“Unpleasant questions”

“Unpleasant questions”

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 14, 2019

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

Good Samaritan

In the Summer of 1995, I was in Paris on the 14th of July-Bastille Day. I was spending the Summer studying written French at the Catholic Institute of Paris. After having lived in New York City for several years at that point—in the Throgg’s Neck Section of the Bronx, I had decided that Paris was a rather “tame” city by comparison.

All of that changed on Bastille Day. All at once if felt as if though the city “exploded.” Suddenly the streets were unusually full of people. There was a kind of martial fervor which seemed to me to be decidedly “un-French.” The tricolor seemed to hang from every balcony, window, and door. It was a sea of Red, White, and Blue. And then there were the parades—they seemed to take over almost every neighborhood which I visited during the day. Even more astonishing was the view of the Champs-Élysées. At first it was full of sirens from police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. But then, it was crowded with tanks—and their “wheels” were chewing up the street as they processed towards the Arc de Triomphe. And, then the planes flew overhead with tricolored plumes of smoke trailing behind. And all around were bands—soldiers in uniform, marching and playing “La Marseillaise.” The police officers on the sidewalks and the soldiers who were not playing instruments were loaded to the gills with munitions-bayonets, rifles, and submachine guns. What had happened to the cultured, sophisticated, and genteel French citizenry that I thought I knew and understood? How had they been replaced by this frenzied crowd crying that the “bloody standard has been raised!”? Remember that this was in the days before September 11th. And so, I had never seen anything like this in my life.

Bastille Day helped me to realize that there was another France. A France which was the product of the Revolution—of the Reign of Terror. It was a country of storming prisons and guillotines in the public square. And Paris was the epicenter of that reality. When the Revolution broke out the largest and most elegant public square was called the Place de Louis XV. In the days following the storming of the Bastille, the statue of Louis XV was torn down and the square was renamed the Place de la Révolution. On this site Madame guillotine reigned and the streets overflowed with the blood of aristocrats including that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. At the end of the Revolution as a cry for peace, healing and reconciliation the square was renamed the Place de la Concorde, “The Square of Concord,” so close to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. Each of the names of this square tell us something about the reality of France. It is almost like witnessing one of those shows in which three persons claiming to be France are interviewed and try to convince us that they are the “real France”-the old regime, the revolution, and the new France. Will the real France please stand? Paradoxically, all three rise to their feet!

Truth is not always easy to accept. It is at times more complex and nuanced than we would wish. It is filled with both good and bad—with moments of bliss and with moments of despair. There is often light, but at the same time there is darkness—and many shadows. So much depends on what we look for, on what we choose, and on what we allow ourselves to see. It depends, in fact, on the questions that we allow to be asked of us—and on how we choose to answer them.

There are two pivotal, inter-connected and painful questions in our Scriptures. There may in fact be more, but these two are really at the heart of our self-understanding and form the foundation on which our awareness of morality is based. At first glance they appear to be simple questions. We are well catechized to give the correct answer. We know what it is, or at least what we are expected to answer. And because both questions are part of a story about someone else, it is quite easy to miss the point that the stories raise. These are not simple questions at all. And they are not ultimately stories about anyone else. They are stories which force us to stare the mirror and to ask, “What does this story say about me as an individual and about the various communities of which I am a part?”

The first story from the Hebrew scriptures, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, is the story of the first murder-of the first fratricide. It is based on that question which God addresses to Cain regarding his brother whom he has brutally murdered in a fit of rage and jealousy. “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Am I my brother’s keeper? What an unpleasant and difficult question for Cain. The very last question he wanted to hear. Because the truth was more than he could accept or endure, he tried to avoid answering by asking a question to relive him of responsibility. Am I responsible for Abel? God, though, would not let him off the hook. He forced Cain to admit the truth. He had killed his brother. Was this premeditated murder? It certainly seemed planned. And yet, who knows? Did anger, and resentment and jealousy so cloud his judgement that he acted in ways that he never meant to do? The only thing which we do know is that God did not demand Cain’s death as well. He was punished—by exile but was given a mark of protection to prevent anyone else from doing to him what he had done.

