Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Cascade of Hope

In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, having been absent from the park for seventy years. In the 1800’s Yellowstone park rangers took it upon themselves to eradicate predatory animals like wolves, bears, and coyotes in order to sustain the viability of livestock animals for food. A hundred years later people began to have an awareness of how one species of life can impact an entire ecosystem. This led to fourteen wolves being reintroduced to the park in 1995 and another 25 within the next year.
As soon as wolves arrived there was a radical change in the behavior of deer. The deer began avoiding certain areas of the park. They left valleys and gorges and moved to higher elevations. When the deer moved, the height of trees increased. Other trees returned like aspen and willows. With the return of trees, more birds returned, and beavers returned.  Beavers are ecosystem engineers because they create habitats for other animals like ducks and fish. The wolves killed coyotes, which in turn brought back rabbits and mice. The return of rabbits and mice enabled grasses to grow because their dens and holes provide a natural aeration that supports the growth of wild grass. The return of rabbits and mice and other small animals also brought back hawks and eagles. Bears increased too because there were more bushes and trees and therefore more berries. The presence of wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. With increased tress and grasses there was less erosion of soil, channels narrowed, more pools formed. The regenerating forests stabilized the banks, therefore they collapsed less often and the rivers became more fixed in their course. Less soil erosion restored the water ways. Some say it is amazing how, in a mere nineteen years a few wolves changed the ecosystem of Yellowstone.
We’ve come to the last Sunday after the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday.  A Gospel reading on the transfiguration of Jesus appears in Mark, Luke, or Matthew, which means the transfiguration is a powerful story from the ancient world. This year we also have the reading from Exodus on the transfiguration of Moses as he encounters God on the mountain top. 
Moses ascends to the mountain top because God has called him there. On the mountain Moses is given the Ten Commandments. These commandments, and the 603 additional commandments that come from them, sometimes referred to as the laws of Moses spell out how people are to be in relationship with God, self, and others.  Moses was called to the mountain, not so he could be changed, but so that he could become an agent of change for the Hebrew people. Moses teaches the people how to live in relationship with God, with other people, and even with one’s self. 
In a similar way God calls Jesus to the mountain top. Jesus takes with him three disciples. While on the mountain Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is transfigured. Again, the transfiguration of Jesus was not for Jesus, but for the disciples. The disciples now know that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses, and that in and through Jesus they will come to know how to live in right relationship with God, with others, and with themselves. 
When Moses encountered God, God was hidden in a cloud. When Jesus is transfigured God is visible for all to see. God manifests God’s self in human flesh. This means that we know God in and through our relationships with other people. 
Over the last three days members of this parish, including the Vestry, Mitch and me, have participated in the initial conversations about our revitalization process. We met with Diocesan staff who shared with us concepts about sustainable budgets. We had a Vestry retreat to help orient our new Vestry members to the work of the Vestry as it guides this parish in living out our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit.  And we participated in a diocesan wide Diversity and Inclusion workshop, looking at how we can truly be a community that respects the dignity of every human being. In all of this we are taking a deep look at how we are revealing God in and through our lives, at how we are loving God, loving ourselves and loving our neighbors.
What has transpired when the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone is a phenomenon known as “trophic cascade.” Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur when one species impacts the density and/or behavior of another species causing a cascade effect all along the chain of the ecosystem.
Likewise, I am confident that we stand on the precipice of a mountain top, at a point where what we do this year and next year will make all the difference for the years to come, possibly setting the template for the next 150 years. A number of factors contribute to my confidence, including the fact that west Dearborn, thanks again to the Ford Motor Company is on the brink of a substantial change, of an influx of business and development, and people. 
Now is not the time to be like the Peter, where we try to build ways to remain isolated within on our own little mountain. Now is the time to think expansively and take risks to build relationships outside our own walls, to go out into the world and connect with this revitalization project, to invite members of Ford Motor Co and its redevelopment to come and speak to us, to help us learn how we can be part of this project, to work with the city and see what we can do to be part of it, to put Christ Church in the center of building relationships, right in the midst of this transfiguration that is going to take place in Dearborn. Now is the time for us to ponder what is it that we will do that will be like the wolf pack in Yellowstone, to create our tropic cascade, our something that completely alters the environment of this church, this community, now and for the future.  

reflection on the readings for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Transfiguration:  Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Holy God, Holy People, Holy Love

The first congregation I served as Rector was stunned when it was revealed that the wife of a prominent couple in the parish was the victim of years of domestic abuse. When divorce proceedings started the abuse escalated and threatened to spill into the church itself.  We were forced to be attentive for the safety of everyone, most especially the wife and children. A few years later a colleague at another church experienced a tragic domestic violence episode in her congregation, when a wife tried to have her abusing spouse murdered. He lived and she went to prison. Then the news reported that a woman, who had been kidnapped by her former husband had been found alive but severely beaten, bound and gagged, stuffed in a trash can and locked in a storage unit, not far from my house, where she had been left to die.

A few years later I attended a conference called, “Not In Our Pews” held in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and sponsored by Project SAFE, an organization composed of a number of religious institutions and service provider agencies in Wisconsin. One of the panel speakers at this conference was the woman who had been kidnapped and left to die in that storage unit. She was permanently damaged from the abuse, her legs and back would never fully heal, and walking was painful. She told her story of fear and hope and of her ongoing resistance to violence through the lens of being a person of faith, which connects her story to our scripture readings this morning in both Leviticus and Matthew, because they are often used by people of faith to coerce women into submitting to abusive partners, as if this is their cross to bear. This is a misunderstanding of the readings. 

Leviticus is considered the book of rules for the ancient people of God. It is filled with rules for how to live - what one can and cannot eat, drink, or do. However, if we take the rules literally we miss the point Leviticus is making - that people are holy because God is holy. We are holy when we live in right relationship with God, with our selves, and with other people. Being in right relationship with God is about our integrity as individuals and communities, one’s ability to be centered in one’s values and beliefs, one’s  capacity for introspection and self reflection, and the degree to which one can learn and grow and become a more mature person of faith by loving God, loving self, and loving others.

The Gospel of Matthew builds on the laws of Moses, not just the ten commandments, but all 613 commandments found in the Hebrew Bible, which essentially define how one lives in right relationship with God, self, and others. The focus of the Gospel of Matthew is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. This point is made clear in Matthew 22 when one of the Pharisees asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, and Jesus replies, that one should love  God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind and love one’s neighbor as one’s self, thus summarizing all 613 commandments into one. In other words, Jesus claims that there is no justification for violence and abuse, love never demeans or diminishes another.  

So listen carefully to the readings today. Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek and not resist the evildoer points to a different level of resistance, a non-cooperation in hate and violence. The readings this morning formed the foundation for the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi’s strategy against British colonial rule, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement to dismantle racism. Love your enemies is not an instruction to be passive toward cruelty, rather it guides one to defiance, to work against the system and cycle of violence or racism or any other way people are demeaned and diminished by refusing to be part of it.
A scene in the movie 42 helps to illustrate this point. In this scene Branch Rickey is talking to Jackie Robinson, who was to become the first black baseball player in the major leagues and he’s checking out Robinson to see if he has the wherewithal to do what it takes to navigate the challenges of breaking down barriers. 

Jackie Robinson says: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?

Branch Rickey responds: No. No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back. People aren’t gonna like this. They’re gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse and, uh, they’ll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they’ll say, “The black man has lost his temper.” That “The black man does not belong.” Your enemy will be out in force… and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. Only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: That you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior… you gotta have the guts… to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?

To which Jackie Robinson says: You give me a uniform… you give me a, heh, number on my back… and I’ll give you the guts.

Because non-cooperation with hate and violence means we hold people accountable for their behavior and we hold ourselves accountable, too. These readings call for radical transformation of individuals and communities through the simple, yet incredibly challenging commandment to love. These readings speak into and aim to direct one to one’s core sense of self, one’s soul. When the soul of the individual and the corporate soul of faith communities and even the soul of entire cities and countries, live with the guiding principle of love then one will do everything one can to ensure that all people are cared for equally.  People are holy because God is holy and therefore abusing any one, demeaning or diminishing another in any capacity, is as if one is abusing God. People are holy because God is holy.  

As Christians who believe in Jesus, resisting all forms of abuse that demean and diminish human beings is Incarnational, its God’s love in human flesh, God’s love activated in Jesus, in you, in me. Incarnational and holy because it requires one to have a clear understanding of what love actually means and then the capacity to live with that kind of love as one’s foundational value and guiding principle in life.  Incarnational love because God is holy and therefore we are holy too. 

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 7A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Be Salt, Flavoring the World with Love and Compassion

I finally went to see  the movie “Hidden Figures” on my day off last week. It tells the story of thirty black women, who, in the 1960’s worked for NASA as mathematicians. They were called “computers” because they calculated the trajectory of space flights beginning with John Glen’s first flight into space to the landing on the moon and the space shuttle. These women worked behind the scenes but were absolutely essential to the program. The movie focuses primarily on three of the women: Katharine Johnson who calculated the space flights, Dorothy Vaughn who was the first black female supervisor in NASA and she hired and trained other black women to be computer programers, and Mary Jackson who became the first black female engineer in NASA. The story describes the challenges these women faced from outright racism and sexism, which they met with tenacity and grit and perseverance and confidence in their worth and value. During the day they worked hard to overcome near impossible obstacles. On the weekends and evenings the movie portrayed them as fun loving, respectable, church going, family women who danced, and sang, and hugged their children. The movie is a snapshot into a whole community of black people supporting one another with joy and faith through the challenges of maintaining their integrity even as the world tried to suppress and oppress them.

Our readings this morning from Isaiah and Matthew describe the life of faith, of discipleship, of a people called to live God calls them too. 

In the Isaiah reading the people are not living as God desires. Their faith is superficial, their piety lacks substance. They are going through the motions doing what they think will please God but they are doing it without introspection and thus their actions are meaningless. Isaiah calls them to look deeply at their lives, to take an honest look at them selves. True fasting, he says, is never done to meet one’s own purposes, but rather to connect one’s actions with the deeper desire of God. For example, fasting is not always the absence of food, it may be the forgoing of ego and selfish desires in order to make room for God’s desires to fill one up. Instead of fasting, God calls these Israelites to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, to live an active life of faith.

In his letter to the people in Corinth, Paul is saying something similar. Paul calls these people out on their fake piety. He strongly reminds them that when they set aside their egos and open themselves to God, the Holy Spirit enters into them. Paul says when the Holy Spirit moves into one’s being,  then one “will have the mind of Christ.” This is what happens when one sincerely and honestly looks at one’s words and actions and makes the effort to change from self-focused to God-focused. It is realized when one takes on the challenge of respecting the dignity of every human being. 

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is teaching his disciples about their role in bringing forth God’s kingdom. True to form Jesus uses food to make his point, speaking about the importance of salt to bring out the full flavor. Be salt, Jesus tells the disciples, (and therefore he’s telling us, too). Be salt, be the ingredient that brings out the fullness of God in the world. Be the seasoning that enriches the flavor of life. Be salt. 

Then Jesus uses his second favorite image, light. Be light, he says. Be the light that is born in the darkness to lead the way through. Be light, shine forth, be the beacon that lights the way to true life. 

The point of all of our readings today might be summarized in this quote from the Archbishop William Temple, “The Church is the only organization that exists for those who are not its members.” In other words, as disciples, and as a church community, we are not here for ourselves, we are here to do God’s work in the world. We come here, like the people in Isaiah, to practice our faith in order to have an authentic understanding of who we are and what we are to be about. These practices of worship are intended to open one up and instill in one the mind of God, and then to send one out into the world to be the salt, to be the ingredient that transforms a bland reality into its fullness of life.

In an era when anxiety and uncertainty are prevalent, I am tempted to hunker down and withdraw, to just wait it out and hope for the best. I feel a strong urge to just look the other way, losing myself in knitting, or preparing for the birth of my grand daughter, or some other activity that distracts me from life. However, if I am to be the person God is calling me to be, if I am to live fully, if I am to continue to build the kind of world I hope for for my grandchildren, the kind of world that I think God desires, then I need to be engaged in the world as it is in order to work to transform it. I need to be willing to do the hard work of introspection, to examine myself, my words and my actions, and consider how I might live more fully in and through God’s desires. How can I avoid the temptation to shame, name call, or blame others? How can I focus on myself and try to be the best version of myself that I can? How salty can I be?

At Christ Church our mission, our call from God, our discipleship, is to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. It’s a call grounded in scripture, sustained by our baptismal covenant, and one that is authentic to who we are. One might say that by living into this mission we are being salty, flavoring the world around us with love and compassion. 

a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 5A: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

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