Monday, August 8, 2022

On Faith

'The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.'

--Genesis 15: 1-6

'Jesus said, "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves."'

--Luke 12: 35-38

'Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.'

--Hebrews 11: 1-3

Every three years these readings come along with their shared theme of faith. Once more we hear of Abram and his faith in God, who assures him that he will have descendants that outnumber the stars. We hear Jesus illustrate in a parable that faith looks like a group of servants waiting on their master to return, and when he does so their faith is rewarded when he serves them. And in the Letter to the Hebrews we hear what is often called the biblical definition of faith – Hebrews 11: 1 – “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Every three years we are reminded of the importance of faith and I usually end up singing a line from George Michael. I will spare you that last part.

Instead, I want to dig a little bit deeper into that word – faith – or rather what word the Bible actually uses. The Greek word is pistis, which is used 4,102 times in the Bible. It is most often translated as "faith," but it really means something deeper - once again showing the limitations of the English language. It is a firm persuasion, which is based not on sight or knowledge but on trust. It is also inextricably tied to the notion of covenant, of relationship. God has pistis in Abram – "the exalted ancestor" – which is why God makes him Abraham – "the ancestor of a multitude." When Jesus speaks about divorce in the Gospel of Matthew he mentions unfaithfulness as grounds for divorce, and it is a form of pistis that he uses there, showing that being “faithful” is about commitment to and right relationship with an other. 

Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder how the word faith got so misused, especially in the last half century or so. Think about this: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term “faith-based’? I'll wait....

I suspect that the first thing you thought of wasn't  the story of Abram from Genesis or the definition given by Hebrews 11. The term faith-based has certain connotations in our culture today. There are faith-based movie production companies – even a streaming service called Pureflix; I swear I did not make that up – and its movies are terrible (they aren't even free!). There is the Ark Encounter in Kentucky that says it offers a faith-based approach to science and thus shows dinosaurs and humans living together, and some parents and even public officials have pushed for actual school curricula that follows similar faith-based models. And to really bring it on home, the last two years has seen a large number of the people unwilling to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 explain that it was a faith-based decision not to do so – which is funny because a lot of us would say the opposite, that our faith is exactly what compelled us to get the vaccine. So what happened to that word, to faith?

A clarification is in order, I think. Whenever you hear the term “faith-based” remember that it isn’t faith. It’s belief. Those examples I gave are belief-based, and certainly everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but to claim they are based on faith – especially bibilical faith – is inaccurate. These beliefs are based in a very specific kind of Christianity that is quite young and particularly unique to American culture. It is literally self-centered, focused on personal salvation and worldviews that are often rooted in fear, rarely ever taking into account the needs of the other or even the love of God. It is certainly not relational, and therefore, cannot – by the biblical definition – be considered actual faith?

So what is actual faith? That answer is honestly ineffable, it’s too great to be expressed with words. But if we look at the examples from our Scriptures this week, or any of the other 4000+ examples where pistis shows up in the Bible, we find that biblical faith has two characteristics: commitment and trust. 

The biblical narrative illustrates this in the covenant relationships God makes with humanity again and again, the signs of which include: the rainbow in the sky after the Flood, the promise to Abraham, the prophets’ cries that God hadn’t forgotten God’s people during exile, and of course Jesus breaking bread and sharing wine in a meal with his friends. There is a commitment that is made in each of these moments, and there is trust bestowed. There is faith shared between God and humanity. Often humans have broken that trust, but it is never without the hope of being restored. If you’ve been following any of the goings-on at the Lambeth Conference in England the last two weeks, that has been the hope for the faithful conversations happening there.

Perhaps we could say that such a hope is the by-product of actual, biblical faith. Not some pie-in-the-sky high hopes – apologies to Frank Sinatra, but hope that anything and anyone can be restored and redeemed and given meaning. As Rachel Held Evans once put it, hope not that God always WILL, but that God always CAN. Moving from the WILL gets us out of ourselves and grounded in faith that is relational, a communal journey that we go on together with one another and with God. It isn’t just about our personal salvation or views – that leads to a pretty lonely journey – but it is about a commitment and trust that is shared between us and God.

We may rack our brains trying to prove we have enough faith, trying to figure out what faith really looks like to us and how we can better express it. Maybe you have an Episcopal shield sticker on your car or you wear a cross or a collar in public. Those might be appropriate expressions, but faith isn’t something that can be measured by any metric, including church attendance. Sometimes faith just looks like getting up in the morning, and just trying even when all you want to do is disappear. Sometimes it’s remembering that you are held by an inestimable love that won’t let you go, no matter how hard you try. Over the past year, I will tell you, that this is what faith has meant to me.

In the end, faith is not something that we can define or measure, but it is something that we can all relate to. One does not have to be a Christian, or even a so-called "person of faith" in order to have faith. You need only a commitment and a trust in something greater than yourself. Those of us who are part of the three traditions of which Abraham is considered the patriarch - Judaism, Islam, and Christianity - have chosen to place our faith in the God who called a wandering Aramean to find a home, gave him a new name, and fulfilled a promise. May you be strengthened in your faith, whatever it may look like.

Monday, August 1, 2022

What Is Enough?

"Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind."
--Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14

"Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!"
--Colossians 3: 4-11

"Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
--Luke 12: 13-21

The late, great Rev. Will Campbell, a Baptist from Tennessee who described himself as an itinerant preacher, once gave a sermon at Riverside Church, a huge, gothic church building that towers over the businesses and apartments on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On this particular Sunday, this old Southerner claimed into the pulpit of this hoidy, toidy, fancy church full of rich people and gave the Word. He said to the congregation, “Now I know what you’re thinking…how can we love Jesus and keep all this stuff,” and he gestured out toward everything. Folks looked at each other, some nodded, and they waited for the answer. “Well, he said,” ya can’t!” To the best of my knowledge, Brother Will was not asked back to Riverside Church.

The Rev. Will Campbell, at home in Tennessee prior to his death in 2013.

Now, I don’t know what readings were offered on that Sunday that Will Campbell preached on the Upper West Side. Maybe they were the ones that we heard this morning, or maybe – because he was a Baptist – Brother Will just picked whatever readings he wanted. But that story is what I first thought of when I sat down with this week's Scriptures.

Because there is clearly a common theme. Solomon proclaims in Ecclesiastes in that wonderfully theatrical voice, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” The stuff that we’ve got, the successes that we seek, even our very lives themselves, it’s all vanity – it’s all driven by the desire to preserve the self. Paul, writing to the Church in Colossae, tells them to put to death whatever is earthly, and he names in that list greed, which he equates with idolatry. The desire for more and more stuff is the same, for Paul, as breaking the first Commandment, thou shalt have no other God but God. And Jesus in the Gospel from Luke tells the parable of a rich man whose business does so well, and he makes so much money, that he decides to hoard it all, rather than share it, and wouldn’t you know who won the pony, that very night, God takes his life, and all that stuff just goes to waste. Not exactly words of comfort this morning. What, then, are we supposed to do with such Scriptures?

There is much about the world that is different from the time when these Scriptures were first put down; heck, there is much about the world that is different from when most of you reading this blog were my age! In Jesus’ time there was no such thing as a 401K or pension plan – that we know of, anyway. Would Jesus say that investing in those sorts of things and putting our money aside like that is the same as the rich man who just kept hoarding his riches and never using them? Would Paul look at Millennials – my generation – and decry our greed because we don’t give to churches or charitable organizations as much as our elders due to the fact that the cost of education and basic living is so much higher for us? Would Solomon think that all our physical possessions are vanity?

As I see it, that’s a sort of black and white thinking, so to speak; an either-or mentality. There must be a right answer and a wrong answer. The Scriptures, of both the Hebrew Bible and our Christian Testament and Gospels, are a lot more gray, and when we consider that our modern ,Western world is so very different from the ancient, Eastern world that produced these texts, we can better appreciate the gray areas. Because one question that certainly isn’t black and white or either-or, and one that Scriptures like these invite us to consider is: how much stuff is enough?

What was enough for a family to live on in 1962 is not the enough to live on in 2022, for example. In 2007 when the iPhone first came out, having any cell phone was enough, and an iPhone was a luxury because not everyone had to have access to the internet at all hours of the day, but now that simply isn’t the case, and you can’t work in this world without one, meaning that a poor family cannot get by with just a flip phone but needs to constantly stay connected for their work or even to get notifications from their doctor. Perhaps worst of all, is that people today feel an overwhelming urge to judge and vilify folks when they raise legitimate concerns over the cost of housing or health care – "I got by just fine at that age," a person might say, or, and this is my favorite – "If she sold that iPhone maybe she could feed her kids." Vanity of vanities. Is there anything more vain than judging the actions of a brother or sister regarding the things that they do or don’t have or need in order to simply survive?

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, says that there are three main obstacles to us, as Jesus puts it, inheriting the Kingdom of God; that is, knowing the fullness of God’s Kingdom here on earth. He calls them the 3 Ps – power, prestige, and possessions– which are, curiously, also the three temptations Jesus was faced with in the desert. When we do not understand what, in fact, is actually enough, we move into a scarcity mentality, a fear-based mentality, and that leads to a desire for more and more of those three P’s because, somehow, they make us feel more confident and more secure. This, then, blinds us to what should be our true motivation for wanting or needing anything at all. 

So then we are invited by these Scriptures to search the deepest corners of our souls and ask ourselves: As individuals, have we made money and material possessions into idols, the driving force of our very existence, worthy of the attention and admiration reserved only for God? As a church are we compelled to give of our monetary gifts for the sake of beautifying a building alone, or to support our mission to serve the Church without walls; that is, God’s people in the world, namely the needy in our community and beyond – which is the point Brother Will was trying to make to Riverside Church. As a society, will we ever be able to determine what is enough, or better still, create a kind of society where everyone has enough – instead of our current one dominated by individuals who operate like the rich man in the Gospel, the kind of folks who use their wealth to travel into space instead of helping the poor. What is the deepest motivation of our hearts? Following Jesus? Or wanting more for the sake of wanting more? 

One of the commentaries that I often use to help with preparing my sermons actually said that today’s readings might upset some people who are offended at what the Bible says about material wealth. The writer of the commentary even wondered how safe it was for us preachers to say something about material wealth form the pulpit. But it needs to be said. Our society has, indeed, been swayed by an idolatrous gospel of greed, and we need to refocus, especially now as we are trying to move out of pandemic that did nothing but hurt the poor and benefit the already insanely rich. We cannot follow Jesus and keep all our stuff if our reason for having the stuff in the first place is so misguided. That’s not the Gospel. That’s not Good News. 

But what is Good News is the dream that God has for all of us. It began in the Garden, where we had all we needed and God walked with us in the evening breeze. It continued with the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness begging to return to being slaves in Egypt while God pushed them forward in order to show them how to be different. It echoed through the prophets like Hosea and Amos, who cried out when the poor and foreigner were being oppressed and prayed for justice to roll down like waters. And it was given flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable and called for everyone from the poor widows to the powerful elites, to see how much God loves them, and to know that such a love is enough. 

This is shalom, God’s peace, this is the dream. And we Christians are bold enough to proclaim that it doesn’t have to be just a dream, but something that we can all work toward, when we search the motivations of our hearts, realize our security and confidence lie in God’s grace alone, and use what we have to lift up our brothers and sisters above ourselves. And that is anything but vanity.

Monday, July 11, 2022

What Must We Do To Inherit Eternal Life?

'Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 
Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."'
--Luke 10: 25-37

In Lexington, Kentucky there is a hospital called Good Samaritan, to which I made many pastoral visits when I served there. There’ve also been Good Samaritan Hospitals in Charlotte, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Greensboro, GA to name a few. The Good Samaritan’s name is on civic awards and thrift shops, too. But here’s the thing: the Good Samaritan wasn’t a real person, merely a character in what is likely Jesus’ most famous parable. And what’s crazy is that, despite Jesus never using the term “Good Samaritan,” we have equated this fictitious character with any act of kindness, so much so that it feels like we took a character from a story and turned them into a secularized saint.

An Orthodox icon of the Good Samaritan 

There’s nothing wrong with naming something after the Good Samaritan mind you, but it seems the character has been somewhat watered down, and the sharp bite of the parable gets lost, as we end up avoiding its shocking – one might say, threatening – lesson. 

That lesson starts with a question.  A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. A valid question and one that we all ask, to some degree, I imagine. But what is eternal life? It’s not heaven, not a physical place that serves as a reward for a life well-lived after we die. Jesus and his contemporaries didn’t believe this, and Jews today still don’t. Maybe the more appropriate question is: what should be my chief goal in life? How am I supposed to live? What must I do to live a life that is pleasing to God? That kind of life can be considered “eternal” because it is holy, a life worthy of the eternal God.

Jesus doesn’t answer – he seldom does – instead he lets the lawyer answer his own question by quoting the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 6: 4 and Leviticus 19: 18. Christians call this the Summary of the Law, and a lot of spiritual-but-not-religious folks call it the Golden rule: love God (that's from Deuteronomy), love your neighbor (that's from, believe it or not, Leviticus)

Then comes the kicker: who is my neighbor? And that is the question that leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? Who is the one that I must love in order to have eternal life, in order to live a life that is pleasing to God? 

We all know the story that comes next. A man goes down to Jericho Road, the most dangerous road in 1st century Palestine, and he is beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two people walk by – a priest and a Levite – and they do nothing. A Samaritan comes by and helps the man, taking him to an inn so he has a place to stay, bandaging his wounds, and seeing to it that he is taken care of. It is this man that acts as a neighbor to the one in need. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells the lawyer.

“Go and be a Good Samaritan,” is what we hear, but for Jesus’ audience there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. They were of a different culture, ethnicity, and religion from Jews, they were worse than Gentiles, bound for Gehenna and torment, as much of an Other, as much of a “them” as one could be. You want us to emulate someone like THAT, Jesus? You can’t be serious! That would’ve been the reaction of those who heard this story, and I’d guess several would’ve walked away shaking their heads, insisting that this guy was out of his mind; he’d just gone too far. 

But yeah, that is who Jesus wants them – and us – to emulate. What specifically does the Samaritan do? Did you catch how the Samaritan takes notice of the wounded person, unlike the priest or Levite? They see someone unclean, someone they dare not get near. The Samaritan sees someone in need, sees his humanity and acknowledges it. He doesn’t just walk on feeling sorry for him, and he doesn’t ask, “Well, what did you do to get yourself in this mess?” He offers care, no matter what. 

There is clearly a responsibility here that goes way beyond just being nice. Our modern context has lost the punch of this story. Maybe it would help us to think of the Samaritan as a Muslim or an atheist, and the individual in the ditch as a queer person, or someone wearing a MAGA hat,, then we might hear it the way Jesus intended; that is to say, go and emulate the person of a different religion or ethnicity from you and help the person who is the complete opposite of you in terms of lifestyle or values.  

                          Who is your neighbor??

It’s not a suggestion, it’s the answer to the question that began the reading: what must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s it. Not, what must I do to go to heaven when I die, but what must I do to live a life now worthy of the eternal God. Look to this story, and go and do likewise. Don’t just see someone as your neighbor, but go and be a neighbor to someone.

If it sounds hard it’s because it is hard. That’s the point of Jesus’ teachings. If we are looking for easy answers, we’re not going to find them in Jesus. C.S. Lewis once said that he didn’t come to Christianity because it made him feel good, he could get that in a bottle of port. It takes a particular kind of love, the kind Jesus preaches and embodies, to be a neighbor and see others as your neighbor. “The issue is not about right or wrong,” the Rev. Will Campbell said, “it’s human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take up sides; you just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it…and if you’re gonna love one, you gotta love all.”

In this time of division, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades, the invitation to act as a neighbor to every person we meet – religiously, politically, socially, morally - and to love, not just one but all, is about as radical now as Jesus telling his followers to emulate a made-up Samaritan. But we need that good news. We need that example. 

The Rev Fred Rogers knew a little something about neighbors. He taught my generation that, when things are bad look for the helpers and if possible, be one yourself. He also said that we live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. “It’s easy,” he said, “to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my problem.’ But it’s harder to see such needs and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” It’s saying something when Mr. Rogers, a hero to many of us, describes what his heroes look like.  Sounds a lot like the Good Samaritan, who may not have been real, but he, or she, or they, is a symbol for us all, a bold character, who invites us to emulate such a radical kind of love and hospitality. This is the way of Jesus, the way of love, the way that leads to actual eternal life right here and right now. Won’t you be such a neighbor? 

When in doubt, it helps to remember what this guy said.

Monday, June 20, 2022

On Mental Illness, Healing, and the Gerasene "Demoniac"

'Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.'

-Luke 8: 26-39

Most of you know that I’m a bit of a movie buff. I enjoy putting references in my sermons, but one film I never really got into was The Exorcist, or any of its sequels, for that matter. I don’t really do horror so much, though I respect it as a genre. Still, there is one lesson that I remember from The Exorcist and other films of its ilk, and that is the first thing that a priest does during the rite of exorcism, in the film as well as in real life, is get the demon to say its name.

Why is this important? Because naming something gives one a sense of ownership or control over it, and as long as a person or thing goes nameless, then there is a sense that they or it is in control. Think about when you get a dog and how important it is to name it, in order to get it to eventually obey you. Getting the demon to say its name is really difficult, as any good exorcism movie will show you, but once that happens, then the work of removing the demon, of healing from it, can occur. 

Mosaic of the exorcism of the so-called Gerasene demoniac.

When Jesus confronts a Gerasene man who has been possessed, he gets the demon to say its name. “Legion,” it replies. Once the name is spoken, Jesus can do his work; he cures the man, sending the demons into a herd of pigs, and leaving the man in his right mind, as the text says.

But what exactly was this legion? Biblical scholars say the name is a reference the Roman legions that tormented and tortured Jesus’ people, and all others whom they conquered, the way a demon torments one whom it is possessing. But many others have speculated that the Gerasene man was plagued by what we might today call paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar condition, or dissociative personality disorder, which are legitimate medical conditions. Regrettably, the Church for centuries dealt with people suffering from and living with such conditions as if they were, in fact, possessed by demons, curable only through exorcisms in the name of Jesus. And when the exorcisms didn’t fix the problem, society resorted to treatments like shock therapy, and or throwing them into sanitariums that hid the mentally ill away from the world, the way the Gerasenes hid the so-called “demoniac” in the tombs, and shackled him with chains. 

Yet, as is often his way, Jesus bucks the trend. He meets the man with compassion, not fear or judgment. This man is not a drain on society, not an inconvenience to be hidden away, but someone who is fighting a great battle within himself. The text even tells us that he was dealing with the legion for a very long time. Here is a beautiful example that Jesus sets for us. He gets the man to name his demons – in this case, Legion – but he doesn’t treat him, or the demon, harshly. Whereas those around the man had shunned and shamed him, Jesus offers healing and peace of mind, and in an ironic twist, he actually grants the demons’ request by casting Legion into the pigs, rather than into the nothingness of the Abyss. 

I wonder if, perhaps, Jesus did this because he recognized the strength within this man to fight and struggle for so long with something inside him that he could not understand or control. Consider that the moment Jesus steps onto land, the man runs out to meet him, pleading for Jesus not to torment him. This is his cry for help, his rock-bottom, if you will, and like most of our own cries for help it’s not as simple as, “I’m having a problem, please help me,” but instead it’s an agonizing plea of fear, which no one but Jesus understands. In the example of this man, we are reminded that there is no weakness, no shame, in seeking someone out for help. And our prayer today is that we may meet a brother or sister in pain the same way Jesus did, without judgment, shame, or fear, and with compassion, mercy, and love.

Many of us have struggled in similar ways to the Gerasene man for many, many years, and if we haven't, we certainly know and love someone who has. We might even use the word “demons” to describe those struggles; as in, "I'm dealing with my personal demons."We call them mental illness, addiction, PTSD, and so much more. It is here that I should reiterate that such conditions are not, I repeat, not demons, nor are they demonic in nature in any way shape, or form. They are conditions with which we all, on a spectrum, struggle. Though they may not be actual demons, the first step to facing and healing from them is the same as in this story from the Gospel; that is, to name them. 

To that end, I want to share with you that I am only recently coming to grips with my own struggles with PTSD, and I have been fortunate to have a therapist who has walked with me and given me tools to help me heal. There is no shame in what has happened to me, or to any of you, and there is no shame in asking for help, though sometimes, like the Gerasene man, we may not know how.

After receiving his healing, the man sits at Jesus’ feet, clearly a new person, with a new outlook on life. He wants to go with Jesus, but he refuses, telling the man to stay where he is. Remember that the Gerasenes were not exactly pleased about this man’s healing. A whole herd of pigs were lost because of it – that’s an economic repercussion right there – and their response toward Jesus was to run him out of town, since the Gerasenes were Gentiles and didn’t appreciate an outsider coming in and upsetting their order of things. Sometimes our journey toward healing and wholeness takes us places that others don’t like very much. Loved ones may respond dejectedly when we come out of our healing process and emerge a new person – perhaps with a new name, an entirely new outlook on life. There is something holy and sacred in the call of this new person to remain with his people, to educate them, to love them, to help others heal the same way Jesus healed him.

We must, in spite of misgivings or fear, witness to the strength of those on the outskirts of society who have been made to feel shame and weakness, or told they are possessed, because of their conditions. We must honor the courage that it takes to face and deal with struggles of all kinds, to heal from them, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually – all three of which apply to the healing Jesus gives to the Gerasene man.

Whatever kinds of struggles you might be facing, brothers and sisters, I pray you will have the courage to name them, the humility to ask for help, and the grace to show others around you how to do the same. And if you are one of the people who are “well” – whoever that may be, I don’t know – perhaps you will see the fears and struggles of others for what they are, something to be commended and uplifted. May you meet them with a loving heart, eager to help to be the healing hands of Jesus for them. And that is good news.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Stay Close, Please!

Earlier in the week I was looking through the books in my office to find something that might help me think differently about Pentecost, since I’ve preached on this feast more than a few times. So I grabbed Preaching Through Holy Days and Holidays, which was given to me as an ordination gift.  The title is kind of redundant, but it’s a collection of other people’s sermons, which are ok, but I don’t always find them super helpful. Still, I turned to the Pentecost section and my jaw literally fell open. One of the sermons was written by The Rev. Dr. Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, and while that name may not mean anything to you it’s pretty important to me because she was my preaching professor at General Seminary.

She has since gone on to glory, but Mo. Mitties is one of my Church heroes, everything you’d imagine a priest to be: filled with grace, wisdom, and serenity of spirit. She was small in stature and quiet in speech, but she had a presence that spoke loudly and commanded a room. She taught us to "always preach with abandon, keep your Jesus count high, and stay grounded in caritas." Her life was changed by the events of 9/11, after which she spent countless hours with other clergy at Ground Zero, ministering to those in pain and looking for survivors. Perhaps most importantly, she loved my dog Casey something awful and gave the little girl her middle name: Casey Louise Mitchell. "I just assume everyone’s middle name is Louise", she told me.

Casey Louise getting blessed by Mother Mitties on our last St. Francis Day in seminary (Fall, 2011).

She was a darn good preacher herself, and the sermon in the book shows it. She preached it on the Eve of Pentecost for a preaching conference in D.C. sometime around the turn of this century.. In the sermon, Mo. Mitties recalls the days after she took her General Ordination Exams, which are kind of like the bar or medical boards for clergy. They’re awful, and you need some kind of selfcare after you finish. She was told to go to the National Cathedral on the following Sunday and be fed by their 11:00 am Eucharist, and any of you who have been to the Cathedral can attest to how powerful that experience can be. So Mo. Mitties writes in the sermon about going up for Communion surrounded by all these people, and as she moves, she takes note of a woman, whom she describes as “an elderly woman in her mid-60s with radiant ebony skin and eyes that brimmed with an almost incandescence.” This minister of hospitality and welcome kept saying to the people walking up to receive, “Stay close, please.  Stay close, please.”

When I read that, I looked up to heaven, laughed, and thanked dear Mo. Mitties, because right now, some 20 years later, that’s a message we need. She may have been encouraging that room full of preachers to stick together in their common vocation, but “Stay close, please!” are words for us, too. What does it mean to stay close when staying physically close these past two years hasn’t been a good idea for most of us? How can we love and support each other and be emotionally close when we can’t get near each other?  We’ve had to relearn what closeness really is; or as Yoda put it, we had to "unlearn what we have learned." COVID-tide even gave us a new term – social distancing – which was meant to remind us that we needed to keep some distance to stay safe, but it started to feel like the term implied we shouldn’t be social, which just isn’t true. We are social creatures, we have to be in relationship with each other in order to survive. We’ve tried to stay close even when we can’t stay close. It’s been really hard, especially on the most vulnerable among us, and it’s been exhausting.

Pentecost, though, felt like a shot in the arm - pun intended - for our parish. After three years we were finally able to celebrate our annual parish cookout, worshipping in our Outdoor Chapel with no COVID restrictions. There was a great joy in the atmosphere, and it really felt like a new day in our parish, like we had turned a corner. So, as we turn a corner, I hope that we will remember those words and stay close. Regardless of physical distance, we must stay close, brothers and sisters. 

The altar set up for our outdoor worship on Pentecost Sunday of this year.

Y’all know I like to call you brothers and sisters because, well, that’s what we are. We’re a family, despite how the last two years have tried to get us to forget that fact, we always have been a family. COVID-tide tried to convince us that being separated meant we were less of a family, but we know that isn't true. Just think of your family that live on the other side of the country (or the world); are they any less your family?

And the thing about family is that you can’t quit them. You cannot choose the family you are born into or the story of that family, which also means you can’t change the ugly parts in the past, the skeletons in the family closet. Nevertheless, our family is a story we are written into forever, for good and ill. Blessedly, we know family is not about blood alone, but especially in cases of abusive relationships, plenty of us find new family, our friends, colleagues, or church folk who love and support us when our blood relatives can’t or won’t. This being the start of Pride Month, I’m particularly reminded that family comes in all shapes and sizes, and that closets are not for skeletons and hiding but for shoes, fabulous shoes.

Happy Pride, y'all!

What makes us a family is the Holy Spirit, that part of God that is the life-giver. Jesus knew this because in his two languages - Hebrew, which he read and Aramaic, which he spoke - the word for 'spirit' is feminine. It was the Spirit or breath of God  that moved over the waters at creation and called the A-dam out of the dust and gave the human one life. The Scriptures for Pentecost remind us of the Holy Spirit’s life-giving properties. In the Acts of the Apostles we hear about the Spirit giving birth to the Church (Acts 2: 1-21). The reading from Romans 8: 14-17 reminds us that we are all children of God, united by the Holy Spirit. Even Psalm 104 calls to mind the Spirit’s role in not only birthing but sustaining all of creation. If the Spirit births all things, then all things are related. All are siblings. All are family.

The Holy Spirit binds us all into such a family, not just as a parish, not just as Episcopalians, or even as Christians, but truly as one human family. And the Spirit urges us, as that usher urged Mo. Mitties and others as they came to Communion, “Stay close, please!” She’s calling us all today, still, to stay close. So, maybe we can hear her voice, just this once, and maybe by the Spirit's power, we might be a little different from this day forth. Perhaps we will hold each other a bit more carefully, be a bit more patient, a bit more understanding, a bit more kind. Maybe we will remember that we are family, and that no crisis, whether the violence we’ve seen the last couple weeks or the madness of COVID from the last couple years, can change that. 

So, this Pentecost I’m grateful that my parish was able to be physically closer than we have been in two years, and I pray that closeness continues. And I also pray that we will all stay close in heart, mind, and common mission to love and serve. Stay close, brothers and sisters, to each other. To your God. To Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. To the Holy Spirit, who showed up at Pentecost to tear away the veil that we put up between each other, and who still has the power to set our hearts on fire with love for God and a passion to transform the world. As my parishioners know, it is a new day in Asheboro now, as it was a new day in Jerusalem back then. It is a new day for us all. So as we head out into it, stay close, brothers and sisters. Please.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

For the Undeserved and the Ungrateful

'After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-- blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.'

-John 5: 1-9

You know what really grinds my gears? Facebook ads! Back in my day, there were no ads on Facebook. Well, there were a few, but now it’s crazy, especially how the ads work.. Using their fancy algorithms, Facebook ads are tailored to peddle the product that we absolutely need in any given moment. It’s like someone is listening to all of our conversations—hint: they are!—and everytime we pick up our phone, wow, there’s that thing I really need, that magic product that will make everything about life finally make sense. Thanks, Zuckerberg!  Ugh.

In our reading from the Fourth Gospel this week we hear of a pool in Jerusalem called Bethzatha, which means House of Olives.  This pool was the kind of product you’d see in a Facebook ad: it’s the solution to all of your problems.  These pools were common in the ancient world, and folks would use them all the time to heal all kinds of ills, thinking an angel came down and touched the water, causing it to bubble up. What they didn’t know was that a subterranean stream was beneath the pool, which caused the bubbling. There was no angel. The pool had no healing properties and wasn’t a magical fixer of all problems. 

But the man we meet in this story doesn’t know that. He’s been coming to the pool for 38 years with some unknown illness, trying to get in and desperately cure himself. If only he can have the thing, then his life will make sense and everything will be ok.

Jesus, it turns out, is hanging around near Bethzatha, and in an unconventional move, this sick man does not seek Jesus out, but rather Jesus takes notice of him, lying there on his mat, looking at the pool, and wishing someone would help him in.

Now if you or I had been there maybe we would’ve told him that he's a fool to think that a bubbling pool, or any other magical product, could heal him. But Jesus does not give the man a lecture about the properties of the water, instead he asks the man a question:  do you want to be made well?

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet the man’s response is not really an answer to Jesus’ question, but rather a retelling of his own story. He doesn’t ask Jesus for anything. So, does he really want healing or to just be slid into the magic hot tub? Hard to say. Maybe, because he doesn’t seek Jesus out himself, he’s just content with being in this helpless and hopeless state; after all, it’s all he’s known for nearly four decades.  

This raises an important question for us when we are faced with the dilemma of seeing a person clearly in need who doesn’t actually ask for anything. To help me with this conundrum whenever I am faced with it, I think of the example of my mother. Whenever she would come to visit me in New York City, my mom would always be sure to carry extra cash to give to folks she thought could use it. One time, while we were on the subway, she saw a man who appeared to be schizophrenic, talking to himself. He had a cup in his hand with a few coins in it, but he wasn’t walking down the aisle asking for help. Mama reached in her wallet and pulled out a bill and put it in his cup as we were getting off the train. “I gave him $50, son.” Is what she said, and you might be able to guess what she said next, ‘You think I shoulda given him $100?” God rest your soul, Mama!

My mother and me on World Trade Center/Chambers St. subway platform in 2010.

The man in the story never asks Jesus for anything, neither did the man on the subway ask my mother.  Yet in both cases the need was there and was clearly known, and the grace of God broke through.  It was unprovoked grace, to be sure, but it was grace, nonetheless, and I’d like to think both cases resulted in a miracle happening.

So Jesus heals the man and tells him to pick up his mat. Unfortunately, our lectionary ends the story there (and it never comes up again in our 3-year lectionary cycle). Thus, we lose a significant part of the story; that is, the aftermath. What do you think happened?  Did the man go around telling folks that the pool was bupkus, but that this Jesus fellow was the real deal? Did he dance for joy now that his legs worked and gave praise to God?  Nope.  He just goes about his day. He never says thanks to Jesus, and when the religious authorities chastise the man for carrying his mat on the sabbath he throws Jesus under the bus: “That guy told me to do it," he says. There’s no indication in the text that this man’s faith was restored or that he changed in any way because of his encounter with Jesus.  He seems ungrateful. That’s a bummer, isn’t it?  But it’s a good reminder for us that not only can miracles be performed independently of faith but that miracles don’t always produce faith.    

There’s an old saying that “faith works miracles,” and yes, it’s true; it’s why Jesus often says, “Your faith has made you well.”  Even when everything else is falling apart, our faith can sustain us and work miracles. But this story? That notion utterly breaks down here.  The man doesn’t seem to have a strong faith, yet Jesus comes to him anyway.  The man doesn’t show any gratitude for what Jesus does for him, but Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  Sometimes we feel we shouldn’t help someone because they don’t appear genuine.  And sometimes we regret helping someone who seems to be ungrateful.  But that makes it about us, not about the person in need, and not about what God can do through us.  It is God who works the miracles, and neither someone’s level of faith nor their gratitude are preconditions for God doing so.  Claiming that we should help others based on these preconditions is as foolhardy as thinking that some magic product, even bubbly angel water, will cure all our ills.  (Watch me get a Facebook ad for bubbly angel water later!) God’s gift of grace is always freely bestowed. It isn’t really up to us.

I think this story today is an important lesson for us to remember the next time we find ourselves face-to-face with someone in need who maybe we don’t think deserves it, or someone who might be ungrateful. It’s important for us to remember how grace works because we may very well find ourselves on the other side. I speak from experience. 

I needed a liver transplant because of a random, crazy disease called primary schlerosing colangitis, which manifested in my bile duct and gave me cancer. If left unattended, the PSC and cancer would spread to my liver, shutting it down and eventually killing me. After going through cancer treatment, I got on the transplant list, and in six months, I had a new organ. I carry it with me everyday and am reminded that I did nothing to earn it. I didn’t even really ask for it because the old one, it turns out, was working pretty well at the time. And yet, I got it, though who’s to say I deserved to have it more than the person in active liver failure, or someone who has spent years on the transplant list? What's more, I can’t ever say thank you to the person who gave it to me, nor am I allowed to know anything about them or their loved ones, which kinda means I can’t ever show my gratitude. Still, by the grace of God, I got to be the recipient of a miracle, and I’m gradually learning to accept that grace, that free gift—the grace, not the liver. 

Walking on the day of my release from the hospital following my successful liver transplant in December of 2021.

So, whichever side of the care we find ourselves on, God asks the same thing of us: the Greek word is metanoia. It's the word we translate to "repentence" but it means to "turn around," or a better translation might be "to turn rightside-up." God asks us to metanoia away from our preconceived notions about tailored to us by society, and agents like Facebook, to the possibility that grace really is free and there’s nothing we can or should do to try and earn it; God asks us to metanoia to the faint hope that God can, in fact, still work miracles, even among the undeserved and ungrateful. 

The question Jesus poses to the man isn’t a question about how much he actually wants to be healed, as if Jesus wasn’t going to do anything if the man said no.  “Do you want to be made well?” is just another way of saying, “Do you want metanoia? “Do you want your very outlook about the world, about your fellow human being, about yourself to be turned right side up?” There’re no magic product that’s going to do it, not even an angel hot tub. This kind of transformation only comes when we accept God’s grace, freely bestowed upon us all, and whether we are the recipients of that grace or the one being called in the moment to share it, miracles can and will still occur. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

On Easter, Cancer, and Hope

As the calendar turned to 2021 I was hopeful.  Our dog Casey, who had suffered an aortic blood clot in December, was making remarkable progress and was unexpectedly on the road to a full recovery.  Meanwhile, I began the new year with a 10-week sabbatical that I hoped would give me time to focus on some personal projects, read, write, and take time to do some much-needed discernment.

Then came January 4.

After taking Casey to rehab I received a call that I had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer following a routine endoscopic procedure two weeks earlier.  My wife Kristen and I asked the question everyone asks when they get such news.

"What's the plan?"

Chemotherapy and radiation were pretty obvious, but the big blow came next.  Throughout my battle with gastrointestinal issues in 2020 my doctors warned me that I could develop an autoimmune disorder called primary schlerosing cholangitis (PSC), which develops in the liver and often leads to various cancers.  Now, my doctor was telling me, it was clear that I did have PSC all along, and there was only one course of action.

"You're going to need a liver transplant."

Despite the fact that my liver was (and is still) functioning perfectly well, the only way to eliminate the PSC is to get a clean liver.  Suddenly, everything else stopped.  My personal sabbatical projects no longer mattered.  This new journey would take over our lives in ways that we could not have imagined.  

After meeting with both the transplant and liver teams at Duke University Medical Center, we shared the news of my diagnosis, just about the time that we began chemo and radiation.  The amount of love poured in from folks from all over the country was (and is still) truly overwhelming.  We set up a personal page over at Caring Bridge--which you can check out by clicking here--where people can get updates on my progress and find ways that they can help.  Every day we receive cards, care packages, text messages, and phone cals from people who just want to let us know that they are thinking about us and praying for us.  

The folks of Good Shepherd, the parish where I've served for almost 6 years, have not only been tremendous is showing their love and support for us, but while we are gone they are finding new ways to step up and care for one another, proving once again that being the Church is about much more than Sunday mornings with the pastor or priest.  I miss being with them terribly, but I know that they are in good hands.  

We have now come to the end of the first leg of our journey. Last week I completed my radiation treatments.  It was very difficult at times, with lots of bouts of nausea and fatigue, but I blessedly never lost any hair and managed each day to have at least some form of activity.  Almost every day that I went in for treatment someone rang the bell in the Cancer Center lobby to signal that they had finished their treatments, and I often have wondered what were their stories and what their next steps were.  On Good Friday (April 2) my turn came.

Ringing the bell at the Cancer Center upon completed radiation.

We still have a ways to go before this journey is over.  Several tests and an additional laparoscopic procedure are planned in the next 2-3 months, and there is still the matter of getting on the national list for a liver transplant and having the surgery before the end of the calendar year.  

But for now, I can't help but reflect on what it meant to finish radiation on the last day of Holy Week and to face a hopeful yet uncertain future during this Eastertide. 

Most years I have managed to read Marcus Borg's and John Crossan's  excellent book The Last Week during Holy Week.  It situates you right there in the middle of a raucous Jerusalem during Passover in the final days of Jesus' life, taking the reader day-by-day through Jesus' experiences according to the Gospel of Mark.  This year, I felt closer to Jesus than I think I ever have, and yet also strangely distant.  

You see, I am a cradle Episcopalian, who has always had deep, meaningful encounters with God in the context of public worship.  The altar rail was where I first fell in love with Jesus Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.  As a priest, planning and leading worship is arguably my most cherished responsibility.  It is hard to separate myself from those experiences.  

A year ago my wife Kristen created a Holy Week Spiritual Resource Guide to help members of our parish and other Christians find ways to use what they had in their homes to still mark Holy Week and Easter in the early days of what many of us have called COVID-tide.  Still, Kristen and I were able to have some form of worship by recording the liturgies from the Paschal Triduum and continued offering pre-recorded Sunday worship for folks all the way up until my sabbatical.  Once cancer struck, the hope of being together with members of Good Shepherd, or even being able to record the sacred liturgies, were dashed.  We had to re-learn what Holy Week meant while enduring the toughest days of treatment.

Throughout the week Kristen and I incorporated many of the practices that she outlined in her Resource Guide: we had an Agape Meal on Holy Wednesday, washed feet on Maundy Thursday, and read the Stations of the Cross on our way to the last treatment appointment on Good Friday.  But there was more going on for us beyond those practices.  

For the first time in my life, the sufferings of Jesus hit home because of my own physical sufferings.  There were times when I would cry out in pain, and perhaps more than at any other moment of my life, I knew that Jesus heard me because I knew Jesus understood.  And just as Jesus could not escape his own pain, I could not escape mine.  I had to endure, and the only way for me to do so was with Jesus.  

We often wonder what we are to do about human suffering.  I am convinced now more than ever that some form of suffering is necessary if we are ever to understand the full depths of the goodness and mercy and love of God.  Jesus' own preaching is not to the comfortable and cozy, but the broken, the poor, the suffering.  The Gospel is Good News because it gives those who are suffering a measure of hope and meaning.  Anyone who has not known suffering simply cannot comprehend how such a message like "take up your cross and follow me" could ever be considered good.  But for those who are hurting, it's the most powerful thing in the world.

This is not to say that suffering is glorified.  Far from it.  The Cross is not, by itself, glorified.  It only has meaning in hindsight, in the experience of the Resurrection.   And as I write this blog on a beautiful Easter Tuesday, I know that there is hope.  Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, which means that everything we thought we knew about life, death, suffering, and hope are all transformed into something that is beyond human comprehension.  

On the evening of Easter Sunday, Kristen and I celebrated Mass in the oratory in our home, which we've done each Sunday since the new year began.  The Gospel for that evening was the story of the Walk to Emmaus, where two of Jesus' disciples meet him on the road during the evening hours of that first Easter but do not recognize him until after he breaks bread in their midst.  I've preached and written before about Emmaus, and though there is little agreement on whether the place even existed, it is my favorite post-Resurrection story in the Bible.  Because it's true, whether or not it's factual!  We so often don't see Jesus in our midst.  We recognize him only when the moment is gone.  But if we let ourselves realize he was there all along, then our lives can be changed forever, just like those two disciples.  

I've been walking to Emmaus this week.  

I've looked back on the past six weeks and cannot help but see Jesus there.  I see Jesus in the cards from old friends and parishioners of past churches.  I see Jesus in my wife, who has loved and cared for me in so many ways and who is reminding me that there is grace in receiving as much as there is in giving.  I wish that I had had the eyes to see in those moments, but if I can even look back and see Jesus in hindsight, then maybe my future will change, as well.

We are an Easter people.  We live in the reality of the Resurrection.  Christ is alive, present tense.  I have often wondered about the disciples who realized that Jesus had been raised and asked the question: 

Now what?

I'm in a similar position right now.  I have no idea what the future is going to hold.  I can't tell you when I'll be able to return to my parish or even mow my own lawn.  I have no idea from day to day how I will feel, and there are a lot of things that have to happen before I am truly back to 100% health.  But one thing that I do know is that because Jesus Christ is alive suffering and death do not have the final say.  

This is what I have learned through my own sufferings along this journey.  Whatever sufferings you have endured, may you know that the Good News of Easter is real for you, as well.  I was hopeful when 2021 started, and though the changes and chances of life have taken us down a most unwanted and unexpected path, I am hopeful still.

Χριστός ἀνέστη