Just Who is Neighbor?

Upon arriving home, I noticed a flyer that slipped out of our local Claremont newspaper.  It concerned a proposed development to provide housing for the neediest amongst us.  Larkin Place is to be a supervised residence providing housing for the unhoused.  Of course, some of these folks will have problems with substance abuse.  Many will have various degrees of mental illnesses.  Some will be returning from incarceration.

When I saw this broadside, it was more like “Monsters on Maple Street.”  Something out of Rod Sterling’s dark imagination.  Or maybe “Zombie Apocalypse.”

Our peaceful community – read WHITE – would be invaded by the most distorted forms of humanity.  Druggies, the insane – insane slashers?? – an unreformed criminal element setting to prey upon our nearby school children.

Yes, right “next to kids’ soccer fields, Joslyn Senior Center, El Roble Intermediate School, a preschool…”  Right!  Zombie Apocalypse!

And whoever these dregs of human society might be, we CERTAINLY DON’T WANT THEM AS NEIGHBORS!  Not OUR neighbors.

Send them off to Pomona.  Send them off to L.A.  Just keep them out of Claremont.

This was a call to “Take Action.”  “Save Claremont!”

The project developer, Jamboree Housing Corporation, has a track record of successfully providing low-income housing to seniors, veterans and the homeless.  Their supervised “Permanent Supportive Housing” in Orange County is exemplary.  Their efforts have brought hope and ended homelessness with solutions that work.

They’ve held a number of community-wide meetings here in Claremont, but to no avail.  As the Good Book says, “Those with ears to hear, let them hear.”  Well, the shouters and nay-sayers seem to have heard not much of those presentations.  Still – Monsters on Elm Street.

You know, we all know, the paradigmatic story of neighbors Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel.  “Just then a lawyer (wouldn’t you know it – a lawyer — Had to be a lawyer!) stood up to test Jesus.”  Wanting the quick and easy answer to salvation.  So, what need he do to enter the Kingdom of God?

And when Jesus throws the question back at him, the man responds exactly as he had been taught in Sabbath School.  “Love God and love Neighbor.”

Right.  He gets an “A” from the rabbi.  So, what’s the problem?  Just do it.

Not wanting to look diminished in the eyes of the gathering crowd, the lawyer retorts, “Just who is neighbor?”

Whereupon Jesus launches into a story.  So famous that the hero, the “Good Samaritan” lives on in legend and as moral exemplar down through the ages.  Of course, it was the one who actually provided aid, who bandaged up the assaulted traveler and saw to his housing.

When folks protest the work of House of Hope to bring healing to those suffering addiction, to cries that we should locate somewhere else – anywhere else, this is my response.

These people are already here.  You see them living in tents on the streets, on the bike trail, in empty lots.  They’re already here.

Would you rather they be tucked safely in their beds at 9:00 o’clock at night in a supervised facility providing recovery, where they’re learning the work of sobriety?  Or would you rather encounter them in your living room at 2:00 in the morning, or in a parking lot on the wrong end of a gun? They’re already here.

People, these are your neighbors.  They’re here.  They’re hurting.  They’re desperate.  Your choice.

Here’s today’s update of Jesus’ parable:

A group of city fathers and mothers on a stroll through the Village came upon a most unsightly scene.  People sleeping on the sidewalks and in the parks.  Actually, they noticed the smell before they saw the tents and sleeping bags and cardboard lean-tos.

Some, long established residents, fretted, “This is going to bring down property values.  I worked hard for my home.  This riffraff is ruining my investment.  It’s unsightly.  It smells.  They smell.”  These fine citizens called the city council demanding action.

Another group, a couple on the city council, were likewise aghast.  “We aren’t going to get re-elected if these people swarm the city.  We’ve got to get rid of them.  Send the cops out to let them know in no uncertain terms that they’d better be gone by sundown.  OR ELSE.” 

“And forget that resolution the do-gooders are pushing for inclusionary housing.  We definitely are NOT for including THESE people.  Let’s pass an ordinance outlawing these deplorables and their shanties.”  “Oughta be a Law!”

Finally, a sanitation worker and some police officers came by.  “This is unsanitary.  These people are using the alley and bushes for their bathroom.  Their panhandling is driving away business.  The crime rate is on the rise.  Ship them off to Pomona.  Anywhere, but not here.  Definitely –“Oughta be a Law!”

Then along came some folks and when they saw the squalor, and listened to the pain and distress of those living on the sidewalks, their hearts were moved with pity.  They provided shelter at a local church.  When they realized that this was at best a temporary band-aid solution, they found an empty lot and convinced the owner to make it available for a more permanent solution – a solution that would address the underlying problems of addiction, mental illness, impoverishment, and flat-out bad luck.

They found a developer, drew up plans, talked and talked and talked to their neighbors.  They attended meeting after meeting.  They fought like hell to persuade the persuadable and rally allies.  And they still are. 

That’s because they recognized their neighbors as people like themselves.  People deserving a break, people deserving healing, people with the same dreams, the same hopes — the same right to respect and a decent livelihood.  Neighbors, in short.

As our nation is further polarized by recent political events and the rulings of our Supreme Court, the stress on national neighborliness is at the breaking poin — definitely at the fracture point.  About the only thing still holding us together, the only thing we can agree on, this past Fourth of July, was the fireworks — in communities where we could actually shoot them off without fear of burning the place down.

As the January 6th Committee delves further into the potential criminality of the Former Guy, half the country is either not paying attention, or has dismissed it all as “Fake News.”  Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.

So how do we put it back together?  America is presently a pretty smashed-up Humpty Dumpty.  Jon Mecham fears that if we break America, we won’t get it back.

If our nation is to survive, the definition of “neighbor” must be, in our global community, far more expansive than someone living up the street.  Or across town.

As Hitler was marshalling his forces to subdue Europe, magazine empire oligarch — publisher of Time-Life — Henry Luce wrote an editorial destined to shape American foreign policy for the next one hundred years, “The American Century.”

Therein he assumed that America, in a unipolar world, would be the essential neighbor keeping the peace and creating a world safe for global capitalism and democracy.

We should … “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and . . . exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”[1]

Over the years, it hasn’t worked out that way.  Through one intervention, one ruinous war after another, our misguided support of despots has only created more death than had we left well enough alone.  The gospel of Matthew’s “City on a Hill” has morphed into an “Armed Metropolis.”[2]   Such a neighbor!

The principles of this so called “liberal Internationalism,” as articulated by Woodrow Wilson, seem not to have made us any safer; only poorer and, under a despot like Trump, more isolated and feared.

Those promoting what has been called a more circumscribed foreign policy, the “Restrainers,” say it’s time for a lighter American footprint on the world’s stage.  The evidence has not supported a foreign policy of robust intervention.

Daniel Bessner writes, “Since the late Seventies, Americans have been suffering the negative consequences of empire—a militarized political culture, racism and xenophobia, police forces armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry, a bloated defense budget, and endless wars—without receiving much in return…”[3]  What Chambers Johnson calls, the “Sorrows of Empire.”[4]

The historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin estimates that we have racked up over twenty million deaths in Cold War conflicts – the “equivalent of 1,200 deaths a day for forty-five years.”[5]

As pundits, in the days following the celebration of our nation’s birth, ponder our American legacy and what to make of it all, Jon Mecham and Joe Scarborough sufficiently nailed it for me.  At least for the moment.

Joe, interviewing Jon, pondering the promise and hope of America, related a comment which answered his question, — on Twitter Joe had asked: “Even with all our flaws, why are you proud to be an American?”  One of his favorite replies was by a Joe Reynolds: “When you’re some small person with your back against the wall – a natural disaster, a political prisoner, a pandemic, you don’t say, ‘maybe India will help us, or maybe China.  You say maybe America will help.’  We don’t always live up to that, but we should.”

Joe then turned the question back to Jon who responded: “I’m proud to be an American for same reason [that] I’m proud to be a human being.  I know that I am capable of great evil, and great shadow and great darkness.  But I also know that there are days and moments when there’s light and life and love.  If we can just get there fifty-one percent of time, then we’re having a good day.

What would be your answer?  What’s your “good day?”

If we can come close to Jon’s humility, we just might become a good neighbor.  And we just might recognize and treat those around with the God-given respect they deserve.  On a good day — kneeling by the road’s edge at the side of the hungry, the diseased, the refugee — God’s very own.

The hymn by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness, to the tune Finlandia, says all that needs to be said about being a proud American in this new era, one who wishes to walk humbly with God and neighbor:[6]

“…this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover…”


[1]Henry Luce,quoted in Daniel Bessner, “What Comes after the American Century?” Harpers Magazine, July 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4][4] Chambers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).

[5] Daniel Bessner, op. cit.

[6]“This is My song,” United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1964).

July 10, 2022, 5 Pentecost

“Just Who is Neighbor?”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

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

For the Beauty of the Earth

Well, this Monday Jai and I head off to the East Coast to meet our future in-laws.  We have a couple of other stops on this excursion.  Washington, D.C. to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, if we can get tickets, and one of my favorite bookstores, Politics and Prose.  And that’s right next to two pretty good restaurants.

The other stop is New York City to see some plays, visit Strand Bookstore and some museums.

But, HOLD ON!  I read in the NY Times this week that Las Vegas-style gambling might be coming to New York City.  The paper announced that their legislators, in their infinite wisdom, had opened the path for three such casinos in the area of the city.  What could possibly go wrong?  Here’s the opening blurb:

“Before too long, New Yorkers and the millions of tourists who visit the city every year may have a new way to test their luck — and part with their money — amid the bright lights and skyscrapers of Midtowns…all the trappings of Las Vegas, down to the incessant ringing and fluorescent flashing of a sea of slot machines.”[1]

The part that got my attention was the bit: “—and part with their money.”  Only a simpleton would believe that so-called “luck” is involved.

Trust your luck?  Trust your luck???  NO!  Hold on to your billfold.  There is no luck.

As Christopher’s Tee-shirt says.  “The lottery is a tax on people who are stupid at math.”

Repeat after me: THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS.  THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS.  THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS.  (Unless, that is, it’s one of Trump’s mismanaged and looted Atlantic City casinos).  But like Rick Wilson says, “Everything Trump touches dies.”  Pssst – hope you saw the January 6th Committee hearing on Thursday late afternoon.

So, now, we’re clear about “luck.”  The house does not leave winning up to chance.  It always wins (the Trump caveat taken as an exception and its BK).

That’s not the inalterable certainty is not the brand of theology we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.  The Mystery we celebrate this Sunday is an expansive God.  As the SciFi author Octavia Butler proclaimed, “God is Change.”  It’s a love relationship writ large we affirm.

For that reason, we look for expansive metaphors to inform our hearts and minds.  However, language ultimately fails.   We speak in poetry and story.  Yes, I know, we have the Nicene Creed attempting to button it up.  However, if this attempt had succeeded, why is it that the Church went through a bunch more councils attempting to get it right. 

And had we believed that we’d succeeded in nailing it down — that God wouldn’t have been an actual God – it would have been an idol.  Pilot thought he’d nailed it down on Good Friday, but it was too elusive for Imperial Rome.

Our conceptions and intellectual constructs ARE NOT GOD.  That’s why Jesus spoke in parables.  Not in Greek syllogisms, which would not have saved anybody.  Tillich got it right.  The minute we say “God,” we have created in our mind THAT WHICH IS NOT GOD.  The best we can do is point and repeat the ancient story.

So, what is this Trinity?  Look about.  The Psalmist points to God’s handiwork. For the beauty of the earth.  Sing, o sing always. The writer of the Book of Proverbs instructs – handprint of the Holy is beheld in creation’s majesty.  The Divine is given witness to in THE GREAT UNFOLDING.

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” [2]


The beauty is infinite, only look at the snapshots from the James Webb Telescope.  Just spend a few moments in your backyard with a majestic monarch butterfly as it rides the air currents, flitting from one flower to another.

My friend Dick Bunce told me a marvelous story that captures the infinite mystery of this Triune expression of the Divine.  An understanding unfolding through the long-drawn-out experiences of the Holy by the People of the Word over the generations.

So, on with Dick’s story:

Upon high school graduation, a father asks his sons what his plans might be for going forward.  “What’s next for you, son?”  The lad hasn’t a clue.  Finally, he blurts out something like, “I guess I’m just going to have to trust God.”

“Well, let me know how that works out for you, responds his skeptical father.”

No sooner has the father left the son’s room than the boy hears God speaking.  God tells the boy to pack up clothes, get his car gassed up and drive to Las Vegas.

Now it’s the boy who is skeptical, but he does as God asks.  He packs up and heads out to Vegas with a full tank.

Upon coming to the main drag, God directs him to park the car at one of the casinos he passes.  Upon entering the main room, God directs the boy to go over to the cashier and empty out his wallet, buying as many chips as possible.

Then he is instructed to go over to the blackjack table and lay his bet down.  He receives his five cards and God tells him to discard the one that doesn’t fit an inside straight.  The boy objects, the odds being almost astronomical against making an inside straight; but he does as God instructs.  Amazed, he wins that hand upon completing the straight.

After following God’s prompting for the next hour or so, this young lad is sitting on top of almost a million dollars of chips.  At the next opportunity God tells him to bet the whole stack.

With his heart in his throat, the boy does as God tells him.  Upon receiving his cards, God instructs him to discard one and take the next.  As the other players and the dealer are finished with their bets, God tells the boy to begin to lay his hand down.  The boy turns over one card, then another, finally coming to the last card God had instructed him to take.

The young fellow, to his shock and surprise discovers that that last card completed a winning hand.  WOW!

WOW!!!  God exclaims.  “I’m as surprised as you.”  WOW!

All of which is to say, that all created order is the revelation of delightful surprise.  Contingency has no limits.  And that includes the Divine.

The only guarantee we get is that GOD IS CHANGE, and will, along with creation unfold in the most beautiful, delightful, awful and unexpected ways. 

This Trinity Sunday, we must concede that this formula is only our poor human attempt to wrap our hands around a mystery, to tell a story which can’t finally be explained. 

We know experiences of this mystery: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – in more traditional language: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But each of those words must be provisional as my friend Rosemary Radford Ruether would remind us.  Had we been fortunate enough to have had women at the Council of Nicaea, we wouldn’t have been burdened with this excessively male, patriarchal mentality – but that’s another sermon.  Fact is — the surprise is always in the last card.  UNTIL THE NEXT IS DEALT.

Several weeks ago, I came across a new paleontological article in the NY Times.  It was about an early limbed fish which struggled ashore out of the shallows.

The creative headline writer put it, “When the Troubles of the World Ambled From out of the Ooze.”  All life moves towards ever more complexity. This three-to-nine-foot-long tetrapod with both gills and nostrils on top of its head, came ashore 374 million years ago.  To escape a predator, to search for prey, to leave a drying lagoon? – we don’t know.[3]

Tiktaalik rosae was a wild impossibility that came ashore.  It was the surprise of that last card.  And from such, or a similar creature, came all reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals – and finally us – we, its descendants.  The glory and the liabilities, from Mozart to stratospheric gas prices and global warming.  For the beauty of the world, sing, o sing today.

Graduate student Ben Otoo, opines; “It’s a lot of galumphing, wriggling, slithering, huffing, flopping.”  The Late Devonian could be called the “flop” era.[4]

“Tiktaalik’s flat head, with two eyes resting on top like blueberries on a pancake, made it perfectly suited for gazing above the water…’it looks like a muppet,’” quipped another researcher, Yara Hardy.  All radical contingency.  That’s what makes up the splendor of creation – all moving to new intended and unintended configurations.  That freedom is the definition of divine love.

I close with a final story that comes out of the tragedy of the Vietnam War.  Most of you know that iconic photo of a young, naked girl in great anguish, running down a dirt village road amidst other fleeing refugees.

That Pulitzer-Prize-winning photo, the “napalm girl,” taken on June 8, 1972, fifty years ago, became the defining image of the horrors of that war. 

Thanks to the South Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, who dropped his camera, covered her with a blanket, and got her medical help – that story, fifty years later has unfolded in a beautiful, life-affirming way.

Ms. Phan Thi is not that terrified nine-year-old girl any longer but a stately, competent woman in her sixties.  The picture of her reclining on her sofa radiates poise — both an outward and an inner beauty of character.

“I tried to hide my scars under my clothes. I had horrific anxiety and depression. Children in school recoiled from me. I was a figure of pity to neighbors and, to some extent, my parents. As I got older, I feared that no one would ever love me.”[5]

“I helped establish a foundation and began traveling to war-torn countries to provide medical and psychological assistance to children victimized by war, offering, I hope, a sense of possibilities.”

She knew what it was growing up among so much death, seeing friends and family members die and seeing neighbors laying mangled in the street.  She knew utter devastation, losing her home and school.

It was only later, after defecting to Canada and supported by a husband and friends, that she began to blossom as she grew into her mission in life, her calling.

“I am grateful now for the power of that photograph of me as a 9-year-old, as I am of the journey I have taken as a person. My horror — which I barely remember — became universal. I’m proud that, in time, I have become a symbol of peace. It took me a long time to embrace that as a person. I can say, 50 years later, that I’m glad Nick captured that moment, even with all the difficulties that image created for me.”[6]

Nick’s picture so long ago, for Ms. Phan Thi, was the surprise of the last card, the WOW which would unfold into the majesty and glory of what would become her accomplished life.  She in her mission over the years is indeed, the Glory of God, a woman fully alive!

As James Baldwin says of the splendor of this unfolding universe, “For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock.”[7]

This marvelous and wondrous life is captured in one line of the hymn, “I Bind unto Myself Today,”

“I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life- giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.”

What is this Trinity of Divine Rapturous Love?   Take in the astonishing splendor of the unfolding handiwork of creation that fills our senses!  There’s your clue.  For the beauty of the earth — Sing, o sing today.  Amen.

[1] Nicole Hong, “If New York City Gets Las Vegas-style Casinos, What Else Will It Get?” New York Times, June 4, 2022.

[2][2] Proverbs 8:22 ff., New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Sabrina Imbler, “Is Four-Footed Fish to Blame for World’s Woes? – When Trouble Ambled Out of the Ooze, New York Times, April 30, 2022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] By Kim Phuc Phan Thi, “It’s Been Fifty Years.  I am Not ‘Napalm Girl’ Anymore,” New York Times, June 6, 2022.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket “Nothing Personal” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 393.

June 12, 2022, Trinity Sunday

“For the Beauty of the Earth”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

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

No Barriers

One of the ads I so like is from a sponsor of the PBS Nightly News.  It is from an old alma mater, California State University Long Beach.  Filmed at a graduation ceremony, students come processing by a row of huge block letters proclaiming, “Go Beach.”  As students exit the ceremony in their black academic gowns and mortarboards, one exuberant young woman does a twirl on one foot as she’s passing the camera.  Her face is radiant, all aglow.  Her gown broadly swirling with the movement.  The motto then flashes across the screen: “N0 BARRIERS.”  You just have to know that this young lady is off to an expansive future.  No barriers, indeed!

Except, you have to study and keep your GPA up.  That pesky little detail.  For screw-ups, I discovered, that was a major barrier.  However, after a couple of years in the Army as a medic, I had finally figured how to overcome that one, final impediment, and finally completed my degree at Cal State LA.

But I still tear up when I see that promo.  NO BARRIERS and that wonderful, young woman.  So much excitement ahead for her.

That’s the message of Pentecost.  With the Spirit busting loose.  With quiet reverence.  Today we celebrate the birthday of the church.

We Episcopalians have always been chary of too much exuberance in worship.  It is not our way.

I remember back in high school my girlfriend Barbara had been asked by her close friend, to attend Glenda’s church one Sunday afternoon.  As boyfriend and protector, I was conscripted to accompany her.  I didn’t know much about the Foursquare Church, only that their worship was more enthusiastic than that of the staid Presbyterian church Barbara and I attended.

To say “more enthusiastic” was an understatement.  People were standing and murmuring, “Yes Jesus, Yes, Jesus.”  Some were in the aisles loudly testifying or speaking in tongues.

Was I ever out of my comfort zone!  If this was the rush of the Spirit – I’m sorry, but I’ll take the alternating Sunday.  “When’s this over?” I whispered in Barbara’s ear.

Mercifully, there was some sort of intermission and it was announced that the main service was over.  We quietly slid out the side door.

It has been said that it is through our imagination that the Spirit has the best chance of getting ahold of us.  Through a moment of inspiration.

Lately, I’ve had a couple of hymns that have accompanied me through my days as they weave in and out of various moments. 

I’m fond of saying that if you don’t have a song in your heart on waking, your day’s already in trouble.  I believe it.

Brian Doyle in A Book of Uncommon Prayer, writes: 

“Because you know and I know that a song can save your life.  We know that and we don’t say it much, but it’s true.  When you are dark and despairing a song comes and makes you weep as you think yes yes yes.”[1]

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe bore up the spirits of those in that great struggle to preserve our union and end slavery.

Work songs kept gandy dancers in sync as they hammered in time to straighten the rails of this nation.  Lifted their spirits and helped pass the toil of the day.

Union songs forged bonds of solidarity among those struggling for labor justice.

And when President Obama broke into “Amazing Grace” in his rich baritone at the close of his eulogy for The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, killed in yet another mass shooting at a Charleston church – that hymn alone redeemed the day.

To paraphrase Brian’s closing:  If today, if haunted by a song that slid out of the radio, or out of memory, and lit up your heart, we pray in thanks that there are such fraught wild holy moments as this.  And so:  amen.

These songs bind us together.  That is the message of Pentecost.  It reunites where the Tower of Babel separated – each speaking a language the other didn’t understand.

Keri L. Day, Princeton professor of Constructive Theology and Ethics, reflects on why, as a young girl, she so loved the telling of the story in the Book of Acts. “’And they were gathered together in one accord.’ That line communicated what was held as sacred within our community: our togetherness, our unbreakable bond of living with and loving each other. We were in one accord. The joy of community was the gift of the Spirit.”[2]

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia.   Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”[3]

This is the miracle of unity, of understanding.

Now, if your wont is to stand in the aisle and shout, to each their own.  But the authentic miracle of Pentecost will lead you from that aisle into the city to include the poor and the dissolute.  Into the cancer ward and onto the union picket line.  Otherwise, what you thought to be a long-distance call was only a local.  As close as your own ego.

My dearly departed friend George Regas frequently told the story of a man in an Episcopal Church who, in the middle of the sermon shouted out, “Amen.  Amen.”  Folks looked around to see who was causing the commotion, but soon didn’t pay him any further mind.  A little while later he stood up and loudly encouraged the priest, shouting, “Preach it, brother.  Preach it.”  At which point an usher stepped beside him, and whispered, urging him to be quiet.  After the third outburst, the usher admonished him more sternly that he’d have to restrain himself, to which the man responded that he couldn’t help it.  He had the Spirit.  “Well, you certainly didn’t get it here,” scolded the usher.

In our own, quiet way, we Episcopalians pray, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire.”

And within the fertile recesses of imagination and of the heart — yes, even the “Frozen Chosen” are moved to deeds of service and sacrifice.

It was, in fact the Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena, who went to the assembly point at the Santa Anita Race Track, where Japanese citizens were rounded up to be sent off to far-away concentration camps.  This was in 1942, that their priest, Frank Scott, stood in front of trains to protest the removal of Japanese-Americans, American citizens, for God’s sake, hauled off to internment camps during World War II.

Not different in kind from what the Nazis were doing in Germany.  And all quite legal, to be sure.  There was a government order.

This, in a day when proper Episcopal priests from a well-to-do, prominent Pasadena parish did not do such unseemly things.  Moved by the Holy Spirit, that’s exactly what Fr. Frank did!  Moved by the Spirit, he was.

These were all Americans – we are all Americans.  No barriers, No separation.  We are one in the Spirit.  That’s what Fr. Frank stood for.

The Spirit in service of unity brings courageous acts of aid on behalf of others.  This about the one and true Spirit, not pious bliz-blaz. Or religious hype.  Some might call it heroism.

Greater love hath no one than to lay down her life for another.  That’s what Amerie Jo Garza did in her last moments, calling 911 in an attempt to save her classmates who were still alive as a shooter sprayed her classroom with automatic fire from a high-powered weapon of war.  On May 24th just days away from when Amarie anticipated beginning her summer vacation.

“On Tuesday, the Girl Scouts announced that they posthumously awarded her one of its highest honors for risking, and ultimately giving, her life to save others.”[4]

“The organization gave 10-year-old Garza the Bronze Cross, which is awarded ‘for saving or attempting to save life at the risk of the Girl Scout’s own life.’” [5]

This “spunky” little girl, so full of life taken from us too soon.  And how shall we honor her memory?  What is asked of us, the living?

As consciousness slipped and darkness enfolded her, I wonder what song, if any, might have slipped into her fading awareness, what song might have escorted her home to God. 

I’m willing to bet that the song which greeted her arrival had to have been “For All the Saints, Who from Their Labors Rest.” 

No Barriers, Amerie Jo Garza.  No Barriers.   Amen.

[1] Brian Doyle, A Book of Uncommon Prayer (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2014, 58.

[2] Keri L. Day, “We Need a Pentecost,” Christian Century, May 3, 2018.

[3] Acts 2:7-11, NRSV.

[4] Li Cohen, “Girl Scouts Posthumously Award Amarie Jo Garza for Doing ‘All She Could’ to Save Classmates, Teachers During Uvalde Shooting,’ CBS News, June 1, 2022.

[5] Ibid.

June 5, 2022, Day of Pentecost

“No Barriers”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21;
John 14:8-17

I Have Heard of Your Faith

This tumultuous week-that-was began inauspiciously.  I opened the computer e-mail on Sunday evening to check it there were any pressing demands on my time, my money or my brain power.  What I found was not some scam from a Nigerian prince with millions of looted wealth wanting to stash it in my bank account.  No not that tired, old ruse – but the person or persons generating this scam were ensconced in Ireland.  This was a ruse by Irish leprechauns. 

Details could be had by clicking on a tab labeled: “Remittance Advice.”  Regards.  Yeah, regards, sucker if you click on that.  The great sucking sound you hear won’t be the American jobs being siphoned off to Mexico that Ross Perot feared.  No, it will be your hard-earned cash being vacuumed out of your bank account, along with your data and passwords being slurped out of your computer.

As the week progressed, it turned disastrous.  We all discovered to our horror, the tragic events of another mass school shooting — a far more deadly scam, that of the NRA and the gun lobby.  Abetted by their willing political accomplices who prostitute themselves for the almighty campaign dollar.

This was pronounced the work of a “loner.”  FALSE!  This young man had plenty of accomplices – the self-serving idiots who mouth the idiocy: “It’s not guns that kill people.  It’s people who kill people.”  It’s politicians who put guns as a higher priority than our children.  And those who vote for them.  No, this murderer was NOT a loner.  There were others.

These are the fifty Republicans who, in lock-step with Mitch McConnell, have blocked even the most tepid sensible gun safety laws.  Throw in a batch of corrupt Democrats on the payroll of this death machinery, and nothing gets done. 

Today, to a person, these esteemed representatives even blocked a bill to address domestic terrorism.  Have another shot and pass the ammunition (oops, poor choice of words).  Gotta support your local, neighborhood terrorist.  He’s one of us.

Columbine, Las Vegas, Tree of Life Synagogue, Sandy Hook, El Paso, Buffalo — The list goes on over the decades until we have become inured to the carnage.  We’re numbed out.  I never again want to hear some inane, insipid words about “thoughts and prayers.”  That’s just a bunch of pious bull – simpering NRA apologetics.

After each mass shooting, especially in schools, the cry goes up, “Surely they will do something now.”  Authorities couldn’t even manage to send in police on the scene, gathered in the school hallway outside the besieged classrooms – within earshot of those desperate 911 pleas from students in those classrooms.  

“There are still eight of us alive.  Please send in the police now!”  Nothing.  Nothing, as their classmates were gunned down and the classroom floor was awash in blood.  As the survivors bled out.  Over an hour and…Nothing.

We are scolded for raising this as a policy issue.  For heaven’s sake we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy.  Folks, it’s politics that brought us this tragedy.  The NRA and their accomplices have already politicized this issue.  To deadly effect. 

If you consider other nations demographically similar to ours – we don’t see Canadians massacring one another wholesale on a weekly basis.  We don’t see this level of violence in virtually any advanced European nation.  NOT ALL OF THEM ADDED UP TOGETHER!

This doesn’t have to be.

Folks, WE ARE NOT WITHOUT RESOURCES TO ACT.  We celebrate one of the signal events in the Christian Story.  No not Memorial Day, though we know that’s upon us by all the mattress sales – 40 percent off, lay away financing.  Free delivery, and we’ll take away your old one.  FREE!  All major credit cards accepted.  Open till 9:00 tonight.  Almost the same ad copy gun stores are using this weekend.

No, not that holiday.  This Sunday we celebrate Ascension Day.  It is as if LOVE exploded and has been let loose throughout the world.  Jesus, as a physical presence, is taken from us that the Risen Christ might seep into every nook and cranny.  Into every heart and mind.  Empowering compassion, giving courage – yes, political courage, to do the right thing by our kids.  By ourselves.

In groups of the Christ-infected followers, spontaneous works of mercy and daring acts of sacrifice and resistance erupt.  It is in such a group at Ephesus that St. Paul finds hope and joyful fellowship.  Not just potlucks, but actual, daring works of mercy and solidarity.

That is the work of the spirit of the living Christ, the reality that transcends the historical Jesus.  He’s gone, but Spirit-empowered, the church is launched.

As Luke tells the story, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…”

Now, don’t get caught up in the strange particulars of this story.  It’s how folks remembered the events fifty or so years later.  It’s how folks told of such marvelous and incomprehensible events.  The bottom line is:  He’s gone.  But he’s not.

Why are you still staring up into the clouds?  THERE’S WORK TO DO.

He’s no longer with us, but let loose in the cosmos – blessing, empowering, comforting, encouraging those who gather in his name.  He’s present in your hands and heart.  In your minds and in your billfolds.  Wherever you gather around his altar to remember him.

Paul finds such a group of the Christ-infected in Ephesus.  He, himself, will travel throughout much of the Roman empire forming other such fellowships.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” 

“I have heard of your faith.”  Not only heard, but seen. 

As I witnessed clumps and knots of grieving families comforting one another this evening, all that remains is the faith that, in love, somehow, we will get through this together.  That is Christ let loose in the valley of the deep shadow of death.  Faith giving strength to hold one another up, to grieve, to pray together.

After the 2020 election, with Dr. Fauci no longer muzzled and under wraps, no longer under the censorious scowl of the Former Guy, we talked about “free-range Fauci.”   Fauci let loose.  Well, what we now celebrate on Ascension Sunday is “free-range Jesus.”  The reality of Love unleashed upon creation, down through the ages, present most especially in hearts and imaginations of those who love him.

We had barely finished burying the victims of Buffalo when the catastrophe of Uvalde was upon us.  One of stories from the Buffalo funerals captured my heart – that of “Mayor Kat,” Katherine Massey who was laid to rest only a Tuesday ago.

Mayor Kat was not prone to sit by idly and bemoan the state of affairs.  Sick and tired of the overgrown lot on her street – state property, she had had it with excuses and inaction.

So, she sent a letter to the governor on letterhead of the “Cherry Street Block Club,” which did result in action.  The lot was quickly cleaned up.  Now, Massey was the only one who knew who wrote that letter.  It was her own invention.  And that invented club consisted of one sole member – her.

It was that sort of fearless activism which was her hallmark.  Her congressman noted at her funeral, “She was the mayor in every neighborhood that she lived in.”  Katherine Massey was one of ten shoppers taken from the Buffalo community by another teenage boy with an assault rifle.

She was an outrageously creative activist.  To raise health awareness among students in her local neighborhood school, she showed up in a broccoli costume which she accessorized with leopard gloves and sunglasses to perform a rap song she wrote.  She was the hit at the school’s assembly.[1]  It was probably enough to have even gotten “W” to eat his broccoli.

“She considered herself a single parent with 35,000 adopted children attending Buffalo’s public schools.”[2]

She fulminated, through letters to the editor, against an escalating culture of gun violence in her city.  That is the sense of mission and strength Mayor Kat drew from her family of faith at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. 

Now, the whole world has heard of her faith and the faith of her community in Christ.

Mayor Kat was a splinter of that glory, a manifestation of the flesh and blood risen Jesus.  Free Range, indeed.  She is an incarnation of that Ascended Love, a Holy Busybody, God bless her.

As we mourn our losses, hold one another up, might we continue to take strength in the living Christ in our midst.   The Christ in the faces of one another as we gather around this table in his precious memory.  Not for solace only, but for strength.  The strength that nurtured and empowered Mayor Kat.  The strength that will get us all through this horrible week. Yes, we have heard of your faith.

“In our Eucharistic meal we are pulled into immense love and joy for such constant and unearned grace…that explains the joyous character with which we celebrate this meal.”[3]

That is what sustains me — to see the love in the faces of those who weekly gather here at the altar of Christ.  Your faithfulness continues to give me hope.  Yes, I have seen and heard of the faith of the saints gathered here in this northern outpost of Christ in San Bernardino.  For us all at St. Francis, I say, “Thanks be to God.”  Amen.

[1] “Buffalo says Goodbye to ‘Mayor Kat,’” Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Rohr, Yes and No: Daily Meditations (Cincinnati, Ohio:  Franciscan Media, 2013), 228.

May 29, 2022, Ascension Sunday

“I Have Heard of Your Faith”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23;
Luke 24:44-53

What A Difference a Day Makes

On any given day one’s prospects can change radically.  Any day can be the one that makes all the difference for the rest of one’s life. 

Dinah Washington sang it so well:

“What a difference a day makes
Twenty-four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Where there used to be rain”[1]

“What a difference a day makes” rose to the top of the pop charts in 1959 and won Dinah Washington, with her rich, silky rendition, a Grammy.  Its popularity testifies to that truism, a day, any day, can make a difference – possibly, a huge difference.

A monster asteroid can ruin your entire day.  Ask the dinosaurs.  A recent discovery seems to have revealed the exact day they began their extinction.[2]  Paleontologists in North Dakota have found the remains of a dinosaur leg that has been preserved almost perfectly intact, even with mummified skin attached. This along with a jumble of other life buried in the wall of water and mud that swept across the shore of their habitat, burying all in an instant.

Scientists believe that it was killed by a massive tsunami on the day the asteroid struck Chicxulub in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  In an instant a mile-high tsunami rushed outwards roiling planetary oceans.  This wave swept up the inland sea that once divided the American continent, , sweeping away all in its path.  All within minutes of the impact.

Much of the impact crater along with the asteroid itself was vaporized and began to fall back to the earth as small glass spherules.  “Those fish with the spherules in their gills, they’re an absolute calling card for the asteroid.”[3]

Chemical analyses of several of the spherules intombed in amber bear the same signature of the rock native to Chicxulub and the asteroid itself.  All this in a twenty-four-hour day.  A terrible, horrible, no good very bad day for planet earth.

Winds as if from a blast furnace charred forest land and thick clouds covered much of the planet for a decade or two, killing off most plant life.  Sulphureous gasses and rain absorbed by the oceans killed much of the sea life.  The few remaining dinosaurs had nothing to eat and their demise was assured within days.  At that point the dinner bell for T. Rex and other carnivores was un-rung.  They, too, starved.  What a difference a day makes, indeed. 

But in the aftermath, little burrowing and hibernating mammals and other small creatures survived the cataclysm.  Seeds and spores of previous plant life soon germinated and within a century life found a way back.

We saw that scenario playout after Mount St. Helens erupted.  Another horrific day.  But a day in which all that had looked like the landscape of the moon was within years renewed in a carpet of green.  In the twinkling of an eye as far as geological time goes.  God works wonders to preform.

In the twinkling of the mind’s eye comes the revelation of a new creation.  No, nothing to do with dead fish and dinosaurs or asteroids.  The writer has a very different reality in mind – a day that will make an entirely new difference.

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

For John the Revelator, what, indeed, a difference a day made as he was translated to a seventh heaven to behold the mind of God.

Meanwhile, for us lowly mortals, we plod along, subject to time and chance.  While we have no control over what extraterrestrial bodies may be careening towards earth, in some matters we have a choice.  However, all is being made new even when we’re not in control.  Asteroids are beyond my pay grade.

Don’t discount chance and opportunity.  One day our youngest son got on the internet machine and arranged a date with a wonderful, young woman.  And soon we will be headed off to meet our future in-laws.  She is that beautiful object of our son’s heart of which Dinah Washington croons:

My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I’m a part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine

Yeah, they are smitten and we delight in the joy they have in one another.  What a difference a day makes!  A new heaven and a new earth.  Gift of God.

Lately, events in Ukraine have caused my mind to dwell on things Russian.  One of the books I read as a young fellow after having discovered the pleasures of good literature was Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Written in 1962, it was an extraordinary publishing event in the Soviet Union, revealing the massive injustices of Josef Stalin.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had spent time in the Soviet chain of Gulags in Siberia at hard labor himself.  In this novel, he writes of one innocent prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, sentenced to hard labor as a spy for having been captured by the Germans in WW II.

This short novel unfolds in the span of one single day of this prisoner, one day of a ten-year sentence.  Though set in a labor camp, the work ends on a hopeful note.  In that given day, he has secured sufficient food to sustain life.  He has kept his integrity in his labor.  He has acted as a decent human being to his fellow prisoners, and he has said his prayers to God.  The narrator ends the story, noting that Shukhov has lived one of the 3,653 days of his sentence.

What a difference a day makes – in the life of this fictional character, who could be a stand-in for “Everyman.”  And while we would not readily equate the terrors of one of Stalin’s gulags with “a new heaven and a new earth,” yet even in those dire circumstances was the possibility of a life lived with integrity.

Such a life is the unfolding of Solzhenitsyn’s spirituality, which grew out of the heart, not out of church dogma.  Though the spirituality of the Old Believer’s Russian Orthodox tradition permeates his writings, his is a deeper version.  One said to being born out of the “belly of the whale” during those years of imprisonment in Siberia.  As is any true spirituality born, out of our own life experiences.  And any twenty-four-hour day can make all the difference.

Here is the encapsulation of Solzhenitsyn’s belief “…the only church remaining was that church which, in accordance with the Scriptures, lay within the heart.”[4]

“Your soul, which formerly was dry now ripens from suffering.  And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.  Those close to you in spirit surround you in slavery. And how many of us come to realize:  It is particularly in slavery that for the first time we have learned to recognize genuine friendship…”[5]

What a difference a day can make in the belly of the whale, in a Soviet gulag prison camp.  Even the unfolding of a “New Heaven and a New Earth.”  Maybe Ivan’s Twenty-four little hours didn’t bring the sun and the flowers but it brought the choice to be a decent human being.  As they do to us all.  Gift of God.

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” the wise, old Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry counsels the young Harry Potter at a moment of self-doubt.  A difference that any single moment of a day can make.

Community is a blessing we can choose, and what a difference that day made in the lives of those who gathered daily to prepare meals for those on the street. 

Peter, in Acts chose to sup with the uncircumcised and it made all the difference for the church. 

One day, for Amy Frykholm, Bill didn’t show up at the church, so “we went to find him.”[6]  His absence made all the difference for a small church fellowship.

“’How are you related to this man?’ the EMT asked me as he put Bill in the back of the ambulance. I climbed in after them. There was no good answer. Friend? Not really. Colleague? Coworker? He was more than an acquaintance. ‘He . . . we work together I finally said.’

“Bill was the front-walk shoveler, meat-loaf maker, coffee brewer, Saturday night grumpster-in-chief at my church. Every time I arrived at the church, he was busy doing something. He filled the steam-table pans for our community meal. He made sure the stairs were clear of snow. He helped install the handicap ramp. He cleaned the bathroom.

“When I first met him, he showed me how to light the stove for the community meal, smelling like stale beer and unwashed clothes. He knew where everything was stored. He complained about everyone and everything—about the people who stood too long next to the coffee machine, who left their cigarette butts on the front porch, who loitered in the hallway, who talked too much, or who were so quiet they must be crazy.

“One spring, one of our regular guests at the meal died of liver failure. Kenny’s belly was swollen, and he lost his mind, screaming with terrible tremors, as if accumulated ghosts were tormenting him. He vomited and had diarrhea until he was unable to eat at all. His ordeal went on for weeks, and at last he died.

“After that, Bill seemed more withdrawn as he went about his tasks. Then one day, he disappeared. He did not come to the meal. We arrived at church to find the snow had not been shoveled. We didn’t know where he had gone

“After a few days, George could stand it no longer, so he went to look for Bill. He searched every apartment, knocked on every door, until he found Bill, barely conscious in the back of a trailer where he had gone to drink himself to death. As far as I could tell, his reasoning was something like, ‘I don’t want to die like Kenny.  If it is too hard to stop drinking, and liver poisoning is too slow, I am just going to kill myself quickly.’

Bill was taken to the hospital and proved to be a most uncompliant and difficult patient.  One night, delirious, he pulled out all his IV lines, monitors and catheter.  The next morning Amy and some friends gathered at Bill’s bed, taking turns holding a hand, shedding a tear or two. Amy continues:

“We sat around Bill as we waited for the urologist to come to fix Bill’s catheter. We talked to him through the sedation. “I want to go home,” he said.

“Bill, these machines are keeping you alive. Staying here is keeping you alive.”

“There was a pause. Finally, I said, ‘Bill, do you want to go home to die?’

“’No,’ he said. ’I want a Pepsi.’

“As we waited for a doctor to speak with us, there was plenty of time to contemplate

“Bill and I shared labor and days. We shared space and coffee mugs. Who is this man to you? He makes coffee for me. Pretty good coffee, too. Somehow, over the space of years, our relation had become a given. The days had been like stitches—some well made, some poorly made—but they had created a mantle that we would now have to assume. I belonged to Bill. Bill belonged to me. And now, I—we—were going to make a decision that only family members typically make. We were going to do this without labels or prescribed roles.

“We spent the day contemplating the Bill we had known, who he was, what he loved, and what he wanted from life. As we talked about “our” Bill, we also gradually saw that he belonged to something bigger, something greater than us. We wordlessly came to act as if we knew that he was going into that something, and it was our job to walk him to the door. We did not claim to know what was on the other side. We had no shared language, took no comfort, told ourselves no stories.

“One word kept coming up for Bill: home. At first, we thought he meant his apartment. We talked about perhaps transporting him there, caring for him there. But gradually, the word took another meaning, one that claimed a place we both knew and did not know. The only way that we could move forward was to believe and to act as if this other place, this home, was love.

“We stood around his bed. ‘The Broncos are going to be in the Super Bowl,’ someone in our group said.

“’Good,’ Bill grunted.

“’Bill,’ I said. ‘We are working on bringing you home.’

“’Good,’ he said again.

We each held his hand. The staff told us later that he was peaceful that night.  We started making arrangements with hospice the next morning, but the nurse on duty called early in the afternoon.

“’He is leaving fast,’ she said.  By the time George arrived, [Bill] was gone.

Bill and his church family, in one brief, precious day, entered a New Heaven and a New Earth.  What a difference a day makes when marinated in Gospel Goodness.  A New Heaven and A New Earth, without fanfare and with little note.  Except to those blessed to live it.  Amen.

[1] Originally written in Spanish by Maria Grever, a Mexican songwriter in 1939, Stanley Adams adapted it in English, 1934.

[2] Dave Kindy, “Discoveries Shed New Light on the Day the Dinosaurs Died,” Washington Post, May 9, 2022.  The PBS program is available on NOVA, “Dinosaur Apocalypse.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] A. Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leaders, p. 77.  From Donald Roy, “Solzhenitsyn’s Religious Teaching,” Christendom Media, Vol. 4, No. 7.

[5] Roy, op. cit.

[6] Amy Frykholm, “A Stitched-Together Community, Christian Century, February 28, 2018.

May 15, 2022, Easter 5

“What A Difference a Day Makes”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6;
John 13:31-35