Archive for February, 2010

Christians in the Holy Land

February 28, 2010

Last week the spiritual leader of our worldwide Anglican Communion – Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – completed a four-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He preached to hundreds of people at the Jordan River, after dedicating the cornerstone of a new church to be built at the site where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

In reporting on this visit, the Washington Post quoted the Archbishop as being “deeply worried” about the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East, and he stressed that it was the church’s duty to support Christians who face hardship due to regional conflicts. Later, he visited Gaza and the West Bank, after traveling to Jerusalem for meetings with the Chief Rabbi as part of our continuing interfaith dialogue.

Christians make up only about five percent of Jordan’s six million people, and we have really only a minority presence in most other countries in the region. So, Jordanian Anglicans were overjoyed at the Archbishop’s visit. One of them, named Ghazi Musharbash – who cares for orphans in Amman — praised Archbishop Williams for his stance on the Arab – Israeli conflict, saying that he has always pushed for a “just peace” knowing that a resolution to the seemingly endless conflict is crucial for Christians to remain in the Middle East. “We don’t want our fellow Christians from the West coming to see only stones and museums,” he said.

As I read our Gospel for today this week, I was struck by how long the holy city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land itself has undergone such suffering and strife! Jesus himself (like Rowan Williams) was “deeply worried” about the situation there in his time! “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, “ Jesus cried, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-25)

Indeed, some would say that the current struggles in the Holy Land go back way back beyond the creation of the modern state of Israel…back beyond the Roman occupation…back beyond the Exile…and even the Exodus from Egypt. Maybe all the way back to our story from Genesis today (almost 4,000 years ago) and the first Abrahamic Covenant.  After all it wasn’t an empty land Abraham was promised.  There were already people living there.

Unfortunately, our Old Testament Reading today stopped about two verses short, but there were quite a few people living there if we are to believe the list in Genesis 15:19-21: the Kenites; Kenizzites; Kadmonites; Hittites; Perizzites; Rephaim; the Amorites; the Canaanites; the Girgashites; and the Jebusites. And all those people had to find some place to live!

Well, dear friends, believe me, I have so solution to offer for the intractable problems of the Middle East — except to be clear that endless fighting is not that answer!  But I do know that we are called to care about that part of the world. It is, after all, “where it all happened” for us!  Every Friday afternoon during Lent as we walk the “Way of the Cross” here in this Cathedral, we are reminded that all these events took place just outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

Just over a week ago, I suggested during a Quiet Day that we sometimes are too narrow in our prayers. We pray for ourselves, and our loved ones; we pray for the sick and suffering – and well we should.  But it’s also possible to pray your way through the daily newspaper (that is, if you have hours enough in your day, to lift up all the pain and the suffering you will find in those pages!). Yet, even stopping short of that, we can – and should – pray for big issues and for global concerns as well as for our personal ones.

Psalm 122 says “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May they prosper who love you/ Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers/ For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity” Certainly that’s what Jesus was doing in our Gospel today. And it’s what we should do as well. But we can do more than that.

For almost a century The Episcopal Church has taken a special offering on Good Friday for The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. That diocese was formed in 1841, twelve years before the Diocese of Iowa, and since 1922 members of The Episcopal Church have given thanks for this extraordinary relationship through their generous giving to the Good Friday Offering. We’ll have special envelopes in the pews this Good Friday to enable us all to join in that effort.

I share some of this today to remind you that, as Episcopalians, we are part of more than just Trinity Cathedral. It’s right and proper that we identify ourselves primarily as part of this worshipping community.  This is where we meet Jesus Christ each week in Word and Prayer and Sacrament.  This is the Christian community that supports us in our journey and encourages us along the way.  This neighborhood and its surrounding community is where we make our primary witness and service.

But we are part of the Diocese of Iowa, part of The Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and indeed of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church we confess every Sunday morning in the Creed. I’ve been privileged, as a bishop of this church over the last 22 years, to see much of that Church at work all around the world.  I’m proud to be a part of it…and I hope you are too.

So, as you say your prayers this Lent, pray for Trinity Cathedral – especially during our interim period as we seek to rebuild and focus our efforts to be in a good place for the next stage of our life and ministry here. Pray too for The Episcopal Church throughout the world – in Haiti as they rebuild, in Jerusalem and the Middle East as they seek to remain faithful in the midst of strife and conflict. Pray for the Church in Sudan as they prepare to seat their new bishop, our friend Samuel Peni, in the Diocese of Nzara today.

