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