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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: reflections (page 1 of 16)

Thank God, God’s not fair.

Image:
Jonah as Endymion

This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 24, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.

The scriptures for Proper 20A are: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The Work of Forgiveness

Image information: William Blake–To Annihilate the Selfhood of Deceit and False Forgiveness.

This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 17, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service. The audio includes the sequence hymn and the Gospel reading. To start with the sermon itself, begin at 5:19.

The scriptures for Proper 19A are: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Get down from the cross and pick it up

This is the sermon audio from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, September 3, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service. My notes are below as well. The audio includes the sequence hymn and the Gospel reading. To start with the sermon itself, begin at 3:39.

The scriptures of the day are: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

[unfinished notes]

Sometimes it would be helpful if Jesus would give more detailed instructions. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It’s a rather difficult concept for us, and we have the benefit of hearing the instruction on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s an important command, we know that much.

We even have a hymn that reinforces it: “Take up your cross the saviour said, if you would my disciple be; take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me.”

We know it’s an important command. We also know something of what we must do to keep it. We can’t be crushed by the weight of the cross, we have to bear up under it. We also have to be willing to get down off of it. We can’t spend our time nailed to it, frozen.

“Get down off your cross” was just the advice hospital chaplain Debra Jarvis gave to a patient she knew. Jarvis believes that the role of a hospital chaplain is to “comfort, clarify, and confront.” I think that’s part of every pastor’s job description, but the timing is more acute for a chaplain. It’s fair to say telling someone to get down off their cross falls into that “confront” category.

The background is important. As I heard Jarvis describe this a few days ago on one of the interview programs on NPR, she recounted an occasion when she encountered a patient she hadn’t seen for a year or so, a woman who had undergone cancer treatment. She was back for her annual check up and had just learned that her tests came back showing “no evidence of disease.” This was happy news, and the woman’s adult daughters where there with her, so I’m sure they were excited and relieved to hear the news. But once the woman started talking to chaplain Jarvis, she started recounting her cancer experience in great detail, even though Chaplain Jarvis had seen her frequently during that six month period. Once the woman started going, her children looked at each other and excused themselves to go get coffee. That’s when Jarvis told her: get down off your cross.

Those could be some pretty harsh words, and it helped that Jarvis herself had an experience with cancer. What she noticed in this woman, was the same thing that makes her nervous about using the term “survivor” to identify people who have had cancer and have gone into remission. She sees it as, in some cases at least, subsuming a person’s identity in the experience of the disease. In this case, she recognized that the woman was stuck. She was retelling everything that had happened to her in the present tense as thought it was happening to her right then. She was alienating her family with her inability to move ahead. Chaplain Jarvis recognized she needed to get down before she could move on.

The woman in Jarvis’ story had become defined by her disease, even as it was in remission. She had become trapped, nailed, to her cross. But we know from Jesus that our crosses aren’t meant to define us. New life is. Just as Jesus isn’t defined by or in thrall too the cross–he’d still be dead if that were the case–instead, we know Christ is Lord because of the power of the resurrection.

We now have an idea of what one type of cross might be: serious and possibly terminal illness. There are many others. As one commentator pointed out–you don’t have to go looking for crosses to bear.  In the course of life, plenty will find us.

And often they’re not the things people jokingly–or perhaps not so jokingly–refer to as their crosses to bear. No, our crosses are those experiences and situations or maybe even relationships that threaten to make us collapse under their weight, or leave us feeling like we’re drowning, to leave us stuck as surely as if we were nailed to them.

The thing is, I think we often hear Jesus’ words as a challenge, as assigning burdens to us. But crosses always come. they always threaten to crush us, leave us stuck being defined by them. Sometimes we even climb up on them, martyred to whatever tribulation swamped us.

But Jesus’ words, as always, are words of healing, of exhortation. They come after his rebuke of Peter. Can we discern a cross that Peter must bear? I submit to you it is his inability to spare his beloved friend and Lord the pain of the literal cross. One of Peter’s burdens will be his powerlessness to prevent Christ’s execution, and his inability to remain faithful during the trial. Peter had a choice: be defined by his powerlessness. Be swamped by despair, or bear up under the weight, and put one foot in front of the other to follow Jesus, and be his disciples, and a martyr to the hope of the gospel, to life rather than to the crosses he collected, to despair and hopelessness.

We know what it looks like to not bear up under the weight. We have the counter example of Judas, who became a martyr to the despair of a cross built by his betrayal.

Christ too had his crosses to bear before going to the Cross. Consider his anger at the money changers, or at the religious leaders who separated others from God. Consider his agony in the garden, where we see his apprehension and fear of the cup from which he must drink. Jesus had to bear these crosses and more–his mother’s grief and anguish–to the cross. But in so doing, he is defined not by death, but by resurrection.

[wounded healer, vs. wounded wounder]

What are those things that threaten to drag us down. The things that paralyze us? The things that would define us, but circumscribe us so that we don’t flourish and become who God desires us to be? I’m sure we all have something that has left us feeling powerless. Something that we grieve over, and maybe obsess over. We have to stand under the weight of them. In some cases we need to climb down off of them, because they’re preventing us from being who we’re meant to be, and we can’t move forward, we can’t follow Jesus unless we climb down or stand up, and bear our crosses, not as burdens that drag us down, but as a testimony that we have found the power to move forward, because of the one whom we follow. We can bear our crosses, because he bore his. We are not defined by ours, because we are defined by what he did on his, and by his rising to new life.

–We need to carry our crosses, so that we don’t end up crushed, or nailed to them.
–When we carry our cross, and follow Jesus, we’re not alone. That’s good news.

 

 

Communicants & Communicators

This is my sermon from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, August 27, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.

The scriptures of the day are:
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Countering Despair with Faithfulness & Discipleship

This is my sermon from the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, July 30, 2017. As always, there are slight variations between the 8 o’clock and 10:30 service.

The scriptures of the day are:
1 Kings 3:5-12 | Psalm 119:129-136 | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I have left the reading of the lessons in this recording because I think it is better to hear scripture at times than it is to read it. If you would rather not hear all of the readings, the sermon itself begins at 9:37.

The wisdom of infants

Sermon notes
Proper 9
July 9, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Audio: The audio is from the 10:30 service. Since I only use notes, the sermon as preached varies somewhat between services, and from the text.

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matt. 11:25).

This saying of Jesus’ has been seen as enigmatic by some interpreters because of the strand of thought relating to knowledge being purposefully hidden by God, or people’s eyes being made unable to see. As is often the case, Jesus is turning several common expectations on their heads with his teaching. And turning them on their heads not only for ancient people, but for us as well.

First consider the positive elements of the statement: God is revealing something to infants. Not literally infants–or at least not solely to literal infants–but those who share something in common with infants. Later in this gospel after all, Jesus will tell Peter that the truth which he confesses in calling Jesus the Son of God is the fruit of divine revelation.

But what characteristic of infants could Jesus be commending? There are a lot of things we could say about human infants, but if we look at human babies and reflect on what makes human babies distinct from other mammals, I think we can come close to what it is that Jesus is commending to us as his disciples.

The basic truth of our infant existence is that we are utterly dependent upon others. Defenseless little people whose heads are much too large, limbs are much to weak, and whose balance is initially nonexistent. Other mammals walk within hours or days, the length of time it takes us to walk, let alone become self-sufficient is measured in months and years.

But if we can stretch the idea of knowledge to include not only consciously acquired information, but “hard-wiring,” then we can see that infants are acutely and instinctually aware of their vulnerability and dependence. All the default settings of little humans are wired toward connecting with momma, and daddy, and the other family members they’ve heard in utero. The sense of smell is heightened and the smell of mom and the direction of milk is impressed upon those little psyches, as is the instinct to suck, or to cry when hungry, or wet, or confused.

Basically, we come into the world instinctively knowing nothing so firmly as our need for someone else.

I believe it’s precisely this sense of need that Jesus finds to be missing from the wise and intelligent of that age–and often our own.

If we consider who was considered “wise” or “intelligent” in the ancient world and in the context of first century Judaism, it was precisely those people who had committed themselves to study of the scriptures, or who had been educated. We can relate to this, I believe, since we still, despite some differences, consider education to be a marker for both wisdom and intelligence, if not things that completely overlap.

