Monday, March 1, 2021

Carrying Crosses & Living for Others


Mark 8: 31-38

Lent 2 / Year B

Jesus said, “If you want to become my follower, you must learn how to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Jesus then said, “If you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you want to lose your life for my sake and for sake of the gospel you will find it.”

These two statements comprise what for Jesus is the fundamental key to a life of fulfillment, purpose, and joy.  For him, nothing short of this vision will satisfy, nothing less will endure.  But the teachings themselves are not self-evident.  To use a buzz-phrase (which I don’t like to do) each needs to be ‘unpacked’ in order to understand better what Jesus is saying.

Let’s start with “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”  Human beings do not come into this world ready to hit the ground running.  We are classified as an altricial species.  Unlike precocial and superprecocial species, we require care and nurture for some time after our birth, unlike say, the blue wildebeest which can stand within six minutes of being born, walk within thirty minutes, and can outrun a hyena by day two.  We are born less mature than this, and, as a result, in our very early years finely hone our skills at being self-centered and selfish.  We learn to demand food, comfort, and attention from others in order to survive.  It serves us well in our early years, but according to Jesus we will spend a lifetime learning how to turn this off and turn it around.  Once we are able to do for ourselves, left unchecked, neediness morphs into greediness.  “If you live for yourself alone you will lose your life.”

Nothing does in self-centeredness faster than having a baby.  I have known only a few parents who were able to bend an infant to their will.  The rest of us succumb and the majority of us do so quite willingly.  We learn deep in our hearts there are other people who matter to us more than we matter to ourselves.  And we learn the more we focus on others, the more we give, and the more we sacrifice, the larger our heart becomes; the larger our world becomes.  It is one of life’s great paradoxes: the more you let go, the more you receive; the more you focus on loving others the more love will come your way; the more you die to self the more alive you will be.

Bill Gates has a new book out, and thus is making the rounds of TV talk shows.  This past week Stephen Colbert asked him about what it is like to be so wealthy. Gates replied, “Well, there is a responsibility to give that money back in a smart way.”  “Not everybody feels that way,” Colbert responded.  Gates said, “It is gratifying that the dream of software I had basically came true.  And now I get to give it away.”  Colbert pressed him about what it is like to be one of the richest people in the world.  Gates noted, “Someday I will give enough money away so I won’t be on that list.”  Colbert then offered to help Gates with this project.  Bill Gates gets it.  You can have all the money in the world (living for self) and yet be impoverished or you can live for others and discover incredible riches not earnable in the marketplace.

Think about the famous people who learned how to live for something bigger than themselves: Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa.  Each person heroically changed the world by letting go of self and living for others.  You and I may not be called or positioned to do what they did, but our willingness to undertake this transformation (to be born again for the service of others) is just as critical to the people in our lives. 

If any of our children are listening, I want to say something to you I wish I had known when I was your age.  If you have brothers or sisters (as I did growing up), family life can become very competitive.  You want your way.  Your siblings each want their ways.  Your parents have things they want to do or have to get done.  Living for yourself alone looks like insisting on your getting your own way… all the time.  This may not make sense, but it is true… the more you fight for your own way and the more you win, the smaller and less rewarding your life will become.  The more you let go of what you want so that your brothers, sisters, and parents have a chance to get what they want, the bigger your world will become.

Before going off to do what you want to do, what would it happen if you said to your mom, “Is there anything I can do for you?”  If you are the oldest, it can be especially powerful to say to a younger sib, “What is something you would like us to do together?”  When you really want to go to Chick-fil-a and your brother really, really wants to go to Cookout, you can say, “It’s OK with me if my brother gets what he wants.  I’ll find something on the menu I like.”  And if you are the brother you can say, “Thank you for agreeing to go to Cookout.  Next time you get to choose.” 

You see, the thing about love in a family is this: it is not a fixed amount.  It is not like you have to fight for every single scrape you can find because there is only so much and there won’t be anymore.  In fact, if you look at family life like this, the love available for all actually shrinks.  This is what happens when you live selfishly.  There will be less love for everyone in your family, including you.  But when you begin to care about the other people in your family, the amount of love within your family grows and grows.  The more you live for others, the more love will be available for everyone… including you.  The same is true of your friendship circles and your classroom. 

So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?”  The imagery of a person carrying a cross is obscure in our own time, limited perhaps just to the Passion Story.  But in Jesus’ day it was a common experience.  The Romans executed hundreds if not thousands of people each year; crucifixion being their most prevalent method.  Like Jesus, most people who were crucified were tortured first and then forced to carry the crossbeam to a site where a fixed, vertical post was waiting.  To be reared in Jesus’ Palestine was to grow up seeing people carrying their cross to their death. 

Today, typically, when we speak about “carrying your cross”, we are referring to some kind of burden in life we have to bear.  But when Jesus uses this expression he is thinking more about the course of one’s life.  When a person in his day was forced to carry his cross, it meant he carried it all the way to the end of his life; a moment which was imminent.  So, pairing his instruction to pick up your cross with lose your life in order to find it, Jesus is saying this is to be who you are and who you are becoming from here on moving forward in life… all the way to the end. 

Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is fond of noting the opposite of love is not hate, but rather it is selfishness.  Today Jesus invites us to lay aside our selfish desires, to live for others, and to make this be the pattern of our lives moving forward.  Even though we may never become one of the great figures in history if we do this, it will have a dramatic impact on how we experience the world.  The choice is ours.  Either we can clutch fearfully and anxiously to our selfish desires, or we can let go and allow God’s love to live in us as we learn how to live for others. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Temptation, Peace, and Tender Care


Lent 1 / Year B

Mark 1:9-15

Every day on his way home from school little Billy passed a porta potty and every day he wrestled with the temptation to tip it over.  And every day Billy managed to fight off the urge and resisted giving in to an action he knew to be wrong and might land him in deep… trouble.  Then one day he learned the story of George Washington and cherry tree; about how George avoided being punished by telling the truth.  Well, that very afternoon, as he approached the porta potty, the temptation became overwhelming and, reasoning if he got caught all he had to do was tell the truth, Billy gave the thing a shove and over it went.  Later in the afternoon, when Billy got home, his father confronted him, “Do you know anything about a porta potty being pushed over?”  “I cannot tell a lie,” Billy responded, “I did it.”  And with that confession Billy’s father gave him the trashing of a lifetime.  When it was over, a sore and crying Billy wept, “I don’t understand.  George Washington owned up to chopping down the cherry tree and nothing happened to him.”  “That may be true,” Billy’s father replied, “But then again, George’s father was not in the cherry tree when it got chopped down!”

Just as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany always focuses on the Transfiguration, so too the First Sunday in Lent always tells the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each contain an account of this event, with Matthew’s and Luke’s being very similar.  They tell us Jesus fasts for forty days, after which he is famished.  This is when the temptations begin.  “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says, “Turn stone into bread… through yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple… bow down before me…”  Jesus refutes each temptation by quoting Scripture; eventually telling Satan, “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more” (or something like that!).

Mark’s version, which is written before the other two, differs greatly.  All three agree on the length of time Jesus is in the wilderness.  All three agree the temptation takes place soon after Jesus is baptized.  In fact, Mark says Holy Spirit possess Jesus and drives him out into the wilderness.  The verb translated here as drives out is the same verb used to describe how Jesus commands an unclean spirit to leave a person.   It implies force, as when a bouncier hurls a person out of a bar.  But Mark does not mention fasting and hunger.  Neither does he include any of the dialogue between Jesus and Satan nor does he describe any specific temptation.  And rather than having the temptation begin at the end of the forty days, in Mark it is ongoing throughout the experience.

Two things stand out about Mark’s telling of the Temptation.  The first is its brevity.  Matthew needs eleven verses and 208 words to tell the story.  Not to be outdone, Luke requires twelve verses and 264 words.  Mark gets the job done in just two verses, using only 33 words. 

The second is the curious mention of wild beasts and ministering angels.  Scholars debate the meaning of the wild animals.  One school of thought holds they foreshadow a restored creation, a new Eden, the promised peaceable kingdom to come.  Another school states the beasts have not been made safe, but rather have been restricted; representing God’s promise of protection and safety in the midst of a very dangerous world.  One view represents a complete transformation while the other suggests supernatural restraint.  Either way, wherever Jesus goes shalom – peace – goes with him, as does nurture and care.  The ministry of the angels is suggestive of the many and manifold ways God provides the succor we need to make it through difficult times.

So, as Mark tells the story, three things are constant throughout the forty days Jesus is in the wilderness: temptation, peace, and tender care.  And, when Jesus leaves the wilderness, these three things go with him throughout his ministry.  He will be tempted by those who misunderstand who he is and what the nature of his ministry is to be.  Time and again he will bring peace to chaotic situations and tormented souls.  And his heart will be moved to heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry, and teach those desperate for a shepherd and guide. 

As we enter Lent 2021 I am keenly aware how these three themes are prominent in our life and time.  Ever-present temptation.  I feel it in what over the last few weeks I have described as being freed from and being freed for.  In these times, with its relative inactivity (at least in my case) or relative overload (what many parents experience as work and home and school have blended into one seamless environment, becoming something akin to an over-crowded goldfish bowl), it is easy to lose track of what we are freed for (our highest calling and deepest purpose) and to succumb to what we have been freed from (that which has the power to dominate and demean us and those we love). 

And it is completely understandable why we live in fear and anxiety.  We live and move and have our being in the midst of some very wild beasts: the Covid virus and its new variants, economic and employment uncertainty, increasing disruption and destruction brought on by “once in a life-time” weather events, a lingering darkness in our civic life… need I go on.  Given all of this, how might we experience the shalom felt by so many from the past who have been steeped in our Christian tradition?

The 14th century figure Julian of Norwich came through a near-death experience, perhaps from being afflicted with the black plague.  Paralyzed to the extend she could barely move her eyelids, her situation was so dire a priest administered last rites to her.  During this time of extreme duress, she experienced a serious of sixteen visions which, once recovered, she published in a book titled Revelations of Divine Love.  In one passage Julian writes this:

Is this the end?  Where is the hope and peace in our particular trials and in the trials that entangle the world?  And for the tender love that our good Lord has to all that shall be saved, He comforts readily and sweetly, signifying thus: …all shall be well, and all shall be well, in all manner of things all shall be well. 

We began our covid journey last Lent and, in hindsight, would gladly have had it last forty days.  We are now a little past 40 weeks, and it is possible we could be looking at something closer to 40 months.  Still, I have a growing sense in all manner of things all will be well.  The wild beasts are being held at bay.

And angels are ministering to us.  How else can we even begin to describe all the things we did not need or even know existed a year ago now supporting and sustaining us during these times?  We have a new appreciation for healthcare workers, grocery store employees, and teachers.  We have become adept at technology unthinkable just a few years ago.  We have found new ways to care for others and have received the grace to allow others to care for us.  And we are finding the roots of our faith run deep enough to tap into spiritual resources we never drew on before.  It is all so amazing and so completely beyond anything I would have imaged possible when this all began.  Truly, angels (of all kinds) are ministering to us.

So once again we begin our Lenten journey reflecting on Jesus’ experience of temptation and see in it elements of our own experience.  May God be with you to see you safely through and may you know the comfort God readily provides to each of us.


Monday, February 15, 2021

The Pattern of God in Every Person


Mark 9:2-9

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany / Year B

When I was in college one of the school’s social groups planned an ice skating outing.  We loaded into buses and were whisked off to a rink.  When I got on the bus I noticed an empty seat next to Carol, and pleasant young women with whom I was friends, so I sat down next to her.  Now, Carol was a sweet girl, but kind of plain and non-descript, like grits with nothing else on in it.  I don’t remember what we talked about, but this I recall with absolute clarity… when she got out on the ice and began to skate she became someone entirely different.  Her skating was incredibly graceful and fluid and it allowed her inner beauty to be revealed.  That loveliness was always there, mind you.  It was just veiled… or, more likely, I was blind to it.

The word transfigured is not one we often use in everyday conversation.  In fact, I think I have heard it used only when talking about the events of this morning’s gospel reading.  Transfigured means “an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change,” “being outwardly transformed, usually for the better,” “to transform into something beautiful or elevated.”  I tend to think of transfiguring not so much as change or transformation, but as revealing. 

When Jesus is transfigured in the presence of his three closest disciples, he is not transformed from human to divine.  His humanity briefly is stripped away allowing the fullness of his divinity to shine forth.  The season of Epiphany begins with an unusually bright star guiding seekers to a home in Bethlehem in order to pay homage to one born King of the Jews.  The season ends today when the King’s full glory is revealed as he is transfigured in dazzling light. 

So here is my question:  We know Jesus, the Son of God, was transfigured, but is it possible for a human being to experience transfiguration?  Is it possible for you or for me to have a moment or moments when something holy and holy other inside of us becomes readily apparent?  Watching the videos of the Capital on January 6, we saw firsthand how a mob mentality can reveal the absolute ugliest, most sinister, evilest aspects of ourselves, but is the opposite also possible?

Eastern Orthodoxy holds strongly to an idea known as theosis, or the deification of all people.  Athanasius of Alexandra taught “God became human so that humans could become godlike.”  This transformation leading to union with God is known as theosis.  It is a process involving catharsis (purification of the body and mind), and theoria (illumination through a vision of God).  Through this process Athanasius says “by virtue of grace humans become what God is by nature.”  The Eastern Church teaches this is not something to be experienced merely by saints or those ordained, it is the purpose of all human life and it is achievable for anyone through cooperation with God’s work in the world as well as in our lives.

The early Church understood this to be the message of the Gospel.  And it wasn’t just intended for individuals.  God’s work in Christ is intended to transform all creation.  It wasn’t until centuries later, in the darkness of the Middle Ages, that the Church began to elevate personal salvation above personal transformation by teaching Christ’s work was to deliver us from hell rather than teaching it was to bring about the divination of all things.  It is a shift still dominating our spiritual consciousness centuries later.  I’ll bet no one has ever knocked on your door and asked you how you are partnering with God to bring about a new heaven and a new earth (a question rooted in theosis), but chances are good someone has asked you if you know where your soul would go if you were to died tonight.

Is it possible for a person to be transfigured?  Yes, it happens as we strive to share in the divine life of the one who took on our humanity.  I have seen many of you transfigured, if only for a moment.  I’ve seen it when you welcome a client to our food panty with warmth, dignity, and respect.  I’ve seen it when you go out of your way to help a fellow parishioner in need.  I’ve seen it when you set aside your own cares and concerns in order to listen lovingly to the cares and concerns of another person.  I’ve seen in moments of quiet, selfless generosity.  I’ve seen it many times when our choir is singing and as we are gathered in corperate worship. 

Not to put one person on the spot, but several years ago I saw it in Doug Russell.  It was the Friday morning of the start of a diocesan council and he, John Rector, and I were relaxing in the time share John always arranges for us.  Doug was on the phone talking one of his employees through a situation.  He did it was such wisdom, gentleness, and patience, instilling confidence and competency in the person he counselled.  Perhaps it doesn’t sound very dramatic (and it wasn’t).  I suspect for Doug it was all a part of another day’s work and most likely he doesn’t even remember it, but in my eyes it was a truly amazing moment.  That, I thought, is how a godly person uses power and influence to lead others.  That, I thought, is how Jesus engaged people.  And I could tell stories like this about many of you; stories about when I saw you in a transfigured moment.

