Monday, April 12, 2021

Utopia

 


Acts 4:32-35

Easter 2 / Year B

I suspect the search for Utopia began not long after Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden once the human focus shifted from getting back to what was lost to forging a path toward what might be.  The word utopia, first coined by Sir Thomas More in a work of fiction published in 1516, is a compound of two Greek words – no and place.  But just because utopia doesn’t exist doesn’t mean people have stopped looking for it… or trying to create it.

Those who seek to create a utopian society typically are motivated by religious belief or social theory (or both).  Of the two, communities centered around religious affiliation historically have fared better.  Those organized solely on collective principles have tended not to hold together for any significant length of time.  Many of the religious communal settlements in our country arose out of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and were fueled by the European Reformation, persecution, and immigration.

One such community was established in Zoar, Ohio about an hour’s drive from where I grew up.  Founded in 1817 by a group of German separatists fleeing religious oppression, it was named after the biblical town to which Lot fled after leaving Sodom.  The commune began with an initial purchase of 5,000 acres on the banks of the Tuscarawas River; a transaction financed by a loan from Pennsylvania Shakers.  All land and possessions were jointly owned and managed by regularly elected trustees.  The group benefited greatly from the construction of the Ohio Canal in 1830 and subsequent business it brought to the area.  Rejecting baptism and confirmation, the people of Zoar recognized no religious observances, with the exception of the weekly Sabbath.  They created a garden in the center of their town based on a description found in the Book of Revelation.  The town’s hotel, renowned for its German cuisine, catered to presidents as well as paupers.  With the passing of Zoar’s charismatic leader in 1853, the community went into gradual decline, eventually voting to disband in 1889.  Zoar was just one of scores of such utopian communities that flourished for a while, then disappeared.

In this morning’s first lesson we find the church in a utopian moment at a point very, very early in its history.  How early?  While the text isn’t precise, it appears to be no more than two or three months after the resurrection.  Jesus has ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit has come on Pentecost.  While the Apostles wait anxiously for the Lord’s return, they fill their time preaching, healing, baptizing, and remaining watchful.  And they care for one another, making sure no one is in any kind of need. 

The text tells us “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”  Everyone sold what they had and gave the proceeds to the Apostles who then made distributions as needs emerged.  Clearly no one was thinking about planting a crop, let alone planting a tree, because Christ was coming at any moment to establish a new Kingdom.  This was not a time to eat, drink, and be merry.  It was more a time to care, share, and remain aware.  All could be of “one heart and mind” because all shared in the common belief of the Lord’s imminent return.

I have heard more than one colleague refer wistfully to this passage, wondering how the early church could get it so right and we in today’s church have it so wrong; what with our allegiance to private interest and capitalism.  But they miss is a central truth about human nature.  We can no more create a sustaining, thriving commune than we can hold our breath in order to live under water.  It is not in our nature nor is it in our best interest.  And, in time, the early church learned this first hand.  Crops needed to be planted.  Oil for lamps needed to be purchased.  Tunics needed to be washed and darned, and darn it if some people did not “do their part.”  Eventually, St. Paul would have to put in writing, “If a person will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Both Jamestown here in Virginia and Plymouth in Massachusetts were founded on communal principles and both suffered several years of depravation until each realized the need to grant private property to its members.  While the residents of each community still were required to work for the common good (such is the nature of a pioneering enterprise), the early years of famine and hardship abated only after individuals could reap the benefits of their own labor.  For better or worse, this is how human nature is wired and any system which does not account for it is doomed to fail, even if it is managed by well-meaning believers guided by Jesus’ chosen Apostles awaiting the Lord’s return.

Eventually the early church’s focus on common property diminished, allowing the intended benefit to emerge into prominence – the care for those in need.  And the early church cared deeply about the needs of its most vulnerable members, establishing the ordained ministry of Deacons to tend to it.  By most accounts early Christians lived incredibly generous lives and won converts more through their humanity than through their preaching.  And we are the heirs and standard bearers of their example and witness.

A few weeks ago I did something for only the second or third time in 34 years of ordained ministry.  I made a general appeal for contributions to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.  It had gone into arrears because its primary source of income - public worship with regular offerings - had been cut off.  In addition, during these difficult times, the need for assistance from the fund has increased dramatically.

When I was first ordained clergy discretionary funds could be used for a variety of purposes.  In addition to helping people in need, clergy were permitted use it to purchase books, attend conferences, buy clergy shirts, and offset any other number of unfunded professional expenses.  Almost every priest I knew maintained a private checking account to serve as a fund to be used at his or her discretion and most banks waved regular fees because it was seen as charitable work.  As you might expect, this process was somewhat loose and ripe for abuse. 

For the last twenty years or so discretionary funds rightfully have been restricted to meeting the needs of people experiencing hardship.  The funds now are maintained by the church and checks are cut by the treasurer at the request of the priest.  While this may not seem completely discrete, as one person from the Presiding Bishop’s office once said to me, “If you can’t trust your treasurer to be discrete, perhaps you need a new treasurer.” 

Well, as I said, I made a special appeal to you for discretionary funds and you responded.  As of the end of this past week you all have contributed almost $5,300.  Just shy of $1,000 of this has come through the Lenten Mite Box offering.  I am very grateful for your generosity and promise to administer what you have given as effectively and generously as I know how. 

This is one way we at St. Paul’s live into the early church’s concern for one another.  Another way is through the variety of outreach ministries our parish sponsors and supports.  Sadly, as you know, most of this has been put on hold since the beginning of the pandemic.  Please keep our Vestry in your prayers as we meet tomorrow evening to discern how we can begin again to extend care to our neighbors and our neighborhood. 

I suppose two things remain consistent throughout the history of the church.  First, we hear God calling us to tend to the needs of others.  God calls us into communities which need to have caring as one of their primary hallmarks.  And second, how care is expressed and administered changes time and time again.  Old methods become outdated or no longer possible to manage.  New possibilities and opportunities continually emerge.  Individual members of the community sense a personal call to utilize a specific gift, talent, or passion in a way that helps others and glorifies God. 

This, I think, is what St. Paul’s wants from each of us.  We are not looking for you to bring all your possessions to the church so we can sell them and give away the money.  It simply is not practical and, in fact, our facility would not function well as a warehouse.  What we do want is to help each of you tap into your unique gifts, help you to discern a calling, and assist you by mobilizing others who want contribute in some form or fashion to the vision, leadership, and effort your offer.  It is a process as old as the early church and from time to time – such as this time – stands in need of renewal.  What stands true throughout is our desire to share God’s love, especially with the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.   


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Resuscitation or Ressurection

 


Easter Sunday / Year B

John 20:1-18

Bishop Susan arranged for Dr. Melissa Perrin, a Chicago psychologist, to lead two recent zoom conversations with the clergy of our diocese.  Dr. Perrin’s focused on pandemic fatigue and self-care by helping us to think about the year-long road we all have negotiated.  We have been forced on the fly to reinvent life – everything from raising our children to work routines to engaging some of the most profound moments of life, such as tending to aging parents, comforting and caring for family and friends in crisis, and gathering for the seminal moments of life – birth, baptism, graduation, marriage, illness, and death.  And we have done all of this largely while being isolated and required to utilize new technologies. 

Many of us have operated under a self-generated sense of inadequacy and self-imposed cloud of judgment.  We set very high standards for ourselves while at the same time seldom pause to acknowledge and appreciate our ability to navigate the unknown and hazardous waters of this unprecedented time.  If anything in this sounds familiar and sheds light on why you have been struggling, then you understand why the bishop arranged for us to meet with Dr. Perrin.

She identified several byproducts of these stressful times which resonated with me.  One was mental fogginess.  I find myself being more forgetful than normal and not always sure how to launch into projects typically requiring little or no mental effort to initiate in the days of yore.  I learned I am not alone in this.  It is a consequence both of stress and of lethargy.  We are working so hard to figure out how to do the normal things, thus it is difficult to focus.  At the same time, while pretty much everything is on hold, little in our lives seems urgent.  Among other things, for me this looks like being reminded on Monday I promised to cover Morning Prayer for Al on Tuesday and then completely forget my commitment 24 hours later.

After several clergy related their struggles and shortcomings, Dr. Perrin said she wished she had a stamp she could use to mark each of our foreheads with the word “normal”.  While we might think we are the only one failing to keep up with the demands of this time, Dr. Perrin reminds us we are not.  Where we feel inadequacy, Dr. Perrin identifies normalcy.  So one aspect of self-care is to ease up on your personal expectations in order to recognize all you have been able to do in response to something not one of us was equipped for.

Dr. Perrin helped me to name something which I sense is on the rise as we begin to emerge from the grimmest moments of the pandemic.  She calls it ‘covid shaming’, which reveals itself when others look down on you for where you are in all of this… and especially for where you are not:

· You mean you still don’t know have to zoom?

· I can’t believe you don’t want to go out to eat with us.

· What?  Your church isn’t open for public worship yet?

I’m confident we could fill up our Facebook comments box with a daunting list of covid-shaming quips we have heard.  The pressure is mounting for each of us individually and collectively to achieve a simultaneous and unified level of comfort and readiness as we move forward, but it is an expectation which strikes me as unfair and unwise.  You will know when the time is right to go out to dinner.  We as a church will know how and when we are ready to regather in person.

Dr. Perrin encouraged us to reflect about something very much at the heart of Easter: the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  Both involve an effort to act on something which has had the life go out of it, but differ in key ways.  Resuscitation is a human effort.  It involves taking the breath and energy of one person and forcing it upon another in a frantic effort to bring back to what was in a person who is lifeless.  Resurrection, on the other hand, is a divine gift.  The life it imparts and the process in which it occurs involves mystery.  No human effort or initiative can make it happen because it is God’s doing.  And while resurrection restores what was, it also adds much more; taking on shape and form not possible before and not defined or determined by human anticipation or imagination. 

Resuscitation and resurrection.  It has been a while since I interviewed for a new call, but I remember how, whether or not they used this language, almost every congregation was looking ‘to come back to life’ and was expecting their next priest to make it happen.  “We need more members.  What great evangelism programs do you have?”  “Our Sunday School doesn’t appeal to young families.  What will you do to fix it?”  “We need more money.  Tell us about your stewardship ideas.”  Each interview felt like an inquiry into my certification in congregational CPR.  Do I know how to breath my life into a lifeless church?  Am I willing to keep up my efforts, even if it kills me in the end?

What I told those churches back in the day (and what I told the Search Committee here at St. Paul’s) is this: “I can describe what we have done at the church where I now serve, but I doubt it will do much for you here because we responded together to a specific set of circumstances and opportunities.  What I can tell you is I will be with you and together we will look for God’s presence in our midst and respond to what God is seeking to do.”  This I now realize is the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.

Image if Jesus merely had been resuscitated.  He could have gone back to preaching and teaching and healing and no doubt his followers gladly would have followed.  But God had something more grand in mind.  God envisioned the defeat of death and the redemption of the world – a new beginning – only possible through the resurrection of the Son.

The on-going pandemic has changed the world and our lives in so many ways.  After a year-long winter, it is finally beginning to feel like spring is near.  There are some things which rightly need to be resuscitated.  We need to roll up our selves, get to work, and restore the life which once was.  But there are other things which will never be exactly what they were before.  God is working to make these things new.  Burial linens will be unwrapped, sealing stones will be rolled back, and resurrected life will emerge.  May God grant us the wisdom to know which is which and may God draw us willingly and gratefully into what will be.    

 


Monday, March 22, 2021

Something Bigger & Better than Ourselves

 

John 12:20-33

Lent 5 / Year B

The Ohio Mart is a yearly fall festival held in Akron a few blocks from where I grew up.  Venders of all sorts come from all over the Buckeye State to pedal their wares.  And speaking of buckeyes and boyhood, one year my friends and I got the idea we could sell the little brown nuts at the mart for 25¢ a pop.  So we hopped on our bikes and scoured most of the northwest portion of the city; hitting up every buckeye tree we knew of and finding others along the way.  When all was said and done, we had filled fives grocery bags with buckeyes, which, if our plans had hatched, would have netted enough money to put each of us through college.  Well, my parents popped our balloon by telling us no one was going to give us a quarter for something they could pick up off the ground themselves (a fatal flaw in our business model, to be sure).  So the bags of buckeyes got shoved into a corner of our garage where they sat unattended over the course of the winter.

We had a little tradition in our house known as “The Spring Cleaning of the Garage.”  I had forgotten all about my fall collecting spree, but when they got uncovered, the bags, which had soaked up water, were falling apart and everyone agreed it was my responsibility to clean up the rotting mess.  Well, it turns out, of the hundreds and hundreds of buckeyes that spent a cold, dark, damp winter in our garage, one managed to sprout.  I planted it in a random location in a flower bed and by the end of the summer it had grown enough it needed a more permanent home.  After a couple of years, it became apparent the space was not going to be sufficient for the tree, so I moved it again.  That little seed, which began its journey in a bag in a corner of our garage and was transplanted twice, eventually became the largest tree in the neighborhood.  Had I not picked it up from where it fell, most likely it would have ended up as little more than a mid-winter snack for a squirrel.     

In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus just days from being arrested and crucified.  He seems ready to discuss what is about to happen, but no one seems to understand what he is talking about.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain,” he says.  “But if it dies it bears much fruit.”  When it comes to seeds, we get it.  But when it comes to how we live our lives, it touches on one of life’s great paradoxes: The more you assert yourself, the less you produce.  The more you let go, focus on what lies beyond you, and look to God to work through you, the more your life will be of benefit to others.  Live for yourself alone and your will be limited.  Learn to let go and live for something bigger than yourself and you will play a role in some amazing things.

Every seed has within it an embryo, which, though tiny, contains the potential for greatness (given the right conditions to support it).  Each embryo has an “on” and “off” switch.  The “on” switch only gets activated after the seed has been in the ground for forty days at a temperature of 40°.  Any colder than this and the switch stays at “off.”  Technically, we should describe this state as being “dormant”, but for all intents and purposes the seed is dead unless something outside of it acts upon it. 

Every seed is also encased with an outer coating to protect it from premature exposure to outside elements.  Once the temperature is right and the “on” switch is activated, the coating begins to break down.  This allows water and oxygen to interact with the embryo, producing proteins and sugars.  The embryo begins to break open, sending shoots downward (which become roots) and upward (which becomes a sprout).  This life-force truly is a miracle of God’s design and, like my buckeye tree, grows to yield more fruit than anyone would ever dare to imagine.

According to Jesus, what is true of a seed is also true of the spiritual life.  Each of us has an “off” switch and an “on” switch, neither of which we have any control over.  The spiritual life is not a matter of saying to oneself, “I have to try to be a better person” or any of its other sibling and cousin expressions which put the onus on you to make yourself into something you are not.  Like a seed, each of us has tremendous potential.  And like the seed, none of us can harness our potential without dying to self and allowing God to take over.

When I first got into the ministry as a lay person doing youth work I had a very high opinion of myself.  I thought I was talented, charismatic, educated, knowledgeable, articulate, interesting, holy, and blessed (among other things).  Life has a way of bringing us up short and teaching us the painful lesson we are not all that.  The teachings come time and again through small setbacks and every now and then as a devasting and humbling failure.  But if we understand the meaning of these lessons we begin to learn the importance of dying to self in order to allow something better and beyond us to live in and through us.   

