Are Not The Egyptians My Children Too?

September 11, 2014

Today’s First Reading from the Old Testament Book of Exodus is a familiar one to most of us. It’s the story of the Passover in which God frees the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, first by sending a series of plagues and pestilences on their Egyptian masters, and finally by slaying the first-born children of the Egyptians while “passing over” the homes of the Israelites which were marked with the blood of a lamb.
It’s a strange story even though it has become a classic one for so many. It’s a bedrock story for the Jews, marking their Exodus from Egypt which they celebrate each year at the feast of Passover. It’s become a favorite for many freedom and revolutionary movements because of its insistence that God is on the side of the oppressed and will fight for them against their oppressors. And, of course, we Christians read this story every Maundy Thursday as we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the last Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he died.
Yet, as I say, it’s a strange story and a bit hard to square with what Christians actually believe and teach about God. No doubt there was an historical recollection about various plagues and pestilences which afflicted the Egyptians in those days. Such natural disasters were common in that part of the world and still are, with the regular flooding of the Nile and the havoc that can wreak – flies, frogs, and all the rest of it! But did God actually cause these disasters to punish the Egyptians? I wonder…
No doubt diseases as fierce as the Ebola scourge sweeping through Africa today killing men, women and children indiscriminately occurred in the 13 century BCE as well. But would God have wiped out those precious little ones just to make the point that he was on the side of the Jews in this Exodus event? I wonder…
Even the rabbis had a hard time getting their minds around such a concept of God. Commenting on the later story of the Exodus in which God drowns all the Egyptians in the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as modern scholars believe that it was). A famous Midrash (or commentary) in the Jewish Talmud says this, “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?’!”
Now, there is no doubt historically that the Jews spent time in Egyptian slavery, that they were led out of that condition by a great military leader named Moses, and that they spent decades in the desert, as a nomadic people without a country, trying to figure out what God’s will for them was…and where they were to settle down. But the stories of that Exodus were written centuries after the event, by still primitive people who believed in a kind of tribal god who would take care of them and was quite capable of slaughtering anyone who opposed them – or whose land they wished to occupy!
As Christians though, we have to read these texts in the context of the whole sweep of Scripture. There is an unfolding of our knowledge of God throughout the Bible (even though it’s sometimes a somewhat “uneven” unfolding). The tribal god of the ancient Israelites gives way to the God of the prophets who stands with people in their suffering and whose ultimate aim is the salvation of the whole world! Isaiah puts it best, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered as a proponent of non-violence saying things like, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good…” (Matthew 5:43-45).
St. Paul and even Peter come to believe that God has opened the gates of eternal life to all people – to Gentiles as well as to Jews. And the New Testament ends with the great vision of St. John the Divine in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) Quite a different picture of God than the ancient one of a tribal Deity slaughtering the innocents to win freedom for the Chosen People!
The point is we have to read Scripture in its whole context and understand that the Bible is not just one book. It is a library of books. And in that library are books of history and law, of poetry and song, of myth and fiction. As Christians, we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus and to weigh any depiction of God against the fuller picture of God we believe Jesus came to paint for us.
As modern people, we also have to understand something called “progressive revelation” and that means that, just as we get a clearer and clearer picture of the nature of God as the Scriptures unfold over time, so the Holy Spirit continues to lead us further and further “into all truth” as Jesus promised that the Spirit would.
So, if you’re going to read the Bible (and I devoutly hope that you do!) please do not do it without the help of a good, modern translation of the text, with footnotes and introductions of each book which can help you understand what kind of literature it is, how it came to be written, and just how it fits into the overall biblical record. In my opinion, the best translation we have of the Bible today is the New Revised Standard Version and it comes with such notes and explanations right there alongside the text. It will really help in understanding and sorting out some of the tough passages in the Bible…such as our First Reading today.
And, while Christians will no doubt continue to have debates about how literally to take certain passages of Scripture, there need not be such doubt about what they mean! And the point of the Exodus story is clear: God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. God’s people have been able to look back, time after time and through the centuries, to discover God’s saving hand at work in their lives. And we have been able to praise God for that in the words of the Psalmist: “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, (God’s) praise in the assembly of the faithful!”
And, when all is said and done, what remains for us is to live lives of thanksgiving and gratitude to that one God. And to do so, guided by the wise counsel of St. Paul in today’s Epistle:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 passim)
And it is by the law of love…that we shall all be judged.
Thanks be to God!

