The Ascension: a holy and joyful Mystery

7 Easter 2011-6-5

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Today we at St. Paul’s have a Sunday morning packed with significance.

We will Celebrate the passage to manhood of Matthew Robinson, Liam Mora, and Johnny Dye in the Rite 13 ceremony later this morning, recommitting ourselves to support them and their parents in their journey.

We recognize graduating seniors from high school and college.

We are inviting you to participate with us under the direction of our Discernment Task Force in seeking the will of God for St. Paul’s with respect to our witness for the power and love of Jesus Christ in our community of Bellingham and beyond.

All this is happening in today’s liturgy, in which we celebrate a holy and glorious mystery; the Ascension of Jesus to heaven.

This mystery is displayed in our Ascension stained glass window in the south transept, a description of which is in today's bulletin.

We won't appreciate this mystery if we dwell on the seeming impossibility of the scene just laid out for us in Scripture and in this window. We are modern people and we know people don’t just go ascending bodily into the clouds, don’t we? Or do we? What I'm hearing about physical reality these days makes we wonder! I don't really know: I wasn't there.

This is one of those Scipture stories that some modern people simply scoff at. But if we join them we miss the opportunity for Scripture to read our lives and deeply challenge us about who we are, where our allegiance lies, and how we live. The Ascension of Jesus so challenges us while giving us great hope.

However we look at the miraculous element of this story, I hope we do entertain in our holy imagination what it means.

What the Ascension means to me is that Jesus’ compassion and self-giving love reigns wherever ultimate decisions are made about the universe and its inhabitants. The writer of Acts of the Apostles wants us to know this.

The Ascension is a powerful sign of the mystery told us in John’s Gospel, in which Jesus in his prayer acknowledges the gift given him by God of “authority ...to give eternal life….”

We know from looking at Jesus what eternal life is. It is to live humbly and gratefully with the gift and miracle of life, and to live not for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again. It is to live for our Creator and for all other beings whom our Creator gives us as companions in this marvelous universe and world. Eternal life is the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who lived in Jesus and animated him.

I went to see the film “I Am” at the Pickford this week. Hollywood comedic movie director Tom Shadyac tells the story of his post-concussion syndrome; a terrible night of serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and long suffering before recovery. The result was an awakening to the gift and miracle of life; the kind of experience Richard Rohr has called “a falling upward.”

Shadyac, when he recovered sufficiently, set off on a quest will a small film crew to find answers to two questions: “What’s wrong with our world, and what can we do about it?”

I had to wait to the end of the movie to know why the title: “I Am”. Shadyac explains.

G.K. Chesterton recounts in his book “Orthodoxy” his response to a request of the Times of London for several authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton wrote a short response in the form of a two-word letter:

Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.

That is the point of Shadyac's story, and why he chose “I am” as the title. He realized that he himself was what was wrong with the world, and that he was being called to live into being what's right with the world.

The Ascension of Jesus poses a similar question to me this week. “What’s right with the world?” Jesus is what’s right with the world, and furthermore, he reigns, and he gives the gift of eternal life.

The powers we fear don’t reign. Al Qaeda doesn’t reign. The powers of greed institutionalized in the financial sector don’t reign. The power of corrupt and self-glorifying celebrity does not reign. The daily ubiquity of media-generated outrage and sensationalism does not reign. These powers eventually fall under their own weight of pretension, to be replaced by others.

None of the earthly powers we may embrace ultimately reign either, including the British Empire or the United States of America. The United States lasts as long as it can be great in pursuing its best ideals, which were shaped at least in part by Christian faith.

The mystery of the Ascension tells us that the simple compassion of Jesus reigns, and fills all things, and is found everywhere, and will last. The simple compassion of Jesus sits in judgment in heavenly places over our human stupidity and failure, and does so compassionately but firmly.

Scripture speaks of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God”, and what this means is that the kind of power God employs in the world is the kind of gracious power we see in Jesus.

No Muslim must fear the reign of Jesus, or no Buddhist, despite what Jesus supposed followers do to turn his reign into Christian triumphalism. Jesus reigns with a justice and compassion that is far beyond the faltering imagination of we his followers.

The Ascension reminds us that we must embrace the reign of Jesus in all his compassion, or face the consequences. The Ascension calls us to pay attention.

Those disciples who saw glorious mystery stood looking gape-jawed into the skies for a long time after they saw Jesus ascend. The angelic visitors had to draw their attention earthward and to the the expectation that God would reveal the next step to them.

Why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

The disciples, reminded that they had been commissioned to bear witness to Jesus, rejoined their community and awaited in prayer what God would reveal.

In our own time, I find myself looking this way and that with many distractions, when the most important thing is God’s call in my life. God's call is known in the eternal life displayed in Jesus' compassionate life. This is the life “that really is life”, as Scripture says elsewhere.

Eternal life is our calling whether graduating and seeking the next step, or discerning what God wants St. Paul’s to be doing in our neighborhood and town, or supporting Matthew, Liam, and Johnny and their parents as they become men.

The Ascension tells us that Jesus represents all that is right with the world, and that God means to set the world right according to the pattern of Jesus' compassionate reign.

And as Tom Shadyac’s movie affirms, I'm what's wrong with the world, and that I'm called and equipped to become what's right with the world.

image: The Ascension of Our Lord, Russian icon from the Malo-Kirillov Monastery, Novgorod School, 1543 by Novgorod School, (16th century). Museum of Art, Novgorod.

Judgment Day

5 Easter 2011-05-22

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I want to talk about stewardship today; the stewardship of the Good News of Jesus that is the responsibility of the Christian Church.

I think of our stewardship of the Good News in the light of “Judgment Day”, which was to have taken place yesterday, according to the calculations of a retired civil engineer from Oakland, California with a love of numerology and an apparent lack of whatever psychological characteristic that keeps people from opening themselves to ridicule.

I’ve shared in some of the fun at Harold Camping’s expense, but now I’m drawn to think about his victims; those who left all to follow him. While they do have responsibility for their decisions, I feel sympathy for them as of this morning, when they awaken to the reality that things go on as before. My guess is that most of these folk are not the rich and powerful of this world. My guess is that they are people who are feeling something of the hopelessness and helplessness that a lot of people feel when they have no sense that their voices are heard in the world or that they have a place in this world. Their distress is an occasion for the Church to pay attention to our stewardship of the Good News of Jesus.

The stewardship of the Good News is a responsibility we share. It isn’t just the responsibility of the clergy.

“We receive you into the household of faith. Profess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood”, we pray at all baptisms.

The moment we’re in is a moment to live out that invitation. It’s a time to proclaim Good News.

“Judgment Day” is come and gone in one sense, and the media can now find another sensation to sell advertising.

Judgment day continues in another sense, in that each day is for the Church a day of crisis. “Who are we, and what do we really believe? What do we really trust in terms of the truth about God and God’s relationship to the world, such that we put our hearts and souls into something? Given that the likes of Harold Camping claim the Bible as their authority for their doom-and-gloom vision for the world, how do we make our claim for the Bible’s authority for a different and hopeful vision of God’s love for the world? Harold Camping and his followers are willing to commit themselves to their cause, to the extent of enduring ridicule. What real commitments do we make for the sake of carrying out the mission and ministry of Jesus? Do we realize how much people need and want a word from God that gives them life? ”

These things are in mind as I read Scripture such as today’s Gospel reading from John, especially these words:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I’m fully aware that there are people who hear this text, and it doesn’t come across as Good News.

I remember clearly being on a college campus in the South some thirty five years ago with a another college student, from whom I was to learn how to witness for Jesus. I watched with growing alarm as he tried to convert a young female college student to his brand of fundamentalist faith by using this text to threaten her with eternal damnation if she didn’t accept Jesus. She was reduced to tears, and he to frustration.

It’s a sorrowful memory, and I’m fully aware that such uses of Scripture continue to drive wedges between peoples. I could have been one of those disaffected people, except for coming into contact with Christian communities who showed me another way and with scholars who belonged to communities of accountability which enriched and deepened my understanding of how we read Scripture and interpret Scripture together.

In that community I’ve learned to look again at passages we thought we knew, like this one. And when I look at it, I see how pointless it is to use it against people who do not yet believe that God was in Christ.

People like, Philip, for example, who is the disciple of Jesus to whom this statement is addressed. His lack of belief is acknowledged by Jesus, who says it right out loud:

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”

It isn’t Philip’s intellectual or cognitive grasp of what Jesus is saying to him that is his hope of salvation, it is Jesus own gracious and patient initiative that offers Philip a path to God.

The way home is embodied in Jesus himself; Jesus who takes the initiative, Jesus who is patient and waits for his followers to understand and trust him, Jesus who doesn’t wait for them to love him fully before he loves them fully.

This is the Jesus who invites us deep into God’s own life, but who we never will own or control. This is the same Jesus who, as John’s Gospel also affirms, is a “shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” and who tells his disciples that “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

In this light, we are free from the burden of having to believe that Jesus here is condemning all unbelievers in him to eternal damnation, as I once felt myself obligated to believe, to my great consternation. This text is anything but a text to buttress Christian exceptionalism or triumphalism.

What this text is to me is a great invitation to exercise trust that God is good, and gracious, and steady in purpose to win us to God’s good purposes. That invitation is to put out an effort to receive the Good News, welcome the mercy of God into our souls, and extend it to others.

As Eugene Peterson puts it:

“Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”

Thank God, all the fuss of “Judgment Day” is behind us.

Thank God as well that we always have a judgment day before us, a day to decide how we'll follow Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.

How might that look?

Brian McLaren tells a story* about his friend Tony Campolo, a Baptist preacher who was away from home in a distant city. He couldn't sleep, so he got up and went to a nearby coffeeshop, where he was seated near a couple of prostitutes talking with one another.

Tony heard one of the prostitutes, a woman named Agnes, say that her birthday was tomorrow, and that she'd never really had a birthday party in her life.

Tony went to the coffeeshop owner, and with the his help and the help of his wife they came up with a plan.

The next night Tony showed up at the coffeeshop, and when Agnes showed up they surprised her with that long-awaited party, complete with birthday cake, candles, balloons, the whole thing.

To this point Tony hadn't revealed that he was a minister. When the coffeeshop owner learned that he was amazed.

“What kind of church are you from, anyway?”

To which Tony replied: “the kind of church that throws a birthday party for a prostitute at 3:30 in the morning.”

That's the Jesus way, the Jesus truth, the Jesus life. No one comes to God except through this life.

*re-told by Greg Garrett in The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love.

Abundant Life

4 Easter 2011-05-14

I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.

Friday night some of us joined 15,000 plus youth in the Tacoma Dome for a stewardship conference.

Well, it wasn’t called that, but that’s what it was. It was called “Be the Spark”.

We enjoyed two hours of performance and inspirational speech, highlighted by the appearance of a small man dressed in a dark suit, a purple shirt and a clerical collar. This man spoke with humor and great warmth, and that Dome grew silent as a church as Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a stewardship talk.

Well, it wasn't billed as a stewardship talk, but that's what it was.

Bishop Tutu lovingly gave us a picture of our God, who without our help brought all things into being; but who now waits on us to join in partnership to bring about the kind of world God had in mind.

Bishop Tutu described himself to the press in Tacoma as a “prisoner of hope”. And he is clear with all who hear him the source of his hope. His hope lies in his trust in the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

When you’re with a leader like Desmond Tutu you find yourself in the presence of someone who gives flesh and bone to the idea of the abundant life spoken of by Jesus in today’s Gospel. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The crowd of mostly youth responded warmly to him. Well, that's putting it way too mildly. They greeted him like a rockstar!

Desmond Tutu walks a life of faith that God is good, and that God calls each of us to live for the good of one another. This faith sustained him as he supported his countrymen in the long resistance that overcame the evil of apartheid. Faith in this God sustained him as he led his nation to reject violence and vengeance in favor of truth-telling and costly reconciliation. Tutu is one of those people who make a good apology for God, and for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The point of his stewardship talk was that God is waiting for us to be like that, too. We are called to that same abundant life of stewardship.

“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly”, says Jesus.

We read from Acts today about a community experiencing a new work of the Holy Spirit. In the fresh experience of the resurrection a new vision of the common good comes quickly into focus. The community begins pooling resources, taking care of those in any need. Meals eaten together now have a sacramental quality. Everyone seems to take responsibility for stewardship of God’s abundance. A quality of rejoicing imbues the community of faith, because in the midst of the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead they’ve seized hold of the truth that God is endlessly good and forgiving and is always providing all we need, provided we open our hands and share.

It’s true that such radical experiments in stewardship didn’t last permanently. But the church is continuously renewed in a sense of abundance by the Holy Spirit. And the picture painted in the book of Acts gets us to thinking. To what can we aspire to in our time? How is God calling us to a stewardship of the goodness of God in our time and place? Is God any less giving and forgiving and reconciling now than back then? Of course not!

When a congregation of God’s people starts wanting refreshment and blessing, we start asking God for it. When we wait for it and long for it and look for it, we start seeing it around us.

In the time I’ve been in Bellingham I’ve learned from other communities of Christians in town who are also looking for and finding signs that God is good, and calls us to be stewards of goodness for each other.

I met a young man at a coffeeshop in Fairhaven who pastors a community of young Christians who meet in rented spaces and in homes. They call themselves The Table.

On their website they write of their approach to stewardship:

“In a culture that markets primarily to the desires of individuals, ‘Community’ stands in contrast. Despite our differences, The Table is becoming a family, where we laugh and share challenges together. We are sharing a life defined by the alternative values of Christ."

 

“The rhythms of The Table (hospitality, discipleship, and blessing) are our mission, our values, and the vision of how we see Christ calling us to live.”

Before my first Sunday at St. Paul’s back in 2008 I attended worship with Roosevelt Community Church on Alabama Street. I was struck by their motto, which is a stewardship statement:

"Roosevelt Community Church exists to be In, With, and For the Community."


They write on their website:

"We are not interested in merely being a Church that sits on Sunday and listens to music and a sermon. We are a Church that is committed to loving God above all else and seeking to love our neighbors with all that we are; both Christians and non-Christians alike."

 

Very close by here is Lettered Streets Covenant Church. Some of us heard from their pastor a week ago Wednesday. Here’s part of their stewardship message on their website:

"Imagine a community where Gods love is the tie that binds us, where young and old, rich and poor, women and men, people of all cultures and ethnicities partner together to love the people in our neighborhood, city and state, country and world...."

"…We at Lettered Streets Covenant Church believe that God is actively working to make lives whole and restore creation. We believe that Jesus is in the process of making all things new and that he has called all of humanity to participate with him in http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifthis incredibly challenging and satisfying adventure.http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

"Do you hear him calling?"

A Presbyterian pastor friend of mine who works with a unique ministry in Skagit County passed on to me from Mark Scandrette of San Francisco the stewardship practice of walking prayerfully through his neighborhood with this as the focus of his prayer:

1. "God, help me to see where Your glory and beauty are being displayed."

2. "God, help me to think Your thoughts and feel Your feelings for this place and people. We want to see Your kingdom come and will be done on earth as in heaven. I cry out for Your dream for this place and people to be realized; and I am part of Your answer."

3. "What is the deeper risk You have for me/us here? How does this neighborhood teach me what Good News is? How do we take practical steps of action to do the way of Jesus in our neighborhood?"

Jesus said: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

This is some good theology, some good spirituality. We have it all in our Book of Common Prayer.

Here's an example. There is a prayer on page 832 that is a stewardship prayer. Well, it isn't labeled a stewardship prayer, but that's what it is.

Let us pray it for us, the people of St. Paul’s:

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Photo: Desmond Tutu at the podium at "Be the Spark" in Tacoma, May 9, 2011. Reuters photo.

Hallelujah!


2 Easter May 2 2011 St. Paul’s Bellingham

I’m a fan of the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, and in the past week since Easter Day one of his songs came to mind. I reached into my collection of CDs and found it.

In the song he is heard in a conversation with someone with whom he’d been in love, and it becomes clear that things have gone south in the relationship. Yet the song is ultimately about a trust that things are alright; deeply alright.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Hallelujah. God be praised.

Despite the brokenness around him, Cohen finds a prayer of trust to be the final word.

The second Sunday of Easter always brings us Thomas, for whom things seem to have fallen apart. Jesus, for whom Thomas set aside a whole life, met a brutal end at the hands of the Romans, and everything I know about Thomas from the scriptures makes me very sympathetic to what we’ve come to call his doubt.

I’m one of those people for whom faith that God is alive and at work to help us hasn’t always come easily. Sometimes I think I feel too much.

The world is still a place where the soul feels danger. Hatred and violence are still rampant in the world. Our political climate is poisonous, our institutions of finance riddled with greed and corruption. The wealth of the world more and more lies in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Can we trust that they have our best interests in mind? Ordinary working people seem to be getting the raw end of the deal, not to mention those who are in danger of falling off the edge of society.

It seems very reasonable to me for even people of Christian faith to lament, and that puts me at times in awkward places, because I perceive that I live in a culture – even in the church - that doesn’t value lamentation as a faithful act. It seems to me at times that the culture around me encourages me to avoid that, to go quickly to some kind of sunny optimism.

So I relate well to Thomas. I can relate to his disappointment and deep sense of loss that prevents him from immediately trusting that the risen Jesus was with the other disciples, and now stands before him in the flesh.

Thomas suffered a deep loss. One of the lines of Cohen’s song seems to apply as well to Thomas. “I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” Thomas is afraid to feel hope again, lest he be disappointed. So he won’t believe until he can touch Jesus.

Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a human being. I can handle that. It’s why I like Leonard Cohen’s song. There’s some lament in the song, but there is also that deep affirmation: “Hallelujah”. God be praised.

I may struggle with doubt, and you may too, but in the end I believe.

I’m helped in my faith by an ancient image, and you’ll see it before you as you come up toward the altar for Holy Communion.

What you see before you is an icon of the Lord’s resurrection. While in Israel a decade ago I had this icon written for me, and I lugged it home on the plane to Oregon.

What you see in the icon is Jesus standing on the brink of the blackness that is hell, and from it he draws Adam and Eve up into the light of day. The chains and locks of their captivity there are now shattered, and you can see the broken pieces falling away back into the blackness.

The most important thing to notice is the grip Jesus has on Eve and Adam. To look at that detail in the icon is to see that all the power to save lies with God. He holds them by the wrist. Their ascent from the power of death to the light of day is due solely to the power of Christ, and not in any way to their own effort.

Psalm 16, appointed for today, begins with a simple prayer; the prayer available to all human beings when we realize we’ve run out of resources to save the world ourselves, let alone to save ourselves. “Protect me, O God.”

If we are to live in the heaven promised us in this world and the next, it will be because we trust with the Psalmist in the Lord of life, who does not give us or the world up to Sheol, to the pit of death. It will be because we find, with Thomas, in the wounded one our Lord and our God! When he touched the wounds he knew that Jesus knew all about suffering, and that God knew all about suffering.

If we are to live in the heaven promised us right now and forever, it will be because we trust the deep truth the ancient icon teaches. God in Christ has us firmly in a saving grip, and we are right now raised with him. The icon teaches us what our baptism signifies. We are raised with Christ; the world is redeemed and in the hands of God. It is not for us to grasp this intellectually. It is for us to know it and trust it. Underneath are the everlasting arms.

Because of this, we stand before the Lord of song with nothing on our tongue but “Hallelujah”.

