Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Come and See*

The Rev. John Buehrens, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, married to an Episcopal priest, tells the story of his daughters, Erica and Mary, being exposed to both traditions.

At a certain point he writes they were told, “This year you can go to either Sunday school. You choose, but you can’t stay home.” ...When Erica was two and a half, we found her one day with a towel draped down her back like a vestment, holding a hymnal (upside down), and marching around the couch singing “The Hokie Pokie.” Obviously, an Episcopalian!

...Mary, on the other hand, goes to All Soul’s, [UU]. She loved her Sunday school class this year, which studied stories from Genesis and Exodus—putting Jacob and Rachel on trial in the matter of Esua’s birthright, and conducting a protest march against Moses and Aaron, with signs reading “Meat, not Manna!” “Impeach Moses!” and “back to Egypt.” When she grows up, Mary says, she might like to be Jewish. [Clearly, the Unitarian!][i]

My dear friend, James Ford, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, when I told him of the UU Folk Ensemble visiting with us this morning, quipped in a Facebook message that Episcopalians are just Unitarians with a sense of style.

Though it may be dangerous to say so—thankfully, the Bishop is on sabbatical in the Midwest somewhere—I largely agree. I have great sympathy with Unitarian Universalists, having attended the Allen Avenue UU Church (the other UU church in Portland, affectionately know as A2U2) briefly after taking leave of parish ministry in 2006. My wife, Sukie, comes from a long line of venerable Boston Unitarians dating back to the Nineteenth century.

It goes without saying that Unitarian Universalism represents liberal religion in its broadest, most comprehensive and all-embracing sense. But I would also argue that the Episcopal Church (and by extension, Anglicanism)—within the larger rubric of the Christian Church—is, at its heart, a liberal tradition.

I was raised in the Congregational Church and became an Episcopalian in college. While I valued my religious upbringing, the Episcopal Church attracted me by its liturgy and rootedness in an age-old tradition rich in history and with a global reach. I understood that the Anglican Communion’s common prayer was its guide to theology and practice and that tests of orthodoxy, and censorship of thought, were anathema to its essentially liberal spirit.

Most importantly, I was advised early on not to leave my intellect and my reason at the door when I entered the church, but to bring it—along with my heart—and honor it as an important means of seeking the truth.

I share this with you this morning as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some today, particularly among my daughter’s generation, who are unaware that King was a Christian minister. King came from a long line of orthodox Baptist ministers—his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, only brother, and uncle were all clergy. “I didn’t have much choice, I guess” he said as an aside in his great sermon “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” Throughout his life as a great civil rights activist, King served as pastor of Baptist congregations.

But his faith was essentially liberal and it was that liberal faith that inspired his prophetic witness, including his civil rights leadership, his commitment to non-violence and pacifism, and his advocacy for the poor of all ethnic and racial backgrounds across America and indeed around the world. Some have even argued that King’s was a Unitarian Christianity.

Be that as it may, Robert Scofield, in his essay entitled King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.. says that despite being raised in a lineage of orthodox Baptist ministers, King at a young age demonstrated skepticism of the irrational claims of religion, and embarrassment at the emotionalism of his father's preaching.
 King carried these suspicions with him when he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of fifteen. He had originally planned on being a doctor or lawyer. At Morehouse, under the guidance of  [the President of the college] and [a] professor [of religion and philosophy], he began to believe that religion could be both "intellectually respectful and emotionally satisfying."

 Scofield writes that the purpose of the church for King is not to create dogma, theology, or creeds but rather "to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience," and to commit to action. From a young age, King understood the importance of combining his religion with social justice.

From this perspective King viewed the church's role as promoting a way of life rather than a belief system, saying, "Jesus always recognized that there is a danger of having a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” He stated that Christ is more concerned with how we treat our neighbors, our attitudes toward racial justice, and living a high ethical life than he is with long processionals, knowledge of creeds, or the beautiful architecture of a church.[ii]

So much for the Anglican Church!

But at the very heart of King’s faith was his experience of God, a God whom he knew as a personal presence, transcendent yet immanent; that is, a God of love and whose Spirit is synonymous with seeking justice. King tells us in his own words that, God is not a process projected somewhere in the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. …God is forever present with us.

In 1955, as a young pastor, King’s life was transformed, his vision of the religious life unalterably deepened and clarified, by a profound encounter with God at his kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama. Albert Raboteau, a professor of religion at Princeton University writes: That encounter was precipitated by the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which King had neither started nor suggested, but which irrevocably changed him from the successful pastor of a moderately comfortable church to the leader of a national movement for racial justice...[iii]
As spokesman for the boycott, King was overwhelmed with a load of back-breaking responsibilities and frightened by serious threats against his life and his family's safety. Reaching the end of his endurance, King sat at his kitchen table one night over a cup of coffee, trying to figure out how to get out of the movement without appearing a coward.
Of that experience, King later preached:
But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have strange experiences at midnight. I had been out with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest...
And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it uup. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “[N-word], we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow your house up your house.”
I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief...
Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something...that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power than can make a way out of no way.
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.... I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.”

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world." ...I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.[iv]

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me.

In the reading from John’s gospel, two disciples were standing with John the Baptist. And turning, Jesus addresses them, saying: What are you looking for? One of them responds: Rabbi, where are you staying? Jesus replies: Come and see. Just that. Come and see.

As if to say, see for yourself. Experience God for yourself, here and now. Experience first hand that inmost connection with the divine, that inmost connection with all people everywhere and all creation; that larger life that embraces you and sustains you and calls you to works of justice and compassion. Come and see.

My friend the UU minister, James Ford, in a sermon preached three years ago on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and reflective of King’s own experience that night in 1955 at his kitchen table, states that his own understanding of God is our direct knowing that we are not alone. What UUs call that interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

God, he says, is that knowing of our connections down to our bones and marrow. Not just a head knowing, but a body knowing, a heart knowing, a knowing that permeates the very fiber of our being.

It is the sustaining experience that allows us to continue the endless work of feeding the hungry, of seeking compassion and justice for all, [of] trying to help transform our own lives and the life of this country in an ever more generous, open hearted direction.[v]

We are not alone. No never alone.

Come and see. AMEN

*A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
January 19, 2014
Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Year A
Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42



[i] Buehrens, John A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism Beacon Press, 1998
[ii] Scofield, Robert James “Be” King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tikkun Magazine
[iii] Raboteau, Robert J. A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
[iv] King, Jr., Martin Luther Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool
[v] Ford, The Rev. James Martin Luther King’s Liberal God: A Meditation on the Soul’s Longing

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wading in the Waters*

In the measure of one short week, from the Second Sunday after Christmas Day to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have been catapulted from the birthplace of Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River; from the wise men bearing gifts to the sweltering throng wading into the muddy waters; from a new-born babe to the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John.

It all leaves me feeling breathless and not altogether prepared. Perhaps it’s because I was abroad in England for Christmas. It seems as if the tree was just put up, the lights strung, the decorations unveiled from their year-long captivity in the battered cardboard box where they had been stored away.

Perhaps I am reluctant to let go of Christmas because it is for me the most beloved liturgical season of the Church year. All the seasonal uproar that surrounds it aside, it is simple and direct. It is a season of contemplation and adoration. It speaks to the heart.

It reawakens in me that longing and desire—as I quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last week—for the sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open.

Perhaps because in a fifteenth century chapel in Cambridge, England—with my family by my side—I experienced that sheer presence anew and my heart is still laid open to the mystery. And being laid open, it is tender and vulnerable.

Yes, I am reluctant to let go of Christmas.

Yet, here we all are, at the muddy banks of the River Jordan, propelled over the thirty years or so that it took for Jesus to meet his destiny—and ours.

I said last week that it is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like that of the barefoot shepherds in the carol: our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.

And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.

It then it happens.

We lay that heavy burden down and we find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.

Just that.

And when I’ve had that experience, it’s enough, and I’ve felt that if it were my time to depart this earth, so be it. I would go in peace.

I wonder if, in a sense, that was Jesus’ experience in the muddy waters, with that swarming mass of ordinary, struggling men and women swirling around him: the descent of the Spirit like a dove, the voice from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

But here’s the thing: Jesus was not at the end of his ministry but at its beginning. He was not at the conclusion of his life but at its commencement; and the life he would live would be for the life of the world, for all those women and men with whom he waded into the waters. 

Through the power of the Spirit, this Son of God was embraced by God’s unconditional love for the sake of all people everywhere. The same may be said of us as well: we are the sons and daughters of God, we are loved by God, and through the Spirit bestowed in baptism, the life we have been given is for the life of the world.

William Sloane Coffin, for many years chaplain of Yale University then senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, once observed that Yale students were much taken by the Descartian assertion cogito, ergo sum—I think therefore I amwhereas, Coffin felt, it should be amo, ergo sum—I love therefore I am.

I love therefore I am, which is to say: the life we live is for the healing of the world. As with Jesus, baptism sets us on our journey. We have a calling to be heeded, a purpose to be realized, a destiny to be upheld.

At Christmas, the mystery was laid open. It is now ours to show forth for all to see. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday after the Epiphany; January 12, 2014 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Late Arrivals and Cold Comings*

What can we say about the wise men? Well, they were not kings and there were not three of them, at least, that is, according to Matthew. We may presume that they were not historical figures but characters in a parable. Matthew imagined them to be magi, a word from which we get magician.

But they were not magicians in any sense in which we understand that term. Rather, according to the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, they were quasi-religious figures. Some have suggested that they were astrologers, although to think of them primarily as such is misleading.[i]

They came from the East, presumably Mesopotamia, but more from a mythical geography, following the star. They were Gentiles and not Jews, drawn to Jesus as one who was the “light of the nations.” I imagine that these wise men were clever, complicated, with mixed motives, and even, as we are fond of saying these days, more spiritual than religious. 

And they were late arrivals. The simple barefoot shepherds were at the manger long before, even the cattle.

They may even remind us of ourselves.

I trust that you all had a delightful Christmas Eve, as I have been assured you did. London was crazy. Half the globe, it seemed, was on Christmas vacation in London. One of you said to me recently, having been on a trip spanning the continents, that traveling is for young people not for us oldsters. I tend to agree.

However, amidst the crowds and chaos, we had a great time; except, that is, when I got trapped beside a desiccated mummy at the British Museum. Unable to move due to the press of hundreds of people, I was barely able to breath... 

If you ask me what the “high” point of my trip was, I can tell you precisely. Not surprisingly, it was not in London but in Cambridge on Christmas Eve, at a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel.

Standing in queue with six hundred for six hours from before dawn with a brisk wind blowing out of the west, though not the high point, was delightful. All were in good Christmas cheer and we met friends with whom we hope to stay in touch with for years to come.

But the service itself, in that glorious space of soaring fan vault and stained glass as the sun slowly set in the western sky, was sublime. Because the acoustics are so fine, there is no need of sound amplification in a sanctuary vastly more spacious than this, just the sweet voices of the choristers accompanied at times by the organ.

We heard for the first time a piece for unaccompanied choir by Bob Chilcott, a modern British composer who, in earlier years, was a chorister at King’s. It’s titled Shepherd’s Carol, a tune set to words by an anonymous author.

In it the shepherd’s address Mary at the manger, reflecting on their epiphany in the hills on a calm winter’s evening, watching the frosted meadows that winter had won, and a star shone in the night, the silence more lovely than music.

They heard a voice from the sky...telling of God being born in the world of men. And so we have come, they say, our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. It’s a lovely, meditative piece that exudes calm and transcendent peace.

Of course, there is now no way to recreate the sound or the mood, the melody repeating and enhancing, weaving a beautiful web of music in that candlelit space. Nor is there any way to convey my experience in that moment though, I found later, Sukie was equally touched. That it brought tears to our eyes hints at its gracious power to move us.

But I’ll try, in the hopes that you too have had a similar experience, though perhaps in a different setting.

It is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like some barefoot shepherds, our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.

And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.

It then it happens.

We lay that heavy burden down and find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.

Just that.

On the plane back home, while being entertained by 40 teenage Irish school boys on their way to a skiing holiday in New Hampshire, I happened to be reading Choose Life, a collection of Christmas and Easter sermons by the now former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It seemed to me that he captured something of my experience at King’s. In his Christmas sermon The Kingdom of the Simple, he talks about the wise men coming to the manger.[ii]

He reflects on the wise men, like us clever, resourceful, complicated people, who manage to screw things up more often than not, late-comers to the manger. And so I close by sharing a few excerpts from that sermon.

He says: Yet—here is the miracle—the three wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities, the child, the cattle, the barefoot shepherds, would have no place for the wise men...

Coming to the Christ child isn’t always simple. It just is the case that people come by roundabout routes, with complex histories, sin and muddle and false perceptions and false starts. It’s no good saying to them,’You must become simple and wholehearted’, as if this could be done just by wishing it.

The real question is, ‘Can you take all your complicated history with you on a journey towards the manger? Can you at least refuse to settle down in a hall of mirrors, and go on asking where the truth really lies? Can you stop hanging on to the complex and...recognize where the map of the heavens points?’

So: don’t deny the tangle and the talents, the varied web of what has made you who you are. Every step is part of the journey; on this journey, even the false starts are part of the journey, experience that moves you toward the truth.

We know how much we long for that sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open. But we come as we are; room is made for us, healing is promised for us, even usefulness given to us if we are ready to make an offering of what W.H Auden called our crooked heart.

In the straw of the stable, the humble and complicated are able to kneel together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw...that means he is there in the naked simplicity for the sophisticated and troubled as well, those who have had long and tortuous journeys, cold comings, to the stable.

The childlike response of longing and delight can come even from a heart that has grown old and tired...let no-one think they are too compromised, to entangled to be welcome.


* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME; The Second Sunday after Christmas Day;
January 5, 2014



[i] Borg, Marcus; Crossan, John Dominic The First Christmas Harper Collins, 2007
[ii] Williams, Rowan Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral eBook