Friday, March 28, 2014

May you be blessed with discomfort

We heard an extraordinary talk this afternoon at our Lenten Luncheon by Dr. Brian Wispelwey, professor of infectious diseases and among the leading clinicians treating patients with HIV/AIDS. He told us of progress but also setbacks in politics that have made it harder to stem the spread of the HIV virus. He also gave us a blessing from the Franciscans. Here it is:

May you be blessed with discomfort
At easy answers, narrow views, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart. 
May you be blessed with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. 
May you be blessed with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
So that you may be one with all who suffer. 
And may you be blessed with boldness
To encounter life in all its extremes and not to shrink back,
So that you may live out God’s sacred intention for your life. Amen.

It has been our privilege to host these luncheons and give you an opportunity to meet and hear some of those most extraordinary, creative – and yes, courageous – individuals from the University of Virginia. We’ve had professors Jim Galloway talking about climate change, Margaret Mohrmann talking about ethics, and last year, President Teresa Sullivan talking about creating the caring community – and some of her travails.

Our extraordinary guest this year is very much a part of this esteemed group. I met Dr. Brian Wispelwey a few years ago when he gave a lecture at what is called the “Mini-Med School,” which is a series of presentations about medicine, designed for lay people, given by clinicians and researchers at the UVA Med School.

In all candor, was not particularly looking forward to Dr Wispelwey’s. His topic: HIV/AIDS. It is a subject that I find difficult. I’ve lost quite a number of friends to HIV/AIDS.

My best friend from childhood, Brian, succumbed to the epidemic. His name and many others who I know are on the AIDS quilt.

So when Dr. Wispelwey began his presentation, I held my breath. And then I was amazed. I left that evening with enormous respect for him and the many researchers, doctors, nurses, social workers and health care professionals who are bringing hope and care to so many people. I left with a better understanding of the possibilities and the challenges.

And I left with hope.

Let me tell you a little about him.

As one writer has noted about Dr. Wispelwey, when other doctors and researchers were fleeing AIDS research in the 1980s, considering it career suicide, Dr. Wispelwey had an epiphany about how to approach the disease.

Dr. Wispelwey was among a handful of doctors at Harvard working on the first trials of the drug AZT. He brought that experience to UVA set up the first AIDS clinic in Central Virginia. In the first 15 years more than 500 people were treated. By the mid-90s, the clinic was considered among the best in the country.

He was the force behind a successful telemedicine program that has brought long-distance care to those suffering from the disease in eight Virginia prisons.

He has many publications to his name and is a renowned and inspiring teacher and professor of infectious diseases at the Medical School. He is also a man of great faith and courage.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pray for the Pope: Words from Gene Robinson

From my friend Gene Robinson, the retired bishop of New Hampshire...

The Daily Beast

A Gay Bishop’s Prayer for Francis
I love this new pope. I pray for him every day—for his ministry, his safety, and the daunting tasks that lay before him. I like all the connotations of “Francis,” the papal name he took, conjuring the saint whose humility, sympathy for the fragile condition of humankind, and his commitment to the poor still are both exemplary and legendary.

