Sunday, July 26, 2015

Commemoration of St. James the Greater

The hero for today is James, often called the Greater, not because he was such a big shot but because he was the first James. There are two other Jameses (James the Less and James the brother of Jesus). James the Great was one of the disciples Jesus called when he began his ministry. James and his brother John had been working for their father, Zebedee, catching fish. It doesn't sound much like a profession that would suggest any great status or even any upward mobility, but we know that upward mobility can mean more than a bigger title and a bigger paycheck.

James was called away from his fishing boat. He left seemingly without looking back. Fortunately, it appears his father had a sufficient labor pool to take James and John's places on the fishing boat. They probably got up that morning not thinking that this was going to be a day that would change their lives, but it worked out that way. Jesus called, they went.

We see that story repeated often in the Gospels where Jesus called and someone answered, not always to be an apostle or a disciple but to be something other than what they were. The woman at the well was certainly not expecting to be called to do something that wasn't a normal thing for a woman and an outcast, yet she answered that call and actually was probably our first evangelist. She went into the town and told them, "I have met a man who told me all about my life. Could he be the Messiah?" It was a good question and it's one that not many dared ask but many dared hope.

James' story is repeated throughout the Bible. He didn't answer with the traditional, "Here I am," or maybe he did that and it just was not recorded. What mattered was that he answered the call and followed where he was led.

Legend has it that James spent time in Spain as a missionary. He was in Jerusalem, however, when Herod Agrippa put him to death in 44 A.D. His body was said to have been  taken to Compostela in Spain although some relics may be housed in church(es) elsewhere.

Today James is remembered not only as a Son of Thunder, which was the nickname given to him and his brother John, but as Santiago in Spain. Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago,  a journey of 450 miles on foot from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to the cathedral in Compostela..What these pilgrims are looking for is a personal thing -- healing, clarity or a deeper sense of spirituality. It is a prayerful journey but not always a silent one as pilgrims may go with a group or join one along the road. At the end of the days of walking, they fall to their knees and make their way from the doorway of the cathedral to the actual shrine of Santiago. Their physical journey is ended but, hopefully, their spiritual journey continues.

 The disciples had no idea where the simple words "Come follow me" could lead them but they followed anyway. The Jesus way was a life changing internal and spiritual journey that would take a lifetime. Nobody has ever really totally mastered the Christian life. Many of our saints have come close, but, like us, they are flawed people who do their best but still mess things up from time to time. Jesus doesn't mind, he would rather us try and make a mistake than not try and do everything else perfectly. .

So here we have St. James, Santiago, a man who thought he knew where he was going but who got a wake-up call he couldn't ignore. We may wait and think one day Jesus is going to walk by and say, "Come follow me. " The question is how will we respond to that or would we even hear and understand the call? Can we leave everything behind and just follow Jesus? Jesus has jobs for us to do, but we also have jobs that we need to take care of our families. Where is the balance? That's a question everyone is going to have to answer for themselves.

I will never be able to walk the Camino de Santiago physically, but I could do a spiritual retreat lasting a shorter time, or use spiritual disciplines and readings as part of my everyday life. I can walk a path that gives me healthy exercise and lets my mind turn to prayer or contemplation. It's a form of multitasking that I think Jesus would approve of.

Maybe I need to ask St. James to give me a nudge to get moving.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 25, 2015.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

History, Winners and Losers

Commemoration of Bartolomé de las Casas, Missionary, Priest, Defender of the Oppressed

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. -- Philemon 8-16.

History is usually written by the winners, but sometimes we learn more from the losers.

Bartolemé de las Casas (1474-1566) was a member of the Spanish military sent to the West Indies in 1502 and was probably the first priest ordained in the Americas. In 1513, probably a year or less after his ordination, he was still involved in military activities. He saw the effects of Spanish domination over the local native populations. He had been awarded a land grant for his military efforts which included a number of Indian serfs, but in 1514 he renounced his land grant and his control over the natives. It was the beginning of his non-military campaign for a beleaguered and oppressed people.

De las Casas made several trips to Spain to report to the crown about issues involving treatment of the natives that he had seen and heard spoken of by others. Eventually he would write a book, A Brief Description of the Destruction of the Indies, describing the activities and tortures the natives had experienced at the hands of the Spanish. He wanted to create towns where natives and Spaniards could live side-by-side and with equality for both as a form of reparation. It was a great idea, but unfortunately too many people were against such a plan. It threatened their way of life and their privilege. The great plan also had a great flaw. De las Casas also felt his ideas and plans were perfect and in their presentation he sometimes came across as somewhat ham-fisted which did not endear him to the people whose support he needed. Colonists that he selected to help him achieve this goal turned out to be less than cooperative and capable. To his credit, de las Casas never stopped trying. He eventually returned to Spain and became a Dominican monk, remembered for his writing and attempt to gain equality for the natives of the Caribbean.