For Jesus to thank the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise and intelligent, he’s offering thanks that those who have been educated are having a harder time seeing things for what they are than those who have not been. Even though he says “thank you” I half wonder if thanks is the proper term for the sentiment Jesus is expressing in the first part of this statement. I don’t think Jesus particularly wants the wise and intelligent to continue–ironically–in their ignorance. But he does want them–he wants us–to come to grips with the limits of our own ability.

It is precisely those who are considered wise and intelligent who are acting, in a negative sense, like children: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds'” (Matt. 11:16-19).

In other words the inability of the learned to discern the work of God that is before their eyes–and their propensity to decry it–is a testament against the viability of their wisdom. In effect, their wisdom, being false and deceptive, has become foolishness, while those who are not expected to be wise, but who recognize their dependence, have had the truth revealed to them.

This demonstrates that when Jesus praises the “hiddenness” of the truth, he’s overturning other common expectation. Many apocalyptic teachers–those who spoke about the last things that were to occur–taught that knowledge of these last things was hidden from everyone who lacked specialized knowledge or revelation. In contrast, Jesus tells them that they will find their rest–an eschatological term–in him. In other words, God has “hidden” the truth in plain sight, and is available to everyone. Those who would see it only have to cast off the assumptions that prevent them from seeing it. As one commentator put it:

“children have not yet received any schooling; they still have to be initiated into the world of adults.  The smallest of them are called by Jesus, who is Wisdom incarnate, to come to him … and learn from him. They are particularly suited for his interpretation of the Torah, while the wise and the intelligent are hampered by the knowledge that they already have” (Weren, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 45).

“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. In other words, wisdom is proven by it’s ramifications. True wisdom is to recognize the truth of Jesus’ message and to see him for who he is.

This is good news for us. Far from being a strange and obscure command, to become like little children and enter the kingdom of heaven requires very little of us. It’s simple. As Jesus tells Martha when she complains about Mary: only one thing is needful. That one thing is the recognition that we need Jesus. This is the “better part.”

Jesus’ prayer continues as he says “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). The good news is that Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father, to reveal the heart and reality of God to us all. No one is left out. As one of the collects for mission in Morning Prayer puts it, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” (BCP 101).

To be embraced by Christ, to lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross is to recognize and to receive the revelation of Christ’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28, KJV, part of the “Comfortable Words” in Rite I, BCP 332).

What we find, in other words, is the good news that taking up the yoke of Christ entails a lessening of our burdens rather than an increase of them:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30).

Thank God for the grace of God to recognize that we’re never really any less dependent than we are the day we enter the world. We need one another, and more so, we need God. And thank God that in Jesus, we find what we need to carry on.

 

Driven by the Spirit

Sermon notes for 3 Easter, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

What drives our actions as Christians?

I don’t mean what drives our actions as human beings, full stop. I think we can probably arrive at a number of acceptable answers fairly quickly when we reflect on that. We’re driven by wants, needs, appetites, fears, frailties, sins, hopes, dreams, virtues and so on. That’s true of everyone.

But what drives our peculiarly Christian actions?

Is it our conscience? Perhaps in part. But what inspires our conscience toward particularly Christian actions in situations where acting like every other human being who is not like Jesus would be so much easier?

I love the movie Inside Out, and its depictions of emotions. I love it even more because it gives me a chance to use one of my favorite words: homunculus. A homunculus is a tiny person. In philosophy the term is used to describe an idea that there is a little person or persons in our heads who drive us around like biological robots–at least in a manner of speaking. In various psychological and philosophical theories it’s used as an example that poses the problem of infinite regression. If there’s one little person in our heads, then who’s in their head, etc.

In Inside Out there are a series of little homunculi who drive characters in the film around. Each one represents an emotion. They stand at a console in the character’s heads, and work together to operate the person. It’s quite brilliant. But only as a metaphor or analogy. No one who worked on the film, I presume, believed there were actual little people in our heads. They even admit that they had to leave some things out. They show the emotions, but not reason. Reason was in early drafts of the script. If I remember correctly, one of the writers said they had the idea of having Reason thrown out the window by Anger. But it didn’t work. They had to leave it with just the emotions. And it works. The film is, I think, a fantastic way to visualize emotional development, and the way our emotions drive or prompt us to certain actions. But emotions do not and cannot explain everything about us. They don’t explain our reason or our logic. Oddly, I’m not even sure emotion is a good descriptor even of the deeper aspects of things like love, commitment, hatred and so on.

There is more driving us.

What drives us as followers of Christ? What pushes us beyond our emotions, beyond our reason, beyond our simple human capacities?

In our lesson from Acts, we hear more from Peter’s sermon after the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. Peter is laying it all on the line to his listeners. You remember last week, he pointed out that they had crucified the Lord. The crowd and religious leaders with the “lawless” folks–that is the gentiles, the Romans–had conspired in such a way that Jesus, an innocent man–more than that: the Messiah–had been executed. Peter reiterates the charge in today’s portion:

“‘Therefore let the entire House of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (Acts 2:36-37)

Peter doesn’t pull any punches. He nails them again. “This Jesus whom you crucified…” This isn’t a compliment sandwich. Peter isn’t following the accepted patterns of how to get a crowd on your side. Jesus. An innocent person. Crucified. And you, Peter says to his hearers, are responsible. And yet they don’t respond with anger. Miraculously they respond with regret. “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” Actually, they’re responding with more than regret. This is conviction. This is repentance. “What should we do?” they ask.

They want to know, given the charges against them, what should they do? What can they do?

Peter tells them. And the amazing thing is this: before they are even told what to do, and what will happen when they follow the Apostle’s instruction, the work of God is already manifest in them.

Repent.

Be Baptized–every one of them–in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s what they can do. And when they do, Peter tells them, they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit is already at work. We know the Spirit is at work with Peter and the other Apostles, including, by the way, Mary the mother of Jesus. It descended on them like tongues of fire and a mighty wind. It was hard to miss. But something inspired the hearers as well. They were cut to the heart. They wanted to make amends. They wanted to repent, they just didn’t know what that entailed. Peter tell them.

Their actions, from before the time when they converted, was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Did all of them convert? We don’t know. We do know that scripture tells us 3000 were converted in a single day. We know that some among them at least, were convicted enough to ask Peter what they needed to do. That was evidence of the work of the Spirit. And for those who were Baptized, who died with Christ and rose with him, they could look for more of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

That’s what drives us as Christians. That’s what drives our peculiarly Christian acts. They’re inspired. We’re inspired. We’re filled with the breath of God, and we act accordingly.

Consider: the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism at the beginning of his ministry. The Spirit descends upon the apostles and empowers them to preach and teach in ways they never imagined. The Spirit speaks to the hearts of the listeners and prompts remorse and repentance. The Spirit animates the Christian life.

God breaths out, we breath in. And we go to work.

Repentance is a beginning.

–That frees us from bondage to the past, while encouraging us to redress wrongs.

Baptism is a beginning.

–In it we are buried with Christ, and Christ now lives in us.

—In it we receive the Holy Spirit

Receiving the Spirit is a beginning.

–Not an end point or an end goal, but a beginning.

—A beginning that equips us to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ.

—-To follow the great commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

—–To fulfill the mission of the Church “to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ” (BCP 855).

We don’t talk about the work of the Spirit enough. Especially as it is the Spirit that Jesus promised to send us as a comforter, an advocate. Because it is the Spirit that intercedes for us with sighs and groaning too deep for words when we cannot articulate our needs or concerns ourselves.

When human language fails us: There is the Spirit.

-When human love fails us: There is the Spirit.

–When human capacities of any sort fail us in our efforts to follow Jesus: There is the Spirit.

We see the work of the Spirit in this selection from Acts: The Spirit indwells the apostles, the Spirit inspires the preacher, the Spirit works in the hearts of the hearers, the Spirit inspires repentance, the Spirit is the gift of repentance in Baptism, the Spirit then works the work of God in and through human beings who become agents of the divine calling.

And what does this agency of God accomplish in us?

The Catechism tells us “The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ” (BCP 852).

It is in growing in the likeness of Christ that we become able to be reconciled with one another. We must be reconciled to God first, and as we are drawn closer to God, and we receive the gifts of the Spirit, we are equipped to fight the alienation that separates us from one another, even as we are being drawn together by the love of Christ.

