If you are a friend of mine of Facebook or follow me on Instagram you will know that I was hosting my niece Mollie and her boyfriend last week. For part of the week I played tour guide and showed them the sights of the Bay Area. It was an interesting moment for me. I have been here six and a half years now and have become used to the beauty of our scenery, and the things one can do in this part of the world.
Going around with Mollie and Jamie, I got to see things again through fresh eyes. It was lovely to have my breath taken away by Redwoods as I gazed up at them beside Mollie. It was wonderful to walk over the Golden Gate Bridge and be reminded just how amazing this piece of engineering is and how lovely the views are. It was great to kayak with otters in Elkhorn Slough and have myself be calmed by listening to the birds chatter. Mollie and Jamie had a little difficulty getting their oar strokes straight, but after a while they settled into a rhythm also.
As I looked at California through fresh eyes, I also saw myself in a new light. I am the Uncle Matthew that Mollie has always known, but I have grown and changed over the years. I have some American attitudes that live alongside my English ones. I have a home here, and roots, and a community I care deeply about. I have had some difficult moments also. But one of the things I really noticed was growth.
Growth is so incremental that we rarely notice it. I wonder if you have someone or somewhere that you revisit from time to time and notice the same thing - that you have changed and grown. When I sit in pastoral conversation with some of you I believe that one of my jobs is to notice the growth that you may not be noticing yourself.
I invite you to look at the world with fresh eyes this week. Perhaps go visit, or talk on the phone with someone you love but don’t see that often and see how they, and you, have grown.
I am a work in progress, you could say I am unfinished. Praying every day is not something I do because I was once told to. It is part of my survival strategy.
I live with a degree of anxiety, it is not as great as some people I know, I manage it with prayer, meditation, and spiritual direction. I should add regular exercise to that mix, and in the past I have, but not so much recently. I have a great deal of respect for those who need more help than this.
In recent months most of the pastoral conversations I have had have shown me that anxiety is something lots of people in the Bay Area live with. Perhaps it is the aftermath of an election that did not go the way that many in this area hoped for, but I think that may just be a catalyst for them talking about something that has always been beneath the surface. The Bay Area generates anxiety, we have to constantly keep up, work hard to get ahead, and dig deep to be able to afford to live here. Anxiety is certainly not just limited to life in the Bay Area, I think it may be a condition of modern American or Western culture.
Recently I was talking to someone in my support system. I wished that my feelings of Anxiety could just go away. He looked at me and said, “oh no, you don’t want that, anxiety is your warning system that something needs looking at.”
His comment made me pause to think. Anxiety is a normal part of life and invites us to focus on its cause in order to understand it more deeply, and perhaps make changes in our behavior. The problem is, I have learned over the years to just ignore the niggling feelings that invite me to change my behavior until they grow and become more powerful. When they manifest as anxiety it feels like they may be too big to cope with and I just try to avoid them further.
Which is where my prayer life comes in. It is the place where I can encounter anxiety and do something meaningful with it. I used to pray because it was what I was meant to do, but I didn’t really understand why. Over the years I developed an approach to prayer that helped me see it as a safe space within which I could encounter the God of Love who cherishes me. In that space I can think about those things that cause me anxiety and look at them in a new way.
Prayer is less me examining things in my life, it is more like God is exploring and examining them in front of me and I am just invited to observe. God is far more patient than I could ever be, and every so often God reminds me that other people are living with anxiety also and I could give them a break if they over-reacted to something I said.
So I manage to carry out the work of a priest, I listen to other peoples problems and I pray with them every day. As I do that I try to model the kind, thoughtful voice that I believe God uses with me. I fall short, but I keep trying. My resilience in life doesn’t come from being tough, it comes from recognizing that I am actually quite soft and that I need to return regularly to God’s love in order to be constantly renewed.
My own resilience is a work in progress, sometimes I feel like there is no progress at all, and I wish that I could just turn the anxiety off. But then I am reminded that it is there to help me if I will just listen to it and react a little sooner within my prayer life. I am a work in progress, you could say I am unfinished, but I have faith that God will bring to completion the work of love begun in me.
Over the last few weeks sermons have focused on conversations Jesus held with two very different people. Nicodemus is a powerful man and a leader. Then there is an unnamed Samaritan woman, whose morality is in question because of her many relationships. She has no power, influence or social status.
Nicodemus is asked to examine how power works and understand the damage it can do. Jesus talks about his future death on the cross, saying that when he is “lifted up” people will need to look at him to be saved. Here salvation is achieved when people see how they use their power to cause pain. Nicodemus will be saved when he accepts the need for sacrifice. The Samaritan woman did not have to sacrifice to find her way to salvation; she had nothing to give up. This woman’s path to salvation was found when Jesus showed her respect and she discovered her voice.
These contrasting stories tell us that the path to salvation may be different depending on who we are and what position we occupy in our culture. Some of us need to acknowledge that our use of power is damaging, and that we must start to live sacrificially. Some of us need to realize that we are deeply loved by God, need not be ashamed, and can stand up and speak God’s truth with power and force.
The Greek orthodox church gives her a name: Photini. Do you notice that Photini, not Nicodemus, speaks out about Jesus message of love? Nicodemus remains within the power structures of Israel, trying to influence them from within, but he seems afraid. Photini cannot contain herself. She preaches.
Find the two sermons on our website:
Over the next two weeks, the Lectionary has given us an extraordinary gift. We are invited to eavesdrop in on two conversations Jesus had with two very different people. These conversations fit into our Lent themes perfectly, they are difficult and require artful negotiation by both conversation partners, and by the end all participants have grown and gained insight.
In the first conversation a powerful man and religious leader is inquisitive about this new teaching, but fearful of what his colleagues might think if they heard he was going to meet with Jesus. So he goes at midnight, in secret. Their clandestine conversation explores some of the deepest theological territory in the New Testament, but it is also sublimely simple. We have to be reborn in order to fully grasp the love of God; and Jesus came not to judge but to save. Nicodemus struggles with the message and is reduced to being an infant in the face of the younger teacher. It is only as he is willing to explore these new ideas as a child that he will benefit from them. Nicodemus has to adopt a 'beginners mind,' and when he does he is transformed.
In the second conversation, next week in our lectionary, a women considered morally bankrupt meets Jesus in the middle of the day when she goes to draw water. She cannot go in the cool of the morning, when the other women of Samaria are making their trip to the well, because she is ostracized. We will discover she has had five husbands and is now with a man she is not married to. Jesus breaks about every taboo imaginable, by speaking to a woman, who is a Samaritan, and of questionable character. He does - this without judging her. He treats her with respect, as a human being with intelligence and appealing to her spiritual core as he introduces her to new ideas about worship, faith and love. She is not invited to be a child by their conversation, she is invited to step into her own dignity.
Both conversation partners are ashamed, but for different reasons. Jesus invited them both to embrace new ideas and self respect.
Join us for the next two Sundays as we get a chance to listen in on their dynamic conversations with Jesus.
Last week I sat down with Matthew Burt to talk about our plan for Good Friday, as we were talking he mentioned the metaphor of planting seeds as an interesting way to think about Good Friday evening. That prompted me to remember a conversation I had just had with Michele Maia, who told me that she wanted to have the children from Sunday School plant seeds on the upcoming weekend. I was pleased by the coincidence, but I didn't think much of it.
Then I heard from the planning team for the Women's Retreat that Kristen Kearns was planning a contemplative activity that included planting seeds as a way of transitioning from Epiphany to Lent.
The coincidence seemed to be growing, and even though I was fighting the flu I began to take notice. When I talked about planting seeds at Staff Meeting with Fran this week I knew it was a repeat as she was simply telling me again about Kristen's idea, but the fact that it came up again kept the theme in my mind. Finally this morning (I am writing this letter on Wednesday), the following featured in Morning Prayer:
Lord God, extend our faith so that even when we fail to see the fruit of our planted seeds, we may have the assurance that every inch of soil overturned will lead to a harvest someday. Amen.
At this point I had to acknowledge that the coincidence was turning into a conspiracy. Perhaps Kristen was inspired to plant seeds at the Women's Retreat by the fact that the children did it at Sunday School, but there is no way that the prayer book could have known that. Perhaps the fact that this is all happening as we approach springtime could account for the synchronicity. But there is another explanation. God may have been trying to get my attention.
Since returning from my sabbatical I have been dealing with transitions at Transfiguration and wondering what I was meant to be doing exactly. It took a little while, but the image of planting seeds has now sunk in. The Vestry and I are working on a vision for next steps in our staffing: we are planting seeds. The men's group are working on how to gather more frequently: they are planting seeds. I have brought in clergy to help in our transition: we are planting seeds. I am proposing a project for Lent around deepening our conversation skills: asking you all to plant seeds.
On Good Friday we will remember the greatest planting of a seed that ever occurred in our faith: Jesus dying and being placed in the ground. Then we wait to see what grows.
Christ the King is a hard festival to understand. It has been on my mind all day, particularly after Donald Trump's election. What does it mean to have power? And what does it mean for Jesus to be our King?
In the Hebrew Scriptures the children of Israel lived with God as their King. They were led by human Judges who kept peace, guided the people, and gathered an army to protect them if necessary. But the Judges didn't rule. Eventually, the people asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king; he was angry.
"God is your king!" He shouted in frustration. "But we want a King we can see," they said. They wanted a King to protect their freedom. Samuel spoke to God, who told him that the people were not rejecting Samuel, they were rejecting God himself. He told Samuel to grant the request, and he did, but with a warning:
"A King will not make you free, a king will tax you, and make you fight in his army and enslave you."
They still wanted one.
Samuel’s warning was realized, and then repeated over and over again through the history of Monarchy. How do we reconcile this image with the idea of Christ the King?
When God finally decided to join us as Jesus, he did not take power and rule; he guided, advised, challenged and taught. He modeled a new way of living and invited people to follow him; to imitate him. Along the way, he made enemies. Some of those in power didn't like the way he challenged them. In spite of this, he lived his life fully aware that he was a free child of God. Nothing anyone else could do could take away his freedom, not even execution.
Christ the King is not a festival that celebrates royal power, it reimagines it. Jesus is regal, not because of his power, but because he is free. He lives his life, within a coercive and corrupt political system, without being subject to that system. He is an example to us that we can be free wherever, whenever, and under whatever regime we live.
This is a different kind of Kingdom in which we are all called to make the values of God present in our world by living them. This may mean supporting those in authority when their actions match those values. It may mean resisting, peacefully, the exercise of political power when it is in conflict with those values. Some have used a different biblical word to describe this Kingdom: Shalom - it means 'peace,' and it is what God wants for our world.
I wanted to find an example to make the concept I am trying to explain make sense. It was hard to find one in the middle of the current political climate. Then Martín suggested someone to me, Malala Yousafzai. For anyone not familiar with Malala, she is a young Muslim Pakistani girl who wanted an education. She was shot in the face by a member of the Taliban, who do not believe women should be educated. She recovered from the attack, and with great humor, courage, and grace became an advocate for girls education throughout the world. She is the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala is not powerful in the political sense, she does not rule and she is not a monarch; her power is in her example and in living her life: Malala is regal.
She is a Muslim woman who inspires me to be more Christlike.
Jesus lived his life as an example and invited us to follow him. Malala is an inspiration to millions. This week, find someone who lives a life full of similar values, someone peaceful, someone dignified, someone regal... and be like them.
We are in denial. We don't like to look at the past. The facts of history should be swept under the carpet and we should move on. The 'we' I am referring to is white people. Our lack of historical curiosity is, in my opinion, the main reason why we believe that we deserve our privilege.
Last week at our bible study we began to talk race. My bible study is made up of white people. I love them. It is hard to wrestle with issues of race when you have been conditioned to accept the status quo, and particularly when the status quo favors you. But for some reason they were trying.
After the shooting of black men, and the shooting of police that followed, it seemed as though a moment for serious thinking had arisen. It would have been possible for the participants of that study to say that their presuppositions about race were confirmed by what had happened. They did not.
As I sat and listened I began to see thoughtful individuals open up their hearts and explore ways of looking at race that were insightful. I have heard black commentators articulate them, but these white folks were now doing it. I want to share just one insight from a gentleman who has become increasingly aware of his cultural history. He started talking about the movement from the civil war, through to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, through to inner cities today. He said that black people were made free, but not given any resources to build their lives after the civil war. White people were able to keep the wealth that they had accumulated through slave ownership and then pass that wealth on to their children. Black people had no inheritance to leave.
He noted that he had benefited from the inheritance received from previous generations, but black people had not. Furthermore, society restricted their access to the economic means they needed. He was making an argument for reparations, although none of us could work out how that should be undertaken.
We were talking about it in ways that left me hopeful though, we were becoming more conscious of the challenges our culture faces and how we were implicated. I have a sense that this is a conversation that is needed and that we have to encourage it to take place. The fact that we didn't finish its a problem, I am glad that we had started.
The conversation we need must not deny the facts of history. It must not say that unpleasant feelings should be avoided because white people are fragile. It should not give us a sense that we have earned what we deserve, but should acknowledge that we have what we do because of a deeply unjust system that existed in the recent past. Slavery is not the ancient history, it just happened yesterday.
Last night I heard Michelle Obama speak. I want to lay aside the fact that she was advocating for a candidate for a moment, and just focus on what she was saying about history.
"That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
In her speech she acknowledged her time in the White House and how difficult it has been, and she acknowledged the history of slavery. She also suggested that we are capable of something new.
She has a unique perspective on this, having served as the first African American First Lady and having suffered the insults leveled at her across the last 8 years because of this role. That she was hopeful at all, and that she constructed her argument from the facts of slavery, insult and struggle, was remarkable.
The speech suggested to me that the way through our current cultural difficulties is not by avoiding the past, but through a meaningful exploration of it.
Anyone who knows me will know that I believe in looking into the shadows for resources to help us grow. I have just never managed to do it quite as effectively as Michelle Obama did last night.
It is the first day of the Republican Convention and I am hoping that the speakers there don't try to capitalize on our differences, but recognize that we are in a painful place and that we need to talk. I hope that we find ways to grieve, and feel pain, before trying to take action to fix things that are deeply rooted and could easily be misdiagnosed.
Newt Gingrich, of all people, acknowledged the difficulty of being black in America last week. I also had numerous conversations with white parishioners who were looking again at their own attitudes towards race with a honesty and effort. I hope that these are signs of things to come and not momentary. For the conversation about race to be sustained, we will need to hold the space for it open: It is a tentative and fragile thing.
Insight is hard to come by, but it is worth pursuing. I hesitate to put into words what I am exploring as I don't feel like I know enough to write in a fully informed way. I am exploring and asking questions like many of us. I just hope we have time to ask those questions and have that conversation. It would be too easy, right now, to fall into camps of 'us' and 'them' and feel the threat of the stranger so strongly that we shut down any discussion.
There was a line in Monica’s sermon that really struck me yesterday. After she had introduced the ancient middle eastern idea of hospitality as, ‘kindness to strangers,’ she said that the modern idea of hospitality had become more like kindness to strangers if you are convinced they are not a threat to you.
We have to work hard to not see each other as a threat so that we might open up the space for conversation. This week, as I listen to the speeches from the Republican Convention and the rebuttals from the Democratic party I am going to listen out most for voices that call us towards reconciliation and deeper conversation about the kind of country we can be. I hope I hear them. More importantly that that, I hope I find a way to be one of those voices.
“You are not anti-black if you grieve the loss of the officers killed in Dallas and you are not anti-police if you grieve for the loss of life of the black men who were killed.” - Tomiquia Moss
This week the news just kept on coming and it was bad.
After Orlando a few weeks ago, its focus on the LGBT community, terror and gun violence, we held an interfaith dialogue to ‘think and pray’ with a Muslim and Jewish colleague. We barely got the video up online (thank you Brian Leckey) when I saw the news that there have been a series of terror attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Bagdad and Medina. Friends online put out the challenge that if we are willing to grieve for Orlando, we should grieve for these cities. They are all in Muslim countries and were experiencing terror just as Ramadan turned into Eid. So responding to that challenge I added these cities to my prayers.
Then I began to see the news of the shooting of two black men by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philander Castile outside St Paul, Minnesota. It was almost too much to process, more loss of life and a reminder of the complications of police/community relations, racial tension and inequality in our culture.
I began to prepare my sermon for this Sunday, based on the reading for this week: Luke 10:25-37. It is the story of the Good Samaritan. As I re-read it in the light of the shootings it seemed to be more than ever a tale about violence and race.
That is when I heard about the 5 police officers who were killed and 7 others who were injured whilst working on the route of a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas. The names of the officers who lost their lives are: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens.
The mounting tragedy, of terror, systemic racial inequalities in our justice system, gun violence and enmity between communities and those who would protect them, it all feels like too much. At times like these, being a white male minister of a predominantly white congregation in a comfortable suburb outside of San Francisco I find it hard to know what to say.
This morning I reached out to an African American friend who I knew was dealing with protests in Oakland. I met Tomiquia Moss on my trip to Israel a few months ago, she is the Chief of Staff of Mayor Libby Schaaf. I asked her what religious leaders should be saying to help. She told me to say:
“You are not anti-black if you grieve the loss of the officers killed in Dallas and you are not anti-police if you grieve for the loss of life of the black men who were killed.”
She added, “there is pain all around and it’s complex and I think it's important to hold the space for it all.” She finished by saying, “prayer is also helpful!”
In our interfaith dialogue last week, Rabbi Ilana said that we should move beyond our comfort zones with each other and engage more deeply. Noni, our Muslim Educator speaker said, “we need to move beyond tolerance towards genuine friendship.”
Our country, and world, is facing a crisis and we have to decide how to respond. Will we push each other away, creating more and more strangers and enemies; or will we do the hard work of listening to each other, examining our hearts, and growing together in love. Will we do what it takes to trust each other? Will we become friends?
I am left with these thoughts:
There is going to be a Vigil at Grace Cathedral at 6:15pm on Monday, July 11th - on the indoor Labyrinth. I am going to try and go. Will you join me? Email me if you are coming and we can see if we might drive together.
On June 26th we had an interfaith dialogue for peace at Transfiguration Episcopal Church. Here is the link to the video that we have created of that event. Apologies for the bad quality of sound at some points. We may look into adding subtitles so that it is easier to understand throughout.
Link to Video on Vimeo
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.