We’re a part of all that. And your faithfulness here…helps them… over there. Thanks!


February 22, 2010

Lent 1C. Trinity Cathedral.

I know I have mentioned from this pulpit several times that I spent part of my sabbatical years ago studying at St. George’s College in Jerusalem and traveling around the Holy Land.  Now I’ll try not to be a bore about this (like people used to be about showing home movies of their vacation!) but I cannot read Gospel passages like the one we had today without reliving some of those experiences. And sharing them with you!

The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem.  In fact, it’s positively startling to drive (or walk) a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and to find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in that part of the world.  This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow-white sand drifts like you sometimes visualize it.

It is bleak, barren, rocky ground…so hot and dry that you must wear a hat at all times, and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry.  Whenever our professor and guide would note one of us yawning, he would shout, “You’re dehydrating, drink some water!”  A person can die in a couple of days in the desert unless you can find shade and drink plenty of water.  My assumption is that Jesus fasted from solid food for forty days (which other people have done), but not from water!

During those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have seemed more like mid-life – Jesus struggles with just what his life and mission were going to look like.  He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized by John in the Jordan River, and immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat and to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead.

In doing this, Jesus had to wrestle with several primary temptations to his life and ministry. First, he was tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs by turning miles and miles of rocks and stones and boulders into bread enough to feed the known world! And, as wonderful as that would have been, Jesus came to see that even ending world hunger would not satisfy what we are really hungry for.

Deep down, we’re hungry for God! We’re hungry for God’s word!  We want to hear from our God, and to know that he loves us and cares for us and will, ultimately, make it all well for us!  And so Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone.” (Matthew’s account makes it even clearer by adding “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”)

Next, Jesus was tempted to “sell out” for this world’s goods: “…the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world…To you I will give their glory and all this authority…if you…will worship me, it will all be yours.”  But Jesus said, “It is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

And finally, Jesus was tempted to do something dramatic, to do something spectacular to prove that he was God’s Anointed One and that God would come through for him by sending angels to protect him just like Psalm 91 had said. But Jesus told him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He was not about to “tempt” his heavenly Father just to demonstrate his credentials or to impress his Adversary.

Well, I don’t know what kind of temptations you may be facing in your life. But, if you’re like me, they may not be all that different in substance from what Jesus faced. If you’re a “people pleaser” (one who always tries to make everyone happy, to have no enemies, to avoid confrontation, then you may be tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs, to be available to everybody, all the time. And sometimes that may mean everyone except your own family or closest friends or even taking care of yourself and your own needs. And you may need to learn that you can’t please everyone! You have to say No sometimes!

Or, you may face the temptation to “sell out,” to be “bought” or to compromise your own ideals. That doesn’t just happen in the business world. We’re all tempted to do that. We need to resist that temptation and to stand up for what is right!

Or,  maybe you’re tempted to try and do something spectacular, or even outrageous, to get everyone’s attention, to stand out in the crowd. “They’ll respect me, or like me, if I just take this risk or do this one thing that I know I shouldn’t really do.” Those temptations are common to all of us.

But if we seek to be people of deep faith and people of prayer, we’ll ward off those temptations in much the same way Jesus did.  By being attentive to God’s word…by worshipping God and God alone…and by refusing to put our God to the test.

You may not be able to go on an extended retreat right now like Jesus did in the desert…to sort out your life.  But you are entering more fully today into the holy season of Lent.  Like Jesus’ experience, it is a forty-day period of fasting and prayer.  A time to listen for God’s word in your life…a time for worship and for service…a time to stop testing and challenging God.  I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines which can help you do some of that.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy told you what some of those disciplines are (and it’s not too late to begin today!).  Self-examination and repentance…prayer, fasting, and self-denial…reading and meditating on Holy Scripture.  I continue to invite you to keep a holy Lent this year by observing at least some of those disciplines.

May our prayer this Lent always be the one we prayed today on this first Sunday of the season:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

God Is In The Transfiguration Business!

February 14, 2010

Every year, on the Sunday before the season of Lent begins, we observe what is sometimes called “Transfiguration Sunday.”  And all three of our Lessons from Scripture today tell stories of “transfiguration,” of trans-FORMATION in the lives of God’s people!

