Saturday, March 25, 2017

Become The Light God Wants You To Be

Lent 4A 2017 - John 9:1-41
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Christ Church, Forest Hill, MD
Light!
The gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding - the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John's gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John's gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: "I Am the light of the world." John has already told us this "in the beginning." And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, "I Am," we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, "Who shall I say sent me?" The voice from the bush replies, "I Am who I Am...you shall say...I Am sent me to you."(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, "Light!" Jesus says, "I am the light of the world." This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean - who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he "no better and no worse than any other man"?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind - and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others - especially others who are not at all like ourselves.
The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness - he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.
Even Jesus' own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents' sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man's sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean - rather like the untouchables in India. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away - they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses (just two weeks ago we focused on Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, who does not respond as quickly as this man).

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to "see" -to see the Light of the World - The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God! Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that like the Samaritan Woman and The Man Born Blind we too can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him - give him a drink - so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life. She goes on to become the first evangelist proclaiming the Good News of Jesus!

Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, "There is something you can do for me." The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others have constructed for him.


There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world. If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God's work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion? Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time. Once Easter arrives it is time to follow the examples of The Man Born Blind and the Samaritan Woman. We too can be people of the Light, of Jesus the Light of the World. Amen.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Still I Rise

The Samaritan Woman
Alfre Woodard tells the story that on the set of the movie Poetic Justice, Dr. Maya Angelou interceded in an altercation and took the actor and Hip-Hop artist Tupac Shakur aside to calm him down, finally saying to him, “You are enough!” At one dimension this is what Jesus does for the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4:5-42).

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities, once called her “the most broken woman in scripture.” She comes to the well to draw water at noon, the hottest time of the day. All the other women come early in the morning. As we learn, she has had four husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. Likely this is no fault of her own, but rather the result of the marriage and divorce laws of her time and place that put her fate in the hands of the men who had known her. Still, there would be the comments, the whispering, fingers pointed. To avoid all of that she comes at noon only to find a young, tired Jewish man sitting near the well of her ancestor Jacob.

The Samaritans and the Jews shared a common ancestry and common scriptures as outlined in the first five books of our Bible, or Torah as those books are also known. They differed, however, on how to worship the God of Torah, the God of the Exodus – the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim while the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem atop Mount Zion. The two groups avoided one another as much as possible. Which makes it significant that Jesus is passing through Samaritan territory, though it is the quickest route from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Jesus asks the woman, who has no name, for a drink of water. This is significant. Not only did Jews not talk with Samaritans, but it was not proper for a man and woman not married to one another to be seen in public let alone conversing. Jesus has broken all the protocols and barriers of his day. The woman makes note of this. Yet, he is saying in effect, “There is something you, a Samaritan and a woman who has had numerous problems, can do for me, the source of living water. You are still created in the image of God. You have value. You are a person. You are enough.”

Given this background, can we see that suddenly this broken woman who comes to the well at noon to avoid situations just like this one is given purpose and strength and courage to engage in a deep theological and historical conversation with this stranger? She is no longer afraid. Unlike Nicodemus in the previous episode (John 3:1-17) who is rendered nearly speechless, she defends her ancestry and her people’s traditions.

And yet. And yet, she is now also whole enough to grasp that this young Jew passing through is someone special. Perhaps, she realizes, he is God’s anointed one come to restore all God’s people. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christos). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.”

“I am.” The very name Moses heard at the burning bush. Jesus self identifies as the one who says, “I am who I am.” At this climactic moment of self-revelation, Jesus’ hapless disciples return and are astonished that he is talking to a woman, and a Samaritan at that. Yet, afraid to call him on this breach of protocol, they start talking to him about food. Food. To which he says, Doing this work my Father has given me to do is what feeds me. Breaking down barriers, bringing people to wholeness, restoring people to embrace their belovedness, letting people know that they are enough – this is what feeds me.

Meanwhile the woman understands better than the disciples and goes back home to tell others what she has seen and heard, and because of her witness others come to see and to know Jesus. This outsider becomes the very model of a disciple. Others are restored to wholeness and fullness of life. Others come to know that they too are enough, all because of her witness. Her courage to tell her story. It’s a remarkable story really. It is a story about each of us and all of us. We are enough. Sometimes this is a difficult truth to accept. Yet, we are meant to contemplate this woman’s story and make it our own. There was something she could do for Jesus. There were more things she could do for others. She realized this and changed the lives of countless others, including those of us listening to her story and allowing it to move us to a new place.

Like her, will we accept the truth that we are enough? Will we be moved to serve the Lord and serve others so that lives will be changed? These uncertain times call us to witness to these truths. 

This poem by Dr. Angelou seems right for this Samaritan Woman and for all women everywhere all the time.

Maya Angelou, 1928 - 2014

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Always We Begin Again!

Teshuva - Turn, Turn ‘til we come down right
Lent. It’s all about repentance. In Biblical terms that is teshuva, to turn. Nearly all the Biblical narratives having to do with this need of ours to turn away from where we are and be moved to someplace new. Which does not necessarily mean turning back to where we have been.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (John 3:1-17). Why? Because in chapter 2 Jesus turns water in to wine and makes a scene at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover – the Feast of the Great Escape. The people followed God and Moses out of slavery to a land of promise. Jesus not only made a scene, he made a mess turning over tables, tossing money all over the ground, and driving away all the animals. People coming to Jerusalem for the feast need to exchange Roman coins that say “Caesar is God” for clean money to offer at the Temple, and to purchase an animal or two to be sacrifices. Nic is correct to think it would not be prudent to be seen with this Jesus character in broad daylight. Too dangerous.

Nic is a Pharisee – that is, he is a leader of a group of faithful people who study Torah, their covenant with God, and live their lives in accordance with Torah so that God will send an anointed one, a Christos or a Messhia, to restore Israel – one might say to make Israel great again. He hopes Jesus will lead the way back.

Instead, Jesus says it’s going to be a lot more like Abram in the old days. The wind comes from you know not where to take you you know not where. Abram left home with his wife Sarai and nephew Lot and his family. Abram and Sarai have no children, and yet they are chosen to be the first of descendants more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore! And on the promise of a new home and blessings for them and all the peoples of the earth, Abram and Sarai take off. Do you remember how that all works, Nicodemus?

Do we?  It’s like Don Henley sang, “Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said, "Don't look back. You can never look back". Lot’s wife tried to look back and what happened to her? She became frozen in one place, a pillar of salt. Abram took off he knew not where, but he left home and never looked back. Jesus is trying to get Nic to learn that same lesson – those born of the wind, God’s wind, God’s breath, God’s Spirit are going to where that spirit, like the wind, sends them.

It is a grave mistake to think that to repent, to return, or as the Hebrew has it, teshuva, means going back to where we came from. Although Joni Mitchell sang “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” the fact is nothing could be further from the truth. The life of the spirit moves forward not back. The life of the spirit calls us to set the sails and let the Holy Wind of the Holy Spirit take us where it will.

To believe otherwise is to allow ourselves to give in to the temptations of the devil – temptations to great gestures, heroic tricks, power grabs and illusions of returning to some past golden era. Fortunately, we pray to a God whose property “is always to have mercy!” So, that whenever we go astray, whenever we are tempted like Lot’s wife to look back, or like anyone who thinks we can somehow ride a time machine back to the past, we need to repent. We need a “penitent heart.” We need to turn from looking back and let God propel us forward to a new time and a new place.

The problem is, we hate to let go. We hate to relinquish the past. So we attempt to carry it with us wherever we go. But Jesus knows that this just weighs us down and slows us down until we are stuck like Lot’s wife in one place. He constantly tells us to get rid of everything and move forward with  him. This is what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God - to let the ruach, the wind, the breath, the spirit of God that blew across the face of the waters in creation to propel us like Abram and Sarai to a new place of promise – great promise of becoming a blessing to others, all others, all the families and peoples of the Earth!

So, we find Jesus trying to get Nicodemus and his Pharisee sisters and brothers to see that restoring the old glory days of Israel is not going to happen. It is as the Buddha said some 600 years or so before Jesus: Everything is changing. Nothing stays the same. To think otherwise is to stray from God’s ways and try to assert our ways as the only way. Which leads inevitably to being frozen as a pillar of salt. We are never told explicitly if Nic gets it. Later, however, he reminds people that before judging Jesus or anyone that person needs to be heard. And after the crucifixion he along with Joseph of Arimathea provides the Crucified One with a proper burial.

As I write this the wind is howling outside my door. I recall being on silent retreat in Racine, Wisconsin, early in Lent, praying for the Holy Spirit while the wind raged against the building we were in and rattled the windows all night long. I remember thinking, why are we in here? The wind is out there! The Spirit is out there! Why do we hide from God’s holy ruach? God’s Holy Spirit?

I suspect it is because we allow ourselves to become tenured to the past. We make the past into an idol. We cast it in silver and gold. That is, we invest our money, our culture and our very selves in a past that will never be permanent. That will never be here again. We lock ourselves in a room with windows rattling. We choose to look back and become pillars of salt.

So great is our need for teshuva – to repent, to turn. As the Shakers had it, we need to turn, turn ‘til we come down right. Just like Moses reminds the people before entering into the land of promise: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live. A life of teshuva, of turning, of repentance, is to choose life. If not now, when?


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Where Are You?

Lent 1 A  - Where Are You?
What is perhaps most interesting in our episodes from Genesis and Matthew (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7/Matthew 4:1-11) is what is missing. Don’t get me wrong, what is there is important, if somewhat overly familiar to the point that we tend to think we know what these stories are all about. But the punch-lines are missing.

Let’s begin with what is here. In Matthew’s story of Jesus testing his new vocation as God’s Beloved Son in the wilderness, we are meant to hear some important resonances. We are meant to recall, for instance, the forty years God tests the Hebrew people, and that Moses sat atop Mount Sinai, fasting for forty days and forty nights waiting upon God to deliver what would become the basis for an eternal relationship with God – a covenant based in commandments meant to determine our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. The takeaway here: Jesus is the new Moses.

If we recombine this story with the story that immediately precedes this one, our Lord’s baptism, this “new Moses” is in fact the Beloved Son of God who will in every way embody those pronouncements from Sinai in all that he says and does. That is, Jesus sets the example for how we are meant to fulfill our Baptismal Promise that all that we say and all that we do will proclaim the good news of God in Christ!

Just as Moses and the people of God were tested in the wilderness, so Jesus is tested – perhaps a better word than “tempted” under the circumstances here. During the forty year sojourn the Hebrew people were tested three times and failed. Jesus faces the same three temptations and does not fail.

Responding to each test to do something spectacular, something super-hero-like, and to make the ultimate power grab, Jesus quotes Moses’ famous sermon we know as Deuteronomy three times: “You cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3)”; “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16)”; “The Lord your God shall you worship, and God alone shall you serve (Deut 6:13).” It would seem that to truly understand who Jesus is it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with Deuteronomy!

Evidently being God’s Beloved has little or nothing to do with power and spectacular displays such as turning stones into bread – we might recall that Jesus teaches us to rely on bread that is given daily, just as Moses and the people did in that first wilderness.

Jesus appears to pass the test – the SAT’s or Entrance Exam - to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Which, after being waited upon by angels (and wouldn’t we all like to have a bit more detail on what that was like!) he sets out to proclaim to one and all, “Repent, for kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That is the part that is missing, and which I consider to be the real punch line here for the first Sunday of Lent. God’s world is near, at hand, you can reach out and touch it. Take one step and you are in it!

To repent means to turn or re-turn to God. The idea is that God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. It is we who have strayed from God’s ways as articulated way back on Mount Sinai. We are like lost sheep. So to turn or return to God is the order of the day and the focus of Lent. It is the only way to get home again, as the first man and woman would learn the hard way in the garden.

The Garden – another story we think we know all too well. It is easy to miss, however, that the central problem here is not the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit, as problematic as that is. The real problem is believing what we might call The Big Lie – when the tempter says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God…”

It’s the same lie the tempter offers Jesus in the wilderness over and over, “Do this, or this, or this and you will be like God.” A funny thing to say to someone who already is God! And in the garden the sin is believing they “will be like God.” That is, they forget who they are and whose they are – imago Dei, created in the image of God: male and female God creates us to be images of God.

The idea here is had they not believed the lie they would not have eaten the fruit which, we recall, God had told them not to eat. Why? It is like your mother or father saying, “Don’t go across the street by yourself.” God was simply protecting those he loved from the believing the big lie. To forget who we are and whose we are is the beginning of trouble.

Once again, however, what is perhaps the punch line for this story comes after they sew some clothes, loin-cloths actually, to become the prototypical Puritans and the origin of species homo protestantorius. After joining the Garment Workers guild, they hear the footsteps of God in the garden in the cool of the evening. Ashamed of having believed the lie, they hide. Really?

Surely any creature created in the image of God knows that you cannot hide from God. Nevertheless, they attempt to hide. God plays along with them and cries out, “Where are you?”

This is the punchline. This is the central question we are meant to ponder for the next forty days of Lent: Where are you? God really wants to know. God really wants us to come home. God really wants us to repent and return to God. And it can begin with a simple, “Here I am, Lord,” another one-liner that appears and reappears throughout the entire sweep of the Biblical narrative.

For when we say, “Here I am, Lord,” we join with all those who have gone before us in getting involved with God’s work in God’s world on behalf of all God’s people and creatures, including the very earth itself. The earth, from which the first man is named, Adam from the Hebrew adamah, which means “ground” or “earth.” As we remind ourselves every Ash Wednesday, God takes up a handful of dust from the ground, breathes his breath, his ruach, his spirit into the dust, and just like that, here we are – imago Dei. In our baptism we learn that we are God’s Beloved with whom God is pleased. Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return - adamah. We are Holy dust!


Lent is a time to come up with an answer to God’s primary question, “Where are you?” For until we know where we are, it is hard to know which way to turn to go home to God – the God who comes to us wherever we are, seeking us, so that he can love us and take us home. Amen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

We Are Dust

Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is a day of contrition. It is perhaps the most meaningful liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. It is a day of fasting, a day of alms giving, a day of prayer. We acknowledge in the most direct language all the ways we separate ourselves from God and from one another. The list is long, painfully long:
We have not loved God, nor have we loved our neighbors
We have not served others as Christ does
We confess our unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, pride and impatience
We confess our self-indulgent appetites and ways that exploit other peoples
We confess our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves
We confess we have an intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts
We confess we are dishonest in daily life and work
We confess our negligence in prayer and worship and commending the faith that is in us
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering
We confess our indifference to injustice and cruelty
We confess we harbor uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors
We confess our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us
We confess we are wasteful and pollute creation with no concern for those who come  after us

As we confess these sins of commission and omission, we have a smudge of ash on our heads. The ashes traditionally are made by burning last year’s palm fronds from Palm Sunday, the Sunday of our Lord’s Passion. The palms carry much ironic symbolism. They are waved by Jesus’ supporters, a motley assortment of poor and marginalized people, as he enters the city of Jerusalem during the week of Passover. These people, hard-working farmers, fishermen and some trades people, blind, lame and diseased people, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners of all kinds, are all looking for a break from the unjust attitudes of those in power toward their miserable lives. They wave them with enthusiasm and hope!

Yet, the hopes represented by these palms branches go up in smoke like the sacrifices burning in the Temple day and night as the one in whom their hope resides is arrested and sent to a miserable and embarrassing death upon a Roman Cross.

Burning the palms is an annual ritual for me in our backyard. Having been warned by my liturgics professor, the Reverend Thomas Talley of just how hot the palms burn, I create a safe place to burn them in the bowl of my Webber Grill lined with heavy duty aluminum foil. They burn with an intensity like no other – the flames flare up white hot pushing the casual observer back from the grill. Some of the foil melts. As the fire dies out the embers glow with tiny dots of red-orange among the blackened ashes for a long time, much like the ruins of Jerusalem itself must have festered and glowed for days in that year 70 CE when Rome had had enough and made a holocaust of the city and the surrounding countryside once and for all. Like those ashes we are dust and to dust we shall return.

The poet Marilyn Nelson in her poem Dusting reminds us that dust is really a teaming living organism made up of particles and elements of spent stars, “tiny particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans: for the infinite, intricate shapes of submicroscopic living things. For algae spores and fungus spores, bonded by vital mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their inseparable lives from equator to pole.” Dust is alive!

At the very same time, the intensity of the burning palms recalls the intensity of God’s love for this sinful and broken world and our love of God and neighbor as summarized in the Song of Songs chapter 8:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.
 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.

I remember years ago a little girl at the communion rail with her mother and father to receive the ashes. As I reached out to trace the ashes on her forehead she recoiled and backed off. I thought to myself, “Yes – these ashes are nothing to trifle with. I can understand your reaction. I hope the prayers and confessions we make this day will one day translate into a better world, a repaired world, a world turned right-side-up again, a world in which there is no need for fear like yours.”

The prophet Joel (2:1-2, 12-17) wrote in a time of great crisis for the people of God. He is calling people to assemble, to pray, to confess their sins and make sacrifices calling on God’s forgiveness and love to restore their good fortunes. Yet, due to famine and drought the people have nothing to leave, no gifts to offer, no sacrifice to make.

The prophet then imagines an incredible scene. Perhaps, he says, perhaps God himself will make the offering on our behalf. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.” There is perhaps no more tender moment in all of scripture than this word picture of God entering the Temple to leave the offering to himself on our behalf when we are for whatever reasons unable to do so ourselves.

Every Sunday we relive the prophet’s imagined moment as we offer bread and wine at the altar of the Lord. We recall that tender moment on the cross which it turns out was not the end of the story, but only the beginning. For three days later Jesus returned to his community to fulfill the promise of God’s redemption of our broken and fallen world, commissioning us to join him in repairing the breaches in human society which are many.


Perhaps we are as foolish as Joel in our imaginings, but we are those people who believe he is still in our midst and leaves behind him a grain offering and a drink offering. We dare to hope that he will turn and relent just as he dares to hope that we will turn away from the formidable sins we confess today and rededicate ourselves to lives of love and compassion not only for all people but for all of creation itself – the water, the air, the land, the skies and the deep mysteries of the universe, seen and unseen. This is Ash Wednesday. One day to press the reset button and begin again. Always we begin again as we try to make things right and good. Amen.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

Thin Places

Thin Places
Up on a mountain top: first Moses, then Elijah, and now Jesus. Mountains connote being closer to God. The Celts called places like this “thin places” – thin in that that which separates the earthly from the divine is closer, more easily accessible.

So, Moses takes dictation from the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah hears a “still, small voice.” Jesus hears the same voice he heard at his baptism, as do Peter and John and James: This is my Beloved with whom I am well pleased – Listen to him!

Emphasis on “listen.” For how are we to hear if first we do not listen? Listening is an active task. One must choose to hear to be listening. And one must empty or still one’s mind to really listen. Just looking at the text (Matt 17:1-9) one can almost hear the Lord’s frustration in imploring the disciples to listen. The same frustration that followed his dictation to Moses of the commandments only to have the people below already worshipping a golden calf.

Idols: religion cast in money. Psalm 115 gets at this problem of idolatry. Our God is in the heavens. You don’t have to like it, you don’t get to vote on it. What a God! Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but they cannot speak. Eyes but they cannot see. Feet but they cannot walk. Ears but they cannot hear. “And they do not make a sound with their throat.” This is meant to make us laugh because the Hebrew literally says they cannot clear their throat. Um-hmm-hmm. And what the psalmist knows is that any god that cannot go “Um-hum-hum-hum” will never get you out of exile, slavery or the wilderness, and certainly cannot save or redeem you in any sense of those words.

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany ends much the way the season began. Those who have ears will hear that. Epiphany begins with our Lord’s baptism where an off-stage voice says, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased,” and ends with those same words followed by, “Listen to him!” Exclamation point, bold, underlined in italics!?!

If we take the time to listen, if we still our minds, empty our minds, stop thinking ahead to formulate a response and simply listen, just what do we hear?

So far this Year A in Matthew we have heard a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. We are to be peacemakers. We are to let our lights shine. We are to love our enemies and pray for them, for our God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. And we are to be merciful.

Tough orders in tough times. In just the past week Neo-Nazi, White Supremacists, so called Alt -Right hooligans distributed Anti-Semitic leaflets right here in Bel Air, Maryland. While across the country Jewish community centers received credible bomb threats, and a Jewish cemetery in Saint Louis, MO was vandalized, grave markers knocked over. Hundreds of them. All this in the midst of deportation raids and ongoing racial tensions.

Just how are we to love those who do these immoral and threatening acts in the dark of night? When we don’t even know who they are since they do not commit these acts in the open? And just what words do we pray? What does our love consist of?

A friend of mine, and a great musician, Daryl Davis, offers one example in his documentary on PBS, Accidental Courtesy. Daryl is African American and was raised, one might say, color-blind since when he was young his family moved around the world a lot. His first encounter with racism happened as a young Cub Scout. He asked himself the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

As an adult Daryl has gone across the country asking just that question as he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan and other White Supremacist movements. Many of them now count Daryl as a friend. And many have left the life of white supremacy. Why?

Because Daryl listens to them. He wants to know about the origins of their hatred for African-Americans and other “minority” peoples. He gives them permission to lay it all out. Eventually they begin to ask him questions and before you know it they are in a relationship. As love in the Bible means doing something helpful for someone else whether or not you like them, Daryl was offering them the kind of love most of them have never known. Once they are in relationship the walls come tumbling down. The idols of hatred, fear and bigotry are destroyed, or at least neutered!

Daryl also employs his musical talent to draw them in. Music is a kind of prayer. Daryl loves and prays for his perceived “enemies,” and many, not all, experience a change of heart. I would submit this is The Life of the Beloved – one who is a peacemaker, one who is merciful, one who listens and prays for and loves others – all others, as heinous as they may seem.

Jesus is the light of the world. He calls us to be light to the world. What would our neighborhood, our county, our state, our country and the whole world be like if more of us would take the time like Daryl Davis does to seek out the other – those who are radically, utterly unlike ourselves? To love and to pray for those utterly unlike ourselves?

It is like creating a thin place, a space in which God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever you might like to call that which is greater than we are, can enter into relationships and allow real change to happen. Lives change. Attitudes change. Society changes.

Just as we are God’s Beloved, so is everyone else. The kicker is that means everyone!

Those of us who choose to be light in a dark world, peacemakers, and merciful will do well to ponder these things. Lashing out and hateful rhetoric only goes so far and eventually makes things worse and more divided. Being merciful is hard work, but good work and necessary work. Will we be those people who harden divisions between peoples? Or, will be merciful peacemakers?  


Kurt Vonnegut once said that being merciful was the one good idea we have been given so far. There may be a second good idea, but he does not venture to say what it will be. He believes, however, that music, that ineffable art form that moves the human spirit in very deep ways, very well may be the second good idea being born. If nothing else, let’s play and sing and listen to music so that we may be a part of God’s second good idea being born, all the while becoming merciful peacemakers. God needs us. Jesus needs us. The world needs us to do these things. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Third Way

The Third Way
 “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5: 48
We simply do not understand the Bible. Of what does God’s holiness consist? As stated from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, our God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

The translators employed, i.e. paid by, King James manipulated the scripture in places to favor the king. So they translated, “Do not strike back at evil in kind,” as “Do not resist an evil doer.” Making the sense of the entire passage in Matthew 5: 38-48 virtually meaningless. For Jesus is all about non-violent resistance. Jesus resists playing into the hands of the Roman oppressors, and counsels his followers, that would be you and me, to do the same.

“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil in kind.” Or, “Don’t react violently against one who is evil.” That is, the tradition teaches proportionate response. If your opponent takes an eye, you are to take ONLY an eye and no more, for this is to reflect the holiness of a God that desires to relent from punishing. Jesus pushes it one step further: Do not meet violence with violence. Do not strike back in kind.

Walter Wink in his little book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2003) argues that we have a choice in how to respond to evil and injustice. The standard responses are Fight or Flight. Jesus, argues Wink, offers a Third Way – Nonviolent Resistance. Nonviolent Resistance is a way of living into our inherent imgao dei, being created in the image of God. It is a way to live into the holiness of God by responding to people with the kind of compassion and desire for the good and justice for all people (as outlined in part in Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18, 33-34), which is what God desires for the whole world, everyone and everything therein.

Yet, thanks in part to those in King James’ employ, we do not understand what it means to “turn the other cheek.” One needs some knowledge of the time and place in which Jesus says this. Jesus is not commanding docility or even neutrality, both of which concede power to the one striking you. Jesus lived in a right-handed world in which one in a position of power and authority would strike one across the cheek with the back of the right hand. Roman soldiers would backhand non-citizens; masters would backhand slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.

Wink observes what we have are sets of unequal relations in which retaliation would be suicidal, and submission is to concede the injustice. Jesus’s third way is to turn “the other also.” This, in effect, invites another blow, but this time it needs to be either with the left hand, which was prohibited and only to be used for unclean tasks, or with the open palm or a fist, which in that culture acknowledges you as an equal, a peer.

So, to turn the other cheek robs the oppressor “of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow did not achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not deny or alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’” [Wink, pp 15-16]

Similarly, if you give up both your coat and the undergarment in court you embarrass and humiliate the one suing you. And if you carry a centurion’s backpack an extra mile, you humiliate the Roman soldier since by regulation he can only ask you to carry it one mile or be subject to discipline himself. One might see that Jesus, in addition to advocating nonviolent resistance, robbing the oppressor’s power over you, while also making a mockery or burlesque of those repeated attempts to abuse power in ways that are unjust and corrosive of society as a whole. It is a way of unmasking the ultimate futility and poverty of power.

Then we are ordered to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, for even God sends sun and rain on the bad as well as the good. To be created in the image of God, to have the kind of compassion and desire for the good of all people, especially widows, orphans and resident aliens, is the kind of “perfection” to which God calls us. Not getting A+ on all our work, but going the extra mile in exposing the falseness that surrounds us. It means adapting these principals of nonviolent resistance to any and all similar circumstances. Wink cites the example of the South African Apartheid government’s desire to demolish a shanty town. They waited till nearly everyone left for work and brought in the bulldozers. Three women remained at home. They were ordered to leave. Instead they marched out to the bulldozers and perhaps sensing the prudery of the farm boys, stripped themselves bare. The army and the bulldozers fled.

I keep going back over and over again to Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33-34: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Jesus understood this and lived this all the way to the cross.

This is what Biblical religion is all about. Our “perfection” will be in finding new ways of adapting the strategies of Jesus’ Third Way. Fight and/or Flight will not get the job done.