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Abram’s God

Abram’s God is not like other gods. Stories from the ancient world often featured gods driving the narrative. Competing deities used humans as proxies to carry out their sibling rivalries. In the Fertile Crescent, it was thought that the irregular patterns of floods was caused by warring gods. Abram’s God didn’t play these kinds of games.

I want to share a couple of stories with you this morning about Abram (who would later receive the new name Abraham). One story we already read this morning, the other two are not in the Bible, but that’s okay. The Rabbis knew them. Rabbi Hiyya, who lived in the third century, told a story about young Abram, before God told him to “Go!” to the promised land.

Abram’s father Terah did good business in his hometown of Ur as a clay idol statue salesman. His father sold little clay gods. The whole family apparently worked in the theology business. One day, Terah left young Abram in charge of the store. Abram, full of righteous anger, smashes all of the clay statues. When Terah returns, the boy has placed the stick in the hands of the largest idol. He tells his father that a woman came to offer food to the gods, and they argued over who would eat it first, until a fight broke out and destroyed one another. Terah rolls his eyes and says to Abram, “son, they’re just statues.” Abram responds, “then why do you worship them?”

Abram saw things differently. For Abram, to use the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, “there was a God out there beyond ‘god.’” The God of Abram was not confined to some clay vessel, not tangible. More than our opening hymn this morning, I can imagine Abram singing, “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise. In Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” There is a God out there beyond god.

We are children of Abram. Along with our Jewish sisters and brothers, and our Muslim sisters and brothers, I believe when God took Abram out for an astronomy lesson, we are the stars God was talking about. Abram’s vision of a God out there beyond god took hold. Our God cannot be contained in clay vessels.

We live in a day when there are many Evangelical Atheists. Think about that term. You may have friends or family members that wonder about your sanity for spending your Sunday in church. (Also I’m willing to bet you probably have other friends or family members that think you’re crazy for worshiping in THIS church. Well, crazy loves company. They don’t call us Holy Commotion for nothing.) The Oxford Scholar Richard Dawkins has been on a very public campaign against belief in God. His most famous book is called “The God Delusion.” Dawkins isn’t alone. Bill Maher on HBO, Christopher Hitchens, God rest his soul, even Steven Hawking, the great Cambridge cosmologist, has come out against God. Are we crazy?

You may be surprised to hear this, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we are crazy for believing in God, for trusting in God, sometimes like Abram and Sarai, despite the evidence. A theology professor of mine, Dr. Maria Pilar Aquino, used to say: “Atheism is irrelevant, because you have to specify exactly which god you don’t believe in.” She often went on to say that when atheists talked about the god they didn’t believe in, she usually didn’t believe in that god either.

See, I think the “New Atheists” are a bit like young Abram. They’ve got a bat in their hands and they are smashing the clay statues. I have to say, as a member of the clergy, as a representative of the religious establishment, I can sympathize. In the church, we’ve put up a lot of little clay men over the centuries and said, “that’s God!” Religion needs a little smashing now and again.

This is an aside, and maybe it is impolitic, but if your god thinks you shouldn’t be allowing your children to participate in the Girl Scouts, double check. You may have an idol on your hands. Time for some smashing. Incidentally, I’ve offered any Girl Scouts that need a home after this last week to come to The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. We will welcome you.

It’s not just the news from this past week about the St. Louis Archdiocese questioning its relationship with Girl Scouts let’s be honest, time and again human-run religious organizations have set up clay idols. I can understand why some people are turned off by all the little gods we have running around. As the 16th century Italian monk and astronomer Giordano Bruno said to the church at his heresy trial: “Your god is too small!”

I’m about to tell you a secret. There’s a trick to this theology business. It’s a lot easier to talk about a small god. It’s often easier to make a clay statue for a small god than to describe the God of Abram, the God of Jesus. Wrapping your mind around “The God out there beyond god,” that’s difficult. But a word of advice: never settle for a small god.

Eventually Abram grew up, and he began a journey with his wife Sarai (later known as Sarah), his nephew Lot, and his father Terah, who had apparently forgiven him for smashing all of the merchandise in the shop. They head for the promised land, but initially, they only make it halfway there. The family settles in Haran, where Terah dies. After his father dies, God calls Abram again: “Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…” Abram is 75 when God calls him, not a young man.