To achieve a goal one has to believe firmly in the value of that goal. De las Casas firmly believed that what he intended to do was the right thing for the native oppressed. Unfortunately, and partly because of his position on rights for the natives, he tacitly approved and may even have encouraged the importation and use of African slaves to do the work on the encomiendas or land grants. It's hard to believe that such dedication to one group would also entail an almost oblivious concern for another similarly oppressed group.

In Paul's letter to Philemon, Paul calls on an old friend to forgive what might must have been something drastic, and to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a fellow Christian and brother. It was a request for equality for a servant who had run away and found Paul, becoming a help to him and a convert to Christianity. Whether Paul intended for this passage to become a standard for equality or not, it certainly gives a glimpse of what early Christianity should accept as a new norm, namely treating fellow believers, no matter their status, as equals in the kingdom.

There are a lot of histories where we hear of forced conversions and the treatment of native populations who were the subject of those conversions. We know that in the 1500s the Spaniards came to the New World not so much to convert but to provide gold, gems, and riches for themselves and the crown that supported them. How many were converted? I don't know, but from reading the histories, including some of the quotes from de las Casas' book, brutality was the rule and not the exception. Those who the Spaniards did not kill directly faced the very real possibility of death from diseases which the Spaniards brought with them and to which they had no immunity. Was the treatment of the imported African slaves any better than the natives they replaced? It seems impossible to believe that it would have been better, but anyway, nobody was focusing on them.

Onesimus should be a symbol for all who are considered lower on the social, economic, and cultural scale. Those of us who have experienced privilege and, whether we accept it totally or not, should see ourselves in the person of Philemon, the one asked to receive someone as an equal. I believe that Paul meant that all people, especially Christians and those who claim to be Christians, should receive others as equal regardless of their status. There are those who speak for the powerless, the voices of Americans of all ethnicities and origins, immigrants, the oppressed and tortured in many lands, and those fighting injustice and persecution, genuine persecution, around the world. Does this mean non-Christians as well as Christians? In my belief there's only one answer, yes.

De las Casas was like many of us. He had a driving passion to do something good for other people, yet he was, in his own way, flawed in his idealization of his own ideas, whether or not they were workable or even acceptable. Each of us should have dreams of what can be done to make the world the kingdom of God on earth that we say we really want, and we should work to make those dreams reality. We also need to understand how to make those changes and how to get others on board with us. It takes a lot of sheer determination; people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, Mother Teresa, and many others, had determination, vision, and hope, but they also had a knowledge that it wasn't going to be easy. Sometimes they would have to step backwards where they wanted to go forward. Their approaches were varied and, when one did not work, they tried again perhaps just a little differently. All had flaws but also had dreams, compassion, and desire.

History will remember people like these as well as people like Bartolomé de las Casas, and well they should be remembered. But we should also be conscious of all who suffer oppression, persecution, or loss of power because of what group they belong to or any other characteristic. Those guilty of heinous crimes should be incarcerated for the safety of others, but they are still children of God and should be treated humanely. Prayers for oppressed groups around the world, no matter what their religion or location, should be made but in combination with active means of assistance. The voiceless should be heard while the powerful should learn to listen and not just pontificate about what they think is needed. And when we look to one group is deserving of attention we should remember that where there is one there is usually a number of others equally deserving.

Did Philemon except Onesimus as Paul had requested? A man named Onesimus is recorded in history as a bishop, so perhaps Philemon did welcome him back and helped him in his new mission. Today we must be a combination of all three: Paul to speak, Onesimus to act, and Philemon to listen and assist.

With some practice, I think it would work.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 18, 2015, under the title "Learning from history."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ancient Rule, Modern Guide

Commemoration of Benedict of Nursia

If it happens
that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a sister,
let her nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority
with all meekness and obedience.
But if she sees that the weight of the burden
altogether exceeds the limit of her strength,
let her submit the reasons for her inability
to the one who is over her
in a quiet way and at an opportune time,
without pride, resistance, or contradiction.
And if after these representations
the Superior still persists in her decision and command,
let the subject know that this is for her good,
and let her obey out of love,
trusting in the help of God.  Rule of St Benedict chapter 68

I read a lot of religious books, but I won't say that I'm passionate about rulebooks, those books that set up specific things that must and must not be done. That sometimes includes the Bible. There's a book I've read several times, though, that is like a guidebook for spiritual living, one which I appreciate more each time I read it. Others have found the same thing in the Rule of Benedict, a book on living a life dedicated to God and in community with others striving to reach the same goal.

Sr. Joan Chittister's book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, takes Benedict's rule, chapter by chapter, and puts a contemporary perspective on the ancient book. Her perspective was a translation which alternated chapters between male and female followers of the rule, acknowledging that women, as well as men, live by the rule and are equal participants in the journey.

One chapter that particularly interested me was chapter 68 quoted above. Now Benedict did not write in what we would consider a politically correct manner. His rule was aimed at monks who followed him. It described how their lives were to be ordered and made holy. The chapter calls out what a monk or nun should do if he or she is given a task they feel is too hard for them to bear.

Honestly, the first thing I thought about was that Jesus gave us a pretty impossible task or actually several of them. Love your neighbor? Now if that is not difficult I don't know what is. Lately events have proven that it is probably one of the most difficult things we could be asked to do, and we don't do it very well.

The nun or monk who has been given a job to do by the abbot or abbess might feel that the task is too hard, too far beyond their physical or even spiritual ability. While the rule stresses obedience and meekness, another word for humility, it does also present an opportunity for discussion. Benedict even gives guidelines for how to talk about such situations should be conducted. If, though, the superior's mind is unchanged or their heart feels this is what God would want this monk or nun to do, then obedience must kick in and every attempt made to complete the task.

It's not that the superior would want to test the faith or even see how much the monk or nun could handle, but rather to offer them an opportunity to grow and to learn where they could find strength that they didn't know they had and increase the faith they already possessed. It's an exercise in trust, but not necessarily the case of "God won't give us more than we can handle."  That particular phrase makes God seem like some kind of game-player, somewhat on the level of the God of Job who had a wager about whether or not Job would remain faithful under pressure. I never liked that kind of God very much.

There are times, though, when we seem to need to be reminded that we only grow when things happen that force us out of our comfort zone and into something we never expected to encounter. I think Benedict understood that very well and made it part of the rule. All growth involves some kind of struggle. It's how learning takes place.

Benedict was a very wise man. Although he had his eyes focused on God, he realized the importance of giving guidelines to help others find what he had. Regular hours of prayer, work, worship and rest, moderation in all things, hospitality to all, obedience, humility and charity -- these were the building blocks Benedict left for the future generations to use. It's been doing its job since the sixth century, and continues today both in Benedictine communities and in the lives of lay people who find a spiritual guide in the Rule of Benedict.

I think that next time I'm asked to do something I think might be impossible or beyond my skills, I'll remember Benedict's chapter 68 and the advice he gave in it. Perhaps it will help me to think a bit more positively about what I'm being asked to do, or, at least, give me a framework to request a dialog seeking enlightenment or perhaps a more detailed explanation of what I am supposed to do. Most of all, perhaps it will teach me to be patient and try my best to do the job as if I were doing it for God.

I wonder -- did Benedict ever work in customer service?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 11, 2015 under the title "Benedict of Nursia."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Independence Day

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. - James 5:7-10

July 4, Independence Day, seems an odd choice for a calendar devoted to churchy celebrations and commemorations. It is a day we normally associate with picnics, parades, fireworks, days at the beach, baseball games, mosquitoes, and warm if not hot sunny days. We know it commemorated something, namely the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. In school were taught to recite parts if not all of the Declaration of Independence to give us some idea of what the value of such a document was. Granted it was written in a time very different than what we live in today, but it still has relevance to our lives. It is, and should be, a living document that grows and allows new use of the words and is not just a yellowing piece of paper or parchment we can see in the museum, static in meaning and relevance.

The Declaration of Independence put in writing what our leaders felt were legitimate complaints about a government far away on the other side of the ocean that benefited mostly individuals in Britain at the expense of the colonists. It was a brave document, and it lit the match that began a war that lasted until 1781, 5+ years of death, hardship, struggle, and often despair. In the end we became an independent nation although we maintained ties with our mother country, ties both of governmental style, justice, religion and diplomacy. But the infant nation we now call the United States had to learn to work as a unit to the benefit of all and to resolve their own problems with no recourse to an authority other than God.

Undoubtedly the letter of James was read in churches at the time, and I wonder what they would have made of the passage we read today. Be patient? Do not grumble against one another? Oy vey. In some ways we have been patient — too patient. Things are going well for some of us while others of us deal with a very different reality. The ideal of human equality was a wonderful statement, but it applied only to white males of a certain status and standing. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, plus other minority groups that flocked to our shores for the promise that was offered, were left standing in the cold. Those in power thought it was a great system, while the powerless were just that — powerless to do much to change it. We have made some strides over the past several centuries, but not nearly enough. We are still fighting the system that has been in place for almost as long as humanity is existed. Be patient? How long must people be patient for there to be equality, justice, and an ability, no, a right to be all that they can be?

Of course, James was referring to an promise that he and others felt was imminent. It is easier to be patient when you know the in the goal is in sight or the expectations will be fulfilled in the near future. Yes, farmers know that you cannot rush a crop from seed to harvest. It takes the time that it takes, and once the seed is planted there is nothing much to do other than wait patiently. It makes sense when you're talking about farmers and crops, but when you're talking about human beings and the conditions in which they live and work, it's all too dependent on whether we were the ones who set the conditions or the ones who have to live under those conditions.

Jesus called and taught men, as was normal for that time and place, but women learned from him as well as did Jews, Gentiles, oppressors and oppressed. His message was primarily aimed at the Jews, but as we have seen it can be universally applied, or nearly so. Jesus didn't write a Declaration of Independence from Rome but rather he spoke of an allegiance to a greater kingdom, and invisible kingdom that could be made visible.

We have made strides, albeit small ones, in the general direction but we still have a long way to go. Too many have been too patient too long. Power and privilege have to be redefined to benefit all people and not just a few or a select group. All people must have some sense of power in their life. We see daily the result of unrelieved powerlessness, namely the exertion of false power expressed by violence, mayhem, and lawlessness.

We wait for the Lord, yet we seem to expect God to pop down and become like a mother with a bunch of squabbling children. God is expected to sort everything out, which is the reasoning a lot of us use for doing nothing to help along this kingdom of God on earth. We cluck our tongues at images of bodies lying in streets or children wounded simply because someone else wanted to appear powerful. It's one thing to wait for the Lord, but quite another to expect Jesus to congratulate us on the strides we've made, no matter how inadequate or how far we still have to go.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence did more than put their words on a piece of paper. They pledged themselves, their leadership, and often their own fortunes and reputations, to bring about freedom that had been denied them as well as others. They didn't wait patiently; they knew they were in for a struggle, but they believed they were doing the right thing for themselves and for those who lived in this country.

God is waiting, but God is waiting for us to do what needs to be done. Waiting patiently is becoming no longer an option. The signs are everywhere. Those with power and privilege must give up their egos, inflated statuses, and secure lifestyles in order to better serve the powerless without privilege who live in among us. We don't have time to be patient. Whether it's violence, hunger, financial burden, or any other kind of oppression, we can't just sit and cluck our tongues about how bad everything seems to be. God is waiting. We can't afford to.

The fireworks, baseball games, picnics and all can wait. Those still awaiting freedom and equality can't.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 4, 2015.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

June 27 - Cornelius Hill, Chief, Priest and Bridge-builder

Commemoration of Cornelius Hill, Priest and Chief among the Oneida, 1907

Psalm 87 & 90
Amos 5:14-15
Romans 14:12-19
John 10:7-18

I seems like most days we commemorate someone or something in the Daily Office. Some people think there are too many commemorations, and they should be restricted to more classical "Saints" rather than people who have never been canonized or beatified but who have nonetheless made significant contributions both to society and to the church. I rather enjoy the variety of biographies that I read in the Office. I have learned about a number of people of whom I would never have heard otherwise, much less what contributions they have made.

Take today for example. I had never heard of Cornelius Hill. Granted, I didn't grow up in either New York or Wisconsin, although I did hear quite a bit about Native American tribes in the area in which I lived. Reading his biography today, I learned that he was an Oneida chief, a translator, a deacon, a priest, a negotiator, and, undeniably, a voice of conscience for both his people and those who believed the Native Americans were some sort of lesser humans who should be westernized as quickly as possible. This included forced relocation, forced assimilation, seizure of tribal lands under eminent domain, and denial of their lifestyle, language, religion, and customs. It was a brutal time, and the Oneida were not the only ones who suffered from it. Cornelius Hill sought to be a peacemaker, attempting to bring the two worlds together, yet allowing each to be the people they really were rather than one a carbon copy of the other.

Cornelius Hill reflected  both his Oneida  heritage  and his Christian  education. He understood the sacredness of the land and the bond between the land and the people, but he also saw some benefit in at least accommodation between the two groups. Unfortunately, the Europeans didn't see things the same way; their feelings of superiority decimated millions, and set precedents that are just now being discussed more widely but without much headway. It is just now that their descendants have begun to realize the great injustice and damage that was done. Part of that recognition comes from the church and from people like Cornelius Hill. Probably most Episcopalians have never heard of him although he was a fellow churchman.

The thought of the depredations poured on the Native American people makes me think of the situation we see  in our right now in the faces of those we have persecuted, enslaved, murdered, and displaced. I read reports and see local Native American tribes  trying their best to live in ways often  quite foreign to their own  culture and traditions. Many of these tribes have been forced to adapt their diet to incorporate  kinds of foods their bodies were never equipped to handle after thousands of years of eating quite differently (fresh vegetables and game vs. fried foods and carb-heavy snacks). Coupled with increased dependence on subsidies and lack of available jobs, the result is that diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide are common but never really  acknowledged  or healed.

In other places, Native Americans live in housing so substandard that any civilized city or town would destroy it immediately and rebuild safe and comfortable homes  with electricity, clean water, sanitation, and access to education, communal entertainment, and  cultural traditions and practices. But then, those cities and towns often have slums, shantytowns and substandard apartments that don't seem to be a priority-- except to those who live in them, and often they are so beaten down by poverty and powerlessness that they are unable to do much to help themselves.

We have not done much better with other ethnic groups and cultures. Painful as it is to admit, White Privilege still exists and works against  those whose skins are different colors, whose religions are different and not well-understood, and whose  origins are not Western. The events of the past several weeks, including the shooting at  Emanuel AME Church  in Charleston, are just continued proof that racism and cultural hatred not only exists but in some cases flourishes in complete denial of the opening sentence of one of our  most revered documents, the Declaration of Independence, which begins with, "We hold these truths to be self evident:, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 

While Jefferson lived in a time  where slavery was more or less accepted  in the North as much as the South, and while  the quotation calls out "man"  rather than "human beings" or "people" indicating  equality across the board at least gender-wise, it nonetheless should be  understood to be a living document that allows for wider interpretation  than simply literal words on the page.

Cornelius Hill did his best to uphold these words of freedom and equality. He was a bridge that both sides needed in order to connect the two and to try to make things better for both. There are a lot of those bridge builders today, both in the Daily Office commemorations and in ordinary life. The value of hearing stories of people we may never have come across is that we learn that there are ways of  attempting a goal and making progress towards it, whether or not we ever see the full culmination or the final success.

Like the Bible study group at Mother Emanuel  Church, and every other life ruined by fear, prejudice, or greed, these need to be reminders just as so many others that are featured on our newscasts and front pages as well as those who are simply invisible in their misery. Life is precious and there should be no room for racism, homophobia, or privilege that doesn't see what that privilege costs others. Cornelius Hill fought that kind of privilege; his people revered him for it.

We need to keep the stories in front of us so that none of us forgets that the way we live, the advantages we have, and even the freedom to practice religion should be available to everyone, no matter who or where. There are so many groups that need our attention as much as the Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans: the homeless, veterans, children of poverty and neglect, the list goes on and on and on.

We have a big job to do but it is no more than Jesus asked of us in the first place. When are we going to get busy and do it?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 27, 2015.

Dedicated to Kaze Gadway, the Spirit Journey Youth, and Margaret Watson, all bridge-builders.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.  - Acts 4:32-5:11

The book of Acts is a fascinating series of stories about the early days of the movement that followers called "The Way" and which we now call Christianity. It's a fascinating look at how the disciples and others fared after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They were, in essence, starting out leaderless and it was up to them to become leaders themselves and to spread the message of Jesus even further. They had decisions to make, sometimes very difficult ones, and they knew their choices would set the standard for those who came after them.

Jesus taught that each person should help his or her neighbor by sharing what they had with each other. The new group was trying hard to live up to that; those who were rich could give more but even the poor gave what they could. In the in the reading today, we see people offering monies to God that were gained through sale of property or income. They brought it to the apostles to be given out as needed with no conditions. Of course, there's always one in every group who either wants to be considered special enough to get by with not giving their past, or they are status-conscious and want to make themselves look better than they are.

Ananias and Sapphira were wealthy enough and who also were part of the group. They saw others give their gifts and donations but behind closed doors, the two of them decided to fudge just a bit. Ananias must have looked rather pious as he brought their donation to the apostles and laid it at their feet. He would look good to the onlookers and that was important to him. What he didn't count on, though, was that the apostles knew he was fudging. They questioned him, and he swore that this was what he had received in full for the sale of some land. That was his mistake. In the blink of an eye Ananias realized they had seen through his deception but it was too late. He was on the floor and dead before the eye could blink again.

Sapphira, not really knowing about all of this, was summoned and asked the same question, "Is this the full amount of the sale you promised to give?" She affirmed that this was indeed all, and suddenly found she too was trapped. Like her husband, she went from life to death in the blink of an eye. This surely must have been an eye-opener for everyone watching, and also a very good lesson that you don't mess around with God.

Did you ever fudge on your taxes? Sneak your answers to the homework assignment from the back of the book? Take credit for completion of a project when actually other people did most of the work? Did you try to pass a knock-off garment or bag as an original?  I imagine most of us have to say yes to some kind of fudging in our lives. We wanted to look good but we ended up cheating ourselves more than anything else. We compromised our integrity, and, hopefully, that little angel on our shoulder called our conscience gave us a rather sharp nudge.

Everybody wants to look good. Image is important, and it's been that way since Adam and Eve. The very public downfall of Ananias and Sapphira certainly gave those present a very pointed object lesson in what pride, greed, and arrogance could do to someone. Of course they were honest citizens who had given what they promised so they had no need to worry. But I'll bet they were even more circumspect from that point on with their neighbors as well as with God.

In my childhood church, one verse was repeated rather frequently: "… Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23d). It was cautionary in that it made us remember God was always watching but with the unspoken thought that so were the neighbors. One of the greatest hobbies these days seems to be building up heroes and then relishing their downfall due to their cheating, drugs, alcohol, or whatever. All the money in the world can't cover up everything forever. God knows about it right away, probably knew about it before even happened, but when we find out about someone else's stumble or downfall, instead of thinking to ourselves that we  should be careful not to do that, we just pick up the closest rock and start pitching. Of course there are the occasional times, like when a best friend asking, "Does this make me look fat?", where a tactful answer might be better than a brutally honest one (this is doubly important for spouses).

I have to cringe a little inside every time I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. I recognize myself in the story as someone who has fudged more than a few times. I didn't feel terribly guilty at the time but thinking back on it, it is somewhat shameful. I've asked forgiveness from God and I'm sure God has forgiven me, but the neighbors are not always so accommodating. Perhaps the best move would be a lot more circumspect and a lot more honest as I go forward.

This cautionary tale should remind all of us that what we say and what we do have to line up. If we say we are Christians, we have to be careful to walk the talk – to follow the teachings of Jesus to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, the oppressed, and all the others whose lives are lived, if not in quiet desperation, at least in distress and anxiety. We call it the social gospel, but much of what we do is discuss it, how to pay for it, how to administer it, how to decide what qualifications have to be filled before it can be dispersed. Very often we don't get too far beyond that.

I was reminded the other day that while we can't always do great things we can do small ones. We admire those who give great amounts to the church or to organizations that help God's less fortunate children, or  establish clinics and schools and churches in countries where, without help, those things would not exist or only exist minimally. In our own country, our own neighborhood, random acts of kindness are a way of doing small kingdom tasks that can make a difference in someone's life. No fudging necessary, and we would be walking the talk, instead of just talking about it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 20, 2015.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

By Whose Authority?

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?’ He answered them, ‘I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ They discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.’ So they answered that they did not know where it came from. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’  - Luke 20:1-8

One of the things I remember most about being a little kid was slipping out of the yard and going "visiting" to one neighbor or another. It drove my mother crazy. One minute I would be playing in the yard, the next minute, I was gone. We lived in a very safe place, one where nobody ever locked their doors and everybody knew everybody else. I don't think I could have really gotten in trouble if I'd tried, but I did get in trouble with Mama.

When I heard her call my first, middle and last names, I knew I'd better hot-foot it for home which usually meant running across the street or from next door. I really wasn't trying to get in trouble; I was just a kid with only a dog and an imaginary playmate or two for company, a mother who needed time to do housework and things, and a need for company and conversation. The way she saw it, though, was that I was disobedient, challenging authority and causing her concern and fear that something had happened to me.

Jesus wasn't running across the street or from next door, but he was challenging authority, or, at least, people who felt they had the authority to call him to heel when it came to teaching, preaching, and passing on the good news. It was a challenge to their authority, and they didn't like that. What they liked even less was that he tossed a ball back to them and they couldn't field it. No matter how they answered it, they would come out the losers.

The whole situation arose around a simple question: "By whose authority?" The chief priests, scribes and elders knew where their authority came from, or thought they did, but here was one whose message and actions seemed to come from nowhere, at least, nowhere that they could discern
concretely. What they couldn't put an immediate finger on made them nervous. That was something that could not be allowed to continue, so they tried every trick they could to catch him out. Needless to say, it didn't work.

Authority never likes to be challenged. Authority is power, and people like to be powerful. Look at the nightly news. There are countless examples in politics, entertainment, sports, and almost every realm of public life where power struggles exist and flourish. Offices, schools, even churches have authority figures and chains of command that keep things running, more or less smoothly. Their authority comes from money, by election or selection, or by hierarchical power. It can come either from inspiration or favoritism. There's where the trouble can begin.

Authority is power granted from one person or group to another. Dictators may seize power, but their power comes from those who follow them. Herod had authority granted him by the Roman government. Such power can be withdrawn in a heartbeat and the formerly powerful can be left as powerless as those over whom he wielded power. Jesus had been granted authority, but from God rather than humans. His was real authority, one that the men questioning him probably wouldn't recognize because it was outside their experience and the source of their own authority.

There are times we all are powerful and times we are powerless. There are times we have authority and then the test is how we use that authority-- for good or for the opposite. Who is our model for good use of the power we have? What can we do for the powerless among us, something that would reflect the lessons we hear and learn from Jesus?

I'm not particularly powerful, even though I know some of the power I do have comes unasked-for and with a load of guilt. I know there have been times I've used it badly, and I hope I've learned from that. Every time I read one of the stories of Jesus, I have to stop and think about how it is reflected in my life -- or should be. I have been given a tiny portion of authority by virtue of my baptism. It's my job to use that power for good, whatever is needed.

I think Jesus expects all of us to do that by using what power we have collectively and individually to work to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 13, 2015.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Centurion's Faith

Gospel for the Commemoration of Ini Kopuria

 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour. - Matthew 8:5-13

What a story! We're really accustomed to reading the stories of Jesus healing people by touching them, putting dirt and spit on their eyes, even one woman who just touched the fringe of his cloak, but here is a story of curing at a distance, and of the faith that prompted it.

