Monday, May 12, 2014

Journeying with the Jesus of justice

Some church members wonder about my passion for justice, which I understand very simply as doing unto others as I would like them to do unto me.

Why do I care about justice? Because in my spiritual journey, I have discovered that God cares about justice and calls me to do the same. 

God's will, I believe, is for a just and loving world--one in which all God’s children are treated with respect and dignity. God, as I know him and believe in him, creates every human being in his image and likeness, as Genesis puts it. God is in every person, and every person is in God.

In the Lord's Prayer, I pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." I not only say this prayer, but, with God's help, I try to enact it. To paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican mystic, If I pray for God's kingdom to come, then I have to work to achieve it. 

Humbly and feebly, I strive for a better, a more just world for everyone, especially for those people the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah once described as the “underclass.” The underclass includes the working poor, the hungry, people without health insurance, vulnerable children and elderly people. The underclass lacks the power that other classes in America possess, including education and training, political networks, money and access to decision-makers, status.

I see and serve the underclass daily as a pastor, as well as through Christ Church's outreach ministries and my active involvement in community groups and on various boards, including the Board of Directors of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

At our recent community dinner at church, with 85 people in attendance, I went from table to table, welcoming our guests and learning a little about their lives and challenges. Most of them never imagined that they would be homeless or would rely on food banks or church suppers to survive. One guest, a former teacher with a master’s degree, told me that she never thought she would have a nervous breakdown and then lose her job.

My concern about justice grew slowly, beginning in the Roman Catholic Church. A child of Vatican II, I learned from Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and from my priests and nuns that Christ cared for the underclass, that he urged his followers to work for their wellbeing. I give God thanks that today Pope Francis is urging all Christians to work for a just and peaceful world.

As a young adult at the University of Louisville, I became active in the Ecumenical Center. At the urging of my Roman Catholic chaplain, I began to read Thomas Merton, a priest, monk, social critic and activist. Merton called Christians, not only to daily conversion to Christ, but also to the conversion of the world, that the world might become God’s kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.

After college Penny and I became active in a house church, a weekly informal gathering of Christians in one another’s homes. Our church was dedicated to Christ and to social justice. Activism was new to me. I felt self-conscious and frightened as I participated in public protests—against the death penalty, the building of a nuclear power plant in southern Indiana and the USwars in Central America.

I never imagined that my faith in Christ would lead me to kneel with others in prayer at the federal courthouse in Louisville as a man was sentenced to death, that I would begin corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama, that I would spend the day with him in a cell, there getting to know him better and praying with him (This inmate, Wallace Thomas, became my friend and was later executed.), that I would become an active memberof the Nuclear Freeze movement, which sought to abolish nuclear weapons.

I began to write about social justice and to publish articles and reviews in national publications, including The Other Side and Sojourners. I wrote occasional opinion columns about peace and justice for The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. Colleagues at the public relations agency where I worked thought my views controversial. A family member said I should keep my opinions to myself or jeopardize my career. I kept writing.

By the late 1970s, Penny and I were attending Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in Louisville. I was attracted to the cathedral because of its beautiful music and traditional worship, its focus on fostering the life of prayer, its lively, engaged community and its strong commitment to serving the poor and needy.

The more I learned about the Episcopal Church, including its history of championing justice and peace, the more convinced I was that the Episcopal Church was the church God was calling me to join. The lively preaching of the canon, the assistant minister, with whom I sometimes disagreed, challenged me to see Jesus more fully, as God’s compassion for all human beings--be they homeless, hungry, people of color, gays and lesbians. I am glad I listened to the canon. Listening to him, I was listening to Christ, God’s living word.

I moved from my birth church, the Roman Catholic Church, into my new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, on Trinity Sunday, June 1, 1980. The Episcopal Church continues to shape my vision of what it means for me to follow Jesus.

My graduate theological education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and, later, at The General Theological Seminary in New York City exposed me to the prophetic (speaking the inconvenient truth) tradition of both Judaism and Christianity. I studied the Hebrew Scriptures and language and immersed myself in the world and work of the prophets of Israel, who spoke for God to his people. The prophets urged the Israelites to abandon their idols and to be faithful to God alone, living according to his law and loving and caring for the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable.

I studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and later martyr in Nazi Germany, and of Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who famously said that the preacher should prepare his sermons with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other. I discovered the Social Gospel Movement, which called for the transformation of society. I studied Liberation Theology, learning to read the Bible with the help of modern social, economic and political analysis. Evangelical Christians and Quakers of 18th and 19th century America who sought to abolish slavery inspired me, as did Anglicans and Episcopalians who served the poor in the slums of London and American cities in the 19th century.

Also during my seminary days, I saw poverty first hand when I served an African-American church in Louisville and, later, a church on New York's West Side, which ministered to the homeless and hungry. I also saw the power of the pulpit to awaken Christians to Christ who lived in the needy. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25, as I show compassion to the needy, I show compassion to Jesus himself.

I met and was challenged by modern-day prophets, including Philip Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, who opposed the Vietnam War. Humbly, Father Berrigan said that he hadn’t yet become a Christian but that he was “becoming a Christian.” I know that I will never become fully Christian in this world. But I trust that Christ is pleased by my desire to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly and to follow him more nearly, as the blessed Richard of Chichester prayed. 

At General, I studied with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize while there because of his anti-apartheid work in his homeland. The Bible came to life through his lectures on the church in the modern world and in his preaching in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Small in size, he is nevertheless a spiritual giant who is ablaze with God’s passion for a new world of justice, freedom, peace and reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu has left a lasting imprint upon me--my faith, my concerns, my writing, my teaching and, especially, my preaching

My formation in Christ makes me the person I am, the Christian I hope to be, living into the fullness of my Baptismal Covenant, and the priest I believe God called and ordained me to be.

As a priest in southern Kentucky, then in New York state and now at Christ Church for nearly 19 years, I have sought to live my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and my Lord, my faith in Christ and my commitment to him constantly evolving as I have dealt with the needs of the people in my parishes and my communities. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, I helped found the first regional support ministry in southern Kentucky for people living with the disease. With hunger growing in the Southern Tier of New York, church members and I opened a food pantry in our church. When white power groups started recruiting in the area, I spoke out against the evil of racism. With my encouragement, the church opened our classrooms to Laotian and other Asian refugees so they could learn English.

In reflecting here on some of my journey with Jesus, I hope you have a better understanding of who I am, why I am passionate about the well-being of all of God’s children, why I see advocacy for and service to the poor and needy as an integral part of my faith and my calling from God.This history of mine shapes my faith and spirituality, my values and core beliefs and my actions for a better and more just world.

When we share our stories with one another in the spirit of love, we build relationships of respect, trust and lively concern for one another and for others. In conversation, then, let us all grow more fully into the image and likeness of Jesus, the compassion of God.And let us find our unity in him and in service to all his children.


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