Monday, April 27, 2020

Reflections for the Times 2

When I was a child in the Knoxville City Schools, I was required to read Christy by Catherine Marshall. While not the only reason it was required (I can only imagine that the explicit Christian context didn’t hurt), a central reason was that the book described Appalachian community life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Catherine Marshall’s mother was a teacher in a small community in Virginia, and the town in the novel was based on a town in Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

I will be honest that I don’t remember much about the book. However, one chapter has stayed with me over the years. One of the central characters is the preacher, David. Like Christy, David is an outsider in the community, but thoroughly committed to his people. In one chapter a member of the community needs to clear a field to be plowed. This becomes a work of the whole community. The men gather, and each takes a portion of the field to clear with scythes and axes. David steps up to do so, too. This comes as a surprise to the community. He’s not a farmer, used to the tools, or even to the hard physical work it entailed. And, then, too, he’s the preacher! He insists; and even though it takes him much longer to finish, he gets his part done.

What has long stayed with me about this is David’s determination to give of himself, at, really, great expense, for the good of one family, and to model serving the whole community. 

But, then, the whole chapter was an example of a community coming together to serve one another. Once upon a time, that was a common example of American values. Perhaps from recent movies we attribute it especially to Amish communities; but it was once a more general idea. One of the major scenes in the musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, takes place at a barn raising. Communities gathered to help because there were things to accomplish that no one person could do. 

There is, in American public life, that countervailing theme of the individual - commonly called in arts and letters “the rugged individual.” It’s been pitched at us especially since the Reagan Administration as the model of American freedom. But, American freedom, and American history, has also involved individuals sharing common purpose, working as communities to accomplish things no individual alone could do - like building a barn; or flattening the Coronavirus curve.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Reflections for the Times 1

First published on Facebook.

I am a citizen of the United States. There are many folks these days that want to remind me that as a citizen I have rights, some guaranteed in the Constitution, some set by laws, and some determined by how various courts have defined those laws in light of the Constitution.

And, as a citizen of the United States, I also have responsibilities. For this point, I have responsibilities to my fellow citizens - to *all* my fellow citizens. That includes my neighbors here in rural Tennessee, and the neighbors of my children in California and the neighbors of my niece in New York (just to give as broad a range as possible).

I have a responsibility to consider the welfare of my fellow citizens - the ones who live with me in my retirement community and the ones I encounter in church and the ones I encounter at Walmart. I have a responsibility as a citizen (without even going to how I understand my responsibilities as a Christian) to consider the health of my fellow citizens.

So, I wear a mask when I go into town; I stay six feet from folks I encounter walking my neighborhood; and I stay home. I pay attention to medical information. I recognize that we’re far from knowing just how prevalent the current corona virus actually is in my own county, much less anywhere else. Sure, I haven’t had the identified symptoms; but “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I may have a right to be out and about, but I have a responsibility to my fellow citizens to limit myself to protect the health of others, whether I know them or not.

When I was a boy, I was taught, “My rights end at your nose.” These days there seem to be a lot of folks asserting “*Your* rights end at *my* nose.” This is a difference that makes a difference.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Power to Become Children of God: Sermon for 1st Christmas, 12.29.19

As a few of you know, I've been back in Cumberland County about a year. My wife has been here a little over a year. We brought her down and moved her in. I went back to Kansas City and worked for another six weeks and then came back in February. But while we were down in that first week, we got invited to - well it was billed as an open house in a neighbor's home, but it was really about “show off Marshall and Karen.” Uplands Village is that kind of place. We're very sociable and we all want to meet each other.

So, we are in this big circle, and everybody says a little something about themselves and what their association is with Uplands; and then they come to us and they want more. They want the full story. And I got started telling some of my history and in the middle of that, three more people arrived.  We got them in and we got them settled and we sort of heard their names and somebody said, “Okay, Marshall, start again.” And I said, “Where would you like me to start?” And they said, “Well, start at the beginning.” And I said, “Ah!  At the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep;” to which somebody said, “No, no, no, Don’t go that far back.”

Now, that's a bit of clergy humor but, as some of you will know, there are a lot of retired clergy in Uplands Village. And so it, the joke worked. What struck me about that story this morning, though, is that that's exactly what John does. We have, as we've heard many times, four gospels with two nativity stories that we weave together for our holiday celebrations. Nothing in Mark: Mark is laser focused on the ministry of the adult Jesus. 

