Sunday, April 26, 2015

Bringing in the Sheep

My church has been asking members to craft reflections based upon the Scriptures assigned for any particular day in the Easter Season. I was asked to do one for the Gospel lesson assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  The passage is from John 10:

 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

My reflection:

Those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God know him to be the good shepherd, the voice we hear that reminds us to love one another as He has loved us. And in this passage, Jesus notes that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice.” We can’t know how God is working God’s purpose out in other people, be they other Christians or other people of faith. God may also be secretly working on those whose unbelief has left them scattered. All we can do is keep listening to the voice of the shepherd and doing our part to lay down our lives for others. You never know how Christ may be using you to bring another sheep back into the fold.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Boston: Stronger than Retribution

On Monday, Lelisa Desisa crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon as the first place finisher for the men in a very crowded field of runners. The race drew more than 27,000 people, beyond the elite runners such as Desisa and the women's winner, Caroline Rotich of Kenya. People wanted to be part of this event and show their support for the city and the sport of running throughout its suburbs. 

Desisa had won the marathon in 2013, but his victory was not the story that day. Two brothers, moved by Islamic fundamentalism, marred the event with a bomb at the finish line which killed three people and injured more than 260 others. It had the desired effect of terrifying a city, and putting it under lock down for several hours as police hunted for the bombers. One of them, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout with police. But the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found bleeding and hiding in a boat in Watertown. In the days leading up to this year's race, a jury found the younger Tsarnaev guilty on all 30 federal counts against him. The day after this year's race, the jurors were back to work in the sentencing phase of the trial.

Understandably, federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They are making sure the jurors see the images of the 8-year old boy and the other two victims who were killed by the callous and calculated act of the Tsarnaev brothers to plant a bomb in a backpack at the finish line of the marathon. They've shown the photo of him giving the finger to a security camera at the prison. They want the jurors to know that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev feels no remorse, no sympathy, no regret for any of his actions. He has no regard for the lives he and his brother have destroyed or the people who have been left with prosthetic limbs for the rest of their lives because of him. Without saying it, the prosecutors want the jurors to view Tsarnaev as not human, but a monster.

This is their job.

Perhaps the ones with the more difficult task are the lawyers representing Tsarnaev. They'll be wanting the jury to see the human being, the young man, the boy under the influence of his older brother, Tamerlan, who they say was the real mastermind of the plot. They'll strive to show Dzhokhar was a good kid until he started hanging with the wrong crowd, a crowd of one, who happened to be his brother. They'll talk about his family life, and all in the hopes that they will spare Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the death penalty.

And they might just be able to do it. It only takes one person to say, "No" to keep a convicted murderer off the gurney. And this trial is in Massachusetts which is probably more Roman Catholic than most of Italy. The Roman Catholic ethic of life is given more than lip service there: 60-percent of the people surveyed by WBUR-FM in Boston said they opposed the death penalty for Tsarnaev. 

Even those most directly affected by his heinous crime have asked that his life be spared. The parents of the youngest victim, an eight year-old boy named Martin Richard, whose sister was also maimed in the attack, have said they do not want him killed. For them, the death penalty spells more appeals, and more time, and more court cases, and more reliving the horrible event of that day. Putting him away for the rest of his life, in their opinion, would mean this chapter is written and finished. 

It's unlikely the jurors will hear from the Richard family or other victims and families who would prefer to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name become a by-word rather than make him a martyr to religious-based terror groups. Prosecutors seeking the death penalty don't like for the victim's family to complicate things by speaking their truth that they prefer life without parole. Once again, capital punishment is proving more divisive than dealing a victory for justice.  

I can understand the desire to put Tsarnaev to death. I was shaken when I saw the images of chaos on Bolysten Street in Boston on the television. The marathon is such a joyous and upbeat event that it was inconceivable that anyone would disrupt it so viciously with a bomb, and do such physical harm to so many. And even though I now live far away from New England, I felt anxious for all my friends in the city who found themselves, literally, in a lock down situation as the police got word of the whereabouts of the bombers and were in hot pursuit. I was amazed the cops were able to catch either one of them, and I'm glad they were able to bring the younger Tsarnaev to justice. Whether he is remorseful or not doesn't matter to me. He intended to do harm, and he succeeded in that. 

However, just as the rallying cry became "Boston Strong" to show that the city would not be brought down by a bombing, I believe the city is made stronger if it refuses to meet Tsarnaev in his blood thirst for murder. He would welcome the death penalty as a badge of honor. And it would make the city of Boston no different than the Tsarnaev brothers.. Tsarnaev's death will do nothing to change the events of that particular Patriot Day in the spring of 2013. Bill and Denise Richard know this. Other survivors have said it. It just takes one person on the jury to believe it and state it as well. One juror who will close the book on this bloody and horrible chapter in the history of the Boston Marathon by having the strength to say, "No" to killing the killer.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Do Commit to Freedom

Tonight was the interfaith pride service. About sixty people attended and helped build a puzzle with their commitment for what they will do to be the change that the world needs.

This time around, I was the lone representative for the Episcopal Church. In years past, I've been accompanied by a priest, or two. We have led those assembled in some kind of call and response prayers. But this year, my usual priestly companion at this service has been through the wringer with a death in the family; hence I was the Episcopalian exercising my "royal priesthood" to lead a section of the service. They also asked my spouse to lead us in a gathering prayer which she concluded with singing the Shehecheyanu blessing to mark the first occasion of this service in a "post-marriage" time.

Since the theme of this year's Pride Week is "I Do" in homage to our newly-won right to marry, and since my partner and I are among the most newly-married in our county, I was assigned to deliver a message about marriage and the long-wait to get there. Knowing that my friend, Petra, would be following me to talk about the horrible "produce your papers to pee" bills that target our transgender brothers and sisters and their ability to use a restroom, I decided to craft my message to hint at the on-going battles but not steal her thunder, which came wrapped in an appropriate moment of silent prayer for the transgender community and those who seek to harm them legislatively. Here's what I said:

We’re here. We’re queer. And we’re getting married!

Nearly 24 years ago, when I first started dating Isabelle Potts, I would never have imagined a day in Florida (or anywhere else for that matter!) that people of my orientation, my queerness, would be given a marriage license. I definitely could not envision entering the county clerk’s office and having local government officials hugging us, congratulating us, cheering us on.

You see, it wasn’t that long ago when the mere attempt to get a proclamation for our city-wide Pride Week event was rejected by the then-mayor of Tallahassee.

Or that there were people who attended a county commission meeting claiming to have a container full of excrement, and warning  our government officials that for them to allow a gay film series to be shown at the local public library would be akin to these people dumping the contents of their container in the county commission chambers.

Twenty-four years has seen so much change to get to “I Do.” At times, it was as if we would never see progress here in Florida. The passage of the anti-marriage Amendment Two in 2008 was an enormously painful event for our community. I wondered, “How can people who say they love God then vote to punish the children of God with such an amendment?” More people came out to their friends and families. Celebrities identified as themselves as being part of our tribe. And we began electing people at all levels of government who were not only our allies, they were one of us. And things began to shift. 

But not in Florida.

Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer brothers and sisters and our allies were having jubilant celebrations in every part of the country except here. Some friends, tired of the wait, went to other states where marriage was permissible for us. Sure it wouldn’t be recognized in Florida; but they would still be married. Isabelle and I chose not to do that. If we were going to make that type of legal commitment, we wanted it to happen where we lived.

Yes, it felt at times as if we were like the ancestors who wandered around in a desert, wondering if this miserable existence would ever end. But one of the things I have gleaned from those stories is that no matter how desolate and lonely those desert times may feel…somehow there is always going to be rock that will split open, or a well-spring that will bubble up. Or some ravens will come to feed you. No matter the circumstance, the Spirit is ready to break through to help those who are asking, “How long?”

