Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Bible's First Prayer

Proper 9 / Year A
Genesis 24:34ff

What is the first prayer you ever said?  While I don’t remember the exact moment, I am sure it was either at the dinner table - “God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank him for our food” – or going to bed – “Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”  I suspect I am not the only person whose life a prayer began in this way.

While one of these two may have been our initial prayer, neither is the first prayer recorded in the bible.  Surprisingly this event does not appear in the text until the 24th chapter of Genesis.  Up until now, God appears on the scene and initiates conversation with a specific human being.  The person may or may not respond, but the response does not constitute a prayer.  It is either an answer to a question or part of a dialogue. 

Equally as surprising, the bible’s first recorded prayer is not offered by one of its main figures – not Adam or Noah or Abraham.  In fact, the person who offers the first prayer in the bible is not even named.  He is identified only as Abraham’s servant.  This trusted helper is given the task to return to Abraham’s ancestral homeland to find a suitable wife for Isaac (you may recall I mentioned in last week’s sermon it is curious Isaac himself does not make this journey or participate in the process). 

When the servant arrives at the village of Abraham’s birth, he rests at the town’s well and prays:

Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
As soon as the prayer is finished, Rebekah appears and the rest is history.
The prayer contains several oddities.  One is its specificity.  There are many other ways to identify a bride-to-be… a light, an inner voice, or some other kind of sign.  The plan of the prayer has a lot of moving parts and hardly seems like a process God would propose.

Notice how the servant identifies himself to God.  He addresses the prayer to the God of Abraham and he describes Isaac as God’s servant.  In the mind of the person praying, each possesses a special relationship with God; one which he himself seems not to enjoy.  He never describes himself in relationship to God, only to his master… Abraham.  
The opening address in the prayer tells us much: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham”.  The Hebrew word translated here as O Lord is “El Shaddai”, which literally means “God of the mountain.”  It carries a sense of greatness and power and most often is translated as “Almighty God”.  In the polytheistic world religions of the ancient middle east, this would be the greatest of the gods – powerful, aloof, to be feared, and certainly not to be bothered with trifling matters like who says what to whom at a well. 

But the servant does not end his address to God with El Shaddai, he adds to it “God of my master Abraham.”  Again, in middle-eastern religions, there were the big gods who had control over things like the skies, fertility, and natural disasters and then there were personal gods whose interests were more focused on a specific individual, family, or clan.  The role these gods played in a person’s life was more like what we think of as a guardian angel.  To pray to the god of person X or the god of person Y was to entreaty a household god who was engaged with the day-to-day operations of the family.  In polytheistic thinking, El Shaddai would not be concerned with identifying a suitable wife for Isaac, but the God of Abraham would be.  

So, in this first prayer in the bible, offered by an unnamed servant, we find something truly revolutionary.  This person has come to see and sense how the Almighty God is intimately involved in the personal affairs of his master.  Now, this may not seem ground breaking to us today.  We pray to God for any number of very personal and at times trivial matters.  Abraham’s servant is the first person in the bible to recognize these two distinct functions of ancient middle-eastern gods are in fact part of the makeup and personality of the one true God. 

In this morning’s gospel reading we hear an invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
These words are rooted in the personal nature of God’s Being.  We live in wearying times and we are carrying heavy burdens.  Our Lord is concerned with our welfare.  Our Lord knows our need.  And our Lord offers help and comfort. El Shaddai – the Mighty One – listens intently to every prayer, even “God is great, God is good” and “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  And this great God and our God invites us to a place of rest and ease.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Flaws of the Faithful

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer

Proper 8 / Year A
Genesis 22:1-14

The problem with history is (as we are seeing anew) if you look closely enough at the life of any person deemed to be a ‘hero’ you are going to find some flaws.  Some defects are so deep and pervasive as to disqualify a person from being an example to follow.  Other blemishes are more reflective of the times a person lives in.  These only become problematic as a new age with different values looks back on the past and condemns a person for little more than being a product of his/her times. 

Did you see the recent documentary chronicling the summer Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa competed to break baseball’s single season home run record?  At the time they were lauded for saving the sport as well as lifting up the American spirit.  But then it came to light their feats were fueled by the use of illegal steroids and their achievements were called into question.  Did their cheating invalidate their records and shame them or were they merely emblematic of what was happening on a grand scale in baseball at the time?  If you look closely enough at any hero you will find something not to like.

In recent weeks our Sunday Lectionary has us reading the stories of Abraham’s life.  He is credited with being the founder of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  St. Paul’s considers him to be an exemplary figure deemed by God to be righteous on account of his faith.  And yet the more we read of him, the more we wonder about his apparent lapses and indiscretions.

Abraham’s story begins in Genesis 12 when the Lord appears to him and tells him to leave his native home to go forth to land God will give to him.  The command includes the promises God will make of Abraham a great nation, his name will be great, and he will be a blessing to all people.  Abraham obeys, but is silent.  When he comes to the land God shows him, he finds it is ruled by the Canaanites.  He builds an altar, makes a sacrifice to the Lord, and settles here.  Then his flaws begin to show.

At the onset of a famine, Abraham abandons the land God promises and goes to Egypt.  Fearing he will be killed because his wife is beautiful, he instructs her to pretend they are brother and sister.  Abraham offers to the Pharaoh the women through whom he is to procreate a great nation.  Back in Canaan, Abraham has to go to war against four kings in order to save his nephew Lot.  Only after he is victorious does God promise to “shield” Abraham from harm.  Now he speaks: “What good is your protection if I do not have an heir?”  Again God promises fertility and again Abraham’s response is silence.

Last Sunday’s reading comes next in the story.  You remember how Abraham’s wife offers her slave Hagar to him.  She conceives and gives birth to Ishmael.  This arrangement rings neither of righteousness nor feels like an act of faith. 

Thirteen years pass.  Abraham is now 99 years old and God has promised him five different times over the years and years of his life he will be the father of a great nation.  His response now is to fall on his face and laugh.  When his wife hears God’s messengers promise she will have a child within a year, she too laughs.  But finally the promise comes to pass and Isaac is born.

In my reading of the text – and I may be wrong here and have no scholarship to support my view – I suspect something is less than perfect about Isaac.  Given his parents are elderly when he is born, is it possible he has a disability?  We know today there is a connection between Downs-Syndrome and the age of the parents at birth.  Is it possible Isaac is born with Downs?

The first evidence I see comes from last Sunday’s reading.  Do you remember how Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, is observed mocking him?  Could this be a sign Isaac has a mental or physical disability?  When it is time for Isaac to marry, Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland to find a suitable bride.  Why does Isaac not go himself?  When the servant returns with Rebekah, she seems less than overwhelmed when she first meets her future husband.  Why?  What about his appearance is not what she imaged?  For Isaac’s part, he has been in mourning over the death of his mother and it is only after marrying Rebekah that he is comforted in his loss.  In his old age, Isaac will be duped by his son Jacob into thinking he is in fact Esau, Isaac’s other son. 

I suggest there is enough evidence in the biblical record to make my theory a possibility.  And if Isaac is in some way disabled, it sheds an interesting light on today’s reading. 

The Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most perplexing story in the entire bible.  Some make sense of it by trying to sanitize it: Abraham knew all along God would intervene and God knew all along Abraham would act in faith.  But if this is the case the story is drained of all of its drama and power.  Why even tell it if the whole episode is merely an exercise of going through the motions?  And if it is so straight-forward, how do we account for the fact it is never referenced anywhere else in the Old Testament?  The prophets don’t speak of it.  The psalm writers don’t include it in their songs of God’s presence in the lives of God’s people.  Moses does not reference it as a part of the story of deliverance.  Why?  Because it is a story so confounding no one knows quite what to make of it.

The text states clearly “God tested Abraham.”  And when God is satisfied Abraham has passed the test, the Lord says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  Is God trying only to determine whom Abraham cares about more… God or Isaac, his son?  Can God really be this jealous and petty?  Is this actually a test only about of priorities?

Or, if I am correct in my assumption about Isaac, is it possible the real test here is to see if Abraham believes God’s promise can be fulfilled through a physically and/or mentally challenged son?  It makes sense to me Abraham would wonder how his offspring will be as numerous as the stars if Isaac does not seem up to the task.  Is the question Abraham faces this: can God do something wonderful through a person who seems to be less than perfect?

There is so much to explore in this lean account.  I am always drawn to two things happening just as Abraham, armed cocked with knife in hand, dominates Isaac.  First, God speaks.  Always in the moment of our deepest need the Lord is present and the Lord reaches out to us; calling us to pause, to pray, to reflect, to be open to something – anything – from beyond.  And second, Abraham looks up.  Completely absorbed, and totally caught in what we might call tunnel vision, he breaks free of the moment, looks up, and in doing so sees what God provides. 

And do not underestimate the faith it takes to see God’s provision in the presence of the ram.  Abraham can easily push on with the task of sacrificing his son, being ever faithful and diligent to his initial interpretation of God’s will.  But in this most critical moment – in this moment where the stakes are so incredibly high – he is able to discern God working in a new way.  Just as he was able (in last week’s reading) to hear God’s promise to deliver Hagar and Ishmael, so too does he remain open to God’s working in a new and unexpected way through Isaac. 

In the end, I suspect this is why Abraham is remembered for his faith.  Yes, he is the first person to discern the nature of one true God.  Yes, he is willing to go.  Yes, he is willing to hope.  But he is also ever the pragmatist, weighing what God promises against the evidence of everyday life.  But somehow, through it all, there is something in him that looks like faith.

If you look closely enough at any hero you will find a flaw.  Since this is true, it follows if you look closely at your friends, your co-workers, your spouse, your family members, even your priest, you will find flaws!  And if you look closely enough at yourself, you will find what we find in Abraham.  And yet the bible elects not to define him by his flaws, but by his faith.  How do you look past the flaws of those you love to see their faith?  How do you look past the shortcomings of your friends and associates in order to celebrate their unique gifts and contributions?  How do you look honestly at yourself and acknowledge the sinner without ever dismissing or diminishing the child of God you are called to be?

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Slave Girl and Her Son

Genesis 21:8-21
Proper 7 / Year A

You are forgiven if you do not remember the story of Hagar from your Sunday School days.  It is a sordid tale most likely skipped over by the curriculum and/or your bashful teacher.  Legend holds Hagar is the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh who is given to Abraham’s wife Sarah as a gift.  Hagar becomes her slave. 

You know the primary drama of Abraham’s and Sarah’s life revolves around their inability to have a child, even though God has promised to make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.  When she is well-past the age of conceiving, Sarah conceives her own plan to fulfill God’s promise.  She presents Hagar to her husband hoping a child will be born through their relations.  For his part, Abraham seems more the willing to do his part. 

Well, Hagar becomes pregnant and will give birth to Abraham’s first child, a son… Ishmael.  But before this happens Sarah becomes jealous and treats Hagar harshly.  The pregnant slave girl flees into the wilderness where an angel of the Lord appears to her, promises she will be safe, and instructs her to return to Sarah.  From this point forward, Hagar addresses God as El Roi – the God who sees me.

Eventually Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac.  Ishmael is in his early teens at the time.  It is not hard to image the relationship between Sarah and Hagar is riddled with tension and bad feelings.  This is the background story to today’s reading and now you know why it wasn’t a part of your Sunday School education.

So, today’s reading.  Did you notice Ishmael’s name never appears in the text?  He is referred to as “the son of Hagar the Egyptian”, “her son”, “the boy” “the son of the slave woman”, and “the child”.  Nowhere does it state Ishmael’s connection to Abraham, his father.  Even God does not identify him by name.  Ishmael’s life is in jeopardy and everyone speaks about him only in the third person.  It is completely and thoroughly dehumanizing.  Having been treated this poorly, is it any wonder the angel who encounters Hagar when she is pregnant tell her that her son will grow up to be “a wild ass of a man whose hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12)? 

It is also curious that Ishmael’s big offense (according to the text) is Sarah sees him “playing” with his toddler half-brother.  Now the Hebrew word used here has some dark overtones.  Some versions of the bible translate it to read Ishmael was mocking Isaac. Because it is the same word used later in Genesis when Potiphar’s wife’s, in a lie, claims Joseph tried to make sport of her by sleeping with her, it is possible Sarah observes some type of molestation.  Another tradition holds Ishmael was sacrificing insects to a toy idol, in which case his play activity would have been a bad influence.  Yet another tradition holds Ishmael was using a bow to shoot arrows at his half-brother.  Whatever Sarah observes, her reaction to it is swift and volatile.  She demands the slave and her child be cast from the house, expelled from the land, and cut out of any inheritance.

While we hold all Scripture to be inspired by God, this does not preclude individual writers from having an agenda.  In this case, there is ample evidence the author of this account has a significant bias against Ishmael.  We see it in the lack of identifying him by name and we see it in the use of an ambiguous verb slyly hinting at scandalous behavior without any further supporting evidence.  Most likely the author takes this slant because he knows Ishmael goes on to become the patriarch of the Arabians just as Isaac becomes the patriarch of the Hebrews.

Even with its biased perspective, three amazing things about this story cannot be erased.  First, just as God appeared to Abraham years earlier to call him to a new homeland, so God appears to Hagar in the wilderness; first when she is pregnant and second when her situation is desperate and her son is near death.  It is the first time in the biblical record that God hears the cries of a person in need and responds.  It is as if a significant portion of God’s character and disposition has remained untouched and untapped until this moment.  Hagar is the first person ever to experience the part of God’s nature and personality that one day will deliver the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, that the Psalmists will cry out to time and again, that the prophets will come to know as being decidedly for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the foreigner, that Jesus and the New Testament writers will proclaim desires to deliver us from the bondage sin in order to thrive in the new life of Spirit.

A second truth in the story not easily hid is that God makes the same promise to Ishmael that God makes to Isaac: out of each a mighty and numerous people will arise.  God blesses both sons and their descendants.  We may want to claim God cares only for our tribe and despises others, but the biblical record states otherwise.  God’s blessing falls on all God’s children, regardless or race, nationality, or political persuasion. 

And a final truth – especially relevant today, Father’s Day – while the writer may not have held Ishmael in high regard, it is obvious his father Abraham cares deeply for him.  He has his son circumcised in order to be a part of God’s covenant promise.  He agonizes over Sarah’s demand to banish the mother and child, and consents only after God tells him not to be distressed.

Over the years, extra-biblical stories continue to emerge about Ishmael, just as they do about Abraham.  Both Jewish and Islamic traditions hold Abraham makes journeys into the desert to visit Hagar and Ishmael.  Muslims locate Mecca as the site where God reveals the water to Hagar and gives the blessing.  Here, Abraham discovers the ka’aba – the large black cube said to have been built by Adam.  Damaged by the flood in Noah’s time, Abraham and Ishmael come together to restore it.  When their work is completed Abraham calls on all creation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca – an act which to this day remains one of the five pillars of Islam.

Some traditions hold Abraham marries Hagar after Sarah’s death.  The bible records Isaac and Ishmael come together one final time to bury their father.  Like most biblical narratives, the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac are not told primarily to give us answers, but rather to challenge us by posing difficult questions.  We are not called to follow their examples as much as to question their actions, ponder the consequences, and look to God for wisdom and guidance in our own day.  What is this story stands out to you as something particularly relevant in our time?

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Kairos Moment

Matthew 9:35-10:8
Proper 6 / Year A

In her sermon last Sunday at the National Cathedral, the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, Bishop of the Diocese of Washington DC, noted New Testament Greek has two different words for ‘time’ – chronos and kairos.  Chronos refers to chronological time: 6:01, 6:02, 6:03…  When you ask someone the time you are inquiring about chronos.  Kairos refers to when the time is right or opportunity is at hand.  “Make hay while the sun shines.”  “Strike while the iron is hot.”  Both refer to kairos time.  Think about a football commentator who might say, “With six minutes left in the third quarter (chronos), this might be a good time to take a shot down the field (kairos).”

Bishop Budde stated she believes our country is in a kairos moment when we have the opportunity to create a society more reflective of the ideals set for by our founding documents; one moving us closer to God’s dream for all people (what we Christian’s call The Kingdom of Heaven).  Who saw this coming?  In the midst of a global pandemic, the death of a black man at the hands and knees of Minneapolis Police Officers has brought us to a kairos moment.  People of color are speaking out once again about the injustice they experience and this time white America is listening and willing to learn and to act. 

I’d like to think I am a good person.  I try to treat everyone with dignity and respect and even go out of my way to extend my value of civility to people of color.  Am I perfect?  Of course not, but I don’t think of myself as being a racist.  If you point out to me a way in which I am, I will repent and work to amend my attitudes and behavior.  And most of you, along with most of the white people I know, are good people; folks who try to look beyond the color of a person’s skin to the common humanity we all share as children of God. 

But the events of the last few weeks have got wondering if being a nice person is enough, why is our country still struggling with racism?  Sure, there are a few “bad apples” who make things difficult.  While their actions are an affront to what our country and our faith stands for, their presence alone cannot account for the brokenness in our civic life.  For the first time I am beginning to think about things like systemic racism and institutional racism.  I want to know more about what they are and I want to understand how they play out in our society.

I understand how phrases like Systemic Racism, Institutional Racism, Black Lives Matter, White Privilege, White Fragility, Reparations, and Defund the Police elicit an almost involuntary negative reaction in white people.  I understand this because it is a part of my initial response.  But I also recognize my first impulse is not necessarily the best course to take in any particular situation.  Thomas Jefferson did not say “The cornerstone of democracy is your gut reaction”.  He said, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”  I recognize I need to learn a lot before I can begin to act in a thoughtful, meaningful, helpful way reflective of my pride in being an American and faithful to my calling as a child of God baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

A week ago I had never even heard of the notion Defund the Police.  On the surface, it sounds like a completely absurd idea.  I committed myself to reading articles about it and to listen to those advocating for it.  I read about how Camden, NJ dismantled its entire police department in 2013 because the problems in it were so deeply entrenched reform was deemed not possible.  And I read about how they rebuilt the force on a new model using different, community-oriented methods.  I read about the positive results coming out of their efforts.

Now, I am not advocating for the Defund the Police movement, nor am I saying we in Suffolk need to dismantle our police force.  What I am saying is now is a kairos moment and we white people enter into first by listening and by learning.  Many of you have told me you have had enough of our society’s injustice, but you just don’t know what to do.  I have a four-part answer.  First, pray.  Second, listen to the experience of others.  Third, learn, explore, understand before dismissing something out-of-hand.  And fourth, act locally.  

We don’t live in Minneapolis.  We don’t live in Camden.  We live in Suffolk, VA, a part of the metropolitan region of Hampton Roads.  What is the policy of our police force with regard to restraint?  What are our statistics for incarceration based on race?  For educational results?  For income level?  For access to healthcare?  For representation at all levels of local government?  What do these numbers mean?  Are they reflective of a just society where everyone has an equal opportunity?  If not, what can we do about it?  Speaking only for myself, I will need to listen and learn before I can advocate for anything specific.

I am a member of Suffolk Clergy United (a multi-ethnic group founded five years after the shooting at the Charleston A.M.E. Church). We have been privileged to attend meetings with Suffolk’s Chief of Police, with the Sheriff and members of his Department, and with representatives of the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.  All are actively engaged in community relations and (in my opinion) genuinely seek to make Suffolk a good and fair place for every resident in our community.  Are we perfect?  No.  But we are trying and I am sure this kairos moment will only bolster our resolve to move forward.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew we find Jesus at an interesting juncture in his early ministry.  He has healed.  He has taught.  He has feed.  He has forgiven.  He has challenged the powers that be.  And he has amassed a following.  He has done all of this and yet he recognizes there is so much more to do.  And he recognizes how his human limitations mean he cannot do it all by himself.  Jesus knows he needs help.  So he calls twelve and appoints them as his disciples.  He gives them authority and sends them out to expand his work, giving them only the barest of instructions.  The message, it is not what you have that matters.  What matters is who you are and who is with you.

Jesus describes this moment in a metaphorical way: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  The harvest is plentiful.  He is not talking about chronos time here.  He is not saying it is fall and the time for brining in the crop is upon us.  He is talking about kairos time.  We have an opportunity to spread the Good News.  People are open to it in ways like never before and we cannot let this moment pass.  Do borrow a phrase from the Navy, we need all hands on deck.

All kairos moments come about by the movement of God’s Spirit.  Some kairos moments are deeply personal and tailored to where you are as an individual…  the time comes for you to stand up for yourself, or to make a change, or to put away destructive behaviors and make a new beginning.  Other kairos moments are communal as it is with where we are in right now.  The harvest is plentiful.  You and I are called to be laborers who pray first, then listen, then learn, and then act.  It is not enough to spectate.  This kairos moment requires all hands on deck.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Protection for the Scattered

The Seventh Easter of Easter / Year A
John 17:1-11

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, is a masterful communicator with a great feel for his audience.  I’ll give you an example.  Some years ago, after attending a Lambeth Conference, where all the Anglican bishops (and their spouses) from around the world gather in England once every ten years, Bishop Lee gave a detailed report of their discussions and deliberations to the clergy of the diocese at our own spring conference.  It was clear and informative and something most likely only clergy would find interesting. 

A few weeks later, Bishop Lee spoke about Lambeth at the yearly gathering of the Episcopal Church Women of the diocese.  Here he told the ladies nothing of what he had shared with the clergy.  Rather he talked about the afternoon all the bishops and their spouses loaded into dozens of buses and went off to Buckingham Palace for afternoon tea with the Queen.  He mentioned a special fund had been set up so the wives of foreign bishops from poor dioceses could afford to purchase clothing suitable to the occasion.  The ladies at the meeting let out a great sigh of relief when Bishop Lee shared this.  It was as if they themselves had been spared a great humiliation.  Then he described in some detail what was served and how things went and what it all looked like and by the time he was done most of the ladies felt as if they had been at the tea with the Queen. 

But Bishop Lee saved the best for last.  It seems a young woman from the diocese – I think her name was Annie and she may have been the chancellor’s daughter – was spending the semester studying in England and Bishop Lee, who has some pull on the other side of the pond – managed to get her an invitation to the tea.  Annie was surely one of the youngest and no doubt most attractive people at the party.  Bishop Lee related as he, his wife, Annie, and a few others were chatting, a dignitary approached them, begged their pardon, and asked their permission to introduce Annie the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, who was standing right there, wearing whatever princes wear at such an occasion and looking, well, royal.  Most blessedly, it seems the finest schools of Richmond suitably prepared young Annie for such a moment. 

Now this took place over 20 years ago, but I suspect there are still a few women passed out in the pews of that church, having swooned at the thought of meeting a prince at high tea at the palace.  My point: When telling a story, know your audience!

Beyond entertainment purposes (come back to me ladies, and focus), I share this story to help you to appreciate an important aspect of understanding the bible.  So, for example, when reading one of the Gospels – say John – it is helpful to ask who is the original intended audience and what is happening in their lives.  This question helps to explain why the author shares some details of Jesus’ life and teaching, while ignoring others.  John does it for the same reason Bishop Lee held two very different conversations about Lambeth, even though they both were true of the gathering.  Who is your audience and what do they need to hear?

John’s is the only Gospel to include what is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  After sharing the meal we now call the Last Supper, Jesus offers parting words to his followers and then, in chapter 17, he prays for himself, then for his followers, and finally for all believers.  Most likely it did not happen like this (I mean, decades later who could remember a detailed conversation word for exact word?), but rather John collects various teachings, sayings, and themes of Jesus and weaves them together in this setting as a literary device to say something powerful to the people for whom he is writing his Gospel.

He writes it some 50 years after Jesus’ life.  By then, John may just be the only living connection between Jesus’s initial disciples and the current community of followers gathered around him.  At first, this group functions well within the local Jewish community; attending synagogue and participating in local commerce and affairs.  But over the years, as their understanding of Jesus increases (scholars say they develop a “higher Christology”), their beliefs become increasingly at odds with the teachings of Jewish rabbis.  Eventually John’s community is forced out of the synagogue and barred from life and commerce in the village, and various other forms of persecution ensue.

This is the context in which John writes his Gospel.  Understanding this gives us an even deeper appreciation for the intercession Jesus’ prays in today’s reading:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in them your name that you have given me.”

Then, as now, the world is not a safe place, but for very different reasons.  Then, as now, Jesus intercedes to protect the faithful (remember the image I spoke of two weeks ago: the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings).  I suspect those initial readers took great comfort knowing God was protecting them, but I doubt they flaunted it.  I doubt they used these words to as a directive to storm into the synagogue and brag about how God makes them invincible.  More likely, God’s protection gives them a feeling of peace, the strength to persevere, and a hope for a better day to come. 

What does God’s protection look like for us in our world today?  Not long ago I drove past a church in Smithfield with one of those message boards out front.  On this day it happened to say, “COVID 19, in the name of Jesus you are defeated!”  If only it was that simple, I thought.  It occurred to me a better message for the faithful would be taken from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  My faith does not tell me God will make a pandemic magically disappear.  Rather it tells me we are all in this together and God is with us and is giving us everything we need to get through this time together.

One of my colleagues pointed out recently you can’t live life without taking risks.  You risk your life every time you get in the car and go for a drive.  You have to take risks, she said, but you don’t need to create risks!  In other words, be smart, take precautions, expose yourself to danger as little as possible!  I imagine this is how John’s first readers understood God’s protection and I suggest this is what we claim for ourselves.  God gives to us peace and confidence, but we will not push it as if our faith in God makes us invincible.

Another colleague passed along something she had heard recently: Up until the middle of March we were the Church Gathered, but overnight we became the Church Scattered.  We can no longer be together in our building to worship, to fellowship, to study, or to serve.  Yet, while we no longer gather, we are still the Church, even if scattered.  Speaking of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recently expressed amazement and appreciation for how most Episcopal churches have adapted to on-line worship.  He said, and I quote, “It was not easy, and it wasn’t always pretty, but dog-gone-it, we kept the Feast!”  And we did and we continue to do so!

When Jesus asks the Father to protect his followers who are in the world, he has a specific outcome in mind.  He does not ask this so no harm will befall us.  He does not ask this so our lives can return to normal.  He asks it so his followers may be one, as he is one with the Father.  For Jesus, the focus is not on gathered or on scattered, it is on Church.  We are still one, though scattered. 

I sense the strength of our community every time we gather for Morning and Evening Prayer.  I sense it as we gather on these Sunday mornings.  And I sense it every time I cross paths with one of you, either here at the church or at the grocery store or when I am out taking a walk or during a phone call.  This time we are apart is reminding us how important we are to one another.  I so look forward to when we can be together again, without fear or hesitation.  Until then God is protecting us so that we might be one and we are… yesterday, today, tomorrow, and no matter what comes.  We are God’s.  We are in God.  And nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Rogation Sunday

The Sixth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 14:15-21

St. Paul’s in Akron, where I was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, has a tradition of celebrating on Rogation Sunday.  At the end of the service, a bag-piper enters from the rear of the church and begins to play Amazing Grace (at first it sounds like someone is strangling a large duck, but eventually it begins to sound like music, if you like bagpipes).  A procession forms and the piper leads the congregation outside to a place on the parish grounds where something new has been planted – typically a tree or some shrubs.  The congregation (a couple hundred people in all) gathers round and the Rector says a few prayers to bless the good earth of the property and all the living things on it.  Afterward there is more bag-piping, lemonade is served on the lawn, and a good time is had by all.  I had never even heard of Rogation Day, but it instilled in me something of my new Anglican heritage – the love of a good celebration.

The word rogation comes from a Latin word meaning “to ask”, as in to petition God through prayer.  Rogation Day prayers are tied to the beginning of the planting season.  Ancient Romans celebrated a pagan festival called Robigalia each year on April 25.  They processed out of the city to a certain location where a dog and a sheep were sacrificed in an attempt to save the newly planted crops from blight.  In 598 Pope Gregory I instituted a Christian festival to supplant the pagan one.  The faithful went out in procession, but at a certain point veered off and went to St. Peter’s Basilica for a celebration of the mass.  This April 25 date came to be known as the Major Rogation.

Minor Rogation Days began in France some 100 years earlier when, in 470, St. Mamertus of Vienne held special prayer services in response to a series of natural disasters and several years of poor crop yield.  The services used the Great Litany to petition God’s protection from earthquake, famine, pestilence, plague, dying unprepared, and (as Monty Python may say) all things that go bump in the night.  The litany covers everything except the possibility of an alien invasion.  Rogation Days now fall on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension (which is this coming Thursday, so Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday).  Before all of this begins, today is celebrated in some places as Rogation Sunday.

Leave it to the people of England to put a distinctly Anglican twist on all of this.  It became the custom in England to walk the boundaries of the parish on Rogation Sunday – not the church yard, mind you, the entire region associated with the parish.  The priest (vested), wardens, choir, and parishioners set out in procession around the edges of the parish.  Two important things occurred during this excursion.  First, prayers were offered for the land, the crops, the water, and the people.  It was a powerful and poignant way to invoke God’s blessings on the planting season and coming months.  What it prays for at the beginning of the year Thanksgiving Day gives thanks for at the end. 

And second, from time to time the procession stopped so the vicar could point out the exact boundary line.  At these locations (a tree, a rock, a stream), in order to drive home their significance, the boys received a beating.  Inside the parish limits one was safe, but outside of it one was a greater risk.  This came to be known as the beating of the bounds.  It was like how many of us grew up when our parents set the limits by telling us we could ride our bike as far as Jimmy’s house or as far as Doppler Street, but no father.  And, if word got home you had crossed the bounds a beating was sure to follow!  

When I first encountered Rogation Sunday it struck me as a quaint little way to pretend we are English.  But over the years its spirituality has grown on me. 

First, it reminds us all we have comes from God.  As the old saying goes,

All we can do is worth nothing
unless God blesses the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

These days it also reminds us how our common life depends upon each other’s labor.  Over these past two months we have become much more aware of this.  We have realized the shelves at the supermarket don’t just stock themselves.  We depend not only on God.  Our interconnectedness means we depend on each other.  You must do your part.  I must do mine.  And so we commit ourselves to the well-being of one another.  I cannot survive without you.  And you cannot survive without me.

Rogation Sunday, with all its varied prayers for protection and blessing, speaks to the fragility of life, an awareness we have today which now feels almost overwhelming.  The Celtic notion of the presence of God has taken on new meaning:

Christ before us.
   Christ behind us.
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us.
Christ over us.
Let all around us be Christ.

The Rogation Day’s focus on boundaries has its own spirituality.  Having a sense of place and the sense of knowing you and those you love are safe where you are is so very necessary.  This is the place God has put you and here all we be well and in all manner of things all will be well.  Knowing who is with you – your neighbors – is also essential.  You are not alone.  You belong to others and they belong to you and we are in this together.  I will help you when you need help and you will help me when I need help.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ promise,

I will not leave you alone. 
I will not leave you as orphans. 
I will send another to be with you. 

These words anticipate Thursday’s celebration of the Ascension when Jesus leaves this world to return to his rightful place with the Father and it anticipates the Day of Pentecost two Sundays from now when we celebrate the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Rogation Sunday reminds us we are not alone in the struggles and challenges we face.  In the midst of life’s uncertainties, we are not left to our own devices or to something as futile as those pagan sacrificial rituals of old.  We are engaging the One who Peter describes as “the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth…  the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”  It is our deeply heartfelt belief this God cares about us and responds to our needs and our requests.  And to this God we lift up our voices and offer praise.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

God as Mother

The Fifth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 14:1-14

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Show us the Father?  On this day, as a preacher, why couldn’t he have said, “So, Jesus, tell us some stories about your mother.”  Now, that would give me something with which to work!

Surely one of the marks of the spiritual life is a desire to know God, to understand something of the nature of the One who is Holy Other.  But God is incomprehensible and unknowable, save for what God chooses to reveal to us.  As we experience the unknowable God we compare what we sense to what we do know.  “In some ways God is like a good shepherd.”  “In some ways God is like a father.”  These metaphors, while helpful, have their limitations.  Your experience of father may be very different from mine, so are we saying God is like your father (who may have been cruel and overbearing) or like my father (who may have been kind and nurturing)?  And what if your father had a beard, but mine did not.  Which is God like?  Push it enough and you realize God is neither bearded or clean shaven because God is not like a father in this way.

Genesis 1:27 states “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  This tells us we should be able to look at men and see in them something of the image of God.  It also tells us we should be able to look at women and see something of what God is like.  And if we can see something of God in our fathers, then it follows we should be able to look at our mothers and find the same.  What we see of God in our fathers most likely will be different from what we see of God in our mothers, still, by exploring God’s mother-like qualities we will come to know God more fully and more completely.

There are several passages in the Old Testament that speak of God as being like one who gives birth:

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
(Deuteronomy 32:18)

For a long time I have held my peace,
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor, 
    I will gasp and pant.
(Isaiah 42:14)

Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
    or show no compassion
    for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
(Isaiah 49:15)

The prophet Hosea likens God to a mother who tenderly nurtures her child:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. (11:3-4)

Isaiah draws on a similar image:

As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.  (66:13)

The 22nd Psalm compares God to a midwife:

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me
    you have been my God.  (9-10)

In the Book of Deuteronomy God uses the image of a mother eagle to enlarge our understanding:

As an eagle stirs up its nest,
    and hovers over its young;
as it spreads its wings, takes them up,
    and bears them aloft on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him;
    no foreign god was with him.  (32:11-12)

Jesus himself invokes the image of a mother hen as a self-description: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:37).  We tend to think of the paternal protective figure going off to do battle with the enemy and the maternal protective figure as the one who gathers the children and shelters them from harm.  Here, at least, Jesus longs to be a maternal figure in the lives of the people of Jerusalem.

These are just a few of the biblical verses I could cite.  They reveal God as being one who gives birth to new life, who nurtures, feeds, cares for, and watches over us.  Surely you have experienced God in these ways.  Perhaps you did not know portions of the bible think of these qualities as being motherly and ascribe them to God.

Yolanda Pierce, a professor at Princeton University, writes this about why, in addition to Father, she experiences God as Mother:

Long before I became familiar with the academic debates concerning calling God “Mother,”... I was being raised in a household where I instinctively understood that the divine presence was manifest in the loving hands and arms of mothers, and most especially in the life of my grandmother who raised me.  My grandmother’s kitchen was a theological laboratory where she taught me how to love people just as naturally as she taught me to make peach cobbler and buttermilk biscuits. I watched and listened as she ministered to the sick and the lost, with a Bible in one hand and a freshly baked pound cake in the other, despite having no official ministry role.

I knew that if God was real, if God truly loved me as a parent loves a child, then God was also “Mother” and not only “Father.”

Maybe you can relate in some way to Dr. Pierce’s experience.  Now try on this poem by renowned author and pastor Jacqui Lewis:

My God is a curvy black woman with dreadlocks and dark, cocoa-brown skin. 
She laughs from her belly and is unashamed to cry. 
She can rock a whole world to sleep, singing in her contralto voice. 
Her sighs breathe life into humanity. 
Her heartbreaks cause eruptions of justice and love…
My God is an incarnate feminine power, who smells like vanilla and is full of sass and truth, delivered with kindness. 
She’ll do anything for her creation; her love is fierce. 
She weeps when we do 
and insists on justice. 
She is God.
She is Love.

Now, I want you to relax and take a deep breath.  I am not going to make you begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying “Our Mother, who art in heaven…”  What I do what to do is expand your ability to conceive of God and to understand how God continues to reveal God’s self in diverse ways.  God as Mother is merely one window allowing us to see some aspects of the Divine Mystery.

So on Mother’s Day 2020, you might want to ponder how God’s nature has been revealed to you through the mother figures in your life.  Use this day as an opportunity to expand your understanding of God and to give thanks for the mothers you have been blessed to know.