And then there's John, who is so sufficiently convinced that you already know Jesus was born, that he's not telling a story. We have no reason not to think he knew Luke or that he knew Matthew, that is, their written texts; but he's really more interested in what this is all about. And to place this in context, as far as John is concerned, you have to go back to the beginning -  the very beginning. In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning, God said something. Now that's right out of Genesis, right? God speaks and that's how things happen. God said, “Let there be light.” And, light. So, John goes back to God speaking the Word. But John also points out that there's no separating God's expression from God. The Word was with God. The Word was God. And without God's Word, there's nothing. God speaks six times as it were – there seem to be a whole lot more sentences than that, if you go back and read all of Genesis, but there are six days in which God speaks and things are done. 

This is to put this whole Incarnation thing in, not our historical context, which is what Luke is about; or if you want to our imperial, our administrative, our social construct, which is what Matthew is about; but into God's context. In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt or lived or - and yes, you've all heard this before, but the Greek says pitched a tent among our tents. 

We really enjoy the stories. Granted, some of the more contemporary expansions on the stories get annoying or tiresome. I heard on the radio a couple of weeks ago about a group of people whose real goal is to get through the entire advent and Christmas season without once hearing “The Little Drummer Boy.”I started to wonder how you did that. In fact, because of the Pandora stream for music that we chose for Christmas, I've almost done it myself,.

But John is really not looking at the stories we love so much, but at the big picture; and the whole big picture for John is in these 18 verses. Pay attention to that. The whole big picture for John is in these 18 verses. Scholars will say that this is John's Prologue, but what does a prologue do? A prologue sets up the rest of everything that gets written in the document. It's the framework, the boundaries. And everything that John is going to try to say through the rest of the Gospel is highlighting themes that come up in these first 18 verses; and especially, “And the Word became flesh and lived with us.” 

There's something particularly Anglican in that focus. I am not the first person to have said it. In fact, it's attributed to the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He said something like, “If you want to think of how important the Eucharist of the Resurrection is among the Orthodox, think how important Christmas is among Anglicans.” This idea that the Word becomes flesh is something that we particularly highlight. In fact, the English-speaking world spends a whole lot more time on December 25th, than the whole rest of the world combined. Most of the rest of the world, certainly the Orthodox East, but also many non-English speaking countries, are really much more focused on the Epiphany, on the arrival of the Kings, or Tres Reyes. In other parts of the world that’s when the gifts come.

We are focused on December 25th and I think the reason for that is because, at least in my opinion, that's the hardest thing God did. I mean God being human, dying sort of comes with it. God being God, being raised makes sense. But God choosing not to be God: that, that seems to be hard; and we focus on that. You know, we want to use the word condescension, which we usually think of as a bad thing, but in this case a very good thing. God descends with us. God condescends to be not only with us, but to be us. And as John will point out, again, staying in these first 18 verses, that's not just God taking a little break from heaven. That's not just God wanting to see what's going on. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, even among us who are his own and didn't recognize it, who didn't even see the light in the darkness, that the darkness could not comprehend, that the darkness could not overcome. No, this is part of a big plan. And it is in that big plan that, to those who see, to those who are God’s, comes the power to become children of God: children not by biological birth, children not by some other process. If you want to, although the word doesn't exactly apply to God, organically, fundamentally children of God. 

Now Paul likes that. That's what's going on in this passage of Galatians. It's emphasizing this whole “children of God” thing. But Paul being Paul, he has to try to figure out a way to describe that that is going to kind of make sense. John is wonderfully big on mystery; and unfortunately we, we Western Christians, shaped by Greek physics and metaphysics and Latin law, kind of often want to understand what the process is. That gets us into trouble. But Paul is trying to do that here when he says that we are adopted, and being adopted, we are fellow heirs. Adopted is not a second-class “child-ship,” if you will. It is not somehow less. There is something in what it is that Jesus is the Son, something unique. But it is not something that somehow excludes or diminishes God's relationship with us. 

John says to those who receive, there is the power to become the children of God and I thought that's an interesting word. One of the commentaries I was listening to said that's an interesting word. It’s been many years since I was really flexible with this, but I can go back in my book and I can look at the Greek; and lo and behold that word we translate power is not like electrical power. It's like it's like legal authority. It's like having a right. Indeed in some contexts it is explicitly having a right. By virtue of the Light having come into the world, by virtue of the Word made flesh, we flesh have rights to be children of God. And Paul just tries to put that in a Roman legal context, saying that we are not any longer slaves or servants or clients or some other attached-but-not-family-member of the household; but we are children, we are heirs. We share in the kingdom in Christ. I know you've heard much of this before, but it certainly bears repeating. 

