Tuesday, May 13, 2014

INIQUITAS RADIX MALORUM

44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
 
Happy Mothers' Day…to all the happy mothers among us, to all your loving spouses, and to all God's children who love and honor their parents.  Together, we are family.
We were all reminded of that yesterday as we came together with Tina and her family to honor her Dad, John.  Leaving, one lady remarked "What a lovely service.  I've never been in a church like this."  I replied "Neither have I."
I have not.  This place is special.  And, because we are family, because I love you, I feel a need to talk about a problem that impacts us all, but, most especially, families.  I feel a need to talk clearly, honestly about that problem – the gaping inequality of wealth in this country and in the world.  It's a growing inequality that has propelled the super-rich to levels of pomp and power not seen since the first Gilded Age a century ago…that has gutted the middle class…and trampled the poor under foot. Bear with while I try to lay it out from the perspective of the political animal that I am.  But, before I end, I will also try to put things into the proper context - the context of our reading today from Acts, the context of the Gospel.  I promise.  For we are dealing here not so much with a simple issue of economics or partisan politics, but rather with a profound moral issue about how we lead our lives and order our society.
As some of you know, there's a book out there containing the sermons and thoughts of an old deacon.  It begins with a simple declarative statement: "These are troubled times."  After pointing to the endless wars and foreign misadventures that have marked this last decade, it then offers the following by way of elaboration and a call to action:
At home we still suffer the consequences of decades of the rampant greed and reckless risk-taking that produced a Great Recession in an America we hardly recognize any more…an America where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We are at a crossroads and the stakes are high.  We need to get off knees and find our voice.
Surveying the same scene a few years earlier from Paris, Stephane Hessel painted an even bleaker picture. A survivor of the Holocaust, a veteran of the Resistance, and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hessel pointed to:
The grievous injustices inflicted on people deprived of the essential requirements for a decent life, not only in the third world…but in the suburbs of our largest Western cities, where seclusion and poverty breeds hatred and revolt.  The widening gap between the very poor and very rich is made all the more insulting by the access the poor now have to the internet and other forms of mass communication that highlight these inequalities.
Noting that "the worst attitude is indifference," Hessel - then ninety-three and on what he called the "last leg of my journey" - pointed to what he called the "unbearable things all around us." He urged the youth in particular "to look around you and you will find the themes to justify your indignation." 
His little red book, Indignez Vous, a Time for Outrage, inspired the Occupy movement which, in turn, focused national and global attention on the economic inequality that threatens not only our democratic system, but our very moral values.  Occupy's voices, however, were soon drowned out by those in the corporate echo chamber who cried "Class warfare!" and insisted instead on balancing our federal budgets on the backs of the poor and middle class. 
And, in the brief two years since the last tents were torn down on Justin Herman Plaza, the ranks of the poor have mushroomed, as those of the middle class have dwindled.  Meanwhile, the wealth of the ostentatious super-rich – promoted by ever newer tax loopholes and protected in ever-more creative tax havens – has reached obscene proportions. 
That wealth is being used in unhealthy ways to create an economic apartheid that is eroding our democracy and, with it, the means to break free of what is overtaking us.  How so?  Need I mention the uneven playing field created by the money that is polluting our politics and drowning out the voices of the common man?  Need I mention, Citizens United, McCutcheon, and the trek to Las Vegas by half a dozen presidential candidates to kiss the ring of a multi-billionaire with a questionable agenda?  Need I mention the starving of our public school system, while Walmart's Waltons lavish billions on the creation of a parallel charter system?  Need I mention how American college graduates are being crushed by student loan debts, while their schools recruit the children of wealthy foreigners to pay the top-heavy salaries of administrators?  Need I mention the consolidation of the media and the message in the hands of the wealthy few?  As T. H. Marshall said half a century ago, "freedom of speech has little real substance if…you have…no means of making yourself heard."
And so, as a recent Princeton study shows, our democracy slips ever deeper into oligarchy – rule by a privileged few.  And the things all around us become indeed unbearable.
The evidence of what is happening can no longer be ignored.  And, this time, it's not the kids in the streets who are ringing the alarm bells, but, rather, respected economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and, above all, Thomas Piketty – another Frenchman - who are providing irrefutable evidence that things are even worse than we thought. 
What sort of evidence?  How bad?  Take salaries.  Over the past thirty years, median salaries have stagnated and many poor and middle class families have experienced cuts in take-home pay or outright unemployment.  Meanwhile the already astronomical salaries of top CEOs – the .001 percent – have risen an average of nine percent a year to a median of $13.9 million a year.  Near the bottom, those making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are earning $15,000 a year.  Consider that when the federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,000 a year.  Consider that when the President has just signed a budget that cuts food stamp funding but continues subsidies to big oil.  Consider that when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison raked in $73.4 million in 2013 or $37,692 an hour.  And, as the New York Times reports, "He seems not to care what you think about that."
Those of us who do care know that these are not just abstract facts and figures.  There's nothing abstract about the new homeless I see on the streets – the well-dressed father at Open Cathedral; his two sons so happy to get a few colored Easter eggs; the man in a good-looking suit on our soup line at the 16th street BART; the outrageous prices being charged for poorly heated, roach infested SROs in the Tenderloin; a housing market that's pricing out middle class families in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and, yes, the East Bay…pricing out the salt of the earth – teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen, baristas, who find it hard to live where they serve.  Just how bad is it here where we live?  Well, as an article in the New York Times last month reports that, of the 100 largest metro areas in the country, we're number one – number one in income inequality and number one in terms of least affordable housing.  Indeed, some of us in this room know what it's like to be housing poor.  Others of us know what it's like to be unemployed or to have to rely on food stamps or whatever's in that Shared Manna basket by the door or on the table  of donated layettes outside.  No, there's nothing abstract about any of this.    
But, as Piketty points out, it's not just a matter of salaries.  There's an even darker underside to all this.  The growth of income from idle capital – as in Das Kapital – inherited, accumulated wealth – has begun to grow at a rate geometrically faster than earned income from labor. 
We have, he says, reached a point where simply increasing the progressivity of income taxes will no longer do the trick.  He proposes instead a global tax on accumulated wealth and a redistribution of the proceeds to the ninety-nine percent who earn their income from labor.
Not surprisingly those in the one percent and their apologists in the media have taken to calling Piketty a communist.  He's in good company.
 Pope Francis, too, has been called a communist.  Why?  Because, as he said
I believe in Jesus Christ and his Gospel.  And, the core of the Gospel is the proclamation to the poor. When you read the Beatitudes, for example, or you read Matthew 25, you see there how Jesus is clear in this. The core of the Gospel is this. And Jesus says of himself, "I came to announce to the poor, freedom, health, the grace of God"…to the poor…[to] those who need salvation, that need to be welcomed in society… This is a banner of the Gospel, not of Communism; of the Gospel!
And the oligarchs of El Salvador called Oscar Romero a communist for holding high the same banner, a banner that proclaimed Christ's "opcion preferencial por los pobres."
One wonders how many good Christians harbor thoughts that even Luke must have been a communist – or, at least, a proto-Marxist - for reporting, as he did this morning, that
 
