Christians and Immigration 2016

200048_5121583060_1480_nNote: This reflection was written in 2006 when I was the rector at a small parish called St. Timothy’s in Athens, Alabama. At the time, many people were upset about the number of undocumented immigrants coming into North Alabama to work picking tomatoes. Within a year it was necessary for us to organize a counter protest of the KKK in Athens when they held a rally at City Hall. It is incredibly sad that we are still having the same conversation a decade later. 

This essay is intended to be a theological reflection on scripture dealing not merely with how we are to treat and deal with immigrants but also, more generally, how we as Christians are called to live with all people whether they be from this country or another.

I begin with an important note on Scripture. As Christians, it is our responsibility to take scripture  seriously when we come to ethical issues. Not to quote scripture out of the air and use it as another weapon in debate, but to allow it to enlighten us when we come to difficult problems. Christians are called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest scripture, both alone and with others, not as a way of finding evidence to backup our already decided notions, but to allow scripture to enter and live inside of us. To allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us and to enlighten what we have read. Too often we come to scripture looking for ammunition to support our own political ends, knowing that we have the right answer and wanting God, through the Bible, to merely confirm what we already believe. It seems as though everyone can quote chapter and verse to support their own politics. Scripture isn’t a tool to be used against one another, it is not a weapon to be used in our squabbles. Through Scripture we are  called beyond Scripture to the faces of our brothers and sisters. It is a prism we look through and ask, how am I to see and live with others, how am I to view the world in light of what I have read? Taking a single verse here or there only it distorts our view.  Scripture is meant to become part of who we are, being read over and over again so that it becomes who we are.  Study and prayer are what make Christians different as we enter the world.

With this in mind I want to share a collection of verses which provide a consistent ethic on the issue of Immigration and many other issues throughout the Bible as to how we are to live with, and treat one another.

The Image of God

We being in the Beginning with the creation of all humankind. Humans were created as a reflection of the divine, “in the image”. Genesis 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. But throughout our history as humans we have disregarded this belief whenever it has become convenient. Our history is full of stories in which one group decided that another group was less than them and therefore could be afforded fewer rights. This has led to the destruction of many of God’s children in body, mind and soul. It is therefore imperative that no matter what our personal political feelings we not fall into dehumanizing language that refers to people as trash or animals, people should be respected as human beings first and all our debate should reflect the humanity of our opponents. We must also resist falling prey to the sins of racism and xenophobia that allow us to dismiss another’s humanity due to the color of their skin or place of birth and treat them differently. We are all created equally in the eyes of God.

The Exodus and Prophets

The history of the Jewish people, and therefore Christianity,  has been influenced by many stories, but none more important than their exodus from Egypt. The release from slavery and exodus is a defining story in the life of Israel. As this story was told and re-told through history, an understanding of justice emerged and was written into the Torah, the first Five Books of Hebrew scripture, and part of our Old Testament. This understanding comes through in Exodus (22:21, 23:9) Leviticus (19:10, 19:33, 25:23) and Deuteronomy (10:18-19, 24:14-19, 27:19). It is a common theme that is summed up In Leviticus 19:33 “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

The Hebrew people understood their responsibility toward those who were aliens to be the same as those who were native-born, because they recalled their treatment by the Egyptians and were determined that others not be treated in the same way. They did not want to become Pharaoh and create slaves of others, they did not want to see widows, orphans and aliens mistreated. On the contrary they felt called by God to show compassion, mercy and hospitality.

This way of seeing the alien was later taken up by many of the Prophets namely Jeremiah (7:6, 22:3) Ezekiel (22:7, 22:29) Zechariah (7:10) and  Malachi (3:5) The Hebrew word translated as “alien” in English is ger, which can also mean stranger or sojourner. These scriptures, and this understanding of the stranger, have important implications for how I feel I am called as a Christian by Jesus to see those around me.

Who is Our Neighbor

To say that Jesus issues a radical call to living with one another would be a great understatement. Over and over in the Gospels Jesus challenges those who would be his disciples to shed their old understanding and see the new things that Jesus was teaching. The view of who was to be considered a neighbor and how disciples were to treat strangers was high on the list of how to walk on the Way.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is asked a question by a lawyer about the greatest commandment, Matthew 22:35-39 reads “…and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   Jesus with this answer is telling not only the lawyer but all those who would  follow him his expectations of how they would treat one another.

This story is also in the Gospel of Luke but rather than leave the story where it ends in Matthew, the story continues with the lawyer continuing to ask Jesus about his answer, the lawyer asks “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answers him with one of the best known stories in the bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. Luke 10

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Here is what we are left with, the greatest commandment is to love God, the next is to love your neighbor, who is the neighbor, the one who shows mercy. When we show mercy to one another we are being a neighbor. The commandments of Jesus are shown in the scriptures again and again and specifically 1 John 4:20, it reads, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

But Jesus’ teaching on the neighbor and story of the Good Samaritan are not all he has to say about how we live with one another. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells his disciples the story of the sheep and the goats. This may have more to say than his teachings on loving our neighbor, because he specifically speaks of those we consider outcasts and strangers.

[Jesus said ]“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

Jesus tells his disciples that they will not know when they have seen him, but tells them specifically that when they welcomed the stranger, the alien, they were in fact welcoming him, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Jesus considers those who are the outcasts, the poor, those who are sick or in prison and those who are the stranger to be his family and tells his followers through this story, that how those family members are treated will be remembered.

Our Baptismal Covenant

As a Christian I believe that through baptism we enter into a covenant with God, that we are forgiven of our sins and that we are sent out to be servants to those in need. In the Episcopal Church we have put this covenant in writing and are asked to enter into a new relationship with God, and with one another, through the sacrament of baptism. At our baptism we are asked a series of questions and the final two are specifically important for us as we reflect on our relationships in God’s family. The first question is  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”? Our answer is, “I will, with God’s help”, the second question is “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”? Again we answer, “I will, with God’s help.” We realize that we cannot do this alone and that we need the Holy Spirit working through us. We do not answer with qualifying statements such as “I will, with God’s help… but only if they are American, or if they are white, or if they are from my neighborhood.” What we are committing to is justice and compassion for all people.

Economic Justice

Up to this point I have been trying to show the importance of treating people with dignity and respect, treating people in a way we would like to be treated. It may fairly be assumed that I have been focused on how we treat immigrants, but this ethic of care is not limited to immigrants. This ethic of care  is as important when we look at how we treat those from our own country in terms of economic justice and fairness. Our country does not, at this time demand that employers provide a living wage for workers. Companies can provide whatever wage they determine, limited only by a non-livable minimum, and this is meant to be part of how the market works. A problem arises when companies ignore even the most basic regulations that attempt to assure workers a certain level of pay. The relationship between employers and low wage workers is one of injustice, exploitation, and wage theft. In many cases people will tolerate exploitation because being exploited in the United States is better than not working at all in their own country.  The Christian response to economic injustice for workers who are citizens becomes an equally important issue that must be dealt with. Immigration issues do not occur in a vacuum, there are human lives at stake.

I do not intend to suggest that issues surrounding immigration reform are easy or that we must ignore legal and economic implications of people from other nations coming to this country, but I do believe that as Christians we have a responsibility to view all people first as human beings, created in the image of, and loved by God. This in turn leads to a desire for the common good of all people not just those who happen to live within certain geographical and political boundaries. As the grandson of two union steel workers, from Birmingham, Alabama,  I understand on a very personal level the difficulties faced by working men and women. But these challenges will not be solved by scapegoating another ethnic or racial group or by treating others as our new servant class to do the work we would rather not do. Issues of economic justice and fair wages for all workers should be dealt with in a way that provides people with a living wage, not just in this country but all over the world.

We must be very careful where politics collide with economic, racial, and ethnic tension. These kinds of tensions have lead to some of the greatest atrocities the world has seen and can quickly go from political disagreement to vigilantism and violence. As Christians we commit ourselves to the betterment of all people through relationships and community.  We must not let our discussions or decisions be based on anxiety or fear as we open our hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.

