Monday, December 18, 2023

Knowing Who You Are Not


John 1:6-8, 19-28

Advent 3 / Year B

When I was in seminary, the first week of January was a thing unto itself.  On our third and final year, you took the General Ordination Exams.  The first year we were taught how to be lectors – a little class we referred to as “Read & Bleed.”  In our middle year we were schooled in the Sung Service; what we called “Rant & Chant.”  Thankfully, this class was pass/fail.  Show up every day for a week then turn in a cassette tape of yourself chanting and you pass.  When I got my tape back it had a post-it note attached to it by the professor.  It read simply, “You may want to practice more before you attempt to do this in public.”  Well, I have never practiced, nor have I ever led chanting in a service.

Here is a question rattling around in my head all week as I have pondered today’s gospel reading: How do you learn what you are not good at?  Put another way, how do you discover who you are not supposed to be?

One of the amazing things about John the Baptist is he knows who he is not.  The John the gospel writer tells us emphatically the Baptizer is not the light.  He is a witness to the light.  John himself says, “I am not the Messiah.”  When asked, he says, “I am not Elijah.”  “I am not a prophet.”  Was there a time when he considered he might be the Messiah or Elijah or a prophet?  Perhaps.  I wonder how he discerned who he wasn’t.  When asked, John famously states, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  Rather than a statement about humility, this too is a revelation about identity.   

In Levitical law, if a husband dies before his wife gives birth to a son, the husband’s brother is required to marry her in order to sire a son who will carry on the original husband’s name.  The brother is referred to as the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ because he redeems his kin’s name from death.  Now, if the brother refuses to take on this role and another person wishes to do so, that person takes the brother to the public square and in the presence of the elders takes a sandal off the foot of the one who will not do his duty.  By so doing, the willing person announces he will function as the kinsman-redeemer.  So when John says he is not worthy to untie the sandal of the one who is to come, he is saying, “I am not the redeemer, he is.”

Over my tenure of serving as your rector, we have been blessed to have two wonderful Music Directors/Organists – Al Reese and Thom Robertson.  We have not always been as fortunate.  In 1952 we hired Leroy Gross to fill this position.  Often referred to in the Vestry record as “Prof. Gross,” it seems he had a hard time getting along with folks.  He could not hold to spending limits, is divorced by his wife for desertion, takes up residence in the Parish House’s kitchen, and generally makes a pest of himself.  At one point he is told in writing by the Senior Warden to confine himself to the Music Room and not to interfere with the operations of the general offices.  Let your imagination run wild as you ponder what was going on!  In 1956 he resigns his position and the Music Committee hires his replacement – a Mrs. Thomas.  She prepares the choir and is ready to lead the hymns on her first Sunday, only to discover Prof. Gross at the organ bench.  He decides on his own and unannounced to unresign!  Whatever you might want to say about ol’ Leroy, he certainly is not the model of knowing who you are and who you are not. 

It occurs to me the times I have been most ineffective have been when I asserted myself into roles for which I was not well-suited.  It also occurs to me from a very young age we begin to learn who we are largely by weeding out who we are not.  My college chaplain told the story about teaching in a religion class on the Temple’s sacrificial system when a student passed out.  After revived, he said whenever he sees blood or even thinks about it he feels faint.  Then he added he needed to overcome this problem because he wanted to be a surgeon.

When I entered into the search process which eventually led to your calling me here, I considered want kind of church would be best for me to serve.  Out of college I worked as a lay minister at a huge church with three clergy and multiple full-time employees.  The two churches I served at as an assistant had an average Sunday attendance hovering around 300 people.  The two churches I served as rector averaged around 100 folks on Sunday.  I was the only priest and the only full-time employee.  Experts refer to this as a Pastoral size church. 

Now, many clergy in my position would have been looking to “move up”, to seek a bigger parish and the supposed prestige which accompanies it.  I wondered how do I know I would be happy in such place.  What if I don’t like directing staff and clergy?  I discerned I liked working in a Pastoral size church and that I understood its needs and unique dynamics.  And the rest, as they, is history.  Accepting your call has been one of the best decisions of my life.

We often talk about discovering who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.  Equally important, but often flying under the radar, is ascertaining who we are not and what we are not called to do.  Through his clarity of self and place John the Baptist models this for us.  And because he knows who he is not he is ideally suited to be the voice in the wilderness pointing to the Light.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Make Straight a Path


Mark 1:1-8

Advent 2 / Year B

Several years ago I spent a wonderful week vacationing at Canaan Valley in West Virginia.  Now there is no easy way get to anywhere in West Virginia, hence there is no easy way to get home.  On my return trip I decided to make my way to Seneca Rocks, which was a wonderful decision if you don’t mind driving on remote roads.  From there I headed south and found myself on a scary, winding, narrow, and at times dirt road before connecting with U.S. 250, which I could have driven all the way to Richmond if I opted to.  A United States highway will be smooth sailing, I reasoned.  I could not have been more wrong.

