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.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

True Martyrs

Commemoration of the Martyrs of Sudan

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 116:10-17
Hebrews 10:32-39
Matthew 24:9-14

It's a bright, sunny day with comfortable temperatures. It's the kind of day where it is hard to think of anything but good things like cute babies, fluffy kittens (or frolicking puppies), vacations at the beach (or the mountains), hot dogs at the ball park, or beer at the 19th tee. It's a nice day for kids to be playing soccer or baseball, or biking with their friends around the nice, safe neighborhood. It's a good day, the kind people daydream of as they go about their normal work week.

It's hard to think about people in places that are very different, places where kids can't play outside because the area isn't safe for them--or for anyone really. They are homeless because someone whose politics or religion were far different decided that there needed to be changes, either governmental ones and/or religious conversions, either by choice or by force. Their homes and businesses are in ruins, they may be living in the midst of rubble or an overcrowded tent city with inadequate food, water and sanitation. The people there would probably like to think about baby animals, soccer games, and safe neighborhoods, but their reality is something very different.

There are many areas of the world where the different reality is clear, but today we mark the commemoration of people in one particular place, Sudan. Until it gained independence in 1956, the British had ruled the country with an arbitrary border intended to keep the peace but which, in fact, lead to much of what we see today, namely religious conflict. The British assigned the northern section to the Muslims and the south to more diverse ethnically and religiously-based groups. After the independence, the uneasy tension between the two halves of the country began to tighten and civil war became the name of the game for the next forty years. Beginning in the 1980s the Islamic government of the north increasingly enforced Sharia law and extended that influence into the south. We still see the results on the news almost nightly.

The Sudanese Martyrs represented all levels of society from military and religious leaders to ordinary people, all who refused to give up their Christian beliefs and convert to Islam as they were being pressured to do. Over the last few decades, Christians like them have tried to survive in what is now South Sudan, but in the course of that struggle two and a half million people have died as martyrs, four million have been displaced, and another million have been scattered around Africa and in other parts of the world, including the US. Religious buildings and schools were razed, and safety for Christians was  and is almost nonexistent.

The conflict continues with no end in sight. The Sudanese martyrs chose to follow Christ, as did the early Christians of Rome and the Mediterranean area. They followed to the death, just as many Christians around the world as well as in South Sudan are still doing today.

We hear people talk about others as martyrs, mostly because the ones under discussion are doing something difficult or unpleasant without a lot of complaining or boasting. Another popular use of "martyr" is from those who insist they have all the right answers and beliefs and feel put-upon because other people disagree with them and refuse to join with them. The verbal conflict can get very loud and heated, but usually the war of words does not cause fatalities that would truly make martyrs. Words, though,  often escalate into action.

There are Christians under very real attack around the world and we watch, horrified, as churches, temples, shrines, and schools are bombed and burned, children are murdered along with their parents and grandparents, and survivors are uprooted and forced to flee to places where survival is a genuine struggle. All refugees are not Christian nor are all martyrs Christian. Many die for their particular faith, unlike those who claim martyrdom because others won't accept their beliefs or faith. That pseudo-martyrdom seems like a copy from a printer that is almost out of ink.

We have had our martyrs, people who have died because of their beliefs and their following of their beliefs when others were intent on crushing their visible practice of those beliefs. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the little girls in Birmingham who died when someone bombed their church. They weren't intending to be martyrs but they became innocent ones. Martin Luther King, Jr? Definitely a martyr. Fr. Mychal Judge, who ran into the maelstrom of the 9/11 disaster? He chose to face possible death to practice his faith and bring help and comfort to those most in need at that moment. Nuns earned the crown of martyrs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Liberia because others felt they were dangerous as did Bishop Oscar Romero. The list goes on and on.

There are lots of examples of true martyrs, including many outside the Christian faith. We must never feel we have a lock on martyrdom. We have to be careful to make sure we use the word not as a cheap play for pity or agreement but rather as an accolade for those who have truly given their all rather than simply giving in to pressure. The martyrs of Sudan are our reminders today of the price Jesus has called us to pay, a price he paid himself because a he was thought to be danger to them the Temple and the Empire. He was just living his faith and teaching about it, and that, to his enemies, was dangerous.

Today's collect reads:
O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Those are words to carry with us today and every day. We never know when we may be forced to make the choice the martyrs made. May we be as strong, brave and faithful.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 16, 2015, under the title "The Martyrs of Sudan."

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction
.  - Wisdom 7:7-14

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate book. It's a rule of life,  an authoritative guide, a library,  a source of teaching, and, even though the word is used overly in the Bible, a source of wisdom. Solomon is considered to be the inspiration if not the author of several books considered in the category of "Wisdom books" although the Wisdom of Solomon is considered part of the secondary canon (deuterocanonical) by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, non-canonical but approved for study if not for doctrine by Anglicans and several other mainline denominations, but totally without approval or even mention in a great number of protestant churches.

Today's reading is about wisdom and the treasure that wisdom is. Wisdom is something that most people equate with being smart or being intelligent, but a lot of intelligent people don't seem to have a lot of wisdom while some of our most innocent members, small children, seem to have unexpected wells of it.

To the writer of the book, wisdom is the ultimate goal. The pursuit of wisdom was more important than anything. Christians often say, "Oh no, salvation is the most important thing."  That might be, but we need wisdom  in order to be able to live out the rest of the biblical mandates that are certainly a road to the kingdom Jesus wanted us to build on earth.

I remember being a teen who thought I knew a whole lot more than my parents. I don't think I was the only teenager my generation to have that thought, nor do I think I invented the concept either. Wisdom frequently comes with age. We don't like to admit it but, "We grow too soon old and too late smart," as the Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes.

Many societies treasure the elders, their oldest people, because they have lived life and they have accumulated wisdom about how to live and be in the world they inhabit  even though they don't or didn't have what we would consider book learning at all. They were treasured because they knew a lot, and could  pass this on to the younger generations, who, hopefully would listen and pass it on in their turn. This ensured the survival of the group and their particular way of life.

 I compare this traditional kind of respect for elders and their wisdom to what we seem to be addressing today in our modern world. Elders today are often seen as useless idea-blockers who resist almost any kind of change,  seeing it as a threat to their power, prestige and position. Jesus represented change and new ideas, hence he was a threat to the existing power structure. Change isn't necessarily bad, not if it evens the playing field or advances what can be done to benefit all people, not just a select few. Still,  new ideas may need to be tempered with the experience and wisdom of those who have learned through living, making mistakes, and finding solutions to those mistakes.

No single socioeconomic group has the corner on the wisdom market. Some of the wisest people in the world may not be able to read textbooks or pass exams but they know their territory, know how to survive and thrive in places and situations that their more educationally-advantaged brothers and sisters probably don't.  On the other hand, being poor doesn't equate being wise because a lot of poor people make a lot of poor decisions, based on what's most expedient, or that it is simply the only thing they know to do. More education can lead to better choices. Better choices make for greater wisdom. It's that simple.

That our generation is  willing to risk our children's future on cutting important things like education budgets, food programs, health care for the poor, Medicare, veterans' services and others, shows that we are not really very wise stewards of what we have been given. It also goes against pretty much everything that Jesus taught which we, as Christians, are supposed be wise enough to pick up on and follow. "A workman is worthy of his hire," fair wages for all, care for the women, children and orphans, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners, burying the dead -- the Bible is full of such precepts. It is about living for and with others, not what each individual can grab for themselves.

Where is the wisdom to be gained in denying children and young people, even older ones as well,  the road to wisdom to which one component is education. Tribal elders taught their young people the important things: the precepts,  morals,  practices,  faith, prayers, crafts, and all the other things that they needed to know to enable the younger members to understand who they were, where they were, how they got there, what they were expected to do, and how to build on that to advance or even just to exist successfully in their world.

 Wisdom is something to be sought, like the pearl of great price. Wisdom means taking the long view of things instead of the short term. Wisdom is balancing the good of all people against the good of the few and the detriment of the rest. What is our track record of obedience to that challenge from God? Not very good.

To truly follow the Bible we have to use wisdom, and we have to be wise enough to understand what we do in fact the affects the world around us whether it's tossing a pebble into still water or making decisions that will affect the lives of billions globally with trade, disaster relief, or even just coexist peaceful coexistence.

I wonder – where is today's wisdom to be found? What elders do we listen to for their wisdom gained by education and experience? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps it's time to stop trying to be so smart and concentrate on being wise. It would be our best investment and, I believe, something God wants and expects of us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 9, 2015, under the title "A Road to Wisdom."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Value of a Life

and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. - Matthew 10:22-32

Recently some friends and I paid a visit to a small zoo near where we live. We walked for miles, saw lots of animals, fed a giraffe (their tongue feels like a cow's, one person said), and were surrounded by lots of trees and birds, thousands of birds, both as exhibits and just plain ordinary everyday birds doing what birds do. There were really BIG birds, like the ostriches, and very colorful birds like macaws, peacocks and parakeets. There were lots of little birds too, flying free and resting in the thick foliage. They weren't colorful or particularly interesting, but they were there and very much a part of the panorama of life.

The reading this morning reminded me of not only the countless little birds I saw at the zoo but also the ones that live in my neighborhood. Sparrows, pigeons, and doves are plentiful here, and their calls are like morning talk shows when I go out walking around dawn. I read the familiar "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" and began to wonder -- why would anyone go to such trouble to catch such ordinary little birds, much less sell them to someone else?

By using the word "sparrow," Jesus could have been referring to any small grain-eating bird including swallows. They would be have had their feet tied and hung up in the courtyard awaiting the poorest of people for whom a penny's sacrifice was all they could afford. The Romans taxed their homes, lands and crops, the Temple taxed their membership as the chosen people of God, and then the sacrifice for sin, cleansing, atonement, substitution, or thanksgiving had to be made from temple-approved birds and animals, thus sort of a God-tax, since the sacrifice was given to God even though the money to pay for the sacrifice went into the Temple treasury.

The point Jesus was making was that everyone and everything was important, not just the wealthiest or the most eye-catching or the most powerful. Even the most casual perusal of the TV or media news is a series of disaster stories, whether man-made or nature-made. The news is full of death, damage, threat, reactions to threats and death tolls. At the end of each newscast, however, there's almost always a "feel good" story about a person or group doing something to help others in some way or who were rewarded for their service to others at a risk to themselves. It doesn't seem like enough -- maybe 1/20th of what we see and hear being something that encourages us to go out and help, to fight fear with action, to speak up for those who are voiceless.

If the lives of two sparrows are worth a penny, how much more would our lives be worth?  What is the value of a human being?  Depending on when in time you asked that question the answer would vary. Slaves had value, even though it wasn't their lives so much as their ability to work and produce income. Still, their lives had value to them. What about the innocent children killed in drive-by shootings in a turf war?  What are their lives worth?  What about the veterans who fought in wars and saw too much death and carnage to protect our freedoms?  The Native Americans, African-Americans, the differently-abled, the elderly, the orphans, the immigrants, the homeless, the GLBT?  What are their lives worth? How much do we value the invisible, the ones with nothing or little?

A human life is worth far more than a whole flock of sparrows to God, and it should be to us as well. Whenever a human is devalued,  it is like telling God that God's own measure of worth isn't accurate. The students are telling the master what is important and what is valuable.

What is the value of life?  What is the value of a forest, clean water, abundant wildlife, human dignity? What about honesty, trustworthiness, compassion?  Do we value those, especially in our fellow human beings? Or do we only care about our own interests, whether or not they are in accordance with God's teachings?

If God values the life of a sparrow, or anything else, how much more can we as humans be valued in God's sight? Do we have the right to say that this person or that one has little value to us because they aren't like us in some way -- physically, culturally, educationally, financially, religiously-- and therefore have no value to God? Would God prefer us to others who are not like us? Or would God take exactly the opposite position?

Jesus told us we have value. When are we, you and I, going to learn to see that value in all of creation and try to make it the kingdom of God on earth as Jesus taught us to do and God wanted us to do from the beginning? We may laugh at tree-huggers, but what would happen if we actually did it ourselves, hugged the trunk, felt the bark, touched the leaves other than to rake them up so the yard would look tidy?  What if we offered a homeless person a sandwich and coffee and not just a buck or two with the hope they weren't going to spend it on dope or booze?

There are millions of ways to celebrate life all around us, to validate the value of life in this world. We all have value -- so spread it around. Find someone and validate their value as a friend, co-worker,  mentor, family member, even a stranger as a person and a beloved child of God.

We don't have to be martyrs, just committed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 2, 2015.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cloaks and Wineskins

After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
 Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good." - Luke 5:27-39

You meet people in the strangest places, people who may at first seem just like everybody else but who become important people over the course of time. I'm not sure what Levi thought when a stranger walked up to him and spoke to him, but evidently there was a compulsion there that made Levi get up and walk away from a fairly lucrative if despised profession. It was a compulsion great enough that Levi even threw a big party and invited lots of his former co-workers to meet Jesus. We don't know if Jesus changed the minds of any other tax-collector, but he did collect Levi and gained a follower who also probably became a friend.

I wonder if Levi knew what he was getting into when he stood up from his tax-table. Did he call another collector to take over his stand? Did he take what money he had collected to another and ask that they get it to the proper authorities? Did he do the same with his tax rolls? Or did he just stand up and walk away from it all, leaving it to whomever noticed and might feel encouraged to lighten the amount the Romans would get as a result of Levi's work?

Levi became not just a follower of Jesus but, most likely, a good friend as well. He threw a banquet for Jesus where a number of Levi's former associates were present. This threw the scribes and Pharisees into a frenzy of accusations that Jesus was associating with Roman collaborators and sinners, people any righteous Jew would refuse to be seen with much less sitting down and eating with. Of course, Jesus got a reputation as a drunk and partygoer by associating with the outcasts, but in reality the scribes and Pharisees were just looking for evidence to use against Jesus who was a challenge to their authority.

Jesus had an answer for the scribes and Pharisees and, as was quite frequent, he used images to make his point. They asked why he ignored the righteous people he should associate with and instead dined and partied with people known to be outcasts and less-than-respectable citizens. In this reading, he used the images of cloaks and wineskins, both of which were common, ordinary objects. Everyone had a cloak and probably even a young child would know what a wineskin was.

The lesson was about practicalities -- and also about people. It isn't practical to ruin a new piece of cloth to patch an old cloak, or put unfermented grape juice in an old skin which has already been stretched and which might not withstand the pressure of fermentation of a new batch. The old saying about "waste not, want not" certainly would apply here. But when Jesus used the illustrations, he was talking about people, not commodities.

Daily we are surrounded by people: friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, total strangers and all sorts in between.  We don't have disciples like Jesus did (at least, most of us don't), but we do have people around us. Some are like cloaks; they warm us, they comfort us, they help protect us. They're the ones who patch the holes caused by rough treatment, loneliness, even down and out desperation, not with patches cut from new cloth but with love, caring and compassion. Others are like old wineskins with new wine put in; they have already been stretched and pressure from within makes them give way so that the skin ruptures and the wine is lost. These are the people who drain us of energy, who cause us pain and misery, or who represent things harmful to us. They may call themselves "friends" but these are not friends at all.

Jesus was surrounded by people too, some like warm cloaks, some like bursting wineskins. At times his disciples seemed like one or the other, sometimes seeming to change from one to the other in the space of the blink of an eye. What kind of friend swears they would die for you yet go and hide when you yourself are in danger? The disciples were like that, and we are not really a lot different. We celebrate when the bridegroom is present but hide when he is taken away. What kind of friends does that make us?

We as Christians claim friendship and discipleship with Christ. We quote him, we pray to him, we gather together periodically to celebrate his life and resurrection as we partake of the Eucharist. But when we walk out the church door, do we become cloaks or wineskins?  When we see people in need, are we cloaks or wineskins? When there are people in danger who need our help, which are we then?

Could we be Levis who walk away from a lucrative profession to follow a homeless rabbi and teacher? Would we throw a party for our associates and friends to introduce this rabbi to them as someone to listen to and to follow? That's putting away the wineskin and taking up the cloak.

Do we have the courage Levi did? 

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