In a thousand different ways life will teach you that you are not the center of the universe.  It will beckon you to forsake your self-centeredness, your preoccupation with success, and your obsession with what others think of you.  Life will try to lead you to the truth so beautifully articulated by the Prayer of St. Francis: it is better to console than to be consoled, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, for it is in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned, and it is in dying we begin to open ourselves to eternal life.  When we live for self alone the switch to a better life is on “off”, but when we die to self it gets flipped to “on”.  Amazing things begin to happen through us, but not because of us.

And, according to Jesus, all of this figurative dying is a foretaste of the literal experience of death… that moment when our body no longer will have life in it.  While the switch may be flipped to “off”, through the saving action of the Resurrected Christ we are assured this is not at all the end, only a transition.  And if you had never seen a buckeye before and I handed one to you, you would have no idea the gigantic and fruitful tree it one day could become.  It is the same for us with the life to come.  St. Paul wrote this to the Church in Corinth: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9).  Praise be to God this new and glorious existence beyond imaging is now the reality experience by all those we love, but see no longer.  One day we will have a share and portion in it as well.  Until then, we focus on letting go in order to live in this world for something bigger and better than ourselves.  


Monday, March 15, 2021

Facing our Failure / Finding Forgiveness

 


John 3:14-21

Lent 4 / Year B

This morning we hear one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Even before the fan with the wild rainbow wig showed up at every sporting event imaginable waving a placard with the reference to this verse, most of us knew it already as being the good news in a nutshell.  As familiar as it is, the two verses leading up to it allude to one of the more obscure references in the bible – John 3:14-15: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

It refers to the event described in today’s first lesson when God’s people complain about hunger and wandering in the wilderness and God sends poisonous snakes to punish them.  Many are bitten and die before the people repent and cry out to Moses for mercy.  Moses, in turn, prayers for them and God directs him to make the image of a snake and mount it on a pole.  It comes to be known as the Nehushtan and everyone who looks at it is healed.  The Nehushtan becomes such a sacred object the people of Israel place in the Holy of Holies of the Temple along with the ark containing the 10 Commandments.

Either lost or destroyed by his day, Jesus is still aware of the story of the Nehushtan and sees in it a parallel to his own death.  He too will be lifted up on account of the sins of the world and all those who look upon him will be saved from the curse of death.

Here is what I find so interesting in these two accounts.  Each represents something horrible about the human condition.  Embedded in each story are the elements of judgment and death.  The only path to healing involves looking squarely at the things which embody our short-comings – the image of a snake on a pole or the Crucified Jesus on the Cross.  Why is it necessary to face our failures in order to find forgiveness?

Almost every week a public figure has to explain one misdeed or another.  This past week it has been Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.  As accusations mount, his claims of innocence become more suspect.  Like many before who have fallen, we wonder why people in his position are so allegoric to the truth.  We get admitting to immoral conduct will have an impact on your career, your family, and your life, but it is so dishonorable and so despicable to malign your victims as a strategy to defend the indefensible.  In most cases it is more of an affront than the original offense. 

Paul Krugman, the economist and Nobel Award recipient, wrote in a 2017 column about what he calls “an epidemic of infallibility” which requires people (and especially powerful people) never, ever to admit to making a mistake.  Some fear owning up to faults and failures makes them appear small and weak.  The old adage “it takes a big person to admit when he you are wrong” seems to have been replaced with “only losers fess up.”  Behind it all, contends Klugman, is a soul too fragile to admit to its shortcomings and to engage in self-reflection honest enough to result in self-criticism.

The more insecure or unchecked a person’s ego, the more likely he or she will approach failure from a perspective of self-interest.  How bad will this make me look if I own up to it?  Will I come off as incompetent, dishonest, immoral, hypocritical, or even monstrous?  What will it cost me in terms of power, money, friendships, family?  Wouldn’t it be easier to deny what I did or to blame others or to do both than to take responsibility for my actions?  Such is the interior conversation during an epidemic of infallibility. 

We all know what the first sin was… eating the apple.  Do you know what the initial human response to sin was?  If you guessed shifting the blame, you are close.  Adam blaming Eve was the second response.  Even more telling though is what happened before… hiddenness.  Adam tries to hide from God because he doesn’t want God to see him as he truly is.  Not much has changed about the human condition since then.  Hiding and blaming remain our basic strategies to insulate ourselves against the truth of our actions and their consequences.  And they run counter to what Jesus says in today’s reading.  Again, why is it necessary to face our failures in order to find forgiveness?

At a human level, facing your failures demonstrates you are humble enough to acknowledge your faults, it demonstrates you value those you hurt through your actions, and it hints you are willing to learn from your mistakes in order to amend your life.  As the saying goes, “good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”  Mother Teresa noted, “some things come into your life as blessings.  Some come into your life as lessons.”  The question is are you willing to learn.  When we come up short, facing your failures is the only pathway to personal growth.  Denying them leads only to our downfall and doom.

At another human level, we are much more willing to accept the apology of a person who takes responsibility for his or her actions.  We respect a person who attempts to make restitution and repair the damage he or she has caused.  We are willing to listen to explanations as long as they don’t deflect ownership.  We demand a person shows concern for those they have wronged or hurt.  All of this can happen only after you look squarely at what you have done.  Anything less is a desire for cheap grace.

Beyond these human motivations, there is a spiritual reason to face your failures.  It goes back to the desire to hide from what we have done.  We reason if we can hide it from others and if we can hide it from God then we won’t have to face it ourselves.  This would be a prudent strategy if God’s only desire is to punish wrongdoing.  But John 3:16 does not begin with “God so abhorred the world...”  God demonstrates deep, unbreakable love for the human family by transforming images of judgment and death into instruments of life and symbols of love.  The Nehustan becomes the means of healing.  The Cross, which represents humankind’s deepest rejection of God, becomes the means of forgiveness and the doorway to everlasting life and restored fellowship with the Holy One. 

What is required of us?  A willingness to look at the consequences of our actions in order to know God’s love is strong enough to embrace the worst we are capable of doing.

Our Lenten journey is more than a penitential exercise, although it is this to be sure.  It is a time for us to take stock of the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives.  It is also a time to recognize how our worst elicits God’s best, how walking the pathway through our failures to a more faithful life is possible because we always walk in God’s unfailing love, and how God’s unfailing love provides the means for us to come out of hiding and to own our actions rather than blame others for what we have done.


Monday, March 8, 2021

From Temple to Table

 


John 2:13-22

Lent 3 / Year A

Each of the four gospels describes an event when Jesus confronts the people who make a livelihood at the Temple by exchanging currency and/or selling animals or doves for sacrifices.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the Synoptic Gospels because the synopsis of each is so similar) report this transpires at the Passover festival just before Jesus is arrested and put to death, although they disagree on when it takes place (either Palm Sunday or the following day).  Each of the three states Jesus’ objection, “My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

John’s version contains many of the same elements – the timing of the festival, the location of the Temple, and Jesus’ actions against the traders.  But John’s version differs from the other three in at least two key ways.  First, he places it at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, rather than at the end.  In fact, the Synoptics indicate Jesus’ attack on the Temple system is what leads to his arrest and crucifixion.  John, however, traces the motivation for arresting Jesus to raising Lazarus from the dead, thus, for him, the Temple episode reflects something else. 

The second difference in the accounts is subtle, but also telling.  While the Synoptics have Jesus using the phrase “den of thieves”, thus criticizing the corruption of what is transpiring, John records Jesus as saying, “Take these things out of here.  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”  “Marketplace” verses “den of thieves”.  In John, Jesus is not attacking the fraudulent behavior of a few, he is condemning the entire system – even those whose business practices are marked by honestly and integrity. 

One more aspect of John’s account stands out: the challenge to Jesus by the religious authorities: “What sign can you show us for doing these things?”  In other words, “What gives you the right?”  Jesus responds in a way we understand, but the original audience did not: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 

The crowd caught in the confusion of marauding animals and merchants scurrying about for their coins cannot begin to fathom how Jesus can rebuild a structure which required generations to erect.  But the first readers of John’s gospel (written around the end of the first century) know two things the people in today’s story do not.  First, the Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  Not one stone was left on top of another.  And second, the crucified Jesus rose from the dead after three days.  So for John, given the loss of the centralized place of Hebrew worship and given the presence of the God’s Word incarnate, Jesus’ actions in the Temple at the beginning of his public ministry indicate a shift from religion focused on a structure and an institution to religion based on a relationship with an individual.  Archbishop Curry is fond of referring to this new type of religion as “the Jesus Movement” and “The Way of Love.”

Something interesting always happens when a church or a synagogue has its worship space destroyed, most commonly due to a fire.  The congregation is forced to meet in a different location, perhaps the parish hall or in a neighboring church.  It seems to result in one of two things.  Either the congregation folds or it comes back stronger than before.  Either it cannot overcome the loss of its institutional space or it discovers anew its rootedness in relationship with Jesus, with its surrounding neighborhood, and with one another. 

Many American churches were on shaky ground before the pandemic impeded our ability to worship together in-person.  The professionals who study congregational vitality suspect these last twelve months will only serve to accelerate the closing of churches whose viability was already suspect.  But other faith communities will emerge from this time poised with new purpose and a sense of what is possible.  For these faith communities, the time apart has fostered in them the desire to embrace innovative ways to be in relationship with God and one another.  It is a passion promising to spill over into congregational life as we emerge from this time of physical isolation.  When I consider where St. Paul’s is at, and especially as I reflect on the focus of our Vestry leadership, I can say with confidence we are on the second track.

The first readers of John’s gospel knew well the experience of religious homelessness.  After Jesus’ ascension, his original followers and their initial converts understand themselves to be Jews who found the long-promised Messiah.  They continue to make pilgrimages to the Jerusalem for major festivals and in most ways appear no different from other Jews. 

Like all Jews, when the temple is sacked, Messianic Jews have to develop new rites and practices to replace what has been lost, just as non-Messianic Jews have to do.  Both groups find a new home in the local synagogues and initially both groups coexist peacefully in the same place.  Yes, the two camps have different ideas, but Christians see themselves as a subset of a greater whole.  And Christians feel called to witness to their faith so there might be one flock under one shepherd.

Well, by the time John writes his gospel, this unspoken truce is taking on water.  More and more, synagogue leaders, who are comprised of traditional Jews, seek to banish or even persecute those who confess faith in Jesus.  As an aside, this context explains why John’s gospel has a more negative and condemning view of “the Jews” than we find in the Synoptics. 

So, those first Christians lived through much disruption in how they experienced institutional religion.  At first they remain centered around the Temple.  Then they have to adapt to religion as experienced in the local synagogue.  Once expelled from this institution, early Christians begin to develop home churches, which focus on a Eucharistic meal and sharing Jesus’ love with the unloved.  What emerges is a ‘table fellowship’ where friendships are formed, the hungry are feed, and the Risen Christ is made known in the breaking of bread.  And while it lacks the grandeur of the Temple, it generates enough power to change the world.

The one constant through it all is Jesus.  His followers sense his presence no matter the setting or focus of their communal spiritual life.  It is a promise and a truth we are experiencing anew in our day.  A lot has changed in the last year, but through it all Jesus continues to shepherd us, to feed us, to comfort us, and to heal us.  Today we hear Jesus say, “Even if life in your physical space of worship is inhibited, I am with you to see you through.”


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.