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“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’” (John 12:20)

March 21, 2021

I shall never forget the first time, as a young priest, I climbed into a pulpit as a visiting preacher and saw a 3 by 5 card taped to the note tray – “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” it stated.  There was a time when it was not that uncommon to have that fragment of today’s Gospel displayed in pulpits to remind preachers that that is really our task – to help people see Jesus!

On that first encounter with it I was so shocked that I couldn’t even remember what I was supposed to preach on! But the advice is sound. And it is what preachers of the Gospel are called to do…each and every Sunday. And why it is such an awesome responsibility.

I think the best way I might be able to approach doing that on this particular Fifth Sunday in Lent is to reflect with you a bit on the concept of a “new covenant,” which we first hear about in this morning’s first Lesson from Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

What might it mean to have God’s law “within us,” to have it written “on our hearts?” Well let’s start by thinking a bit about the law itself. The people of Israel had always felt special because they understood themselves to be the ones to whom God had given the law.

During their journey to freedom, through their time sojourning in the desert, and from the hand of Moses, they believed that God had shown them how they were expected to live in order to sustain their fragile community and become a light to the world.

First of all by observing the 10 Commandments (or the 10 “Teachings,” as Mel reminded us in his sermon on Lent 3) – four duties toward God (to serve only One God, not to worship idols, not to take God’s name lightly, and to keep the Sabbath day). And six duties toward one another (to honor one’s ancestors, and not to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet another’s possessions). If they would just live like this, their community would hang together even in the midst of adversity and people would notice!

The problem is, they couldn’t keep those Commandments (or the over 600 other laws, derivative from the Commandments that the priests and scribes had come up with over the course of the centuries) and so they always felt guilty. And even that God was angry with them! That God had forsaken them because of their sins. That God might even send poisonous serpents among them, like we heard in last Sunday’s reading!

Jeremiah knew that dilemma. And he also knew that people would never be able to keep the commandments and laws if they remained some external set of rules and regulations which had to be obeyed in order to please God. So, it was his prayer that God would somehow make the law an inward thing, written not on tablets of stone, but on their hearts!

But how was that to happen? Well, in today’s Lesson Jeremiah hears God say, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they SHALL ALL know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34).

The Psalmist has the same insight this morning, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities/ Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10-11)

In other words, the new covenant, the law written in our hearts, has something to do with our awareness of God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness. Let me state it plainly: AS LONG AS YOU THINK YOU HAVE TO OBEY THE LAW FOR GOD TO LOVE YOU, YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO KEEP IT. It’s like an athlete “choking up” when she has to make that final free throw to win the game. And it falls short.

BUT WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT YOU ARE ALREADY FORGIVEN, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, YOU WILL BE FREE TO TRY TO LIVE LIKE GOD WANTS YOU TO, OUT OF THANKSGIVING, NOT OUT OF FEAR. Like that same athlete, knowing that her team is ahead, relaxing, and letting her natural abilities guide that basketball through the hoop – nothing but net!

We don’t try to obey God’s laws in order to be saved. We try to obey those laws in thanksgiving for the fact that we’ve already been saved!

And that’s what Jeremiah and the Psalmist and finally Jesus were trying to teach us! The same Jesus who the book of Hebrews tells us, “…offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him…” (Hebrews 5:7) The same Jesus who told his disciples in today’s Gospel, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)

This Jesus, in his full humanity, came to teach us that we are saved by God’s love, not by our own efforts. Just look at his life! Jesus healed first, and asked questions later! Never did he make his healing grace or God’s love dependent on how perfect we are or try to become.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus heals the centurion’s son first, without even seeing him…and then the centurion believed. He healed the blind man by the pool at Bethsaida first…and then told him to take up his mat. He fed the 5,000 first…and only then did they proclaim him as their king. He walks on the water first…and then tells them not to fear.

He forgives the woman caught in adultery first…and only then tells her to go and sin no more. (He doesn’t tell her to clean up her act first and then forgive her!). Jesus heals the man born blind first…without any concern about who had sinned, the man or his parents! He raises Lazarus from the dead first…and then tells them to unbind him and let him go free.

All these are signs, for those with eyes to see, of what our God is really like! God is not a stern taskmaster, holding out his love and approval until we have met some impossible standard. God is a loving parent who does not wait for the Prodigal child to return but runs to meet us – before we have even reached the gate! That is the gospel! That is the good news!

For, “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…it will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…But this is the covenant that I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31 passim)

[1. What kind of God did you grow up believing in?

2. Has your image of God changed over the years? What happened to make it change?]

And there he prayed…

February 7, 2021

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

For many, many years I have spent time in prayer in the early morning, before (or as) the sun rises. It’s a good time for me because I am a morning person anyway, the house is quiet, and it is easier to focus my attention on God and God alone before all the cares and occupations of daily life begin to intrude.

The way I pray has evolved over the years. The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer has remained the bedrock core of my prayer life since seminary. I like the balance of scripture and prayer. I like following the rhythm of the church year, from Advent to Advent, and being reminded of the communion of saints of which I am a part by baptism as their various feast days pop up.

Years ago, I would follow the Office with a time of “conversational” prayer, simply talking to God as I would a friend or a companion, often following a general outline of Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, and Petition. When that seemed to be getting too repetitive, and too self-centered, I began following the Office with a time of meditation.

For me, that meant journaling. I would sometimes focus on one of the scriptural readings for the day and “re-write” the passage in my own words, as though I were actually present in the action. This is a kind of Ignatian meditation and it served me well for many years. It even formed the core of a little book I wrote entitled John Mark as I worked my way through that earliest Gospel ever written.

At other times, the journal became a kind of “spiritual therapy” in which I would pour out my feelings of sadness or joy, anger or gratitude; sometimes in dialogue with God and other times just getting those feelings out of my head and heart and onto the page. The very act of naming whatever was going on inside was healing, of course, and doing that in the context of prayer seemed especially so in those years.

Later on, I learned that, at least for many of the mystics and saints of various traditions, spiritual maturity is marked by a movement from prayers of many words to prayers of few words…or none. It really isn’t necessary to tell God what God already knows! So, I began exploring the prayer of quiet listening. First, I learned that slowly repeating the words of the ancient, scriptural “Jesus Prayer” could help quiet my busy mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

My only problem with that prayer is that it seems repeatedly begging for mercy is not what God really wants of us. God is mercy…and love…and forgiveness. Those things are constantly being poured out upon us by our Creator before we ever ask. All we have to do is receive those those things — fold our pious umbrellas and let ourselves be fairly drenched in the grace of the Holy One!

Then I began using the so-called “Breath Prayer” to which I was introduced many years ago by my friend Ron DelBene. In this method, one opens oneself to an awareness of God’s presence, chooses a familiar name by which one likes to address God, and then follows that by a simple, four or five syllable statement summarizing what one would say to God if you were in that holy presence (which you are!).

So, the Breath Prayer (offered in sync with one’s breathing) could be something like: Lord, give me your peace. Or, Jesus, use me as you will. Or, Spirit, fill me anew. Or, anything else God puts in your mind and heart. My current one is: “Holy God, we are one.” This, being interpreted is: we are one with God, one with each other…if only we would recognize that oneness!

These days, however, I am mostly struggling with the call to move ever deeper into silence, so I follow both Morning and Evening Prayer with 20 minutes of contemplative prayer. The method I am currently using in preparing for contemplative silence is “Centering Prayer” as taught by Thomas Keating. Sit comfortably and breathe slowly “from the diaphragm;” allow a “sacred word” to emerge from your consciousness. It could be almost anything — God, Jesus, Spirit, Creator, Love, Joy, Peace — anything the Spirit gives you. Then, simply sit in silence for 20 minutes or so, returning to the sacred word only when you notice your mind wandering.

The adverb “simply” in the last sentence needs to be in quotes! For, at least for me, sitting in silence even for 20 seconds is not simple, let alone 20 minutes! Yet, it is what we are invited to do. And here, I am comforted by the counsel of a great saint who practiced this method for many years and said, “Contemplative prayer is nothing more, or less, than the battle against distractions.”

And yet “battle” is not quite the word. We should be gentle with ourselves as we find our stray thoughts intruding and have to return, again and again, to the sacred word. Richard Rohr observes that even a “nanosecond” of pure contemplation and awareness of the presence of God is worth it! And I have often thought that, whenever I return to my sacred word — which is often simply “God” — I am living in the Kingdom anew because, at least for that moment, God is supreme and reigns in my heart and mind.

Having said all this about my own journey into the life of prayer, I have come to believe that it really doesn’t matter very much “how” we pray. What matters is “that” we pray. Prayer is not for God, prayer is for us. Again, prayer is not telling God what God already knows. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. And times of prayer are nothing more, or less, than returning our attention to God on a regular basis and opening ourselves to God’s grace.

One more thing: prayer is not an escape from this world, but a discipline strengthening us to engage in this world. I began this reflection by citing Mark 1:35, “In the morning, while it was still dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” That one verse is preceded by five verses describing Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And, immediately following the line about Jesus’ morning prayers, Peter and his friends find Jesus, informing him that everyone is wondering where the heck he is!

Jesus answers them (I imagine, with a smile!), “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) In other words, his prayer was pre-paring him for action! It is no accident that Jesuits like to describe themselves as “contemplatives in action” and that the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr founded something called “The Center for Action and Contemplation” near Albuquerque.

Prayer and action are two sides of the same coin. Christians follow one who was always reaching out to heal, to teach, and to strengthen others. Just read the Gospels! But, before he moved out in mission, Jesus often sought out lonely and deserted places…while it was still dark.

And there he prayed.

So must we.

Order out of Chaos

January 10, 2021

I don’t think that any of us would have believed that we would live to see the day when our nation’s Capitol building would be breached and invaded by an angry mob, that those hallowed halls would be desecrated, and that people would actually be killed — all because an American president refused to accept the results of a free and fair national election.

Oh, the seeds of discontent long predated the election. They predated the four year term of this president. And the seeds are ones of white supremacy and racism which have been in the DNA of this beloved, but deeply flawed, nation since its inception. The almost-unbelievable narcissism and questionable mental stability of Donald J. Trump has simply, as so many have observed, lit the match to an inferno just waiting to be kindled.

I don’t think I have had the feeling of such chaos in the land since the awful events of 9/11, 2001 when I lived in New York City. Both were attacks on our country — the one an attack on our military/industrial complex from without, the other an attack on the very democracy itself from within. We have been living in a time of political and social chaos. And I do not believe we are out of that particular woods yet!

So it is time to remind ourselves that we have a God, we serve and worship a God who has been bringing order out of chaos long before these United States were a gleam in anyone’s eye or mind or heart. In the timeless words of Genesis, we are told that:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1)

Quite apart from the earth-centered view of the universe which would have been the only possible understanding for the biblical writers, this author names a truth which is beyond dispute — at some point, billions of years ago in our time, order began to emerge out of the chaos which must have been the initial result of the so-called “Big Bang.”

At some point, after the expanding universe burst forth from a singularity in which time and space have no meaning, our planet (which had been molten because of constant collisions with other bodies) began to cool, eventually forming a solid crust and liquid water on the surface.

Surely at first it must have been a “formless void” suspended in the darkness, until the solar wind (“a wind from God?”) began its work of forming what we know as Planet Earth. In the final analysis, is one set of words and concepts more fantastical and wondrous than the other? The point is, order came out of the chaos. And it always will.

The Psalmist lends even more poetry to the process, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” (Psalm 29) It’s almost like the Psalmist is giving us a mental picture of the wind or spirit of God moving over the face of the primal waters — to bring order out of chaos.

Moving from cosmic to societal chaos, the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday After Epiphany (Mark 1:4-11) tells us the story of Jesus’ baptism. It occurred at a time of chaos for the Jewish people. They were oppressed members of a subjected society.

Their own religious tradition seemed to be of little help, divided as it was between those who had sold out to the Romans (Herodians), those who wanted to escape their problems with religious rituals and pietism (the Essenes and, to a lesser extent, the Sadducees), and those who wanted to blow the whole thing up (the Zealots).

So they flocked to the Judean countryside to hear a fiery preacher named John who told them they had to start fixing society by fixing their own lives and counseling a “baptism of repentance” as a way to start over again. Perhaps to bring some order into the chaos of their situation. But they also heard the surprising message that this was not going to be enough, that John’s baptism was only a beginning. He told them to get ready for one even more powerful than he who was on the horizon. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And then one Jesus of Nazareth stepped into those muddy waters and submitted to this new ritual cleansing at least in part to show his solidarity with John and his message. But the important thing happened right after the washing: “…just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” (Mark 1:11)

Jesus experienced that same spirit which swept over the face of the primal waters, the spirit which brought order out of chaos, come to rest upon him! He too was destined to bring order out of the chaos of the world. It was to be an order, not of violence and force so well represented by the Romans and hoped for by the Zealots. The order he came to proclaim was an order based on love, on self-giving love, on what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Jesus did a lot to birth that kind of order during his life and even his death in the first century. The love that he exemplified even allowed him to forgive those who were driving the nails into his hands. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” But he knew that even his amazing life was only the beginning. So he left behind a rag tag, but spirit-inspired band of women and men who were to carry that message “to the ends of the earth.”

Those followers had to remember that they were always to be guided by the same spirit, the same order-out-of-chaos” spirit that had animated him. So much so that when St. Paul discovered that some new disciples of Jesus in Corinth (Acts 19:1-7) had only been baptized with the water-washing of John the Baptist, he made sure that they were to be motivated by the same spirit as Jesus. So “…they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (and) when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them…”

Christians today have been anointed with that same spirit, dear friends. However much we may fall short in our mission, make no mistake about it: our task is to be same as theirs — to bring an order of self-giving love into the chaos of this self-serving society.

Donald Trump will not deter us from that task. Thugs and brigands will not deter us from that task.

Because…we have been baptized in the name of Jesus.

And love always wins!

Enfleshment

December 26, 2020

Keep politics out of the pulpit…we have separation of church and state in this country! Why don’t you spend your time preaching the gospel and growing the church, not talking about current events! My guess is that, if you are a member of the clergy…or even a member of the church, you have heard things like this said more than once.

And I would not dismiss such statements out of hand. There are preachers out there who abuse the “power of the pulpit” to advance partisan concerns either on the right or on the left. And people don’t come to church to hear their minister opine about his or her particular views on the latest news headlines. But such abuses must not cause those of us entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming God’s word from week to week from applying that word to real the concerns of real people in the real world.

After all, most Christians would agree that the central affirmation of Christmas is that “the Word became flesh.” The most important thing about that first Christmas was not the cuteness of a baby in a manger or the appearance of the Christmas star or shepherds hearing angelic voices singing God’s glory.

