Interfaith Relationships

One of the pleasures of my work is the opportunity to work with pastors of many different traditions. White Plains has some very talented clergy.

More recently our group has gotten much more diverse – and much larger.

We have historically African-American churches, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Rabbis, two Episcopalians, a Unitarian, and a Buddhist.

The prayers are, of course, broad. But we’ve gotten in the habit of charity. We have learned to translate each other’s traditions. When people say that religions are the source of violence, I have counter data.

Collaboration without rivalry allows us to better address our local needs. Today we heard a speaker discussing the needs of the elderly population. We discussed ways we can better partner with each other.

I think it’s one virtue the church must train: collaboration. It’s not instinctive in a culture where spectacle and self-promotion leads to pretty things. Sharing leadership, seeking each other’s welfare, taking joy in other’s successes, that takes spiritual work.

And in the long run, the benefits are worth it.

On exile and dancing

I have heard some funny responses to giving up things for lent. The cold. Bad Weather. Republicans. Church.

What I do know is that I hate daylight savings time. It just means I lose an hour of sleep and get cranky.

Today the scriptures say: You have turned my wailing into dancing. (Ps 30:12) and I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.

It makes me think of that quote: you can’t go home again. Decades ago, Tom Wolfe wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

In other words, once you’ve gone beyond the comfort of the familiar, to return seems confining. Pandora’s box has been opened. The old ways just don’t work. The technology is obsolete. It is the insufferable who insist on vinyl.

We are exiled the past; and they were often not as pleasant as we might remember them. We can’t assume our lives will be safe and satisfying. But we carry home with us. My theology professor once offered the image of people singing hymns around a piano as true communion, being with God. It’s a pleasant sentiment, rarely experienced. I wonder if that’s what we try to emulate when experience mass culture: something shared. We get exiled and scattered, but the work of the church is to gather people again, even when there is suffering all around us.

In such a case I wonder if where two or three gather to sing and dance, God is with them. Let us not worry about what they are listening to, but hope that we can dance with them as well.

 

 

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?

The Pope’s Remarks

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Many people were probably politely surprised at the pope’s reticence toward judging gay people.  It did invite a stronger inquiry in the church’s formal perspective, and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.  The church has a public doctrine that it  maintains; and then there is pastoral practice, one framed by a monosexual group of privately gay – tolerant men.

The Anglican Church prioritizes pastoral practice:  we begin our understanding with prayer and relationship (or, as ++Rowan once said, doctrine must begin with joy).  Our lens is primarily liturgical rather than doctrinal, which is why some Anglican theologians have said Anglican “doctrine” is in the rubrics:  in how we pray together.  This makes creates an enormous leap to even start talking about sexuality:  how do we pray that, anyway?

Some are a bit upset that Francis remains intractable about women’s ordination.  I think he was simply stating his current vantage point, while also inviting an opening for deeper thinking.  Those outside the church continue to be irritated, but I’m not always sure why people think being a priest is a good thing.  Priests remain ignored by their congregations on most important matters.  Garry Wills even argues it’s a failed vocation.

Nuns, by and large, do a lot of the heavy lifting in the church, and although they have little ecclesial power, their institutions matter equally, if not more so.  Sometimes being seemingly marginalized gives one greater power.

Francis could still appoint a female cardinal.

The Repeal of DOMA

Yesterday I broke open a bottle of champagne with a couple friends, a demi-sec Lanson, in celebration of the Supreme Court decision.

While pleased, I still find it startling when people think of it as a religious issue.  For me it’s a simple matter of fairness about benefits.  Someone else’s choice of partner does not change how I practice or what I believe.  I am not offended if someone calls a partnership a “marriage,” and I find it perplexing when we think that God is worried about these sorts of definitions.   And ff God does have a specific idea about marriage, I’ll make my case before the judgment seat and explain why I have erred on the side of charity and magnanimity for gay people.   I’m not worried – the scriptures say that God is merciful.

There remain ways gay people live outside of marriage that can inform the culture about what a joyful sexuality might look like.  And so I wonder if the conversation on marriage distracts us from some opportunities to understand how we might negotiate our rapidly changing culture.  Although I think marriage is a crucial, imperfect sacramental institution, perhaps we can learn from gay people rather than insist they fit into a less threatening box.

