Saturday, February 20, 2016

I Am The Wings of God

Genesis15: 1-12, 17-18/Luke  13: 31-35
In Genesis chapter 15 God ratifies a covenant with Abram. Abram, who at his advanced age has left home as the Lord God had called him to do and is still without an heir.  God says you shall have an heir, and you shall have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. And they shall be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. And this is the land I have promised you as your new home. Abram says, But how, Lord, am I to know this? This is the question for all of us. How indeed!

When the heavens are darkened, when we cannot see the light, when we cannot count the stars, how are we to know? When politicians fail to fulfill promises, or obfuscate and lie, how are we to know? When we know that if we are to proceed in the way in which we are traveling it will lead to certain confrontation and even death, how are we to know?

The Lord says, “Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram a turtledove, and a young pigeon and I shall show you,” says the Lord.

Which strikes us as odd, but Abram knows what to do. He sacrifices the animals and lays out one half of each across from the other half, driving away the birds of prey. This is an offering for the Lord, and sets the stage for the Lord’s covenant ceremony. This is how covenants were sealed in those days. The parties would walk between the laid out animal parts with the understanding that this will happen to me should I break the terms of the covenant. Note how God passes through on Abram’s behalf while Abram is in a deep sleep and terrifying darkness.

This passing through can be likened to Moses and the people passing through the Red Sea on dry land. Or, like Jesus passing through the cross and what the world counts as death into new life. Covenants are sealed by someone having passed through something somewhere, just as we pass through the waters of Baptism into a covenant relationship with God in Christ.

Once you have passed through there is a degree of ultimate safety guaranteed.

Abram knows this. Jesus knows this. Knowing this, Jesus, like God does for Abram, passes through death for us while we are in deep darkness. We are those people who know this story well. The Herods and Pilates of this world never do get it and so trust only their own violence and forcefulness.

Then there are some astonishing elements to our Gospel for today beginning with the Pharisees. After much disputation with Jesus along the way to Jerusalem, these Pharisees come as friends warning Jesus to “get away from here! Herod wants to kill you!” Jesus tells them to go to Herod, that “fox” and tell him I am “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Already the three day pattern is set just as his face is set toward Jerusalem – the city that kills prophets!

Then comes a remarkable metaphor. Jesus says our covenant relationship with God is like being a chick under the wings of a mother hen. Under those wings is warmth, and safety, and love, and care that is unbounded, which may be the root characteristic of the very mercy we pray for today.

Note that God is portrayed as a woman, a mother hen. As opposed to Herod the “fox” which was considered a cut, a diss. Foxes were considered insignificant predators next to lions. Jesus’ listeners would know this and no doubt get a good laugh at Herod’s expense. Our mother hen of a God is infinitely more powerful than all the Herods you could line up, and in fact there were a number of them doing The Empire’s bidding.

But if we have ever seen baby chicks, we know that just as soon as the mother hen gets five of them under her wings another three pop out. They just squirt out as if they were greased or sprayed with WD-40! People in that agrarian society would know just how true and comical this really looks. Cue even more laughter from the crowd.

But then it turns serious. “See your house is left (or abandoned) to you.” Luke and his hearers know this to be true as Jerusalem and God’s house already lie in ruins when Luke is writing. Luke links Jesus’ impending death on a cross with the destruction of the Temple itself. God’s will for Jesus and Israel to be a blessing to all people is thwarted by human refusals to accept it and be gathered under God’s wings. Perhaps it helps to know that the teaching just before this story is about the narrow door which eventually will be shut. The time to be gathered under the wings of God is now. There is no later.

Note how easily Jesus begins to judge the living and the dead as we say. Those in charge in Jerusalem would not find this so funny. The peasants who usually live their lives in abject fear of the Romans and Aristocracy in Jerusalem are seeing the kind of hope Abram would see when counting the stars in the sky. The “haves” and the “have nots” always see things differently.

