Monday, June 22, 2015

The Charleston racial terror shootings

My sermon was not only not written down, but differed greatly from the intimate conversation of our two smaller services, and our large 10:30am service with a guest bishop and a baptism.  I cannot reproduce it here, but I can share with you some of the components:

We started with Mark’s Gospel (4:35-41) and the fear of the disciples, compared with the calm of Jesus:

Jesus can sleep and be at rest during the storm first because he is not the experienced boatsman (the fisherman disciples are):  he trusts that they will do what they can.  Going further and deeper, while Jesus plans to continue his preaching, teaching, and healing, he completely trusts God:  he knows that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and knows that if he should perish, that God’s vision of the world will be carried by others (consider in Mark that Jesus only begins speaking publicly after John the Baptist’s voice is silenced.)

His criticism of the disciples is giving in to their fear, and ceasing their action. 

We remembered the names of those killed in Charleston:

• Cynthia Hurd, 54, a manager with the Charleston County Public Library system.

• Ethel Lance, 70, a retiree who recently worked as a church janitor

• The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator and pastor at the church

• Susie Jackson, 87, a longtime member of the church

• The Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, former Charleston County community development director

• Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a church pastor, speech therapist and a high school girls' track coach

• Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church

• The Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74, another pastor at the church

Tywanza Sanders, 26, a 2014 graduate of Allen University

Their pictures were placed on the altar.

Using our voices to not be afraid, to confess and call out sin:

At the smaller services, I talked about my complete rejection of what the killer did (and his racial hatred motivations) and my assumption that those present in church feel this way too.  However, racism is far more prevalent in our lives than we acknowledge.  I admitted that I continue to benefit from being white in America:  from storekeepers looking differently at me, to the reality that I can reasonably count on help from police officers.  I suggested that while the Battle Flag does not represent the views of most South Carolinians, it’s presence gives justification to those who hate and would act on those views:  and that…and things like it…is on us.

At the later service, I used what Peter Enns wrote on Jonathan Stewart’s Daily Show monologue after the murders, calling him a modern day prophet: 

Stewart using his public platform here to call out sin, clearly, without compromise. 
Not simply the sin of individual racism that led to this tragedy. 
But the deeper sin of the collective racism of our country that supports and nurtures killers like Dylann Roof and of the structures in place that can’t quite seem to get up enough steam to move mountains if necessary to do something about it. 
Biblical prophets held Israel’s leaders accountable. They got in their face, like they were prosecuting attorneys bringing out a laundry list of crimes against the people. 
Biblical prophets were voices of moral consciousness and tireless advocates for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the oppressed. 
They were voices of what the Bible calls justice and righteousness…. 
Bringing justice and righteousness to our world is nothing less than what the Bible calls: salvation, deliverance, redemption–words contemporary Christian rhetoric often restricts to spiritual matters. 
Though those words include our spiritual state, the ancient Hebrews understood the body and soul, the individual and corporate, the psychological and sociological to be meshed together as one organism. 
Israel’s rulers had the sacred–I will say it again, sacred–responsibility to insure that justice and righteousness are upheld for the good of the whole. 
And like a prophet, Stewart took a step back and looked at the big picture. He was somber, angry, exasperated, and grieved by injustice. 
Like a prophet, I heard Stewart getting political–laying bare the ugliness all around us and the insanity that allows it to happen–or even excuses it. 
But I also heard a bit of hope, which biblical prophets also give, that it does not need to be this way. We can live differently.

Finally, I used a call to action by Episcopalian Paige Baker: 

"I woke up to the news from Charleston, and this is ringing in my head: How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save? 
But this I know: God has no hands but ours. Nothing will change until we stop sitting on them.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Adam, Eve and the Serpent (God lets the kids grow up)

The "Adam and Eve" story found in the second and third chapters of Genesis is often referred to as a second Creation story.  This is largely due to the vastly different accounts of the creation of humans.  The "seven days" story reaches this pinnacle in this way:

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’   
27 So God created humankind in his image,   in the image of God he created them;   male and female he created them.

God makes humanity in "our image":  male and female.

Compare and contrast with Genesis 2:

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  
(and only later...)  
22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,‘This at last is bone of my bones   and flesh of my flesh;this one shall be called Woman,   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 

Just to recap:  we all know that humans (and all mammals) are born from women.  But it just so happens that the first woman came out of man.  


At the very least, one can see the stories are saying something quite different.  

While there are troubling aspects to be found, there are also lots of places to play with this second story.  I imagine God walking through the garden, enjoying the evening breeze.  Suddenly, it occurs to God that it is AWFULLY quiet in the garden.  This isn't necessarily a good thing:  after all, God has young children.  Every parent knows (as do most children) that a strangely quiet household often holds a hidden reality.  

Sure enough, the kids are in trouble...

One of the most intriguing ideas is what we don't have without the interplay between the humans and the serpent.  Bert Marshall writes in Feasting on the Word:

One might ask what would have become of humanity if the woman had not plucked the fruit from the tree.  Everything hinges on this, and our text today deals with the chaos that ensues from--dare we say it?--her act of courage (or defiance--however you wish to characterize it).  Everything turns on this, because without it, humanity remains docile, numb, obedient, and forever trapped in the garden of sameness and blissful ignorance.  This place, as it turns out, is no paradise.  No differences, no diversity, no rebellion, no need for grace or redemption.  You can see where this path leads.  (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, editors David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 101)

It leads down a path that at the very least does not reflect the realities of humanity.

I've imagined a different version of the events in order to explore the story more deeply (since I believe these Primeval history chapters of Genesis encourages us to play with the texts). 

Adam, Eve and the Serpent
(God lets the kids grow up)

In the early days of the world, the animals became angry with God.  It wasn’t about creation---it was good after all.  No, what upset the animals was God’s overprotection of a certain part of Creation:  namely, Adam and Eve.  It wasn’t that God favored them:  the animals understood the special relationship God had with these two. Things, however, had gone to far.  Adam and Eve believed that they were the center of the universe.  They had no responsibility for anything, and no concept of a world outside of themselves.  Just the other day, Adam, while running around with Dog, crashed into Fox and severely injured his back. Eve, no better, cut branches that were sheltering Squirrel’s new home:  which then blew away in the recent windstorm.  The animals had complained to God, who brushed it off.  “Oh, they’re just children.”

The animals were clear that there was a bigger problem going on.  It seemed that God was unwilling to expose them to anything dangerous or even challenging.  Because of it, Adam and Eve were running around endangering the balance of the new creation.  Someone needed to talk some sense into these two, and God, the One who should have taken charge, wasn’t up to it.  In desperation, the animals went to Eve’s friend, Serpent, to try and talk some sense into her.

Serpent gets Eve to start to question some of the simplistic things that God has told her to do and not do:  what are these prohibitions really about?  Why do THEY choose to do and not do, and do the results (even the unintended results) matter?    Soon Adam joins in the conversation.

So later that evening, God is walking through the garden, and is shocked when the “pre-teens” give God serious attitude:  questioning God’s authority, and declaring that God is “ruining their life.”  God gets mad, and starting to realize that they could be in real trouble, the pre-teens blame each other and the serpent.  God then gets REALLY mad, but so does Serpent.  She confronts God.  “You are not teaching Adam and Eve how to care for themselves and others.  You are letting them down by over-mothering them, and you have taught them nothing about responsibility.”

“How dare you!” God thundered.  “Most of what I’ve done in this world centers around these two.  It’s my responsibility to protect them, and I would do anything for them!”

The Serpent shakes her head:  “That’s not good enough!  I thought these two were to be made in your image?  But they are nothing like you at all!  They have no concept of power, and no understanding beyond themselves.  They have to grow up some day, and YOU are supposed to be guiding them, not holding them back.”

God considers, then offers Adam and Eve a choice.  "My children, I love you with everything I am.  I would desire that nothing ever harms you:  that I would protect you all of your days so that you never experience anguish or pain.  But Serpent has a point:  my intent was for you to be in my image, and you will never be so unless you learn for yourselves. The choice is yours.  Be my children and stay protected and childlike forever here in this beautiful garden. Or choose to grow up:  go out into the world and become wise with mistakes and successes,  encounter great joys and profound sadness, experience death along with new life."

Adam and Eve were silent for quite some time.  Finally, Eve spoke:  “God, we will always be your children. But we must learn our own way.”

Adam nodded in agreement.  “It is what you created us for:  to fully experience all that life offers.”

And for the first time, God smiled.   “The journey has already begun.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Saying Alleluias and the spirit of the BCP

I’m still pretty new here at St. Paul’s Salt Lake City, especially in the grand scheme of things.  I’m learning the customs of the community, as well as figuring out how we will share in the leadership of the church.

St. Paul’s likes their Alleluias.  (Paul Higginson:  if you read this, enjoy the irony!)  They finish every service with them.  Their response to whatever form the dismissal takes (except during Lent) is always “Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia!!!”

The thing is, this is the EASTER season response.  The Book of Common Prayer says clearly:

From the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost "Alleluia, alleluia" may be added to any of the dismissals. 
The People respond     Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia.

This is rather different then the rubric concerning the other “Alleluia”, at The Breaking of the Bread:

Then may be sung or said 
[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.] 
In Lent, Alleluia is omitted, and may be omitted at other times except during Easter Season.

Armed with the rubric (and "priestly authority”) it would have been easy to demand no Alleluia endings.  Instead, I offered a compromise.  I said during the announcements, after acknowledging the St. Paul’s custom and what the rubric says, this:

“The spirit of the Book of Common Prayer is to make the Easter Season especially festive.  But it would be silly to emphatically stop you all from saying “Alleluia!”  So to keep Easter a bit more festive, whoever’s doing the dismissal will use the Alleluia’s only during Easter and special occasions, but you all are welcome to keep responding with Alleluias!”

And then I added, to the laughter of the congregation.

“And for those of you who couldn’t care less about any of this, thanks for putting up with this announcement!!!”

I share this as a reminder to myself that we all have our religious custom things that we do.  Being kind, gracious, and understanding to authentic forms of faithful expression is a lot more important than an insisting your way is right, even if you do have a rubric on your side.

Explaining the Trinity? Good luck with that...

Trinity Sunday is one of the only days of the Church year named for a doctrine rather than a person or an event.  

The question for the preacher is how to approach it:  do I really think that I can explain the Trinity in 8 to 12 minutes of sermon?  Is that really enough time?

David and Jonathan Bennett,  brothers and Roman Catholics theologians, on their website called “ChurchYear.Net”, state that the common wisdom is that if you talk about the Trinity for longer than a few minutes you will slip into heresy because you are probing the depths of God too deeply.

So, in reality, 8 to 12 minutes might be too long!!!

ChurchYear.Net says:  “The Trinity is one of the most fascinating - and controversial - Christian dogmas. The Trinity is a mystery. By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim."

They say that the best description (certainly, the safest description if avoiding heresy is your goal) is found in the Nicene Creed.   They write “essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one in essence, but distinct in person. Don't let the word "person" fool you. The Greek word for person means "that which stands on its own," or "individual reality," and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three human persons. Therefore we believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct from one another (not divided though), yet completely united in will and essence."

The funny thing:  their next words are “How can this be?” echoing Nicodemus in the Gospel reading.  How does one explain this?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote from the Krista Tippett interview that I used last week ended with the same idea:  "no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.”

The Trinity is a concept designed to describe the indescribable.  The nature of God and our relationship with God can not be explained by “how.”  Explaining the Trinity is like describing why looking at the mountains still invokes an overwhelming sense of beauty and amazement, no matter how long we live among them.  

So know from the outset:  explaining only leads to more questions, if not confusion.

Metaphor helps.  The ChurchYear.Net guys illustrate the Trinity as a musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The notes (sic.) are all equally important in producing the rich sound, and the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out."

The key element of Trinity is relationship.  

The book, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (edited by Don Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum), states that “The Trinity is a perfect relationship of love in which neither unity nor distinctness of the divine persons is compromised.  God’s life is understood to be dynamic, loving, and available to be shared in relationship with humanity for salvation.”

While ponding God’s being in Trinity further might be helpful, perhaps the best way to move forward is to give voice to our understandings of God in a way that invites the thoughtful reflections of others.

I believe that it is this type of sharing:  sharing our own personal experiences, and hearing the experiences of others, that leads to transformation of being born by water and Spirit that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel.  It’s not the explaining of how things are, or by the dictating of what we must do, but by seeing our life’s journey as an exploration of “the earthly things”:  the fabrics of our world, the meaning of our lives, and the mystery that is God’s love for all.

A significant part of this exploration, for us, happens in the church.  Michael Hopkins, an Episcopal priest, wrote this on his blog:
We are members of the Episcopal Church because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. As Episcopalians, the church becomes our laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God.  (From Glory Into Glory, Michael Hopkins)
We are intertwined with one another and with God.  We can’t really explain it…but we somehow know it’s true.

This morning’s Gospel reading was likely chosen by the Lectionary people because it contains all the elements of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  However, it is this line that truly points to the mystery of Trinity:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8)

We are in relationship with God, each other, and the whole world.  We will never be able to fully explain what that means, but our hearts, minds, and souls compel us towards fully living into the oneness offered to us by God.