DANCE, DANCE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE

Even before the title comes across the screen, you get the sense that the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine – if it is, in fact, a comedy – is going to be a pretty dark one.  You’re introduced to the Hoover family, one by one.  First, you meet seven or eight year old Olive Hoover in the living room of her Albuquerque home.  She’s watching Miss California win the Miss America contest, rewinding it and watching it again and again, mimicking the acceptance poses.  Olive, it strikes you, isn’t necessarily beauty pageant material, not that that’s a value in itself.  Then there’s Olive’s dad, Richard, a motivational speaker who’s peddling his nine-step life philosophy.  According to him, winners choose to be winners, and losers choose to be losers.  (Not such a great father, you fear.)  Your first glimpse of Olive’s mother is of her driving somewhere in some apparent haste.  She’s on the phone with Richard.  He asks if she’s smoking again; “No,” Sheryl says, tossing the cigarette out the window.  She’s on her way to the mental hospital to pick up her brother, Frank, a brilliant academic, who tried to take his own life following a bad breakup and loss of a research grant.  The 15-year-old Neitzsche-reading brother, Dwyane, has taken a vow of silence until he can enter the Air Force Academy, and Edwin, Olive’s grandfather, is also at home after being kicked out of a nursing home for some untoward activity.

Obviously, this is a collection of broken and dysfunctional people, to say the least, all of them except Olive – the one redeeming, honest, pure character in this whole story.  More than that, they’re all dealing with an incredible weight of stress, and most feel like they’re on the verge of breaking down; some already have.

The first scene is all of them in the Hoover home for dinner on the night Sheryl brings Frank home – all of these wounded folks shoved together with individually-tailored, dark clouds of anxiety and stress.  Dinner, for what it’s worth, is a bucket of chicken served on paper plates with popsicles for dessert, a meal obviously grabbed and served in haste to a collection of individuals being pulled apart at their own seams.  All except Olive, again, who at that dinner asks gentle and sweet questions.  All except Olive.

A few weekends ago, Olive entered a beauty pageant while visiting her aunt and cousins in California.  The Hoover’s got a call earlier that day, announcing that the winner was pulled out and Olive, as runner up, is eligible to compete in that weekend’s Little Miss Sunshine contest.  That’s just the spark to ignite the powder keg.  A screaming back-and-forth fight ensues between Richard and Sheryl – whether they can go and whether they can afford it and who would go and if they can use Richard’s seed money for his motivational book for this expense, a fight which makes any feeling that you have dysfunctional family gatherings palatable, at least.

Eventually, they decide they’re going.  With an elderly grandfather and suicidal brother-in-law who can’t be left alone, in fact, the entire family has to go.  All of these incredibly broken people cram into a VW Bus and make the 800 mile trip to southern California, thus kicking off a great road trip comedy.

Stress only builds and challenges mount throughout the trip.  From beginning to end, each character, Olive included, face serious difficulties.  Each character, for themself, has to chose by movie’s end whether they’re going to let the outside stressors and anxiety knock them out of whether they’re going to just quit playing that game.  In typical fashion, little Olive is the one who leads – culminating in the final, great scene: Olive’s talent offering at the Little Miss Sunshine competition, an exotic dance number her grandfather choreographed set to Rick James’ hit “Superfreak.”  When the pageant coordinators try to forcibly remove Olive from the stage, Richard jumps in and protects his daughter.  He starts dancing, in turn.  Frank, too, hops on stage and dances, joined by Dwyane who by this time has started speaking.  Laughing, Sheryl also joins her family on stage and, together, they dance and smile and, for the first time in the entire movie, seem to be sucking the nectar out of this thing called life, all of them dancing together.

It’s a moving, lasting image – dancing when the world has got these folks by the throat.  It’s true in our own lives, isn’t it?  In every one of our lives, when the air outside gets thick and oppressive, when relationships become fractured and the demands increase, we take that into our souls and selves, somehow, sometimes in ways we’re not fully aware of.  And we also, from time to time, take it out on others.  Too often we inflict on others the hurts and harms others have shoved on us, oftentimes in unthinking, reactive ways.  That’s just the nature of life.