Also note that this section ends with the song people will sing welcoming him into Jerusalem: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This draws us forward to his work in Jerusalem which he will complete. Even Herod cannot interfere with that. Luke seems to hold out hope that there will be those who “see” Jesus and recognize him as he who comes in the name of the Lord. It is hope and lament over the demise of Jerusalem all at once as Luke prepares us for Palm Sunday.

Whether we find this figure of God the mother hen fetching or fearsome depends on whether we count ourselves among the chicks under her wings, or among those who are busy squirting out and away from the protection of her wings. As always, it is a matter of perspective. The irony of living in God’s kingdom is that it is safer to be with the hen than with the fox! Go figure. The least and the last shall be first and so on.

Many people never even stop to think about this at all. We, on the other hand, are those people who take this time in Lent to take a look and see where we find ourselves: under the wings of God? Are we becoming the wings of God in this world? Or, are we busy playing with the foxes of this world?

God’s mercy in Jesus invites us to squirm back under the wings of God before it’s too late. Amen.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Give peace in our day, we beseech thee, O thou God of peace! And grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come. We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and arch-angels, and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: the whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.
From: A Thanksgiving Sermon, preached January 1, 1808, in St. Thomas's,
or the African Episcopal, Church, Philadelphia:
On Account of the Abolition of the African slave trade, on that day, by the
Congress of the United States.
By Absalom Jones, rector of the said church

This First Sunday in Lent falls in the midst of Black History Month. In The Episcopal Church we count Absalom Jones as one of the Saints of the Church. Although the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves slowed the slave trade, it would be many difficult decades and a Civil War to bring the trade to an end. Born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware, Jones taught himself to read out of the New Testament. No doubt the story of Jesus’ persistent faith in God and God only, resisting the temptations to power (Luke 4: 1-13), and relying on the Word of God, inspired the young Absalom.  When he was sixteen he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. He attended a night school for Blacks, operated by Quakers. When he was twenty he married another slave and purchased her freedom before his own with his earnings. Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. He was thirty-eight.

At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its Black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased Black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate Blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the Blacks indignantly walked out in a body.

In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities. In 1792 the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17, 1794.
The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1, that they be received as an organized body;  2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.

Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.”
But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas’ Church grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black
Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones, like his Lord and Savior, was an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument as he continued the struggle for freedom and equal rights for his people. Absalom Jones resisted all temptations to power, entering a lifetime of service in his Lord’s name. The world needs us all to continue the work Jones began so that one day all people in this land will know the kind of freedom Jones so exemplifies to this day.  – Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts

scientist and engineer from Scotland who was for a time a missionary in Ghana in the 1950’s.
The following folk song, Jesu, Jesu is in our hymnal (602). It was penned by a Scotsman, Tom Colvin, a scientist and engineer from Scotland who later in his life was a missionary in Ghana in the 1950’s. He became familiar with a traditional love song from the village of Chereponi, Ghana. It seemed a fitting tune for a song about Christian love. He writes, “Sitting there in the moonlight, I felt it simply had to be about black and white, rich and poor. I was ashamed of the wasteful affluence of my people but proud of the Gospel that transforms us into servants of one another. It is only when we who are rich learn to have the humility of the slave towards the poor of the world that we shall be able to learn from them; they have so much to teach us and share with us.”

Absalom Jones and Tom Colvin: two men in different centuries give us plenty to think about this First Sunday in Lent as our nation struggles to find a way to talk about race relations.

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet,
master who acts as a slave to them. Refrain

Neighbors are rich and poor,
varied in color and race,
neighbors are near and far away. Refrain

These are the ones we should serve,
these are the ones we should love;
all these are neighbors to us and you. Refrain

Loving puts us on our knees,
serving as though we are slaves;
this is the way we should live with you. Refrain

Kneel at the feet of our friends,
silently washing their feet;
this is the way we should live with you. Refrain

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Who Are These Guys?

As the Epiphany Season comes to a close, a season that highlights the many ways in people began to recognize who Jesus is, we always conclude with the scene of his Transfiguration. It’s like that scene in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid when Butch and the Kid are being chased by Pinkerton Agents are hiding behind a rock looking back at the cloud of dust relentlessly approaching them and they say, “Who are those guys anyway?” The Transfiguration is meant to be at least one answer to that question about Jesus: who is this guy anyway?  

The thirteenth century saint, Richard of Chichester, offers the following prayer:
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

The final three lines are a hymn. As a mentor of mine, The Reverend William Caradine, once observed, Richard offers a very western way of looking at the life of faith:  first we must know Jesus clearly, then love him dearly so that we may follow him more nearly.

As Bill would point out, however, that’s just not the way it is in the Gospel accounts. That is, at the outset of his ministry, he does not go down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, hold up the Hebrew Scriptures and say, “OK, boys, read, mark and inwardly digest these stories of our people. Then tomorrow morning I will come back and give you a quiz on all of this. If you do well enough on the quiz I will let you follow me.” No. Instead he simply says, “Follow me,” and they put down their nets, leave their boats and families and follow him!

He never even asks them if they love him until after the resurrection when he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This he asks three times.  Yes, Lord, says Peter. “Then feed my sheep…tend my flock…lead my sheep…” replies Jesus.

And arguably, given the number of books, articles, movies and what-not that fly around especially around Christmas and Easter, we are still trying to know Jesus “more clearly.” If knowing Jesus were the first required step, we would never get around to following Jesus.

A similar sentiment has been making the rounds on Facebook recently from Richard Rohr:
We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on the same path.
We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with Him and everything else.
This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.

And after all, transformation is one way of saying what Transfiguration is all about. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up a mountain to pray. Suddenly Jesus is radiantly glowing bright white like no white ever seen before. And that’s not all. He is suddenly accompanied by Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets of Israelite religion. He is one of them. They are talking about “his departure” – his “exodos” as the text has it. Like the Hebrew people passing through the sea from bondage to freedom, Jesus will pass through crucifixion and death into New Life. Peter wants to preserve the moment, build some dwellings so they can all camp out for a while, but before he can do anything a cloud covers the mountain and a voice declares, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

We may recall that we have heard this voice once before at his Baptism by John: “You are my Son, my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.” These are the bookends of Epiphany.  It is important that we listen to this voice because by water and the Holy Spirit those who are baptized are “fully incorporated into the Body of Christ.” That is, this voice says to each and every one of us, “You are my beloved; I am well pleased with you.”

This is the Good News we hear so much about. This is what God wants all of us to hear and to accept. This is what we are meant to believe. This is who we are. This is who we are called to be – God’s Beloved.

It could have been otherwise. The voice could have said, “If you are very very good I will be pleased with you.” Or, “If you are very very sorry you’re not very very good, I will be pleased with you.” Or, “I am pleased with you. Now get back in line before I change my mind!”

The source of our personal Transfiguration, the basis of our journey toward union with God and everything, the foundation of our personal transformation and the transformation of the world is accepting this Good News. Nothing is as important as hearing this and accepting it. All kinds of messages tell us not to accept this – messages from others, messages we tell ourselves – messages that say God cannot possibly be pleased with us.  Hearing this voice is what set Jesus on his journey and mission. Hearing this voice is what inspired him to call us to follow him. Hearing this voice makes us who we are created to be: God’s Beloved community of Faith, Hope and Charity.

In following we will come to love him and know him. And as the gospels portray, there are so many different ways of knowing Jesus. But it all begins with knowing ourselves – our true selves. And our true self is grounded in being God’s Beloved and knowing that no matter what, God is well pleased with us.
As we live out of our belovedness and follow Jesus people will say, “Who are those guys anyway?” and want to join the beloved community of God’s people. Amen.
You are my beloved/I am well pleased with you
I am God’s beloved/God is well pleased with me

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
I’m gonna love God night and day
You know our love not fade away

Our loves bigger than a Cadillac
God ain’t never gonna take it back
Our love’s bigger than an SUV
No one can take it away from me

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
Then come on down to Jordan’s stream
Up in the sky what do I see

The Holy Spirit coming down on me