Perhaps most dramatic in that change of tone came in his question, after he was asked about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” Who indeed?  His immediate predecessors seemed not to hesitate in heaping judgment on homosexuals, women (especially those who made the excruciating decision to have an abortion), the divorced, and a vast array of people who fell short of the Vatican’s moral ideal (exempting at times, of course, members of the Church’s own clergy and hierarchy from those same ideals).But I am under no illusions that the journey ahead will be easy for this new pope, assuming that he continues to move in the directions he has thus far signaled.  And let’s be clear:  Pope Francis has, so far, only changed the tenor and tone of the voice of the Church he leads. That is no small thing, of course, when most Catholics and non-Catholics alike experienced his predecessor as aloof, hierarchical, and pretentious.
How odd that the leader of the Catholic Church would make big news, espousing an attitude promoted by Jesus of Nazareth himself. Jesus dramatically lived out the command to “judge not,” so why would it be such news when his followers (not to mention the Pope!) would follow in his humble, non-judgmental footsteps?!  It is only a newsworthy development because there had been little evidence of non-judgmental and loving acceptance by his predecessors.
In other words, so far, so good—but it is only a good beginning. The hard work lies ahead: There is more to the Christian enterprise than merely being more kind, more sympathetic.
One of my favorite old sayings goes like this:  “It’s not enough to pull drowning people out of a raging stream; we must walk back upstream, and see who is throwing them in in the first place!”  Charity (pulling people out of whatever raging stream they’re in, like poverty, disease, discrimination, hunger) is a great and cherished tradition. Nothing wrong with it—as far as it goes. In addition to rescue and charity work, people of faith—indeed all who long for justice—must also do the hard, systemic work of changing the systems that cause and trap people in demeaning, dehumanizing conditions in the first place.  Some of those oppressive systems are found in the Church itself! Not just the pope’s church, but my church and every religious community of believers.
If Pope Francis is to be believed in all the kindly pronouncements of his first year (and I do), his good tone should be followed by the tough work of changing the systems of belief, doctrine and religious practice which perpetuate the victimization of those he seeks to serve. It is a small step forward to say of homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?”  Yet the official teaching of the Catholic Church is that homosexuals are “intrinsically disordered.”  Not a lot of wriggle room in that, is there?  That judgment and teaching about LGBT people is the basis for discrimination, rejection and violence the world over. It is fine to verbally decry the ecclesial “circle the wagons” approach to the child sexual abuse exposed in the last two decades, but real commitment to the safety of vulnerable children will require the Church to take steps to value and protect those children over the careers and reputations of its abusing priests.  Positive comments about the contributions of women in and to the Church sound fine, but what is needed is a long, hard look at its entire approach to human sexuality and gender which still treats its female adherents as “less than.”
I do not mean to be uncharitable here, nor naive. Such systemic overhaul of an institution that has existed for the better part of two millennia cannot and will not happen overnight, if it is seriously tried at all. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Church may have the best chance at giving it a serious try since the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII.  But the Vatican Curia was there before he was elected pope, and it will be there long after his ministry ends.  There will be resistance to any change, much less the kind of change to which Francis’s humble ways point.  Over the years, we have learned what happens to people who are just too good for us!  But this pope seems to know that sacrifice is part of the deal of living with God.
I hope this pope keeps surprising and delighting us, sitting a boy in his papal chair and allegedly sneaking out of the Vatican at night to work with the homeless!  I hope he continues to show us the mind of Christ by his acts of humility and compassion. I pray that he persists in eschewing luxury and pretension. And I pray that he will stay close to the Son of God he is supposed to represent on earth, despite the institution’s every effort to tame their new leader and rob him of his pizazz.
The Catholic Church is a mighty big ship to turn around, even with a beautiful, charismatic, and inspiring captain at the helm. But God is good, and God will be at Francis’ side as he challenges the Church to live up to its lofty, humble, servant values. Like I said, I pray for him every day.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Church needs to repent

My sermon today is based on Matthew 4:1-11:

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         As you have gathered by now, we have entered the Holy season of Lent, a special time set aside by the Church for repentance, penitence and forgiveness.
         So I want to ask your forgiveness up front about this sermon. Forgive me: I want to ask you a loaded question:
         When you think of the word “Christian,” what words come to mind?
         You could call me a professional Christian, so I have something of a vested interested in how we are thought of.
         But, alas, I must admit that first words that come to my mind when I hear the word “Christian” are not always positive.
Some of the words that come to me about the word “Christian” are “narrow,” “judgmental,” “self-righteous” and “dogmatic.”
         Perhaps some of you might have similar reactions to the word Christian?
         I thought so.
         I often meet people, including in this church, who say they don’t want to be known as Christians, and often it is these negative connotations that are the reason.
You might say they love Christ, but Christianity, not so much.
         I bring this up on the First Sunday of Lent as a way of acknowledging that in this season of penitence, we have a great deal to be penitent about as a church.
         This Lent, let’s start our repentance with the Church asking for forgiveness.
This repentance needs to start in from our pulpits. And let that begin here with me.
         For this to be meaningful, our penitence should include substantive actions that change the negative images that Christianity evokes.
One of my priest friends, Lynell Walker, preached a sermon last Sunday that grabbed my attention on this point. I want to read you this paragraph from her sermon:

“What would it be like if when you heard the word ‘Christians’ you came up with: Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.” 

Yet we know it doesn’t quite look that way.The long history of Christianity is filled with inquisitions, Crusades, and the persecution of Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians.
Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery and all manner of prejudice and abuse.
         Sadly, persecutions and prejudices are not behind us, but are still with us.  I am especially mindful that in Uganda the government recently approved a law that makes it a criminal offense to be gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms, and a crime to hide someone who is gay or lesbian, punishable by long prison terms.
         Before we dismiss this as the backwardness of a developing nation, we need to know that it is American Christians who have been the driving force behind this law in Uganda.
         I am also mindful that it is Christians, who in the name of religious freedom, have pushed for a law in Arizona that would make it OK to discriminate against gay people.
People of all political stripes, left and right, urged its veto, and I am thankful that the governor of Arizona did so.
         What should especially concern us about these trends is that in the name of Christ, there are Christians who want to break the connections we have with each other as human beings by being able to discriminate against people they don’t like.
That should not be what Christianity is about.
And, forgive me, there is one more recent example, though subtle. Russians invading the Crimea is not only about geopolitics, it also has a religious undertow.
David Brooks wrote a fascinating column last week in the New York Times pointing out that Vladimir Putin ordered his regional governors to read books that assert the messianic role of the Russian Orthodox Church in restoring a Greater Russia.
Annexing Ukraine is viewed as part of that mission. Politics and religion are definitely mixed up in the new Russia.
I want to be very careful on this topic. I am not an expert, though let me mention that Lori and I spent a brief time in the Soviet Union as journalists.
We definitely learned that Russia is a complicated and contradictory culture.
As I say, I want to be careful on this topic, and the pulpit is not a good place for a lecture on geopolitics.
         And I especially share the concern of many about mixing politics with religion, but let’s also note that politics has been mixed up with religion for a very long time.  
So I let me suggest that in this penitential season, Christianity itself needs to repent of the political sins we have committed in the name of Christ.  
          I believe at the root of much of what is wrong with Christianity, and really all religions, is the quest for institutional power.
         The gospel lesson we hear today is a huge antidote – and warning to the institutions of religion. 
In the story, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led away from the refreshing waters of the River Jordan and into the desolation of the desert where he has this frightening vision of the Devil.
I know that as modern people we have a hard time with the concept of Satan or the Devil.
What the gospel writers are getting at is that evil is not just an abstract idea, but is a tangible force in the world.
And so Jesus is confronted by the force of evil, and he is tested by the greatest temptation of all: Power.
Jesus is dared to use power to turn stone into bread; to use power to stay unharmed if he falls from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem;
And then comes the biggest test of all: he is tempted to take power to rule every kingdom.
He can fix everything if he will take power, but to take power, he must stay in the clouds above us, and ultimately rob us of our freedom to be human.
The end will justify the means, or so the devil argues.
But Jesus rejects all of it.
Instead, he chooses to be here, with us, in the griminess of the world.
He chooses to be with us especially in those moments when we feel the most powerless.
He chooses to be with the refugees, not the oligarchs. He  their confronts power and shows it to be empty.
Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity by being with us in the Valley of Lent.
This rejection of power also invites us to make a finer distinction about how we view our involvement in the world, and our involvement politics.
Are we involved in the world to bring justice to the oppressed, relief to the captives, and peace to the nations?
Or do we seek power for our own comfort and for the comfort of our institutions?
As the gospel story will unfold this Lent, Jesus does one more thing: He invites us to walk out of the valley, as difficult as that walk might be.
He invites us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation; agents of love and kindness; agents of generosity and grace.
We are invited to be peacemakers.
The question for us is how we will walk the walk? How will we be known as Christians?

“Oh, I know them. They are a people utterly committed to forgiveness. They are about making this earth reflect God’s generosity. They see to it that grace rains on the just and the unjust. They are even in fervent prayer for those who mean us harm.”

         May it be so. Amen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

"Unbind him and let him go!" An invitation to join me for a Lenten quiet day and reflections on the Raising Lazarus from the Dead

Please join me on Saturday morning March 8 at St. Paul's for a Lenten Quiet Day. I will offer a series of reflections on the Gospel of John, and specifically on the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is the hinge point in John's gospel; it is the moment that leads to Golgotha and the Cross. 

I would also suggest that the story is key for not just understanding John's deeply mystical gospel, but it is also crucial to understanding the meaning of Jesus being God's son and the meaning of the Cross.

We will begin at 10 am with a brief Morning Prayer and a reading of the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. I will then offer a series of reflections and give you time to yourself for reflection, prayer and quiet (or private conversation). We will end at 1 pm (please bring your own lunch), but you are invited to continue your quiet reflection on your own as you feel able.

To give you a head start, here is the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead:

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The Raising of Lazarus from the dead

John 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to weep.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reflections on "Ashes-To-Go"

Jim Richardson, left; Peter Carey, right
I must admit I was a little nervous about the idea of vesting up in full Anglican regalia and standing on a street corner with a container of ashes. Yes, I even felt a little strange.

But yesterday, Peter Carey and I took part in a nationwide movement in the Episcopal Church of bringing the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the streets. Our crew put up a sandwich board on the sidewalk with a sign that said "Ashes-To-Go," and under it "Renew your faith this Ash Wednesday -- God loves everyone, no exceptions."

Our location: "The Corner," the sidewalk across from our church that is a major footpath to and fro the University of Virginia.

We stood out there in the morning smearing ashes on foreheads and blessing people. I was out there again in the afternoon, and by then people were lining up. The buzz about it traveled down the street and people came out of the restaurants to get their ashes. They stopped their cars. They told their friends, and more came. We even had a television crew that stopped and filmed a segment.

It was among the most remarkable Ash Wednesdays I've ever had, and among the most extraordinary and holiest days I have ever experienced as a priest.

Don't get me wrong. I adore the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It is among the most moving liturgies we have, and I find it deeply meaningful every year. I wish everyone would come.

But they don't.

So this Ash Wednesday, we brought Ash Wednesday to them. We took the ashes to the streets where the people are. We brought the blessing out of the church building and gave it away.

Isn't that what we are supposed to be about? Giving away blessings? Free of charge? Free of guilt? No strings attached?

Each time I gave the ashes to someone on the sidewalk, I said the traditional words: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But something inside me had me add a little more:  "And remember God loves you, will heal of you of all that hurts you, and may you know God's love all the days of your life."

Many, many stopped. Students on their way to class, or going to Starbucks. A delivery truck screeched to a halt and the driver got out and asked for ashes. Three young women joggers stopped, and one said (line of the day): "This is so practical."

I lost count at 80 for the day.

I know that some folks are critical of this idea of giving away the ashes. It sounds gimmicky, a little like fast food. But don't be too quick to judge. Holiness sometimes comes in small packages and in unexpected ways and unexpected places. Shouldn't we be about providing windows -- many windows -- into the faith?

Something inside me also changed as stood on the side walk, my thumb gray with ashes. As people stood in front of me, I could see that many were having a "moment." I could see it in their eyes. Some shed a tear, and others smiled. The idea of "prayer unceasing" became true for me. The Holy Spirit moves this way, doesn't she?

James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lenten reflections from St. Paul's

Once again, the people of St. Paul's have written reflections for the season of Lent, beginning with a reflection by Jane Rotch. The reflections are in a booklet available at St. Paul's, or on-line. We will be posting the reflections each day on a special blog which you can find HERE. May you have a blessed Lent. You can also find it by clicking on the icon at the left side of this page.

Ashes to ashes

Dear friends,
The Holy season of Lent begins in a few hours. For me, Lent begins when I burn the palms from last year's Palm Sunday. I did that on Sunday in between snow storms. Lori made this photo essay of the process. It takes a lot of palms to get a hand full of ashes. The smoke is greasy and smells like a brush fire (no surprise; palms are a type of grass).

I hope to see you at one of our Ash Wednesday services (7:30 am; 12:15 pm; 5:30 pm; and 7:30 pm). We will also be doing something we've never done before: Standing on the Corner with "Ashes to Go." We hope a few students and other passersby might find this as a way to renew their faith. We also will have some of our Stephen Minister there to talk with anyone who might feel the need to talk.

Here are the photos: