Trust But Verify

My friend Susan, a priest at All Saints, says that she is never disillusioned by the church.  That’s because she has no illusions about the church.  Whatever else the church is, it’s a fallible human community like all others.  How often have I arrived at a new parish but to be accosted by all and sundry wanting to make sure I understood their side of the various conflicts that had been roiling that congregation.  Sometimes for years.

Archbishop William Temple used to say that the Church is the only institution that does not exist primarily for its own members.  The poor archbishop, I fear, had far too lofty a view of our frail humanity.  Church folks can be as self-centered as those of any other grouping.

When I was in college, I was a promoter of California’s new fair housing law, which so-called conservatives were wanting to repeal.

My then girlfriend’s parents owned several apartment buildings and definitely felt that they should not be forced to rent to “undesirables” – read Blacks or Mexican-Americans. 

When I would attempt to make the case that we should all be able to get along and live together – isn’t this what the gospel teaches?  I was told in no uncertain terms that that was religion, but apartments were about business.  Two different issues.  Needless to say, under that disagreement my then girlfriend and I soon parted company.  And these folks were good Methodists, regular church attenders. 

Unlike my friend Susan, I did have illusions about Christian community. 

As Mark Twain would quip, “It would be easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a little more redeemed.  He, in his day, discovered the same spiritual blindness of the Church when it came to the issue of slavery.

The prophet Ezekiel proclaims that he has been made a sentinel for the house of Israel, to warn the wicked from their ways.

“If I [the Lord] say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.  But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life…I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’”

The message is always, “Choose Life.  Choose Life.”

That, AND that we are our sister’s, our brother’s keeper.  We have a mutual stake in one another’s well-being.

This is a difficult proposition in our American hyper-individualistic culture.  The Gospel ethic cuts straight across that stance.  Hear Paul this morning: “Owe no one anything, EXCEPT to love one another.” 

It’s the same ethic as that of my favorite fictional L.A. detective character in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels when it comes to effort put forth to solve murders, “Everyone counts or no one counts.”

Matthew enjoins his readers to do all possible to retain a member, even in the heat of disagreement and bad behavior.

I know that I sometimes get taken advantage of because of being too trusting.  I assume that most are honest, upright actors.  But even in the church, especially in the church, so much is at stake, we do get crossways with one another on occasion.

In the days at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear Armageddon was a real possibility, our state department went apoplectic when it looked like Reagan and Gorbachev were on the threshold of banning all nukes.

They did not trust Reagan’s over-optimistic assessment of Gorbachev as an honest broker.  How could we possibly believe those “dirty, rotten Commie so-and-sos?” 

Reagan’s answer?  “Trust but verify.”

That’s the one thing he said that I believe carried weight.  And hope.  I confess, I was not a fan, considering how he eviscerated our mental health establishment in California.  But as I said, this response resonates as true. 

About eighty percent of folks will behave in ethical upright ways.  Another fifteen percent might be ethically squishy.  And maybe five percent or fewer are of a larcenous heart and will rob you blind.

A welcome respite and antidote to our hyper-partisan culture comes in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s book on the middle of our nation, The Overlooked Americans.[1]  To get an assessment of the country, the author interviewed hundreds of people – all sorts, from all parts of the nation and of all political stripes.

What she discovered is that we have much more in common than the pundits and radio shock-jocks would lead us to believe.  A key question the author asked of all interviewees was what democracy meant to them.

What she found was an affirmative answer to Rodney King’s tormented question, “Can we all get along?”  A definite “yes” was the overwhelming answer of almost all respondents.

As a whole, we citizens had a capacious and generous understanding of the national covenant that binds us together as a people.  Some of our answers:

“…everybody has a choice, everybody has a vote, everyone mattering” – this from a single mom in Appalachia.

“Where everyone gets a fair say with decision-making, to some extent…People should help make decisions for the country and to have the freedom to have free speech and practice any religion, without being persecuted” – a neurologist from Memphis. 

Despite differences in age and section of the country, most answers seemed similar.  Maybe we can all get along.  And where we have differences, “trust but verify.”  Cut each other a bit of slack.

It all takes a bit of tending.  In a discussion between Marilynne Robinson and President Obama, quoted by the author, Robinson remarked on our national experiment with self-rule: “[Democracy] was something that people collectively made and that they understood they held it together by valuing it.”  “We cannot take it for granted…It is a main thing that we remake continuously.”[2]  It is based on our valuing one another.