We have achieved a significant step forward with marriage equality in Florida. And even today, our state Senate has sent a bill to the Governor which will, among other things, officially end the state-sanctioned ban on same-sex couples adopting children. But our struggle for full equality does not end with a marriage license. Even as we rejoice, the ones who seek to do our community harm continue to look for the ways to divide us and attack us. We must remain strong and resolute in our quest for freedom and justice for all people…ALL…every. Single. Person.

In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock: We who believe in freedom shall not rest. We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.


Friday, April 3, 2015

The World and The Watch

The overnight Gethsemane watch has become one of the important parts of my preparation for Easter. In recent years, I’ve taken an hour slot sometime between 11pm-1am so that I am not so worn out the following day. This time, however, I wound up taking the 2:10-3:10am watch.

Middle of the night, or extremely early in the morning; no matter how you look at it, life in the city is different than the pre-midnight hours. Leaving my house, I could hear nightclubs off in the distance winding down their Thursday night party time. The wah-wah of bass music with the distorted and deep bellowing of a DJ filtered through the street lights. As I arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a city truck was dropping off a dumpster at the church bookstore. Curiously, the driver initially put it down in the middle of the parking lot. I couldn’t help but wonder if the man was just really tired or somehow impaired. In the middle of the parking lot? Really?!

Inside, I was immediately hit with the hint of incense. I wouldn’t have expected the church to have put the thurible to use at a Maundy Thursday foot washing service. I like incense, but was surprised to have been hit with that smell. When I entered the chapel, I saw that the thurible was hanging from a stand. This year, it seemed, we were going to have a burnt offering to go with the reserved sacrament and the lone candle. The person who preceded me in keeping watch quietly left. And now I was alone. God’s work could begin.

The quiet and solitude of the chapel during the watch allows me the opportunity to do my centering prayer work in a very intentional way. But it seemed the work I was to do was not to go into that type of deep dialogue with God. I did sit and meditate on my centering word. But, unlike in past years where I have spent more than half the time in that type of intentional sit, this time, I was drawn to consider the contrasts presented between the relative quiet with the flickering glow of a candle while the life outside was a full soundscape. The dumpster delivery truck clanged and banged and beeped. Police and fire sirens whistled and whizzed past the church. The sounds of cars with more wah-wah of bass music blaring all seemed a stark contrast to this internal environment of quiet.

And yet this all spoke profoundly to me of this same final night that Jesus spent in the garden in prayer. The sounds outside reflected the ways of the world and the pulse of life that is fraught with noise and emergency. The garden, on that night in First Century Palestine, may have been filled with sounds that signaled danger or distraction from centering on God. Watching the candle, I imagined how that night must have been for Jesus as he anticipated the arrival of those who were going to arrest him. I thought that he must have felt some apprehension and anxiety. Even the friends who he had brought along with him weren't able to be present enough to stay awake as he wrestled with the enormity of the task that was laid in front of him. As I contemplated Christ’s difficulty, I thought on some of my own and the tasks that remain in front of me to follow faithfully in the path that God seems to be laying before me. I considered how Christ so completely and willing arrived at that place of placing his life into the hands of God. I thought of how I have not always done that, and have instead behaved more like Peter or one of the other disciples. And I came back to the candle, and the quiet, and how Christ eventually arrived at that place of inner quiet there in the garden. Possessing that quietness in his inner being allowed him to endure the shame and humiliation the world, operating in its own ways, was about to heap on him. I considered the many affronts the world has been dishing out in the past several months, and particularly the reaction against the gay community in the name of religious freedom. And I prayed, as I have done so often, a simple plea to God to continue to fill me with love and light so I may pour it back out as vessel of His love for the world.

My watch time ended, I headed back out into the night of Tallahassee. At home, I sat up drinking a glass of wine to wind down my experience with Christ.

Bang. Bang. Bang.  Gunshots. Three of them. Coming from somewhere in my neighborhood, but it wasn’t clear from which direction.

The world away from that flickering light is a much different place. And it sure could use more of that light.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Type of God Kills His Son?

Tonight begins some of the most difficult, and meaningful, days for many Christians. As night falls, many of us are headed to church for the marking of Maundy Thursday. Depending on whether you are reading the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke or the more etheral narrative of John will depend on what will get the emphasis. The synoptics note that on this evening, the night before Christ's crucifixion, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at what has been called, "The Last Supper." However, many of us attending the Episcopal Church this evening will hear John's telling of the story in which Christ washed the feet of the disciples in a symbolic act of love and servitude. John's gospel is also where Christ gives an extended discourse to his friends about the most important commandment that they are now to follow: love one another as I have loved you. Pay attention to this speech and it's clear that, for Jesus, there absolutely is nothing more important to distinguish who is a true follower of "the way" than to show love to one another, and that means being willing to put aside the ego, the sense of "this is mine and that's yours" and instead view all things and all people with love. It was, and still is, a radical way of being.

Also in John's gospel is the dialogue with Nicodemus in which Jesus says the frequently quoted, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all should not perish but have everlasting life." This is another one of those phrases that my non-Christian friends look at and think it's craziness.

What type of loving God would allow his own Son to be killed so violently? That question can evoke in some an indignant response, especially if the questioner seems only interested in using the inquiry as a means to say, "Gotcha!" and dismiss the answer without listening to what the Christian might reply. A form of this question came up in a recent sermon at my church, and there was the immediate retort that God doesn't make bad things happen, even to Jesus. There was also the reaction that since Jesus is God, He knew what was going to happen to Him and that this was all part of the plan of redemption. I suppose that this would justify the words of the Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week:

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be
whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept
joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the
glory that shall be revealed.

As my friend, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis points out, Jesus wasn't all that "joyful" in accepting his being nailed to a cross. If we remember, again, from the story of this night as recounted in Mark, Jesus is in the garden begging to let "this cup pass" by him. He is troubled, and I would go so far as to say that he was terrified. Did he know precisely what was about to happen? I'm not sure that he did. I believe that Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed. I think Jesus knew the authorities were going to come arrest him. I don't think he knew he would be mocked and scorned or that Pilate would hang a sign over his head announcing that Jesus was the King of the Jews, possibly the closest thing we have in the Gospels to revealing the true brutality of the Roman governor. Pilate had the sign placed there as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking they should be an uppity counterculturalist that their end would not be pretty.

So, why would a loving God allow all this? Maybe instead of looking at the question that way, maybe we should consider again that moment in the garden, when a dread-filled Jesus is turning to God and begging, "Please, don't make me have to face this music." Mark tells this story that almost in the next breath, Jesus says that this is not his own will, but the will of God that would be done. As I think about that, I consider the many times that I, like Jesus, have cast my eyes and my prayers to God, begging that I not have to follow a call on my life that is making me beyond uncomfortable. It isn't in the next breath that I am filled with calmness, but once I have opened myself to being vulnerable to God's will, I find that I am often given some strange calm which permits me to go forward and do the thing that I believe I am being called to do. I don't know what the ultimate outcome will be. What I do know is that I am not abandoned because I can sense the presence of God in the inner calm of my being. This becomes the center of my action, reaction, and response.

Jesus, I believe, achieved that same sense of calm which then allowed him to undergo what was nothing short of a horrible and brutal death. As he was hanging there on the cross, we are told that he called out the words of Psalm 22: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" In this moment of agony, he is again returning to God and essentially again looking for whether this is God's will. Was it God's will that he be nailed to a tree? No, that was the action of human beings. But was God prepared to see Jesus through to the other side of this brutality? Yes! If God was not a God of love, then Jesus' death would have been the end of him. He would have been destroyed. Fear and loathing of love would have the final say. But that isn't the way this story ends. Jesus' willingness, *his* willingness to drop his ego and follow where God was taking him, resulted in one of the greatest stories of victory ever told. Not only did he rise from dead; His name endures to this day. His ethos is still taught. His message continues to comfort those who weep, and gives gladness to those who desire to see Love become the common language. Christianity may not be the most popular religion in the world, but it still lives on in the hearts and minds and souls of many.

Christ will die, but Christ will also rise. And, with God's help and our willingess to let go and be vulnerable to God, so will we.