Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Whose Image is This?"

This sermon was given by our Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 19th.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 KJV)

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The verse I just quoted—“render therefore unto Caesar”—is from the King James Version of the Bible. Though this translation is dear to many people’s hearts, we don’t often use it in our liturgy. The King James was translated between 1604 and 1611. So it’s a translation from the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts we had in 1611, using the best knowledge of Hebrew and Greek we had in 1611, into the English of 1611. In the four centuries since, we’ve discovered older manuscripts, closer to the original texts of the Biblical books, we’ve improved our knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and of course our own language has continued to change.

So the translations we use today, like the New Revised Standard Version we use for our readings, are more accurate and easier to understand. But sometimes they lack a certain poetry. In a few weeks, once Advent has begun, Alice will start lamenting about once a week the replacement of “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7 KJV) with the NRSV’s “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7 NRSV). The King James’ text is one that’s become an almost proverbial classic, found everywhere from the highest-church Midnight Mass to the lowest-church children’s pageant.

“Render unto Caesar” is another one of the proverbial poetic phrases. It has a punch that “Give to the emperor” never will. I hear it most often, of course, used in a secular context, to argue for the separation of church and state. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” In other words, keep your Christian values out of my politics.

But as is so often the case with proof-texts—single verses that can be thrown down out of context to prove a certain point—I think it’s important to rewind a bit, to see what’s actually being said.

Because of the shape of our liturgical year, we haven’t actually been reading straight through Matthew’s gospel. If we had, a few weeks ago we would’ve had Palm Sunday. By our reading for today, Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem for the last time on the back of a donkey. The people have shouted “Hosanna!” and proclaimed him their king. They’ve claimed for him some political authority. Then he’s entered into the Temple, driven out the money changers, and begun teaching with the parables we’ve read for the last few weeks. In other words, he’s claimed a certain religious authority.

So the powers that be are worried. The Pharisees and the Herodians wouldn’t normally get along. The Pharisees are a set of religious teachers who preach individual holiness, applying the purity laws of the Temple to all of life. They’re generally skeptical of Roman rule. The Herodians—supporters of the Herodian dynasty, the sons and relatives of King Herod—are a broadly pro-Roman party. To keep themselves in power, they must keep the flow of taxes going to Rome and keep the population subservient to the Empire.

So both groups are feeling threatened. A new king has been proclaimed, and now he’s teaching in the Temple. And so they come to him and plan to trap him with a question with religious and political overtones. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17) If Jesus says it’s lawful to pay taxes to the oppressive Roman occupying regime—taxes that were extremely unpopular among the people—he’ll lose his popular support and political legitimacy, boosting the Pharisees. If he says it’s not lawful, the Herodians will turn him over to the Romans and accuse him of inciting rebellion. And if he refuses to answer the question—which is framed as a halakhic question, a basic question of interpreting Jewish law—he’ll appear to be a sham, a phony rabbi who won’t give you a straight answer. So they challenge his political and religious authority.

Jesus, unsurprisingly, turns the tables on them. He asks them to show the coin they use to pay the tax. Now, we have to remember that this isn’t 21st-century America, where a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. You can pay with almost anything: a Roman coin, sure, but also a Jewish coin minted by Herod, an old Greek coin, a chicken, a loaf of bread, some livestock...whatever you have. And yet they hand over a Roman coin, a denarius. He’s accused them of being hypocrites, and they are. Trying to force him to appear as a Roman collaborator by legitimizing taxes, they’ve demonstrated that they themselves participate in the Roman economy. And even worse, they’ve given him a coin with a human face on it, a graven image abhorrent to Jews of the time—whose own coins, minted by Herod, had no human face. And worse, they’ve shown this graven image within the bounds of the Temple itself. Their political idolatry, their worship of Roman-minted money and Roman-protected power, is also a literal idolatry.

But Jesus is not simply a master of debate, content with putting his opponents to shame. He goes a step further with a question that at first seems stupid: “Whose head is this?” (Matthew 22:20) Here our NRSV, in trying to be clear, misrepresents the text a bit. The Greek word is “εἰκὼν” (eikōn), “icon.” Whose icon is this?

I said earlier that Jesus is answering a halakhic question, a question of law. This would normally be answered by referring to the Torah. Jesus does this in other places: for example, when answering a question about marriage and divorce, he refers to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus doesn’t explicitly refer to or quote a verse of Torah; but his reference is clear.

In Genesis 1:26, in the Greek translation with which the New Testament authors were familiar and often quote, God says, “Let us make humankind according to our εἰκὼν, according to our icon.” Our English translations usually read “according to our image,” “image” simply being the Latin equivalent to the Greek “icon.” And indeed, both Genesis 1:26 and Matthew 22:20 in their Latin translation use “image.” On the one hand, “Let us make humankind according to our image”; on the other hand, “Whose image is this” on the coin. Okay, enough historical linguistics—what’s the point?

The point is that Caesar can stamp his image on as many coins as he wants; but God has stamped God’s image on humankind itself, on every human being. The point is that the next verse is “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NRSV). Go ahead, Jesus says. Give to Caesar the things a human being can create: money, power, status, soldiers, armies. Give to God your whole selves as human beings, as embodied human souls beloved of God.