44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
How many good Christians balk at this because they mistakenly feel it's a notion only first propounded by Marx?  How many dismiss it as a utopian concept?
But we're not talking here about some utopia – some imaginary, unattainable state of perfection.  No, Luke is talking here about a concrete reality that actually existed in a specific time and place.  He's writing about the Christian community in first-century Jerusalem and how it ordered its life together.
Now, I'm not na├»ve and neither, I expect, are you.  While "day by day the Lord added to their number" - three thousand, we were told last week - we know that the first Christians comprised a small, compact, homogenous community.  And we know how hard it would be to replicate such an economic system in a country as large and diverse as ours…just as hard as it would be to expect our political system to operate as transparently or as responsively as the pure democracy of the tiny city-state of Athens.  No, these are ideals to strive for…much the same as those contained in our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
But, oh, how far we've drifted from these ideals – of possessing equal voice and vote in our politics, of enjoying equality of opportunity in our pursuit of happiness, and of caring for the least among us as Jesus commanded…of creating a society where Shalom prevails – where there is, as in first century Jerusalem, a just and harmonious balance between individual self-realization and communal sufficiency.  Looking around us, we are right in concluding that the doors to self-realization are closing, that the least among us are falling off the edge, and that our capacity for caring is growing ever smaller…as our fear of being crushed beneath the weight of greed and inequality grows ever larger.  Yes, "look around you and you will find the themes to justify your indignation."
The cause of our fear and indignation is clear and simple. 
In case you haven't noticed, that Pope in Rome is given to plain-speaking and knows how to use the media, including the social media.  Two weeks ago he said it all in a three-word tweet – "Iniquitas radix malorum."  For the few of you who don't speak Latin that translates to "Inequality is the root of social evil." 
But we are a people of hope.  We can overcome evil.  We can overcome this…by returning to the roots of social good…the roots embedded in the Beatitudes, Matthew 25, and the example found today in Acts.  "The rich," as Francis has said, "must help, respect, and promote the poor," while we all must strive "to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beingFrancis, of course, is getting vocal pushback from his American bishops, while ours are sadly silent.  But church is more than just bishops.  We are the church, we the people.  And the time has come to speak – clearly, plainly, forcefully.  The church needs our voice.  Our society does.  Christ does.  So hold high the banner of the Gospel.  Give voice to your indignation.  Speak the simple truth
"Iniquitas radix malorum." 
 
AMDG
 

Monday, April 7, 2014

APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR LENT 5 2014
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….
 
 
So begins "The Waste Land," the signature work of that most Anglican of poets, T.S. Eliot.  How it suits my mood and our readings today, including the one you didn't hear – Paul's letter to the Romans.  He begins that letter by warning that "to set the mind on the flesh is death."  In doing so, he is, I think a tad too hard on all of us, trapped as we are in the flesh of our bodies.  Oh, I try always to follow his advice and set my mind instead on "the Spirit [that] is life and peace," but every April death crowds my thoughts.
April is, indeed, the cruelest month and, for me, this is the cruelest week…so full of memory and desire, spring rains, dull and aching roots, lilacs I would coax from the dead land.  In a garden so full of life, the bright flowers, the well-fed birds, even the warm sun seem to mock a recurring sense of loss.
Sitting in that garden, my thoughts go back to 1968, a year that began so full of hope and promise – a war ending…or so we thought, rights being realized, positive change at every turn.  Then, on April 4, that awful evening bulletin – Martin had been shot and killed in Memphis.  In an instant, the best of times became the worst of times.  A bullet had killed the dream…had killed the hope…or so they thought.
Then, of a February just three years ago, in a squalid refugee camp in Jenin, Palestine, I met another hero – Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father.   In his well-named Freedom Theatre, he was, we could see, bringing joy and hope-filled dreams to the traumatized children of the camp.  Their sense of joy was palpable, when, by mistake, I stumbled into a dark room where the kids were rehearsing "Alice in Wonderland."  It was a joy that stayed with me upon my return home…and all through March.  April 4 dawned again and, with it this time, an e-mail.  Juliano had been shot dead beside his little red car that I had last seen parked in front of the theater.  Another bullet had killed the joy…or so they thought.
But April 8 has for fourteen years now been the hardest day of all to bear.  It was a warm, sunny Saturday…about two in the afternoon…when Mimi, the love of my life for thirty-five years, breathed her last.  I held her hand, as her breath "returned to God who gave it."  And outside, on the street, I could hear the music of the ice cream truck and the sound of happy children.  I'll never forget the song on the jingling bells – "Do Your Ears Hang Low" – nor the cruelty of the faceless disease that had killed our love…or so I thought.
And this afternoon, this April 6 of the San Francisco Night Ministry's 50th anniversary, there will be a funeral in The City for its founder, the Rev. Don Stuart…a funeral I must miss to serve the living he had served.  I think he would understand and approve.  For his ministry lives and thrives in them. 
So too, despite death's best efforts, does the work of Martin and Juliano.  This April 4, for example, the Freedom Theatre's school graduated its first four actors.  One of them, Motaz, said the following:"The Freedom Theatre is not just a theatre, it's a stage that can create revolution. Theatre is my whole life now. It gives me hope, and dreams."  In those dreams, Juliano lives.  And, in my nightly dreams, Mimi also lives…proof for me that love does not die.  Paul was right about that as he was about the spirit.  The spirit of love is indeed "life and peace."
But there's another date to keep in mind as Lent winds down and, next Sunday, we begin Holy Week.  Ever wonder about the day that Jesus was killed?  When it was precisely?  A quick look at the Hebrew calendar tells us it was the first day of Passover in the year 3760.  That would be April 7 on our calendar… about three in the afternoon.  There's another song that haunts my thoughts every year about this time of year, every Good Friday round about three: "Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?"  They had killed – or so they thought – our God.
And, today, we're reminded of the events that led up to that day, the events that presaged and precipitated that first Good Friday.
We've been through this before…together.  We know that, when we hear this story about Lazarus, Good Friday is near.  Consider where Jesus was and why.  Consider why, although he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, 6 "he stayed two days longer in the place where he was."  Fact is Jesus was on the lam again…for the last time it turns out.  Recall John's words in the verses immediately preceding our Gospel for this morning:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, 'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly….
The Jews took up stones again to stone him….32 39Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.
 