Image: Icon written in May 2000 in Jerusalem. Photo by Charles Pearson of St. Paul's, Bellingham.

Easter Day 2011

Easter Day 2011 John 20:1-18

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

I love this Easter Gospel, so comic. Mistaken identity, the confusion and cross-purposes that arise from mistaken identity; it's all there as it is in many of Shakespeare's plots or comic operas.

There's Mary Magdalene early in the morning on the first day of the week coming to the tomb of Jesus. In my imagination she makes that walk in a slow, pensive way.

There's Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb to find nothing as she expected. The stone that once sealed the entrance is cast aside.

There's Mary now at a full run, robes clutched about her to free her feet for her haste to reach Simon Peter and the other disciples.

Then there's another footrace back, Simon lagging behind but catching up to be the first to enter the tomb.

The sight of cast-aside graveclothes are enough for Simon and the other disciple to begin to grasp what this might mean in the light of Scriptures that speak of God's vindication of the just one.

They head for home. Mary remains, weeping. Her grief is compounded by her confusion. “What could have happened; what does this mean?”

Then there's the gardener there. Maybe he knows. He seems kind enough in his greeting: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Things are not what they should be! She needs to fix things!

And here's the comedy and the joy of it. There's never been any way to tell Jesus what to do or fix him.

It was that way in life. He was always a step ahead of everyone else in his vision of things, his actions and words.

It was this wild freedom that propelled him to embrace the cross. If we could have stopped him, we certainly would have. People certainly tried.

God lives fully in Jesus. Always did, and does so now.

This is a whole new situation confronting Mary, and for all her running she's hasn't caught up with it yet.

And then the Gardener speaks, looking at her with love. “Mary!”

She's suddenly flooded with recognition. “Rabbouni!”

I imagine an embrace here, but it is brief.

Jesus says “Don't hold on to me”. Mary can let go of her need to fix things. There's nothing to be fixed. Fixing things puts things back the way they were.

This is about things as they've never been before.

We don't hold on to Jesus. He holds on to us.

We don't own him. He owns us, because he is the very Life of the World; the visible expression of the energy of God. He is God's right hand, and God is visibly known in his actions.

The Resurrection shows us that God is wild and free among us today, being bound by nothing, especially by death, the fear of death, the threat of death.

Jesus is out there, alive and doing very well. He's contained by no boundaries; certainly not Death. Because of this, he's everywhere.

We recognize him the same way people saw him in his life. In a world where death and decay are apparent, he's over it and in it and uncontrolled by it. He's always in the midst of the reconciling work, the mercy work, the work to make things right, to open up understanding and blow open the doors of endless possibilities.

And if we are raised with Christ, we join him where we recognize him and find him. And it dawns on us through a lifetime of faith: He really is risen!

If we are with Mary in the Garden, there's nothing needing fixing. God is making all things new.

Let's live it!

Image: "Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene at the Empty Tomb". Artist unknown.http://www.livinglutheran.com/blog/2011/03/mary-magdalene.html

Power from above

Pilate therefore said to Jesus, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above....”

On Sunday, April 3 our Guatemala mission team made a tour of Santiago Atitlán in the company of Dolores, a native of this Mayan town on the shores of Lago de Atitlán.

One stop in the tour led us up a narrow alleyway to a small space in front of a small building with an open doorway, which appeared dark in the bright light of a sunny morning. In this small space Mayan women sat greeting visitors, along with a couple of men. They are guardians of a shrine we came to visit.

High in the mountains of Guatemala live the descendants of the ancient Mayan people, speaking their own language and with their own customs which distinguish them from those Guatemalans who descend from Spanish ancestry.

In this village Mayan religious beliefs exist alongside the Catholicism brought to Central America by missionaries following in the path of the conquistadors. In the local parish church and throughout the streets of Santiago, there is abundant evidence of the intermixture of Mayan and Christian saints and deities or quasi-deities.

We came to visit this place dedicated to Maximon, who we were told was the most important local deities or saints, around whom a strong cult is formed.

In groups of two or three we followed our tourguide inside the small darkened building. When my turn came I took in the scene as Dolores explained what was going on.

Maximon appears as a carved wooden face topped with a head-dress, with a short body clothed in colorful cloths. From his mouth dangles a cigar. To Maximon's side stands an acolyte with an ashtray underneath the tip of the cigar. Every so often the acolyte carefully nudged the ash into the tray. On a shelf near Maximon's head were two quart bottles of beer; at his feet bottles of rum, and are many candles burning.

On that morning, facing Maximon and kneeling on the floor, were three people. A young couple knelt silently and solemnly. To their right knelt a young man who appeared to be the shaman. He was addressing Maximon in the local Mayan dialect, in a voice both insistent and pleading. I was immediately reminded of an attorney before the bar, arguing a case to an indifferent judge.

Later, outside, Dolores explained that the shaman was there on behalf of the couple to plead for a blessing on a new business venture they were to undertake. She further explained that our presence was no intrusion on their privacy, but was welcome.

I went away with many thoughts about the experience, and those thoughts crystallized around what appeared to me to be the great contrast between a devotion to Maximon and a devotion to our dear Lord Jesus, and the contrast between the power attributed to Maximon in that scene and the power we see displayed in our Savior Jesus Christ.

The words of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel to his disciples came to mind:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25b -28)

In the image of Maximon, plied with cigars and beer and rum in exchange for favors, I can read at the very least a projection of the usual human valuation of power.

Yesterday we remembered Jesus washing his disciple's feet; a humble self-abasement. I thought to myself, “If Maximon really wants to show us how powerful he is, let him get down and kiss the feet of that couple kneeling there.”

At the end of our morning tour we entered Iglesia de Santiago, the local parish church; a place in which depictions of Mayan saints and Christian saints are displayed. Here for more than a decade Fr. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoman, presided as parish priest. So beloved was he that he was known as Padre A'plas; which means “Francis”. His was a ministry in that place which was all about service. We heard from our tour guide how Padre A'plas fed her and her family when she was a malnourished child of struggling parents. This priest founded a local medical clinic, oversaw a farm to feed hungry people, saw to the translation of the New Testament into the language of that place, conducted the Liturgy of the Eucharist, trained catechists to teach faith in Jesus, and so befriended the people in general that he was ushered in and welcomed to the heart of the town.

When the Civil War erupted, this priest – who was by all accounts not very politically minded – found himself in a dangerous place when the government of Guatemala sent out death squads across the country to eradicate rebels. Those troops came to Santiago and occupied the town, and were viewed by the locals as an unwelcome.

The killings started, and bodies started turning up. Padre A'plas had to make a choice. Would he stay with his people, or would he leave?

He left for awhile for Oklahoma, but he couldn't stay away, so he returned. His attitude appears in this quote from a letter he wrote during this time:

“I haven’t received any death threats as such, but if anything happens that is the way it is supposed to be.”

In the end he was assassinated by a trio of men, and no one has ever been convicted of any crime. Along with him died many others in the Christian community there. He is remembered as a saint, with a shrine on the walls of the church telling the story of his life.

I began by quoting Jesus responding to Pilate's threatening words. Said Pilate: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Pilate is here offering the worst threat he can make. He threatens to kill Jesus. Jesus knows this, of course, and he's remained silent. In this Jesus is simply acting out his understanding that he is in front of one of the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over others; who make others their slaves to do their bidding. As he taught his disciples, so he is acting. “It will not be so among you.”

Pondering this, we need to ask ourselves “Who has the power here?”

It's Jesus who is wielding the real power. Threats of death, though they bring distress to him, do not deter him. Here, as in the rest of John's Gospel, Jesus is the one wielding the real power.

The power he wields is the power of servanthood; a power rooted firmly in the knowledge that the Lord God, not Pilate, not anyone else, is in control of life and death; that both realms belong to God.

Father Rother, or Padre A'plas, as he was called by those who loved him, knew this. Knowing this, he was able to say: “A shepherd doesn't run.”

We shouldn't be critical of the cult of Maximon and not look at our own cultural assumptions about power. Our fear of death and desire for security prompts our seemingly endless offerings to the gods of War; our propensity for euphemisms to avoid the subject of death, our propensity to worship gods of wealth and excess.

The power of Jesus is not afraid of anything Pilate can do.

Somehow, in the mystery of God's ways, any power Pilate had over Jesus was because Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit all agreed to let Pilate have his illusions of power.

In his heart, Jesus knew that Pilate indeed had no power. Jesus had the power over death, and Pilate didn't need to know that for it to be true.

A relationship with Jesus draws us into the mystery of this power over death. In his death he destroys the power of death to keep us in fear. This is the great truth Holy Church offers to you and I for our trust and obedience. In his death he embraces us in all of our foolishness, faithlessness, vacillation.This is truly the power that overcomes the power of death in our lives.

Image: Photo of Fr. Stanley Rother in shrine to his memory at Iglesia de Santiago in Santiago de Atilan, Guatemala

On coming home from Guatemala


Last Saturday our Guatemala mission team visited La Merced, a Catholic church near the center of Antigua.

In the church to the right of the chancel is a shrine to Mary. The photo I took shows her sad-eyed, attired in a long white dress, with the hilt of a sword appearing above the neckline. Below the shrine is an ascription that reads simply “MD”.

A fellow traveller asked me “What does 'MD' mean?” “Why is that sword there?”

It took me a minute, but I then recognized the imagery. The “MD” means “Madre Dolorosa”, or in English “Mother of Sorrows”, and the sword was a reminder of the story told in Luke's Gospel when Jesus' parents presented him in the Temple as their firstborn son. At that time the old prophet Simeon blessed the child and addressed Mary with these words:

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon's words describe Jesus was a prophet. Prophets, because they tell the truth, suffer the consequences. We don't always like it when our innermost thoughts and commitments are laid bare for all to see.

The tears on the face of his mother Mary are because she fully realizes that it could come to this. The sword of grief pierces her heart because her son's faithfulness to God would bring him suffering.

The faithfulness of Jesus is described in our first reading today from Isaiah. No one clearly knows who the prophet was first describing, but Christians have always found in Isaiah's words a description of our Lord:

The Lord God has given me the
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious.

Jesus listened for God. And for Jesus, as for the Servant, obedience to God leads directly to a contest with the world. The result is this:

“I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from shame and spitting.”

If Jesus is willing to suffer on behalf of others, what about us? This is an uncomfortable question, but a necessary question to ask if we profess to be united to Jesus in the Sacrament of Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

In an interview about her recent book based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, Kenda Dean reflects on its findings, one of which is that while three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, only half consider it very important, and fewer than half actually practice their faith as a regular part of their lives.

Dean, who is a professor at Princeton Seminary in the field of youth ministry, writes:

“...What many parents really want most from youth ministers is to keep their children safe, keep them off drugs, out of trouble and out of bed with another person. As long as youth are not doing those things, then youth ministry has succeeded. Obviously what's missing from that is any sense of identity that has to do with the Christian story.”

The findings of this study don't reflect well on the job the Church has done in telling a story about a God worth knowing. Teens in general, according to its findings, see Christian religion as something to help you feel good and do some good, but God is pretty much out of the picture until you need God for something. If teens believe this, it is because many adults believe this.

On our trip, I think we all had an opportunity to hear God intruding on our consciousness, making a claim on our lives.

When our youth reached Antigua after a week high in a mountain town peopled by the descendants of the ancient Mayans, we visited La Merced, as all previous St. Paul's youth mission trips have done. This is the church with the statue of Mary I just described.

In the Church, we became silent. People were there kneeling, pouring out their hearts in silent prayer. We toured the graphic statuary there, typical of Latin American Catholic Churches in it's frank portrayal of suffering. Our presence there was reverent and quiet.

We talked about the experience later that day in our daily briefing. Some later said they were taken with the graphic statuary in the church; which illustrates Jesus on the road to Calvary - suffering and bleeding – and Mary, sorrowful of countenance.One girl's comment stayed with me:

“If St. Paul's had this kind of statues, I'd come every Sunday!”

I was told second-hand that another youth had a different kind of response. He didn't care for the church building or it's iconography; he thought that the effort put to building churches and erecting statuary would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor more directly.

In Santiago de Atilán we adults and youth together came face to face with people in poverty; a people who had suffered for generations at the hands of oppression. We came face-to-face with people like Nino, who lovingly gave from his poverty to nurture a new generation of children in his little nursery school. We played with the children of Cerro de Oro and Panajab. We witnessed the quiet dignity of a people who had very little but who had each other. We heard stories of heroism and martyrdom from the recent history of the town; stories of their own government coming to their town and leaving terror behind; stories of heroic self-sacrifice on to protect one another during this time of terror. We saw a village and a people rising from these experiences to a hopeful future.

The comments from our teen travelers at the end of our trip led me to believe that in some way the story of Jesus' suffering and Passion had connected with real everyday experience. In some way, we'd been able to listen for God and hear God speaking through the people we went to visit.

In a very real sense, then, the trip provoked something of a crisis in us. Is the Christian church a place to be safe and hide out from the world? Or is the Christian church a community in which we commit to risk ourselves for the mission and ministry of Jesus?

What happened to us in Guatemala is aptly described by Kenda Dean in her interview as having your heart broken open:

“...what makes the heart break open is the sense of being removed from our previous self-definitions and allowing ourselves to be claimed by another human being, another perspective on the world....I actually think that it's this encounter with the other which is the non-negotiable part of the way we live our lives. By other I mean both the “little o” (the other human being), and the big “O,” God. So yes, in going across a boundary to encounter people who see the world differently than we do – it might be on a mission trip, or it might be in the cafeteria – the other makes a claim on us, not because we have something to give them, but because they have something to give us.”

The National Study on Youth and Religion betrays the fact that much of the Church has propagated a passionless Christianity; a powerless Christianity; a form of Christian faith that cannot commend itself to our youth, because it is pretty much deaf to the voice of God calling us to risk.

That need not be the case.

Jesus comes to us today as the one who listens to God's voice, and who risks everything to bring God's love to a suffering world.

He's calling us to listen with him, to risk with him, to fall in love with the world the way he fell in love with it. We go to the altar in order that he may dwell in us, and we in him.

God So Loved the World, can you handle it?


2 Lent, March 20, 2011 St. Paul's Bellingham

John 3:16  "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.  17  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I want to speak to you about hell today, but please don't get up and leave just yet. Hear me out.

In case you don't know, a man named Rob Bell, who cares a lot about Jesus and wants people to know the love of Jesus, published a book recently. It is called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived.

In this book, Bell – who pastors a large evangelical church in the Midwest – makes the following statement, as quoted in an article in USA Today:

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

 

Here's another quote:

"When people say they're tired of hearing about "sin" and "judgment" and "condemnation," it's often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone."

Here's one more, for good measure:

"None of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will."

This may seem reasonable to you, as it does to me.

Nevertheless, Bell's book provoked a firestorm in the blogosphere recently among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

Bell's views, says one commentator, are “dangerous and contrary to the word of God. ... If Bell doesn't believe in eternal punishment, then he doesn't think sin is an offense against a holy God." Another prominent Midwest pastor accused Bell of false doctrine by promoting universalism, the idea that there is no hell and that all people go to heaven.

Jumping to Bell's defense was the president of the world's largest evangelical seminary, who opined that Rob Bell was no universalist, but rather one who “is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy”.

This whole discussion struck a big nerve. Over the last couple of days I read some of the comments submitted to various blog and news sites in response to this whole debate. Predictably, there are many posts out there from those who find the whole debate exasperating. They use the moment to cast a pox on all religious believers and the whole kit and caboodle of religion.

In response to one such opinion another poster agreed, saying

“I wish I could get back all of those hours I wasted in church.”

I must say I have a great deal of sympathy with those who – having heard in their early life the threat of hell hanging over them and internalized this threat as the very essence of God - flee the church scene.

There is a version of Christian proclamation that goes something like this: “God loves you very much, but if you don't believe the right way you're going to suffer eternal torment.”

Lutheran pastor David Lose tells us that the great theologian Karl Barth, having heard such a message from an American evangelist, remarked that it sounded like the Gospel at gunpoint.

That's how it felt to me when I heard that message repeatedly when I was younger. It was terrifying, to say the least.

The problems with this version of the Gospel are myriad, but let's just start with this passage we read today from John's Gospel.

Rob Bell's book is called “Love Wins.”

I'm against building theological positions solely on one passage of Scripture, but if I were forced to come up with one Scripture passage to support Rob Bell's assertion in that title, John 3:16-17 would do just fine. Listen to it again.

16  "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.  17  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You'll find nothing in this passage to suggest that God sends anyone to hell. God loves the world and does not condemn it, according to this passage of Scripture. And the world that God loves is the very world that is referred to many more times in John's Gospel, the world that is opposed to Jesus and his mission. This affirmation will be made again in John's Gospel. The very world that opposed Jesus is the world for which God pours out mercy, and will always pour out mercy. All one need to do to access this mercy is to trust it.

Far from condemning a world that opposed Jesus and his mission, God intends the world's salvation. Rather than condemn the world, God is willing – in the person of Jesus, to suffer the condemnation of human beings, and the agony of the Cross, and then return in Resurrection glory to proclaim a Gospel of reconciliation.

Hell is a condition to which we consign ourselves. The major branches of Christendom teach this. It is not God who condemns: we condemn ourselves if we refuse to be reconciled to God, if we refuse contrition, if we refuse the amazing grace of God. The question for us to consider is whether or not God's mercy can be fully and finally rejected. The fact seems to be that none of us has any information to let us in on the answer.

Rob Bell is claiming that death itself is no end to the process of our redemption. He's holding out hope that our process of becoming reconciled to the amazing love of God for us and for others – and we do need to be reconciled – doesn't end at death. In making this claim he's upset many evangelical Christians, but he has lots of company in the major branches of Christian faith – Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and he has lots of support in Scripture and in the great conversation about God to his fundamental proposition, which is that “Love Wins.”

I don't have to know who is in and who is out. Billy Graham, who called so many to the altar, is speaking generously in his elder days. When asked by Newsweek Magazine in 2006 about the eternal destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy Graham said this:

“Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't... I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

Speaking of God's mercy, I like what the Methodist Will Willimon wrote back in 1982:

“In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding, supererogation, and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done. The cross is not simply one more piece of damaging evidence that seals shut the case against guilty humanity.

"The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love.
Oh yes, says the church at mid-Lent. Yes. Now we remember. It was for this that we began the journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.”

That is the God I've come to love and to seek. This is the God, whom to know is everlasting life. And everlasting life is to turn from preoccupation with who is in and who is out to God's main work for us to do. God calls us to partnership with Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to show mercy and pity. The Church calls us – in continuity with the God of Israel, the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs; the God and Father of our Savior Jesus Christ – to seek the welfare of this world, the relief of suffering, the establishment of justice, and the grateful acceptance of all the good gifts of God's Creation.

In this regard, hear the words of the poet Langston Hughes:

 

In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum of our weary city
...Gather up in the arms of your pity.
Gather up
In the arms of your love
Those who expect
No love from above.

 

That sounds like a Gospel-shaped prayer. So be it, Amen.

 

Image: Study for Nicodemus and Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Wikimedia Commons

Of young adults and the church

Yesterday I attended a meeting of the Council of the Diocese of Olympia, at which a young priest asked us about our knowledge of young adults and their relationship to the church. When I got home I checked Facebook to see this blogpost forwarded to me by a friend from Arkansas. I just sent it on to my Bishop and another clergy colleague and forwarded it to my own Facebook account. It's worth reading just for the way it directly addresses in a calm and direct way the anxieties of adults who wonder where the young people are. It is by a person who served as a campus chaplain.