There’s another story from the Rabbis know that isn’t in the Bible. The story picks up as Abram is about to leave. You see, the people of Haran tried to get Abram to stay. They protested Abram leaving. They camped at the city gates and tried to convince him to not to go. Abram was a wise old leader in Haran, trusted, his counsel was sought. Why was he headed off into the wilderness, especially at his age?

“Don’t leave. We need you here” they say. Abram looks out at them and gives his answer. He says, “you don’t need me. No one is indispensable to anyone but God.” No one is indispensable to anyone but God. There are two sides to his statement. One is obvious: no one is indispensable. “You don’t need me in Haran. There are other wise leaders.”

In that way, we see that Abram really is wise. I have the privilege to work with a number of you who have come to an age of wisdom. And I’ve learned to listen for a particular marker of wisdom and leadership among my retired and retiring friends. I’ve heard the phrase a number of times lately, it goes something like this. “I looked around one day at the team I had worked so hard with for so long, and I realized, they don’t need me.” That’s wisdom. There’s a certain freedom in that statement: “they don’t need me.”

No one is irreplaceable at work. Really. No one. Like it or not in a year, we’ll have a new president of the United States. Everyone is replaceable in their work. There is wisdom and freedom in figuring out that you can be replaced.

But there is another side to Abram’s statement: “no one is indispensable to anyone but God.” To God, Abram is indispensable. To God, you, people of Haran, and you, people of Holy Communion, are indispensable. Who you are matters. What you choose matters. How you love matters. Again, Abram is reframing God for the people of his time. The gods of his day were small in their intentions. They used humans to further their own petty plots.

The God of Abram was a different sort of God, beyond all those gods. Abram’s God was big enough to love and care about, to need each and every human life. Subtly Abram told the people of Haran, you don’t need me, you need God.

David Foster Wallace, the late author and post-modern literary critic, gave a famous commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago. Commencement addresses are full of advice for graduates, and Foster Wallace gave advice reluctantly. He was a postmodern, and postmoderns do everything reluctantly. Here’s part of his address, try to hear it with Abram’s idol smashing and his loving words to the people of Haran in mind.

“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid,a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

We haven’t come that far from the ancient world with all the small Gods. This is what St. Paul is warning the Philippians of this morning. “Don’t let your god be your belly.” Don’t live the default settings offered to us. This is why Jesus tells the pharisees Jerusalem kills the prophets. We still live in a world that traffics in small gods. We live in a world that profits on fear and keeping gods small.

Following the God of Abram was and is a radical choice. If you feel unsteady at times, know that the patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets are with you. They all come to God with questions. Before you try out Abram’s method and cut open any animals, call me. But know that God can handle the questions. God can handle your doubts. God is with you, inviting you, to Go!, have an adventure. Trust in God, because God is out there, beyond all of the minuscule images that are often offered.

Out there, looking out at those stars, Abram caught a glimpse of his heritage. You and me and the millions of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims that call Abram our Father, and Sarah our mother. All of the people on our planet who seek a bigger God, they are all children of Abram. And at the same time, the God who is beyond God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (to quote Thomas Merton). We may need to smash some idols. We may need to leave behind the city we’ve called home. But God is with you. Just ask Abram.

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Religious Radicals for Welcome, Diversity, and Justice

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit, given what has come before in our Gospel this morning. “His winnowing fork is in his hand.” “You brood of Vipers.” Don’t brag about Abraham. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” That is good news?

All this may seem a bit much this week. We are getting close to Christmas after all. This week we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of joy. This is joy week. We need a break from all the preparation. We need a pause from all the rush. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us came to church this morning because we needed just a few quiet moments in this busy season. So why today are we dealing with all this extreme rhetoric from John the Baptist?

John the Baptist is a radical, perhaps THE most radical figure in the New Testament. As Canon John Kilgore reminded us last week, in Mark’s Gospel we hear that John lived apart from the community. He covered himself in camel fur and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a little odd. He was all fire and brimstone. I know that some of you at Holy Communion are here to escape fire and brimstone. I know that many people come to the Episcopal church because we eschew such drama. The Episcopal tradition has not historically been a John the Baptist sort of place. Well, I am not hoping to disappoint you, I promise not to start thumping a Bible, but I think our world needs religious radicals.

