Thursday, December 26, 2013

On The Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When  the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even...

+     +     +

Today is the second day of Christmas - two turtle doves and all the rest. It is also St. Stephen's Day, the day when the (western) Church remembers Stephen, deacon and martyr. (In the east, Stephen's commemoration is tomorrow.) 

In the diocese I serve there are two parishes that have taken Stephen as their patronal saint: one in Pittsfield and one in Westborough. A couple of reflections on this. 

First of all and practically speaking: I wonder how these two vibrant congregations celebrate their feast day, and I wonder if it isn't a bit like having a birthday on Christmas? Does it get lost in the shuffle? For that matter, we also have a parish in our diocese called Church of the Nativity. I will have the ask the respective rectors of that parish and the two St. Stephens how they manage the logistics of these things in the midst of the busy Christmas season. 

But my larger theological musings are about how a parish that takes its name from Stephen is shaped by that reality in its day to day life. How does that take hold? I know from having served a parish that took its name from another deacon, Francis of Assisi, there were aspects of our ministry and our remembering of Francis that took hold in us as a parish: a desire to be "instruments of God's peace," a love of all creatures great and small, and a strong sense of mission to and among the poor at the top of the list. These characteristics of St. Francis, the person, influenced the mission and ministry of St. Francis, the parish. 

So beyond the practicalities of how a congregation works a patronal feast day into their Christmas celebrations, I'm wondering what it means to try to emulate Stephen and how the light that shines forth from Pittsfield and Westborough illumines our whole diocese and beyond. What are the two St. Stephens teaching us about what it means to be "church" in this time and place?

The writer of Acts tells us that Stephen, "full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people," but that those who witnessed these signs and wonders "could not stand the wisdom and power with which he spoke." (See Acts 6) This hatred (fear?) soon turns to teeth-grinding rage and an angry mob stones Stephen. And yet he not only keeps his focus on God in the midst of all that violence but, like Jesus, prays for their forgiveness: "Lord, do not hold this against them..."

It seems to me that to honor Stephen means being a fearless Christian, willing to speak the truth no matter what the costs may be, even to the point of death. To be willing to die for the truth of the gospel if necessary, yet without bitterness or animosity. On a much smaller scale, how can we deflect the anger and range and "grinding teeth" that may from time to time in our lives get directed at us, and still pray for the other, "Lord, do not hold this against them?" I think of families that are rent asunder by divorce and I know that is not an easy thing to do. I think of Nelson Mandela, sitting in a prison cell and yet coming out not with a desire to get "an eye for an eye" but to forgive, in order to unleash new life and new possibilities.

A Church that seeks to model its witness on the life and death of Stephen will be a diaconal Church; that is to say, a Church that serves. It will be a bridge-building Church that interprets the needs of the world to the Church and seeks to share the good news entrusted to the Church with the world. As the twelve days of Christmas unfold, Stephen points the way to a way of being Church that embodies that great Christmas prayer from the late Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Grace Has Appeared

The familiar gospel reading appointed for this holy night takes us on a journey to the hills of first-century Palestine. But the epistle reading invites us to the island of Crete, a lovely spot in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Greece. I wonder what it would be like to celebrate Christmas Eve there? Different, I imagine, from winter in New England...

At the time the letter of Titus was written, Crete had quite the reputation as a rough place. In fact, one of the locals said “Cretans are liars and evil beasts and lazy gluttons.” To which the writer of the Epistle of Titus simply responds, “well, yeah…”

Yet it is to this early Christian community in Crete that Titus is called to serve as bishop. That title is a bit misleading, because those roles were not yet very clearly defined in the first century. Titus isn’t expecting a cathedra to sit on or a miter for his head. Even so, he is called to oversee the flock there; to serve as an episcopos to a flock taken from a bunch of liars and beasts and gluttons. The letter is written as advice from a friend to a friend on how to be a good bishop to a bunch of Cretans. (While the epistle claims to be from St. Paul to his dear friend Titus, most scholars think it was written by somebody else claiming Pauline authority, but that's another post for another time.) It's not a big deal. In any case, here is a paraphrase of what the writer tells Titus:  
Good luck, because you have your work cut out for you! You are going to need to be tough on these people: their minds are easily corrupted and while they say they know God they really aren’t living in a way that would make anybody notice. Their actions and their deeds deny the very God they profess to believe in. (See Titus 1:1-16)
That, in a nutshell, is the background for today's epistle reading. Ministry in a context like this isn’t about nuance. One has to cut to the chase, speak clearly and concisely, not mince words. Basically what we get is a pretty clear and concise summary of the gospel and a mission statement for this bishop and the young church he is called to serve. While it may not be as familiar to us as Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, in truth it has everything to do with celebrating the dear Savior's birth:
 ...the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Grace has appeared. It’s an interesting way to put it, and more or less the same way that John’s Gospel tells the Christmas story as well. Most of us tend to think of grace as an abstract concept or a doctrine to be affirmed or debated. But the claim being made here is that grace is experienced as a person: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. When we see Jesus we see grace, and out of that encounter, "Cretans" of every time and place are invited to leave our old lying and gluttonous ways behind in order to become a people after God’s own heart, a people called to live more self-controlled, upright, and godly lives; a people zealous for good deeds.

It’s become rather popular for people to claim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” As I hear it this is a claim made by those who wish to distance themselves from the institutional Church and Lord knows there are plenty of reasons people may wish to do that! There are many days when I feel the very same way, and I'm enmeshed in it and get paid through it. Don't bite the hand that feeds you and all that. But I appreciate the fact that for far too many people, religion signifies something close-minded and bigoted and out-of-touch. It sounds politicized and dogmatic, suggesting that you are either “in” or “out.” 

Spirituality, on the other hand—well, only the most hardcore materialist-atheist is against spirituality. Spirituality grows out of the awareness that we are more than our physical bodies, even if we only get in touch with those feelings on a dark winter night or walking along the beach collecting shells on a lazy summer day. Spirituality suggests something that unites rather than divides Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Jew.

The Church needs to own the fact that we have contributed to the situation in which “religion” has become a dirty word. But our work is to reclaim this word, “religion”—not as an end in itself but so that people don't have to choose. Spiritual and religious becomes a call to discipleship. This work is not very different from what Titus was up to back in Crete two thousand years ago. To behold grace is in some measure to be invited to become grace for others. Or as this epistle reading puts it: “the appearance of grace, which brings salvation to all” not only redeems us but trains us, forms us, uses us to continue that work of healing and renewing the world around us. The birth we celebrate tonight is about forming a people after God’s own heart to share in this work of making things new again.

While the ultimate origins of the Latin word religio are a bit obscure, Joseph Campbell and others have made the case that the derivation comes from a word that means “to bind or connect;" or more precisely, "to reconnect."  The work that God gives us to do is about making connections: about reconnecting and binding things back together with their Source. In spite of the commercialization and trivialization and sentimentalization of Christmas, God keeps breaking into our world and into our lives and calling us to true religion by giving us a mission and a vocation. We who come to adore him on this night are changed by this encounter because in seeing grace, we glimpse what is yet possible for our own lives and families and beyond, for this fragile island home. That vision changes us, or at least it is meant to change us. When we see grace, the work of Christmas begins as we begin to participate in this work of binding up a broken world.

The good news we remember and reorient our lives around on this holy night is that God has come into the world—this world as it is, this world of Cretans. God seeks us as we are, not waiting around for some sanitized version of what we hope we might become with our New Year’s resolutions. God has come into this world in all of its pain and all of its glory to overcome separation and estrangement and to repair all that has been rent asunder; to bind all things together again. 

Sometimes the biggest estrangement we need to overcome is the internal one, the inward spiritual journey toward integration and wholeness. Until we are healed from within it may be impossible for us to become true agents of reconciliation. But ultimately we must move beyond ourselves and into the world, this world that God that God loved so much as to be born into it as one of us.

Do religious institutions need to be changed and redeemed and revitalized and reoriented around God’s mission? Yes, always! But on this night above all other nights I am proud to call myself religious, because it suggests to me that Christmas is more than sentimentality or nostalgia for a distant past: it is a calling to share in God's mission. We then need to develop spiritual practices and disciplines that build up the Body of Christ so that together we can do that work, for the sake of the world. Our spiritual practices grow out of this calling, for without mission, spirituality is doomed to become little more than narcissistic navel gazing.

To say it another way: we don’t become more "spiritual” by avoiding all of the challenges of life in community. Rather, we discover a more authentic spirituality when we become religious enough to embrace it all, for the love of God in Jesus. Our neighbor has been given to us to be a companion along the way. We are invited (even commanded) to love one another as God has loved us. As that great mystery unfolds, we really do find ourselves in a place where we can see grace and truth, and where we see grace and truth we see this child, Jesus.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Righteous Man

Yesterday, as the fourth candle of Advent was lit, I had a Sunday off and the opportunity to worship with my family at The Society of St. John the Evangelist, where I am a member of the Fellowship of St. John. Brother David Vryof preached an excellent sermon on the gospel for the day, Matthew 1:18-25.  The lectionary is organized on a three-year cycle to rotate the readings we hear over the course of 156 weeks. In Year A, the year we are in, the focus is on Matthew's Gospel and Matthew's Gospel tells the story of Jesus' birth from the father's perspective. And so we get a chance to reflect on Joseph, who as Brother David put it yesterday, is the guy who in most of our pageants has no lines and stands off to the side.

As a parish priest I tended to give away the fourth Sunday of Advent to my Associate Rectors as I prepared my Christmas Eve sermon. But I had a vague recollection of preaching once upon a time on Joseph and sure enough, back in 2004, I did. Below is an unedited version of that sermon, preached at St. Francis Church in Holden, which I think echoes some of what I heard preached yesterday at the monastery. 

Let Us Pray:
                        O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
                        light rises up in the darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
                        our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would
                        have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all
                        false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in
                        your straight path may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our
                        Lord. Amen.   (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 832)

Spike Lee made a film a number of years ago called “Do the Right Thing.” But how do we know what is the right thing to do? Sometimes the ethical challenge we face is clear and what we therefore need is courage to act. But sometimes the way is not immediately clear to us. In those cases what we need is wisdom, and the gift of discernment. We need help figuring out, with God’s help, what is the right thing to do.

Joseph, we are told in today’s gospel reading, was, “was a righteous man.” In Greek the word is dikaios. It’s as often translated into English as “just” or as “justified” as it is “righteous”—and it is an extremely common word in the New Testament.  Here is a man who—facing a monumental and life-changing decision, “did the right thing.” And so this gospel text provides for us, perhaps, a kind of “case study.” To pay attention to how Joseph goes about figuring out what to do is, perhaps, to learn how we might become more “righteous” people in our own time.

What exactly does it mean to be a “just” or “righteous” person? Most people of faith would probably agree that it means doing our best to follow God’s commandments as they are revealed in the Scriptures.

But in the case of Joseph, there is a text in the Torah that is quite explicit. Mary and Joseph were engaged—although something gets lost in translation here, because in first-century Palestine to be “betrothed” was a legally binding arrangement that could only be dissolved by death or divorce. In other words, they are as good as married! And the sin of adultery, the Bible says, is punishable by death.  
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones… (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Now we must be clear: in the time of Jesus people were not stoning adulterers. The rabbis had interpreted the text as belonging to another time. While adultery was still considered a serious sin, those who committed it were publicly humiliated and shamed rather than stoned. The practice, in other words, was to make public what had happened in private—so that in small towns from Jewish Palestine to Puritan New England a Scarlet Letter ‘A’ worked as well as stoning to ostracize the person from “polite” society and make them as good as dead.

Joseph still believes at this point in the story that he has been wrongfully betrayed by his fiance—that his trust has been violated. He must feel incredibly hurt, humiliated, and angry. One could certainly understand a desire for vengeance on his part but beyond that he can, as a religious man, even justify his desire to retaliate by quoting the Bible. One might argue that he not only has every “right” to expose Mary to public humiliation but that it’s his duty—that it’s a form of “tough love” if you will because wrong must always be named and punished.

But of course that isn’t what he decides to do…even before the dream. He discerns a higher calling than following the letter of the law—even a law mitigated by the rabbis. He is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” we are told. Instead, he is going to “dismiss her quietly.” And yet Matthew still declares him to be a “righteous” man—a “just” man.  

Is it possible to make a decision that is counter to the Law, and still be considered to be a just or righteous person? Matthew seems to be suggesting that it is. That doesn’t mean he dismisses the Law entirely. In fact—we must be clear here—more than any other of the four gospel writers Matthew writes as Jew, to Jews, with the utmost respect for the Torah. For Matthew, Jesus comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. But the Law points us toward God—and sometimes God’s ways are a mystery, and sometimes God’s ways call for the Law to be tempered with mercy if there is to be true justice. If we want to “do the right thing” we can’t just pick a text: we have to engage in prayer, and discernment, with a living, holy, loving God. We trust the Holy Spirit to be with us through that process and to guide us into all truth.

Joseph has grasped that while “love of God and love of neighbor” doesn’t negate  Deuteronomy 22, it does take precedence over it. We might even say that Joseph seems to point us toward the Baptismal Covenant, as he models “respect for the dignity of every human being” including even the woman he feels has betrayed him. His “righteousness” is tied to preserving her dignity.

Now ironically—and this is the great thing about this narrative—just as the whole thing seems “settled’ and the “decision” has been made (in verse nineteen), the whole story shifts in a dramatic fashion because an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. What he learns from the angel is huge: he has it all wrong. The angel tells him that this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit and not of an adulterous affair. Mary has in fact not betrayed him at all. But this, too, is a part of life: we make ethical choices not as people who are omniscient, but as people who come to decisions based on the information we have, information we see at best through a glass darkly. Sometimes we are just plain wrong. The learning as I see it, though, is not whether we can somehow become “all knowing” as humans; we cannot…but can we admit to being wrong and move in a new direction when there is good reason to do so?

So I think Joseph is very much a man worthy of our attention in Advent and beyond. His “change of plans” is based on a dream! Again, he had choices. After waking up, Joseph might easily have told himself: “it was just a dream…and what a bizarre one at that. I can’t wait to see my therapist!” 

But that isn’t what he does. Joseph acts based on what his dream has revealed to him. He does the two things the angel tells him to do: he takes Mary as his wife, and he names the child Jesus. In so doing Joseph is claiming him as his own beloved child.

Sometimes people have a hard time connecting to the people of the Bible. Last weekend we considered Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary—all of whom have direct encounters with the angel Gabriel. In a few days we’ll hear about those shepherds who hear a whole choir of angels and archangels singing. Even George Bailey gets Clarence! Now I know people who do have those kinds of experiences, and I suspect that some of us have entertained angels unaware. But most of us don’t have this kind of direct mystical experience with angels who appear to tell us exactly what to do. And so very often as people are trying to grow in our faith, or trying to discern what to do in a certain situation—we may not find people like Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah as helpful because we don’t seem to share the insights they gained by their clear, mystical visions.

There may be more to say about that another time—another sermon for another time. But today, for this sermon, what I want to say is that Joseph is different. Joseph is in many ways a man of our own time. Joseph’s angelic encounter is only a dream. He doesn’t even get a real angel…only a dream of one. How lame is that?

How do we know when to trust our dreams and act on them? How do we discern what is a message from God, via the angels and what is really a temptation from the Evil One? I don’t have any easy answers for you on that. All I can tell you is that Joseph trusted his dream as more real than what his brain told him and more real than what the gossiping neighbors were saying and even as more real that what the rabbis taught that the Bible said. Maybe the dream confirmed what his heart was telling him and he wanted to live into that reality. We cannot know for sure, but what we do know is that he acted on faith— and that he was judged by Matthew to be a “righteous” man.

Joseph had options as he faced a life-changing decision—and it is important for us to remember that, for we, too, are free to make choices and decisions that either further God’s kingdom, or do not.
  • Joseph could have been a Biblical literalist. In spite of how the rabbis were interpreting Deuteronomy 22, he could have pushed for a “return to that old time religion.” He could have put a bumper sticker on his car that said: “Bring back stoning—God said, I believe it, that settles it;”
  • He could have listened to the conventional interpretations given by the rabbis of his day and exposed Mary to public disgrace. This decision had the advantage of being “in the mainstream”—the “conventional wisdom” of the day—even if it wasn’t the right thing to do;
  • He could have followed his own heart, and put her away quietly—without any fuss—which is what he had in fact decided to do before that dream. Such a decision could certainly be justified even in his own conscience;
  • Or—with nothing more than a dream to go on—Joseph can take Mary as his lawfully wedded wife, and he adopt her son and raise the child as his own. Adoptive parents know well the dangers and challenges (as well as the potential joys) of such a decision but we should be clear it goes against the grain, and comes with no small measure of risk to Joseph’s reputation and standing in the community. It is also a decision from which there will be no turning back.   

We all know what Joseph decided to do. And in hindsight we all can see why that choice was, of course, the right one. But what amazes me—what truly amazes me—is that Joseph was able to get it right the first time, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—and even before he ever held that babe wrapped in swaddling cloths in his arms.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Third Sunday of Advent, All Saints, Worcester

On this snowy day I am serving at All Saints Church in Worcester, our largest parish in the diocese, currently going through a time of clergy transition. They are great people, and it is a joy to be among them as we light the third candle. The readings for this day can be found here.  

Spoiler alert: after Jesus is born, he’ll be baptized by his cousin, John, in the Jordan River. Not as an infant but at the beginning of his public ministry, somewhere around the age of thirty or so. After his baptism in the Jordan River, he begins to teach people about the Kingdom of God. He is a terrific preacher. He heals the sick, signs not only of who he is but of the presence of that Kingdom of God.

