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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

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In Season and Out

Paul tells Timothy to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). When I think of this verse however, it comes to mind in the words of the Authorized/King James version of my youth: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2, KJV).

In many ways the time of the virus Covid-19 is, without a doubt, “unfavorable.” But for all that it has sent us into varied levels of seclusion and sequestration, and taking into the account the horrible impact on people’s lives, families, and yes, the economy, it is nevertheless a good season for the proclamation of the Good News.

When the Apostle wrote these words about an unfavorable time, I’m not sure he had in view a time when people wouldn’t need to hear the Gospel. Instead, I think it has to do with the potential consequences for the one proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and defeat of Hell, Death, and the Devil. There have certainly been unfavorable times in the history of the Church. The Soviet era. China today under President XI, whose plan for solidifying authority has seemed to include intensified restrictions and persecution of religious groups, especially Christians. The Second World War (Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life explores that one).

Our time and place is not unfavorable in such overt ways to the proclamation of the Gospel. There are challenges–some of the questions raised in Malick’s film attest to that in their applicability to our present moment. And yet, as it relates to the Coronavirus, I wonder if we are indeed in a favorable time.

I don’t mean that the virus was a “good” thing. Far from it. What I mean is that this is a “good” time for the proclamation of the Good News. This is not because of the peculiarity of our current situation in which people are lonely, anxious, grief stricken, confused, and sometimes without a clear sense that anyone cares about their struggles. It’s not because of the peculiarity of this time, because precisely what makes this time a good one for the proclamation is that it is even now stripping away a facade that has allowed us to imagine that these sorts of challenges aren’t barely under the surface in the best of times.

In this context the message that you are beloved of God, that God became one of us so that through him we might be with God, is sorely needed. At a time when people might be questioning their worth, reminding them that they are not worthless but priceless in the sight of God–purchased at the unfathomable price of the Son–can provide necessary perspective and fortitude to make it through.

Making it through such a time with its heavy doses of reality is a challenge. Making it through in a way that might allow for thriving takes all our resources: Spiritual, relational, intellectual, physical. One sort of resource that comes to mind for me quite often in stressful times is literature. Scripture, of course, is its own category here. After years of doing the daily office, some scripture has gotten into my bones–particularly portions of the Psalms, which I will read even when I can’t do the entire office. But in addition to scripture, poetry is often an important emotional bulwark for me.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) one of the great metaphysical poets (and, along with George Herbert, one of my favorite poets overall), has come to mind quite a bit for me over these past few weeks. In particular, lines from Donne’s poem “Hymn to God, My God, In my Sickness” have pushed themselves to the forefront of my consciousness several times.

Per fretum febris. Donne inserts this Latin phrase in his poem, and it was among the first to come floating back to mind as I read about the effects of Covid-19. I recall reading it the first time and stumbling over the exact translation with my rusty Latin. “By the straight of a fever?” It took me a few moments, but I got the gist, if not the underlying reference. Donne was writing about a sickness that entailed a dangerous fever. Literary anthologies usually translate the phrase as “through the straights of fever.”

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care?

Donne makes evocative use of references to cartography and exploration in his poem and his later reference to Magellan’s straits makes it all the more fitting that he’s calling to mind the death of the explorer Magellan who, while giving his names to straits, himself died before circumnavigating the globe–not reaching his intended destination. I believe Donne wants his readers to understand life–and death–as a journey. Not only in the general, but the particular sense. Sickness and dying are themselves journeys. And I think, unlike some contemporary commenters, Donne would be quick to both affirm the importance of the journey and the destination, as he focuses so closely on his “west,” i.e. both his impending death and his end/telos in union with Christ.

