Saturday, December 3, 2016

You Are A Godsend

You Are A Godsend   [Matthew 3:1-12]
If we have not all said it we have all heard it – “You have been such a godsend to us…,” “She is such a godsend...”, “It was such a godsend that we found our way out of the woods.”

Surprisingly it is a rather “modern” 19th century phrase. Not at all theological, so it is un-freighted with any theological baggage. But, while on silent retreat this past week we were asked to consider a deeper meaning for “godsend” – to begin to see ourselves as “Godsends,” with a capital “G” who by our immersion in God and God’s yearning, God’s desire, are sent to bring God’s yearnings and desires to others. We are to be godsends.

This is what John the Baptist is proclaiming “in the wilderness” – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or, as the older translations have it, the kingdom is“at hand” – just an arms-length away. Talk about freighted language!

Take “wilderness” for instance. This is Bible-speak. Wilderness recalls the Forty Years of spiritual formation, immersion in God, on the other side of the escape from slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt – an empire of endless consumption, accumulation and violence. There is a tendency to see the Wilderness-experience as a sort of bad thing – a long delay before arriving at a new homeland – but it is a period of total immersion in the Way of God. It was life in the Empire that was a bad thing. Wilderness is the time and place for hearing God’s desires and yearnings for people, all people – with special instructions on how to treat widows, orphans and resident aliens, all people without resources and without a direct connection to a family, tribe or clan who like the rest of us all need the same basic necessities to thrive in this world.

Wilderness also describes the long Exile from home, another period of immersion in God’s desires and yearnings. Dragged away from home to Babylon the children of Israel, a diverse and cosmopolitan collection of people from all over the ancient world, find themselves remembering what it was like to place total dependence on YHWH, the God of the Exodus, the God of manna. Manna – for forty years everyone had enough, no one had too much, and you could not store it or it would go sour. Only the day before the Sabbath day of rest could one harvest a double portion so as not to have to labor on the seventh day. Manna and Sabbath become controlling metaphors for being immersed in God.

How many of us are so busy that we cannot take one day off from labor to rest, really rest, from our work, even from “working” on things like our backhand, or our approach shot – even in our times of recreation – re-creation – we end up working on things! When the one John announces “in the wilderness” is coming is asked how to pray he says, “pray for manna” – “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Manna is bread that is given daily. God initiates an economic system and bread supply which mandates enough for everyone, no one gets too much and when you store it up it sours. God’s season of manna and Sabbath are utterly unlike life in exile in the Empire.

So just how much consumption, acquisition, hunger, joblessness, racism, misogyny, drugs, guns, violence, greed, destruction of the earth, elimination of whole species of life and just plain hatred does there need to be before a society declares itself to be in Exile from itself?

John calls for repentance – to repent from this Exile. At its simplest in the Bible to repent means to turn around, to change direction, to reorient ourselves to the yearnings and desires of God to care for those with few to no resources. To care for those with no family to fall back on. To care for those who travel through our land looking for honest labor and a place to call home – a safe place to call home.

The trickiest phrase in all of this is “kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is invoked not as a place, but as a place-holder for the holy and traditionally unpronounced name of the God of Exodus, Wilderness and Exile – YHWH. And the word most often translated “kingdom” is not really a kingdom like we know in this world. It can mean “rule,” “reign,” “realm,” or “kin-dom.” That last is most powerful – kin-dom, a place where all are “kin,” even those who have no apparent “kin-folk.” We are all to be godsends and kin-folk to one another and to all others. The operant word being “all.”

So John is proclaiming that we are all kin-folk in God, and that this kin-dom is at hand, so close we can reach out and touch it, so close we can take one step forward and be in it. Who, asks John, is ready to take the first step? Who is willing to turn back to being a realm of God’s kin-dom – a realm of godsends to others, all others? Who is willing to leave the Empire behind?

Note carefully the seeming chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to join in the ritual on the banks of the River Jordan. The Pharisees represent the lay and the Sadducees the priestly religious authorities of the day. The Sadducees by virtue (?) of their association and cooperation with the occupying minions of Caesar’s Rome also represent the political establishment – they are cooperators with the empire. John’s “do not presume” is not just aimed at them but at all of us of whatever camp we may associate ourselves with. It is not a statement of condemnation so much as a warning that this realm of God’s kin business is serious business. Step out of the Empire and into God’s kin-dom for it is at hand, but it will be hard and challenging work.  

This is all not something we need to “get back to.” It is here, it is now, it has always been here for those who see it, are aware of it, experience it and know it to be real. This is who we are created to be – godsends.

When in doubt, when we forget that we ever knew any of this it is time to reboot. Restart. Hit the reset button. For the realm of God’s kin-dom, the kin-dom of godsends, is always running in the background. We only need to remember.

John calls us to remember. And to announce that soon and very soon God will send God’s self to show us the way – the way to be so immersed in God that we remember the lessons of Wilderness and Exile and be the godsends we already are. You are a godsend! We are all godsends! The sooner we claim this the sooner we will all find our way out of the woods, out of the Wilderness, out of Exile – and that will be a true Godsend!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Cabbages and Kings

What Kind of King Have We?
It is Christ the King Sunday. The final Feast of Jesus in the Liturgical Year. Next week we will begin all over again with Advent. So in a sense this is the final word on who our Jesus is. And where do we find our King? On a Roman Cross of all places [Luke 23:33-43] – to hang until death as a warning and reminder as to who has the Power; who is the Real King; who is the real God: Caesar.

Yet, we understand true Kingship quite differently. As one enters the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul in Bath, England, a brochure that asks, Who is Jesus?, states the following:

“Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home. For the next three years he went about teaching people about God and healing sick people by the shores of Lake Galilee. He called 12 ordinary men to be his helpers.

“He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.

“Today, nearly 2 billion people throughout the world worship Jesus as divine - the Son of God. Their experience has convinced them that in the wonders of nature we see God as our loving Father; in the person of Jesus we discover God as Son; and in our daily lives we encounter this same God as Spirit. Jesus is our way to finding God: we learn about Jesus by reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament and we meet him directly in our spiritual experience.

“Jesus taught us to trust in a loving and merciful Father and to pray to him in faith for all our needs. He taught that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death.

“Jesus' actions alone would not have led him to a criminal's death on the cross: but his teaching challenged the religious and moral beliefs of his day. Jesus claimed to be the way to reach God. Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. Jesus also foretold that he would be raised to life again three days after his death. When, three days after he had died on the cross, his followers did indeed meet him alive again; frightened and defeated women and men became fearless and joyful messengers.

“Their message of the Good News about Jesus is the reason this Abbey Church exists, here in Bath. More importantly, it is the reason why all over the world there are Christians who know what it means to meet the living Jesus, and believe that He alone has the key to human life.

“May your time in the Bath Abbey Church be a blessing to you, as it is already to us in the church.”

This king of ours still challenges all our assumptions and understandings of power and meaning and truth. To a criminal hanging nearby on another cross he says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise!’ Not tomorrow, not a month, a year or an eon from now, but today.

For those looking for a description of this paradise of which he speaks, look no further than the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel which describes a great day of reckoning – as all humanity is divided as sheep and goats; those who follow his example and those who do not.

When I was hungry you fed me; when I was thirsty you brought me a drink; when I was naked you clothed me; when I was in prison you visited me; when I was a stranger you welcomed me. Those listening say, “But when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison or as a stranger?” As you do this for the least of my sisters and brothers you do this for me.

This is what ‘today in paradise’ looks like. This is what true kings, real kings, do. Not like the bad shepherds in Jeremiah 23:1-6 who scatter God’s sheep and do not attend to their needs – that is, do not love them the way God loves them. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” We are to be this Branch! We are called to be those people who execute justice and righteousness in the land. We are to welcome the stranger and meet the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and those in prison. This is what it means to follow Jesus, plain and simple.

