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Category: reflections (page 2 of 17)

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.”

If you love me

A while ago, I heard a powerful lecture on the Prophet Jeremiah by Professor Ellen Davis. In it, she said something that is also found in her book Biblical Prophecy: Perspective for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. She writes: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

These words, particularly the portion in bold, rushed back to mind yesterday when I saw the photograph that has caused so much controversy, of the Syrian refugees who drowned while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and enter Europe. The picture that is ingrained in my mind, along with images of my little boys, is the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi who drowned with his older brother and mother, and washed up on the beach, leaving his grieving father with no desire to go on to Europe, but to instead return home, alone.

People have argued that these photos should not have been published. In certain respects, in magazines that are known for making their way without ethics, and only for financial gain, I can see why this would be controversial. But taken on its own merits, publication of these photos only brings home the reality of what is facing so many people fleeing from violence, war, and instability in their home countries. Politicians and analysts are right to say that the only long term solution is to encourage stability and peace in the homelands from which these folks are fleeing. But that is just that–a long term solution. In the mean time, we can’t look away from the tragedy of little Aylan’s death, nor from the broader tragedy of which it is a particular example. Something must be done now to aid and welcome those who flee in fear of their lives. And so, the following poem came to me, and I thought I’d share it with you.

If you love me
do not look away
use your gifted eyes
to welcome the world
through tears
In beauty. In pain.

If you love me
do not hide your face
from need. from pain.
from me.
use your face to know
and be known

If you love me
do not close your lips
but use your mouth and
loose your tongue
to encourage
to shape love loudly

If you love me
do not remain with folded hands
but apply your hands to work
that heals
that lifts
the one who has fallen,
Pull the listing boat ashore

If you love me
do not walk away
but plant your feet and
stand
against injustice
and walk
to where you’re needed

If you love me
you will meet me
when you do these things
and loving your neighbor
you love me

Do not look away
If you love me

-JBH, 2015

Learn more from Episcopal Migration Ministries & Jesuit Refugee Service

Episcopal Migration Ministries also conducted a webinar on the Syrian refugee crisis 8 months ago:

A short poem

This came to me a few weeks ago as I was driving to the home of a parishioner under hospice care. The sun was shining through the trees, and the golden light on the lively green leaves was a comforting contrast to the reality of mortality. I hope you enjoy it.

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Cleanse Your Temple: Sermon for Lent III, Year B 2015

Date: March 8, 2015
Place: St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22

When I was in college I was president of a student organization that brought in various speakers to address topics of interest in the humanities. My senior year we had read an essay by the theologian that you may have heard me mention from time to time, Stanley Hauerwas. I still enjoy Hauerwas’ work, and appreciate the fact that he is an honorary canon theologian at Christchurch Cathedral. At the time I didn’t know that much about the theological landscape and so had no idea when I contacted him at his office at Duke University that his schedule was booked up for appearances and speaking engagements a year or two out.

But he agreed to come and speak at our university, a fact for which I’m grateful. His topic was Just War and Christian nonviolence the two dominant ethical traditions within the church related to how we respond to violence and evil. At the end of his lecture, I asked him the question that had occurred to me which related to this gospel passage. I asked him what a person who holds to Christian nonviolence has to say about Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. Hauerwas, who is known for one-liners responded: “if you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!”

As I’ve been reflecting upon this Gospel passage during the week, those words have continued to present themselves in my mind. “If you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!” Jesus having performed a miracle at the wedding and Cana of Galilee, and having gone through Capernaum, goes up to Jerusalem. While there, being a pious Jew, he goes to the temple to worship. And upon entering he sees something going on that so angers him – a cold calculating sort of anger – that he goes and makes a whip of cords, a scourge, and returns to the Temple and drives out those people selling livestock for sacrifices, those selling doves, and the money changers. He uses the web to drive the cattle, he overturns the table of the money lenders, and pours their coins out on the ground in the temple courtyard. Then, turning to those standing there, he says don’t make my father’s house a marketplace.

This event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, has been one that has evoked a great deal of comment. It’s one of the few places recorded in the Gospels were Jesus gets angry. There are a couple more he gets frustrated, or at least were his actions could be interpreted as frustration. But this event stands out starkly as the clearest example we have of Jesus’s anger. And it is an ambiguous event in some ways because people have wondered what was Jesus so angry about?

