Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sign of Emmanuel

It is not unusual for me to be a bit slow getting into the Christmas spirit.  This year, though, I’m not entirely sure I have wanted to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have not gotten out the Christmas music so far.  I have had a hard time uttering the phrase that I am normally anxious to repeat both to friend and stranger at this time of year, “Merry Christmas!”  I even missed my battle with getting the tree in the stand and the lights on the branches.  For some inexplicable reason, both were accomplished quickly and easily.  There was no proclamation after the first attempt, “Uh-oh, it isn’t straight.”  There were no strands of lights that failed to work.  I was deprived even of this yearly ritual that has the same effect as Marley’s ghost paying a haunting visit on Christmas Eve making Scrooge joyful that Christmas has not passed him by after all. 
This year, it has just been hard even to get anxious about getting the Christmas spirit.  With all that has gone on, I haven’t much wanted to.  Senseless killings in Ferguson and Staten Island and the exposure of our country’s racial animosity not far below the surface of everyday life have been much more on my mind.  This weekend the concerns of a very broken world intruded once again to push Christmas out of my mind in the revenge murder of two New York City police officers.  When it comes to the Christmas spirit, I just haven’t been interested this year.
Maybe, though, I have not so much been uninterested in Christmas as coming to terms with it in a new way.  Maybe Christmas this year, for the first time, is not proving to be a distraction from the ills around us and that is how it should be.  Maybe Christmas this year has finally stopped being the most wonderful time of the year and instead become that time of the year when the world as it is runs headlong into the world as it should be, and that really ought to disturb us.  Maybe Christmas this year will remind us of God’s dream for all of us, and not only how far we are from it, but also how much we are needed by God, revealed at this time in the helplessness of a child, to make it so.  Maybe Christmas this year will be about comfort in a way it rarely is, not so much warm, cozy fireplaces, but comfort in the sense of its original meaning, being filled with strength for the task ahead.  
For me, this Christmas has had shed light on a paradox I have pondered for many years.  It is the paradox of Emmanuel.  On the one hand, we have the reference to Emmanuel when the angel reveals the coming birth to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew (1:23).  We read this as a sign of the coming sweetness and light, of a divine birth, of an angelic announcement of good news and great joy, of shepherds gathered at the manger, and of wise men traveling from the East to worship the child with precious gifts.
The angel, though, is quoting Isaiah about the sign of a virgin bearing a child, and there it is a different connotation I have usually found difficult to accept.  There the sign of Emmanuel announces a terrible judgment.  “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah” (7:17).  It’s a different picture than what we normally associate with Christmas.
This year I’m seeing the connection.  Emmanuel, God with us, does not mean that all is right with the world because God makes a home among humankind.  It means God’s presence among us in the Christ reveals what is not right and that once again we have the opportunity to make it so. 
The Christmas spirit is taking on a fuller, perhaps more mature, meaning for me this year.  Christmas this year is not a distraction from what is.  It is a call to participate in what will be.  Christmas this year is not an invitation to put adulthood aside.  It is an invitation to grow up into the stature of Christ.  Christmas this year is not an affirmation of the way things are.  It is a promise of the way they shall be.  In that there is good news, and joyful tidings, and comfort abounding.
So, this year Ginger, Annie, and I wish all of you a paradoxical Christmas, one in which we are not lulled into complacency but stirred into action as our gift to the Child, Emmanuel, God with us.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Once again, I have sinned.  I went to a party last night at which Christmas carols were sung.  In Advent, God forbid.  I did it and I enjoyed it.  Forgive me.  I’m not absolutely sure it was all that sinful, though.  There are some reasons.
For one thing, the piano player didn’t know the tunes.  I’m not entirely sure he’d ever herd them before.  The out-of-tune piano didn’t help.  Surely that counts for something of a reprieve.  And the people present didn’t know the words, either.  That’s got to be a mitigating factor in my favor.  The words were printed on a paper, which was handed out, but they were wrong, badly wrong.  Lines were omitted.  Verses were melded together nonsensically.  All in all, it must have been divine intervention that the carols got sung at all.  And if God were involved, it seems hard to blame me entirely.  Besides, there were two other bishops present, and they did it, too.
But here’s the main reason I think I may get a break.  It’s not because there were a lot of rich and powerful people there, although there were.  The party’s host had made a great deal of money in investment management.  It is because the speaker noted that he, too, had enjoyed a career in the finance industry, only in his case that meant robbing banks, a crime for which he had only been released from prison ten months ago.  Maybe there’s not that much difference after all.
The reason I think I might be forgiven for breaking into the Christmas carols a little early is that I’m pretty sure I saw the Christ child born last night.  I saw him born in a man from the streets of New York who has been given a new chance at life.  Like all children, we do not know yet whether this one will survive infancy.  There were, we should not forget, powerful forces at work in Bethlehem to make sure the child born then did not live.  They are at work still.  We are left only with hope.
I think I also caught a glimpse of the Christ Child’s birth in our host, too, when he spoke about his joy in meeting Jesus in those he had been blessed to visit in prison and was committed to helping after their release.  It’s not about duty, he explained.  “It’s like eating fudge every day.”  That’s the idea. 
So maybe Christmas carols weren’t so out of line.  After all, the Christ child was born last night, just as the Christ Child will be born tonight and tomorrow  night and the night after that. 
And as the Christ child must, the birth is always to a lowly mother.  Sometimes the mother is the streets.  Sometimes the mother is privilege laid aside, even just a little.  It is always lowly, though, because our God is a God who favors lowliness.  God’s own mother sings the theme.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:46-48). 
In the midst of Christ being born, maybe a few carols, especially badly sung, aren’t such a crime.  And if they are, well, I think I just caught a glimpse that crimes can be redeemed.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Call to Self-Examination and Prayer

