August 9, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 11

1 Kings 19: 4-8; Psalm 34: 1-8; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5:2; John 6:35, 41 - 51


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

In early 1980s my family lived in Phoenix, Arizona. We lived across the street from the Luftman’s, a Jewish family who we became close friends with, as they had two daughters, Amanda and Jessica, who were of similar age to me and my older brother. We were always at each other’s homes, playing hide and go seek, blind man’s bluff, and all other sorts of other games that passed the time during the long hot summer months of Arizona. 

Amanda and Jessica’s mother, Barbara, and my mother were close friends, and on November 24, 1983, Barbara came over and surprised my mother on her birthday by hanging colorful banners around our house inscribed with the number forty.  It was my mother’s fortieth birthday. At the age of eight back then, I remember thinking, “Wow that is really old!”

Around that time, at least as I remember it, Amanda and Jessica’s maternal grandparents, Gertha and Joseph came to visit them. I remember this visit because it was the occasion of my first, and to date, only argument over religion. I was raised attending an Episcopal school, and in the religion class, learned about Jesus.  One day I shared what I had learned with Jessica, who was playing with My Little Pony horses at the time, that I knew Jesus was the Messiah. And Jessica said, “No, he isn’t, the Messiah has not yet come.” I grabbed one of her My Little Pony horses, agitating here more, and said, “Yes he is the Messiah, my Bible teacher said so!”  The argument escalated, and finally I said something so foolish, so ignorant, and so un-informed, that it could only have come out of an arrogant eight year olds mouth. I don’t remember exactly what it was that I said, but it was something about Christians being superior to Jewish people because Christians had Jesus.  

The next day, Jessica and Amanda’s mother and grandmother showed up at our doorstep, and wanted to talk to me. I was in big trouble!  They sat down in our living room and explained to me that it was okay for people to have different religious beliefs, but that we should never use our beliefs to divide us from each other. I learned that my hurtful rhetoric about Christianity being superior to Judaism touched them on a much deeper level than I could have ever imagined. They explained to me that Joseph, Jessica’s grandfather had a tattoo on his arm, which was his prisoner identification number, possibly tattooed upon him by a German Christian military officer. Jessica’s mother, Barbara, I learned, was smuggled out of Poland as a young girl, as her parents fled for their lives to escape Nazi persecution. While it could be argued that there were atheist or at least agnostic Nazis at the time, it is undeniable that many of them were Christian.  It was when I saw the number on Joseph’s forearm that I felt realized just how utterly stupid my comments were.  Since that moment, I have never had any desire to argue religion, unless religion is used as a means to persecute or threaten the well being of another human being – then I will have plenty to argue!

Numbers matter, you see. Whether that number is tattooed as a means of identification, or if it is in reference to someone’s age. Numbers matter.

In the Bible, the number forty appears again and again throughout different books in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.  In our reading from 1 Kings today we hear about the courageous prophet Elijah who spoke truth to power – and won. Before the story we hear this morning, Elijah encountered the wrath of Queen Jezebel when he challenged the priests of the Canaanite god Ba’al to a contest between their god and the god of Israel. What was this contest? Which god would strike a pile of wood with fire and cause it to burn? The priests of Ba’al tried, but to no success.  Elijah prayed to God, and fire came from heaven and struck the pile of wood.

So furious was Jezebel she threatened Elijah with his life. This is where we meet Elijah this morning: on the run, tired, hungry, and ready to give up. So destitute and afraid is Elijah, he asks God that he may die. Thankfully, that prayer goes unanswered, Elijah instead falls asleep. Instead of bringing death, God’s angels bring food and water, ministering to Elijah in the desert, as they ministered to Jesus for his forty days in the wilderness.

The food and the water the angels offer Elijah fortify him for his journey, a journey that lasts forty days and forty nights. The destination of that journey? Mt. Horeb, or as it is known elsewhere in the Bible as Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses spent forty days and nights where he did not eat or drink until he had written down the words of God’s covenant.   

All of these examples of the number forty, whether they are about Elijah, Moses or Jesus point to the same thing – that forty symbolically represents in the Bible a time period of testing or trial. The number is not literal as much as it is symbolic – when we read the number forty in scripture, it means a period of time of testing, of struggle. For some people that might be a month, a year, a decade, or an entire lifetime. Many of us, like Elijah or Jesus, have experienced those seasons of trial, those periods of time where it seemed as if God is far away and unconcerned about our struggle. Some of us are in that moment now. If this is where you are, there is something so important for you to know.  

As angels ministered to Jesus for his time of trial in the wilderness and Elijah as he was fleeing Jezebel, so too are angels ministering to you right now.  Joseph and Gertha were angels to me. As much as you may feel alone, as much as you may feel that you are the only person struggling with an addiction, a failed relationship, a lost job – you aren’t. There are others here who have the same experience, and because they have that in common with you and they have experienced what you have experienced, they are an angel to you, as you are an angel to them.  

Who are the angels that are carrying you through this moment?  Have you thanked them? Have you told them how grateful you are? If you are in the forties (and I don’t mean age, I mean if you are in a period of struggle or trial), know there is food and drink for your journey here, as angels provided the same for Elijah.  

If you choose to come to this altar later, you will receive a food and drink, and you will be ministered to by angels.  

The number I saw tattooed on Joseph’s arm that day has never left my mind, and it was the first time I ever associated a number with a period of time. I will never imagine pretending what his experience was like, but in some way that transcends my feeble understanding, I believe that the angels that reached out to Elijah and Jesus reached also out to Joseph and Gertha, and that they reach out to us today. I cannot explain this, except to say that in life and in death, whatever our age, there is an angel reaching out to us, always. AMEN.

June 7, 2015

Proper 5

Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35


A political journalist with the NYT named John Burns recently retired a 40-year career having covered politics and war the world over. His coverage included soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Taliban-led Afghanistan, and apartheid-era South Africa. In his recent editorial in the Sunday New York Times, Burns offered reflections on his career and experience. The piece focused on the question “What did I bring back?” Having chronicled wars, assassinations and natural disasters on multiple continents, he asks himself what might be the core conclusion to be drawn from his experience. Burns’ response is the following. “What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.”

In a secular or political context ideology has to do with building social or political systems on a singular core idea. In a religious context ideology takes many forms. Chief among them is fundamentalism. The ‘fundament’ part of fundamentalism has to do with foundations. Fundamentalism in faith is the practice of ascribing the full complexity of faith to one key idea or ideal. This results in an approach to faith that views complex issues in black-and-white terms; asks us to receive our thinking from someone else; and expects us to follow rules rather than follow intuition or judgement. Ultimately, fundamentalism offers a faith foundation that is rigid and therefore easily broken. If you know anything about architecture or engineering, you know that a chief property of a functional foundation is its flexibility. Certainly an effective foundation must be strong, but it must also give and move as the earth beneath it and the building upon it shift over time.

Concern with ideology is a consideration on a Sunday when we read about a man and a woman in a garden being tricked by a snake, because this clever and ironic first story of God’s call to humanity has become a foundational text for fundamentalism. The biblical narrative of the garden temptation, however, is not a story about the fall of humanity.  It is a story about the call of humanity into relationship with God. The story has humor and follows a literary pattern. God invites the couple to take a load off in the garden but says, “Don’t eat from the tree in the middle.” God disappears for a while and the snake says, “Eat! It’s no big deal!” So the couple eats and upon God’s return in dismay the couple explains away their actions in a childlike fashion saying, “The snake made us do it.”

This pattern can be found in many biblical call narratives, including the call of the prophet Elijah who after being sent on a murderous mission by YHWY to kill 150 prophets of Baal is hiding out under a tree. God says, “Elijah!  Get up. Your work is not done.”  Elijah basically replies that he is an ineffective prophet, that the nation he attacked want his head, and he is hanging up his hat.  God is charitable and provides food and shelter. But Elijah never leaves the cave God provides for his rest and recovery. “Elijah!  What are you doing?! You’ve got work to do?  Why are you delaying in the cave?” To this, Elijah replies saying in today’s parlance “Lord, I have just been so moved in my heart.  I have been pious and in endless prayer and praises to you.” This is another childlike, ironic attempt to avoid holy accountability.  It is humor!

The story of the temptation in the garden is not about original sin but rather the universal temptation to avoid God’s call to courage in face of the unknown. As soon as we make this story to be about sexual morality or the superiority of men over women we have signed on to a campaign not only of religious ideology but idolatry. It is akin to cramming God - like some Genie - into a bottle, which would only have the effect of leaving us access to no God at all.

As convicted as John Burns is about idealism, I am about fundamentalism. Specifically, it is my conviction that God is neither an ideologue nor a fundamentalist. There is nothing in my pastoral encounters as a priest, my personal prayer life as a follower of Jesus, my own walk to freedom, or the fights for social justice in which I have taken part, that would suggest to me that God is either an ideologue or a fundamentalist. What I have found is that - rather than call us from complexity into simplicity (as fundamentalism would have it) - God most often calls us from complexity to complexity.

Any of us who choose to walk in the the Judeo-Christian or Muslim prophetic tradition undertake the practice of call and response. We practice it in church in the responsive reading of the psalms or in conversation with the presider. “The Lord be with you,” says the priest. “And also with you,” replies the congregation.  We make these calls and responses in worship in order to have a bodily experience and reminder of the relationship we maintain with the one who creates and guides us.

Fundamentalism can be attractive, and it can provide us some of the answers we seek. But often it will only get us so far. For example, if I were a gang-affected youth incarcerated for crime, fundamentalism might successfully invite me into a future of non-violence.  But what if I am a young, gay man of color?  After leaving a life of crime, how is fundamentalism going to help me make a way for myself and my life?

When we parch the foundation of faith by limiting it to singular ideas or rules, we risk doing harm to ourselves and others. The harm is akin to a young boy pursuing the virtue hand-washing before meals. So, he eyes a water fountain near the school cafeteria and rinses his fingers on the way to lunch. He does so only to be whisked around by a scowling teacher who admonishes him in hateful tones for the inappropriate use of the drinking fountain. “You do NOT wash your hands in the water fountain!” Taking up a habit he had just learned was good for both himself and his community, the child was smacked down by a rule he never knew existed.

John Burns … “In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits….” those in control.  Ideology can literally drive us to believe that lies are truth.  But the prophetic tradition has never and can never be about control, coercion or untruth. Rather it is about creativity, irony, play, courage, complexity, call and response.

People want a community with a flexible foundation. People want experiences of inclusion and kinship. People want support for the times when they step out in courage into the unknown. May this community be one that provides these things more and more and forevermore.