Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Prayerful Reflections Against Casinos in Massachusetts

A Statement from the Reverend Luther Zeigler, Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard.

Presented at “Towards a New Dawn” – An Interfaith Prayer Rally at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, October 22, 2014 at 7 p.m.

Good evening, my friends.  My name is Luther Zeigler, and I am the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard. I come with greetings and prayers from the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, Alan Gates, who is so disappointed he cannot be with us tonight, for he shares with me a passionate concern about the important questions of social justice that bring us together, and in particular about the insidious impact that the presence of casinos will have on our communities unless we vote to repeal the casino legislation next month at the ballot box.  We add our Episcopal voices to those of the many faith communities across this great state who urge you to Vote Yes on Question 3, so that we can stop the cynical attempts of the casino industry to sell false hope to our people and to prey on the poor and the desperate.

The fact of the matter is this:  casinos are not trustworthy community partners who build up healthy communities by producing goods or services that we need; rather, casinos siphon off money from the economy, largely by picking the pockets of those who cannot afford to lose their hard-earned dollars, so that wealthy casinos owners and investors, most of whom do not live in our communities, can themselves profit.

The evidence shows that casino gambling generates its income disproportionately from the lowest economic classes.  The net effect is a regressive redistribution of wealth, contributing over time to an even increased disparity between the rich and the poor, the very last thing we need.

The slick television ads sponsored by the casino industry that we have been seeing in recent weeks promise jobs.  Please do not believe these promises.  Manufacturing thousands upon thousands of slot machines into which our people are invited to dump their wages is not a sound jobs strategy.  In fact, each one of these machines sucks about $100,000 annually out of our people’s pockets, money that could be going instead to local business owners who are working hard to provide goods and services that we actually need.

We should learn from the recent experience of states like Connecticut, New Jersey and Ohio.  In those states, exploiting people’s fears in the wake of recent recessions, casino owners persuaded voters to allow for the expansion of casinos with the promise of jobs.  Our new bishop, Alan Gates, comes to us from the state of Ohio, where he was the rector of a large church outside of Cleveland, and he has shared with us that state’s very relevant history with this issue.

A 2009 legislative initiative in Ohio authorized the construction of four casinos.  In its massive campaign selling the initiative, the industry promised the voters of Ohio, as they are now promising us, the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.  Yet, according to an analysis out last month in the Columbus Dispatch, neither the jobs nor the tax revenues promised by the casino owners materialized in Ohio in the ensuing five years.

Rather than getting more jobs or tax revenues, what these communities get instead is a new wave of social problems.  The evidence from the social science is clear.  When casinos come into communities, crime increases, personal bankruptcy rates rise, predatory lending practices surface, and the vulnerable are exploited.

And let there be no mistake about it:  Addiction to gambling is an underappreciated and serious social problem that plagues too many of our friends and neighbors.  And while one can make libertarian arguments that adults should be free to choose how to spend their recreation hours, this leaves out of the equation the profound impact this disease has on our children.  For one of the hard truths about gambling addiction is that its chief impact is often on the children of parents whose addiction leads them to patterns of neglect, abuse, and the depletion of family resources available for the care of children.  How can inviting casinos into our communities possibly be good for our children?

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor; to heal the sick; to free the captives; to create healthy communities that reflect the Kingdom of God.  He did not come to line the pockets of predatory casino investors; to contribute to income inequality; to bring crime into our neighborhoods; or to fuel unhealthy behaviors that hurt the most vulnerable.  Let us say ‘yes’ to Question 3 on November 4th; let us say ‘yes’ to justice; and let us say ‘no’ to casinos in our communities.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Holiness and Neighbor Love

This sermon was given by our Micah Fellow Zach Maher at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 26th. The readings for the day can be found here.

“May we be holy as The Lord our God is holy.” Amen.

Growing up in a church with the word “Bible" in its name, I was often encouraged to get on a daily reading plan to read the whole Bible in a year.  This is certainly a meaningful spiritual practice, but I wouldn’t recommend my strategy: reading straight through from Genesis.  Genesis and Exodus were pretty fun, mostly collections of the stories I knew from Sunday school.  Then I reached Leviticus, the source of today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  I read long descriptions of how to slaughter which animals for the different types of sacrifices and I struggled to understand the relevance of what to do with infected cloth.  Leviticus, you see, is primarily a priestly handbook for temple practices.   My resolve to complete the reading plan withered, and I retreated to occasional excerpts from the New Testament – big picture stuff.

However, if we glance at Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading, we might be surprised to find him pointing us right back at Leviticus.  Rather than making a new proclamation, he identifies a core commandment by quoting verbatim from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In doing this, he invites us into the Jewish practice of wrestling with the Torah so that we might live out God's will for our lives as a community and as individuals.

What is the context for our Leviticus passage? We find ourselves quite literally at the heart of the Torah: we’re in the center of the middle book.  Our excerpt comes in the middle of a section known as the “Holiness Code," spanning chapters 18 through 20.  While the rest of Leviticus is primarily concerned with priestly practices inside the Temple, the Holiness Code applies to all of the people of Israel as they go about their daily lives.

The core of this holiness code starts out our passage: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  That sounds a bit intense for me.  The word seems so untouchable, and rightly so, for it means “set apart.” I can connect a bit more with the paraphrase “Stand out in the way that I stand out.”

I confess that I have often had a twisted understanding of what it means to be set apart.  Particularly because I recently graduated from a twisted place called Yale. At Yale, I found myself in a world bathed in prestige.  My freshman year acquaintances, for example, included the two-time national Latin championship winner, the World Debate champion, and a violin prodigy/published neuroscientist/charity founder.  Everyone was brilliant, accomplished, interesting, and also fun. While I, as a rural public school kid, felt like a phony in this context, my response was to try to make sure I found ways to get prestige for myself.  This influenced my decision to go for a Master’s Degree in my four years.  I wanted to be a person worthy of elite society.

This impacted my other relationships.  My friends from home started to seem boring by comparison.  People who weren’t at the top of their field didn’t seem worth hearing from.  As former Yale professor and outspoken Ivy League dissident William Deresiewicz put it, “We were the best and the brightest, as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.”  In other words, far from a beloved neighbor who I love as myself.

In Leviticus 19, we see a very different picture of what it means to stand out. To highlight a few commands:
Revere your father and mother. I am the Lord.  (19:3)
Keep the Sabbath. I am the Lord. (19:3)
Don't make idols. I am the Lord. (19:4)
Leave food for the poor and foreigner. I am the Lord. (19:9-10)
Make just judgments. I am the Lord. (19:15)
Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (19:18)
Don't let animals breed or mix fabrics. I am the Lord. (19:19)
Don't eat food with blood. I am the Lord. (19:26)
Love the foreigner among you as yourself. I am the Lord. (19:36)
Whether a ritual purity matter like not mixing fabrics or a human dignity matter like providing the poor with food, the grounding is the same: “I am the Lord.” The structure of this passage, and indeed of the whole book of Leviticus, has a profound impact: Both the commands regarding ritual of religious practice and commands regarding daily interactions lead us to the same thing. We are sharing in the holiness of God.

When I think of being “holy” in the context of talking about God, I often set apart my time engaged in formal worship, like our service now.  In the sense that these moments are set apart from the rest of my week, they are indeed holy.

I’ve found holiness harder to experience outside of those contexts. Last year, for example, I was teaching English at a school for students diagnosed with conduct disorders in Neukölln, a lower income neighborhood of Berlin with a high immigrant population. I was trying to help kids to learn the language that could allow them to see beyond their neighborhoods.  Perhaps, I thought, this constituted “loving my neighbor.”  But the “as yourself” part was hard coming directly out of my Yale bubble, where just about everyone wants to and can excel at academics.  On a good day, most of the students in the seventh grade would just ignore me.  On a bad day, I had to forcibly stop a student from playing with knives in the kitchen.  They hardly felt like my Yale peers, and I didn’t respect them as much. They definitely did not respect me and my Ivy League education.

My worshipping (“holy”) community was relegated to a different sphere of my life. I attended a hip church in the "nicest" part of town.  I met with a small group with artists, project managers, and university students.  In short, I was compartmentalizing my pursuit of the holy.
And yet in this compartmentalized worshipping community, I found myself, a foreigner, being welcomed as a full member.  Despite my initially broken German, they listened intently to what I had to say.  I lived in an apartment with the small group leader and his wife, and they took me around to small gatherings of their friends and even small family gatherings.  Sure, there were moments of cultural confusion, but I could handle those because I felt welcomed as an equal, both inside and out of church.

Slowly, the wall dividing the holy and the secular in my own life became more porous, and I started focusing on building relationships with my students, respecting them as people who were just as valuable before God as I am.  Rather than spending break time trying to tweak my lessons so that I could think of myself as a great teacher, I went and chatted with the students.  I asked the most difficult 7th grader to teach me to play Ping-Pong.  Sometimes I had to recalibrate this attitude, reminding myself of who I was through prayer, but I saw my life at the school transition from the fulfillment of duty to the building of a community.

In this experience, I learned an important lesson about experiencing the Holy: loving my neighbor as myself is one of the best ways to participate in God’s holiness during the mundane bits of everyday life.   Indeed, there are very few undertakings we can do, particularly in our urban academic setting, that don’t touch others. But just as the Israelites were set apart as “holy” against the norms and practices of the ancient Middle East, we too have implications that go against our cultural norms. Does loving fellow students as ourselves mean loving their academic success as much as our own, even when on the same curve? Does it mean taking a stand for systemic injustice, even when we didn't create the system that we benefit from?

I had the chance this weekend to return to Yale for the first time since summer 2013.  There were two moments when I recognized people from a distance.  The first was when Justices Alito, Thomas, and Sotomayor walked by on their way to the Yale Law School Reunion.  The second was Juanita, the homeless poet who once shared her poetry with me in exchange for a meal.  The justices were escorted by Secret Service, with people on the street flocking to take pictures, while people pointedly avoided eye contact with Juanita.  A later verse in Leviticus 19 (19:36) says to love the foreigner among us as ourselves, yet the discrepancy I saw yesterday showed a way in which our society is not yet holy.

As we transition to the Lord's table, we take time to communally acknowledge the fact that we are never perfectly holy as God is holy, and recommit to loving God and loving our neighbor.  We do this in the prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Sometimes, we actively commit a wrong by harming our neighbor - “by what we have done.”  Other times, we fail to live out the positive commandment to seek to love our neighbor, and thereby become implicit in our neighbor's harm: “by what we have left undone.”  Through the Eucharist, we’ll commit to renewal as we mysteriously participate in Jesus’s act of neighbor love in his death on the cross for us.

In all of this, as we worship together and are sent out into the stress, excitement, and monotony of our daily lives, we are being made holy as God is holy.

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.”

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.