Banned Books, Banned People, Banned God

The Washington D.C. public library system has done a fabulous project this year for Banned Books Month.

They have constructed a scavenger hunt for banned books all around the city.

They’ve taken books banned by various jurisdictions over the years and put fake covers on them. These covers are plastered with labels that state the grounds for having banned them.

So for example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has a cover that says “ANTI-WHITE,” because that is why it was banned in Columbus, Ohio in 1963.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles has a cover that reads “FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

It’s a fun project that draws attention to a serious issue. Censorship is alive and well all around the world today.

For centuries regimes, governments and dominant majorities have tried to maintain oppressive statuses quo by controlling what people read and see and hear.

And if they control what we read and see and hear, they can control what we think and do.

It’s very comfortable to place all blame and responsibility for censorship on some far-off blank-faced Big Brother figure we call “The System.”

But a dear clergy friend of mine asked me a painfully insightful question as we talked about the gospel lesson this week.

“Aren’t we censoring our own worlds all the time? Isn’t that what the rich man in the story was doing his whole life?” Continue reading

Dishonest Manager Job Application

“You’re fired.”

One of our presidential candidates used to like to say that on TV, and that’s what the man in our gospel story today is about to hear from his employer.

This story in the Gospel of Luke is known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, and it’s honestly a little tricky for us to get our heads around at first.

When I found out this was the text I had drawn for my first sermon at St. Francis, I was afraid “you’re fired” was exactly what I was going to hear as soon as I got out of the pulpit!

But I have faith that we can figure this out.

Let’s review the facts as we know them. We start with two characters: the rich man and his manager.

Word on the street is that the manager has been embezzling funds and taking kickback, and the rich man summons him to his office for a pre-firing dressing down.

In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other type of job and he’d better lay some groundwork for his future.

So going to his master’s clients, he reduces their bills, thereby earning himself their gratitude and restoring his master’s reputation from someone who employs corrupt officials to someone who is generous with his clients.

We can follow up to this point. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe.

You would think that when the rich man found out that his manager had again cheated him out of money, he would call for the tar and feathers.

But no. Jesus said that the “master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What? Continue reading

Goodbye to St. Thomas and St. Luke’s

It’s hard to believe that this is the last time I’ll be standing in this pulpit as your parish priest.

We have been on such a journey together over these last three years, full of blessing and challenge, and I am so grateful for every moment.

There’s no way I can articulate everything our time together has meant to me, so I hope our hearts will speak to each other, as they ever have, and God will place us in communion together on this, our last Sunday morning together.

As ever, our scriptures come to our aid with guidance, truth, and the path for our future.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Paul tells us in our lesson from Hebrews.

Three years ago, we had many things we were hoping for. Continue reading

Transition: What to Do and How to Do It

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious and very helpful ways, for I could not have found two better scriptures for our transition reflection today than our epistle and gospel. They are perfect for where we are and what we need to talk about today.

The gospel tells us what to do, and the epistle tells us how to do it.

A priest who supervised me when I first got ordained told me that families are more who they are than ever at weddings and funerals.

What he meant was that in moments of life and death, all of their best qualities are exaggerated, but so too are all of their worst.

In times of transition, old fights and grudges reemerge, but so too do forgotten depths of courage and insight and grace.

I have found that this dynamic is true for church families as well.

So don’t be surprised if in the next few weeks and months, the fight about taking down the old stained glass window above the altar at St. Luke’s comes back, or the question of who exactly had the idea of taking down the altar rail at St. Thomas and moving the font up to the front.

As anxiety levels rise in transition, we start to get territorial.

This is my ministry, my area, my pet project, my meeting, my idea about how our church should go forward.

We start to take ownership, false ownership, over things and ideas and people.

It may help to damp down our anxiety, but it will not help our church at all, in the short term or in the long run.

A man in the gospel falls right into this trap. Continue reading

How and Why to Pray

Today we’re going to keep talking about what we need to prioritize in our transition time, and the number one thing we can do for ourselves and our church is pray.

Our gospel story today is from Luke, and we see Jesus praying, talking about prayer, and using prayer in his ministry in the Gospel of Luke more than any other gospel.

Luke tells us that Jesus “often withdrew to a lonely place and prayed,” (5:16), that he prayed on the mountainside and stayed there praying all night (6:12), that he prayed alone (9:18), that he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and thanked God publicly (10:21-22), and of course we know his prayers in Gethsemane and from the Cross.

Here in chapter 11 of Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to do what they see him do so frequently: pray.

We in the Episcopal Church are great at liturgical prayer. We have profoundly beautiful words handed down to us in the Book of Common Prayer that stir our hearts and bring us into the living presence of God.

We can find the sweeping majesty of God and the intimate comfort of God all brought to life between the pages of our little prayerbook.

We also use spontaneous public prayer, often at the beginning or end of meals and meetings, and it can be a great way to unify the hearts of a group in a shared experience, bringing that experience before God.

But we don’t talk enough about private prayer, and it is such a rich field of spirituality.

In fact, it is the lifeblood of our Christian walk. It is the way we communicate with God.

The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.

Sometimes trying to maintain an active prayer life can seem like a chore, but there’s a quick cure for that. Continue reading

The Gifts of Martha and Mary

Today we’re embarking on a unique phase of our worship life together. Today we begin our transition work in earnest.

I have four Sundays left in this pulpit, and my preaching task is as follows: to say goodbye, to tell you how much I love you and thank you for our time together, and to equip you for your transition time in any way I can.

We’re going to tackle those in reverse order over the next few weeks, using our lectionary scriptures to guide us in those tasks.

So let’s talk about Mary and Martha and what we can learn from them, not just for our everyday lives, but specifically for this unique season of transition St. Thomas and St. Luke’s are entering right now.

To do that, let’s start by talking about what clergy transition is like for a parish.

Transition is all kinds of things.

It’s exciting as the priest and parish look forward to the novelty of change.

It’s anxiety-producing as we face an unknown future and wonder how to tackle life without each other’s steady presence and familiar patterns.

It’s awkward as we try to decide what to say to each other—how much truth-telling is helpful and how much is just self-indulgent and divisive?

It’s full of grief as we say goodbye.

It’s simply full of emotion as we rehearse old grievances and old joys.

We give thanks for everything we’ve accomplished together and the ways in which we were so well-matched, and we mourn the goals we didn’t achieve and the ways we couldn’t fulfill each other.

It’s a holy mess, to my way of thinking, a sacred disaster, an exhausting miracle and a blessed train wreck.

It can bring out the worst in us if we’re not careful, but it will bring out the best in us if we allow it. Continue reading

The Good Samaritan: Admitting We’ve Been Beaten Up and Left in a Ditch

I will bet heavily that most of us in this room are used to casting ourselves one of two roles when we hear this story in our gospel today.

On the days when we’re feeling righteous and proud of our open-mindedness and generosity, we cast ourselves as the Good Samaritan. We think of some good deed we’ve done, especially if it’s for a stranger or for someone we don’t particularly like, and feel great.

On the days when we’re a little more in touch with our human frailty, we cast ourselves as the priest or the Levite, realizing how often we exclude others, how often we let convenience and self-interest trump service, and vow to search out opportunities to help people generously in the future.

But what about the man who was set upon by robbers and beaten and left in the ditch by the side of the road?

That’s not a position we ever want to picture ourselves in.

But what if that is part of Jesus’ point?

Besides the obvious lesson of helping our enemies, what if Jesus is asking us to admit our own vulnerability?

What if God is the Samaritan and we are the beat up person in the ditch? Continue reading

Orlando: A Letter to My Great-Granddaughter

Dear Great-Granddaughter,

This is your Great-Grandmother Whitney writing to you from the far away and strange land of 2016.

I know the technology you’ll be using will be so advanced that I hope you can still access and decipher a humble old Word document that is a letter from your recent ancestor. But I have faith.

It’s been a hell of a week.

I know these events will be ancient history for you, but for me and my parishioners, they’re brand new and fresh. We’re still reeling.

Last Sunday, a gunman entered a gay nightclub in Orlando and shot over a hundred people, 49 of whom died.

It’s the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and in a culture where mass shootings have become agonizingly common, that’s saying something.

Then there seemed to be something in the air, because terrible things kept happening.

A two-year-old boy was eaten by an alligator. A singer was shot and killed signing autographs after her concert. A British Member of Parliament was shot and killed meeting with her constituents.

A dear friend of mine from childhood received news that her father had been swept out to sea while kayaking with family in Honduras. Luckily, he was recovered safely after 18 hours alone at sea in a kayak, but most of the people in the news this week didn’t have happy endings.

And the climate of fear and anxiety and conflict has filtered down to all of us.

In church, at work, we are struggling not to pick fights and bring up old grudges and tear ourselves and one another down.

The reason I decided to write to you was because I was thinking of my own great-grandmother. Continue reading

The Ripples of Choice

This text from 1 Kings that we read this morning is a complete disaster. It’s just awful.

Ahab wants to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard, and when Naboth refuses him, a chain of events is put in motion that ends with Naboth being unjustly taken to court and stoned to death.

It’s just blood-curdling, how could anyone read this and call it Holy Scripture?

Well, I’m glad you brought it up. This is exactly what we should be reading in Holy Scripture.

Sometimes we as progressive Christians have a tendency to shy away from the more bloodthirsty parts of the Bible because they seem so far from our understanding of a loving, generous God.

But that is the wrong approach, and this is where how we view the scriptures becomes critically important.

In the Episcopal Church, we believe that the Bible was inspired by God, but the Bible was not written by God. It was written by human beings, and human beings make mistakes.

Our Christian brothers and sisters who believe the Bible is inerrant, who insist that every word of the Bible is literally true without error—and without contradiction, which is patently false—I believe that they run the risk of worshipping the Bible rather than worshipping God.

But notice that our story today, for all its bloodthirstiness, is not attributing these characteristics to God.

This is the reason why we need to be Biblically literate about the Old Testament and not throw it away with big generalizations like “it portrays an angry God and I don’t believe in an angry God.”

This story shows what terrible, awful mistakes and sins human beings can make, how badly they can manage themselves and their affairs when they are consumed by greed and power.

What better text could we have to speak to us right now? Continue reading

God the Grieving Widow

Do you remember the first time to you were in conversation with your mom or dad and said indignantly, “It’s not fair!”?

No, you probably don’t, because that’s one of the earliest capacities small humans develop: a sense of justice and a sense of how often it’s violated.

Whatever had frustrated you at that age, a dispute over a toy at the playground, your mom’s refusal to buy you a candy bar in the checkout line, a sibling’s first dibs on the front seat of the car, your parent’s response was probably this: “Well, honey, I’m sorry, but life isn’t fair.”

And few of us have found reason to doubt that assessment some ten or twenty or sixty years later.

Such was emphatically the case for the women in our scripture lessons today from 1 Kings and the Gospel of Luke, the Widow of Zarephath and the Widow of Nain.

They had already experienced the terrible blow of the death of their husbands. In a time when there was no such thing as economic independence for women, this scenario had terrifying practical implications on top of the personal grief they were enduring.

And now they were facing the worst, the death of their sons.

They say there is no grief worse than the death of a child.

Why should anyone have to face that, much less after having already lost a husband?

The worst part is that for so many people in this room, these stories of grief compounded on grief are not isolated, far away Bible stories that have no relation to their lives.

So many people in this church know what it is like to be struck down by tragedy, and just as they are painstakingly climbing to their feet again, to be leveled by another blow of disease or addiction or death.

One great calamity in life is not unusual; we are used to the human condition at least to that extent.

But two or more viscerally painful events or ongoing situations in our lives, and our souls cry out, why me? This is so unfair!

And it is unfair.

What consoles us in these situations of tragedy and injustice? Continue reading