Thursday, June 30, 2005

A prayer for America (invocation for the U.S. Senate on Sept. 29, 1993)

Several years ago I had the privilege of serving as "chaplain of the day" for the United States Senate. It seems appropriate to post this to my weblog as Independence Day approaches.

Prayer for the U.S. Senate.

September 29, 1993.

God of our fathers and mothers, God of our children and grandchildren, yours alike are the Rockies' proud peaks and Shenandoah's green tranquillity; yours are the span of the Golden Gate and the slums of Watts and Harlem.

Hear us as we pray for this land between the shining seas, this home of the pilgrims' pride, these United States of America.

We praise you for America's diverse quilt; for pilgrims from Europe and Africa, from Asia and Latin America, for Creek and Choctaw and Sioux and all our native peoples. Bind our ethnic strands together in a pattern of harmony, peace, and understanding.

Grant the women and men of this great assembly keenness and openness of mind; where vision is bound to personal gain or partisan good, liberate it. Stay their minds upon justice and their hearts upon compassion; may their ears be open to the voices of the voiceless and their eyes to the problems of the present and the possibilities of the future.

Grant that all the people of the United States may employ their hands and hearts and minds and bodies in work that satisfies and delights.

May peace unfold in freedom and justice, and may conflict issue in creative reconciliation.

And grant that in all things we raise our hearts and voices in gratitude to you, O judge of nations and peoples, for in your wisdom you have set us upon a strong and high place, given us peace and prosperity, and called us to walk confidently into the future.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 9A: Wonder and secrets

I know I'm dating myself, but as a small child I loved the TV game show What’s My Line? Every week the celebrity panelists tried to guess the mystery guest’s secret. One week the guest would be an astronaut in training. Another week the guest would be the Sweet Potato Queen from Hickory, North Carolina.

Secrets seem anathema to the Christian faith. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" and "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." And yet, he often cautioned those he had healed to tell no one about his miraculous powers. In today's gospel reading, Jesus claims that even God has secrets. "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants..."There are some truths that seem more apparent to children. Hans Christian Andersen recognized this in his story, "The Emperor's New Clothes." The adults are all conditioned to believe that the emperor is wearing clothes so wondrously made that they are invisible or else they are afraid to tell the emperor the truth. But a little boy in the crowd spontaneously shouts out the truth that adults are too stupid or frightened to say: "The emperor has no clothes!"

It is commonplace in some churches to believe that the Christian faith may be more easily understood by the poorly educated than the well-educated, as though a lack of education confers some kind of special insight. John Wesley once received a letter from a man, who wrote, "Dear Mr. Wesley: God has no need of your fine learning." Wesley replied to him, saying, "Dear Sir: I am aware that God has no need of my learning. God has no need of your ignorance, either!" Jesus is not denouncing learning nor is he conferring a privileged status on ignorance or childishness. Rather, I think he is saying something like what Hans Christian Andersen was saying in "The Emperor's New Clothes." Sometimes it is children or others with little or nothing to lose who can see what others miss or at least what they are afraid to point out.

Author Robert Fulghum claimed that he learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten. Obviously, that's not quite true, but the lessons of childhood are perhaps the most important lessons of all. Share your toys and cookies; if someone is tired and discouraged a big hug is better than a martini; say your prayers every night. Compared to these lessons, a Ph.D. seems almost trivial.

So, what are the things that God has hidden "from the wise and the intelligent" and revealed to infants? Jesus has just finished denouncing the villagers of the Galilee. Matthew tells us that Jesus was going through the villages of Galilee, proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of Heaven, healing the sick, and teaching. Then he sent out the Twelve to do what they had seen him do. And yet, his words and deeds of power seem to have had little effect. He denounced the villages of Galilee and compared them to Sodom. He seems to have meant that just as Sodom was grossly inhospitable to the angelic messengers who visited Lot, so the villages of Galilee had been inhospitable to Jesus and the Twelve.

Children possess the gift of wonder. When adults say that "Christmas is for children," they mean that a small child still believes and hopes and wishes with all her heart that reindeer fly and that Santa can squeeze down the chimney; she still sees the magic in a handful of tinsel and a few strands of twinkly lights on a scraggly spruce tree; and she still believes that the box of fancy soap she bought at Walmart for $5 is the best gift her mother will ever receive.