And today he crosses the Jordan and begins that final trek back up the Jericho road to Bethany and the cross.  The time has come.  "I won't keep you in suspense any longer," Jesus seems to say.  "I am the Messiah.  You want proof?  Come to Bethany and watch what I'm about to do!"
Jesus meets Martha on the road and a powerful scene unfolds in which Jesus, the Messiah, claims his divinity while demonstrating his humanity, grieving with, weeping with Martha and Mary, probably holding them in his arms….the very essence of human and divine compassion.  41
I thought of these things Sunday before last, when, in the New York Times style section, I read an article entitled "A Generation Redefines Mourning" about millennials trying to work out their grief on the internet.  The twenty-something asking the funeral home to e-mail him a picture of his dead mother, so he wouldn't have to go in and identify her body.  The "Ask a Mortician" channel on YouTube.  The Twitter hashtag "RIP."  The Facebook posting of a death followed by 136 "likes."  The "selfie" at a funeral.  Wading through this litany of what the author called the "still evolving social norms" of "modern loss " and "death awareness," I found it morphing into some black comedy reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  And, recalling Jessica Mitford's more serious American Way of Death, I found myself reflecting on how we've accustomed ourselves to avoiding facing death honestly; to masking it with perfumes, cosmetics, and euphemisms; to stifling our very human grief…forgetting perhaps that grief is but the continuation of love that refuses to die 
How unreal.  How unsatisfying.  How unlike the nitty-gritty, in-your-face,   quality of the Lazarus story.   The harsh reality of the decomposing body…"Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."  The hysterical hurled accusation:  "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  The honesty of the grief: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… 3435Jesus began to weep."
Jesus began to weep!  "It's okay," he seems to say.  "I understand.  Yes, Paul's right, keep your mind on the Spirit.  But it's alright to lament death, to grieve the earthly loss of a loved one, to share the grief of others."  "Don't worry," he adds, "there will be resurrection.  Roll back that stone.  I'll demonstrate."
Comparing ourselves to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, we Episcopalians sometimes like to say "We're not a grief-stricken, guilt-ridden 'Good Friday Church.'  We're a joyful 'Resurrection Church.'"  Yes, we are.  And that is good.  But it is not good – it is not really possible – to fully be the latter without some experience of the former.  It is not possible to fully experience the joy of the Resurrection without knowing the anguish of that Thursday night in Gethsemane and the grief, the guilt, the pain of Good Friday.
As we are told in Ecclesiastes and will experience in the microcosm of Holy Week:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
 
And, among them,
 
A time to weep, and time to laugh;
 
A time to mourn, and a time to dance
 
 
So, next Sunday, as we dance in here, waving our palms and singing our hosannas, prepare to experience the totality of Holy Week – the good, the bad, and the ugly…and the sublimely, supremely joyful - yes, "every matter under heaven."  Don't just listen to the words of John's Passion Gospel.  Absorb them.  Live into them.  Savor them each day of Holy Week.  In the totality of that experience you will find the richness of faith, the fullness of life, and the completeness of Christ's promise of salvation.
 
