A Problem of Religious Snobbery

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This is a sermon manuscript from my message on Sunday, September 15th 2019, at St. James Episcopal Church, Potomac MD. As a sermon manuscript it breaks my usual goal of staying at 500 words in a blog post, lol, clocking just over 1,700. The day’s Gospel passage was Luke 15:1-10.

Who has ever lost something and found it?

Our gospel passage today is in part about losing and searching and finding, and the joy that comes with being found. Jesus tells two stories about things being lost, first one of a hundred sheep, and then one of ten coins. When was the last time you lost something, and found it?  Or maybe you’re like me, you like to think that you never lose anything important and love to be a little judgey when other people do? I’ll admit it, I’ve been that “How could you?” guy too many times… that is I was until I lost my wallet… on a cross country drive… in East Africa.

I don’t have my wallet at the hotel!

Our new truck! It was such a dependable blessing!

It’s the year 2000, and I’m driving across Tanzania with a friend, bringing home a new truck which we had just imported and outfitted for work in the rural areas where we were planting churches. After a long day of driving toward home from an area near Mount Kilimanjaro we were pulling into a beautiful safari hotel in the heart of the Serengeti game reserve for a well-earned night’s rest. But when I went to check in, I didn’t have my wallet and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my new truck. The folks at the hotel were understandably like, “Sorry, no money, no room.” That wallet had my money, US ID, Tanzanian drivers license, checkbook, everything… oh man.

Jesus is speaking to religious snobbery.

So we find Jesus was doing his normal thing one day, teaching the crowds around him… you might remember some of the recent gospel passages have been a little on the hard-to-hear tough side, yeah? He’s been talking about the cost of discipleship, or how seriously they should think of a decision to follow him. It’s a deep thing, choosing to follow Jesus, and it should be treated seriously and with dedication. And who should gather around and be listening to Jesus, but sinners. And worst kind of sinners, tax collectors, those who colluded with Rome and stole the wealth of the people. The good religious folks watching are like, “Man, Jesus hangs out with the worst people: Sinners!” Sound a bit snobby? Sound a bit judgmental? Yeah, it does.

A Clue! I find a map on the grill of my truck!

Back in Tanzania I’m standing at my new truck with my friend and we’re talking about this missing wallet thing while my stomach twists and sinks lower and lower. I last had the wallet at the gate into the park where we stopped to pay the game park entry fees… I know I had it at the gate! I start looking around some more and as I inspect the truck inside and out, I find a game park map stuck to my front grill. Putting things together I begin to imagine what I had done… leaving the office at the park gate after paying my entry fees, I must have set my wallet and the map I had grabbed on the hood of my truck. I must have forgotten and left them there. And as my luck would have it, my wallet didn’t get stuck anywhere in place like the map.

What does sinner mean? What will make the angels party?

Something else we know about Jesus from the recent gospel readings is that when invited he would totally go to the house of a Pharisee or religious leader for a meal. It’s not even like he exclusively eats or only hangs out with those sinners, but he is available to everyone. They’re a bit jealous maybe? We also know from many Gospel stories that Jesus doesn’t tolerate religious snobbery. To answer their anxiety at his choice of company he tells a couple of parables, short stories, actually two of three we find in Luke 15, to very pointedly reorient them back from their judgmental stance. He tells stories that will help them understand that sinner doesn’t really mean what they think. Lost doesn’t really mean what they think. For Jesus, sinner apparently means beloved. Lost means desirable. In the first story a man finds one of a hundred sheep has gone missing. Instead of simply being glad of the 99 and writing off his loss, he leaves them to find the one. And when that one is found the party gets started. There is rejoicing! I wish rejoice wasn’t such a church word these days… if we’re going to honest, the man and the angels partied when the lost one was found. In the second story we meet a woman who has lost one of ten coins, and she is relentless in finding that coin! She doesn’t give up but turns her world upside down to find what was lost. And when the lost coin is found? You guessed it, she and the angels start partying.

We just have to drive back, hoping and praying for the best.

Early digital cameras weren’t all that great, but we did get lots of images of wildlife!

Having figured out that I had left my wallet on the hood of my truck we were faced with a couple of problems. We had driven two hours since coming in that park gate, and it was getting dark. We’re not supposed to drive in the park after dark, it’s too dangerous with animals and possibly even poachers roaming around. I mean, could we even hope that it wasn’t already seen and grabbed up? Or maybe it was run over and scattered? It was also beginning to rain. We talked it over for a few minutes and eventually decided to drive back toward the gate and hope, and pray, for the best. You know that sick feeling when you can’t even talk? Everything inside is so tied up and you’re feeling so stupid and worthless that you just can’t even. I drove on, even out pacing the rain after some time, eyes glued to the road, and my friend sat there with a hand on my shoulder praying grace for me, for courage for me and for a wallet for our hotel stay.