Our First Reading tells of Moses’ “Lenten” experience.  After he had fasted and prayed on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and came down with the Ten Commandments, it is said that: “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29).  More than 1200 years later, Luke tells us of Jesus’ own “transfiguration” experience (on another mountain) when he writes that “…while (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and (even) his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)

It’s easy for us to consign such experiences to awesome biblical figures like Moses or to our Savior Jesus Christ himself, and not realize that – while these two experiences were certainly unique –they are intended to be “model” experiences, and examples even for us! St. Paul makes that clear in our Epistle today from 2 Corinthians:  “And all of us,” he writes, (all of us!) “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (3:18)

Christianity is all about transformation!  We are supposed to be changed because of our relationship with God, beloved, not remain the same! God is in the transfiguration business! And Lent is a God-marked time for such transfiguration to take place. But not if we don’t utilize some of the tools the Church offers for such transformation! We have ways to — as Paul says — “see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror…” And the purpose of that is transformation…that we may be changed!

One of those tools is fasting.  Most of us have heard of “giving something up for Lent” some of us may have even done it!) and throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food — or food and drink — for spiritual purposes.  Fasting is more than a diet adjustment; it involves a spiritual focus and should always be accompanied with prayer, meditation, or Bible study.  If you skip a meal or give up some bad habit for 40 days, every time you feel that little pang of hunger or desire for what you’ve given up, it’s another reminder to pray…and to offer that little sacrifice in union with Christ’s own sacrifice for us.

Another tool is, of course, prayer itself. Next Saturday I’m going to offer a little Quiet Day here entitled “Teach Us To Pray.” It’s really a “quiet morning” and, from 9 a.m. until Noon, I’ll share some tips on how to pray…how to meditate…how to be more contemplative in your prayer life.

There are plenty of opportunities for you to pray around here! Every day at 7 a.m., Noon and 5 p.m. Brother Michael-Benedict says the Daily Office right here in this Chancel. He’d love you to join him!  And every Friday afternoon at 4:30 during Lent we will walk with Jesus on his “Way of the Cross” meditating at each of these beautiful Stations in the Cathedral church. It’s a very brief service, but can be very powerful!

On Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. a few of us (very few!) celebrate the Eucharist in our contemporary Chapel. Taking on an, extra mid week Eucharist during Lent is the way many Episcopalians observe Lent. There’s something a little different about a more informal, quiet celebration of the Eucharist in the middle of the week than what we experience here on Sunday mornings.

Bible study and theological reflection are other tools to take advantage of during Lent.

We have a variety of offerings in our Adult Forum every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. – Father Whitmer’s course in the pastoral “Art of Listening,” the Frankens’ film series on practical Christianity (called Nooma), my discussion class on the Gospel of Luke. Or Kathy Calder’s Lenten Bible study here on Thursday mornings. If you haven’t been to one of these lately…why not give them a try during this upcoming season?

Alms-giving is another spiritual discipline or tool to use during Lent. We live in the richest nation and the most materialistic culture in the world!  I know some of us have suffered losses in the latest economic downturn.  But our needs are mostly minimal when compared to the rest of the world…or to some right here in our own community. Sometimes, we can “fast in order to give.”

Try estimating how much you save by your Lenten fast and give it directly to the poor. Some of you made contributions to Episcopal Relief and Development for Haiti. We received another plea last week from the Bishop of South Dakota because so many of the Native American people there live in homes without electricity, heat, and water. It’s thought that some households may be without power for up to six months because icy, snow covered roads are making the repairs nearly impossible. The needs are so great! Can you help?

Prayer…fasting…alms-giving. Three ways to observe this upcoming season of Lent. But more importantly, three ways to do what St. Paul describes as “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror”…that we may be transformed. Listen again to how he puts it:

“Since then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses who put a veil over his face…but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to anther; for this comes from the Lord (who is) the Spirit.”

I invite you to encounter the Lord who is the Spirit…and be transformed…even transfigured…this Lent!

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

February 1, 2010

Epiphany 3C. Trinity Cathedral.

An unaccustomed hush fell over the Nazarene synagogue as the young Jew rose from his place and made his way forward to read the Scriptures.  Could this really be the son of Joseph? This mature man who been absent from their midst over these last years, whom they had last seen as a young adult working in the carpenter shop?

Yes, this was the one. No mistaking the confidence with which he unrolled the scroll and began to read.  No mistaking the clarity with which he read about bringing good news to the poor…about releasing captives…and restoring sight to the blind…about freeing the oppressed…about being accepted and loved by the Lord.

But it was what happened after the reading that excited them.  No…disturbed them!  He rolled up the scroll, carefully and reverently, handed it to the one who responsibility it was to put it away, and returned to his place.  But there was unfinished business here. Everyone could feel it.

Even though normally the Sabbath service would have continued at this point with prayers and singing, it was as though everyone was waiting for the other shoe to fall…as though something else needed to be said.  And so, he said it. Slowly and carefully. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s hard to imagine just what Jesus’ neighbors and kinfolk would have made of that statement.  Luke’s gospel tells us that at first they spoke well of him and found his words “gracious.”  But that, after he explained himself still further, their acceptance turned into rejection and their pleasure to wrath.  Which led Jesus to say, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or, as one New Testament scholar translates it, “The truth is, no prophet is welcome on his home turf!”

Well, whatever his original hearers understood him to say, I think we know enough today to be quite certain what it meant. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” means that Jesus Christ was the enfleshment – the incarnation – of Isaiah’s prophecy.  In Jesus Christ, the world was to see good news preached to poor people…those who were in bondage unshackled…the blind given sight…and those who were downtrodden given their freedom for the first time.  Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation…the manifestation…the very epiphany of that long-hoped for prophecy!

And, whether you believe it or not, so are we to be! We are to bring good news to the poor and light to those in darkness.  We are to liberate the bound ones and the crushed ones!  Whether it’s in Haiti or right here in the Hilltop neighborhood. Oh no, not me, you say!  I don’t have the power to do all that!  No, not alone. But together, we are the inheritors of that prophetic tradition which goes back to Isaiah and beyond.

And we are members of a Church which is described in today’s Epistle as being the very Body of Christ! And “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed the Body does not consist of one member but of many.” (I Corinthians 12:12-14)

Yet, no matter how passionately St. Paul pleads for unity in the Body of Christ, the primary reason we have failed at our prophetic task of being a light to the nations, over the centuries, is that, almost from the beginning, we have been riddled with dis-unity!

From the factionalism of the church in Corinth to the political wranglings of the 11th century which split apart the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox to the explosion of the 16th century Reformation to the short-sighted breakaway groups weakening every denomination today (including The Episcopal Church) we have crippled the Body of Jesus Christ in this world, withholding our gifts from one another…and that is our great sin.

This week we are observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Every year, from January 18 until January 25, every major Christian communion in the world prays for the unity of the Church.  I encourage you to join in those prayers.

Pray for our dialogues with the Roman Catholics which, however stressed they are today, have showed so much progress over the years.  Pray for our full communion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And for our interim Eucharistic sharing partners – the Moravian Church and the United Methodists.  Pray for the seven downtown churches right here in our own neighborhood and our united efforts in the PUNCH program.

Pray for church unity, not only because it is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but because it was for the unity of the Church that Christ himself prayed – on the night before he died, according to John’s Gospel.  He said, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…that they all may be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:11, 21).

That’s the reason for church unity.  Not to create some mega-institution, but because it is only when we are “one in the Spirit” that we can ever hope to have a cogent and consistent message “that the world may believe.” I see glimpses of that unity today – in some of our ecumenical dialogues, in charismatic and liturgical renewal, in movements like Cursillo and Marriage Encounter where people draw closer to each other as they draw closer to God.  Those glimpses show us that church unity is possible.

Many years ago now, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was then Michael Ramsey) was meeting with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Suenens of Brussels.  Before beginning their conversation, they decided to pray together.  They opened the Bible to John 20:26 and these were the words they found: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

The two bishops felt that this was an invitation from the Lord to continue their dialogue despite apparently closed doors!  They knew in their hearts that God was being true to his Word and that Christ was present with them because they had come together in his name…and around his Word.

Well, Jesus is still true to his word.  And when this crippled and broken Body of Christ is finally put back together again, perhaps we will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy of preaching Good News to the poor.  Perhaps we will realize Paul’s dream of being one Body with many members.

Perhaps we will once again be able to say – and people believe – that “Today (the) Scripture has been fulfilled…in your hearing.”