There’s an inscription on Emerson Hall in the Yard; I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. As you walk out of the back doors of Sever, through the Yard to Quincy St., and you look up to the right, there it is: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” This is a quotation from Psalm 8, in the King James Version:
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:3–4 KJV)
Who are we, as human beings, compared to the mind-numbing vastness and beauty of the universe, that God should pay us any attention at all, should care for us so much, should love each one of? Psalm 8 is the psalm of all those who have ever lain on their backs in a field and looked up at the stars and felt a sense of awe.

This wasn’t the inscription that was originally intended. Emerson Hall, as you might know, is the home of Harvard’s philosophy department. It’s named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great Harvard Unitarian and transcendentalist. And it was built at the turn of the century, as Harvard strived to finally shed its Puritan past and fully embrace the new rationalism, which taught that human beings, through their own logic, intellect, reason, and effort could create a new age of peace, prosperity, and progress. I would note that this was just ten or fifteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, when the technological brilliance of the age turned to the mass slaughter of human beings by the most efficient means possible: trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas. But of course, this hadn’t yet happened. The illusion of unlimited reason and progress was still intact.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to hear that the original inscription that the philosophy faculty sought was not Psalm 8, but instead the great line of the Greek philosopher Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” Now what does it take to look up at the stars and say to yourself,
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
Man is the measure of all things?”
I can’t say. And I have to believe that inscribed in granite at the top of a monument to philosophy in the center of the bastion of the Boston Brahmin intellectual elite at the turn of the century, this means something more like, “The achievements of Man are the measure of all things.”

How often, I wonder, do we follow in the footsteps of our Harvard forebears? How often do we fool ourselves into believing that the things we can create—money, prestige, control, even others’ perceptions of ourselves—are more important than the things that God has created: human beings, our fellow animals, and our planet? How often do we too commit the idolatry of putting ourselves in the place of God as the ultimate arbiters of what is good?

On Friday our recently retired Bishop Tom Shaw died. Last year, after he had been diagnosed with brain cancer but while he was still well enough to work, Bishop Tom joined us at one of our Life Together trainings. During a time when we had the opportunity to ask questions, I asked him if he had any advice for those of us considering a life in ordained ministry. He took a moment to think, and answered, “Be open to the future.” As he continued to speak I realized he didn’t mean I should be open to my future—to remember during the long institutional process of discernment that I might not be called to priesthood—but to remember that we, as the church, should be open to our future—that it might look drastically different from our past.

Tom, of course, was a monk, not a parish priest, and he was a great supporter of less-conventional congregations and communities like Life Together, and like our college chaplaincies. He saw past the structures and titles we’d created to organize the church to the human beings who make up the Church.

As students and faculty at Harvard, we have shown ourselves to be good at navigating the application processes and career tracks we, as a society have created; structures and titles are sort of our specialty. Many of us here today are trying to figure out our next steps in life. So I can only pass along the advice I once got from a departed brother: Be open to the future. Grad school applications and on-campus interviews, clerkships and internships are things we have created. But we ourselves are made in God’s image.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s;
 and unto God the things that are God’s.”


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

God's Ten Words for Us

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 5th.

“Then God spoke all these words. . . .” Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Yul Brenner (who played Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments)
and Cecile B. DeMille unveil a monument.
As a child of the 1950s, I have a rather distinct memory of going to the movie theatre with my parents to see Cecile B. DeMille’s epic film, The Ten Commandments.  Although the movie seems almost comically campy to me now, to a young boy of that generation it was magisterial, intense, awe-inspiring.  To be sure, I had learned the Decalogue in Sunday School directly out of my grandfather’s copy of Luther’s Small Catechism, handed down to me by my father, but it was Hollywood that, for better or worse, etched this piece of biblical narrative in my imagination, at least until my reading of Scripture matured over the ensuing years.

What is less well known about DeMille’s production of that film is that in the years following its 1956 release, he joined forces with a state court judge by the name of E.J. Ruegemer to promote the film by erecting granite monuments of the Ten Commandments all over the country.  Judge Ruegemer had founded an organization called the Fraternal Order of Eagles whose initial aim was to combat juvenile delinquency by doing religious education around the Ten Commandments.  DeMille, however, saw a marketing opportunity.  And so he bankrolled the Fraternal Order of Eagles to manufacture dozens of gigantic monuments; enlisted the likes of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Martha Scott to do promotional photo-shoots at monuments’ installations; and thus transformed a sincere, if naïve, program of religious education into a Hollywood public relations campaign.

The story doesn’t end there.  In the decades since, these granite monuments themselves have become the focus of intense public controversy, as many of them were installed in quite public places, like state capitols.  Just as DeMille saw a marketing opportunity for his film, politicians around the country jumped on the bandwagon, endorsing the erection of these monuments in governmental spaces for their own political purposes.  And so, one such monument, erected in Austin, Texas, became the subject of one of the leading Supreme Court cases on the Establishment Clause, Van Orden v. Perry, in which a sharply divided Court, in a muddled collection of separate opinions, held that the monument’s placement on the capitol grounds did not encroach upon a constitutionally appropriate separation of church and state.