Carl Jung said this:

I cannot define for you what God is.  I can only say that my work has proved empirically that the pattern of God exists in every person and that this pattern has at its disposal the greatest of all his energies for transformation and transfiguration of our natural being.  Not only the meaning of our life but our renewal and [the renewal of] our institutions depend on our conscious relationship with this pattern of the collective unconscious.

This is what I see as I witness any one of you being transfigured… participation in the pattern of God.

Many of you join us for Evening Prayer at least once or twice a week.  If so, you know the service begins with a variety of optional sentences from Scripture followed by one of several prayers.  I like to pair this reading from Matthew with the prayer that follows:

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one lights a lamp to put it under a bucket, but on a lamp-stand where it gives light for everyone in the house.  And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellow men, so that they may see the good you do, and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (5:14-16)

Grant us, Lord, the lamp of charity which never fails, that it may burn in us and shed its light on those around us, and that by its brightness we may have a vision of that holy City, where dwells the true and never-failing Light, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The reading and the prayer speak of our potential to be transfigured; by the grace of God to have the light of Christ shine in us and through, becoming a blessing to those around us. 

I like what Archbishop Desmond Tutu says,

God places us in the world as his fellow workers-agents of transfiguration.  We work with God so that injustice is transfigured into justice, so there will be more compassion and caring, that there will be more laughter and joy, that there will be more togetherness in God’s world.

This morning we kneel with Peter, James, and John in awe of the sight of the transfigured Christ.  And we also respond to the fearful possibility we too might be joined with Christ, transformed into God’s nature, and shine forth with a holy, heavenly, healing light for the betterment of all creation.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Freed For...


Epiphany 5 / Year B

Mark 1: 29-39

If you decided to rank Jesus’ miracles from most impressive to least, chances are good the healing we just heard would be at or near the bottom of the list.  A woman is bedridden with a fever and Jesus makes the fever go away.  On the surface, it feels just a tad more impressive than helping someone get over the hiccups.  We are not even told the woman’s name and know her only through her relationship to Simon Peter.  I suspect her situation is more grave than it appears.  She lives in an age well before antibiotics and an illness of any kind has the potential to be serious.  That Jesus deems her in need of healing suggests her situation is dire.

What makes this story stand out is what happens immediately after she is feeling better.  The text tells us “The fever left her and she began to serve them.”  It almost seems as if Jesus heals her so he and his friends can get a meal.  In our sympathies, we wonder why he didn’t direct her to rest for a while before jumping back into action. 

Sarah Heinrich, a New Testament professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, notes this:

Illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them.  Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point.  It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home.  Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world.  Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling?  Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever.  It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life.  For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.

“Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling?” 

While the story is hopelessly set in a culture of fixed gender roles different from our own, it is worth noting the Greek word translated here as ‘serve’ is diakoneo, from which we derive the word ‘deacon’, the ordained ministry of the Church’s servants.  The woman is healed in order to allow her to do her ministry.  Mark tells us as Jesus is dying on the cross a group of women watch from a distance.  Some are named, others are not.  He tells us these women ‘provided’ for Jesus when he was in Galilee.  The word translated here as ‘provide’ is diakoneo.  It is very possible Peter’s mother-in-law is one of these faithful servers who remains with Jesus to the end, even though his male disciples all flee after his arrest.

“It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life.  For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”

Last week heard about Jesus’ first action in ministry – freeing a troubled man of an unclean spirit.  In that story, Jesus delivers a person from something.  In my sermon last week I asked what has the power to possess you, to make you unclean or ill-at-ease with yourself.  And I invited you to use the time between now and Ash Wednesday to discern how a Lenten period of fasting and self-denial might free you.

In today’s reading, Peter’s mother-in-law is healed not so much from something, but for something.  She is healed in order to be able to do the work God has given her to do.  She is able once again to claim her identity by living into her calling; thus restoring to her life a sense of meaning and purpose and value.

During this time of pandemic many of us have lost the ability to serve because our ministries have been put on hold.  As an example, in a normal year Macey and Sandi are in the parish kitchen preparing Kansas City and Tampa Bay themed soups.  Sadly, this is not a normal year.  In a normal year our building is used by one group or another pretty much every day of the week.  Now, sadly, it sits mostly quiet.  In a normal year many of you donate your time and talents to various community groups and efforts.  Sadly, most of these opportunities have been paused.

But the diakoneo in us is not easily silenced.  We are finding new ways to serve by reaching out to our families, our neighbors, and helping those most in need at this time.  It manifests itself in many different ways and I am blessed to see it every Sunday morning as people drive up to receive a communion bag and request another one or two to drop off with a friend. 

Another way our diakoneo is being expressed during this time is through our life of common prayer.  On a typical morning or evening some fifteen households come together on Facebook live to join in prayer.  Others faithfully watch the services at a later time of their convenience.  Our diligent prayers are supporting people in need and strengthening us for the work God gives us to do.

Yesterday we held a Vestry Retreat via Zoom.  While not ideal, it worked.  I am pleased to tell you Bob Leonard has been elected to serve (diakoneo) as our Senior Warden.  John Rector has been elected to serve (diakoneo) as our Junior Warden.  Mary Ellen Baur will serve (diakoneo) as our register.  Beau Holland will continue to serve (diakoneo) as our Treasurer and promises personally to make up for any shortfall in the year’s finances!  Our staff ably serves (diakoneo) our parish in so many ways beyond how we can compensate them.  Still, they appreciate your thanks, your gratitude, and your support. 

And I continue to delight in my role serving (diakoneo) as your Rector.  I have told you before I cringe every time I hear a colleague use the phrase “my parish” or “my Vestry”, as if you are our possession.  I always say “the parish I serve” and “our Vestry”.  Can you imagine the audacity of saying “my Altar Guild” or “my choir”!  I sense very deeply most of us think of St. Paul’s not as a faith community we possess, but rather as a place where we belong and contribute.  In the thirteen plus years I have served as your rector, never once has a person demanded “their” parish do something.  But I can’t tell you the multiple times people has come to me and asked, “What can I do for St. Paul’s?” and “What does St. Paul’s need from me?”

During our Zoom Vestry Retreat two very telling questions emerged.  Yes, we talked about when we might think it will be feasible to regather for public events and yes, we pondered the leadership this will require.  But more telling of who we are and where our heart is are these two areas of concern we discussed at length.  First, who in our parish family are we not reaching during these times?  How do we identify them and how can we connect with them?  And second, how can we begin to open up St. Paul’s as an outreach center in our community?  How can we begin again to be a beacon of God’s love and God’s light in downtown Suffolk?  As I reflect on the gathering of our elected lay leadership I recognize acutely these are questions of diakoneo.  How can we serve our fellow parishioners and our community in a way congruent with our deep sense of calling and purpose?

We are now ten days away from the beginning Lent.  Last week I invited you to use this time to discern what you want to be freed from.  Today I invite you to ponder what you want to be freed for.  No doubt you have heard Lent is not just a time to give up something, it is also a time to take on something; the freed for part.  How and where do you sense God stirring you to express diakoneo? 


Monday, February 1, 2021

Why Can't You Just Let Things Be, Jesus?


Mark 1:21-28

Epiphany 4 / Year B

When Jesus is in town on the Sabbath you want to make sure you get to synagogue because chances are something will happen you won’t want to miss.  Case in point: today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.  The text tells us Jesus teaches with authority and all who hear him are amazed.  Notice the text does not share any of the content of what Jesus teaches, only the reaction to it.  If this had been the only thing to happen the conversation the next day around the water cooler might have been, “I could listen to that guy preach all day!”

But of course something else does happen and it eclipses everything Jesus said.  A man with an unclean spirit confronts him and says, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  The original text in New Testament Greek is somewhat idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate.  It carries the sense of “Why are you picking this fight with us” or “Couldn’t you have just left things between us as they were?”  He may be the first person to ask Jesus why he just can’t let things be, but he will not be the last.  

In each of the four Gospels, the first event in Jesus’ ministry has the effect of setting the tone for what is to follow.  Matthew depicts Jesus as the giver of a new law in the tradition of Moses.  Luke portrays him as one who has come to release captives, heal the sick, announce good news to the poor, and proclaim God’s favor to all.  John begins with Jesus turning water into wine; a foreshadowing of the abundant life available to all.  And here in Mark, we see Jesus at the outset contending with an unclean spirit.  Mark is telling us Jesus will engage anyone or anything impeding human flourishing.  Jesus simply will not let such things be.

Mark highlights how Jesus opposes everything diminishing God’s creation and God’s creatures.  He challenges anything that robs us of who are created to be.  A good question to ask is what has the power to possess you; to make you unclean or unwell or ill at ease?  Does a substance have control over you?  Are you a workaholic?  Are you wracked with self-loathing?  Maybe it is worry or fear.  It might be a painful memory or a loss.  Perhaps you are consumed by anger.  What has the power to possess you?

Chris Stirewalt, the former political editor for the Fox News Channel, wrote on insightful op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, describing the affects a modern day media on our country.  He states as news consumers we are “both overfed and malnourished”, gorging ourselves “on empty informational calories” and indulging in “sugar fixes of self-affirming half-truths and even outright lies.”  Stirewalt does not point a finger at one side or the other, he is describing the industry as a whole.  Does the information you consume and the manner in which you receive it possess you?

Well, if there is one thing we know about Jesus we know he is not willing just to let destructive things go on as they are.  He comes to cross boundaries, break down barriers, and open closed doors.  When it comes to being possessed, he comes to us not as a gentle shepherd, but rather as a disrupter and as a liberator.  Everything about our lives, our community, our church, and our society is to be freed in order to participate fully in the reign of God.  This is the work Mark depicts Jesus as doing and it begins on a Sabbath day in a synagogue in Capernaum with one deeply troubled person.  This work Jesus does continues on even into our own day and time.  It continues with each one of us.

It is hard to believe we are just 17 days away from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  If you feel like Lent 2020 never ended you are not alone.  This will be a Lent like no other we have experienced.  No pancakes.  No community services and lunches.  No pot-luck dinners.  No Agape Meal.  Yikes, I am already starting to feel hunger pangs! 

Maybe because of what Lent can’t be this year and maybe because so much of the programmatic load has been lifted, I find myself more ready to engage the spiritual and private nature of the season.  In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to the observance of a holy Lent.  And this observance is marked by five things:

s    Self-examination and repentance.

s    Prayer

s    Fasting

s    Self-denial

s    Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word

We have been focused on prayer and Scripture since the beginning of the pandemic and we have experienced firsthand how each has supported us in this difficult time.  It seems to me the other three – self-examination and repentance, fasting, and self-denial – have something to do with being released from possession and experiencing the joyful abundance of God’s love and the wholeness it brings. 

I encourage you to use the next 17 days for prayerful and honest discernment.  Where do you need to make a 180 degree turn in your life?  This literally is what repentance means.  Metanoia, the Biblical word for repentance, happens when a person is walking down a path, stops, turns around, and goes back to where he or she came from.  Can you discern in your life a path you are walking making you more and more unclean, more and more possessed?  How might fasting and self-denial free you?  What might stopping in your tracks, turning around, and returning to health look like and feel like?

Loren Stuckenbruck, a New Testament scholar, notes Jesus frees the man of the spirit possessing him, but, unlike the spirit’s deep fear, does not destroy it.  The exorcism does not eliminate evil from the world, it only eliminates the power of evil to possess the individual.  Jesus does not change the world, but he does change how this person lives and moves and has his being in it.  And I beg you believe Jesus wants to and will do the same for you.

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.