Sunday, February 27, 2011

Psalm 131

O LORD, my heart is not proud; nor my look haughty.
I do not aspire to great things or to what is beyond me.
But I have taught myself to be contented
like a weaned child with its mother
like a weaned child am I in my mind.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, now and forever.
                                                   (Jewish Publication Society Translation)

The scholars tell us that this is a song of ascent. In Hebrew, the verb is ma’alot: “to go up.” These songs were sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  And you literally do go “up” to Jerusalem. So as you travelled along toward the holy city, to the temple which housed the “holy of holies,” you sang these ascent psalms, which are all fairly short and therefore easily memorized.  There are actually fifteen of them in a row, from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134.  Probably the best known is 121:
I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? 
My help cometh even from the Lord who hath made heaven and earth.

In Psalm 131, it’s impossible to miss this image of mother and child. Some argue that the poet here is a woman—not only because of this image but because from the very beginning of the psalm one can almost hear a female voice in a patriarchal society. The tone is almost apologetic: the tone, perhaps, of someone who has been accused of over stepping her bounds and who wishes to make it clear that she is not too proud or haughty and does not aspire to too much greatness. But that doesn’t mean she does not know something about God and faith and prayer. Whoever wrote it, female or male, it is not a stretch to imagine a mother and child making their way to the Temple together as she quietly sings this song as a lullaby.

Perhaps we can even imagine that Jewish mother, Mary, and her holy child, making their way "up to Jerusalem" for the Feast of the Presentation, and maybe she even sang this song to her son.

I think of Jesus, all grown up, when he tells that story of the two men who went up to Jerusalem to pray in the Temple: one was haughty and proud and took the opportunity to “thank God that I’m not like that tax collector over there.”  While the tax collector, humbled and on his knees, simply asks for God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. It seems to me that parable grows out of a deep understanding of what this Psalm 131 is all about.

It’s not a complicated prayer. Sometimes our faith, and our prayers, and our theology need to wrestle with ambiguity and complex questions, because we no doubt live in a complicated world and no doubt the life of faith sometimes raises hard questions. But there is also wisdom in true simplicity. As the old Shaker hymn puts it: ‘tis a gift to be simple. The ones who sing this song, male or female, know that God is trustworthy and that we glimpse this simple, yet profound, truth in the most ordinary moments of life.

When my children were very young, my most favorite thing in the world was come home on a Sunday afternoon to lie on the couch and watch a baseball game or a football game on TV with Graham or James resting on my chest.  It wouldn’t take long for both of us to be asleep. Even thinking now of it, years later, brings a sense of peace and joy that passes understanding, and a glimpse into what I yearn for as I wait for the Lord.
We are called to put our trust in the Lord, and to wait patiently. I think there is a lot of fear and anxiety in this world, and unfortunately, even in the name of Christ there are a lot of people who fan those flames. When we contemplate the end of human history, do we wait as anxious chickens with our heads cut off, or do we wait like the psalmist, “contented, like a weaned child with its mother?”

In this poem, we find true serenity and an acceptance of life on God’s own terms. To wait like such a child is to be invited to let go of our need to control and our need to fix things. It is to simply be, by embracing the invitation to be God’s beloved, without obsessing about what will happen next.

Psalm 131 invites us to rest in God’s motherly care, and to wait for the Lord now and forever. That is not the whole story of the Christian life and faith. There are other psalms, for other days. But that’s a pretty good place to start: a reminder to let God be God. For Christians and Jews (and for that matter for Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus as well) humility is where the spiritual life begins. So do not be too proud, or too haughty, or too worried about understanding that which is beyond your comprehension. Rest, in the presence of God, like a child with her mother. Breath in and breathe out. Let go and let God.  

Or as Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel reading: try to take life one day at a time. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

God and Middle East Politics

Like many of you who read this blog, I've been trying to follow the news in Egypt and Libya, and throughout the Middle East, and trying to make sense of it all. In addition to the traditional news sources I've been keeping a close eye on the Facebook updates of a former parishioner of mine who currently lives in Dubai. She has access to different news sources and perspectives than I do and that has been informative on so many levels, and a reminder that unless we are on the ground, what we think we "know" has come to us filtered through the biases and perspectives of the journalists who report to us.