Getting on 250 in the Monongahela National Forest and heading east, it took me nearly three hours to drive approximately 90 miles to Staunton.  There were, to my recollection, seven step accents and seven step descents over ridge lines.  And each way up and each way down over all seven was cluttered with numerous switchbacks and hairpin turns.  One ridge would have made for a fun drive.  Two would have given me my fill.  But after seven I vowed never again to drive 250 in West Virginia.  When I finally got to Staunton I decided to get on I64 and from there it was an easy drive home.

I thought about that drive as I pondered the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard read just moments ago:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The people of Israel had lived in exile in Babylon for more than forty years, but change was on the horizon.  Soon they were going to be allowed to go home.  Isaiah’s call to make a straight, level, and smooth highway in the wilderness was a message of hope.  I was a call for the people to plan and prepare for a second Exodus.  And, it had a practical element to it: the path from Babylon to Jerusalem had been sparsely traveled for four decades and no doubt was in sad repair.  The journey was going to be arduous.

Five centuries later, John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah and draws on the call to prepare a way and to make straight a path but utilizes this in purely spiritual and personal terms.  John senses how the twists and turns of life, with its highs and lows, have left people feeling disoriented, uncertain, and lost.  For him, the way forward and the way to God had become much, much to difficult and the average person needed a way to be reoriented.

For John, this looked like calling people to repent.   The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as ‘repent’, literally means to stop in your tracks and turn around.  We might say “do a 180” or “make a U-turn”.  There is so much to distract us along our journey and our lives are going to be a mess until we decide to stop traveling in the wrong direction. 

John offered a way to ground one’s decision to repent… baptism in the River Jordon.  This provided people with spiritual strength to return to the way.  And getting on the right way is essential to prepare the way for the Lord, who wants to do something marvelous in and through you.  But for this to happen we need to stop and ponder what God desires from us.  The prophet Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of you?  His answer: “To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6/8).  If your life is not moving in this direction, then you need to repent.

I suspect for many of us the images of twists and turns and highs and lows (like driving in West Virginia) is more poignant than metanoia.  We are trying to do the right thing and to be the people God calls us to be, but there are so many obstacles in our way. 

We want there to be peace in the world, but other than prayer and perhaps a charitable contribution, there seems to be little we can do.  We want there to be civility in our society, but short of treating others with respect and limiting our exposure to the most reprehensible voices out there, again, there is little we can do.  We care about climate change, but other than being as responsible as we can be, we are powerless to make an impact on the bigger picture.  We want to live into the Baptismal Covenant’s promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  We can do our part, but sense in our world a rising disdain for ‘the other’. 

It occurs to me believing your witness does not make a difference is a distraction from which we need to make a metanoia.  And if one witness makes a difference, it gets doubled if another joins in.  Think what happens when an entire faith community commits itself to living into God’s dream for all people.  Add enough people and soon you have a movement and movements have the power to reshape the world, or, as Isaiah put it, “to reveal the glory of God.”

God calls us to make a straight way in the desert.  Advent is a season marked by hope and it comes at just the right time… when we are burdened by a spirit of despair.  Both Isaiah and John proclaimed a hopeful message and they call on us to change, to be expectant, to be ready, and to prepare the way of the Lord!

Monday, December 4, 2023

Marking Time with the Church Year


Mark 13:24-37

Advent 1 / Year B

One of the lead characters in Elizabeth Goudge’s novel The Dean’s Watch is a gentleman by the name of Isaac Peabody.  He is the town horologist – a clock and watchmaker who is one part tradesman, one part craftsman, and one part artisan.  Set in 19th Century England, the novel gives the reader insight into an era when keeping time is cutting-edge technology.  Peabody makes weekly rounds to wind clocks and is constantly working repairs in his shop.  And the pieces he makes are a thing of beauty… as unique in their design and appearance as the individual they are intended to serve.  Every timepiece Peabody crafts is built to last.  With proper care he anticipates his clocks and watches will tell time accurately for generations to come.

From the beginning of time all living creatures have sought ways to mark time.  Do the geese migrating to the Eastern Shore or the salmon swimming the streams of the northwest know time, or do they merely respond to a deep, instinctual rhythm beating with the motion of the seasons?  Perhaps they do not choose how to mark time so much as they obey patterns the origins of which lies in God’s blueprint for life.