These things point to what is the most important thing — that, on “this day,” in the city of David, the wisdom of God, the principle of rationality and order at the core of the entire universe, the self-expression, the “word” of God, what theologians later came to name the “second person of the Trinity,” was made known, came to dwell/tabernacle in a new-born infant who was to be called Jesus.

Christians believe this. We also believe that this in-carnation, this enfleshment, of God, was “simply” the prime example of a principle as old as the creation itself. Namely, that the creator of the world, indeed the mind behind creation itself, makes itself known to us in the very “stuff” of that creation. It is the incarnational principle. The popular Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

“… the spirit nature of reality (the spiritual, the immaterial, the formless) and the material nature of reality (the physical, that which we can see and touch) are one. They always have been one, ever since the Big Bang took place 13.7 billion years ago. The incarnation did not just happen when Jesus was born, although that is when we became aware of the human incarnation of God in Jesus. It seemingly took until 2,000 years ago for humanity to be ready for what Martin Buber (1878-1965) called an I/Thou relationship with God. But matter and spirit have been one since “the beginning,” ever since God decided to manifest himself/herself in creation.”

And this incarnational principle itself, in time, is also seen in the sacramental principle. That is, that behind and beneath very earthy signs such as water, bread, wine, oil, and human touch the very power and love of God can be conveyed and received. The two primary Christian sacraments — baptism and the eucharist — show this most clearly. But other sacramental realities such as confirmation, marriage, ordination, healing and reconciliation also celebrate that truth.

Most Christians believe this. So why is it so difficult to accept the fact that God is also involved in the very stuff of life — the everyday events, large and small, which effect to one degree or another our common life? And, since the simplest definition I know of “politics” is “the way people living in groups make decisions,” Christians cannot avoid politics any more than they can avoid religion. The two, in many cases, are one.

I know that, in today’s parlance the word politics most often refers to the way that countries are governed and to the ways that governments makes rules and laws. And, particularly in the last decades, politics most often means partisan politics. It is this latter that Christian preachers must avoid! I used to say that I was often “political” from the pulpit, but never (I hope!) “partisan.” I never encouraged people on how to vote, only that they must vote!

It takes a certain fierce honesty, coupled with hours of prayer and meditation “with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal!) in the other to craft a sermon which faithfully applies the “word of God” as discerned in Scripture to the needs, hopes and concerns of the world, and which challenges the assembly to make an equally faithful response in the way they live their lives in the everyday, workaday, world.

But it is in that very process, in that very encounter, that “the Word becomes flesh” (yet again) and “dwells among us.”

Merry Christmas!

A brief, but appreciative review of “Jesus and the Church” by Paul Avis (T & T Clark: London, 2020)

December 22, 2020

The full title of this fine book is Jesus and the Church: The Foundation of the Church in the New Testament and Modern Theology which fairly summarizes the author’s interest and intent — to investigate the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the church which he founded. Or did he? That is the question. Did Jesus intend to “found” a church. If so, how? If not, is the church anything more than a human creation?

To seek answers to those questions, Paul Avis embarks upon a two part project: in the first part he surveys the New Testament evidence as modern critical scholarship has presented it. The conclusion here, as Avis himself states, is that he has “established beyond any serious doubt, on the basis of modern biblical study, that Jesus of Nazareth neither founded by any explicit act, nor intended as part of his purpose, the church that soon emerged in history bearing his name and claiming his authority.” (page 199)

The first of the twin pillars holding up this contention is the fact that Jesus’ self described mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He came to restore Israel, not to found a church. And the second pillar is the overwhelming New Testament evidence that Jesus and his original hearers and followers expected the parousia and God’s establishment of the kingdom to happen immanently. There was no need, no time to establish a church. With these findings I am in total agreement.

That does not, however, preclude the possibility that Jesus intended to leave behind a remnant, a community awaiting the rapidly approaching eschaton out of which the church, as the unfolding of the New Testament reveals, developed. Just how this occurred is the burden of the second half of Avis’ book in which he traces various approaches by representatives of modern theology in the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions.

Neither Paul Avis nor I are fans of Karl Barth, preferring Tillich or even Pannenberg as pinnacles of the Protestant approaches. But, while Avis leans toward Karl Rahner or even Walter Kasper on the Roman Catholic side, I would be hard pressed to abandon my life-long theological ‘”mentor” Hans Kung in this regard. I would have been helped by a little more on this prophetic giant.

We would perhaps both need to acknowledge certain historical and theological realities which might keep us from embracing Michael Ramsey’s conclusions completely, but his The Gospel and the Catholic Church is still hard to beat in articulating an Anglican approach to the questions at hand.

In the final chapter, Avis seeks to draw the threads together, concluding that Jesus Christ is not the founder, but the “one foundation” of the church which arose with him in his Resurrection and was filled with his Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Hallmarks of this reality include the restoration of Israel and the Temple, the harvest of the nations (gentiles), good news for the oppressed and, above all, the Paschal Mystery.

I will need more time to meditate on this final section, finding it somehow less satisfying than the preceding chapters on first reading. Happily, there are more volumes to come from this prolific author in the series “Theological Foundations of the Christian Church.” I look forward with great anticipation to this series. For, whether or not I have found Paul Avis’ conclusions entirely satisfying, I have no doubt that for this book (as Avis says himself for Karl Rahner) “it is the theological journey, not the arrival that is most rewarding.” (page 165)

The Church…after the pandemic

December 19, 2020

I’ve always loved the various encounters between King David and the prophet Nathan recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And I’m especially fond of the one we had as our First Lesson on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. David is feeling guilty that, as king, he is living in a fine house made of beautiful, fragrant cedar while he still hasn’t gotten around to building a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant to be housed in, but rather has left it outside in a simple tent.

He confesses this state of affairs to Nathan who assures him that the Lord is perfectly capable of making his will known on this matter and then, Nathan himself, becomes the conduit of that will when he hears God say, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: ‘Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel…saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ (Second Samuel 7:5-7)

The LORD then goes on to instruct Nathan to remind David that he had been called from “following the sheep” to be a prince over the people and to become a great military leader. It soon becomes clear that God is more concerned about the people of Israel than he is about some kind of earthly edifice. And makes his point vivid by basically saying, “You’re not going to make ME a house. I am going to make YOU a house,” meaning a heritage, a lineage which would secure the blessings of peace and security on Israel for ever.

That lineage and heritage became a mixed blessing for Israel down through the centuries, but they never gave up hoping for “one like David” who would arise one day to restore their former glory and in fact to secure those same blessings of peace and security. We Christians, of course, believe that the ultimate descendant of David’s “house” was one Jesus of Nazareth whose conception in Mary’s womb we read about in the Gospel and whose birth we prepare to celebrate next week.

There is a good bit of hand-wringing out there these days about the decline in membership, shared to a greater or lesser degree, by all Christian communions in our day. That anxiety has been heightened by the novel coronavirus we are facing around the nation and world and the restrictions on our ability to gather in any kind of large groups in order to keep everyone as safe as possible from infection.

Many wonder whether this long absence will indeed “make the heart grow fonder” and attendance will rebound after we get this pandemic somewhat under control. Or, whether having gotten out of the habit of attending public worship, folks will just continue to stay home on Sunday mornings, reading the paper, or perhaps contenting themselves with some kind of “online” experience, rather than rolling out and actually getting to “church” on those Sundays.

It’s probably too soon to know, although I think it will more likely be the former rather than the latter at least for committed Christians. The question is, will we have learned anything during this bleak year of 2020 which can help us move into the future in perhaps an even stronger way than we have in the past. I, for one, hope we will have learned something from our spiritual ancestors and even from our First Reading today. I hope we will have learned, for example, that God is not contained in “temples made by hands” but is always on the move and always finding new ways to come to us.

When the first and second Jerusalem Temples were destroyed, the Jews had to learn to worship and live out their faith in new ways. With the sacrificial system no longer possible, smaller gatherings in synagogues and even an emphasis on worship as families, in homes, became paramount and served to preserve this “house of David,” this “chosen people” through centuries of persecution and exile. Jesus and his disciples attended synagogue and even the Temple when they were in Jerusalem, but we hear comparatively little about that in the Gospels. Like their God, Jesus and his friends were “on the move,” teaching and preaching and healing and loving up and down the Galilee and down into Judea itself. They met people where they were…not where they might wish them to be.

So, what do you hope we will have learned during our period of “exile” from public worship these many months? Here are some of my hopes and dreams to get you started:

  1. That God is more interested in creating a “people for himself” than he is in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA).
  2. That the online expertise we have learned about can be part of our ongoing communication and life into the future. When we resume in-person worship, that we can find a way to “live stream” as a matter of course, reaching those who cannot — or will not — be in “church” on a given Sunday to be “part of the church” anyway.
  3. That we will be freed to spend as much time worrying about how to be the church in the world as we have worrying about how to receive Communion “virtually” or bend the rules so that we can get back to in-person worship no matter how much danger we may be putting others in.

In other words…after the pandemic…will we just return to God’s house? Or will we become God’s house?

The Word Becoming Flesh

December 12, 2020

In this Advent season, Christians are preparing to celebrate God’s word becoming flesh (human) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But, as Richard Rohr and others have reminded us, this “incarnational principle” of the mind, heart, and Essence of the universe being made known in the “stuff” of everyday life is an eternal reality, not only a one-time event. It happens in every moment and every second of every day.

One of the things I miss most in retirement is the preparation and delivery of a weekly sermon. It had been part of my “preaching life” for over forty years before retirement. And I say “preparation and delivery” of a sermon because I have always enjoyed wrestling with the text and applying the truths there discerned to real life situations in the real world almost as much as I have enjoyed proclaiming that reality in the assembly.

My homiletics professor in seminary suggested this brief approach to preparing sermons — Need, Truth, and Response. That is, the preacher should try and identify a specific need or challenge facing the community. Then, apply the truths discerned from week’s lessons from scripture much as a physician might apply a balm or salve to a wound. And then, call for a specific response from the gathered community to this situation. It is this last step which, I find, is so often missing from sermons.