And while all of this is happening, we’re seeing politicians actively attack reproductive health; the economy remains owned by a small class of powerful people; and our decision-making bodies have stalled on climate change.  I find it disturbing that some who are most transforming (damaging?) our economy are the same people who fund marriage equality.  So while I take joy that this symbol – and the benefits – are extended fairly, I hope that this enthusiasm can extend to other important movements upon which the fate of our country, and perhaps the world, depends.

Simon Doonan Holds a Grudge: On the Proper Understanding of Forgiveness

Simon Doonan writes about the healing power of holding a grudge and challenges our “softy” culture.

I understand the sentiment.  Who doesn’t love a grudge?

Fortunately, his description of forgiveness is far from the church’s practice.   Forgiveness should not to diminish the worth of our own suffering, or to make us a nation of push-overs.  Forgiveness- or in the sacraments of the church, absolution – requires a depth of spirit.  For this reason, it is regulated.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded.  One cannot command someone to forgive, just as one cannot tell someone to “feel better.”  That’s emotional manipulation and blackmail.  The victim of a rape cannot be told to forgive; nor can the person’s mother forgive on the victim’s behalf.

Forgiveness also does not substitute for divine justice.  Liberal Christians may define hell all sorts of ways, but let us not forget what it’s there for.  It’s there so that we have a conceptual place for people who are certainly guilty of all sorts of crimes against humanity we cannot imagine doing ourselves, people obviously beyond our moral universe.  It’s there to say to the sociopaths among us that, even if the SEC won’t get you, God will.

For if Simon is saying, let’s us not abandon justice for the sake of forgiveness, he is perfectly right.

Fortunately, that’s not what tradition expects.

We don’t ask for forgiveness on behalf of other people.  If my friend gets murdered, I may ask God for forgiveness for my desire for revenge; but not for my murdered friend’s murderer.  And of course, I may choose instead to let God make whatever decisions about the murderer’s soul.  My hate can be my own.  I’ll let God do the hard work.

Nor should we forgive people who haven’t asked.  We forgive when people seriously and earnestly repent.  When they stop the excuses, the explaining, and recognize their fault and sin, THEN we can begin.  In these cases, the community of faithful people, through the church, may offer absolution.

This does not replace, of course, the demands of the law.

Certainly in the everyday work of living, we will get slighted and bruised.  These do not require forgiveness.  Instead, it is enough that a faithful person learn not to be offended, and to maintain one’s integrity in doing the work of life and seek the magnanimity and joy in life which we believe God wants for us.  An insult to me may merit indifference more than forgiveness.

The church believes in forgiveness, through the sacrament of confession, because it believes it forms a moral conscience, and it limits the damage victims also cause others harm.  We are rarely simply perpetrators or victims; we both cause harm and we receive it.  So t0 forgive has a task: to stop passing victimization along.

To forgive and absolve was handled carefully through the clergy class.   It was understood as a divine act, a gift, an opportunity to begin anew.  God is, by nature, terrifying, fearsome and jealous; the church could be alternately kind and merciful when the penitent came to his or her senses.  It was not meant to be casual or easy, but an opportunity to confirm a sense of right and wrong: a sense of order.

So although grudges are enjoyable, they are rarely helpful. They may have a place in our private imaginations, but they diminish our public life.  Our resentment may be full of error and misplaced pride as much as an expression of injustice.  Holding a grudge cannot replace restoring justice.  I share, for example, Simon’s outrage about the killing of elephants for ivory.  But I am not interested in either forgiveness or holding a grudge.  It should simply stop.  Now.

Our knowledge of goodness and sin are limited.  So we set limits to our behavior and to who has permission to forgive and absolve.  We believe, or hope, that there is eternal justice.  We know we may each be guilty; or vindicated.  But finally we will err on the side of mercy.

After my mother died, however, I ran into a famous poet who had been her mentor.  I’d discovered another time that he’d surreptitiously done great harm to her career.  When he discovered who I was, he said, “I always regretted not giving her the help she deserved.”

I told him to get a priest.