Good shepherds, good kings, good people tend those in their midst, care for those who are strangers, those who are utterly unlike us; bring people together rather than divide them. This vision of paradise is promised to us all here and now. Today. Let those who have ears, hear. Let those who have eyes, see. Come, follow me, says our king, and I will give you rest.

Christ the King. Our king is a funny kind of king, but a king of kings! A Lord of Lords! And he shall reign forever and ever! May our time together with him be a blessing to us and to all persons, here, there and everywhere. Amen. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Apocalyptic Boogie

Apocalyptic Boogie
Jesus enters Jerusalem, the City of Peace, of Shalom. Shalom means more than just a quiet peacefulness, but in biblical terms includes justice for all people. No Justice, No Peace – Know Justice, Know Peace reads a once popular bumper sticker. In the midst of the old city, high upon a hilltop is the Temple, the center of cultic religious sacrifice, the center of the universe. It is believed that God touches the earth on that holy mount to keep the world still and safe.

Yet, already upon entering the city Jesus has been confronted with resistance, and signs of corruption in the Holy City of God’s Shalom. His first order of business had been to root out the corrupt practices in the Temple Business District. His authority is questioned, he is told to silence his disciples, the trick question on taxes, questions about resurrection – against all of which he issues warnings and tells parables designed to challenge the resident powers of the city who were collaborating with the Roman occupation. It has been a chaotic, difficult and threatening few days as he brings his campaign for God’s Kingdom into the city of shalom.

His followers, many of them farmers and fishermen from the north country surrounding the Galilee Sea are suddenly in awe at the very sight of the Temple. Many of them we can assume had never seen it let alone anything at all like it. “Look at how powerful, majestic and beautiful it is, adorned with precious stones, gold and silver!” they seem to say. To which Jesus replies, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." [Luke 21:5-19] His words must have seemed unimaginable despite the historic fact that it had been destroyed once before.

By the time Luke is giving his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth Jesus’ words have become reality. Those reading or hearing Luke’s Gospel for the first time lived among the ruins, in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of all of Israel. Nothing was left of the Temple after 70ce. All that remains to this day are a portion of the retaining walls that held up the Temple Mount itself, what we now call The Western Wall, a center of prayer for all the peoples of the earth.

Luke’s audience lived in the post-apocalyptic world being described in this 21st chapter. The kinds of persecution being described was already under way against Jews and Christians alike. Attacks on the people of God, on the people of the land right down to the poorest of the poor, Jew and Gentile alike, were already a fact of life.

Professor John Gettier in my religion classes at Trinity College always reminded us that the Bible is history, literature and theology all in one. The scene described in Luke is history; it really happened; the archeological evidence remains. The kind of literature in the Bible that describes such scenes is called apocalyptic – describing violent and catastrophic events. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it deals primarily with the Exile to Babylon. In the Christian Scriptures, it addresses the foundational event that gave rise to modern Rabbinic Judaism as we know it and the Christian Church, for the record is clear that until those days in and around the year 70ce both early Christians and their Jewish sisters and brothers continued to go to the Jerusalem Temple day in and day out. Its destruction was a catastrophe of enormous psychic as well as physical proportions. Where do we go from here?

That is precisely the question Apocalyptic literature seeks to answer. It is not about prediction; it is about survival now that the catastrophic present surrounds us. It is meant to both comfort and be instructive at the same time: God is with you in the midst of this catastrophe and means to restore the community. It is what we hear in the prophet Isaiah chapter 65 coming near the end of the Babylonian Exile: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

And we know this did come to pass. The New Jerusalem and New Temple are the very city Jesus and his companions are looking at several hundred years later. We can be certain that they would look to the words of Isaiah to sustain their hope of one day returning to a new and revitalized homeland. The text in Luke seeks to give much the same assurance in the midst of the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. The difference for the early Christians is that although it is also a time of intense persecution, it is also post-Resurrection. That is, they have the assurance that Christian faith and hope and love is stronger than the grave!

So, when Jesus is heard to say, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” they, and we, have the example that this is so. This is no mere pep talk, but rather is a known reality. A reality that was known to Paul as well – Paul who met the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus -  as he writes to the struggling community in Thessalonica, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right.

We often find ourselves in the midst of one catastrophe or another. Such events paralyze us, wear us down and tire us out. The temptation is to give in and give up. But we are those people who have a history that tells us that ultimately the troubles of this world are bounded by a greater truth. We are those people who have a literature and a narrative that has sustained God’s people through all kinds of catastrophe throughout the ages. This literature sustains our virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – or what our modern translations say Faith, Hope and Love.

It will be through our Love and Charity to one another, and especially to those who are most at risk among us, that the virtues of Faith and Hope shall be sustained. For we have the examples of those Exiles who returned from Babylon and generations of captivity to build a new life and a new Jerusalem. We have the examples of those early Christians like Paul who despite persecution, imprisonment and the sword emerged from the fire of catastrophe with a stronger and more enduring sense of Faith, Hope and Charity.

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right. Faith, Hope and Charity, abide these three; the greatest of these is Charity. Amen. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sustaining the Virtue of Hope!

(With Thanks and Apologies to Sam Portaro+ who first shaped most of these reflections)
I remember sitting in my office one Sunday after church with a man who had a question. “Why do we pray for the dead?” he asked. “The Bible doesn’t tell us to pray for the dead, so why do we do it? It makes no sense.”

It was one of those timeless moments. The air is still, time stands still, you almost stop breathing. If you are a priest and pastor you are expected to have the answer. You want to have the answer. You feel as if you should have the answers to all such questions. And then you freeze. A kind of fear sets in. A fear of not saying just the right thing that will move the person in front of you to a deeper more hopeful faith.

I have no recollection what I said to my inquisitor. No doubt I mumbled a few things about God in Christ being the God of the living and the dead, or some things about eternity and what we call the community of saints in heaven. I just don’t remember. Because those who are dead and have gone before us are praying for us is what I should have said.

All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls – October 31, November 1 and November 2 every year - three days in our calendar of Christian days which call us to look death in the face. On All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we laugh at death. We mock death. We make merry in a world that looks less and less funny every day. But we put on our costumes, paint up our faces, put on our masks and look at death and all the troubles of this world and we laugh.

It is a crazy kind of laughter that comes of both surprise and fear. We would rather not talk about this fear, but it is just this fear that we commemorate the last day of October and the first two days of November. The chilly winds of winter begin to chill our weary bones, the trees and all of nature echo themes of death and dying. Little ghosts, skeletons, hobgoblins and vampires move us to laugh, for such laughter is our way of averting fear.

So on Halloween we snicker at death, race through graveyards, dress up in hopes of fooling the grim reaper so as to be protected for yet another year. We need not run from our fear, but so often we do. And on this night we run after our fears as if to chase them away!

We want to believe that human flesh and human being is blessed, but we are not so sure of incarnation, so Christmas becomes a thing of material gifts and nostalgic ephemera. We want to believe that the power of life and love will triumph over the power of death, but we are not so sure of resurrection, so Easter becomes a thing of fuzzy bunnies, candy and spring fashion. We want to believe life is eternal, but we are not so sure of eternity, so this autumn season of spooks and saints and souls has become a thing of leering pumpkins and sugar candies.

But it is not incarnation, nor resurrection, nor eternity that we fear – it is disappointment. We do not want to hope in vain. This is why these three days are so precious. Christians have no unique perspective on love – there are many gospels of love, and most world religions teach love at least as well as we do, if not better. We have no unique take on faith, since all world religions, governments and economies depend on faith – for no God can inspire, no government can rule, no commerce can work without genuine faith. But where else is hope?

We Christians dare to hope beyond the constraints of mortality. We are those people who have the example of Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus lies dead in a tomb for several days. “Lord, there is a stench,” says Martha. Yet, rather than be paralyzed by their sadness and fear, with their brother dead and buried, they still come to Jesus, go to Jesus, run to the edge of town to greet Jesus with a curious mixture of anger at his delay in coming, but also a deep hope that he can and will bring their brother back from the dead. And, he does.

For others such hope is hedged. Hope is where many others draw short. Some constrain life to this earthly existence depending on the flesh bound, time-bound existence of reincarnations. Others hope in a painless consignment of the soul to everlasting nothingness.

But we Christians hope beyond mortality, our hope embodied in saints and souls who have gone before, a vast company and communion dwelling beyond time and forever. Our hope is that life is changed, not ended, and that when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

Our hope is grounded in a faith that claims our God is creator of all that is, seen and unseen. It is a hope that proclaims that we come from love, we return to love and love is all around. It is a hope grounded in our Baptism incorporating us into the Body of Christ, a bond which is indissoluble. It is a hope that says we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, watching us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfector of our hope, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.

Faith and Hope are the qualites of mind that see things before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God, of Love, to be more dear, more substantial and more attractive than the edible and profitable present. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] And we now know that over 95% of the known universe is unseen!

It’s an embarrassment, to be sure, this faith and hope we hold dear. We have no evidence to produce beyond our stories, like the ones we gather to hear week in and week out, year in and year out. In a realm that bows to tangible security as once it bowed to wood and stone idols, we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven suppositions. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as if there is no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as if there is a tomorrow, and more.

This is why we need these precious days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. For we know how hard it is to look death in the face and say to death, “I know I shall see you again.” But it is harder still to scan the flickering light of life’s vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, “I know I shall see you again.”

The world needs us, Jesus needs us, God needs us. They need our hope and our love. In a world that rarely shows evidence that such hope is justified, we are called to be those people who bear witness to a hope that proclaims that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. That soon we will be done with the troubles of this world and go home to be with God – with God and all those saints and souls who even now watch over us and pray for us from that place where there is no more weeping or wailing, but only Light, and Life, and Love. Amen.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Zach and The Hospitality of God

      [Luke 19:1-10]
Jesus is passing through Jericho. And with good reason. It was a Herodian stronghold, a sort of winter resort and part of Herod the Great’s extensive building program. He was the appointed client ruler for the Romans over what came to be called the Herodian kingdom – ancient Israel. He rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, the summer palace at Masada, the port at Caesarea – and it is Herod who ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents at the time of Jesus’ birth – the execution of all children in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Holy Child, much the same as Pharaoh had done way back at the beginning of the story. Moses and Jesus survive.

Now Jesus is passing through Herod’s Jericho. It’s a dangerous place and he does not plan to spend time there.  Zacchaeus is a local tax collector. Since Jericho is a wealthy resort town he is rich. Despite working for Caesar in Herod’s resort, Zack wants a closer look at Jesus. The text says he is short in stature so he climbs a tree. This does not necessarily mean he is physically short, but that faithful sons and daughters of Abraham look down on him. He was collaborating with the enemy, and taking as much money as he could for himself and Caesar – or so they thought. He knows people do not like him. So he climbs the tree to hide in the branches among the leaves to see the Jesus procession pass by. He does not want to be seen.

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be Zacchaeus. He has obviously heard things about Jesus. He wants to see for himself. But he’s afraid to be seen amongst the “Jesus crowd.” Maybe he does not want to be a distraction. Maybe he doesn’t want to face all the questions others may ask about why he works for Rome in the first place. Perhaps he is embarrassed about who he is. He’s heard all the talk about him as a traitor, a collaborator. Maybe he just does not want to draw attention to himself. He knows he’s an outsider, an outcast separated from his own people – the people of God, the sons and daughters of Abraham.

To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls him to come down from the tree and announces he wants to go to Zacchaeus’ house! The crowd sees this and grumbles and sneers, “He’s gone to the house of a sinner!” That’s his stature around town: a sinner. How could Jesus want to step into Zack’s house? It’s as if he is a Gentile, a Westerner, unclean, not the kind of person you want to be seen with. Evidently the folks in Jericho have not heard the news: Jesus regularly spends time with sinners of all kinds. As Luke puts it, he came to seek out and to save the lost.

Then comes the shocker. The impact of the shock depends on a correct translation of the text. The tax collector collaborationist, presumed extortionist, has some news himself. “Half my possessions I give to the poor, and those I defraud of anything I pay back four times as much.” Who knew? Zacchaeus is not only a good tax collector, he is a generous and beyond honest tax collector. He keeps the commandments and goes beyond the command of the 10% tithe – he’s giving 50%. He already gives to the poor and repays anyone who has had to pay too much into the Roman coffers out of his own wealth four times whatever they have lost. He does this now, not “he will do it,” but he is doing it now. Today.

The outsider of such small stature turns out to be an example to us all. He is deserving of a visit from the Jesus who sought him out. If it was shocking that Jesus called him down and went to his house, it is more shocking to hear that Zach is doing his best to compensate for the job the Roman legions had impressed him into doing. Now look at him. He is hosting the one who seeks and saves the lost.

Jesus is touched and confers, or perhaps re-confers is better, membership in the household of Abraham, and announces that salvation has come to his house today. Today. Not tomorrow. Not after leaving this earth. Today. Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus and bestows the hospitality of God upon the one all others considered unworthy of inclusion. Jesus the guest becomes the host.

Imagine just for a moment how Zacchaeus feels now – included, welcomed really, into the household of God’s eternal love and mercy and care. No longer does he need to hide from Jesus and the others. His stature has been recognized for who he really is here and now.

Salvation is not some future we are to wait for but is here and now. Today. And Zacchaeus does not need to be told, as other wealthy characters in Luke’s story of Jesus have, to use his resources on behalf of God and God’s inbreaking kingdom. He is already generously committing his money to causes of righteousness. Today. Jesus recognizes this and holds him up as an example of what it means to be a member of God’s house, God’s family, God’s plan for justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people or even most people, but all people.

What a day it has been for Zach! Imagine how he feels now. He once was lost but now is found. Once the outsider now he is part of the community again. We are left to wonder if the community of those who sneered and grumbled have accepted him back in. We are left to ask ourselves, would we?

It’s a story that raises more questions than answers. Do we, today, follow Jesus in seeking out and saving the lost? Do we seek and welcome into our midst those we otherwise see as outsiders? Do we commit our resources to the spread of God’s kingdom, seeking and serving Christ in all persons whatever the cost? When will we come down out of our trees and join the Jesus movement? Can we imagine our world no longer being a world of insiders and outsiders? Can we see ourselves being at all like Zacchaeus?

“Today” appears to be the operant word. It turns out there really is no time like the present. Jesus wants to welcome us all into the household of God’s eternal love and mercy and care. Jesus calls us to welcome others – all others – into the household as well. Here. Now. Today. Salvation can be ours today just as it was for Zachaeus in Jericho a long time ago. Amen.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

There By The Grace Of God Am I

How We Pray

How many times have we all said, “There but by the Grace of God am I”? It’s as American as apple pie. We hear it and we say it and we convince ourselves that this “prayer” is what religion, or worse, Christianity, is all about. Nothing could be further from the kind of faith Jesus proclaims.

Then there is the kind of prayer that says, “Please God, make sure there is no traffic between here and there so I will be on time!” Or, “Please God, find me a parking space!” And of course the related, “Thank you, Lord, for clearing out all the traffic AND finding me a parking space!”
I know about these kinds of prayer, I said them last night trying to get to Bethesda from Havre de Grace in time to set up and play!

Jesus appears to have anticipated all of this and stops along the way on his journey to Jerusalem and the Cross to do some teaching on prayer. First, the lesson on persistence with the widow seeking justice from a judge who has no regard for God or for others. This judge does not get the essence of the Great Commandment: to Love God and to Love your Neighbor as yourself. He is completely stuck on loving himself and himself only. Others be damned!

Then comes an episode featuring a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. It is a lesson on how to and how not to pray for oneself so that you may have regard for both God and others – all others, even the seemingly most unlikely others imaginable.

The Pharisee essentially prays the “There but by the grace of God am I!” He prays this in the extreme: I am so good. I follow all the commandments. I go even further than commanded. I am exemplary in my living in God’s way. Not like this wretched Tax Collector who collaborates with our oppressors and defrauds our own people day in and day out! Thank God I am not like him!” One notes that Jesus does not commend this sort of prayer.

We may as well admit it. In this highly politicized and polarized campaign season this is about all we hear from all sides. It’s as if we try to convince ourselves that our way is the only way, all others need not apply. Yet, the story recognizes that the Pharisee is not a bad man. His chosen way of life is in fact admirable. He suffers from just one blind spot: he sees the world as being about him without having any regard for all others, especially those who, like the Tax Collector, seem to be the worst of the worst. The problem, the sin, is in the assumption that we know better and are better than anyone else. We begin to be unjust judges like the one in the previous episode.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, cannot even lift his head in prayer. He beats his breast. He is anguished as he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows he could be better. He knows what others think of him as he props up the very regime that oppresses his people. But he needs to put food on the table. He has a family to care for like the others. He did not ask for this life, he was recruited by the minions of Caesar, and in Rome, Caesar is God. His plea is one of a humble request for mercy. All he wants is mercy even though he cannot bring himself to believe he deserves it.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” concludes Jesus. [Luke 18:9-14] Once again, as with the widow, it is about justice in this world, not the next. We used to talk about Jesus turning the world upside down. His people, the Jewish people, however, have a saying about this: tikkun olam – repairing the world, or turning the world right side up!

We are to notice that this is how the Good News of Jesus according to Luke begins with the Song of Mary, Theotokos, the Mother of God: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” [Luke 1:39-56]

One day while standing at Paul’s Place, our diocesan soup kitchen, with the Reverend Bill Rich, as we looked out upon that large room with street people, poor people, lonely people, hobos and all sorts and conditions of men and women, Bill said, “There by the Grace of God am I.” It was a moment of clarity for me. This is what Jesus is talking about. Loving our neighbor begins with breaking down the walls, assumptions and misunderstandings that separate us and acknowledging our common human conditions. We are all in this together and need to acknowledge this. I am the homeless person. I am the hobo. I am hungry.

Prayer, then, is about approaching God in complete humility acknowledging our short comings and calling upon God’s mercy rather than needing to put down others to feel justified. For it is God who justifies, not we ourselves by what we do or say – God can deal with all of us or none of us. We are called to reorient ourselves to the way of God’s inbreaking kingdom, not to assert the ways of this world, our world, my world, as the only way.

Perhaps one of the earliest prayers in Christendom, coming from the desert fathers around the fifth century is The Jesus Prayer. It is the prayer of the Tax Collector.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

There are those who spend a lifetime praying this prayer with the persistence of the widow in our other story. Standing in line at the bank or the supermarket checkout, one can say this to oneself over and over again. Instead of praying for a parking space or less traffic, just say this simple prayer that seems to exemplify just what Jesus commends about the Tax Collector and his prayer. Notice that Jesus does not commend his actions or his lifestyle, but rather his attitude in prayer that is totally self-deprecating. Oddly this is a way of loving ourselves, our true selves, and makes it possible to love our neighbor – any and all neighbors.

There by the Grace of God am I. It’s that simple. Seeing ourselves in the other is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the root of Love. With Love Tikkun Olam becomes a reality – we participate in the repair of the world. A world in desperate need of repair. It begins with us, and How we pray makes all the difference.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Violence Against Women - None Of Us Are Free

Violence Against Women - None Of Us Are Free
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot Jeremiah 20:9 (NRSV).

It feels as if we have collectively, at least many of us, reached this point as regards violence against women, sexual assault, harassment and overall disrespect. There have been numerous cases on college campuses, in the workplace and in the home. I find myself as if suddenly awakened to something I have in fact long known about, but for all kinds of reasons I and society in general have been uncomfortable or ashamed to talk about in the open. Suddenly the opportunity presents itself. How curious that The Revised Common Lectionary presents us with Luke 18:1-8 at precisely this moment in time. Although Jesus says the parable is about persistence in prayer, and we seriously need to pray on this, his parable is about so very much more.

Jesus tells a parable about a widow and a judge. Widows in the Bible represent a larger class of persons: people without resources, without power and often without identity in the larger society. Widows are often mentioned with orphans and resident aliens. That’s right, the Bible all the way back in Torah, the first five books, expresses a special affection for and concern for widows, orphans and resident aliens. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus calls us to care for them.

In some way we are not told, the widow, a woman, has been maligned, or at least the victim of some sort of injustice. With no husband to support or defend her she is easy prey. People, one can imagine principally men, can easily take advantage of her. Her deceased husband’s estate would revert to his family, not to her. She is one of the “least of these, my sisters and brothers,” that Jesus talks about, especially in Matthew 25.

She takes her plea for justice quite naturally to a judge. We are told that this judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” All he seems to care about is himself. Today we might say he was ego-centric or even narcissistic. Unconcerned with the needs of people in general, and in this particular instance little or no regard for the trials of the poor and oppressed. He is deaf to the widow’s plea for justice.

His disinterest to get involved with her ‘case’ may be tied to money in some way: either he is in the habit of taking bribes to settle cases in which case this woman as widow would have none; or, perhaps he has an ‘arrangement’ with her wealthy opponent who would stand to lose should she succeed in prosecuting her complaint. In any event, we have a picture of an arrogant, unjust, self-absorbed and powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society – this woman, a widow.

She does not give up. She cries out for justice day and night waiting for someone to take her claims seriously. Jesus commends her persistence. That is, those who mean to follow in His Way are to persist in obtaining a just solution – some kind of just reconciliation.

The unjust judge grows weary of listening to her and finally gives in. That is, he agrees to listen to her. This listening is the beginning of justice. The widow, like women today, just want to be heard, first and foremost. Listening is the beginning of being taken seriously – you count as someone worthy of attention. That’s all she is asking for. That’s all anyone is asking for.

Listening to this story in the context of an ongoing unfolding of episodes calling our collective attention to issues around violence against women, one would need to be as deaf as the unjust judge not to ‘hear’ the resonances with our current situation – which any woman will tell you is not current or new at all. As I seek more understanding around all of this I am being told that from an early age, pre-teen, young women in our society begin to find themselves in uncomfortable, non-consensual situations with boys and often older men.

And after not being taken seriously a few times, or told “it is nothing, that’s just….Uncle Joe…boys will be boys”, a combination of fear and shame causes them to de-escalate – retreat to holding it all inside where most likely more damage continues to be done. It becomes like a fire shut up in their bones. They grow weary holding it all in.

This is why the story of this widow is so incredibly empowering. It urges a persistence in telling the stories of violence and assault against women. Kelly Oxford, a writer and social media personality, posted a tweet about a sexual assault she suffered on a bus and invited other women to chime in. Suddenly she had 9.7 million responses. That’s seven figures: 9,700,000 responses of women telling similar stories. And that is only the women who felt free to respond. That’s 9.7 million women asking us, we the judge, to hear their case and provide some sort of justice.

Which I presume begins with each one of us taking this seriously. I am on record on social media saying that until we take issues around violence and assault of women, as well as the need for education for women everywhere seriously – and in many places in our culture and around the world this is a serious issue – we will have little chance of solving other pressing issues like climate change, the economy, jobs, education and endless warfare because we need women involved in forging those solutions. We need their wisdom.

The Jesus I know takes the plight of this widow seriously. He holds her up as an example. We are to be the widow. We are to take the case of justice for women to anyone and everyone who will listen. When they turn a deaf ear like the judge we are to persist until we wear them out!

Jesus also reminds us that if the hearts of men like the judge can be moved by persistence, how much more his Father in Heaven hears the cries of his people and gives us the strength to persist in our search for justice and dignity for women – all women, all the time. It is a parable of hope.

There was another rabbi at the time of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, who is recorded to have said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when?

Jesus says the time is now. All women, like this widow, are to receive a respectful and dignified hearing. Justice, says Jesus, must prevail for all of us, or else none of us are free. None of us are free. As long as one of us is chained none of us are free. Amen.

Solomon Burke: None Of Us Are Free    by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell