Archive for January, 2016


January 17, 2016

“I have a dream.”  All across the country this weekend people are being reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  We can almost recite from memory parts of that speech: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…[And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…”

Today, however, it is the Episcopal Church that has the dream of making justice a reality for all of God’s children.  It is we Episcopalians who will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.  The prophet Amos spoke those stirring words in the 8th century BCE, and still, they are as stirring today as they were in the 8th century BCE or in 1963.

The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were King’s megaphone; ours are the mediaThe New York Times reported on last Thursday’s convocation at Canterbury Cathedral, where 37 archbishops from around the Anglican Communion suspended the Episcopal Church.  The headline read:  “Anglican Church Disciplines U.S. Episcopals Over Gay Marriage.”  What did the discipline entail?   For the next three years, Episcopal leaders will not be allowed to represent the Anglican Communion at meetings with other churches or other faiths, will not be appointed or elected to internal committees and will not be allowed to participate in decisions in the Anglican Communion “relating to doctrine or polity.”

For those of you who have not read the details, it’s important to emphasize what the Archbishop of Canterbury said.  He played down the decision.  “We don’t have the power to sanction anyone,” he said.  “It’s not a sanction; it’s a consequence,” he stressed.  Our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, said, “… it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion, we are the Episcopal Church.”

I want to make two points.  First, what a God-given opportunity this gives us to witness to our faith!  Second, how can we respond to this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury?  He said, “The church’s provinces, while autonomous, are “interdependent” and obligated to one another not to deviate from doctrine.”

With regard to the first point, witnessing to our faith, Jesus commanded us, his followers, to reach out to people everywhere and let them know that life has a transcendent, eternal dimension; that there is a God and the nature of God is only to love; and that, as Martin Luther King wrote, “…there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice….”

We followers of Jesus have had a tough time lately.  Christianity has been written off by much of the secular world; and even some of our own members are drifting away on Sunday mornings from the liturgy to the soccer fields.  But this week the media have given us a megaphone.  Suddenly the secular world has to hear that the Episcopal Church stands for justice and love; that our church believes Jesus’ message of mercy extends to all people, especially those who have been marginalized.

Our Presiding Bishop put it this way, “For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope.”  And he affirmed that the Episcopal Church will not go back on that.

One priest from Pasadena, California, is among the many who are speaking out.  She wrote in the Letters to the Editors section of the Times, “As a lifelong Episcopalian and a married lesbian priest, I think [the suspension is] not only an acceptable cost, it’s a badge of honor in some ways.”  Christianity, at least the Episcopal tradition, is going to seem a lot more relevant and important to people who had, before Thursday’s events, written us off.

But what about the second point?  We cannot simply rejoice about the opportunity this has given us to make public our faith and practice.  We must also take seriously the idea of mutual responsibility; that is, our denomination’s obligation to the other provinces not to deviate from doctrine.  How do we come to terms with this breach of our obligation?

We might think in terms of two stages of life, the formative stage and the transformative stage.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, reads the story of how Moses received the Ten Commandments as symbolic of these two phases.  Commandments, rules, laws, and norms are essential during the formative stage of our life if we want to become mature adults with a strong identity and a reliable character.  So is obedience essential.

However, we reach a point in our development where we are ready for an “open system and a larger horizon.” as Richard Rohr puts it, “so that the soul, the heart, and the mind do not close down inside of small and constricted space.”  This is the transformative stage, symbolized, as Richard Rohr sees it, when Moses received the second set of Commandments.  They may have read the same, but Moses, himself, was no longer the same.  He had developed into the transformative phase of life and become a real leader and prophet.  Only after he breaks the first set of Commandments and receives the second set does he see God’s glory, and only afterwards does his face shine.  Put it this way:  Moses came to understand that he could eat the apple, as God intended him to do, when both he and the apple were ripe.

This line of thought does not absolve us from the possibility that the Episcopal Church acted in error.  Maybe the apple was not ripe when our General Convention voted last summer to adopt a liturgy for gay marriage.  Maybe we should not have eaten.  This is the agony of being human: it’s always possible we made a mistake.

Let me close by returning to Paul’s words to the Corinthians.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit….”  The Episcopal Church firmly believes we have been given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; we have been given the utterance of wisdom and knowledge; we have been given faith by the same Spirit.  The Episcopal Church believes this; and equally it affirms the motto of Pope John XXIII:  “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; and in all things, charity.”  To those who disagree with us: charity.  To those who would like to sanction us: charity.  In all things charity!



January 11, 2016

The Danish have an old folk saying, “A beloved child has many names.”   When I heard that I thought of my grandfather who loved me very much.  He used to call me Susie Q, or Sunshine, but my favorite was Skeezix, after the comic strip kid in “Gasoline Alley.”  Skeezix, I knew, served as  code for “I love you.”

I’m drawing your attention to names, because one of the important feasts of the church year – the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus — falls in January, but rarely a Sunday.  So this sermon will  focus on the spiritual importance of names, including our own.  I’ll use this verse from Scripture: Revelation 2:17, where God says: “To everyone who conquers I will give … a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”  Mysterious, isn’t it?

First we need to ask what is meant by, “…to everyone who conquers.”  Have we conquered?  Are we in that group to receive a white stone and a new name?  Here’s the test.  Have I wrestled with my faith?  Have I doubted some of its teachings?  If the answer is: “no, I have never doubted; I have never needed to wrestle with my faith,” then I have not yet conquered.  Religion has not yet done its transforming work in me.  I are not yet ready to receive my white stone and new name.

On the other hand, suppose I answered, “yes, I’ve wrestled and I didn’t get any answers, so I’ve given up.”  This also amounts to failing the test.  So who will conquer and be given a new name?  Those who doubted their faith, questioned their faith, wrestled with it, got nowhere, and still wrestled on.  “O, God, if you are a God of love how is there so much suffering in the world?”  “O, God, if you are a God who answers prayers, why did my child die?”  “O God, can non-believers be saved?”  “O God, are you even real?”  Mature faith questions and doubts but keeps on living by faith.  Mature faith knows doubts and questions will arise to the very end; it knows that only in wrestling with them can we grow spiritually; it knows that conquering does not mean achieving answers, but overcoming the temptation to quit wrestling.

Let’s make no mistake.  This is not about who is saved and who is not; this is not about who is out and who is in.  We are all in.  We are all saved.  We are all loved equally, infinitely.  That’s a given.

We may be sure that Jesus conquered.  Who else in history wrestled with God so intensely, so intimately, so incessantly?  Who else achieved such spiritual insight that he could call God, Papa?  Say that he and the Father are one?  Even trust that in going to the cross he would triumph?  So how did the white stone and the new name play out in Jesus’ life?

I reconstruct Jesus’ life this way.  When he was born they named him Jesus, meaning Salvation.  He grew up with an unusual aptitude for questioning his faith.  Remember how his parents found him at the age of 12 at the temple in Jerusalem, debating with the elders and amazing them with his insights?  Then as a young adult, longing for an even closer walk with God, he went to John the Baptist.  There, at his baptism, he received the white stone with his secret name.  I picture the stone as a smooth, river-rounded stone that would fit in the palm of his hand.

Here we have to stop and acknowledge that the book of Revelation speaks in symbols, images, and metaphors.  A stone stands as a perennial symbol for truth, bespeaking what is solid and enduring.  In this sense it also serves as a symbol for our true selves – not our personalities or values or opinions, but for our deepest, eternal, true identity.  Even if we’ve never thought about this symbolism, many of us can remember picking up a particular stone, noticing its special attraction, and taking it home as a keepsake.  If someone asked us why, we’d probably say: it brings me comfort.

So at his baptism Jesus realized there was more to himself than he thought; he became aware of a deeper life within him, what we could call his true self, his eternal life.  The book of Revelation symbolizes this with a white stone.

What, then, about the new name that “no one knows except the one who receives it?”  Here again we are dealing with symbolism.  This new name is not a sound, and it cannot be written.  Think of it as your soul’s fingerprint — a code God lovingly imprinted to identify you, uniquely.  No one ever born or ever to-be-born has that same fingerprint.  Even identical twins, immediately after they’re born, do not have the same fingerprints.  So each of us is a unique, never-to-be-repeated expression of God’s love and saving power.

Why do I put it that way?  We know that Jesus’ given name means Salvation.  But what was the secret name written on his white stone?  That name told how God saves.  This is true for all of us.  My “new name” is my “action” name.  It tells how I, uniquely, will play a part in God’s saving action.  In Jesus’ case perhaps his secret name was “Trampling Down Death by Death,” as it says in the Prayer Book.  We cannot know.  Only Jesus and God know.

This helps me understand why the white stone and the new name are only received once we have conquered.  It requires a mature faith, a tested faith, to be ready to play a conscious, intentional part in God’s salvation.  Why?  Because until I am ready to live for the good of others and not for myself alone, I can only be of limited service.  I am not yet ready to seek out the fingerprint on my soul, and discern how I, uniquely, am called to serve.

Let me give you a rather obvious example of someone who gave evidence early on of where to seek for her new, secret name.  The primatologist, Jane Goodall, is known for her study of chimpanzees and for her love of animals and nature.  Jane grew up in London.  When she was 18 months old she lovingly collected earth worms, brought them home, and at night took them to bed with her.  We cannot know her secret name, but we might guess, in a general way, the unique part God called her to play in God’s salvation.

What about us?  Thomas Merton once wrote, “Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.”  This is not telling us we must earn that stone and secret name.  God assigned those to us before we were born.  God longs to give them to us; longs for us to be ready to receive them.  Some of us receive them early in life, some late; some receive them clearly, some have to keep groping.  No one is turned away.  Ever.

The fact that we are here in church suggests that all of us continue to wrestle with our faith.  We are ready to receive a white stone and a new name.  Some of us know our new name already.  Some of us are still seeking to discern it more clearly.  Yet all of us do play a part in God’s saving action.  The inexpressible beauty of living by our soul’s secret name may be compared to the fierce joy of hearing God’s all-loving voice call us each by that once-given, intimate name.  Hearing my grandfather call me Skeezix was only a tiny foretaste.