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Monday, July 13, 2015

On the Righteous and Holy and the Fearful and Weak

It's good to be back – back among family in California….this land of nature's air-conditioning.  Mind you, while I was gone, I received several e-mails complaining about a heat wave in the Bay Area.  In my air conditioned motel room I could only smile.
You want heat?  Try Salt Lake City in July in our new era of global warming.  Like Indianapolis three years ago, it was 105 all week long.  Makes one wonder what goes into our convention planners thinking.  Why, they've already chosen the site for our 2018 get-together – Austin, Texas.  At least we know it won't be dry heat.  Leaves one to wonder when they'll get around to Portland, Maine or Oregon…or maybe a January convention in Hawai'i.
But I digress…trying to delay talking about our Gospel today.  Hell of a story.  What can one say that is any way uplifting about John's head on a platter?  
Maybe, I thought, I could ignore the Gospel and preach on one of the other readings.  The more I thought of that, however, the more cowardly it seemed.  A cop-out, I concluded.  Maybe I could regale you with tales about the inner workings of the convention's discussions about the church's budget and structure…you know, how to rearrange the deck chairs  But that, I concluded, would surely put you to sleep.  Or, grasping for straws, I thought those of us who are of a certain age could reminisce about a sixty-year-old movie…about Charles Laughton, Judith Anderson, and, of course, Rita Hayworth as young Salome…a young Salome who, according to the screenwriters, was about to convert to the "new religion" of John.  But, after happy thoughts of youth and maybe a few laughs, we'd all be left asking "So what?"
No, I let such thoughts sit a few days, through the convention.  And, as I did, I became more and more convinced that this was a story that had to be confronted and wrestled with directly and without evasion.  The Good News – at least at first blush - is not always pleasant, not always easy.  But it is good!  And, this difficult and unpleasant story contains Good News that – much as we might want to drown it out – needs to be heard.
On one level, it is a sordid tale of a sordid marriage, of jealousy, and murder…the sort of story you'd expect on the pages of the National Enquirer rather than on the pages of the Bible.  But Mark insists on its inclusion in the Bible, because he wants his readers to know just how deep was – no, how deep is - the cesspool of evil in the corridors of power.  And, in particular, he wants us to know just how weak and vacillating Herod was.  And, perhaps, just how weak and vacillating the powers-that-be always are.
Herod, we are told, "feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man" and, "when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."  He liked to listen to him, because truth always demands attention and, even when challenging, can be enticing…if one recognizes that challenges always carry with them positive opportunities.  But he was "greatly perplexed" by John, because, knowing himself, he knew he couldn't measure up to the demands of John's truth…not without a radical transformation that would have cost him his worldly power and his wife's favor.  Herod feared John, a righteous and holy man, because it is precisely such people who pose the greatest threat to those whose power rests on unrighteousness.  And he killed him, because he was weak and feared his wife's wrath.
They are locked in an eternal embrace – the prophets and the powers-that-be – an embrace that almost always ends badly for the prophet – at least in worldly terms.  And it can often end badly for both.  It's the nature of things, we're told by the Arab poet Nur ad-Din Abdar Rahman Jami .  His name may be obscure – and hard to pronounce – but maybe you remember his parable about the scorpion and the turtle:
A turtle was happily swimming along a river when a Scorpion hailed it from the shore.
A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked the turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown."
My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you, and drown as well. Now where is the logic in that?"
The turtle thought this over, and saw the logic of the scorpion's statement. "You're right!" cried the turtle. "Hop on!"
The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river the scorpion gave the turtle a mighty sting.
As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle said: "Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"
It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character."
It is the nature of the prophet to speak truth to power and it is the nature of the powerful to fear the prophet and, when their truth turns threatening, to kill the prophet.  But, unlike the logical, trusting turtle, prophets know this truth about the nature of the powerful.
That's why prophets - from Moses and Samuel and Jeremiah…to Jesus, Gandhi, and King – over and over have raised the cry: "Why me?!"
In their time, Jesus and his prophetic predecessors were right about the growing gap between their societies' ostentatious moral pretensions and pitiful ethical performance. And they were right on the mark in calling attention to the emperor's new clothes…and their priests' old clothes.  And, since they were so clearly on the mark, the reaction – in Herod's palace and on Calvary – was often swift and harsh.  Being a prophet requires courage.
In my lifetime alone, we've experienced the words and example of many prophets who've paid for their truth and witness with their lives.  Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Stephen Biko, Jonathan Daniels, all come to mind.  So, too, do the countless witnesses who lie in unmarked graves in Mississippi, Darfur, Syria, and China.   Like Jesus and John, they were killed for their witness to truth, their cry for justice. 
But, as we know, the powers-that-be don't always need a knife to silence a "righteous and holy man"…or woman.  Remember that wonderful Roberta Flack song "Killing Me Softly with His Words" (actually a love letter to the singer Don Maclean)?  Sometimes words are enough to silence a prophet, though blessedly not always for good or even for long.  When threatened these days, the powers- that-be, schooled in the emotional levers of advertising and the issue-framing of focus groups, often find it sufficient to use words to silence a prophet.  Gandhi put it this way: " First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
Having ignored and ridiculed today's prophets – often to no effect – the Herods of our day, weak and fearful, as often as not, turn to fighting them with words, seeking to kill them softly, without fingerprints whenever possible; in all viciousness if necessary.
Maybe I should say something about our General Convention – and not just that is was 105 all week in Salt Lake City.  Many good things were done in convention and around it.  Being a member of the LGBT community, for example, I was overjoyed by the decision of the church on marriage equality, although it was tempered by allowing eight bishops to deny such equality in their dioceses.  Being as concerned as we all are about the climate crisis we face, I also celebrated the church's decision to divest from fossil fuels, although it was tempered by the words "in a fiscally responsible manner."  There was, too, the un-tempered joy of the Supreme Court decisions made while we were there and the chance to celebrate in City Creek Park.  And, there were myriad other small steps forward on any number of issues, not to mention the chance to embrace old friends not seen in three years and new ones found among the good people of Salt Lake City.  All of which caused a newer member of the California delegation to gush "It's all so wonderful…kind of like an Episcopalian Disneyland."  To which I replied "For some of us it's been more like Guantanamo."
 It was indeed torture to sit in enforced silence, through a week of 7:00 am to 10:00 pm deliberations by the members of the convention's Social Justice and International Policy Committee.  For they were but a charade, designed to thwart any chance of any resolution on divestment from companies enabling and profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestine ever seeing the light of day.  It was painful to listen to their tedious, bloodless conversation about whether Gaza should be mentioned in any resolution dealing with the occupation.  They decided it should not, because – I kid you not – "Gaza is not occupied."   occupation.  They decided it should not, because - I kid you not - "Gaza is not occupied."  Particularly painful was the testimony of the blue suits and green eye shades of the Church Pension Fund who opposed disinvestment from injustice because it might affect our bottom line.  The committee and bishops agreed, preferring, it seemed, to hoard our treasure where moths consume and rust destroys.
Painful, too, was the condescension of the bishops, one of whom lectured us lectured us on the difference between discretion and valor.  He dismissed the testimony of those of us supporting divestment as the vainglorious valor of youthful activists.  Rabbi Gottlieb?  Me? Youthful?  The ostensibly wiser bishops, he said, had to act with discretion.
Discretion, we quickly learned meant putting our personal moral sensibilities on hold and deferring to the wishes of the Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, who, fearing Israeli retaliation, urged rejection of any pressure, however non-violent, however peaceful, on Israel. , while we were buying into Bishop Dawani's fears, Palestine's
Yet, while we were buying into Bishop Dawani's fears, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Hanna was being arrested by Israeli forces near Hebron for resisting seizure of a church building by those forces and the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, was addressing the general synod of the United Church of Christ which passed a robust divestment and boycott resolution. ndescension of the bishops, one of whom lectured us on the difference between discretion and valor.   He dismissed the eyewitness testimony of those of us supporting divestment as the vainglorious valor of youthful activists.  Rabbi Gottlieb…me…youthful?  The ostensibly wiser bishops, he said, had to act with discretion.    Discretion, we quickly learned, meant putting our personal moral sensibilities on hold and deferring to the wishes of the Episcopal Archbishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, who, fearing Israeli reprisals, urged rejection of any pressure, however non-violent, however peaceful, on Israel.  
Discretion, we knew, also meant buying into the fears of the Presiding Bishop and the House of Bishops who are afraid of conflict, afraid of being called anti-Semites, and - under a threat reinforced in person the Friday of convention by a representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs - afraid that our dialogue of the deaf with the Jewish Establishment will be ended.
Yet, those of us with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, who worked for divestment, had the support of more than forty rabbis and worked at general convention with young Jews from Jewish Voice for Peace who testified that criticism of the recalcitrant Netanyahu government is in no way anti-Semitic.  And, with them, our dialogue with Jews who believe in the universal justice-seeking ideals of the prophets continues to flourish.
Discretion, we also learned, meant rejecting out of hand – in the first hours of the committees hearings – the two diocesan resolutions from California and Hawai'i that supported divestment.  It meant also – still early in the process – approving and putting on the bishops' consent calendar a last-minute resolution from on high doubling down on "positive investment" and "corporate engagement."  And it meant stringing out passing on to the bishops a resolution on  ution recommending an examination over the next two years of whether the Church is invested in companies that enable and profit from the occupation. Not a single bishop spoke in favor of even that weak resolution before it was voted down unanimously.
Still we held out hope that the reiterat "positive investment" and "corporate engagement," that had been on the bishops' consent calendar for days, would get to the House of Deputies in time to have a floor discussion of the wisdom of those failed policies and perhaps at least a vote on divestment as an alternative.  But discretion reared its ugly head one last time.  The bishops ensured that it would not reach the deputies until the very last hours of the very last day of convention.  And, when an ally of divestment rose to ask for discussion, there was someone at every other microphone to call for an end of discussion.  The motion was overwhelmingly approved and the convention quickly gaveled to a close.
A few days later, addressing those of us who tried, a retired bishop offered the following advice: "Get over it.  Suck it up.  Move on."
Ever been stung by a scorpion?  I once was.  It took morphine to ease the pain.  Ever been ridiculed and fought tooth and nail by the powers-that-be?  It's a pain I still feel. 
The day before I left Salt Lake City, I leaned on a garbage bin in the exhibit hall of the convention and scribbled the following words for an EPF handout...words I hoped the bishops would read as they considered the Israel/Palestine resolutions:  
I'm still dealing with that pain.  And I won't get over i The day I left convention, the day the bishops were to consider the feeble resolutions voted out of committee, I leaned on a garbage bin in the exhibit hall and wrote the following words for an EPF issues paper, words I hoped the bishops 
    I leave yet another convention in tears – tears brought on by the continued obstruction of the powers-that-be in the Episcopal Church of any meaningful action to achieve justice for the long-       suffering  Palestinians who, for a decade, have been petitioning us to enact a divestment policy that might pressure Israel to end its 48-year occupation….   
In my sadness, I've re-read Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry's 2012 convention sermon "Crazy Christians."  In it, he alluded to Mary Magdalene.  And that reminded me of a poem by the late Jane Kenyon - "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?"  In a boat on the Ganges, as she watches the bodies of dead babies floating by, she's asked that question: "Woman why are you weeping?"  She replies "I've lost my Lord and I don't know how to find him."
As I leave Salt Lake City, I do so with a similar feeling, a similar sense of loss.  Oh, my Lord - Jesus - is closer than ever.  But I've lost my Church and I don't know how to find it."
Indeed, after only a week, I've given up the search for that church – the church I left in Salt Lake City; the church that – like Herod – operates out of fear and weakness; that seeks quiet conformity; that issues edicts from above rather than listening to voices from below; that, faced with injustice reacts with discretion rather than valor.
No, now I seek a church full of "crazy Christians" – crazy Christians who aren't afraid of the cross or strife; crazy Christians, who, in the words of Michael Curry, "are as crazy as the Lord, crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, [and] walk humbly with God
Having sucked it up and moved on, I seek a church that's not a man-made institution of buildings, flow charts, rules, and walls, but rather a Spirit-filled movement of a God on the go – the Jesus movement we heard about last week from Michael…a people willing to go…to "go make disciples of all nations," a people willing to go out those doors and, with dirty, calloused hands, build the Kingdom of God.
Won't you join me in that search?