The answer to this story is that yes, we are our Sister’s and Brother’s keepers! Yes, we are connected to every living person—they are family to us. If we fail to love them, and care for them; if we fail to respect their intrinsic worth and treat them with dignity; we have failed the moral test. The danger is to try to find an easy way out. Oh, we could say, this is a reference to our biological families. I am obligated to care for and to love the children of my parents. I have a responsibility for them. Others, though, can take care of their family, of their people. I am not responsible for the care of everyone! We know, of course, that this is the kind of splitting of hairs—of casuistry—that gives law codes a bad name. This kind of thinking looks for a loophole, and exemption, a way out. This does not apply to me, or to us. I am not responsible; we are not responsible. And so, this lets us off the hook. I will care for my family, my friends and my neighbors as best I can. Someone else will have to take care of that situation. A very amusing modern way of articulating this is “not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Between Genesis and the story which we hear today in the Gospel according to Saint Luke is the account of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The “Law of Moses,” we are told by Orthodox Jewish Scholars, actually contains 613 laws. Then ten, which are included in the story of the tablets, really are a summary. They want to make a clear point: as individuals and as a community of faith, we are connected to God and to each other. And so, this summary of the ten commandments tries to make sense of what that connectedness is and of what it means for us. The danger, of course, is that for those who are looking for an escape or a loophole, they can claim that these laws only apply to their community. They only prescribe responsibilities to those who are their neighbor. In this narrow legalistic, casuistic view, these commandments say nothing about connectedness to those outside the community as it is legally understood. To be clear, the prophets utterly and totally reject that view. Jesus was by no means the first person, nor the last, in the Jewish context to broaden the notions of family and of community. And yet, for those who would be his disciples and followers he does in a way that is clear, unambiguous, and binding.

For Jesus, no loophole is ever acceptable. Every person is our family member, and every person is our neighbor. Case closed!

I find it fascinating that the story of the good Samaritan is told in response to an interaction with a lawyer who wants to “justify himself.” Avoiding the temptation to say anything at all about lawyers—one of my dearest friends is a lawyer, and also a priest, and a monk!—the lawyer is brave enough to ask the question which everyone is thinking, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer takes us by surprise. He asks the lawyer what the Torah, what the law says. This is one of those amazing interactions in which Jesus connects with someone in the perfect way. He allows the lawyer to enter into the discussion using concepts and ideas which make sense to him. He is most comfortable speaking about the law—after all, he has spent years thinking and studying the law. He has no doubt seen all the ways in which the law has been applied and used. But, our text tells us that the lawyer asks the question to test Jesus! Perhaps the lawyer is taking the risk of seeing if Jesus’ teaching will make any sense in his own world. Will Jesus be able to speak to his life, and his experience, and to his concerns in a way that will make a difference. Or, will he discover that Jesus does not understand him at all. So, all things considered, this is a very important question.

The lawyer’s response is both simple and profound. It is clear that he is a person of deep faith who understands the imperative of the Shema, which he prays every day, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” But the, he takes it a step farther and adds, “and your neighbor as yourself.” In doing so, he shows that the understands both the story of Cain and Abel and the meaning of the Commandments.

When Jesus praises his response, the lawyer is happy. After all, lawyers are not accustomed to having people say nice things about them—then or now. But, Jesus takes the risk of pushing him further. He challenges the narrow and comfortable boundary which the lawyer has set up so that he can consider himself a good and compassionate person. He asks him to think outside the box, beyond the law, in ways that he has never done previously. He asks him to take those two concepts which he does understand—“love” and “neighbor” and to view them from God’s perspective. In doing so, I suspect that he shakes the lawyer to his core. Jesus invites the lawyer to realize that in God’s eyes, there are no limitations, no boundaries, no loopholes. Every person, without exception, is a family member and a neighbor. This is especially true of those who do not know, do not understand, do not like and perhaps fear! Not only are they deserving of love, they are also deserving of compassion and mercy!

I can not help but feel that we are all like this lawyer at times. We would like to be good, and to be thought of as good. We are prepared to do what we can, as long as we can do so safely and with protections. We are willing to occasionally volunteer and to make a small donation here and there for some good cause. But we really do not want to be inconvenienced. We have our plans for the day, and for our lives, and do not want to allow anything to interrupt those plans or to throw us off the path. And so, we plead our case. We believe that we are doing the best that we can with what we have—within the safety of our “comfort zone.”

Jesus challenges us to do more. He invites us to cast aside our fears, our worries, and our reluctance. He invites us to realize that we are more than able to meet whatever opportunity which presents itself to be agents of encouragement, love, compassion, and mercy. I can not help but reflect on the very practical reality of the Samaritan. He knows exactly what to do. Why? Has he been beaten, and robbed, and abused? Or has this happened to people that he knows and loves? Has he learned not to leave home without a basic emergency kit? Does he not know what it means to be held and comforted and sheltered when he is hurting and in pain?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Who is the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho?” Is it Jesus? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are Black or Brown? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are LGBTQIA? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are from other countries who speak other languages? Is it our Sisters and Brothers who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic of atheists? Who is this person? Could it be someone travelling from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras to escape violence, oppression, and abject poverty? Could it be a child locked up in a detention center on our border?

As our Presiding Bishop and Primate has often told us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.” May we learn to love freely, fearlessly, and unconditionally. May we lean to love without expecting anything in return. May we learn to throw aside our plans and ask God, “What do you want me to do today? Help me to be useful. Show me how to make a difference for whoever is most in need.”

Jesus concludes with a plea to each of us and to us as a community of faith: “Go and do likewise.”

Note: Since I am not preaching in a community today, I had the freedom to take a different approach than I might normally do. This is what God is challenging me to hear today—and in church, I am sure that other words will strike me as well. That in all things, God may be glorified.

A Happy and Blessed Feast of Holy Father, Saint Benedict.

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“Holy Father Benedict, the Man of God. Blessed in word and in deed.” On this Solemnity of our Holy Father among the Saints, Benedict of Nursia, Patron of Western Monasticism, I send peace and love to all who honor the life and legacy of Benedict. Through his prayers may we seek and find God. That in all things God may be glorified.

Eternal God, you endowed your holy servant Benedict
with gifts of discernment and power to be a true and faithful guide
in the way of Christian perfection.
Instill in our hearts the virtues of stability and concord,
that our prayers may be fixed on you and our judgements may be formed
according to your great commandment of love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

From For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days According to the Calendar of the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada.

“Sustain me, 0 Lord, as you have promised.”

“Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised.”

A Sermon for the
Weekday Eucharist at 11:30 a.m.
July 10, 2019

The Feast of Saint Benedict,
Patron of Western Monaticism
480-547

Trinity Episcopal Church
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

HPSB 07-10-19

On the eleventh day of July at the Eucharist to commemorate the Solemnity of Holy Father, Saint Benedict of Nursia, the Patron of Western Monasticism, the monk who is to make his Solemn Profession of Vows kneels before the Archabbot of Saint Vincent in front of the altar in the Archabbey Basilica. He places his hands in those of the Archabbot and “in the presence of his Father in Christ and the monks of that community,” he professes to God the Solemn Monastic Vows—binding for life—of stability, of obedience (according the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict and the laws proper to the American Cassinese Congregation) and of conversion of life.

He then goes to the altar with the Archabbot and, after both sign the vows formulary, it is laid on the altar to symbolize the offering of the Vows to God.

Afterwards the now Solemnly Professed Choir Monk returns to stand in front of the altar. With the Community standing in unity with him, he holds up both hands to God and sings the Suscipe: “Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised that I may live. And disappoint me not in my hope.” This song of offering and commitment is sung three times, each time on a slightly higher note.

The notion that God is the one who sustains the “one who is truly seeking God,” is at the very heart of the understanding of the monastic vocation. It is derived from the personal experience of Benedict who dwelt in solitude in the cave until he was called forth to serve others as a guide and to lead them on the path that leads to God.

This is the foundation on which Benedict founded the “School of the Lord’s Service,” as he described the monasteries which he founded. But above all, it is in the actual quest-for-God that the monastic calling is upheld and sustained.

Benedict was unique in the practical way that he explained how God could be sought and found. Deeply impacted by the experience of the Prophet Elijah, that first “Man of God,”—who, following his greatest success found himself on the run from the evil Queen Jezebel (who had hired hit men to bring him in “dead or alive”),—hid out in a cave. Frightened for his life and shivering in that cave, Elijah discovered that God could not be found in dramatic external events like tornadoes, earthquakes and infernos. No, Elijah powerfully found God in quiet peace and solitude.

Benedict suggests that God may be found in community, in prayer, in quiet solitude, in work, in generous and loving hospitality and in service to others. Each of these elements offer an opportunity to become aware of the loving presence of God. Unless one is focused and knows where and how to search, God’s subtle and gracious presence could be missed. The quest-for-God requires discipline, focus, and—asculta,” that one  learn to “listen.”

Of all these elements, though, the most surprising might be “work.” As then, many today regard work as a “necessary evil.” As a popular song puts it “we work hard for our money.” In a society in which so many do not have a reliable employment which pays a living wage, work can be viewed as something which one is “forced to do to endure” in order to “just get by”—to “survive.” I recall, for instance, my Grandfather Cook telling me, when I complained about hoeing tobacco in the hot Summer sun, that it “was the punishment that Adam and Eve had brought upon us for sinning against God.”

Benedict, though, had a far more hopeful and optimistic view. For him work was something which should be joyous and fulfilling. One should be able to use talents, gifts, and abilities to be artistic and creative in producing something of beauty and value. He even goes so far as to suggest that an ordinary implement like, for instance,  a hoe which a gardener uses (or a farm boy in the mountains uses in a tobacco field) should be treated with the same respect that is given to the chalice on the altar. And if one is able to produce a surplus, it can then be used to share with those in need “so that in all things God may be glorified.”

In the Prologue to the Holy Rule, Benedict encourages us: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

On this feast of Saint Benedict, Patron of Western Monasticism, may we have the grace to seek and to find God. May God bring to completion the work we undertake to empower the Jesus Movement.

As we “progress on the road which leads to salvation” in this faith community, may God indeed sustain us in our call —as God has promised to faithfully do.

“El obrero merece su salario.”

El obrero merece su salario.”

A Sermon for the
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 7, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

In the summer of 1985, I had completed my first year as a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and was assigned to serve as the Director of the Greensboro Vicariate Migrant Ministry Program. I lived at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro, but the office was located at Holy Infant Church in Reidsville. It was an amazing experience—in so many ways a life-changing one. I spent a good deal of time driving in a beat-up car along the back roads visiting the migrants and learning about their lives.

Each Sunday afternoon, there was a Spanish Mass at Holy Infant. Various Priests from the Vicariate would come and preside and preach. In many cases, the parish in which they served would also come and bring a collection of food and clothing which the parish had assembled. And, they would provide a home-cooked meal for the migrants. It was a mini weekly fiesta. They were always a lot of fun.

Early one week, I received a surprise call from the Priest who planned to come that Sunday. In a very humble conversation, he shared with me that he was going to come that week because no one else was available. He admitted that his Spanish was pretty bad. He was willing to make an effort to “say the Mass” in Spanish, but thought that there was no point in even attempting to preach. He recognized that the needs of the migrants would not be served by having a sermon in English. So, he said, “I am willing to make you a deal. I will come and preside if you will preach.”

It was the last thing on earth I ever expected to hear! In those days, the formation program required five years of study–one year of philosophy and four years of theology. I had just completed the year of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. I had not even had any “official” classes in Scripture or Homiletics. I felt completely unprepared! Then too, I had no idea what to say. I felt comfortable that I would be understood in Spanish but was not sure that I had anything to offer that was really worth hearing. The kind priest told me to give it a try. And so, I did.

God often surprises me by working things out in ways that I do not expect. The sermon for that day was from the tenth chapter of Luke. I honestly can not remember a single word that I said that day. I will never forget what happened during that inaugural sermon, though. All at once I saw that congregation in a shockingly different way. As I looked out at those familiar faces which I had come to know over the few weeks that I had served in that community, I heard those words from the Gospel and they spoke to me in a most powerful way: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

It was as if my eyes were almost literally opened. I suddenly realized that those words, to me, were speaking about these people whom I had come to know, to admire, to love, and to respect. Many of them had shared horror stories of their journey from the middle of nowhere in Mexico to the middle of nowhere in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

They had shared stories of leaving behind everything and everyone they knew. They came to a new place—a place where they did not speak the language, were treated as sub-human, worked exhausting hours under the burning sun working in fields from sunrise to sunset. They took jobs which no one else wanted, lived in horrible conditions, and were paid very little. They did this to escape even worse situations at home—because they had to provide for their family. Or, because there was not work where they had lived before.

I suddenly realized that they were people of amazing and incredible faith. My own faith paled by comparison with theirs. They had literally done what the Lord said. They were able to bring nothing with them on a dangerous journey. And somehow, even without “purse, bag, or sandals,” they trusted that God would protect them and give them what they needed. I did not have that kind of trust in God. It was one of those transformative moments which completely changed my understanding of what ministry was all about.

I also realized that these were my Sisters and Brothers in Christ. They were members of my church—of my family. They had as much right to be present in that congregation on that day as I did—or as anyone else did—it was their church too! For them it was perhaps even more important to be there than it was for me. This was the one place where they were truly welcome and at home. Here they were not strangers, or aliens or foreigners. The fact that they were born in another country did not matter at all. I had a much clearer understanding of the universality, inclusiveness, and diversity of the “kingdom of God.” Suddenly things like national borders and boundaries seemed irrelevant and insignificant in God’s eyes—and in my own eyes as well.

As the summer progressed, I reflected on that gospel passage so many times! As I visited with the migrants—often in the evenings after the workday was over, I learned important lessons about hospitality and generosity. I was shocked to discover that my coming to see someone was a “big deal.” I was used to thinking that I was not all that important. For the migrants, though, I was “Padrecito,” or “el gordo.” And both of those terms were spoken with love—an endearment of the best kind because it was spoken with love.

They would so often stop whatever they were doing and throw together a meal. It might have been very simple—sometimes rice and beans served with fresh tortillas. But it was delicious! And they always made sure that I was served first—and had an ample serving. They had nothing! And yet, they delighted in welcoming me and in sharing whatever they had.

I came to realize that there was another passage from that Gospel that was just as important: “Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid

These loving lambs, working among wolves in rural North Carolina and being shamelessly exploited—because they had no legal protection at all—were the very embodiment of peace. But that last line, continued to haunt me—I remember the words in Spanish, “el obrero merece su salario,” “the worker deserves his wage.” It was at that point that I really began to understand the reality of injustice and exploitation. It was at that moment that I became convinced of the need to work for justice! These long-suffering, hard-working women and men (in a few cases, families traveled together), were not receiving a just, fair, or equitable wage. And that was wrong. That was a violation of the Gospel as I heard Jesus speak those words to me so clearly.

As I advanced in my theological studies, I was exposed to the rich history of work for social justice in the Roman Catholic Church. I read several encyclicals from various Popes, written over a period of more than one hundred years. I read some of the writings of John Paul II. He spoke about the need for families to earn a “living wage.” In his vision, each family would find work that they were qualified to do, which allowed them to use their gifts and talents, and which would pay them enough for adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care and education for the family. They would not have to work two jobs or three jobs. They would have time to rest and to spend with the family. They would be treated with dignity and respect—and especially if it was a less than desirable job which no one else wanted to do. I got it. I knew that he was speaking about my migrants!

I completely understand that we live in the tensest political world that I can ever recall. People in our country are divided in a way that I have never seen before. The lack of civility and actual viciousness and “meanness of discourse” is unprecedented. I am not here today to speak about partisan politics. The Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, though—as Saint Paul might say, “impels me” to share with you what I hear God saying about the reality of migrants on our borders and in our country. To love you and to be sincere with you, I have to share that truth. You are free to disagree with me—and I respect that. But here is what I have come to believe to be true.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael Curry recently expressed his understanding of what God is saying to the Episcopal Church in these words: “’We are children of the one God who is the Creator of us all. It is our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who are seeking protection and asylum, fleeing violence and danger to children, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. The crisis at the border is not simply a challenge of partisan politics but a test of our personal and public morality and human decency.’

Even as I am preparing this text (on Wednesday evening) our own Bishop Kevin just sent us a letter in which he wrote:

“I write to you this day broken-hearted. Vulnerable people, especially children are being mistreated, neglected, and are, tragically, even dying at our nation’s border. What is happening at detention centers is inhumane, deplorable and counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who tells us, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Since being called as your bishop, I have gathered with so many of you. As we have renewed our baptismal promises, I am often indicted by the words “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” I have been struck by your commitment to the communities you serve and your generosity of spirit. I imagine as you see news of these tragedies occurring within our own country that you may be confused, hurt, and seeking ways to ensure all people, and especially vulnerable children, are safe, secure, and receiving the care that they need.”

He goes on to provide simple and direct ways in which we can individually and collectively make a difference:

  • Partner with the Diocese of Texas to send supplies to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX.
  • Support Immigration Ministries in the Diocese of West Texas.
  • Join Partners in Welcome, an online learning and networking community from Episcopal Migration Ministries that works to support refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Learn more about immigration and refugee resettlement from the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.

Bishop Kevin concludes with this appeal: “And I also encourage you to pray–pray for the people who are being detained, especially the children. Pray for those who are entrusted with providing care. Pray for the people who are ministering to them. Pray for our country and its leaders.

Let us continue to reach out in love and strengthen the bonds that unite us.”

Dear friends, let us truly be a community of prayer. Let us also be a community of action. The worker deserves a fair and just wage. The migrant deserves to be treated with love and respect—and with welcome! This is Wisdom. May we be truly attentive.

“Our Gotterdammerung.”

“Our Gotterdammerung.”
A reflection on the Fourth of July
July 4, 2019

When I was a student in Avery County High School—I was probably a sophomore—I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I had seen the movie. It may have been one of those things in which they broke it up into episodes which lasted a week. But, I do not really think that I understood a lot of what was going on.

I read it because I had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. And I wanted to try to make sense of what that might have meant. As an aside, I have said elsewhere that I studied history to try to understand my family—and theology to try to understand myself. While I have made great progress in both those endeavors, I still have a long way to go.

Interestingly enough, I read the book, originally, because I thought it was pro-South. That impression was based on a very superficial viewing of the movie. I quickly discovered, though, that the novel was far more complex than I had imagined—and far more honest than the movie was able to be at the time. I guess it has been fifty years since I read it. I imagine that if I had the time to read it now, I would view it through far different lenses! And, I can not help but wonder how Margaret Mitchell would tell the story if she was writing the novel today?

The one lasting memory, though, was that of disbelief. I wondered, even then, how was it possible that the Southern Planter class—the aristocrats–had no idea what was coming—that the war would literally bring to a dramatic and quite surprising end, their very way of life. They were clueless! I seem to remember too that the only Southern person who had some notion of “reality” was Ashley Wilkes. He spoke about the gotterdammerung—the “fall of the Gods.” And for him, that was as good a metaphor as any. I guess I had a sort of love/hate relationship with Rhett. I started out really disliking him—but by the time the book ended, I had a much better appreciation for him!

In college at ASU, I had the opportunity to take a fascinating class called “The Road to Hitler.” Again, I encountered the surprise that those in the latter days of the Weimar Republic seemed completely unaware where things were headed. They foolishly thought that so much progress had been made that it would be impossible for the “rule of law” to be overturned. They failed to recognize the threat that Hitler posed until it was too late. More recent scholarship, though, has pointed out how very popular Hitler was with a huge section of the population. And really, that had to be the case, otherwise he would never have been able to manipulate the system as he did. Cabaret also gave an amazing insight into what the glory days of Weimar were like.

While living in California, in 2004-2006, I came to an interesting realization. The U.S. that I had known and which I just assumed would continue “as is” was changing in ways that I did not like and did not understand. When I thought more about it, I came to realize that ever since the birth of the “Moral Majority” and the advent of Reaganomics, the country had begun to divide and to become polarized. Now I did not remember the late 60’s—I was born in 63. But I did remember people in my family were affected by Vietnam.

And when I saw the reality of Guiliani’s administration in NYC—cracking down on diversity, attacking the homeless, the increase in subtle (and not so subtle) violence against People of Color (mostly Black) and migrants—and the LGBTQIA community, I realized that the city was beginning to feel like a “police state.” 9/11 had a way of hiding this reality, because the city “united.” This made it even more difficult to address the problems without being accused of being “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” I am sorry to say that, at that time, I did not have any Muslim friends. I can only imagine how terrible that time must have been for them! I do remember the reality of living in a Dominican Republican neighborhood and beginning to hear the words “La Migra” for the first time. I was well aware of the impact and virtual terror the phrase imparted.

Today, I have the real sense that we are in the “dying stage” of the U.S. Empire. I feel that our “reign” as a “superpower” is coming to an end. It seems to me that a majority from my native Southern Mountain culture has become so frightened by this—and by the prospect that they are quickly becoming a minority—that they had made the conscious decision to accept whatever means are necessary to either slow-down the inevitable. Or, they have a dream of “turning back the clock” to the way things were. That is not going to happen. Those days are “gone with the wind.” That “boat has already sailed” and I am not just “Whistlin’ Dixie.”

If we are at the final stage of our own Weimar Republic—and I honestly think we may be—all that is needed is a catalyst—a “Reichstag fire.” If that happens, the Republic—weak and “hog-tied” as it is—will be overthrown. Either a dictatorship, or an actual Empire will be the result. If that happens, the concentration camps on the border–for largely innocent and harmless people fleeing from intolerable situations which our own policies have helped to create—will become the norm. Except now, they will be expanded and will be filled with political prisoners and “deviants.” As a gay man, I know, all too well, the history of the pink triangle.

When I have shared these fears, some have thought that I might be alarmist—or unduly pessimistic. I honestly pray that they are right. But more and more, things are happening which frighten me. The rhetoric against Latinos, and the concentration camps for migrant children; the rise in police violence towards Black People; the violence towards the LGBTQIA persons—and especially Trans persons of color: these things frighten me!

I was attacked on a subway in NYC by a young man saying homophobic things to me in August 2017. I was knocked unconscious, had a black eye, and required ten stitches in my mouth. No one came to my aid during the attack, or afterwards. So, I know firsthand that violence is simmering just below the surface. I will not be surprised to see blackshirts or brownshirts or “redshirts and hats” prowling the streets and looking for people to “control” “intimidate” and “put in their place.”

We are at a moment of decision and crisis as a country. I honestly have no idea how things will go. But, based on my reading of history, I do not expect the best. Will we return to the McCarthy area with the compilation of lists? That would certainly appear to me to be the “writing on the wall.”

I had the blessing of attending a presentation by the amazing historian and thinker Martin Dubberman (famous for his history of the LGBTQIA movement in NYC prior to and after Stonewall). He said in his remarks something like, “I am no longer a progressive. I have now become a revolutionary.” I hope that I am not misquoting him. In any case, he seemed to have given up hope that the present system could be repaired. He had come to the conclusion that the “system” was so broken that it needed to be discarded and something new created. I can understand why he would say that.

Is there hope? The Episcopal Church gives me hope. Our Presiding Bishop has talked about a return to essentials—about becoming a “Beloved Community,” the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” I am on board with that. Honestly, it is the only thing which has offered much hope at all. If that transformation, rebirth, and reformation are allowed to take place it will prove to be a very painful process. Many will be unwilling or unable to go all the way. But, the result will be well worth the price to be paid. We are making progress on that journey. But, for it to come to fruition, it seems that political stability will be needed. Otherwise, we may well plant seeds which may only sprout “after the deluge.”

I do believe that God is in control. Yet, God is not a magician and chooses to work through us–and through our decisions and actions. May we choose wisely, act justly, and “with the help of God,” truly live out our Baptismal Covenant. In that case, we will realize that even though “old things” have passed away, the “new things” which God has prepared for us are even better than we could have hoped for or even imagine.

“More than Conquerors”

“More than Conquerors”
A Reflection for Pride Sunday

June 30, 2019

When troubles come knockin’ at your door
Don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before.
Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down
Cause you don’t have to worry anymore!

We’ve been made more than conquerors,
overcomers in this life.
We’ve been made victorious
Through the blood of Jesus Christ!

“We’ve been made more than Conquerors” by the Rex Nelon Singers

The one thing which I treasure most from my Southern Missionary Baptist childhood in the Blue Ridge mountains of Northwestern North Carolina was my exposure to Southern Gospel Music. It was from this music that I first learned many important things about faith and God—things which have stayed with me ever since. It really is interesting to reflect on how often these songs continue to impact and influence me. They have given me hope and encouragement at times of difficulty and confusion. I will certainly acknowledge that my theological understanding has changed, even dramatically, but the essentials which I still find in those songs has not.

Of all the groups from my childhood, the one group which I may have loved most was the Rex Nelon Singers. I found their music inspiring, joyful, and comforting. Although I love many of their songs, and especially “Victory Shall be Mine,” the one song which I have listened to more than any other is “We’ve been made more than Conquerors.” The lyrics are inspired by the Eighth Chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome (which is, by the way, one of my all-time favorite passages from the Christian Scriptures). This song is not just a recapitulation of the passage from Romans, though, it explains how that passage—and the hope which it promises applies to our lives. And it is for that reason, that I chose to begin this reflection today on Pride Sunday with those words.

Growing up in the country, I had never heard of Stonewall—and do not think that I even knew that it existed until I was in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, many years later. It is quite possible that I had encountered a reference to it along the way, but really did not have much of a sense of what it might have been about until later. Even though I did not know the history of the LGBTQIA rights movement, I had some very clear ideas about the impact of the movement in the rural South.

I had just entered into the first flowering of my sexual awareness and identity when Anita Bryant burst onto the scene warning of the dangers of the “radical homosexual agenda.” It would be impossible to describe the impact that her movement had in the Baptist world of my childhood. All at once, Southern Baptists became aware of and frightened by “queers.” Until that point, the two dangers which had most occupied their attention were “drinking” and ‘Godless Communism.” You could be sure that almost each revival (usually one in the Spring, before we got busy with farming, and in the Fall, after the tobacco had been harvested-but before we began grading) would have at least one night devoted to those issues.

All at once that changed. Now, preachers began to warn us that “degenerates” and “deviants” were set out to destroy the Christian Family. After Bryant was successful in getting some protective legislation overturned in Florida, Baptists began to celebrate. Now they did not go quite so far as to have a “victory dance,” (after all, “we don’t drink, dance, smoke or chew—and we don’t run with them that do), but they came pretty close. To my shock and horror, they seemed to become fixated on the details of gay sex and of gender identity! The clear consensus what that “homosexuality was a lifestyle” and a “choice,” and that “queers were sinners who needed to repent and accept Jesus.”

And this began to unfold precisely at the moment that I faced the unavoidable realization that I was—and am—gay. To this day, I do not know if many people knew, at that time, that I was gay. If so, they never mentioned it to me. I heard all the regular macho bullying things in school. But they did not seem to be addressed specifically to me. I may not have appeared to be especially effeminate? Or, it may have been that because I was so clearly a person of faith, that they just chose to ignore it. I would love to learn more about that time and about how I was actually perceived—but I may not ever have that opportunity.

It was only later, after I had the opportunity to live in larger “Northern” cities that I actually encountered the safe haven of the “gay ghetto.” That was of no consolation to me during my years in high school or in college.

I went through a period of intense spiritual torment and suffering. I became convinced that I was so deeply flawed that it would be impossible for God to love me. I became convinced that my sexual desires and longings damned me to an eternity in Hell. There was nothing that I could do about it. I pledged that I would fight those desires with everything in me—and that I would never act on them. But, of course, that was impossible. And when I gave in to temptation—in the very few and mostly innocent and harmless ways that was even possible—I fell into despair and depression. I was lonely, miserable and contemplated suicide. It really was a miracle that I finally had the opportunity, in college, to begin counseling. What a miracle that was! For the first time in my life I came to believe that there might be hope after all.

My own experience as a repressed gay boy from the Southern highlands is by no means unique. I later learned that many other young men like me were suffering in similar ways in mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim families. We experienced angst in the country, in villages, in towns and cities. This happened in the South, in the North, in the heartland of the U.S. and on the West Coast. It was an experience for LGBTQIA persons in every part of the world. It was only worse in those areas where same sex activity was punished by strict laws and enforcement. I was, at least, spared that. Ironically, I later came to know and to realize that there had been far more going on in many of the communities in which I lived, moved, and had my being than I had known at the time. I was truly naïf.

For most of my adult life, I was “closeted.” The decision to live as openly and unabashedly gay man took decades. In the end, it meant making the choice to leave behind things which were precious to me. But, I came to realize that in order to achieve wholeness, integration, and health (mental, physical, and spiritual), I had to be honest. I realized that I was gay, and had always been gay. This was not a choice—it was who I am. Interestingly enough, it was only as a result of having a partner for three years that I finally came out to pretty much everyone.

This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. It is not at all ironic to me that it was the most radical members of our community who finally stood up and said, “No more.” In those days, they were called “drag queens.” Now, we understand that some of them were Transgender. To be clear, though, the gay men who were able to “pass” had little incentive to protest. Unless they were “caught in the act,” and were arrested, they seem to have been pretty much resigned to accepting their lot. It was only those persons who were never going to fit in or be accepted who were willing to take the risk of being even more vulnerable. Without them, Stonewall would never have happened. The great irony of that is that they were just as persecuted within our community as outside it. Gays who were under attack were quite willing to “throw them under the bus.” Too may of us wanted to assimilate and be accepted. They wanted the right to be truly free-and paid the price for it. In doing so, they won freedom for the rest of us.

Perhaps the bravest person I have ever known was a person who went by the name of “Kitty.” Later, I learned that Kitty had probably been born with ambiguous genitals. For whatever reason, the decision was made to raise “him” as a boy. He shocked and scandalized, even as a child, by choosing to “cross dress.” The abuse and insults to which she was exposed for most of her life far surpassed anything that I ever experienced. I remember when a report was given that a group of men from my church had visited her home to witness to her about Jesus. I can only imagine what that must have been like at the time. One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not have the courage to be a friend to Kitty. Years later, I attempted to reach out to her. I learned, to my great sadness that she had died. I do not know the circumstances surrounding her death, but imagine that they may have been horrible. I do not think that she ever escaped to a safe haven. Even if she had, she still wound have faced oppression, persecution, abuse and torment.

It may have taken almost fifty years, but finally it became possible to people to marry the person whom they love in our country. Not every place makes that decision easy. Not every congregation is willing to bless such marriages. And, there remains persecution in towns and villages, on farms and in many work places. But much progress has been made. I would like to believe that a day will come in which people were not be judged for the color of their skin or for their gender or orientation. If that ever happens we will truly be overcomers.

The song reminds us: “When troubles come knockin’ at your door, don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before. Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down, cause you don’t have to worry anymore!” We are not there yet, but we have come farther than I thought would be possible in my lifetime. And, I have every reason to hope that the “long arc of history” will move in a direction of affirmation, empowerment, and inclusion. I am committed to do all in my power to help move in that direction.

When all is said and done, I honestly believe that it is truly the grace and love of God which has made this progress possible. As people of faith have come to recognize, acknowledge, and repent of prejudice—healing has become possible. It seems unlikely to me that even on the farms in the mountains it would be as difficult for children like me or like Kitty these days. At least I desperately want to believe that is so. I do not think of myself as the LGBTQIA poster child. But I can not help but hope that my openness about my own experience might be helpful to someone who needs to hear it. My own struggles could be a source of hope for someone like me who struggled to reconcile my identity with faith.

The one thing of which I am absolutely sure today is that God loves me—absolutely, totally, unreservedly and unconditionally. I am also convinced that has nothing to do with anything I have ever done. It is because God has created me as good and worthy of love, respect and dignity. And that is equally true of every single person who has ever lived or who will ever live.

I joyously sing—with modification: “We’ve been made more than conquerors–overcomers in this life. We’ve been made victorious through the all-inclusive, transformative, reconciling and healing love of Jesus Christ.”

A note—on Sunday I did not have any responsibilities in my own parish family, and so (for the 50th anniversary of Pride) I intentionally chose to gather with my LGBTQIA siblings at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem.

MCCLV

This coming Sunday I will return home to be with my church family of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, PA.