When going through some of my brother’s things, in his workshop – a very large space – I came across one huge safe.  Then another.  And yet another.  These things weighed hundreds of pounds and were almost six feet tall by four feet wide and two feet deep.  One after another until I counted at least six of them.  Two of which were still in their shipping containers.  He had a forklift to move them.

My friend wondered what was going on with his thinking.  The answer?  Paranoia.  Tom didn’t trust much of anybody.  The world was obviously out to rob him blind.  I offered to loan my friend my psych textbook on paranoia.  It explains everything we were seeing.

The Gospel answer?  Life’s too short to live in continual distrust of one’s fellows.  Bad for the heart also.

The ethic of the Jesus movement is that of a generous spirit.  Most of us, even in the church, will do the right thing.  Our differences?  “We can work it out,” to quote the Beatles.  “We can work it out.” 

The church is like a big family.  We are not just a random assortment of individuals who happened to stumble in off the street.  We belong to one another.  And that’s the reality I witness every Sunday here at St. Francis.

Yes, like any family we have our differences, but there’s no evil intent implied or expressed – like any family.

I can still remember our late controversy here at St. Francis over the Thanksgiving gravy.  On one hand we had the giblet’s faction and opposed was the giblets-free opinion.  In my mind’s eye I could envision schism over gravy of all things.  Giblets were essential.  Giblets were an atrocity.  Which would it be?  As my grandmother would often exclaim in disgust, “Oh, good gravy!”

The problem was solved by having two gravy selections.  You choose. Would that all church controversies could be worked out so amicably.  Maybe this solution comes under the category of WWJD.  Or at least, it’s as close as we could get.

As one of my favorite hymns puts it: “Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love:/The fellowship of kindred minds/Is like to that above.  We share each other’s woes,/Our mutual burdens bear,/And often for each other flows/The sympathizing tear…When we asunder part,/It gives us inward pain.”

This is indeed a journey where everyone counts, where everyone is precious in the Lord’s sight.  Let us continually pray for the grace to live out this vision.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Currid-Hacket, The Overlooked Americans: The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What that Means for Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2023).

[2] Op cit, 29-30.

September 10, 2023
15 Pentecost, Proper 18

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40;
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20 “Trust But Verify

The Sins You Forgive; the Sins You Retain

At my first assignment as a United Methodist pastor out in California’s Upper Mojave Desert, I served two congregations.  One of them, the one in Randsburg, I was supposed to close after the church had received a bequest left it by the matriarch of the parish, Mrs. Jewell.

Since we had only 4 members there upon my arrival that July 1, closure made complete sense.  However, since our attorney handling the matter was less than diligent, this matter was dragging on and on.  Pretty soon we were up to ten members, then twenty.  This was becoming a thriving operation.

One of the couples who lived up the hill above town, Muriel and Harold Beck, attended regularly, but Harold’s brother who lived next door wouldn’t darken the door of the church for Sunday services.  But if we needed any repair to the furnace or the plumbing, he was most willing to come down and get us operational again.

One weekday, when I’d usually make my visits to folks there, Harold asked me if I might make a pastoral call on his brother Jim.  He’d love to meet me.

Was I in for quite a story!  First of all, Jim had worked with the Wright Brothers – yeah, the first airplane Wright Brothers.  He had some wonderful reminiscences to share of Wilbur and Orville and their bicycle shop.  He had left before they had started building their biplane, the Wright Flyer in 1899.

But here’s the thing which stuck with me:  The tragic story Jim shared.  Upon leaving high school, he was signed up as a baseball player in one of the minor leagues, then for a short while went up to the majors.  I don’t remember the team, not even positive now that Jim was his first name.

When Jim told his pastor that he would have to be missing Sunday services, the pastor told him in no uncertain terms that he would be going straight to hell.

That was the last Jim’s church ever saw of him.  Or any church.  Though he and I developed a good friendship and we had numerous visits, he could absolutely not get over the hurt that pastor had inflicted on his soul.

In our reading from Matthew, we are told that the Church has been given great authority.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

That foundational passage has been the source of much hurt and pain when interpreted in support of an imperial version of the Christian faith.  And it has been the source of much Gospel Joy, when interpreted as a prompting for servant leadership.