AMDG
 

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR 2 LENT 2014
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
 
Again, it's good to be back.  Back from awe-inspiring places at the edges of the earth from the fin del mundo.  Back from physically crashing last week in the face of a too much, too soon, too busy schedule.
Thanks to a far lighter schedule these past few days, I've had a better than usual chance to reflect – on life, the world, the people and creatures that fill it, and the good God who made and moves it all.  Even activists need to go to the well every now and then.  And, thanks to my enforced leisure, I've also had a better than expected chance to get acquainted with the new creature in my life – a little dog named Prince…a little dog who's obviously never been near a fish pond.  He's fallen in three times.  After his third swim – dogs really do know how to dog paddle – I recalled how Jesus had promised Peter that he would be a fisher of people.  I know Jesus has promised me a lot, but it never occurred to me that "fisher of dogs" would be part of it.
Busy as it was, my trip also afforded me a special opportunity to reflect…beneath a blanket of stars that, for the first time, included the Southern Cross…to the morning call of roosters on a tiny speck of an island called Rapa Nui…and at the foot of the dagger-like mountains in Patagonia called Torres del Paine.  I brought with me and tried to focus those reflections on our reading for today – those very familiar words we just heard from John. 
What would I say when I got back?  What could I say that hasn't already been said about this passage so packed with powerful images known to every Christian?  Who hasn't wrestled – like Nicodemus – with the concept of being born again?  What baseball fan hasn't seen that guy with the rainbow-colored afro, holding up that handmade sign behind home plate: John 3:16?  You know:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
 
He's right you know – the guy behind home plate.  John 3:16 really does sum it all up.  In its one sentence it does encapsulate the entire meaning of the New Testament, of Jesus, and of what I believe about Jesus as God.
And what might that be?  What I believe about God?  I'm an Episcopalian.  Like you I didn't park my mind at the door when I came in this morning.  If I ever did, I no longer believe in a God who is an old man with a long white beard.  No, I believe in a far more awesome God – the Creator God behind the Big Bang in Neil deGrasse Tyson's marvelous new "Cosmos" series on Fox.  But such a God is unknowable, hard to get our arms around, hard to give our hearts too…easy to fear, but hard to love.
But, unlike Tyson, I also believe in revelation, the kind with a small "r."  And that's where John comes in.  That unknowable God, John tells us, loved us…so much so, that it came to us as Jesus, so that we might know and love the God who is love.  As Jesus promised and as John reminds us this morning, that God remains with us in the Spirit – the Spirit that breathed physical life into us at birth and calls us to spiritual rebirth.
Which brings me to my travelling reflections on the pampas of Patagonia at the foot those awesome mountains of Torres del Paine…mountains so inviting in the soft light of dawn, so intimidating beneath the brooding clouds of night.  I was there four nights in a canvas covered geodesic dome in a so-called eco-camp…all very comfortable, but, oh, so tiny and vulnerable.  How comfortable?  A king-sized bed, a hot shower, and an even-hotter wood stove…and, on a night table, a "Welcome" book that contained instructions for two potential emergencies. Given the wood stove in the canvas dome, I could understand the potential for a fire emergency.  But a "wind emergency?"  What in the world might that be?  More tired than curious, I stopped reading and fell quickly to sleep.
Emerging next morning for a first hike, I got the idea…why some people call this southern tip of the world, not Tierra del Fuego, but Tierra del Venta.  Patagonia, I learned, is lashed by a steady gale force wind and, the book told me, wind bursts of 200 mph had, on occasion, swept through our camp. 
Still, I was not prepared for that second night. Our reading from John still fresh in my mind, I began to doze off.  Then, at the top of the mountain, there was an explosive sound – a cross between a whoosh, a thud, and a thunderclap.  Then, almost like a tangibly physical, finite ball, it raced down the side of the mountain with the roar of an onrushing freight train.  It seemed to explode again, as it raced through the shuddering canvas dome.  And, almost as suddenly… it was gone …replaced by complete stillness, profound silence.
No longer would I have to read about it from a book.  No longer would I need words to describe it.  I knew what I had to talk about today:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
In talking about this wind, Jesus does so in the same breath as he does in talking about the Spirit, adding "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  And they are all one – the wind, the breath, the Spirit.  You've heard it before.  You don't have to be a seminarian to know it.  In the languages it was written, the ambiguity is clear and intentional.  The Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma both mean breath, Spirit, and wind.  They are metaphorical words – one for the other – that give rise to countless analogies in the Bible, the first, not surprisingly, being in Genesis. 
 