But things will eventually start to unravel. His ministry will last only about three years. First John, the one who baptized Jesus, is arrested and put into prison. You all remember how that ends, right? Certainly not with a stay of execution! And one can already see the writing on the wall for Jesus. He, too, will come into conflict with the religious and political authorities and be arrested and tried and executed. Good Friday is less than four months away.

So John’s question from prison in today’s gospel reading is a legitimate one, then and now. There isn’t yet peace in Jerusalem, let alone on earth. We can’t even find good will on Capitol Hill or Beacon Hill. And in the meantime, gun violence in this country is out of control. Whatever one’s politics may be—it feels beyond disheartening that in the midst of so much gun violence and a year after Newtown that it remains nearly impossible to even have a serious conversation about who can and cannot buy a gun, let alone to move beyond talk to action. Most nations continue to spend way more on swords than plowshares in their national budgets, and lions still eat lambs for lunch. So if Messiah is supposed to do all those things, then who, John asks, are you? And what are you up to, Jesus?

It is a fair question, and it takes us on this third Sunday of Advent to the very heart of our faith. We are still waiting expectantly. And that is what the Season of Advent is all about, Charlie Brown: not just waiting for the first coming of baby Jesus, but for the second coming of Christ the King: for new heavens, and a new earth: for the New Jerusalem, and the New Worcester and the New Denver and the New Newtown. Waiting for the New All Saints to emerge as a beacon of hope and a shining light in this city.

Waiting is hard, and it’s tempting in the meantime to ease our anxiety by spiritualizing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is not some temptation that comes from a so-called secular society and it cannot be fixed by forcing a store clerk to say “Merry Christmas.” We do it to ourselves. We turn this holiday season into fuzzy sentimentality. Or we postpone all our hope until the day when Christ comes again.

But here is the thing: the prophets imagine God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And when Jesus sends word to John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading, notice that he isn’t talking in the future tense like Isaiah was. He speaks of what is happening: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

So Jesus is a great teacher, a healer, the kind of guy everybody wants to eat supper with because wherever he is, it’s a party and everyone keeps hoping he’ll do that thing again with the water and the wine. But how do we really know he is the One? That is John’s question today and it lingers in the air, even now. John has been out there proclaiming that the One who comes after him is going to usher in that reign of God—justice and peace and all the rest. I imagine as he sits in that prison cell that John was as confused as anyone and maybe even a little angry because the One whose sandals he knew he wasn’t fit to untie is out there doing good work to be sure—important ministry. But in a macro-cosmic sense the world looks pretty much the same as it always has. When are the prisoners really going to go free?

So how do you know? If you are a good Jew waiting for Messiah to come, or a good Christian waiting for Messiah to come again—if you live in the first century or the twenty-first—if you are sitting in a prison cell or in a church pew—how do you know when it is God at work?

“Go tell John what you see and what you hear,” Jesus says. It is such classic, vintage Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t directly answer the question. He never does! I read once that 80% of the time in the New Testament when asked a question, Jesus responds with a question. Here he does answer, but it’s a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Tell John what you see, and what you hear. The problem with that is that it depends on where you stand. Do you see what I see? When you listen to the news, do you hear what I hear?  Is the world being made new or is it coming unglued? Is the light shining in the darkness or is it, as Bob Dylan once put it, well it’s not dark yet but it’s getting there?

This is about way more than whether we are constitutionally optimists or pessimists.  It’s more than just “is that glass half-full or half-empty?”  We can look at the same thing—each of us, from one day to the next and see it differently. Is it an opportunity or a crisis? Is it something that will help us grow or will it be our undoing? Is God in the midst of it all or an absentee landlord? One could ask all of these questions in a congregation that is going through a time of transition and people will see things differently, and do. Some may be feeling hope-full and some may be feeling hope-less and probably most vacillate between the two.
So much has to do with where we are and that can change from day-to-day. If we are overtired or depressed or angry or confused—sometimes we just plain cannot see. I mean literally, we sometimes just cannot see what is right before our eyes. The optic nerves are working fine and delivering messages to the brain but we are blind. And sometimes it’s like those images where if you blink you see it one way and if you blink again you see something else: is that an old lady or a young girl? 

Go tell John what you see and hear.  Sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be so incredibly blessed still struggle with doubt and uncertainty about whether God loves them or even exists. And sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be so incredibly sad are able to find faith and love and joy and hope in the smallest of life’s gifts. The externals don’t always dictate how we will view even our own lives—let alone the world around us. We can have it all and feel empty and sometimes that is exactly where we are in December. And we can have very little and feel like our cup overflows. And sometimes that happens to us in December as well. What you see depends on how you look and also where you look. What you hear depends a great deal on who you’re listening to.

So the first major winter storm comes—or at least what the media calls a major winter storm. I’m getting to be old enough that I am tempted to say that when I was a kid we just called it winter. My youngest cousin in Pennsylvania who has the youngest kids in the family posted on Facebook how her kids spent the whole day out in the snow yesterday and after dinner still wanted more: more snowballs and more snow forts and more sledding. Others of us look at it and instead of experiencing great joy we see a problem to be managed before life can return to normal. Whatever that is…

What are you seeing this December? Do you see weak hands and tottering knees being strengthened? Because where you see those things happening, Jesus says that we see God at work. There we see signs of Christ’s presence. And if once you were blind but now you see in amazingly different ways—isn’t that good news?  No doubt we have to be intentional about looking for signs of God’s presence in the world. If we can find ways to put ourselves in places where we can get glimpses at least, of new life and new possibilities, then it becomes food for the journey. And as we learn where to look and how to look with eyes that see, our faith is truly strengthened because we see signs of God’s presence where we never before even thought to look.

Who knows, we might even find God in a stable, of all places? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent

There is an extremely common Christian misperception that has been repeated over and over again so many times that people sometimes assume it must be true. In fact, when a second-century theologian named Marcion began saying it, the Church rightly declared him to be a heretic, which is simply to say he was wrong. That word - heretic - is a loaded one I know. (So, too, orthodoxy.) But that is another post, for another time...

The point is not that heretics ought to be killed but that heretics shouldn't claim their ideas are "Christian." In the case of Marcion, the Church got it right, but the ideas didn't go away. Simply put: Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was a god of judgment and the God of the New Testament was a god of mercy. If he had had his way, we would not claim the Old Testament to be “the Word of the Lord.” The Christian Bible would have ended up as Luke and some Pauline letters. Unfortunately, if you did a poll in my denomination on how often the Old Testament reading is preached on in it's own right (not as prelude to the Gospel but truly as "the Word of the Lord / Thanks be to God!") I think you'd find that we act as if Marcion got it right. (Most congregations still stand up and process the gospel book out to further make the point that this is the time to start paying attention because this is what the sermon is going to be on!) 

Yet the core testimony of Israel, in what Christians usually call the Old Testament, is that YHWH is the maker of heaven and earth and that creation is good; and that very same God is a God of steadfast love and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These twin claims are repeated over and over again, because over and over again it is Israel’s experience that that when they fall short of the mark and fail to hold up their end of the bargain, God responds with amazing grace.

So let me be clear: I’m not saying that there is no violence and judgment in the Old Testament or that God is not sometimes portrayed anthropomorphically as getting impatient, hurt, and even angry. I think we do drive God to vertigo sometimes. What I am saying is that these things are in the New Testament as well, and the reason for that is that both Testaments are not about a fantasy world, but real life. And real life is messy and our relationship with the Divine is, well...complicated.  

Still, the core testimony of both Old and New Testaments is of one God who is steadfast and merciful: the one whom Israel called Creator of heaven and earth and that Jesus called Abba. The Nicene Creed gets this right, of course, and sets the contours of orthodoxy over and against our Marcionite tendencies: We believe in one God…We believe that the Abba (the Father Almighty) is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. Which is to simply to say that we believe the Creator we meet in Genesis 1 is the very same God who is “with the Word” in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  

Some of us (especially those of us raised in more Protestant traditions) were taught to contrast the “law” of the Old Testament with the “grace” in the New Testament. We have some un-learning to do when we approach the Scriptures, because only in un-learning that false dichotomy do we begin to truly embrace the Old Testament in all of its richness. After all, what we call the Old Testament was the only Bible that Mary and Joseph and Jesus ever knew. Jesus learned to call God “Abba” from the Law and the Prophets, and the Writings. They found grace and comfort and strength there in the Psalms: the Lord is my shepherd...So it does us some good every now and again to be reminded that Jesus did not carry around a leather-bound King James Bible that had all of his lines written out in red. (And that he did not have the 1928 Prayerbook in the other hand!)

All of Holy Scripture was written for our learning, and both Testaments are meant to point us to the living Word—to Jesus the Christ.  The Bible is one drama, told in two acts. 

Advent is as good a time to remember this as any, because in Advent we seem to get readings intended to invert our Marcionite tendencies. For two weeks in a row now, we have heard extraordinarily “good news” from the prophet Isaiah (which some Christian Biblical scholars have nicknamed “the fifth gospel”) and, as it happens, both weeks the gospel readings have had a much sharper edge to them: winnowing forks and axes and judgment and wrath to come. If we insist on "grace" verses "judgment" then I ask: where is the grace? Where is the judgment? Now a larger point is that these are two sides to one coin but my point related to the two testaments is that to hold onto our Marcionite tendencies we very often deny huge parts of both testaments to make it work. And the truth is, it doesn't work. 

The vision given to the prophets, including Isaiah, is of God’s shalom: of a peace that passes all understanding. It’s not just an inward spiritual peace, but a yearning for the restoration of all creation and a healing of the nations. Last week we heard in the second chapter of Isaiah about how swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This language inspires hope—not passive, wishful thinking but hope that unleashes energy that allows us to roll up our sleeves and to do the work God has given us to do. This week we hear once again from Isaiah, this time from the eleventh chapter. Now he speaks of the peaceable kingdom, of predators and prey living together in shalom, of something that sounds a lot like a restoration of the Garden of Eden, God's original creative intent. 

So if you want to look for differences between the two Testaments, that difference is not about the nature of God. God is one. 

But there is an important difference worth noting and it has to do with verb tenses. In the larger sense, it has to do with how we tell time. Isaiah lived in very difficult times: a time of war and rumors of war. In the eleventh chapter, he is looking toward the dawn of a new day. But he sees that future on the distant horizon. He looks to a day when the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid. But all of his verbs are future tense, and given the realities of his day that is understandable. That day does not seem like it will be anytime soon:

  • A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow;
  • …by righteousness he shall judge the poor;
  • …the wolf shall live with the lamb;
  • …the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
  • …a little child shall lead them;  
  • …they shall not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain…

Someday, but not yet. It was the same with last weekend’s reading from Isaiah: “in days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…” In those days, people will study war no more. (Isaiah 2:1-5) Someday; but not yet.  In the meantime, we live in the “real” world that seems bent on destroying itself, sometimes even in the name of God. In the meantime there is Realpolitik –  in the China Sea, in the Middle East, in Washington, DC.   

Notice, however, what happens when John the Baptist arrives on the scene in the New Testament: he proclaims that a new day is about to dawn. John declares that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He insists that “the time is at hand.” No longer is it a distant future. There is a sense of urgency in John’s message, because the time is Now. 

And then notice what happens when Jesus comes on the scene. All the verbs become present tense:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven; (Matthew 5:1-12)
  • When Jesus walks into the synagogue one Sabbath day to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, about good news being brought to the poor and release to the captives, about recovery of sight to the blind and the oppressed going free his commentary is simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
  • St. Paul picks up this same theme in his letter to the Church in Corinth: he also quotes from Isaiah and then says, “NOW is the acceptable time; NOW is the day of salvation.” (II Corinthians 6:2)
What has happened? One might be tempted to think that the world somehow changed overnight when Jesus stepped on the world stage, that in first-century Rome all of a sudden there was a regime change and no more chariots were built; instead there was a lasting peace dividend and swords were beaten into plowshares. But of course we know better than that. The world was probably not much better or worse in the time of Jesus than it was in the time of Isaiah, and probably not much better or worse today than it was in either of those two times. 

So it’s tempting to make it all spiritual: since we can’t ever have peace on earth, we can have it in our hearts. Since we can’t have true community on earth, at least someday we’ll all die and go to heaven. But this, too, is in the spirit of Marcion. This too, discounts the entire witness of the Old Testament; not to mention the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: thy Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven. God’s shalom is cosmic and material; not merely spiritual.

So what then? Jesus teaches us to live today as if the Kingdom of God is already here. To live today into our calling as Baptized people by becoming  salt and light and yeast that not only bear witness to the world but that begin to transform the world by making it saltier, lighter, and yeastier. We are called to become the change we yearn to see, to become the change that God yearns to see. As we light that second candle for peace, the very next words on our lips need to be: “Lord make us instruments of your peace…”  

To be the Church means to be part of a community that dares to live against the grain, right now, on this December day in 2013. Not someday but now. There in an urgency of Now. In the midst of warring madness we ask God not only to cure that fever, but for the strength and courage to embrace our calling to make peace wherever we are. Not someday, but right Now.  

All of us who gather at tables throughout the week - around coffee tables, boardroom tables, vestry tables, kitchen tables, chemistry lab tables - at all of those tables we can postpone peacemaking until someday, or we can embrace it Now. If we mean to follow Christ, then we will do it Now. 

We begin the long journey as any long journey begins: with small steps. We can move ourselves and others away from fear by building trust. We can begin to live more peacefully now as we faithfully use and claim our power, not as lions who eat lambs, but as people ready to live and act as servant-ministers. We cannot afford to delay until someday; because it is this day that the Lord has made and it is on this day that God means for us to follow Jesus, and it is on this day that we are called to love God and neighbor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nicholas and Madiba

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, children, and the poor. It has always seemed to me an odd assortment, but the collect (prayer) for this day may discern a connection by adding that fourth group - all who are "tossed by tempests of doubt or grief." Perhaps the connection is found in the word "vulnerability." Children are the most vulnerable members even of our society, and certainly of the ancient world. Sailors, even in the largest of vessels, can be tossed and turned in the tempest of a storm and know well that they are not in control. And of course, the poor are always vulnerable, in every time and place. Not only in all the obvious ways but perhaps worst of all by the scorn and derision of the indolent rich that seeks to make them invisible. If they are invisible, then we who have healthcare and bread don't have to think about their needs, or risk taking the SNAP Challenge.

Perhaps a way into the Church's vocation in our time is to be intentional not about our material and consumer giving - it is so easy at this time of year to be consumed by our desire for more - but rather to become givers as God is the great Giver, and as Nicholas bore witness to. To give freely of ourselves to those who are vulnerable, to live for the sake of those who are most at risk.

Nelson Mandela lived like that. Of all the tributes I've seen so far (and they have been legion) I was personally most struck by the quote attributed to Mandela about "a good head and a good heart." Sometimes in the Church, I find people have the very best of intentions and a huge heart for God and neighbor. But they do not always have the discipline to think through the unintended consequences of their choices and decisions."Meaning well" is not always enough.

Conversely, there are those who are so bright, yet seemingly heartless. I think of the resurgence (especially among the right-wing intelligentsia) of the near-worship of Ayn Rand, who said, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." The philosophy that shapes Atlas Shrugged seemed to me even as an egocentric college student, to be filled with the worst kind of half-truths. Yes, we need to be true to ourselves - yes we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help the child we may be traveling with.

But we do put on the mask in order to do just that, don't we - to love and serve the child, the poor, the vulnerable? Nicholas of Myra and Madiba of Johannesburg connected head and heart, and what a formidable combination! To see the other, especially the vulnerable ones in our midst, is to recognize, as Mandela put it, that to be free "is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

It has been said of St. Francis of Assisi, that he is, of all the saints, "the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated." It is clear on this Feast of St. Nicholas that Mandela lived in a way that made him very popular and admired. But perhaps we pay our respects to him best by being intentional about following his example, by living lives and making choices that respect and enhance the freedom of others.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


The word for this first Sunday of Advent and of a new liturgical year is hope. We light the first Advent Candle to mark the beginning of our Christmas preparations and to remind ourselves that we are a people of hope.

It’s a word cheapened by everyday usage. We may hope that the Patriots will win their game today, or we hope that it doesn't rain on our (outdoor) wedding day. But hope is a bigger word in our vocabulary of faith than that.

“Faith, Hope, and Love,” at least according to St. Paul, seem to be the big three. While love may well be “the greatest of these,” I've always thought that the implication is that the three are somehow connected, and wondered if the journey doesn't begin with faith, which isn't bout saying a creed or about memorizing a catechism, but about trust. More specifically, faith is about well-placed (rather than misplaced) trust. And that faith leads us to hope, and hope points the way to love.

The only way any of us get through really difficult days is to know that even if it will be a long haul that a new day will eventually dawn. I think if we can ponder that reality we begin to get a grasp of what hope is really all about.

An image that grows out of the Old Testament and into the New is the image of a “stump of Jesse” that gives way to a “new branch of David.” Jesse was King David’s father. What this metaphor suggests is that even though it appears that the Davidic dynasty came to an end, that it was only a stump, yet from that stump new growth will appear. For us as Christians that is language we cannot help but to connect to Jesus, the Son of David, our hope and our salvation. And so we wait for, and prepare for, Messiah to come again; even as our Jewish neighbors wait for, and prepare for, Messiah to come. 

For many years I fought a losing battle against sapling maple trees by trying each fall to cut them off at the trunk only to find them coming back in the spring again; a new shoot growing out of that old stump. This happens, I have been told, because the root system already there makes new life come about more quickly, even though at ground level it appears that life has been cut off.

Advent begins with talk about endings, about the end of the world we know. But don’t be deceived. The paradox is that we begin here because we know that God is doing a new thing: birthing a new creation. New heavens. New earth. A branch of David out of the old stump of Jesse.

Ponder for a moment what that means not only in the Bible, but for the spiritual life. Advent is such a time, a time to contemplate new beginnings, new possibilities. It is a season of hope.