Monday, March 26, 2018

The Eloquence of Silence

The Eloquence of Silence



Jesus died and then there was a long, long silence. The silence of his death leaves us uncomfortably bewildered.  

Yesterday, during the March For our Lives, Emma Gonzales stood before the hundreds of thousands and myriads more on Television. She described in excruciating detail the death of the 17; their names and their  “nevermore”.

Then there was a very long awkward and bewildering silence, like the silence in the aftermath of a school shooting.

When my dad died, it was Christmas. I was eight years old at the time. I was bewildered by his death and simply didn’t understand I would never see him again. When I went to bed at night there was nothing but silence. Long, long hours into the night, I cried myself to sleep afraid; “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”.

The Death of Jesus.
Death at Parkland.
My dad’s death.
The long, long bewildering Silence.

Christians still March for our Lives showing forth Jesus’ death until he comes again.
Young people March for our Lives until the adult world hears them and protects them from violent death.
I Marched on for my own life, wondering if I would ever see my dad again.

To this very day, Christian folk March for our Lives around the globe with Palm Branches in their hands. I loved church palms when I was a child. I loved gathering with the church in the garden where we blessed the palms then marched around the block and into the holy place.
Years and years ago I marched for civil rights and an end to a senseless war.
And yesterday millions marched and myriads more on Television witnessed the dawning of a new day in American History.

And Emma stood there in silence, perhaps the most eloquent silence ever spoken in the history of American oratory. 

Years ago as a child, I cried myself to sleep in Silence as I prayed. There was no answer. Until one day on the way home from church I pulled a solitary leaf off an unkempt city hedge and pressed my thumb mindlessly into the girth of that leaf. As I looked down at the chlorophyll stain left of my thumbnail, I realized, that leaf gave its life for me and that’s when I heard it.

Something in my heart of hearts; no voices, just a sense within me seemed to say; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for the love of your dad!” It was then that I gave voice to what I heard in my heart; I spoke out loud. “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for the love of your dad?”. 

Of course, I checked it our with my grandmother; who was the ultimate authority in theological matters in my young life. And so it came to pass that I decided to become a priest.

And to this day, I will tell all who will listen to me and many who won’t; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in God’s heart for you and those you love.? No exceptions. Period!”

There is a long, long bewildering Silence at the death of Jesus, or students at Parkland or my own father.

If you listen closely to the Silence, the Eloquence of God’s Voice will speak. But you must be still, absolutely still to hear The Voice of God. 

It speaks to us from the Cross.
It spoke to us yesterday in Emma’s Silence.
It spoke to me when I was a child on the way home from church one Summer Sunday. 

Be still and learn with me that the Silence has a Name.
I learned that the Name of the Silence is God.
I learned that the Name of the Silence is Jesus.
I learned that the Name of the Silence is The Holy Spirit.



Fr. Paul

Monday, March 19, 2018

OMG! Am I a Unitarian?

Oh my God!
Am I a Unitarian?

In the Name of God, the Most Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity! Amen.

Last Sunday somebody thought I might have some Unitarian leanings because of some of the comments I made in my sermon. I do think thoughtfully about the Biblical narrative and I do question biblical literalism. So I can see how some might think that of me. My paternal grandmother was a Unitarian Universalist, so there is something of all that in my blood. But I am an Episcopalian so this whole business of the Trinity is very important to me. It makes me very comfortable to be in a Church dedicated to the Triune God. When my grandmother asked me to bury her, when the time came, I told her that I’d have to use the Trinitarian formula. I was younger then and a bit singleminded in my own theological bias. My grandmother looked at me with her piercing eyes, smiled and then very firmly but kindly said; “Buddy (that’s what they called me then) you bury me by whatever formula makes you happy!” Spoken, I might say like any true Unitarian Universalist.

St Patrick is said to have explained the Trinity by using a three leaf clover. It has three distinct leaves and yet is one; The Three in One and the One in Three! On the other hand my maternal grandmother often said; “Never in Two’s but in Three’s.” That applies to a whole wealth of wisdom and is at the heart of so much human experience. I’m not as smart as Patrick, I cannot “explain” the Trinity but I know in my heart that God is my Creator, Jesus is my Savior, and The Holy Spirit is a whole other dimension of God. She is the “Hagia Sophia” in my heart. She is the Gift Giver and the Holy Wisdom from on High. The word “Sophia” is a lovely feminine name.

