Saturday, July 27, 2019

Tikkun Olam

Luke 11:1-13, a play in three acts. After the Samaritan example of how to love God and love neighbor, and time-out at the feet of Jesus with Mary and Martha, scene one shows Jesus going to “a certain place” to pray, after which his disciples (now including Mary and Martha?) ask, “Teach us to pray.” He gives them specific things for which to pray in what we know as The Lord’s Prayer – in somewhat different form than the more familiar words reported by Matthew (6:9-13). The overall intentions, however, remain fundamentally the same. Scene two is a story about a man visited by a traveler in the middle of the night who has no bread to offer and in turn wakes up a nearby neighbor to borrow some bread. Scene three are some sayings which suggest that prayer is indeed hard work that requires us to ask, search and knock, but work that results in the gift of knowing and experiencing God’s presence and blessing.

The prayer Jesus offers has several petitions, all of which are to direct us to the work at hand, which Jesus and his fellow religionists would call tikkun olam – repair of the world. Then, as now, it does not take much analysis to determine that the world presently ordered is seriously broken or fractured. When we pray, and “we” is the operant word as the prayer offered is a prayer to be from and for the community and the world more than for any individual, we are to: 1) Respect God’s presence and name; 2) Invite God’s reign, or what the Bible calls “The Day of the Lord,” and more specifically The Jubilee Year; 3) A return to manna season and bread that is given daily, that time when the people of God relied on God and one another, not self-reliance; 4) The Forgiveness of debts and sins (which were understood to be debts unto God); Protection from “the time of Trial,” which may be persecutions of the community which were well under way at the time of Luke’s account, and/or protection from judgment on the coming Day of the Lord (which the Bible construes as potentially both positive and negative).

It helps to recall that way back in chapter 4, Luke reports that when Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue he reads from Isaiah 61, a description of Israel’s hope for The Day of the Lord in language reminiscent of Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee year – a year in which the central focus was to be the return of land to the original families or clans that had been lost to indebtedness. Think here mortgage foreclosures, farm foreclosures, massive credit debts, student loans and the like all forgiven so as to provide a complete reboot to the community economy. In part this is crucial, especially in Israel where soil and land conditions can vary vastly from one farm to another since the families that have managed a specific plot best know what is necessary to make it fruitful – a win-win for the entire community. Jubilee is viewed as a divine act of mercy and forgiveness, the two most prominent aspects of God’s own character. We have so domesticated this prayer, and in English translation further mangled it to protect the very imperial interests it was originally meant to challenge, that we say it and say it and say it with no recognition of the radical nature of the prayer Jesus teaches.

Act two: The story of the midnight guest is also hampered by translation in that the word given as “persistence” more likely should be “shamelessness.” Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame, so utterly unlike the world in which we currently find ourselves. It would be shameful not to have bread to offer the midnight traveler even if it is the middle of the night. Yet, to stand outside your neighbor’s house knocking and calling out is to risk further shame and public embarrassment since you probably are disturbing other’s sleep as well – Luke, after all, is understood to be addressing an urban community of Christians. The man’s shameless persistence, however, results in finally wearing down the reluctant neighbor who grudgingly  embodies Jesus’s earlier teaching on radical neighborliness in the Samaritan story in chapter 10. This story means to ask if we are willing to set aside our own prestige to persist in providing for others while praying for things like debt relief, forgiveness of sins, and to repair the many ways in which the world we inhabit might be repaired to look more like God’s kingdom than our own?

As Walter Brueggemann observes in his article on “The Day of the Lord,” for which Jesus teaches us to pray, in his book Reverberations of Faith: “When we speak and think in conventional religious cadences, this claim for “the day” may sound routine and conventional. We should, however, notice in this rhetoric a claim that is always “strange and new” – Israel’s sustained assertion that the public life of the world is fully answerable to the personal rule of this God. Such a claim deabsolutizes our human pretensions, all claims of self-assured superpowers, all of the blind trust in “might makes right,” all the notions of a manageable moral calculus that orders and controls the world.” [Bureggemann, p 46]

Finally, act three – our shameless persistence in praying The Day of the Lord and Jubilee Year into reality demands us to ask, search and knock – that is, the very act of praying is meant to lead us into actions that help sustain the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – I use the old King James “Charity” instead of love because it better describes what biblical “love of neighbor” is all about. And because in popular song, literature, the popular imagination, and even the hymnody of  the Church, any and all notions of such love as the Lord commands have been diluted to so much pablum. Love and prayer are by nature hard work, not some warm and fuzz feeling.

