Monday, January 25, 2021

Doing Nothing Gallantly

 

Mark 1:14-20

Epiphany 3 / Year B

This morning we hear Jesus speak for the first time in Mark’s gospel.  The text reads, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  He then invites several fishermen to follow him and “immediately” they drop their nets and follow.

The “immediately” is interesting because up until now we have been waiting for Jesus to say or do anything.  He has been baptized and gone into the wilderness where he is tempted.  After 40 days he returns to Galilee, but does not seem to act.  Mark tells us it is only after John the Baptist is arrested that Jesus launches his ministry.  In short, there has been a lot of waiting.  So much in fact, Jesus is the embodiment of what we read in this morning’s psalm: “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”

Waiting is not something most of us do well.  We sit impatiently in waiting rooms, we wait in line, get put on call waiting (and its evil cousin… being put on hold).  The renown theologian Tom Petty put it best, “The waiting is the hardest part.”  We are so conditioned to doing everything efficiently and fast in order to obtain instant gratification that we have lost sight of a truth Henri Nouwen held: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  He observed how counter-cultural this is in a world preoccupied with control.  We want what we want and we want it on our terms and we want it now!  Jesus models something very different for us as he waits until the time is right and the kingdom draws near.

The martyred San Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero offers us this counsel:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

which is another way of saying that

the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that should be said.

No prayer fully expressed our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produced effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

a step along the way,

an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference

between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,

ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

After three years of public ministry, marked with healings and signs, it is sobering to realize when Jesus ascended into heaven his loyal followers numbered around 50 people, which is not a lot to show for all he said and did.  Jesus never built a church or a cathedral.  He never wrote a book, letter, or testament.  Even though he was a carpenter by trade, nothing of the work of his hands endures.  It will be up to others to build on the foundation he lays.  But this we can say about him… he did what he was called to do and he did it very well.  And up until this moment in Mark’s gospel, one of the things Jesus does very well is wait.

Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Our waiting is not nothing.  It is something -- a very big something -- because people tend to be shaped by whatever it is they are waiting for.”  Think about a seed in the ground waiting all winter long for the days to lengthen and the warmth of the sun’s rays to activate its growth.  While it waits it is not doing nothing.  The cool, moist earth is softening its outer shell so that when the time is right a shoot can burst forth from its inner core where life is waiting patiently, faithfully, trustingly to burst forth.

This last week our nation passed the one-year anniversary of the first detected case of the coronavirus within our borders.  So much has changed so quickly in our lives.  We are tired and exhausted and frustrated and disheartened waiting for it to end.  While I am acutely aware of the toll it has amassed, I sense only in part the beneficial ways this time of waiting is changing us and shaping us.  We have found new ways to connect with one another.  We have accepted new individual responsibilities to contribute to the common good of all.  We have rediscovered the ancient monastic practice of daily prayer and the reading of Scripture.  There is no getting back to the way things used to be, there is only going forward as the people we are becoming while we wait.

Maybe a part of what you are learning is you are a worker, not a master builder; a minister, not a messiah.  Maybe you a gaining a clearer understanding of what you are to sow, how you are to tend, and when you are to reap; knowing nothing you do is complete, but it is a step; a foundation in need of further development.  So many of us have had new responsibilities thrust on us, especially parents and teachers.  May you have a sense of what you are to do and the ability to do it well.  And never forget the liberating realization you cannot do everything.  Accepting this truth widens the portal for God’s grace to enter your life, for God’s promise you will never lack for anything you need. 

During this unusual time I have so enjoyed rummaging through the attic which is our Book of Common Prayer and finding things packed away there I never knew before existed.  At the top of my list of joyful discoveries is the prayer for in the Morning on page 461:

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.

The word ‘gallant’ means stately, courageous, and brave.  The majesty of this prayer is how it connects what we typically think of as an activity with what we think of as being passive - doing nothing… waiting.  This is how Jesus waited until the kingdom was at hand.  It is how we wait now.  Always remember our being gallant while doing nothing is not wasted time.  Things are happening in us and to us and with us to prepare us for what is to come.  Soon our Lord will call us to drop our nets and follow, but for now we wait.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Diversity & Understanding

 

John 1:43-51

Epiphany 2 B

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

We don’t know where Nathanael is from or why he has this prejudice against a small, insignificant village of about 200 people.  At the time, most Jews from the southern part of Israel have contempt for anyone from the northeastern region of Galilee, Nazareth being a part of it.  Galileans are thought by them to be rude, illiterate, and devoid of culture.  Galileans speak with a thick accent that often leads to embarrassing misunderstandings.  For example, in the native tongue, if a Galilean says to a guest, “I am going to give you some milk to drink,” it could be misheard as “May a lion eat you!”  In Nathanael’s day Galilee is a hotbed for rebellion.  In 4 BC a group of Galileans robbed a Roman armory, leading to the execution of over 2,000 Jews.  When Jesus was a boy another Galilean organized a tax revolt, leading to more executions.  Given all of this, it is not surprising Nathanael would question how the one foretold in Scripture could hale from such a backwater, no-nothing village.  What is surprising is how Phillip is able to see past this.

Each of us is conditioned to look out for our own well-being.  We are prewired for self-preservation and self-interest.  We expand our concern to wider and wider circles – family first, then clan, then tribe, then class, then race, then nationality, and finally the global family.  Each of these circles has barriers we must breach if you are going to exist in peaceful and respectful good will and concord with one another.  The farther out we extend ourselves the less we have in common with others.  Put another way, as the circles move outward diversity increases.  And we seem to be hardwired to be more comfortable with commonality than diversity.

I don’t have to tell you we live in a very diverse country and our differences have been on full display for some time now, culminating with the events of January 6.  We are a deeply divided nation.  We all still can agree the sun rises in the east, but probably on little more than this.  How do we see past our differences in order to see each other?

Phillip certainly is a model for us to follow.  Surely he has certain prejudices and biases about people from Nazareth, but somehow he is able to lay aside these things in order to see Jesus the person.  And in seeing Jesus the person he is able to discern him to be “the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.”  He has breached the barriers of a significant circle and invites Nathanael to do the same.  When Nathanael responds contemptuously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, Phillip gently responds “Come and see.”  And when Nathanael meets Jesus he meets not a caricature of what he believes a person from Nazareth to be, he meets Jesus the person.  This allows him also to breach the barriers of bigotry and ignorance and he comes away believing Jesus is a rabbi who has something to teach him and that he is the Son of God!

Again I ask, how do we see past our differences in order to see each other? 

Last Sunday we renewed our Baptismal Covenant and I asked you these questions:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Your response to each question was “I will, with God’s help.”  I can tell you when I see insurrectionists storm the United States Capital I am going to need a lot of help from God to seek and serve Christ in them and to respect their dignity, but my aim is to try.  And, while I know none of those people personally, I am committed to live out our Baptismal vows with those closer to my home and more present in my life.

Bishop Haynes is inviting our diocese to engage in a project called “From Many One: Conversations Across Difference.”  Created by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs, the campaign is designed to help people “engage in the spiritual practice of listening and honest conversation across the many differences that separate us.”  It does this by inviting participants to share their response to four questions:

What do you love? 

What have you lost? 

Where does it hurt? 

What do you dream?

I wonder if we might want to use this as a Lenten program this year, perhaps having three people each week share their thoughts at a Wednesday evening Lenten zoom.  I wonder if it might help us to breach some of the circles of difference and division we all feel so keenly. 

Whenever we pray the prayer attributed to St. Francis, we say, “grant that I may seek… not so much to be understood as to understand.”  We are in a moment of time when each one of us needs to work hard to let down the barriers of self-defense of our position and perspective in order to create bridges that will help us understand those who differ most from us.  St. Francis is saying not that you need to agree, but it is essential you understand. 

The few times I have counseled couples experiencing marital strife, I shepherd them through a basic, time-honored process.  One spouse - say the wife - states her perspective.  The husband listens, but does not respond or defend.  When the wife is finished the husband is tasked with restating what he has heard.  Again, no defense.  The wife is given the opportunity to clarify or reemphasize what the husband has missed.  This goes back and forth until the wife feels her husband has heard her.  Only then does the process flip and the husband is afforded the same opportunity to express his perspective, with the same back and forth until he feels he has been “heard.”  In my experience, the clarity and compassion emanating from the feeling of understanding and being understood can be transformative.  And this is the kind of gentle and open conversation we need to create throughout our neighborhoods as well as our nation.   

One of my favorite collects in the prayer book is a Thanksgiving for the Diversity of Cultures and Races:

O God, who created all people in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world.  Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children.

Let us commit to invest ourselves in getting to know one another, to seeing each other as beloved children of God.  Even if there are significant political, societal, and/or racial differences between us - circles which can be barriers - our faith, and God’s Spirit, calls us and gives us the means to breach these differences in order to become one people living under the banner of the Prince of Peace.

Can anything good come out of ‘Nazareth’?  Yes!

Good comes from everywhere.  The question is are you able to see it.


Monday, January 11, 2021

Beloved & Well Pleased

 

Epiphany 1 / Year B

Mark 1:4-11

The Gospel of Mark is the first of four written accounts of Jesus’ life.  As the earliest testimony, it is the initial source to which people turned to learn about who Jesus was and what Jesus did.  Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, and unlike the Gospel of John, which begins with the soaring theology of the Word becoming flesh, Mark begins his story at the Jordon River with John baptizing Jesus. 

By any measure, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is lean: a few verses about John and then Jesus walks onto the stage and into the water.  At this point in the narrative, we know more about John (what he eats, what he wears, what his ministry looks like, what he preaches, and how his role is the fulfillment of Scripture) than Jesus.  About Jesus, well, we know nothing.  In fact, by the end of this morning’s brief reading there is not yet even a record of a single thing Jesus says. 

In Mark’s account we actually hear God speak before Jesus says or does anything except to be baptized: “You are my Son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased!”  These words mirror what God says at creation: “‘Let there be light.’  And God saw that the light was good.”  Clearly, “well pleased” far surpasses “good.” 

From a literary perspective we ought to be puzzled.  The announcement “You are my Son” makes sense.  It informs the readers (and Jesus) about his identity.  “Beloved” also makes sense.  Every parent knows what it is like to be overwhelmed with love from the very first moment you hold your child.  Our bewilderment lies in the statement “With you I am well pleased”.  Well pleased?  As readers we ask how can this be, given in what we have read so far Jesus has done absolutely nothing.  “You will do amazing things” would make sense, as would “Your time has come.”  How can God be well pleased with Jesus when he is yet to speak or to act?

Now, I suppose you could say God is referring to all the things Jesus did before he was baptized – how he grew up and how he has conducted himself up until this point in time.  That Mark elects to tell us nothing about Jesus’ life prior to his baptism suggests this is not the source of God’s pleasure.  As literary device (at least to my thinking), “With you I am well pleased” serves as a foreshadowing.  It alerts the reader to pay attention to what lies ahead.  Pay attention to what Jesus says and to what Jesus does because these things will be well pleasing to God.

While God’s pronouncement, “You are my Son, my beloved”, discloses Jesus’ identity to the reader, what we read of Jesus following this moment discloses God’s identity to us.  Those of you who join me for on-line Evening Prayer know each night I read a passage from the book Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year.  Last Monday we read this passage from a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century Benedictine monk:

When God emptied himself and took the form of a servant, he emptied himself only of majesty and power, not of goodness and mercy.  For what does the Apostle say?  ‘The goodness and humanity of our Saviour have appeared in our midst.’  God’s power had appeared already in creation, and his wisdom in the ordering of creation; but his goodness and mercy have appeared now in his humanity.

So what are your frightened of?  Why are you trembling before the face of the Lord when he comes?  God has come not to judge the world, but to save it!  Do not run away; do not be afraid.  God comes unarmed; he wants to save you, not to punish you.

I like Bernard’s notion we are able to see aspects of God’s true self more clearly in Jesus than we could see before.  It is popular to say the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  I think Bernard would say God has not changed, but our ability to see God has.  Jesus shows us things we could not see before.

So, to each of us God says, “You are my child, my beloved.”  Nothing – and I mean nothing – can alter this aspect of your identity.  God’s compassion and mercy are everlasting.  What can change is what is said next about each of us.  It might be, “With you I am well pleased.”  It could be, “With you I am pleased.”  Perhaps it is, “There are couple of things we need to talk about.”  At times it is, “Right now I am not at all pleased with you.”  No matter what is said, the first thing God says stands, “You are my child, my beloved.”  You don’t have to earn it.  You don’t have to maintain it.  You can never lose it.  It is who you are because it is who you are to God.  The question is what will you do with this love?  How will you welcome it into every aspect of your being?  How will you allow its warmth to bathe over you?  How will you allow it to transform your experience of life?  How will you express it as you live and move and have your being?

In my own experience, I find the truth I am a beloved child of God to be the cornerstone.  Everything else about my life I build on it.  No matter what happens, no matter how I fail or fall, no matter how I experience humiliation or rejection, I come back to the faith I am God’s child and beloved and I begin to build again where God has placed me and with God has given to me.  I pray this is your story too.  I pray you are able to move forward every day of your life knowing you are God’s child and beloved.

 


Monday, January 4, 2021

Angel Dreams

 

Christmas 2 / Year B

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

If you came to me for pastoral counseling and told me an angel spoke to you in a dream, the first question I might ask you is if you’ve had any recent changes in medications.   Given such skepticism, I am forced to make sense of the stories in and around the birth of Jesus.  Angels pop up everywhere to make significant announcements.  Gabriel encounters Mary in a garden.  Zechariah meets an angel as he does his priestly work in the Holy of Hollies.  A choir of angels appears in the night sky near Bethlehem.  And then there is Joseph and his manifold dreams.  Did you know there is over 300 references to angels in the bible – no small number!  In Holy Scripture, the existence of angels is always assumed but the nature of angels is little discussed because the emphasis is never on them.  The focus is always on the message they convey. 

A 1993 Gallop poll discovered at the time 73% of Americans believed in the existence of angels.  Since the mid-90’s there has been an explosion of ‘angelmania’, manifesting itself in books and magazine articles, consumer products, and popular entertainment – TV shows like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel.  A guest appearing on a talk show who told a story about a personal experience involving an angel received over 8,500 letters from folks describing their own experiences.

Protestants and Roman Catholics, along with the Latter Day Saints, subscribe to a doctrine of angels who are spiritual beings created by God to serve God.  These varied traditions even embrace the notion every person is in the watchful care of a guardian angel.  Sue Bohn holds there are three types of angels: good angels (those who do God’s bidding), bad angels (who have rejected God and now are evil), and ugly angels (bad angels who disguise themselves as good angels in an attempt to lead people astray). 

I posted on Facebook last week, asking people to relate their own personal experience with angels - messaging me if they wanted the story to remain private.  I was honored to be brought in on many powerful and moving events in people’s lives.  Most related an experience of a loved one appearing to them in a dream - typically a spouse or parent.  Most often the message they conveyed was they are at peace.  A few of the dreams contained specific directions.  One person reported the presence of a loved one in the passenger seat of the car imploring him, the driver, three times to slow down.  Finally heeding the advice, the driver immediately went around a blind curve and came upon an accident.  Had he not slowed down he would not have had time to react.

These personal stories raise an intriguing possibility with the stories we read this morning.  Is it possible Joseph ‘knows’ or ‘recognizes’ the angel who comes to him in his dreams?  He dreams an angel tells him to remain betrothed to Mary even after she tells him she is with child.  He dreams he must take his family and flee to Egypt.  An angel dream tells him when it is safe to return, but still another dream cautions against resettling in Bethlehem.  It certainly would be easier to hear these directions if they come from someone you know, love, and trust.  But this is mere speculation. 

I don’t know if I have a guardian angel or not.  I never had the experience of being protected in some fantastic and unexplainable fashion.  As we engage the Daily Offices, I am struck by how our morning prayers ask for protection and our evening prayers give thanks for coming safely through the day’s events and activities.  I certainly believe God protects me, but I have never thought much about exactly how this happens.  Perhaps each of us is in the charge of being sent by God to keep an eye on us.  Several of you told me this is exactly what you experience in your life.

My experience is God leads me and directs me.  Most often God is at work in and through my own intuition, through the sage advice of a trusted guide, and in countless other practical and pragmatic ways.  In addition, I often have the experience of clarity coming during a time of prayer or the reading of Scripture.  I suspect a fair number of you are thinking, “Me too!”  Yes, God is engaged in our lives, even though we do not sense it involves angels.  Still, this morning we recognize God’s special protection for the Holy Family coming in the form of dreams and an angel.  And we give thanks for God’s protection and guidance in our own life; no matter the form in which it manifests itself.