We are Bold to Pray

The other day a young fellow came to the house to change the batteries in our pendants.  Those are the things given to us at Pilgrim Place to alert the staff should we fall and can’t get up.  Or worse yet, have an emergency medical issue.  An “incident,” as my cardiologist calls it.  The Mueller testimony was on the TV and I asked him what he thought about the revelations Mueller had to report to our nation.  He said, he doesn’t watch any news.  He said that none of our politics concerned him.  He just tunes it out.  Not his worry.

Fair enough.  I must confess that, frankly, some days I’m weary of it all as well.  The problems of our nation, our world, are just so overwhelming that I sometimes I just don’t even want to hear about it.  I want to pass over those stories in my morning newspaper.  Surely, what Mr. Mueller had to report was most distressing.  But as alarming as his findings were, what is even more distressing is the fact that the work of his office has settled nothing.  We Americans are still as divided as ever concerning the facts he and his team have reported.  And if we can’t agree on the facts, we certainly can’t agree as to their meaning.  We’re as divided as ever.  And so, we’re going to yell and scream at one another until the 2020 election?  And beyond?

When our boys were little, the remedy for antisocial behavior, for the violation of family rules, for fighting, was a “time out.”  When they were unfit for human consumption it was “chillout time.”  Fifteen minutes in the penalty box.  It’s as if our entire nation now needs a “time out.” 

In addition to the lies, to the duplicity, to a Russian attack on our elections — a thousand other civic and family tragedies have unfolded as well.  All overshadowed by the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Mueller Report.  In Los Angeles we had another mass gang shooting.  Six members of one family shot, four killed. One cannot drive down Wilshire but note the ever-increasing number of the tents of the homeless.  They’re all over McArthur Park.  Forty percent of our families are on the brink of eviction as rents skyrocket.  To boot, addicted people usually don’t have money for rent.  An emergency car repair or illness would drive many families right over the financial cliff.

Yes, we need a national time out.  A collective moment to calm ourselves, to take a deep breath and count to ten.  The words, “Let us pray,” come to mind.

Jesus’ disciples certainly must have been at their wits end from time to time, and had frequently observed our Lord at prayer.  One day, after observing him in solitude, they implored him, “As John had taught his disciples to pray, teach us to pray.”  And so he did.  “Our Father, who art in heaven…”  Thus, we received one of the most radical prayers known throughout the world.

In the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion this prayer is imbedded in the communion liturgy.  It is introduced by the words, “We are bold to say…”  But I believe it should be, “We are bold to pray!”  This is about being audacious!  In your face spirituality.

Bold?  Bold?  We Episcopalians don’t do “bold.”  We’re the quiet.  We’re the “frozen chosen.”  We mostly mumble through these familiar words on autopilot.  Not giving them or their import a thought.  And yet, this simple prayer is absolutely mind-blowing.  If one considers and takes seriously what our words actually are saying.  If one doesn’t mumble through it in a mind-numbing spiritual haze.  This prayer offers one humongous spiritual “time out.” 

The Lord’s Pray, taken to heart, is a cry from the heart and soul for a complete reordering of all that is.  It’s a plea for a far different world, where it’s not okay to lie, steal and cheat.  Where it’s not okay to sell your country out to a hostile foreign power.  It’s a cry for a world where murderous dictators are not considered “good people.” 

The Lord’s Prayer is a plea for a moment of sanity, wherein we might collect our wits.  Wherein we might recenter on what truly matters.  It is at the heart of all that church means and what we value.  It is a spiritual time out — a brief moment in even the most hellacious of weeks, to reorient our lives to what actually gives life.  Yes, that we might choose life!

In these simple words, words like “on earth as in heaven,” an entire new vista unfolds.  Time when spent with what truly matters, stands still.  Eternity opens up.  St. Paul’s words, “Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.”  Heaven on earth.  Now.

A clergywoman friend of mind reported to her church that recently she had had an opportunity to visit a parishioner in hospice.  Now, hospice is certainly a “time out.”  A final time out.

Sally reported that this woman was given the gift of a complete reorientation of her priorities, her values.  She shared with Sally that one day the director of the hospice facility had asked her why she thought she was still alive.  This is how the woman responded:

“God knew I needed to become a better person while I’m still on this earth.  You see, I’ve cared about peace and justice all my life, and I’ve always known God loves every human being.  But I’ve never really gotten to know anyone outside of my own circle until I needed hospice care.  Now, interacting with my caregivers, hearing stories of their lives, I’ve gotten to know them.  I know their names and the names of their families.  Now when I hear the news, I’m not at a distance anymore.  I see faces that look like, and hear names that sound like these women that I have come to know and love, and it wrenches my heart.  Through these women, God has given me one last opportunity to become more of who God wants me to be.”

That’s the sort of time out these simple but powerful words of the Lord’s prayer offer us.  Let us ever be “BOLD TO PRAY” these words.  And pay attention to their meaning.”

That hospice director’s question ought to be before each of us every morning, right up front with that cup of coffee or OJ.  “Why do we think we’re still alive?”

My friend, Fr. Paul Clasper, used to say that if we had lost almost all of scripture but had just a bit remaining, just a smidgen – the story of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Lord’s Prayer – we would have enough.  We would have enough in these few spiritual snippets to get the whole thing.  The centerpiece being the Lord’s Prayer.  It is about the entire journey of life, beginning to ending.  What this dying parishioner has been learning in her latter days – it’s all grounded in the spirituality of that short prayer.  Let us not mumble through it.  Let us be “BOLD TO PRAY.”  For forgiveness for the wrong we do, for the inbreaking of God’s new order, for our daily bread.  For everything we need to enter into eternity.  It’s all there.

