This is who we are: America has always separated families

From unlikely sources such as the US Chamber of Commerce to ordinary Americans appalled by the scenes of children ripped away from their parents and living in cages, the cry arises, “This is not who we are.”

It’s an appeal to emotion, morality, what used to be a common sense of decency.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. As commentators like Jelani Cobb and Shaun King point out, the institution of slavery often separated parents from their children, wives from their husbands. And freedom didn’t make it easier–freed slaves were separated from their family members who were still enslaved.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Native American children were taken away from their families and culture and placed in boarding schools in an attempt to “civilize” them.

So, this is who we are and the fact that the policy has widespread support among Republicans should give us pause. That many of those supporters claim to be Christian is more evidence of the existential crisis in which American Christianity finds itself.

It’s not just that the Attorney General cites Romans 13 to argue for obedience to these policies, that he neglects Paul’s eloquent statement just a few verses later, that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

As Christians, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. As Episcopalians, at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. This policy is the end result of a steady process of dehumanization of our fellow human beings. It’s the same process that historians remind us preceded the Final Solution in Germany. (For a recent discussion of some of these issues, see this article by Cass Sunstein). That ICE employees use similar tactics as were used then. Telling parents that they are taking children to get baths was a common explanation given by prison guards before leading children to the gas chambers.

In the face of these horrors, the enormity of the evil, clarity of witness and courage to speak are necessary. We must remind ourselves and the world, that the God we worship has a special concern for the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the alien, the widow and the orphan. We must remember and proclaim that the Jesus we seek to follow embraced and welcomed children. We are called to love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our clarity and courage as we proclaim God’s love and justice, as we seek to live out that love and work for justice, and our witness to the world as love one another may seem futile and meaningless as we face the enormity of the evil in our world, but it is our calling. Our hope is not in our own efforts but in Christ; our faith is not in our own power but in the power of our God who hears the cries of the oppressed.

 

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Agile Grace?

This year, members and groups at Grace, from the Vestry on down, have been reading The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I reached for it when I was looking for something that would change the conversation at Grace. We’ve done a lot of good work during my nine-years’ tenure here. We’ve welcomed lots of new members, seen significant growth in our Christian Formation program for children and youth, undertaken the first major renovation and capital campaign in 30 years. We have a task force, “Creating More Just Community” that is focused on issues of racism and inequity and is doing significant advocacy work around criminal justice reform through MOSES and has also formed partnerships with the Madison Jail Ministry.

We could do and must do more. My goals in this process are two-fold: 1) to leverage our location and building to connect with our neighborhood, and especially our neighbors at the State Capitol; and 2) to move beyond our walls and our property and build relationships with our neighbors in places and contexts other than our building. But to do that, we need to think beyond and outside our walls.

The former goal is rather obvious but nebulous and at the same time a potential mine field given the current dynamics in our state and nation concerning the relationship of Christianity and the political sphere. Our Creating More Just Community group is working on it, having reached out to legislators and legislative staff, and through our connections with other groups, we’ve hosted a forum for governors’ candidates, numerous gatherings on criminal justice reform, and are currently hosting the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.

The second goal presents its own set of challenges. While our building and our lovely courtyard garden are an enormous asset. We have, quite literally, the best location in the city, even if we don’t have adequate parking. We are beautiful, visible, and those who enter our spaces, whether it’s the nave or our gardens, experience beauty and transcendence, and a palpable sense of the divine.

We’ve been here for 175 years. Our nave was completed in 1858. It’s the oldest building on Capitol Square; the oldest church in continuous use in Madison. Its stone walls speak of stability, permanence, immobility. What might agility look like in our context?

Today, after our 10:00 service, we had the first of what will likely be a number of conversations about our future, about adapting and innovating our ministry and mission for the next decades. Almost 50 people participated. There were people who have been members of Grace for decades. Others who participated have been attending for only a few months; one person, a neighbor, has attended a few times over the years, but had the courage to join our conversation and to participate.

We heard stories; stories of how people came to Grace; the familiar, and powerful story of how the Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984, on a one-year trial basis (It’s been here ever since). We heard the story of the food pantry, and of the people, the visionaries who created it and those other visionaries who advocated for the shelter.

We talked about our neighbors–the many 20 and 30 somethings who live in our neighborhood and are looking for community and connection, and looking to help those in need. We talked about the demographic and cultural changes facing Christianity in the US, and Grace Church.

Vilas Guild Hall, constructed in 1894 as a memorial to Cornelia Vilas, was filled with the sound of animated conversation for almost an hour. We didn’t make it through all of the questions I had laid out to guide our conversations but conscious of the time, I began to bring the meeting to a close.

It was at that minute, as I began talking about next steps, about having a welcoming process in place before the fall, that someone stopped me and said, “Let’s get started right now. If you’re interested in forming a welcoming committee, come over to this table after the meeting’s over and we’ll start making plans.”

We have a great deal of work to do. Welcoming visitors is only one of many tasks ahead. We need to get out in the neighborhood, talk with the people who live, work, and play here, to listen to their needs, their passions, and dreams and find a way of connecting their stories with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can do that successfully, we will be well on our way to becoming more faithful followers of Jesus and showing others the transforming power of Jesus’ love in their lives and in the world.

Are we as crazy as Jesus? A Sermon for Proper 5 Year B, 2018

I was walking around the square a few days ago, on my daily round that ends up at a food cart, when I passed the Solidarity Singers. It was a nice day and they had gathered as they have almost every day since 2011, to sing their songs of protest against the policies of Governor Walker and the republican led state legislature. As is typical on days like this one, tourists, business people and state workers were out as well, and their were large groups of school children gathered at the Capitol or at the top of State St, enjoying field trips in the last days of school before summer break. As I passed the singers, I thought to myself, what do all these people think of this little group of singers? I know what I was thinking, “They’re crazy! How can they keep it up for all these years?”

A couple of weeks ago, I was here at Grace to welcome and host participants in the Poor People’s Campaign Wisconsin. They’ve been gathering at Grace each week since May before rallying at the State Capitol, some of them risking arrest by performing acts of civil disobedience. This group is part of a nationwide movement led by the Rev. William Barber, drawing on a movement MLK jr began in the last year of his life. In this political and cultural climate, with little chance of effecting policy changes, this movement seems futile, unlikely to change the opinions of policy makers who seem to be focused on finding new ways to punish poor people, people of color, and other marginalized people. They’re crazy, what’s the point? I was tempted to think.

Then, I thought about us, about this congregation. Here we are on a beautiful Sunday morning, when there are so many other things we might doing—watching the triathlon, eating brunch with friends, reading the Sunday NY Times. Those of us who attend church are in the minority, increasingly so. We’re out of step with culture, with the zeitgeist. So why do we still do it? Are we crazy?

Well, hold that thought. I’ll get back to that later in the sermon, and if all goes well, at our congregational conversation at coffee hour, we’ll have a chance to talk about that question.

But first, let’s take a look at this gospel story, or stories, in which Jesus is called crazy, or out of his mind.

Let’s back up a bit, because this is really the first time I am talking about the gospel of Mark since Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s important to remember that Mark was very likely the first of the gospels to be written. It’s the shortest and in many ways, it’s the most puzzling. The portrait of Jesus that emerges from Mark’s gospel is quite unlike that of the Gospel of John, for example, but this portrait is even strikingly different from Matthew and Luke, who were written a decade or two after Mark, and probably used Mark as a source for their own work.

The Gospel of Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the words that appears most often is the word “immediately.” The urgency is eschatological. Jesus preaches the nearness, the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, and by that very preaching the forces, cosmic and human that are opposed to the coming of God’s reign, take action to silence him. So, here, we are very early in the gospel. Jesus has just called his first disciples. After his baptism, and the arrest of John the Baptizer, Jesus himself begins public ministry of preaching, healing, and casting out demons. In last week’s gospel reading, from a bit earlier in chapter 2, we see the Pharisees criticizing Jesus, and then beginning to conspire with the Herodians, a group they would have generally opposed, to take Jesus down.

In today’s story, we see more conflict, more opposition. I want to draw your attention to the importance of location and family here. First off, our reading picks up in the middle of a sentence that begins “Then he (Jesus) went home;” literally, into his house; where the crowds gather and press in so much that he and his disciples aren’t able to eat. Then, his family shows up and the text probably should read here: “they (his family) were saying “he has gone out of his mind” literally, “he has stood outside”—we might say he is really out of it. Note the importance here, of who is inside and who is outside.

As if to emphasize the importance of the imagery of house here, in the next little episode, Jesus tells a story about how a house divided against itself cannot stand. And then, the story ends with Jesus’ family outside, calling to him, asking Jesus to come out. Here, Jesus underscores the point—it’s not those people, standing outside, claiming he is crazy, or outside of himself, who are his family, but rather, it is those people gathered around him, listening to him, whoever does the will of God, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The response of Jesus’ family is only one part of the opposition Jesus faces here. The scribes, the consummate religious insiders, the pundits, if you will, the gatekeepers, the monitors of acceptable teaching, are on his case as well, charging him with satanic influence, even satanic powers. Such language can be off-putting to those of us with modern sensibilities but it’s important for us to be able to name evil, to recognize its power, and to confess all the ways that we are in bondage to it. In our day, such clarity is a moral necessity, key to our being faithful Christians.

Who is inside, who is outside? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who is family? These are questions we should be asking of ourselves, our community, our nation. When families are being torn apart, people marginalized and attacked for the color of their skin, their national origin, their sexual orientation, it is incumbent on us to ask these questions.

As a congregation seeking to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ, seeking to share the good news of the love of Jesus Christ in our neighborhood and the world, these questions should be at the center of our reflection. Are we among those seated around Jesus, listening to his words, seeking to do the will of God? Are we so on fire for Jesus Christ, so ready to take risks, experiment, name and combat the evils that beset us, so committed, that others looking at us claim we’re crazy, or demon-possessed? Or are we those people looking in from the outside, offended by the risky, risk-taking behavior of the true followers of Jesus, rejecting them, worried about our status or popularity, or standing in the community?

We are having conversations about risk-taking, experimenting, developing new programs or ministries that will reach out and connect with our neighbors. We are blessed with so many good things here at Grace, stable finances, a beautiful building in the best location in the city, amazing people with incredible gifts, skills, and commitment. May we have the courage and creativity to imagine new possibilities for ourselves, our congregation, our city.

In a season when Christianity is on the decline in our culture, when our nation is so deeply divided and for so many of us going in a dangerous direction, Jesus calls us to follow him into that uncertain future, to recognize and name the evil that opposes him, to embrace all those of whatever nationality, or color, or sexual orientation, who would join us, as we build a community of inclusion, welcome, committed to do God’s will.

 

 

 

Sabbath as Rest, Liberation, and Resistance: A Sermon for Proper 4, Year B

When I was a child, Sunday was a day of rest or play. I don’t remember my parents ever doing any activity that could have been construed as work, and they didn’t allow us children to do anything of the sort, either. Meals were prepared and the kitchen was cleaned up but no other household chores were done—no laundry or cleaning. And certainly, there was no outdoor activity permitted that could be seen as manual labor, no gardening or lawn mowing, for example. Continue reading

Experiencing the Trinity: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2018

Trinity Sunday, Year B

May 27, 2018

Today is Trinity Sunday. Although it’s Memorial Day weekend which traditionally marks the beginning of Summer, and our thoughts may be wandering to the plans we have for the weekend, barbecues, or the Bratfest, or more distantly on promised vacations and trips to places old and familiar or new and exotic, the church’s year challenges us to focus instead on one of the central and most perplexing doctrines of our faith—the Trinity.

In my experience, both as an academic and teacher and as a pastor, the doctrine of the Trinity is more stumbling block than crutch, more alienating than inviting. Just as it emerged out of centuries of conflict during which Christians sought to define, or at least set limits around what we might say and believe concerning the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even now the doctrine of the Trinity seems to perplex, confuse, and raise doubts for many Christians and seekers. Most of us, I would suspect, if we are comfortable in our faith, have let such concerns and queries lie undisturbed in the further reaches of our consciousness. The same is true of our spiritual lives—we may have deep connections with Jesus Christ, or with the Holy Spirit, and perhaps, some of us, even with God the Father, but to experience the Trinity is likely somewhat foreign to us.

Indeed, when we think of the Trinity at all, it’s likely we think of it, or they, as divorced from our experience and existence as human beings, so abstract and beyond knowing that we cannot experience it at all, but rather only approach it, attempt to grasp the Trinity intellectually. And when our efforts to grasp the Trinity intellectually fail, we either abandon it, and Christianity altogether, or decide that we will not attempt to understand or contemplate on it.

But to do that, I think, is to miss something profoundly important about the Trinity and about us as human beings. We are created in God’s image. I wonder whether you’ve ever thought about the implications of that. Certainly, that suggests that there is a certain goodness, in us, no matter how stained that goodness might be by our sins. But more than that, as Christians we believe that God is three-in-one, God by God’s nature in relationship, reaching out beyond Godself, loving in Godself. All that implies that being created in God’s image, we are created to be in relationship as well. The creativity and love that God experiences in Godself, in the dance, as it is often called, of the trinity, leaps out and over into all of creation, and into us.

So, the Trinity is not just abstract doctrine, it involves relationship—in Godself, with humanity, and all of creation, and God as Trinity pulls us into relationship with God and with our fellow humans and all of creation.

So there is, or could be, a profound, deeply powerful, spiritual experience that opens to us when we reflect on the Trinity. We see aspects of that spiritual experience in all three lessons today.

The prophet Isaiah has a vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lofty.” It is so important to the biblical tradition that the song the seraphim sing has become our song in the Eucharistic liturgy. For many scholars of religion, the vision described by Isaiah and his response to that vision, have become something of a paradigm for understanding religious experience in general, not just Jewish or Christian.

Isaiah describes a vision in such vivid detail that it may seem to us as if we are with him in the temple. He claims to see God, but the vision itself is of God’s throne and a being so vast that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance, flying and singing. As Isaiah looked on, he felt the temple shake as if it were in an earthquake and the temple itself filled with smoke. It’s more than a vision, however. It is an experience that engages all of Isaiah’s senses: sight, sound, touch, even taste—for it includes that marvelous and rather frightening image of one of the seraphim bringing a coal to Isaiah’s lips.

Isaiah’s response to that awesome vision was to recognize the vast gulf that divided him from God. He described himself as lost, a man of unclean lips, unable to perform the tasks to which God might be calling him. But nonetheless, Isaiah responds to God’s call like other prophets responded. In spite of their sense of unworthiness, when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds without hesitation, “Here I am, send me.”

There’s a rather different image and experience of God described by Paul in today’s lesson from the profound 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans. Last week we heard verses from the same chapter, verses which I’ve always found of great consolation when I’m struggling to pray or express myself to God: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

In today’s reading, Paul is exploring our relationship as followers of Christ with God. He uses two powerful images in these verses. First, the notion of adoption. In Roman society, unwanted children were often abandoned but because such a priority was placed on producing offspring and heirs, children who were legally adopted had the same status and inheritance rights as biological children—just as is the case today. And we all know stories of couples who have gone through extensive struggles to adopt a child. So for Paul to use this image of our relationship to God is to suggest that we are truly God’s children—joint heirs, as he says. It’s a potent image of the intimacy of our relationship with God.

There is perhaps an even more potent image of that relationship when Paul uses the Aramaic word, “Abba” suggesting that Christians in his day prayed to God using this term. It’s in the language Jesus spoke and it’s a word for father that could be compared to our word, “Daddy,” used by children to address their fathers in the home. We know Jesus used it to refer to God—it likely underlies the Greek in the Lord’s Prayer, and Mark has Jesus pray “Abba” in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the important point here is the intimacy of the relationship implied, not the gender. Scripture uses both male and female imagery for God, both maternal and paternal images. Our focus should be on the intimacy, not the gender. And it may be, that because of our own experiences of those relationships using either paternal or maternal is not intimate or life-giving, but alienating and painful.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that in these two passages, from Isaiah and from Romans, we have two different modes of experiencing God—the transcendent, awe-inspiring, terrifying, humbling of the scene in Isaiah, and the intimate, immanent, connected imagery of Paul.

These two modes are connected in the being of God—through the Trinity. We encounter God both as transcendent and as immanent, sometimes those experiences come at us in both ways, sometimes one is more common or transforming than the other.

It’s also important to recognize that for some of us, any such experiences are rather uncommon. We seek God, or desire God, and God seems to remain distant, or silent. We want the certainty of an experience like Isaiah’s, the certainty of knowing God is there, the certainty of call. Or we desire the certainty of intimacy, the immediate sense of God’s presence in our lives, and our connection with God. We desire these experiences, and they remain elusive, distant. God seems to remain silent.

There is mystery in all this, mystery in the Trinity, mystery in the heart of God. It is a mystery that I cannot solve for you, provide any easy answers. I can only assure that I find consolation, hope, and strength in knowing that whether or not I feel connected with God, God’s love draws me toward Godself, and in the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I can rest as God’s beloved adopted child. My prayer is that you are able to experience that love and consolation as well.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God: A poem for sermon prep on Trinity Sunday

As I am reflecting and preparing for Trinity Sunday, my thoughts turned to this poem by John Donne:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.