Now, I want to get back to that concept of Logos because we get a little weird at our household. I have a seminary degree and my wife's first degree was in philosophy and in ethics; and so it doesn't shock her when I come out and say, “I often think that the right term for God is not that God is, but that God does.” That's what we know of God. I mean, the God-ness of God - there's formal language for it_ but the God-ness of God is basically beyond our comprehension. The God-ness of God is something that we can't grasp with the minds we have. 

But the actions of God we have, and we talk about them all the time. We talk about the mighty acts of God. We tell the stories. Isaiah, and this is from late in Isaiah, is talking about God doing something in bringing Israel back to Jerusalem. The psalm today talks about God doing something in God, turning the world over so that the weak become strong and the hungry are fed. And the Word becoming flesh is a part of God doing something, and us becoming children and heirs is a part of God doing something. If you're not sure about that, go back and read the Baptismal rite, and remember what was said over you, or what you said as an adult., when you were baptized. The Word becomes flesh and we flesh become children and this is a part of God doing something. This is the continuing presence of the Logos in the world, of God saying something in the world. And we as children have the opportunity to be part of God's saying something in the world. 

I don't know about you, but in the context I grew up in in Knoxville, in the family I grew up in, there were certain things it meant to be a Scott. There were some family traditions and some family themes. There were certain things it meant to be a Newport, which was my mother's family - other family traditions. There are certain things it means to be God's children and thus heirs in Christ. And if those things mean anything, they mean something about us continuing to be a part of God's expression in the world, which then makes Christmas last an awful long time. Another sappy song that happily I haven't heard this year is, “Why can't every day be like Christmas?” Well, the answer we have from John, the answer we have from Paul, the answer we have from God, is that, as expressions of God's Incarnation in the world, if we're doing that right, maybe it can.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Striking a Balance

I was struck last week when I had these two articles on the Washington Post on the same day. The first, by physician James Hudson: “Our dangerous fear of pain”; and the second, by Amber Petrovish: “Some of us actually need painkillers. Can doctors ease up on us?”. As chaplain-types, we are, I think, aware (or we certainly should be) of the difficult balance. Our physician colleagues are caught between anxiety about over- or inappropriately prescribing and anxiety about leaving patients suffering. 

With that in mind, I would remind folks about General Convention resolution 2018-C037 “Call to Respond to Opioid Epidemic.”  The resolution explicitly speaks both to opioid addiction and to the need to adequately address real and chronic pain. It does spend more text on addressing addiction, but it is balanced in its intent.

It’s worth some time to read both opinion pieces, and then to review the Convention’s response. We need to be aware of the difficulty, and to be aware that the Church has spoken to it.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

In the Middle-Of: Sermon for Proper 23, Year C

Preached October 13, 2019, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

So, the story we have today of Naaman is one of my favorite stories in scripture. I've worked with it a lot. That shouldn't surprise you. Many of you will remember that what I retired from was nearly 40 years as a hospital chaplain. And so, it's an interesting healing story to me. I wish they had told you more. That is, they cut off some things in the lectionary selection that I think are very interesting and relevant to today's lessons. You heard that the King of Israel got la etter, but you have no knowledge about where that came from. They clipped those verses. Basically, Naaman was really important, and so the King of Aram sent an introduction letter from one King to another. But when the King of Israel read, “I'm sending Naaman to you to be healed of his leprosy,” then you see the King of Israel reads the letter. “Am I one to give life or take it away,” et cetera.

The other thing they cut off is what happens after the healing; because Naaman comes up, he proclaims that there's only God in Israel. And then he offers great gifts to Elisha who refuses them. And then he says, “Okay, but I want to tell you something. First I need two mule loads of dirt from here to take back with me to Syria because from now on I'm going to do all my praying in Israel. And the way to do that is to take some of Israel's dirt and that's what I'm going to stand on in kneel on as I pray. The only exception is I'm a big public figure. Once a year I’ve got to take the king in as he says his prayers and I want the God of Israel not to think I'm reneging on anything, because my regular prayers are going to be on this dirt from Israel.”

Now part of the reason I like this story is it is a great example of modern healthcare.Let me retell this story. There's an important official and he has a chronic wasting disease - can't get shed of it; but he gets a verbal referral. He gets a word of mouth referral. And so based on this word of mouth referral, he goes and he tries out a new practitioner. Now he gets to this new practitioner and the new practitioner says, “Okay, we're going to start with a very conservative treatment.” And the patient is really unhappy: “I'm too important. Shouldn't I have the latest medication? Shouldn't I have the latest procedure? Shouldn't we be going through about $1,200 worth of tests?”

But the family says, “You know, it's not a big deal. And if he'd ask you for a big deal, you'd have done it. Try this conservative procedure.” So he goes in, he tries just some basic self skin care and he's healed. And he comes back and he thanks the practitioner and then he goes and he says, “Okay, I'm going to need a new insurer to fit with this practitioner.” So he sets up his new insurance plan (that's the two mule loads of dirt). He sets up his new insurance plan, and he negotiates with his caregiver for ongoing after care and lifestyle change to deal with his disease. Doesn't that sound like modern medicine? 

But it also tells us something about how people saw one's relationship to God. You see, a god had to do with a place. And if you're in a different place, you're dealing with a different god. Zion is the Hill of God and all these other gods - you know, the gods are Tyre and Sidon -  you don't bring them here. It’s a constant refrain in the Books of Kings. And so Naaman says, “Well, if I'm going to be worshiping Israel's God, I need a piece of Israel,” and he takes two mule loads of Israel back with him.

So now we get to the gospel. Jesus is going through no man's land. Well not exactly, but he's on the boundary between Samaria to the West and the Galilee to the East, an interesting conjunction of places. It's sort of in the Jordan river Valley; and it's sort of culturally different. The Galilee was basically settled by Greek-speaking, folks. Now, a lot of them were now Jews. There were Jews in the Galilee, but it was traditionally a Greek kind of cultural area. 

And Samaria: well, we've all heard about Samaria, but let me remind you about Samaria because it'll also make sense of something else Jesus said. You’ll remember that Israel for a while did fine. And then after Solomon things sort of fell apart, and we find them divided into two kingdoms, Israel to the North and Judah to the South. And they don't agree on things. And one of the things they decide not to agree on is that Israel said, “We can't go down to Jerusalem anymore in Judah to worship. We've got to have our own place.” And so they set up worship according to the Torah, but on a different mountain, Mount Gerizim. And if you read through the Books of the Kings, you'll see the things that happened in Israel and you'll see the things that happened in Judah. And you'll find, for example, that Amos and his prophecy was primarily in Israel. They tell him, “We're not interested in you here. Why don't you talk to the folks in Judah?” Other prophets are much the same. And Elisha spends a good deal of time up in Samaria.

But the Samaritans are problematic. First of all, the folks who have Jerusalem think the Samaritans have gone too far by setting up their own altar and their own temple. And then when Israel falls to the Assyrians, the Assyrians have this relocation program. They take a lot of the population of Israel, and they move them and instead they import a lot of other folks. The idea is that, you take people away from the land they know and you give them land, and now they are not dependent on what they've known. They are now dependent on the empire. They're now dependent on the person who put them there and gave them land to live on. Honestly, it's kind of a lot like what China does in its Western territories these days. They keep trying to say everything is part of the Han culture and they keep moving more Han folks in.

And so that's what the Assyrians did. So now for the folks in Judah, that's a double problem. You've got these folks who claim to live by Torah and the new folks come in - and remember you go with the God of the locality. So, they begin to pick up with the God of the Torah, but now there’s an intermingling of bloodlines and of cultures. And as far as the Judeans are concerned - the Judah-ites and ultimately the Judeans, the Jerusalem folks, - as far as they’re concerned the Samaritans are impure. They are not right.  And, they make not right worse by trying to be faithful when they've already fallen too far away.

And now Jesus is well out of Judea, well away for Jerusalem. He's up between Samaria and Galilee and he encounters 10 lepers, 10 lepers, who are aware of what's going on and aware of something about Jesus.

Now we know actually remarkably, literally little about leprosy in the Bible. We think of Hansen's disease. We think of what puts people in leper colonies in a few places, even today, although now it's very treatable. But actually the old Testament describes a whole bunch of skin symptoms that are leprosy. So we didn't know what exactly was afflicting these ten medically. We do know what was afflicting them socially and culturally. Luke said they kept their distance, but they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They kept their distance because that's what lepers did. They also were impure. They were not quite right. They weren't fit company for man nor beast, as we say, and they had to keep their distance from anybody. They were cursed, and their curse was very visible. It was on their skin. It was affecting their bodies. 

So they keep their distance and Jesus, he doesn't even get close. He just says, “Go show yourselves to the priests;” and they go. And they are all ten healed.

I found myself wondering who these 10 were. They're between Samaria and Galilee. That would make you a long way from Jerusalem. Likely they're Jews, although there wouldn't exactly be priests in the Galilee or in Samaria; except for this one, because he's a Samaritan. He's close to Samaria, and as far as he is concerned, there are priests that Mount Gerizim to go see. For all we know, they were all ten Samaritans.

But they are all ten healed; and one then comes back and gives praise, and says, “God did this.” Jesus says (we presume the entourage was there. It doesn't say that, but who else is he talking to?) -  Jesus says, “Wait a minute. Did 10 get healed? Only one comes back. And as far as my people are concerned, he's a - a foreigner! Go on your way,” he says. “Your faith has made you well.”

Think about how different and understanding this is from what I was talking about with Naaman. We are a long way from God's Holy Hill in Zion, and ten were healed. Only onr saw God in that, but ten were healed; and we are a long way from Jerusalem. And suddenly it looks like God is going to do things we don't expect and God is going to be where we don't expect.

Some of you may know that one of the things that complicates the lives of preachers in this season of the year is that, in fact, in the lectionary they give us two choices of Old Testament readings; and I read both of them. The second one is from Jeremiah and it's very interesting. This is after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. They also remove people, but they just remove the elite: most of the court, most of the professional class. They put their own puppet king in place, and they remove everybody above a certain income to Babylon. And by the same token, the Babylon community of Jews writes to Jeremiah the prophet - who they didn't listen to and now they realize a little too late was telling the truth -  they write and they say, “What do we do now? As the Psalm says, ‘How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?’” And Jeremiah says, “Plant trees, plant vineyards, establish lives for yourselves. Have children, have families, have a future. And also, pray for the larger culture around you because they're prospering will lead to your prospering.”

Well, how could we do that? How could we do that, unless the God of Jerusalem continues to be God in Babylon; unless the God of Jerusalem continues to be God in the wasteland between Samaria and Galilee; unless God continues to be God in the wasteland that is illness. I spent all that time working in hospitals and also in nursing homes, and I came to the realization that being a patient in an institution is like foreign travel. It really is. It's like traveling abroad. The people speak a strange language that you don't understand. They have strange customs that you don't understand. They have a strange wardrobe that you don't participate in. They have really strange rituals that you do participate in; and your money's no good. It's like foreign travel and the God of Jerusalem is in the midst of that strangeness.

We need to hold onto that because, you know, being sick is one example, but all of us have some experience of having to take what we are to another place. I don't know how many others of you around here grew up in Crossville. I don't need to show of hands, but I know most of us moved here from somewhere else. I grew up in Knoxville and yet I moved here from Kansas City. And we brought some things, but some things we found. And all of us had that experience in different ways and in different times of our lives. And, when those experiences are tough enough, they can bring us even to despair. 

And the God of Jerusalem is in the midst of those places. Why? Because as the author of Second Timothy says, “You know, we can fall away. But God is always faithful because God can't deny God's Godness.“God cannot deny God's Godness, and God's Godness, as we human beings are slow to learn. embraces all of it. In the midst of it, God is there,

I was watching a YouTube video. And part of what it says is, is that Elon Musk is offering hope about going to Mars (some people hope Elon Musk goes to Mars), and about what that could mean for us as human beings. But, of course, going to Mars is going to mean some people take something with them to a very strange place; and the God of Jerusalem is there. It is important sometimes that we take our two loads of earth with us to get started. It is important that we have our new insurance plan in place; but in the face of the stresses and the troubles of being in that “middle-of,” of being caught between this territory and that, between this life and that - with the lepers, literally between life and death - the God of Jerusalem, God in Christ is there. Sometimes we'll notice. Maybe 10% of the time we'll stop and see that we’re healed and we'll turn and we'll say “We give thanks for what God has done for us.” That gratitude is the appropriate response, but it's not an appropriate response in a vacuum. It's not a discipline that we learn just to remember to say it. It is the appropriate response to the fact that between Samaria and Galilee, between Kansas City and Crossville, literally between life and death, God, God’s self is there: there with us; there for us.