You won’t get this at Rotary or at City Hall.  You won’t get this out on the golf course or in the poolhall.  You won’t get this at college or in the union hall.  You got this in church, or at your mother’s knee – where she got it from church.  This is the spiritual treasure that this frail, earthen vessel — the church — contains.  More precious than much fine gold.  And it’s not for sale.  Freely given, it is.

The time out offered by this radical prayer leads both to internal solace and to daring works of justice.  Daring, life-on-the-line, acts of justice.  The Lord’s Prayer is, as John Lewis is wont to say, a call to get in trouble, “good trouble, necessary trouble” as it did those priests and nuns led away in handcuffs this last weekend protesting the horrific conditions faced by children crammed in cages on our southern border.  Ever let us be BOLD TO PRAY, our Father who art in heaven…  And let us be bold to attend to what we are actually saying as we pray.

Every month it seems another high-ranking administration appointee is hauled before one congressional committee or another to account for incompetency, corruption, lying.  Or sent to jail.

The world continues to heat up.  Drought stalks the land.  Al Gore was right, for all the good that seems to have done us.  We seem not to have the capacity to act on what we know.  Bill McKibben, the noted climate author writes in his latest book, Falter, “…as a team of scientists pointed out recently in Nature, the physical changes we’re currently making by warming the climate will ‘extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.’”[1]

Might that we be BOLD TO PRAY…   We need a global time out.  We need a complete reorienting of our values.  Yes!  Our Father who art in heaven…restore us to our senses.

In the paper – the business section of all places – we read of the McKinsey and Company, a consulting firm to drug manufacturers.  The business model these wizards were advising their pill-pushing clients?  “Get more patients on higher doses of opioids,” and study the techniques “for keeping patients on opioids longer.”[2]  What could possibly go wrong?  Indeed!  This is definitely not the ethic they might have gotten from the Lord’s Prayer.  They didn’t learn this in Sunday school.  No, this is the sort of ethic they might have learned in most any business school.  Oh, not directly.  It would have been inhaled from the go-go ethic of the atmosphere of the place and of their fellow students.  It’s in the ethic of get it while you can.  Time’s a-wasting.

With big money in our politics, everything and everyone seems to have a price.  All is for sale.  Our democracy is so stretched beyond all recognition, to the point that would have poor Madison rolling over in his grave.  Money.  Money.  Money.  Where’s my commission?

Was Timothy Leary, the guru of my age, ultimately right?  Should we all just “Turn on. Tune in. And Drop Out”?  Don’t you sometimes find yourself in this sort of blue funk?  And a huge portion of our citizenry has tuned out.  Just like the pendant technician who came to our house the other morning.  There are days I would like to do that.  Just retire to some rural Elysian field and spend the rest of my days fishing, reading, and keeping up with friends and family. Drinking a brewski with the folks out at the farm.  Yes, “take me home, country roads.”  AND Let the country take care of itself.  But that’s not the ethic of the Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer shoves us back into the fray.   It is life-giving, not life-denying.

This simple and profound prayer recenters us in what really matters.  It recenters us in friendship and commitment.  Recenters us in truth.   It recenters us in the entire message of our Lord.  The whole enchilada!  Had McKinsey & Company grounded its ethic – had they been BOLD TO PRAY – they would have recommended a far better business plan to their drug company clients.

BOLD TO PRAY…That is the sort of prayer that might open one’s eyes to doing something about the McKinsey business plan.  It might move some to the Jesus business plan of bringing liberty to the captives of opioid addiction.  BOLD TO PRAY…it might even bring ordinary folks like you and me out to begin a rehabilitation clinic.  Clinics in West Virginia and San Bernardino.  Just saying…

This Jesus stuff could be dangerous to drug company business models.  Could put them out of business.  A time out in the spiritual penalty box.  Definitely – they’re unfit for human consumption!

Unspoken sobs, moans of the spirit, prayers through which God might move to bind up the hurt and sorrowful — prayers transcending the inexplicable, prayers ushering in the yearning of many hearts, prayers moving towards a new reality rooted “in heaven as on earth.”  Prayers awakening us to be co-creators with God, in and through the kick-ass power of the Holy Spirit.  Like the saying goes, “Without us, God won’t.  Without God, we can’t.”  It’s all there in the Lord’s Prayer.

Let us ever BE BOLD TO PRAY…  These few words of Jesus are an opening of our lives to God, that God might begin to work through our hands and feet, hearts and minds, checkbooks and datebooks.  Entering the Lord’s Prayer at its deepest level, it is ultimately not we who pray, but God praying in and through us.

What about the fallout from the Mueller Report?  What about the opioid crisis?  What about a terminally ill patient in hospice?  What about us gathered here as St. Francis’ spiritual heirs?  What about finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble?  Gospel trouble?  Jesus trouble?  The answer all begins with that brief, simple, and most radical prayer we all learned in Sunday school. 

Let us also BOLDLY PRAY for the comfortable – for us — that our consciences might be sorely afflicted by the Spirit of all that is holy.  Let us BOLDLY PRAY for an audacious spirituality that dares to build a House of Hope.

Let us BOLDLY PRAY for a generous spirituality that will strengthen our bond of affection that we might be up to the task.

Let us BOLDLY PRAY for a creative spirituality that will invite our neighbors to join with us in building House of Hope. 

WE ARE BOLD TO PRAY: “Our Father who art in heaven…”     Amen.

[1] Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (New York: Henry Holt, 2019), p.15-16.