But redemption, we know, isn’t achieved in the nature of this life.  No, redemption’s a different, an ironic choice to break the mores of this world and dare to be different, dare to risk new life in a world which feeds and feasts on finality and mortality.  To dance while the world won’t and dance, at that, to a song others don’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance, anyway, then.  Dance on.

The gospel author, John, records a wonderful story about an evening Jesus and his disciples enjoyed at the home of his close friends, Lazarus and Mary and Martha, siblings who shared a home in Bethany, a little town just outside Jerusalem.  This was “six days before the Passover”, the gospel tells us, and the reader is aware that by this time things in the ministry of Jesus have changed substantially, so much so, one suspects, something bad is going to happen on or near that very Passover, something imperiling the life of Jesus.  Days earlier, Jesus had raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.  That sign – the last and greatest sign John records – drove the Pharisees and chief priests into conclave with one another.  They said to themselves, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (Jn.11:47-48)  The high priest, Caiaphas, arguing a shrewd and yet, you might say, perfectly normal political philosophy, instructed the Council that it would be better to have Jesus executed than to suffer that fate for the entire People of God.  The gospel tells us, then, that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”(Jn. 11:53)  And that “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews” but hid away with his disciples (Jn. 11:54)

This is the situation while Jesus and his band of loyal followers dash off to Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ home for dinner.  The air outside was thick with death threats and fear, not to mention likely strategizing on the part of the twelve: how to get him out of there, how to save his life, how to save their own lives, how to cut a deal, whether this will turn fatal.  Talk about stress and anxiety.  Within that looming, palpable scene, there in that house, Mary takes a pound of incredibly expensive perfume, pours it over Jesus’ feet and rubs her hair in it, so much that the aroma of flowers and buds overpowers that small abode.  Let me add a visual:  this is a pint of amber-colored oil, a pint of an aromatic perfume, a pint of oil drawn from a flowering bush found only in Nepal or India or China, far, faraway from Bethany and wildly expensive.  And Mary just pours that all over Jesus’ feet, all over the floor, all throughout her hair.  Oh, did Mary ever dance that day.  While the others stand there, watching.

Not all characters in the story just stand there, though.  Indignant, Judas Iscariot argues against the obscenity of this scene, making, I’d say, a rather compelling point – they could’ve sold that oil for “three hundred denarii”, the pay an average Galilean would’ve earned if he worked for three hundred consecutive 12-hour workdays!  They could’ve done great good with that money.  They could’ve actually helped the poor, given bread and real care to the widows and orphans and all those marginalized by society, those whom Jesus reached out to save and redeem and love.

Jesus errs on the side of Mary’s extravagance, though, praising her wildly irrational, complete abandon.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus says.  Mary is celebrating, he indicates, enjoying the feast, dancing while the world was too busy getting stuck, stuck on itself.  Mary may be the only one doing the right thing, and yet it’s such a strange, unexpected thing.

It’s so easy, when life gets us by the throat, to turn inward, to fret and fear, to struggle and wrestle.  That is, I fear, the beginning of a deep and profound illness.  Of all the things remarked by and about Pope Francis, I was moved this week by his sense that there’s value in a church which strives to get out of itself, even if that means a church which will fail and fall and have “accidents,” as he put it.  In an interview while still Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, Francis said,

“There is a tension between the center and the periphery. … We must get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery. We must avoid the spiritual disease of the Church that can become self-referential: when this happens, the Church itself becomes sick. It’s true that accidents can happen when you go out into the street, as can happen to any man or woman. But if the Church remains closed onto itself, self-referential, it grows old. Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first.”

Like the church, we all struggle with what Francis calls a “spiritual disease” – turning too dangerously inward, becoming too self-referential, too closed off.  It’s understandable.  Of course it is, given the stress and anxiety with which we wrestle.  But if that’s our only turn, only inward, we’ll never reach out, let alone dance.  We’ll never strive towards redemption, never come close to joining that Lord of the dance, as the song goes.

I wish I could say that I’ve done this most of the time, but I can’t because I haven’t.  Like you, I know how hard this is, how taxing and counter-intuitive it is to go against the tit-for-tat trends of this world.  But I can also say that those times in which the circumstances of this life have come close to suffocating my spirit, those moments in which stress and anxiety have truly weighed me down, nearly to a breaking point, I, too, have become sick and self-referential; I, too, have turned inward and foisted my own struggles on to others.  And it is in those moments in which I have hurt myself the most, and in very significant ways.  I have also hurt others, I’m certain.

But life also gives the choice, again and again, in fact, day after day.  And it turns out that the choice whether to dance isn’t easy but, if you can set aside the difficulty, it’s just a little bit different and twisted and ironic and contrary to the way you and I are sometimes wired.  Turns out that we’re a whole lot better at dancing, maybe we could say we’re supposed to dance, and perhaps dance to a song this world doesn’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance through life, then, or strive to … especially when the stuff gets too heavy, too much, too daunting, the air too thick outside the thin walls of your soul.  Dance, then, towards Easter.  I’ll bet you’ll find your own new life, in turn.

……….

A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, year C (17 March 2013).

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church.  All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of.  I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.

Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto!  You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”  The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.”  If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave.  Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY Jan. 18 to Jan. 25

It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity.  They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position.  Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement.  He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill.  Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart.  Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid.  But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take.  If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we.  Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.

When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week.  One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation.  Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish.  The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend.  It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.

We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach.  But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers.  WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together.  Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation.  And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.

Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve.  Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever.  I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others.  No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all.  And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious.  Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense.  Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings.  Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments.  There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one.  And that’s great.

And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within.  That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.

THE LAW OF POVERTY

This week, St. George’s hosts WARM.  An acronym for Wrapping Arms ‘Round Many, WARM is a network of faith-based organizations in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, who provide shelter and food for persons who are homeless.  It started four years ago, and we were one of the first host sites.  More than that, we helped start the conversation which led to WARM.

One December, now several years ago, we were put in contact with a veteran who had a high-school aged son.  They were homeless.  Given that they were father and son, they came up against roadblocks in social services – there were places for women and children, or for children, or for men, but no resources to help a father and son, together.  Stupid, I know.  We put them up in a local hotel and, meanwhile, arranged a meeting between leaders of faith-based organizations, social services, and the county.  It was a good meeting and we determined that – yes – the social service system is broken but they, the social service community, don’t have the spare time and extra resources to fix it.  Moreover, we realized, the faith-based community needed to step up and the social service community needed to partner with us.  Over the course of that winter and spring, a group formed and came up with the name and concept of WARM.  Step one.

WARM is step one.  The system is broken; we all know that.  But the way to fix it is not by conventional means – more money, more government.  Those things are equally broken.  No, the only way to fix it is to transplant it, to get the social ills and problems out of the dark corners and into the reality of everyday people, and especially people of means.  Hence, the genesis of WARM – exposing the reality of homelessness and poverty and brokenness to people who have homes and means and resources; an eye-opener, relationship-builder.  Whatever profound new developments and transformations of social service may come, they can only come from the building of this bridge.  But that’s step two, and we’re not yet there.

Not yet, because we haven’t accomplished, let alone, embraced step one.  It’s challenging, I know.  We haven’t yet entered into real relationship with those we welcome as guests.  Don’t talk to me about “clients” because the genesis of WARM is a more radical agenda – people of means, just as much as guests who are homeless, are the clients.  And until that distance is overcome, let’s not talk about step two.

RICHARD MEUX BENSON (1824 – 1915) Founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist

While we were hosting WARM, the Episcopal Church was remembering Charles Gore and Richard Meux Benson, a bishop and priest who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helped renew Anglican monasticism.  Gore was a bishop who, as a younger man, “founded the Community of the Resurrection, a community for men that sought to combine the rich traditions of the religious life with a lively concern for the demands of ministry in the modern world.”  Benson founded the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), sometimes called the Cowley Fathers after the name of the parish Benson served and in which the Society was born.

At the heart of both communities is an intentional embrace of poverty.  It’s what Richard Meux Benson called “the law of poverty – the less of earth, the more of heaven.”  To S. W. O’Neill, one of the original members of SSJE who had travelled to set up a mission house in India, the Father Founder wrote, “Try to keep the house as much to native simplicity; and keep the chapel also seemly for worship, and clean, but within the limits of religious poverty.”  Benson further urged O’Neill to avoid the English:  “…Keep clear of the English as much as possible.  I know the bishop’s anxiety to get chaplains for English work, but that is not our purpose, and it must damage real mission work.”  Living in true simplicity means real poverty, and that’s what Benson urged his Brothers to do, not because being poor is a value in itself but because it enables real and ready relationships with the people with whom they were called to mission.  So Benson: “Large premises are a serious hindrance to poverty. I would much rather our mission should do its work – principally witness, prayer, preparation – with as little of external surroundings as possible. If I were in your place, I think I should pack up most of the things you took out, and leave them in a box. One could not refuse many presents, but I felt them to be in many ways grievous ‘impedimenta’ to missionary life.”  In fact, the only way to transform is to pack it up and leave it in a box.

Kingdom transformation comes when we’ve fostered real relationships, when we have met the humanity of the other, not to mention the divinity, on an equal field, as brothers and sisters and, yes, as my brother’s keeper.  Doing so, requires that we get the stuff and the divisions out of the way – that we put it in a box and leave it.  What the world needs is a new form of advocacy and, indeed, new voices to advocate for those who are on the margins of our society – and there many, too many on the margins.  But advocacy will not happen without awareness.  And awareness will not happen without relationship.  And relationship does not happen when people of means treat those without as clients, not siblings.

QUANTUM INCARNATION

One of my favorite classes in high school was physics.  To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-.  Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.

For me, it’s a spiritual interest.  According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced.  And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force.  People of faith call that force God.  Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning.  Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.

But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union.  In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds:  one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order.  Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe.  Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion.  And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself.  And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’.  Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles.  Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.

I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it.  (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)

What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular.  This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas.  Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth.  Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us.  This is the mystery we call “incarnation”.  And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.

John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”  What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it.  There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”

The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff.  The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption.  And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.

This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person.  Stop trying to be more spiritual.  Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human.  Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.

The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within.  Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death.  Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart.  Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.

……….

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland

PRAISES SING TO GOD THE KING, AND PEACE TO MEN ON EARTH

On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event.  On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL.  Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”

THE REV’D PHILLIPS BROOKS
Born 1835 – Died 1893
Rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, 1862 – 1869
Rector of Trinity Church (Copley Square), Boston, 1869 – 1891
Bishop of Massachusetts, 1891 – 1893

Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation.  Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.”  And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned:  “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…”  “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder.  In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”

How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”  How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart.  And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering.  We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.

We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world.  This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President.  In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher.  But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President.  Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.

In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem.  In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.”  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote.  “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”

In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”  That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”

Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town.  Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”

The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story.  The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.”  Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of.  Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.

Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said.  The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness.  Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world.  No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”

And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace.  So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week.  The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world.  Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples.  It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it.  That’s why we keep coming back, week after week.  I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.  I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.”  Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”

The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.  The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you:  “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”  Merry Christmas.

TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDS

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

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SIR TONY BALDRY
Second Church Estates Commissioner addresses
House of Commons Nov. 22, 2012

Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’  As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.

I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice.  The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church.  The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision.  It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”

They could easily get away with this conversation, of course.  Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church:  42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.

It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ.  A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government?  I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive.  Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.

Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment.  Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows.  That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God.  The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue.  It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern.  And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts.  Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament.   The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.”  And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded.  I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell!  (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)

Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”).  Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So let’s talk about a vibrant church.  A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another.  That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ.  A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together.  A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all.  A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts.  It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both.  It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously.  It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.

A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent.  But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction.  The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer.  And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people.  Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society.  Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.

This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land.  We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America.  And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago.  It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian.  It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ.  It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well.  The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.

At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.

TO PRESENT THE WHOLE OF OUR LIVES, SAYING ‘THANK YOU’ AS WELL AS ‘HEAL US’

It’s only been two weeks since Election Day, although it feels to me like much longer ago, so quickly have I put it out of my mind.  This has been a particularly bruising time in our country.

The origins of a commonly-shared national Day of Thanksgiving are also rooted in conflict and strife, in fact.  A day to give thanks following the annual harvest goes back to old world customs, and was brought over to these shores most notably by those pilgrims seeking religious liberty.  It wasn’t until 1863, though, that a commonly-held day in November was established as Thanksgiving Day, credited to then-President Abraham Lincoln but due chiefly to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor.  (Lincoln proclaimed that it would be the last Thursday in November.  In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established it would be the fourthThursday in November, arguing that an earlier celebration would provide a greater economic boost to the country.  Guess Thanksgiving and Black Friday were destined for each other!)

LINCOLN’S 1863
Thanksgiving Proclamation

The origins of a day, in Lincoln’s words, to give “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is rooted in an experience of  bitter enmity and strife.  That most bloody and destructive Civil War was raging in October 1863, when Lincoln penned his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  The sentences of the Proclamation move swiftly and poetically between blessings and terror, between joy in the abundance of God’s gifts and horror at the sight of what we have done to ourselves and our common person.  Lincoln:  “[This] year…has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, and yet only a few sentences later he mentions “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field.”  The President writes seamlessly about “thanksgiving and praise” and doesn’t fail to mention “our national perverseness”;  waxes about “peace, harmony, tranquillity” and takes note of the “widows, orphans, [and] mourners” who suffer under “the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving, then, is not only a time to come together and set aside that which divides us.  Thanksgiving is also a time to confess – confess both our thanksgiving and praise, but also our sinfulness and pride.  Thanksgiving is a time in which we present the whole of our lives to God, saying ‘Thank you’ and yet also ‘Heal us’.

The prophet Joel, in his second chapter, offers a vision of God’s lavish kingdom, restored to the people.  “Do not fear, O soil…the pastures of the wilderness are green,” the prophet declares, foretelling a time in which vines will be full of plump grapes, the people’s pantries overflowing with grain, and their wine-racks stocked with really good vintage.  I suspect it’s the first part of this one verse which landed it in today’s observance: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

But the prophet, not unlike a certain 19th century American president, is pointing to God’s abundance when his people have experience great scarcity, not only of provisions and livelihoods but also of the feeling that God, their God, was advocating for them.  Joel is most likely written near the end of the prophetic period: after the people have returned from exile, after they had experienced – some of them witnessed – the rampant destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, after they had watched the great glory of God’s chosen people become a mockery to the dominant foreign powers.  They, too, were tired, exhausted, devastated.  What, again, were their leaders fighting for?  Just what did they win?  Those now-renowned prophets from years earlier, those who preached against the status quo and foretold the destruction which proved to be profound, even they seemed unnecessarily vitriolic.  True, their message was vindicated in history but that period, too, seemed forlorn and lamentable.

Worship and praise of God does not come, exclusively, from perfect lives of total blessing and abundant joy (there are no such lives out there, anyway, so stop looking).  Utterances of thanksgiving and prayers of praise come from perfectly ordinary women and men who lead challenging, normal, stressful, busy, uncertain, happy, resilient, and hopeful lives.  All of us experience ups and downs, and sometimes our ups are really up, for which we give extraordinary gratitude, and sometimes our downs are dreadful.  Sometimes we fight and fight hard, and come out bruised, all of us.  Sometimes we pit ideology over relationship, and partisanship over love.  And sometimes we are our own worst enemies, engaging, in years past, blood-stained wars and, recently, confilcts which aren’t as bloody but are no less destructive.

When that conflict is over, and when the battleground of life is fought, we are tired.  And we are directionless.  We’re not only tired of fighting, but tired of following fighters.  One dangerous turn, in this, would be towards utter hopelessness and resignation, verging on what Kierkegaard called “the greatest hazard of all – losing one’s self.”  And, Kierkegaard reminded, losing one’s self “can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”  That’s the root of despair, and that’s even worse than depression, further removed than resignation, more acute than mere unhappiness.

The biblical witness is a straightforward response: your self is connected to a web of greater meaning and, indeed, ultimate transformation; you will not be lost in God.  Moreover, your life in God will not be a battlefield, a conflict, a series of competing ideologies.  It will be marked and cleared by love — radical, unconditional love.  And that’s why we give thanks, and that’s also why we give our whole selves, good and bad, beaten and bruised and glorious and ascendant.  The message of Thanksgiving Day is to give, then, the whole of your life to God.  And strive to make your life not perfect, nor conflict-free but, rather, perfectly simple, following those lasting words Paul wrote long ago to young Timothy: “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  In doing so, you will work out your salvation with fear and trembling, and the world will be redeemed through your witness.

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Excerpt from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be found by clicking here.

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3 October 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State