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posts connected or of interest to St. Joseph of Arimathea

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.

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). []

The Grace of a Guarantee

Sermon notes & Background research for Proper 13 A 2014, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 9:1-5

Recording (Note: the delivered sermon differs from the text, as this is more background information etc… and the sermon is delivered without notes in most instances):

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

When I was in High School one of my close friends shared a story with me, about something that had happened to him when he was in elementary school. More accurately, it was about something he did while in elementary school, and its repercussions. A female classmate of ours had come up in conversation because of some recognition she was receiving, and he mentioned to me that they had once been friends in elementary school, but that he had said something to her that resulted in her slugging him. No… it was nothing like that… remember, it happened in elementary school. You see, our classmate was–is–Jewish, and as a naive elementary school student, when he heard this revelation one day, he blurted “But Jewish people don’t believe in God…” at which point, he received due penalty for his sin, in the form of a fist to the face.

I didn’t witness the event, but I got a good laugh out of his recounting of it. And I gave him a hard time about his ignorance, but of course, I couldn’t tell you when exactly I came to an awareness of the details–including the theism or non-theism-of other religions. And I can even see, based upon his protests, how he could’ve come to that conclusion, so closely was Jesus identified with God in his upbringing, and then also hearing that Jews do not share our faith in Jesus. But as humorous as this particular event is to think about on one level–probably more so for me, since I know the parties involved–it points to something dark at the heart of our own faith.

In many–ok, most–cases, religions are ambivalent about other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue is really still in its infancy. But religions that developed out of a particular faith, especially when the parent faith rejected the new insights or ways of considering the divine, tend to have particularly fraught relationships with their predecessor and sibling religions. This has certainly been the case with Christianity and Judaism. Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner, who teaches at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto has highlighted what this tension has meant for Christians:

The Jew, quite distinctly, becomes a “heretic” and the “heretic” becomes a “Jew.” In other words,intra-Christian discord becomes completely coincident with apostasy and/or the denial of Christ, and Christian division is read in terms of religious antagonism in a strong modern sense. Those who “call themselves Christian”—“heretics”—are in fact the same as Jews and Saracens…1

As Radner notes, this polemic gets mapped on to intra-Christian divisions, so that every time someone who says of Roman Catholics “They leave Christ on the cross,” also negatively compares the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism, this more fundamental division is revealed. As one commentator put it: “The point Radner is driving home here is profound. By showing how Jews came to be understood as heretics and later Christian heretics become to be understood as as Jews (i.e. apostates), Radner is suggesting that Christians have been so bad to each other because we were so bad to the Jews. Thus, the inability to handle division and conflict internally, or inability to see the conflict as internal, is a result of how Christians have understood themselves over against their Jewish religious ancestors and neighbors.”2

All of this challenging history makes my friends comment, and others like it, ominous, even if they are not particularly informed by the tradition. They come out of this context, and so, they have an edge to them that we cannot deny. That edge is provided at its root, in large measure, by this section of Romans (chapters 9-11). From the beginning, many Christians have used the phrase “The Rejection of Israel” to describe this section of Romans. It is a phrase that cuts in two directions, but by far the sharpest is in the direction of claiming that God has rejected Irsrael/The Jewish people. The reality is however, that Paul is emphasizing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, but that a portion of the Jewish people have rejected Christ because of a misguided reading of the Torah.

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  1. Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 2065-2068). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []
  2. Furry, Tim. “Radner’s BFB, Part I” from Theology Studio. Radner offers many pertinent thoughts on this matter–pick up the book!–here are a few that really hit home: “But just as in Rwanda it is inescapable that a central element of the violence was that Christians killed, not simply that killers “happened to be” Christians, so, in the case of the Holocaust, there is a consensus that we must face the fact that Christians killed Jews and that these identities given in terms of violent hostility were not only self-consciously defined but carefully supported by religious arguments and traditions. There is no longer any question but that elements of Christian theological understanding and practice—and not only discrete (and somehow Christianly uninformed) acts by Christians—motivated these killings, if in ways that were hardly exhaustive.”
    Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 904-909). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []

Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, part II

sufferlittlechildrentocomeuntomeSeveral months ago I posted some thoughts inspired by a little research on the history of English (primarily, though not intentionally) church architecture. I was interested in looking at the way children were or were not welcomed in worship by our predecessors. I think this is important because I have a feeling that many of the issues the church is facing today come, at least in part, from a sort of social or institutional amnesia. We’ve forgotten what it means to play, learn, converse, and therefore, worship, in a multi-generational setting.

This lack is exemplified in nothing so much as the drive to program for children and the difficulty in finding adults willing and able (whether because of schedules or lack of formation on their part) to volunteer to lead such programs.

In my first post, Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, I made the following statement: “All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.”

While several months have passed, I am no less interested in reflecting on this question, and trying to come up with some “traditioned innovations” that might help us–at my parish, St. Joseph of Arimathea–or elsewhere, to face the question of properly passing our faith on to our children (and our adults, might I add!).

In keeping with this interest, I recently picked up (or rather, downloaded, then picked up my Kindle) the book When Children Become People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting information in this book, and I heartily commend it to you.

Of particular interest to the question of how, in the early Church (or let’s just say the church of the first four centuries) children participated and were nurtured in the faith, is the description of the role children played in worship.

First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service, and took part in it. They were lectors (readers of scripture), they sang the responses–with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults–joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.1

Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:

From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship. 2

In looking at this list, the questions arise: in what ways could children be involved in our worship today? How can such liturgical involvement translate to a better grasp of scripture and the Christian traditions?


  1. “It is in any case indisputable that boys served as lectors from a very early age. This is confirmed by a decree promulgated by Justinian in 546, which laid down the minimum age of eight for those who were to assume the office of lector.153 The need to establish a minimum age may be related to the desire of ambitious parents-or (perhaps more likely) poor parents-to ensure a future career in the clergy for their sons.”
    O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3827-3829). Kindle Edition. []
  2. O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3898-3899). Kindle Edition. []

Worshipping as the whole body of Christ

I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture  with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.

As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England.  Take a look:

Haseley Church, Oxon.

Haseley Church, Oxon.

I wonder what you notice about the lay out?

When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service.  Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?

Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.

Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?

What would be the possible benefits of this?

Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.

Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers […]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.

All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.

 

Who, really, is our neighbor?

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan, Vienna Austria.

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan, Vienna Austria.

Studies have demonstrated that one of the ways our minds work is to save information or store an impression of places that we’ve been, particularly places that we spend a lot of time, such as rooms in our home, offices, perhaps our churches, and so forth. If it weren’t for this ability to store the memories of places we frequent, we would experience every entry into a space as though it were the first time.

This familiarity, while saving effort and preventing us from overtaxing our minds, also leads to the phenomenon of missing small changes in our environments. A book or magazine is moved, someone replaces a lamp, chairs are at different angles, or perhaps something more pronounced has occurred, like a room sporting a fresh coat of paint. Such changes may escape notice when we initially enter a place with which we are intimately familiar, and only enter our awareness when our attention is drawn to a particular detail.

There seems to be a similar phenomenon that occurs with stories with which we are familiar. We allow the details to fade out, because we remember the overarching narrative. We know what the point of the story is because we have heard it over and over again. The problem with this shorthand understanding of meaning, particularly when dealing with one of Christ’s parables, is that we can internalize incomplete or false understandings. When approaching a parable of Jesus, no matter how familiar, it is important that we listen to it with new ears, and seek to allow Jesus’ instruction to form us, as it formed his original listeners.

Although we can no longer assume everyone in our culture is familiarity with the parables, it is safe to assume that people who regularly attend church, especially those who attend church in liturgical traditions such as ours, are familiar with many of them. And of all the parables, one of the most well-known is that of the The Good Samaritan. And I would be willing to suggest that for many of us the point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that we are ourselves to be Good Samaritans; in other words we are to be good people, kind people, people who treat folks well and help those in need. And we’re not wrong.

This is indeed laudable, and is I would say part and parcel of forming a Christian character. But there is more to this parable than a calling to be kind. The call to kindness does not exhaust its meaning. Instead, it is a challenge to us from a few directions: a challenge not only to be merciful, but about those to whom we should extend mercy, and from whom we are willing, or should be willing, to receive it.

We tend to focus on the content of the parable itself–and rightly so–it is important, and it clearly strikes against some universal human tendencies. But while the content is important, we need to remember the context. As Walter Brueggemann writes “The question at the beginning is: eternal life. The answer at the end is: Mercy. […] The story functions to change the subject away from life with God to life with neighbor. […] Jesus’ story changes our life-question by plugging us into a world of violence. The subject is a street mugging, which seems far from eternal life. the great gospel questions are worked out midst the concreteness of brutality and nowhere else, brutality we work on each other, brutality we observe but in which we are, by our humanity, implicated” (Bruggemann, “A Zinger that Changes Everything, ” The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, 7).

It takes place in the context of violence. People will often make comments about Jesus and his teaching that reveal their evaluation of him as naive; that they believe he sees the world through rose colored glasses, that his teachings are nice, but not practical: “That Jesus, isn’t he nice. Love everyone… that’s a nice idea, too bad it won’t work in the real world.” But Jesus is not naive. He wasn’t whipped and nailed to the cross because he was ignorant of the human condition. This parable begins in violence, and it’s intended to show us how to live as disciples in the midst of a violent world.

The man is beaten and left in a ditch. Here comes the priest, and then the Levite–both of whom the listeners may have expected to help–only for them to see the man, and pass by on the other side, the implication being that they go out of their way to cross the road and avoid him. Their reaction highlights a failing we have all likely experienced, the tendency to allow our priorities to be turned on their head, for our closely held values to be eclipsed in the moment.

It can be hard… we talk about tyranny of the urgent, but there’s also tyranny of the trivial. Or at least, of the less important over what is of greater importance. Most things in life are fundamentally not emergencies, and yet we act as though they are, to the extent that sometimes we miss the actual emergency. Scholars debate whether the purity codes had anything to do with the fact that both the priest and levite avoid the man in the ditch, but regardless of the specifics, the parable implies that whatever they were doing was enough for them to avoid fulfilling the great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They saw… and they passed by on the other side, leaving the man to his fate.

In contrast, a third person passes by and sees the man, and responds in a completely different way. Jesus’ listeners, like us, would’ve been trained to listen for the third example, the “rule of three” being a common device. Perhaps they already had in mind who it might be who would keep the spirit of the law and offer aid to the man. A Pharisee perhaps. If a respected priest and a respected levite passed by, perhaps a Pharisee (and remember, they were well respected), someone who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, would give aid.

But the third person, the one who offers aid, isn’t a better follower of the Law. At least from a Jewish perspective, he’s not a follower of the law at all; he’s a despised Samaritan. The priest and the levite are said to have seen the man. But then they avoid him. They haven’t really seen him. They looked at him, but they did not see themselves in him. In contrast, the Samaritan truly sees the man, sees his plight, and is moved with compassion and empathy, which motivate him to give aid.

And this reality brings us to the second issue the parable highlights: We often don’t really like to consider who our neighbor is. It is about who we should offer aid to, and the fact that we are called to extend mercy,

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man […]” Jesus asks “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)

but it is about much more than that as well. When we ask who our neighbor is, we are not only challenged about extending mercy to all–a proposition that most Christians would at least claim to strive for–but also about who we are comfortable extending mercy to us.  One commentator on this parable noted that it might be better to call it the Parable of the Man in the Ditch. Everything in the parable points to the fact that everyone involved, save the Samaritan himself, is Jewish. How might Jewish people of the day have felt about the idea of receiving mercy and charity from a Samaritan?

When we interpret this parable only as though we will always be the ones in a position of offering aid, we miss a good deal of the point. The parable is to help us recognize that the one who has mercy, and the one in need of mercy, are our neighbors–that is, everyone. But when Jesus says to the man presenting the question “Go and do likewise” he is saying to him “go, and be willing to learn, even from a Samaritan, how to be a better follower of God.” And beyond that: “Go, and be willing to receive mercy, even from one you would have called unclean.”

We have probably all asked ourselves if we’d be willing to extend aid to anyone in need, and we’ve likely recognized Jesus’ challenge to do so. The question for us as we leave here with today, I believe, is this: From whom would we be uncomfortable receiving mercy? The answer to that question will present to us a new area of our lives that is ready for the scrutiny of the gospel.

The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan

And while I don’t know about anyone here specifically, I can say that our society, our world, has a lot of work to do in this area.

This is one reason I like to contrast the two renderings of The Good Samaritan that I’ve included in this blog post. In the one above, the Samaritan is a pleasant figure, and the whole scene is presented beautifully. In contrast, the image to the right presents the Samaritan as a Quasimodo-like figure, almost grotesque, and it depicts in a visual way the visceral negative reactions Jews of Jesus’ day would’ve had to receiving aid from a Samaritan, to being told that a Samaritan was their neighbor, and that they were therefore commanded to love them as a central tenet of their faith and obedience to God.

How would he have felt, that man in the ditch (assuming he was conscious), to be laying there, praying for help, to see his people, first a respected priest, then a levite, pass him by. Cross over the road to avoid him. Only to then be helped by a despised Samaritan.

Who is our neighbor? Who would we rather not receive aid or care from? Who do we fear appearing vulnerable with? Who is grotesque to us?

This morning (July 14, 2013), when I got in the truck to come to church, the first three stories on the news dealt with this type of division.

The first related to the court case out of Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not not guilty. I learned about the verdict last night when social media blew up with thoughts and opinions. Reading them, I was all the more grateful not to have a television, and not being tempted to listen to the thoughts of the talking heads. I know there are diverse opinions right here in this room about the case–I’ve talked with some of you about them–and I don’t need to get into that. None of us were in the neighborhood that night, and none of us were (physically) in that courtroom or the jury’s deliberation room.

That said, I don’t think anyone can honestly deny the deep divisions highlighted by this case. The anger, frustration, alienation and sadness that stands like a chasm between many of us in our society. The verdict reminded me of a picture I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall, maybe six months ago. He’s the pastor of a black church. In this picture many of his congregation’s adult members (it could’ve been all, or it could’ve been a quarter, I don’t know, but it was a lot of people) were wearing hoodies, and the caption read “do we look suspicious to you?”

That is illustrative of alienation, anger, and sadness .  It’s undeniable.

As a pastor friend of mine (@rev_david) from Texas put the question: “Who was Trayvon Martin’s neighbor? Who will be George Zimmerman’s neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor? Who will we be neighbor to, and who will we allow to be neighbor to us?

The second story was about the death of seven UN peacekeepers in Darfur, a region of Sudan that where the people have endured a genocide.

The third was about bombs going off outside of mosques in Baghdad Iraq.

Who is our neighbor? This question echoes across the whole earth among all people and in every nation. Divisions may not be punctuated by IED’s and RPG’s everywhere, but people still suffer and people still die all over the world because of our inability to see the truth of Christ’s teaching. A teaching that stems not from naiveté, not from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but from reality. The reality of human sin. The reality of alienation. The alienation of humanity from God and from one another.

I’ve mention Canon Andrew White to you before. He’s the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. He shared the following comment this morning:

We prayed and hoped for less violence but in the past 12 hrs it has only increased. Scores have been killed in post Ramadan parties, the terrible thing this time is that most of the killings this were directed at the Sunnis and their Mosques. Adding to the fact that we are in a Civil War. Today we look with churches around the world at the story of the Good Samaritan. We ask the question “who is my neighbor”. My neighbor is the other Sunni, Shia, Christian. (Help us Lord to live as one)

The question: “Who is my neighbor?” is always relevant because we always need to be reminded.

How do we get beyond this division? I don’t have a magic formula–and how I wish I did–but I believe we have to start with the small things. We can start where the Samaritan did, with really seeing the man in the ditch and being moved with empathy and compassion. We can start with seeing ourselves in others and seeing them in us.

We can start with actually being neighbors in the more general sense, for one. Recognizing one another in everyday interactions. Saying hello, helping each other in small things, building up the muscles of fellowship to handle the weight of greater adversity. As Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Common Place:

For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and one’s self as a neighbor within it. I am sure that virtues count in the neighborhood–to “love thy neighbor as thyself” requires the help of all seven of them–but I am equally sure that in a neighborhood the virtues cannot be practiced as such. Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions. “He who would do good to another,” William Blake said, “must do it in Minute Particulars.” To help each other, that is, we must go beyond the coldhearted charity of the “general good” and get down to work where we are.

The great task given us in this parable is nothing less than that of getting down to work where we are, and with the people God has placed in our path, and in whose path we have been found. Amen.

The Wideness and the Wildness in God’s Mercy

Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30

I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”

I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well).  To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.

I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).

In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is  called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.

We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.

L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).

If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).

A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.

Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:

From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.

The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.

It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.

In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.

What about your career? Get out of the way…

What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…

What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…

He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.

Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.

In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.

As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality. 

The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.

Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.

Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.

The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.

We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.

The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy by Beverly Hills All Saints' Church Choir on Grooveshark

Lenten Videos

A few great videos I thought I’d share with the readers of this blog during the Lenten Season. (Just a note for folks in the Diocese of Tennessee: Stanley Hauerwas–in the 3rd video–is honorary Canon Theologian of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville):

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Casting out the Demons that know our names

As I’ve been writing out my thoughts for the upcoming solemn communion preparation class that will begin at the end of February, I’ve been rereading a number of books to refresh and tighten up my thinking on the sacraments. One of these, which I purchased in seminary as one of those “other recommended texts” is by the French Roman Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet and is entitled The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body.

Something in Chauvet’s introduction struck me as incredibly important for many of us today:

First, theology is a believer’s task. Faith is not at the end but at the beginning of this task. To make an act of faith does not mean simply either to believe that God exists (“believe that” is in the domain of opinion) or to believe ideas about God, beautiful and generous as these ideas may be (to believe for example in science, the immortality of the soul, or astrology, still pertains to a purely intellectual thought process), but to believe in, which means to have trust in someone, to put one’s faith in that person. This is never the product of a merely intellectual reasoning. Because it necessarily involves us as persons in a vital relationship with another, “to believe in” (a spouse, a friend, and so on), belongs more to the relational than to the rational order… (Page ix, The Sacraments, Chauvet).

The contrast that Chauvet draws attention to, between believing that something is or believing certain ideas are true and believing in, that is, putting one’s faith in something or someone, is central to a problem that besets us as Christians. It is not a new problem. It is a very old problem–as old as Christianity itself, as old as faith itself. It is a problem that James, the brother of our Lord rails against in his epistle, putting the problem in stark terms: “You believe that God is one [or simply, that God is]; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

In the account from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) of the exorcism of the demoniac at Capernaum we are faced with the reality of the difference between believing that something is the case and putting one’s faith in something. It has been said by cultural commentators that the standard form of American religion, whether liberal or conservative, takes the form of gnosticism. The term gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, and while there are multitudinous forms, in the ancient world and in our own day, one of the basic elements is that it depends upon knowledge. Knowing the right things, or perhaps even being one of a select group that knows the right things is seen as salvific. In other words people focus on getting the intellectual details of their theology right. I often say that some folks go into a church and check to see if the statement of faith matches the one they brought in the door with them, as though they were looking at the platform of a political party. Having checked off the right boxes we can confidently remain exactly as we are. Or at least we think we can. In reality, we deceive ourselves: “Even the demons believe–and shudder.” If we believe that we have the right beliefs, and we check our boxes off and never give such things another thought–and by so doing, never experience a softened heart that can be changed by the prompting of the Holy Spirit–then we are not actually experiencing a spiritual relationship with God.

While the language of relationship may be overused in some quarters, and it can drift off into its own form of shallowness, when properly considered, it does help us identify the way we’re to interact with God. For one thing, a relationship is not static, it is dynamic and changing and–ideally–deepening. In such a context it is impossible for us to ever say that we are “done” because there is always some new challenge, some new learning that we’re called to as we seek to reflect Christ more and more in our lives. The problem with believing the right things as a sort of intellectual exercise and believing that’s enough is that it becomes ever more tempting and easy to justify our own actions even when we know–intellectually–that they aren’t the most honoring to God. In other words, intellectual check-lists when divorced from a living–which means humbling, but also an up-building–relationship with God can leave us in bondage to forces in our lives that are positively demonic in the sense that we have given over control to something outside of ourselves that holds us in bondage.

In the encounter at the Synagogue in Capernaum we learn something about the nature of the forces that seek to oppress us: they know our names. This means much more than we might believe. When Jesus teaches in the Synagogue and is challenged by the unclean spirit, the demoniac cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The fact that the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name and announces his role (indeed, it is thematic in Mark that the demons understand this reality more clearly than the people) is significant. Historians and biblical commentators remind us of the ancient belief that knowing someone’s name gave you a form of control over that person. In this instance, the unclean spirit is defending against the authority and power of Christ by naming him and showing that his identity is known. In contrast to other exorcists of the time, Jesus performs no elaborate rituals, uses no tools etc…, but simply commands the spirit to be silent and come out of the man. There is no engaging in a game, there isn’t even a contest, the spirit is silenced and exorcised immediately on the word of Christ. It is this action, this demonstration of power and authority (the Greek word is the same) that leaves the people wondering. From this exchange, we can see, on the one hand how knowing something like a person’s name–that is having intimate knowledge of them–can be important, and in certain circumstances can even be threatening. This is not so much about knowing someone’s name, I believe, as it is about knowing enough about them to know their weaknesses. To know someone’s name in the ancient sense may perhaps be related to having someone’s “number” in our parlance. The fact of the matter is that the demons all of us face every day have our number–they know our weaknesses. Those demons, those interior voices, contracted, inherited, or formed, possessing or oppressing us, which I believe are so often related to what some authors refer to variously as our impostors, shadow sides or inner critics–they know our weaknesses and they prey upon them to keep us in bondage.

These are the sins, fears, and the pains that know our name and can paralyze us or prevent us from doing what we know we should. These are the things that drag us back down into the mire of self doubt and pity on the one hand, and the false foundation of self aggrandizement on the other. These are the voices that whisper in the dark that we’re not good enough, that we’re not worthy enough, that we can’t do it, while in the next instant pushing us to go it alone, to rely solely on ourselves and to reject the companionship, friendship, and aid that we need in this life. It’s the voice that tells us no matter how much we succeed, it’s never good enough, that no matter how much we need help, we ought to be able to do it on our own or we’re failures. It’s the desire that prompts the addict to find the next fix, the spouse to reject marital counseling, and any of us to give up and not try something we believe we may be called to do.

The question for us today is this: what are the demons that know our names? What are the things in our lives that limit us, that keep us going round in the same old harmful patterns, that keep us from changing when we know we need to change? All of us need to change. That may seem like a bold statement, but we’re not far enough out from those new year’s resolutions to have forgotten the reason why they’re so popular: the recognition that all of us, in ways small or large need and desire change in our lives. The problem is that most often, we don’t know how to change, we don’t even know where to begin.

A few weeks ago, I gave a bit of a devotional at one of our Wednesday Eucharists, and I mentioned a song I’d recently heard by the singer Ben Harper. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Harper is a Christian. His background is interesting, with a Jewish mother from a family of folk singers, and a father who was part African American and Cherokee. Harper is certainly spiritual, and has recorded plenty of songs on spiritual and even Christian themes, on his own and with the gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama. On his latest album, Give Till it’s Gone (a title probably deserving of some reflection in and of itself) he has a song entitled “Don’t give up on me now.” I absolutely love the chorus of this song because I think it epitomizes so well the state in which most of us live most of our lives. It goes like this:

I don’t even know myself // what it would take to know myself // I need to change, I don’t know how // don’t give up on me now.

The gift of the gospel is that it shows us where to start. We don’t have to fear the demons that know our names because the one who is the Lord of all Creation calls us each by name. We are known and loved by God in Christ. The one who had the power and the authority to silence the demons tormenting the man in that Synagogue all those centuries ago in Capernaum can also silence the voices that torment us in our day. For every voice that tempts us to give up, to loathe ourselves, to reject the hope of strengthening or rebuilding relationships with loved ones, or to loose the hope of finally beating some harmful behavior, or even that seemingly insignificant voice that convinces us not to attempt a challenging task–there is a great voice that drowns them out, that calls us by name and silences the cacophony. The first step of change, the foundation of hope, of the ultimate hope presented in the gospel, is that God has not given up on us. On any of us. No matter what we’ve done, no matter what we think of ourselves or what others believe or think about us. We know our worth in the eyes of God, a worth measured in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one with the authority to silence our demons, and to bring us home to God.

When we face a particularly difficult or trying time, when it seems like we’re fully in the grip of something that knows or name, that capitalizes on our weaknesses, let us remember that we are called by a greater name, the name of Christ, and marked and sealed as his own, forever. In the name of Christ, called by the name of Christ as Christians, we have been and can be freed from bondage. Amen.

An acoustic version of the Ben Harper song I referenced:

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