The word for Spirit in Hebrew is “rucha, ruach”. Just listen to the sound of it and you can hear the breath or the winds of God. In Greek the word for Spirit is “pneuma”. It also suggests breath and wind. In the Hebrew the word is in the feminine form, in Greek it is in the neuter. The Spirit of God is unseen yet powerful.  In English we derive the word pneumonia from “pneuma”. The struggle for breath is as critical to life itself as the ease with which we take it for granted day in and day out. It has been said that God is closer to us than the very next breath we take. Deep sigh here!

Another word for the Holy Spirit is “Parakletos” is our counselor; someone who will come to our aid as an Advocate. and Guide. 

And in Eastern Christianity there is the notion of this “Hagia Sophia”, Holy Wisdom. She, is closely associated in Orthodoxy with the idea of the Holy Spirit and also with the person of Jesus. In fact the Great Church in Constantinople (now Istanbul) is called the “Hagia Sohpia”  and stood for a thousand years as the center of Eastern Christianity. 

The very concept of the Triune God is multifaceted. Not only as Father and Son, God also reaches out to us in the feminine dimension as well. I will tell you this; that it was both grandmothers who guided me to God. They were consummate storytellers. It was through the art of the story that they communicated the experience of God. God is made known to us in the Story, God’s story as well as our own. That story is given to us in an Anthology of stories called the Bible.

To me the idea of God has a very real feminine dimension, this in spite of the fact that the Church tends to name God Father to the exclusion of the other side of who God is. The totality of our experience of God requires the totality of who we are as human beings; male and female. For example we are after all created in the image of God. As we are told in the very first chapter of Genesis (vs 26 & 27)
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...
So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.”

By the way this is the First Creation Story, the one in which God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Second Creation story begins with the fourth verse of the second chapter and tells us the story of Adam and Eve. It is the story of disobedience and alienation, the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Things went from bad to worse in the second story. We had nothing of this in the First Story. You will remember that God rested on the Seventh Day and with a wonderful sigh of satisfaction called the whole creation “very good.” These two strands of thought weave their way through the Biblical Narrative. And from time to time we find ourselves one side then the other of that story; sometimes perfectly at one with God and the created order, at other times very much at variance, in violence, and alienated from from one another, from God and even ourselves.

In today’s Gospel the Greeks say they wish to see Jesus. I know I do and so do you. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. But then when we do, in a few short verses, he is deeply troubled and in agony with God and wondering if he can be delivered from the suffering he is soon to endure. He answers his own question. “No, it is for this reason that I have come into this world. “Father, Glorify your name”.  Interesting juxtaposition there! The glorification of Christ, the Gospel tells us, is in lifting him up on the cross where he can be clearly seen. Thus all the world will be drawn to him. 

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us; “he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

This is a compelling idea and not at first easily understood. Friends, it is through suffering and obedience that Jesus becomes the source of eternal salvation for all who likewise obey him. 

What does it mean to obey Jesus? It means more than saying those two syllables; “Je-sus”, doesn’t it? I would suggest to you that it is in the “Imitatio Christi” as Thomas à Kempis put it. It is in the “Imitation of Christ”: that we learn obedience; yes, and suffering too. We learn to love the unlovable: the outcast, the poor, the lame, the sick, and the mentally ill. We learn to forgive the unforgivable both our friends and our enemies, and most difficult, we learn to forgive ourselves. It is in learning to reconcile the irreconcilable; a most dangerous place to be. Peacemakers are often asked to pay dearly for that work.

I will tell you this of my experience of living in God. It is most often when I surrender that I find God most able to salvage something of my life. Ask anybody in the Twelve Step program and you will learn the same thing. I was once at the center of a controversy over building a homeless shelter in a suburban neighborhood near Charleston, West Virginia. There had been zoning disputes, law suits and even a death threat, but when my executive director ran up a $40,000 bill unbeknownst to me or to the board of directors, I had to fire him. It seemed as though all was lost. I gave up! I threw in the towel as it were. But lo and behold, the Bishop, the Diocesan Council, and the local bank would not allow me to fail. The Board of Directors and some very dear friends rallied around me and held me up!

We built a homeless shelter and it continues to provide housing for 28 persons every single night to this very day. 

It is a funny thing about suffering and surrender. It is the central truth of the cross that in radical obedience to God and in total surrender with or without suffering, we find our way to eternal life. 

Likewise at the very end of life itself, in great weakness, in total surrender, and often in much suffering, you and I and our loved ones all find our way with Jesus to eternal life!

The Prophet Isaiah said that the days are surely coming when God will write a new covenant, but this one will be written not in stone but within our hearts, and then the scripture says; “I will be their God and they shall be my people”.

So then dear friends am I a Unitarian or a Trinitarian? I know God my creator, I know Jesus my savior, and I know the Holy Spirit, The Holy Wisdom both my Grandmothers once taught me to love. And I know how to tell a good story!

You are living eternal life now dear friends! What is your story with God? Practice telling it to one another. The world is waiting for us to Lift up Jesus so that there may be some salvation. After all, the world is in a sorry state is it not!

In the Name of God, the Most Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity! Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Snake Handling

“Snake Handling!”

In the Name of One God; the Most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen

When Joshua, #2 son, was well into his rebellious teen years, he came one day to the church’s Adult Bible Study. The class was open to everybody including the intellectuals as well as to the more evangelical sorts, and all the rest. There was some discussion of a biblical story that stretched our credulity, I do not recall just now which one it was…perhaps the one about Jonah and the Whale, but my son expressed some doubt over the literal truth of the story. One of the more rabid evangelicals in the group admonished my son to believe or else. Josh, being Josh, chose the “or else” option.  Then he tossed the bible on the table, somewhat irreverently, and said; “It’s just another book!” The evangelical expressed outrage and a vigorous discussion ensued, folks lining up on both sides of the literalist divide. that was way back when in West Virginia, where such discussions were not unusual. I found the whole thing delightful. 

I was so proud of Joshua and said so. He insisted on thinking! I encouraged him to think critically about everything. I encourage everyone to think critically!
Joshua loves to read. He always did. All books are sacred to him. He comes from a very long line of people who think that way. The Celtic monks, for instance, who transcribed much of Western Literature during the so-called “Dark Ages” preserved much of what we have left of the Classics, not only The Bible, but also the Greek and Roman Classics. All written words are sacred. 

I introduced Joshua to the Gilgamesh Epic so he would know that the Biblical Narrative is based, in part, on literature predating it by many centuries. Written as early as 2100BC it is the earliest Epic poem known to scholars. It contains a Creation Story and a Story of the Flood. It deals with the quest for eternal life and the fact of death, the search for deliverance from oppression and injustice and other such Biblical themes. 

The literary fragments of the Bible, the stories, ideas and themes, all come together over a very long time. The Pentateuch, The Histories, the Wisdom Literature, the Psalter, the Prophets and so on were at long last collected into a set of scrolls we call the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Then of course there was the Christ event, the Pauline record of interaction with Christians throughout the Mediterranean world, the Gospels, and that curious Book of Revelation written during the first persecutions so often misinterpreted and misunderstood. The word “Biblia” from which we derive the word “Bible” means library. It was not given to us via some sort of Divine Federal Express delivery system. The Bible came to us over time and from many sources.

There are stories that do stretch one’s credulity from time to time, and we have one in today’s Hebrew Scripture. The story of serpents in the wilderness is a case in point for me. Especially, the part about God asking Moses to take a serpent and lift it up on a Bronze Pole.  Anyone who got bit by a serpent, merely by looking at the pole would be just fine! Oh really!

Still there is something in the story that seems to “catch” something of our nature as human beings. We complain. That’s understandable for folks wandering in the wilderness. There was no food, no water, and they were facing death. Just try living a few days without power in the Merrimack Valley and the see what happens. It is downright dangerous to upset the well defined routine of the general population. Tragically, it seems, there is always someone who dies from carbon monoxide poisoning or suffers a heart attack from over exertion shoveling heavy wet snow and the like. The serpents who bite are not just the kind we might find in the Ancient Near Eastern world. There are “serpents” of all sorts that can “bite” into human vulnerability during our own wilderness experiences in the wake of these Nor’easters that have assaulted us recently.

We erect our own bronze poles and warn one another about the proper placement of generators and over exertion when you get to be my age and beyond. 

If we understand the Sacred Writings at their deeper and more metaphorical levels we have much to learn from them. As my dear friend, the late Professor Harvey Guthrie used to say of the Hebrew Scripture during my seminary career; “We do not take the Bible literally. We take it seriously!”

So too it seems did Jesus. As the story stood in the Sacred Writings so it stood for him as we read in today’s Gospel. “Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The vast majority of Hebrew scholars down through the ages understood every word of Scripture as informing the meaning of all the others. In today’s Gospel the Rabbinical mind of Jesus referenced the moment in the wilderness when Moses lifted up the serpent. 

What is going on here in this Gospel? Think about it. Jesus understood that he must suffer. He understood that we must all suffer. When we ask why God allows us to suffer, we ignore something central to the Gospel. The very symbol of our salvation is the Cross. Jesus did not find a way around suffering. Jesus found a way through it!
And note this. The juxtaposition of the lifting up of Jesus with the next sentence in the Gospel is striking. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
How compelling is this proclamation for us. Suffering and redemptive love exist entwined in a living dynamic. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it but that the world might be saved through him. 

Do we love the world like Jesus did? Or have we become so jaded and cynical that we capitulate to the darkness. It is tempting do so so. But we are children of the light. 

Which brings us to today. Unfettered gun violence in the streets; the nation’s schools, concerts, movie theaters and churches! And the hammerlock held on Congress by the NRA! The prospect of a conversation between the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. If that doesn’t shake your soul I don’t know what will. How can any of us talk about salvation in our current historic context? Rising sea levels, and one hundred year storms every few weeks it seems…I could go on.

But listen; “God so loved the world”. Imagine it! If God so loved the world why wouldn’t we? If the snake in the wilderness is lifted up, and if Jesus is likewise lifted up, perhaps there is hope that we might love the world like God did and does still. In fact God requires it, under the authority of Jesus, you and I shall love the world as much as he did. And we shall we love one another as much as he did.   And as the old spiritual put it; “We shall overcome!”

And how much did Jesus love the world? That brings us back to the cross, doesn’t it? Redemptive love and suffering become a unified dynamic in Jesus. Lift him up dear ones so that all the world might see. He stretched out his loving arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

The fulcrum on which the love of God turns on how much we are willing to love the world and one another.

We are all God has left. I am persuaded that all who dwell in the darkness of sin and self will remain there until they see some glimmer of light. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle; “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” 

But you are the children of Light. You are the repository of the Dream of God. Let your light so shine before others that they may see the good you do and glorify the One who came to save us.

You see, salvation is not a fait accompli, a done deal, as it were.  It is rather a Way. It is the Way of Jesus. It is the Way, the Truth and the Life. You cannot get there, or be there on the Way unless you are filled with the love of God and the love of one another. 

Joshua and I still have our faith and our doubt. They live side by side along the Way. Funny thing though, when the chips are down Joshua calls me for a prayer like the day his best friend was in a very serious automobile accident. We spent the night in prayer keeping the vigil of hope against hope. Thank God I will be officiating at Chris’s wedding later this May. Chris too is now a child of faith. I prayed of course and then I encourage Joshua  and Chris to pray too. Thus we journey on the way, the truth and the life together.

In the Name of One God; the Most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen

Fr Paul

Monday, March 05, 2018

Overturning Tables in The Temple

In the Name of One God; The Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity.

“Over-turning the Tables in the Temple!”

What a Sunday to begin! Somebody; if I start turning tables over at the coffee hour, remind me not to take the Bible so literally!

My son David is the Senior Warden at St. Mary’s Church in Dorchester. So last week being my last “free” Sunday for a while, we worshipped with him and later went to brunch. Naturally, I had to search out the indoor plumbing. You know you’re in Boston when you go to the “men’s room” and discover it is not the men’s room after all. Where you would typically see the universal symbol for men or women on a bathroom door, instead you see a symbol half of which is for the male of the species, and the other half, female. The sign below the curious symbol reads; “Whatevah”.

The conversation we’re having in the church and the culture around it about gender and orientation is reaping interesting and renriching ways of looking at one another. I hope we are also learning that the old pigeon holes we put each other into are beginning to disappear. 

The phenomenon is not new to us. It is as old as the Gospel. St Paul put it this way; “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” ~Galatians 3:27,28.

When Paul references “Jew and Greek” he is not merely speaking of those two racial/ethnic delineations, he is speaking of all races and ethnicities. “We are all one!”
When Paul speaks of “slave and free”, he is not only speaking of those with freedom and those without, he is speaking of all folks in every economic class; rich and poor and everyone in between. “We are all one!”
And when Paul speaks of “male and female”, the same spirit is present. I would argue that Paul speaks up for all of us in the entire rainbow of human identity, inclusive of the LGBT community, which for so long has been persecuted and marginalized inside and outside the church. Did you not notice? There it is; right at the outset, in the beginning, as it were; the Gospel proclamation; “We are ALL one!”

Jesus overturned many tables and not just those in the Temple that day. The Gospel overturns our whole way of looking at one another. The Church Jesus planted overturned the tables of all human hatred. Right here at the heart of our love for one another; Jesus places himself on the Cross. Race, class, gender, orientation; this is not how Jesus saw us. Like an old Arab woman once told us when on Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in answer to the question; “What is the color of God?”

She replied; “The color of God is the color of water!” 

Today’s story; The Cleansing of the Temple occurs in all four Gospels. In John it occurs at the outset of Jesus’ ministry in the second chapter, and sets the tone for his whole life. In the Synoptics on the other hand; Matthew, Mark and Luke the event occurs at the conclusion of Jesus ministry. The confrontation of Jesus with the money changers and the Temple Authorities seals his fate and in a few short days there is a trial, a crucifixion, a death and a glorious resurrection! Talk about turning the whole world upside down!!!

I remember when we were in Seminary we fought for civil rights. Jonathan Daniels, a senior student had been shot to death the previous year to my matriculation, for protecting a young black girl. Violence and guns have been around for a very long time and has taken a vast toll on human life. We alone among developed countries kill one another off at the alarming of rate of tens of thousands each year. When I returned from Canada to attend seminary, gun deaths there could be counted in multiples of 10. Still can. Why is that? The young people of Parkland High and our Bishops call us to action. What part of “Thou shalt not kill” do we not understand anyway? Bad enough that there are well over 300,000,000 weapons out there. Worse still that we do not execute the full measure of the Second Amendment which calls for “A well regulated militia”. Until we make sure that the Second Amendment exists under the authority of that clause, the slaughter will continue. Folks we need to join the kids from Parkland and “March for our Lives”!

During the struggle for racial equality John Burgess was elected the first Black bishop in the Episcopal Church. He ordained me a priest in the church of God more than 45 years ago. I thank God for that for so many reasons. His consecration raised many an eyebrow among lots of white folks. 

Then it fell to us to begin exploring the possibility of the ordination of women. The church had fits over the ordination of the Philadelphia eleven and the Anglican Communion has yet to get over it in many quarters.

Then there was this. My uncle was what we called then “a confirmed bachelor”. This was way back in the 1950’s. More recently two of my children broke it to me; “Dad I’m gay”. One was afraid of how Cindy and I would take the news. The other told us to take it or leave it. More recently, I officiated at the wedding of one of Cindy’s sisters and her partner is another woman and they too love one another very much! Good heavens, and I say that advisedly, I’ve been around the LGBT community all my life. If ever there were a non issue in our family, this is it. Yet, in some quarters, the Church and the culture around it have gone downright apoplectic over the idea of celebrating God’s embrace of all people. 

We’ve been over turning tables in the Temple for a very long time. By what authority do we do this? Under what authority did Jesus make his whip of cords and chase out the money changers and those who traded in pigeons and the like? 

In the synoptics, when Jesus cleansed the Temple he told them plainly; “My House shall be a House of Prayer for ALL People” (emphasis mine). Jesus did not pick that turn of phrase out of thin air. He quoted scripture to show by what authority he did these things; specifically Isaiah chapter 56. The prophet considered the question of foreigners and eunuchs in the household of God. Both the Levitical and Deuteronomic Law Code separated foreigners and eunuchs from the sacred assembly. But not Isaiah and certainly not Jesus!!! Listen to this passage from the Prophet Isaiah; 
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
   ‘God will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
   ‘I am just a dry tree.’ 
For thus says the Holy One:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   I will give a monument and a name
   better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off. 
And the foreigners who join themselves to God,
   I will bring them to my holy mountain,
   and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
   for all peoples.”
And then in the next verse the Prophet says;  
“Thus says the Holy One,
   who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
   besides those already gathered.”

There have always been persecuted outcasts among those God loves and cares about. God requires care and love among us as well. Lots of folks don’t like foreign folks, and want to build walls to keep them out. I often wonder how high that wall needs to be since so many foreign folks get here by air. Antipathy to the “other” has a long history. My grandmother used to say that it was the Irish who ruined Boston; which tells you what she thought of my dad. And she made me promise on the family Bible, that I’d never marry an Italian. I promised. I later broke that promise. But that’s all right. Ma has all that straightened out now that she’s in heaven. “Don’t you, Ma?” 

Foreign folks have often been given the cold shoulder here and around the world: and too the “eunuch”; those who raise gender and orientation questions. Talk about cold shoulder!

To our credit the Episcopal Church has handled these matters with something approaching Grace, albeit with the notable occasional brouhaha. 

The world doesn’t get what we’re doing sometime. Neither does so much of the church. As Paul so well puts it in today’s Epistle. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” And “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

The core proclamation of today’s Gospel is: “We are a House of Prayer for ALL people”. This is because when Jesus stretched out his loving arms on the hard wood of the cross he did so in order that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. 

God may surprise us from time to time in delightful kinds of ways just as happened last week after I returned to the lunch table with Cindy and David. “You’ll never guess who I met in the bathroom just now!” It doesn’t matter any more. Jew or Greek, slave or free, it doesn’t even matter any more if we are male or female. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord and we shall always be “A house of prayer for ALL people”

In the Name of One God; The Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity.