Saturday, December 19, 2015

At the risk of being broken...

In June 1941 the United States shut down all visa applications for anyone entering the US who had close relatives in Germany. It was during this same time that Otto Frank was applying for visas for his family to come to the US. Otto Frank was the father of the Anne Frank, whose well read diaries depict the atrocities of Auschwitz and the holocaust. Think of how very different her story might have been if the US had granted her and her family visas.

Clara Williams was born in 1885. In 1928 she enrolled at New Mexico State University, taking only summer courses in order to teach black kids in the public school system during the school year. Because she was a black woman her professors at New Mexico State University would not allow her in the classroom, so she took notes from the hallway. She graduated nine years later with a Bachelor’s Degree in English at the age of 51.

This fall a couple of women started an online campaign called “Together Rising” to raise funds for Syrian refugees. Much to their surprise they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Its taken them months to figure out how to use the money, contacting refugee organizations around the world for assistance. What they learned is that women refugees want strollers and warm clothes for their families. And so that is what they are doing, sending strollers and warm clothes to refugees.

Mary, whose story we hear in the Gospel this morning, like Clara, Anne, and refugee women around the world, faced many challenges in life. Mary was a refugee, giving birth to Jesus in a town not her own, without the comfort of home and family, then on the run to Egypt to escape death from the angry and jealous Herod.

We live in a broken world. It has always been broken. Yet, for people of faith, even in the brokenness, God’s love, God’s hope for God’s creation manages to squeak through. For Christians, our story begins with Mary.

One of the primary images of Mary portrayed by the Christian tradition is that of a poor, submissive, passive girl. However, if one listens to the story in Luke one hears something quite different. Mary is brave and confidently accepts the role of birthing God into the world, despite a very uncertain future in doing so. She stays with her son, God in the flesh, to the very end, despite the dangers of being at the foot of the cross where she too could have been crucified. This Mary is hardly weak, submissive, or passive.

The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary - Theotokos - God Bearer. 

Images of Black Madonna’s appeared between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some Black Madonnas were created using dark pigment or stone, others turned black with age and patina. Some think that the Black Madonnas have a historical link to pagan goddesses of the earth - like the rich black soil of the earth, the black Madonna depicts Mary as the one who birthed God into the world.

Unlike Mary, most of us do not have profound experiences of God moving us into action in the world. It’s not that God isn’t trying to move us, its more likely that we are just too obtuse, too human, to recognize God’s way of moving in us. I’m willing to wager than no one in this room has ever had an angel wake them up at night and tell them that God has a message for them. Still, terrifying as that would be, at least it would be clear what God wanted. 

As individuals and as a Christian community most of us have not had to face the same kinds of life threatening challenges that Anne Frank, Clara Williams, refugee women, or Mary, the mother of God, faced. But in other ways it is challenging to be a church in the world today.

One part of the challenge, of course, is understanding how to be attentive in order that God can speak to us and through us. 

Often, when we are able to hear God speak it is through either the broken places in our lives or through our passions. Recently we’ve come to recognize that we are a church that feeds people. It’s something we’ve done for a long time, but recognizing that feeding people is one of our passions helps to focus us. How do we feed people in mind, body, and spirit? Take for example our help to build a school in Liberia, the creation of an exterior plaza that is a welcome place of respite for humans and animals alike, Blessings in a Backpack feeding hungry school kids, our food pantry that feeds nearly 30 families a month, the increased accessibility for walkers and wheelchairs in the church, the Holiday Market supporting local artists, the organ refurbishment and the joy that comes from appreciating fine music, and our ongoing initiatives to increase our awareness of racism and the other biases that exist within us. These are just a few of the ways that we strive to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. These are some of the ways that our soul sings out in response to God, and even though our response does not come as a result of the threat and risk like others have faced, it comes nonetheless, with the confidence that we can be part of God’s healing presence in a world of pain and suffering. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015


Nearly thirty years ago, when Dan and I were new to church, if we skipped church for a couple of Sundays in a row we’d get a phone call from Masie. Those phone calls made me feel a little guilty, but that was my problem. Masie just called to see how we were and tell us he had missed us. It was a sweet gesture, one I came to appreciate.

Masie was a retired eye doctor, a Japanese American.  When he was a young man the US government uprooted Masie and his family and sent them to a Japanese relocation camp in Arkansas.  After the war he ended up in Illinois. He was a lifelong faithful Episcopalian. Divorced and remarried, he and his second wife were, for many years, denied communion in the Episcopal Church. Masie faced many challenges in his life, and shared these stories with some sadness. Nonetheless he chose to be gentle, welcoming, kind, and faithful. He was an active, vital member of that small church in Chicago until the day of his death.

Ten years later that church sponsored me when I was ordained a priest. I’ve now been a priest for sixteen years. Serving as a priest has motivated me to become a healthier, more aware, wise person. It has also brought with it profound challenges of the kind that all clergy face in this day and age - helping people know God’s love in their lives, a love that is frequently expressed through the love and kindness of others. 

Likewise Maryjane and Scott have taken steps in their lives to follow God’s call into ordained ministry. Maryjane is coming to the end of her time as a Curate. Eventually she will leave us and settle into parish ministry as an interim rector.

The last two and half years have passed quickly and now Scott is here for his first day as a transitional deacon. In June, God willing, he will be ordained a priest. By then he will be finished with seminary and ready to embark on his call to be a parish priest.

Both Maryjane and Scott have made sacrifices to follow God’s call. They too will find that life as a priest is filled with grace and blessing as well as challenges that will push and pull at the very fiber of their beings, transforming them in ways they cannot possibly predict. As John the Baptist points out, following God’s call and producing fruit is risky and challenging, and yet it is grounded in love - the capacity to know God’s love in their lives and share that love with others. 

Carm Yero, one of our newer parishioners and a member of the Vestry and Altar Guild, is in the process of discerning if she has a call to the priesthood. Her congregational discernment committee has been meeting for a few months, asking her challenging questions and helping her listen to God’s Spirit. In time the committee members will need to make an assessment of what they have heard and if they hear a call, to recommend her to the Bishop. The discernment process is risky, too; self examination is important and so one’s life becomes an open book. This leaves one feeling vulnerable and doing a lot of soul searching. Its good work, challenging work, and yes, it too is primarily about love - how is God’s love expressing itself in and through Carm’s life and how is she being called to share that love?

Many of you here today have also felt called to serve the church. Some of you serve as Masie did, calling parishioners or sending out greeting cards, expressing love and concern. Some of you take the time to pick up members of the parish and drive them to church. Others have felt called to serve as leaders or members of one of our Commissions, Committees, or Ministry Teams. Some of you serve as a Vestry member or sing in the choir or serve as an acolyte, Lector, lay Eucharistic minister, or usher. Some of you serve by doing ministry in the world around us, outreach work into the community. Each of you are responding, knowingly or not, to the call of the Spirit and the gifts bestowed upon you. Each one of us, in our own way, is living out our baptismal covenant promises, following God’s call, striving to love as God loves.

John the Baptist extends this challenge to his followers - embrace your call from God live a life of faith, and produce good fruit. Granted, John is a bit radical in his exhortation calling his followers a brood of vipers. Mind you, I’d never encourage this as a motivational tool. But John’s followers don’t seem to mind being called “children of snakes” because the next thing they ask is, “What can we do?” John responds - love God, love neighbor, love self.

Each of you have a role in shaping Maryjane, Scott, and Carm as they strive to live their call. As a community of faith you care for one another, helping each other to grow and mature as Christians. In these ways God’s love is revealed in and through you.

It may be a slight exaggeration, but it is possible that Dan and I might have slipped away from church if Masie hadn’t made the effort to reach out to us. I am grateful for Masie and the other people who have taught me along the way and helped to shape me as a person of faith. Each of them have been a reflection of God’s love in my life.

On this third Sunday of Advent John the Baptist calls his followers to step out in faith, to live as God calls them to live. No doubt the challenge was risky for John’s followers. Perhaps, in this fast paced world where cultures and ethnicities and religions live side by side, or worse, clash with extreme acts of violence, the risk feels greater? Perhaps it is riskier today to love as God loves? But through the centuries, from John the Baptist to today, God’s call to love has not changed, risky or not. If anything its become even more important. So, no more brood of vipers, children of snakes. Let’s change the world, creating a brood of lovers, children of God. 

(a reflection on Luke 3:7-18 for Advent 3C)

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Guns and Jesus

In 1968 my fifth grade class went camping for a couple of days at the end of the school year to mark the transition from elementary school to  middle school. It was on this camping trip that I learned to shoot a rifle. They taught me how to load it, aim and shoot it, and clean it.

In the 1980’s my dad worked in Puerto Rico but frequently travelled to Salt Lake City, sometimes with a lay-over in Chicago, where I lived. On one of these visits he had a duffel bag that he put through the checked baggage at the airport so it could go on to Salt Lake City while he stayed with me for a few days. The duffle bag contained some rifles and guns, used mostly for hunting, that he was transporting back to Utah. A friend of his was going to pick it up at baggage claim. I was shocked, but apparently it was no big deal, then. But, can you imagine anyone doing that today?

Many years ago when Dan’s father died Dan inherited his father’s World War II era gun. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a gun in the house when we had young children, so we kept it locked away, until we sold it some years later.

When I was a teenager my mother would often say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” 

All of this has lead me to have a complicated relationship with guns. They kind of scare me and I don’t really like them, but people I love own them and use them. My son, who is a Junior in college studying internet security, confidently maintains that no law that restricts guns ownership will solve the problem of gun violence because illegal guns can be acquired in minutes any where in any town.

Will increased gun restrictions help prevent mass shootings? I don't know, but, when Chicago had a law making automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal gun violence in the city dropped. 

Still, I think the situation today is far more complicated than just employing new laws and restrictions, though they might help. The problem lies in the very fiber of our society - a failure to respect the life of the living, an inability to employ reasonable conflict resolution, and choosing to solve disputes or enforce ideology or enact racism -  by killing other people. 

The world has always been a violent place, particularly when it comes to religion or race or ethnicity. Our Bible is full of stories of one nation killing another. The Middle Ages brought the Inquisition, with Christians slaughtering Jews and Muslims, all in the name of God. There’s the holocaust and the annihilation of Jews in Germany and Poland. Even today genocide is present in many countries around the world creating a refugee crisis with some 60 million displaced persons. And then there is terrorism, shootings and bombings in the name of God.

Yes, the world has always been a violent place. But I just can’t wrap my head around this recent surge in violence. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night wondering how a mother can, in one minute breast feed her six month old daughter and then, a few minutes later kill fourteen people, injure many more, all the while knowing that she would end up dead, too, and leave that baby an orphan. What in the name of God is happening? What, in the name of God, are we supposed to do?

Malachi lived in similar time of chaos. He was a prophet sent by God to guide the people back to God. As Christians we hear Malachi’s words as pointing toward the coming of the Messiah, to Jesus. 

Malachi teaches us that God’s way is restorative, God’s judgment is about restoration - people are made in God’s image, which therefore ought to shape what one does, how one does it, and why. This is a message I truly believe - that God is love and that every human being has the capacity to reveal the image of God.

And yet, even with the word and example of Malachi and John the Baptist and others who came before and after, it’s still complicated.

Admittedly I don’t always know how to navigate the challenges of the world today, not when the very fabric that makes us civilized human beings - the ability to respect the dignity of every human being - has been torn apart and discarded in the name of God, in the name of profit, in the face of individual rights, or any of the other ways people de-humanize other people.

It’s complicated 
and overwhelming 
and I feel numb 
and exhausted 
from the onslaught of violence
 and the media overload. 

What I really want to do is make Christmas cookies and watch old movies and pretend that 
none of this is going on. 

And, I will do some of that. 

But I also have to do more. 

I can’t just pretend like there isn’t critical stuff going on in the world around me.

I have to do the intense interior work of figuring out how to follow Malachi and John the Baptist and make way for Jesus to be born anew inside of me. 

I’m not sure how do that this year, except it begins with prayer. 

And, I think it requires a community of people willing to join together in prayer and action, seeking ways to reveal Christ in the world. 

And I know it includes different responses to conflict and the things that make us different 
from one another - race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. 

It has something to do with love, loving as God loves,and respecting 
the dignity of every human being.

It has to do with building up relationships and building up community and that takes work, intentional work, prayer, and time and a willingness to get to know one’s neighbor: those who live in the house next door, those in the pews around us, those we encounter in the world, the refugee, the stranger.

It’s up to us, people of faith, to figure out how we can best be  the hands and heart of Christ  in this time and place, tending to a broken world  and the shattered lives within it. 

(A reflection on the readings for Advent 2C: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6)

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