Are Not The Egyptians My Children Too?

September 11, 2014

Today’s First Reading from the Old Testament Book of Exodus is a familiar one to most of us. It’s the story of the Passover in which God frees the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, first by sending a series of plagues and pestilences on their Egyptian masters, and finally by slaying the first-born children of the Egyptians while “passing over” the homes of the Israelites which were marked with the blood of a lamb.
It’s a strange story even though it has become a classic one for so many. It’s a bedrock story for the Jews, marking their Exodus from Egypt which they celebrate each year at the feast of Passover. It’s become a favorite for many freedom and revolutionary movements because of its insistence that God is on the side of the oppressed and will fight for them against their oppressors. And, of course, we Christians read this story every Maundy Thursday as we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the last Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he died.
Yet, as I say, it’s a strange story and a bit hard to square with what Christians actually believe and teach about God. No doubt there was an historical recollection about various plagues and pestilences which afflicted the Egyptians in those days. Such natural disasters were common in that part of the world and still are, with the regular flooding of the Nile and the havoc that can wreak – flies, frogs, and all the rest of it! But did God actually cause these disasters to punish the Egyptians? I wonder…
No doubt diseases as fierce as the Ebola scourge sweeping through Africa today killing men, women and children indiscriminately occurred in the 13 century BCE as well. But would God have wiped out those precious little ones just to make the point that he was on the side of the Jews in this Exodus event? I wonder…
Even the rabbis had a hard time getting their minds around such a concept of God. Commenting on the later story of the Exodus in which God drowns all the Egyptians in the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as modern scholars believe that it was). A famous Midrash (or commentary) in the Jewish Talmud says this, “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?’!”
Now, there is no doubt historically that the Jews spent time in Egyptian slavery, that they were led out of that condition by a great military leader named Moses, and that they spent decades in the desert, as a nomadic people without a country, trying to figure out what God’s will for them was…and where they were to settle down. But the stories of that Exodus were written centuries after the event, by still primitive people who believed in a kind of tribal god who would take care of them and was quite capable of slaughtering anyone who opposed them – or whose land they wished to occupy!
As Christians though, we have to read these texts in the context of the whole sweep of Scripture. There is an unfolding of our knowledge of God throughout the Bible (even though it’s sometimes a somewhat “uneven” unfolding). The tribal god of the ancient Israelites gives way to the God of the prophets who stands with people in their suffering and whose ultimate aim is the salvation of the whole world! Isaiah puts it best, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered as a proponent of non-violence saying things like, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good…” (Matthew 5:43-45).
St. Paul and even Peter come to believe that God has opened the gates of eternal life to all people – to Gentiles as well as to Jews. And the New Testament ends with the great vision of St. John the Divine in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) Quite a different picture of God than the ancient one of a tribal Deity slaughtering the innocents to win freedom for the Chosen People!
The point is we have to read Scripture in its whole context and understand that the Bible is not just one book. It is a library of books. And in that library are books of history and law, of poetry and song, of myth and fiction. As Christians, we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus and to weigh any depiction of God against the fuller picture of God we believe Jesus came to paint for us.
As modern people, we also have to understand something called “progressive revelation” and that means that, just as we get a clearer and clearer picture of the nature of God as the Scriptures unfold over time, so the Holy Spirit continues to lead us further and further “into all truth” as Jesus promised that the Spirit would.
So, if you’re going to read the Bible (and I devoutly hope that you do!) please do not do it without the help of a good, modern translation of the text, with footnotes and introductions of each book which can help you understand what kind of literature it is, how it came to be written, and just how it fits into the overall biblical record. In my opinion, the best translation we have of the Bible today is the New Revised Standard Version and it comes with such notes and explanations right there alongside the text. It will really help in understanding and sorting out some of the tough passages in the Bible…such as our First Reading today.
And, while Christians will no doubt continue to have debates about how literally to take certain passages of Scripture, there need not be such doubt about what they mean! And the point of the Exodus story is clear: God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. God’s people have been able to look back, time after time and through the centuries, to discover God’s saving hand at work in their lives. And we have been able to praise God for that in the words of the Psalmist: “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, (God’s) praise in the assembly of the faithful!”
And, when all is said and done, what remains for us is to live lives of thanksgiving and gratitude to that one God. And to do so, guided by the wise counsel of St. Paul in today’s Epistle:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 passim)
And it is by the law of love…that we shall all be judged.
Thanks be to God!