Jesus is consistent that this kind of snobbery is not acceptable.

Maybe you’ve heard the kind of whispers and judgements that the people with Jesus heard from the religious leaders that day. Maybe you have felt unworthy in life, in church, in work, in play, in anything and everything. Maybe you’ve had the label sinner applied to you. Maybe you’ve had the label lost applied to you. Like many of the religious folks that day, we at church mostly find ourselves among the 99, the found. We find ourselves among the nine, tucked safely away in God’s purse. When you’re the 99 or the 9, terms like sinner or lost start sounding kinda bad. But in the stories told by Jesus, lost seems to mean desired, sinner seems to mean beloved. What the 99 and the 9 have to remember is that they aren’t giving up any of God’s love for it to be shared with the outsider, the other, the one whom God is pursuing instead of just always hanging with the insiders. So here’s a thought… we recently read Jesus telling a dinner host not to invite just friends and family to the table, but those who needed a meal, those without food, those without a table. Does that start to make more sense now? Do we have an extra layer now of understanding of the kind of love God has for all people so that we get a better idea of why spreading a table for the ones least likely to be invited, most likely to be overlooked, is so important?

What about my wallet?

We had out paced the rain and were driving in the dark for about an hour heading back toward the gate. We’d seen nothing in the dusty dirt road and now strained to peer through the high beams of my truck as we moved as fast as we dared. No, this wasn’t a paved highway, this wasn’t I-95 South toward Richmond. This was dirt, soon to be mud when the rain caught up to us again. Can you imagine what my heart did when at the edge of the high beam’s light, a small brown shape off the side of the road came into view? Can you imagine my lack of strength to even get out of my truck and go pick it up, when it was so obviously my wallet with the colored rubber-bands still holding all the contents safely in place? Can you imagine the relief, the joy? Can you imagine the party on our drive back to the hotel? I kid you not… we had found the wallet and started back for no more than ten or fifteen minutes when the rain storm caught up to us and poured down, obscuring a lot of our visibility for the drive back to the hotel. I don’t know if we could’ve found that wallet in the rain. Oh man, we partied like the angels in heaven! God is good.

Let’s make more solidarity, less fear more love!

What I believe Jesus is so often pushing the people around him to do, is to fear others less and feel a deeper sense of solidarity with them, a longing for them, a love that shatters complacency. He would seek and spend time with the lost and the sinner, because those are just synonyms for the beloved ones, the desired and desirable ones, the ones worthy of a great search, worthy of turning the world upside to get close to. Behind all that we do, all that we say, all that we would accomplish, let there be a deep sense of our being found, our being loved of God, and our being made worthy. From that understanding, let us also hold tight to the love of God that also embraces those outside of our community, making them worthy, worthy to be missed, worthy to be sought, worthy of our love and respect. Amen.

The Lessons of Howard Jones

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Image from http://www.howardjones.com, Credit: David Conn

Howard Jones has been singing to me for years upon years, and his lessons are still as golden now as when I was a teenager. I’m feeling grateful for Jones today, and I’d like to review some of the best things he has been preaching to us through the years. Some of the things are obvious and built right into the song titles, and some come back again and again through his lyrics…

Don’t get in a rush, it won’t help. Life In One Day
Don’t always look at the negatives. Don’t Always Look at The Rain
Chill, it’s not just you. No One Is To Blame
There are some things we all must learn for ourselves. Look Mama
Hold on. Things Can Only Get Better
We’re all unique and awesome, so be your authentic self and accept others in their realities. Like To Get To Know You Well, Conditioning & Equality
Wait for an exciting, fun & valuing love. You’re worth it. An Everlasting Love
You’re good. Believe it. Specialty
Open your mind and enjoy the ride. New Song
There’s so much more; keep exploring! Hide And Seek, Hunt The Self & Always Asking Questions
Enough with the hate. We’re all one. Elegy

But Jones is not all pop sugar and happy feelings. We hear him lamenting loneliness (City Song) and all of our unfulfilled hopes and dreams (Hunger For The Flesh). We hear his pain and struggle to understand his own thoughts and the desire that we would hear his lessons before we’ve lost too much (Assault and Battery, The Prisoner, Last Supper, What Is Love, Human’s Lib, Pearl and The Shell & Exodus). All this is what I’ve heard from Jones, and might be incredibly far from what he intends with his music, but I am grateful. These are the lessons he has instilled in me, and he’ll always be one of my favorite teachers. I’m better for having his music in my life.

It was such an amazing thing to hear him live in concert in 2015, a full 30 years after I first began my journey with his music. Jones has always been so real to me, though never even an acquaintance, and it’s been a blast to grow old together. He’s hopeful, hurting, healing and seemingly unstoppable. Amazingly, he sounds as good today as when I first popped that Dream Into Action cassette into a player in 1985. I truly hope he lives forever. 

With gratitude, Todd

The Sin of White Supremacy, Again

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Mother Teresa Belong to Each Other QuoteI was driving in for worship Sunday morning and thinking about St. Paul’s words from Colossians 3, one of our readings for the day. I was reflecting on the shock and pain of a weekend full of death and injury from more gun violence in our country. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Sunday when I was preaching, so I had to wait and write a blog.

Colossians 3:8-11

8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

The El Paso shooting in particular highlights the growing problem we have with white supremacy in our country. Of course, racism is always there, and the groups who ignorantly fear people of other ethnicities, religions and cultures will always be there, but in today’s U.S.A. we see see them marching safely in our streets, openly propagating their murderous philosophy, and we see their disciples taking action to murder in our shared places of public life.

As Christians, we must stand united to say without any equivocation or hesitation, that there are not very fine people purporting that ideology. Fine people simply do not support racism or white supremacy. White supremacy, hatred of others, fear-driven ignorance and xenophobia are not virtuous or benign. These ideologies foment hate and killing, and drive wedges between us.

St. Paul taught us the theology which debunks white supremacy and hatred, that in Christ, in the knowledge of God, we see that there is no difference in the value, worth or dignity of people, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, culture or socio-economic standing. It is an old way without knowledge of God that allows one human to view another human as a hated enemy because of those differences. 

When speaking to the Galatians, St. Pauls points out to them that their baptismal waters wash away that unlearned manner of viewing people as less than valuable, beloved or worthy based on ethnicity, socio-economics or even gender issues. All those things are sublimated under the intrinsic value of a human being.

Galatians 3:27-29

27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

We are a diverse and amazing species, never to be all alike. St. Paul’s theology does not just include a warning to put aside the hatred, malice and slander that can be engendered by differences, but goes on pushing us to embrace compassion and kindness as a response to difference. We are God’s people and, in seeing Christ within all, we are moved to humility, grace and love.

Colossians 3:12-15

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

As people of faith we have to stand up and be heard that demonizing language directed toward our neighbors and fellow human beings will no longer be tolerated in the public arena from our leaders. Rhetoric which incites violence and casually laughing at threats of violence have no place in our public discourse. White Christians may not feel particularly threatened by the racist rhetoric and may find it easy to debate and argue the nuanced meanings of tweets and statements, but we cannot stand quietly by while that rhetoric becomes deadly episodes of gun violence against our brown and black neighbors, family and friends.There’s no room for debate when guns are in the hands of white supremacists in our streets.

The shooting in Dayton this weekend points to a more general problem we have with gun violence across the country, and access to weapons of war that have no place in civil life. We need more laws to protect us from those who would show such violent hatred and casual disregard for others. We need fewer guns on the streets and in our public places. We need common sense laws such as we have in place to govern the ownership and use of many other things in civil life which pose a threat to safety: chemicals, vehicles, etc. A peaceful and safer way forward will not be more guns in our public places, but fewer. How do we achieve such a goal? We demand action from our elected representatives and we speak out loudly against the waves of hatred, racism and white supremacy, especially when coming from our highest offices.

This is our official statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the Washington National Cathedral, demanding better leadership from our President: https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html

This is a long post for me, but we have to keep saying these things aloud, over and over. It is painful to keep confronting this in our own society, but we cannot forget the burden laid on us by our rampant gun violence and the racially motivated mass killings, like we saw just four years ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Poway Synagogue shooting in April, or the shooting at Young Israel of Greater Miami last month.  Just try keeping up with our gun violence pandemic. We are a broken people, but our leaders in DC refuse to even begin to offer us ways to help us heal, to help us move forward, to bind us up, or to protect us. Giving up and giving in is simply not an option.

AMDG, Todd

 

A Chilling Historical View of Racism in the US: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/04/adam-serwer-madison-grant-white-nationalism/583258/

Hate Crimes: https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics

Hate Crimes Against LGBTQ: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/06/28/anti-gay-hate-crimes-rise-fbi-says-and-they-likely-undercount/1582614001/

Feast of St. Ignatius 2019

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One of the great blessings of my spiritual life was journeying for a time with my dear and departed friend, Father Leo Murray SJ. He was my spiritual director for many years, though he preferred the term spiritual friend, and he lead me through several different shortened adaptations of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He even once took me through the complete Exercises. The adaptations of the Exercises are made for those of us who cannot take a month off of life’s responsibilities to go into retreat… instead, we make time in our busy daily lives for the prayers, readings, meditations and journaling.

Tomorrow, July 31st, is the Feast of St. Ignatius, and I always stop and say a grateful prayer for my friend Fr Murray as well as the work of St. Ignatius to orient us to the voice and movement of God in our lives. That’s what the Exercises are all about, hearing God.

I myself have written short one-week or one-month daily life adaptations, but more in the style of the Exercises, not following their content or flow. This summer I decided to engage the task of adapting the actual Exercises from St. Ignatius into something I could do myself in the course of a month alongside all my many responsibilities in daily life. This is audacious and maybe even a bit offensive to someone who is a Jesuit or who has spent decades devoted to the Exercises in their vocation, so let me briefly give a few caveats… I’m not a Jesuit, an authority on the Exercises, or the most experienced person you’ll meet with Ignatian Spirituality. But adapting spiritual wisdom into daily life is a passion for me. This is a humble effort is truly a labor of love, and a work in progress.

I’ve almost finished Week 1 of the four weeks in the Exercises and hope to be done with all four sometime in August. The Exercises are not intended to be a solo journey, but something shared between spiritual friends, and that brings me to a question: Would you be interested in sharing this journey with me?

I’m wondering if I have a few friends who would like to experience the Exercises in daily life, and check in with each other once a week to share the journey. We are each expected to be giving about a total of 30 minutes a day (15 in the morning and 15 in the evening) to this effort, Monday through Saturday, each week. It’s a commitment. Let me know if you’re curious!

AMDG, Todd

P.S. Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown has made Father Murray’s homilies available online! I never heard him preach in the life, we just had conversations together.

Ordination is Cool, But Not The Point

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Ordination of Deacons and Priests

Let’s get a little geeky on ecclesiology for a minute, hmmmm? I was recently ordained as a Transitional Deacon the Episcopal Church. Huh? By our Cannon Law (rules of the church) one must be a Deacon for six months before being ordained a Priest. Not all Deacons are on the way to be Priests, many are answering the call to serve the church in that unique and valuable vocation. God willing, I will move on with priestly vows in December of this year.

My ordination as a Deacon was pretty cool. It was at the Washington National Cathedral and several other amazing individuals were ordained Priests and one other as a Deacon at the same time. So, fresh from my vows as a Deacon and this past Sunday preaching in a shiny white collar and stole, I was intrigued by an article about some Capuchin monks electing a leader from among themselves who is not ordained. Their new leader is a lay brother, someone who has not taken Holy Orders, as it were.

The article linked above makes a great point that although this election breaks with their Canon Law, it is right in line with the spirit and founding of the Capuchin Order and it’s Franciscan roots, especially in St. Francis who was not a Priest and possibly not even a Deacon himself.

Does all this matter? Well, by Canon Law it does. And I would not like to be heard saying that Holy Orders and the vows we make at our ordination are without meaning or significance. Being ordained a Deacon enables me to do certain things in Episcopal worship in service to the Priest and the whole congregation. God willing, should I be ordained a Priest in December as planned, then I’ll have more responsibilities in worship and the daily life of the church. Our Capuchin brothers have given a perfect reminder though that the whole church is a priestly nation (1 Peter 2:1-10), a gathered holy people, all in and all called to the work of Christ and the Gospel in the world. In our own tradition we affirm this in our Baptismal Covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayers, repentance, proclaiming the gospel by word and deed, and seeking and serving Christ in all our neighbors by striving for their justice, peace and dignity. (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 417)

When I say that ordination is cool, but not the point, I mean exactly that… ordination is important, necessary in some respects and amazing to experience, but the church does not exist to ordain. The whole church exists to serve the world and to create a community of mutuality in care and concern for one another under God’s immense divine rush of love.

I’m grateful today for some courageous monks who have got me all reflective and thoughtful about our shared ministry across the whole church. Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit! Thanks be to God!

AMDG, Todd

Juneteenth 2019

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C6E077A0-7C27-4CE1-B09E-0BC972192E37Today is Juneteenth, and I urge you to stop for a moment and celebrate the end of legal slavery in the United States, the emancipation of our neighbors, and the victory of our country over the rebellious forces which threatened to tear it apart. Through great leadership, at great price and with tenacious hearts we kept our nation together and began the end of a terrible historical atrocity.

This is also a chance to recognize and repent that we so often move too slowly, resist the changes we need to make as a people and a society, and that we still have so far to go in realizing the full humanity and dignity of all people. If Juneteenth is new to you, it’s a celebration of the emancipation of the slaves, and a remembrance that freedom was ignored and resisted for years by some civil and State authorities after the Emancipation Proclamation. More can be found here Juneteenth.com, and across the internet with a simple search.

This year’s marking of Juneteenth is more meaningful for me as I was able on Monday to attend a screening of Emmanuel, a documentary movie about the nine lives ended in the hateful and racially motivated shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church four years ago to the day, in Charleston, SC. That was a difficult movie to watch, as the legacy of white supremacy and racial hatred was so clearly illustrated in the senseless murders and the face of a young man of our time, not any ancient past or even recent history. Our time.

The hatred, ignorance and racism which fueled the Emmanuel shootings should be a reminder to us that all too often words become wounds. The racism and white supremacist rhetoric we hear today across our country, online and sometimes from the highest levels of government must be unequivocally, vehemently and with all our strength rejected and repudiated. Until our courts are equitable in applying the law to all people, policing is no longer far more lethal and brutal towards our brown and black neighbors, and all people of our nation are free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, let Juneteenth be a reminder that our work is not done.

1058FF77-4FB2-4AED-A9C2-044667A1BEA7And we can vote. The image to the right is of a button I made earlier this year as an exercise of empathy and reflection on privilege. It’s time to vote with our neighbor’s best interest in mind. We need to vote with empathy and a realization that political wins achieved at the expense of another’s civil liberties or freedoms is no win at all, but a loss for all. Let Juneteenth become part of your annual remembrance that we have begun the difficult work of equality, but still have so far to go. We can do this. We’ve shown what we are capable of, both good and evil. May we forge a future of greater hope and liberty for all.

AMDG, Todd

Good Friday Gratefulness

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biblical way fo the cross

It’s Holy Saturday and I’m supposed to be quietly waiting for Easter, focused specifically on the darkness of the tomb and the cost off the cross. Instead, I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the services yesterday, especially the long vigil we held from noon to 3pm.

The clergy and good folks at St James Episcopal Church in Potomac opened their hearts and minds to a new vigil exercise, different from previous years. Together as a community we followed the readings of the fourteen stations of the Biblical Way of the Cross as designed by the late Pope John Paul II. These fourteen stations are all built upon scripture instead of upon a mix of scripture and tradition. They are also accompanied by some amazing prayers!

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Carrying Christ’s heavy cross to the altar.

As we read, prayed and sang through the stations many volunteers placed pieces of a tableau at the altar for each one. At the end we had an installation of greenery, signs and elements of the crucifixion, each related to the passages we read. In the final station we placed a corpus upon the altar, a representation of the wrapped and buried body of Christ. 

Let me say honestly, a three hour vigil is a long time, wearying and taxing. I have such respect for my clergy colleagues (Meredith and Mary Margaret) who stood, vested and focused, for the lion’s share of three hours of liturgy and stations, just to uncomfortably kneel the rest of the time. I was on my feet as well, but I was at the back of the sanctuary directing the placement of the tableau pieces. I had a chair handy, but stood in solidarity with those on stage. 

I have heard good things from some who haven’t worked together to make such a tableau before, and I’m so happy that the images and art spoke to them. I am most moved by what we did for the stations in which Peter betrays Jesus and then later when Jesus forgives the criminal on the cross… we had a familiar image, a Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was made to be broken in two at Peter’s denial and then put back together at the moment Jesus forgives the dying criminal: a broken heart, and a healthy active heart.

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What a blessing. I am so grateful to have shared the time with the amazing souls at St James, grateful for the legacy of selfless love and devotion we find in Christ.  I am so blessed by God’s church. Easter will be that much sweeter in joy and celebration after such a rich Good Friday.

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Have a great Easter Sunday, beloved! 

AMDG, Todd