I call attention to these quotes:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

Amen to that! Here's more:

5. Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

I know I'm going to upset some people I know with approving of the above, but I'm not sorry about that. I think if we can't see the beauty in Scripture we're in no little trouble.

Here's something else I find true in my experience:

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have a uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

Why, even yesterday a 25-year-old man -- ok, he may be 26 by now :) -- told me a big attraction to St. Paul's was the organ music.

One more, and then go there and read the whole thing for yourself:

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

Thank you, Tamie, in the merciful name of Jesus, for sharing this with us.

Of faithless fears and worldly anxieties and God's immortal love


Epiphany 8 February 27 2011 St. Paul’s Bellingham

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:34.

I’m standing at the gas pump once again, and the little numbers indicating money spent are going faster than ever. That day I hear Donald Trump interviewed on TV, and he’s saying “you just wait; the gas is going to reach 5 dollars or more.”

I stand there filling my tank, and it’s going over the $50 mark again on my modest Toyota, and I’m thinking of the affect on all prices this rise in energy prices will mean for us.

Frankly, I don’t personally worry so much for myself. It’s going to take more than has happened to make me really worry, because I’m blessed with a decent income. I can make some adjustments, and I can make it work. At least, that’s how it is today.

But I am aware of worry and concern all around, and the potential for worry to be amplified, and for unrest to grow around me. The more that happens, the more I’m tempted to worry. It’s already pretty tense in the country. Massive greed has caused massive economic disaster, and we’re still stumbling around after this blow. The lines are drawn, the political rhetoric incendiary, and various methods are employed by various and sundry people and institutions with various and sundry agendas to turn our attention away from root causes of our sorrows, which are linked to our greed and our fearfulness and worry and lack of trust in God’s bounty.

And as I’m at the gas pump I think about the whole efficient system of distribution that links that nozzle in my car to the Middle East, where all of a sudden amazing and tumultuous events are rocking the whole world. The Middle East, where 60% of the population is under 30 years of age, is experiencing the power of young and not-so-young rising up to seize their vision of tomorrow, a vision without autocratic and oppressive dictators who ruled by fear with their secret police and their detention cells and their intimidation.

What astonishing days these are in which we live!

While those gas prices stayed relatively low I had less reason to worry, perhaps. The gasoline distribution system is amazingly efficient, and – one might argue - for most of us in this room, it’s been amazingly affordable.

But now that the prices are rising, I have to think of some of the cost of that efficiency. Part of the cost was paid by those young in the Middle East; smart, under-employed, yearning for the freedoms they see lived out in America and elsewhere. Those young people lived with governments that our government worked out arrangements with so that we could have our energy. We helped prop up those governments for our purposes. Those governments ruled with an iron fist, with rampant injustice. We all know that; it’s been a reality no matter what political party is ruling here at home.

And now the game is changing. And I know it. And I can join the worriers, if I let myself, because all of this is unpredictable, and there is some danger in that. But I’m not going to join the worriers. I’ll be concerned, but not worry.

Our Lord Jesus teaches us what we are to be doing. We are not to worry, for worriers cannot receive the kingdom of God. Worrying is vain and faithless, for it does not trust that God is among us and working for us. Worrying is vain and faithless, because it tends to be self-centered, and not think of others. Worrying cannot accomplish one thing. Worrying detracts from kingdom activity; from our being and acting in such ways that we are catalysts for kingdom activity.

Here’s what we’re to do instead of worrying:

“Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jesus, who tells us this, is the one who is the perfect image of the Holy One. And the Holy One carries the worries and concerns of all of us.

Jesus is the face of this Holy One, who a long time ago took notice of people in the Middle East who were suffering under oppression, and needed leadership to help them to throw off chains of bondage to find freedom.

The Holy One spoke to a man named Moses, saying “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them….”

Now, in our day, can we imagine the Holy One involved in this somehow? Can we imagine these hosts of our fellow human beings in Egypt responding to a desire and longing placed deep within them to arise to the dignity of their human nature? Can we imagine the Holy Spirit of God at work in this situation, full of peril but also of promise? Can we imagine the Holy One once again hearing a cry from Egypt and Yemen and Bahrain and Libya? Can we imagine that that same God who called Israel out of Egypt and set apart a people for God’s name now listens to the cry of the descendants of Ishmael, that other branch of the family that names One God, as well as the cries of Christians, and Jews?

If stable gas prices and diminished worry come at the cost of oppression and subjugation of so many of these fellow human beings, perhaps we are overdue some rise in prices and the chance to at the same time resist the temptation to worry. The present moment affords us the chance to give thanks for the many blessings of freedom and abundance that you and I in this room – for the most part – enjoy, and to lend a helping hand to those near and far who are in need of a share of the bounty we enjoy.

With our Lord’s words to us ringing in our ears, we’re challenged once again. Do we believe that God is at work in the world for good? Can we trust that God’s care extends over the whole earth, and is responsive to all creatures? Can we trust that in seeking the kingdom of God – rather than expending energy in worry - we are entrusting ourselves to God, who holds for us the Kingdom of God, the Common Good that in the end benefits us all?

Let us pray:

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

What's in your heart?


6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 13, 2011 St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

The rose is red, the violet's blue
The honey's sweet, and so are you
Thou are my love and I am thine
I drew thee to my Valentine
The lot was cast and then I drew
And Fortune said it shou'd be you
.i

Tomorrow we celebrate Valentine's Day, whose sentiments are typified in this old nursery rhyme from the eighteenth century.

The symbol of the day is the symbol of a heart, and it calls to mind love and affection between intimate companions.

Tomorrow the question of the day is “What is in your heart?” People will ask this of themselves, of others. People will hope for good things in store in each others hearts.

It's a good question to frame our Gospel reading today.

Perhaps you experienced this reading as hard to listen to. It's pretty demanding, and it has us perhaps uncomfortably aware of what is in our hearts. If there's a bitter or hateful attitude in our hearts, it gets called out in this reading. If in our heart of hearts we know we've offended, this reading calls us out. If we've strayed mentally or emotionally in our affections from the one to whom we've pledged our marriage vows, this reading calls us out. The divorced among us may squirm uncomfortably. If we've gone back on our solemn word, we're called out.

We're in the Sermon on the Mount now, which Jesus has opened with the Beatitudes, which express a way of seeing the world; the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. He's called those who want to walk this way with him “salt” and “light” for the world.

And now he's offering a challenging teaching based upon several of the Commandments. He does so after challenging his hearers with these words: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the king of heaven.”

What's challenging to his hearers then, and to us now, is his insistence on making us go inward to our hearts to find out what lives there.

And the reason he's doing so, I think, is to have us consider well our commitment to the one we say we love. It is easy to say we love God. He's asking us: “what's in your heart?”

He's just said in the Beatitudes that it is the pure in heart who will see God.

In other words, it is those who set their hearts on knowing and having a relationship to the living God who will come to see and know God.

Jesus' teaching takes us very close to the heart of things for Christian life today.

As a priest, I'm often with people who half-jokingly – or perhaps not so jokingly – want to have my opinion as to whether something or other is against the rules, so to speak. If they utter a course word around me, they exhibit embarrassment. I'm often amused by this, and I try to defuse their embarrassment.

It's easy to turn Christian faith into a matter of rules, and to try to see ourselves as best we can as those who keep the rules. It's easy to reduce Christianity to one more system to enforce moral rectitude.

Hearing today's reading can reinforce that sense in people. We're all walking around with some knowledge or other of darkness in our hearts, and we don't really like to be reminded of it. On response is to think “well, I'm not all that bad, I'm as good as the next guy, aren't I”. Then along comes Jesus showing us that just the intent of the heart to do wrong is a violation of the moral law. What are we to do? Try harder? Give up?

I think this is where the Good News of Jesus comes into focus.

Let me say that I think Jesus is here not prescribing some impossible path to moral perfection as a condition for receiving God's favor. Jesus has already begun as he says this to live out a life demonstrating mercy to those considered the worst sinners. He's showing God's heart of mercy.

I think Jesus is talking about relationships here: relationships with God and relationships with others, and the kingdom of God as the gift which makes possible renewed relationships.

I think Jesus is asking his disciples, and all who hear: what's in our hearts? Can we imagine a whole new set of relationships with each other based on the Beatitudes? Can we see ourselves as poor in spirit, hungering for what is right, longing for mercy for ourselves and mercy for others?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”, Jesus has just told us.

I think there is a logic in the Beatitudes. One leads to another. Just before “Blessed are the pure in heart” is “Blessed are the merciful”. The merciful will obtain mercy, and the more they obtain mercy, the more they will show mercy, and the more they show mercy, the more they will long for God's mercy, and the more their hearts long for God's mercy, the more clearly they will see God.

I think Jesus is asking the Scribes and the Pharisees and his disciples “what's in your heart?”

In so doing, he's not disrespecting the Law of Moses. On the contrary, he's upholding it.

He's upholding it by upholding the first thing the Law enjoins upon us: a relationship with God. “Love the Lord your God” is the first commandment. It is upon the foundation of a relationship with God that a relationship with the other is built.

That's a matter of the heart.

Turning Christianity into a system of moralism is a slippery slope to losing the Good News and with it the heart of the Church. We have ways of writing the rules to excuse ourselves from living in a relationship of mercy and loving-kindness with others. We can avoid adultery while neglecting our spouse. We can avoid murder while going around destroying someone else's reputation. Jesus challenges that in his teaching today, by showing what a dead end that is. We all need mercy, because in our hearts we are still being purified.

Is there in our hearts the mercy that comes from knowing we need mercy? Is that working in us a purer intent to seek God's mercy?

South African Methodist pastor Peter Woods writes:

“...I am convinced that the church will continue to decline on the left and become rabidly rigid and rule bound on the right, until we realise that the gospel is not about rules.  For the Gospel to be Good News it has to be proclaimed in a way that shows that it is about relationship....”ii

“Externals are the consequences of interior processes. We avoid interiority at our peril.  Was it Carl Jung who said, “If you do not go within you will have to go without”

What's in our hearts?

Dan Clendenin writes:

“...in showing mercy we approach divine perfection. The novelist Reynolds Price (1933-2011) of Duke University, who died on January 20, was an outspoken if unorthodox and non-churchgoing Christian. He once told the Georgia Review (1993), "The whole point of learning about the human race presumably is to give it mercy.iii

At the end of our last Gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In what state does this righteousness begin to form itself in us? In the state in which we consider what is in our hearts, and open ourselves to mercy.

On his blog, Dan Clendenin gives us as an exercise in receiving God's mercy this poem of Edwina Gately. Consider it an early Valentine, if you will.

What's in your heart?

Let Your God Love You

Be silent.
Be still.
Alone.
Empty
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Quiet.
Still.
Be.
Let your God —
Love you.

i Gammer Gurton's Garland (London, 1784) in I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 375.

ii http://thelisteninghermit.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/the-law-of-love-or-the-love-of-law/

iii http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110207JJ.shtml

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Of dung and salt and being a catalyst for the kingdom

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 6 2011 St. Paul's, Bellingham

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown and out trampled underfoot.”

I've often wondered about one aspect of this passage. How does salt become not salty? I suspect it is when it becomes wet and the saltiness leaches out.

I read about another possibility recently.

For some years scholars have been studying the Bible in its cultural environment. What they publish is of interest to people like me. It is of interest today, because it is a possible answer to my question.

Scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in their “Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” call attention to an obscure passage from the Book of Job which reads:

“As for the earth, out of it comes bread....”Job 28:5a

What does this mean?

If you've been to a pizza place recently – the kind that offers hearth-fire pizza – you have a clue.

Cultures all across the world bake in clay ovens. This was true in the Middle East in Jesus' day, and long before his day.

The ideal house of the day, they say, would have a courtyard in the middle of it that contained an earthen oven with two stoves, a millstone for grinding grain, and a dung pile. Milling about would be chickens and cattle. The dung was used for fuel, as it is in many places even today.

Here's where the salt comes in. Someone from the house had a chore, and that would be to take the dung, mix it with salt, and lay the patties in the sun to dry in order to be ready as fuel.

A slab of salt would be placed at the base of the oven, and the dung patties placed over it. The salt served as a catalyst for burning.

When the slab of salt at the base of the fire had been spent of its catalytic qualities, it would be taken out and thrown out, perhaps to be thrown on a muddy road to make the footing more sure.

So there you have it. Jesus is making clear to his disciples that he expects them to become like salt mixed in a dung patty!

You don't like the analogy?

Well, think of it this way. He's simply saying that he expects his followers to have catalytic properties. He's expecting us to be the salt of the earth to keep burning the fires of the kingdom of God; fires which produce good things to nourish the peoples of the earth.

Here's another one for you.

Douglas Hare in his commentary on Matthew suggests another way to understand “You are the salt of the earth”. He suggests “you are red hot pepper for the whole earth!”, or “You must add zest to the life of the world.”

Jesus is expecting us to make a difference, as he did.

He's expecting us to be a catalyst, to help start something. Jesus is expecting us to bring a zest for life to the earth, as pepper livens up your breakfast scrambled eggs or hot sauce livens up just about any dish.

In Matthew's Gospel, this message is given to his disciples, to whom he specifically extended a call to join him in his work of being a catalyst for the kingdom of God. It is also extended to those in the crowds who hear his message because they hear him and see him are persuaded to follow him.

This latter group includes us.

To the disciples and to us, and to all the world God in Jesus Christ extends the blessings of forgiveness and divine love, calling us to follow Jesus into the kingdom of God.

Because God has blessed us with forgiveness and favor, we have a relationship with God and other human beings which is given us, and it is a relationship as members of one family

Because in the person of Jesus all the goodness and righteousness of God was fulfilled, we have the capacity to live in righteousness ourselves.

And this means being salt and light in the world. It means living in relationship with Jesus, who is in relationship with our enemies, and those we tend to despise and look down upon. A relationship with Jesus means a new outlook on the world. It means upholding the commandments of God.

It means seeing the world as God sees it, in hope.

We live in a world with so much hatred and suspicion. When these things exist, there can be no zest in life, no fire of warmth and hospitality.

I've noted over the last decade since we were attacked by extremists of the Muslim faith that it is very commonplace in our culture to hear and see expressions of prejudice and fear against all Muslims.

This came home in a painful way for me when last week I got an e-mail from a close relative containing a piece of writing purportedly from Europe which - in the course of lamenting what was done to the Jews in Europe – contained a broad-brush condemnation of the Muslim population of Europe. The things said in that e-mail about Muslims as a group were eerily similar to the kinds of things said about Jews as a group in Europe sixty to seventy years ago. It was disheartening and sad to me to know that because of the evil done by dangerous and violent Muslim extremists that hatred against all Muslims is being fanned in this way. Where hatred is fanned, violence is not far behind. I quickly found in an internet search that this message was being spread by extremist groups across the English-speaking world.

There's no zest in that. Nothing catalytic for the kingdom of God. Nothing to give hope to the world.

On the other hand, there was the correspondence from a young Egyptian blogger showing a photo of Egyptian Christian young people forming a ring of protection around Muslims at prayer during the current protests in Cairo.i

That's zesty. That's being a catalyst for something good.

Jesus is telling us, as did Isaiah the prophet in today's first reading, that righteousness involves a lot more than following religious rules. It isn't enough just to say the right words in church. God is looking for transformed lives, and through us a transformed world.

We're to be salt in the dung of the world, so that the fire of God's love might burn. We're to be red hot pepper for the world, zest for a world looking for signs of life.

During a trying time in Europe a great Archbishop of Canterbury uttered a statement that is memorable for us as the church.

“The church,” said William Temple, “is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

I pray we come together to a deeper understanding of this. I pray we stand in such certainty about the love of God for us and for all others, and such humility, that we can be salt and light, a blessing to the world, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Photo: Earthen oven outside Tiwa Kitchen Taos Pueblo Home Cooking on the road outside Taos Pueblo.

Of the adhan, locomotive horns, and following Jesus


Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 4:12-23

I was with friends who recently visited Egypt. We drank some spiced coffee, and as we did, I was shown a photograph of the restaurateur in Luxor who sold them this coffee and engaged them in friendly, funny conversation as they spent time in his establishment.

“Look”, said my friend, “see the carpet burn on his forehead?”
Sure enough, there was a definite reddish-brown spot right in the center of his forehead.

You see, he’s a Muslim, like most Egyptians, and that carpet burn is there because five times a day he hears the muezzin give the adhan, the call to prayer. That call to prayer is a brief summary of Islamic belief, and he, as an observant Muslim answers the call, kneeling on his prayer rug, then bowing his whole body to the ground until his forehead rests on his rug.

If you’ve ever visited the Middle East or North Africa or anyplace where Islam is in the majority, you’ve heard the haunting sounds of the call to prayer. It wafts in the air early in the morning, then four more times ending at bedtime. It is a call to stop everything and pay attention to God.

On this side of the pond I’ve never lived near a mosque or heard the call to prayer.

When I was living in Eugene I was at least two miles from the main rail line passing through Eugene and Springfield, but late at night when the wind direction was just right I would sometimes be awake at night hearing locomotive horns pierce the night as they repeatedly made street crossings. That sound in the night was often a summons to deep feelings.

The blare of the locomotive horn would sometimes remind me of my late father’s love of trains, and bring some nostalgia for childhood moments with him thrilling to the sounds and sights of locomotives. Thinking of my father, who died when I was nineteen, would in turn remind me of the uncertainty and shortness of life. I would hear those sounds and realize that life is coming at me. This would in turn bring about a contemplative moment considering the question “Who am I, what am I doing? What should I be doing? To what are you calling me?”

The closest I come to hearing an audible call to prayer out in the open is the sound of our carillon, or the blaring horn of a locomotive.

I’m never far from that sound now, living as close to the tracks as I do. Sometimes I’m awakened at night when the northbound or southbound trains come around to South Bellingham and hit the horn at the crossing of Harris. There’s this sense that life is coming at me, and moving on.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of God is coming near!”

In Frederick Bruner’s commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew he gives us a fresh understanding of the nature of that call from Jesus.

What Jesus is saying is “Look out! Move! A whole new world is headed straight toward you!”

If you are in Boulevard Park and about to cross the tracks when hear that locomotive horn blaring, you know you’d better move. You hear that horn as “Hey, look out, I’m coming your way!

I invite you to hear Jesus’ words in this way Bruner suggests:

“Move, because here comes the whole new world of God.”

The call of Jesus is a call to action. God is on the move coming at us. We are to turn and go with it, nothing held back.

The adhan – the call to prayer of the Muslim faith – is a summary of Islamic belief. When a Muslim hears it, they must respond. It is a call to submission.

The words from Jesus today are a summary of everything a Christian needs to know and understand. "God’s kingdom is coming, get with it!”

This is a summons to full attention, full submission to the purposes of God for our lives.

That’s the way Simon and Andrew and James and John heard Jesus’ call. They heard, and they submitted everything to the call.

We marvel at the suddenness of their following, but I think they were ready for this call in some way beyond my understanding. They were fishermen, yes, but human beings first, and something in their deepest yearning was met by what they had heard about this man, and when they were face to face with his invitation they knew that his invitation was what they had been hoping for. God moved right into their lives and claimed them.

The adhan, the call to prayer, just keeps coming when you’re living in the Middle East or some places in Michigan.

The locomotive horn just keeps coming when you’re in Bellingham. It’s always there. If you miss it at one hour of the day, you’ll hear it later on. It’s like that with God. God is always coming at me, inviting me to life with Jesus.

What is it for you? What in your life signifies that repeated summons to follow?

God is always coming at all of us, asking for all of us. We have this life to respond. An ancient poem by Rumi puts it this way.

For sixty years I have been forgetful
every minute, but not for a second
has this flowing toward me stopped or slowed.
I deserve nothing. Today I recognize
that I am the guest the mystics talk about.
I play this lively music for my Host.
Everything today is for the Host.

As Church, we profess that everything is for the Host. “Blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and for ever”, we pray together.

Our life together as Church will be stronger and more responsive to the call of God of Christ the more we commit ourselves individually to listening for and responding to the call.

Jesus says “Move, for here comes the whole new world of God!”

Images:
locomotive near Ferndale WA: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17456491@N00/3764784292
Hans Süss von Kulmbach The Calling of St Peter. 1514-16,Oil on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Karl Wilhelm Gentz The Muezzin's Call to Prayer. 19th century

The Shining


Epiphany 2 Jan 16 2011 St. Paul’s Bellingham

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Lots of us, I bet, are fans of reality shows on television.

Out of curiosity, I wrote “How to be a Reality Show Contestant” into my search engine and got immediate results. Forbes.com* has a slideshow that gives us five points of advice:

1. “No stereotypes, please”

2. “Ordinary is OK”

3. “Sing out, sister” (like the vocally untalented William Hung of American Idol, be confident in what you do)

4. “Do a little sharing” (let people know something about who you really are)

5. “Cut to the video” (prepare a video for the producers)

Some few will get fame. Some by their fame will get adoration. Some will have their worst qualities known to the whole world and will be forever branded as “that person who….”

And fifteen minutes of fame will last…well, fifteen minutes.

A little recognition can be fun. It’s nice to be noticed. We all need some recognition, to have our uniqueness and value discovered, to be known for what is special about us.

It’s especially fun for me when people are really noticed for qualities that are worth noticing; for deeds or service or talents that really enrich the community. I like it when people are recognized because they really shine due to talent or hard work or both.

All of us are intended to shine, and today’s Collect asks God for just that very thing. But it’s not asking that we shine individually; it’s asking that we together shine.

“Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth….”

You and I may want a little fame; our moment in the sun. Some of us will get it and some won’t, and that really doesn’t matter a whole lot, because in the whole scope of things, we’re already pretty special, because God created us and has purposes for us.

The readings today are full of this insight.

In our first lesson we hear the prophet Isaiah giving us the inner thoughts of a mysterious person we know only as “the servant”, who tells us today of the knowledge that from birth they were called by God for something special. “The Lord called me before I was born…formed me in the womb to be his servant.”

The servant acknowledges that he has not always reflected adequately the call. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But the servant is trusting of God’s faithfulness, which is calling the servant to share God’s heart to bless Israel, and not just Israel, but all the nations. “I will give you as a light to the nations that my glory may reach to the end of the earth.”

The Psalmist gives witness that the Holy One heard his cry and “lifted him up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock.” The Psalmist now has a song of praise in his mouth, a song of praise for God’s mercy.

Paul, in the beginning of his letter to the Church at Corinth, acknowledges his call from God, and the call of God to the members of the Church at Corinth. Paul overflows with language that stresses God’s abundance of mercy in sharing with him and with this church the ministry of Jesus. Paul writes this way at the beginning of the letter knowing full well that he will soon have to be admonishing the church members in this rowdy port city, and pretty baldly at that, for their failures to reflect adequately with each other the mercy shown them by God. They are special to God, even while they are far from shining in their example. Corinth, in case you don’t know, was in Paul’s day probably a bit like Fairhaven in the rowdy and uncouth days when lumberjacks and sailors crowded the streets looking to quench various appetites.

Then comes John the Baptist again, declaring “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

And in this sentence is the very reason that we all are pretty special, that we all can shine.

The world is forgiven. God chooses the world for mercy. The sin of the world, the brokenness, all the “missing of the mark”, is done away with.

And in that we are creatures of this world, we are caught up in that. God chooses us to be forgiven and forgiving. And God does all this because God chooses to do so.

John the Baptist is taking himself out of the spotlight. He’s telling us “it’s not not really about me, it’s about him.” And as he does so he points at Jesus.

In doing this he immediately loses two disciples, who take right off and become disciples of Jesus. Andrew and Simon go after Jesus, who turns to them with a query: “what are you looking for?”

That’s a great question for us.

“What are you looking for?”

15 minutes of fame? I don't really think that's what anybody really wants.

In our rites of welcome for those adults who seek baptism this is exactly the question we ask: “What do you seek?”**

The answer is “Life in Christ.”

Andrew and Simon find what they are looking for by “hanging out” with Jesus Christ. They will shine with radiance in due time.

And in our “Journey” process toward baptism and reaffirmation of baptism, and in every liturgy, and in every Cursillo reunion group or Bible study or EFM class or Rite 13 gathering or Eucharistic visitor encounter, we have a chance to be with Jesus, to respond to his invitation to “come and see.”

Then, we’ll go into the world and some of that shine might show as we teach school or manage a business or attend to our patients or engage an activity in our retirement center.

We’re all looking to know we’re valued, that there’s something worthwhile about us. There is. We’re created by God, and God is seeking us. Furthermore, God has found us. God’s mercy is everlasting and over all. It’s meant to touch and transform us, and through our willing efforts to invite and to touch and to transform others.

We’re meant to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. We do when we’re filled with a sense of God’s greatness and goodness, and with the hope that accompanies the conviction that God is utterly, completely, fully, and finally for us.

The world is always waiting for a people who shine with mercy, with compassion, with deeds and words that invite the reign of God into everyday affairs. The world is always hoping for the people who shine with the radiance of God’s glory.

We’re called to be that. We’re called to shine. And we will, if we trust God’s mercy.

*http://www.forbes.com/2004/09/13/cx_pp_0913reality.html
**“Admission of Catechumens”, Book of Occasional Services (New York: Church Publishing, 1991), p. 115.

Artwork: "John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci.


The First Sunday after the Epiphany January 9, 2010 Matthew 3:13-17

Today we have the joy of bringing into the fellowship of Christ Harrison and Tucker.

I asked Harrison yesterday what he knew about what would happen today. “I can get the cup and the Christ”, he said.

I know Harrison and Tucker have been looking forward to this day. I can read their eagerness at the altar rail this last year. They know everyone else is being fed, and they want to be fed too.

Baptism is a sacrament we receive once, but the “cup and the Christ” is something they will partake in repeatedly in the Christian life that begins today for them.

Baptism is our way of accepting all the graces and goods we find in Jesus Christ, and saying “I'll follow you, Jesus”. This is done once.

“The cup and the Christ” is food for the journey of following Christ. We drink the cup and eat the Christ again and again, because it strengthens us to take the journey; a journey in which we'll learn from Jesus how to live in the ministry he gives us, that he shares with us.

We baptize Harrison and Tucker on the same day we remember the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist.

Matthew's Gospel tells us that Jesus' baptism was the beginning of something. Matthew has in mind another beginning, that told in Genesis, when the “Spirit of God hovered over the waters” and the world was brought into being.

In Matthew's story, there is the Spirit hovering again!

“Suddenly he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”

There's that Spirit hovering, and now a new beginning. Creation had suffered long enough because of our collective waywardness and rebellion against God's goodness. Now a new beginning! The Holy Child of God joins us in our life, and a new Genesis is being written!

It's clear that Jesus' baptism is just a beginning. Ahead of him lies his ministry in the world; a ministry of deep and fundamental challenge to all the ways of the world; a ministry of the reconciling and suffering love of God. His baptism is a commissioning for ministry. What follows in his life is the working out of what this baptism means. And the Spirit wants us to know this, to notice, to see and hear what Jesus will do and say now.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”

When we baptize Harrison and Tucker, we acknowledge that for them it is the beginning as well.

“We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood,” we say.

We need to grasp this fact and own it. See if you find familiar elements in the story I'm going to relate now.*

A pastor writes of a boy he'll call Kyle, who was nowhere to be found after his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday.

This was odd, because Kyle had been a faithful participant in his ninth-grade confirmation class, participating in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, weekly classes for study and exploration. He developed wonderful friendships with other ninth-graders. The celebration on Pentecost was a terrific time for all concerned – mentors, confirmands, parents.

But where was Kyle after Pentecost Sunday? Nowhere to be found! His parents and he just disappeared from the fellowship of the Church.

The pastor called the parents to check to see what was up. He writes:

“I distinctly remember his mother saying 'Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn't he done?”

The pastor explained that the baptism and the confirmation were only a beginning; a commissioning, as it were. Just like Jesus' baptism was only a beginning of a ministry, so our baptism or the confirmation of our baptismal vows is just a beginning of something. It is the commissioning for our ministry.

The pastor told Kyle's parents how much he missed them and Kyle, and how his confirmation mentor was ready to continue a relationship of support to Kyle. He writes that the parents were “remarkably understanding,” and even apologetic.

“I guess we just missed this somehow,” they said.

And the pastor said “And I don't think we did a very good job of conveying this to you and Kyle”.

The end of the story is that Kyle and his parents came back into the community. They came back to the church, were warmly greeted, and, as the pastor says, “they even seemed a little relieved at the realization that the journey was not over but was just beginning.”

How much of our own church life do we recognize in this story? How are we working to change that?

Today Harrison and Tucker will be receiving “the cup and the Christ”. Today also Jarrod will begin his journey to his adult baptism at Easter. “The cup and the Christ” is his desire too.

To receive “the cup and the Christ” is to share with Jesus in his commissioning for ministry. We are never “done” with our Christian life; our ministry in the name of and for the sake of the love of Jesus.

So here's to Harrison, and to Tucker, and to Jarrod, and to all of us, who take the water bath with Jesus in order to share at his table.

His table is a place to be strengthened for service in a ministry we continue until the Last Day. Amen.

*Rodger Y. Nishioka in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp 236-240.

Art: "Baptism of Christ" by Piero della Francesca

We cannot merely pray....

The following was passed on to me. I pass it on to you.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
Than we must find our own paths to peace
Within ourselves and with our neigbors.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end starvation;
For You have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in others,
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To end despair;
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healings,
If we would only use them constructively.

Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strengthy, determination, and will power,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish,
For Your sake and for ours, speedily and soon,
That our land and world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.

May the words that we pray, and the deeds that we do
Be acceptable before You, O Lord,
Our Rock and our Redeemer.

By Jack Riemer -

-from Likrat Shabbat: Worship, Study and Song for Sabbath and Festival Evenings, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg and Rabbi Jonathan Levine, eds. (Prayer Book Press, 2004)

A sermon for Proper 11, Year C RCL

Proper 11, Year C July 18 2010 St. Paul's Bellingham1

Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Jesus, as quoted in Luke 10:42)

I did a search today on Google with the words “Martha's Guild”. I came up with about 12,900,000 results in 0.18 seconds, testifying to the popularity of this name for women's groups in the church which emphasize service to others. I notice, however, that in the very first page of listings were two for “Mary-Martha Guild”, testifying to the fact that some folk in the church are seeking to represent a balance between the ministry of service represented by Martha and the ministry of study and learning represented in this text by Mary.

There's some consternation in the Church about this text. There should be, if we're paying attention!

Not a few women – perhaps some here – feel slighted by our Lord's words to Martha, which indicate a denigration of her ministry of service. Recognizing this, and valuing as I do ministries of service, I feel a temptation to explain away Jesus' words here; to take away the offense of his words.

But I don't think I can do that. There seems little way around the fact that the Gospel According to Luke gives us these words in a context which indicates that Jesus intended to disturb his hearers, to shake them from any sense of complacency.

I will say, however, that is isn't just the Marthas of this world that he disturbs. Jesus in Luke's Gospel is an equal-opportunity disturber of persons who have settled patterns of behavior – even behavior that is ordinarily righteous and good. Hardly any of us are spared offense.

Just before my vacation I preached a sermon on the text from Luke's Gospel in which we're told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. I pointed out in that sermon that this was a pivotal event for him. Everything he says and does after that decision; every encounter he has after that decision is to be seen in the light of that decision. Jesus is on a mission; and that mission is to take the challenge and disturbance of the proclamation of God's reign straight to the heart of Jerusalem, the seat of religious and political power.

Right after announcing that decision Jesus warns a would-be follower that they would from this day have no home of their own, but be dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Another man who wants to follow him after he has fulfilled his filial duty to bury his deceased father is given the blunt reply “let the dead bury their own dead... go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” To another who wanted to follow Jesus after he had said goodbye to his family, Jesus' reply is to say “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”2

The sensitive reader will wince at this. What could be more honorable than burying a father? Saying goodbye to family? My God, these are activities expected of a devout person, an honorable person. What on earth is going on?

Let's return to Martha's situation.

Luke tells us that after saying these things Jesus appointed seventy other people to go from town to town proclaiming the kingdom of God. As he instructed them he told them to travel light and to depend upon the hospitality of strangers.

So here is Jesus, enjoying hospitality along the way in the home of Martha and Mary, and guess who is working the hardest to provide that hospitality? Martha, of course. Mary's out sitting at the feet of Jesus taking in his teaching, apparently oblivious to her sister's labors on behalf of the guests.

I confess sympathy with the feelings that must have driven Martha's request of Jesus: “tell my sister to help me!”

To which Jesus replies:

Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42)

Mary has chosen the better part.”

It isn't that Martha's offering is not good. It is. But in the context of this urgency, as Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, Mary's interest in understanding his mission is a great thing, to be honored. Jesus gives Martha the opportunity to honor Mary's interest.

Good, better, best. Life's hardest choices are not between apparent evil and apparent good, but among goods.

So it is with the kingdom of God, as we hear about it from Luke's Gospel. As Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he is giving up goods: home, parents, family, the whole community which gave him birth and nurtured him as he discovered his calling from God.

It is good to make a home and keep a home and have a home. After all, if all forsook their homes, who would show hospitality to the one who comes proclaiming the kingdom of heaven?

It is good to honor the dead, especially the dead who gave you a home and a start in life, like your mother and father.

It is good to say goodbye to your family before leaving them behind.

But there is, Luke's Gospel affirms, the moment when the kingdom of God comes calling; the kingdom which calls some to leave home in order that more who inhabit Earth may find Earth a home free of apart from suffering and oppression.

There is a moment when the kingdom comes calling, and even familial attachments are not quite as important as the calling from Jesus to join him in accepting the fact that God is making of all the families of the earth one people.

Mary perceived there was something afoot with Jesus and his proclamation, and she was fascinated. So fascinated that she forsook ordinary obligations. Jesus offends us by telling Martha that Mary had chosen “the better part.” Mary sought understanding of Jesus' mission, and he honored her for it. Jesus also honored Martha by receiving her hospitality, even as he chided her for not seeing the good in what Mary was doing.

The kingdom Jesus proclaims and lives is a kingdom which comes about through sacrifice. And this sacrifice is not mainly the sacrifice of evil things. It is the sacrifice of good things for the sake of a greater Good.

If we're offended, so be it. We can get over it. Jesus, like all prophets before him, shocks us from complacency. We can get over it, especially as we see how Jesus' embrace of the kingdom of God led to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to a wide embrace of all of us for the sake of God's love.

The worship of the true God, of which Jesus is our Teacher, requires sacrifice. Christians are not the only people who recognize this. Mohandas Gandhi recognized this when he cited “Worship without Sacrifice” as among the most harmful traits of humankind.3

I cannot tell you exactly when you will hear Christ calling you to some sacrifice of good for the sake of the kingdom of God. I can only listen for myself, and respond for myself when it happens.

But here at this Eucharist we commit ourselves to listen for this call and to be ready to respond. We pray:

“Sanctify us also, that we may faithfully serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord”

So be it, God helping us.

1I am indebted to the insights of Marilyn Salmon in the construction of this sermon. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=625

2Luke 9:57-62

3Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, one of the most influential figures in modern social and political activism, considered these traits to be the most spiritually perilous to humanity. http://www.deadlysins.com/features/gandhi.htm

  • Wealth without Work

  • Pleasure without Conscience

  • Science without Humanity

  • Knowledge without Character

  • Politics without Principle

  • Commerce without Morality

  • Worship without Sacrifice

Photo: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-image-download.pl?SID=2010071736956787&fn=Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_004&size=medium

"A student once said: 'When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a buddha, nobody is upset at all.'" - from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Here's a Christian's version of this:

"A student once said: 'When I was a Christian, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am Christ to them, nobody is upset at all.'"

The Mission of God

My previous bishop, Johncy Itty, once asked my colleague George Hemingway for a brief, one-side-of-one page, explanation of the Missio Dei. I think that George's response to him has some bearing on the Nature and Purpose of the Church.

Missio Dei: A Brief Note
The Rev. Canon George Hemingway, D.Min.

The Mission of God is at root a manifestation of the Trinitarian God at work: At the beginning of all creation, God the Father sent out (missio) his Spirit upon the face of the earth, for its formation, sustenance and renewal. God the Father sent (missio) his Spirit to enunciate the coming into the world of his Son in human flesh. God the Father sends (missio) the Son to draw all humankind once again to him. The Son sends the disciples into the world, saying “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The Father and the Son send (missio) the Holy Spirit to call the Church into being on Pentecost. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sends the Church into the world. God’s mission is a self-emptying (kenosis) into that which he creates out of his love.

Mission is not so much an activity of the Church, but an attribute of God. There is a Church because there is a mission . Our mission is the Son’s mission, enunciated at Jesus’ home synagogue: to restore health, wellness, wholeness, holiness to all humankind and to all of creation committed by God to our care, a shalom, a peace beyond all comprehension, that penetrates the whole universe.

The Church is, therefore, an agent of unity, justice, love, and peace. Its proclamation is God’s proclamation of Good News: it communicates hope, liberation, and empowerment to those who despair, are not free, and are powerless. Jesus’ life models the life of a disciple, so that we may be sent (missio), by God through the Church, to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” . In imitation of Christ, we are called into a life of self-emptying in service and love. We are called to actively seek the values of God’s reign, to bring them into being as we are able, to pray to God that our purposes and wills may be knit together with His, and to call and make more disciples who will enunciate Jesus’ message. Just as at Pentecost, disciples must speak the Good News in constantly evolving contexts and amidst constantly changing cultures.

It is not sufficient that the Church be an agent of compassion and charitable acts. The Church must also empower the powerless, and dwell with those whom we serve in charity and compassion so that they and we may become One Body in Christ. Thus, the conversion (turning) of the world to God through Christ simultaneously requires the continuous conversion of the Church, through prayer, fasting, meditation upon God’s Word, learning, listening to God, and the keeping of the community of faith. The continuing conversion of the Church requires it to embrace change, for God renews all things at all times and places and makes a new creation.

Mathew 28:16-20; known as The Great Commission.
David Bosch, 2004. Transforming Mission. Orbis, Maryknoll, NY. P. 390.
Luke 4:16ff
Book of Common Prayer, 1979. The Catechism.
Darrell Guder, 2000. The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI.