Saturday, December 29, 2018

Yet Another Christmas Story

Another Christmas Story
Every year the First Sunday of Christmas we read John 1:1-18. It is a lofty and mysterious text as it begins, “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 into being 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.”

We are so used to Matthew and Luke describing Christmas “from below,” with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Magi, Angels everywhere, a Star in the sky, that it is difficult for us to recognize that what John is describing is the First Christmas – the Christmas before Christmas if you will. It is a view from “above it all.”

I say “First” because as anyone can see, John begins with the very first words of The Bible in Genesis 1: “In the beginning…” That is, we are meant to recognize that the story of Jesus begins before creation – for as we learn later this “Word,” which in the Greek text is “logos” - a word itself rich and complex with meaning to those who first read or heard this story of Jesus – this Word becomes a body, a person, flesh and blood like all of us. Like the very first person we read about in Genesis 2, created from a handful of mud or clay into which God breathes and it comes alive. The Bible, as many other ancient texts, understands that life begins with breathing, and that this breath comes from the same place as everything else – God. It is also understood that as we exhale, we share God’s breath with the rest of creation. All of life is made possible by our receiving the gift of inhalation, or the inspiration of God’s breath, God’s spirit,  and then sharing this gift as we exhale, or expire, God’s breath with the rest of creation. How often do we think of ourselves as “sharing” with the whole world every moment we live and breathe?

This Word that becomes flesh is life, just as the breath is life, and this life is “the light of all people.” Like the Word, all people are light, even, we are told, in darkness. We forget that in the story John references, Genesis 1 and 2, light and darkness are both created to balance one another. And for the Jewish people of Jesus’s time, darkness, night, is believed to be the beginning of the day when people can rest and be restored to go back to work when the light returns. That is, for most Jews darkness is as good as light, and represents a Sabbath time of rest, the commandment that consists of nearly one-third of all the text of the Ten Commandments.

Yes, there were those at the time of John’s gospel who saw the world as divided, not balanced, between Light and Darkness. They saw themselves as Sons of Light preparing for battle against the Sons of Darkness, which for them was Rome, an Empire and Power Structure arrayed against God and all things good. They had plans of action and plans for battle and a view that the Light will eventually slaughter the Darkness. It’s possible John also envisions such a view, but then he introduces John the Purifier who gives testimony to the Light and is to draw all people to faithfulness. The Greek word pistis could mean other things, but normatively suggests faithfulness of practicing Torah, a life that acts out God’s “nurturing love for creation.” As Richard Swanson observes, “This will finally fit badly with the notion that Torah observance requires the sharpening of swords and the arranging of pikemen along the line of battle. John testifies to the light to draw all to faithfulness, because the muddle of human life had prevented people from seeing the Light that limits the darkness and from living lives of faithfulness. The one not recognized is apparently Jesus.” [Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p 97]

The Gospel of John lies between the two failed revolts against Rome, first in 70 AD and later in 135 AD. The Rabbis at the time when asked why the revolts failed wisely answered: factionalism, taking a shot at zealotry in all forms, and at the resisters who failed to join with the zealots. When we are fractured, said the rabbis, we fail.

Into this scene the Word which is Life and Light becomes flesh and blood, sets up a tent and comes to dwell among us. This Word which is God, is not a cute and adorable God in diapers in the hush of a quiet stable with just a mother, a father and a few animals. This is one of us stepping into the chaotic mixture of religion, politics, economics and warfare that was first century Israel. The same chaotic world in which we all live. He arrives, John tells us, to reveal Grace and Truth into a world that has been divided and factionalized by a ruthless Empire that has appointed equally ruthless men to squeeze every last ounce of wealth out of its client states, in this case, Israel. This Grace and Truth is meant to order the chaos of our lives just as In the Beginning God ordered the chaos of creation itself.

Grace and Truth. Commodities in short supply back then and to this very day. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, sets up shop among us to begin the work of faithfulness to the kind of nurturing love God intends for all people, all creatures and all creation itself. Jesus, the Word, involves himself in all the challenges and controversies of the day and works to bring people together so that divisions and factions will cease.

This text from John suggests that the Grace and Truth of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. Literally, we are to see the light! There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Jesus, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and he will lead us in the work of faithfulness, the work of Christmas. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin. It is time to share God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s Grace and Truth with all creation.

The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the Kings and Princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among sisters and brothers
To make music in the heart
                        -Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story
Christmas is a time to remember. Remember that Christmas morning years ago when as a child of nine or ten after all the presents are opened, wrapping paper all over the living room, dad is in the kitchen making the traditional Christmas breakfast waffles when suddenly it all grinds to a halt. He had forgotten to put the butter in the batter. The first batch that Christmas would be the last for that old waffle iron as the batter was now stuck to it like cement or wall paper paste never to be removed. And we all laughed. That was my dad, and I cannot remember a thing I got from Santa that year, but we still laugh in our family at what we still call “The Christmas of the Goofed-Up Waffles!” The gift we received is the gift of laughter. That will get you through bad times and good more often and better than any other gift that may be under the tree.

Then there is the story of this old stole I wear for Christmas and Easter, the two principal feast days of Church Year. It’s old, it’s tattered, but it was the stole my first rector and life-time mentor, The Reverend Frank Mauldin McClain, wore at his ordination, throughout his life in parish ministry, and was vested with on the day of his funeral, December 18, 2000. When I had heard of Frank’s passing, I got on a train from Baltimore to Charleston, SC to be with his family, a family that had all in one way or another contributed so much to the earliest days of my priesthood – and there was much for me to learn. And still is!

Frank was so gracious as to assign me to celebrate the Christmas Eve “midnight service,” 1983. I had been ordained just days before. Now, instead of being the deacon at the side of the celebrant, I was setting the table to celebrate Christmas Mass! After carefully setting the corporal out, the chalice and paten, had received the bread from Taylor Stevenson, the Associate Rector and another mentor and friend, I returned to receive the water and wine. I walked over to the far side of the altar where he was standing, and then the most surprising thing happened. As I reached out for the two cruets the rope cincture that held my cassock-alb in place, and my ordination stole tucked in it around my waist, fell. Suddenly I could feel that it was on the floor encircling my feet. The look on Taylor’s face was priceless as he whispered, “Just go on ahead as if nothing has happened.” Which I did. A few weeks later Frank invited a member of diocesan staff out to Christ Church to teach me, among other things, a more secure way to tie the rope around my waist.

Most of us have heard countless Christmas sermons, but the one I remember most was the one Frank had just preached that evening. I had asked him for a copy, and I re-read it often. After recalling his most memorable Christmas morning as a young boy when there was a motion-picture projector under the tree, and the journey through feeling joy, to almost embarrassment and unworthiness to get such a magical present, and finally back to joy and gratitude, he wrapped things up in these words:
            “Christmas, we have often emphasized, has been and is a time of giving. The letters that come in the mail, stack upon stack of them, tend to underline those words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is recorded in the Book of Acts and not in the Gospels. That of course is true – and yet, never forget it, Christmas is also a time to receive a gift, wonderful truth.
            “We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.
            “In any of our lives there is a manger, now doubtless empty, cold, malodorous, surrounded by beasts – the heartbreaks, tragedies, and disappointments of our lives. But it is there that you will find the child, new born, if you will look on him and be open to receive God’s gift.
            “It can come to you this Christmas, that gift, that birth within you of the Christ Child, when you become aware of and touch, perhaps only fleetingly, the whole and complete person God intended you to be; that God intends you to be. It can happen when you are alone or it can happen when you are in company. It can happen here, at this present Bethlehem, this Holy Table, when and where you receive tangible evidence, symbols of bread and wine, God’s Body and Blood, God’s life.
            “As in receiving any real gift, your response will be astonishment, humility (Why me?), and deep, restorative joy – to which you can only say Gratia, Thank You, Eucharist, Grace!
            “Be open tonight/today to receive that gift, open-handed, offering nothing but your need, your empty manger. Centuries of experience assure you that God’s gift is being offered, God’s Son, born within you. Arise and go out into the world with astonishment with humility, with joy. Respond in whatever language you may know, Thank you, Eucharisto, Gratia. Your gratitude will show forth – and – a Merry Christmas.”

When I got off the train, I went straight to the McClain home in Charleston and shared with the family the whole of Frank’s Christmas Sermon, which some of them had not heard that late night on Christmas Eve, 1983. Later that day they gifted me this stole which at once surprised, humbled and filled me with joy – it was just as Frank had said it is when we open our hearts to receive as well as give.

A Christmas Coda. When I returned home from Charleston, we were opening Christmas cards, and among them was a note from Frank. It read,
            “Bless you all! You can never know how much your e-mail correspondence has meant to me, particularly over these last months. Now let us all have a wonderful Christmas. Your Christmas should certainly be bright with all your little (now not so little) ones. And you have yourselves. We are now entering a new phase of getting back to the fullness of life. And doing what we can to do the same for John V-H. [A mutual friend]
            “May your coming year be bright and the kind of world you deserve.
            “With love, Frank/Missie”
It was posted December 6, 2000 – nine days before a sudden heart attack sent Frank to eternal life with his Savior after just finishing a long period of radiation for cancer. At the funeral, his friend Alanson Haughton said, “I can almost hear Frank saying to me, ‘Dear boy, its true! It’s true!’ That inner voice has given me new hope in the promise of Resurrection and reconfirms that we may have lost a friend for the moment but when our time to travel comes Frank will be there to welcome us in.”

And that’s why I wear this well-worn old stole on Christmas. It helps me to remember the gift of the Christ Child that Frank had given to us Christmas Eve, 1983. Yes, it is blessed to give, but it is just as blessed to receive – “We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.” Merry Christmas – God bless us every one!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Song of Mary

`Magnificat anima mea Dominum'
My soul doth magnify the Lord. One of the Gospel of Luke’s great gifts to humanity is the Magnificat, or The Song of Mary. It is poetry, and thereby it is an act of imaginative creativity. As such it is meant to move to the deepest places in our hearts and souls to inspire in us – literally to breathe into us – the Miracle of the Incarnation. In the Orthodox tradition she is known as “Theotokos” – God bearer. Like Mary, we too are to become Theotokos, God Bearers. Her song is meant to be our song. [Luke 1:39-55]

This is surely why Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, when arranging the Book of Common Prayer, means for us to say Mary’s Song at least once a day in our evening prayers (BCP 65&119). And of course, in Advent here she is among the animals in the Creche, adorned in Blue – the color of hope, the color of distance, the color of the sky to which he ascends, the color of the sea in whose sacred surf we are baptized into his life, death and resurrection, the color of Mary, his mother – Mary, Theotokos – Mary, the God-bearer.

There is so much that is odd and yet wonderful about this story. Mary sets out to visit a distant relative, a kinswoman, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who like Sarah before her, finds herself suddenly with child at an age thought to be impossible. Zechariah, Liz’s husband and priest of the Temple, has been temporarily struck mute – that is he is unable to comment on the extreme social and religious difficulties presented by this Mary, a young girl who is unmarried and yet with child. Who in a less sensitive time would be called an unwed mother with an illegitimate child. Related to Elizabeth, Mary must also be of the priestly household of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the Levites. Her child will also be of the priestly household.

Elizabeth begins to sing, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! …As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy!” Both women acknowledge that the children they bear are God’s own. Perhaps Mary heads for the hills to avoid all the talk on the street, the disapproving glances and possible punishment back home. Liz is six months pregnant, and yet, Mary leaves before the child known as John the Baptizer is born. Odd that she does not stay to help with and after the birth. Odd that she returns home just as she would begin “to show” as we say. When she returns is just when people on the street will begin to draw their own conclusions. How surprising that she stays so long and leaves so soon. How courageous she goes home when she does. This is not a woman who submits, but rather a woman who is strong in the Lord – the God of her people who delivers on his promises.

After all, Mary of the line of Aaron, is named after Miriam, the sister of Moses, a prophet in her own time, a liberating leader in her own right. Miriam was the primary celebrant of the Exodus, leading the women in the wilderness to dance and sing and play on their tambourines the Glory of the Lord whose mercy and loving kindness is beyond our knowing. Miriam leads the singing that the powerful Pharaoh has been brought down from the power of his throne. She not only is Mary Theotokos a God-bearer, but she bears the history, promises and hope of her people throughout the ages in her very name.

Put Elizabeth’s song alongside Mary’s song and we have before us two very strong women, both well rooted in their people’s history, rooted in hopes that have kept their families alive for millennia, and both well prepared to give birth and training to babies who will grow up to be leaders – leaders not just for Israel, but for all the world.

Richard Rohr observes that Mary’s Song is consistent with her own son’s teaching and actions. Both declare that there are at least three major obstacles to the coming Reign of God and turning the world right-side-up again: power, prestige and possessions. Or, as Mary refers to them as the proud, the mighty on their thrones, and the rich. These, she declares, God will “scatter,” “cast down,” and “send away empty-handed.” This prayer and song of Mary has been considered so subversive that the Argentine government banned it from public recitation and prayer during protest marches!” We can easily take nine-tenths of Jesus’ teachings and very clearly align it under one of those three categories: power, prestige and possessions are obstacles to God’s coming. Why can we not see that? … for some reason much of Christian history has chosen not to see this and we have localized evil in other places than Jesus did…Mary seems to have seen long, deep and lovely.” [Rohr, Preparing for Christmas, p 62-63]

These two women, Elizabeth and Mary, bear the hope that God will turn the world right-side-up again. In their bodies they carry babies whom they will raise to carry out that task. Perhaps Mary goes home when she does because she and Elizabeth have created a foundation on which Mary can stand in the face of the very real dangers and misunderstandings that shall form the basis of the rest of her life – and that of her son, Jesus.

Mary’s song proclaims what God has done for Mary, what God does in history, that God’s mercy endures throughout history, what God does to establish justice, and a final declaration of God’s mercy as witnessed as far back as Abraham and “his descendants forever." As we heard last Sunday from John, Mary declares that through her God is acting decisively with mercy for the vast majority of the world’s population, but which is decidedly bad news for the proud, the powerful and the rich who are to be scattered, torn down and “sent away empty.” Mary’s song is a prophetic warning. One might even say it is revolutionary.

Two women, two strong and faithful women, join together with God to turn the world right-side-up again. Two women who remind us of the centrality of women in God’s story and our history – women with names like Sarah, Miriam, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, Jezebel, Huldah, Esther, Mary of Magdala, Martha and the vast assortment of Mary’s to name just a few. Under the present circumstances it is crucial to remember that at key moments in our tradition’s history, the historians of our faith have placed crucial verdicts on the lips of an authorized woman. Mary continues this tradition, just as has Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Malala Yousafsai, to name just a few.

Each revision of the prayer book has retained Cranmer’s intent that we sing this song daily ourselves. The Magnificat, Mary’s song, and all that it represents of the reconciling desire of all God’s mercy and work, is to be for us a kind of mantra. I believe the intent behind our daily praying of the Magnificat is to make us all Theotokos – God-bearers – in a world that increasingly appears to be looking for a miracle.

Like the prophets and those who fear God in every generation, like Mary and Elizabeth, we have been chosen by God to be baptized into the Body of Christ. Like Mary, we too are called to be Theotokos – God-bearer. We are to bear her child to the world. It is not our choice, but God’s will that we do this. Armed with just these words Mary faced a dangerous and unforgiving world. We can too. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Rule of Arrogance

The Rule of Arrogance
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." [Luke 3: 10-20]

“So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Here endeth the reading! If this is the “good news” we shudder to think what the bad news may be. But of course, like the people who fled Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to hear John preach, we already know what the bad news looks like. We see it, hear it and live it every day.

For John and his followers, it was what they at the time called “The Rule of Arrogance.” According to Richard Swanson [Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p 68] this is what the people of Israel called life under Roman Rule. It included, as John goes on to say, the attachment to and hoarding of wealth and possessions, collecting more than required by Roman appointed tax collectors, and extortion, bullying and even death by Roman soldiers.

John calls all to repent – a technical term meaning quite simply to turn one’s life around. It implies a kind of withdrawal from the dominant culture and re-turning to “the Way of he Lord.” It suggests that we all do as John has done – return to the wilderness where, over forty years, the people of God learned that for life in the greater community to flourish, those with more food and clothing than necessary must share it with others who do not. For Jewish faith, poverty is a sign of greed, something which the Lord does not approve. Tax collectors were considered traitors working for Rome. How amazing that they come to John to repent and be baptized! He says they can join the resistance to the Rule of Arrogance and still collect the tax, but to do no more than the Roman’s tell you to do. Not a thing more. Even more amazing is that soldiers come to John. He tells those who “carry disruptive power in their weapons and social position something very simple, ‘Do not use your power to injure.’” [Swanson p 67-68]

That is, as we await the coming of one who is “more powerful than I,” says John, we need to turn back or re-turn to ethical behavior. This, along with the teaching of the “one whose sandal I cannot untie” will bring the Rule of Arrogance to a halt. Not revolution. Not a return to a monarchy. As we turn back to the Way of the Lord we hasten the arrival of the One who will baptize you with Spirit and Fire – with holy Wind and Fire – to refine us and purify us once again.

Buried amongst the eschatological rhetoric of John’s preaching is a warning: Do not presume your religious heritage, whatever it may be, will protect you from the “wrath to come.” Do not say, “But we are sons and daughters of Abraham,” or “We are followers of Christ, or Buddha, or Socrates, or Zeus!” Just as God formed a people in the wilderness long ago, our God is able from mere stones to raise up a new people. God has done it before. God can do it again, and now is the time to let yourself turn and be made such a new people.

For Luke, the power of God, already enacted in the miraculous births of John the Baptist and of
Jesus, here serves to remind the people that they exist only as a direct result of God’s will. Forgetting this can only lead to even more Rule of Arrogance and a world that destroys itself with “unquenchable fire.” Today, even the forests themselves issue such a warning.

Amidst all the shopping for gifts, wrapping of gifts, lights strung every-which-where, the holly, jolly tunes of the season, baking of cookies and all the activities that typically mark the Advent Season comes John’s good news, which can sound like bad news, until one embraces it, lives it and discovers what truly good good news it is. All this turning will be hard work. But it is the kind of work that will turn the world right-side-up once again.

Luke reminds us at the end that this turning of our lives comes with a cost: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.” It turns out that John the Baptist and Jesus have one more experience in common. Both are rejected for their proclamation. The One whose coming Advent anticipates is also the One the world and the Rule of Arrogance continues to reject.
Bad news, bad news comes to us where we sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin' that this world of ours is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

Walk with Jesus wherever you may be
Turn, turn, turn again
May he find good fruit growing on your tree
Turn,  turn to the Son and the Wind

Walk with Jesus wherever you may go
Turn, turn, turn again
Bear good fruit with the seeds that he sows
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

My ax is set to the root of your tree
Turn, turn, turn again
Turn back to me and let yourself be free
Turn, turn to the Son and the Rain

“And it's a hard, and it's a hard,
it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall”

Good news, good news comes to us today
Turn, turn, turn again
Jesus is coming to lead us in The Way
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

What should do we as we wait for him to come
Turn, turn, turn again
Share what you have with those who have none
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

-Anon Two Sisters, Paul Clayton, Bob Dylan for the tune and structure of Percy’s Song

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Mercy Now

Mercy Now
Do you ever think the world has flipped upside-down? Malachi [3:1-4] did. Malachi, the unknown prophet from an unknown era was hoping, waiting for the coming “day of the Lord” to set things right-side-up once again. In fact, the Hebrew prophets in general noted that the world which God created “is good,” with all the resources necessary for all people and all creatures to thrive, had ended up with most of these resources in the pockets of a few powerful people through theft and hoarding leaving little else for everyone else. Malachi was particularly hard on the Temple priests who had become corrupt and lazy. Malachi is confident that that will all change on the day of the Lord, and that a messenger shall come first to “prepare the way.”

The central question, says Malachi, is: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” When he appears to turn things right-side-up again with the “goods” of creation falling out of the hoarder’s pockets to rain upon the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. A return to the day when the world was “good.”  Many wait for that day!

So also an old priest, Zechariah in Jerusalem during the time of the Roman occupation, is going about his priestly duties one day in the Temple when an angel appears to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, heretofore barren, shall bear a son, name him John, Yohanan, “YHWH is gracious, and that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The old man stutters in disbelief. The angel assures him it is true, but for his disbelief Zechariah will be mute until the child is born. [Luke 1: 5-20]

Sure enough, the boy is born. On the eighth day at the babe’s circumcision they are asked for a name and Elizabeth says, “John.” But you have no relatives named John. You should name him Zechariah, they say. The old priest takes a tablet and writes, “His name is John!” Immediately his tongue is loosed and he begins to sing and praise God for showing “mercy to our fathers” and to us. “This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies,” and turn the world right-side-up again! “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” Suddenly, after months of waiting, the old man is a poet and a prophet himself. [Luke 1:68-79]

The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” [ibid v.80] It was in the wilderness that YHWH, the God of the Exodus, forged a disparate band of peoples into a people, a people of God, strong in spirit. The wilderness is where Israel becomes Israel. The wilderness will be that place that the young man Jesus will go, “driven by the Spirit,” to become strong in spirit and discern what it means to be God’s Beloved as the voice proclaims at his baptism by Yohanan.

Yes, at the appointed time, when hoarders of fortune and power like Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias were ruling over Israel, and Annas and Caiaphas were the Temple priests, the people heard “Thunder in the desert!” Yohanan, like his father before him, began to speak. And the first words out of his mouth were those spoken and sung centuries before as Isaiah announced the liberation of God’s people from the wilderness of Exile in Babylon:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God!” [Luke 3: 1-6] John demonstrates real power and strength against the so called “rulers of the age,” the thieves and hoarders of the Empire and the Temple. The very Temple priests whom Malachi had called to repair and reform their ways.

And all the people left the city and the towns to stream out into the wilderness to be with Yohanan, the strong man filled with the Spirit preparing the people and the way for the one to come who will set the world right-side-up once again. The one who will shower the people with God’s Mercy – a mercy so wide you cannot get around it, so high you cannot get over it.

Mercy comes and calls us all to join in a life of mercy for all people; a life of enough resources for all people. And the question of Malachi remains: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The old man had sung that this mercy will consist of teaching and forgiveness – that to prepare for that day of the Lord’s arrival is to become a people schooled in the ways of YHWH’s Covenant and who know how to forgive as God forgives. Forgiveness is love, love is forgiveness. John, no doubt, had learned this in the solitude of his wilderness years.

John went into the wilderness to be emptied so as to be filled with God and the Spirit, so that he might become, as Jesus says after John’s death, a lamp to shine the path, the way, for us to welcome the coming of the Lord. John wants us to be prepared to welcome Mercy and Love as he comes to greet us. John knows, just as the Lord knows, sometimes this Mercy and Love can be unbearable. We all know what it is like to be in a supermarket as a child, having a tantrum with our mother’s or father’s arm around us, loving us at our worst, writes Maggie Ross [The Fire of Your Life, p 136-137]. “We remember the rage, not only the anger at being thwarted, but the even greater rage at being loved all the same. It is the hardest thing in the world for that little kid to pass through the terrible loneliness from rage, to the grief that burns the anger from us so that we can accept our parent’s love. Or, Gods… The wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst. Lord, give us mercy to bear your mercy.”

Malachi, Isaiah, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Jesus all lived in some kind of upside-down world of their own. They all spent time in some kind of wilderness. They all experienced some kind of solitude before accepting words like, “prepare the way of the Lord,” “do not be afraid,” “make the rough places smooth.” As Malachi envisions, God’s wrath, God’s love, God’s mercy are all the same thing – and that the Lord is like a “refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify” us, and refine us like gold and silver, until we present offerings of Mercy and Love to the Lord in righteousness.

We all live together in the wilderness where we are made into the Lord’s people. We do not flee the wilderness, we go into it as John did, or we are driven into it like Jesus. We go into the wilderness to be enabled to bear the Word, as the Spirit enabled the prophets to endure and bear it; that John might proclaim him; that Mary might bear him. We pray: Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have Mercy upon us. Wherever and whenever we are in the wilderness with John and Jesus and Israel, we become like John, “bearers of the light, lamps in the windows of God’s house, fired with the oil of repentance, keeping us burning as we wait for him. Jesus, Son of the living God, be borne in us today.” [Ross, 141]  Every single one of us could use a little Mercy Now.  

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Advent 1 - Alive, Alert, Awake, Enthusiastic

Stand up! Raise your heads! Be on guard! Be alert! Wake Up! Pray! [Luke 21:25-36]

Amidst a list of calamities and cosmic disruptions, Jesus offers a list of imperatives for Advent for those who “know that the kingdom of God is near.” These imperatives make Advent a call to full consciousness – full attentiveness, or what some may call mindfulness. We are to be fully Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic! Enthusiasm comes from the Greek roots en theos – to be filled with or inspired by God. Inspire itself means to breath-in. Breathing in means life. The ancients believed that what we inspire is the breath or spirit of God and it is this breath and spirit that sustains us so that we might be Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic – filled with the Spirit of God. Attentiveness to our breathing is what brings the awareness or consciousness that the reign of God is near – in our midst.

This being attentive, mindful and alert is what it means to be a people of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] We would like to believe that the world, this Earth we live on and the entire universe, is stable and predictable. We would like to believe that others, those others among whom we live our lives, can be stable and predictable. Whereas hope, suggests Richard Rohr, “is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and happy because our Satisfaction is at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.” [Preaching for Christmas, p 5]

Just as Jesus came into our past, so we trust he will come again into our private and public suffering world. What sounds like the beginning of an apocalyptic disaster movie in the 21st chapter of Luke is really meant to be words of assurance – yes, these things are happening all around us, and yes so am I – I am all around you, I am near, and I am returning even now as all this is going on. Bonaventure, a Thirteenth Century bishop and theologian, understood that God is “the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Those who practice Advent mindfulness know that all things, including you, live happily inside of that one good circle. [Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Joy and Hope, 11/27/2018]

This time of year, we find ourselves thinking of children. We want them to experience the receiving of gifts. We spend weeks, even months, searching for just the right presents. We collect Toys for Tots. We find ways to give gifts to people we don’t even know through a variety of charities and organizations. Advent and Christmas represent one enormous push to provide gifts for children both nearby and far away.

Sometimes this impulse to give weighs us down, as Jesus says, with “dissipation.” Can we buy enough of just the right gifts to make everyone happy? Dissipation, the squandering of money or resources, often in the pursuit of happiness. We are urged to shop-till-we-drop. It’s good for the economy. There will be a figure published at the end of the Christmas Season letting us know if we exceeded the previous year’s expenditures, or whether we have fallen short. Either way, we take this measurement of our dissipation as a sign. We’ll end up feeling good about the number, or bad about the number. All of which, warns Jesus, diverts our attention from the awareness of the nearness of God and God’s love and compassion for all the world. It’s like a trap, he says!

Being trapped never feels good. Again, think of children around the world and here at home. Those who have no home tonight. Those who are in detention camps. Those who were tear-gassed across the border last week. Those who are in refugee camps all around the world. Or, those living in group homes here in the U.S because their family homes are unsafe. Children and families trapped in cycles of poverty, warfare, gang violence, hunger, political and economic upheaval. Does being Alert in Advent beckon us to ponder just what they want and need for Christmas? Is there even any space and time in their lives to even know that it is “the Christmas Season”? What does our being a community of faith, hope and charity call us to do for these children? What gifts do they need from us?

The last thing Jesus urges is that we pray that we might have the strength to “stand before the coming Son of Man.” That takes some prayer! Prayer. How does being Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic shape and inform our prayer? Remember, being enthusiastic, filled with God is connected to the “inspiration” of the Spirit, the Breath, of God.

The most basic form of prayer is to be attentive to our breathing. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment. Present Moment/Wonderful Moment. Letting go of closure, letting go of control, letting go of dissipation, letting go of worry, just breathing can in itself be the prayer that helps us to be Alive; to be Alert; to be Awake; to be Enthusiastic, filled with the very spirit of God, that which enlivens us and inspires us.

In 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent a week in dialogue with the Dali Lama at his exile in India. The Dali Lama has been a displaced person since fleeing the Communist Chinese as a child. Their dialogue is recorded in their book, Joy. Near the end of their time together Bishop Tutu offered the following blessing:

“Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter—and joy.

"God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing. And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.” [Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Generosity of Spirit, 11/29/2018]

We have come to know that the world, indeed the entire universe, seen and unseen, is unsettled; expanding; evolving; in a constant state of creating and re-creating. Advent can be a time caught up in the trap of endless activity and dissipation. Or, it can be a time to reclaim the essence of being Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic. To Stand Up, Raise our Heads and Pray. If only we will stop and take the time to simply breathe in and breathe out. Present Moment/Wonderful Moment. As we do, we will be inspired, led by a Spirit far greater and beyond ourselves to find ways for all the world’s children to be embraced by Bishop Tutu’s blessing. Our future life together depends on our response to their lives. They are essential to our faith, our hope, and our future. Come, Lord Jesus, come.  

Saturday, November 24, 2018

No Cross/No Crown

Christ The King Sunday

Scene 1: Christ The King. The very words when put this way have always struck me as odd. Every Sunday I sit in Rock Spring Parish, and looking across the sanctuary is a small window with a crown. And through the middle of the crown on an angle is a wooden cross – reminding one who gazes at this window of the Christ the King paradox: No cross/No crown. The window is hidden from the sight of the congregation as if it is there solely to remind the priest sitting in what looks all-too-much like a wooden throne never to forget the ground of humility that defines our “king” as one who does not demand we “strain our necks looking upward, or strive to climb the narrow ladder to heaven.” Rather, our God and king is bent low in love; to love each person, each creature, every rock, tree, pond, river and ocean. And that it is the preacher’s task to find ways to make such a God known, leading others to find ways to live out of such humble and indiscriminate love. [Ilia Delio, The Humility of God, St Anthony Messenger Press, 2005, p115]

Scene 2: Back in 1989 I used to drive around in the car listening over and over again to a cassette tape (remember those!) of Gordon Cosby talking about Jesus as “the slain lamb.” While a chaplain on the beaches of D-Day Gordon had had a vision of a new way of being “church.” I used to marvel at how Gordon’s Lynchburg, VA drawl could so easily draw out six distinct syllables from the words “slain lamb.” The sermon, from March 5, 1989 at the Church of the Saviour, was about Changing One’s Inner Power Base. I listened over and over and over again as Gordon spoke of a power greater than any political, economic or military power represented in this iconic image of “the slain lamb.” Today, when I finish my treading on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym, I spend the final five minutes walking backwards. It was a practice urged by someone writing in the Thursday Health Section of the Baltimore Sun and it makes sense. This means I stare at the wall immediately behind the treadmill where there are two scuff marks on the wall forming a cross. I repeat the Jesus Prayer as I tread backwards and gaze upon the Gold’s Gym cross, with a slight amendment: Jesus Christ/Lamb of God/Have mercy on me/A sinner. Gordon urges us to pray without ceasing with this image of the slain lamb as the source of real power, God power, true and just and faithful power unlike that anywhere else in this world, but  which will be the real power of the world to come. Lamb of God somehow embodies the true nature of Christ better than Son or King. No cross/No crown.

Scene 3: One day, when Harper and Kirk Alan were very young, we visited the Abby Church at Bath, England. As we wandered around the Abby Church I picked up a welcoming brochure. In part, this was what it said: 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, and an untold number of women, 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. 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. People believed, and do to this day, that he can lead us to a full experience of God’s love and compassion. Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. No Cross/No Crown.

Scene 4: Every year it seems I go back to Wikipedia to remind myself how Christ the King Sunday came about. In 1925 Pope Pius XI felt the secularization of society was leading people away from God, away from Jesus, and designated a Sunday to bring us all back. It was to be the last Sunday in October, but then that became Reformation Sunday among some protestant denominations – as if the dividing up of the people of God into an infinite number of different churches with competing theologies is something to be celebrated! Yet, 1925 was a time not unlike our own in which Pius saw a number of authoritarian dictators asserting power over the churches and democratic institutions. He felt something was needed to bring us all back to Christ. Coming from a Church power base that had itself moved far from any vision of the slain lamb may have contributed to it becoming the failed strategy it seems to be. The Pope’s impulse, however, was good, and we would do well to consider his concerns for the broken and sinful world he tried to lead back to some vision of God’s dream for all people. No cross/No crown.

Scene 5: On Tuesday morning I picked up a book in my office – Oscar Romero: The Violence of Love. Romero, of course, was the San Salvador Archbishop who on March 24, 1980 was silenced by an assassin’s bullet while celebrating Holy Communion with the poor people of that country in a small hospital chapel. The day before Romero delivered a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He was silenced, like Jesus was on the cross, for calling people to a new vision of the power of God’s Love, Compassion and Justice. Like Jesus, his voice has not been silenced. The book is a collection of quotations from his homilies the last four years of his life. His final words, spoken just minutes before a single bullet pierced his heart: “God’s reign is already present on earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. This is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” Romero embodied the very essence of the slain lamb. Romero knew well the words of John the Revelator who in the opening verses of his vision of the king of kings wrote, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” [Revelation 1:4-8] No cross/No crown.

Scene 6: Ellen Davis, Old Testament Scholar, professor, preacher and friend, recalls the scene in John’s Revelation depicted in chapter 5:11-12: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” John writes to a community and a world in crisis. The book is not about predicting the end of the world; it is about what is happening here and now and what we are to do. It is a book about worship. Who will we worship? John repeatedly offers two choices: We can worship God in Christ, represented as the God of humility, the God who stoops down in love, the God who comes to us as one of us as the slain lamb. Or, we can choose the conventional route and worship the culture and the empire, represented by John as “the Beast.” It is a God, writes Davis, who calls us to “utter self-forgetfulness.” She gives us the example of Desmond Tutu “extending his arms to the white government officials and police [of South Africa] to ‘Come over to the winning side!’ as itself a vision of heaven, of utter self-forgetfulness, as one of the major ingredients of heaven’s joy.

She continues, “The saints in heaven are not thinking about themselves; they can’t think of anything but God. Heaven is the place where everyone is completely freed from fear and self-concern. John shows kings taking off their crowns and throwing them down at God’s feet, myriads of myriads falling down on their faces, laughing and singing and praising God…We might say the saints in heaven can afford to forget themselves and we cannot, living as we do in this world of competition, strife and terror. But those who have the most to teach us about what the Christian life must look like in a dangerous world – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Gordon Cosby – those teachers tell us the that exact opposite is true. Not only can we afford some measure of saintly self-forgetfulness; we cannot afford anything else. We cannot afford our personal and national habits of keeping ourselves front and center, and excluding so many from our circle of love and concern; the poor in our own country and around the world, those who differ from us in color and language and the name they use for God. Most of all, we cannot afford to think about ourselves, our own generation, to the exclusion of our grandchildren and their children. We cannot afford to insist on winning our own temporary ‘victories,’ securing present comfort on terms that guarantee incalculable suffering and loss for others [as well as for the Earth itself].On this the judgment of the gospel is clear: if we are ‘winning now’ on terms that keep others from experiencing the blessing of God, then we will not in the end find ourselves on the winning side.” [Ellen F Davis, Preaching The Luminous Word, Eerdmans, 2016, pp 315-316] No Cross/No Crown.

Scene 7: After doing a deep-dive on Christ the King, and immediately after reading Ellen’s sermon, I was propelled down into the basement to find a cross. In 1983 it was given to me by the Reverend David Ward, the priest who sponsored me and sent me to seminary, at my ordination to the Diaconate. David had had to retire due to cancer. In between chemotherapy sessions he would walk the beaches and collect driftwood. He had made this cross himself of the driftwood he had collected and brought it to me at my ordination despite the great difficulty it was to be there at all. After the tragedy at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, I had wrapped it in bubble-wrap and stored it until such time I might have a place to display it. Now, after reflecting on Christ the King I needed to see it again. I unwrapped it to find it had completely fallen apart, held together as it was by silicone caulking adhesive. Never you mind. I spent a day trying to figure out the puzzle of the cross before me. Eventually I realized I needed to take apart the few pieces still held together and start all over. David, who is now among the utterly self-forgetting saints in heaven, was there to guide me. I finally found a place for each piece of driftwood in a new incarnation of David’s final gift to me, he who had made it possible for me to do what I have been doing these past 35 years. It’s not the same. But that’s just it. Nothing ever is. Except for God’s vision, what Verna Dozier calls God’s Dream - God’s humility, love and compassion for a repaired and healed world. It was hard work re-creating and resurrecting David’s cross. That seems to be the core of Christ the King – there is still hard work to do.

But, No cross/No crown.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Hope Dies Last

In his book of the same name, Studs Terkel quotes Jessie de la Cruz, a retired farmworker reflecting on the days before Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, “La esperanza muere ultima.” Hope dies last. “You can’t lose hope. If you lose hope you lose everything.”

Then there is the news: Devastating forest fires resulting in lives lost and an entire city burned to the ground; long draughts in some places, endless rain and flooding in others; volcanic eruptions; mass shootings almost every other day; Red Tide; sea levels rising and ocean temperatures rising; massive piles of trash in the ocean; wars and rumors and threats of war; refugees and migrants seeking safety and a better life; bitter divisions among people; a growing gap separating rich from poor; the rise of hate speech; racial discrimination and anti-Semitism… the list could go on. And people ask me nearly every day, “Are these all signs of the End of Times, the End of the World?”

As if a life of interpreting The Bible and other sacred texts is predictive in the way that some scientific hypotheses seek to be predictive. Texts like those of the Hebrew Prophets are misconstrued as predicting the future, whereas the poetry of the prophets, like much poetry, comments and critiques current events warning of the consequences of continued bad behavior tempered with the hope that it is not too late to change our destructive ways. It’s the same with the Biblical genre of apocalyptic literature – the likes of which we find in chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel, the Book of Daniel and in spades in the Book of Revelation.

Apocalyptic is addressed to those experiencing difficult times economically, politically, morally. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible appears when the people find themselves in Exile or under foreign military occupation – when freedoms are abridged by authoritarian dictates; when family, community and ritual life is interrupted; when institutions that are meant to preserve community life are challenged or destroyed. In such times, and times of natural disaster, the stuff depicted in Apocalyptic imagery does not come out of some divine soothsayer’s crystal ball, but are descriptive of the day-to-day life of the community.

In Mark 13, the discussion of the impending, if not already completed, destruction of the Temple, the violence of war, the seductive voices of false prophets and false messiahs, and the persecution of whole classes of people were very real everyday concerns for those in Mark’s community.

Given the number of “End of the World” predictions throughout history to this very day suggests that few people have actually read what Jesus has to say about all of this. First, he issues a warning that there is not only danger from outside the community of faith, but there is also a threat from within by those “who speak in my name.” Jesus cautions not to be taken in by every pious voice of innovation, but rather listen carefully, use reason, and nurture a healthy sense of discernment. Secondly, he urges perseverance in hard times. Instead of becoming alarmist at every turn of event, take the long view and continue to walk in the Way of the Lord. As that book of Chinese Wisdom, the I Ching, often counsels: perseverance furthers! Most of all, in spite of everything we are to remain hopeful. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” And elsewhere, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of this treatise on hope goes on to illustrate with examples, beginning with Abraham, of a people of hope who persevere in their respective journeys. Hope is not passivity. These were people who did not merely sit around and hope. All of those listed in chapter 11 were people who put hope into action, often activist action against the powers that sought to keep them captive, whether literally or to false ideologies.

Then there is the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel: 1-2, the barren and much derided second wife of Elkanah, After years of disappointment and bitter treatment by Elkanah’s other wife, Hannah, still a woman of great hope, took matters into her own hands. While worshiping at Shiloh, then home of the Ark of the Covenant, Hannah bypasses the sacrifices, bypasses the priest and his sons, and pleads her case to YHWH directly. Eli, the now doddering priest, sees her and thinks she is drunk. Just another hysterical woman he thinks. ‘But Hannah answers, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”’ The Lord hears her plea. She bears a son, names him Samuel, and he becomes the transitional figure between the time of the Judges of Israel to the monarchy of King David. About whom Hannah can be heard singing in chapter 2 as she gives voice to the hope that it is the Lord who “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” David, the forgotten, runt eighth child from the little town of Bethlehem who becomes the real king, who becomes the carrier of the hopes of all the weak, poor and marginal. Hannah demonstrates just what active hope can do. Hope is not passive, but perseveres to the end.

And isn’t it strange, that with such a long history of “End-of-the-world” predictions supposedly based on these texts of apocalyptic hope, that when Jesus is asked when the end time will come, he replies, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” [Mark 13:32-33] Jesus does not know! Jesus does not claim to know. All he knows is what we all know: there’s a lot of stuff going on here and now that is not right.

The thirteenth chapter of Mark ends with just two words: Keep awake. That is, keep hope alive and awake by doing the things that challenge the darkness of this world. By doing the things that helps those in need, for that is in the end what it means to love your neighbor. By speaking truth to power as Jesus himself does in Jerusalem face to face with the imperial power vested in Pilate.

I have long been fascinated with an old Anglo-Saxon poem about a Seafarer. His life is grim. His life is lonely. While others eat and drink and make merry in the mead halls on land, he is alone on the frozen and dangerous sea. He remarks, that “no man is ever wholly free/in his seafaring from worry/at what is the Lord’s will.” Yet, he does not despair. “The Joys of the Lord can kindle/more in me then dead/and fleeting life on land./I do not believe the riches/of this world will last forever….Let us ponder where our true/home is and how to reach it./Let us labor to gain entry/into the eternal,/to find the blessedness/of belonging to the Lord/joyfully on high./Thanks be to God who loved us,/the endless Father, the Prince of Glory/forever. Amen.”*

And what I say to you, says Jesus, I say to all: Keep awake. Make sure that Hope dies last!

* -translated by Mary Jo Salter, The Word Exchange, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Widows, Orphans and Resident Aliens

Widows, Orphans and Resident Aliens
Consider the plight of three widows: Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth [Ruth 3:1-4:17], and an unnamed widow placing an offering of two small coins into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem [Mark 12:38-44]. In his book, Reverberations of Faith [Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], Walter Brueggemann writes, “One strand of ethics in the Old Testament includes the concern of YHWH, and consequently the concern of Israel, for the weak and vulnerable. Among that class is the widow, most often grouped with orphan and alien [sojourners, immigrants, refugees] as among the most vulnerable in society…widows orphans and sojourners characteristically have no social entitlements of their own.” [p 230] This is an ethic that persists throughout the entire Bible, most especially witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the emerging church community in the New Testament as well.

In Mark 12:38-44 Jesus levels a stinging critique of religious authorities who draw attention to themselves which attention ought to be directed to the honor and glory of God. They do so, says Jesus, by wearing their religious garb in public, making long-winded public prayer, and at both worship and social functions contrive to have special seating so as to be seen – and specifically to be seen as more pious and holy than others; all others.

The final condemnation, however, is that in dressing up their importance and piety, these pretentious authorities win the trust of the most vulnerable, represented as widows, orphans and resident aliens, who in turn entrust their meager resources to them only to see these authorities plunder it to further dress up their own importance: “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation!”

Then Jesus sits down opposite the Temple treasury to watch. He watches a crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then along comes a poor widow who has only two small coins worth a penny and places them in the treasury. “Truly, I tell you, the poor widow has put in more than all those who contributing to the treasury. For all of them contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.” Snap! The poor widow models more faith and trust than the religious professionals. This teaching never fails to bring me to my knees asking if and when I might fully embody the lessons therein.

The widow, she who is left with nothing but her faith in the Almighty and his community of care, is lifted up as a lesson for us all. She no longer has bus money so she must walk home. She no longer has lunch money so must depend upon God and God’s community of love to provide. We are not given her name. Nameless she retreats into the vast number of those like herself who largely remain invisible to both church and society – a society that more often than not will instruct her to look out for herself first, get a job and become self-sufficient. She disappears from the narrative. We never know what happens to her, even though we ought to.

We do, however, learn what happens to Ruth and Naomi, those two widows who have lost everything when their respective husbands suddenly died while sojourning in the land of Moab. You see, as is so often the case, there was a famine in the land of Israel, so Elimelech and his wife Naomi travel to the land of Moab seeking relief. They have two sons who marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Elimelech dies, and eventually so do the two sons, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law with no protectors, no providers, and no legal status. Naomi instructs the girls to go home and find new husbands for themselves. As for herself, she is past the time of having children and will return home hoping to find a kinsman. Orpah goes home, but Ruth stays with Naomi and vows to care for her in what is perhaps one of the most powerful and beautiful speeches in all of scripture [Ruth 1:16-17]. They return to Israel. Note, they are both widows and resident aliens, that class of people for whom the God of Israel and Jesus has particular concern.

The notion of sojourner, resident alien, immigrant, or refugee, is embodied in the Hebrew word, ger. Ger denotes people who are displaced because of economic, political or military disruption. The seek a new life in a new place where they don’t belong, because they are no longer welcome or can no longer sustain themselves in the old place. [Ibid p 198] God’s people know this reality from their experience of slavery in Egypt and Exile in Babylon. And once Israel became a client state of the Roman Empire, Israel itself was no longer home. Like widows and orphans, the refugee and immigrant is vulnerable and without resources, thus God’s commands to care for them “as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” [Leviticus 19: 34]

Ruth seeks work harvesting grain to support her mother-in-law Naomi. She ends up working in a field of one of Elimelech’s kinsmen, Boaz. He fulfills the commandments to support the widows and resident aliens and instructs his field-hands to watch over Ruth. Naomi eventually instructs Ruth to “wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor” where Boaz will eat and drink and fall asleep. After he is asleep, she is to uncover his feet and lie down, “and he will tell you what to do.”  Boaz is a faithful Israelite and knows there is a closer kinsman to Elimelech, but after informing him it is settled that Ruth shall become the wife of Boaz, and he shall redeem the name of Elimelech and the two sons who died in Moab. Ruth and Boaz have a child and name him Obed.

Left at that, this would be a marvelous tale of the mysterious ways in which God arranges to provide for the world’s most vulnerable people: widows, orphans and resident aliens. God is at work in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz! They serve as models of faithful commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. It is a story that declares that outsiders, immigrants, refugees and resident aliens, can become integral parts of the society of God’s people, and that inter-marriage is a good thing not to be feared despite the experiences of Exile and Egypt. The Book of Ruth confirms that the concerns of the Lord extend beyond the borders and the people of Israel to the people of every nation.

But the book ends with the greatest surprise of all: Obed becomes the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David, the future and model king of Israel! That is, when we extend welcome and care to those most vulnerable in our society, we can never know the contribution they may make to the future of our society, our community and our country. Ruth, a foreigner seeking asylum in Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi, becomes the great-grandmother of David, and therefore the great-great-great-great etc grandmother of Jesus, born of the house of David. This tale that is nearly 3,000 years old has much to teach us today as we struggle to understand our role in the lives of displaced and vulnerable people who come to us seeking a place to call home, a place to thrive, and a place to contribute to the future of our land and the future of the world itself!

Saturday, October 27, 2018

That We Might See Once Again

Stanley Hauerwas in his seminal volume, A Community of Character, observes that life is a gift – not a right, not an entitlement – but a gift from God. Or, if you must keep God out of it, life is given from the very origins of all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that most of Creation remains unseen as dark matter and even more so dark energy – which are called dark not because they are evil or bad but simply because you cannot see them. About which I choose to join with my late friend, colleague and teacher, Richard Chiroff, that Dark Energy, that which appears to hold the universe together and allows it to expand all at once, is what some of us call the Holy Spirit.

Those who choose to see life as gift, as given, have a particular world view. Whether or not we call this religious or not does not matter. Knowing life as gift, as given, leads to living in says that some have called righteousness, or right-mindedness, or even mindfulness.

In his most recent volume of Sabbath Poems, A Small Porch In The Woods, Wendell Berry, gentleman farmer and thoroughly American poet and visionary, offers the following definition: Right mindedness: a mind in place, in right relation to Nature, and it’s neighbors. And as the African-Scottish folk song Jesu, Jesu puts it, “All are neighbors to us and you.” With “you” being Jesus, the Anointed One who falls on his knees to wash our feet in an effort to open our eyes to see once again that the stewardship of creation granted to us “in the beginning” is always to be a life of thanksgiving for the gift of life itself. And that the character of our lives of thanksgiving is always to be a life lived in service of others, all others, including all of creation.

Or, as Berry puts it, accepting life as gift leads us to recognize that we are in relationship with that which brought us here in the first place, and with one another. Life known as gift leads us to desire to be in “right relation” to Nature, and its neighbors – others, all others.

Whether we care to admit it or not, we are not doing a very good job in our relationships to Nature and its Neighbors. Job-like, we are in perpetual anguish over this breakdown in our relationships with Nature and one another. We imagine that such things as God and Science are  somehow adversaries, at war with one another, rather than complimentary world views within the totality of all creation, that which is seen and unseen. We keep making advances in the realms of that which we can see. Yet, these advances seem to further alienate ourselves and one another from all that remains unseen.

Perhaps the Book of Job offers what might be called a Daoist resolution. After 41 long and at times tedious chapters, the Book of Job lands in chapter 42 with a confession of humility the likes of which seems utterly foreign in the current atmosphere of angrily competing voices of certainty. Job finally surrenders when faced with the sudden and inscrutable felt presence of YHWH: When I asked you to meet me in court, O Yahweh, I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. But things are clearer to me now. I no longer wish to challenge you; I only wish to learn from your wisdom. I will be quiet while you answer my questions. Therefore, I yield, And I admit my mistakes.  [Job 42:1-6, as paraphrased by Walter Brueggemann et al in Texts for Preaching: pp 558-559]

We could all stand more often to be quiet and do much more “yielding,” and admit our mistakes. Even more so, admit that in the end we simply do not know it all. And as the author of the Dao De Jing puts it: we all know that beauty is beautiful and yet makes ugliness; being and non-being arise together; hard and easy complete each other; before and after follow one another; the things of this world exist, they are, you cannot refuse them; to bear and not own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go; for just letting go is what makes it stay.

Ursula K. Le Guin sums up this portion of the Dao: “To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths that encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.” [Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching a new translation, p 5] It is in letting go that Job finds safety and his life flourishes once again. Not because of something he does or believes, but in his letting go and “not doing.” It is in that moment of “not doing” that he becomes the recipient not of God’s justice, but rather he experiences the welcoming gift of God’s mercy. Job shows us how to experience life as gift with humility and thankfulness. He yields to the very fact that he does not and does not need to know it all to be in a right relationship with Nature and its neighbors.

Again, Brueggemann et al conclude, “In other words, Yahweh loves Job as Yahweh loves all people. Yahweh has blessed Job as Yahweh intends to bless all people. To be sure, human willfulness and sin often distort our relations with God and with one another and frustrate God’s mercy. But Job’s new happiness is no more the result of some new righteousness on his part
than his sufferings were the result of some terrible act of sin. God’s ways are mysterious and past our understanding, but one thing is not in dispute: the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ, is a God of compassion whose ultimate will for all persons is peace and joy.” [Ibid p 559] Replace “God” with “Nature” if you must to allow what this ancient wisdom tale means to convey – to “do not doing;” to yield to that which is unseen; to admit our mistakes and allow a new wisdom and presence lead us to safety; to give up the need to fight for what will always be an incomplete wisdom, knowledge and truth. To abandon our sad arrogances and open ourselves to others – all others. To do so is to dwell in the safety of the ultimate will of all creation to know peace and joy.

To do so, we need to be like Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, that beggar who hears Jesus and his followers walking in the way of Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem in Mark 10:46-52. It is a caravan, with more people joining it every day until it is a long procession as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They are walking together in the hope of recovering what it means to walk in the way and to acknowledge life as gift. Bart cries out for mercy, for compassion. The followers who seem to fancy themselves as arbiters and gatekeepers of access to Jesus the root, the shoot, the offshoot if you will, of the source of all life as gift, try to keep Bart away. But Jesus hears his cry for mercy and stands still – he yields to the moment. It is a noisy and somewhat chaotic scene this caravan headed to Jerusalem and the three-times announced showdown with those in power, those representatives of Caesar, who in Biblical terms is the new Pharaoh. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity Jesus stands still and calls Bart to come forward.

Some find it odd that Jesus then asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Shouldn’t it be obvious? We should note, however, that Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus really wants and really needs. And Bart’s answer ought to surprise us as he says, “Let me see again.” Again. He has somehow lost the ability to see, which has made it impossible for him to walk in the way, but rather must sit by the side of the way and beg. Like Job, he seems to know that simply being in the presence of the one who was “in the beginning” and through whom all life has emanated and moved out from a single point and burst of energy and light and life and continues to move out and expand and evolve can, must, somehow reestablish his capacity to see again what we all wish to see: The Way. 

Job just wants to know. Bartimaeus just wants to stand before the life-giving light so he can see once  again. Like Job, that is all he needs to do. Wanting to stand before the gift of life is all it takes to know mercy and to see once again how to make our way in right relationship to Nature and its neighbors. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, show us how to love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you. Right mindedness. Knowing, accepting, life as gift makes all the difference in the world, seen and unseen. When we lose the capacity to know this we lose our sight, our vision. Without vision the people perish. Seeing life as gift again restores our vision, our hope, our vitality – and our capacity to be in right relation to Nature and its neighbors.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Job Part 2

The Story of Job Part 2
It is always inevitable. For each natural disaster it seems there is at least one Evangelical Pastor who claims to know who is responsible for it. Hurricane Michael is not the exception. Self-appointed Christian “prophet,” Mark Taylor tweeted: “Does anyone else think it's strange that Justice K is sworn in and we have a major hurricane inbound? DS [Democrats] scared? They should be. Retaliation? Absolutely. We will not be intimidated! Warriors arise, time to go to work! You know what to do. … — Mark Taylor (@patton6966) October 9, 2018”

To understand chapter 23 of Job one needs to hear chapter 22 in which his friend Eliphaz, in the spirit of Pastor Taylor, also attempts to assign blame for all the bad things that have happened to Job. Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

2 “Can a mortal be of use to God?
    Can even the wisest be of service to him?
3 Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
    or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?
4 Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
    and enters into judgment with you?
5 Is not your wickedness great?
    There is no end to your iniquities.
6 For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason,
    and stripped the naked of their clothing.
7 You have given no water to the weary to drink,
    and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
8 The powerful possess the land,
    and the favored live in it.
9 You have sent widows away empty-handed,
    and the arms of the orphans you have crushed,
10 Therefore snares are around you,
    and sudden terror overwhelms you,
11 or darkness so that you cannot see;
    a flood of water covers you.

To sum up Eliphaz, “You are obviously not as good as you think. It’s your own fault for not taking care of the widows, orphans, strangers and resident aliens whom God commands us to care for.” Strangely, this still seems to assign Job’s situation as “an act of God,” while the reader already knows it was Satan who brought this calamity on. Further, as I read it, I am not so sure that the author of this poetic fable is not aiming his charge at one and all who are listening or reading this story. What are we doing for the weary, the thirsty, the hungry, the widows, the strangers who by virtue of national policy are being warehoused, imprisoned, families ripped apart, people losing their homes while “the powerful possess the land, and the favored live in it?” More than a fable, the speech from Eliphaz is more like a prophetic critique of the status quo that seems to stretch on for centuries and even millennia to this very day.

Job holds steady and agrees that God is Just and what’s more our God is reasonable and merciful. If only he could find God to lay his case before him. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him” This is the lament of all faithful women and men in every age who experience undeserved suffering. Just ask the people of Mexico Beach, FL today. Just ask the women who were sexually assaulted yesterday. Just ask the LGBTQ community who remember that 20 years ago this week Matthew Shepherd was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming simply for being who he was – a young gay man. Just ask the 53,000 voters in Georgia, 70% of whom are black, whose registrations are being held up by the very man who is running for Governor and is also the official overseer of his own election. Just as #Me Too and #VeteransforKaepernick, and dozens of others raising all sorts of Justice and Peace questions.

It is here that the NRSV translation fails us in verses 16-17, making it sound as if Job is resigned to die. A more accurate translation, according to Walter Brueggemann, et. al., would be:
It is God who makes me fainthearted,
the Almighty who fills me with fear,
yet I am not reduced to silence by the darkness
or by the mystery which hides him.
That is, Job is resolute in his trust and faithfulness in his God, is not “reduced to silence,” and seeks even more so to penetrate the inscrutable presence of God. If he only knew where to look.

Job does not seek blame or explanations or theories or doctrines. He seeks a response. A compassionate response. And the opportunity to make his case; to tell his story; to get some sense that his case is being heard. This is what a lot of different people are asking for today.

Brueggemann, et. al., conclude, in Texts For Preaching:
“And here the matter is held in suspension. Job has confronted what is perhaps the most difficult question posed by Christian theology: How does one account for all the suffering that takes place in a world created and governed by a gracious God? When one replies, as Eliphaz does, that the answer lies in human sinfulness, there is ample evidence to affirm that Eliphaz is correct—but only partially so. Eliphaz’s views do not take into account all the innumerable instances in which suffering is inflicted on men and women for no apparent reason whatsoever, from the ravages of nature to terrible diseases that cripple and kill. There simply are those terrible moments when no human sinfulness lies behind our pain. In those moments, where is God?
“Job not only protests that Eliphaz’s views are wrong, but he also, in his stated inability to locate God, confesses his own partial agnosticism in the face of his pain. It simply is not possible to know the mind of God in certain situations of life. It is not possible to dialogue with God over this matter and to come away with solutions that are completely satisfactory. Job finds God to be simply unreachable!
“Job points to a dilemma whose solution he “cannot see” (v. 9b), but one for which Christian men and women find resolution in Jesus Christ (although Christians would also confess very imperfect knowledge in the matter). In Jesus Christ, God joined humankind in its suffering, both deserved and undeserved. The cross of Jesus Christ is that point in time and space where, more than any other, God identified with human suffering and experienced it to its fullest extent.
“Thus Job performs the enormous service of raising questions which he cannot answer and of pointing beyond himself to One who can.” On to chapter 38 and the Voice from the whirlwind. To be continued in two weeks…