"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Just Can't Do It: Thoughts on Justice and Forgiveness

Proper 19, Year A

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

           “I just can’t do it. I know that Jesus tells us to forgive, but I just can’t!” That is the anguished confession that I hear most often as a priest. And I understand. Many years ago, I remember sitting in the adult ed circle at church and listening to the group talk about the importance of forgiveness. I was a young mother in the process of a painful divorce. I was seething with bitterness and resentment and anger. I was praying every day for my husband to fall into a deep, dark hole from which he would never emerge to bother me or my children again. Forgive him? There was no way. “I just can’t do it,” I confessed to the group, deeply ashamed at my lack of faith and Christian love. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it.”
Our automatic response as humans is to thirst for “justice” in the face of wrongdoing. In other words, we want the guilty to pay for their crimes. Recent brain research has shown how thoughts of revenge against those who have wronged us light up pleasure pathways in our brains. Our brains actually reward us for seeking vengeance![1] In today’s Gospel, the slave who has just been forgiven a million dollar debt still can’t stomach that he hasn’t been paid the paltry sum that his fellow slave owes him, and so he forgets his own tenuous position and goes after the poor guy. Then the other slaves can’t stand to see him act in a way that they feel is unjust. So they run and alert the king in order to get him in trouble. In our world, the justice we seek is usually “retributive.” We want retribution; we want pay-back. Evil must be punished, by us or by God, or the world becomes in our minds an unfair, meaningless place. When we go after vengeance, we say to ourselves, “you did me wrong, so I must do you wrong back; however, my wrong to you will be right because you did it first and I am only seeking justice.”[2] And our brains reward us, as if we had just won a prize.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we are to sacrifice the pleasure of rejoicing over the downfall of our enemy. Instead, we are to offer unending mercy to our fellow human beings when they ask to be forgiven. For Jesus, forgiveness is not opposed to justice. Rather, it is related to another kind of justice than our “retributive justice.” Jesus is operating out of God’s “restorative justice,” the kind of justice that repairs relationships through love.[3] A compassionate God who is constantly pouring out love onto all of God’s beloved creatures, is a God who is constantly repairing, cleansing, and starting over in God’s relationships with us. God’s forgiveness is beyond the logic of tit for tat; it is a pure gift, a gift of “boundless, radical, overflowing, excessive, incomprehensible love.”[4] We see God’s restoring love in Jesus, God’s Son. When Jesus stops the stoning of the woman taken in adultery, for example, he is showing us restorative justice. He offers her unmerited forgiveness. He stops others from judging her. He gives her a chance for reconciliation and the restoration of relationship with God. When Jesus hangs dying on the cross and says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” rather than, “Father, make them pay for this,” then even his death becomes a sign of God’s restorative justice, a sign that we are to live out in our own relationships. As God pours life-changing mercy upon us, so we too pour out life-changing mercy upon others. We actually borrow this biblical language of restoration in our St. Thomas mission statement. We proclaim that we want to “restore” all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. The first painful step in restoration is forgiveness.
There is a wonderful documentary on forgiveness that I recommend to all of you. By Martin Doblmeier, it is called “The Power of Forgiveness” and can be viewed for free on Amazon Prime. This documentary is like today’s parable in that it does not try to lecture us or shame us into forgiving. Like our parable, it bypasses our revenge-fueled brains and goes straight into our hearts through the power of story. The documentary is full of real-life stories about people who have tried to forgive.
The story that moved me the most shows us how forgiveness flows into God’s restorative justice. Azim Khamisa is a wealthy international investment banker and a devout Sufi Muslim. Ples Felix is an African-American Baptist from the projects in California. One night, Felix’s 14-year-old grandson Tony fatally shot Khamisa’s only son when he delivered a pizza to Tony and his friends. Tony, who had been abandoned by both parents at a young age, was caught up in a hopeless life of gangs and drugs. Now he had killed a promising young man and was sitting in jail for a senseless, brutal crime. As you can imagine, Khamisa was devastated over his son Tariq’s death and even contemplated suicide. And yet his religion asked him to forgive. Despite his great anguish, he was somehow able to reach out to Felix, Tony’s grandfather and guardian. Both of our beloved children have been lost, he said. One to death and one to prison. We need to stick together. Eventually, Khamisa was even able to go into the prison and to meet young Tony, face to face. When the boy expressed remorse, Khamisa forgave him for murdering his only child. In turn, Tony was then able to forgive his parents for his abandonment and to begin to heal from the wounds that had alienated him from society.  Khamisa promised to give Tony a job when he is eventually released from prison. Today,  Khamisa and Felix, still friends, work together in the schools through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to stop other children from killing children.
As I listened to this story, it was impossible for me to tell which one of these men was being forgiven the greatest debt. Crushing injustice was everywhere. Tony and Felix, crushed under the injustice of poverty and racism. Azim, crushed under the injustice of losing his only son. Tariq, crushed under the injustice of an unmerited death. For God, who loves them all, there is only forgiveness. There is only the joy of burdens lifted and the gift of freedom bestowed. Who are we to judge which sin should be forgiven? All that matters is that the forgiveness that flows from God continues to flow into the world. Who are we to block God’s forgiving power? Who are we to tattle to the King? Forgiveness opens the door to restoration and to life. Who are we to keep that door closed?
And yet, it is difficult to forgive. In the film, the only story in which forgiveness was not achieved was the story of several women who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11. You might think that the women’s continued anger was directed toward the terrorists who caused the disaster, but that wasn’t the problem for them.  The people whom they couldn’t forgive were the US authorities who, in their hurry to clean up Ground Zero, shoveled the ruins of the towers, along with the unidentified remains of their loved ones, off to a distant landfill. “They put my son in the garbage!” cried the mother of one of the lost firefighters as she wandered the landfill picking up pieces of bone and twisted metal. “That I cannot forgive.” Somehow, that flat, barren landfill seemed even more desolate to me than the image of the collapsed towers. Broken lives, swept out of sight. Women picking angrily over the discarded scraps of tragedy. God’s forgiveness blocked by expediency. God’s image in those loved ones ignored. That landfill was as desolate as my soul when I was unable to forgive my husband.
          In the broken, war-scarred city of Beirut, Lebanon, some wise people recently constructed a “garden of forgiveness.” The garden is an oasis of green in between bullet-marked buildings. Two of the angry 911 relatives from New York traveled all the way to Lebanon in order to bury photos of their lost loved ones in this garden. “Now at least they have a place,” one mother said. The bereaved were able to make a journey, a long and difficult journey, to bury these fallen heroes of 911 in a place of forgiveness. Healing could begin.
          Forgiveness is not something that we can control or manufacture. It takes time. It requires a journey. It is a gift from God that we begin to receive when we gather the courage to cherish even what is broken in others and in ourselves, rather than making sure that it is swept away to the nearest garbage dump.

[1] The Power of Forgiveness, documentary by Martin Doblmeier, 2007.
[2] Sharon L. Baker, Executing God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 83.
[3] Ibid., 93.
[4]Ibid., 107

Saturday, September 6, 2014

When Two or Three Listen in My Name

Proper 18, Year A

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

             We value relationships here at St. Thomas. We consider ourselves one big family, a family who sticks together through disagreement and through tough times, a family who supports one another. I think that we do a pretty good job. But here's a challenge. What if I stood up here in the pulpit today and said: Instead of a sermon, we are all going to have a discussion about how Christians should respond to same-sex marriage …. or gun control … or abortion … or any other hot-button topic on which we probably do not all agree. As a church, shouldn’t we all be able to talk with one another about the moral issues of our time? As the Body of Christ, shouldn’t we be able to work on discerning right from wrong without fearing a fight? Is it healthy for us to fret alone at home about what is right and wrong in our world, instead of sharing with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Why do we talk about things with friends that we are afraid to discuss with our fellow Christians? Christian educator Carol Hess describes what usually replaces true conversation in our churches: “Honest and deep conversation is easily thwarted in communities of faith, sometimes by harsh adversarial argumentation that silences some voices, other times by polite affirming discussion that keeps conversation on a surface level.”[1] As a leader in the church—a leader who does not particularly care for conflict—my natural instinct is to stick to the polite affirming discussion. I am often hostage to my fear that if we talk, then folks will get mad and leave! But I’m not so sure that it does the community a service when we buy peace at the price of utter silence on anything of any importance to our lives.
          And then of course it’s not only the controversial topics that we tend to avoid in church. We usually avoid confronting one another all together about anything—at least not directly. I know, for example, that when we clergy step on each other’s toes, we tend to run to the nearest colleague with our beefs, rather than confront the person who upset us. Psychologists call this kind of unhealthy behavior, “triangulation.” In the church, we might call it “parking lot conversation!”
“Can you believe that outrageous thing she said at the meeting last night?!” we clergy gasp to a sympathetic colleague, as we tell the third party all about the heresy, rather than simply discussing it with the person who made the remarks.
“He struck me to the core with that insensitive criticism,” we whisper to a group of friends, tattling on our nemesis to others rather than going to the colleague who did the hurting.
I know that when I was the assistant rector in a parish, everyone came running to me with all of the rector’s failures and supposed misdeeds. They wanted me to make them feel better by helping them to criticize the rector. It feels good to join in some juicy and self-affirming “triangulation,” and it took discipline to refuse to join in, sending the complainers off to meet directly with the rector, instead. I suppose that I had learned my lesson back when I was a teacher and had complained about the headmaster behind his back on an email to a friend. Unfortunately, I had mistakenly hit “reply all,” and sent my triangulating remarks out to the whole faculty. Ouch!
At work, at church, and at home, it is so easy to avoid confrontation. Triangulating, sending off a nasty email, shouting the other into silence, vowing never again to participate in the group, switching parishes ….  or just plain avoiding any controversial topics of conversation. These are all too often the unhealthy ways in which we humans respond to the inevitable hurts and conflicts of community life.
          In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to show us another way: God’s way of humility, love, and forgiveness. We know what God does when we mess up, when we disappoint God, when we turn away from God. We know that our ever-loving God comes after us, with the individual care and single-mindedness of a shepherd out searching for his one lost lamb. And God forgives us and rejoices in our renewed relationship with God when we are found. That’s what Jesus shows us in his life and death, and that’s what Jesus tells the disciples right before the passage in Matthew that we hear today. All too often, we take today’s text on getting along in community as an easy formula to apply in order to shame backsliders and to prove that the majority interpretation of things is the correct one. Or we use it as a formula for getting what we want out of God in prayer. But that’s not what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is trying to show us a gentle and humble pattern for relating with one another. He’s trying to show us the importance of community—a community in which he is always present in love and forgiveness. To treat those who shut themselves outside of the body of Christ as “tax collectors and Gentiles” is not to shun them—for Jesus treats even tax collectors and Gentiles with love and open invitation.  