From the construction of Stonehenge at the dawn of civilization to today’s incredibly precise atomic clock human beings have conceived of ways to mark time.  This pursuit is more than a passing fancy.  Do you remember the Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway?  Do you remember how he traced the subtle movement of a ray of sunlight on the wall of a cave to mark the years he spent stranded on a deserted island?  The scene rings true because at an intuitive level we know the human need to manage existence by quantifying it into discernable rhythms of time.

We have a variety of ways to do this now.  There is the calendar, of course, with its days and months and years.  Linked closely to the calendar are the seasons.  But we also measure time through such diverse means as the workweek, the school year, and the programming schedule of TV and radio programs, to name just a few.  The choices are manifold, and it is ours to make. 

The Christian faith provides us a unique way to mark time.  We call it the church year, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning of a new year.  The focal point of the Christian measure of time is not the sun or a schedule of work, but rather the life of Jesus.  The seasons of the church year correspond with events which unfold during his life. 

In Advent we await his coming.  At Christmas we celebrate his birth.  During the season of Epiphany we remember how his divinity – his inner light – shown out for all to know and see.  On Ash Wednesday we confront our mortality and during the season of Lent we focus on the brokenness of our lives.  All of this leads us to Holy Week where we remember how, on the night before his death, Jesus creates a new community of love nourished by his presence in bread and wine.  On Good Friday we watch as Jesus carries our brokenness to the Cross.  On Easter Sunday we celebrate his resurrection and claim his promise that our own mortality and brokenness have been overcome.  On Pentecost we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and during the weeks that follow we learn again what it means to be a follower of Christ in the world.

The church invites those of us who are so caught up in the marking of time to orient our pursuit by connecting with God… who exists beyond time… as God has been manifested in time in flesh and bone.  And while the story of Jesus does not change from year to year, we do.  We come to this Good News as new people; people whose experiences over the past year have changed us.  Perhaps we are older or wiser or richer.  Perhaps we are leaner or meaner or battered or bruised or broken.  Whatever has happened to us has opened us to hear God’s word and to receive God’s love in a new way.  Following the church year helps us to remember all of our life is in God; that nothing happens to us happens apart from God. 

During the Sundays of the coming weeks and months we will read primarily from Mark’s account of Jesus’ life.  These readings will invite us to link our story with his… to integrate all we are and all we do with who Jesus is and with how he lived his life.  As our lives continue to unfold Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel will help us to make sense of what is happening to us and where life is taking us.  Invariably the story of our lives will thicken and we will look for strength and comfort in the midst of tension and struggle.  We will find the words we need in the words of Jesus.  And our stories will twist as unexpected events transform our lives for good or ill.   But through it all we will be encouraged to remain in God.

There are many ways we can mark time and how we mark time affects how we perceive the world around us.  Do you have to follow the church year to be a ‘good’ Christian?  Of course not!  It is not a requirement.  It is an invitation... an invitation to mark time by using the life of Jesus as your reference.  

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Sole Criteria


Matthew 25:31-46

Proper 29 / Year A

For the third Sunday in a row our gospel reading is a parable taken from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  Like the parables of the Ten Maidens and the Talents, today’s focuses on a final judgment.  Jesus tells these stories in Jerusalem just days before he will be arrested, tried, and crucified.  Either the disciples are getting smarter or Jesus is getting better at his story-telling, because, unlike so many of his early parables, this one requires no explanation.  It is as straightforward as it can be. 

Jesus is going to judge people on one basis and one basis alone.  He will not count how many times you came to church.  He will not quiz you for creedal orthodoxy.  He will not check to see if you are born again.  All Jesus will do is recall the times you gave him something to eat, to drink, or to wear.  He will recall when you welcomed him into your home, comforted him in sickness, or visited him in prison.  You don’t even have to know it is Jesus you did these things for.  Anytime you do it for anyone you do it for him. 

Notice who is being judged.  It is not the church or Jesus’ followers.  Jesus says “all the nations” will be gathered before the Son of Man and separated into two groups… those who did something for him and those who did not.  “All the nations.”  Any time we read a verse like John 14:6, “No one can come to the Father except through me”, the conversation always gets around to other religions and people of different faiths.  Will they be saved and will they be punished for not believing in Jesus?  Well, according to this parable the sole criteria used to judge every person regardless of faith or race or nationality is this: what did you do to help other people, especially the neediest and most vulnerable people in your society?  Were you generous, caring, and selfless or were you critical, hardened, and indifferent?