So, this year, I hope to resume this homiletic discipline in these pages, praying with and reflecting upon the scriptural lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary each week and seeking to apply them to particular needs in our community, nation, and world. Then I shall attempt to discern a response called for in this encounter between God’s word and the life situations we face. These reflections may often be only an exercise in my own spiritual discipline. If, from time to time, I consider them worth sharing, I shall do so by means of social media.

I must say, I am looking forward to this “new” adventure. And, as always, I invite you to use this Advent season to anticipate the many ways God’s word continues to become flesh. And the one we Christians hold most dear — Jesus the Christ.

The Pandemic, the Protest, and…the Trinity.

June 7, 2020

When I was growing up, we were treated in church every Trinity Sunday to our parish priest “explaining” the unexplainable! How can the one God be Three Persons? Simple, right? And then we would hear about how the water molecule H20 is found in three states –liquid, solid and gas – and yet remains one substance. Or, how one can be a mother, a daughter and a sister – and yet be one individual. Or even worse, God help us, a shamrock!  I never quite got that one!

Apparently having endured the same kind of thing over the years, my homiletics professor in the 1960s said we should NEVER, EVER preach on the Doctrine of the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. “Just preach on the Lessons,” he’d roar, “just preach the Gospel! Leave your Trinitarian theology for Confirmation Class!”

But then, in the 1970s and 80s along came Jurgen Moltmann, the brilliant professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen, who not only developed a form of liberation theology in a book called “The Crucified God” but also a “social trinitarianism” in a book called “The Trinity and the Kingdom.” And, preaching on the Trinity became respectable once again. Even contemporary commentators like Richard Rohr are fond of speaking about the “communal nature of God,” that God IS “relationship,” and of the “perichoresis,” a dance of mutual indwelling by what Christians call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

These are all interesting speculations about the internal nature of God, but I must confess to being more of an “economic Trinitarian” myself. In other words, I’m more interested in how we have experienced God over the years than in God’s inmost being…which, in any case, is largely unknowable.  

And so, this morning rather than speculating on what the authors of Genesis might have meant by having God say, “Let us make humankind in our image” or what Matthew’s Jesus might have meant by commissioning the apostles to baptize “in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I’d like to focus on one of the earliest New Testament blessings which were later understood as having Trinitarian implications.

Written perhaps only 25 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Second Letter of Paul to the church in Corinth ends like this: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Corinthians 13:13) And, since the last words one writes in a letter are usually pretty important, I’d like to unpack those for us on this Trinity Sunday.

First of all, the “grace” of Jesus Christ! I love that phrase! Of course, grace has all kinds of theological meanings and interpretations. But it’s also a word we use in common parlance. “See how graceful that jump shot was!” Or, “She responded with uncommon grace in that situation.”

I actually like to think of the grace of Jesus being something like that; like the grace of a fine athlete or an accomplished dancer. These are people who have gifts and abilities and who perform best when they simply relax, don’t “overthink” things, and let those natural gifts and abilities take over.

I think Jesus was like that. Clearly gifted in so many ways, Jesus seems to have moved through life with a kind of centeredness and ease which not only drew people to him, but also allowed him to accomplish some pretty amazing things that people remembered, wrote about, and are still writing about today! Paul is praying for that same grace to be manifested in our lives!

 I’ve seen that grace in so many of you over these last weeks and months as we’ve lived through this national and worldwide pandemic and as you have responded in simple and in some extraordinary ways, being aware of your many gifts and abilities and simply using them by doing “what comes naturally.” You have been occasions of grace! 

Next, “the love of God:” Christianity is not the only religion which teaches that the very nature of God is love, but it is absolutely essential to our faith tradition.  God IS love, St. John writes in his first Epistle. And that just about says it all. At its core, love is not just a feeling or even an emotion. To love someone is to want the very best for that person and to be willing to put that person’s needs above your own to that that happens.

And again, how many times have we seen – in these days – in our own community, across the country, and around the world people doing just that! Caring about others, wanting the very best outcome for another person, and going the second mile, at great cost, to put another person’s needs ahead of their own. We’ve seen countless examples of love in action, God’s love in action, as we have wrestled with the murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of anguish and action in our own community and around the world.

And, finally, “the communion of the Holy Spirit:” We used to translate this as the “fellowship” of the Holy Spirit, but “communion” is so much better. Not only because it’s less sexist, but because the Greek word is the “koinonia” of the Holy Spirit. And “konoinia” not only means fellowship and communion, but “joint participation,” “the share we have in something,” “a gift jointly contributed one to the other!” It also refers to communion with God…as well as communion with one another.

You and I have had to re-define what koinonia looks like in these days. No longer able to gather on Sunday mornings, to sign one another with the water of baptism, to exchange the Peace, to share Blessed Bread and the Common Cup, we have been in touch by telephone calls and Zoom meetings. We’ve prayed and even sung hymns separately, and yet together! We’ve continued Ted Talks and even a modified form of Bible study.

We’ve had fellowship and communion…just in different ways. We’ve participated in one another’s lives and we’ve shared gifts in a variety of ways. We have remained “in the communion of the Holy Spirit!”

I suppose there have been some out there in the world, and perhaps even at New Song who have asked the question, “Where is God while all this is happening?” But I haven’t really heard much of that. Perhaps we’ve just grown up enough to realize that God doesn’t send sickness or disease to chastise or punish as primitive people believed. And God certainly didn’t cause the violence in Minneapolis!

But it may also be that people have intuitively perceived where God is in all this! God is in the grace of health care workers putting themselves at risk or teachers finding new ways to reach and teach their students.

God is in the love of all those people, from every race and language and tongue in the streets in these days calling for justice and for peace. And God is in the communion we find ways to share even when denied the Broken Bread and the Poured Out Wine.

You can think of many more examples. And perhaps we can share them as we speak together this week, as we are able. Until then,

May “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the koinoia of the Holy Spirit” continue to be with each one of you, my beloved!

Amen.

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple – Malachi 3:1

February 2, 2020

 It is hard for us to conceive of just how important and sacred the Temple in Jerusalem was to the Jewish people. According to the Hebrew Bible, the First Temple was built by King Solomon and it was the only legitimate place for Israelite sacrifices to be offered. It replaced the rustic, moveable “tent in the wilderness,” the Tabernacle, constructed at the time of Moses and carried with the Hebrews on their journeys and even into battle.

There was a sense in which the Jews actually thought of their God as “living” in the Temple. Of course, as good monotheists, they knew that God couldn’t “really” live in a temple made by hands, but they experienced God’s presence there in a special way. It’s what the Psalmist was singing about in today’s Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling, O God of hosts to me! Within the grandeur of your courts, my soul desires to be.” (Psalm 84:1)   The Temple was the court of the Lord, the very dwelling place of God!

The best analogy I can come up with is the sense that catholic Christians have (whether of the Roman, Orthodox, or Anglican variety) when we enter a beautiful church, veiled in semi- darkness, with a small candle twinkling in the sanctuary, signifying the Presence of the Reserved Sacrament, the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, kept in the Tabernacle for the Communion of the Sick and for prayer and adoration.  Many of us experience the divine presence there in a special way…just as the Israelites experienced their God in the Temple.

So, when the First Temple was destroyed by the Assyrians in 700 BCE, it was devastating for the Jews! The God who had promised to protect them and always be with them (not least in the Temple) seemed to have deserted them. It would be over 200 years before the Second Temple was constructed with the permission of Cyrus the Persian, and under the guidance of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The “new Temple” was great and yet it never quite seemed to live up to the grandeur and holiness of the First one. For one thing, the Jews continued to be harassed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and later the Romans and they just never had a sense that God was with them quite in the same way. Even after Herod the Great renovated and expanded the Temple some twenty years before Jesus was born, something seemed to be missing – namely, the presence and the protection of God! And so they began to long for, and look forward to the day when, God would return to the Temple…at the time of the Messiah, the Anointed One.

It’s what the prophet Malachi was talking about in our First Lesson today: “Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)

It was that “coming,” according to Luke, that the old man Simeon and the prophet Anna were waiting for in today’s Gospel. “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel…It had been revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah…”

“…There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:22 passim)

These two elders personified, for Luke, the hopes and aspirations of Israel for the Lord to return to the Temple. And so when he told the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, which they surely did according to Jewish law, he has Simeon sing the Nunc Dimittis and Anna begin to “praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word,” Simeon says/ “for my eyes have seen your salvation/which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples/ a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)  For Simeon, for Anna, and for Luke, God had finally returned to the Temple in the presence of the Christ Child…the Messiah. The promise had been kept!

And so, we gather here at New Song Episcopal Church, forty days after our commemoration of Christ’s birth day on Christmas to celebrate one of the few Holy Days permitted in our Church Calendar to take precedence over a normal Sunday’s Readings. “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” is that important to us. Why?

  1. First of all, it connects us to our Jewish roots. Jesus of Nazareth did not spring on to the scene from a vacuum. He was a descendant of Abraham, Moses, and David and deeply enmeshed in the history of the Hebrew people. Christians always have been, are now, and will be forever connected in this unique way to the Jews, and that’s why we have a unique responsibility to speak out against and fight anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head. This despite our own complicity in anti-Semitism historically which redounds to our everlasting shame.
  2. Secondly, it reminds us of the importance of sacred times and spaces in which we can experience the presence of God in a unique way. Yes, you can worship God on the golf course. But do you? From the ancient Israelites gathering at their desert Tabernacle… to Jews offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple… to Christians gathering around Font and Table on the Lord’s Day, we need to present OURSELVES to God in intentional ways and on a regular basis.
  3. And finally, perhaps our observing of this day can teach us something about the importance of patience. Old Anna and Simeon went to the Temple each day looking forward, the text says, “…to the consolation of Israel.” In that, they were continuing the vocation of the people of Israel who had been waiting patiently for their Messiah for thousands of years…and who wait for him still!

You and I are still waiting for the reign of God to come in its fullness too. We think we’ve found our Messiah. And yet, the world is still broken. People still suffer. And the planet is dying. Yet, in the face of it all, we are called to be people of hope.

Because, like Simeon and Anna, somehow, in the face of a small child, we too have seen “the Savior, whom God has prepared for all the world to see…to be the light to the nations…and to be the glory of God’s people, Israel…

An Unexpected Hour!

August 12, 2019

 As I have shared with you before from this pulpit, one of the great privileges I have had in my ministry has been the opportunity to visit several Anglican dioceses in Africa. During my time as Bishop of Iowa, of course, I visited our companion Diocese of Swaziland a number of times. When I was the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, I was able to travel to the Diocese of Cape Town, South Africa, and once accompanied the Presiding Bishop to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

I had, of course, heard of the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa and of the vibrancy of these new Christians’ faith, even in the face of war and persecution. Now that the Diocese of Iowa also has a companion link in South Sudan, we are even more aware of the terrible events in that new nation and share their sadness and deep concern – for our friend, Archbishop Samuel Peni and for so many others there.

Of course, one of the reasons for the vibrancy of the Christian faith in parts of Africa is that it is so new to so many. While European missionary work has been going on in Africa since the 19th century and, of course, northern Africa has an indigenous Christianity which stretches back to the earliest days of the church’s life, nonetheless millions have been converted to Christ in the last few decades on that great continent.

So, when you experience the church in Africa, it’s as though the Christians there are actually living The Acts of the Apostles, complete with massive conversions, reports of healings and exorcisms and, of course, the persecution which looks for all the world like what the early Christians went through at the hands of the Roman Empire! And one thing you can’t help but be impressed with is the excitement and even the urgency with which they practice the Faith.

I’m always reminded of that when I read today’s Gospel…where Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet…blessed are those… whom the master finds alert when he comes. (And) know this: if the owner of a house had known at what hour a thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12 passim)

We have here two ways of describing how Christians should remain on the alert for what we call “the Second Coming” of Christ or “Judgment Day.” The first: how workers should behave when the boss is away – they should keep working, be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them, and be ready for the CEO’s return. The second image: how a homeowner should remain vigilant all night long, lest the house be broken into – since burglars don’t usually call for an appointment before they show up! You have to be alert! As, apparently Representative Elijah Cummings was a few weeks ago when his house was broken into!

Jesus’ point here, of course, is that we only have so much time to get our work done here on earth. That argument was particularly compelling in the first century when Christians expected the Second Coming of Christ to happen very soon. From what we know of the early church, some Christians used this as an excuse not to work at all. I mean, why bother if Jesus is going to show up tomorrow?

St. Paul, in his letters to the Thessalonians, and Luke in sharing Jesus’ metaphors in this Gospel, takes the opposite view. If he’s coming back soon, get busy! New Christians, like those I met in Africa, often have that same sense of urgency because they (like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Pentecostal groups) still look for Jesus to return at any moment.

It’s harder for Western Christians, like ourselves, who have long since made peace with the fact that it may be a long time until Christ’s Return, harder for us to keep that sense of urgency. But let me tell you, my beloved, as one who lost his first wife to an unexpected heart attack at the age of 54; and as one now married to a woman who lost her eldest son during his first days in college in a tragic climbing accident, I can tell you for a fact: We never DO know the day or the hour!  God might not yet be ready to judge the earth. But you and I might meet our Maker on the way home from church this morning! Or as victims of a mass murderer should we find ourselves in a Wal Mart…or a pub…or a school…or a church!

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour! We still need to have the urgency and the sense of purpose those early Christians had, as our sisters and brothers in Africa still have! For it is our hope and our expectation that Jesus Christ will one day judge both the living and the dead – as we say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed – so let’s be good stewards of whatever time we have left! Let’s get busy! Busy doing what? Our Lessons from Scripture today tell us:

From Isaiah:   Get busy and cease to do evil, get busy learning to do good; get busy seeking justice, get busy rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.” (Isaiah 1) Working for an end to violence and oppression in all its forms!

From the Psalmist: “I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices, your offerings are always before me…Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me, but those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50) Get busy walking in the way of love. Because, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God!”

And, from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. ” (Hebrews 11:1) Get busy keeping the Faith…no matter how bleak things may look in our world today. Because faith is our only hope! And love is the only answer.

In other words, as we live our lives day by day, as we await the Coming of Christ or even the completion of our own journeys here on earth, we are to (as the Methodist founder John Wesley is reported to have said) “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you ever can.”

So, we are not only to offer God the sacrifice of thanksgiving here in the Eucharist each Sunday but to offer sacrifice by walking in God’s ways every, single day.  And we are to keep the Faith, like our ancestors did, no matter what challenges we may face in this sinful and broken world.

Be dressed for action, dear friends, and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return…You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!