Posted by: dacalu | 7 October 2017

Birth Control and Business

My friend Sam recently asked me to comment on the complicated subject of religious freedom and US business. I thought some others might be interested as well, so here is my answer.



“I wanted to pick your brain on the rolling back of birth control benefits to women in the U.S., and the concept of “religious freedom” as the justification for doing so.”



There are so many moving parts to this question, it’s tough to know where to start, but let me break it down into manageable pieces.


The Morality of Birth Control

I see “birth control” as fundamentally divided into two categories: abortion and contraception. I see them as very different, in both morality and policy.

I am against abortion and am not convinced, on first principles, that it should be legal in the United States. I also recognize that it is currently legal under the heading of “right to privacy” as understood by the Supreme Court.

I favor contraception, as I think it allows humans to have greater and more conscientious control of their own behavior. Thomas Aquinas and countless other theologians argue that we act best when we act under the direction of our intellect. I see no reason why this should not apply to pregnancy. (Note that Thomas disapproves of contraception because he thinks any form of sex that does not result – at least nominally – in reproduction is bad. I believe this is contrary to New Testament ethics.)

There is some question in my mind about the desirability of contraceptive methods that allow fertilization, but not implantation, but that’s a bit more technical of an argument. I’m going to allow them under contraception in the interests of erring toward the mother’s will, noting that the majority of zygotes do not implant in any case. I feel abortion is wrong (accept in cases where either mother or fetus is not expected to survive to birth) because it involves actively choosing the death of an individual.

From here on out, I will use contraception to refer to all other forms of birth control, including the morning after pill, IUD, birth control pills, condoms, spermicides, …


The Legality of Birth Control

Within certain broad limits, both abortion and contraception are completely legal in the United States.

To the best of my knowledge, however, no federally funded or federally mandated health insurance coverage includes abortion coverage. (Please comment if you have evidence that I’m wrong on this – but only if you have a specific program with details.) To be clear, many employers are required to provide health insurance to their employees. That insurance does cover some forms of contraception. In no case are employers required to provide health insurance that covers abortion.

If a federal mandate to provide insurance covering abortion were proposed, I would be against it. I do not, however, think it would be unconstitutional.


The Religious Liberties of Businesses

Personally, I do not believe that businesses should have freedom of religion. I think the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case is judicial activism and untenable in long term. Let me explain why.

I see neither a natural law nor a social contract argument for why we have a right to form a corporation or other kind of business. Rather, I believe that a business license is a privilege granted by the state. It grants financial privileges; it comes with obligations. I have no inherent right to a driver’s license, a hunting license, or a real estate license. I do, perhaps have a right to a marriage license. (Truthfully, I don’t think I do. I have a right to be married, but not to have the state recognize my marriage. Still, it’s a common legal idea at the moment, so we’ll grant it.) Nonetheless, I accept that marriage comes with conditions and expectations. There is no reason to believe that a business license does not also have conditions and expectations.

So, an individual without a business license has the right to free religious expression. A business might give up that right when hiring an employee. Do they? And should they? I will argue yes.


The Civil Ethics of Business

The purpose of a business license is to insure pro-social business practices. The society and the state have an interest in regulated ethical treatment between parties. I view this from a social contract perspective. The government provides vital infrastructure and, more importantly, a stable currency and market for business. Businesses in turn make a commitment to certain minimal regulation that preserves that environment. We can (and should) argue about the extent of this regulation, but I hope we agree that some level of regulation is not only desirable, but necessary.

Trivially, taxes and/or tariffs are necessary to fund the treasury and mint; therefore, businesses commit to honest reporting on income and transactions.

Less trivially, trust and consistency are necessary for market stability (at the most basic level); therefore, businesses commit to refrain from destabilizing and overly predatory behaviors (e.g., counterfeiting, false advertising, breach of contract, child labor, slavery, and prostitution).


Different Perspectives on Regulation

One of the major differences between Democratic and Republican perspectives, as far as I can tell, concerns our concept of predatory behaviors. We have consensus that slavery and child labor represent unacceptable monetization of humanity. Market forces should not control their existence and businesses must refrain from both practices. Most people would add prostitution to that list. We consider it a vice, not because sex is bad, but because the sale of sex too often results in the degradation and disenfranchisement of women.

Things become more difficult when we consider other predatory practices. Republicans tend to be concerned about drug sales and pornography. Democrats tend to be concerned about employee and consumer rights. Personally, I am concerned about predatory lending practices, one of the few issues specifically addressed in the Old and New Testaments (note 1), yet seemingly of no concern to Christian politicians.


Individual Rights

US business law represents a long struggle over how to regulate business. This is a good thing as it demonstrates social engagement in the government and in the economy. What is the general welfare and how does business promote it?

I do not see the fundamental divide being between business owners and employees, but between capitalists and labor. How does our regulation of business advantage and disadvantage each? Laborers have gained many rights, including freedom from discrimination and harassment. Meanwhile, they have lost many rights to bargain collectively. Capitalists have also gained many rights, including the right to force employees into arbitration and the right to avoid many types of liability by forming corporations. There is clearly a power imbalance here, but we argue about how large and how it should be addressed.

As a student of Adam Smith, I think laborers should have more rights (their interest aligns with market interests) and capitalists should have less (their interests do not).


Back to Birth Control

I think that all citizens have a social contract right to health care. I think the most efficient way to provide this would be a single-payer system. I think it should include contraception, because intentional reproduction and sexual health are in the public interest – and because it gives women much greater control over their lives, their health, and their livelihood.

The country does not want a single-payer system. We chose instead to have employers provide health insurance. So be it. We decided that providing health care should be part of the business license contract. We decided that contraception coverage should be part of that insurance. And so, it is. I do not always agree with the decisions we make as a country. I think there are many flaws in this one, but given a choice between guaranteed health insurance through employers and no guaranteed health insurance, I choose the former. Given a choice between contraceptive coverage and not, I choose the former.

You don’t get to pick and choose what you want from your government. All of us either opt in (pay taxes, follow laws, and receive benefits) or opt out (and face the consequences). We each contribute to the character of the contract (voting, etc.), but both benefits and costs reflect a compromise of 200 million people. Trust me, I could really go for cafeteria government right now – please give me the economy with a side of academia, hold the military industrial complex. I’d also be happy with 4/9 Supreme Court Justices and about half of the Congress. It doesn’t work that way.


Opting Out for Religious Reasons

Employee benefits are part of the social contract, part of the business contract. They get negotiated at the highest level. But perhaps we can allow people out of them to protect their liberties. It sounds good on the face of it, but it doesn’t work. I am a pacifist. Does that mean I can avoid paying the 16% of my taxes that goes to the military? Sign me up. Does that mean that Christian Scientist employers can avoid providing health insurance all together? What if your religion promotes slavery? American Christianity did only 155 years ago. Perhaps you don’t have to pay some workers at all?

You have a right to your religious beliefs. You also have a right to do business, but only under the conditions set by the law. You do not have a right to do business in accord with your religious beliefs if they contravene the law and – here’s the kicker – take away from the rights of your fellow citizens. My religious liberty ends where yours begins, and vice versa. Thus, Catholic employers do not have a right to impose their beliefs on their employees. Nor, in the US, do they have the right to hire only Catholic employees.



I am a priest. Let me be completely clear. Faith will ask you to go against the social contract, the law, and the society.

I want a society that separates church and state so that my faith is neither privileged nor persecuted. I give up the chance to have my theology dictate the law because I know history. It will always end up with law dictating my theology.

So, when my faith makes me go against the law, I pay the legal consequences – willingly. I have great sympathy for Evangelicals and Catholics who want to preserve their consciences by not providing health insurance with contraception. I have no sympathy for their expectation – either theological or legal – that they can make money while doing so. Our social contract is not set up that way and I, for one, am glad. It sounds too much like fining people for not belonging to your faith.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


Note 1: Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Ezekiel 18:5-17; Psalm 15:5; Luke 6:34-35

Posted by: dacalu | 2 October 2017

Two Kinds of Pro-Life

As the country struggles over identity and values, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have Christian values. Following Jesus is important to me and, I think, beneficial to others, but I find that many people use “Christian values” to refer to something quite different. In this post, I talk about two different ways we can be “Pro-Life” and why I am one, but not the other. Pro-Life can mean Anti-Killing or Pro-Begetting.



The principle is straightforward.  Don’t kill humans. This means:


no abortion

no euthanasia

no IVF or stem cell research that kills embryos

no capital punishment

no war


The Old Testament is not Anti-Killing. The commandment says, “Thou shalt not commit murder” (Ex 20:13, Deut 5:17). The Hebrew (ratsach), Greek (phoneuseo), and Latin (occido) versions all have a connotation of killing someone unjustly. It does not rule out justified homicide. [The King James Version just gets it wrong. JPS, NRSV, NIV, and NKJV all say “murder.”] So, there is nothing inconsistent about the Israelites slaying the Canaanites. God calls for killing people repeatedly in the Old Testament, mostly for idolatry, murder, and impurity. A casual count yields 41 commands to kill people in the first five books alone (Note 1).

The New Testament is Anti-Killing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not even to get angry with one another (Mt 5:21-22). Jesus speaks strongly against killing people and advocates love and forgiveness for enemies, even when they harm us (Note 2). Jesus life represents the ultimate act of compassion in the face of physical abuse. Strict Anti-Killing was the dominant position among Christians for the first three centuries. After Christianity became mainstream, self-defense, policing (killing some to protect all), and eventually war (killing some to protect others) were given theological justifications.

I accept that, in limited cases, killing people might be acceptable. The primary of these falls under the head of “secondary effects.” I’m not against stopping pain, preventing death, or stopping aggression in such a way that results in death, but only when all other alternatives have been explored and exhausted. The principle holds, though, and basically beats all other arguments. Don’t kill people. I even go so far as to think carefully and minimize the killing of other animals. The makes me a Pro-Life Anti-Killing advocate.



How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”–Mother Theresa

There is a second kind of Pro-Life that might be called Pro-Begetting or Pro-procreation. Have babies. This means:


no abortion

no contraception

no non-procreative sex


It also means there is a positive obligation to marry and have children. The Pro-Begetting version of Pro-Life explains why the Boy Scouts of America accepted Muslim, Buddhist, and Atheist troop leaders before accepting gay troop leaders. It also explains why so many Pro-Life advocates see nothing wrong with capital punishment and war (Note 3).

The Old Testament is Pro-Begetting. The Israelites are repeatedly encouraged to get busy begetting. This begins rhetorically at Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply,” but it continues in statements about the obligation to expand the Tribe of Israel through having children (Note 4). Jewish and Christian scholars have interpreted these as commandments – a moral obligation to have children. The mindset is also clear in the numerous prohibitions against anything that wastes Israelite “seed” – masturbation, sleeping with idolatrous women, bestiality, and male homosexual acts (Note 5).

The New Testament praises marriage and states that husbands and wives have an obligation to sleep with one another (I Cor 7:3-5). Nonetheless, the life of Jesus and the statements of Paul make it clear that there is no obligation to marry or reproduce; some are called to singleness (Notes 6, 7, 8). Paul even suggests that it can be better to avoid spouse and children.

I am in favor of begetting for many people. I simply do not believe that there is any immorality in singleness or non-procreative sex. Nor do I think any reasonable argument for such can be made from the New Testament. On the whole, it seems to lean slightly away – something that has been commented on quite extensively in Christian history. Overpopulation and the need for adoptive and foster parents lead me to believe that there are many other ways to express our parental gifts, which should be valued alongside begetting. This makes me think that the Pro-Life Pro-Begetting mindset is not consistent with Christian virtues when extended as I suggest here. Too often it becomes an excuse to judge others. Too often it distracts from the Pro-Life Anti-Killing ethic that, for me, is part of the Gospel.


Note 1: Ex 19:12, 21:12-17,29, 22:19, 31:14-15, 32:27, 35:2; Lev 20:2,9-16, 20:27, 24:16-17, 24:21, 27:29; Num 1:51, 3:10, 3:38, 15:35, 18:7, 25:5, 31:17, 35:16-18,21,30-31; Deut 13:5,9, 19:12


Note 2: Mt 5:39, 5:44; Lk 6:3, 6:27; Rom 12:17-21; I Thess 5:15; I Pet 3:9


Note 3: An argument might be made about the taking of innocent life, but that would be neither Anti-Killing nor Pro-Begetting. It’s simply an Anti-Murder argument. Without either broad principle, it becomes necessary to wade into questions of innocence (what it is and how you judge it), justification (whether criteria exist which justify killing embryos), and personhood (when a person becomes a person). The Pro-Life principle alone does not address the relevant moral issues.


Note 4: Gen 9:1,7, 38.8; Deut 25:5-9; Isa 45:18


Note 5: Gen 24:3-4, 28:3-4; Ex 22:19, 34:11-16; Lev 18:22-23, 20:13-16; Deut 7:3-4, 27:21; Josh 23:11-13; I Kings 11:2; Ezra 9:12, 10:10-44; Neh 13:23-27


Note 6: Mt 10:37, 19:12; Luke 23:29; Acts 8:36-38 (contra. Deut 23:1); I Cor 7:1,6-8,25-28; Rev 14:4


Note 7: The only exception I am aware of us I Tim 2:15, women “will be saved through childbearing.” I continue to struggle with this passage as the plain reading seems contrary to I Cor 7 and Gal 3:28.


Note 8: This is not in itself an argument for homosexual action or identity; however, it is an argument that there is no positive obligation to heterosexual action or identity in the New Testament.

Posted by: dacalu | 28 September 2017


Back in 2008, I put together a 5 to 10-minute Eucharistic liturgy to use in a flash-mob.  I do not, in general, advocate abbreviating worship this way, but it was a great exercise and helped me think about what is important as a participant – and as a celebrant. A friend recently asked for it, so I thought I’d share it here.

It went well as a flash-mob and as a Eucharist; those of us who participated felt drawn closer to God and one another.  It may not have worked as well without drawing on many hours of community backing it up…but surely that is true of all Eucharists.

The service was designed with placards to be read by the congregation, so they’d know what was going on and what to say.  [The placards appear in brackets.]


Priest: Welcome, God is with you.

Many: And you.          [And you]

(Reading: Mark 12:28-31)         [WORD]

Reader: One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Stop…Breath…Love…Serve.          [REVERB (Sermon)]

Prayer leader: Let us pray.          [PRAYER]

For the World…(10s)

For the People…(10s)

For the Church…(10s)

For life, for death, for joy, for sorrow…(10s)

For peace, for purpose…(10s)          

For the world to come…(10s)

We confess…(10s)     

We have wandered.          [We have wandered]

Bring us home.          [Bring us home]

Grace, peace, and purpose be upon you.

Greet your neighbors with a sign of peace. (60s)

(Set wine and bread on the table)


Let us pray

Lift up your hearts, give thanks to God, and sing.

Hosanna          [Hosanna]


Hosanna          [Hosanna]

Thanks for making us.

Thanks for taking us.

Thanks for showing us the way.


Especially for Jesus, who said,

“Take, eat. This is my body given for you.” and

“Take, drink. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you.

And for many for the forgiveness of sins.”


Bless it,

Bless us,

And all creation.

As it was,          [As it was]

as it is,          [as it is]

as it will be          [as it will be]

By human God,

through abundant God,

to the glory of almighty God,

Amen!          [AMEN]

         [Our Father]

Our Father…

We believe these to be the body and blood of Christ

And so should not be taken lightly.

That said, all who feel called are welcome to receive

The gifts of God for the people of God.

(Presider holds up a roll and a box of wine)

(Presider and others distribute the wine boxes)


Let us pray.

Thank you, God,

for being with us.

Seize the day; Serve the Lord.


Alleluia!          [Alleluia!]

Posted by: dacalu | 11 September 2017

Talking with God

I never cease to be amazed how much we complicate the question of prayer. This subject came up in a conversation recently, so I decided to share it here. It helps to remind me about the basic idea. I hope it will be of use to you as well!


What is prayer?

Talking to God. Full stop.

The way you talk to God shapes the relationship you will have. It’s worth asking what kind of relationship you want. For me, close friendship seems most appropriate to Christianity (and Judaism). Of the relationships we have in our culture, that one is most likely to be healthy. We can also think of God as lover or parent, but just putting those two in the same sentence reminds me of the emotional minefields associated with each. Both, I think, work best when they develop into close friendships. Similarly, I might think of God as my King, and yet I have no healthy model of subject/King relationship to reason from. There is a danger of moving from ignorance to ignorance – basing our idea of kingship on God and our model of God on kingship. It seems better to build on what we know. So, I talk to God as I talk to my friends.

I should add that I also think of God as a teacher, but this is because I have had some wonderful relationships with truly wise, compassionate teachers, who, over the course of years, became friends.

What should I say?

Say what you think. There is no true friend who doesn’t want to hear about you.

Say what you want. This is communication 101. With humans, we say that they can’t help you if you don’t share. With God, it’s more complicated, but the basic idea is the same.

If you and God want the same thing, then talking about it can help it happen. If you want something, but think God doesn’t, then you have an opportunity to talk about it. You can convince God you are right or give God an opportunity to convince you. If you don’t talk about it, you’re guaranteed to continue disagreeing.

Say how you feel. Disguised emotions get bottled up and redirected and pop up at the most inconvenient time. Friends do not punish you for honest sharing and no good friend will be happier when you lie.

Do I have to be polite?

No. Good friends respect one another. They care for each other. They don’t try to hurt one another. Still, the closest friends are rarely polite. They say what they think. They tease, joke, and pester. They laugh at one another, just as they laugh at themselves.

Politeness is a necessary tool for people we do not know well. It helps when we feel distant, confused, or afraid. Be polite when God scares or confuses you. Be polite when it helps you understand God, but never feel worried that God won’t understand you. God has practice.

Do I have to be brief?

No. The best conversations last for hours, if not years. Remember, though, that friends don’t monopolize the conversation. It’s rare that I’ll put up with long monologues from anyone. I don’t know why God would put up with them from me. Equal time seems fair.

You can also share silence. I recommend quiet time. Don’t talk. Don’t listen. Just be together.

What if God doesn’t talk to me?

Cool. I can’t get God to shut up.

I’m joking…sort of.

Honestly, the best I get is active listening. (“Hmmn. Tell me more.”)

I’ll give you the same advice I give anyone who has a silent friend.

  • Check to see that you have been quiet enough to hear. It starts when you stop talking, but it also requires an attentive attitude.
  • Check to see that you’ve said what you need to say. Sometimes a friend will wait for you to get the real issue off your chest before piping up. If you have a chip on your shoulder – most of us do – be honest about it.
  • Be patient, be available, and let them take their time. If the relationship is important, keep talking, keep giving them space, and see what happens.

When am I done?

You never stop talking with your friends. Even if you are apart for decades, the next time you see each other, the words flow. Let that happen with God.

Too often we stress out when we don’t have to. (e.g., “Why hasn’t he called?”) It’s okay to have a slow, long-distance relationship with God – if it’s a good relationship. I have had life-altering friendships that consist of only one real conversation. I know serious Christians who’ve only really spoken with God once. It usually develops into something more frequent, but it need not. Nothing good ever came from forcing friends into boxes.

What will God do?

This is both the most important question and the biggest distraction. Let me deal with the distraction first. The surest way to short-circuit real communication and real friendship is to start with an agenda. No one likes being used. Love of God – as friend – must be a goal if the whole thing is to mean anything in the Christian context.

Having said that, friends help us. Sometimes they just listen; sometimes they give advice; sometimes they lend a hand. God does this.

Does God help the way we want and expect? Rarely. Does God help anyway? I think yes, but that’s my relationship with God. It seems surprisingly indirect and I seldom know whether to call it sly efficiency, insightful focus on the important, or slightly obnoxious humor. It’s all three most likely. Prayer will always be something that depends on you and God. Just as every friendship is different, so every prayer life is different. I can only say it’s been worth my time.

My advice:

Talking to God isn’t complicated. Talk and listen and go from there.

Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2017

Demonstrating Love

This Sunday, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, WA. Here is the sermon I shared. You can also find a video, here.

Prayer for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.


Jeremiah 15:15-21 (“for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts”)

Psalm 26:1-8 (“Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind”)

Romans 12:9-21 (“Let love be genuine”)

Matthew 16:21-28 (“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering”)


Did you catch Jesus’ joke in today’s Gospel?
In last week’s gospel – the passage that comes just before this one,
	Jesus praised his disciple, saying,
	“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
	Petros, is Greek for stone.
	Jesus gave Simon bar Jonah a new name – solid as a rock –
		and we remember him by that name to this day, St. Peter.
Moments later, Jesus explains what it means to be the Messiah,
	he will go and preach in Jerusalem,
	where the leaders of the city will torture and kill him.
Peter says, “No, don’t do it.”
	And what does Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me;”
		Still a rock.
	The same enthusiasm and openness 
that led Peter to proclaim Jesus as Messiah,
led him to cry out against Jesus being persecuted.
	It seems reasonable to me.
		“Stay out of harm’s way.  We don’t want to lose you!”
I don’t think Peter had much of a filter.
	Throughout the gospels, we see him speaking up and jumping in,
		often before he knew what was going on.
My friend, Nadia, put it this way: 
“Peter, dumb as a rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Too often, we want to simplify things, make them all good or all bad.
	We want our heroes to be heroic all the time,
		or we want our friends perfectly good
		and our enemies clearly evil.
But it doesn’t work out that way.
	Sometimes unrestrained enthusiasm is right and good and joyful,
		and sometimes it gets in the way.
	Sometimes we must be our fullest selves – completely unfiltered,
		and sometimes discretion is called for.
Peter can be both a foundation and a stumbling block – for similar reasons.
	He is solid, uncomplicated, and honest.

For me, it’s hard to understand the bible without knowing this.
	We hear stories about complex, interesting, and often flawed people
		working out their relationship with God.
	It does not always go well.
	We hear about the ways their virtues bring them closer to God
		and help the people around them.
	We hear about these same traits getting them in trouble.
	And throughout, we hear about God loving them,
		and working to heal the world.

Adam and Eve were curious.
	You have to be at the beginning of the world.
	Their curiosity got them in trouble.
Abraham and Sarah were adventurers.
	They set out for parts unknown, following a God they barely knew.
	They started a new tribe and nation.
	They could also be a bit manipulative,
		even with members of their own family.
Moses had a temper.
It gave him the strength he needed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt,
	but it also turned ugly on occasion.
He lost patience with God one time too many.
They are all heroes, but not because they were perfect.
In the tradition of Greek plays and Shakespeare,
	they were people who made the most of their imperfections.

As Christians, we are trying to be good people.
We are called by God’s name and we try to live up to that calling.
We take all of ourselves – 
	the parts we like and the parts we don’t,
	the parts society approves of and the parts that it doesn’t,
	the parts that have been with us since birth,
		and the parts hard won during life.
– and make them an offering and sacrifice to God.
God is that good that embraces the good of all.
God is love.

It is hard for us to understand that simple statement – God is love.
We have been conditioned by nature and nurture
	to think of love possessively, exclusively, violently.
That is not love.

“Love is patient; love is kind; 
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Cor 13:4-7)

The world does not know this.
That is the job of Jesus
	and, because of Jesus, the job of the Church.
Our love does not deny our curiosity, our boldness, or our anger.
It does not demand that we be uncomplicated like Peter, 
or complicated like Paul.
Rather, it looks to the world and asks where our
	curiosity, boldness, and anger might do the most good.
Jesus saw that there was a great gaping need in Jerusalem.
The people of the city,
	the elders, chief priests, and scribes,
	and the commoners as well,
	did not know how to love.
Jesus knew that he could show them the way –
	not with conquest, but with conversation.
Jesus demonstrated love in being subject to the will of God,
	and the will of Jerusalem.
He brought God to them.

God, the Father, also, sent Jesus to be God with us,
	to show us how to love as we did not know how.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish 
but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
God sent Jesus to the last and the least, the lost,
	not because they were perfect, but because they were loved,
	because some aspect of them could be redeemed.

Romans is one of my favorite books of the Bible.
This surprises many of my liberal friends,
	who associate Romans with judgment and condemnation.
I’m afraid it gets used that way far too often.
I encourage you to read it, though,
	and read it beginning to end.
	The context matters, and the whole book is one long argument.
Paul, in his complicated way, is making a very important point.
The first three chapters of Romans are about guilt and hope.
“For there is no distinction, 
since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
they are now justified by his grace as a gift, 
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 3:23)
To be human is suffer this confusion,
	even our virtues can prove harmful,
	even our faults can be productive.
To be human is to be offered redemption.

Do we have good and bad in us? Most definitely.
Do we always know the difference? Not always.
God and Jesus and the Church help us find the difference.
They cannot simply say,
	X is bad and Y is good,
	because we don’t understand what X and Y mean,
	not fully.
Nature and nurture have conditioned us to misunderstand faith, hope, and love,
	to make them commodities or tokens or talismans
	of our true inheritance:
	life together.
God and Jesus and the Church must demonstrate what it means
	to bring all of ourselves to the table,
	to sacrifice for the sake of conversation,
	to think less of ourselves so that we might think well of all,
	and to ask what it is in me that serves the needs of the world.

Paul starts with this judgment about human sin
	so that we can move forward.
You have good and bad in you.
So does your neighbor.

Paul then turns to the stories of Abraham and Adam
	and asks what made them good.
It was not that they were inherently good or did good things.
It was that they were in a relationship with God.
When Abraham chose love of God over boldness,
	or better yet when he chose boldness in the love of God,
	he was counted as righteous.
When Adam chose curiosity over love of God,
	he brought sin into the world.
God tried to mend the relationship.
	Adam and Eve had the opportunity to restore their relationship with God,
	through conversation and, perhaps, through admitting they were wrong.
	Instead they chose blame and denial.
These are not stories about history, 
	though I am not against them being historically true.
They are stories about the human condition,
	about the strange thing called love,
	that causes a human to live beyond her own interests
	and into a larger life.
They are stories about dredging up the deepest parts of ourselves
	and laying them on the table,
	so we, together, can figure out if we have the parts we need
	to save the world.

I wish I had the words for it.
Words are never enough.
Love must be demonstrated.
But we have stories,
	and all of us have examples in our own lives,
	of what it means to love,
	what it means to be reckoned righteous.

After explaining all of this, or trying to,
	Paul turns to concrete advice.
What does it mean to be a Christian, practically?

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 
Live in harmony with one another; 
do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; 
do not claim to be wiser than you are. 
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, 
but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

To be a Christian is to go to Jerusalem, with Jesus,
	as Peter did in the end.
To be a Christian is to bend heart and mind and soul and strength
	to the love of God
	and the love of God’s creation.
It doesn’t require starting well.
It doesn’t require ending well.
It only requires being with God, right now.

Do any of you remember the television show MacGyver?
MacGyver was a secret agent, 
who knew so much about science and engineering,
that he could solve any problem with a Swiss Army knife, duct tape,
	and whatever was lying around.
Even if you haven’t seen the show, you’ve heard stories about
	the near magical ability of someone with a little know-how
	and some everyday objects.
Google Life-hack sometime and see all the things people come up with.

My goal is to be a spiritual MacGyver,
	to turn everyday virtues – and vices – into solutions.
It means knowing people, listening to their stories,
	their hopes and fears,
	their strengths and weaknesses.
It means never disregarding someone who doesn’t fit,
	because they seem too simple, too crazy,
	too lost, too certain, or even too evil
	to be worth something.
You never know when a paper-clip could come in handy.
You never know when a personality quirk,
	or odd experience,
	or disagreement
	could be exactly what you need to forge community.

It’s a hard life to live.
So many people are so disagreeable.
	We are selfish, petty, and mean sometimes.
It’s perfectly reasonable to say “No, don’t go to Jerusalem.”
	And sometimes, that’s exactly the right response.
	Sometimes we don’t have the answer.
But sometimes –
	more often than you’d think –
	a little creativity can show us the way.
Sometimes it is good to be unreasonable,
	to offer yourself up
	and let God present a solution
	to a seemingly intractable problem.

We need more of that now.
We need more people willing to listen to the hardships of others,
	to find out their stories,
	no matter how alien and disagreeable,
	and find the pieces necessary for our redemption.
We need people who get angry – for the sake of others.
We need people who are bold and curious – in the context of love.
We need to be exactly who we are,
	only striving to be just a little bit more,
        with God's help.
Posted by: dacalu | 28 August 2017

Listen, Figure, Act

Today, I had the privilege to worship with St. Stephen’s, Seattle.  Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for the Day

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings for the Day

Exodus 1:8-2:10 (Moses left by the Nile, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter)

Psalm 124 (“If the Lord had not been on our side, ...”)

Romans 12:1-8 (“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” and “we, who are many, are one body in Christ”)

Matthew 16:13-20 (“But who do you say that I am?” and “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”)


Have you ever noticed that it’s easy to panic
	when everyone around you is panicking?
Or that it is easier to remain calm
	when everyone else remains calm?
It’s been a bad week for calm.

I have been amazed at just how many people are upset,
	and for how many reasons.
The most airtime seems devoted to free speech and racism,
	but other things are going on as well.
What does it mean for us to be a civil society?
What does it mean to be orderly, just, and compassionate?
Many of my own buttons have been pushed.
I’ve been surprised at my own emotions,
	and the strength of my own emotions.

So, what do we do when the world gets this way?
How do we navigate between the calm of peacemakers
	and the righteous anger of prophets?
Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; 
for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
He also said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; 
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
Those are both in the Gospel of Matthew by the way.
It’s not an easy question.
When should we be upset and make a fuss,
	and when should we be calm and plug on?
And, above all, what should we be doing right now?

I’d like to suggest a three-part answer:
	First, listen and learn
	Second, figure out what’s important
	Third, act on your convictions
L-F-A: listen, figure, act.
That sounds like pretty generic advice,
	but it can be hard to remember
	when things get rough.
I also think that Christians can, and should,
	Do this in a particular way.
Listen. Figure. Act.

Step one: listen to yourself.
Augustine has a wonderful quote about hope.
“Faith tells us only that God is. 
Love tells us that God is good. 
But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. 
And hope has two lovely daughters: 
anger and courage. 
Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. 
And courage, so that what must be, will be.”
Let me say that again.
“Faith tells us only that God is. 
Love tells us that God is good. 
But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. 
And hope has two lovely daughters: 
anger and courage. 
Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. 
And courage, so that what must be, will be.”
Anger is not evil.
	Anger is our injustice warning system.
I’m not saying it doesn’t go wrong; it goes wrong all the time, 
	but that will be step two.
First, know that you’re angry.
	Give thanks that you can get angry.
	It means you know the difference between the way things are
		and the way things are supposed to be.
	Anger motivates us to fix injustice, to ourselves and to others.

This acceptance of anger comes at a cost, though.
If anger can be a good thing for me,
	it can be a good thing for others as well.
We must listen to others.
We must accept that, often, they are angry, too.
We must note, at least in theory, that their anger is also a sign of some injustice.
Give thanks that others can get angry.
	It means that they know the difference between the way things are
		and the way things ought to be.
	And, let’s face it, much in the world is not as it ought to be.
	There is enough anger to go around.
I find this simple reflection goes a long way
	toward helping me treat my opponent as a neighbor, rather than an enemy.

So far, there is no right or wrong.
There is no good or bad.
There is only the way things are and the way people feel about it.
There is only neighbors disagreeing.
Paul put it this way:
“For by the grace given to me 
I say to everyone among you 
not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, 
but to think with sober judgment, 
each according to the measure of faith 
that God has assigned. 
For as in one body we have many members, 
and not all the members have the same function, 
so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, 
and individually we are members one of another.”

Of course, listening to self and others is not enough.
I am not a relativist.
Not all anger is equal, in strength or justice or consequences.
More will be needed.

Step two: listen to God.
Figure out what’s important. 

A quote from Philippians 3:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection 
and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 
if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 
Not that I have already obtained this 
or have already reached the goal; 
but I press on to make it my own, 
because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; 
but this one thing I do: 
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 
I press on towards the goal 
for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; 
and if you think differently about anything, 
this too God will reveal to you. 
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”

What is important?
What are we working for?
Faith, hope, and love.
We work to build relationships, between us and between us and God.
	We work to build people up.
	We work to help the last and the least, to find the lost, and to love them all.
Why are we here?
	We are here to love one another as Christ loved us,
		and gave himself for us, and offering and a sacrifice to God.
When Paul says: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
He means that we, like Jesus, enter into relationships with others
	for their sake,
	and for the sake of God.
It is difficult and painful to move beyond,
	“I am angry” to
	“we are broken.”
But this is what Jesus models for us
	and this is what we are called to do – to love one another.
The anger does not go away, but it gains a concrete purpose.

We turn our anger over to God,
	so that good anger can become courageous action,
	and bad anger – selfish or mistaken anger – can be released.

What is important to me?
	You are.
	Whoever you are.
	Focusing means remembering that the image of God exists in every person.
Then, I can ask concrete questions.
	What can I do that will address my anger, but also serve the needs of the world?
	What can I do that will promote grace, peace, and justice?

And that brings us to step three: act.
Steps one and two are never enough by themselves.
The whole point of anger was that it got us moving.
	It was good because it was productive.
	(Anger that simmers without an outlet is never good.)
You can do something.
You may not be able to change the law or our representatives – 
at least not until the next election.
You may not be able to magically make America great, or kind, or fair.
But, if you were listening, those were not the goal,
	at least not by themselves.

What was the goal? (To love.)

You can love your neighbor, here and now.
You can find someone who doesn’t feel heard and hear them.
You can find someone who doesn’t feel cared for and care for them.
You can speak truth to those who do not know truth (kindly).
You can feed the hungry, tend the sick, support widows and orphans.

We don’t do that for the sake of a better society.
We do that because that is the better society.

Jesus did not die to magically transform the Roman Empire.
	Some of the most profound injustices 
took place in the centuries following his death.
Jesus lived to enter into relationship with the people of Judea.
	God with us.
And those people spread out and created relationships with the people
	of the Roman Empire and the world.
We don’t always get it right.
The world is not magically different,
	but it is different.
It is, I think better, not magically by a Divine wave of the hand,
	but prosaically, doggedly, patiently and diligently,
	by the daily actions of Christ Jesus, working in us, 
	his body in the world.
It is not magical or immediate, but it is miraculous.

What is the goal? (To love.)

You must ask yourself these questions every day.
What do I feel?
What is my focus?
What must I do?

And do it.

“Do not be conformed to this world, 
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, 
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, 
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

It is up to you.
Only you know.
Only you can listen to your own heart.
Only you can hear God’s call for you.
And only you can act.

The world will panic when it should be calm.
It will be calm when it should be in an uproar.

You have within you the ability to listen, to focus, and to act.
Posted by: dacalu | 27 August 2017

9 Problems with “Privilege”

Is “privilege” a good way to talk about justice? I recently found myself defending the idea to a friend and realized that we use the word differently. So here is my understanding of privilege and the top 9 mistakes I think people make – progressive and conservative – when talking about it.


  1. It’s not about you. It’s about y’all.

Privilege refers to a systematic imbalance within a society. One class of people gets better treatment than another class of people. I’ve found it useful to think about white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege. They strike me as better terms than racism, sexism/chauvinism, and homophobia/heteronormativity, because they emphasize that the core issue is not confined to one person’s emotions or intentions. Instead, they reflect privileges some groups have that others do not.

It is rarely possible – more rarely productive – to prove that person A is a racist.  It is relatively easy to show that society is set up in a way that white people on average get benefits that black people do not. All other things being equal, black people are more likely to be stopped by the police, charged with a crime, placed in prison, and suffer injury (or death) in the process. Similarly, women on average make less money than men. No opinion is necessary. The data are available.

I don’t care if you personally have privilege. That’s your issue. I do care if our society is unjust and unequal treatment helps us identify where injustice might be occurring.


  1. Privilege is not immoral.

You are not a bad person because you are privileged any more than you are a bad person because you live in New Jersey or happen to be left handed. Privilege is a value-free description of the current state of affairs. We can make a discrete claim and test it. One such claim might be that men receive higher scores on teaching evaluations than women. Another might be that women have more close friendships than men. Most classes of people enjoy some privilege and have some constraint. It is not good or bad, it just is. We need the word “privilege” to be neutral so that we can assess whether it exists before asking whether its extent is unjust or its use immoral.


  1. Privilege is usually about probabilities.

Bear with me for a moment.