One of the things I wonder about this parable is Jesus’ grading scale.  If one time you give one cup of water to a thirsty person is this enough to get you into the sheep pen?  Or, conversely, if one time you fail to give a cup of water, will this get you rounded up with the goats?  Or, what if you do the right thing, but do it for the wrong reason?  Are you a sheep if you give food to the hungry but have disdain for them?  Are you a goat if you do the wrong thing for the right reason?  “Jesus, I didn’t give you $10 that one time because I thought you were going to use it to buy liquor.” 

I don’t know what the grading scale will be, but here is what I experience.  There are times I do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  I do it because I need to do it in order to feel good about me.  And then there are times I do the right thing because I recognize the humanity of the person I am helping.  I see the person as a person and I recognize the person’s need and I see I have an opportunity rather than an obligation to help.  When I recognize the humanity of the other person and respond to it, I sense more acutely the Kingdom of God in my presence. 

The opposite is also true in my experience.  When I fail to recognize the humanity of another person, the world seems darker and more hellish.  C.S. Lewis thought hell is a place where one’s humanity is diminished.  N.T. Wright, the English bishop and theologian, envisions hell as the end of a process where one consistently choses to dehumanize what once was human.

The great challenge in life is to see in other people what God sees in them.  Our challenge is to love the other person as we believe God loves them.  The theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “God is committed to the poor, not because the poor are good—but because God is good.”  Today’s parable reminds us a good God created us to be good to one another.

Ultimately, I believe those judged to be sheep receive their reward not because they reached an arbitrary percentage of helping others, but because during their life they cultivated a disposition to recognize the humanity of other people and to base their interactions on this.  This inclination nurtured in this life continues on to the next.  The goats are those who cultivate the opposite and consistently fail to recognize the humanity of others.  It is an inclination which continues into the life to come and they receive judgment not as punishment but, based on their life’s story, as a recognition heaven and all its ways is not a place they would enjoy.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we proclaim the Kingship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We affirm one day every knee will bow to him and all tongues praise his holy Name.  I tend to side with those who believe in a crowded heaven and an empty hell.  Many theologians hold to the theory of an empty hell because they believe in the end all people will respond to the call of a loving God who desires none should be lost.  We begin to open our hearts to God’s voice here and now and one way we do this is to recognize the humanity of every person we encounter and to respond to their most basic needs.


Monday, November 20, 2023

I Quit!


Matthew 25:13-30

Proper 28 / Year A

George Bernard Shaw said people are always blaming their circumstances for what they are, but the people who make it in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, they make them.  Whatever philosophy provided the inner drive for the servant given the one talent in today’s parable, this was not it.  He looks at his boss and says, “I am afraid.”  He looks at his gift and says, “I don’t know what to do.”  And he looks within and says, “I don’t believe in myself.”  Putting it all together, he simply says, “I give up.  I quit.”  And that pretty much is that. 

There are two in the story who receive a trust and use it well and there is one in the story who does nothing.  Two are invited to enter into joy; although, as any of us knows, when you use your gifts and talents in pursuit of your deepest, most meaningful passions and interests, you already are in the midst of joy.  And then there is one who is sent to a place of darkness where there is weeping and ‘much dental distress’; but all of us, who from time to time, have been given to inaction, lack of focus, or loss of purpose, know doing nothing with what you have is itself already a place gloom and despair.

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, as what the church calls ‘ordinary time’ draws to a close, the Scripture readings always take on the theme of last things.  Last week we heard about the maidens who waited for the delayed groom’s arrival.  Some take extra oil for their lamps while others do not.  Those who do not are caught unprepared and miss out on the celebration.  And now this week we hear of a master who entrusts generous portions of his estate to servants who are to oversee affairs while he is away.  When he returns the servants are called to account, “What did you do with what I gave to you?”  “I was afraid.  I didn’t know what to do.  I gave up on myself.  I did nothing.  I quit.”  Judgment comes swift and sure to such a person.

George Costanza, in a Seinfeld episode, once bellowed, “Yeah, I’m a great quitter: it’s one of the few things I do well… I come from a long line of quitters.  My father was a quitter, my grandfather was a quitter… I was raised to give up.”  Christian theology does not bred quitters.  It tells us not to fear God, but to trust God.  It tells us not to wait for directions, but to trust the Holy Spirit to guide our instincts and to direct the righteous desires of our hearts.  It tells us to believe in ourselves because we are made in the image of a creative and creating God.  It tells us not to give up and not to give in and to use all we have, be it a lot or a little, to the glory of God and for the benefit of all.

In the days of Jesus, a talent was equal to fifteen years of wages for a day laborer – something close to $200,000 by today’s minimum wage standard.  It is not chump-change and this is what the servant given the least received.  What would you do if someone entrusted you with $200,000?  This, the least amount, is still sizeable, isn’t it.  According to the theology of Jesus, the least among us has gifts and talents and resources which are more than abundant.  What are you doing with yours?  Something?  Anything?  Or have you given up on yourself and quit on what God has given you?

Maybe you say to yourself, “I am too old now to make a difference.”  Nonsense.  Maybe you say, “I am too young.”  Wrong.  Maybe your excuse is, “I don’t have enough education” or “I am not qualified.”  Well, get the education you need and get qualified.  God gives you everything you need to do good things.  Heck, God gives you the ability to do great things.  What is holding you back? 

I am proud of the members of our youth group.  They have identified food insecurity as a community issue they care about and want to address.  They are planning to build what will be called “Suffolk’s Lil’ Food Pantry” and place it on our parish property.  Functioning just like the Lending Library boxes, Lil’ Food Pantries are a national movement.  Our motto is going to be “Take What You Need.  Leave What You Can” and it is a perfect example of using the talents entrusted to you to make a real difference.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is famous for her work on grief, said, “People are like stained-glass windows.  They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.  This inner light is the light of Christ.  It guides us when we are strong.  It sustains us when we are weak.  It speaks to us of God’s love when we are afraid of God.  It helps us to pick up ourselves, dust off ourselves, and keep trying when things don’t go our way.  It is the voice that says, “I believe in you.  Do not give up on yourself.  Do not quit.”

Monday, November 13, 2023

Will You be Ready to Shine?


Matthew 25:1-13

Proper 27 / Year A

As the end of the church year draws near our assigned readings from Scripture turn to last things; especially to the Lord’s return and the judgment which comes with it.  Today we hear the prophet Amos describe with dread the “day of the Lord.”  We read Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica how the dead will rise and we will join them when Jesus appears.  And we hear Jesus tell a parable about a wedding feast and we know from experience someone is going to get left out or kicked out.

Jesus’ story has been labeled the Wise and Foolish Maidens and the Ten Bridesmaids, but the Greek word used in the story indicates they are ‘virgins’.  Given most young girls in that society married around the age of 13, it is likely these maidens are 11 or 12 years old.  The five who plan ahead and bring extra oil for their lamps are called ‘wise’, but this is a bit misleading because the Greek word is best translated as prudent.  The five who do not bring extra oil are called ‘foolish’, however this too is a questionable translation given the Greek word actually means moron, which is much harsher than foolish.

The moral scale from moron to prudent seems a bit skewed, doesn’t it.  It especially feels off given its binary nature.  These is no middle ground, no shades of gray, just two extremes.  All ten are waiting for the groom to return with his bride.  All ten expect to join the celebration.  All ten fall asleep when there is a delay.  The five with oil are not praised for their generosity because, in fact, they don’t share from their reserves.  They are not commended for their sense of community because, in fact, they do not offer to go with the girls who must forage for oil in the middle of the night.  The single thing they do to merit favor and blessing is to plan ahead.  And the only reason the other five are excluded is because they didn’t do the equivalent of packing an extra pair of socks. 

I spent a lot of time this week staring out my office window trying to make sense of this story.  I kept coming back to the oil.  What does it represent?  What is the thing we would be prudent to prepare for? 

Some commentators play up the parable’s allegorical nature by giving detail and meaning to every aspect of the story.  And for them, oil represents salvation.  If you are saved you will be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven when Jesus returns.  If you’re not saved, you won’t.  For some, it is just this simple.  But it raises another question.  What does it mean to be saved?  All ten were waiting for Jesus.  All ten wanted to be with him.  All ten had oil, it is just that half were running low. 

At some point I began to think back to Amos’ words.  He tells people who look forward to the day of the Lord they will be completely taken aback by it.  Speaking for God he says… 

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me

your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being

of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

God is completely disgusted with the Israelites and abhors their attempts at appeasement through acts of worship.  It sounds completely hopeless, doesn’t it.  But then Amos points the way forward:

But let justice roll down like waters,

  and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

What if this is the oil!  The oil allows a person to be a light in the darkness.  Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lampstand so that it gives light to the whole house.  Let your light shine so people may see the good you do and give thanks to God.”  This, I think, is the point of the oil.  It is to continue ceaselessly to be a light, a force for justice, a source of righteousness. 

I also spent some time wondering who the young maidens represent.  Most commentators say the church, but this means some good and faithful people are going to have the door shut on them.  I suspect they represent everyone.  We are all asleep wait for God to act.  In truth, Jesus draws nigh all the time.  Opportunities to celebrate, to do justice, to act with righteousness abound.  So the question is, when these moments come, will you be ready to shine?

Monday, October 30, 2023


Matthew 22:34-46

Proper 25 / Year A

Somehow I hold to the belief beneath all that is dark and dreary and damaged in this world a fundamental goodness holds sway.  I suppose this is why I am so moved by something the Irish priest and poet John O’Donohue wrote in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us:

There is a kindness that dwells deep down in the structure of things; it presides everywhere, often in places we least expect.  The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself.  Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves.

I hear O’Donohue’s words as being a faint echo of Jesus’s thundering proclamation the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. 

I have always imagined the idea of loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and (as Luke records it) strength as being akin to spiritual weightlifting; in other words, if I can bench press 200 spiritual pounds today, then tomorrow I should try to press 205.  The day after I need to go for 210.  The process is never ending because the ultimate goal of perfect love toward God and neighbor can never be achieved.  All – as in all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.  All is a very daunting word, isn’t it.  It suggests observing this commandment involves effort and rigor and determination and dedication and… failure.

I began to wonder what if fulfilling the command to love involves not trying harder and harder, but rather letting go and listening and allowing yourself to be carried in God’s goodness which undergirds all things.  O’Donohue begins his book with this:

There is a quiet light that shines in every heart.  It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there.  It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life.  Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken longing.  Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us that is wedded to the energy and excitement of life.  This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize our very presence here as blessing.

Something in his words resonates with me and it hints that loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength has more to do with the shy inner light than it does with spiritual weightlifting.  If the creation is God’s work, and if God called it good, and if God is omnipresent (found in all times, places, and things), then being attentive to our quiet, inner light – the part of our hearts which allows us to connect with the richness of life – is at the heart of what it means to love God.  It suggests reveling in the beauty of a gorgeous fall day is an act of loving God more significant than something like, say, memorizing the books of the bible in order.

And it suggests loving our neighbors as ourselves is not so much an act of effort on our part, but something more akin to becoming open to the possibilities of kindness which exist all around us.  In a passage reminiscent of how Paul describes the gift of love, O’Donohue writes about the nature of kindness:

[It] has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself.  Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart; it also suggests that your vulnerability, though somehow exposed, is not taken advantage of; rather it has become an occasion for dignity and empathy.  Kindness casts a different light, that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.

Just like the notion of pay it forward, kindness begets kindness and the blessing we off to another has a way of returning back to us as blessing.

We use the word ‘kind’ to signify two very different things.  It can mean “to do good rather than harm” or it can mean “a class, sort, or variety,” as in “my kind of people.”  It is closely related to the word ‘kin’ and ‘kindness’ itself is derived from the word ‘kinship.’  To be kind is to see another as kin and to show kindness is to treat a person like family.  When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor he is asking us to do far more than to be our kind.  He is, as O’Donohue puts it, directing us to “illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”

So let’s start here.  Let’s start with the belief there is something inside us, something O’Donohue describes as a quiet inner light which is always responding to something God is doing in this world.  It responds to beauty, to desire, and to possibility.  It offers kindness and blessing.  Nurture this light and you will be well on your way to living into love for God and love for your neighbor.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Who Bears God's Image?

 Matthew 22:15-22

Proper 24 / Year A

If Jesus and the religious leaders had been playing a game of chess today’s reading would begin with the religious leaders moving a piece and saying “check.”  They pose their question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”  The Jewish people despised Rome’s poll tax so if he answers “yes” Jesus risks having turn against him the folks who just the day before hailed his arrival into Jerusalem with palm branches and shouts of “hosanna”.  If he answers “no” Jesus will face the wrath of the Roman government.  The religious authorities believe they have him just where they want him. 

Then Jesus asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax.  What does it say to you that Jesus did not have a coin in his possession?  He forces the religious authorities to produce one.  It bears the image of the emperor who himself claims to be divine.  Faithful Jews would not carry this coin because doing so is a violation of the first two commandments: have no other gods but God and make no graven images.  What does it tell you that the religious authorities are able to put forward a Roman denarius? 

“Whose head is this and whose title?”  The Greek word translated here as ‘head’ is ikon which some versions of the bible render as ‘image’, others as ‘likeness.’  His challengers respond, “It is the emperor.”  “Render unto the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  And with this answer Jesus claims “check” and “mate.”

In our zoom call last Tuesday we began our time, as we always do, talking about one of the readings for the upcoming Sunday; usually the gospel.  Bishop Susan said she loves to preach on today’s reading and I asked her why.  She said, “If the coin bears the image of the emperor, who bears the image of God?”  This, I think, is a really good question to explore.

It is a central question addressed in the very first story in the bible.  Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, let us make man in our own image, in our own likeness.”  So God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image.  Therefore, one way to answer this question is every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion bears the image of God and therefore is infused with dignity and worth.  This truth forms the foundation of all human rights and equality.  Any attempt to build barriers, create divisions, or assert dominance over another person or group is a fundamental rejection of the biblical truth all people bear the image of God. 

I don’t intend to comment every Sunday about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but today’s reading with its focus on how every human being bears the image of God, has much to say about this crisis.  I read an interesting article this week in which the author argued we should not be pushing people either to side with Israel or with Palestine.  The real division in the middle east is between people who want peace and those who don’t.  My hunch is more want peace than don’t, but, sadly, it only takes a small minority to throw that volatile region into chaos.

Who bears the image of God?  We who confess the to the Christian faith hold Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God.  He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.  He proclaims to Philip, “Anyone who has known me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).

We who hold to this faith commit ourselves through baptism to live intentionally into the image of God, using Jesus’ words and deeds as our measuring stick.  Think about the promises we have made:

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

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?

To each question we respond, “I will, with God’s help.”  So, not only are we committed to bearing the image of God, we are empowered to do this through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. 

Render unto the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.  Some people take from this we should simply be compliant with our government and do whatever it tells us.  But I think just as the coin bearing the emperor’s image circulates throughout society, we are to circulate God’s image everywhere we go and with whoever we have contact.  Whose image is on you?  In whose likeness are you made?

Monday, October 16, 2023

A Weird Wedding Feast


Matthew 22:1-14

Proper 23 / Year A

Today’s parable of the wedding feast proclaims one particular thing which truly is good news: you and I are invited to God’s feast.  In fact, it is open to everyone who will respond to the invitation to attend.  This is good news indeed.  But, as they say, the devil is in the details and the details of this story leave much to be desired. 

It starts off on such a high note – a king plans a wedding feast for his son.  When all is ready, he sends out his servants to summon the invited guests.  Although not identified, we would expect these folks are family and friends of the king along with various dignitaries and worthies.  But this group refuses to attend.  The king resends his representatives to plead with the invitees.  Some guests go about their daily affairs while others mistreat the envoys, going so far to kill them.  It is an act of unexpected violence not merited and seemingly without any particular motivation or aim.  The king retaliates with a response out of proportion to the atrocities committed.  He sends his troops to “destroy” the murders and to burn their city. 

It is impossible to hear this ancient story without connecting it to what is happening now in Israel and Gaza.  The Palestinians have been the victims of human rights violations for decades, but (to be clear) this in no way justifies attacking and slaughtering innocent civilians.  The actions of Hamas, a radical fringe of the Palestinian people, is bringing untold suffering to innocent Christians and Muslims within its own population; many of whom are peaceful and support working with Israel to resolve nonviolently the difficult issues between them.

Israel has responded to these attacks as it must to secure its people and borders as well as eliminate the threat Hamas poses to its safety.  But in so doing it is creating a humanitarian crisis beyond imagining.  I am not a military analyst so I don’t have a blueprint for how to conduct this war.  But I am a human being and what I can say is my heart breaks for both sides.  I pray for a just peace but fear the possibility of ethnic cleansing. 

So, back to the parable.  After destroying the murderers and burning the city, the king sends his servants out to invite whoever they can find.  Out of the ashes and ruins enough people are found to fill the hall.  Are they there because they want to be or are they just attending because they fear what the king might do if they stay away?  Either way, the guests are compliant, going so far as to adhere to ordinary customs around such an occasion.  All, except for one.  The king notices a man not wearing a wedding robe and orders him to be bound hand and a foot and thrown into the outer darkness.  Perhaps it softens the thud of this act to know the king provides wedding robes for people to wear, thus, not wearing one is an act of defiance.

Traditional interpretations of the story hold the king represents God, Jesus represents the son, prophets such as John the Baptist represent the servants, the religious leaders and authorities of the day represent the initial invited guests, and the people who respond to the invitation are the folks who follow Jesus.  The man without a robe is an allusion to people like Judas who are in the Jesus movement, but not of it.  One of the troubling things about this interpretation is how it portrays God.  If the king represents God, then God is both generous and vengeful, reactive with fury, and willing to judge our character if not our attire.  Fortunately, this is not the only parable Jesus tells and he gives us a much broader picture of God the Father in the rest of the gospels.

We had a pretty full agenda for last Monday’s meeting of the Vestry.  After mulling over various issues with the building and property and reading through the financial reports, we had finished everything on our list, but the meeting was not over.  We got to talking about the people and families who have not returned since the pandemic.  Like the invited guests who don’t to come to the feast, we pondered why these folks have not come back.  We don’t have any real answers, but recognize we are not alone.  Pretty much every church, regardless of denomination or theological leaning, has seen its average Sunday attendance drop.

And it isn’t just churches.  Summer camp registrations are also down.  The Chanco Board has hired a consultant to help us to better understand who we are and what we offer in order to better market ourselves.  At our meeting last Tuesday, she shared some basic marketing principles.  The first, which relates to your product, is this: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  In today’s parable this would transform the invitation to come the feast into “I want to celebrate my son’s marriage.  Will you join me?”  Perhaps at St. Paul’s our message should not be “Our Sunday service is at 9:30”, but rather “Faith, friendship, and a focus on outreach drive us and all we do.”

Monday, October 9, 2023

Nihilists in the Vineyard


Matthew 21:33-46

Proper 22 / Year A

Today we hear the last of Jesus’ “vineyard parables.”  The vineyard was a common Old Testament metaphor used to describe the people of Israel, so it is not surprising Jesus draws on this imagery as much as he does.  If you recall, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the workers called to the vineyard at various hours of the day who all get paid the same amount, regardless of the time they spent laboring.  Last Sunday we heard the parable of the father who directs each of his two sons to work in the family vineyard.  One refuses, but later goes.  The other agrees, but then does nothing.  And today we hear the parable of the tenants’ revolt against the absentee landowner.

Martin Heidegger, the German-born philosopher who died in 1976, has been described as a nearly unreadable author, a racist and a bigot who never fully disavowed his support of Nazism, and one of the most important thinkers of the 21st century.   Now that is some résumé!  He wrote a great deal about nihilism; a Latin word meaning “nothing.”  It is a philosophical belief our modern life lacks a shared meaning and direction by rejecting fundamental aspects of human existence, such as knowledge, morals, and values.  Those who write about nihilism point to society’s desire not to be under any authority beyond the individual, to have nothing and no one able to make a claim on us, and no commitments required of us.  It is precisely what the tenants in Jesus’ parable are after.

One professor sums up our times by pointing out “the things that once evoked commitment – gods, heroes…, the acts of great statesmen, the words of great thinkers – have lost their authority.”  He is saying our society, like the tenants who shed the rightful claim of the landowner, has dispensed with any such notion of objective norms or values or moral good existing beyond the individual’s preferences.  We tenants are the ones who pick and choose the ingredients we want to add into the stew of meaning we cook up for ourselves (if we even want to take the time to think about it).

Heidegger points out life in an ownerless vineyard has some serious consequences.  He held we become isolated in our existence, alienated from one another, and suffocated in a life devoid of meaning.  The same professor put it this way:

“When there are no shared examples of greatness that focus public concerns and elicit social commitment, people become spectators of fads and public lives, just for the excitement.   When there are no religious practices that call forth sacrifice, terror, and awe, people consume everything from drugs to meditation practices to give themselves some kind of peak experience.  The peak experience takes the place of what was once a relation to something outside the self that defined the real and was therefore holy.”

To the degree I understand Heidegger I am intrigued by his thinking regarding how technology fosters nihilism.  In a nutshell, he says we have reduced creation to efficiency and adaptability, with little or no thought to its intended, greater purpose.  He holds we view the environment as being “a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”  Most of us also see nature as something spiritual, particularly when, for example, we are moved by a beautiful sunset.  But for us, both endeavors – industry and inspiration - share the common understanding that creation exists solely for our benefit and use.  It is our vineyard, not God’s.

Cardinal Celestin Suhard, who served as Archbishop of Paris in the 1940’s, famously said, “to be a witness [is to be] a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  And while the world wants to live like there is no God, just as the tenants wanted to live as if there was no owner, we are the opposite - people who, in the absence of the vineyard Owner, live in such a way that makes sense only because there is a vineyard Owner.  We live in such a way that our lives are a mystery in a nihilistic world.  We adhere to a meaning and direction from beyond ourselves.  We accept Jesus as our Lord and seek to live out his word and example; forgiving when forgiveness is a challenge, giving generously even when we have very little to offer, extending hospitality to all – especially to those people on the margins of society, picking up our cross and daily dying to self.

In a world that has either dispensed itself of God or perhaps just tamed God to suit its own purposes, our lives should not make sense at all.  But our witness does make sense because there is a God who owns the vineyard and has a rightful claim on each one of us.