As I wrote to you following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, so I write to you again in the aftermath of the Staten Island grand jury.  I struggle to find the words to express myself that go beyond a rant at a gross injustice.  I struggle to find something spiritually helpful in his senseless loss of life.  I feel even sadder now than I did ten days ago.  I am also more horrified. 
I am horrified, for one thing, by the video of Eric Garner’s death.  How could one not be horrified—an unarmed black man posing no apparent threat to the large number of police officers surrounding him (it looks like at least eight to me) on a charge, at most, of selling untaxed cigarettes (an allegation of which I, at least, have seen no evidence). 

Lethal force over untaxed cigarettes is horrifying enough.  The horror becomes all the more intense, though, if this chain of events was set in place because of the color of someone’s skin.  We are told that it wasn’t.  I want to tell you why I do not believe that.

Yesterday morning I rode the B Train from 110th Street to Bryant Park.  I like the B Train.  I can almost always get a seat.

Yesterday there were two barely teenage boys, perhaps 13 or maybe 14, sitting across from me, although separated by several empty places.  They were not together.  One was black.  One was white.  I doubt that is why they were separated.  I suspect they were just on their way to different middle schools somewhere down the line, or perhaps escaping one up the line. 

I was struck by how alike they behaved in a very typical 13-year-old-boy way.  The one directly across from me pulled up the hood on his coat, leaned all the way over to rest his head on his backpack, and went to sleep.  The other one leaned back against the wall of the train and closed his eyes.  Thirteen-year-old boys are nocturnal creatures. 

I wondered if their mothers had sent each of them off earlier in the morning, maybe with a kiss on the cheek, which 13-year-old-boys will sometimes still allow, and perhaps a lunch or snack for later in the day.  I’m pretty sure their mothers sent them off with the admonition to be careful.  I’m pretty sure the black mother sent her son off to school with more anxiety than the other, although all mothers of teenage boys have every reason to be anxious.  It did occur to me, though, that one might be more likely to come home safely than the other. 

Before the one in front of me leaned over and went to sleep, I noticed him look at me.  He looked at me several times.  And he looked at me suspiciously, very suspiciously.  He was the black one.  I remember thinking I understood why he might be looking suspiciously at the white guy across from him, particularly that morning.

And then the really horrible revelation.  Was I projecting?  Was what I perceived really my suspicion of him and not so much his of me?  God, I hope not, but if I’m honest with myself, I can’t tell you I absolutely know for sure.  It calls for me to examine myself carefully.

It seems to me that this is where we have to start, and that Advent is a particularly good time to do it.  We must begin with self-examination, a painfully honest self-examination.

And now what I’m going to say is particularly difficult.  The self-examination must begin with white people, such as myself.

I say this carefully and regretfully, but also from my heart.  For one thing, I am a white person.  I have no business telling black people what they need to examine in a situation like this.  And besides, it’s not the same thing.  Black people may have racial prejudices, but they do not generally make the power structure work based on them because the power structure is more in hands the color which is more like mine. 

Just as an example, I saw the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, comment on the Staten Island grand jury yesterday and ridicule the current mayor and others who took issue with it.  He reminded his audience of the importance of process and that in this case the process had reached its result.  And then he reminded those who watched that, after all, Eric Garner, the dead man, had just committed a crime when he was killed, something which, by the way, no jury, grand or otherwise, had a chance to consider.   That’s the difference between those with power and those without.  Those with power get the process.  Some systemic self-examination might be in order.
There’s another reason to start with white people.  I was brought up to notice skin color and to breathe in racism with no more intentionality than I breathed the air around me.  I’m sure my parents and grandparents made no decision to do so.  It just got passed on.  That’s the nature of original sins, after all.  They just get passed on as naturally as every other trait that goes with being human.  And in America, this is a sin with which, with rare exception, white people just come with without any particular fault of their own.  We just get it.  To get rid of it is going to take some self-examination because it is difficult even to notice, so subtle is it, to say nothing of criticize. 
Finally, I begin with white people because I have spent the last 26 years being a pastor primarily to white people—not exclusively, especially after I became a bishop, but primarily.  And as someone who has spent a lot of years caring for the souls of white people, I know that racism threatens their spiritual health in a very profound way.  What is a life or death issue for black people, as we have seen demonstrated, is an eternal life or death issue for white people.  So as a white pastor to a lot of white people, I think this intense self-examination needs to begin with us. 
The Episcopal Church is committed to changing this reality.  We are committed to taking our part in God’s Beloved Community, to preparing the way of the Lord, to the coming of the kingdom of God.  There is action coming.  For now, I’m suggesting that white people such as myself begin with some serious self-examination, and that we ask our black brothers and sisters to help us like John the Baptist in calling the powers that be to account.  And if we don’t do that, I suspect we have not seen anything as horrifying as what we will.  And it wouldn’t hurt to pray, all of us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Baptism of Repentance

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4). 

Repentance is a funny word.  It is one of those church words rarely used in a non-religious conversation.  In fact, just to hear it conjures up an image of a scary looking guy with a sign in Times Square. 
Maybe it’s supposed to be scary, at least a little bit. And now seems to me a pretty good time to take it to heart.

The dictionary meaning of repent has something to do with feelings, to feel remorse, to feel sorry, to feel regret.  The biblical meaning of repent, though, has to do with changing something.  It has to do with changing one’s point of view to see as God sees.  It has to do with changing one’s direction, to turn and follow God’s path.  It has to do with changing one’s behavior.  The biblical meaning of repent has nothing to do with feeling anything.  It has to do with taking action, with changing. 

Being repentant without changing the behavior that one repents of just doesn’t make much sense.  Repentance worth anything at all shows forth in behavior. 

Now would be a good time for that sort of repentance.  We have teenagers dying over a handful of cigars and violence erupting in the streets.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

We have a priest and a 90-year-old man arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding the homeless in a city park.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

We have a professional athlete who punched his wife in the face restored to good standing in the NFL.  It remains to be seen if the fans will tolerate it.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

John came preaching a baptism of that kind of repentance.  And that, according to Mark, is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Truth that Was Told

Like a large family gathered around a bounteous autumn table keeping the peace by not telling the truth, many of us heard more truth last night than we were quite prepared to deal with.  And as in a family whose peace has been disturbed by a sudden explosion of truth, some of the truth that has been spoken has more to do with exposing raw emotion than it does helping the family be whole.  Some of the sudden truth is more hurtful than helpful.  Some of the painful truth is essential to face in order to move on. Some of the most recent truth can easily be forgotten.  And some of the truth, well, it remains to be seen what we make of it.
Last night laid bare a truth about America we all know but we rarely speak.  Last night demonstrated why we are afraid to speak it.  This is the truth.   America is a country deeply scarred by its racial past.  That famous first Thanksgiving at Plymouth 393 years ago, though surrounded with the warm glow of mythology, was in truth marked in its very origin by racial tension and on-going violence between the English settlers and the prior Native American inhabitants of what we know as Massachusetts. That backdrop no doubt contributed to the fact that the indigenous people were not invited the next time the event occurred two years later.  Abraham Lincoln established a day of Thanksgiving in the midst of a Civil War that was about racial division down to its core.  We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, but we have rarely talked quite so honestly around the table as we talked last night, and it is unlikely that the blessing we seek can be had without the honesty we have learned to fear.
Part or last night’s truth was the rage that lies not far below the surface in this country.  It makes itself known from time to time, but we are usually adept at stuffing it back where it came from, below the surface and in the shadows, back into the closet where all sorts of unspeakable things reside until, that is, they are unexpectedly spoken again.  It remains to be seen whether we can shove last night’s display of righteous rage, even rage manipulated by thugs and cowards for their own purposes, back into the darkness from which it came.  I hope we cannot.
There was truth spoken last night about the legal system in our country, which had little to do with the Grand Jury.  Something is deeply broken.  We know that. We do not like to look at it.  Whatever questions I have about the process, I now have no choice but to accept the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson.  I do have a choice not to accept the uneven distribution of justice in this country.  I do have a choice not to accept the disproportional rates of incarceration among Americans of African descent.  I do have a choice not to accept the police procedures and tactics that unjustly target those in this country who are not white.  I do have a choice not to accept the growing divide in this country between rich and poor, which is no doubt breeding an unspeakable rage of its own.
I do not know whether I heard truth from the Grand Jury last night or not.  I am convinced that I heard their truth.  And from this point on, that case is closed.  I do not know whether I heard truth about Darren Wilson last night.  And from this point on, Darren Wilson is just irrelevant.  I do not believe I heard truth last night about Ferguson.  I think Ferguson was caught up in something not of its own making and beyond its ability to control.  And I think Ferguson was bearing the weight of a difficult truth for all of us, more than it should be expected to bear, more than any of us would be capable of bearing.
But the truth that concerns me the most this morning is the truth of Michael Brown.  There are some things about Michael Brown, to tell you my truth, I don’t really care about.  I don’t care that he may have stolen a handful of cigars from a convenience store one hot, summer afternoon.  I don’t really care in some ways whether shooting him was legally justified or not.  I do care that he is dead.
The truth I do care about is that a young man of promise beyond the mere potential that all of us still have as young men or women died in a violent fury four months ago.  I do care that his parents are left without him.  I do care that the world is left without him.  And I care a lot about whether Michael Brown’s truth is swallowed up in more violence and destruction and hatred. And I care a lot about whether Michael Brown’s truth instead might be the occasion when this American family of ours stops spewing forth venom about our racial past and present and decides instead to deal with them and create a different future for itself.  It remains to be seen what we make of Michael Brown’s truth this morning, and in the end, that is the only truth that really matters now.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Really Means a Lot to Me

As a young priest (yes, young is something I really once was), I once brought a youth group to work at the soup kitchen at Holy Apostles Church in Chelsea.  Being I priest, I reasoned, is about creating opportunities for those in my care to meet Jesus, so what better place than a church that housed the largest soup kitchen in New York City and transformed its nave and sanctuary from worship space on Sunday to a place to feed the poor the rest of the week.  Oh, wait.  That really isn’t such a transformation after all.
This is the tale of two different reactions to the experience from two very similar teenagers.  Both were children of significant privilege.  Neither had ever experienced anything like Holy Apostles before.
After we got home, I asked the group what their reaction had been.  The only response I remember was from one of the two teenagers I mentioned, who said, “I learned to be thankful for everything I have.” 
It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t entirely negative.  At the very least, he had learned that there was a vast gap between how he lived and how much of the world lived.  Still, I was perhaps unrealistically looking for some sense of questioning that gap and maybe asking, as teenagers like to do, if it were fair.  I hoped he might ask some questions about all he had and not revert to a sense of entitlement to it.  I hoped, again unrealistically, that there might be some connection between thanksgiving and sharing.  It was not to be.
The other teenager at issue was a neighbor and close friend of the other.  His name is Jamie.  Like his friend, Jamie also had led a pretty sheltered life with just about all the material possessions a teenage boy could hope for.  Frankly, I don’t remember much about him in New York the summer of our trip.  And I don’t remember what he said as we debriefed the experience together after we got home. 
But I happened to see Jamie this fall.  I preached at the church where I had known him as a teenager, the first time I’d been there in 20 years.  He was there with his son of about eight.  I didn’t meet his wife.  She was home caring for their new baby.
The subject of our conversation turned to mission trips we had taken when I was his priest.  I asked him about Belize, which I assumed would be the one this fairly well-off young man would remember.  He turned the conversation to the soup kitchen.  “No,” he said, “the one that really meant a lot to me was New York.”  And that made me deeply thankful, both to God and to Jamie.
Maybe it’s just that Jamie had learned to be thankful for everything he had.  Somehow, though, I think it’s a lot more than that, and I think that has infinitely more to do with the direction his parents were steering him than anything I did.  Still, I may have had a very small influence.  After all, going to New York to work in a soup kitchen was my idea.  And, of course, you know what I hope.  I hope he met Jesus there. 
So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful, not so much for what I have, although I guess I should be.  I’m more thankful for people along the way who have allowed me to share their lives for a little while or a long while.  I’m thankful for Jamie.  I’m thankful for Jamie’s friend.  I’m thankful for all of you. 
And, of course, I’m thankful for Ginger, Matthew, and Andrew and Jessica, and of course, Annie the Labrador Retriever. 
I am thankful for the part of my life I’ve been able to share with others, and the parts others have shared with me of theirs.  I don’t know what Jamie meant for sure, but I know that’s what really means a lot to me.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 17, 2014

More Hope

As you well know by now, this week’s gospel reading (Mt. 25:31-46), the parable of the sheep and goats, is particularly important to me.  It forms the basis of a lot of my theological thinking, and it is the lens through which I see the church, the world, and the interaction between the two.  In truth, it is the passage that forms the basis of how I understand the basic interaction between God and humanity, Christian or not.  It has everything to do with how I understand mission. 
You remember the story.  The Son of Man gathers all of humanity together and separates them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  The sheep, gathered at the right hand, are blessed; the goats, gathered at the left, are condemned.  The basis of the judgment has to do with how one has responded to the needs of the poor, giving them food when hungry, drink when thirsty, welcome when lonely, clothing when needed, and whether one has visited them when sick or in prison.  “Truly I tell you,” says the Son of Man, “ just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  The Son of Man and the poor are one.  It is a radical teaching.
It is also a disturbing teaching, for the opposite is also true.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
And that is a pretty sobering message, or at least it is for me.  I know that I pass many a hungry person on the streets of New York and do not even look in their eyes.  It is rather like fear of looking directly at the face of God perhaps.  The judgment to come ought to cause me sleepless nights.
Sometimes, though, I run across reason to hope.  An article in ENS last week was such an occasion.  Two weeks ago, an Episcopal priest named Mark Sims was arrested and charged with a crime in Ft. Lauderdale.  He was fingerprinted, photographed, and released with a court date on a charge that carries a possible $500 fine and 60 days in jail.  Do you know what the crime was?  It was that he fed homeless people in a city park and he led his congregation to do likewise.   
Now I don’t know Mark Sims, although I’m calling him today.  I want to hear his story.  I want to hear his story because I’m pretty sure he has seen Jesus, and that is something I would like to hear about.  I want to hear his story because I think he had five talents and just made a big profit.  I want Canon Sims to know he inspired me to be a better Christian.  I want Canon Sims to know he has given me hope, not just hope to avoid the judgment.  More importantly, it has given me hope to enter into the presence of God more fully day by day on the streets.  And isn’t that what the mission is?