Probability is a wonderful thing. It helps us see when the universe is predictable on the large scale, even when it isn’t predictable for individuals. I can know that one out of every six Americans has blue eyes, even when I cannot tell you the eye color of a specific American. I cannot predict one person’s eye color, but I can give you a probability for a class of people.

We cannot predict how any individual person in the US will be treated, but we can predict how a class of people will be treated. So, I cannot say every white person is treated better than every black person (not enough data) or that any given white person is treated better than any given black person (still not enough data), but I can say that on average, white people receive more benefits. Claims about “all white people” or “all black people” can almost never be justified.

Progressives cannot assume that any individual has a particular privilege just because they belong to a class. They should wait for proof. Conservatives should stop using anecdotes (“But Sandy isn’t privileged”) as arguments against privilege. Larger trends can be proven and are interesting in and of themselves.


  1. Privilege need not be exercised.

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. That means that I can add money to my pension fund, even when I’m not working for the church. No one would deny that I have that opportunity, despite the fact that I might not use it right now. The privilege exists even when I do not exercise it. It may be a useless privilege but usefulness is a separate question.


  1. Privilege need not be directly available.

I am a US citizen. The sixth amendment guarantees my right to a trial by jury. I hope I will never be tried for anything, but I still value the privilege. More importantly, I feel freedom to question the law, because I know that, if I am tried, I have protections. Even if privilege is unexercised – even if it could not be exercised unless something unusual occurred – it is still a privilege. It still affects how we think and behave.


  1. Privilege is not your fault.

No one person caused American society (or any other). Society represents a complex system of interactions, benefits, and expectations that developed over hundreds of years. Most of the people who set up the system are dead. I’m not going to get any repentance or reparations from them. Nor am I in the habit of blaming children for their parent’s mistakes. You and I inherited a complex system with good parts and bad parts. Our job is to work with what we’ve got. We should not blame others. We should not shame ourselves.


  1. You can’t keep score.

Some of us have more privilege than others, but you never know. A man may benefit from being white and straight, but also face challenges as an autistic immigrant. A woman might be a lesbian of color but benefit from a wealthy family and a great education. It’s not the size of your privilege that matters; it’s what you do with it.

Talk about yourself and listen to others. It makes sense to say, “I don’t have such and a such a privilege and that concerns me.” That gives others an opportunity to provide their own context. It also helps to say, “I do have this kind of privilege and I want your help to use it well.”


  1. Privilege is your responsibility

I have little control over the kinds of privilege I have, but I do have control over how I use them. I believe that all power comes with responsibility. [Insert Jesus, Spider Man, or JFK quote here.] Privilege is power. When I have opportunities, I am morally obligated to use them wisely and for the common good. When I have more power than other people, I am morally obligated to use the power for their benefit – not just for my own.

Moral use of power demands conscious recognition of it. I need to know my options in order to use them in the service of others. Privilege helps me understand my opportunities as the first step toward using them wisely. I have a brain; it would be a shame not to use it.

Some of the worst injustices survive because they are invisible. The idea of privilege helps us make power more transparent so that we can use it well, discuss it publicly, and learn from one another.


  1. You have power.

For me, the concept of privilege is an empowerment. It makes me more aware of how I interact with others. It makes me more aware of how I move in the world. I am a white male. I know that both of those things make it easier on average for me to publish academic papers. Knowing this, I advocate (as a white male) for double blind peer review, where reviewers do not know the name (or sex or race) of the author. I know that whiteness and maleness make it easier to speak up in public. Knowing this, I am more conscious of intentionally yielding the floor to others. I also make a point of teaching martial arts in a way that is inviting to women as well as men so that everyone can be more self-confident, more aware, and more proactive.

On the other hand, I am gay.  I know that I am less able express myself – with regard to attraction, romance, and love – than my straight neighbors. I know that I will find fewer examples to follow and get less advice (or at least less sophisticated advice) on these matters. Knowing this, I can put special effort into finding role models and into being a role model for others.


The idea of privilege helps, but it only helps when we use it as a way of understanding the world better. It is not a weapon and it is not a threat. It just is. It gives us a way of talking about systematic biases in our culture. As a way of thinking, it can help us talk, reason, and act to bring about a better society.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 August 2017

15 Movies for Ethical Reflection

Dear Friends,

After years of working as a pastor, I wanted to put together a list of some of my favorite movies for starting discussions about ethics.  I’m not endorsing each movie’s message. I’m only saying that I think they give you a great launch-pad for reflection and conversation.  They are all thoughtful, fun, and done well – good acting, good directing, etc.  For each, I’ve listed a couple questions I’d start with, when diving in. I hope you’ll enjoy the list and the movies.  Feel free to add other recommendations in the comments section.

The Arrival (2016) Amy Adams – What does it mean to communicate? Is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) David Niven, Cary Grant, Loretta Young – What do you value in life? What does charity look like in practice?

Blade Runner (1982) Harrison Ford – What does it mean to be human? How is that related to morality?

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep – What do you want out of life? How do you balance career, family, and ideals?

Doubt (2008) Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman – Where is the line between trust and accountability?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Kate Winslet, Jim Carey, Kirsten Dunst – Is it ever better to forget? What role do others play in shaping our identity? Is it really better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?

Ex Machina (2014) – How does trust work in the midst of dysfunction? What are your default moral positions, when the situation is too complicated to find a clear way forward?

Gattaca (1997) Ethan Hawke – Do our genes determine our selves?

Harvey (1950) Jimmy Stewart – What do you want out of life? Is happiness better than correctness? Social approval?  What is sanity?

The Incredibles (2004) – Is it better to be the same as everyone else, or different? How much do you have to accommodate other people?

Pleasantville (1998) Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon – What is the relationship between personal goals and social responsibility? How do you balance safety and freedom?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman – Can you be free when in prison? What choice can you make and what choices are taken from you?

Stranger than Fiction (2006) Will Farrell – What is the meaning of your life? What do you do when your life appears to have meaning other than personal happiness?

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Gregory Peck – When do you have to stand up to society for the sake of society? What is personal integrity?

Wit (2001) Emma Thompson – Are we independent, when we are dependent on bodies that grow old and sick? How does suffering shape us?

Posted by: dacalu | 30 July 2017

The Little Things (aka Time and Eternity)

This morning, I had the pleasure to worship with the people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst. Here is the sermon I shared.



O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Genesis 29:15-28 (Jacob works for Laban for 14 years to marry his daughter Rachel)

Psalm 105:1-11 (“Continually seek His face.”)

Romans 8:26-39 (Nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”)

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 (parables of the mustard seed and the pearl of great price)



I want to talk today about the power of little things.
	I want to talk about making eye contact with strangers.
		Yes, I know we’re Seattlites 
and we value the safety of our private worlds,
but think for a moment about what it has meant to you
when someone smiled,
someone you didn’t know and it made the world brighter.
	It seems sometimes that we go out of our way not to make connections.
	I want to talk about being willing to start a conversation
		with someone at the grocery store,
		waiting in line,
		or a homeless person on the street.
	I want to talk about knowing your neighbors,
		the people who live to the right and left of you.
		Raise your hand if you’ve spoken to your neighbors
			in the past months.
These are little things, but they are a beginning.
They are the first steps toward a life of greater connection and meaning.
	I want to talk about feeding people that don’t have food:
		a sandwich or a piece of fruit or a granola bar.
	I want to talk about visiting the sick.
		I’ll bet each one of you has a friend or a neighbor or a family member
			who is in the hospital or housebound.

The little things matter.
They are not the only things;
	there are big things as well.
Big things are special gifts, when we see something that needs to be done
	something significant that we can do.
But goodness, heroism, virtue,
	these come from a lifetime of little things
	day in and day out.
Perhaps they prepare us for the big things,
	 but most of all they have value in themselves.
Jesus spends a great deal of time talking to individuals,
	helping people in small ways,
	with a touch or a word or even just by noticing them.
We have that power as well.

1600 years ago, there was a group of theologians in Cappadocia,
	what is now Southern Turkey:
Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Macrina.
The Cappadocians distinguished between
	things that are everlasting – which lasted throughout time –
	and things that are eternal – which transcend time.
We can speak of a river running from spring to sea.
	A fish might run the whole course of the river,
		but an otter can get out and sun herself on the bank.
We are creatures of time, 
just as fish and otters are creatures of the river,
but it matters whether we are fish or otters,
whether we aim to travel all of time,
or step beyond it.
Eternal life, according to the Cappadocians,
	means more than living on and on after we die.
It means transcending ourselves,
	stepping out of the river of time
	and into the realm of God.
We do not abandon the river.
Transcendence is not about leaving time altogether.
	Time is something to befriend and play in
	instead of a master to be served.

It’s terribly easy to think about Christian ideas of virtue and righteousness
	as a lifelong score-card.
Will I make enough points to get into heaven?
Paul’s goal in Romans is to get us beyond that type of thinking.
	The world is unsatisfactory.
	And we, in ourselves are unsatisfactory.
	We do not live up to our own expectations.
	We cannot imagine surviving until the end of time,
		much less stepping out of it.
	Life seems too hard a game to win.
Paul reminds us that it is not a competition.
Nor are we playing alone.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; 
for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
And God, who searches the heart, 
knows what is the mind of the Spirit, 
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints 
according to the will of God.”

God’s Spirit moves in us.
And God’s Spirit lifts us out of the world we know,
	into something bigger.

I want to talk about the power of little things.
We dream of overcoming violence, hatred, disease, and poverty – 
	and we should dream of conquering the world in this way.
	We should bend out heart and mind and soul and strength,
	to make the world a paradise.
And yet, if this were all that Christianity was about,
	we would have to admit that we are not very good at it.
I do not think that worldly solutions are sufficient to the problem.
Physics and biology, thermodynamics and evolutionary biology,
	suggest to me that there is some unsatisfactoriness built into the world.
	Death and suffering, entropy and chaos
	are ways of describing the fundamental order of the world.
	They are the wetness of the water.
Death cannot destroy death.
Suffering cannot end suffering.
Conquest can never end war.

The promise of Christianity lies in our ability to step outside the world,
	to become “more than conquerors”
	by stitching together eternity and time,
	stepping out of the water,
		but bringing the air and the light back in.
Eternity gives us moments of transcendence,
	when we, who live in time, can reach beyond it.
We think that such mountaintop moments are rare and costly,
	but they are not.
The shore is never far away.
The Christian life involves cultivating the tiny moments of transcendence.

Every time we truly connect with another person,
	we create a link with eternity,
	with the God who transcends time and individuality.
Every time we truly pray, so that we know we are not alone,
	but with God,
	we create a link with eternity.
God is love.

If we love God in hope of some reward, 
then we are, ultimately, loving the reward,
worshipping the reward.
If we love God in fear of losing something, 
then we are, in the end, worshipping that which we might lose.
We love God in the moment and in eternity,
	because we know the God we have found here, and now, 
	in ourselves and in one another,
	is better than life and pleasure for all time.
Love does not guarantee our future,
	it reveals and sanctifies the present.

We hope for what we do not see, but it is not belief, faith, or love that we hope for.
	We have those in our relationship with one another and with Christ.
We hope that all the other things will fall into place, if we love Jesus.
This is the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price.
	This is what we are willing to sacrifice all else for –
	the fundamental, primary, existential choice of love for God
		and love, in God, for all of Creation.
Like the mustard seed, it is a very small thing, to choose love.
	There is little power in it, in the earthly sense.
	It guarantees no wealth, no happiness, and no safety.
	It does not even guarantee that those we love
		will love us back.
Like the seed, we can only plant and water
	and hope that God gives growth.
And so, we have the love of God in us.
	We have the pearl of great price in our relationship with God,
	the questioning, trusting, intimate, surprising
		communication that goes on in prayer and sacraments.
And we have a hope for what that love may grow into
	in the context of a community.

I speak of little things, not to discourage you from grand endeavors.
We can and should and must work in the world
	alongside every other faith and non-faith.
It is human nature to try to fix the world.
I speak of little things because while we do that,
	we can invite the Kingdom of God,

I speak of little things because the world seems overwhelming.
What can I do to fix the church, the government, the economy?
What can I do to make people love and trust one another?
What can I do in the midst of the maelstrom?
I can love others.
	I can plant seeds.
	I can nudge every soul
		a little closer to the banks of eternity,
		where they can meet the living God.
We enter the kingdom of God
	with a smile or a gift,
	whenever we feed the hungry
		or care for the sick,
	because the place between us
	miraculously, is also the place between here and eternity.
It cannot be entered tomorrow.


Posted by: dacalu | 16 July 2017

Growth in Body and Spirit

Today, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst.  Here is the sermon I shared.


Collect (Prayer for the day)

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



Genesis 25:19-34 (Jacob and Esau)

Psalm 119:105-112 (“Your word is a lantern to my feet”)

Romans 8:1-11 (“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”)

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 (The Parable of the Sower)



Once again we find ourselves with passages about life and growth.
We’ve known each other for a while now;
	perhaps you know my motto on this.
When dealing with life metaphors in the Bible,
	we should always take them more literally.
So, in Matthew’s Gospel, we have a parable about our own spiritual life.
	In my opinion, it’s one of the more transparent parables.
	It appears in all three of the synoptic gospels.
	And in all three, Jesus spells out the meaning.

God is sewing the Word in our hearts, the good news of Christ Jesus.
	Why is it that the word grows and bears fruit for some, but not for others?
	Though the seed is the same, the ground is different.
	Though the word is the same, the hearts and minds are different.
Sometimes, the word does not even sink in.
	It sits there on the surface of our hearts.
	It finds no soil to sink into and so gets snatched away.
This seems very common to me.
	I know many who have been to church, read the bible,
	heard the word, but it means nothing to them.
Sometimes, the word finds a little bit of soil, 
a little piece of our hearts where it can grow,
but it cannot grow fast enough,
	and its roots can’t reach far enough,
	so it doesn’t stand up to the weather.
	The new plant fades away.
This also seems common to me.
	I know people who were enthusiastic Christians,
	but also Christians of convenience.
	Their faith was not part of their life.
	Or they identified very strongly with the church,
		but could not engage their heart, or their mind, or their soul.
	When their faith was tested by persecution or tragedy,
		they could not hold on to a relationship with God.
Sometimes the word finds soil,
	but it is not the only thing to grow within the heart.
	Other loves and other faiths choke it out.
	Jesus specifically mentions the love of wealth and power.
	That, too, is a plant – one that can outcompete love of God and neighbor.
This is perhaps the most common of all:
	when we truly have the option of deep faith,
	but find it too hard to choose love over control
		or attempted control of the world around us.

And, when everything goes, just right,
	the seed lands on good soil.
	It sinks in and grows and bears fruit.
	Not just a little, but enough to feed multitudes.

A couple caveats should be mentioned here.
While this is about something very literally growing within us,
	we must not read it too simply
	or pass on too quickly.
We should let it take root properly in our hearts.

I think it applies to the whole of our lives;
the word takes root in us, or it does not.
It also applies to parts of our lives;
	it may be that the word takes root in my heart, but not my mind, or vice versa.
	Most of us have different aspects of our lives
		and we can ask which have been fruitful, and which have not.
I would also note that Jesus nowhere says this is strictly our choice,
	whether we want to be good soil or rocky.
	Our will is a part of it.
	We have the power to weed and tend.
	We have the power to cultivate our hearts.
	But we each struggle with the patch of land we’ve been given, as well.
We have some sway in our garden,
	but we have sway in the gardens of others as well.
We play a role in the tilling and fertilizing,
	picking up rocks and spreading weeds.
Christians who speak only of planting seeds
	miss the depth and sophistication of our calling.
We live and work for our neighbors.
We bear fruit for our neighbors.
Just as we live by their labors.

Plant growth is an amazing and complicated process.
Did you know that almost no plant grows by itself?
What we think of as rich soil,
	involves countless bacteria and fungi,
	each contributing to the exchange of water and nutrients 
	between plant and environment.
One teaspoon of rich soil can contain more organisms
than there are people in the United States,
	thousands of species of bacteria,
	many yards of fungal filaments,
	not to mention thousands of tiny worms and insects.

We usually speak of an ecosystem as patch of land –
	a forest or a watershed, a swamp or a field –
	but an ecosystem can also be a tiny web of life
	smaller than your fingernail.
The God who made the stars also made tiny ecosystems
	nearly everywhere on the surface of the Earth.
Plants need nitrogen but are generally bad at getting it.
	They depend on fungi and bacteria to turn
		elemental nitrogen (N2) in the air into usable forms.
In a healthy forest, water and nutrients can be shared underground
	between different trunks, using a network of roots,
	but also shuttling staples through other organisms.

Soil is not a simple matter.
And the soil of our hearts,
	like the soil of our fields,
	is connected.
So, we can ask about how we enrich our own hearts,
	and the hearts of our neighbors.
And we can ask how we harm the soil
	in ways that harm the whole ecosystem.

I find it troubling when people sow discord.
	When they preach hatred, distrust, and fear,
		when they encourage selfishness,
		when they lie and cheat,
			encouraging you to expect and even do the same,
	these people are salting the soil.
	It may not hurt them in their own field in their own lifetime –
		usually it does, but even so –
	it may not harm them directly, but it poisons the ecosystem.
	All life is poorer.

The parable of the sower lays a burden upon us.
We are called to till and keep the garden.
	I mean this quite literally, after Genesis 2:15.
		One of our main purposes in life is to care for our ecosystem
		in ways that only humans can.
	I also mean it figuratively.
		We are asked to plant and water,
			to tend and harvest
			the ecosystem of human souls.
		We care for them, anticipate their needs,
			and cultivate the fruits of the spirit
			as God works in us light and life.
The church, like the bacteria and rhizomes,
	is responsible for shuffling nutrients back and forth between the trunks.
We care for souls and see that they live well together.

We know about our bodily goods
	and they cannot be ignored.
	We literally must give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty,
		space to the oppressed, light to those in darkness,
		and care to the sick.
	That mandate seems hard enough on its own,
		but it is only the beginning of our task.

We also speak of spiritual goods.
	They are less literal than food and water,
		but they are less abstract than you might think.
	Once we have an idea of spiritual growth,
		of the seeds and fruits of God’s Spirit growing within us,
		taking care of them becomes more obvious.
Rich soil of the heart happens when people have experienced
	faith, hope, and love.
They are virtues, but always communal virtues.
	It makes no sense to have faith, hope, or love alone.
	We must have faith IN, hope FOR, and love OF others.
	These virtues are shared from one soul to another.
		Being loved, we understand love and can learn TO love.
		We participate in faith, hope, and love,
			first passively, but then, as we come to understand,
			more and more actively.

A body is an organized composition made out of flesh.
A soul is body in the process of living.
And spirit – or breath or perhaps the Breath of God – is what activates souls.

Paul says “the body is dead; the spirit is life.”
Like any modern biologist,
	he knows that the flesh cannot hold together by itself.
	It needs breath and life to keep itself together.
		(We might say metabolism, 
while Paul would say soul,
		but we’re both talking about blood and breath,
life in action.)
The soul or the spirit holds the flesh together as a body.
What does it mean to be an organism,
	if it doesn’t mean you are more than a collection of flesh?
	You are a living, breathing, integrated thing.
	You do stuff in the world.

If you focus on the flesh, it will not hold together,
	because flesh just is. It does no work.
You must focus on that which enlivens the flesh.
Thus, the body is dead, but the spirit is life.
	He does not say that the spirit is alive, but that it is life itself,
	Specifically, in the context of the body.
That is how he can conclude with this:
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, 
he who raised Christ from the dead 
will give life to your mortal bodies also 
through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Alone we are nothing, we are dust and dirt.
When we maintain the ecosystem, when we act together in love,
	when the Spirit of God stirs up the dust,
	we become the soil in which life takes root.

And it all ties together, bodily and spiritual goods,
	because this is where we find ourselves,
		as physical organisms and as spiritual organisms,
		in community.
	We work together because we work together.


An academic note

For the brave of heart, I would like to add just a few words on flesh and spirit in Romans. This dichotomy seems to trip people up and it happens to be the subject of my current research. What exactly is Paul talking about? That’s been a subject of contention for two thousand years, but let me share with you my own understanding, in the hopes that it will be helpful.

Many in the Greek and Roman world, thought of our existence as a continuum, running from particular examples to universal principles. Matter and Form were not opposing armies, but part of a giant whirlwind. Matter simply means “the stuff of which a thing is made.” Meat is made of atoms, and organisms are made of meat, and communities are made of organisms. Matter isn’t a thing, it’s a relationship. Meat, or flesh, is the generic stuff of which animals are made. (“Tissue” might be a good scientific analog.)

A body is an organized composition made of flesh. This is exactly the way we use “body” for living things or “corpse” for dead things. It is shaped flesh. A “soul” is a body in the process of living – an active body. And “spirit” – or breath or perhaps the Breath of God – is what activates souls. (Spirit is the Latin word for breath.)

Paul may have been a Platonist. They thought that the spirit came first and drew matter to it, gradually moving the whole world from a state of disorganized stuff, to a state of perfect and animal-like harmony. Paul may have been more Epicurean. They thought that atoms came together in ways that led to organization. I suspect Paul was a Platonist – most early Christians were – but that is beside the point. Paul thought that the whole universe was moving from disorder and chaos (vanity and emptiness) to life and growth as an organized whole. Paul thought the cosmos groaned in travail, waiting to be born and grow into the full stature of Christ.

Paul says “the body is dead; the spirit is life.” Like any modern biologist, he knows that the flesh cannot hold together by itself. It needs breath and life to keep itself together. (We might say metabolism, while Paul would say nutrition or soul, but we’re both talking about blood and breath, water and nutrients moving around in an active body.) Spirit and soul, quite literally hold the flesh together as a body. What does it mean to be an organism, if it doesn’t mean you are more than a collection of flesh? You are a living, breathing, integrated thing. You do stuff in the world.

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