Too often those in authority have, since the rise of the Constantinian church, used this passage to exclude, to flout their authority, to oppress.  The abuse of authority, cloaked in those few verses, has itself been the source of great sin.

When confronted with such clerical pomposity, my wife responds, “And who put you in charge?”  Of course, they themselves did.

And the evil which flows from such misuse and distortion of authority is legion.

I believe that Paul Tillich best described the parameters of sin when he looked at it as a three-fold separation:  Separation from others, separation from self and ultimately, separation from God. 

Sin is not those nasty, spiteful or criminal things we do.  They are all symptoms of that initial separation.

We can remain locked in to this separation.  Out of judgmental disposition we can attempt to lock others into the tragic separation which is often the human condition.  To remain bound, we tie ourselves to something that will eat our souls alive.  Much as flesh-eating bacteria consumes the living body.

Or we can choose release.  “Let go and let God” – an insight from the Holy Spirit.  Grace abounding.

Yes, we can retain sin.  But our calling in Christ Jesus is to pronounce release.  Sometimes called forgiveness.

Some of you are aware that recently my brother Tom passed away.  He had been a resident of Twin Falls, Idaho.  He had never married and had no children.  I was his only sibling.  So, guess to whom the chore has come in wrapping up his affairs.

Tom, had an extra copy of the family packrat gene.  Little by little, I’m discovering what all he left behind.  One of his former employees, now my employee, discovered in going through is check register, four huge storage units here in California.

These are really huge – 14 feet by 50 feet – completely packed with stuff:  Pieces of scrap metal, furniture, assorted piles of lumber, machinery, and at least two vehicles.  There was an old Chevy panel truck in one and a Ford Ranchero in another.  The Ford’s worth restoring, but I have to first find the hood somewhere.

When we got the first storage door opened and I looked inside, I could only mutter, “Lord, take me now!”

He owned a triplex in Loma Linda and one of the garages there is also full of his stuff, including an 80s-something Lexus.

Besides leaving all this stuff behind, Tom had a personality disorder, leaving behind a lot of hurt.  He could say all manner of hateful and resentful things.

Looking back at our troubled relationship, I’m faced with a spiritual choice:  Do I retain all this hurt and emotional mess, or am I willing to release it?

This choice was given greater focus when I was confronted with the responsibility of writing his obituary.

Also, most helpful was meeting one of his tenants at the Loma Linda triplex, an African named Rose.  Rose, a former citizen of South Africa, was most kind and generous in her hospitality.  This was the open and welcoming African hospitality I had experienced in Ghana.  I was invited in to her apartment, given a warm hug and offered coffee or tea.

Rose, was completely devastated to hear of Tom’s death.  She reminisced on what a generous landlord he had been.  She needed a new dishwasher?  He had one installed.  She needed a new refrigerator?  He purchased one for her.  Over the years, he had kept rents well within reason.

When I met with two of the women who ran the storage facilities, I heard similar stories.

From his former employee, I heard of his concern for the environment.  He would not use plastic anything if he could avoid it.

The final analysis?  Tom was a mixed bag, even though he had been estranged from the rest of the family for years.  In writing his obituary, I was given the Spirit-nurtured opportunity to both acknowledge the damage he had done over the years, and to acknowledge the grace-filled aspects of who he was: in short, to “let go and let God.”

Over the weeks and months to come, as I empty out the mounds of stuff from his storage units, I will pray for the spiritual strength to keep this perspective.  One day at a time.

We can, in our own hurt and despair, choose to retain the sin of separation, but our life-giving opportunity, our calling, in the Jesus Movement is to release it.  And the promise is that even greater life will flow back into us. 

As we pray every Sunday after communion:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
  Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
  where there is injury, pardon;
  where there is discord, union;
  where there is doubt, faith;
  where there is despair, hope;
  where there is darkness, light;
  where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek
  to be consoled as to console,
  to be understood as to understand;
  to be loved as to love.

For it is giving that we receive;
  it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
  and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

A tough assignment for sure; yet in such living, we are led the door of eternal life.  Amen

August 20, 2023
13 Pentecost, Proper 16

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138;
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

All Means All – Take 2

When we lived on Green Street, I had a five-mile walking course laid out that took me up to Foothill then back down Towne to home.   I would often do this route after dark.

One evening as I was heading back down on Towne, I didn’t notice that one section of the sidewalk had been lifted up by tree roots.  The next thing I knew I was sprawled out in some juniper bushes in the park strip.  Down for the count.

