Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.

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A Timely Reminder

If last week served no other purpose, it reminded me, once again, that there are two strongly prevailing and often at odds visions of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in America in the 21st century.  Whether it is the furor over the election of Donald Trump as President or the ongoing lack of real conversation between the perpendicular arguments of pro-life vs. pro-choice, the world has seen Christians arguing among themselves, at best, and outright denying the faith of the other, at worst over the course of the last month, well, maybe more like a year, or decade, or more.

It is in that climate that the liturgical calendar turns its page to the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the only words that anybody can remember from the prophet Micah.  At the tail end of a long list of rhetorical questions about what actually pleases God, come these words, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

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Those who have hung around this blog for a while know that my favorite Greek word is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  It is a word that would be helpful for every Christian to make a part of their vocabulary.  Most of what masquerades as deep theological debate these days is actually vitriolic arguments over adiaphora.  That’s not to say that having a well informed theology is important.  For example, if one were to take “thou shalt not kill” seriously, then it would behoove that one to take an holistic view of that commandment.

That being said, it does Christianity at large a huge disservice to publicly argue about matters indifferent with the sort of anger with which Christians have come to be known of late.  I am particularly grateful, then, for the words of the prophet Micah as a baseline for what it is we are to be about.  God has already told us what really matters in the heart of God: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.  The current state of religious debate fails at the latter two points, and it is usually in the context of debate over the former.  There are gray areas in what justice looks like, I am fully willing to admit that, but until those conversations happen in the context of loving kindness and humility, we as Christians will be unable to move forward toward effectively working toward the goal of building the Kingdom.

In Rotary Clubs, there is the Four-Way Test for every decision:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Perhaps as Christians, we might take a more trinitarian tack, and ask ourselves these questions before we hit the comment button on social media:

  1. Is it JUST?
  2. It is done in LOVING KINDNESS?
  3. Does it promote WALKING HUMBLY with God?

Good Stewards – a homily

Stewardship gets a bad rap these days.  So often, when we talk of stewardship in the church we mean it only as “the way we spend our money.”  More specifically, we mean that stewardship is “giving money to the church,” and while the gifting of the first fruits of our labors to God is important for the church and for our own spiritual wellness, the reality is that we are called to be stewards not only of our money, but of all the gifts that God has given us: the gift of speech, the gift of compassion, the gift of intellect, the gift of prayer, even the very gift of life – the list goes on and on.  This call to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to our care is made abundantly clear in the first letter of Peter; a letter written to encourage the fledgling church in Asia Minor in the face of persecution.  For a church that was still very much without a structure, this letter would serve as an important reminder to hold fast to the faith.  In the short passage we heard read this afternoon, the letter was also intended to encourage the followers of Jesus to be good stewards of their gifts for the up-building of the kingdom.

“Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies…”  Throughout generations, these words have encouraged disciples of Jesus to be steadfast in their ministry despite ongoing hardship, which is why they were selected as the New Testament lesson on this day that the Episcopal Church sets aside to remember four strong women who were unafraid to use the gifts that God had given them despite societal pressure and persecution.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Jenks Bloomer, both members of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, New York dedicated their lives to the rights of women in the late 19th century.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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Amelia Bloomer

Stanton used her gift of language to write a commentary on the Greek New Testament, focusing on the way in which certain passages of Paul were used to keep women from ordained ministry.  Bloomer used her ability to write to engage in newspaper and pamphlet debates with members of the clergy over dress codes which kept women subordinate and put them in real physical danger.  She argued that “The same Power that brought the slave out of bondage will, in his own good time and way, bring about the emancipation of women, and make her equal in power and dominion that she was in the beginning.”  Stanton and Bloomer, both white women, used their gifts to bring about social change for women, which ultimately led in 1920 to 19th Amendment and the right to vote.  Sojourner Truth and Harriet Ross Tubman, both black women, born into slavery, used their gifts to bring about freedom for African Americans.

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Sojourner Truth

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Harriett Ross Tubman

Sojourner Truth was given the name Isabella at birth, and spent the first 28 years of her life as a slave, sold from household to household and given a new last name each time she was purchased by a new master.  She escaped from slavery, and began serving homeless women in New York City.  At age 46, she heard God call her to the life of a travelling preacher.  Despite the fact that Sojourner Truth had never learned to read or write, she used her gifts of charismatic presence, wit, and wisdom to share her message of God’s freedom for slaves and women throughout the country.

After two decades of severe treatment and beatings, Harriet Ross Tubman escaped slavery at the age of 24.  She returned to Maryland at least 19 times between 1851 and 1861, freeing more than 300 slaves and leading them to safety in Canada.  When the Civil War began, Tubman joined the Union Army as a cook and a nurse.  The gifts she honed leading slaves to freedom were put to use as a spy and a scout, and because of her ability to lead, she became the first woman to lead troops into military action when 300 black troops joined her on an expedition to free over 750 slaves.

Stanton, Bloomer, Truth, and Tubman each had gifts from God, and each were willing to use them to bring about God’s dream of freedom and dignity for every human being.  May God grant us the wisdom to discern our gifts and the courage to use them to bring about his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

The Hope of the Poor

My number one goal over the course of my sabbatical this summer was to write a first draft of my Doctor of Ministry thesis for the Advanced Degree Program at the School of Theology at the University of the South.  Having successfully completed that goal, I began to look back on the other accomplishments of my time away.  I gained 10 pounds, which probably wasn’t good, but it was the direct result of good times with family and friends, so that’s OK.  I learned I need to find a hobby, and I’m working on becoming a disc golfer.  Tops on the list of “other accomplishments” however, is my return to the Daily Office.  It still feels weird to read the assumed to be done in community offices of the Church alone at my desk, but I’m finding a newfound comfort in it, and I’m glad to be reminded of those great phrases that pervaded my mind during seminary.

This morning, as I continue to struggle over which widow I’m going to preach about on Sunday, I was struck by the penultimate versicle and response in the Rite II Suffrages A.
V. Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R. Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Both the Widow at Zerephath and the widow who gave her last seem to be at a point where their hope has been taken away.  What is interesting, however, is that what is used as a call and response prayer is actually a promise in its original context of Psalm 9.  The most recent edition of the New International Version (2011) makes this clear in their translation of Psalm 9.18, “But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.”

If this is true, and tend to think that it is, then these stories of the two widows are less stories of their willingness to give sacrificially and more stories of their ongoing hope in God’s willingness to never forget them.  The young Widow at Zerephath was almost certainly not a Jew, and yet she had faith in the provision promised by some strange prophet of a foreign god.  The Widow who gave her last, despite being manipulated by a corrupt system, gave those last two copper coins away, she literally gave her whole life away, confident that the Lord would not forget her in her poverty.

In the end, then, these are both stories of God’s abundant grace for those deemed outside the realm of God’s grace.  One was an ethnic outsider, the other a cultural one, but both were faithful in light of God’s promise to care for them.  We who are thought to be on the inside, who profess to be followers of the Way of Jesus, are invited to a) have the same sort of faith and b) join with God in sustaining the poor no matter their circumstances.  That’s why we pray those words with regularity, “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away” or “don’t let me forget the needs of others, O God; don’t let me be complicit in a system that crushes their very hope.”

Why I’m Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis is, at least as of now, the most famous County Clerk in America.  You’ve heard about her on the news, read about her in the paper, and been subject to various “We support Kim!” and “Kim needs to go!” social media posts from your friends across the political spectrum.  Truth be told, Kim Davis isn’t the only government official who is in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.  Alabama has a few of its own.  She just happens to be the one being sued for it.  Whether you are for or against marriage equality, however, the one thing we should all be doing is praying for Kim Davis.

Her decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples isn’t the result of her own ignorant bigoted opinions, as the left would have us believe.  Instead, as Tony Jones rightly pointed out yesterday, she has made the choice to stand her ground based on her being taught some very dangerous theology in her church.  I’ll let her tell you, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I was really struggling with the decision of General Convention to allow the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire.  In my struggle, I was labeled and dismissed just like Kim Davis has been.  Over the course of the last 12 years, I have found my opinions on things pertaining to human sexuality to be changing.  I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministries of many gay clergy and lay leaders.  I’ve come to know the powerful witness of same sex couples eager to make a life long covenant before God.  I’ve realized that in a world filled with terrible understandings of the role sex in relationships, the Church should be lifting up monogamy and the two parent family as the ideal, no matter the genders of the two individuals involved.  I voted against the canonical changes for marriage equality at this last General Convention, but not because I don’t support marriage equality as a justice issue, but because the changes proposed were sloppy at best.  I’ve come a long way on the question of sexual orientation, but I know how long it took, I know how hard that change is.  Some continue to look at me as narrow minded for having ever held those opinions or for holding Church canon to a high standard.  They would label and dismiss me, but thanks be to God, I’ve come to know that it is OK for us to be at different places on this issue, just like we are on many others.

My favorite Greek word, that I’m pretty sure doesn’t appear in the Bible, is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  In the context of theology, it means those things which are not necessary to salvation.  To use Kim Davis’ words, things that aren’t “Heaven or Hell decisions.”  Despite what you might hear from the extreme right or the extreme left, one’s opinions regarding same sex marriage are not, and never have been, a matter of salvation.  We should pray for Kim Davis that she might come to know the freedom that comes from the word adiaphora.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are faced with the tricky reality that even Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God in man made manifest, needed time to come to grips with the fullness of God’s love for all of his creation.  In a story that is shocking to our 21st century ears, especially in the heightened racial tensions of the past several months, we hear Jesus using a racial slur in telling the Syrophoencian Woman that he came to show God’s love for the Jews.  In the course of Jesus’ encounter with the woman, he is changed.  His divine will overcame his human will as he realized what he had known all along: God loves everyone, no exception.

God loves you in your struggles.  God loves me in mine.  God loves David Moore and David Ermold, one of the couples to whom Davis has refused issue a license, in theirs.  And yes, God loves Kim Davis.  I pray she knows that even in her struggles, even if she did issue a same sex marriage license, God loves her.

The Pentecostal Mandate

Even if their congregation doesn’t do footwashing on the Thursday before Easter, the average Episcopalian is at the very least familiar with the themes of Maundy Thursday.  If you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ve learned that the word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the word “mandate.”  The mandate of Maundy Thursday is Jesus’ New Commandment, that we love one another.  Two weeks ago, we heard that mandate echoed as Jesus continued to give his disciples their final instructions, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  On Sunday, as the Church gathers to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day, we’ll hear yet another mandate, this time not from the lips of Jesus, but from the authors of the 1979 Prayer Book (who, according to Marion Hatchett, borrowed heavily from the Gelasian sacramentary of c. 7th or 8th century).

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer might be asking God to help the Holy Spirit move her way across the globe, but the onus sits squarely on our shoulders.  The Holy Spirit will be spread, at least according to this Collect, by the preaching of the Gospel.  The mandate is clear, we must preach the Gospel.  The problem is that we’ve so compartmentalized the Gospel that the average church-goer either has no idea what it looks like or has an insanely specific understanding of it.  You’ll hear, for example, that Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” so good works are all we really have to do.  Some will argue that marriage equality is the Gospel, while others will argue that feeding the poor is the Gospel, and still others will say that amendment of life is the Gospel.  Each of these are a part of what the Gospel message calls us toward, but none are, in and of themselves, the Gospel that the Collect for Pentecost Day would have us preach.

The full Gospel can be summed up in several different ways, but I find it helpful to go back to an earlier teaching from Jesus in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever puts their trust in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  The Gospel is the story of God’s love made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That love changed the world by changing the hearts of human beings.  That love will compel us to do good works, to seek justice for all people, and when we sin to repent and return to the Lord, but the first step, the Gospel that will set the Spirit free, is to recognize and put our trust in God’s unending love.

3 Reasons Why I’ll Vote FOR on Five #BuildBaldwinNow

Numbers.  I suppose it makes sense that a property tax referendum would come down to numbers.  They’re well rehearsed by now.  Baldwin County has seen 25% growth over the last decade.  We are #1 in growth in Alabama and somewhere between the 9th and 14th fastest growing Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States.  100 Portables are already in use, with another 350 or more looming on the horizon right next to a caravan of U-Haul vans.  For $12 a month, the cost of a large pizza, we can meet the needs of a growing populace.  Whether we’re talking $200M or $1B in total revenue or 2nd highest or 97th out of 135, there are numbers everywhere.  If there is one thing I learned about numbers while studying Business Administration in undergrad, it is that you can make them say whatever you want, which is why I’m not basing my decision to vote FOR on five on numbers.  Well, except the number 3.  Here are my 3 reasons to vote FOR on five as a father, a person of faith, and a citizen of Baldwin County.

Reason 1: I’m a father

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This is FBC.  She is a Kindergartner at Foley Elementary School, the largest Elementary School in Alabama with more than 1,400 students.  Lunch service starts at 10:30 and continues for 3 hours.  Bathroom breaks have to be scheduled because there aren’t enough facilities to accommodate the number of students now enrolled.  She is getting a great education at Foley Elementary School, but it can be better, and God forbid she end up in a portable classroom down the road, those things scare me to death.  As a father, I want what is best for my children, and a sustainable funding plan for growth is best.  I want FBC, and every student at Foley Elementary School to have every opportunity for success.

Reason 2: I’m a person of faith

The last sentence in Reason 1, segues nicely into Reason 2: I’m a person of faith.  Specifically, I’m an Episcopalian, more specifically, I’m an Episcopal Priest.  At the core of our faith rests a series of eight questions called The Baptismal Covenant.  Three questions deal with our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The last five spell out what we believe to be the basic building blocks of discipleship: fellowship, teaching, breaking bread,  prayers, holiness of life, repentance, evangelism, good works, loving our neighbor, and seeking justice and peace.  I believe this property tax referendum is a matter of seeking justice.  I want what is best for my daughters, but I also know that I am called to seek what is best for all people, especially the 71% of FBC’s classmates who are living in poverty.  Without a sustainable and equitable funding source, Baldwin County schools will fracture, and those who have will prosper while those who have not will fall further behind.  If this vote fails, it will incentivise areas like Fairhope and Gulf Shores, where money, time, and energy are abundant, to create their own school systems, which will pull money out of the Baldwin County Board of Education’s coffers to the detriment of poorer communities like Bay Minette and Elberta.  I believe that part of the foundation of a just society is high quality public education for all people.  Without it, the bottom rung of the ladder to success will draw further and further away from the students who need it the most.

Reason 3: I’m a citizen of Baldwin County

There is no doubt that good schools make good communities.  People are moving to Baldwin County for many reasons.  Snowbirds tend to come for low property taxes (even with the 8 mil increase, we will still be among the lowest) and a high quality of life. Those who come to work to support that high quality of life come here because jobs are prevalent and the schools are among the best in the nation.  Without a sustainable funding source, our schools will begin to lag behind.  It’ll happen slowly, but it will be inevitable that overcrowded schools will produce a low quality education.  As word gets out, growth in the county will slow, the economy will shrink, schools will get even less funding, and the cycle will continue until we’re once again the Redneck Riviera of years gone by, while scratch our heads and wonder what happened to the glory days of the early 21st century.

I want better for my county.  I want every child to have a chance for success.  I want my daughters to attend high quality, safe schools.  I will vote FOR on Five on March 31st.  I hope you will too.

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