Our world needs religious radicals, today more than ever. You may be thinking, “Mike, do you know what you’re saying? ISIS is parading across Syria and Iraq abroad. So-called-fundamentalist Christians are attacking civil rights at home. How can you say we need religious radicals?” And I say to you, we need religious radicals, because what passes for radicalism, what passes for religious fundamentalism has almost nothing to do with the faith we share. What passes for religious extremism has nothing to do with the good news, the Gospel.

What we need is the radicalism of John the Baptist. The people ask John, “What should we do?” Listen again to his words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors not to steal. He tells soldiers not to extort the people, to be satisfied with their wages. That was John’s radicalism. Treat one another like human beings, treat one another with dignity because all are created in the image and likeness of God.

The word radical comes from the Latin “radix” or root. To be radical is to be rooted, to know what holds us up, to know what gives us life. Over the past several months, your vestry has been leading a process at Holy Communion asking questions about our roots. What are the values and vision we share?

We’ve been asking three questions of parishioners. We’ve done so in small groups in homes, in forums between the services, the youth group and I even shared a lunch in the park. Vestry members have met one on one for coffee or a meal with members of this parish. We’ve been focused on the same three questions:

1) What brought you to Holy Communion?
2) What keeps you at Holy Communion?
3) In five years, what do you want your neighbors to know about Holy Communion.

The questions were simple, almost deceptively simple. The questions helped us get to our common ground. These questions helped us export our identity, our roots. The answers we received have begun to shape a conversation about our mission as a congregation. We have identified three values we heard above all the others:

We are a congregation rooted in the values of Welcome, Diversity, and Justice.

To me, those values are more valuable because we heard them from this community. The vestry didn’t sit in a room and make them up, they came from our conversations together. Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, these are our roots. Friends, those words are radical.

To be a faith community shaped by welcome, diversity, and justice is a radical calling, especially in our world today. In a culture of fear of the other, welcome is radical. In a city that is divided along racial and ethnic lines committing to a church where we meet on common ground with people of diverse skin colors, economic statuses, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, among other difference, coming together as a diverse community that’s radical. And in a society that stresses individuality, working for justice for our neighbors is radical.

In the weeks and months that come, we will have a chance to continue this process of dialogue. I have just sketched a few of the things I think we mean when we say we are committed to Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, but I don’t have the last word. Holy Communion isn’t that kind of church. We are asking YOU to dream with us. If welcome, diversity, and justice are our roots, what will we grow together? What ministries, programs, and priorities will we bring to life? How will we live these radical commitments?

There’s a story of St. Francis told by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The year is 1216. The great cathedral of Perugia is the setting. Boff tells us, “Lugubrious Gregorian chants rise [from the choir]…The solemn *Planctum super Innocentium* is being sung.” The body of Pope Innocent III lies in state before the altar. Innocent had risen to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. The Church had become the most powerful institution on the continent, but death catches up with us all.

The pope’s body is clothed in finery “furs, jewels, gold, silver, and every symbol of double power, sacred and secular.” But around midnight, as the deceased pope lies alone in the darkness, thieves break into the cathedral. They strip the pope bare. After they make off with Innocent’s rich clothes, legend tells us, a crumpled figure, rises from a dark corner where he was huddled in prayer. “He takes off his worn and dirty tunic, a tunic of penance that his friend Pope Innocent III had authorized him to wear in 1209… and he covers the naked body of the pope with it.”

Innocent III and Francis were both huge figures in the faith of their time. Innocent was the pope, the most powerful figure the Catholic church had yet known, but save for the medieval scholars in our midst, very few of us could talk about what Innocent valued, what he held dear. What were Innocent III’s roots? I couldn’t tell you. Francis is another story. Children today can talk about his love of animals and his respect of all of creation. People of many faiths today are inspired by his call to care for the poor. Francis was a radical, and his roots speak continue to speak to us today.

When they write the story of Holy Communion, will they write about our silver chalices and our beautiful stone building or will they write about something more radical? Will they tell stories of a community that was rooted in the teachings of Jesus? Will they tell stories of the ways we welcomed the stranger, and even the stranger stranger? Will they laugh as they marvel at the ways we brought such diverse people together to worship and to learn? Will they talk about our work together for justice?

I think our city and our world are hungry for the kind of radical Christianity I have heard described by the people of Holy Communion. We are weary of the visions of religion that are readily available. We are tired of what passes for extremism and fundamentalism. We are hungry for the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist, proclaimed by Francis, and proclaimed by this unique congregation in University City.

This Advent, how will we be religious radicals?

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Marriage Equality, The Supreme Court, and The General Convention

Sometimes the middle ground is the wrong place to stand. As an Episcopalian, that statement, while true, works against my very bones. We like to consider ourselves a people of the via media. When the Church of England split with Rome, we sought to be a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. We tend to find a spiritual gift in balancing supposed opposites, but sometimes the middle way is not the way of Jesus. In the case of marriage equality, seeking some middle way at this General Convention would be a mistake.

In today’s Supreme Court ruling we are seeing a testament to movement. As I wrote in an earlier post, the millenial generation has already moved, already embraced marriage equality. But the movement is not simply about public opinion. As a Church we must ask ourselves, do we not see the movement of the Holy Spirit? In the posts from same-sex couples and their heterosexual allies online, in the celebration outside the court, in the joy in the halls of the Salt Palace, do we not discern God’s own Spirit moving us as a people?

Today the Justices handed down a ruling from a divided court to a still divided nation. Some had hoped the Court would rule more narrowly. In the decision, Justice Kennedy writes about this sense of legal “process” for marriage equality:

There may be an initial inclination to await further legislation, litigation, and debate, but…While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.

Justice Kennedy’s words are profound, and should be heard by those Bishops and Deputies charged with deciding The Episcopal Church’s canons. Sometimes when we hold the middle ground, we cause harm. Dr. Martin Luther King said it another way: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The Supreme Court justices have set a bar. Will The Episcopal Church reach for full marriage equality? Or will we settle for some middle ground?

As the legislation about liturgical marriage equality wends its way through committees toward the Houses of Bishops and Deputies, as a church we have to think about what our actions will say to the wider world. Jesus’ command in Matthew is clear: “Go forth into all the world and preach the Gospel.” We are a people of proclamation. Whether we embrace that identity or not, our legislation will be understood as proclamation. What will we proclaim? Will our General Convention proclaim that we see God moving in the marriages of same-sex couples?

I first served as a priest at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. I started there as a seminarian just a few months after the District of Columbia approved marriage equality. St. John’s started offering marriages for same-sex couples the day they were legal. Some were surprised because the rector, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon hadn’t allowed blessings of “civil-unions” at the church. In explaining his position, Luis said to me, “I don’t know what a ‘civil union’ is theologically. I know what marriage is, and I see signs that God has already called same-sex couples into marriage.” My rector didn’t stand in the middle ground. He worked for full equality.

Many bishops have already stated their opposition to changing the canons on marriage for the sake of procedure. I honestly don’t know where we will end up at the end of this process. My hope is that we do not end up divided between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. I was gladdened by the post Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia wrote after he received strong pushback for his opposition to a canonical change: “I remain absolutely committed to full marriage equality in the ministry, life, and witness of our Church.” What encourages me more than his statement of openness is his surprise at the reaction to his initial denunciation of the canonical change. I do not think many in The House of Bishops understood the strong desire we have, as a church, for a move to marriage equality. I hope the bishops have simply been bogged down in process, and are waking up to the call of their Church: We are hungry to proclaim some good news on marriage equality.

If we are able to act for marriage equality this Convention, if we are able to make a substantial change to our Canons, if we are able to move toward allowing Prayer Book weddings for same-sex couples, we should proclaim that move boldly. We should proclaim this change isn’t simply about public opinion, marriage equality is about Good News. We will celebrate same-sex marriages in The Episcopal Church because we celebrate where God is leading us as a people. We can’t stand in a middle ground on this one, because God calls us somewhere higher.