It is Stanley Hauerwas in his seminal volume, A Community of Character, who insists that, “The Hebrew-Christian tradition helps sustain the virtue of Hope in a world that rarely shows evidence that such Hope is justified.” He goes on to say that the ongoing formation of families, alongside prayer, acts of justice and mercy, and generally living out of the biblical worldview, “witnesses to our belief that the falseness of this world is finally bounded by a more profound truth.” [p 174]

The result of such prayer as Jesus commends, and the result of our shameless persistence in prayer, in asking, in searching, in knocking, is a profound and very real experience of the Holy Spirit, or what might be called a deep knowledge and apprehension of the abiding presence and blessing of God. Such experiences invite us to join Jesus in tikkun olam – repair of the world.

As an aside, I am sometimes asked, given the falseness of this world, why I still hold onto faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed. Of all the things I might say, in the end it has been the profound, repeated and surprising presence and blessing of God I have experienced in a great variety of places, among a great diversity of people; in the unfolding silence of a sunrise viewed from a mountain top over the Atlantic Ocean; in a few words of a random poem; playing music with others; and in the care and comfort received from people I would otherwise never have met or known had I abandoned the disciplines of the very kind of prayer Jesus offers in this little three-act play in the eleventh chapter of Luke. As a result of such experiences I choose to participate in acts that sustain the virtue of Hope despite living in a world that rarely offers much evidence that such hope is justified. But, “rarely” still means that the evidence is there for those who choose to see and hear and experience the power and the glory of the Mercy, Forgiveness and Love of the living God.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Reboot - Time Out

Time Out
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." [Luke 10:38-42]

Oh my, this is a difficult one. What does this story say about discipleship? What does it say about the role women then and in the life of the Church? What does it say about good manners? What does it say about Luke’s vision of the role of women in society and especially the Church? What does it tell us about Jesus?

There are those who see Jesus liberating women from “traditional roles”: Mary and Martha are encouraged to drop traditional roles of hospitality and housekeeping and become equal to the male disciples. Or, Luke is seen as keeping women in their place: Mary is only allowed to “listen” and does not get to question Jesus, or receive a commission to preach the good news as male disciples are portrayed, while Martha is scolded and shamed simply for doing what is expected of her after she invites Jesus into her home. Or, Martha shames her sister in front of her guest, Jesus, rather than taking her aside to settle things between them. Coming after a story about radical hospitality and neighborliness, The Good Samaritan, why does Martha seem to be chastised for doing the same – presumably preparing a meal for Jesus and those traveling with him. 

As to life in the first century, and before, in Jesus’s Jewish world women were allowed leadership positions and teaching positions in the synagogues, and a fair amount of autonomy in the home. Similarly, throughout the New Testament literature women are seen to support Jesus, provide leadership in emerging Christian communities around the Middle East, and arguably it is a woman, Mary Magdalene who announces the Resurrection and thus is a, if not the, founder of Christianity. This all ends in the fourth century, if not before, as the Church becomes a leading player in the Roman Empire, rather than the alternative to life in the Empire. The world’s ruling religion silenced the leadership of women in favor of an institution that conformed to the gender concepts and hierarchies of its day. [Tal Ilan, Gender, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p 614]

There is no “general account” of this short episode loaded with challenges to interpretation. Which gives us leeway to attempt another way in. Jesus and his disciples, we are told, are ‘on their way’ – which is on the way to Jerusalem where Jesus already has declared he will be arrested, tortured, killed, and on the third day rise again. It’s a dangerous journey, and will be his final journey to the center of Political and Religious power. Martha appears to be a home owner and invites him in. She has a sister Mary. Elsewhere, in the gospel of John, we learn that they live in Bethany and are good friends of Jesus. The sisters have a brother, Lazarus, who dies and Jesus brings back to life. There is reason to believe it is the same Martha and Mary, and that Jesus has spent time in their home on occasion.

All of which suggests an urgency to this visit – this is the last time Jesus will stop in their home. Mary, we are told, immediately grasping the urgency sits at Jesus’s feet, listening to what he is saying. Martha, also sensing the urgency and finality, sets about “many tasks,” and twice we are told that she is “distracted.” The word here means torn in several directions. This ought to be a familiar state for most of us these days – if it is not our addiction to screens of all kinds (TV, computer, tablet, smart phone), it is or addiction to the news and/or social media, the social scene, the political scene, not even to mention the many ways family life calls us to focus attention on different people throughout the family system. Is it safe to say that in the year 2019 we are a distracted people with many different people, outlets and products vying for our attention?

With the addition of at least 13 more people to offer a meal, the tasks would be many, and Martha is overwhelmed. Or, is she overwhelmed to learn that this is the last time she will see her dear friend Jesus? Does she keep busy because she knows the dangers that lurk in Jerusalem and simply does not want to think about it? Don’t we do that – keep busy so as not to think about what is really troubling our hearts and minds?

After her plea for help from Mary, Jesus addresses her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things.” Does our hearing this story change if we learn that in Hebrew and Aramaic idiom the repetition of a person’s name is a sign of care and compassion for that person? Jesus has been all about hospitality throughout Luke, with the crescendo of the Samaritan’s story immediately before this one. Radical Hospitality is what Jesus teaches, lives and does. Now, he seems to say, is a time to stop, take a deep breath and clear away all the distractions. This is not the time for busy-work. He has things he wants to say to both sisters and there will be no tomorrow, no other time than the present to say them. Be here now – in the moment.

Yes, we are called to serve others and welcome others, all others, but to do that is hard work and demands that we stop now and then to catch our breath, clear away the distractions, and refocus ourselves. Distractions tear us apart. Taking time to rest and to reflect restores us and allows us to let go of all the tasks, all the worries and all the distractions that seek to divide our time, our hearts, our minds and our spirit – in short, our very being.

My friend and mentor N. Gordon Cosby would always say, “Being precedes Doing.” It is no accident that the very next story finds the disciples – including Mary and Martha? – asking Jesus “to teach us how to pray.” Prayer, all kinds of prayer, is also a time to stop, breathe, let go of the distractions, and reconnect with our inner self, our authentic self, our true being.

Finally, we might notice that throughout the New Testament narratives, Jesus the guest always becomes the host. No matter who is at the head of the table, all eyes and ears are focused on Jesus. Perhaps the story is not so complicated after all. We are all distracted and worried much of the time. We all need to reset, reboot, stop so we can start again with renewed focus on the tasks of loving God and loving our neighbors. We need to stop and refocus our eyes and ears on Jesus, what he says and what he does. And the very next verse, the beginning of chapter 11 is, “He was praying in a certain place…” Even Jesus needs to stop and reset. The journey to Jerusalem is a long and risky one, but a journey that changes lives and changes the world.

Friday, July 19, 2019

In Memoriam - Jason Mohr

In Memoriam
Jason Patrick Mohr

We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around.

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” When he says this it had been a long night already. It’s the Last Supper, and Jesus had utterly shocked everyone by stripping down, taking a towel and basin of water, got down on his knees and washed all those feet – at least 24 if the numbers are right. All the while telling his friends and followers that this is what they had to do – wash one another’s feet, serve others, and love others, all others, as he loves them – as his Father loves them – as God loves them, and the others. All others.

Then he tells them, “I am with you only a little longer…where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are mine, and I am yours, if you have love for one another.” Peter asks, “Where are you going?” Jesus replies, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow later.” Peter pleads with him, “Lord, Why can’t I follow you now?”

That’s when he says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Yet, here we are, with troubled hearts. Deeply troubled to have lost a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. And like Peter and the others that night, that long long night, our hearts are troubled and filled with questions. With lots of “What ifs?” and “Whys?” and “What nexts?”

There are no answers to such questions. Jesus knows this which is why he says, Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house there are many dwellings. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. I am the way, the truth and the life to the heart of my Father’s eternal love.

A friend of mine, a former French Jesuit priest puts it all this way: we come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. Jesus comes from love and returns to love. God is love. Jason came to us from the heart of God’s eternal love, was an important part of the love that is all around us all the time, and has returned to the heart of God’s eternal love. Like Jesus, we all return to the place from whence we came.

In whatever mysterious way in which we choose to understand what Jesus is saying to us right here and right now, he has promised to prepare a place for Jason, and for you and for me and for everyone. He promises to return for us. He promises an eternal place in the heart of God’s eternal love. He asks us to believe this. Thomas still has questions. So do we. It is the nature of life to have questions when we lose someone we love. It is also the nature of life to gather together to be the love that surrounds one another, to comfort one another, to begin the healing process, to begin to calm our troubled hearts. We come from love. We return to love. And we are asked, commanded really, by Jesus to be the love that is all around. Love one another, he says.

We also come together to celebrate the life of Jason Patrick Mohr. As I said to Dave yesterday, I remember Jason as a big, soft, grinning teddy bear who at one time was training to be a chef. He worked hard at it. Jason was something of a perfectionist and would tackle every one of life’s challenges with everything he had. Sometimes he worked with Dave, who says Jason had the best work ethic of anyone he ever hired. And he did not only work for himself. At the Corning Fiber Optic factory in Wilmington, NC, working 12 hour shifts, if he saw a co-worker in danger of being laid-off, Jason would mentor them, teach them how to succeed, and help them to become the best version of themselves – just as Jesus had urged his friends to get down on their hands and knees to help others wherever you are, whatever the circumstances – you can always make a difference in someone else’s life. That was Jason: generous, kind, soft hearted – a friend in need, a friend in deed.

Which should come as no surprise to those who know that Jason grew up in this church: in the youth group, at the altar, asking to read the vision of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones at the Easter Vigil more than once – a vision of God’s breath, God’s Spirit breathing new life into those who seemed as good as gone. And although like many in his generation, he had tended to drift from the church, these past four years he had once again begun to attend to his spiritual life, going back to the scriptures, asking questions, reading deeper into the faith that was nurtured by so many people here at St. Peter’s, both young and old. Jason was, is, and always will be, a fully incorporated member of the Body of Christ, the Church, and knows what it meant to love one another as God in Christ loves us.

This just scratches the surface of the life we celebrate and remember today, and there will be time afterwards to share more stories of what Jason meant to all of us. We gather to comfort one another, to celebrate Jason’s life, and finally to affirm the faith he knows and lived.

We come from love. We return to love. And love is all around. We are those people who believe that for the faithful, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place in the heavens. A place prepared by Jesus himself.  [Take just a moment to imagine how Jason’s place has been prepared. I see a fully equipped kitchen. A friendly companion cat…]

And we are those people who believe that Jason has been made one with all God’s saints in heaven and on earth, and that as we continue our earthly pilgrimage we are always supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and surrounded by their witness to God’s glory and love and mercy. Jason is no longer with us in the ways we remember, but he will still be an ongoing participant in God’s ongoing work of redemption in us if we allow him to dispel in us a little more of our darkness and lead us ever closer to the light – the light of this Paschal Candle in which Jason would read from Ezekiel, “…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” [Ezekiel 37:14]

Let us pray:
We seem to give him back to you, dear God, who gavest him to us.
Yet, as thou didst not lose him in giving, so we have not lost him by his return.
Not as the world giveth, givest thou, O Lover of Souls.
What thou givest, thou takest not away.
For what is thine is our always, if we are thine.
And life is eternal; and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
Lift us up, O God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to thyself, that we may know ourselves nearer to our beloved who are with thee.
And while thy Son prepareth a place for us, prepare us for that happy place, that, where they are and thou art, we too may be; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Parable of the Good Samaritan?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan?  (Luke 10:25-37)
I have been reading and re-reading Amy Jill Levine’s analysis of this all too familiar and domesticated story in her book Short Stories By Jesus [HarperOne, New York:2014, pp 77-115], only to discover that we, the Church throughout the ages and most all of us, have read this story completely wrong – or nearly so. Beginning with the word “Good.” It is nowhere to be found in the story of the Lawyer’s Challenge or the Parable of The Man Left to Die in a Ditch. To say that there is “a Good Samaritan” is to imply that not all Samaritans are good. It’s like saying, “He’s a good Muslim,” (as opposed to all those others who are terrorists), or “She’s a good immigrant,”(as opposed to all those scamming the system), – or as Heinrich Himmler said to a group of SS officers, every German ‘has his decent Jew’ – that is, knows one good Jew – and as far as Himmler was concerned one is too many and might create sympathy. [Levine p 81] And it tends to make the Jewish Priest and Levite who walk by look bad, and therefore tends to make all Jews look bad. Which is not why Jesus tells the story.

It begins with a lawyer who wants to “test” Jesus saying, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The word “test” has appeared earlier in Luke – when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. That’s when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy saying, You shall not put the Lord your God to a test. This lawyer is depicted as continuing Satan’s work. More importantly, as the Bible contends from beginning to end, there is nothing one can “do” to earn or “inherit” eternal life. There’s no check-list. Eternal life is given. It is an act of mercy. It is as John Newton, former slave trader and repentant priest, wrote, Amazing Grace.

Jesus replies to the lawyer’s question with another: What is written in the law? How do you read? You’re a student of the law. It ought to be very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart. You tell me. The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Good answer – and not original. The two verses had long been joined in Jewish thought before the time of Jesus – and so joined they do not mean, ‘Just do a lot of loving and you can forget the rest of the commandments about circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary regulations and the rest. Rather, the two love commandments are to be the key as to how one understands and observes all the rest of the commandments!

Consider the original context of these verses. Deuteronomy 6 begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” This is part of a text to be recited twice a day, every day. And taught to children. And placed on your door. You are to do these things to remember not just who you are, but whose you are. And Leviticus 19 goes on to say, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” [Lev 19:33-34] Just as we are, most all of us, aliens living in this land which may have been “made for you and me,” but was made for others long before our ancestors arrived here. And yet, this Sunday, we are sending federal agents out to round up resident aliens throughout the land.

Jesus likes the lawyer’s answer and says, “This do, and you will live.” [Luke 10:28] That is, all this loving and neighboring is meant for living here and now, and not about “eternal life.” Do this, and you live – your life will have meaning. You will be on the right path. Then the lawyer, wanting to look good, and still thinking this is just one thing to be checked off his bucket-list to eternal life, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Evidently, thinks Jesus, he really has not studied this stuff. So, Jesus tells a story about a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who is beaten and robbed and left half-dead in a ditch. This road is dangerous to this day as it descends from 2,500 feet above sea level to Jericho’s 825 feet below sea level. And it is narrow, and twisting, with deep chasms on either side.

A Priest and then a Levite coming “down from Jerusalem,” ie going home from performing their sacrificial duties. They see the man in the ditch and walk by. It’s been argued that they need to be “clean” to perform their duties and cannot touch a dead body, but they are not “going up to Jerusalem” and so have no concern for being clean and undefiled. And, as it turns out, the man is not dead. And there is no command against helping a half-dead person or touching a dead person on the side of the road, even if it happens to be Sabbath. You are supposed to help. Truth is, we do not know why they pass by, but a good guess was made once by Martin Luther King, Jr: “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid … and so the question the Priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? … But then the Samaritan comes by and reverses the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ King went on, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’” [Ibid p102] King’s insight begs the question, if we do not help resident aliens, what will happen to them?

Besides, offers Levine, it was common to tell stories in Israel that followed the rule of three where the first two fail and the third succeeds, as in the Three Little Pigs. Or, suggest an obvious third such as “Father and Son” sets up Holy Ghost. Or, Larry and Moe evokes Curly. But in Israel such stories are always about a Priest, a Levite and an Israelite. The name of the longtime enemy Samaritans, who lived north of Judea and disagreed on where to worship, and what is to be included in scripture and so on, would be completely unexpected and capture everyone’s attention! In modern terms, says Levine, it would be like saying, Larry, Moe and Osama bin Laden! [Ibid 103]

We note that this most unexpected of northern neighbors approaches the man, treats and binds his wounds, spends his own money to find lodging for him, and offers the innkeeper a blank check to provide ongoing healthcare for the man who is a complete stranger, and presumably a Jew. The bandits leave him for dead. The Samaritan returns him to life – just like Jesus does with the Lazarus four-days-dead. No doubt the lawyer is shocked, but had he a firm understanding of Jewish scripture he would have known that in 2 Chronicles 28: 8-15 back in the day the Samaritans captured some Judeans and meant to kill some and enslave the rest until Obed the prophet told them to clothe the captives, feed them, put sandals on their feet and take them home – which they did! Sometimes when you find yourself lying half-dead in a ditch it is only those who want to kill you who come to save you.

Besides, our lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbor? is just another way of asking, Who is not my neighbor? Who can I hate instead of love? Who can I avoid “loving?” Once again, he asks the wrong question. At the end of the story, Jesus asks him, “Who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?” The lawyer cannot get the word “Samaritan” out of his mouth and simply says, The one who showed mercy. Mercy, throughout the Bible, is an attribute of God. The dreaded Samaritan loved the man as God loves us – all of us who are created in God’s image.

“Go and do likewise,” says Jesus. So “neighboring” and “loving” is not about who at all. It is about what – what we are to do – what we are to do for both the citizens of the land and the aliens in the land who are to be loved as citizens and as one loves oneself. It’s a story about love – not love that feels something, but love that does something helpful for others – and not a one-time good deed, but ongoing care for those in need, using our own resources when necessary. For this is how we are to show God that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.

Given what’s to happen throughout the land this Sunday, what might this story mean for us today? And, who will help us awake from our national half-dead stupor to live and love like the Samaritan who helped the man in the ditch? It’s all about love and how to be a neighbor, not defining and redefining who our neighbors are or are not. As the song says, “All these are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu. Show us how to love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.”  

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Homily: Jamie Wessels and Kirk Kubicek Jr

The Homily
Trust that you have a good and compassionate nature. You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.”
   - Thích Nhất Hạnh, How to Love

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. Some of us are still searching. Our true home is inside, but it’s also in our loved ones around us. When you’re in a loving relationship, you and the other person can be a true home for each other.
  -Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
            as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
            passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
            a vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
            neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
            all the wealth of one’s house,
            it would be utterly scorned.
   -The Song of Songs

On behalf of everyone here, thank you for including us all in your special day. You could have easily run half-way between Philly and Baltimore to elope in Elkton, the long-time marriage capital of the East Coast. But you have brought us here to Rocky Gap, one of the most beautiful settings in the Mid-Atlantic!

And you have chosen wisely the readings for our reflection today. Nearly every day I reflect on the teachings of Tich Nhat Hanh, popularly known as Thay (Tay) or “teacher”, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I read and re-read his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ over and over again.

Thay reminds us that we are star dust, that all creation is star dust, that we are all one with the creation, and that we all carry eternity inside – what Jesus might call love for one another. When we look at one another, says Than, when we really see one another in this way we cannot help but have reverence for one another. True love is built on this way of seeing and knowing one another. As all of us look at the two of you right now, here in the most natural of settings, we begin to see this first in you, then in one another, and finally in all others, which the Buddha teaches leads us into lives of compassion. As I said at the outset, you stand before us as a sign – a sign  of the unity of the Creator with all of creation, and as such we are reminded to honor and reverence the natural world, and indeed all that is, seen and unseen, including all creatures and all persons.

You also chose the reading from the Song of Songs – which in the Hebrew and Aramaic some three or more centuries before the time of Christ, the doubling of the word “song” indicates the superlative – that this is The Song of All Songs! It is poetry, and as Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the first century, declared, “All of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

How appropriate since you and nearly all of us here consider songs and music to be central to what it means to be alive!

Like the teachings of Thay and the Buddha, this Song of Songs has long been understood not only to describe the love between a man and a woman, but also the Divine Love of the Creator for all persons and all creation! This love is on fire. It is a vehement flame! No amount of water can quench the fire of such love! Anyone who knows this kind of love, lives it, has reverence for it, and would turn down all the money in the world to hold onto it for ever and ever.

You’ve heard me say, we come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. Today your love shines as the brightest of stars from where we all come and from which we all have life. Your love reminds us not only of who we are, but whose we are. Your love stands as sign for how all of us should love one another and all others – especially those most in need, those without resources, those who for whatever reason need to feel loved and to feel that their lives matter too.

Your love cannot be sold, but it can be given away. On the Fourth of July weekend 1993, our friend Milton Cole sent us a hand painted American Flag on a board with the words, You Keep What You Give Away written on the white stripes. The more you give this love away, the more you will have.

This goes for all of us here. Next to the vows which come next, the most important two words spoken earlier were “We will. We will do all in your power to surround you in Love, Friendship and joy, and forever uphold the two of you in your marriage.

We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. To see what the love that surrounds you on all sides looks like, just take this moment to turn around and look – all of us gathered here today are the love that many waters cannot quench and will surround you and support you all the days of your life together. This is the Song of Songs, the song that you sing, the song that you inspire us all to sing!

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. Your true home is inside; your true home is with these loved ones who surround you. In your loving relationship, you are becoming the true home for one another, and for all to whom you are sent in the name of the Creator’s Divine Love!

It's now time to say your vows.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Lightning

A poem by Madeleine L'Engle

When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man who worked miracles,
cured diseases,
even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief.
I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why
I thought he could help me
when all the doctors
with all their knowledge
had left me still drained
and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living.
Well: I’d seen him with some children
and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
Then there was that leper,
but lepers have been cured before –
No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand,
not to interrupt, or to ask him for anything,
not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him…
I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.
I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed that they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close I could reach out
and touch with my fingers
the hem of his garment.
Have you ever been near
when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree
under which I had been playing
and I was flung right across the courtyard.
That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.
“Who touched me?” he asked.
I said, “I did, Lord.”
So that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched
his garment’s hem.
He looked at me and I knew then
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
He was tired and emptied
but he was not angry.
He looked at me
and the lightning returned to him again,
though not from me, and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.
Then the crowd came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.