The Holy Spirit, in other words, is not only the animating force of the Christian life, in doing this, the Holy Spirit becomes the animating force of God in the Community of God’s people. It is not a whim that the Church follows the discussion of the Spirit in both the Nicene Creed and in our Catechism. Community itself is a gift of the Spirit. It would not endure without the Spirit, even as we would not endure in the Christian life without the comfort, advocacy, and intercession of the Spirit in our own lives. As Peter says of the entire gospel: “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). God does not call people to a life of solitary faithfulness, without encouragement, without assistance, without bearing witness to the faithfulness of others. God calls us together. And this too is the work of the Spirit.

By the Spirit we are called to repent, to follow, to bear witness to, to imitate. And all as we gravitate toward one another, becoming Christ’s body in the world, becoming members of the collective Body of Christ, existing within the body, even as Christ lives in each of us. As John’s gospel recounts Jesus saying “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

So what drives us to the peculiar actions that characterize the Christian faith? The Spirit drives us, as the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness, and beyond.

And as the Spirit’s work was revealed in the solidarity of Christ with us, descending upon him in his baptism, where he threw in his lot with sinful humanity to “fulfill all righteousness,” so too does the Spirit drive us to unity and solidarity with God and with one another:

We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation (BCP 852).

The Spirit is at the center of our Christian lives. The presence of the Spirit is a witness to the promises of God. We really shouldn’t shy away from talking about it. After all, it is the Spirit that prompts us in all these things.

This Jesus God raised up…

Sermon notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Peter, full of the Spirit (and not drunk at all), speaks to the crowd: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

We are witnesses still.

Like those who cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hopeful about the future, we are witnesses to hope and to the fact that sometimes we hope for the wrong things. Many of those who greeted Jesus waving palm fronds seem to have been hopeful about a new military leader, a royal claimant who would kick out the Romans as the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) had expelled the Seleucid armies before them. Tired of being the push-me pull-me of the Near East, the Jewish people hoped once again to gain their independence.

But Jesus was insistent that his Kingdom is not like other kingdoms. It is not begotten in war, and cannot be conquered. It will have no end. Those folks with the palms, their hope was skewed, but they nevertheless witnessed the fruition of God’s promise to give them a kingdom not trodden under foot by any oppressor. To reveal an enduring reality impossible to thwart: the dominion of God in this world.

So Peter calls them witnesses.

We are witnesses still.

Like the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, we have witnessed the petty and idolatrous pull of power and the simple avoidance of discomfort that animates systems to crush those who, for a multitude of reasons, find themselves crossways with a bureaucracy and culture that cares little about truth, little about the human, little about hearts, and much about keeping things as they are. It doesn’t matter what bureaucracy you pick. Fill in the blank. Some are more obvious in their idolatry of comfort, ideology, or purity, over people, but all human systems breed people who, like the Temple leaders who told Judas to “see to it himself” rather than to accept his returned blood money, and Pilate who told the Jewish people to “see to it” themselves, and who cynically pursued the trial of Jesus as a means of bolstering his own power and position, going so far as to symbolically wash his hands, as though he could remove the guilt of sending an innocent man to death. As though he were not to discover, like Lady MacBeth, that the stain of blood on one’s hands cannot be expunged by any natural water. Like a character on the Shakespearian stage, we can imagine similar words for Pilate: “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” (MacBeth, 5.1.41-43)

But the spot will not come out. Pilate’s hands are not clean.

Neither are ours when we sacrifice the innocent, the weak, the wounded, the frail, for the fleeting glory of worldly power, or the simple avarice of self-aggrandizement, intellectual comfort, or worldly goods.

As Rowan Williams has written:

“the more we seek—individually, socially, and nationally—to protect ourselves at all costs from intrusion, injury, and loss, the more we tolerate a public rhetoric incapable of affirming our mortal uncertainties, errors, and insecurities, the more we stand under Ezekiel’s judgment for ‘abominable deeds’—the offering of fleshly persons on the altar of stone” (Williams, “Hearts of Flesh,” in A Ray of Darkness, 35-36).

In other words Jesus is a threat because he calls out power, and demonstrates its emptiness. He does not need to defend himself because his power is as different in scale and in kind as black hole is from a ripple on a lake. It’s impossible to escape the judgement of the judge who goes on trial, the King who rules and pronounces forgiveness from a cross, because it calls out the fact that we as a people will do anything to hide our weakness, especially ridding ourselves of those who remind us of it.

Pilate wasn’t the only offender. Peter preaches to the crowd and says “you crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of those outside the law.” Pilate and the Romans were outside the teaching of the Torah–the Law–being gentiles. This is not a charge that should be seen as specifically raised against the Jewish people, as has far too often erroneously and with horrible consequence been taught.  Instead, it’s a pointing out that if the Law had penetrated the hearts of those who were called to internalize it, they would not have demonstrated the priorities they did. This is an issue prior to the question of whether they were willing to give up the popular conception of the Messiah. Peter is highlighting the expediency that attended the calls for Christ’s crucifixion.

So Peter calls them witnesses.

Because any one of us can look and find examples of such failures in our society and in ourselves:

We are witnesses still.

We are witnesses, surely, of the failings of our society, and undeniably of our own failures and the ramifications of sin in our own lives. Many of us have witnessed cruelty, more than a few have inflicted it from time to time, sometimes unwittingly.

We are witnesses as well to the fact that we have been wounded and harmed by others. I do not believe any of us wound that have not been wounded. None of us are unscathed.

And yet, this is not what Peter is actually calling the crowd, or us, to bear witness to. Or at least, that’s not the whole story. It’s not a very attention grabbing story either, unfortunately. “People are Bad” isn’t exactly a man bites dog headline.

Yes, many people worked for the execution of Jesus. And all of us are implicated because it is human sinfulness that bears the ultimate blame. But Peter calls the crowd witnesses of something specific:

“This Jesus God raised up….”

In other words, the crowd to whom Peter speaks, they are witnesses of the fact that in the face of everything I listed and more, God raised Jesus from the dead.

And we are witnesses still.

Like Thomas–I hesitate to call out his doubts as all that distinct from those of the other disciples, so let’s call him Thomas the ill-timed–like him, we are invited to examine the wounds in Christ.

And why would that be?

Because of everything I listed.

Because those wounds demonstrate that God did not come to earth to skate on through. It wasn’t something to check off of a list. The wounds of Christ bear witness to everything that happened before Easter morning. God will wipe away every tear. But the tears are still worth crying.

I said on Palm Sunday that the Cross is important for those who have experienced oppression, that the blood of Christ is important for those who have suffered. To unpack that a bit more, people who have borne the burden of human sin in their flesh and in their psyche should not be expected to identify with a sanitized man-God that would be more at home in b-movies whether religious or sci-fi, than in the real world of human sin and frailty.

I think that’s all true. But there’s more.

All of us are wounded in our lives. I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t. If you’ve escaped unscathed thus far, please talk to me after church, I want to know your secret.

We are witnesses to our own wounds. To our own pain.

And we are witnesses that the God who created us in the divine image, saw our woundedness, and that Christ, who is the exact imprint of God’s nature, the Word made flesh, became flesh fully. Including by bearing the marks of human sin. And God raised Jesus from the dead. His body, his flesh, was given new life. But a new life that redeemed all that came before. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side….”

Just as the cross is redeemed be God to change from a sign of horrendous agony, death, and an exhibit of human wickedness, into a sign of hope and life, so the wounds of Christ are transformed in the resurrection, and are redeemed. They are no longer signs of defeat, signs of evil’s triumph. They are instead the signs of identity, markers of solidarity, and their place in the story is re-written to be a testimony of Jesus’ triumph in the face of the anti-trinity of sin, death, and the devil.

The message for us in this Easter season, is that it is not only our souls that God redeems. God has come for all of us, and for all of each one of us–body, soul, and mind. The crowd that Peter spoke to were witnesses of this fact, of this most dynamic power of the resurrection.

“I saw the Lord always before me…” I saw the wounded Lord, always before me. “I will not be shaken…”

We are witnesses still.

On Marriage & Sports Movies

Sermon notes for Proper 22B
October 4, 2015
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16

Imagine for a moment that you are in the midst of a situation well known as the context of a variety of sports films. You know the ones; the hero triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds, accomplishing the impossible, winning the respect and adulation of friends and neighbors.

Think about the climax of films like “Rudy,” with the crowd going wild cheering on the hero, letting them know that they believe in them, that they can do it.

Now imagine what the feeling would be if, instead of cheering on the hero, the crowd looked on in indifference, shrugged,and said “it doesn’t really matter one way or the other…” I would say this wouldn’t be seen as particularly encouraging.

Or imagine that you are about to undertake a task which many find difficult, and of which anywhere from 40% to 50% of those attempting it for the first time fail.  I’m not talking about scaling mountains; I’m referring to marriage.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees who are trying to put him to the test. Now there could be two senses in which they were testing him. The first is political, it could be that they were attempting to get Jesus in trouble with the Herods who ruled the area, who divorced early and often, marrying for political gain. You might recall that it was John the Baptist’s critique of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife that got his head segregated from his body. So there is a possible political undercurrent.

Recognizing that, it is more likely that the Pharisees were attempting to place Jesus on a continuum related to a contemporary debate between two schools of scriptural interpretation in regard to divorce.

The first school, named for Rabbi Hillel was called to the house of Hillel. The second was the named for Rabbi Shammai, and his followers were referred to as the House of Shammai.

The parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew is more clear in this regard, as it adds a detail to the question of the pharisees, who ask, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”

That phrase, “for any cause,” is a huge flashing sign letting us know that the questioners expect Jesus to come down in one of these two camps on the question of divorce. If his teaching is consistent with that of Hillel, then Jesus will affirm that a man may divorce his wife “for any cause,”—burning the pot roast, looking at him sideways, you name it—but if Jesus favors the interpretation of Shammai, then he will only advocate divorce because of sexual immorality.

It’s also important to note the specific phrasing of their question: “can a man divorce his wife…” because that’s what would’ve happened. There were a few exceptions depending upon the wealth of the woman in question, or how influenced the people may have been by Greek culture, but those exceptions prove the rule that only men could divorce, not women. Indeed, this is still the case in Orthodox Jewish communities. I read a story a year or so ago about an Orthodox Rabbi who had made a name for himself by “convincing” husbands to write a “get,” or a certificate of divorce, for their wives by taking them for a ride in a van. That’s quite an image.

At the time, this “any cause” divorce, in particular, left women in an extremely precarious position, subject to the whims of their husbands. It is interesting that, even as Jesus’ teaching so often seems to align with the more liberal interpretation of Hillel, on this question he seems track with the more conservative interpretation of Shammai (if one looks at the parallel in the Gospel of Matthew), or perhaps even stakes out a more conservative position.

But the most distinctive element of Jesus’ response is his refusal to take their question on its own terms. He won’t accept their assumptions. Instead Jesus is going to highlight where those assumptions have gone astray.

This section of Mark’s gospel is in keeping with themes that have shown up again and again since the end of chapter 9, through the middle of chapter 10: the reorientation of concepts of power and authority in the kingdom of God, verses the way power and authority are thought of in human political and social systems. Whether Jesus is welcoming children, who were seen not in a sentimental way, as we see them, but primarily as examples of weakness; or disciples who don’t fit expectations, such as the unknown exorcist, or, as here, rebalancing the power between men and women for greater equity, so that men could not simply abandon their wives on a whim

Again and again in his ministry Jesus has emphasized that the law is first and foremost intended to reveal the purposes and desires of God for God’s people, and that it is only secondarily a source of rules governing behavior. Jesus is attempting to reorient the perspectives of the Pharisees and everyone else, so that they can see the intent of God. In other words from Jesus’s perspective, asking what is lawful is, or should be, the same as asking what God desires. It is not so much about what is allowed, or what is legal.

It is possible that the Pharisees tipped their hand in their exchange with Jesus, when they respond to his question, “what did Moses command you?” By saying, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Jesus asked what had been commanded, and his questioners immediately went to what had been allowed. But this allowance to which they pointed, was an allowance precisely because of that part of us that often puts us at odds with the will and intent of God. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Instead of finding the will of God in what was allowed, Jesus indicates that the will of God for marriage is best seen in the context of creation. “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Because Jesus references it, it makes sense to reflect upon our Old Testament reading from Genesis chapter 2 for a moment, and consider what it reveals about God’s intent for humanity and our relationships.

First and foremost, this reveals that humanity is intended to be a relational creature. Relating both to God and to one another. It is not good that human beings be alone. We are intended to exist in relationship with one another—friends, co-workers, neighbors, family, community. With the foundational—the primordial—relationship being that of husband and wife, as the context for the rearing of the next generation.

It is helpful for us to see the humor in this creation account, as the humor points us toward the meaning. When I read the account presented in our Old Testament lesson today, I couldn’t help but think of a show my son Eli watches called Tinga Tinga. It’s a series of stories or fables from Africa that explain certain things about the world, or specifically, about animals; why does the Elephant have a long nose? How did the peacock get its feathers?

But while these stories tell us something about animals, the scriptural account tells us something about humanity, and even more, about God’s intent for humanity. God says, once everything has been created, “It is not good that man–[the Earth creature, the mud man, which is what “Adam” literally means]—should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18).

And so, as with Adam, God forms creatures from the ground, bringing each one in turn to Adam, who gives them a name. This is done in the hope that one of these creatures will be a match: a helper and partner. So imagine Adam looking at an animal and saying “Long legs, a longish neck, a mane… I name you ‘horse,’” or “feathers, a beak, you go cluck… I name you chicken,’” but after each one, saying “you’re nice, but you’re just not a helper and a partner for me.”

None of the animals God has made, magnificent as they may be, can be a helper and partner for Adam; none is his equal. And that’s what these words mean; there is a search for the appropriate match for Adam. There is a history of interpreting “helper” as though it indicated some subservience, but it does not. It makes to sense to read that into the term, since the it is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to God in relationship two Israel: God is Israel’s helper. So the point of this effort, to make everything “good,” is to find an equal helper and partner for Adam.

Finally, after Adam has named every creature God made and, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner,” God causes a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and God takes one of his ribs and creates the second human. Upon seeing her, Adam recognizes his match and exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” There’s a play on words there as well, in Hebrew just as there is in English, as man is “Ish” and woman is “Ishah.” The point is that Adam recognizes his equal, his match, in Eve.

It is in the context of what this text reveals about the nature of human relationships and about the desires of God for us that Jesus hearkens back to it. If we have truly found our helper/partner/match then we will not abandon them, nor they us. The ideal, the intent of God, is that those who marry would marry for life. And this is good news. This isn’t about God’s judgement on those who don’t keep rules. Again, Jesus is trying to shake up peoples’ thinking. We often approach this passage in the same way as the Pharisees, seeking a way to justify or explain marital breakdown. Marriages ended then, just as they do now, because of hardness of heart. Because of our inability to love one another as we ought to, because of shortsightedness, selfishness, because of our inability to be faithful, or our inability to forgive. Jesus’ teaching is hard, it is true, that’s why the disciples, at one point following his teaching on marriage and forgiveness, say “it would be better not to marry!” (Matt. 19:10).

But it is good news because it means that when we are setting out on a task that is so difficult, at which so many stumble, God is rooting for our success. God is in the stands cheering us on saying “You can do it!” How much better does that feel, and how much more encouraging is that reality, than imagining that, in regard to one of the most difficult and important tasks many of us will ever undertake, God might be indifferent?

Once again, this is not about judging those who have divorced. It’s about the reality of God’s hopes for our lives and our relationships. God desires the best for us. The success and the flourishing of all of our relationships, including our marital relationships. To think about that, it might be helpful to consider that, when God says in Malachi, “I hate divorce,” (Mal. 2:16) God is speaking as one who has endured the pain of infidelity, as recounted in Jeremiah (Jer. 3). Just as God desires a whole and intact relationship with his people, so does God desire that the relationships his people have with one another, including marriage, be successful, resilient, and in keeping with God’s hopes and purposes for our lives.

The good news for us, is that God wants us to flourish. God is cheering us on, especially when it’s hard. And for those of us who are struggling in our marriages, we can take heart that God wants us to succeed—just like the heroes in those sports movies, who have the deck stacked against them but somehow come out on top. I thank God for that. Amen.

Featured image: The Creation of Eve by William Blake.

Speak yet again

My latest post on Covenant concerns the Right to Die movement. It was split into two parts:

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 1

“I don’t think that there are many folks around arguing in favor of the over-medicalized approach to death as a good thing. We need better ways to die, but euthanasia will not provide them.”

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 2

“Part of recognizing the gifted nature of our lives entails recognizing the limits of our own control. This is not an argument for oppression or control by others, but rather a call for a recognition of actual and legitimate limits. While it’s true that we have been expanding the horizons of those limits with our technology for millennia, some elements of those limits are not to be thrown off, else we risk losing the very definition of our humanity.”

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