As I slowly gained my wits and realized that I was probably going to live, I noticed a sharp, stabbing pain wracking my shoulder.  Then I began to feel like maybe, in fact, I wasn’t going to make it.  The pain was excruciating.  “They’re going to just find my cold, dead body lying here in the morning when they bring in the trash containers,” I thought.  After laying there for a number of minutes, I realized nothing was broken, and gingerly got back on my feet.

Obviously, I didn’t expire, but made it back home.  The next day I did report this trip hazard to the city.  I wasn’t going to sue them, but the next victim might.

In our reading from Matthew, we discern the importance of the Law and the tradition.  We see the importance of Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel.  But, in today’s reading, the gospel writer is moving us beyond this narrow vision. The dietary restrictions are not the sole point of it all – the be-all, end-all in themselves.

“’Listen and understand:  It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defies.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?’…’Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.’”

Mathew goes on then to introduce the foreign woman, breaking all boundaries of protocol.

“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and starting shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’”

Jesus ignores her, as well he should according to custom and propriety.  But she persists.  “’Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’”  But this is my kind of woman.  She will insist that Grace trumps all.  She will not be denied.  When Jesus tells her that his mission is solely to the house of Israel, and that one does not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, she nails him and his stodgy, limited understanding of God’s Welcome. 

“She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’” 

At this point Jesus grants her the healing she seeks for her daughter. “’Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

And like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, Jesus’ heart grew three sizes larger.

The divine, enfleshed in human yearning, grew beyond the narrow bounds of nationality and custom.  Grace upon Grace.  That’s what God is all about as revealed in the maturing vision of the Matthew’s community of faith as evidenced by their preserving of this story.

We come to the consummation of this vision when the Risen Christ in Matthew commands us to take this understanding out to all.  “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  All means All!

The Johannine community captures this sentiment exactly.  “God is Love, and those who abide in Love abide in God and God in them.”  Not a sloppy, sentimental, Hallmark pastel-cheap sentiment – but a Love that costs.  A Love that commits to doing the necessary thing.  A Love that speaks the Truth and lets the chips fall where they may.  What Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.” 

Somewhere the spiritual writer Anne Lamott nailed it when she posted, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

So, folks, here’s the takeaway:  When we act as the “Frozen Chosen,” when rules become more important than the essential of Grace, are we Christians not a stumbling hazard every bit as much as that broken sidewalk that sent me sprawling into the bushes? 

Such impediments were called a skandalon, a stumbling stone – just as such attitudes are a scandal to the proclamation of the Gospel in our day.

When we ignore the damage done to the “least of us” and just go about our comfortable lives, aren’t we as dangerous to the faith as that cracked concrete?

In the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, Bishop Mike mandated that every parish and mission would have Narcan, the antidote to opioid poisoning, available on site with people trained to administer it.

One stodgy priest was heard to comment, “Why would we do this?  They’ll just overdose again.”  Yeah.  Right – probably up there with what Jesus might have said.  And just what part of the Gospel did this uncaring clergy creep miss???  A stumbling stone to the proclamation of Gospel Grace, that soul is.

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, indeed!

I find that there is much joy to be had in being part of the welcome, in being part of the solution.  That’s what the Jesus Movement is all about.

Saturday morning, I went out to Amy’s Farm, a non-profit organization and met with Randy Berkendam, Amy’s husband who runs the business end of things.  He showed me around and we talked about the prospect of them moving to St. Francis as they are being evicted due to the land being sold to a developer.

I witnessed all sorts of healthful, productive activity – now that’s Gospel Grace.  That farm is a welcome to all – Gospel Welcome.

This is an opportunity for Love-in-action that God may now be giving to us.  Just as a woman with a hemorrhaging daughter was an opportunity for Jesus to grow spiritually – dare I say, for God to grow? — the community of faith to grow?

Randy, at another location, showed me a huge, monster pile of composting soil which would need to be stashed elsewhere than at St. Francis.  It is the essential soil composting.  With this, Randy believes he can get moved and have the farm up and running in as little as 6 weeks. 

Right now, Amy’s Farm is economically self-sustaining.  Unfortunately, selling healthy food does not pay all the bills.  Two potential sources of income would be reimbursement from the House of Hope – San Bernardino for making this form of therapy available for our clients; the second being from a local college or university which would want to make a sustainable farming course available to their students.  Amy’s Farm presently has one such arrangement.  Our son Jonathan took such a course at Kenyon College and loved it — one of the best classes he took there, he says.

Are we interested in hearing what Randy has to say?  Are we sufficiently daring to step out in faith for the sake of Love? — Jesus did.

Everybody, stay safe, keep batteries and flashlights handy just in case.  But in any case, the lights will NOT go out on the Spirit of St. Francis!  Amen.

Randy shows off the farm.  It was built over a bed of wood ships then layered with rich, composted soil.  Notice the efficient drip irrigation.

 Rich, black, living soil, makes the kale grow!

The Journey is the Destination

When I was a callow youth, my sights were pretty low.  I thought that I would have made it if I had a 57 Chevy – you know the one, with the fins and all that chrome.  That and a girlfriend. 

At the moment I had neither.  I had a family cast-off 1950 Studebaker.  Hardly a chick magnet.  And my love life was butkus – going nowhere.

I remember the day I ran into an old friend at Cal State Long Beach.  After catching up, he, out of the blue, asked how my love life was going.  I had to admit.  It was non-existent.

He suggested that I might want to come to a meeting of the Wesley Foundation, the Methodist student group on campus. 

I told him that I had had it with religion.  The church was just a bunch of hypocrites.  In fact, the pastor of what had been my home congregation in Long Beach had come out against California’s fair housing law.  “Nah, not interested.”

My friend continued, “They have some pretty fine women who go there.”

“What time do they meet,” I skeptically responded.

And that was the beginning of a long journey back into the church.  In spite of my doubts, the campus minister who was appointed to shepherd the group introduced me to some of the theological giants of the twentieth century – a trip far beyond my then fourth-grade Sunday school understanding of the faith:  Tillich, both of the Niebuhr brothers, Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Barth and the Jewish theologian Martin Buber.

The Methodist Quadrennial conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, introduced me to Dr. Martin Luther King, the keynote speaker at that event.  And I was saved!  I thought, “If this is the church…include me in.”  I also met a lovely young woman on the bus, to whom I’ve been married now over fifty-seven years.  Now — What a journey it’s been – and still continues to be!

Today, we celebrate the Transfiguration – that episode up on the mountain where Jesus has gone to pray.  It is said that he took Peter, John and James with him, and as he prayed, he became transplendent –utterly surpassing the limits of ordinary experience.  In the sparkle he was joined by Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  The scene became ethereal.

“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jeus, ‘It is good for us to be here.  Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he had said. 

And as a cloud envelops them, the divine command is heard, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Jesus knew that this moment, no matter how glorious, was not the destination, but only a signpost on the way.  A confirmation that they were all on the Way.  The Torah Way, where they all would discover their fulfillment in the Torah command, “You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”  On such hangs all the Law and the Prophets.  And your very destination.  And that path will also go down through all the miseries and joys known to humanity. 

On that road you will also be Transfigured — in no small way are “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”[1]  (Brother John Wesley would call it, “Going on to perfection.”)  And in the midst of the living of your days, the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, is revealed!

That is the meaning of these two men conversing with Jesus – Moses, the figure of Exodus living and summation of God’s gift of the Law, that we know how to care for one another, self and creation.  And Elijah, the prophet of End Time – which is to say that NOW is the time of fulfillment.  NOW is YOUR time.  No matter what is showing on the clock, this is the “Eternal NOW.”  Your moment, as in reality, is every sacred moment.

It was out of such quotidian moments that a new people was forged under the leadership of Moses and the promise of Elijah.  Testing and trials in forty years of wilderness journey brought forth the prophetic sensibility of love of God and neighbor, that they are one and the same — for God dwells in that person, that neighbor.  And, down through Jesus, to those who, in his vision, continue this journey: St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Harriett Tubman, Caesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, William O. Douglas, the Standing Rock protestors, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, William Stringfellow – all resplendent icons of transfiguration.  All with moral countenances gleaming as the sun.  All a cascade of moments upon moments as our journey is drawn to the final vision of God, the Omega Point, of End Time. 

And now Elijah’s mantle falls to us in our hour.  In all senses of the phrase, it’s our time to Rise and Shine.

We’ve intellectually known that democracy is indeed a fragile thing, but have not really experienced, until these past days – have not really experienced its existential peril.  With Jack Smith’s indictment of the Former Guy, we’ve come to see how tragically close we have come to its ruination.

And the idolatry of worship given the Former Guy by the base of his party is nothing less than that which Moses discovered upon his descent from Mount Sinai.

Can you imagine his abhorrence when confronted by the fawning, prostrated worshipers before a golden calf?!  Not the God who brought them out of slavery but a tinsel trinket of nothing – A shambolic idol of death and chaos, just as empty as that of the Former Guy’s personality cult, where all is subsumed to an insatiable desire for personal gratification. With this idol, as the first, you get nothing back in return.  Loyalty is a one-way street.  All is up for grabs: the Constitution, Rule of Law, family, friends, allies and business associates.  All laid before that orange-haired fraudulent altar to Nothingness.

Moses led the Children of Israel, through the Grace of God, into a more robust vision of the Grace of God, despite that apostasy and idolatry, despite the constant grumbling and failure of vision. 

And through those who have held to the journey steadfast, we are led into yet a more fulsome vision of America.

Now, you, too, are offered a hand up to board this Freedom Train.  Do not sit silent when those around you belittle and deny the severity of our nation’s most tragic hour. “Get on board, li’l children, get on board.”  We’re bound for Glory!   Silence is acquiescence. Silence is betrayal.

Support the heroic work of those working on our behalf to affirm the truths we hold as self-evident:  Fani Willis in Fulton County, Georgia, investigating election fraud (and now ready to file a fourth indictment); their Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who refused to “find” — read “manufacture” –11,780 votes – as the Former Guy whined, “which is one more than we have because we would have won the state.” 

We must honor the faithful and daring work of the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, now preparing charges against that group of fake electors, poised to steal the election from the voters of her state — voters who actually, and fairly, chose the real, legitimate president of the United States.  Yeah, the one we have now – thanks be to God.  She has held fast to the responsibilities of her office despite death threats and the need for a constant security detachment everywhere she goes.

Stand in support of that countless number of election workers, those whose names you will never know – except, maybe those publicly defamed by the Former Guy – those who, for faithfully carrying out their duties of office, now fear for their lives and those of their families, and who been ruined by his public scorn and incitement — and by the terrorism of his mob of followers with their lies and vigilante violence.  All part of the journey of America in these later days.  Our days!

So, here we are, on the precipice of the most dangerous political polarization since the Civil War – an attempt to overthrow a legitimate election and the resulting government of the United States.  Nothing less than treason in my book!  Lincoln hanged some such seditionists; I’d settle for a long stint of house arrest.

Hear just some of the charges:

“Shortly after election day, the Defendant also pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results. In so doing, the Defendant perpetrated three criminal conspiracies:

“a. A conspiracy to defraud the United States by using dishonesty, fraud, and deceit to impair, obstruct, and defeat the lawful federal government function by which the results of the presidential election are collected, counted, and certified by the federal government, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371;

“b. A conspiracy to corruptly obstruct and impede the January 6 congressional proceeding at which the collected results of the presidential election are counted and certified…

“and c. A conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241. Each of these conspiracies—which built on the widespread mistrust the Defendant was creating through pervasive and destabilizing lies about election fraud…

Count 1: the defendant…did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with co-conspirators, known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to defraud the United States by using dishonesty, fraud, and deceit to impair, obstruct, and defeat the lawful federal government function by which the results of the presidential election are collected, counted, and certified by the federal government.

And this is just the start.  Go online, warm up the Google machine, and read the entire number of counts being leveled.  It staggers the mind.  You can’t make this stuff up.  We all saw it live, in living color on our television screens.  And replayed and replayed ad nauseum.

It is NOW your turn to pick up the leadership of Moses as we move onward into a land of freedom and dignity, where all can thrive. 

You, as a young student, hand over heart, pledged loyalty to this union, never perfect but ever perfectible; it is now your moment to put that sentiment into action – to affirm in word and deed that no one is above the law.  We are all accountable to the common good.

As my wife says: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”  This is our leg of the journey.  We’re up at bat.

As with Moses and Dr. King, we may not get to that Promised Land but we have been to the Mountain of Revelation, the Mountain of Transfiguration.  We have seen the Promised Land.

Sometimes, that’s how I feel about our House of Hope.  I might not get there, but I’ve seen the vision.  And hopefully, if we work at it and stick together, we have a team who will bring it into reality.  That’s our promise to all who enter our doors: “Where hope becomes reality.”

On that journey we, too, are transfigured into the image of the Risen Christ.  That’s where a scattered, rag-tag group of fugitives from Pharoah’s wrath were forged into a People of God.  That, too, is the destiny of all of us of the Jesus Movement.

In his fellowship, we shall discover who we are and what we’re called to be.  As they’d say at the YMCA pool, “Come on in.  The water’s fine.”   Amen.

[1] II Corinthians 3:18, New King James Version

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

August 6, 2023 – The Transfiguration

“The Journey is the Destination”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:38-36

Time to Wise Up

In most dysfunctional families, various members fill different functions.  There is the identified “problem,” the drama revolves around.  A supportive cast is the enablers, the deniers, a co-addict, maybe a family clown, and if fortunate for all, a realist.  I would cope by injecting humor.  Crack a joke.  Do something funny.

In school I was the class clown.  I still remember the day at the beginning of a new semester in Algebra II asking a question. I distinctly remember it had to do with something about exponents.  We had covered all this in Algebra I.

I remember our teacher, Mr. Coulson, in astonishment asking me, “Mr. Forney, what grade did I give you last semester?”

“A C-,” I sheepishly answered.  By this time the entire class was tuned in.

“I gave you a C???”  “Yes, sir,” I answered.  “I gave you a C???” he reiterated.   (pause).

“You must have lost your head,” I stammered.  By this time the entire class was in fits of laughter.  I think I then mumbled something about doing better this year.  I didn’t.  I got a D.

Fast forward to the time of having completed my two-year stint in the Army as a conscientious objector in the medics – that I did excel at.  I was newly married and would soon be back in the civilian world.  It was time to get my act together.

When our captain gave the “re-up” speech, I positively knew I didn’t want to do that.  As my Christian journey had deepened over those past two years, I felt drawn to think about seminary.

It was time to wise up.  I had to get serious about my studies.  I had a family to support.

However, being an academic screw-up, I had a terrible GPA to clean up.  Do you have any idea how much work it takes to fix a 1.8 GPA?  Having new responsibilities, I definitely needed to wise up.  I was now in prime time.

King Solomon, having kingship thrust upon him with the death of his father David, realizes he is way too inexperienced for these newly acquired responsibilities.  He also needs to wise up.

As the legend goes, the Almighty appears to him soon after his accession to the Davidic throne. 

“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’…O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in…Give your servant therefore an understanding to discern what is right.”

And, of course, we all know the story:  Solomon was accounted the wisest of all Israel’s kings.  His wisdom is legendary.  You remember the story of offering to cut an infant in two to reveal the true mother?  The one who in terror cried out, “No, give the child to her.”

And the discernment I was given was the summons to burn the midnight oil with my books.  Indeed, time to wake up, time to wise up.

This past week, as our planet baked under the hottest temperatures in any July, Mother Earth was giving us all an urgent message, “It’s time to wise up.” 

And we’ve been getting that very same message from our scientists, weather forecasters and the few responsible leaders we have.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres of the United Nations in an address this week warned, “Humanity is in the hotseat.”

According to the data released today, July has already seen the hottest three-week period ever recorded; the three hottest days on record; and the highest-ever ocean temperatures for this time of year.

The consequences are clear and they are tragic: children swept away by monsoon rains; families running from the flames; workers collapsing in scorching heat.

For the entire planet, it is a disaster.

And for scientists, it is unequivocal – humans are to blame.

And this is entirely consistent with predictions and repeated warnings.

The only surprise is the speed of the change.

Climate change is here.  It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning.

The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.

The air is unbreathable.  The heat is unbearable.  And the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable.[1]

The warning was clear and unequivocable:  TIME TO WISE UP.

The signs are there for any to read.  As Jesus asked his disciples after telling them similes concerning the Kingdom of Heaven – about a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, about a net cast over the side of a boat that brings all sorts of fish, a woman at work with yeast in a lump of flour, a treasure in a field…” Have you understood all this?”

And, the fact is, for the most part, they understood very little of it as they argued amongst themselves as to who is the greatest, and who would get to sit as his right hand in paradise. 

And we, like they, seem to understand very little of what Mother Earth and the Secretary-General and all his scientists are telling us.

But it’s all as clear as the truth about those mustard seeds, as promising as the joy of a farmer who’s discovered a hidden treasure in his field.  The planet’s at the boiling point.

Now, a whole bunch of people have become so jaded, so cynical … maybe they’ve listened to too much Fox or Newsmax, like those disciples, in fact they understand none of this.  To our peril.

The warnings given ARE that Pearl of Great Price.  They are that Hidden Treasure.  Every bit as precious and trustworthy as the warnings about my lack of diligence from my Latin teacher (among others).

Will we be as those weeds on the Last Day, thrown into the Eternal Fire?  Most likely, the fire that gets us will be an inextinguishable one which whips across the plains, fed with hurricane-force winds as the firestorm creates its own weather – a “firenado.”

Prayers for discernment and wisdom might be a start.  But only a start.  If you do pray, yes, ask for wisdom and understanding.  Then pray for the courage to take a hard look at the signs around you – what is happening.  Ask for the courage to heed those honest leaders telling us what we need to know, NOT what we want to hear.

It’s time to wake up.  It’s time to wise up.

In addition to the cast of characters surrounding the “problem” person, if he/she is fortunate, there will be a realist or two ready to conduct an intervention.  To sit the “problem” down and tell them the facts of life about their life.

God has given the wisdom to discern what is really going on and the mature spirituality to act on it.  As Jesus would often conclude a teaching, “Those who have ears to hear, let them listen.” 

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “Americans always do the right thing.  After they have tried everything else.”  It’s time for all of us to wise up and do the right thing.

And there are some hopeful signs.  No, we can’t in any of our lifetimes undo the damage to Mother Earth and one another.  But we can ease the pain and make sure the effects are shared with more justice.

Pick up a current book on the problem.  One I’ve been reading lately that I highly recommend is The Heat Will Kill You First by Jeff Goodell.  Pick it up.  Listen to it on Audible.  The warning of this author is God’s Grace.  Pray God for the wisdom to “read, mark, and inwardly digest” this warning.  It is a planetary wake-up call.

“The human race – which built the pyramids and the iPhone, wrote epic love poems and invented rock ‘n’ roll, worshipped ancient gods and now deifies Hollywood stars – will exist in a world beyond the world it grew up in, beyond the place where our hearts were shaped and our genes were forged…”[2]

Heat will be the engine of this transformation.  The heat that propels us out of our Goldilocks Zone

As Imam Saddiq told us on global warming at one Friday evening prayer service I had attended, “Don’t blame Allah.  Allah didn’t do this.  We DID this.”

Signs of hope – Ancient Wisdom still speaks.  An intervention?  Let’s hope so, let’s pray so.  And let’s heed it.  Time to wise up!

Signs of hope – Even with our ruinous politics, even in the chaotic House of Representatives, realists of both parties are again reconstituting the Climate Caucus.  Some asleep, no-account politicians are waking up, wising up.  Time to take the car keys away from this inebriated driver who’s steering the climate car over the cliff.

And you, dear reader, most likely have gotten the message:  Change the light bulbs, buy less, pick up your trash.  But that’s only a small beginning.

The other day, another beacon of God’s Grace flashed before my mind – Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

On the “Joy Reid Show,” he was telling the audience that all the small efforts at mitigation will, in the end amount to little or nothing if we don’t change the politics.

“Do not vote for anyone who is a climate skeptic or enables them.”  Do not vote for anyone who does not put climate change at the very top of their agenda.” 

Solomonic Wisdom from On High and from Deep Within.  Make this discussion your priority.  Vote climate!  Often and always.

At the close of her Harry Potter book, Chamber of Secrets, the head master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Albus Dumbledore, consoles a defeated Harry Potter.[3]

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

King David knew this truism, that he alone was responsible for his actions.  Solomon prayed for the wisdom to exercise this charge wisely.

And now, it’s up to all of us and the choices we make.  Pray God, we’re given the wisdom to do the “right thing.”  Pray God, we’re given the spiritual gumption to Wise Up.  This living, breathing planet is a Pearl of Great Price.  Amen.

[1] Antonio Guterres, “Secretary-General’s opening remarks at press conference on climate,” UN Headquarters, July 27, 2023.

[2] Jeff Goodell, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2023), 309.

[3] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Scholastic Books, (Cincinnati, OH: Scholastic Books, 1999), chapter 18.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

July 30, 2023 – 9Pentecost, Proper 12

“Time to Wise Up”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

I Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136

Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52