As has been pointed out by commentators both ancient and modern, the money changers and those who are selling livestock and those for sacrifices were not doing anything that in themselves was evil or sinful. I mean, it’s pretty natural. You have a need to offer a particular sort of sacrifice, and rather than hope that there is a lamb or calf without blemish or that fits the other requirements in your flock or heard that year, and rather than bring this animal with you all the way to Jerusalem, why not simply by an animal that fits the criteria at the point where you need it. These folks were providing a service. Likewise with the money changers, if you’re going to the Temple and you are going to offer a monetary gift, the last thing you’d want is to offer a Roman coin with a big graven image of the Emperor with the words “The God, Caesar Augustus” or some such. It would have been blasphemous. So the money changers offered the opportunity to exchange this blasphemous currency for something known as the Tyrian shekel, a coin that’s rather than an image of any person, had an image of wheat.

Some commentators have been wondering what it is that causes Jesus to become so angry at these people. Weren’t they simply providing a necessary service? Well, I think the phrasing used by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels is instructive. In John’s Gospel Jesus says “do not make my father’s house a marketplace.” In the synoptic Gospels he’s even more clear and to the point: “do not make my father’s house a den of thieves” (Cf. Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13). Jesus’ concern does not seem to be that these things are occurring in the Temple in and of themselves. Rather Jesus’s concern seems to be what people’s focus was. The temple was to be the place for people came to worship God. The sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers, however in turning the Temple from a place of worship into a marketplace had transitioned from enabling worshipers, to actually impeding worship. In other words, their focus was not to ensure that people were able to worship God, but rather, they were concerned with their profit. And there is an intimation that perhaps they weren’t only concerned with their welfare, but that they were perhaps taking advantage of others. Much as the tax collectors of the day made their living by collecting as much as they could over and above the amount they were required to send on to Rome. It seems that rather than making a fair wage, those engaged in selling in the Temple, were taking advantage of others.

This seems to be why Jesus says in the Synoptics, “stop making my father’s house a den of thieves!” These folks were inserting themselves between worshipers and God. They were thinking of themselves and not others, and people believed that they had to go through them to get to God. And so, when we look at it from this perspective Jesus’s actions make perfect sense and are in keeping with the frustration he expresses at the Pharisees among others who presume to put themselves between people and God. Jesus is concerned, is that people be able to have a relationship with God.

When Jesus is asked by those who witnessed his actions, “give us a signed as to why you do this” Jesus responds by telling them destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it. Well of course, his questioners think this answer is absurd. The temple has been under construction for 46 years they point out. But as the disciples understood when looking back from the post-resurrection context, Jesus was talking about himself and not the building of the temple. In this statement Jesus is making a claim about where the presence of God is to be found. The presence of God is no longer to be found in the temple, but rather in Jesus himself. This is the radical claim that separates Jesus from other critics of the Temple at the time. None of them would have claimed that God was uniquely present in them. But this is precisely what Jesus is saying.

We must be careful here, because of the fraught history of Gentile Christian interpretation of this passage, filled as it is with examples of the denigration of Judaism, discussion of how the sacrificial system was backward and has been supplanted etc. So to be clear, what is being discussed here is the movement of the holiness of God, the presence of God, the Shekinah, from the Temple to another place. This is not something that is foreign to Judaism. It is instead discussed as something that has happened multiple times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness the presence of God was with them in the pillar of cloud and later in the tabernacle (the tent) which served as a precursor of the great temple in Jerusalem. Within Judaism itself there has been an ongoing concept of the idea that God’s glory, God’s holiness, the Shekinah can move. After the destruction of the first Temple, this was the understanding that explained the distraction. Jews came to see the destruction of their temple as evidence of the fact that God’s holiness had left the building so to speak. And it was the absence of God’s holiness that explained the destruction. There were rabbinic stories–the inheritors of the Pharisees–which explained the destruction of the second Temple in similar ways. One of the most moving stories told to me by the Rabbi that taught the history of Judaism course I took in college, was of the chief priest during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans who climbed to the pinnacle with the keys to the holy of holies and threw them up into the air and as a hand–a divine hand–appeared and grabbed the keys, pulling them up into the sky. All this is to say the notion that God’s holiness can move is not something unique to Christianity. Indeed to the degree that is present in Christianity it is part of the shared inheritance that Christians have with modern-day Jewish believers.

What is unique about the Christian claim is about where God’s holiness now resides. For Christians the claim is that God is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that God is uniquely present in each believer and present in the world through the body of Christ, the people of God. Us in Christ, Christ in us.

So Jesus, in cleansing the temple, is not doing so out of a sense that this is the only place that people could possibly worship God. Indeed in John’s Gospel you’ll recall, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman and has an exchange with her in which he says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers will not worship on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but will worship in spirit and in truth; for such the father seeks to worship him (paraphrase of John 4:21-23). So the problem was not that folks were defiling the Temple in some way, except insofar as they were inserting themselves between God and the people who came to the temple to connect with God. And so Jesus cleanses the Temple. We likewise are called to cleanse temples. We are called to rid ourselves and our communities of anything that prevents us or others from having relationship with God.

If we find a temple that needs cleansing, we ought to cleanse it!

But since we are now worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and there is not a particular place where we say we are in closer proximity to God than others per se, then we are called to look not only to our communities but within ourselves to determine what sort of cleansing needs to take place.

As the early biblical commentator Origen put it, “When are there not some money changers sitting who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned? When are there not those who are inclined to merchandise, but need to be held to the plow and the oxen, that having put their hand to it and not turning round to the things behind them, they may be fit for the kingdom of God?” (Origen, “Commentary on John,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 393 to 394).

And looking to ourselves we can consider St. Augustine’s sermon on this passage. Augustine has this wonderful imagery he uses, of Christ having made the whip of cords out of the very sins of the merchants and moneychangers. In other words he envisions them being run out of the temple metaphorically, by their own sins. Taking up that imagery, and combining it with some imagery from Psalms and some of the Gospels, Augustine warns us that we can sin, and then sin in order to cover our sin, with the result being that we take a single sin, one cord, and bind together with others until we have a rope. A rope with which to bind ourselves. Much better he says that we be scourged now with the small sins and be preserved from being bound by long ropes of sin and cast into the outer darkness (Augustine, “Homilies of the Gospel of John,” Post-Nicene Fathers, 70-72 )

If you find a temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!

Lent is the perfect time to discuss the cleansing of our temples. We’re all temples of the Holy Spirit; what in our lives is getting in the way of our faithfulness? Of our relationship with the father? Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor, could we not lay out for ourselves the cords of our sins, and making a weapon of them, cleanse our hearts, casting them out and reorienting ourselves toward God? If we want to talk about what this means, I think this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the process of confession and absolution. When we confess – and even during this general confession that we have in our services, I hope that we’re all thinking about particular sins which are separating us from God and one another – we are laying out before us the cords that could be turned into rope. But the very act of remembering, of calling the sins to mind, helps to deprive them of their power and in turn gives us the opportunity to once again be faithful. Lent is a time of introspection and reflection. Perhaps we should put this active, if violent, imagery to work and understand that when we confess, when we pray, when we ask for forgiveness – these are the tools with which we can run off the things that separate us from God.

And if we want to temper the aggressiveness or violence of this imagery a bit, we can do so by considering the fact that this action is not taken in order to make us worthy of God, or of forgiveness. It is rather taken, out of gratitude for the forgiveness already received, for the reconciliation already achieved.

In seminary I had a T-shirt that had a slogan on it that amused some of my class mates, and I know that one Episcopalian theologian, Paul Zahl, also had this T-shirt. It said “I bring nothing to the table.” The reality of that slogan is that there is nothing that you or I can do to win God’s favor, or to earn our salvation. But out of gratitude for what God has done in my life, I can reflect upon the ways and I have fallen short of the great gift I have been given, and I can seek to live a holier and more faithful life, a life where I am more closely identified with Jesus. And so as we come to this table–this altar–today let us recognize that we bring nothing with us with which to purchase the grace of God. Instead we come to this table and receive the grace of God, and having been bought by it, enabled to cleanse ourselves and be more like Christ, not out of necessity but out of gratitude. Amen.

My latest post at Covenant: The Devil (is no longer) in the Details

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.”

{Read it all}

Get Up.

An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and baby to Egypt.
The angel said “wait.”
He waited.
On foreign soil.
Soil his ancestors
trudged across
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:
“they’re dead.”
The little family
The Holy Family
Escaped.
Safe.
And the boy lived
To die
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.

 

The Same Lord is Lord of All

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

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  1. Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ []
  2. 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 []
  3. Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). []
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