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
 
And that life-giving, life-changing wind – God's Spirit - has continued to work God's will in the world and fill it – unbidden, unexpected – with countless graces. 
The pages of the Bible are full of examples.  Remember Noah and how the flood ended?  "God caused a wind to blow over the earth and the waters receded."  Remember Moses at the Red Sea?  "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.."  Remember God's challenge to Job?  "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  3 Remember the mighty day of Pentecost?  "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting."
These, of course, are all analogies for the workings of God's Spirit in the world and, again, it's more than just coincidental that the authors of these stories used the same Hebrew word – ruach – or, in Luke's case, the Greek word pneuma - to describe both wind and Spirit.  Every Jewish scholar of Jesus' time knew this and it is for forgetting it that Jesus chides Nicodemus.
Let me turn then to the third, very related, and most important meaning of those words – breath.  Most important because our breath is the very stuff of our being …the Spirit of God that animates the dust of our physical being, the soul that will return to God. 
As Genesis tells us, "The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."  Analogy perhaps.  But it also a reality any mother can attest to, hearing her baby's cry after its first breath – a cry that says "I'm alive!  I'm a human being!"
And, in the end – the end of our earthly life - the spirit will leave the body.  As, Ecclesiastes tells us, "the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it."  So it was when Jesus died.  His last words on the cross were "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." "Having said this," Luke reminds us, "he breathed his last."
But at the resurrection, at the end of time, that breath will return, as body and spirit are reunited.  Probably the most dramatic earnest of this is contained in Ezekiel's metaphorical vision of being commanded to prophesize to a valley full of dry bones…metaphorical for the reestablishment of the exiled Israelites in their homeland.  He was, God said, to tell the bones "I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord." 
He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, – prophesy, son of man – and say to the breath: 'This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.'"  So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army.
It was against the background of these understandings that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus and to us.  It is in this sense that we are to understand being born again, being born from above, being born of the Spirit.  It is in this sense, that Jesus would have us appreciate the wind – the wind as spirit – that cannot be seen but whose effects are so readily apparent – the wind-tossed waves across a primordial sea, stirring the chemicals of life; the wind-shaped landscape of Patagonia where all the trees are bent toward a rising sun; the fluttering wings of a butterfly, sending tiny waves around the world; the chill wind of winter; the warm breeze of summer.  If we are to be born of the Spirit, we must be open to such stirrings, such intimations of God's Spirit. 
Richard Averbeck, an Old Testament scholar, using old gender stereotypes, puts it this way:
We need to take this biblical analogy seriously in both understanding the nature of God's Spirit and in welcoming and engaging with his work. Wind is a mysterious and powerful force. We cannot always predict what it is going to do, and it is not under our control. The same is true of God. We cannot always predict what he is going to do, and he is not under our control even if he has told us what he is going to do. He is God. We are not. All this is true also of the Spirit of God. However, although we cannot completely understand and control the Holy Spirit, we can draw upon his power. Using the analogy of a ship driven by the wind, we can "put up the sails" in our lives and thereby take advantage of the blowing of the Spirit in and through our lives. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit as long as we have our sails up.
 
It's Lent.  Put up your sails.  Keep them raised and open to the winds of inspiration that the Spirit sends our way.  Take time to reflect on these unexpected graces in our lives.  And give thanks – thanks for having been created, for being sustained, for being alive.
Might we begin by closing our eyes and concentrating mindfully, thankfully, on our breathing – on the animating Spirit of God – without which we would be unmoving, soulless lumps of clay…our breathing that some take for granted, but that others with COPD, emphysema, or, like myself, asthma, are acutely mindful.
Let's try it a few times.  Close your eyes.  Take in a deep breath.  Hold it a couple of seconds.  Exhale.  As you do, say a silent prayer: "Thank you!"
Once again.  Inhale.  Hold it.  Exhale.
One more time.
Amen.
 
AMDG
      

YOU ARE MY HANDS

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR EPIPHANY FIVE
 
 
I've been thinking a lot lately about time…and about analogies of the sort we just heard from Jesus in today's Gospel.  You know, salt, candles, and cities on a hill.          
The time part is easy.  It's that time of year.  The time between football and baseball, between the end and the return of daylight savings time – the "dark ages" of winter - is fast drawing to a close.  This week, pitchers and catchers return to spring training camp and this Yankee fan will have to start learning Japanese.  The sun has begun its northern migration and the days are growing longer.
And, for me, they seem to be going by a little more quickly.  With a trip to the summer heat of Buenos Aires tomorrow, my 74th winter is about to end.  Upon returning, I can begin my 75th spring, my search for a new dog, and dreams of future adventures. 
But age and the passing seasons also bring thoughts of mortality and that most precious of commodities - time.  They were thoughts driven home Sunday before last by an article in the New York Times by Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford brain surgeon just diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  He asked his oncologist "How long have I got left?"  She replied "I can't tell you a time.  You've got to find out what matters most to you."  More on that later.
 But what about those analogies.  We were offered a slew of them today by Jesus – some better than others, all doubled-edged.
Take salt.  We all knows what it means to be "the salt of the earth"…to add flavor to the community, zing to what we do together, zest to life.  And we hardly need Jesus' warning about the down side.  I think we know what it feels like to lose our saltiness, our taste, our value as flavoring.  But there is an even deeper danger involved in being "thrown out and trampled under foot."  For grinding salt into the soil is the kiss of death for the earth.  Want to see what that looks like?  Visit Bad Water in Death Valley or the southern shores of the aptly named Dead Sea.
Then there's the candle – the light we're called to shine into a dark world, the light we mustn't hide under a basket.  And, while Jesus doesn't mention it, there's an added downside to placing a basket over a candle.  Not only is the world outside deprived of its light, but the candle itself is extinguished, deprived of life-giving oxygen.  Isn't that what we're doing to the world around us every day now, polluting the atmosphere with our   oxygen-absorbing carbon emissions?  Isn't that what happens to communities – to churches and nations – that build walls, exclude others, and hide in fear and darkness.  They flicker and fade.  And the light goes out.
And how about that city on a hill?  True enough, "A city built on a hill cannot be hid."  But the question remains: For better or for worse?  Jesus'     meaning is clear.  The light is better seen from a hilltop, an icon, a beacon of hope to all around.  And I'm sure that's how Ronald Reagan meant it, when he spoke of the United States as a "gleaming city on a hill," the torch of its ideals held high beside a golden door, open to all those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."  But such a city – by its very visibility – can become a torment when its inhabitants succumb to hubris and lord it over those in the valleys below.  Witness the gleaming white settlements atop every hilltop in the West Bank, their inhabitants depriving the villagers below of their land and water, their livelihoods, their very dignity.  Witness an America, grown both fearful and triumphalist, valuing not so much its ideals as its military might, overthrowing the governments of others and killing from a distance with its drones.  Are not the dangers manifest?
But let's talk about other analogies that speak not about death, but about life and about how we are to live.
Writing for Sojourners, Joe Kay uses the analogy of a chick in an egg:
The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
Take religion, for example.
Many of us are born into some sort of religion. Maybe our particular religion is big enough that it gives us encouragement and space to grow. Hooray! Or maybe our particular religion turns out to be very confining — limited to only those who see things a certain way — and it becomes like a hardened shell, something that leaves us living in a small, dark space. Eventually we realize that God isn't confined to our shell, but lives outside of it. And we start to peck away….
When a chick finally spills out of its shell, it's haggard and exhausted. It rests for a while, trying to recover and take it all in. Soon, it gets up and starts learning to walk. It joins the other birds. Some day, it will fly.
One time, I asked the 4-H egg monitor whether she was tempted to help the chick escape from its shell — maybe crack it open a little bit. She said no, that the struggle is an important part of the breaking-out process. It makes the chick strong enough to deal with what comes next.
Without the struggle, the chick wouldn't survive outside the shell. The struggle makes the chick strong, keeps it alive, and gets it ready to fly one day. It's part of what some refer to as the amazing and mysterious process of life.
Something that others might also call grace.
Consider also the ungainly caterpillar in a cocoon, breaking free as a beautiful, liberated butterfly, giving physical witness to a grateful world of the grace and glory of God. 
Consider yet another analogy…suggested by this morning's reading from Isaiah, who speaks quite explicitly about what God requires of us:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….
There's a common theme running through this.  These are all actions - physical actions - that require us to use our hands…to loose the bonds, to break the yoke, to share our bread, to bring in the homeless, to cover the naked. 
And that brings me to the analogy…conjured up by a statue of Jesus… actually several of them.  There's one in Mainz, Germany and another in Canterbury, damaged by bombs.  There's one in Soweto toppled in a police raid.  There's yet another in San Diego damaged by vandals…perhaps a deacon in need of a good story.  Again, there's common theme here.  All these statues, you see, are missing their hands.  They've been left that way and decorated with signs that allude to the obvious analogy…signs that read: "You are my hands."
As we will affirm in a moment in the Creed, Christ will come again – physically - at the end of time.  Until then, however, Christ - God - is with us and in us, in the Holy Spirit and acts through us in the world.  We must, therefore, be not only the hands, but the feet and heart and mind of Christ.  We must use our hearts and minds to discern what Christ and the Spirit would have us do in today's world with our hands and feet and, yes, our mouths, to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.
We must also discern how the Spirit would have us translate these words of Isaiah - and of Jesus in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 - into physical action in the twenty-first century world in which we find ourselves.
As you know, I have become a big fan of Pope Francis – the first pope to grace the cover of Rolling Stone.  In his words – not in Rolling Stone, but in his pre-Christmas exhortation The Joy of the Gospel – I hear the strong, clear voice of the Spirit.  It is a voice that shouts "NO!' to spirit of the time – "No" to an economy of exclusion; "No" to the new idolatry of money; "No" to a financial system that rules rather than serves; "No" to the inequality that spawns violence!  It is a voice, like Christ's this morning, that calls us to observe and teach the commandments and apply them to the culture of the time.  It is a voice that, in the clarity of its indictments, demands our attention.
"How can it be," Francis asks, "that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"  How, he asks, "can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?"  How can we accept a financial system pervaded by the "rejection of ethics and a rejection of God….a system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits?"  "The worship of the ancient golden calf," he warns, "has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."
It is an idolatry that has infected his own church…and, sad to say, even ours.  I would, for example, prefer to quote at length similarly clear statements by Episcopal or Anglican bishops…if I could put my hands on one.  They are, however few and far between.  Why?  Because the pushback is strong and the default position of "establishment church" all too alluring.
Talk about pushback? Francis' American bishops and the professional "apologists" on Catholic radio are in full denial mode, explaining away and "putting in context" what the pope "really" meant to say.  His archbishop in New York, whose main occupation these days seems to be soliciting funds for the renovation of his cathedral, throws his arms around Home Depot's Ken Langone and Fox News' Roger Ailes, his main contributors, deflecting the pope's words and declaring that God loves rich people too. 
Perhaps anticipating such pushback, Francis writes in Joy of the Gospel, that he indeed "loves everyone, rich and poor alike," but is "obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor."  He cites, in this regard, the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and take away their livelihood.  It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs."  And, to those "haves" who would cry "Class warfare!" - while very successfully waging class warfare on the "have-nots" - he says:
Today in many places we hear a call for greater security.  But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.  The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode.  When a society – whether local, national, or global – is willing     to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.
 
Is there anything inevitable about the exclusion, inequality, and violence that        confronts us?  Must we continue to live in such insecurity?  Must we accept such a dystopian future?
Of course not!  Not if we heed the words of Jesus and shine the light of love on a hurting world.  Not if we heed the words of Isaiah and loose the bonds of injustice thus revealed.  Not if we respond to the challenge of Dr. Kalanithi's oncologist: "You've got to find out what matters most to you." 
All of which brings me back to the question of time.  Mother Susan's reflection in last week's E-news is very apropos.  "How," she asked, is "God calling me to use my time?"  And what, she asked, does it "mean to follow Jesus and live as one of his disciples?"  Asking us – as I do now - to reflect on those questions, she offered us the thoughts of Grace Duddy, the Lutheran Church Stewardship Officer.  Ms. Duddy asked, in turn, "how [is] God is calling me to use my time to share God's grace and love with the world?"  And she resolved "to listen closely to the ways that God is teaching me how to be a better steward of all my time and helps me living into my Christian calling at all hours of the week, not just Sundays."
As I said at the outset, I find that those hours seem to be moving more swiftly these days and there remain for me probably fewer than for most of you.  I've done my reflecting and made my choice – to be a troublemaker, to follow a Jesus who raged at injustice, kicked over the tables of the moneychangers, challenged the powers-that-be, and got himself arrested.  As I said in a little book, "At my age, what is there to fear?"
But, I had to confess, "Age brings also a sense of that 'fierce urgency of now.'  My time to effect change is increasingly limited and I feel a pressing need to recruit new troublemakers."
So, in closing, let me ask you – let me beg you with all the urgency of age: Be the hands of Christ in the world, not just on Sunday, but every day.  Use those hands to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.  And, yes, to pray.
 
AMDG