Roman centurions were been seen by the Jews as the enemy since they represented the occupying army in Israel. Roman soldiers kept the peace, but they were also paid from the assessments from the Jews, taxes such as a man named Matthew and another named Zaccheus collected. It earned them the despised name of collaborators. Jesus wasn't put off by their titles or their professions. He had dinner at the home of one, and called the other to be one of his disciples. It isn't surprising that Jesus would offer to help a centurion although the man was not an Israelite and most likely neither was his servant. Jesus rewarded his faith because his faith trusted that Jesus only need say a word to cure another who might be miles away.

I wonder -- if Jesus were here in the flesh today, would I have the faith to go to him and ask him to simply say a word to cure someone I loved? I think that would be easier than asking for a cure for myself. I know I can place whatever I want or need to in Jesus' hands and simply trust that he will take care of it, whatever it is, in his own way and time. I have faith for myself, but when it comes to others I want to be a bit more active, more helpful, rather than simply saying, "I'll pray for you." Prayers are appreciated, but so are casseroles, trips to the store, and sometimes just plain companionable silence.

The Centurion had faith for his servant, and he knew where to go for help. I wonder -- how did he know about Jesus? Where did his faith come from?  Can faith come from desperation? 

One thing strikes me: the scripture calls what Jesus did a healing. What I think, though is that it was indeed a healing, but it wasn't the servant who was healed. The paralysis was cured; it left the servant's body. The healing, I think, was with the centurion who was healed of his worry, grief and desperation. Perhaps he was also restored to wholeness in his heart and soul and that restoration was reflected in his confidence that Jesus could do what was needed. He put his need in Jesus' hands and left it there.

Whether I need healing or curing or just some peace,  I can look to the centurion as an example of taking problems to Jesus and letting him solve them. I've found it's easier to do the older I get. I could worry and obsess about my various diseases and problems, but I'm slowly learning that that does not really help. I never officially said, "Jesus, I can't handle these, so please take them over," but I've found I just surrendered them. Occasionally I take them back for just a short time, but I can again release them and feel healed if not cured. It certainly makes life easier.

I really like the centurion. He has a real grasp on when to use authority and when to use faith. I like the contrast of curing and healing, and it gives me a lot to think about as I go through my day. I look for where curing would help but also where healing is needed. I can also look for where I can be an instrument to help with those in others and to be open to allowing others to do the same for me.

Wherever he is needed, Jesus will be there, I'm positive.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 6, 2015


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Joan, Mystic and Warrior

For my first three or four years of elementary school I seemed to catch just about every germ, bacteria, and infection that came down the pike. Daytime TV was mostly geared to housewives who watched soap operas and not to young kids so it was sort of a last resort. Mama couldn't spend all her time reading me books or telling me stories, so about grade 3 I started reading books myself. I was hooked for life.

When I got a little older I found biographies of famous people, especially women. I read books about Florence Nightingale, Pocahontas, and, perhaps the most interesting, Joan of Arc. Pocahontas was a local girl, one whose story I knew just from people telling me the history of the area in which I lived. Florence Nightingale went to a war zone and worked to save lives of sick and wounded soldiers far from home. Joan, though, was different. There was a religious component to her story that intrigued me, so much so that when Mama went to an antique store where I saw a statue of a woman in armor, I asked for it. It may have been a Valkyrie, for all I knew, but to me, that was Joan and I wanted her to be a sort of guide and a presence.

Joan was a simple girl from a relatively small town, a "shepherdess on the green" as the hymn* calls her. She was basically illiterate although she could sign her name. What she had, though was a strong faith and a belief that God had something big in store for her. From a young age, she heard voices and saw visions of angels and saints, most frequently the Archangel Michael and St. Catherine of Alexandria, who gave her the challenge to save France which was in the grip of war between the houses of Burgundy and Orleans.  It was a formidable task, one that would surely daunt anyone, much less a young girl, but she had faith in God and her guides.

Joan broke a lot of the rules of normal behavior of the time. She heard voices and saw bright lights and spoke of them to others. To accomplish her task, she dressed first as a boy, then in armor. She talked with and persuaded princes and theologians, and led troops in battle. She got the Dauphin crowned Charles VII, and was captured in battle. The Burgundians  sold her to the English but she was returned to France where she faced charges of heresy and witchcraft and where she was forced to recant her statements about the voices and visions.

She was still in prison when she was tried again a few months later and this time she refused to recant, instead confessing her faith in the messages that she knew came from God and the gathering of saints. She was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1431. Twenty-five years later, her case was appealed and the Pope declared her to have been falsely accused. Almost 500 years later, she was canonized as a saint.

Today most people think nothing about girls who wear boy's clothing although boys in girl's dresses cause more than a raised eyebrow or two. Nobody thinks anything about people seeming to talk to themselves (or maybe God or someone else) because we're so used to people talking on Bluetooth or cell phones. We've gotten accustomed to hearing stories of saints and mystics who have heard voices or had visions back hundreds of years ago, but we are somewhat skeptical of people who claim the same thing today. We're much more aware of mental illness than mysticism, and possibly more comfortable with it as well.

But mystics live among us, usually unnoticed because they don't go around wearing an "I'm a Mystic" button or proclaiming their mysticism. They may not go around wearing armor and riding a white horse with a banner floating over their heads, but neither are they all hiding in dark caves or out in the deserts. What they all have, though, is faith and a desire for union with God. Even non-mystics can have that same faith and desire for union, with or with out the voices and visions.

We may not be called to lead an army, get a prince crowned king, or even something really heroic. Maybe we're called to march in support of a cause or volunteer to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Maybe we're called to help children learn to read or remind elders that they are not forgotten. We may not get the lights and voices, but we, like Joan, can find our passion and follow it, with a little guidance from God and a lot of faith that we can have a deep connection and we can find our ministries and missions.

Perhaps we can ask Joan to help us.

*Hymnal 1982, Church Publishing Corp. NY.  #293.

Originally published at on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 30, 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Going up, Coming Down

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. - Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20.

 I remember, as a small kid,  how I loved to hear Mama read and tell stories. I was sick fairly often so she spent a lot of time doing those. They captivated me, kept my mind occupied, and often sent me in to dreams where the words Mama read and spoke came to life.

Stories also serve as vehicles to convey information: the history of the people, important events, hero stories. the Bible is full of those stories conveying that kind of information in a way that people could learn from and pass on to the next generation. The reading today is only part of a much longer story, the story of the exodus from Egypt, but even part of a story can have a lesson in it.

There are a lot of stories in the saga of the exodus. This one is part of the run-up to the giving of the Ten Commandments; it sets the scene. The journey has taken them to the base of Mount Sinai, where God will give them the Law, but first God has a few words with Moses about a message to be given to the Israelites about what God had done for them and would do for them if they agreed to obey God and keep God's covenant. They had been freed from Egypt and could be God's chosen people if they just agreed to do as God wanted.

Three days after that, God woke the people with a rather spectacular reveille that certainly got their attention. They gathered at the very foot of the mountain and there they watched as Moses talked with God and God replying with thunder and trumpets. Then God summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.

Whether or not we have ever climbed a real mountain or not, we use metaphoric mountains to describe stages of our lives. Any worker who began at the bottom and has worked his or her way up the corporate ladder could just as easily have said they climbed the corporate mountain. Same with sports figures and performers of all kinds. Climbing the mountain is work, hard work, but the view from the top is breathtaking. Often intensely spiritual experiences are called "mountain-top experiences."  Jesus had several mountain-top experiences beginning with his temptation in the wilderness and probably culminating with the meeting with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration.

Moses surely had a mountain-top experience as he climbed to meet God. There seem to have been several such journeys up and down, going between God and the people, hearing God's words and taking them down to the Israelites below. It must have been a sort of physical elevator ride, the constant going up and coming down, but it was necessary.

Reaching the mountain top is a feeling like none other.  It's exhilarating, energizing, perhaps reverential. From the mountain top a person feels like they can see what seems like the whole world and they own it. There's a closeness to heaven in that place, whether one is actively seeking a closeness to and with God or not.

One thing is certain, though. No one can stay at the top of the mountain forever. Like Moses, the person must come down and go about the daily life they had left when they began their ascent. Chances are, though, there is a bit of change in them somewhere as a result of the journey, something that remains with them that they could share with the world, like Moses' bringing the words of God to the people. He had to come down the mountain to do the work he was given to do; he couldn't do it from the top.

We all have work to do, especially after we visit the mountain top. We have a new perspective, a new job description, a new calling that needs our attention, study, and sharing. Perhaps we found our faith a bit deeper and richer, perhaps we found God a lot closer, perhaps we found some answers to questions we didn't even know we had. But just think -- what if we had never gone up that mountain?

As Newton once said, "What goes up, must come down."  We all need trips to the mountain top now and again, but we also need to remember that our work is done on the plain below, or perhaps in some valley that has needs we can fill. God doesn't always speak with thunder, lightning, and trumpets. Sometimes God speaks in a breeze that rifles the hair or in the wide vista from the mountain.

Moses went up and came down, once with a glow that was so bright he had to wear a veil so that people wouldn't be blinded. We may never encounter that phenomenon, but we can be so changed inside that people can see it. Or, better yet, we can see it in ourselves and our actions reflect it.

I think it's time for a mountain-top experience. There are enough mountains, literal and figurative, around for everyone to go up, experience and come down renewed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 23, 2015.