My friend, Chris (one of my traveling companions a year ago in the Land of the Holy One) has also been blogging about the Middle East lately, and he is a very thoughtful guy. I commend to you, in particular, both Anxiety and Change and The God Who Makes All Things New.

I am struck especially by the conclusions he draws, and with which I completely concur. 

(1) Grasping at the perfect answer, and attempting to control outcomes, are stock responses to anxiety. Thoughtful theology– thoughtful grounding in the Transcendent One– guards us from over-reliance on our own frail human capabilities, guards us from over-reaction to events, and gives us patience for issues to ripen– so that our policies actually have a chance to fulfill their intent.
(2) If it is too soon to discern whether, where, or how the God Who Makes All Things New is acting in the Middle East (and it is too soon), one thing that the Biblical account makes clear is that God’s involvement in history is surprising, disruptive of human totalistic schemes of domination and uniformity, and biased toward the weak and powerless. We should watch for these things in the Arab world; we should watch for them in the United States, too, as history continues.
My own reluctance, I suppose, to wade into matters that are admittedly "above my pay grade" is more theological than political for precisely these reasons. It is easy, in the midst of anxiety, to seek easy answers and control. We yearn for certitude and the "hand of God" - until we lose interest and the twenty-four hour news cycle takes us someplace else. Things can change on a dime. My own view is that we are witnesses to "crisis" in that double-edged meaning of the word: opportunity and danger. And it's way to early to tell which will win out.

I am reminded that the Exodus event took forty years according to the tradition, and the Exile was longer than that. Along the way, any "snap-shot" taken would have been just that. All those quail falling from the sky in the Sinai? The golden calf? Psalm 137? Ezekiel 37?

So we'll have to wait and see, and hope and pray. Change always stirs up anxiety, but change may also lead to new possibilities. God's will may or may not be good for American foreign policy concerns. As Christians we pray for, and work for peace and justice first; and perhaps also work toward a foreign policy that values these things above narrow, short-term political goals.

I think that Chris is right: we'll have to see what kind of fruit ripens here to figure out how God has been in the midst of it all. Along the way, though, I agree that if it is surprising, and if it disrupts ancient schemes, and if it is tilted toward the weak and powerless, then it is likely that we'll one day be able to look back and discern the work of the Holy Spirit here. In the meantime we can keep praying the prayer that never fails: "thy will be done." And a close corollary to that one: "Lord, make us instruments of thy peace..."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Archbishop Janani Luwum

O God, whose Son the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep: We give you thanks for your faithful shepherd, Janani Luwum, who after his Savior’s example gave up his life for the people of Uganda. Grant us to be so inspired by his witness that we make no peace with oppression, but live as those who are sealed with the cross of Christ, who died and rose again, and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we remember the life and witness of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda You can read about his life and martyrdom by clicking on his name, which will take you to a blog run by the Standing Liturgical Commission of my denomination, The Episcopal Church.

Most of us know the stories of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero. Perhaps fewer know the story of Steve Biko (unless they are Peter Gabrielle fans.) But I suspect that in the U.S., far fewer outside of the church continue to remember and tell the story of Arbishop Luwum.  Yet his courage in the face of evil was no less great.

If you do go to the site I've suggested, you may see the questions at the bottom: How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today? I can hardly find the words, except to say that it most surely did bear witness the gospel, and it makes me truly want to live (with God's help) as one "sealed with the cross of Christ."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes

Click here Walter Brueggemann at Trinity Institute to see one of the lectures at this year's Trinity Institute, on the topic of "Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes." Well worth a watch! As a pastor I am particularly in agreement that there is a parallel process between moving from a naive reading of Scripture through historical criticism to a second naivete on the one hand and the spiritual journey toward growing into the full stature of Christ on the other. I also think he's right in his answer to the first question posed at the end: this is not intellectualism but "close reading" that can be taught to people, and be transformative for people on both the so-called left and the so-called right.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Charles Darwin (1809-1892)

Happy Birthday to Charles Darwin, who would have turned 202 today! Below, an article from the Episcopal News Service that appeared more than two years ago, that still remains relevant.

Church of England issues 'apology' to Darwin
By Mary Frances Schjonberg, September 17, 2008

[Episcopal News Service] A spokesman for the Church of England has said the church misunderstood Charles Darwin's work nearly 150 years ago and that "by getting our first reaction wrong," has continued an on-going misunderstanding.

At the end of an essay titled "Good religion needs good science," the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, the Church of England director of mission and public affairs, addressed Darwin directly, saying that nearly 200 years after his birth "the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still."

"We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends," Brown wrote. "But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science - and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well."

Brown's essay, posted September 15, reflects the church's position on Darwin but isn't an official apology, the Church of England told the Associated Press.

The Rev. Norman Faramelli, who teaches Christian ethics at Episcopal Divinity School and social ethics at Boston University, told ENS September 17 that he concurred with Brown's "apology" to Darwin. He added the caveat that "it's not just the Church of England that owes him an apology," noting the opposition to Darwin was "clearly ecumenical" and extended to the scientific community of Darwin's time.

Faramelli also said that "misapplication of Darwin" has led to what he called the "pernicious" spread of social Darwinism, which endorsed competition and "survival of the fittest" as a way to organize societies.

Brown also in his essay criticized what he called the misapplication of Darwin's discoveries, where natural selection has been used to justify racism and other forms of discrimination.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, a member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council and the council's Committee on Science, Faith and Technology, said September 17 in an interview that he was unimpressed with Brown's comments. He called them "insubstantial," adding that "damning with faint praise is no praise at all." Rodman said that it was time for the church to "fully acknowledge its culpability in discrediting Darwin's work."

The Episcopal Church has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith. In 2006, the General Convention affirmed, via Resolution A129, that God is creator and added that "the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith."

The previous year, the Episcopal Church's the Episcopal Church Network for Science, Technology and Faith released a Catechism of Creation. In its section on creation and science, the catechism says, in part, scientific researchers since Darwin have refined and added to his ideas, "but never thrown out his basic theoretical framework."

In response to the question of whether accepting biological evolution conflicts with the biblical statement that humans are created in the image and likeness of God, the catechism notes that "image and likeness" have often be described as "those divine gifts of unconditional love and compassion, our reason and imagination, our moral and ethical capacities, our freedom, or our creativity."

"To think that these gifts may have been bestowed through the evolutionary process does not conflict with biblical and theological notions that God acts in creation," the catechism says. "Scripture affirms that God was involved (Gen. 1:26-27)."

Robert Schneider, a retired Berea College professor who was the catechism's lead author, wrote in June 30 essay here that the catechism grew out of a concern that "Episcopalians by and large shared [an American] ignorance about science, and even more distressing, showed little understanding of the doctrine of creation, even though we profess it every time we recite the Nicene Creed."

Schneider wrote that "it is incumbent upon all Episcopal educators to learn the basics about the doctrine of creation and its relationship to the work of science."

"God's two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, come from the same source, the creating Word of God, and we need to help the faithful develop a better understanding and appreciation of this fundamental truth," he wrote.

Brown's essay is part of a new section of the Church of England's website developed to mark the approaching bicentenary of Darwin's birth in 1809, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859.

The Darwin pages include ones that explore Darwin's faith and his relationship with the Church of England. Diocese of Swindon Bishop Lee Rayfield, a former biological scientist, contributed a welcome page to the section in which he comments that "theology and science each have much to contribute in the assertion of the Psalmist that we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made.'"

The website also includes sections titled Darwin and the Church, Darwin and Faith, and Brief History of Darwin, as well as a list of further reading, and an events page listing how various bodies are celebrating Darwin's bicentenary over the coming months.

Darwin attended a Church of England boarding school in Shrewsbury and trained to be a clergyman at Cambridge. He married into an Anglican family and was inspired to follow his calling into science by another clergyman who was fascinated by the study of botany. However, Darwin is said to have lost his faith, in part due to the death of a daughter and an increasingly need for evidence to back up belief.

"There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world," Brown writes in his essay, adding that "for the sake of human integrity -- and thus for the sake of good Christian living -- some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lively Dialogue

As previously noted here, I spent this past week reading General Ordination Exams in western North Carolina. My experience there was, from beginning to end, one of respect and care for the people who wrote the exams we were reading. Our work was to evaluate the work they submitted, not their call to ordained ministry. That work is appropriately left to their Bishops and Commissions on Ministry. Our work was, while not without import, much simpler: to evaluate their submitted responses to seven questions in seven canonical areas: Holy Scripture, Church History, Theology and Missiology, Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, Contemporary Society, Liturgics and Church Music, and Theory and Practice of Ministry.

We were told that the work was “on loan” to us as graders, and when I left Kanuga I left my only copies of all six of the GOE sets that I read in a box to be shredded. The questions themselves are another matter: those are posted on the website of the General Board of Examining Chaplains and were previously shared on this blog. (See post for 1/8/11)

I told a colleague this week that I thought clergy gatherings would be more constructive if we could find a way to build more serious theological reflection into them. If we who are ordained did that more regularly, we might better model for those who head off to seminary and ultimately take the GOEs why this work is so important. It can often feel like a “hazing” ritual. But the truth is that there are things we expect clergy to grasp, particularly in the denomination I am a part of. All of us are expected to be “growing into the full stature of Christ" - young and old, male and female, lay and ordained. All of us are, no doubt, works-in-progress. But if a parishioner comes to a priest to have a conversation about the Bible, or whether or not a Christian can faithfully join the Armed Forces, or bring a child into this world, that person deserves a right to encounter someone who can at the very least enter into the conversation.

The first question seminarians who took the GOEs this year were asked to respond to was this:

Living with "the other" - the one from whom we differ culturally, politically, economically, theologically - has always created challenges for God's people. From biblical times to the present day, living with "the other" has provided occasion for defining the nature of community, for addressing fundamental issues such as purity and holiness, and for determining who is "in" and who is "out."

In both testaments of the Bible we find lively dialogues among communities with very different perspectives on the question of how to deal with "difference." This question asks you to enter that conversation exegetically and theologically.

In a three-page essay:

A. Exegete, in no more than one page for each pair, the following pairs of biblical texts, comparing and contrasting their historical and theological characteristics:
Pair 1
Ezra 9:1-4 and Ruth 4:13-17
Pair 2
1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2:14-18

B. Identify a situation in the contemporary world where "difference" presents a challenge, and, using your exegesis of either Pair 1 or Pair 2, demonstrate how these texts might help to address this situation in a constructive way.

It’s the kind of question I would expect my undergraduate students to be able take a stab at after finishing a basic 100 level course in the Bible. It’s the kind of question I have no doubt that an EfM graduate (Education for Ministry, a course of study for laity) could answer. Surely, then, it is a question that a person called to parish ministry might relish delving into. I am not going to write a full fledged “answer” to that question here, but I want to explore the question itself, because I do think it matters, and that it's a very good question!

It goes to the very heart of what the Bible itself is (and is not.) Some people (and even some seminarians) think the Bible is a rule book, and if that is how we read it then every internal inconsistency must be smoothed over or “explained away.” But if the Bible is something more like a library that records the stories that God’s people told of their encounters with God, over time; stories influenced by the particular times and places where they emerged, then “lively dialogues among communities with very different perspectives” becomes not an embarrassment that needs to be explained away, but an opportunity to delve more deeply into the mystery of God’s Holy Word.

Here’s an example of what I mean: my reading partner this week was a laywoman from Virginia who is older than my mother. I would argue that our differences—in gender, age, geography, and role each of us plays in the Church we both love—gave us a greater, not lesser, opportunity to discover the Truth together. Moreover, my view is that this Truth is not located somewhere “in the middle” (geographically I guess that would put us somewhere in New Jersey?) but rather that it is found dialectically.

So it is also, I believe, with Holy Scripture. These two pairs of readings wrestle with the same questions, about inclusion and exclusion, but from different perspectives. It really does depend on how you look at things, and it matters where you stand when you do the looking. That’s why that great scene from Dead Poet’s Society is so powerful: when the teacher, played by Robin Williams, stands on a desk and invites his students to do the same.

So Ruth and Ezra, and the Paul of Corinthians and the “Paul” of Ephesians do not need to be made to all agree. You do not best hear “the word of the Lord” here by putting them all in a blender and holding the button down. In fact it reveals a great deal about the neuroses we have inherited from The Enlightenment that we would ever think this was the goal in the first place.

So try this: Ezra should never be caricatured as a racist bigot. He is trying to hold a community together that is in very serious danger of losing its identity. He is rightly worried about having survived the Babylonian exile and for the community to nevertheless disappear from the pages of human history through syncretism and intermarriage and a general dilution of Covenantal faith. Ezra and those for whom he speaks have come through the trauma of the Babylonian exile. So Ezra (and Nehemiah) build walls. They represent the original “homeland security” program. They say, “never again” The walls they build are not only physical walls around the holy city but walls, or let us call them boundaries, that express who they are (and who they are not.) The primary issue is idolatry; and intermarriage threatens to draw God’s people away from the Covenant with YHWH and into the worship of the false gods of “the nations.”

Including Moab. That is one of the places explicitly mentioned in Ezra as a “danger” to the post-exilic community that is trying to carve out a space for its own survival. Scholars debate the dating of Ruth but some see it as a text nearly contemporaneous with Ezra, written as a sort of counter-testimony. It is set in a “galaxy far away,” or to be more precise, in a time long, long ago. Back in the glory days, before exile, back in the time even before King David was born. For the story of Ruth is in fact the story of King David’s family tree. The story reveals a "dirty little secret" in that family tree (as anyone who has ever endeavored to do genealogical work knows no family tree is immune from.) In this case, it turns out that David’s great-grandma was a, wait for it...a Moabite!

Great King David; “pure” King David, had a foreign great-grandmother! Expressed another way, without Ruth, there is no David. Now Ruth “converted” and did not draw Boaz away from YHWH. “Wherever you go,” she had famously promised her Jewish mother-in-law, “I will go.” Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

Even so, it is not hard to imagine that the writer of the story of Ruth and Ezra would not have seen eye-to-eye. And even if one dates Ruth to a much earlier time period, the debate still remains. It’s a debate about who is in, and who is out. It’s a debate about whether the core of the covenant is about purity or about fidelity. And the answer is not that Ruth is right and that Ezra is wrong. The real answer is that it depends, and the great power of Holy Scripture here is that rather than giving us a prescriptive answer for how to build faithful communities in every time and place, the editors of the Bible have instead preserved for us a conversation that invites us in, a descriptive response that means to engage us in every new circumstance that God’s people encounter.

One could move through a very similar kind of analysis with the two Epistle readings, but the point should be obvious and the possibilities of where one goes with this are endless. Who should be ordained? Should gay and lesbian people be fully included in the life of the Church? How does a person of faith wrestle with the thorny questions of immigration, particularly illegals? Should the Eucharistic feast be open to all, or to all baptized, or to those who believe “rightly?” The reason that so-called liberals and so-called conservatives keep fighting in the church (and synagogue) is not only that it has always been so; but perhaps it is what God also intends. That is, to simply say it this way: questions like this really do have (at least) two sides. In choosing to preserve the “lively dialogue” the editors of the Bible have told us something very important: that we need each other. That none of us possess “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A community that means to be faithful to God’s Word would be a community that hears both, and then discerns within the unique circumstances of our own time and place how we might best appropriate those learnings. Ironically, in the pursuit of preserving our identity by way of purity and exclusion we may lose the very core of that identity. Often that path can be rooted in fear. But we can also lose our way by being so “open” that we don’t know who we are anymore.

There is not one right way to answer a question like this. But there are plenty of wrong (and even dangerous) ways that one can go astray. And it most definitely matters.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading GOEs

This week I have been a reader of the General Ordination Exam, or GOEs. The Readers Conference is hosted by the General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church. See We have been meeting at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of western North Carolina.

It has been exhausting but also inspiring: the readers, both clergy and laity from around the country, are committed and faithful people. It might surprise seminarians (and hopefully encourage them) to know that like most gatherings of this type in The Episcopal Church, the conference is permeated with prayer,both public and private. We celebrate Morning Prayer at the beginning of each day and Compline at the end, with Holy Eucharist at 5 p.m. We pray for the candidates, who are unknown to us, as we read the words they have written. We pray for the Church, for wise and discerning ordained leaders to emerge who know that "head and heart" can work together for the sake of the Kingdom and that a learned clergy requires work and discipline.

I suppose there is no way to avoid the anxiety that seminarians feel about taking the GOEs. But perhaps greater transparency about the grading process would somewhat lessen people's nerves; to know that no one expects a seminarian to know everything there is about the Bible, or Church History, or Ethics, or Liturgy--but that we do care greatly about "inquiring and discerning hearts," and raising up ordained leaders who know something of the breadth and depth of the tradition we care so deeply about in 'The Episcopal Church. Like all things human, this process can become trivial and even mean. But at it's best, it is about trying to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Salt and Light

"Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

It’s hard to know for sure exactly which hill Jesus and his disciples climbed for “the Sermon on the Mount.” The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by hills, and it could have been any one of them. More likely, it wasn’t just in one place on one day. Matthew, after all, is reconstructing what we call “the Sermon on the Mount” some fifty years or so after these events took place and Jesus probably went away with his disciples to escape the crowds more than once. So maybe they went to various places around the lake, or maybe they did have one favorite spot. Either way, he taught them over time, and they remembered what he said; eventually the disciples passed those teachings on to the second-generation disciples who wrote it all down.

Even so, since the fourth century, pilgrims who have traveled to the Holy Land have claimed one particular place as the Mount of the Beatitudes. Whether or not it was originally the holy place, it has without a doubt become a holy place as pilgrims from north, south, east and west have gone there to pray for at least sixteen hundred years now. It is what is sometimes called in the Celtic spiritual tradition, a “thin place” where the hills are alive with the sound of music.

The current church on that site, built in 1938, is run by the Franciscans. It’s a quiet and peaceful place that overlooks the lake, and as you look down the hill you can see so many of the places prominent in Jesus’ ministry, including Capernaum, where he made his home. The gardens at that Church of the Beatitudes are meticulously kept and you can walk and think and pray. It’s quite conducive to “considering the lilies of the field” and the “birds of the air.” So whether or not it is literally the place, I can attest to you that it is holy ground.

On the warm afternoon I spent there just over a year ago, there was a large group of Chinese Christians who beat us there. Their spirituality was not nearly as contemplative as our group’s; in fact they seemed downright boisterous! But as I I watched them posing for a group photo, I was profoundly conscious of the fact that it cannot be easy being a Christian in China, and clearly being able to come as a group to the Holy Land made their hearts glad; and that made my heart glad too.

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Today’s reading is a continuation of that time apart, as Jesus continues to deliver the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus saw the crowds and was trying to get away…so he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. It is to them—and by extension to us—that Jesus goes on to say:
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 out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“You are salt. You are light.” Both of these are little metaphors, metaphors of smallness. We all know the health problems that too much salt can cause us. But in the ancient world, before refrigeration, salt quite literally helped to preserve life. Low sodium diets are good and smart and healthy; but you can’t live with zero sodium. In addition to being a preservative, salt just tastes good—as long as it’s in moderation. The late, great Lutheran Bishop, Krister Stendahl was fond of saying that Jesus told the church to be the salt of the earth, not to make the whole world into a salt mine! His humorous words suggest that our mission is not to make every person on the planet a Christian. Rather, Jesus challenges those of us who claim him as Lord to act like Christians. Because “if salt loses its taste, then what good is it?”

The Church is called to be a light that shines in the darkness, a beacon. You don’t need me to tell us about the darkness of the world. This world is God’s world and it is filled with beauty. But it can also be a pretty scary place: a place or wars and rumors of wars, of violence and degradation. Sometimes it can feel like someone has shut out the lights. Even darker still is the dark night of the soul. There are times in our lives when the darkness seems too overwhelming; and it’s not that external darkness, but the internal kind, that we most fear. And yet: here are Jesus’ words, echoing down through the centuries from that Galilean hillside to this time and place. We have two choices when the world is dark: we can curse the darkness or we can let our little lights shine. And even though we are prone to forget it sometimes, one little candle in a darkened room really does change the whole space. What was scary and dark can, in an instant, become a holy and luminous place. One tiny little flickering candle can guide us on our way, and helps others find their way as well.

These metaphors for being the Church are about small things: salt and light; in another place a similar metaphor, that we be like yeast. And I think that is truly good news. Even in that first setting, Jesus is away from the crowds and with just the twelve. Jesus doesn’t start a mega-church. Instead, he forms a dozen disciples. Don’t ever doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. They did, and they still do, one little step at a time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feast of the Presentation

"Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God..." (Luke 2:27-28)

And then, of course, Simeon sings: "Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace - Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace..."

In my mind's eye I see this scene much as it is portrayed in the icon to the left. It's like an infant Baptism, or if you are a Baptist then it's like a Dedication. But behind Luke's story is a Jewish practice, and that practice is rooted in a Jewish mindset.

In the world of the Priestly writer that permeates the Book of Leviticus, tum'ah is all around us. The word "impurity" in English is deceptive and words like "contaminated" or "defiled" or "polluted" or "unclean" are worse. It's helpful to remember that excrement is not tum'ah. That's because tum'ah is really about life-forces, not dirt. It's about those manifestations of death, or more exactly the escape of the forces of life, that are all around us--and a part of life itself. Unlike some distortions of Christian spirituality, semen and menstrual flows are not shameful or dirty or impure; but the "residue" they leave behind, the way they invisibly envelope a person is tum'ah because they are so obviously part of human life, and precisely for this reason they must therefore not come into contact with the Holy, the Sacred.

And so after a woman gives birth to a son, she goes to the Temple to be made ritually clean again. (See Leviticus 12) The reason for this trek to Jerusalem, in other words, is more about Mary than it is about Jesus. The Holy Family travels more than sixty miles to Jerusalem to go to the Temple "in order to present a lamb for a burnt-offering , and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering." (Leviticus 12:6) Leviticus makes provision for people who can't afford a lamb, however. "If her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons..." (Leviticus 12:8)

Twenty-first century Christians may not know much about these practices and may even critique the Priestly-writer's worldview. But before we critique it, we do well to try to understand it. For my own part, I don't pretend to fully understand that world-view, or those practices. But it seems to me that this is precisely the point: for me this day serves as yet another reminder that Jesus and his family were observant Jews: not Roman Catholics or Episcopalians or Baptists!

And secondly, while it's subtle in Luke's reporting of the day's events, his reporting that they offered "two turtledoves or two pigeons" (Luke 2:24) makes it clear that Jesus was not only a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, but that he also grew up poor.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Eve of Candlemas

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (Luke 2:22-24)

That time for purification, according to the law of Moses, was forty days after the birth.(See Leviticus 12)Tomorrow, February 2, marks the Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas, when the Church recalls Jesus' first journey to Jerusalem.

Mary and Joseph make this trek because they are observant Jews. The law says that they are to offer a lamb, or if they cannot afford a lamb, then two turtledoves or two pigeons. (See Leviticus 12:6-8) Luke doesn't dwell on the point, but doesn't say anything about a lamb. Apparently Mary and Joseph spent what they had on the trip to Jerusalem. They were not wealthy people.

As I write these words, I am sitting in my warm home, looking out at new-fallen snow. It's been a drag, this winter; and I've been grumpy about all of the snow. I have no reason to be, however; I am safe and warm. On this night, in this county and commonwealth and country there are people who are not so lucky.

Jesus never forgot the poor; probably because he knew what it was like to grow up that way. Maybe it's why he noticed widows, and orphans, and beggars. May this Feast Day be an opportunity for us to do the same. Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.