Confess Your Sins To One Another

August 3, 2014

This morning in church I was struck by the thought that, if we confessed our sins to one another as often as we confess them to God, more actual healing and reconciliation might take place.

For example, what if we said to our loved ones (instead of to God…who in any case knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking, and is perfect love and forgiveness anyway)…what if we said something like:

“Sweetheart, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by what I’ve done, and by what I’ve left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart…I’m truly sorry and I humbly repent… (please) forgive me…”

After all,doesn’t St. James say, “…confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” ? (James 5:16)

 

 

 

Assisted Dying? Let’s Talk About It.

July 14, 2014

I note that George Carey, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, has come out in favor of “assisting dying” under certain circumstances. Surely, this is about the only thing he and John Shelby Spong have ever agreed on! Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also expressed his support of this over the last several days.

In recent years, I have found myself moving toward that position as well, not because of any personal or family need at the moment but because, like Lord Carey, I believe that modern technology has brought us to a place where this option may need to be available to some whose lives have been extended to the point where there is little to do except suffer endless torment day after miserable day. Pain management has not kept up with life-lengthening measures.

I am aware of the arguments against assisted dying: the “slippery slope” which could lead to a devaluing of the aged; the economic factors which could result in families “hastening” the dying process for material gain in inheritances, for example; societal cooperation with a psychologically disturbed person simply wishing to end it all prematurely.

Those arguments need to be taken seriously and discussed rationally and compassionately. Enormous ethical problems are presented by all kinds of medical procedures and end of life issues anyway today – from organ transplantation to appropriate levels of medication to be administered to assist in pain management – and yet these challenges do not prevent us from making decisions in these circumstances and living with the consequences.

I have thought about this issue for many, many years since, as a 17 year old hospital orderly working the night shift, I cared for a 43 year old woman with advanced, irreversible Parkinson’s disease, completely paralyzed, unable to eat solid food, lying immobilized in her hospital bed save for a steady tremor which racked her entire body and had created a bed sore at the base of her spine large enough to put one’s fist in, who whispered tortuously one night as I replenished her water pitcher, “Please, kill me.”

Of course, I was not tempted to do so, nor do I believe that this is a case which would likely be considered for assistance in dying. Nonetheless, I understood her request.

I also have rarely felt so “right” in taking an action as I did gazing lovingly through my tears deep into the soft brown eyes of a chocolate Lab as he closed them for the last time ending long hours of pain and fear, euthanized in the office of a compassionate veterinarian who joined me in my grief. This was not sentimentality, but compassion.

If we can thoughtfully and prayerfully take such merciful action in the lives of our beloved pets, why can we not at least discuss – practically and theologically – when and under what circumstances such compassion might not also be shown to our other loved ones.

Trinity Sunday at Trinity Church

June 18, 2014

 

Trinity Sunday

It’s really great to be able to celebrate, not only the Eucharist, but the sacrament of Confirmation here on Trinity Sunday – the Feast of the Holy Trinity, your “Feast of Title.”

It’s great, because Matthew, and we, will be able to renew our Baptismal Covenant today, and everyone in this room who has been baptized was baptized in the Name of the Trinity, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit just as The Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel today told us to be!

Confirmation, of course, is the occasion on which we confirm the vows and promises that we made, or that were made on our behalf, when we were baptized. Today, Matthew will take those vows upon himself, and you and I are invited to renew ours right along with him.

Often these days, when we speak of the Baptismal Covenant, we emphasize the five promises we make at the end of the Covenant – where we promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching…resist evil…proclaim Good News…love our neighbors as ourselves…and strive for justice and peace.

And those are extremely important promises indeed. In fact, I would say that the inclusion of those Baptismal vows in the current edition of our Book of Common Prayer has done more than almost anything else to change the face of The Episcopal Church from being a church content with maintenance to a church sent forth on mission!

But there are some important things which come before those five promises. First of all, we will ask Matthew if he “reaffirms his renunciation of evil.” That simply means to confirm the direction his life was set upon at the moment of his Baptism – a life committed to the good, and opposed to the evil, in this world.

And, perhaps even more importantly, Matthew will renew his personal commitment to Jesus Christ and promise to follow and obey him as Lord. Then, you and I will promise to do all in our power to support him in that effort. Pretty important stuff!

But we don’t move to those five concluding, important promises yet! First, we are asked to confirm our belief in the holy and undivided Trinity by a kind-of question and answer version of the Apostles’ Creed. This is not so much a theological “litmus test” as it is a statement of our commitment to trust in God…the God Christians have experienced in three ways – as the One who created us…the One who redeems us…and the One who sanctifies us (or makes us holy).

Christian theologians will want to say a whole lot more about the Trinity than that. Volumes have been written about the doctrine of the Trinity, describing the inner nature of God. The Church was torn in two over disagreements about whether the Holy Spirit came forth from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father! I think I’ll leave it to academic theologians to sort all that out.

For me, it’s enough to know that our God is one God, just as I am one human being. But, just as I can be experienced as a father…and a son…and even a bishop at the same time, so the One God can be experienced – and has been experienced – as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

And, as Forrest Gump once said, “That’s all I’m going to say about that!”

Instead, we are going to proceed with Confirmation and with the renewal of those all-important promises which make us who we are as Christians. People who renounce evil…People who follow Jesus…People who support one another… And, yes, people who trust the Church’s teaching about the Triune God…

We demonstrate that by being here in church every Sunday to hear the apostles teach through Scripture, to have fellowship with one another, to break Bread and to pray together.

We do it by resisting evil and sin in our lives, but by knowing that when we do fall short, all we have to do is to turn back to God again.

We show that we’re Christians by sharing our Faith with others – by our words and by the way we live our lives….by loving our neighbors as ourselves…and by respecting the dignity of every…single…human being, we ever meet (because they too were made in the image of God)!

Simple…huh? No, not simple. Nothing worth doing ever is. But it is what we signed onto… on that day of our Baptism…on that day of our Confirmation.

So, in the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages!” (Matthew 28:19-20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Womb and The Tomb

April 28, 2014

As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, St. Thomas, the Apostle, had a problem with Easter! He had a problem believing – and relating to the fact – that people were saying that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Many of us, if we’re really honest, also have a problem with Easter. We too may have a problem believing – and relating to the fact – that people have been saying for 2,000 years that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
And that’s understandable! It’s easy to understand why so many people have a problem with Easter. First of all, like Thomas, we often see Easter from the wrong side. We’re on the outside looking in. We see, first of all, the deep darkness of the empty tomb. We often experience the absence of Christ before we ever experience his presence. Thomas missed the apostles’ original encounter with the Risen Christ because he wasn’t in church that Sunday to see him!
“While it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19) they had experienced Jesus has being among them, speaking words of greeting and of peace.
But Thomas wasn’t there. He wasn’t’ part of the Christian community on that particular Sunday (we don’t know why) and so he missed the encounter the others had. He was on the outside looking in. And it’s very difficult to understand something you haven’t personally encountered. Same with us. If you’re not part of the Christian community, it’s pretty difficult to understand what Christians are talking about with respect to Easter and the Resurrection.
Secondly, we have no experience to tie Easter to! It’s easy to relate to Christmas – everybody loves babies…and birthdays. We can relate to Ash Wednesday, like so many do to our many “Ashes To Go” services on the street, because – deep down – everyone knows that they have made mistakes and have shortcomings and need to say they’re sorry and receive forgiveness. Our Jewish sisters and brothers do something of the same thing on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So do Muslims…and many other religions around the world.
Good Friday is immediately understandable to us because most of us have experienced the death of a loved one, a parent or a grandparent or even a beloved pet. We know something about death and loss; we’ve experienced it. But resurrection! None of us has experienced that in its fullness. At least no one but Jesus.
And so, because so many of us have a problem with Easter we have a tendency to trivialize it. Because we have a hard time relating to a one-time unique event which has really only happened once in history, we surround it with something familiar, something predictable like the cycles of nature…and flowers…and eggs…and springtime…and, God help us, the Easter bunny! A chocolate Easter bunny, no doubt.
And yet, there is an experience that each of us has had that relates to Easter. It’s called – Birth! Being Born! Jesus’ tomb was a dark, confined space from which – Scripture tells us – he was expelled by a Force quite beyond his control.
That’s why it’s really better to say “Jesus was raised from the dead” rather than “Jesus rose from the dead.” It was God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who raised the dead and buried Jesus from the tomb, from that dark and confined space. A Force quite beyond his control!
But the womb is also a dark and confined space from which you and I were expelled by forces quite beyond our control. And the life we quickly experienced outside the womb must have been about as different from what went before as the Risen Life Jesus experienced on the other side of the grave must have been. The womb and tomb…birth and resurrection…are analogous experiences, it seems to me. That must have been what Peter was getting at in his First Letter when he talks about our having been ‘born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus…” (I Peter 1:3)
Same thing in today’s Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith…” We have been born from the womb of our mothers’ where we were sustained by embryonic water and nurtured by her own body and her own blood which we shared.
We have also been born through the waters of baptism and are now nurtured by the Body and Blood of Christ which we share with one another in the Eucharist. One day, we will be born yet again from the darkness of death into the very Life of God which we will also share. Our personal Easter is being born into the Presence of God whom we cannot see now, but one day will – face to face. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)
I hope that you have experienced something of that this Easter. For the Easter miracle is, in some ways, no more miraculous (and no less miraculous!) than the miracle of birth and life itself. And, because of Easter, life has triumphed over death forever!  The poet, Dylan Thomas, wrote that we should not “go gentle into that good night” and that we should rail against death as against the “dying of the light.”
We know that is not true. And that, when our time comes, we can indeed go gently into that good night, for it is not the dying, but the dawning of that Light. I hope that you have come to believe that about Easter. And my prayer for you comes in the form of a Celtic-style Easter blessing written by David Adams:
“The Lord of the empty Tomb/The conqueror of gloom/ Come to you.
The Lord in the garden walking/the Lord to Mary talking/Come to you.
The Lord in the Upper Room/ Dispelling fear and doom/Come to you.
The Lord on the road to Emmaus/The Lord giving hope to Thomas/Come to you.
The Lord appearing on the shore/Giving us life forever more/Come to you”.
HAPPY EASTER!

 

Which Procession Do You Want To Be In?

April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday is also known as the Sunday of the Passion. The story of Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey soon gives way to the Passion Gospel, the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution. It’s called the Passion because the Gospel writers all see this as being the result of Jesus’ “passion,” his love, for God and for his people.
It’s important to know that there were two processions entering Jerusalem on that day. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. While Jesus and his followers were entering the city from the east, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and his legions were entering the city from the west. Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem and its significance would have been well known in the Jewish homeland of the first century.
It was standard operating procedure for the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals. This was not out of any respect for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. It was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in Fortress Antonia in case there was trouble. And there usually was trouble, especially on Passover which was a festival celebrating the liberation of the Jews from an earlier oppressor, the Egyptians. There would be trouble on this Passover as well!
By staging a “counter procession” to Pilate’s, Jesus wanted to make a specific point. His purpose was to fulfill the prophecy made by Zechariah that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem in a very specific way – not like King David, in splendor on a white horse at the head of procession of armed men, but “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Moreover, Zechariah tells us what kind of a king he would be:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” This Messiah would not be a warrior king…but a prince of peace.
What a contrast to that other procession! On one side of town, Pilate was entering Jerusalem in a display of imperial power – cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets and weapons and banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, and the sound of marching feet – implicitly claiming that the Romans were the rulers of the ancient world. On the other side of town, Jesus and his rag-tag group of followers were trotting into town on foot and on a donkey with children and the poor claiming him as representing the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern!) world – the living and true God!
You and I have been given a choice in life by the events of Holy Week and Easter which we will be rehearsing this week. In short, we have been given a choice as to which procession we want to be in – the procession of the Empire (with all of its promises of wealth and power and success) or the procession of the poor (which calls us – no matter what our station in life — to stand in solidarity with the last and the least, with those whom society has forgotten or wishes to forget – the poor and the oppressed, the old and the sick, those on the margins and those work for peace.) We get to decide which procession we want to be in.
We’re confirming and receiving a couple of people here at Trinity Church this morning. And, as we do so, we will all join with them in reaffirming our Faith and renewing the promises of our Baptism in something called the Baptismal Covenant. Pay attention to the words we will be saying together in a few moments. They are not meaningless words of an empty ritual.
They are a kind of pledge of allegiance… allegiance to the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern) world… and a statement of our intention to live our lives as part of that Kingdom. Think twice before renewing these vows again this morning.
They will determine which procession you want to be in.
And perhaps where you will arrive…at the end of your journey!

 

Lighten Our Darkness, We Beseech Thee, O Lord

April 1, 2014

One of my favorite Evening Prayers in our Book of Common Prayer is one that reads like this: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” That prayer was written in a time when darkness was much to be feared and people worried about “perils and dangers” which might confront them on a given night, or were concerned that they might die in the night with no time to repent or prepare for death.
But the prayer can also be understood as asking God to shine light into “our darkness,” into the darkness of our minds and to give us true understanding. All three of our Lessons from Scripture this morning have to do with God shining light into our darkened minds. In the First Lesson, God guides the prophet Samuel through a long discernment and elimination process through all of Jesse’s sons before finally arriving at his choice of David to be anointed king in place of the late ruler Saul.
“Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature…” God says to Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) God was teaching Samuel how to really see!
And that’s the point of our Gospel lesson today as well. It’s not only about Jesus bringing physical sight to a blind man. It’s also about John’s conviction that Jesus is the light of the world. The long process of Jesus healing the blind man– and the interrogation the man faced after that– is paralleled by Jesus trying to bring spiritual light to the Pharisees who were blind to the fact of who he was and to the truth he was trying to proclaim about God’s goodness.
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” Jesus says (John 9:5) But his opponents are unwilling to accept that and get downright huffy about it, “Surely WE are not blind, are we?” Only to hear Jesus’ withering response, “If you were blind, you would not have sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:40-41) Jesus was willing to be infinitely patient while the man born blind comes to faith, but the smug ignorance of the Pharisees kept them in more darkness than the blind man had ever been in!
Finally, all this is summed up for us in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8-10) “For everything that becomes visible is light. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
What does it mean to say that Jesus is the light of the world…and that we are to live as children of the light? Well, we are baptizing and confirming some folks here this morning. And the service we will be using to do that tells us exactly what it means to say that Jesus is the light of the world…and tells us something of what it means to live as children of that light! You and I will shortly join the baptismal candidates’ (parents and godparents) and the confirmand in renewing our own vows in the Baptismal Covenant. We do that every time we baptize and confirm…and at the Easter Vigil as well.
You remember that the first part of this Covenant is a question and answer form of the Apostles’ Creed. “Do you believe in God…I believe in God the Father Almighty. Do you believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Do you believe in the God the Holy Spirit…and so on.
The point of that Creed is to remind us that Christians have experienced God in three different ways — as the One who created the whole universe…as the One who became visible and understandable to us in Jesus…and as an ongoing spiritual presence and reality in the world today.
In other words, we actually believe that because of Jesus and because of his Spirit we have become “enlightened” as to what God is really like. When we look at the life and the ministry and the teaching of Jesus…and are informed by his Spirit…God is no longer in darkness for us but in the light. God is no longer completely invisible, but actually becomes visible in Christ. When we look at Jesus, we see what God is like! That’s the first part of our Baptismal Covenant.
And the second part of the Covenant tells us something of how we are to live now that we know that about God. We’re to come to the Eucharist every Sunday to hear apostolic teaching from the Bible, to break bread together, and to pray.
We’re to try to do what the letter to the Ephesians told us this morning (to try to do what is pleasing to the Lord, by doing what is good and right and true) but when we fail, to know that we can tell God we’re sorry and start all over again.
We’re to share our faith with others in words and by the way we live our lives. We’re to seek and serve Christ in other people and love our neighbors as ourselves. And we are to work for justice and peace in this world and respect the dignity of every…single…human being we ever run across!
That’s what it means to live as children of light! And that’s what we are praying those who are being baptized and confirmed…and all of us as well…are going to be doing. Living as children of light in a dark world.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by the great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”
Enlighten us as to your true nature, O God.
And help us to do what is pleasing to you, what is good and right and true.
For only then can we be living in the light; as you are Light!
Sleepers, awake! Rise from the dead! And Christ will shine on you!

 

 

 

Jesus, the Pharisee?

February 10, 2014

One of my responsibilities these days is representing the Diocese of Chicago on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. This is an interfaith organization that has been around for decades and works to see how faith communities can stand together around issues in our city like gun violence and poverty and education. One of the founding members, who still attends meetings regularly, is a 96 year old rabbi named Herman Schaalman.

Herman is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emmanuel (same name as your church!) on the north side of Chicago. He served there for decades and worked with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and our own Bishop Montgomery and many other religious leaders who were early pioneers in interfaith relations.

One of the things Herman never tires of reminding us is that Jesus was a Jew! In fact, Jesus was not only a practicing Jew, but he was a Pharisee. Maybe not a card carrying member of the Pharisaic party, but he was actually closer to them than to the other parties in 1st century Judaism.

We get the idea that Pharisees were the bad guys, but the reason Jesus gets so angry at them and the reason they are mentioned so often is that they were actually the more progressive, “reformist” party in town to whom Jesus probably felt closer than he did to the Sadduccees or the Zealots or even the Essenes. The reason he got so frustrated with them was because he thought they ought to know better!

We perhaps need no further reminder that Jesus considered himself an observant Jew than the conclusion of our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew. This gospel writer emphasizes even more than Mark or Luke or John the “Jewishness” of Jesus and, in today’s reading quotes Jesus as saying:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

So, Jesus was a supporter of keeping the Law of Moses. But, like any good rabbi, he was not above re-interpreting the common understanding of a particular law. Later on in this same 5th chapter of Matthew, he enters into a long discourse in which the recurrent phrase is “You have heard it said (in the Law)….but I say to you…” In these statements, he seeks to go the core of a Law’s meaning. And to see what it’s really all about.

Jesus also stands directly in the line of Jewish prophets like Isaiah who were not above challenging the religious establishment’s understanding of the Law with powerful preaching like we heard in our First Lesson today. Isaiah was taking on certain pious attitudes toward fasting, and he says:

You say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see (O God) Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…”

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:3 ff, passim)

I know that you at Emmanuel, Rockford for more than 30 years have taken words like those seriously in ministries like your Soup Kitchens, and the Shelter Care Ministries, and the Jeremiah Development.  And you have done that because you believe that you are following Jesus in doing so. And so you are!

But even Jesus was following in a long line of fighters for justice and peace among his people, Israel.  You and I, as Christians, will claim a lot more for Jesus than our spiritual forebears, the Jews will. But, at the very least, we will claim for him an honored place among the great prophets, teachers, and martyrs of the Hebrew tradition.

That place is at least a starting point for dialogue with our Jewish, and even our Muslim, brothers and sisters. They will honor our conviction that we believe Jesus to be, not only a prophet, but our savior and lord. As long as we honor our common heritage with them as children of Abraham, the ancestor of all who put their trust in the One God.

It’s an honor to be with you today, dear friends. To be with a Christian community that has sought to heed Jesus’ challenge to be salt for the earth and lights for the world. You have put your lamp on a lampstand and, as such, you have let your light so shine before others in this community, that they see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16). Soon you will begin a new chapter in your life together – with the arrival of your new priest – you just need to know how proud we are of you in this diocese. And we look forward to seeing just what the next steps in your journey will bring. It’s bound to be exciting!

 

Missionary Society?

February 1, 2014

Epiphany, as you probably know, is the missionary and evangelistic season of the Church Year. It’s a time of year when we remind ourselves of what we prayed for in this morning’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”

In other words, just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John and the other disciples to “fish for people” as we heard in this morning Gospel, so we too are called – by virtue of our Baptisms — to reach out to other people, to share the Good News of God’s love, and to invite them to join us in the communion of Christ’s Church. Christianity, like Islam (and un-like our parent religion Judaism and most Eastern Religions) Christianity… is a missionary religion!

That doesn’t always sound so good to our 21st century ears. Missionaries, for some, bring up images of high pressure, guilt-producing evangelists whether on TV, in pulpits, or in parking lots. And, because we’re a little more knowledgeable and perhaps more honest, about our history as the Christian Church today, we are aware that terrible atrocities have been committed by Christian missionaries in our past…and all of it in the name of Jesus!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’ and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible, and they had the land!” So it’s no wonder that “missionary work” or even “evangelism” have become dirty words for many people today – including many who are faithful members of the Church.

But, even if we can convince ourselves that those bad images are caricatures of true mission and true evangelism, and that real mission and evangelism simply mean sharing the Good News that God is Love, and that all people are invited into a relationship with that good God which also entails loving those other people and working to make this world a better place…even so, the work of evangelism is not so easy!

Seems like it was pretty easy for Jesus. He just said “Follow me” and they did! (Actually, it may have been a little more complicated than that. He may well have had a prior relationship with Peter and Andrew and the others, and our story today may just have been a snapshot of that moment when his faithful mentorship of them finally paid off). But, after all, he WAS Jesus!

Yet for us, evangelism – sharing the Good News and getting other people to accept it – is not so easy. Never has been! For one thing, the Church – which is supposed to be the base camp and launching pad for all effective evangelism sometimes gets in the way. The Church can actually be excess baggage that keeps people away from Christ instead of inviting them in. I know you’ve had some difficult times in the not-so-distant past here at Emmanuel and you’re using this interim period to do some much-need healing. Word has it you’re doing really well and the healing and recovery process is well underway.

Please know that you are not the “Lone Ranger.” Almost every congregation I know has passed through times of struggle and trial, argument and disagreement at some point. And that didn’t start with liturgical revision or the ordination of women or gay folks.  Hear again the words of a missionary bishop to one of his congregations in about the year 55:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you…For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…!” Duuu-aahhh! Christians quarreling? Imagine that! And good old Chloe – engaging in some of those parking lot vestry meetings and tattling on the mischief-makers to the Bishop!

Yes, the Church is a flawed instrument, dear friends. Because, in addition to her divine calling, the Church is a human institution made up of human beings like us and, as long as that is the case, it will not be perfect. Not perfect…but it is essential. You cannot be a “solo Christian.” You can believe in God, accept that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, say your prayers, and even be a good person on your own.

But Christianity is, and always has been, a communal affair. Jesus called those twelve disciples as a first order of business. The earliest image of the Church was that of a Body, made up of many members. It was also called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. All of those are corporate images, images of a family (even if it’s sometimes a dysfunctional family!) but living and working together!

So the work you are doing here, during this interim period, is very important. You are doing what bishops and priests, deacons and lay leaders find ourselves doing a lot of the time – you are binding up the wounds in the Body of Christ! You are healing Christ’s Church! And why are you doing that? So that this portion of that Body may be an ever more faithful and effective base camp and launching pad for one of the primary vocations of the Church – mission and evangelism.

For as St. Teresa of Avila once reminded us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.”

That’s real mission and real evangelism, beloved.  And I’m glad that we’re in this…together!

 

 

 


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