Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest (The Parable of the Talents)

November 17, 2014

I love our Collect for this morning. It’s a very familiar one, quoted regularly by Episcopalians. And it reminds us of the centrality of the Bible for Anglicans. It encourages us, not only to “hear” the Scriptures read (as we do on Sunday mornings – more Scripture than almost any other Christian denomination as a part of regular worship) — not only to hear them, but we are to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures. I take that to mean that we are to study them!
Like any other work of great literature, the Bible is a demanding set of documents. It is not only a book; it is a library of books. And, in that library, are works of history and law, poetry and song, story and myth, biography and wisdom. And, despite what some fundamentalists might say, the meaning of Scripture is not always completely self-evident to the reader.
Our Gospel today is a perfect example. It’s one of the parables, or stories, of Jesus usually called the “Parable of the Talents.” Again: a very familiar one to us, telling of a wealthy man who tests three of his slaves by giving them various amounts of money to manage in his absence.
The first two double their money and win the master’s approval; the third – fearing that he might lose it all – buries his treasure and can only return to the master what he was given. That incurs the master’s wrath and this servant is thrown out of the village as a punishment…where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Most of us grew up hearing this as a kind of moralistic story encouraging us to make the best use of the talents we’ve been given because, if we don’t, God will be very angry with us. At least that’s how I grew up hearing it. The problem with that is that most of Jesus’ parables are not “moralistic sermons” but open-ended challenges which try to give a glimpse or insight into the Kingdom of God, the kind of world this would be if God really were acknowledged as Sovereign.
The “talent” referred to in the story is intended to get everyone’s attention because it is a “fairy tale” amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth 6,000 denarii with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms the first slave was given $2 million! Clearly, something other than history is at work here!
Secondly, the master is sometimes seen as God giving out talents to people. But a strange kind of God that would be in this story – described by the servant as “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The master even agrees with that description of himself. Is this the God Jesus would have us serve?
And finally, the master chastises the third servant for not having at least “invested (his) money with the bankers” so that upon his return he could have received his money back with interest. The problem with that is that we are talking about 1st century Palestine, not 21st century Wall Street. Jews were forbidden to charge, or earn, interest on their money. It was called “usury” and Psalm 15:5 sums up the teaching of the Torah, “do not lend your money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” So, what’s really going on here?
Well, in a new book entitled “The Power of Parable” by the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Dominic Crossan, this was a “challenge parable” told by Jesus against the occupying Roman Empire and their practices. He suggests that parables which take us a couple of minutes to read were stories that might have taken Jesus an hour or two to tell. And there would be discussion and debate among his hearers…which was the way Jewish rabbis taught. The people would be challenged to think for themselves and to engage the story from their own lives.
When Jesus originally told the story, he may have been trying to create a debate in the audience between the pro-interest traditions of the Roman Empire with the anti-interest tradition of the Torah. The question he may have been asking was “What about interest and profit? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live in a Gentile or Jewish world? Can you do both, or do you have to choose?”
Well, whether you agree with Dom Crossan’s interpretation of this story or not, I share it with you to point out that there is more to the parables of Jesus, indeed more to the entire Bible, than a cursory, first-glance reading might reveal. The meaning of the Bible is not always self-evident, and that is why our Prayer for this Sunday encourages us, not just to “hear” the Lessons read on a Sunday morning and let it go at that, but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.
That means at least getting hold of a good, modern translation (like the NRSV) which you actually understand and which includes the benefit of the latest archeological and linguistic discoveries in the Middle East. Get an edition with introductions to each book and footnotes to explain some of the context and background. There are inexpensive, paperback editions of the NRSV which do just that – even available through Amazon. I found over 20 used copies each sold for about two bucks – with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime!
Dear friends, many people out there today (and perhaps even some of you in this congregation!) have given up on the Bible. They hear it used and misused, quoted out of context, literalistically understood and often wielded like a weapon to beat up on women and gays and lots of other folks on the margins.
I’m here to tell you that there is another way to read the Bible, a way which is much more consistent with the way the church catholic has historically engaged these texts, than the “modern” 19th century fundamentalism we so often experience. So, beloved (and perhaps especially those of you being confirmed, received, or reaffirming today), don’t just “hear” these sacred words…
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.
Study them…because only then will you be able to “hear what the Spirit (may be) saying to the churches!”

Call No Man Father

October 31, 2014

Proper 26 A
So, we have a familiar story as our Gospel reading this morning – the one about calling “no man father.” It’s the reading that makes all Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican priests extremely uncomfortable since we have historically taught our people to call us “Father!”
I will spare you the tiresome sermon (examples of which I have preached on numerous occasions myself) about why it’s really OK to call your priest Father – just as we call rabbis “rabbi” and teachers “teacher.” Instead, I want to explain why Jesus said what he did about titles and honorifics like “rabbi,” and “teacher” and “father” and why this reading is so important and, far from being extraneous to his message, is actually a central part of it!
If I asked you to list some of the essential components of Jesus’ message, you would rightly list such things as the fact that sinners and outcasts are welcomed into God’s kingdom and that indeed God has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized among us; that the kingdom of God is not something just to hope for in the future, but is a present reality now (the kingdom of God is among you!);
(T)hat God forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; that Old Testament ceremonial laws like Sabbath observances and kosher food laws no longer apply to Christians; and that the Temple and animal sacrifices and a Levitical priesthood have been replaced by Jesus himself and his own sacrifice.
And, as I say, you’d be right about those things. One thing you might not mention – and which is directly related to some of the things we did list – is that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is “un-brokered” and that our access to God is direct without any need for human intermediaries. What do I mean by that?
Well, the history of religions – and specifically the Judeo-Christian religions we are most familiar with – shows that human beings have always felt kind of ‘unworthy’ to approach God directly and so have relied on the mediation and intercession of particularly “holy people” to plead their cause in the presence of God. They have been called rabbis, and teachers, and priests!
From Moses standing in the breach and asking God to have mercy on his people; to Joshua taking on that role in our First Lesson today; to the mostly-unsatisfactory kings who ruled over Israel from Saul and David on down the line; to prophets who conveyed God’s word to the people and interceded for the people to God; to the long-expected Messiah; to St. Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that he had “become” their father through the Gospel; to the bishops, elders and deacons we see developing in the New Testament and which have come down to us through the centuries. And to “the saints” who we honor this weekend by celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. All these have come to be seen as intercessors and intermediaries between us unholy types and the All Holy God!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having leaders. Every community raises up and celebrates its leaders – whether military, political, or religious. And there is nothing wrong with having exemplars – worthy examples of what it means to be all that we can be. Certainly nothing wrong with religious communities acknowledging its own heroes and heroines and even designating some of them as “Saints.”
But as soon as we begin to make the mistake of thinking that we need such figures to stand between us and God – to plead our cause before God and be the sole interpreters of the Word to us, we begin to be in error. We begin to have a “brokered” relationship with God rather than the “un-brokered” one which Jesus taught and exemplified.
The “cult of the saints” has been so misused in our history. First, we have spoken of Jesus as “our only Mediator and Advocate” before God. Then, as Jesus gets more and more exalted, Christians began to feel unworthy to call directly on him so we began to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede with her Son on our behalf. I have even seen prayers which invoke another Saint to speak to Mary so that she might, in turn, speak to Jesus for us who will plead our cause to the Father!
Even the Sacrament of Confession has been misinterpreted as “confessing your sins to a priest” (the intermediary) when Anglicans have always been clear that we can confess our sins directly to God in prayer and in the Liturgy and, even when we use the Sacrament of Confession, that we are not confessing our sins to a priest, but confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest, who is there for counsel and direction as well as pronouncing Absolution.
So even as we sing our hymn “For all the saints, who from their labors rest” this morning, let’s remember that those saints were women and men just like us. Yes, they loved their God and accomplished great deeds on God’s behalf. But they were also flawed human beings just like ourselves who relied on the grace and compassion of God every bit as much as we do.
And let us never think that we need anyone – prophet or saint, bishop, priest, or deacon – to stand between God and us. Jesus came to shatter all those barriers and to assure us that our access to God is unfettered, un-“brokered”, and that God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve” (to cite one of our famous Collects BCP 234).
And why is God ready to do all that? Because God loves us…and is as close to each one of us as life and breath itself. We need no intermediaries!

The Theological Virtues

October 28, 2014

Pentecost 20
Our Collect, or prayer for today, mentions three aspects of the Christian life that are sometimes called the three “Theological Virtues.” And those virtues are faith, hope, and love. The Collect says “faith, hope and charity” which many of us grew up hearing (in fact, I used to know a family with three little girls they named Faith, Hope, and Charity!) but St. Paul did not use the Greek word “caritas” when he first linked those Theological Virtues in First Corinthians 13.
When he wrote “faith, hope, and love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love”, he used the word “agape” – God’s love, the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are to have for one another. Besides, the word “charity” has taken on such a specific meaning in modern English that the even the Latin word “caritas” is probably better translated as “love” not charity. Benevolent giving to the poor (which is what we usually mean by “charity” today) is not really what Paul meant in First Corinthians 13.
In any case, one of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it provides stories and describes characters who demonstrate spiritual concepts like the “Theological Virtues” we have today. And we couldn’t have three more illustrative figures for faith, hope, and love than the three our Lessons hold up for us today – Paul, Moses, and Jesus!
St. Paul is, of course, the great Apostle of faith. It was his discerning insight that we are “saved,” brought into eternal relationship with God, not by our good deeds or good works in this life, but by radical trust in God (which is what the NT Greek word “pistis” or “faith” means). We are not going to earn our way into heaven by impressing God with our moral purity or even our charitable works. How arrogant to think that we could “earn” God’s love in that manner!
We don’t ‘earn’ our parents’ love by “being good.” That love is freely given from birth. Of course our parents were pleased when we did good things, but their love didn’t depend on it. (If it did, then they really weren’t very good parents, were they?) God’s love is freely and unconditionally given. Our response must be to “trust” (have faith) that that is so – and to rejoice in the saving relationship with God that that love makes possible. That’s what it means to be “justified by grace through faith.” Saved by trusting in God’s love.
The theological virtue of “hope” is perhaps best seen today in the person of Moses. He was, of course, the heroic military commander who brought the people of Israel out from under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. Yet, in our First Reading today from Deuteronomy we see that this great leader died before the tribes of Israel were able to cross into what they had come to understand as their “Promised Land.”
He got to see whole land from the top of Mount Pisgah across from Jericho, but he could only hope that they would one day possess the land. Yet, he was a man full of hope, and always had been. So he put that hope into action by choosing his brave lieutenant, Joshua, to succeed him and make that hope a reality for his people. Hope leads us to action!
The Gospels, of course, are filled with the Good News of God’s love (the third Theological Virtue) and we see it “incarnated” (made flesh) in Jesus. Has there ever been a person in all of history who lived a life of love more completely than did Jesus of Nazareth? He taught that we could fulfill all the commandments, and be all that we were created to be, by simply loving God and loving our neighbor.
He lived out his days showing us something of what that would look like – by worshipping God in the synagogue and on mountain tops, by respecting the dignity of every person (no matter how different they may be from ourselves), by working for healing and wholeness in the lives of those who are in “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” (as our Prayer Book liturgy has it), and by teaching us to forgive those who have wronged us intentionally or unintentionally by his very words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So, dear friends, “faith, hope, love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love.” I invite you, if you have not already done so, to take that “leap of faith” by trusting that the God of this Universe is a loving God and that that love is intended for you – whether you think that you “deserve” it or not. Because it doesn’t really depend on you! It is God’s very nature to love!
I invite you to hope (even if you cannot “know”) that God’s love for you is eternal and that, when your earthly life is over “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” you will be “raised imperishable…For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15:52-43)
And finally, most importantly according to Jesus and Paul, I invite you to live a life of love. To decide to love your neighbor as yourself (because love is a decision not a “feeling”) and to respect the dignity of every single, human being you ever run across. Because that’s what Jesus did…and because that’s what he commanded us to do.
And that’s why we pray today, “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

What Is Caesar’s And What Is God’s?

October 15, 2014

So, we have a very familiar story as this Sunday’s Gospel reading – the question about paying taxes. The problem with familiar stories like this is that we hear the first few lines and assume we know what it’s all about and have a tendency to jump to the conclusion immediately. In this case, Jesus’ summary: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The reason that jumping to that conclusion is dangerous is because of the way this incident has been interpreted so many times, a way that robs it of its power and really softens what was a completely revolutionary challenge by Jesus to the powers that be. The way I grew up hearing this story interpreted was, “Well, some things in the world are ‘secular’ and some things in this world are ‘religious.’ What Jesus is saying is that we need to figure out which is which and give our allegiance to secular things when that is important and to religious things when they are! The main thing is to know the difference.”
One of the corollaries of that interpretation, however, is that religion and politics are two different things, that separation of church and state means that Christians should stay out of politics, and even that we can live by one set of standards on Sunday morning, and another standard the other six days of the week!
Well, beloved, that could not be farther from what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel! Let’s take a little closer look at it. First of all, the context for this is that Jesus is in Jerusalem and nearing his death on the cross because of conflict with the Roman government and the religious leaders of his own faith.
He has already ridden into Jerusalem as a staged protest against the occupying powers during the feast of Passover, he has overthrown the tables of the money changers challenging the complicity of the Temple authorities to the Roman government, and now he’s engaged in a series of conflicts with those who are trying to get him to make a mistake so that they’ll have a legitimate excuse to get rid of him.
Matthew is clear that this is not some idle theological question the Pharisees are asking about taxes.

He writes, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians…” (Matthew 22:15) Well, from what we know about the political situation at the time, that itself should be a dead giveaway. The Pharisees and the followers of Herod did not get along at all. Specifically, with respect to the “head tax” (read “poll” tax!) of one denarius required by the Romans on all subject people, they were in fundamental disagreement.
The Pharisees were opposed to paying the tax because it suggested capitulation to the authority of the Romans. The Herodians – who were in the pocket of the Roman government anyway — had already sold out so badly that they saw no problem with the tax and, in fact, encouraged it as a way to keep the peace…and their own privileged position as pawns of the family of the Herods who ruled as Rome’s puppets in Jerusalem.
So, you see what’s going on: if Jesus sides with the Herodians and says it’s OK to pay the tax, he will alienate not only the Pharisees, but all those among his followers who were longing for Israel’s freedom. If he sides with the Pharisees, it would leave him open to charges of subversion by defying Roman law…and hasten his death. So, what does he do?
First of all, he asks to see the coin which was to be used for the tax, a denarius. Somebody brought him one. It would be interesting to know whether it was a Pharisee or Herodian who produced the coin because devout Jews weren’t even supposed to carry Roman money. Jesus shows us why: ‘Whose head is this (on the coin) and whose title?’ he asks. ‘Caesar’s (the emperor’s)’ they reply. Well, he’s already nailed them because a coin with a depiction of Caesar on it (and probably, his title “the Son of God!”) was a blasphemous thing for a Jew to have. It was a “graven image” forbidden by the Second Commandment!
So he ends up throwing the answer to the question back on them (as he so often did in his parables) challenging his audience to make a decision, not letting them off the hook by providing an easy answer, but making them think! “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22)
Which, of course, really begs the question, “What do the powers that be in this world really “own” that does not already, and legitimately, belong to God?”
The answer is…NOTHING!
So what Jesus is really saying is, “Give this idolatrous piece of money back to the idolatrous king who made it. And give everything else to God!” That message is consistent with the primary message Jesus Christ came into this world to bring. He came to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand. And that meant that God and God alone was Sovereign and that the rulers of this world were not!
The message is the same today. God is Sovereign and the rulers of this world (be they in Washington, Chicago, or Ferguson, Missouri) are not!
So go ahead, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…
Just remember to render unto God…the things that are God’s…
Namely…EVERYTHING!

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!

 


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