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

Abolitionists 2016

We’re going to start with seems like a happy little story about great faith, and we’re going to make it really complicated.

But we’re going to make it complicated because that is what we have to do to be faithful to the Holy Spirit.

Let’s review what happens in our gospel story today. A centurion has a slave that becomes very ill. He sends Jewish elders to Jesus to testify to his good character, that he is in fact a significant financial benefactor of the Jewish community, and ask that Jesus heal his slave.

He says that he is unworthy for Jesus to come under his roof, and that he understands how power works.

Jesus is amazed at his faith and heals the slave.

Hooray, everyone lives happily ever after!

Well, everyone lives happily ever after if we ignore the elephant in the room. The man who was healed is still enslaved!

Luke doesn’t seem to care that slavery is a basic fact of life in his society, in fact, it was so normal that it wouldn’t have occurred to him to care.

But we have to care. We have a moral responsibility to care.

We have to care because it is not normal in our country today, because we have a deep and twisted past in this nation around slavery, and because it is still an all too regular fact of life in other countries around the world.

In fact, I can’t really say that slavery is not normal in America today, because the commercial lanes of human trafficking are alive and humming right here in Indiana.

As strange as it is to have to stand here in a pulpit in 2016 and say slavery is a problem that we need to deal with, it is.

And here we have a Biblical text in which Jesus seems to offer no protest to the institution of slavery.

He heals the enslaved man, but he does not free the enslaved man.

What do we do with that? Continue reading

The Invisible Mysteries of Joy

Lucinda, member at St. Luke’s, has a Facebook meme that she shares every year this week that cracks me up every time. It shows Boromir from Lord of the Rings leaning on a sword facing into the wind, looking very dramatic. And it says, “Brace yourselves. Sermons attempting to explain the Holy Trinity are coming.”

It’s true. The sermon this week is always a borderline futile effort.

It’s Trinity Sunday, and how do we talk about the Holy Trinity without immediately getting bogged down in trite clichés and unsatisfying mathematical analogies?

Well, we’re going to skip over all those vain attempts at explanation and go straight to the futility, because it is actually that very futility that I want to talk about.

Now, part of the reason I love St. Luke’s/St. Thomas is because you are perfectly comfortable with your priest standing in the pulpit and saying, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

You allow me that honesty, and echo it with honesty of your own.

Because I would far rather be with you in our common lack of understanding of the mystery of God, than by myself up here with some kind of high-and-mighty fancy theological explanation that is really a cover for my own ignorance and fear.

And that gets us to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it?

We as human beings are addicted to certainty.

We will tolerate almost any kind of nonsense as long as we get to say to someone else, “I know the truth,” or even better, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”. Continue reading

You Are the Voice of God (Don’t Panic!)

Because we know the story of Pentecost so well, it is all too easy to dismiss it. The tongues of fire descend on the apostles and they begin to proclaim the gospel in all the different languages of the multi-national and multi-ethnic group gathered in the city.

If we stop and think for a moment, however, we might question and wonder that this is the way in which the Holy Spirit chose to manifest.

Presumably the Holy Spirit could have come and empowered the disciples to do anything.

They could have been empowered to heal people or feed people, to do the same types of miracles that Jesus did.

But instead they were empowered to speak, not just speak, but communicate. What do you make of that?

Well, it says something about the nature of the work the disciples are called to do to birth the church. It must be primarily a task of communication, both speaking and teaching.

Deeds of power are useless without the words that explain them, that tell who is responsible for them and what they mean.

That’s why we have a sermon on Sunday morning.

The Eucharist is incredibly important, but if we didn’t have the opportunity to listen and speak and reflect on Scripture and the Eucharist and what they mean in our lives, we wouldn’t get very far in our Christian walk.

And the disciples wouldn’t have gotten very far in building the church if they did not have the ability to communicate the nature of the gospel.

The coming of the Holy Spirit is first and foremost a breaking down of the barriers to communication that exist in our lives.

This has important implications for us in two ways. Continue reading

Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

Do You Want to Be Healed?

Thirty-eight years.

Trapped just on the edge of healing for thirty-eight years.

It would be like living next door to a pharmacy but every time you go to it to try and get your life-saving cancer medication, it’s closed.

You are condemned to a painful and debilitating physical condition that may eventually kill you, because the means of getting treatment lies just beyond your reach.

This is the unenviable situation of the man in our gospel story today.

For thirty-eight years he has lived in the porticoes surrounding the Pool of Beth-zatha, and every time he tries to reach the pool and receive its healing waters, someone else beats him to it.

Can you imagine the frustration? The despair?

We get so little detail about this man that we have to speculate and use our imaginations to try and understand his incomprehensible situation.

First of all, what kind of medical condition did he have?

We don’t know, but we know that the other people at the pool were described as invalids and named as blind, lame, and/or paralyzed.

These are people who are limited in their mobility.

We know he can move at least a bit, because he keeps trying to get down to the pool, but he can’t ever make it fast enough. He may have only been able to crawl.

Thirty-eight years?

We’re immediately tempted to question how hard he really was trying to get down there and be healed.

That temptation is reinforced by Jesus’ own question to the man: “Do you want to be healed?”

We don’t know, because this man never answers directly, yes or no.

He basically says, “Well, I’ve been trying.”

Is that an excuse? Or is it a legitimate description of his disability? We don’t know.

But either way, we need to stop our judgement in its tracks and realize how very much we are like this man ourselves. Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

Want Transformation? Try An Upper Room

The Architecture of Transformation. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Our first scripture is from the Book of Acts, and you could be forgiven if it’s not one of the ones you have memorized by heart.

It’s the story of a woman named Tabitha, also called Dorcas, and her life and death as a disciple.

She was given the name and title of disciple, mathetria in Greek, and she’s the only woman given that title in the entire New Testament.

The community is convulsed with grief at her death. They clearly relied on her for leadership and service.

She mattered to them, deeply.

And so when she dies, the saints notify the leader of the entire fledgling Christian community, Peter.

Peter drops everything and comes to Joppa.

He finds her sisters in faith grieving deeply. They show him the evidence not just of her good works, the clothing she has made for the poor, but of how much she meant to them.

They struggle to see how they can go forward without her.

Peter sees how pivotal this female disciple was, this leader of the Joppa church, and he sends the mourners away.

He prays, and then he calls her by her name to rise up, and she does. She comes back to life.

No doubt the church and the entire community were overjoyed, and the text says that many people came to believe in Jesus after having heard about this event.

So that’s the basic story. But I want to call your attention to where this miracle occurs. Continue reading