About a year ago I found a note someone had slid under my office door following a service: “Talk to us about the Devil,” it read. “Is he real? How do we tell if he’s messing with us?”
I freely admit that I’ve never been one to ascribe supernatural import to most events. I was raised in the sort of household where fatherly wisdom over concern about the possibility of ghosts consisted of the statement (filtered through combat experience in Vietnam): “I’ve been around the world, son, and I can tell you, there’s no reason to worry about dead people. It’s the living ones you have to worry about.” Or, to put it another way, quoting a Cumberland Presbyterian classmate of mine from seminary, we don’t want “to see a demon behind every tea cup.”
An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and baby to Egypt.
The angel said “wait.”
On foreign soil.
Soil his ancestors
mud and desert to escape.
So that a prophet’s words might be reheard.
“Out of Egypt I have called my son…”
An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and child to Israel.
The angel said the ones with murder in their hearts:
The little family
The Holy Family
And the boy lived
On a Good Friday.
And on that day, we live.
“For he will be called a Nazorean.”
An angel said “get up.”
And Joseph did.
Easter followed him.
Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15
Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1
The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.
To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2
There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3
Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ [↩]
As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 [↩]
Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). [↩]
Sermon notes & Background research for Proper 13 A 2014, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 9:1-5
Recording (Note: the delivered sermon differs from the text, as this is more background information etc… and the sermon is delivered without notes in most instances):
When I was in High School one of my close friends shared a story with me, about something that had happened to him when he was in elementary school. More accurately, it was about something he did while in elementary school, and its repercussions. A female classmate of ours had come up in conversation because of some recognition she was receiving, and he mentioned to me that they had once been friends in elementary school, but that he had said something to her that resulted in her slugging him. No… it was nothing like that… remember, it happened in elementary school. You see, our classmate was–is–Jewish, and as a naive elementary school student, when he heard this revelation one day, he blurted “But Jewish people don’t believe in God…” at which point, he received due penalty for his sin, in the form of a fist to the face.
I didn’t witness the event, but I got a good laugh out of his recounting of it. And I gave him a hard time about his ignorance, but of course, I couldn’t tell you when exactly I came to an awareness of the details–including the theism or non-theism-of other religions. And I can even see, based upon his protests, how he could’ve come to that conclusion, so closely was Jesus identified with God in his upbringing, and then also hearing that Jews do not share our faith in Jesus. But as humorous as this particular event is to think about on one level–probably more so for me, since I know the parties involved–it points to something dark at the heart of our own faith.
In many–ok, most–cases, religions are ambivalent about other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue is really still in its infancy. But religions that developed out of a particular faith, especially when the parent faith rejected the new insights or ways of considering the divine, tend to have particularly fraught relationships with their predecessor and sibling religions. This has certainly been the case with Christianity and Judaism. Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner, who teaches at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto has highlighted what this tension has meant for Christians:
The Jew, quite distinctly, becomes a “heretic” and the “heretic” becomes a “Jew.” In other words,intra-Christian discord becomes completely coincident with apostasy and/or the denial of Christ, and Christian division is read in terms of religious antagonism in a strong modern sense. Those who “call themselves Christian”—“heretics”—are in fact the same as Jews and Saracens…1
As Radner notes, this polemic gets mapped on to intra-Christian divisions, so that every time someone who says of Roman Catholics “They leave Christ on the cross,” also negatively compares the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism, this more fundamental division is revealed. As one commentator put it: “The point Radner is driving home here is profound. By showing how Jews came to be understood as heretics and later Christian heretics become to be understood as as Jews (i.e. apostates), Radner is suggesting that Christians have been so bad to each other because we were so bad to the Jews. Thus, the inability to handle division and conflict internally, or inability to see the conflict as internal, is a result of how Christians have understood themselves over against their Jewish religious ancestors and neighbors.”2
All of this challenging history makes my friends comment, and others like it, ominous, even if they are not particularly informed by the tradition. They come out of this context, and so, they have an edge to them that we cannot deny. That edge is provided at its root, in large measure, by this section of Romans (chapters 9-11). From the beginning, many Christians have used the phrase “The Rejection of Israel” to describe this section of Romans. It is a phrase that cuts in two directions, but by far the sharpest is in the direction of claiming that God has rejected Irsrael/The Jewish people. The reality is however, that Paul is emphasizing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, but that a portion of the Jewish people have rejected Christ because of a misguided reading of the Torah.
Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 2065-2068). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]
Furry, Tim. “Radner’s BFB, Part I” from Theology Studio. Radner offers many pertinent thoughts on this matter–pick up the book!–here are a few that really hit home: “But just as in Rwanda it is inescapable that a central element of the violence was that Christians killed, not simply that killers “happened to be” Christians, so, in the case of the Holocaust, there is a consensus that we must face the fact that Christians killed Jews and that these identities given in terms of violent hostility were not only self-consciously defined but carefully supported by religious arguments and traditions. There is no longer any question but that elements of Christian theological understanding and practice—and not only discrete (and somehow Christianly uninformed) acts by Christians—motivated these killings, if in ways that were hardly exhaustive.”
Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 904-909). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]
Several months ago I posted some thoughts inspired by a little research on the history of English (primarily, though not intentionally) church architecture. I was interested in looking at the way children were or were not welcomed in worship by our predecessors. I think this is important because I have a feeling that many of the issues the church is facing today come, at least in part, from a sort of social or institutional amnesia. We’ve forgotten what it means to play, learn, converse, and therefore, worship, in a multi-generational setting.
This lack is exemplified in nothing so much as the drive to program for children and the difficulty in finding adults willing and able (whether because of schedules or lack of formation on their part) to volunteer to lead such programs.
In my first post, Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, I made the following statement: “All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.”
While several months have passed, I am no less interested in reflecting on this question, and trying to come up with some “traditioned innovations” that might help us–at my parish, St. Joseph of Arimathea–or elsewhere, to face the question of properly passing our faith on to our children (and our adults, might I add!).
In keeping with this interest, I recently picked up (or rather, downloaded, then picked up my Kindle) the book When Children Become People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting information in this book, and I heartily commend it to you.
Of particular interest to the question of how, in the early Church (or let’s just say the church of the first four centuries) children participated and were nurtured in the faith, is the description of the role children played in worship.
First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service, and took part in it. They were lectors (readers of scripture), they sang the responses–with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults–joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.1
Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:
From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship. 2
In looking at this list, the questions arise: in what ways could children be involved in our worship today? How can such liturgical involvement translate to a better grasp of scripture and the Christian traditions?
“It is in any case indisputable that boys served as lectors from a very early age. This is confirmed by a decree promulgated by Justinian in 546, which laid down the minimum age of eight for those who were to assume the office of lector.153 The need to establish a minimum age may be related to the desire of ambitious parents-or (perhaps more likely) poor parents-to ensure a future career in the clergy for their sons.”
O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3827-3829). Kindle Edition. [↩]
O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3898-3899). Kindle Edition. [↩]
I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.
As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England. Take a look:
I wonder what you notice about the lay out?
When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service. Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?
Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.
Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?
What would be the possible benefits of this?
Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.
Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers […]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.
All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.
Sermon Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8
The big news in the Christian world last week was the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Some have asked why I, as an Episcopal Priest, and we as Anglicans/Episcopalians, should care. Fundamentally, we care because Francis is the newly elected leader of over a billion of the world’s Christians. We also care because, unlike many other non-Roman Catholic Christian traditions, Anglicans have, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth (see Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England) and certainly in our more recent dialogues, recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while rejecting universal jurisdiction. All of which means, Anglicans are in the position of honoring the Pope, while simultaneously upholding the principal of autonomy and conciliarism (when we’re at our best).
This is in great contrast to the position of some other traditions, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and a number of staunchly Reformed denominations, which specifically refer to the Pope–or the office of the papacy, if not the person–as Antichrist. Such language is a vestige of the polemics of the Reformation era and is unsurprising, when you consider the high tensions of the time. Consider how frustrated Martin Luther was with the actions of the papacy, most especially actions such as selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was so frustrated with what he viewed as the excesses of the papal court, that he wrote the following in On Christian liberty:
The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty).
In his frustration, Luther both echoed and foreshadowed criticisms of the papacy, and the church more generally.
Many of these criticisms, over finances, buildings and so forth, are familiar to us, not only because they’re regularly hurled at the Roman Catholic Church, but at churches of all denominations. And there are times the accusations are all too true. At other times, they serve as evidence of a sort of miserliness which seeks to avoid responsibility for one’s neighbor by calling from some disembodied and disconnected “church” to provide social services or resources. I’m sure many of us have either heard or even voiced criticisms of the church for spending this or that amount of money on buildings, items for worship, or salaries and so forth. In many cases, these criticisms are overblown, but they are also understandable from the perspective of history.
In this area of concern, Francis has already begun to make a name for himself, as he has done things such as pay his own hotel bill, retrieve his own bags, and ride in the bus with his fellow cardinals, rather than taking one of the papal cars. This is all in keeping with the way he seems to have conducted himself in Argentina, eschewing the Archiepiscopal Palace and instead living in a simple apartment, and refusing a car and driver, to instead ride public transportation. The facts that such actions have been so warmly received indicate a degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the way in which churches have used funds and of the way in which Christians and Christian leaders have conducted themselves.
But as we celebrate simplicity, we need to remind ourselves not to slip over into the easy and selfish mode of being tightfisted with money and other resources. Ours is not a God of scarcity, but plenty. This was the dynamic of the conflict set up in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the disciples about multiple facets of generosity and appropriate extravagance.
Jesus returns to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary. While there he and the disciples dine with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In the course of dinner Mary comes forward to Jesus, takes a pound of perfume or fragrant ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.
There is an undeniable oddity and awkwardness to this situation. As one commentator put it, you might think of this as the sort of uncomfortable over-the-top emotional display that puts everyone else on edge. The disciples would have additionally been uncomfortable with this kind of display between a woman and a man. Beyond these elements of discomfort, there is the issue of the value of the ointment. Check the size of any perfumes or colones in your house. Do any of you have 1lbs bottles? This was extravagant; a sign of abundance.
In the midst of this, the contrasting actions of Mary and Judas are held up: Mary, giving far more than would ever be expected or considered appropriate. Judas, voicing the concerns of an overly rigid culture and faith. An uncomfortable part of this lesson is that many of us would likely respond similarly. Not simply because of the amount of perfume, but because of its cost. When the house is filled with the fragrance, Judas blurts out: “why wasn’t this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John, of course, tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned for the poor, but he does highlight the bizarre excess of what Mary has done. 300 denarii was a year’s wages for the ordinary laborer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall plopping down a year’s wages on a single thing.
Jesus’ response to Judas’ challenge, “leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” serves to highlight the proclamation Mary’s actions constitute. Of all the disciples, it is Mary of Bethany who understands what is about to transpire in Jerusalem, and responds accordingly. On the opposite pole stands Judas, who, of all the disciples, not only can’t understand Jesus’ mission, but comes to actively reject it and betray his Lord.
Jesus’ statement, that she had brought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial, clears up any confusion about whether this was some act of welcome–such as washing the feet of a traveler–or some other strange form of a normal act. Instead, we are informed that Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus for burial: the time really is at hand.
In this sense Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene stand as bookends of the passion & resurrection account: Mary of Bethany, who recognizes what is to transpire beforehand and seeks to prepare Jesus for the grave, responding to the extravagance of the gift of his life, with the most open-handed gesture of giving and thanksgiving she could imagine, and Mary Magdalene who becomes the Apostles to the Apostles, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.1
It is upon this note of extravagant giving that our lesson turns: Jesus’ giving of himself, the dramatic offering it inspires in Mary, and finally, the acts of abundance to which we are all called as Christians.
You see, some have seen in Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, a justification for poverty: You always have the poor with you. The poor are always going to exist, so soothe your conscious and move along.
No. That’s not the message of Christ.
The point of this interlude is to emphasize Christ’s coming work on the cross, but also to emphasize the appropriate type and degree of response from Christ’s people: complete and utter extravagance and giving. In other words: The poor will always be with you, and you will always be called to give beyond what the world finds reasonable. The poor will always be with you. Where Christ’s disciples are, there the poor will gather. Where the poor are, Christ’s disciples must gather, so that God’s extravagant love can be appropriately proclaimed.
You will always have the poor,
You will always have the sick,
You will always have the grieving,
You will always have the lonely,
You will always have the widow,
You will always have neighbors,
You will always have
people to love,
to pray for,
The need to seek forgiveness
The opportunity to offer it.
You will always have the assurance of salvation.
You will always have Christ with you. And the chance to share the good news with others.
This is the extravagant gift of God, and we are called to respond in kind.
It should be noted that the Latin tradition has conflated Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the repentant woman of Luke. Greek tradition maintains they are three distinct individuals and protestants move between two and three. [↩]
It’s strange to consider that we will shortly be entering the season of Lent. Strange because time seems to be moving at such a rapid pace. Where did 2012 go again? 2011? 2010? But strange also because I believe we were thrown into a spirit of mourning even as we prepared for the celebration of Christmas.
When we heard about the deaths of the children of Newtown Connecticut, the bitter taste of ash and the sting of loss and grief punctuated the coming remembrance of the first advent of Grace in flesh. Of course, there have been mass shootings before, all too common in fact. But less common than the more widespread murders that darken the streets of our cities and towns throughout each year. The Newtown massacre brought home to us the senselessness and the human loss of all of these tragedies, I believe, because of the clear-eyed innocence of the victims.
It was in the context of thinking about Lent and Lenten mourning that my mind was drawn back to Sandy Hook and to several other tragic and challenging events in the parish and larger community. How is it humanly possible to deal with such things without simply becoming cynical or jaded, by becoming more and more heartless, less and less willing to feel? Or, alternatively, how to we deal with such horrendous events when they occur in our own lives when the options aren’t so much to be wracked by pain or close ourselves off from feeling, but rather, to be wracked by pain and never move out of it, but linger within it allowing pain to stagnate into bitterness and harsh anger?
Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this struggle. Consider the Collect for Ash Wednesday, and its unflinching take on the human condition and God’s mercy:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP, 166).
Unsurprisingly, given the way we tend to think about Lent, this collect reminds us of the universality of sin, our need for repentance and God’s readiness to forgive. What stands out to me more this year than in the past, however, is one word: wretchedness. Most of us have an idea of what sin is, and even more than a few guesses of particular sins we’re probably guilty of. But wretchedness? That’s a term we don’t hear a lot, particularly outside of the insult of hearing someone–perhaps in an old movie–referred to as a “poor wretch.” But this collect calls on us to acknowledge our wretchedness, meaning that it must be something that characterizes all of us in some way.
The primary meaning of the term is “deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind.” That seems to describe the human condition particularly well, especially after such tragedies. But recognizing the fact that we can be afflicted, dejected or distressed is only part of the story. The other aspect is that there is hope. We lament our sins and profess the truth that God “doth forgive the sins of all who are penitent,” while we acknowledge our wretchedness in the context of the hope of forgiveness and the reign of Jesus Christ, that is, because of the foundation of all Christian hope.
There is a transition that has to occur, from feeling sorry for ourselves or even bitter toward God because of our afflictions, toward a spirit of thankfulness for the good that we have experienced. There’s no doubting that this is much more difficult to do than to write about, but it is nonetheless a necessary change if we are to truly live in hope.
In his book Mending the Heart, which we read for our Advent series, John Claypool recounts the alternative responses he wrestled with following his little girls death, the road of gratitude or the road of resentment:
It came to me that Laura Lue had been part of my life in exactly the same way. She was a gift, not a possession. My mother’s words reverberated in my mind: ‘When something is a gift and it is taken away, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.’
That was the moment I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of the shadow of grief, rather than the road of resentment. To this day I believe that gratitude is the best of all the ways through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not in any way eliminate the intense pain and frustration that always accompany the work of rebuilding one’s life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice as been done, and it opens the way for thanksgiving. Gratitude also deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the good old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well (Mending the Heart, 66).
It reminds me as well of Plutarch who in a letter of consolation to his wife upon hearing of the death of their daughter, writes movingly of not avoiding her memory or reminders of her:
I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind. Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymene who said, ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’ She avoided and shuddered at every reminder of her son. In general, nature avoids everything that causes distress. But in the case of our child, in the degree did she proved to us a thing most lovable to fondle and look at and hear, so the memory of her must abide with us and become part of us, and they will bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy and sorrow (Plutarch, “Consolation to His Wife,” The Art of the Personal Essay, 18).
What Claypool and Plutarch have in common is an effort to remember rightly. That is, to appreciate and recall the joys and blessings they enjoyed during the lives of their daughters, and to avoid the corruption that bitterness brings. The pain of bitterness, brought on by a refusal to accept stewardship as opposed to possession, corrupts and permeates even fond memories with the sting of malice for injustice. Now, the loss of our loved ones, or other challenges and limitations we may face can certainly be unjust, but we have to learn to let go of a proprietary feeling toward others and toward ourselves, for we do not even belong to ourselves, but our very lives are a blessing from the Almighty.
This is very much a Lenten reflection for the Lenten season. Lent is a time of letting go. We often think of it as a time to make resolutions, to sacrifice this or that favorite thing, sometimes in an effort to reform our lifestyles and sometimes as a sort of sacrifice and reminder for the season. But Lent is about letting go of more than these things. In the end, Lent is about reflecting upon the passion of Christ, seeing his obedience and willingness to pour himself out, and coming to a place of Christ-likeness. Lent is the season when we strive to have all the dross consumed.
Lent is about learning to let go of what was never ours to begin with–including our selves–so that we can welcome and receive hope and so that we can be truly thankful for every good gift, and most especially for that gift that is eternally ours, proclaimed so loudly on Easter morn.
Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30
I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”
I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well). To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.
I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:
When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.
When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.
But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).
In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.
We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.
L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).
If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).
A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.
Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:
From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.
The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.
It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.
In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.
What about your career? Get out of the way…
What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…
What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…
He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.
Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.
In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.
As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality.
The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.
Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.
Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.
The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.
We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.
Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.
Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.
The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:
“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).
Sermon thoughts for Proper 19 B, 2012
Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
Christians are a people bound together, defined and shaped by a common confession: Jesus is Lord. It is a statement that ought to have a major impact on every aspect of our lives, since, if we really mean it, we believe that we owe our lives to our Lord, and that we have given ourselves over to him; that because of our Baptism, as the Apostle says “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Confessing that Jesus is Lord is a powerful statement. It’s a powerful spiritual statement, and a powerful political, social and personal statement. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are necessarily declaring that no thing and no one else is. It could be compared to the marriage vow to forsake all others.
If Jesus is our Lord, then nothing else ought to have that sort of authority in our lives. No government, family member, employer and certainly no physical item; no idol of wood or stone, gold or silver, automotive parts, brick and mortar, chemical or anything else under the sun. Confessing Jesus as Lord makes all other commitments relative, and bound to be judged in light of that first commitment to God in Christ.
I believe this is the explanation for why Jesus asks this question of the disciples at this point and in this place, as recounted in our gospel lesson for the day (Mark 8:27-38). You see, Jesus and the disciples have advanced to what was once the northern edge of the Israelite kingdom, where, at this point, the Roman city of Caesarea Phillipi stood. But this had been a Greek city since Alexander the Great’s day, and it was a long standing Pagan cultic center. Before it was Caesarea Phillipi, the city had been known as Panaeus or Banaeus, and was named for the god Pan, the goat footed god of shepherds and the forest. But Pan was known for more. I didn’t realize it until I was researching this background, but Pan was also thought to be the source for panic, as one ancient commentator wrote: “During the night there fell on them a panic. For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan” (http://goo.gl/ATfdL).
So Jesus and his disciples travel to the fringes of Jewish territory, to the villages surrounding this city–though they never actually enter it. It’s as though Jesus is looking out over the future mission field, and he turns to his disciples and asks “Who do people say that I am?” Who do all of these folks we come into contact with, the people who whisper along the way… even, perhaps, the gentiles of Caesarea Phillipi–who do they say that I am?
And the disciples answer the the various rumors going around, that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he comes to it: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, always eager and often intuitive declares “You are the Messiah.” Peter has declared the truth of who Jesus is, but he has not yet understood the truth of who Jesus is. It’s easy to perceive Peter as a bit dense. People often play off of his nick name, “Rocky” to say that perhaps it was describing more than his manner. I’ve done it myself. But I’m not sure that is fair. It may be that Peter gets chastised in part because he’s willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance based upon his intuition and understanding. Sometimes–when he understands–it is beneficial. Sometimes–when he acts impulsively or without really listening–it gets him rebuked, as it does in the aftermath of the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions.
Jesus is teaching his disciples a new meaning of messiahship, and it’s hard for them to understand. Peter, being vocal, steps in, takes Jesus to the side and begins to rebuke him for his teaching–everyone knows that’s not what’s supposed to happen to the Messiah! Jesus’ response is immediate: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The problem is that while Peter has uttered the words and made the confession of Jesus as Christ, he has not been shaped by it. It hasn’t sunk in. He’s still setting his mind on human things.
Jesus goes on to define what it means to be shaped by the confession: “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Mark 8:34).
This is the same call that God has placed upon his faithful people from the beginning. We can see it in the words of the Prophet Isaiah who describes the abuses he has suffered: “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 insult and spitting.” Isaiah has, from an objective point of view, suffered shameful things. And yet, these things do not define him. Instead, it is his relationship with God that defines him: The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). What has changed is that God has now become one of us to show us what it means to lead a life shaped by obedience to and faith in him.
To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will be changed and defined by that obedience.
Our confession of Jesus as Lord is meant to change us. This is what James is highlighting in his letter when he talks about the evils of the tongue:
With [our tongues] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:9-12).
James is hammering on the hypocrisy of blessing God with the same mouth that condemns and curses other people who are made in the image of God. When we do such things, we reveal that we have not been changed by the confession of Christ as Lord, there’s still an area of our lives to be examined in light of who Jesus is, and who he calls us to be. And this is a life-long task. We never cease to have areas of our lives to be brought under the Lordship of Christ, because, as long as we live, we never stop having the need to be changed by the Word and the Holy Spirit into a better likeness of Christ.
Peter–the Rock–had a lot of rough edges, a lot of areas to be honed and polished and worked smooth so that he would be able to live out the exhortation in first Peter (1 Peter 2:5) to “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” But he strove toward that goal his whole life and, in the end, the man who had misunderstood Christ’s messiahship, who denied his Lord before the crucifixion, who cowered in the upper room out of fear following it–this same man was able to encourage the better part of his nature, to the part that had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, and to live his life for Jesus, to the point of martyrdom.
One of my favorite comics is a picture of a group of people sitting around at a Bible study, and one lady in the study says “I’ve never actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” I think that’s often how we look at Christ’s admonition to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This denial of self is the denial and refusal to feed the parts of our nature that would curse as well as bless. We’re called to be changed, and we can be encouraged by the examples of those ordinary people who have gone before, and have borne witness to Christ. I think Peter would be the first to tell us, that if he could be made a fit living stone for God’s Kingdom, then so can we, if we take the time to reflect on what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.”