Wednesday, December 10, 2014


"Gaudete," which is the Latin word for "rejoice," is a name for the Third Sunday in Advent. It comes for beginning of the traditional introit for that Sunday, which begins: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4–6). Gaudete can be seen as a break from the "mildly penitential" season of Advent. The traditional color for Gaudete is rose, reflected in the color of the third candle in the Advent wreath.

by Brad Reynolds

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Song of Christ's Goodness

Our first reading for the coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent, concludes with the verses:
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.
It's not often that we hear about the mighty arms of our tender mother God. What does it mean for God's arm to rule, Isaiah seems to ask, if not for God to gently gather us together in those arms?

St. Anselm of Canterbury
I was reminded, on reading this passage today, of the great poem by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), the medieval theologian, philosopher, and pastor, that we call "A Song of Christ's Goodness." Here's the version used as a canticle (a response to the readings in Morning or Evening Prayer) in the Episcopal Church's Enriching Our Worship:
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
    you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
    tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
    in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
    by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness; *
    through your gentleness, we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead, *
    your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy, heal us; *
    in your love and tenderness, remake us.
In your compassion, bring grace and forgiveness, *
    for the beauty of heaven, may your love prepare us.
In a time when members of churches across the world are searching for language that expresses God's love with something other than masculine imagery, I'm always excited to see such beautiful examples from ancient and medieval sources within the Christian tradition.

And of course, in this season when we prepare to celebrate the simple and beautiful story of the Holy Family, of God born into the world to and through a kind and gentle mother, let's remember the beautiful circle of the love of our God, who was born of a human mother in order to be mother to all humans.

Pieta, sculptor unknown, c. 1420. Harvard Art Museums.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Matters in the End

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, November 23rd, Christ the King Sunday. The readings for the day can be found here.

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40

This well-known excerpt from the 25th chapter of Matthew – sometimes called ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ – is Jesus’ very last teaching in Matthew’s gospel before his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It marks the climax of Jesus’ preaching to his followers, and it is the only detailed account of the final judgment offered by Jesus in all of the New Testament. All of which is to suggest that we probably ought to pay close attention to what Jesus is saying here.

Drawing on the apocalyptic vision from the Book of Daniel, in which the Son of Man comes in glory at the end of times to make manifest God’s reign, Jesus paints for us a vivid picture of the glorified Son sitting on the throne of judgment.  Surrounded by God’s angels, the Son of Man then gathers peoples from all the nations before his throne and, one by one, separates them, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, into two groups:  those who are blessed and who will inherit the kingdom, and those who are accursed and who will be forever separated from God’s presence.

What separates the sheep from the goats?  The key verses are 40 and 45, where Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And likewise, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  Feeding the hungry, it turns out, is to feed Jesus; giving water to those who thirst is to quench our Lord’s thirst; welcoming the stranger is entertaining Christ; clothing the naked is to warm the Body of Christ; caring for the sick is to tend to our Savior’s wounds; and visiting those in prison is to befriend Him as well.  In the final analysis, this is what matters.  

I have three observations about this text and its implications for our lives:

First, notice how little the Son of Man seems to care about whether we’re Gentiles or Jews, Protestants or Catholics, high church or low, man or woman, gay or straight.  We spend so much time and energy quarreling over our theologies and creeds, fighting over who is in and who is out, splitting into endless numbers of denominations and factions, and fussing over the best way to worship; yet, if Jesus is to be believed, the only question we will be asked when we approach the throne of judgment is this: ‘so, tell me, how did you treat the least among you?’

It is what we do for those in need that matters to Christ.  This is not to say that what we believe and how we worship are irrelevant.  Thinking clearly and coherently about who God is and who we are, and adopting practices of worship that allow us to stay in right relationship with God and each other are helpful, but only insofar, Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel, as these beliefs and practices support us in what we do with our lives. Our ultimate aim is to do God’s work in the world and right beliefs and right worship are but a means toward that end.

So, if our actions are what matters, does this mean that our works save us and not our faith?  No, that conclusion does not follow from the premise.  To say that our deeds matter is to say nothing of whence they come.  And Jesus makes clear elsewhere, as does St. Paul, that our capacity for doing works of mercy, for caring for the other, for loving our neighbor, depends crucially and initially upon our faith in Christ, upon letting him abide in our hearts, so that we may become instruments of His grace.  Remember that the two great commandments are, first, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, so that we might, second, love our neighbor as ourselves.  The order is important.  It is folly to think that we can earn our way into God’s heart through our own efforts apart from first allowing Christ to work in and through us by faith.

Second, notice what this text says about God and where He may be found.  God is emphatically not some distant spirit, far removed from the experience of humanity, as we sometimes imagine Him.  In our lesson today, Jesus tells us, as directly as he can, that God is fully present in the struggles of human existence.  If you want to see the face of God, you need look no further than into the face of a neighbor in distress, for the living Christ is mysteriously there.

When we gather in church, we devote much of our time to experiencing God’s reality in word and sacrament.  We believe, rightly, that God is present in Scripture (and so each Sunday we listen with care to lessons and psalms from our Bible) and that He is present in sacrament (and so, after we hear the Word, we gather around the table to share the bread and wine).  But in today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to expand our sacramental theology by seeking Him not only in Word and Sacrament, but also, and perhaps most especially, in the sorrows and pains and needs of our world.  And plainly, the emphasis in our text today is that the ultimate point of being fed by word and sacrament in church is so that we will leave church to seek Christ’s presence in the faces of all those who are hurting.

This is why the central symbol of our faith is neither the Bible nor the Last Supper, but instead the Cross.  We place a cross at the center of our worship as a sacred reminder that God not only became human in Jesus, but that in Jesus’ life and death, He shared fully in our hunger, our thirst, our estrangement, our nakedness, our sickness, our imprisonment, and ultimately in our suffering and death.  The crucified Christ is and always must remain at the center of our faith so that we remember that the God we worship identifies most profoundly with the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, and with victims of violence; for in Jesus God was all of these.  And so, it is in persons such as these – the least among us – whom we will find Jesus still.

The third and final point I want to make about today’s text is that we should not run from the reality that in it Jesus speaks of judgment.  Quite plainly, Jesus is saying not only that our actions matter, but that what we do and fail to do has consequences for our future life with God.  The notion that our actions matter, and that some day we will be held accountable for our choices, is a sobering reality.  It is sobering because, speaking for myself at least, I seem to act like a goat at least half of the time, maybe more.  I suspect the same may be true for you.  How then can we possibly hope to be on the right side of the divide between the sheep and goats given our all-too-human propensity to stray from the path we know to be the right one?

If the parable of the sheep and goats were the only words we had from Jesus, I’m quite certain that we would be in big trouble. But the task of faithful biblical interpretation is to read texts not merely in isolation, but always in relationship to one another.  And we would do well to remember that the Jesus who promises to judge us in today’s gospel is the very same Jesus who elsewhere promises to chase down and protect every single, lost sheep; who welcomes home with love and thanksgiving every contrite, prodigal child; who called as his followers tax collectors and prostitutes; and whose very last act on the Cross was to turn to a repentant thief and assure him of a place in paradise.  

In short, while we must take seriously these parables of judgment, we must also read them together with our narratives of mercy.  How do we reconcile these competing narratives?  In the end, I’m not sure that we can.  I’m not even sure we’re called to reconcile them.  The reality of our God is bigger and more mysterious than our frail human conceptual categories.  Rather than trying to explain our God in some neat and tidy theology, our task instead, I think, is merely to follow him, and to live in the tension of these narratives, betwixt the poles of judgment and mercy.

On the one hand, we have every reason to trust in the promise of God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness, to follow Christ without fear, and to hope and pray for the redemption of every lost soul, including our own.  On the other hand, and at the same time, we must live our lives as if every choice matters, as if God is counting on us, as if our soul and the souls of all those we are called to serve hang in the balance.

As Reinhold Niebuhr once expressed this paradox:
“The mystery [of living in this tension] is that on the one hand duty is demanded of us as if duty not done will never be done. On the other hand faith declares that man would be undone if God could not complete what we have left incomplete and purify what we have corrupted. The cross is the perfect revelation of both of these truths. In it the sin against man is revealed as the sin against God, as something more than a casual imperfection. Yet in it the merciful purpose of God, to take human evil into himself and smother it there, is also declared.”
Simultaneously both sinner and saint, we live each day in the quiet and sure conviction that God deeply loves the good we do, and that, through the mystery of grace, he also makes straight everything that is crooked in our more wayward doings.  Precisely how this happens we perhaps will never understand; but we can be forever thankful that it happened once and for all on the Cross.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, November 2nd, All Saints' Day. The readings for the day can be found here.

One of my favorite moments in our Eucharistic liturgy is right before the Sanctus, when the Celebrant invites the congregation to join “our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of God’s Name.”  This invitation is a beautiful reminder that in the mystery of the Eucharist we are deeply connected not only with Christ and each other, but with all who have come before us, from generation to generation.  And, more than a reminder, by singing together the ancient words of the Sanctus and Benedictus, we are all, however briefly, mystically drawn into the joyful life of the communion of the saints.

All Saints Sunday is one of the principal feast days of the church year, and on this day we focus our attention on this “liminal space” between the temporal and the eternal, between this world and the next, between the Church today, the Church across the ages, and the future Church toward which God is calling us.  Through our music, prayers, and lessons, we are given the barest of glimpses into the coming Kingdom and the expansive fellowship of the saints in Christ.

One thing I’ve noticed about Episcopalians over the years, however, is that we often start to get just a little bit nervous when anyone starts talking about a life beyond this one.  We’re all for listening to stories about Jesus, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, seeking to promote justice, and building up an inclusive community; and we certainly love our beautiful music and pretty vestments; but resurrection and the future Kingdom of God?  For many Episcopalians, that seems a topic better left to our evangelical brothers and sisters.

While I can relate to these feelings of discomfort, our faith at its core is a resurrection faith, and it behooves us, from time to time, to reflect thoughtfully – using the tools of Scripture, tradition, and reason – as to what we actually believe about our future life with God.  For, truth be told, there are a lot of misconceptions in the broader culture about these matters.  For example, I suspect that if you were to ask the average person on the street what Christians believe about life after death, he or she would say:  we go to heaven.  And if you asked this person what he or she means by ‘heaven,’ the answer you would likely get is that it is an ethereal place far removed from this earthly existence where we will be at one with God and others who have gone before us.  On this popular view, when we die, our spirits or souls leave our bodies and this earth and we go to this other place for the rest of eternity.  Our earthly existence, according to this conception, is a training ground for our more permanent home in the distinctly separate sphere of heaven.

While not exactly wrong, the trouble with this view is that it is insufficiently attentive to what the Bible actually teaches us about the relationship between this life and the next, between heaven and earth.  Let’s start with our first lesson today from Revelation.  If you read the Book of Revelation straight through from beginning to end, what you soon appreciate, especially when you get to chapters 21 and 22, is that the Christian hope for the future is not about people leaving earth and going to heaven, as the popular myth would have it.  It is, rather, the exact opposite:  the future that John foretells is of heaven coming down to earth, an eventual merger of these two spheres of existence.  In John’s richly metaphorical language, the eschaton – the end of time – will be that age when the holy city of the “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and finally and ultimately transforms our earthly existence.

Thus, in today’s excerpt from Revelation, we hear John point us toward this fully integrated heaven and earth, this newly remade and redeemed world, in which “there is a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” where there will be no more hunger or thirst, and where “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”  As John’s revelation explains it, the ultimate point of God’s creation of a heaven and an earth is not that earth serve as a training ground for heaven, but rather that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock, and that one day they will do so fully and forever.

The Book of Revelation is not the only, or even the principal, place in the New Testament where we can find this view.  As the great Biblical scholar Tom Wright points out, “When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom, it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple.  It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.”  The central text in support of this, of course, is our Lord’s Prayer, that prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray above all others, and which we too will pray again in just a few minutes.  And what Jesus teaches us to pray is quite specific:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not “other-worldly”; it is very much “this-worldly.”  It is all about bringing God’s Kingdom into reality in and through the gathered Body of Christ on earth.

Indeed, this view of the interlocking relationship between heaven and earth pervades Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry.  From beginning to end, Jesus’ core proclamation is that God’s Kingdom is not some distant and future reality, but it is, in some very real sense, already here in his person.  We hear this message plainly today, when Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the famous Beatitudes.  These ‘blessings’ describe the life of those who belong to the newly arrived Kingdom of God.  Jesus invites his disciples to bear witness to this emerging Kingdom by organizing themselves around an unlikely, but ultimately life-giving, new set of values – humility, meekness, peacemaking, purity, a detachment from material things, perseverance in the face of adversity, a passion for justice, and a keen sensitivity to those who suffer.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “the Beatitudes are not a heroic ethic,” but instead they are “the constitution of a new people.”  They are not so much a list of moral requirements as they are a description of a community gathered by and around a heavenly vision announced and embodied by Jesus.  Hauerwas writes:  “You cannot live by the demands of the Beatitudes on your own, but that is the point.  Their demands are designed to make us depend upon God and one another.”  (Hauerwas, 61).

Heaven, you see, is already here, at least in part, every time communities, like this one, gather to proclaim in word and deed Jesus’ vision of the New Jerusalem.  And the implications of understanding this are huge.

For one thing, it becomes clear that God’s plan is not for us to escape this world to ascend to some distant heaven, as the popular myth would have it.  Rather, God has sent His Son to this world for the express purpose of enlisting us, as his disciples, to make this world anew in the manner of heaven, and to live into the reality of this New Jerusalem.  For too long, I’m afraid, the Church has acted as if its main order of business is to prepare people for some distant place called ‘heaven,’ such that the Church really needn’t worry about what’s happening on earth.  That betrays Jesus’ message.  Our task as church is to boldly embody what the New Jerusalem looks like, and to critique the broader culture at the pressure points, the places where society and governments drift away from the good order that God wills for his world.

It bears emphasis that we are not asked by Jesus to do this primarily as individuals.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is a social and political reality.  In some strands of American Christianity in particular, salvation is often portrayed in starkly individualistic terms:  a question about an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus.  Again, that is not a biblical view.  While it is certainly fair to say that each of us is known and loved by God in our individuality, and cultivating a relationship with God is an important spiritual discipline, the biblical view of salvation, of resurrected life, of the New Jerusalem, is a distinctly social reality, a newly created community consisting of all peoples, nations and races.  Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not about individuals out to save their own souls, but about a beloved and ever-expanding community that faithfully strives to be redeemed and made anew.

As we renew our baptismal vows today, and welcome new friends into the faith, let us remember that we are called to boldly and creatively be Christ’s Body on earth.  We have the awesome responsibility and great blessing to be His hands and feet, and His eyes and ears, as He seeks to heal this broken and troubled world.  Let us not flee or ignore the challenges of this earthly existence in the hopes of a better future in some distant ‘heaven’; but instead, let us honor the lives of all the saints who have come before us by striving to become that New Jerusalem for whom our Lord gave His life, praying always:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


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.”