Adults too often have lost that sense of wonder. That's not entirely a bad thing. Adults have to pay taxes; go to work; and have the oil changed in the car. A sense of wonder can get in the way. But it's an expensive trade-off. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote of the "second naiveté." The first naiveté is the wonder of childhood, which, in time, inevitably evaporates. Children grow up and become adults. Adult responsibilities drive out childish wonder. And if that were the end of the story, it would be sad indeed. But sometimes we recover a sense of wonder; that's the second naiveté. We know that reindeer do not fly but we may still be able to feel the magic and excitement in the story.

Perhaps the villagers of Galilee had lost their first naiveté but not yet arrived at their second naiveté. Miracle workers and itinerant teachers were no unusual sight in first century Palestine. When Jesus came to the Galilean villages and restored sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, and freed the oppressed from demonic power, did they yawn and say, "Very nice but last week we saw a rabbi make his assistant float in the air and then vanish. Do you know that one, Jesus?"

How is it with us? Have we lost our first naiveté but not yet acquired a second naiveté? What has happened to our sense of wonder? Do you still marvel at the works of God? Do you see God's hand at work when the clouds part and the sun shines through? When you look up at the starry sky, do you see God wind up his arm like a major league pitcher and scatter diamonds all across the deep blue of heaven? And above all do you marvel at the young prophet who embraced death on the cross to reconcile the world to God and who rose to new life on the third day? Does it strike you mute with wonder that God loves you and embraces you as a beloved child?

If wonder is missing from your life, if you no longer feel grateful beyond words for what God has done and is doing, try this: tell someone else the story. Tell a child, if possible, because their sense of wonder is contagious. Tell someone how God summoned worlds out of empty space; grabbed a lump of clay and fashioned humankind; called one people out of all the nations of the earth; and then in time's fullness came among us as one of us. Tell the story and you may feel again the wonder that you once knew. Because God hasn't really hidden anything. God's marvels are right in front of our eyes, if only we will open them.

Proper 8A: Making room for God

Say the word "hospitality," and what comes to mind? Do you think of a relative -a grandmother or an aunt, perhaps - who had the gift of hospitality? Who made everyone feel welcome in her home? Whose dinner table always had an extra place and who never let anyone leave the table without an extra helping of peach cobbler?Hospitality is an important and often overlooked theme in the Bible. God instructs Israel in no uncertain terms to show hospitality to strangers. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10.19) According to the Old Testament, hospitality is not optional. It's a mitzvah, a commandment, a matter of justice.

The New Testament, too, places a premium on hospitality. When the religious leadership accused Jesus of "welcoming sinners and eating with them," (Luke 15.2) they were saying that he had showed hospitality to the wrong people. When Paul criticized the Christians at Corinth for letting the poor go hungry when the celebrated the Lord's Supper, (1 Cor. 11.20-21) he was accusing them of a breach of hospitality. And the author of Hebrews says that hospitality is important because some have "entertained angels unawares." (Heb. 13.2)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus commends hospitality four times: Normally, a rabbi would argue "from the lesser to the greater," but Jesus reverses the usual order and argues from the greater to the lesser. "Whoever receives you, receives me; whoever receives a prophet, will receive a prophet's reward; whoever receives a righteous person, will receive the reward of the righteous, and whoever "gives even a cup of cold water" to a "little one" will be rewarded.

Just prior to today's gospel reading Jesus sent out the Twelve to do the works they had seen him do - proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, heal the sick, and cast out demons. He sent them out with only the essentials - no money, no bag, no change of clothes - In other words, they were entirely dependent on hospitality.

We need to hear the Bible's message of hospitality because we live in a remarkably inhospitable world, a world of gated communities and exclusive country clubs. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam sounded the alarm in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam argues that since World War II social engagement between Americans of all kinds has fallen off drastically. We no longer join the PTA and the Rotary Club; church and synagogue attendance has fallen off; we less frequently entertain people in our homes. Instead, we live in a world in which people are "cocooning" - staying at home, watching DVDs instead of going to the movies and having pizza delivered to their door. In short, we live in a world that needs hospitality.

Hospitality has two dimensions: First and foremost, the Bible commands hospitality because of the vulnerability of the stranger. In the ancient world the stranger was just as vulnerable and marginalized as the widow or orphan. Indeed, when the Bible speaks of widows and orphans, it often speaks of the stranger, too. “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.” (Ezek. 22.7) Travelers who were miles away from their homes had no claim on the protection or hospitality of those among whom they traveled. There were no hotels and restaurants, no police forces, no means of easy communication in times of crisis. The Bible's command to show hospitality to strangers is of a piece with the imperative of justice. The imperative of justice is to care for those who have no right to claim our kindness and hospitality. In other words, we are to behave toward others as God has behaved toward us: compassionate toward those who have no claim on our compassion.

