division and injustice and violence and revenge and death. We are still hearing stories like this; every day we hear stories like this.     

Our Scripture this morning points us toward the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word—a word from our wounded and resurrected Jesus who draws us into kinship through expressions of grace and compassion and faith and hope and healing and Love and Life.  And this kind of kingdom, the letter of Hebrews says, cannot be shaken.

When we walk into a Church—a capital “C” Church which is the living body of Christ, there should be a balm in that Gilead.  We have come to the balm of Gilead, which is healing, Divine Love. And that healing balm of Gilead makes communion with our living, loving God possible.  That should move our hearts to thanks and praise, with reverence and awe for the grace we have received.  To worship is to encounter God, to hear God's voice, to be transformed by it. True worship does not leave us as we are, rather, it makes us into a conduit for the grace we have received, so that we can carry that healing balm into our world, connecting one another to God’s Love.  

St. Luke gives us an example:    

While Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, a woman appears who has a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was unable to stand up straight. Jesus sees her, calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. And when Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and began praising God.

This woman, this unnamed daughter of Abraham, hadn’t even asked for healing, but she experienced the compassionate touch of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the touch that upheld her, that filled her with grace, that healed her with the power of his Love.  2And she began praising God.  

There is conflict and tension in this story—a certain religious leader thought the healing was at the wrong time, in the wrong place.  Jesus counters with a Golden Rule kind of logic. Perhaps that Golden Rule logic helped the crowd to recognize their own face in the face of the woman, or in the voice of the synagogue leader’s objections.  Because, then, the entire group of witnesses echoed the woman’s praise by rejoicing themselves. We don’t know the rest of the woman’s story, but in that moment, she becomes a conduit for that same grace.  She offers praise for God’s good grace, and now, others rejoice, too. Love is contagious.  

Interpreting the Present Time

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.

Worship in Church & Mass Shootings Outside

August 11, 2019

We’ve had quite a week in our country. The aftermath of two mass shootings took place just last weekend. CBS news presented this definition of a mass shooting: a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms. In 2019 in America so far, we have had 219 mass shootings according to this definition. As of last Monday, this averages out to one a day – an average of one time each day this year four or more people have been murdered with a gun in one-time incidents.

Notice I used the word “we” when I described this – “we” have had this. It can feel a bit frayed in this time, but our nation is a “we.” There is a corporate identity. We mostly see this in tragedy, but also, in celebration. Last week there were tragedies - we saw two mass shootings within 13 hours. Two young men. Two cities. One: Hate. Hatred of Hispanics. Another: speculation of bitterness toward women. Does that mean the worst thing to be today is a Hispanic woman?

Ethnicity. Gender. People grocery shopping, people relaxing and having fun with friends. Places that are supposed to be safe: a Walmart and an entertainment district in the mid-west.

This “we” identity is what we have been hearing about in our Sunday readings – it’s more attention-getting through the Old Testament lately. We have been hearing of hard times in Israel. In today’s reading, we’re at a time where Israel is split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Judah. This was a time of decay in character, behavior, and religious commitment. It was a time of hardship and fear where self-preservation informed decisions. Isaiah’s audience we hear in verse one is Judah and Jerusalem – both kingdoms, but it’s not too far to stretch to see some comparisons of culture in our own nation today.

In the time of Isaiah, through the words of the prophet, God is giving some bad news. We hear of the emotional life of God in this passage and God sounds angry and hurt. God says: “I have had enough of your burnt-offerings,” “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” “Your appointed festivals my soul hates, they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.”