Thursday, July 2, 2015


An ordained trans woman, I should be overjoyed at the continued progress made by the Episcopal Church at its general convention on LGBT inclusion.  I am.

But, again, I leave yet another such convention in tears...tears brought on by the continued obstruction by the powers-that-be in the Episcopal Church of any meaningful action to achieve justice for the long-suffering Palestinians who, for a decade, have been petitioning us to enact a divestment policy that might pressure Israel to end its 48-year occupation.
Resolutions that would have done that from the dioceses of California and Hawai'i having been pushed aside, the convention's legislative committee on Social Justice and International Policy could only produce a watered-down call to look into the matter and report back in 2017.  And, as Palestinians continue to suffer and die, we - unlike the Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, and, day before yesterday, UCC - continue our shameful silence,

Why?  Because we are afraid of conflict, afraid of being called anti-Semites, and, under threat, afraid that our dialogue of the deaf with the Jewish Establishment will be ended.

Yet, we at EPF have worked at general convention with young Jews from Jewish Voice for Peace who agree that criticism of the recalcitrant Netanyahu government is in no way anti-Semitic.  And, with them, the dialogue with Jews who believe in the universal justice-seeking ideals of the prophets flourishes.

In my sadness, I re-read Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry's 2012 convention sermon "Crazy Christians."  In it, he alluded to Mary Magdala.  And that reminded me of a poem by the late Jane Kenyon - "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?"  In a boat on the Ganges, as she watches the bodies of dead babies floating by, she's asked that question.  She replies "I have lost my Lord and I don't know how to find him."

As I left Salt Lake City yesterday, I did so with a similar feeling.  Oh, my Lord - Jesus - is closer than ever.  But I have lost my Church and I don't know how to find it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


"Why are you afraid?" Jesus asks.  "Have you still no faith?"
But I am afraid this morning, and my faith is again being tested.  For I find myself at a loss for words, as we try to process the outrage at Mother Emmanuel Church.  The racial hatred that still stalks the land this Juneteenth weekend, this 150th anniversary of the end of slavery; the Confederate flag that still flies over the state house in Columbia, not even lowered to half-mast; the judge who expresses more concern for the killer's family than for the mother who played dead, lying in her son's blood; the country we love awash in guns; yet another massacre; Fox News contending that it could have been averted had the victims been allowed to bring concealed weapons into church; the sense of futility, of hopelessness - it's all just too much. 
The words are stuck at the bottom of my throat, afraid to be spoken, for they all have four letters and are devoid of those that spell hope.  For I know how this will once again play out…how it will end. We will rage. We will petition our lawmakers. We will march and shout and pray and preach.  And the NRA - the EVIL NRA  - will dispense its money and twist the arms of lawmakers who know better…who knowing better, will once again cave to the gun lobby.  The sense of despair – un-Christian despair – weighs heavily on me this morning.  No words, it seems, will suffice.
But I must try.  Not because we need to "make sense" of this.  It makes no sense.  Not because we need to search for some good that will come of this.  There is no good that can come from such profound evil.  But I must try because I am afraid and my faith is in danger.
And in our fear and anguish, this morning's Gospel speaks to us in ways that are especially poignant, especially important.
In unpacking that Gospel, let me begin by acknowledging that today is Fathers' day.
Let me wish all you dads out there… and all you men, who mentor children or who may, unknowingly, be an icon to some child, a happy Father's Day.  Sometimes it can be hard to be such a man.  I know.  I remember.
I know, too, that some of you could get up here and tell us just how hard it can be to besuch a man, to be a dad. 
But let me tell you about another dad - someone I got to know on a train, – someone who experienced many storms in his life and who always stood tall in the lives of his sons.
When I worked in Washington – the one back East – I would often take the Amtrak Metroliner to New York to visit my family.  On the train, I would invariably run into then-Senator Joe Biden.  Heading north, he always got off at Wilmington.  Only later did I learn why.  I'll let him explain in his own words:
Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever.  While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call.  My wife and three children were Christmas shopping, a tractor trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter.  And they weren't sure that my sons would live.
So I began to commute -- never intending to stay in Washington.  And that's the God's truth.  I was supposed to be sworn in with everyone else that year in '73, but I wouldn't go down.  So Mansfield thought I'd change my mind and not come, and he sent up the secretary of the Senate to swear me in, in the hospital room with my children.
And I began to commute thinking I was only going to stay a little while -- four hours a day, every day -- from Washington to Wilmington, which I've done for over 37 years.  I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day.  No, "Ozzie and Harriet" breakfast or great familial thing, just climb in bed with them.  Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it's gone.  And when it's gone, it's gone.  And it all adds up. 
As you know, the Vice President's oldest son, Beau died of brain cancer a few weeks back at age 46.  The funeral was in their parish church.  Next day, the Vice President kept a date at Yale – the commencement speech at the alma mater of his youngest son, Hunter.  Through his sunglasses, he offered the young graduates the following advice:  "Don't forget about what doesn't come from this prestigious diploma — the heart to know what's meaningful and what's ephemeral; and the head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment."
My kinda guy.
So let's talk about what's meaningful in all this.  Let's talk about overcoming the fears we must all confront in the face of life's storms...the sorts of storms that have so buffeted Joe Biden's life…the storm of doubt and despair that threatens us all in the wake of the killings at Mother Emmanuel.
God knows – literally, God knows  – I've had my fair share of both – the storms and the fears - sitting in the dark of night at the edge of a rice paddy, fearing being killed and fearing more killing others; riding out the "perfect storm" of two converging hurricanes in a small ship and the twelve foot waves of another in a 25-foot boat; fearing the reaction of friends and family to my coming out; fearing praying for a miracle, as Mimi lay dying, lest the absence of a miracle destroy my faith; praying a prayer for new beginnings, as I said goodbye to who I was and began again; confronting a crisis of faith in the midst of the politics of a General Convention– not in Jesus, but in a church that, out of fear, chose silence in the face of injustice.
But, again, you've all faced such storms and maybe worse.  And they test our faith.
Today, Mark offers us a vivid example of such a test.  It was night.  A mighty wind whipped up the waves.  They were rocking and swamping the boat.  The sails were flapping and tattered.  Been there, done that.  I know how the disciples must have felt, adrenalin pumping, scared as hell.  And they were probably a little annoyed at Jesus, exhausted from a day of teaching, sleeping in the stern.  "Don't you know we're about to drown!  Do something!"
And he did.  Calming the wind and the waves, he turns to the awe-struck disciples and asks them "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?" 
Elsewhere – in Matthew – we hear a similar story.  This time Jesus comes walking across the water toward the boat.  Again, the disciples are terrified.  They think they're seeing a ghost.  But Jesus says "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."  But Peter wants proof.  "Lord, if it's you," he says, "tell me to come to you on the water."   "Come," Jesus replies.  Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.  But, hearing the wind, he panics.  He's afraid.  He loses faith that he can do it.  And, beginning to sink, he cries out, "Lord, save me!"
Every time God speaks to us in the Bible – whether through an angel, some cloud, or Jesus – we hear that familiar "Do not be afraid."  And, in today's story from Mark, Jesus draws a tight connection between our fears and our faith.
We've all heard that question "What is the opposite of faith?"  As often as not, we answer "Doubt."  Were we on a TV quiz show, we'd probably hear that annoying buzzer - "Wrong answer."  Fact is, it's not only okay to doubt, it's required.  If we didn't have doubts, there would be no need for faith.  Doubt, as Saint Augustine and Paul Tillich have said "is not the opposite of faith; it is an essential element of faith."
No, the opposite of faith is not doubt.  It is fear...the sort of fear I feel this morning  As Ron Rolheise, a Canadian priest, puts it, "To lack faith is not so much to have theoretical doubts about God's existence as it is to be anxious and fearful at a deep level."  As I've said, we'll all experience one or another storm in our lives – and probably several.  And it's okay to worry how we'll fare in the moment.  "What opposes faith," Rolheise says, "is not so much worry about this or that particular thing as worry that God has forgotten us, worry that our names are not written in heaven, that we aren't in good hands, that our lives aren't safe, and that there is every reason to fear and be anxious because, at the core of things, there isn't a benevolent, all-powerful goodness who is concerned about us."
"Our anxiety opposes faith," he adds, "when, however vaguely we might have this feeling, we have the sense that God is not fully trustworthy or powerful enough to assure that, as Julian of Norwich so wonderfully puts it, "in the end all will be well and every manner of being will be well."
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was anxious to his core…anxious enough to pray that the cup of suffering he was about to endure be lifted from him…if it was his father's will.  But knowing that "in the end all will be well,' he prayed, as we will at communion, "Thy will be done."
Many of you probably know the New Zealand form of the Lord's Prayer in which "lead us not into temptation' becomes "save us from the time of trial."  There's yet another version, we used at my last church, St. James in San Francisco.  Perhaps because we know there will be trials in every life, it's a version that I think speaks more truly to the human condition.  It reads "Be with us in the time of trial."
There will most assuredly be trials and perhaps some awful storms in our lives.  The most honest plea to Jesus, the most honest expression of faith is not to ask for the laws of nature to be suspended or to be issued a one-time, personal get out of jail free card, but rather to ask simply that Jesus walk with us through the inevitable storms. 
Rabbi Nachman, the famed Reb Nachman of Breslov taught that all the world is a very narrow bridge, and that the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear as we walk toward God.  Walking that narrow bridge through life, we will be buffeted by many storms.  It takes courage to make it through without being blown off.
I'm deathly afraid of heights and the rabbi's image stirs up another that sends shivers up my shoulder blades and stirs a queeziness in the pit of my stomach.  It's an image of a French high-wire artist walking a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  Having eaten at Windows on the World at the top of one of the towers and, having felt the tower sway, I knew the strength of the winds at that height and knew what a single gust could do.
For all of us, the wind is gusting this morning.  We need the courage that is faith…faith not so much in the existence of God, but that God loves us and that, in the end, all will be okay. 
We need the courage and faith of the relatives of those killed in that Bible study class at Mother Emmanuel…the courage to say "I forgive you…the faith to insist that "Evil will not win."
Their faithfulness should give us all hope in this storm…hopefully enough to take the hand of Jesus as we walk, hopefully enough to keep our eyes on the prize, hopefully enough to find the faith that God loves us and waits for us with open arms, the faith that, in the end, all will be well