Neither is the authority to bind and to loose meant as a heady power trip for the Church. It is instead a caution that what goes on in our communities has deep and lasting consequences. Love of neighbor is not something to dabble at.
At Pub Theology this week, we bravely gathered to talk about the complex and controversial topic of the war between Israel and Gaza. “How do we talk about this topic with those who don’t agree with us?” we asked. It’s all about listening, we decided. One member of our group pointed out that Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel all point us toward deep listening—hearing the point of view of the other. The truth is always somewhere in between our individual dogmatic points of view. New ideas and solutions can arise only as we listen in love and let others challenge our own positions. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that everyone attending Pub Theology heard the wisdom that unfolded in our conversation. You see, we were not able to get our regular room at the restaurant this past week. So, with the gracious help of the servers, we set up our discussion in a corner of the big public dining area. Restaurants are noisy places: the accumulated discussions of dozens of diners; the cries of young children; the chinking sound of dishes; the interminable musak coming out of the overhead speakers. Over all of that din, we couldn’t hear one another! We had to shout in order to be heard. Our ears missed words in the middle of sentences that were probably full of wisdom. Many of us tightened up our whole bodies in our struggle to hear. Others gave up in discouragement and stopped participating.
Yes, God has a sense of humor. Isn’t it interesting that a discussion about how to listen to one another happened smack dab in the noise of the world, the noise of the busy world in which we all live out our days and nights. If we are to solve our conflicts through forgiveness-tinged listening, how do we find the silent places for that listening to happen? If God’s power comes to us as we gather in the kind of love that enables us to “hear one another to speech,”[2] as Nelle Morton writes, then how do we as a community make the space for that to happen?
          I couldn’t help but contrast the noise of our restaurant discussion with the kind of communication that I have experienced at the old Wednesday Healing Services that we used to have here at St. Thomas. Ed Parker, Tom Bailey, Tom Roseberry, and sometimes others were the “group of two or three” who gathered with me every Wednesday morning to pray. Before praying for one another, we listened to the concerns that each person brought forward for prayer. In quiet, we listened deeply. And then we took those words and stories that were shared, and we offered them up to God in our own words. And Jesus was in the midst of us. And the fear-making, stress-causing noise of the world was stilled. That’s all that I do when I pray with you in the hospital or in times of grief or joy, you know. I listen as deeply as I can to what you are saying, concentrating the ears of my soul upon the words of your soul, and then I try as best as I can to lend my own voice to those words in the presence of the Holy One who surrounds us.
          I think that’s what Jesus is asking us to do when there is conflict, too. To gather in small groups, as few as two or three of us, in holy quiet, and to listen, prayerfully listen, to the feelings and opinions of the other—and then to speak those words back in God’s presence, so that those words can be heard in love. Our decisions about the way we should live out our faith are too important to trust to our own prejudices, or to the biases of the media to which we listen, or to the latest click-bait on Facebook. We need the rest of Christ’s Body, those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree—those who affirm us, and those who drive us up a wall.
Don’t worry. Jesus shows us that this larger Sunday (Saturday night) gathering is not the place to air our grievances or to stir up discussion about some controversial topic. But we do need to make room in our busy, noisy lives for those kinds of encounters to happen… where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ loving, forgiving name.

[1] Carol Hess, Caretakers of our Common House, p. 183 quoted in Vicki Wiltse, “Personal Development and Adults’ Participation in Dialogue,” found at http://old.religiouseducation.net/Resources/Proceedings/43VWiltseREAppr.pdf.
[2] http://actsofhope.blogspot.com/2007/08/hearing-to-speech.html

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Finding the Life behind the Time and Talent Forms

Proper 16, Year A

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Psalm 124

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

While flying around the globe this summer, I had ample opportunity to reflect on the life of a flight attendant. Although there is a picture of me at age four as a wanna-be stewardess in a smart 1960’s costume, giving an appropriately pursed-lipped, haughty look at the camera, I know now that the life of a flight attendant is anything but glamorous. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job: giving out the same old drinks and snacks, day after day and flight after flight; smiling while hearing the same old complaints from stressed-out customers; explaining emergency procedures to the ceiling while everyone who is supposed to be listening is transfixed by his iPhone; living in and out of airports, coping every day with constant flight delays and turbulence … Can you imagine?! What struck me as I watched the stalwart crews do their jobs this summer, though, was the contrast between the daily grind of their everyday routine in that plane—and the complex training that they must have had in order to save lives when things go wrong. These men and women know how to handle terrorists, even though they most often deal with obnoxious customers. These men and women know how to evacuate a huge aircraft, even though they most often evacuate the trash down some chute. They have complex skills hidden under their drab uniforms and nerves of steel hidden under their weary smiles. They know how to make life-saving decisions that they rarely have to make.
When you think about it, don’t our lives as American Christians work kind of the same way? In our worship, we follow the same liturgical patterns week after week. In our lives outside of church, we navigate the humdrum chores at work and at home. We trudge through our routines.  In church, we lector or we count money or we serve on the Vestry. There are plenty of jobs to do at St. Thomas. But just between you and me …. Altar guild, don’t you sometimes feel like those flight attendants cleaning up before the plane lands? Those of you who put together the schedules, don’t you sometimes feel like you are trying to get 50 backlogged jets out of the Atlanta airport? Teachers and lectors, don’t you sometimes feel like you are pointing out the emergency exits in vain?
We check off the required little boxes on our time and talent cards at Stewardship time, most often putting down the same activities that we have done the year before. Two years ago, I had you all write down your “passion,” rather than what jobs you wanted to do at church. But then I had trouble translating those passions into jobs! Last year, we tried to stir up the routine with a “time and talent fair,” but that didn’t quite work, either. This fall, we’ll be going back to the cards. But isn’t there more to our discipleship than the jobs we have at church? What about the rich gifts and experience that lie underneath?
In the chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read today, Paul makes clear that our work together as the Church has the lifesaving depth of the flight attendant’s true vocation and training:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
When I utter that sentence before the offertory in our liturgy, in my mind I vacillate between picturing my body drooping from the Cross and picturing us sitting piously in the pews, eyebrows scrunched and heads bowed in vague “spiritual worship.” The “sacrifice” that Paul is asking of us is indeed a bodily sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of our whole selves. Paul makes clear that in baptism, we die with Christ. We are swept under the deep waters, our sins and our self-centered hearts alive no more. When we rise from those baptismal waters, we are alive in Christ. We live no longer for ourselves but for God. We live a new life “in Christ.”  This new life isn’t some disembodied hovering on earth, however, or some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by life that we will reach someday in heaven. That is not our “spiritual worship.” The new life that we are given is a fully embodied life on earth—a life full of grace, a life lived with Christ’s love flowing through us and from us. It is a life lived in community. It is lived out in the giving of ourselves through our actions in the church and in society. It is a life that involves acting within God’s frame of reference, rather than doing what our society or our rules dictate. It involves taking on the “mind of Christ,” letting Jesus’ image shape how we see the world. And it involves discernment, testing our ethical choices using this “new mind” that Christ has given us.[1]
I don’t have to go far today to find an example of what I am talking about. In our First Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we watch as the entire people of Israel is saved because of the enterprising and subversive action of 2 midwives, an enslaved mother and daughter, and a young Egyptian girl.[2] Coming from various ethnic, religious, and class lines, these five women are insignificant on their own. They are caught in lives of limited action and buried under a repressive routine. Yet they discern that life must triumph over death. This small group of women see the baby boys of the Hebrews through God’s eyes, rather than through the eyes of Pharaoh. They submit their “gifts”—their skills as midwives, their gifts of compassion, of courage, of smooth talking …--to God’s love as they perceive it moving through their world. As a poet writes in the voice of the midwife Pu’ah: “Year after year/ Shifrah and I struggled to help mothers push newborns/ out of their bodies and/ into the world./ Hour after hour/ we used the secret knowledge/ of our sacred calling,/ gentle words of encouragement,/ our own powerful hands … Besides, [Moses’ mother]/ was my neighbor:  could I/ kill her son?”[3]
Admittedly, the midwives are not Christians. We don’t even know if they are Jews. But they still use their gifts to bring life, rather than to bring the death ordered by their society.Their wits and their skills serve God's command to love their neighbor as themselves. Today, I think of the teams of medical missionaries who are serving the Ebola victims in Africa. Their daily chores must be tedious, their training arduous. Yet underneath, their sacrifice is both tremendous and life-saving.
Here at St. Thomas, as in any community, there are things to be done so that we can function together. So please do sign up for those jobs on your time and talent form. If we all chip in a little bit, then we will get the daily chores out of the way without too much hassle. Lectors, read your hearts out! Teachers, do your thing! Those who serve willingly, show us how to do the dishes and sit at hospital beds with faith and humility! Prophets, get us up out of our comfy ruts and into the world to bring about God’s Kingdom! Those who can bring in food and diapers and money for the open plate offering, show us how to give generously and faithfully! But don’t let it stop there. Don’t just use and honor your own gifts. We need to know and to honor one another’s gifts. Flight attendants and medical missionaries have natural gifts, but they work together to hone their skills so that they can save lives. Can we make St. Thomas a school for living as Christ’s Body, rather than an Institution with boring tasks that need to get done? Can we see one another and ourselves with the mind that Christ died to give us?
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 190-191.
[2] Susan Niditch, “Another View,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 324.
[3] Bonnie Lyons, “Deliverance: Pu’ah Explains” found in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 328.