Monday, May 29, 2017

What do we do now?


Historic note…Good Shepherd Faith Church started as a mission project by West  Church. It’s original property was bought from West Church for the sum of $1 and the first service in the new building came in 1887.
The Good Shepherd
Today it is the last non-Lincoln Center or Julliard building on the block…There has always been a close friendship between West Park and GSF so it was a fitting place for my first sermon after retiring from West-Park…
Guest at Good-Shepherd Faith
Christ the King

Here’s what I  had to say:

Well,I think we could all agree that we live in….different times….they are unlike anything I have lived through in my lifetime before. A bit like living in an alternative reality. With no clear idea of what is going to  happen next.  
Looking up from the altar

So what then are we to do? I’m not going to say a whole lot about the political work that may need to be done beyond a reminder that in our tradition, no political candidate or party can ever be the full expression of the will of God. Every government needs to be  held accountable. It’ sour traditional Calvinist understanding that none of us is perfect, that we all fall short.  And that we need the shared collective wisdom of all of us to figure out our path. And that all of us together are smarter than any one of us.  That’s the Presbyterian way of doing things. And that our American republican form of government was inspired by Presbyterian polity. 

I believe that more than ever we need to be building and strengthening Christian  communities. Communities of people committed to following Jesus.  I was developing a seminar and used the phrase “…in the age of Trump…”. And my partner corrected me, “No…this is the age of Jesus…and will be…”  It’s a matter of where we see the ultimate authority.  

Our former Presbyterian Church (USA) moderator Rick Ufford-Chase has said that our communities need these marks, or commitments:
  1. That we will be there for each other (when it hits the fan…)
  2. To engage in disciplined study together
  3. To worship together (sharing at the deepest level)
  4. To act together

So…in the church year we’re in the season of Easter, almost to Pentecost. Jesus is talking to his disciples as to what to expect without him physically present. it’s kind of like that for us. He says this at the Last Supper.  So we’ll see what he has to say, how it might relate to living in Christian community. 

It begins with LOVE…so easy to talk about….

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments..” It’s pretty clear…that conditional IF…if we love him, we will keep his commandments…There’s  a saying among my Jewish friends that it’s more importing to obey God than to believe in God.  (Last summer at the Wild Goose Festival I heard someone say, “I don’t believe in God, but I love His with all my heart…” I’m thinking of Simone Weil, the French philosopher who once lived on the Upper West Side. 

At 549 Riverside Drive the plaque says:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few minds to notice that things and beings exist. Since my childhood I have not wanted anything else but to receive the complete revelation of this before dying.

She also said, “Love is not consolation, it is light”

 She said that in society, we are wrong to focus so much on rights. What we need to focus on is obligations. It’s interesting that as anti-Judaism as she was, her approach to ethics is so within the tradition. And of course, for Jesus, the two most important commandments, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and to love you neighbor as yourself.”

Now it gets more interesting.  He will leave us another Advocate…not sure if you know this or not, but for Jesus, Satan, the one he knew as tempter, was like the prosecuting attorney. For me it’s like that accusing voice oil your head that never lets up. I think it’s like that for most of us…with the exception of say, Bernie Madoff…the voice that questions you, fills you with self doubt…

So the Advocate…is the defense attorney…Jesus uses this wonderful phrase “…the Spirit of Truth…”  I have a friend who says one of her problems with liberal Christians, liberals in general, is the constant relativity of truth…as an artist (and a Christian) she believes her work needs to be true…for me it’s like when you hear a piece of music, or see a performance and everything inside of you goes YES…

I’m thinking Jesus was like that for people…they saw him in action, and everything inside said YES….none of this Pontius Pilate,”what is truth?”  

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” There is no separation between love and obedience….Ofelia Ortega, a minister from Cuba, once came to a Presbyterian General Assembly whose theme, based on an old hymn, was LOVE SO AMAZING……In her assembly sermon, she's said No me quire amor maravillosa pero amor eficaz…that is I don’t want love amazing, I want effective love…

The image Jesus uses is that we will not be orphaned…in his day, that also meant not only without parents, but without resources…that’s why throughout the old testament we hear the phrase “widows and orphans…” the most marginalized and vulnerable..and for some of us today, that being without parents, children or relatives…that feeling of not uncommon in this city…

you in me and I in you….he says….

It is we who need to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus hold each other up, to heal hurt, especially the aloneness, to be there for each other. The reformer Zwingli always said that in communion, it is not the bread and wine that is transformed, but it is we who become the body of the risen Lord

Let me make it clear here…we are entering into…already are…in a time when being a Christian is not so much a system of beliefs but a way of life….to love Jesus, in his terms, the true leap of faith is obedience….

We are also entering into a time when more and more  churches will not be able to afford full time pastors. (More than half of New York City Presbytery…) That means to me that we need to create communities that have cohesion and coherence and sustainability even without a regular pastor. 

