Saturday, October 29, 2016

Lost


It’s been said that as Christians we are to live with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Meaning, we are to stay current with the world around us and define our role and response to the world through our faith.

Lately, as a priest, every aspect of my life, from clergy colleagues to Facebook, blogs, and other social media, from newspaper articles, to books I should be reading and books I am reading, to diocesan convention and other diocesan workshops, to my own personal reality as one who was a kid in the 1960’s and in college in the 1970’s, all around me, all the time, there exists an urgency to reconcile racism and diversity.

Recently I listened to an interview from “On Being” with Krista Tippett, who was speaking with Ruby Sales. (First broadcast on September 15, 2016). Ruby is known as a “public theologian,” she’s a civil rights activist from the 1960’s, working to make meaning out of the world we live in and reconcile our lives with a loving God who calls us to love one another. In this interview Ruby said that black people, rooted in black folk religion,  have a theology of love that anchors them in the world, one that assures black people of their goodness and worthiness and necessity in the United States today. Black folk religion has its roots in the tobacco fields and among neighborhoods but not in the structure of a church building. It is a theology that resonates in the spirituals that are sung, the very spirituals that we are singing this morning and in these final weeks of the Season after Pentecost. Ruby said that she grew up being taught to love everybody, and they would sing, “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart.”  Hate was not a word or sentiment that she was taught. 

But, what Ruby said, which spun me on my heels to hear her articulate it so clearly and with such love, is that white people have lost their meaning and purpose in our society, as if being white is no longer good. She says that its as if white people feel like they are being eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. 

This, she says is seen in the tension that plays out in our society, in the news, in our politics, and in how people speak to one another. The harsh rhetoric and angry behavior stems from feeling diminished and devalued as white people. This wise black woman asks, where is the theology, the understanding of God and our relationship with God, that redefines for white people what it means to be fully human? The problem, Ruby says, is not that one is white, but rather how one lives as a white person and actualizes the history of being white in this country, of our inheritance of unreconciled guilt from slavery,  but more than that, of our misperception of what it means to be white and poor and therefore the challenge to develop an understanding of what it means to be white and to be fully human.

This is the challenge I face in my very own family and the conversations we have. For some it may be the challenge of  affirmative action - where in the effort to equalize opportunities for people of color, means that white people, usually poor white people who are also struggling, are passed over for educational opportunities or jobs. The point that Ruby Sales is making, the point that is made in the first chapter of the New Jim Crow which some of us in this parish are reading, is that we need to reconcile the hurt and pain and divisions that have been inflicted on both people of color and poor white people in the United States. We need to reconcile the fracture between wealthy white people who hold all the power and poor white people whose needs are ignored and whose very personhood is devalued. Family Systems Theory, which I have studied and practiced for twenty years, says the same thing, which is why I found Ruby Sales’ statement so startling. Two completely different sources pointing to the same phenomena. 

And I suggest that our reading this morning from Habakkuk is speaking directly into these challenges. This reading is a lament, a cry for God to take action in the world and heal the broken places with God’s presence and love. But what both Habakkuk and the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading tell us is that God does not come into the world and fix the circumstances of our lives. Rather God is in the world with us, in our struggles and pain and sorrow and confusion, God is with us. God being with us is an invitation to deeper relationships, to risk trusting one another with our stories, our lives, our very being. Zacchaeus didn’t let his limitations stop him from trying to see Jesus, he forged his way through the crowd and climbed a tree to see Jesus. Jesus in turn called Zacchaeus down from the tree and called him right into the heart of the matter, because Zacchaeus, this despised tax collector belongs in the beloved community. 

There are a couple of things we each can do right now to live in and through these times, to make our way through the crowded tensions and climb down from the tree of anxiety and enter the beloved community. One, in singing these spirituals in worship we can internalize the words of love. Originally these words were sung to and by a people who were in need of liberation, in need of being free of that which oppressed them, sung with the expectation that they would be set free because God was with them, God loves them, and God reminds them that they are worthy. We are loved. We are worthy. We are valuable members of this world, valuable members of this beloved community, the kingdom of God here and now. 

Secondly, we can strive to embrace the idea that we live in a diverse world in which there is no one single story that describes who we are as a people, regardless of the color of our skin or our ethnicity or our gender or our religion. Rather, it is the combination of each of our stories that make us who are. And so on those days when I feel like I’m going to explode from overload or when I just want to crawl in a hole, when I feel like I can never do enough, I remember that the world is bigger than me and that all of this is about building the beloved community. A community that embraces the kingdom of God now, a community of love. So, my story, your story, are stories of hope, or for the hope for hope, of the yearning to be loved, and the need to be valued, expressing a yearning to be understood and embraced as worthy for being exactly who one is. 


That’s the hope in the reading from Habbakuk and the message that Jesus offers to Zacchaeus when he calls him down from that tree of anxiety. It’s the message Jesus offers to us, too. Let us unlearn what it means to hate, and instead sing as Ruby Sales does in that interview, I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart. 

a reflection on Proper 26C: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Pattern of Faith

I’m knitting a lot these days because, as you know, I have a granddaughter on the way. Currently I’m working on a sweater using a pattern I used a few years ago to make sweaters for my goddaughters, who were 5 at the time. This time I’m knitting the pattern in a size for a newborn. Unfortunately I don’t have the correct size needles so I had to recalculate the pattern, adjusting it to accommodate the yarn I’m using. The first time I started to knit this sweater I realized it was going to be too big for a newborn, so I ripped it out, reduced the number of stitches,  and started again. A few days later I was about half way finished when I realized that I had misread the pattern and made a serious mistake. The kind of mistake that could not be fixed. The only thing I could do was rip it out and start again. In the meantime I came down with this cold - this mind numbing, stop all movement and rest crud - that totally incapacitated me. Somehow in my head congested haze I thought I could still knit. That is until, again, about half way through the pattern I realized that I had made another serious mistake. No fixing it, all I could do was rip it out and start again. Now, finally, a little over half way for the fourth time I think I am reading the pattern correctly and thoroughly and knitting this as it should be. I mean remember, I’ve knit this same pattern twice before, it’s not new to me. But in its familiarity and with my illness I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing and the end result was silly mistakes. It’s a good thing it’s a newborn sweater, so tiny that ripping it out and starting over is only the loss of a few hours of work, not days and days of knitting. 
This has me thinking about what it means to follow along in life and faith, thinking one knows what one is doing but not really being mindful in the process. The end result is often mistakes or at the very least a lack of deep awareness and a loss of potential. Both the reading from Jeremiah and Luke are pointing to a similar challenge - being obedient but without thought or insight, without being truly, deeply, aware. Both readings are asking people to be intensely aware of how one is living life and the relationships one is cultivating with God, self, and others, relationships formed and informed by love. Love is a profound motivator. Love can inspire one to do things one never thought possible. This love leaves one vulnerable to transformation and change, open to new life. 
Like ripping out a sweater and starting over again three times because I am already deeply in love with this little baby girl who isn't even born. Love, like the love that God shows for God’s people, which is what Jeremiah is talking about. These people are miserable, forced into exile from Israel to Babylon because they lost the war with the Babylonians. In exile the people are unhappy. One false prophet is trying to cheer them and naively proclaims that they’ll be back home in two years. Jeremiah makes no such false promises. Instead he tells them that this is going to take some time, so go on with your lives, marry, have children, stay faithful, and eventually you will be restored to your homeland. No one likes Jeremiah. He doesn’t comfort them. But he tells them the truth and he tells it with love because his words come from the assurance of God and God’s faithfulness. 
Likewise in the Gospel, Jesus encounters ten lepers, sick with a highly contagious skin disease, which has made them all outcasts. The lepers ask Jesus to heal them and he does. One of the lepers is an outcast of outcasts because he is both a leper and a Samaritan. The Samaritans are related to the people Jeremiah is speaking to in our first reading and related to Jesus and his followers. But the reason the Samaritans are outcasts is because when the exile to Babylon happened the Samaritans were not forced to leave. They were a lower class of people in Israel not even worthy enough to be exiled. So they remained in Israel under the rule of the Babylonians and tried to continue, as best they were able, their faith and practices as Jewish people. But when those exiled elite members of Jewish society returned to Israel, many generation later, they rejected the Samaritans and reinforced their outcast status. 
So, Jesus heals ten lepers, and nine of them are “proper” members of Jewish society and can go to the temple to finish the purification rites that will allow them to return to full membership. And, they think nothing of it, just doing what they are supposed to do. But the Samaritan is a double outcast. As a Samaritan he cannot go to the temple to be purified and reinstated to society, instead he comes back to Jesus and thanks him Moved by love this Samaritan broke ranks with the standard expectation of being a double outcast and spoke directly to Jesus. Unheard of! Jesus, moved by the love of God that resides in him and is manifest though him, loves this leper back. In love Jesus and this Samaritan “outcast” break down all the barriers of expectations, all the thoughtless patterns of rote behavior. In love Jesus reveals God’s true nature, loving all people for being exactly who they are. The Samaritan was wildly excited at being loved and healed and restored to his fullness of self, and could not contain himself.
I am expanding my knitting skills in leaps and bounds as I take on new knitting projects for this yet to be born baby. I am buying yarn and needles and patterns with an abandon and an enthusiasm that is out of bounds. The people at the knitting store  now recognize me and are laughing along with me at my joy and excitement. 
How might this same kind of joy, love, enthusiasm, be part of my faith life as well, so that I may become fully aware of myself? How might I prevent getting stuck in the same ole same ole patterns of worship and practice of faith because they are comfortable patterns? How might I recognize the Samaritan, the outcast, in my life and welcome them with love and grace?
How might I become more vulnerable, more real, more authentic and true to the real pattern of a life of faith, and thus inspired, how might I be healed, and become something totally new? 

These are questions I’m asking myself, provoked by today’s readings. Perhaps they are questions you are considering as well?
a reflection on the readings for Proper 23C:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Moving Mountains...

Growing up in Salt Lake City, the child of Mormon pioneers, faith was the bedrock of my life. Some of my family members were active practicing Mormons, my paternal grandfather was a high priest in the church and my uncles went on missionary trips. They practiced, among other teachings of the church, that our bodies are temples. As temples, our bodies are a gift from God and are to be treated with utmost dignity and respect. Therefore they never drank alcohol or any caffeinated beverage, and never smoked cigarettes. 
Other family members stopped practicing their faith. These members drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and drank alcohol, frequently in excess. 
One side my family taught me the rules of our faith, which guaranteed my salvation. The other side of my family taught me that faith was irrelevant. Many aspects of my childhood were confusing and sad, so perhaps for this  reason I developed my own sense of faith and a prayer life that lead me to feel close to God. 
One teaching of the church that stuck with me was the parable of the mustard seed. The Gospel of Luke, which we heard this morning, tells us that a tiny bit of faith could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it elsewhere.  I remember the version of this parable from the Gospel of Matthew which says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains.
In Salt Lake City I lived on the side of a mountain and in a valley surrounded by mountains. The parable took on a literal sense for me. As a child I actually tried to imagine what that kind of faith would be like, so strong it could  lift up a mountain and relocate it. 
My childhood understanding of the parable of the mustard seed asked, “How much faith is enough?”
The thing is, if you really read the parable you hear that Jesus actually frames if differently. It is not, “How much faith is enough?”  Rather, Jesus asks, “What is faith for?”  Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to consider how we are living as people of faith?
Luke uses a common analogy for his era, that of a slave being obedient to the master, as an example of how one lives one’s faith - fully dependent on God, who is master of all. 
Given the history of slavery and racism in this country, and the rise of violent racism, I am terribly uncomfortable with metaphors about slaves and masters. The Vestry and I are reading Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Her thesis is that racism, manifesting now through the war on drugs and mass incarceration, is an intentional effort to undermine people of color in this country. Statistics tell us that people of color are penalized at a more severe rate than white people and most of the people in our prison system are people of color.  Alexander writes: “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.” Accordingly, our prison system is not designed to rehabilitate people and bring forth reconciliation. Rather, it is intended to punish and forever demonize non-violent felons, many of them African American men, as if they were the same as a worst violent offender. 
Then on Wednesday of this week I attended a diocesan sponsored presentation by Stephanie Spellers, who has been appointed by Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, as the Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation. Spellers spoke about the Grace of Race, Celebrating the Presence of God in the Presence of Difference. Stephanie reminded us that the mission of the Episcopal Church, stated clearly in The Book of Common Prayer, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
So how does one reconcile the mission of the Episcopal Church to restore unity in the context of today’s reading wherein Jesus uses the first century institution of slavery as an example of our being in a faithful relationship with God?
I struggle with the idea that being faithful means I am to be a slave to God. I struggle to unpack this metaphor in the context of our mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. I understand restoration and unity as relationships of mutuality - each accountable to the other and to the self - in love, respect, and dignity. That is not what slavery is about. 
However, elsewhere in scripture Jesus reminds us that our responsibility as people of faith is two-fold: we are to love and we are to forgive. 
So is it a paradox that Jesus uses this word, “slave,” so aligned with abuse and oppression, in this parable, to point toward love, forgiveness, and reconciliation? And if so, how are we supposed to transpose slavery from the baggage it carries in the world today? 
Today’s reading pushes me to consider what faith really means and how, in faith, I am dependent upon God. Not like a submissive slave to one’s master, but as a maturing Christian who is willing to be held accountable and responsible for relationships of love. 
As an adult I have come to understand that the rules for living a faith life are much more basic than my family understood them. I do not think that Jesus cares about WHAT we eat or drink. Jesus cares about WHO we eat and drink WITH. Jesus cares that all are treated equally with dignity and respect. Jesus cares that we work to reconcile our differences. Jesus cares that we seek to forgive and be forgiven, that we strive to mend broken relationships, and that we love one another and work for a just society.
Jesus teaches us that we are to work to reconcile the ordinary misunderstandings of every-day life. Jesus also intends for us to work toward reconciling the mountains of broken places in the world-  lives broken from war, poverty, famine, racism, sexism, genderism, human slave and sex trafficking, and genocide -  just to name a few. I think he means that we really have no choice in this matter, and in that regard we are like slaves to our faith -  we must do the hard work of growing up and becoming mature Christians who do the very difficult work of restoring all people to unity with God and one another. Thus, a faith life centered on this kind of relationship building, transforms the geography of our lives. 
That’s what faith is for and perhaps, when lived this way, it is just like moving mountains.

a reflection on Proper 22C: Luke 17:5-10



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