Thursday, January 19, 2017

Seeing the Lamb of God

We live in a world with so much to see. There is so much that our brains actually play a large role in filtering out what we don't seem to need at the moment. Because of that, we may miss something which is very important - but that the habits of mind we have don't let us notice. In our baptismal covenant, we are charged to seek out the face of Christ in all persons. The fact remains, we see many people and they amount to little more than blank faces to us in the end. Yet, each one has the capacity to speak to us of Christ. Is this what John the Baptizer understood when he "saw Jesus walking by and said to his disciples, 'There is the Lamb of God'"???

Maybe. Maybe it's a reminder that we need to have different eyes - and to train our habits of mind to have different filters so that we can see "The Lamb of God" wherever he might appear to us - in the kind gesture given to someone else, in the destitute person we notice on the street corner, in the young girl pushing a stroller with a weeks old infant. Wherever he may be  . . .


Thursday, January 12, 2017

And he became incarnate of the Virgin . . .


Saint Irenaeus spoke about the importance of the incarnation (or the enfleshment) of God in Jesus of Nazareth as an absolutely essential part of our coming to know God, to experience the love of God, and to realize the promises of God. It all makes sense when we begin from the assumption that we need to experience God in human terms -- otherwise God remains a far off reality, unrelated to our human experience. It isn't enough that Jesus of Nazareth became human, either, because that was over 2000 years ago -- how am I able to experience a God who is supposed to be present to me through a human that lived long before I was born? The proper theological answer is that I experience God I'm the Risen Lord. True enough. But then, how do I experience the Risen Lord? The answer to that is what makes this incarnation stuff important. We experience the Risen Lord in one another -- as each of us becomes likened to Christ, we can speak Christ into the world and we can experience that Christ in one another. So Christmas isn't so much about the baby in the manger - it is about my ability to know and experience God in the flesh - the flesh and blood of my neighbor in the world - in all of their imperfection. Knowing and experience God then demands that I experience more and more of the people who live in the world. With each added person, I get a better glimpse of the God who has loved us so.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When has God challenged your perspective?


Acts 10:34-43
New International Version (NIV)

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Innocence and Suffering

Today the Episcopal Church remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the subject of the “Coventry Carol” so often heard at Christmas time.  We remember the slaughter of “every make child two years and under” by King Herod because of his well documented ego and paranoia.  Afraid that the “newborn King of the Jews” would usurp his throne, he had the children killed to eliminate his competition. 

While in all likelihood, the children suffered little (a swift death is often merciful), the agony of the parents is without parallel.  Even though I do not have children, I have been assured by members of my own family that there is no greater loss to be experienced than the loss of a child, regardless of their age.  In many ways, the death of one’s child upsets the natural order – children are to outlive their parents – or so it is our common wisdom. 
The fact remains that infant mortality has declined greatly in our society.  The great pandemics (influenza, typhus, cholera) seem almost non-existent to most of us.  These diseases claimed many innocent lives only two generations ago, before the advent of modern antibiotics.  Nonetheless, while the death of children may have been more common and even expected, the sense of loss is no less poignant. 
We only need to see the evening news with images of the children of Aleppo and the Syrian refugees, those fleeing Northern Africa across the Mediterranean. So many children. so many innocent seeking only safety and a better life.
The message of this day, however, is that out of such horrible suffering, God can change things.  Even though these parents suffered such tragic and profound loss, God delivered the Christ Child by a dream message to Joseph, who took the Child and his mother to Egypt to escape the tyranny of Herod.  When the Child returns, he will be the salvation of the world and proclaim a kingdom of justice and truth that would outlast any attempt by Herod to assure his own power.
That hope must be ours today – as many children suffer needlessly because of greed, prejudice, and the lust for power in nations throughout the world.  We listen to the promise of Christ and carry the message of his kingdom into our world.  If we remain faithful to its values and its promise, we, too, may see the “mighty cast from their thrones” so that the lowly, the powerless and voiceless innocents of our world might then be “lifted up.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Recent Election - Our Responsibility

If the recently concluded election teaches us anything, it tells us that we are, as a nation and a society, more divided then many of us understood. We find ourselves as fellow citizens among many more people who feel themselves pushed to the margins of our society than we may have realized. The message for me seems to be that there are many more who do not believe that anyone cares about them.

As often happens with political events like elections, it becomes way too easy to line every one up on one team or another and to start taking pot shots at one another – not unlike the dreaded dodge ball games we might have experienced in junior high gym class. It is very easy to become “tribal” as we gather around ourselves people who voted the same way we did, whichever way that was. It is way too easy to retreat into our safety zones, among like-minded folk, and listen only to voices that reinforce our own beliefs and values.

I believe that Christ calls us to do exactly the opposite. It was not the pattern of Jesus life that, when faced with opposing viewpoints, he simply huddled up with his closest disciples and talked about the other side. No. He moved out to them and engaged them. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was always with a mind toward justice and it was always done from a motive of self-effacing love. It is important to note that one of the most quoted verses of the New Testament (John 3:16) comes to us in the context of an encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee – and we all know how Jesus and the Pharisees often felt about one another. As disciples of Jesus Christ we must listen and engage and work to find places where all of us can stand and talk together.

Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to “respect the dignity of every human being.” That means that we must respect the dignity of those who voted for Hillary Clinton. It means that we must respect the dignity of those who voted for Donald Trump. We must respect the dignity of those who voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. And we must respect the dignity of those who felt themselves even unable to vote for any reason at all. We must acknowledge that we are first and foremost people of faith. We must presume that “others” are people of good will, and that we all want what is best for our nation and our society even though we may disagree on how best to get there. 

A key to moving forward is to realize that Christ calls is to listen to those who disagree with us to discover why they feel the way that they do. We are not required to agree with one another, but we are called to accord each other respect.

There are people in our parish who may rejoice that their voices were heard yesterday. There are people in our parish who may feel that their most closely held beliefs and values were rejected. There are people in our parish who may fear for what the future will bring for them or for those they love. There are people in our parish who are anxious about what comes next. Our parish community must be a place for all of these people.

From its founding, the Episcopal Church has prayed for the President of the United States in our liturgy. We will continue this noble tradition and will add prayers for Donald, our president-elect.

Most importantly, we need to begin urgently to listen to one another, to pray for one another and to find and build a community where, because of our mutual love and respect, can come together in peace.

In the present circumstance, I recommend the prayer for sound government from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 821)

O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.

Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.

Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities and Towns, give courage, wisdom and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.

Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.

Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.  Amen.

I am grateful to the deep pastoral sensitivity of Bishop William Franklin, now bishop of my home diocese, the Diocese of Western New York, whose own reflections are the basis this reflection and this writing.

In the loving heart of Christ,


Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Sermon - On the difficulties of our day.

The short-term meaning as well as the long-haul implications of the horrific events of the last few months both at home at abroad continue to unfold and is shaking our nation.

As you know, I normally do not preach from a written text and I do not often address contemporary events directly in my sermons. I am deeply convinced that my role is to preach “Christ and him crucified” (as St. Paul would say) and leave the practical conclusions to be drawn by you as faithful disciples.  In what I am about to say, I want to stress that I speak for myself alone as a leader within the Church and not for the Episcopal Church as a whole.  I do not believe preachers should take political positions in the pulpit. However, sometimes events cry out for the Church to draw out meaning in a plain and direct way. Today is one of those days.

These disclaimers aside, I would argue strongly that the larger issues surrounding the recent mass shootings and the events unfolding in the cities of our nation, demand that we all force ourselves to think reflectively and not reactively. Regrettably, this is very difficult when social media, the toxic nature of present day politics, and countless ideological, soundproof echo chambers make us wonder what’s fact, what’s true, what’s right.

First and foremost, we must refrain from any rush to judgment about what are the “causes” of any of these tragedies. When we do rush to this kind of judgment, we often do little more than reactively push our own political world view front and center.   There is no single explanation for what has been happening, or, I am afraid, will continue to happen.

For example, we know what happened in Orlando last month was a surprise only to those who have had their heads parked snugly in the sand.  Both ISIS, on one hand, and the FBI, on the other, have been predicting something like this for some time.  If it comes as a surprise at all, it is simply because we have been unwilling to accept those realities that made it possible in the first place.

Second, all the familiar ideological positions about both “what brought these situations about” and “what is to be done” need to be examined, re-examined, and examined yet again, to put them in proper perspective.  In some sense, we are unfortunately all blind men and women literally sensing only a portion of the proverbial elephant, and because we lack clear vision we often miss the big picture. 

I urge us all to consider the wisdom of lyrics of the half-century old song by The Buffalo Springfield entitled “For What It’s Worth”:  everybody’s both right and wrong, and that’s the problem.

For example:

Yes. Making private gun ownership far more prohibitive, including ownership of assault weapons, might mean that only 25 instead of 50 people are killed in an attack like the one in Orlando.   The bottom line is, it won’t stop such assaults, because it is not about guns but about ideology.  If guns are less available, in fact, assailants will use other weapons of choice, even something so common as kitchen knife.

Yes. Restricting immigration of Muslims to the United States, as some have proposed, would lower the number of potential “lone wolf” terrorists, often disgruntled individuals who can’t seem to assimilate in America. By the sheer force of statistics, such a measure would lower the number of those disposed to undertake such attacks.  However, such bans on entry into this country wouldn’t do anything to roll back the appeal of ISIS globally and might even radicalize other peaceful, law-abiding Muslims to the extent that we might then have more of a domestic problem among adherents of Islam, who happen also to be U.S. citizens.

Yes. We can understand the Orlando shooting in the context of pervasive anti-gay bigotry. 
No. It isn’t really a matter of progress, or lack of progress, on giving LGBT people equal rights in this country, because such bigotry is far more extensive in the developing world than it is in this country. Some countries make homosexuality a criminal, if not a capital, offense.  For example, a recent Pew Study indicates only a very small percentage of Muslims worldwide countenance gay rights.  And even in the United States, according to the Washington Post citing the same research, “Muslims are less accepting of homosexuality than most religious groups.” But this religious conviction did not cause the massacre. Hate did.

Yes. We have to deal with ISIS and its accelerating worldwide campaign of terror forcefully in ways that will inevitably challenge our basic assumptions and call us to make hard choices between our most cherished values and our demand for safety and security.  
No. There is no easy, or even straightforward and intelligible, set of simple military, political, or legislative solutions, and for the time being the current moral idealism of the millennial generation may be in danger of going the way of our grandparents during the increasingly dark 1930s.

Yes, we can point to the reality of personal and institutional racism that has been part of our society from the beginning. It is undeniable. Even our founding fathers were comfortable with counting slaves, almost all of whom were black as three fifths of a person.
No. No level of racial bias ever justifies the violent taking of life in the name of law and order when less onerous means of enforcement are easily available, most especially when the alleged offenders were not involved in any sort of violent crime. And there is no reason whatsoever, to target individuals regardless of the color of their skin, ethnic origins, or belief systems who have pledged themselves to protect our society.

Before we can adequately address these daunting and often complex issues, we must call for an end of the endless off-the-cuff name-calling and our vilification of the “other” in our political discourse.  We need to move away from our all-too-comfortable habit of seeing the world through the lens of identity politics.  The apostle Paul reminds us continually, none of us are righteous before God.  The way forward, then, requires not so much a new kind of politics, but a bold new way of thinking on the part of all followers of Christ that many of us honestly will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into even attempting.

In short, it involves a deep, almost paradoxical and God-inspired respect for the “other” no matter how much we suspect or have demonized them. Today's familiar gospel lesson of "The Good Samaritan" makes this clear. We must make real the words of our own baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, not just the ones we like or the ones that agree with us. In the midst of all the chaos and strife our sometimes timid voices may seem ineffectual in the face of what some consider “real danger.” But, the real danger for us as followers of Christ, may not so much be the physical threat we encounter as the very real danger of losing our soul by simply tossing our hands in the air in a spirit of helplessness.

It will take deep thinking and even more profound spiritual self-discipline. Some of us may recall Vince Lombardi’s philosophy that “the tough getting going when the going gets tough.” But our “toughness” cannot merely be more bluster. Each and all of us, like the prophet Amos, must be willing to cry out “enough” and then gird ourselves with the armor of faith to do whatever small thing is in our power to make even a small difference.

In the end, all those little acts of courage will add up. As the Christian faith spread throughout the world one soul at a time, so will the impact of God’s kingdom in our own world if we but take up its cause – one act, one person at a time. In this way, we will begin to build the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

St. Alban's Day - the first British martyr

Saint Alban is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr. Along with his fellow saints "Amphibalus," Julius, and Aaron, Alban is one of four named martyrs recorded from Roman Britain. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times.

While little is actually known about the real St Alban (estimated to have died c. 209 – 305 A.D. depending on interpretations), as there is no contemporaneous account of his martyrdom. According to the most elaborate version of the tale found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban met a Christian priest fleeing from "persecutors," and sheltered him in his house for a number of days. The priest (who later came to be called Amphibalus, meaning "cloak" in Latin) prayed and "kept watch" day and night, and Alban was so impressed with the priest's faith and piety that he found himself emulating the priest, and soon converted to Christianity. Eventually it came to the ears of an unnamed "impious prince" that Alban was sheltering the priest, and this prince gave orders for Roman soldiers to make a strict search of Alban's house. As they came to seize the priest, Alban put on the priest's cloak and clothing, and presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest.

In a chapel east of the crossing and high altar, there are remains of the fourteenth century marble shrine of St Alban. In June 2002 a scapula (shoulder blade), believed to be a relic of St Alban, was presented to St Albans Cathedral and placed inside the saint’s restored 13th-century shrine. The bone was given by the Church of St Pantaleon in Cologne, Germany. St Pantaleon's, like St Albans Cathedral a former Benedictine abbey church that had a shrine dedicated to St Alban, has possessed remains believed to be those of St Alban since the 10th century. It is entirely possible that further relics were acquired by the church in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, when many such relics were smuggled abroad to prevent their destruction.

In the United States, the parish church of St Alban's Episcopal Church, the first Free Church in Washington, DC, was erected on Mount Saint Alban in 1854 using a bequest from a young woman, Phoebe Nourse, who earned the money sewing. St Alban's went on to found five mission churches in Washington, four of which still maintain active congregations of their own. Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, is located next to the parish church, which preceded the laying of the Cathedral's cornerstone by 53 years. The St Albans School for Boys, which is affiliated with and was established in 1909 soon after construction of the Cathedral began, is also named for the saint.
We wish our sister parish to the east, St. Alban's, Sinking Spring, PA a happy and joyous feast day!