You are to be commended for the community you have and are creating here…

I will close with these words…

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Following the service, a visitor said that Simone Weil was very special to him and that he appreciated the reference to her.  It felt good to preach again….it was a good Sunday morning…

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Looking for Jesus with Reza Aslan


In 2013, Reza Aslan was at the center of controversy and  popular media attention with the release of his book, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. What really put Aslan in the public eye…while greatly boosting his book sales..was an over the top hostile interview by FOX TV’s Lauren Green. Critics had a field day writing with the thinly veiled condescension of his lack of scholarly credentials, lack of awareness of most recent scholarship, and the validity of his conclusions. At the end of the day, Zealot did not really deserve the criticism or the controversy. It is a good book, extremely (and entertainingly) well written, and with source validation. (Aslan does his notes as essays at the back of the book..)It does not break new ground in the search for the historic Jesus nor are its conclusions particularly radical. It was written not for the  academy but for the general book buying public.

Raised as a Muslim with a brief experience as a “Born again Christian,”  Aslan felt drawn in to his own search for the historical Jesus. (A search I might add that seems less important as time goes by except as curiosity..) After a vibrant and detailed description of first century Palestine, especially Jerusalem and the Galilee, perhaps the best part of the book, Aslan then describes the world of First Century Judaism in which Jesus’ life and ministry will be lived. For anyone who has ever made their way through the intricately detailed descriptions of the Temple and its practises in Leviticus and Numbers, Aslan brings it into life with all its sounds and smells earthiness and wonder. That alone makes the book worthwhile.

After examining  his evidence, Aslan concludes that Jesus was a charismatic working class Jewish activist (with skills in healing arts, magic and exorcism) but mainly a firebrand who was dedicated to ending the shared hegemony of the Roman empire and their ethno-religious elite Jewish collaborators. (Aslan draws heavily from John Meier's A Marginal Jew..) Jesus’ understanding of his own Messianic role remain somewhat uncertain.

He then has the task of trying to determine how this one particular zealot managed to break beyond his own timeline and inspire the creation of a global religion. And here Aslan must explore the difference, and the gap between, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ of the Church. And for all his clarity of the compromised nature of much of scripture, he nevertheless draws much of his information from them. He ultimately finds the church with two realities, one still connected to the Jewish community ethnically and religiously, led by Jesus’ brother James, and the other the global universal missionary religion primarily founded by Paul of Tarsus. And this is the version that will ultimately win out.

In the end, where does this leave us? For Christian social activists, if Aslan’s portrait of Jesus is right, we should spend some time in reflecting on what it means about our commitment to pacifism and non-violent social change. If the “real” Jesus was open to change by any means necessary, what does that mean for us? To the extent that Aslan brings the historic context of Jesus  vividly alive, it’s a call to having an equally detailed understanding of our own context into which we bring our reality of Jesus. it It’s worth spending some time on these questions, even if the truth is that more important than the historic Jesus is the Christ of the Church as he has come to be understood, and known, over all these years.

It is the Jesus of Gandhi and King and the Trocmes and  Dorothy Day that will be definitive for the new radical emerging communities dedicated to Christianity, not as a belief system but as a way of life that demands mutual accountability, discipline and love. A new kind of zealot, if you
 will, informed by the Jesus of history but sustained by the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

Reza Aslan’s is a good read and worth your time, if only for the graphic experience of Jesus ‘ context. 

As one final note, Reza Aslan is one of the advisors and producers for the apocalyptic HBO speculative drama the Leftovers…a show that takes loss and mystery and faith seriously. One more reason to watch….

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Health Class


Health Class

By now, most reasonable Americans are raging with anger over the new American Health Care Act passed by a pusillanimous House that will put health care our of reach for tens of thousands. In reality, even before this legislative fiasco, health and class in the US have been tragically linked. Even myself as a middle class Protestant pastor has not been exempt from the vagaries of the system.
Last year, through a series of bureaucratic errors and personal misunderstandings as I entered into the status of senior citizen, I had the misfortune of falling out of my system for awhile. Long enough ( a few months) to have to make a special appeal to be let back in despite over 40 years in the program. Thankfully, grace prevailed and I am now insured. Well, with two glaring exceptions.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with depression  and ADHD. I was lucky enough to get in to the premier ADD clinic in the US. Even with its ever rising fees, I stayed with them for my med psych needs with 50% reimbursement from my program as an “out of network provider.” But in my senior program, that is no longer possible so I have been off my meds for awhile. 

Then for an issue that really enrages me, there is no more dental coverage offered, It is infuriating that in this country teeth are a class privilege. The wealthy have teeth. The rest, dentures if we are lucky. With a history of peril disease and tooth loss, I am aware of imminent problems that will for the first time be visible, and for me, humiliating. And I have no extra money, savings or credit.

So I Asked my friends. Some have plans, Some go to dental schools. Some go to the Philippines. Or Mexico, I go to Google in search of free clinics and come up with one not too far away in Harlem. Nevertheless, as the day and time approach, I am increasingly anxious. Is it wrong for me to go to  clinic? An I taking someone’s place? That’s the altruistic side. The other side is less noble, as in will I be embarrassed to walk into a clinic? Ultimately necessity sends me on my way.

The clinic is at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary’s, long a beacon of hope in the Manhattanville section. A church where I have spoken, heard Hilary Clinton and met with mourning union members after 9-11. They have an interfaith urban food garden. And a full service clinic.

I walk in and my anxiety quickly disappears. It is bright and cheerful. Open with many round tables for consultations and conversations. The intake volunteers are welcoming and respectful of each person’s privacy and dignity, I discover that not only can I get my teeth looked at but get a psych eval as well.

After a short wait, I’m taken in by a team of two dental students and a supervisor. They take a close look and leave me with a sense of hope. My hope to avoid noticeable gaps is possible. And even affordable. Preserving most of the teeth I still have is also possible. Though I will need to go to a higher level facility for that work. They leave me with a list  of affordable options near where I live. There’s more work ahead for me, but I do feel hope. 

After a few more minutes waiting time, two attractive and warm young psychiatric medical students sit with me at a table and do a full psych eval. I’m amazed at how easy it is to talk with them. I can even smile sometimes talking about depression. My critical and philosophical thoughts about suicide. They ask if my faith helps me in those moments. And I describe how its more not wanting to hurt my family or burden then with having to clean up all the messes I’ve left. I’m aware of how anger ultimately overtakes the sadness. (Not sure what I’d feel if I was alone.) I remember my architect friend of years who leaped off the George Washington Bridge. And my love of how people get through struggles, The beauty and courage if that. Eventually I turn to humor. Here are surprisin  tests like naming presidents. Or counting backwards by 7. They go off to consult with their supervisor. And return with my prescription. And an invitation to return. I am very satisfied.

I learn that while not an official program of Columbia University Medical School, all the volunteers and supervisors are from Columbia. They are all fresh and eager to help and make you feel good about this experience and they are the future cream of the crop of doctors and dentists.

I walk home feeling relieved. Happy that such a program exists, ready to recommend it to to friends who may need to recommend a member. Or even go themselves. Like me. And I am still enraged that my health has ultimately to depend ton the altruism of volunteers, not the obligation of the society I live in. We have a difficult road ahead of us. 

For more info go to :

Monday, May 1, 2017

"Judas" by Amos Oz: traitor? Or?


The writer Amos Oz has been a constant and consistent voice for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict speaking against occupation and for a two state solution since the 1967 war. He has steadily moved left…from Labor to Meretz…while always remaining an unapologetic Zionist. He has frequently supported what he views as “acts of selfdefense” only to quickly move towards opposition as the death toll rises. And he has a history of taking risks to establish and maintain connections with Palestinians, even at personal cost. He is a classic left Zionist with what appears to be a voice that grows ever weaker. And his weariness and frustration shows through his writings. 

His latest novel, Judas, is  an important and valuable resource for a number of critical conversations.  Perhaps the deep question being posed by Judas is that of the nature of betrayal…what does it mean to be a traitor? And is it possible that one who is commonly perceived to be  a traitor may actually be closer to the truth?

Judas tells the story, set in 1959,  of  Shmuel Ash, a Biblical scholar who comes to be a companion to the elderly Zionist Gershom Wald and a mysterious middle aged woman, Attila Abravanel, his widowed daughter in law and daughter of a deceased early Zionist leader, Shealtiel Abravanel, who argued against the creation of the state. 

In what is on the surface a classic coming of age story, Oz can use his characters to explore ideas that are generally taboo. For example, Jewish fascination with Jesus, as a Jew. Oz’ fictional student gives a pretty thorough overview of historic Jewish reactions to Jesus. But Ash has his own fascination centered in the character of the most profound of traitors, Judas Iscariot. For Ash, Judas is “..the first, the last, (perhaps) the only Christian…”. Ash argues that there would have been no Christianity without Judas, the only disciple Jesus could truly trust. ( The gnostic  “Gospel of Judas” published in 2006 makes this same argument.) Oz thus adds his voice to the popular and culturally ambivalent attraction to Judas from Kazantzakis to Jesus Christ Suoerstar. 

Interwoven with the exploration of  Jesus and Judas is the story of Shealtiel Abravanel who believed that the idea of a Jewish state was inherently flawed and wrong from the start. That only a multicultural, multi-religious  community could survive, Any other solution would be doomed to continual bloodshed. For this, Abravanel is branded a traitor and forced to leave the leadership circle. (For his efforts to retain relationships with Palestinians, Oz, like Abravanel has also been labelled a “traitor.”) Through Abravanel, Oz is able to express what he may feel but not be able to say on his own.

The cynical Wald, meanwhile, in yet another voice, perceives any effort to “reform the world” as doomed. …”whoever comes along to reform it soon sinks in rivers of blood…” Wald does have a word for dreamers, however. 

“…blessed are the dreamers and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreams and dreamers the curse that lies on us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them…”

One wonders if this may be Amos Oz’ best self-understanding at this point of his life?  With both its longing and its cynicism.

Judas would appear to be a great book for a neighborhood  interfaith conversation of rabbis and ministers, the arguments at a one-step away literary distance but still clear. The questions he raises are well worth exploring.