So it is that Magellan who navigated the globe and lent his name to the straits, died before reaching his goal, and now Donne, struck down by fever, navigating his life and what he believes to be his impending death, believes he may die by these straits–but his journey is will not be cut short. He will achieve his promised end. The destination not only matters, but is assured.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Per fretum febris. This phrase came to mind as I read descriptions of the symptomatology of the Coronavirus. Out of curiosity I decided to do some reading about the historical context of Donne’s composition. When had he written “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness?” How close to Donne’s own death had it been? I remembered that Donne had died of what we now assume to have been stomach cancer. I also remember reading about his last sermon, “Death’s Duel” delivered at the beginning of Lent in 1630–but when had he written this moving poem the lines of which were brought to mind by our current societal predicament?

After a little digging I discovered that while some earlier commenters believed the poem to have been written shortly before Donne’s death in 1631, most commenters today believe it was written around 1623 (roughly the same time Donne is supposed to have written “A Hymn to God the Father”). John Donne: The Complete English Poems, in the outline of Donne’s life, says this of the year 1623: “Donne seriously ill.”

The sickness that Donne endured in 1623 is believed to have been either Typhus or relapsing fever–though he believed himself to have the plague (the last round of which hit England in 1666, after being endemic since the late 1300s and striking regularly with periodic peaks). This served as the background for the experience that prompted his famous words in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne’s words and our current predicament has led me to think long about what it must have been like for our forebears to live in a world that was perceived to be so much more precarious than our own. I say perceived not because I want to deny the advancements in technology, science, and public health that have been made over these few hundred years, but because of the fact that just because we have not recognized the fragility or precariousness of our situation, it does not mean it was not so. And I believe a recognition of that fact is actually necessary–perhaps paradoxically so–to build the sort of certainty we are comforted by.

The first sort of (albeit limited) certainty comes from taking seriously the threats that are simply of a piece with being part of the natural world. This may be especially true when we are under stress, and even more, when we have put our world under, and the creatures with whom we share it, under stress. As the Pope said recently in his Urbi et orbi address:

We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

The second sort of certainty testified to by Donne’s poem is likewise in evidence in the Pope’s words, and in his reference to the imploring words of the disciples: “Wake up, Lord!” This cry is one that may seem to come from desperation, but as Pope Francis pointed out, even their cry is a witness to a particular faith. They have faith in Jesus, but they wonder: does he care?

“Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.”

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care? This question of whether or not God cares about what happens to humanity is an important one. The Christian response is fundamentally that God does care–we do not believe in a divine and sublimely distracted clockmaker, but in the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Because of this, someone like George MacDonald might warn that doubting God’s goodness (a species of which might be doubting whether or not God cares) could be worse that doubting God’s very existence:

“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…”

George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons

I take comfort in the fact that, as MacDonald says, there is a difference between having doubts, or asking questions, and in yielding to such doubts. Certainly believing in a capricious or monstrous deity is worse than believing in no deity at all–for while the latter may lead in some cases to an insidious or evil nihilism, the former may lead to a nihilism that boasts divine approval.

All the Saints in Paradise surrounding Christ in Majesty

So it is significant that, when confronted with the possibility of his death, Donne reflects on the way his body has become its own cosmography, a type of map for his physicians to read. He despairs of their finding a means of his cure–rather than the straits of health, he believes that they are simply showing him the reality of his situation, and that the straits of his fever will likely mean his death. Imagining what his end might be, he describes a holy room, where–in a beautiful image–he writes “with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music…”

For Donne, his end is Christ. Jesus is his destination because Jesus is essential to his present. “Shall my west [death] hurt me?” he asks, then answers,

As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

This unity of apparent opposites gets even more pointed as he invokes the tradition that Christ was crucified on the site of the fall, and imagines what it means to be united with humanity’s natural head (Adam, who fell) and with the head of renewed and redeemed humanity and restored creation, Jesus:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

Ultimately it is Christ’s union with humanity upon which Donne places his trust. The solidarity of God with us, first in the incarnation and lifted up on the cross is an essential aspect of the way Donne works out the specific uncertainty around what he believes to be his impending death. I believe it is also the core of his ability to live with the uncertainty and fickleness of nature that was so much more in evidence in his day than in ours. “Coronatide” as some on the so-called Weird Anglican Twitter have dubbed it, is a time when we get a glimpse of what normal life was like for our forebears. Frailty was more difficult to deny and uncertainty drew close–but closer still was the Good News of God’s love.

This is why Donne could write/pray with such awareness in Holy Sonnet 14 “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” and why he could close this hymn of his sickness with a strong affirmation of ultimate union with Christ–it was a union already real, set to be revealed:

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my own text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

While the entire poem is a favorite, perhaps my favorite line in the whole is the final one: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” One could get into a deep theological discussion about the nature of providence and of God’s active vs. God’s permissive will. Here though, I believe the background of this line is a type of the question posed by the Disciples, and highlighted by Pope Francis: “Do you not care?” At some point we all have to come to terms with the fact of our own mortality. Whether that is experienced per fretum febris, in a singular event or as part of some wider calamity. In doing so, we have to ask, if we believe in a loving God, “do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Donne’s answer, I believe, is summarized in this final line: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”

We do not know why such evils are allowed–and let’s be honest, God’s allowance as all powerful is only finely distinguished from God’s activity, therefore we may feel that the natural trials we face are in some way God throwing us down. But Donne’s answer, if I can call that, reminds me of Jesus’ answer to the disciples when they ask why the man had been born blind. “Who sinned?” they asked, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is revealing: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:4).

Donne’s answer, and its reflection on our current situation may be summarized this way: we do not know why evils befall us, whether exceptional, as with this virus (at least in our own day) or more common–death itself. But we do know that God loves us (Jesus is exhibit alpha through omega of that). And because of Christ, we know that God is with us even in the most dire and challenging circumstances. And because God–specifically, because Jesus–has been with us, we know that Jesus will not abandon us. We know that we have been made one with him and that his crown of thorns, adorning his brow as he united himself with us in death, becomes a crown of glory as we are united to him in resurrected life. Why does God allow evil to befall us despite the ability to prevent it? Because we do not yield to the doubting of God’s goodness, we must believe something good for us is ultimately purposed, turning even the bad to those good ends.

“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” The tragedy, the falls we endure, can in the end, only be redeemed if there is an even greater lifting up awaiting us. And if we are not left alone to endure in the present moment.

We are in a season where the saccharine claims of a false and comfortable piety will be revealed for the weightless fantasies they are. Where the ultimate nihilism of a consumeristic materialism will be unmasked as mute and powerless idols. So this is indeed a season when the proclamation of the Good News is needed. The Good News of God in Christ, of Christ’s love for us, of his death, resurrection, and ascension–and ultimately his coming again. A gospel message that can lead us all to echo the words of Donne, “Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me…”

Look on your people, Lord, who know you love us because you came to be with us, and find not only our failures and hatreds, but our striving after goodness and our love for each other. Look on us and find your Son, Jesus, working in our hearts.

The Lord Watch Between You and Me. (Because someone has to keep us honest).

Last week I had the opportunity to go on our Diocesan clergy silent retreat. This is only my second time participating in this particular retreat and I’ve enjoyed both gatherings very much.

One of the key points made early in the series of five reflections (delivered this year by our Bishop, John Bauerschmidt) was the way in which memory breaks in during times of silence and we may find ourselves enjoying pleasant memories, or confronting awkward or even negative ones. Silence allows things to bubble to the surface that often don’t have the opportunity. Part of this means that we might be surprised by the memories that come to the fore.

One of the memories that came to mind for me was only partial, and it wasn’t particularly positive or negative–though it was humorous. It came to mind during Morning Prayer on Wednesday, when the first lesson was from Genesis (I’ll share the reference later). the reading brought to mind the vague memory of an event I attended at some point–maybe a youth retreat, or some other function. I don’t recall much, but I do recall the ending of our time together. One of the leaders spent a fair amount of time–and maybe there was a prayer or a song related to the same theme–talking about how the Lord would protect us when we were absent from one another, and quoting the passage from Genesis, that is rendered in the King James version, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (Genesis 31:49).By the time I heard this I’d been doing morning prayer long enough that the reference tickled my awareness and I looked it up. In context I couldn’t imagine why this phrase would ever acquire the use and meaning it had.  “How in the world could someone use this in a positive way at the end of an event.” What is recounted is Jacob’s surreptitious departure, at God’s command, from the territory of his father-in-law Laban, and their subsequent meeting after Laban follows.The meeting is not a positive one, but while bitter, it does not fall into violence.  Nevertheless, one of the few things that Laban and Jacob agree on, is that they do not trust each other, and therefore they asking God to keep watch because the people aren’t trustworthy to each other after a bitter argument.  As Robert Alter pointed out in his commentary, this exchange even stands in the background of the establishment of an international border.  That is, a boundary between people groups: 

Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.  If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me.  This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.  May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,  and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country (Genesis 31:48-54).

Of course, I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I’d forgotten it.  The combination of reading the passage at Morning Prayer (Gen. 31:25-50) and thinking about past experiences brought it back to mind. Because I happen to be reading Robert Alter’s newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible now, I looked over the passage in his translation which makes the conflict even more clear in some ways.  For example, Alter translates part of the exchange as “May the Lord look out between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:49-50, Alter’s translation). Alter’s version highlights the loss of trust between the two men, and how God is being called on to keep each of them on the straight and narrow, and to bear witness should either of them violate their agreement.

This background makes the presence of paired pendants with this phrase on it, marketed to friends, family members, and sweethearts all the more ironic.  It’s about separation, and God’s attention, of that there’s no doubt.  But it’s a divine attention prayed for–and threatened–because there’s no trust between the two people in question.  And I have to wonder–is this the sentiment you really want to invoke when you’re going to be separated from a loved one for some period of time?

Bonus content:
Here’s a sample of Alter’s book and the notes on part of this section. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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The Chinese Dragon and the Cross

For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.

Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.

But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.

These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).

All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.

Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:

Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.

So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:

“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 269

Trinity Sunday Sermon, given at Christ Church Cathedral on June 16, 2019

The Twilight of the Greatest Generation & the loss of Memory

As we grow further removed in history from World War II and D Day, especially as that generation dies and fewer people have even heard first-hand accounts from family members and others they know, people will need more reminders of the significance. The map below is one reminder. 50% of deaths from allied civilians. A trial everywhere, but in some cases completely staggering–a 25% death toll in Belarus for example.

And while a lot of folks may not realize it, for the reasons given above–the postwar pursuit of economic integration, free trade, and the emergence of the European Union (with the UK as an important ballast to prevent domination by Germany or France)–were integral to the peace that emerged and the fact that there hasn’t been another conflagration in Europe.

Cordell Hull

Tennessean Cordell Hull (there’s a building named after him on the square in Gallatin, and he was a graduate of the Normal School at Bowling Green KY, which I’m guessing was a predecessor to Western Kentucky University) was a major architect of this and champion of the insight that economic integration fosters peace. Not without flaws–he opposed admitting Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis and thus did not rise above the lesser instincts of his day on that front–he nonetheless advocated for a perspective on international trade and peace that has proven insightful, durable, and mostly accurate.

The breakdown of the postwar consensus, the likely departure of the UK from the EU, and greater moves toward nationalism and economic protectionism, especially when the advocates display very little awareness of the broader implications of those changes, when the broader implications–political and social–of the postwar policies were arguably the major point, with base level economics being secondary. This latter issue was also in play with the short-sighted rejection of the Trans-pacific Partnership trade agreement by both candidate Hillary Clinton and now-President Trump. Trump’s issues with China can be read in part as a result of the fact that the multilateral economic agreement meant to bind Pacific rim powers more closely to the United States and hem in Chinese influence, was rejected in favor of his arrogant attempts at bilateral agreements.

Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his instrumental work in founding the United Nations. Funny that the apocalyptic preachers of my youth who so often used the UN as a Boogieman, never mentioned that a Southerner–a Tennessean!–was integral to its founding. If they had, regional loyalties are such that it might have limited the effectiveness of their message.

As one essay about Hull and his work prior to WWII put it, “Mark Twain said, ‘you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ Secretary Hull and the commercial policy planners foresaw an integrated world economy where peace would be built on trade liberalization. But most Americans could not yet picture that world” (Available here–requires registration). Now, the problem seems to be we’ve seen only that world for long enough, that we’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative of nationalistic factionalism is.

When God Opens Our Eyes, We Dare Not Look Away

Sermon Notes for Proper 25
XXIII Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52

The following sermon was preached at the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 28, 2018. It varies from the notes below, and slightly from the version preached at the 8 AM service. The recording includes the sequence hymn and Gospel proclamation. The sermon itself begins at 3:38.

It was difficult to know where to begin this sermon. I suppose I’ll just begin with what made me throw out what I’d written earlier in the week and start over. Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue. At least, many of us instinctively call it a tragedy. But that may not be the best or most accurate word. Hurricanes are tragedies. Floods and other natural disasters are tragedies. A sudden death from a heart attack is a tragedy. These are forces of nature out of our control, or even if influenced by our actions, several steps removed from them.

The event at Tree of Life (and I’m using a circumlocution for the benefit of the younger ears among us), the earlier events in Louisville, in Los Vegas, In Charleston, in New Town, in Antioch just down the road–these were not tragedies, if by that we mean something that just happens. These events did not happen on their own. As Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote yesterday, in response,

“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh

I agree with Bishop McConnell, but I think there’s a major step that we have to take in order to properly reject this particular hatred, and so many others: we have to see them, recognize them for what they are, and refuse to accept easy explanations or soothing platitudes that remove any hint of our own culpability–as individuals or as a society–in allowing or even fomenting hate and evil. 

If this is what we need to do, then we could have no better example than the prophet Jeremiah, and as usual, no greater Lord than Jesus. Jeremiah teaches us what it is to look at what is, Jesus shows us how to live once we’ve seen it. In saving us by grace, Jesus frees us from the repetitive cycle justified by the logic of a world turned inward that fuels hatred and discord, and makes us citizens of the kingdom of God, meant for all people, which is always turned outward (you should know from the biblical descriptions, the gates of heaven are always open, it is the gates of hell that are closed, which cannot withstand the assaults of the church).

After the I read the news reports yesterday, these words came to mind:

“Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more” (Jeremiah 21:15).

This passage illustrates a facet of Jeremiah’s work that is essential. As Professor Ellen Davis puts it: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

It is that last bit that is so significant for us. It is so easy to look away. To turn the channel, literally or figuratively (caveat lector: ok, if your little kids are watching the news and see something come on that they shouldn’t watch, turn the channel or turn it off, “shield the joyous” as the prayer says). The point is not to do what is comfortable at the expense of facing the truth or doing what is right. 

Jeremiah could shoulder this burden because he was faithful and followed God, delivering the word of God to the people in a time of military defeat and literal and figurative captivity, receiving God’s words of faithfulness and love, even as he railed against the evils and injustice he observed. The Prophet did not hesitate to challenge God or to lament his situation, or that of his people, but he did so in the midst of proclaiming hope based on God’s fidelity. Jeremiah was able to unflinchingly look at what was happening to his people, and to record the word of their trials and even their destruction, because he did so in the context of God’s ultimate faithfulness. So it is that the lament of Rachel losing her children–a poetic way to talk about actual death and destruction–takes place within the context of the earlier passage we heard this morning:

Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people, 
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together; 
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:7-9).

Because God is faithful to us, we can be freed from the anxieties and fears that prevent us from looking at ourselves and our society with clear eyes, and from responding to our neighbors with love. When set them aside and look at ourselves, we might be surprised what we see. 

The day before he launched his attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the perpetrator wrote on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier he had written, while posting a screen cap of their web site, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided…” ominously thanking the organization for sharing a list of their supporters.

But here’s the thing. Some folks will want to say about him, as with the recent bomb maker, that they’re crazy, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of any greater trend. But let’s be honest: how many of you have heard family, neighbors, friends, say similar things about the work of World Vision or Catholic Charities around Middle Tennessee? How many of you can point out similar phrases used to describe the Islamic center in Murfreesboro? I know I can. And if I’ve heard it given the way people often hold back around clergy, I know some of you have heard it.

Some people who perpetrate attacks are clinically mentally ill. Most aren’t. Paranoia and conspiracy theories are popular because they have explanatory power that is attractive to rational people given certain prior convictions and commitment to fear-laden worldviews, fostering different sorts of confirmation bias. Was every Nazi clinically insane? Every Soviet citizen who transported former comrades to the Gulag? As philosopher Hannah Arendt convincingly argues, evil is much simpler and more frightening than that. It’s most frightening because it is banal, ordinary to the point of being boring. It’s not a magical text that takes a special tool to decode. It’s a random off-color email forward from an eccentric relative taken a step too far.

If people can shoot folks in a gas station parking lot for their music being loud, or for texting in a movie theater before a movie starts, or pull guns on each other on the interstate, is it really that surprising that there are folks on the fringes–we hope they’re fringes–who only need the slightest permission to act on hate founded on fear and often willful ignorance?

In 2011 Anders Breivik, as self-styled Christian Nationalist from Norway carried out an attack in that country. Initially, prosecutors treated him as insane. But eventually he was found fit to stand trial and the time limit on his incarceration was lifted as a result. A Norwegian author writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2012 shared these incisive thoughts:

This verdict is also the end of a long trial process far too focused on Breivik’s persona, and to little on the social and political climate that created him. By prosecuting on insanity, the state asked “Who is Anders Behring Breivik”, and to answer that question every little piece of his personal history became important. But in a political and social context, this is an indifferent question. People such as Breivik have always existed.. But the actions they take and the way they are formed differs from society to society.

The author goes on to say that the is not who Breivik is, but why he became who he became that is important:

If Breivik had been from Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria, we would have asked what it was within these countries and cultures that made him a terrorist.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/24/anders-breivik-verdict-norway

I have written before about the lengths we will go to to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of these attacks, but the reality is, for the most part, they aren’t that removed. Growing up I used to go to Gun and knife shows a few times every year. I heard the pitch of folks selling AR-15s by talking to buyers about how easily you could convert one to full-auto. I saw the pamphlets that were inevitably at at least one literature rack where the same author seemingly published the same booklet over and over, only swapping out the word Jewish/Catholic/Masonic/Illuminati banking conspiracy. I recognize the similarity of those well-worn bits of rhetoric to claims that church-based refugee resettlement agencies are just in it for the money and are doing it all–willingly or as dupes–at the behest of the UN or the Vatican in order to weaken the United States.

Which brings me back to 2012. Some of you who had children in school that year, or who worked in Sumner County Schools that year. If you were around and remember, we had some difficulty starting school that year. There was a conflict between the School Board and the County Commission over funding. Eventually schools were started and there was a political shift in the county so that we haven’t had another issue like that.

About a year after that, a representative from World Vision asked if they could present to the Hendersonville Pastors Association. It turned out that they were looking for new communities in which to resettle refugees, and they thought Hendersonville met the criteria: good local economy, available housing, lots of churches. You never heard anything about this initiative from me, because the pastors collectively decided it wasn’t a good idea given the politics in the county at the time. You see, the rhetoric had gotten so heated about the cost of education, and how the children of people “moving in here” were driving up costs and possibly property taxes, that, as we put it to World Vision: we wouldn’t want refugee families to come into a situation where they’d immediately have a target on their back.

Another way in which this cuts close to home. As you know, there’s another Hendersonville. Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the summer of 2016 we were visiting my mom who lives there, and heard some rumblings in local politics.  

What do we do once we’ve faced up to the wickedness abroad in the world, and the wickedness within? When we’ve looked squarely at the suffering and injustice in the world, and the wounds inside ourselves? That’s where Bartimaeus comes in. Mark includes his story in our gospel text as an exemplar–and a more direct exemplar would be difficult to find.

“For Mark, giving sight to the blind is the beginning and the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (Bryan, 104) but the stories are not exact echos of one another–for one thing, Bartimaeus addresses Jesus two times by the clearly Messianic title “Son of David” and is not corrected for it. Nor does Jesus tell him to remain silent. Jesus knows where he’s headed and there’s no point in encouraging silence now–the time approaches. And in the midst of this, Bartimaeus has his blindness–often a metaphor for idolatry–lifted, receiving his sight, a metaphor for faith, and not incidentally having left everything behind when he threw his cloak aside, begins to follow Jesus on the way, that is, the path of discipleship.

When we have faced the truth about the world in its specific sins, in which we and our society are implicated, will we turn away? When we have discovered that we have been blind.

Real Forgiveness for Real Life

Sermon for Proper 15
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018

The sermon begins at 3:37.

Scriptures: Proverbs 9:1-6 • Psalm 34:9-14  • Ephesians 5:15-20  • John 6:51-58

Sermon begins at 3:37.

Sermon for XIII Pentecost, August 19, 2018, 10:30 Service

Real food for the Journey of Faith

Sermon for Proper 14
The 12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018
Scriptures: 1 Kings 19:4-8 • Psalm 34:1-8  • Ephesians 4:25-5:2  • John 6:35, 41-51

The sermon begins at 3:25.

Sermon for Proper 14, XII Pentecost 2018, from the 10:30 Service.

Marked by Communion

Sermon for Proper 12
The 10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 29, 2018

Scriptures:  2 Kings 4:42-44 • Psalm 145:10-18  • Ephesians 3:14-21  • John 6:1-21

The sermon begins at 7:17.

Sermon for the X Pentecost, 2018, 10:30 Service

Important Under the Radar Resolutions

At the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church we have considered over 500 resolutions, most of them in the last two days, as the discussions of possible prayer book revision and what provision would be made for bishops who disagree with the allowance for same-sex marriage rites throughout the church, as well as the budget, took up the bulk of the time of the House of Deputies. That means that a great many resolutions must be passed on what is known as “the consent calendar.”  This provides a means for resolutions to be considered en masse and for convention to concur with the recommendation of the particular committee that has been working with the resolution. In effect it prevents things that are thought to be boiler plate, necessary, or uncontroversial, from being considered by 800+ people at once (and you thought vestry meetings were difficult).

I wanted to highlight some of the resolutions that find significant that have been passed through the consent calendar at convention.

These are not the only significant resolutions that were passed on those days. I have focussed on resolutions wherein the church has taken some action, or committed itself to take some action, as opposed to resolutions, however good, that encouraged other bodies (governments, agencies etc.) to take action.

Day 1: None


 

Day 2:

A034 Supporting General Convention Children’s Program

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention commends and supports the General Convention Children’s Program, and continues to direct funding to include the youngest of God’s children in our work together.


A030 Small Evangelism Grants

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention directs the Executive Council to implement small grants program to encourage local parish worshiping community and diocesan evangelism efforts; and be it further

Resolved, That the sum of $100,000 shall be allocated for this grant program.


Day 3

A196 Fund a Full-time Evangelism Staff Officer

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention affirm the initiative of the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council in the creation of and funding for a full-time Evangelism Officer to serve on the Presiding Bishop’s staff; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourage Program, Budget, and Finance to maintain the sum of $380,000, as currently allocated in the draft budget proposed by the Executive Council for this position.


Day 4

A109 Create Task Force on Sexual Harassment

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares that sexual harassment of adults by clergy, church employees and church members are abuses of trust, a violation of the Baptismal Covenant, contrary to Christian Character, and are therefore wrong; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church establish a Task Force on Sexual Harassment to be appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to prepare a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses, including parishes, missions, schools, camps, conference centers and other diocesan institutions. It shall be the duty of the Task Force to study, educate, develop curriculum, and propose and promulgate model policy and standards of conduct on different forms of harassment, and to advise the Church as resource persons. The membership of the Task Force is to be representative as to gender, race and ethnic diversity and should include lawyers whose practice covers this area of law or who serve or have served as chancellors for a diocese or church, human resource professionals, educators for adults, and those experienced in the prevention of sexual harassment. Approximately one-third of the members of the Task Force shall be clergy. The Committee Task Force will report to the 80th General Convention and include as part of its report a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $50,000 for the work of the Task Force.


D031 Recognizing and Ending Domestic Violence in our Congregations

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church continue to speak out clearly against all forms of domestic violence as it has done in the past; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourages Episcopal clergy and congregations to educate themselves on the widespread problem that domestic violence is in their churches, neighborhoods and beyond; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge all Episcopal Bishops and other clergy and lay leadership to familiarize themselves with the international and multi-lingual resources provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, White Ribbon, and other local resources, as well as existing trainings developed for domestic violence prevention, and create procedures for supporting domestic violence survivors in their dioceses and congregations; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge the Church at every level to examine its response to domestic violence, especially its response to survivors of domestic violence.


Day 5 (no consent calendar)


Day 6

A223 Family Leave Policies

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention acknowledges the need for a well-defined, comprehensive family leave policy, paid and/or unpaid; and be it further

Resolved, That the appropriate joint standing committee of the Executive Council be directed to study and distribute model policies for paid and unpaid family leave for dioceses and their congregations and institutions to consider, with such models to be distributed to the dioceses by June 30, 2019; and be it further

Resolved, That General Convention urge every diocese to review such model policies and to implement comprehensive policies on family leave that fit their respective needs; and be it further

Resolved, That in view of the time required for study and actions by diocesan conventions, dioceses report their specific policies to the Office of General Convention no later than December 31, 2020.


D061 Develop an Episcopal Gap Year Program

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, especially the Office of Global Partnership and the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministries, to conduct pilot development of an Episcopal Gap Year Program in international mission for young adults, ages 18-23, who are between high school and other educational or vocational pursuits; and be it further

Resolved, That the program be guided by innovative models of such programs, including but not limited to the Young Adult Service Corps, and that it ensure accessibility to racial and ethnic minorities, to persons from non-U.S.-domestic dioceses, and to persons of limited financial means; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention encourage dioceses and congregations to recruit young adults to participate in the Gap Year Program and to support them with fund-raising assistance; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $90,000 for the 2019-2021 triennium in order to develop the Episcopal Gap Year Program.


Day 7

A032 Congregational Redevelopment

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention requests that the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies in consultation with the Church Center staff create a church-wide Community of Practice that works with up to one hundred (100) congregations and their bishops to help them redevelop to better engage the cultural realities of their communities for the sake of launching new ministries and multi-cultural missional initiatives; and be it further

Resolved, That the Communications Office be directed to make a priority of reporting on the stories of redeveloped congregations on an ongoing basis through news media, video, and other means and through developing a website online resources that provides detailed information about the redevelopment efforts happening throughout the church; and be it further

Resolved, That the cost of this initiative will be equally shared by the church-wide budget, participating dioceses and redeveloping congregations; and be it further

Resolved, That the presiding officers appoint a task force to coordinate this initiative in collaboration with Church Center staff. That task force may be combined with a task force on Church Planting and Missional Initiatives at the discretion of the presiding officers; and be it further

Resolved, That the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $725,000 during the triennium for the implementation of this resolution.

 

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