When you examine these monuments closely, however, as my Harvard colleague Michael Coogan has done in his recent, little book on the Ten Commandments, you see just how far we have come from the text of Exodus and its underlying story.  The language of the commandments on the monuments is carefully edited and sanitized, freed from any theological complexity or nuance.  Gone is any reference to the Hebrew people or to God’s self-identification as the one who brought them “out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.”  Instead, the commandments are presented as abstract, moral principles, and are positioned under a very prominent image of an American bald eagle, holding in its talons an equally prominent American flag. 

I don’t need to tell you that there is considerable irony here.  Words from a compassionate God to the Hebrew people about the dangers of chasing after idols and making graven images of false gods, and about the life-giving possibilities of living in right relationship with God and neighbor, have somehow been hijacked by Hollywood movie moguls and Texas politicians and made into its own pernicious idol, only to be used as one more blunt instrument in ongoing culture wars about national and religious identity.

Lest we require proof of this, we need merely consider recent polls that show that while 76% of Americans strongly believe that our Constitution ought to allow for the Ten Commandments to be displayed publicly, less than 25% of them can name even four of the commandments.  We want the power to assert our views against others, even when we’re not sure exactly what they are, much less what they mean.

One of the challenges for us as a church is to take on the hard work of re-directing this cultural conversation and re-telling our foundational stories in fresh and compelling ways; and perhaps even more importantly, of embodying these stories authentically in our own communities.

As we know, when we place the Ten Commandments back in the broader context of the Exodus wilderness narrative, we begin to see that these “ten holy words” are not abstract moral principles, but rather an invitation from God to identity and purpose, a framework for living in relationship as community.

The fact, elided by DeMille’s monuments, that the Decalogue begins with God reminding His people of their deliverance from captivity is crucial, not least because it demonstrates that these commandments are rooted not just in God's power to enunciate them, but in the redemptive and merciful experience of salvation that speaks to His nature.  God has heard a people’s cries.  Sensitive to their suffering, he has freed them from captivity in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, fed them, raised up for them prophetic leaders, and now He assures this once-bereft group of slaves that they are indeed his treasured possession, who will find life if only they embrace and embody these covenantal words.

Seen this way, the commandments are a way of forming and nurturing an alternative community, one that chooses to organize itself not around the idols of wealth, power, and prestige, but around right relationships with God and neighbor.  Indeed, the Ten Commandments’ very architecture reflects these commitments.  The text literally begins with “God” and ends with “neighbor,” and it is in the space between these poles – between a radical commitment to God and compassion for the neighbor – that we are invited to live.  But the order is important.  We start with God.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “It is important to ‘get it right’ about Yahweh, in order to ‘get it right’ about neighbor.”

And just as the Commandments fall neatly into tablets about God-relationship (the first four commandments) and human-relationship (the last six), so too at the center of the text is the hinge of the Sabbath commandment, with its insistence on rest and restoration for every person, animal, and field, revealing that life is more than productivity and work.

The commandments, as a whole, thus present an alternative vision to life in Egypt, a land where there had been little interest in relationship, regeneration, or rest.  In contrast to that life of bondage, this new community refuses to define itself in terms of violence or human power.  With these carefully structured commandments, God makes it possible for His people to view their new lives, not as chaotic and terrifying, but as meaningful and potentially fruitful. 

My first call as an ordained priest was to serve as chaplain to an Episcopal elementary school.  Among my duties was to teach the Hebrew Bible to young children, including, of course, the Ten Commandments.  When I first started out, I naively thought that the best way to teach them was to require my students to memorize the Commandments and repeat them back to me.  The next year I learned how important it was to embed the commandments in their larger narrative, as well as to discuss some of the simple theological values that they express. 

But it wasn’t until my third year of teaching that I came upon the idea of also engaging my students in the exercise of writing their own covenant to shape our classroom life together.  And so, we sat down as a class at the beginning of the year and, with the Ten Commandments in mind as a backdrop, we wrote out our own community covenant.  The students decided that it was important to start each class with prayer, to develop norms of respect and care that would guide our interactions with one another, and in the midst of our learning, to foster a culture of support rather than competition.  The students were then charged with living into the covenant over the course of the year.

What I discovered along the way is that the best way to teach the Ten Commandments is not to objectify them into hollow words to be remembered and regurgitated, but to look for opportunities to embody these holy words in a shared community life.  Rather than writing the commandments up on a blackboard, or etching them into a monument, or litigating our ‘right’ to do either, perhaps our time and energy would be better devoted to looking for creative and faithful ways to model these holy words in our homes, our churches, and our communities.

As most you know, over the past year the Chaplaincy’s home at Two Garden Street has been transformed into, among other things, an intentional religious community for seven Life Together fellows, our friend, Zach, here, among them.  These fellows live on the top two floors of our house and organize their lives in a consciously countercultural way.  Instead of allowing the rhythm of their days and weeks to be driven primarily by patterns of consumption, or the pursuit of wealth and prestige, or daily television listings, they are bound together by a covenant of community life that is very much anchored in love of God and love of neighbor.  They share the household chores of shopping, cooking and cleaning; they allow for prayer and worship each day, both in common and alone; they have regular times set aside for community time; and their work is in serving various nonprofits and churches whose mission is to meet the needs of others.

Their community is one small, but important example of how covenantal living can be embodied.  Precisely how each one of us reflects covenantal patterns of living in our own lives will always, of course, be contextual, dependent upon where we are in the cycle of life – single, married, with families, or not.  But it is in living of this kind – grounded in relationship to God and neighbor – where we ultimately find meaning and purpose and life itself.  Covenantal communities of this sort, I would submit, are a much more compelling monument to the Ten Commandments than any granite statue.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"For it is God who is at work in you"

Henry Lamb, "Lamentation," 1911.
This sermon was given by Greg Johnston, our Kellogg Fellow, at our Eucharist on Sunday, September 28.

The year is 592 BC. The priest and prophet Ezekiel is experiencing the second of a series of visions, which his followers will eventually write down in what we now know as the Book of Ezekiel. This is a traumatic time in the history of the people of Israel. It’s been five years since the failed rebellion that ended with the Babylonian army looting the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and dragging off the king, Ezekiel, and many of the nation’s other leaders into captivity in Babylon.  In another five years, another rebellion will end with the fall of Jerusalem, the total destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the entire people of Judah. The author of Lamentations will write:
“How lonely sits the city
    that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
    she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
    has become a vassal.
 She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks…” (Lamentations 1:1–2)
In such a time of distress, the people naturally turn to their religious leaders, like Ezekiel.  How could God’s chosen people have fallen on such hard times? How could God’s habitation on earth, the Temple, be violated? How could the people whom God had brought out of bondage in Egypt be returned into bondage in Babylon?

In the ancient Near East gods were national gods; the defeat of the people of Israel by the people of Babylon was a defeat of the God of Israel by the gods of Babylon.

Unless—and this is the answer that the people came to—unless God was in control all along, and the people had somehow brought such destruction on themselves.

But of course, nobody wants to take responsibility for causing the Babylonian punishment that follows the rebellion. So they blame what they see as God’s punishment on somebody else. “The parents have eaten sour grapes,” they protest, “and the children’s teeth are set on edge”” (Ezekiel 18:2). We’ve done nothing wrong, in other words. We’re being punished for the sins of our parents!

Ezekiel rejects this theory. We rebelled, he says, and we are being punished. It’s quite straightforward: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it” (18:26). And there’s a hopeful corollary: “when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life” (18:27).

Righteousness and wickedness, life and death. There are at least two ways to think about these things. We can think about them historically, on one level: If the people of Israel turn away from their warlike ways, they will continue to live as a single nation. If they do not, they will die. The Temple will be destroyed, as it was after the next rebellion. If we do not stop rebelling, trying to save ourselves through violence, we will die. Or we can think about this, as later Jewish and Christian interpreters would, as a sort of eternal or spiritual life and death. This mysterious sense of spiritual life and death being distinct from physical life and death would shape later ideas of heaven and hell, sin and salvation. Either way, God seems to be offering a choice.

Our collect for today begins with the words, “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Not in deciding the outcome of wars, but in mercy and pity. Here is an example of how God’s mercy operates, one that is central to the work of John the Baptist and to Jesus’ ministry: those who turn away from sin into righteousness will be brought out of death into life.

And yet this notion of divine mercy, I have to admit, troubles me. Unlike other virtues—kindness, love, humility, faith, hope—mercy has a dark side. To be merciful to you means that I had every right to punish you, but chose not to.  The president is merciful when he pardons someone on death row; it would have been right according to the law to execute that person, but someone with authority chooses not to.

My faith in God is a faith in a God of unconditional love. But the mercy we’re told about here is a conditional mercy; if the wicked turn from their wickedness, then their lives will be saved. But if God is really in control—and that’s what this whole theory of divine punishment is about in the first place—God can save the lives of the wicked, whether they repent or not! God’s so-called mercy isn’t an act of benevolently loosening the application of the rules, it’s simply a system of its own rules.

Or is it?

To really follow the thread of this story we have to zoom back out to the historical view. About a half-century later, you see, the people of Israel are saved. They are offered the chance to return to their homeland, to rebuild their Temple, and to reunite their nation. This isn’t due to their own righteousness—they haven’t embraced the prophets and created a utopian society of peace, love, and justice—no! It’s at the hands of yet another conquering king: Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who overthrows the Babylonians and allows the exiles to return home and rebuild the Temple. If this is an act of God’s mercy, it’s one that truly goes beyond the rules, beyond the need for repentance, into unconditional love for an unrepentant people.

And yet the narrative is never so simple. The end of the exile is not the end of conquest, but only the beginning; the Jewish people are ruled by a variety of foreign kings with only brief spells of independence until the time, centuries later, a few decades after the death of Jesus, when, at the end of yet another great rebellion, Roman armies destroy the Second Temple and the Jewish people are scattered across the world.

You can see why the spiritual reading became more popular. In this interpretation, we’re not necessarily punished for our sins or rewarded for our goodness in this life; this fits better with our personal and historical experience. We know that goodness doesn’t guarantee good fortune, and vice versa. As Christians, of course, we read these lines about life and death through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in which God somehow takes on death itself. Having sent prophet after prophet, God finally comes in person to call us back into right relationship. This, like the liberation from exile, is not a result of our goodness; if anything, it’s the opposite, the result of our brokenness.

So the rules of repentance are broken. God calls us to turn away from evil and lovingly disregards our failure to do so. What are we supposed to do, in light of this pattern of divine mercy, this pattern of God breaking the rules of repentance and calling us again and again to return to our relationship with God?

Paul gives one answer to the Church in Philippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), he writes, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [other translations of the word are “grasped,” “grabbed,” “claimed”], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).

Paul’s quoting a hymn here, one that would have been known to his audience. And he’s not quoting it to tell them about the life of Jesus. They know about the life of Jesus. They know about his death on the cross. No, Paul is exhorting his audience to have the same mind in them that was in Christ, to practice the same mercy we see in Christ.

Jesus, after all, had every right to do nothing—he was in the form of God, he was equal to God, he was the second person of the Trinity of God. But he chose not to exploit, to grasp onto that equality to save himself but to dive in to the world of human brokenness and pain, emptying himself—the Greek term for this is kenosis, emptying—humbly emptying himself of his own ego, of his own sense of justice and injustice done to himself and allowing love to take its place. And we, Paul says, are to have the same mind in us.

Now, with the possible exception of some of the lawyers in the room, few of us will ever be able to practice mercy in the execution of criminal justice.  But I don’t think that’s what this is really about. At its core, it’s about relationship: God’s relationship with us, our relationships with one another. All of us have been wronged: by friends, parents, roommates, strangers—hopefully not by professors, so early in the semester. I think most importantly and most universally, all of us have wronged ourselves.

And all of us are entitled to experience anger, frustration, and indignation. In fact, not only are we entitled to feel these things: we simply will. We have no control over our emotions, any more than Christ had control over his divinity, his “being in the form of God,” his equality to the Father and the Holy Sprit.

We don’t have the choice not to feel angry. But we do have a choice: not to grasp onto our anger. I can’t speak for you, but I know that I have often been tempted to hold onto a feeling of righteous anger, to keep using it as an excuse not to rebuild my relationship with another person. Rather than feeling angry because I’ve been wronged, I feel smug because I’m in the right!

To be merciful, I think, means to be humble about our own senses of justice and injustice. It means the judge is humble about how perfect the system of law and its prescribed punishments really are. It means that God humbly recognizes that God’s love for us transcends any rules God can set. It means that Jesus recognizes that his love for us goes far beyond his own entitlement to a safe detachment from the world. It means that as Ezekiel suggests, perhaps for a moment, we stop blaming our parents for everything we’ve done wrong. It means that we have to work to recognize that our love for one another must go beyond our feelings of hurt and of righteous anger.

I can’t pretend that this sounds easy to me. In fact, I think it’s terrifying, the notion of striving to forgive others with the same self-emptying, the same kenosis with which God forgives.

But I think that when we strive to let the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus, we are doing our best—to paraphrase the collect— to “declare God’s mighty power chiefly in showing our mercy.”

“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Amen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Reflection from Richard Parker

Richard ParkerThis address was given by Richard Parker at Morning Prayers at the Memorial Church on September 17, 2014. Richard is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Chaplaincy Board.

And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 
O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.
Isaiah 2:2-5
These have not been a good few weeks for religious people, nor a good summer.  Most of us like to think of our faiths as sources of kindness and love and tolerance but the truth is that religion is—and has always been—no less a source of enormous cruelty and violence.

Over the past two weeks, we have been given a horrifying reminder that survive in a litany of three names we shall not soon forget:
James Foley
Steven Sotloff
David Haines
each cruelly beheaded, their beheadings cruelly shared with the world.

But to that litany we must also add as further sign of this dark season Gaza and Israel, Baghdad, Mosul, Somalia, Mali, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan, each its own reminder of what human beings do in clear conscience in the name of their god or gods.

In moments like this, now as always, that voices arise to condemn all religion for what has been done its name.  This time, thought, that inevitable cry about organized religion’s hate-generating made me especially sad—not because it’s a novel argument or observation (it isn’t) nor because I or anyone else who counts himself or herself as religious has a persuasive answer (we don’t)–but because it reminded me that Christopher Hitchens is dead.

Hitchens was, of course, the scourge of religion, a piety-bashing, theology-thumping controversialist who raged against divinity-worship as humbuggery and its priests as buggerers (metaphorical if not physical), with an energy that was boundless and nearly volcanic.

Fundamentalist believers of all sorts hated Chris---and even squishier liberal believers, so proud of their tolerance of everything, suffered Chris’s intolerance of religious intolerance much like a Presbyterian who thinks his election is shown by his ability to sit through a three-hour Pentecostal service.

I had a different relation to Chris and to his fulminations because, forty years ago, we’d been roommates at Oxford, living off-campus in a tumble-down house on Cumnor Hill that we shared with Chris’s girlfriend, Tessa Sweet, and an Australian, John Darling.  We’d sparred then about all sorts of things except religion, because in the early 70s, revolution—not religion—was what mattered.

Chris was a Trotskyist then, active in International Socialists, and the summer before we met, he’d gone to Cuba to pick cane, while I was a youthful veteran of civil rights and anti-Vietnam organizing.  I’d handed in my draft card just before leaving for Oxford, and to keep myself busy in England, spent part of my time organizing US Air Force personnel to protest Vietnam through a group with the initials PEACE—which stood for, without (I promise you) a hint of irony, People Emerging Against the Corrupt Establishment.

By the 1980s, Chris and I were both in Washington, DC.  I was working first for George McGovern, then later Ted Kennedy, and Chris was cutting a dramatic swath through the town’s journalistic fraternity.  Handsome, ferocious in argument, with a keen ability to get invited to just the right dinner parties, Chris was rising fast---and was just about ready to take on religion.

It was the height of the Reagan (and Falwell) years on the Potomac, and of John Paul’s ascendency in Rome, and their ferocious anti-leftism that accompanied their anti-communism.  Over time the Pope’s suppression of Liberation Theology, Falwell’s attacks on liberal religion in all forms, Reagan’s cynical secret dealings with the theocrats in Teheran, all came together in Chris’s mind into one unified indictment: religion, everywhere and always, wasn’t simply the opium of the people, but far worse the instrument of the sanctimoniously powerful.   The hatred and bigotry religion could inspire and justify, in short, were simply one more means of oppressive control of the many by the few.

By the mid-1980s, however, religion had become important to me.  I’m a PK—a preacher’s kid—who for nearly 20 years after leaving home had run away from religion.  But then during the Reagan years, I came back—as a cautious, careful advocate of faith, full of doubt, angry myself at my fundamentalist co-religionists.

Our differences gave Chris and me great new sport—and we’d banter and howl, haggle and reproach each other tirelessly over God after we’d tired of thrashing Reagan and Bush, and then in the 1990s, Clinton—though about him we disagreed.  Chris and I had both known Bill Clinton in our Oxford days, and whereas I’d come to see him as a roguish riverboat gambler straight out of Twain, for Chris he was much darker and Mephistophelian.

Chris and I had our only real falling-out in the Bush years, over Iraq and his new friend Paul Wolfowitz—a Mephistopheles if there ever was one--and for a couple of years we didn’t speak.  But when cancer struck Chris four years ago, we reconnected—and over the subsequent months, I came to see once again his true courage as he fought the disease.  We last talked ten days before he died in December, 2011, making plans to get together in early January.

It didn’t surprise me that the cancer never beat him; he’d died of complications from hospitalization.  I laughed wryly, hearing that, knowing how flintily proud he’d, beating cancer.

At his New York memorial service the following April, I listened as speaker after illustrious speaker rose to tell of his friendship with Chris—Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Fry, Douglas Brinkley.  To honor Chris (and perhaps gild their association), most offered their own resolute defense of atheism as a matter of course, thereby affirming Chris’s and the audience’s.

And then came the final speaker in a program Chris himself had planned.  The speaker introduced himself simply:  

“I’m Francis Collins, a scientist.  I headed the Human Genome Project, and today I direct the National Institute of Health, and I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”

In that hall of 500 people, at that moment, the noise of a dropping pin would have echoed with the percussive effect of an atom bomb.

Collins then explained how Chris had called him one day to ask about new techniques for fighting esophageal cancer—and how Collins had ended up joining Chris’s medical team.  As their doctor-patient relationship became friendship, Collins (like me) said he talked and bantered with Chris about God, not so much evangelizing but simply sharing the news, good and bad, about Jesus Christ and his followers.

I talked with Collins after the service for about 20 minutes.  Chris had had no death-bed conversion, but serious to the end, he had admitted to Collins that he had doubts about his doubts, lacked certainty about his certainty.

Collins, wiser than millions who profess religious wisdom, had pressed no further.  There was no need.  As he said to me, his conversations with—and ultimately, his agapic love of--Chris, personal as well as Christian, had simply left him in mind of Proverbs on hearing of Chris’s death:

“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”

Let therefore the hatred and death inflicted in the name of Allah, of Jesus, of Yahweh, of Budda, of Zoroaster, of Shiva, and all of gods we worship falsely—but who are not therefore false gods—be as iron sharpening the iron faith of love, compassion, and forgiveness that gives truth to the teachings those gods would have us understand.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Bishop's Chair

This past Saturday, people from across the world gathered to consecrate and celebrate Alan Gates as the new Bishop of Massachusetts. At first glance the service—which my sources, incidentally, timed at two hours, seventeen minutes, and forty-four seconds from the first words of the opening hymn to the last line of the dismissal—was all about an individual man. The decorations of the arena were structured around a set of wall hangings brought from St. Paul’s Church in Cleveland, Ohio, where Bishop Alan had been rector. The sermon highlighted the personal qualities that will make him an excellent bishop. The liturgy for the ordination of a bishop includes a lengthy examination, in which examining bishops directly address the bishop-to-be, with everyone else spectating.

But as with so many of the rituals we use to mark the stages of our lives—baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals—this one was only partly about the individual. In a bigger way, it marked a time of transition for the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts: a transition from two decades with Bishop Tom Shaw into a new era.  The length of a bishop’s tenure is long, when we’re accustomed to the constant campaigning of the political calendar. Consider, for a moment: the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the United States of America were founded almost simultaneously. Barack Obama is the forty-fourth President of the United States. Alan Gates is only the sixteenth Bishop of Massachusetts. The end of a long service marks only the beginning of an immeasurably longer relationship.

Essdras M. Suarez / The Boston Globe

In his sermon, Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio speculated about the size of the bishop’s chair. The bishop’s chair, he joked, is the largest in the church—because the bishop has the most growing to do.

Almost a year ago, Bishop Tom visited one of our Life Together trainings and we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions. I asked what advice he had for those of us considering a life of full-time ministry in the church. With characteristic and genuine thoughtfulness, he paused for a few moments, then answered: “Be open about the future.”

We can’t know, Bishop Tom suggested, what the church will look like a few decades down the road. We can’t steer it in the right direction; often we can’t even guess what that direction might be.

What we can do—what all of us can do, bishop or layperson, college student or experienced professional, newborn or near to death, as individuals and communities—is to choose, over and over again, a seat that’s just a bit too big for us.

We’ve got plenty of time to grow.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hearing Jesus’ Voice Amidst the Noise

This sermon was given by the Revd. Luther Zeigler at our last evening service of the semester this past Sunday, May 11. We look forward to worshiping together again at the resumption of our services in the fall!

“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   John 10:3-4
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”  Acts 2:42

“The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   John 10:3-4.  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites us to listen for his voice, and seems to assure us that we will know it when we hear it, and that we will be able to distinguish his voice from all the other voices competing for our attention – the voices of strangers, thieves, bandits, and others who may not have our best interests at heart.  And so, with this invitation in mind, in our opening collect today we prayed for the grace to “hear Jesus’ voice,” so that we might “follow where he leads.”  

And yet, if we have learned anything during the Easter season, it is that listening for Jesus’ voice is not quite so simple, as the first disciples prove time and again.  Last week, for example, we heard Luke’s story of the two disciples who are passionately in conversation with a stranger on the road to Emmaus without even knowing it is the risen Christ himself.  Buried in their own grief and sense of disappointed expectations, Cleopas and his friend walk with Jesus for miles, engaging him in animated discussion, all the while failing to recognize either the face or the voice of Jesus even as he teaches them during their journey.  Not until Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of the bread do these disciples see and hear their great Teacher.  

And a few weeks before that, on Easter morning, we heard John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb.  Panicked and confused by the disappearance of Jesus’ body, Mary encounters a stranger outside the tomb.  Believing the stranger to be a gardener, Mary interrogates him concerning the whereabouts of Jesus’ body.  It is, of course, the risen Jesus to whom she is speaking.  But she is so engulfed by her own grief that she recognizes neither his voice nor his face, until Jesus calls out her name:  “Mary!”  

These scenes would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so true to our own experience, so illustrative of our own deafness to God’s voice.  What these resurrection narratives teach is that the voice of Jesus often comes to us in unexpected ways, that he can sneak up on us unaware, that he speaks to us through the seemingly ordinary people in our lives, and that all too often we are so preoccupied with our own stuff that we end up being deaf to his presence in our very midst.

So, if the first disciples were so consistently unable to recognize Jesus’ voice when he was literally whispering in their ears, what gives us any confidence that we will hear him?  What hope do we have of hearing Jesus’ voice amidst all the noise in our lives?

I want to suggest that this very question lies at the heart of our first lesson today from the Book of Acts.  We are so accustomed to the institutional presence of the Church in our lives that it is difficult to imagine a time when there was no church.  Yet, after the disciples’ initial pattern of desertion, doubt, despair, confusion, and enough raw fear to hide behind locked doors – and after their eyewitness encounters with the risen Christ – it is only then that Jesus’ first followers begin to develop a growing awareness of the enormity of what has happened.  Its only then that they ask themselves:  now what?

To be sure, they are not left entirely to their own devices, thank God.  They are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experience the Spirit’s guidance and power directing them in new and fresh ways. And they know enough from what Jesus has taught them to go out into the world, led by Peter, preaching the gospel and baptizing all who are willing to listen.  But what then?  How are these newly converted souls to relate to one another, what practices will hold them together in community, what will they do to ensure that Christ remains at the center of their lives so that they will continue to hear and follow his voice?

Our lesson today from Acts seeks to answer this question by articulating the four foundations of a distinctively Christian life:  namely, a community devoted to (1) the apostles’ teaching, (2) to fellowship, (3) to the breaking of the bread, and (4) to the prayers.  Acts 2:42.  By adhering faithfully to these principles of Christian community, the apostles teach us, we are given a framework for “holy listening,” one that makes room for Jesus to speak amidst the cacophony of all that surrounds us.  Let us briefly reflect on each:

First, the discernment of Jesus’ voice requires careful attention to the teaching of the apostles, as handed down by tradition; what we now know as the study of Scripture.  The regular and careful reading of the Bible, in light of the challenges and opportunities of our daily life, provides the appropriate framework for discerning Christ’s call to us at any particular moment.  Rather than obsessing about our own individual stories, we immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative so as to understand how we are a part of God’s story.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when we dig deeply into a tradition that lives outside of ourselves, that is bigger than we are, and that brings fresh truth and light to our role in God’s life.

Second, as Christians we practice fellowship, or what the early church called koinonia – we stay in community with one another as a guard against the vicissitudes of self-interest, self-deception, and individualism.  Left to our own devices, we too often see things the way we want to, rather than the way God wants us to.  By remaining in community, we keep one another honest.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is searching for meaning in community, where other people might call us on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with us.  Communal discernment turns I-questions into God-questions.  We ask not what will fulfill me or satisfy my wants and desires, but rather, where does God want me, want us to be?

Third, we draw close to Jesus’ voice by breaking and sharing bread together.  This is, after all, what Jesus instructed us to do at the Last Supper, and what the Emmaus story from last week showed us is the true touchstone for discerning Christ’s presence in our lives.  In the mystery of the Eucharist, the offering of our lives meets the offering of Christ’s life for us at the altar. In communion, we invite Jesus into the depths of our hearts, and ask him to do whatever he needs to do to transform us.  In these moments, we know ourselves to be, not discrete individual egos, as we normally imagine ourselves, but rather, and as we’ll sing in our Offertory Hymn, one in the Body of Christ.

And finally, we pray.  Prayer is that central act of relationship with God in which we intentionally and attentively make room for him in our lives.  Through private prayer, corporate prayer, and praying for each other, we open our ears to Jesus’ voice by pushing to the periphery all the clutter that we normally let fill our heads and our hearts.

When I was at seminary in Virginia, I learned much about becoming a priest from my professors in the classroom, I gained practical experience in leading worship in field education, I grew in my pastoral caregiving skills by doing the required hospital ministry, and I was profoundly formed by daily corporate worship as well. But what stands out most in my memory from those days was Virginia’s practice of “small group worship on Friday mornings.”

Each entering class at the beginning of the year was organized into small groups of about 8-12 students and paired with one faculty advisor. Then, every Friday morning during term, we met together in the advisor’s home for several hours.  During this time, we did Bible study, each taking turns leading the discussion; we also took time just to “check in,” listening deeply to each other’s lives, and our personal and professional struggles; we prayed together, in silence, out loud, in song, sometimes scripted, sometimes not; we committed to stay in relationship with one another throughout the year, and to pray for each other every day; and we ended our time on Friday mornings by breaking bread together, either Eucharistically, if our faculty priest was available to celebrate the sacrament, or sometimes just over Blueberry scones and coffee.

It was in that intimate gathering – anchored by the four practices described by the Acts of the Apostles – that I truly learned for the first time in my life what authentic, intentional, Christian community and worship looks and feels like.

My hope is that our Chaplaincy community this year has at least approximated this apostolic ideal for each of you.  While part of me wishes that our numbers were even greater than they are, one of the great advantages of who we are as a small community is that we have an intimacy, a depth of relationship and care, that is often lost in larger congregations. And for that I am deeply grateful. I hope it has served you well. And I pray that whatever the future may hold for you – whether you are returning to us next fall or are moving on to a new place of opportunity – that you will find a community of faith that gently and lovingly holds you in its palm just as we have sought to do so here.  God bless you all.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harvard Chaplains Speak Out Against a "Black Mass"

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
President of the Harvard Chaplains and Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard

This statement will appear in the Harvard Crimson on Monday, May 13.

As Harvard Chaplains, we write to express our concern about the plans of a student group at Harvard’s Extension School to host a re-enactment of a “Black Mass” on campus this coming Monday evening. The students, who call themselves the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, are partnering with a New York-based organization known as the “Satanic Temple” to put on the event. Although the students have not released details of the performance they intend to stage, a “Black Mass” by its very nature typically involves the mockery and ridicule of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion.

For many Christians, the practice of sharing the bread and the wine of Communion embodies some of our deepest beliefs about humanity’s relationship to the transcendent as reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus.  It is for us a sacred rite to be treated with the utmost respect and love.  For this reason, many in our community – including especially our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, who appear to be the target of this event – are understandably distraught and hurt when they learn that some of our students believe that an appropriate way to engage in learning about the religious beliefs and practices of others is to denigrate them through a mock performance like a “Black Mass.” 

The Harvard Chaplains represent a wide diversity of religious and philosophical perspectives – including most of the major Western and Eastern religious traditions, as well as the perspectives of atheists, agnostics, and those genuinely uncertain about what they believe.  One value that we share, however, is a commitment to engaging in discourse about life’s “big questions” in a manner that is open and honest, but also respectful.  Our aim is to support the wider Harvard community in framing a thoughtful conversation about issues of meaning and value without the need to vilify or parody those with whom we differ.  As chaplains we desire to help the wider community seek mutual understanding about religious matters; but just as importantly, when there is disagreement, as there often is, our hope is that we can learn to disagree in ways that are civil, caring, and supportive of our shared humanity.

We hasten to add that we do not think the issue presented here is primarily one of “academic freedom.” Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good.  Whether or not these students are “entitled” to express themselves through the ceremony of a “Black Mass” as a matter of law or University policy is a distinct question from whether this is a healthy form of intellectual discourse or community life.  We submit it is not.

We urge the student organizers of the “Black Mass” to re-consider going forward with this event.  If the event does go forward as planned, we would urge the rest of the community not to dignify it with your presence.