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You Can’t Fake Showing Up

14937423_10154058865728061_8572541971744514568_nI was up at 4am this morning. When I am worried or stressed out, this is as long as my eyes will stay closed. It’s better for me to just get out of bed and write or pray or read, but usually I just sit and worry. Some days it’s money, other days it’s the people I serve as a priest. Today it is the ever present worry that I don’t know where I am living or what is happening to the world I thought I knew. It has taken a couple of days to process what I had hoped was a bad reality TV show, but now true reality is setting in.

Just over 15 years ago on September 12th, 2001, I woke up in New York City with a very similar feeling. The day before, men had flown planes into buildings just down the street from where I lived. This had never happened before in the country I knew. The images on TV did not make sense and when the wind blew the acrid smell of burning buildings uptown, through my window, I felt like I was living in a bad dream.  That was my second day of seminary.

This week so far feels like the beginning of a dystopian novel, but as I listen to the voices of my black, brown, latino and LGBTQ friends, as I listen again to the voices of the women around me, I realize that this is the life they have always been living. Because I am a white man I had the luxury to believe in a world that was nicer and more honest than it ever actually was. Because it was nicer and more honest to me. This is why I cannot say, with an confidence to anyone that everything is going to be ok. I honestly do not know what that means anymore.

History’s arc is hard to see when you are in the middle of it. Every day I see people trying to make sense and explain what is happening. Some say let’s wait and see. Maybe we are all just overreacting, our system of checks and balances will make sure things don’t get too out of hand. Each of these statements is a way for mostly white people to get through the day and sleep through the night. It is the voice of privilege. It is the voice of those with the luxury to wait and see. By the time the damage is done for us to see it will be too late. I was once told by my wife that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. There is no need to wait and see what is going to happen, we have already been shown.

As a priest, my first instinct is to return to my faith and holy texts, but today that is hard. Millions of people in the country believe that a Christian God has ordained Donald Trump as our president. They believe that his actions will be those of a divinely appointed leader and that is terrifying. For many people of faith God only works through the winners. Make no mistake that God has found a true believer in our new president.

So rather than wallow in despair I have decided to listen to my friends who say, “I’m sorry but we don’t have time for your self-pity, your despair does your allies no good” “You are a white man in a culture that loves white men, you have work to do!” “Our lives are at stake while you sit at home believe that you can’t change anything” Lastly they say this, “Your life is a stake as well, your soul cannot be free until we are all free.”

So today I put my hope in the God of the brown, refugee savior who lived and died under imperial military occupation. I put my hope in the God of the prophets who preached to those in power and demanded their repentance when they strayed from the path of justice, mercy and peace. I put my trust in the God of the saints and martyrs who throughout history have stood up and spoken out to protect the vulnerable and those without power. I choose to see God in the immigrant and refugee, in the homeless and poor, in the widow, the orphan, the abused, the despised and the outcast, in the prisoner and in all those we hide from our eyes and try not to see. I choose to see God in the face of my enemy, but whom God loves too much to let them stay an enemy.  I choose to believe in the God of reconciliation but to never be reconciled to injustice, oppression or exploitation.

A week ago today I was gathered with over 500 clergy from around the country on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. We marched and sang and listened to speakers, in solidarity with their struggle to protect their water and their land. Of all the things that were said,  one particular quote stood out; “You can fake care, but you cannot fake showing up”

It’s time to show up.

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Love and Hate

First let me say thank you to everyone who has sent us wonderful messages of support over the past 10 days. It has been pretty crazy and it does not seem like this story is losing steam. That’s really fine. Our country needs to talk about guns and violence and we need to find places that reasonable people can share their pain and sadness and explore ideas to decrease the death toll.  I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two experiences. One is an angry phone message with several expletives directed at me. I have gotten many  more positive messages than this, but still. The image is of an email I received from the sister of one of the teachers who died in Sandy Hook. It is hard to face hate with love but we must.

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The Priest and the AR-15

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”― Theodore RooseveltIMG_7313

A couple of weeks ago I was reading one of our Portland weekly newspapers, and I came across the story of a girls softball team from the Portland area trying to raffle an AR-15 rifle. Since then, I won the raffle and the story has been written and broadcast across the country. Local news stations approached me to talk about the raffle and the gun, and both local and national newspapers picked up the story. 

The feedback has been overwhelming. I never expected this action to get so much attention and by and large the feedback has been positive. I have gotten emails and voice mails from across the country thanking me for this action. Families that have lost loved ones to gun violence have let me know that they support me and that means a lot.

On the other hand there are the critics and trolls on Facebook pages and news website comment sections, lobbing their hate and vitriol. First let me say that I have seen almost none of it. My discipline of never reading the comments has been almost complete in this instance. But I have seen a few and I know that other people might be reading the comments and feel the need to defend me. Rather than spending your time behind a computer fighting with people you will never change, go outside and enjoy your life. Play with your kids, drink a beer with your friends, in the words of Wendell Berry “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts”. Do not let your heart be troubled by anger directed towards me. If you want to respond, post a link to this blog and leave it at that.

The Money

It has been a surprise to witness how upset people have been about what I have done. I used money given to my discretionary fund at Christ Church Episcopal Parish to support a girls softball team and to take an AR-15 out of society. No one from Christ Church has asked for their money back. In fact more money has been donated from both members and non-members than was actually spent on buying raffle tickets. That money will be used to support work that reduces violence in our world and builds community.  How supporting kids sports or reducing America’s gun arsenal are in contradiction of what church funds should be used for is beyond me.

The Mission

Many of the critics of this action believe I could have used this $3000 more effectively and have suggested many different ways including, feeding the hungry and helping those in need. Christ Church is a founding member in Portland of an organization called Potluck in the Park. Every Sunday morning during services, teams of parishioners are in our kitchen cooking meals that help feed 300-500 hungry people in Downtown Portland. Christ Church raised $70,000 in one night last year at our annual auction. All that money is used to support another 15 outreach projects in our community and in the world. We support schools in Uganda, health clinics in Peru and clergy in Namibia. We build homes through Habitat for Humanity and provide transitional housing through Lake Oswego Transitional Housing. We are also on the board and support William Temple Thrift Store in Portland. Christ Church lives its beliefs, and we work every day to build up the kingdom of God. We are a group of committed Christian disciples following the call of Jesus Christ.

 

The Gun

It seems like a lot of the energy around this action is about the gun being destroyed. Some people believe it is just a silly stunt. “A gun is an inanimate object” they say. “My guns have never walked out of my house and hurt anyone”, say others. Fair enough. So why is there so much anger and hatred about me destroying an inanimate object? What about this action could possibly make someone so angry that they would tell me I should kill myself?

Here is what I know, inanimate objects hold emotional power.

Your grandfather’s watch and a love letter from your spouse are inanimate objects too, but they also mean more than that. In our gun worshiping culture, destroying a gun seems to be the equivalent of burning the flag. I am seen by some as un-American for even suggesting that there should be one less gun in the world. It seems to me that the people who are screaming the loudest about guns having no power are proving just the opposite. Evidently guns can get people to spend hours on their computers writing hateful messages and cause otherwise decent people to act in ways their mothers would probably not be proud of.

 

Why I’m Speaking Out

It’s hard to believe that people on the internet know me so well. In the past 2 weeks I have been called every name you can think of. Most of these names suggest that my intelligence is lacking and that I don’t know what I am talking about. Looking at the comment section is like walking into an insane asylum and starting to believe you are the one who is crazy.

I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up shooting rifles on my grandparents farm in Vernon in Lamar County. I learned how to handle a gun and was taught how to safely treat firearms.    I went to school in West Birmingham and Homewood, graduated from UAB with degrees in History and Political Science, went to law school at Birmingham School of Law and practiced law in Birmingham for four years. While in law school I owned a nickle-plated, Smith and Wesson .357.

Then I moved to New York City for seminary and started school on September 11th, 2001. Yes, 9/11.

I was at Ground Zero, and worked there supporting the first responders. I moved back to Athens, Alabama after seminary where I had the pleasure, as the rector of St Timothy’s Episcopal Church to counter protest the KKK. Then I moved to Namibia in Southern Africa for three years to help train clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Namibia. I moved to the Portland area five years ago and have been the rector of Christ Church for 2 ½ years. If you want to know who I am, ask. If you think you know who I am, think again.  

My Faith

I am a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ. I was baptized as a Southern Baptist in Alabama  and never remember a time that my mother and grandmother did not have me in church. I later became an Episcopalian, and then a priest. I am committed to the gospels and my favorite verse is Matthew 25:31-46. I am committed to the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, especially our commitment to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. I have always been called to live my faith and not merely talk about it as a disciple of Jesus. You don’t have to agree with me, but please don’t question my commitment to my faith.

 

God bless.   

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Confession

I have a confession to make; When I was in college in Alabama, I worked in politics and helped Spencer Bachus, a Republican, get elected to his first term in the 6th Congressional District in Alabama. He served 22 years in Congress and was at one time the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

I have another confession to make; In 2000 I volunteered and worked tirelessly for the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and voted for him in Alabama. At other times I have consulted with campaigns and help write and pass legislation. I have had back room conversations with lobbyist and attended my fair share of political fundraisers and campaign night celebrations. So I can say with some experience that politics is one of the ugliest dramas to unfold in a civilized society.

As I write this preparations are being made to bury Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the presidential campaign, which was already over the top, has reached new levels of ugliness and rancor. Hatred, anger, fear, xenophobia, racism, self-righteousness and  judgment  have become the normal discourse. This really should come as no surprise. As much as all of us say we want it to be different and bemoan the state of politics, red meat is what gets most people excited and moving to vote in one direction or the other.

In addition to the vitriol, there is the financial cost.  Some experts believe that this presidential campaign will cost between $3-$5 billion dollars. Others put the estimate as high as $10 billion. This means that to elect the president our country we’ll spend more than the GDP of 100 countries and at least half of the people will not be happy with the winner.

So how are we as Christians meant to live and participate in politics? It is part of our world, affects our daily life and the lives of those we love. Non-participation is the equivalent of approval of our current state of affairs. I am as frustrated as the next person, but I am ever hopeful. But how do you choose?

Let me say that I do not trust what politicians say, I am concerned with how they act and how they have acted in their lives. When I look at someone running for office, trying to sway me to vote for them, I ask, have they lived their life in a way that is consistent with the values of my faith. Could I see them having a conversation with Jesus and Jesus saying, “Well done good and faithful servant…” Many politicians talk a good game but in the words of John Wooden “Character is what a person does when no one is looking”. How many politicians running for office would show up at the homeless shelter if there were no cameras around? How many would help their neighbor if there was no possibility of getting their vote? In our Ash Wednesday readings Jesus reminds us to beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.

Jesus Christ died to change the world and to undo the political systems of oppression and injustice. He was crucified by politicians and resurrected by a God who is above politics. God judges our politics based on the cross and the values of the cross. God has brought down the powers and principalities and politicians work everyday to rebuild them.  As we pass through this season of lent, to the foot of the cross and stand at the empty tomb let us be aware that as Christians we are called to ask ourselves, are we rebuilding the powers that would create more injustice, or are we recommitting to our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace among all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves?

I have one last confession to make; I believe that Jesus came to save the world through love, peace, justice and mercy. I believe that we, as Christians, are called to this same work as disciples, and I believe that any politician who does not work for the reconciliation of the world through love, peace, justice and mercy is not worthy of a vote.

Peace,  Jeremy+

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Give Yourself- A Sermon for Thanksgiving

Several years ago I rented a movie called “Pieces of April” and I re-watched it recently as it is one of my favorite holiday movies. The movie is about a young woman name April, played by a young Katie Holmes, who lives in New York City, and it takes place entirely on Thanksgiving Day. April’s family is coming down from Connecticut and she is cooking the meal.  There are, however a number of complications to the story, the two most important are that April’s mother is dying of cancer and their relationship has been bad for years. The other problem is that April cannot cook and has never tried to make a Thanksgiving meal. She wants to make it special, so she plans to cook a turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, Waldorf salad, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce, from a can of course.

As she opens her small oven that day, she realize that it has stopped working. It being Thanksgiving Day the building superintendent is out and the wait is too long for an outside repairman. So April is forced to go door to door in her building looking for an oven to borrow. The first couple she finds are Eugene and Eyvette in 2B. They let her have their oven for 2 hours until they have to start their own meal. Eugene scoffs at April’s use of stuffing from a box, until Evette reminds him of his first Turkey, the “half cooked affair that no one could eat”, and his second turkey that was burned to a crisp. Wayne in 5D helps her until she hurts his feelings and finally a nice Chinese family finishes the cooking.

The movie is made so that you are watching two stories at the same time, one is that of April, the other is of her family driving to the city. Her mother has had a double mastectomy and wears a wig from the effects of chemo. Her mother, Father, sister, brother and grandmother all take the trip together, most of which is spent dreading the trip and reliving painful memories of April growing up. At one point her mother demands that the car be stopped and she jumps out screaming about how she cannot handle one more bad memory.

Pieces of April deals with one subject from two points of view, what happens if this day doesn’t turn out right, what happens if it is a disaster? The anxiety builds over the turkey not being cooked and Thanksgiving not turning out the way it is supposed, to because it may be her mother’s last.

This family lives into something we all have a tendency towards, maybe we could call it the mythology of Thanksgiving. You all know what I am talking about, we almost all hold ourselves to an ideal that no one could possibly meet on Thanksgiving. We constantly think that next door everyone is happy and sitting down to the most perfect Martha Stewart meal. That their family doesn’t fight, that and everyone is on time. That when they sit down the turkey is moist and the dressing has just the right amount of every spice, those people next door or down the street don’t have to worry about burning the rolls or the meringue. But I want to let you in on something, there is no place down the street, every family is just like yours and nothing like yours, each unique but at the same time similar.

Jesus tells us today from our reading Matthew 6:25-34, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. …So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” This instruction, from our savior, is meant to remind us of one thing we forget, especially around the holidays, each of you is a beloved child of God, and that, in and of itself deserves thanksgiving.

I say it is meant to remind us because we forget all the time who we are, we try to become something else, someone else, we set our expectations so high that there is no way we could ever meet them. Let me give you an example, I’m not going to ask for a show of hands but I’ll bet some of you will spend you entire Thanksgiving meal listening to the cook tell everyone what is wrong with each dish. “Well,” they will say, “this sweet potato casserole doesn’t taste at all like my mothers, I bet I had bad brown sugar,” “Oh these this stuffing has too much sage.”, “…does this banana pudding taste right”? On and on, to the point that all anyone can remember from year to year is that things were messed up. We miss the present moment for worrying about what it’s not. This is not like last year, or when we were five, or how it will be next year, and you’re right it’s not like that and it’s not supposed to be. There will never be another year like this, nor another month, week, day or hour. This is the only day we have.

Just so it’s not a surprise I want to tell you that, later today someone in this room will cut into a turkey that will be too dry to eat. Now here’s how I know you all have expectations of Thanksgiving, I’ll bet most of you said to yourself, “well that won’t be me”, those of you who didn’t say that will probably spend the few hours worrying about it. The question is, what will you do if it is your Turkey? Will you forget who you are and curse the recipe you got from Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay and spend the rest of your meal sulking. Will it break you? You wanted the same reaction those people on TV always get. You know what I’m talking about, that look of bliss that crosses the face of someone who just tasted Martha Stewart’s white truffle dessert. How with their mouth full they say “Oh my God this is so good”.

Your expectations about how things are supposed to be keeps you blind to the way things actually are. Jesus makes the point that we are to strive first for the kingdom of God, and I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like, but the end of Pieces of April may give us a glimpse. After a day of anxiety and worry, her family and new boyfriend sit down at a table with the Chinese family that helped her cook her turkey and the black couple who taught her how to fix real cranberry sauce. Her small apartment is full of people eating together who don’t know each other, sharing what they had. Just by being present to one another they made the experience real. When we spend our time worrying about what might have been or what could be, we rob those around us of the only thing we have to give, our self.

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Sometimes Things Suck

I wish that this was not so hard. 14 years after September 11th and this has been one of the hardest anniversaries. I have no idea why. There are probably a million theories as to why grief and trauma sneak up on people years after an event. Some of those theories are great and many of the treatments for the pain of hurt and loss are helpful and allow people to live their lives. I know they have helped me. But as my therapist says, “All psychology is made up”. No one really knows for sure how it all works, we just know that some of it does and we stumble, mostly in the dark, until something works for us. Other times nothing works. Everything just feels like a storm of pain, sadness and grief.

For most people September 11th was an event. It was a terrible event, but it was a thing that happened in a far away place, something experienced on a screen. For those of us who were there, and spent time working at the World Trade Center site, it was not something we experienced on a screen, we experienced it in our bodies. With all of our senses we took it in and it became part of us.

It is a part of me that I wish I didn’t have. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor.  I would gladly give it back. Maybe then I would not flinch at the sound of a low flying plane, or have my day ruined by the smell of a certain type of fire. Maybe then September could go back to being a beautiful time of year to celebrate a birthday and enjoy the start of the college football season. Maybe it would not take days to realize that I am snapping at people I love and really just putting on an act for everyone else. Maybe I would not be awake with nightmares at 4am for weeks before and after.

I was raised as a southern boy to become a southern man.  One of the first rules of life I learned was to “suck it up”. Other expressions of this rule were “Be a man” and “Don’t be a pussy”. In other words, take your feelings about a particular thing and either ignore them, smash them, or turn them into one of the acceptable male emotions like anger. It took me years to unravel this fucked up emotional system, but when it comes to the big stuff I still slip into that mode and I hear the voices, “That was 14 years ago, get on with your life”, “You really didn’t lose that much compared to other people who were there. No one you knew died, you weren’t actually in the towers.” “Other people did so much more the you did.”  But better than the guilt and shame, are the over responsibility messages that say, “You have a family, and a child. You can’t be sad, they need you.” “You are a priest and the rector of a big church, there is too much to do, your parishioners need you”. I understand, on my best days, in the midst of pain and hurt that all of these messages are bullshit. The last couple of weeks have not been my best days. I have been on auto pilot at best, shut down and distant or aggravated and frustrated with everything the rest of the time.

I guess I should trust the people who love me and tell me I am acting like a jerk or when I am not “there” . Usually I just get defensive and try harder to act like nothing’s wrong, try harder to not feel what I am actually feeling. That never really turns out well.

This year for some unknown combination of reasons I am really, really sad. The grief and trauma of both the day, September 11th,  and the weeks and months that followed takes a huge toll on so many people. It takes a huge toll on me.  Most of the time this trauma is one that plays in the background, like a radio in another room of the house. Sometimes the volume gets turned up. This year the volume has been turned way up and it sucks. I know over the next month or so the sadness and anxiety will recede as it always does.  I just really wish this was not so hard.

14 years ago today a group of 5 seminarians, including me, spent hours on the corner of Church and Fulton Street behind St Paul’s chapel serving the relief workers at Ground Zero. Throughout the night we were listening for the whistle that warned us to take cover from glass still falling from the buildings in the area. We made the first pot of coffee at St Paul’s Chapel which would later become a relief and pilgrimage site for thousands of people. We organized relief supplies pouring into lower Manhattan from groups around the country, including shoes, dog food, milk, cigarettes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Kansas with notes written by kindergarten students.  It was a haunting night spent in the shadow of the burning pile that was once the World Trade Center.

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