The second dimension of hospitality is how it affects those who show hospitality. Why do you suppose our world is so inhospitable? I think the answer is simple: fear. To be hospitable makes us vulnerable and we are afraid of vulnerability. To open our homes to others, especially strangers but even friends, opens us to criticism, the judgment of others; it could even open us to crime. So we wall out the world. We isolate ourselves behind the walls of our houses; behind fences and security systems; behind police forces and deadly weapons. We isolate ourselves in front of our televisions and computer terminals, not letting in anyone - the stranger on the corner, the friend down the street, not even God. In short, the failure to be hospitable is a failure of faith. We do not admit the stranger to our homes and lives because we are not sure that we can depend on the God who mandates hospitality.

What would happen if we heard and heeded the Bible's message of hospitality? It would certainly be good news for the hungry and homeless. The streets of our great cities are full of those who would be glad of a blanket, a warm place to sleep, and a bowl of soup. But it might be even better news for those of us who show hospitality to them, because it would bring us out of the cocoons of our own making into the light and fresh air. It would free us to show compassion and mercy. And most of all, it would open us to God. The outrageous promise that Jesus makes to those who show hospitality is that if they open themselves to those with no claim on their compassion and kindness, they will be opening themselves to God. "Whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me..." And after all, who really needs hospitality? Is it the bag lady rooting through the dumpster? The vet who stands at the end of the freeway offramp with his American flag and homemade sign? Of course, they need our hospitality, but not as much as every single one of us needs God's hospitality. God shows us what hospitality is all about by receiving those who have no claim on the divine love, by extending the circle of divine compassion to include the unlovely and unloveable, and by inviting every single one of us to sit down at the heavenly banquet.

Proper 7A: Family values

A recent PBS documentary set the cat among the pigeons by implying that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene. Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics, in particular, were scandalized at the thought. It is unlikely in the extreme that Jesus ever married, but there is something odd in the furor inspired by the PBS program. Does it strike you as strange that it is precisely the people who are most upset by the suggestion that Jesus might have been married are also the ones who are most vociferous about so-called "family values"?"Family values" has become the rallying cry of the religious right, and in many ways, I think they are on to something important. Drug abuse, crime, education, divorce, unwanted children, domestic abuse… Certainly better parenting and healthier families would do a lot to alleviate these and other social problems.So, of course, we would expect Jesus to be on the side of family values.

What did Jesus have to say about family values? Listen to these words from today's gospel reading:"Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household." (Matt. 10.34-35)Uh oh... I hope the Christian Coalition doesn't hear about this. They might try to have Jesus banned from the Internet or at least have the National Endowment for the Humanities cut off his funding.

I'm not trying to be facetious, but it's a little difficult to see Jesus waving the banner of family values as understood by many on the religious right. Jesus' relationship with his own family seems to have been very troubled, and the trouble started at the very beginning. When Joseph learned that his fiancée Mary was pregnant before the marriage, he seriously considered calling the whole thing off, and was only dissuaded from it by a direct message from God delivered in a dream. When he was 12 years old, the boy Jesus remained in the Temple rather than returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. When they found the boy missing from their traveling party, they returned to the Temple and found him conversing with the learned men. Mary scolded Jesus rather sharply and said, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously". And Jesus replied equally sharply, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

By identifying the Temple as "his Father's house" rather than Joseph's house in Nazareth, the 12 year old Jesus was already declaring his independence from his family. Wouldn't that be an interesting Gospel reading for Father's Day?And when Jesus finally launched his ministry of teaching and miraculous cures, his family believed that he was possessed by a demon and tried to seize him and bring him home with them.

It was as though a family in our day and time were trying to abduct and "de-program" a child who had joined a cult. When Jesus learned what his family was trying to do, he looked around at his disciples and said, "Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother".(Mark 3.34) In effect, he disowned his earthly family and announced the creation of a new, spiritual family.Jesus and family values are an uneasy combination. Between the beginning of his ministry and his crucifixion his family consisted of a motley group of disciples that included both men and women. Many of them seem to have abandoned their own families. The gospels tell us that when Jesus called Peter and James and John that they dropped their fishing nets and followed him. In other words, they simply walked away from jobs and families to follow an itinerant prophet. This "family" that followed Jesus wandered from place to place. They seem to have supported themselves by asking for handouts. No wonder Jesus made the authorities nervous!

Now, don't misunderstand me: Jesus never endorsed disobedience to parents or encouraged husbands to leave their wives or vice versa. And Jesus was no advocate of irresponsibility. But the teachings of Jesus radically challenged the idea of family in the first century and perhaps in our world, too.In the first century, family was everything. One was a Jew because one's mother was Jewish. One didn't choose the Jewish faith; one was born into it. That was why Nicodemus found Jesus so puzzling. "You must be born again," Jesus said to Nicodemus, and the learned Nicodemus replied, "How can this be? Can one enter again into one's mother's womb?" Nicodemus saw no need for a second birth. He had been born a Jew and a Pharisee and no greater heritage was imaginable. We've become so accustomed to the phrase "born again" that we do not see what a revolutionary idea it was in first century Judaism. It implied a radical rejection of the whole structure of Judaism. One was to be born again not by blood but by the spirit. One was to be born not into an earthly family but into a spiritual one. One's earthly ancestors became completely irrelevant.It was not just first century Judaism that made the family central. It was true of the Roman Empire, as well. Family was everything. The family was the central institution in Rome. The father of a family was known as the paterfamilias, and he had almost absolute power over those in his household. But Jesus taught his disciples to call no one father except God. With a stroke, Jesus severed the ties that bound his disciples both to their earthly families and to the larger societies of which families were and are the basic units."I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I will set father against son and mother against daughter..." Jesus came to found an entirely new kind of family. And it didn't take long before first the Jewish authorities and later the Roman authorities realized just how dangerous his ideas were.

A tribe is just an extension of the family or a collection of families. It is odd at the beginning of the 21st century to find tribalism reasserting itself. The conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent are tribal wars. In a sense, they are family warfare. Protestant families against Catholic families; Muslim families against Jewish families; Hindu families against Muslim families. People are hated and killed simply because of who their parents and grandparents were.

At their best, families are places of love and warmth and nurture. And I would venture to say that the healthiest families are those in which there is enough love not only for those who have a claim to it by their birth but also for those outside the circle of the family. God is constantly probing at us and our families to see if our love excludes or includes, if we will constrict the circle of our love or open our arms wide. Jesus challenges our idea of family values because he preached a gospel of love without limits. Nowhere does Jesus encourage neglect of family. Rather, he asks us to love the poor, the hungry, and the homeless alongside our own parents and children. Jesus preached a "both/and" love, not an "either/or" love.

Did Jesus preach an impossible ethic? Yes. Does that mean that the bar is set so high that we might as well not even try? Not at all. Instead, Jesus expects us to learn to love by loving those in our families and then extending that love to those outside, to those with no claim on our love, to those whom no one loves. God put us in families because families are schools of love. Our families are schools of love, because it's very difficult to love someone you share a bathroom with! We are put in families because it's usually easiest to love those who are similar to us, but unfortunately, that's where we stop all too often. Loving those whom we know, loving people who love us, is only love's most basic arithmetic, but Jesus challenges us to go on and learn love's advanced calculus. We must love our families, to be sure, but that is only the first step on love's journey, a journey whose ultimate destination is to learn to love those who are completely different from us and perhaps even repellent to us.

Love your spouse. Love your children. Love your parents. Love your sisters and brothers. Love yourself. But don't let your love stop at the front door. Instead, keep your hearts and your homes wide open, because Jesus is coming to knock on your door.

Proper 6A: The two movements of the Christian life

Have you ever seen a labyrinth or walked one? Whether or not you’ve seen or walked a labyrinth, you probably know what I’m talking about.

A few years ago, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco reintroduced the labyrinth as a spiritual discipline. A labyrinth is simple a large circular pattern which one walks as a means of mediation of prayer. The labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is a copy of a very ancient labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.

In an article The Birmingham News did about labyrinths a few years ago, they noted that "Walkers sometimes find themselves near each other; sometimes not. They find themselves sometimes near the center/destination, then suddenly distant, then unexpectedly at the end of the journey."

I want to suggest that there are two fundamental movements in our spiritual lives that such a maze or labyrinth reveals to us: the movements are coming in and going out.

The gospels suggest much the same thing.

In last week's gospel Jesus summoned Matthew to follow him, "Follow me". It was, as I pointed out, a phrase Jesus used at critical points in his ministry. He summoned Peter and Andrew, the first disciples with the same words: "Follow me". And he invited his followers to "take up their cross" and follow him.

In today's gospel reading having already called the Twelve to follow him, having already invited them in, Jesus sends them out. "...he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and eveyr infirmity.... These twelve Jesus sent out..."

As it is in the great maze of Chartres Cathedral, so it is in our lives. We are both invited to move in toward the center and also sent out to the edge. Jesus invites us into his fellowship, saying, "Follow me", and he also sends us out in mission and ministry.

These are the two fundamental movements of the Christian life. We are invited to follow Jesus and learn from him. He pours his life into us. But then we are sent out.

The Christian life is much like the growth of a child into an adult. As infants we can do nothing for ourselves. We are carried about, our parents change our diapers, feed us, and in time educate us. But the time comes when we reach a certain age and can be given responsibility. At first, the responsibilities are simple; we are told to clean our rooms, to feed the dog, to take out the garbage. But eventually we are given more responsibility. We go to college, get a job, get married, and eventually have children of our own. But we never cease to need the loving care and concern of others.

And so it is with the Christian life. Imagine the Christian life as a spiral. It begins with baptism when we are baptized into Christ, put on Christ, are filled for the first time with the Spirit Christ pours out on all those who are baptized. This following Christ and being filled by him continue as we learn about the Christian life.

But as we grow and learn as Christians, we, too, are given responsibility. There comes the time when Christ says to us, as he said to the Twelve, "... heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons..." Sound scary? Good! It is. But it is not impossible.

Coming back home for rest and nourishment and going out in service -- these are the two parts of the Christian life. If either part of the Christian life is missing, then something is gravely wrong. We constantly need to be renewed in worship and the sacraments. And we also constantly need to take that life offered to us and give it away.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die." Bonhoeffer phrased that a little too dramatically. I think it would be more accurate to say, "When Christ calls us, he bids us come and give our lives." We can give our lives dramatically, as when a martyr dies for the faith, but we can also give our lives day by day, offering to the world the life that God is constantly pouring into us.

The gospel is founded on the concept that the death of Christ brings life to those who put their faith in the God who was in Christ. The classic statement of this is in today's epistle: "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us."

In other words, the death of Christ was sacrificial. The idea that Christ's death was sacrificial is troubling to many. Sacrifice seems such a primitive and unpleasant concept. But the idea behind sacrifice is simple and true. A sacrifice is simply the giving of life in order that life may be received.

In some mysterious way, the death of Christ upon the Cross opened a channel through which God was able to pour life and grace into the world. We are the recipients of that life and grace. In response, we are asked to make our lives sacrificial. We are asked to be channels through which that life and grace can flow to others. "Freely have ye received, freely give."

Coming in and going out... the two movements of the spiritual life. Of the two parts, I suppose the one more likely to be overemphasized is coming in. We are content to go to church, sing hymns, and listen to sermons (provided they are not too long), but when we are dismissed, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord", do we hear those as anything more than the last words of the liturgy? Do we in fact go out "to love and serve the Lord?"

Worship mirrors life. The liturgy starts with the same words with which we are baptized: "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and then they end with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” I want to suggest that the words of dismissal are not the last words of the Sunday liturgy. They are the first words of the liturgy in which we are all engaged every day of our lives.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I just want to let people know that I haven't abandoned my blog. I am working feverishly right now to finish up the first 100 pages or so of a book for the University of Alabama Press. The tentative title is Bishop, Bourbons, and Big Mules: The Episcopal Church in Alabama from 1830 to 2000. Several years ago I wrote a brief history of the Diocese of Alabama as the introduction to a collection of photographs of all the parish churches in the diocese. At that time I suggested to the Press that I expand the essay into a book, and they were interested. Then I got busy with other things and put it aside. Early this year they contacted me and (in effect) asked, "So, how's the book coming?" And I decided that I'd get back to work and finish it. I'm making a lot of progress and have nearly finished the section from 1830 to 1861 (1861 was the year that the first bishop died, the second bishop was elected, and the Civil War broke out).

Anyway, I will be updating this blog from time to time but not as frequently as I was. However, I am also taking on a short-term interim and so hope to have some fresh material to add to the blog.

Those of you who have linked to my website and blog, please don't give up on me! And if you read my website even casually, please let me hear from you.

In the meantime, have a look at some of my sermons and watch for new ones I'll be adding. I've reviewed at least one more book for "What I'm reading" but have to work on the website machinery so that you can see it, and that may take a while.