[2] Walt Bogdanich, “McKinsey Had Advice on Opioids,” New York Times, July 26, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15;
 Luke 11:1-13

Year C, Proper 12 July 28, 2019
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It was a most glorious moment when that team of women won the Women’s World Cup.  I cannot forget the ecstatic glow on the face of Megan Rapinoe.  Yes, glorious it was.  But what brought a catch in my throat and a tear to my eye was the chant that soon broke out in the stands.  “EQUAL PAY.  EQUAL PAY.  EQUAL PAY.”  We are definitely in a new era, and none too soon.  These women have a better winning record than the men.  Their crowds bring in more money.  And had the winners of the FIFA Cup been men, each player would have received a $1,000,000 bonus instead of the measly $200,000 that each of the women received.  EQUAL PAY INDEED!

Now you’re maybe thinking, “This is all great, Fr. John.  We loved the game too, BUT what does it have to do with the story of the Good Samaritan?  And, you’re right, it’s time for a talk about equal pay.”

Well, let me tell you the connection.  You know well the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is confronted by a self-serving member of the legal profession, seeking to score points.  He asks Jesus what must be done to be saved?  To inherit eternal life? It’s not like he was really interested in the answer.  It was a test to trap, to embarrass.

Jesus throws the question back at him, asking, “What does scripture say?”  The lawyer is sort of forced to answer Jesus because everyone now gathering around the exchange knows the correct answer.  They had been taught it from the time they were knee high to a grasshopper.  “You must love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus gives him an “A,” for he has answered correctly.  Prize student.  Go to the head of the class.

But unwilling to let well enough alone, the lawyer ploughs on.  “Well tell me this, smarty pants.  Just who IS my neighbor?”  Ego just doesn’t know when to quit.

And true to form, Jesus resorts to a story.  There was a businessman on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He was set upon by highway men who beat him senseless and stole everything.

While the poor fellow is lying in a ditch by the side of the road it happens that a member of the clergy should pass by.  The pastor, seeing the bloody mess, quickly steps to the other side of the road, hitches up his robes and scurry’s on by.  “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. No time to say hello, good bye.  I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”

Next came a Levite, one who leads the singing of the services.  Let’s just say the choir director, to make this easy.  He also notices the businessman and likewise, crosses to the other side and hurriedly passes by, not wanting to get his robes soiled.  Don’t want blood on the music.  Besides, he’s a stickler for starting choir practice on time.  Late comers absolutely drive him nuts.

Finally comes by a most despised fellow.  He’s got tats from face to hands.  His clothes are ragged and he smells like he’s coming off a three-day binge.  He hasn’t had a bath since who knows when.  He sees the traveler from some distance and wonders what this is.  From afar it looked like some wounded animal.  As he draws near, his eyes flood with tears and he begins to run towards the man.  Amazing, he’s still breathing.  He knows this man.  He’s been this man.  He knows “down and out.”

Well, you know the rest of the story.  This despised fellow bandages up the bloody wounds and cleans up the businessman as best he can.  At the nearest Motel 6 he arranges for the inn keeper to feed and take care of the man’s needs, depositing what reasonably might handle the charge.   He then sets off, assuring the manager that he’ll take care of any further expenses on the flip side.

“NOW.  Who is the real, genuine neighbor?” Jesus demands to know.

And might that also be our question concerning last week’s soccer match?  When over eons of pay discrimination, who was the real neighbor to these glorious women who just won it all?  You already know in your hearts.  It was the crowd.  Their fans: all chanting EQUAL PAY to the high heavens.  These are the real neighbors, not just to these women, but to all women who have suffered the indignity of having been treated as second class when it comes to equal pay for equal work.  Why is it we pay teachers so little?  We don’t value their work.  And yet we entrust the future of our nation to them every day.  Why?  Because they’re mostly women.  Guys, it’s time to wise up.

Too often, we so individualize the gospel that we fail to take in its fulsome meaning.  Yes, sometimes it is a single individual that comes to the aid of the beaten down and oppressed, the victim if you will.  But it can also be a collective action as well.  It can be a whole bunch of great neighbors.  The sort you’d want in your neighborhood.  The kind that make it a beautiful day.  Every day.

Who cannot read the past news coverage of the horrors that Jeffrey Epstein perpetrated over the years against vulnerable girls, some as young as fourteen years old and not be repulsed?   And who cannot read of the sweetheart deal arranged by the federal prosecutor, recently the Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, and not be disgusted?  The miscarriage of justice in Florida for Epstein’s young victims astounds.  It is an offense against the Almighty and all that is decent.

It is a member of the media, you know, the FAKE news, who brings the healing light of exposure.  It was a single reporter who had the smelled the rot and brought it into the sunlight.  She was the Paul Revere of the keyboard, alerting her readers to the stench.  And she had the persistence to follow the whole sorry trail in all its lurid detail.  She was the Good Samaritan to these now-grown woman.  She brought it all to light that justice might be done.  Her truth-telling created the safe space for healing to begin – to allow these women to come forward.  To allow for a final reckoning for the perpetrators and those who covered up.  This reporter was indeed the neighbor, the real McCoy.  For all of us, thank you Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald.  You are the sort of neighbor I want in my neighborhood.  You make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood of America.  I want you writing for my morning paper.

No, she’s not a despised stranger or considered to be a heretic as was that original Samaritan – though some in the White House most likely considered her to be such.   But, as in the original story, Julie K. Brown, through her dogged reporting, has been the source of blessed healing, every bit as much as that original Samaritan in Jesus’ story.

Love of God and Love of Neighbor.  It is through faithful action, not correct belief or right theology, or any theology at all for that matter, that wholeness comes.  It’s through righteous action that we enter the realm of God – eternal life.  Rabbi Beerman used to say, “My marching feet are my prayers.”  It’s what we give our lives to that counts.

There is no right moment.  She who tarries may miss the appointed moment forever.  As my friend Vern was fond of saying, “Timing is everything.”  As in the Nike commercial, “Just DO it.”  And Julie K. Brown? – Boy howdy, did she ever do it!

That blessed restorative neighbor might be the collective action of sound public policy.  Remember President Reagan’s famous quip against government programs?  What were his “nine most terrifying words” according to him? — “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  Well, he was wrong.  FDR showed us the power of government for the good — for a godly purpose if you will.

In fact, the government, that is, our collective action, is often what is required to bring healing in the face of systemic injustice and racism.  It is the collective will of an entire people that assumes the role of healing neighbor.  Collective action that brings restoration.

There was a heart-warming article in last week’s NY Times with the headline, “A ‘Second Chance” to Choose a Diploma Over a Rap Sheet.”  It is about Maurice Smith, a convicted murderer who spent twenty-seven years behind bars for a murder committed when he was nineteen.  And, today, now he is a member of Goucher College’s graduating class of 2019.  Yes, there he is in his cap and gown, as proud as any of the hundreds of thousands of graduates all across America who walked across that storied platform to receive their diplomas. 

And how did this amazing feat come about?  It was through the efforts of a Republican Senator in Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison.  A REPUBLICAN!   Yes!  We can work together!  Sometimes. 

It was Senator Hutchison who proposed broadening the restrictions that had been placed on Pell grants.  Through her efforts a most remarkable coalition was brought together:  far-right conservatives, the religious community, folks from the ACLU and the very liberal Center for American Progress.  This coalition managed to undo a provision in the original Pell grant authorizing legislation that had kept college from anyone with a rap sheet. 

Growing up in Harlem, Maurice Smith had spent his youth working on an increasingly long record for drug possession.  Though he had shown ability in high school, he was basically unmotivated.  And even when he had achieved the second-highest score on a state test, his vice principal accused him of cheating, only further diminishing his low self-esteem.

In 1992 Maurice had shot and killed a man breaking into a friend’s house.  He was sentenced to life, though with the possibility of parole in some distant future.  Maybe.   He spent the next years mostly sullen and angry.  In and out of solitary confinement.

President Obama introduced what became called “Second Chance Pell” in 2015.  Goucher Prison Education Partnership and the work of some sixty other colleges unlocked the door to advancement for some 12,000 prisoners.  From those serving short sentences to those on death row, the door to a future opened.  Maurice grabbed the second chance.  Before long he was reading Immanuel Kant on ethics and studying precalculus.  He loved reading Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” aloud with another inmate.

Looking back on the classes she taught, one professor, Dr. Nina Kasniunas, remarked that students like Maurice “made the pat downs, metal detectors, lack of technology and other constraints of teaching in prison worth it.”  Such students “reminded me of the power of what we do.”[1]

Maurice Smith graduated with a 3.79 grade point average.  And, with a wide smile beaming across his beautiful face, he crossed the stage and received his diploma, pumping a fist as the announcer was proclaiming, “Maurice Smith, magna cum laude.”

Maurice was released from prison two months before his graduation and presently works the graveyard shift in a Johnson & Johnson warehouse.  He reconnected with an old childhood girlfriend whom he has since married.

A person with Mr. Smith’s background we could have previously considered a throw-away – human trash.  Resentment, anger and hostility would have been our guiding attitude.  But you know the results of resentment.  It’s like drinking poison and then waiting for your enemy to die.  But what is dying is America.  As my friend in West Virginia, Sheriff Larry Palmer, says, “John, we cannot arrest our way out of these problems.”  With no hope for restoration, the only results one can expect is bad neighborhoods from coast to coast.

Just who was Mr. Smith’s neighbor?  A whole lot of people, most of whom he will never meet.  Neighbors are those who push for sound public policy and a justice system that restores.  The neighbor may be an orderly in a nursing home who, keeping vigil into the wee morning hours, clasps the hand of a dying man.  He may be that brave young boy on the playground who rebukes a bully.  The neighbor may be a medic in a war-torn land far away.  She may be that persistent doctor who struggles for days on end to properly diagnose a mysterious and obscure illness.  It may be anyone, or an entire assortment of strangers.  As we used to say in the Fair Housing movement: “Good Neighbors Come in all Colors.”

There was a traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among robbers and was left beaten half to death.  Many others passed by, ignoring the plight of the bloody wretch.  Finally, approaching, a stranger, his heart in his throat, rushed to him.  His very soul went out to the man.  He carefully bandaged his wounds and set him up on his own donkey.  At the nearest inn he provided for the man’s care, telling the innkeeper to spare no expense.

Now, who was the neighbor?  In your heart you have already answered Jesus’ question.  Your answer burns in your soul like a hot coal.

Now, go and do likewise and you, too, will pass into the mystery of eternal life.  Your answer, lived daily, is where the living Christ will meet you.  Amen.

[1] Erica L. Green, “A ‘Second Chance’ to Choose a Diploma Over a Rap Sheet,” The New York Times, July 9, 2019.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14;
 Luke 10:25-37

Year C, Proper 10 July 14, 2019
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Does Not Wisdom Not Call?

Last year at St. Francis, it was Deacon Pat who had the honors of preaching on Trinity Sunday.  I did not envy her.  Trinity Sunday is  the most problematic Sunday in the liturgical year for a preacher.  She could have been forgiven for having had the thought, “Gee, thanks, Fr. John.”   Well, it’s Trinity Sunday once more and I’m up at bat.

To preach a sermon on Trinity Sunday without falling into one theological pitfall or another is well neigh impossible.  Today, on this Sunday, all across the nation, heresy will be compounded upon heresy as hapless clerics attempt to explicate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  I told my wife that she might as well start gathering the kindling for the heretic’s fire that will be awaiting me following the service.

Frankly, the doctrine of the Trinity is such a nuanced statement in abstruse philosophical language that only the foolish would purport to understand it.  I have to tell you now; such an understanding is certainly beyond my pay grade.  And frankly, anyone who claims to have a comprehensive and complete understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is a fake and a fraud – because what we are dealing with here is a holy mystery beyond human grasp.

Our passage from Proverbs speaks of Wisdom — She who was before all creation, She who delighted in the creation of the stars and galaxies, She who romped through all creation: When God established the heavens, I was there.”

Indeed!  “Does not Wisdom call and does not Understanding raise her voice?”  Only the fool would behold the handiwork of the marvelous web of life and declare it to be of no account. 

Of this same spirit, in the gospel of John Jesus declares, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…”

It has been said that it is through our imagination that the Spirit has the best chance of grabbing hold of us.  The heart knows.  Pascal proclaimed that the heart has reasons of its own which reason does not comprehend.

Does not wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?”  Let us delight in creation and glimpse a smidgen of the Creator’s mind.  Let us delight in our brother Jesus who redeems all creation, leading us to honor the created order and our interconnection as members of the Beloved Community.  And let us be open to the promptings of the Wisdom, bearer of insight and the courage to act.  Does not Wisdom call and does not Understanding raise her voice? 

That doesn’t mean we should dispense with the Trinitarian understanding of divine reality, just because it is beyond our understanding. It is our feeble attempt to grasp a smidgen of God’s glory.  Provisional, at best.

When in doubt about things greater than myself, I believe in starting at basics.  And the basic beginning of all theology is human experience.  The experience always comes first.  Through experience the Spirit will teach and delight. 

“Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice?”

When we are talking about the mystery of life – God – our understanding is always provisional.  When we stand before absolute and total holiness, we can only lapse into poetry and confession: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.”  When we are confronted with the primordial splendor of the universe around us, we can only say: “O Lord my God, how great thou art!”  Confronted by a saving grace beyond merit, we may blurt out, as did Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”  And in moments urgently demanding justice, we like the prophets of old, may burn with the Spirit of Truth.

We have known those times when our lives were confronted in the deepest way by Total Mystery and Power.  That is the experience I’m talking about.  I recall a frigid night in Alaska, sitting on my back porch.  A neighbor had called at around 11:30 that night and told me to go outside because the sky was absolutely lit up with the northern lights.  As I huddled up in my blankets on the chaise lounge, looking up at the sky, I saw the lights eerily snake across the sky, dancing and skipping.  Sometimes pink, sometimes white, or a faint blue.  Suddenly it seemed as if all the lights of heaven had gathered right over my head and then cascaded down on me as if someone were pouring a great pitcher of milk over my head.  My whole body was seized with goose bumps.  It seemed as if time stood still.  In that moment I knew I had come about as close as I ever would get to an experience of the One who stretched out the heavens and called them good. 

Through experience and imagination, the Spirit continually leads us into all Truth if we are but awake enough to see her actions.

The spirit leads us into that Connection that binds us to one another and to all creation.  Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice?”  ALL THE TIME!  If we are but awake.  Yes, let those with eyes to see, comprehend, and those with ears to hear, listen.

Almost a year ago, when I was out at our farm in West Virginia for our second annual Wounded Warrior event, our younger son Christopher had admonished, “Dad we need to spend some of the money from the farm on this opioid crisis.  It’s killing people.”  I told him I would explore the possibilities.  Well, nothing but nothing was offered in Brooke County, where our farm is situated.  In the middle of the night, I believe the Spirit spoke.  And she said, “Well, it looks like you are going to have to do this yourself.”  Later, I told Christopher, “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into – a godly mess indeed.”

Yes, indeed.  Wisdom does call and Understanding does raise her voice.  And she gives us the gumption to do what must be done to knit up our human community.

When I head out to West Virginia again this Tuesday at O’Dark Early, what will get me out of bed at that ungodly hour will be those visions Wisdom planted in my mind of children raising children because their addicted parents were unable to care for them.

In the New York Times, an article on the opioid crisis told of a five-year-old left to tend his one-month-old baby brother for days because their addicted parents were nowhere to be found.  For days.  Now, I ask you – what five-year-old should ever face that burden?  How many of us at five years old could have managed that?  It is the Spirit that has seared this image into my mind and that is what keeps me going.

I read of teachers completely unprepared for such traumatized children in classrooms across our America attempting to teach these students. 

Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice?  

To anyone with eyes to see and even an ounce of compassion the urgent message is:  DO SOMETHING.  DO SOMETHING NOW!

This last week we took note of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy.  We, and all of Europe, paused to give thanks for these brave men who raced across those beaches under withering fire to roll back the Nazi scourge.  No, freedom’s not just another word for nothing left to lose.  It is the lifeblood of what it means to be human.  On that bitter cold day, those who waded through the surf, those who swam past dead comrades floating face down in bloody foam — they were called to a higher purpose than self.  Wisdom gives us pause to honor their sacrifice.

This last Friday, six of us, representing St. Francis, spent another full day planning for a House of Hope and sober living homes right here in San Bernardino.  The Spirit compels it.  I believe our nation asks it of us with the very same urgency it required of those brave souls on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.  To the NIMBY crowd who might fear an opioid recovery center, I would say that the patriotism required of us in this fraught hour of opioid addiction is absolutely nothing less than what was required of those who hit Omaha Beach seventy-five years ago.

As I read the testimony of those veterans, now mostly in their nineties, I am moved by the Spirit to stillness, to humility, to gratitude.  What they did in those early morning hours – we can only salute in silence.  Wisdom requires nothing less.  The men and women who stood against the threat of fascism in that hour were indeed a great generation, if not the greatest.

Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice?  

Does she not call us to silence in honor of those men and women who liberated Europe?  Does she not call us to silence to honor those teachers who daily struggle against the greatest odds to raise up a generation of students abandoned by addicted parents?  Does she not call us to silent tears as we ponder that five-year-old boy attempting to comfort, to feed and diaper a one-month-old baby brother? 

Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice?  O Lord, give us the insight and fortitude to do the right.  Give us the courage to admit these searing stories into our hearts.  Give us the gumption to respond.

On this Trinity Sunday let us join in heart with the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: 

“I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.”

“I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, his eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to hearken to my need, the wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward; the word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.” Give us, O Lord, the nerve and care to DO SOMETHING.  For Christ’s sake.  For our sake.  And for theirs.  Amen.

Does Not Wisdom Not Call?

Year C, Trinity Sunday June 16, 2019

A Sermon Preached at
St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Canticle 2; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

We Can’t Go On Like This

Last Thursday Lawrence O’Donnell had a segment on Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  In it, Atticus Finch is the lawyer for the black defendant, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, however Judge Taylor knows that Tom is in fact innocent.  The judge implores Atticus to take the case. “In his small town in the nineteen thirties of Alabama, Atticus Finch is the lonely voice telling people we can’t go on like this.”  Jeff Daniels, portraying Finch’s address to the jury demands, “The sin, the crime against God, can’t go on like this.  We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding…We can’t go on like this, we know that.”  Confronting the racism of her southern society, Harper Lee in her novel raised the voice of many, “We can’t go on like this.”  “We can’t go on like this.  That is how most Americans feel in 2019.  It is a recurring feeling in American society…” [1]

Republican congressman Justin Amash, a modern-day Atticus Finch, has warned this nation, “We can’t go on like this.” — Lies.  Deception.  Nepotism.  In calling for an impeachment investigation at a recent townhall in his district, Congressman Amash, — born of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — is the lone voice of his tribe calling for decency and Truth.  As a nation, we can’t go on like this.  God, give us more Republicans like Justin Amash.  Though I would agree with Justin on little concerning policy, I salute him for his courage and his patriotism.   This Republican is God’s gift to our nation in this time.

The words might well be God’s — we can’t go on like this.  On Easter morning, the power of Love is again let loose in human history —  because we can’t go on like this.  God can’t go on like this.  From the Big Bang of creation, from Jeremiah thundering against the usurpations of a corrupt king, down to a miraculous birth in Bethlehem — through all ages, Grace has been God’s answer to the human plight, “We can’t go on like this.”  Truth will out.  Love will trump hate.  Grace trumps evil.  That’s Easter, folks.

So it is that Jesus imparts critical, final instructions to his little community:

The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.[2]

The Book of Acts of the Apostles is the continuation of this great love story.  Through the incredible happenings recorded in this first history of the Church, God’s intervention of Love continues.  “We can’t go on like this,” echoes down through our history — to which, Love is the answer.  In the most improbable ways.

This morning the lectionary gives us a rollicking good story of such improbable occurrences from Acts.  Few itinerant clergy have ever had the sort of excitement and misfortune as Paul and Silas.  They no sooner enter Phillippi when some addled, rag-a-muffin girl begins to follow them.  Exactly like a stray dog that once began to follow me home on the way from school — no matter what I did I could not shoo it away.  I didn’t want to walk too much further for fear the dog would become completely lost from whatever yard it had escaped.  But no matter how I yelled at it, or chased it, or stomped my feet, it wouldn’t leave.  I finally decided to stand still and ignore it.  The dog sniffed my pant leg and shoes, and after what seemed forever, it finally wandered off into the weeds.

So here is this young waif following Paul and Silas, all the time crying after them and making a nuisance of herself.  For days.  And days.  Yelling something about them being sent by the most high God.  Finally, Paul snaps.  In anger he wheels on her and casts out the evil spirit that had been troubling the girl.  Abruptly, it leaves her as she collapses to the ground. 

Her owners discover that she is now normal.  She’s of no use that they can no longer make money from the fortunes she tells. They drag Paul and Silas before the magistrate. This is certainly the point where no good deed goes unpunished.  The girl’s owner accuses Paul and Silas of being disturbers of the peace.  They are trouble makers.  One little exorcism, and what could possibly go wrong?  A lot, that’s what went wrong.  And next thing Paul and Silas are in chains and locked up in the furthermost reaches of the worst prison ever.

This place is a real hell hole.  It’s dark and dank, the smell of excrement, vomit and mold are overwhelming.  Definitely, not the Ritz.  Crowded with sweating, unwashed bodies it’s hot and humid.  Stifling.  Their new companions are less than desirable.  Downright argumentative.  Nasty wretches.  The worst thugs.  Within minutes their few possessions have been taken from them, and one prisoner has almost choked Silas to death.  Only the intervention of some huge guy speaking a language they didn’t understand had saved them. 

As they cowered in a corner, hoping to avoid notice, they eventually dozed off.  Terrible dreams.  Paul, dreamt of being back on board the little skiff that had landed them on the beach.  Gently rocking back and forth, when suddenly he came to.  Prisoners were shouting and running to and fro as the walls creaked and the floor buckled.  Silas grabbed his arm, drawing him near.  This was the end.  They commended their souls and bodies to God as the prison continued to rock.

Finally, the commotion subsided as shaking ceased.  Next, they heard the frantic guard come running into their midst.  They could barely see the sword he drew in the dim torch light. He raised it as if to impale himself, but before he could complete the fatal plunge, Paul had grabbed his arm.  The man pleaded with the two to let him die.  He would surely be held responsible for any escaped prisoners.  Death by torture would be far worse than a quick death here and now.  “You don’t know these people.”  He begged Paul and Silas to let him die.  Paul and Silas quickly looked around and a mental count revealed that, miraculously, all prisoners were accounted for.  “Don’t harm yourself, everyone’s here.  Several have injuries but no one’s missing.”

The jailer fell on his knees, grabbing Paul by the legs.  Paul and Silas began to testify to the goodness of God and gave God credit for their preservation.  Other prisoners began to gather around the two men and the jailer as Paul continued his witness.  Late into early morning Paul related the story of Jesus of Nazareth and how misguided men had killed him, but that the story had not ended there.  Out of the tragedy of a shameful death an incredible power had been let loose — a revolutionary Spirit of Love binding all together as one.  A new community. That is why Paul and Silas had not escaped and had pleaded with the others to remain.

That night the jailer took Paul and Silas to his house, where by candlelight he related to his wife, servants and children the wondrous events that had transpired.  He had the two men’s wounds cleansed and bandaged.  By this time all present were asking how they could be part of this miraculous family of Jesus’ followers.   On the spot, water was brought and all were baptized into a new way of life.  And that early morning the Church grew by just a little bit more.

Through gracious acts of love and self-sacrifice, the community of Jesus followers attracted more and more followers.  Soon, the entire town.  That all might be one!

And now, here we are.  This very same power of Love has been let loose down through the years and centuries – though we fail to recognize its origin.   This is the same Power that drove the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The same Power behind and within the idea of our modern democracies.  It is born of the idea that everyone counts and that we are all bound together – that all are sacred vessels of One Divine Love.  That we all might be one!  Yes, even with the created order – thrips and opossums.

Even when we lose the vision and our unity is shattered, Jesus prays in the wreckage that we all may be one.  Even when the operating ethic is me first and if anyone else survives it’s mere coincidence — Jesus yet prays that we all may be one.  Love is the answer.

My Quaker friend Anthony has a bumper sticker on his car that proclaims, “War is not the answer.”  The imp in me always wants to subvocalize, “Well, what’s the question?”  Actually, it’s about the answer.  Love is the answer — if anyone cares to know.  Love is the answer.

The other day on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff had a segment born of just such understanding.  It featured a Sacramento restauranteur who had become quite distressed over the several suicides of some of his colleagues.  This tragedy jolted his mind to the realization that the restaurant business is extremely stressful.  We can’t go on like this.  That was his realization.  We can’t go on like this.  And someone needs to care.  Love is the answer.  In my business we are family!

Amidst all the hubbub of his busy kitchen, he had not taken notice as to how his staff was coping.  He had no idea how his employees were doing.  Or not doing.

Who had had a girlfriend or a lover breakup, or an ill child?  Who was under financial stress or had received an eviction notice?  Who had come to work addicted or depressed?  He just didn’t know.  No one probably knew.  But these twenty-some people were his family.  He did care about them.  Love is the answer, but there was no time for that.  Not in a hectic kitchen or on a busy floor.

After talking with some psychologists and other helping professionals, he instituted a program among his employees called, “I’ve Got Your Back.”  Using a system of color-coded cards that folks drop into a box as part of their shift check-in, someone would know.  He now had an idea of how many had come to work sad or under stress.  How many were happy, or dealing with some really bad stuff? 

He also had some staff in each shift trained as peer counselors – people who were safe to talk to.  People to share even the worst news or feelings with.  These were employees trained to read body language, to sense who was not okay.  This man’s restaurant now, in fact, has begun to behave as a caring family.  Yes, Love is the answer.  You know that, just to hear his employees talk about what has changed at work.

This restaurant owner’s goal is to spread his program to restaurants all across the country.  But why only restaurants?  Why stop there?

It is my hope that we import this same gracious gift to House of Hope – San Bernardino.  We bring it to our staff.  Love is the answer, just as it was in that dank prison cell over two thousand years ago.  Born of deep subterranean tremors, Christ’s church will continue to grow in love.  Even on an intense recovery ward.

Love is the answer to the despair of “We can’t go on like this.” 

At St. Francis we gather weekly because we know that we can’t possibly go on like this.  No more.  The world can’t go on like this.  Our country can’t go on like this.  We gather to remember and to remind one another around this table that Love is the answer.  Self-giving, sacrificial love.  Love powerful enough to interrupt busy date books and impact checkbooks.  We come to remind one another that we don’t have to go on like this — a Power greater than ourselves has our back.  Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey – we’ve got your back.  That’s Jesus’ story and he’s sticking to it.  So are we.  Amen.

[1] Lawrence O’Donnell, “The Last Word,” MSNBC (May 30, 2019), Jeff Daniels plays Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

[2] John 17:20-26

Year C, Easter 7, June 2, 2019

A Sermon Preached at
St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Love Busting Out

We live in an age of discontinuity.  The old verities that once guided former generations are now up for grabs.  The traditional jobs that provided a lifetime of security are in short supply while the gig and sharing economy has for many been a race to the bottom.  No benefits.  No pension and no living wage.  Bill Clinton’s mantra for success – play by the rules and work hard these days does not necessarily guarantee much of anything.  If you are born poor, the overwhelming odds are that you will die poor.  Churches that once dominated the skylines in our large cities now stand mostly empty on Sunday mornings.

Change.   Change is the one constant.  And Love is the other constant.  Hear some of the final farewell words of our Lord from the gospel of John:

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love can be a soft mushy word.  Lots of feeling but little substance.

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.”  Certainly, it is essential that the Church, the Body of Christ be one of affection and deep concern for one another.  But too often, being human beings, we so invariably fall short of that.  Bickering and snark can rule and destroy the community.  Paul in Corinthians, complains about the strife that has consumed that community over speaking in “tongues.”  Strife consumed the early church over the inclusion of, and table fellowship with, the Gentiles, the so called “uncircumcised.” 

So, what does this Love look like?  It is something that goes beyond tribe and kin.  Let me tell you what this Love looks like

The other night we had at Pilgrim Place two of the great hymn writers of the church, Jim and Jean Strathdee.  They were our musicians at the church I served in the upper Mojave Desert, Ridgecrest United Methodist Church.  Yes, I was under Methodist management at the time.

As part of our vespers service that evening Jean told the story of her mother, Inez Stevens.  Early in their marriage Jean’s father was in the navy.  Lou was stationed near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it on December 7th, 1941.  For six months she didn’t know what had happened to her husband.  There was absolutely no word.  In the meantime, Inez was a teacher in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Many of her students were Japanese.  She loved those children like they were her own.  Many of those families were completely mortified at what their home country had done.  Their shame was more than they and their children could bear.  Yet, when those families were deported to concentration camps, Inez and Lou made arrangements to safe-keep the farms of two of those families during the length of their internment.  After the war, upon their return, she and her husband turned the farms back to them.  This was a gift freely given. 

Fast forward many years to the memorial service held for Inez.  One of the largest contingents at the service were her former Japanese students.  They had never forgotten that bond of affection and the righteous deed that Inez and Lou had done for their community.  By far the largest amount for a fund in her memory came from the Japanese community.  Friends, this is what Love looks like.

“I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” 

What does Love look like?  Paul says that this Love is patient and kind.  It does not insist upon its own way.

I have lately had to take St. Paul’s tutorial on this love.  On every trip to West Virginia.  Early on, our fellow, Scott, who takes care of the farm and now is organizing for House of Hope – Ohio Valley, cautioned me, “You know, John, a lot of these people here voted for Trump.”  And those of you who know me, know that I can be as rabid a partisan as any.  I’m definitely not a fan.

Let me tell you what I am learning about what this Love looks like.  On my part, it has meant a lot of listening.  It means deeply hearing the struggles of many working in an economy of low wages, part-time jobs and no health insurance.  No retirement package.  It means deeply hearing the struggles of families caught up in addiction to painkillers and meth.  It means hearing the despair of communities that have lost the next generation for lack of employment.

And in the end, I know exactly why they voted for Trump.  In my heart, I cannot blame them.  I understand.  Many feel as though this nation has abandoned and disrespected them.  Left them behind.  Let me tell you what Love looks like.  It means the willingness to feel, and take into our being this pain.  This is what I’m learning.  This is what that sort of Love looks like.

So, when I head out to West Virginia, when it comes to politics, I have to say that I’m agnostic.  The only important thing is the work we are doing to combat opioid addiction.  That’s it.  Nothing else counts.  I’m learning that that’s what Love looks like.  “Love one another.”  This is the listening we will have to do as we approach the 2020 election if we are going to have half a chance of making our democracy work.  We are going to have to find those areas where we can work together and let all else rest.  And I’ll try to be on my good behavior.

What does Love look like?  It looks a lot like the effort a group of us put in a week ago at the Cathedral Center.  Six of us represented St. Francis at the Episcopal Enterprises Academy.  For most of us, it meant getting up early, early to brave the 10 Freeway morning rush hour traffic.  It meant spending a good eight hours in class.  It meant homework.  It meant digging in and really working on what our mission might be here in San Bernardino and how we might financially support it with some entrepreneurial activity that would pay the bills but also benefit those we are called to serve.  That’s what Love looks like.  It can involve tedium and some stress.  It isn’t always fun.  It’s often hard work.  And sometimes even drudgery.

In the Inland Empire, in San Bernardino, as in West Virginia, many feel left behind in this new gig economy.  Blight and crime infest many neighborhoods.  Wages are stagnant and our homeless population grows.  Entire families are destitute on the streets.

The other Sunday, at the conclusion of coffee hour, a young fellow came into our midst.  He was a mute and could only with great difficulty understand what was spoken to him.  But we could communicate through writing.  I can imagine how embarrassing it must have been for him to ask for food for his family.  No, he didn’t want cash.  He only wished for someone to take him to Food for Less and buy the few items on his list his wife had given him.  I had no difficulty whatsoever understanding when he mouthed the words several times, “Thank you.”  Yes, Love looks like food.  This man is no longer a stranger.  He’s our brother in Christ.  That’s what love looks like.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

All the talk of the saints gathered up in the bosom of God — all the talk of God wiping away every tear – all the talk of making all things new – it all rings pretty shallow if folks don’t see any signs of newness and hope right here and now.  They’ve got to see and taste it.

As Mark Twain once quipped that would be a little easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a bit more redeemed.

Friends, you and I are, most likely the only copy of gospel Love most people will ever see.  As has been said, you and I are the hands and feet of Christ.  You and I are the mind of Christ.  You and I are the beating heart of the gospel Love we proclaim each and every Sunday.

Let us give thanks for those blessed exemplars like Inez and Lou Stevens who have paved the way, who have shown us what this Love looks like.  Let us learn for our own time the new duties and the sublime joys of this gospel Love.

This Sunday after church, I’ll be with Nan Self, a mentor and part of the campus ministry team that is responsible for me even being in the church.  Today Nan celebrates her ninetieth birthday.  She is another blessed disciple who has also left it all on the field.  Through her ministry over the years, the whole body of Christ has been built up and glorified.  Happy birthday, Nan.  Thanks be to God for your example of gospel Love.  Nan, you are what Love looks like. What does this Love look like?  Let me tell you what it looks like.  It looks like a community gathered around this altar remembering a teacher, a friend, a pioneer, who says to those assembled.  “This bread is my body broken for you.  This cup is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you and for all.  Broken and poured out for the knitting up of this broken world.  This one Lord left it all on the field.  And in his fellowship is our most exquisite joy and purpose.  Amen.

Year C, Easter 5, May 19, 2019

A Sermon Preached at
St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm148; Revelation 21:1-6; Luke 13:31-35

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney