Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Is It That You Want?

Man was originally endowed with noble powers and a well-balanced mind. He was perfect in his being, and in harmony with God. His thoughts were pure, his aims holy. But through disobedience his powers were perverted, and selfishness took the place of love. His nature became so weakened through transgression that it was impossible for him, in his own strength, to resist the power of evil...[A]fter his sin he could no longer find joy in holiness, and he sought to hide from the presence of God...Education, culture, the exercise of the will, human effort, all have their proper sphere, but here they are powerless. They may produce an outward correctness of behavior, but they can not change the heart; they cannot purify the springs of life. There must be a power working from within, a new life from above, before man can be changed from sin to holiness. That power is Christ...” (Ellen G. White, pioneer of the Sabbatarian Adventist movement, and later the Seventh Day Adventist Church)

Lent, with its disciplines of prayer, fasting, and outreach to those in need, fosters our awareness of our
utter need of God. In our society most everyone makes use of some sort of professional services: whether it’s shopping for clothes, requesting a bank loan, seeing a counselor, buying a new car. In each of these experiences you and I will hear someone ask some form of the following questions: “How may I help you?”, “What can I do for you?”, “What is it you want?

In light of the Scripture readings today, from Genesis, Philippians, and Luke, the question: “
What is it that I want?” seems terribly relevant. Imagine Jesus coming among us, sitting down and spending time with all of us, and giving each one of us, personally, 10 minutes to answer his question: “What can I do for you; what do you really want?” How would you, how would I, answer?

In the first reading (Genesis 15:1-12;17-18), Abram asks point-blank the question which also includes includes a hint of an expected answer: “
O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” In the words of Paul in the second reading (Philippians 3:17-4:1) , Abram seems to have had his mind “set on earthly things”. The barrenness of Sarai and Abram’s having no children, no offspring, was, in his culture, a humiliation and a sign interpreted as God’s disfavor. Children were terribly important: to carry on the family and its name; to oversee and pass down family possessions; to increase, and thus give the family power and prestige in society. Eliezer, Abram’s slave, was designated as his heir. Nuzi/Nuzu tablets, discovered between 1925-1931 in modern-day Iraq, shed light on this adoption custom by a childless couple. In the ancient Akkadian culture a slave would be chosen to look after a childless patriarch and his wife in their old age, and provide for their burial in return for the slave’s endowment.

Taking Abram outside, God tells him: “
You’re worried about the wrong thing. I’ve got something which I know you really want: a son”. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them...So shall your descendants be.” Plus, God throws in all the land to which Abram has migrated. With faith in God, yet still pressing his luck a little bit, Abram asks: “ am I to know that I shall possess it?...Give me a sign!” God does Abram one better than just a sign. He has Abram bring the sacrifice of a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon: each cut in two and laid on the ground. Once the sun had set, says the Genesis writer, Abram was cast into “a deep sleep”, “and a deep and terrifying darkness descended on him...”, and “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces...

Covenants, between God and human beings, is at the heart of the message of the Hebrew Scriptures. Covenants were a commonplace in patriarchal society, and could range from international treaties to simple contracts among people in ordinary life. To ratify the terms, the contracting parties would split sacrificial animals in two and then pass through the divided parts, symbolizing that they were calling down a similar destruction on themselves, should they be unfaithful to the covenant.

God to make a covenant with a human being was something very special. While other covenants were, more or less, between equal parties, in this case it was the human party who was in utter need before the divine Being. The Genesis writer says simply: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” Godself passes, as fire, between the sacrificed portions as the sign confirming the agreement. God’s assurances, however, included some “bad news” along with some “good news”. Verses 13-16, not included in today’s reading, reveal that Abram’s posterity would be strangers in a foreign land; they would experience slavery and oppression for some 400 years. But the “good news” was that God would bring judgment on the Canaanites; he would free the Hebrews, giving them “great possessions”; and Abram would pass on “in peace”, “at a good old age”. But God’s greatest assurance to Abram was that, in all of this, God is and will be there for Abram. It’s a promise. No matter what happens, God will be faithful to the agreement. So Abram, who thought that he wanted only an assurance of children and land, got much, much more: God’s enduring friendship and presence; he got a great people to follow him and build the nation -- and all because “he believed the Lord”.

St. Paul comments on this in his letter to the Romans (4:16-5:5): “
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham... Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’,...He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith...being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God...because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Paul puts hItalicis finger on what it is that you and I really want: God’s love, God’s presence, God’s Spirit -- for us.

In today’s 2nd reading (Philippians 3:17-4:1) Paul indicates that when people lack faith, such as Abram’s, it becomes normal for them to want what is destructive. He speaks first of “
the belly”, i.e., things, physical or intellectual, to feed upon in the hope of being fulfilled: food and drink; the latest gossip; superior knowledge which one can wield over others, or for feeding one’s pride. He also talks about “their shame”, i.e., the insatiable lusts of body, mind, or spirit which end up “eating” us alive. Finally, he mentions “earthly things”, i.e., anything which can draw us away or distract us from the Creator of all. Jesus the Christ and his lived message of the Cross is an embarrassment to such people, something abnormal. Sadly, for Paul who had fought so hard for his own faith, he’s speaking here about some within his own Christian community itself, to the point that Paul admittedly speaks “even with tears”. He reminds all who claim to follow Jesus that “our citizenship”, our true loyalty, “is in heaven”: “we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ...

What Paul wants is for all those in the community of faith, including us, to sustain and be sustained by each other’s example, to show by how we live what it is that each of us really wants and can attain by God’s gift. The pathos and sadness which Paul feels for members of his own Christian community, who seem to pursue selfish priorities and willfully reject Christ by their attitudes and actions, mirrors the sentiments of Jesus in the Gospel as he looks out over the city of Jerusalem, the “
city of peace”.

Two striking images jump out at us from Luke’s Gospel (13:31-35): those of
stoning and gathering. Jerusalem, for all its sacredness, for all its being preeminently “God’s place”, the place of the Covenant, is at the same time a violent and vengeful place. Its inhabitants have grown smug and self-reliant. They consider it blasphemy when holy prophets come in and accuse them of faithlessness. How dare they?! “Abraham is our father!” (John 8:53) Yet God consistently sends prophets to call people, even God’s people, to accountability, to rightness with God, and, by contrast with the macho way Jerusalem treats strangers, God does so with a tenderness, nurturing and wisdom that’s truly maternal. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings...

So, the question remains: “
What do you want?” Some, in both Jesus’ and Paul’s time, willfully choose themselves, their interests, things, in place of God. Yet some also, like Abram and Paul, though so human and prone to waver, still believe and get much more than they ever asked for or imagined.

Peter Gomes, of Harvard’s Divinity School says: “
Resistance to the Gospel is to be expected.” That’s fairly clear from the Bible, from history, and from our own lives. Yet, God continues to pursue us despite our stonewalling, even in the face of our rejection, our unfaith. God is unwilling to let us go, even when we “were not willing”.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind...
writes the poet, Francis Thompson, in his moving poem, The Hound of Heaven, then has God say:
“Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?...
Only when Jesus has done all that’s possible, all that the Father intends for him to do, spending all that he has, giving his very life’s blood on a cross in hope, does he leave us, only to return again.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: what is it that you really want?” Whatever answer we may eventually formulate for ourselves during this season of Lent, we have the assurance that Jesus, the “mother-hen” of the brood, is here with us, ready to give it to us.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Work of Reconciliation

O God, by your Word you marvelously carry out the work
of reconciliation: Grant that in our Lenten fast we may be
devoted to you with all our hearts, and united with one
another in prayer and holy love; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

L’Chaim -- To Life!

This is me, 73 years ago...four months after I emerged into this world at St. Ann’s, the maternity unit at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Dayton, OH, 3:40 AM, February 27, 1937. My entrance into the community of Christian faith came shortly after, on March 14, 1937, when I was baptized at Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

I’m such a lucky guy, with a wonderful family: two children and a granddaughter: my best gift to humankind; three of four surviving brothers and three sisters; three surviving aunts, two surviving uncles, multiple nieces, nephews and cousins, and many fantastic friends and colleagues! Thanks be to God for so many blessings!

George Herbert (1593-1633), great Anglican priest and poet, whose liturgical commemoration happens to fall today on my birthday, wrote the following poem which sums up my birthday sentiments as well as anything:


I Made a posy, while the day ran by:
Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
My life within this band.
But Time did beckon to the flowers, and they
By noon most cunningly did steal away,
And wither'd in my hand.

My hand was next to them, and then my heart:
I took, without more thinking, in good part
Time’s gentle admonition:
Who did so sweetly death’s sad taste convey,
Making my mind to smell my fatal day;
Yet sugring the suspicion.

Farewell dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye liv'd, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures.
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my scent be good, I care not if
It be as short as yours.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Flesh & Spirit

Lord Christ, our eternal Redeemer, grant us such
fellowship in your sufferings, that, filled with your Holy
Spirit, we may subdue the flesh to the spirit, and the spirit to
you, and at the last attain to the glory of your resurrection;
who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Second-Choice Apostle and the Runner-Up

St. Matthias (d. 1st cent.), according to the Acts of the Apostles, was the apostle chosen by the gathered community of Jesus' followers and disciples to fill the vacancy of leadership among the Apostles left by Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus and suicide.

There's no mention of Matthias in the lists of disciples or followers of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. According to Luke, writing in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter, in the days following the Ascension of Jesus, proposed to the assembled community of about one hundred and twenty people, that "
one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection..."
Two men were then suggested as candidates: "
Joseph called Barsabbas who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, 'Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.'" When they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias, and he was added to the other eleven apostles.

Beyond that we have no further factual information about Matthias, either from biblical or non-biblical sources. There has been much speculation and many legends put forth about Matthias' name, about where he might have exercised his ministry, what his ultimate fate was, etc. But nothing factual.

The most with which we're left, and it is considerable in itself, is the witness of Acts to the process by which a significant leader was chosen by the whole community of Jesus' followers. Everyone had a say in putting forth names of possible candidates. The one to be chosen was from among the "people", those "gathered", the ekklesia in Greek: those called forth. No managed campaigns or the angling of prominent, powerful, high-roller candidates. Just one of the family, one who'd "accompanied us", one strong in the hope which Jesus had engendered through his resurrection.

I often wonder about Joseph Barsabbas who wasn't chosen. As with Matthias, we know nothing more about him other than his name, which means son of sabbath or rest, or of return, and the fact that he wasn't elected. Luke says that he was also called Justus, a Latin name, meaning the just or righteous one. Perhaps that's a clue to his qualifications for the post.

Even though Matthias became the second-choice Apostle and though Barsabbas remained one of the community members, the fact that they were put forth as candidates at least indicates that the sizeable Christian community (for those days) saw leadership qualities in both the men which they both respected and desired.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Heart in Need of Healing

Bless us, O God, in this holy season, in which our hearts seek
your help and healing; and so purify us by your discipline
that we may grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

There could've been no more vivid depiction of a heart tested by life's circumstances and reaching out for healing than the magnificent Olympic figure-skating performance of Canada's 24 year old Joannie Rochette last evening. Blogger Cloe Angyal (Feministing) describes it: "Last night, the world watched in wonder as Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette took to the ice in Vancouver and skated her short program before a roaring home crowd. The program, which earned Rochette the highest score of her skating career, put her in third place going into the long program. Rochette's mother, Therese, [age 55] had died suddenly of a heart attack two days earlier. I cannot begin to imagine how Joannie Rochette managed to get out of bed, let alone go to practice. How she found the strength to get out on the ice and compete in front of a television audience of millions, and skate with such grace and poise, is completely beyond me. When the music ended and Rochette had struck her final pose, she burst into tears, and the world joined in her grief and mourning as she bowed to the crowd, as her father looked on, crying. It was a heart wrenching Olympic moment..."

Blessings, prayers, and bonne chance for Joannie, and her father, Normand, as she bravely completes her Olympic skating program this week. God's peace to Therese whose close presence and love are surely very much with Joannie and her dad.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday in Lent 1

Grant to your people, Lord, grace to withstand the
temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with
pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only true God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and
ever. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gifts of Holy Discipline

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully increase in us your
gifts of holy discipline, in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting;
that our lives may be directed to the fulfilling of your most
gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and
ever. Amen.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lent 1 - Call, Testing, Renewed Ministry

In the lead-up to Lent this year, I kept reading and hearing, from a variety of sources, churchly and non-churchly, all sorts of comments about what Shrove Tuesday is, what Ash Wednesday is, what Lent is all about. But what I read and heard, for the most part, left me largely unsatisfied because the explanations seemed to miss the whole point of what these next six extraordinary weeks leading from Ash Wednesday to the Sunday of the Resurrection have to teach us.Then I came upon two short articles which helped me better clarify what God might be inviting me to look at.

The first is from the article “Downward Mobility”, on the Alban Institute Weekly website, by Lutheran senior pastor and teacher John Berntsen, of Trinity Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA. It focusses on a commonplace ministry challenge for clergy, but also for lay ministers: i.e., becoming frustrated and discouraged by not being able to be “all things to all people”, something which I’m sure none of you has ever, or rarely, experienced! Berntsen writes: “The leader is humbled by the very work of ministry: by not always having the answers, by lack of giftedness for important ministries, by the need to apologize for insensitive remarks, by failure to keep anger and resentment toward ‘problem’ people, and by disillusionment with the once-held ideal of the church...Sooner or later a Christian worker has to face the reality that ministry itself is an impossible possibility -- not because it is so professionally complex and demanding, or because the minister doesn’t have all the right gifts, or even because the congregation isn’t, as they say, ‘healthy’, but rather because what God asks of the world -- and what we are charged to proclaim -- is something about which the world quite simply freaks out: dying in order to live. Nobody wants to die to self. In the same way, dying to our well-laid ministry plans calls for trust that there’s new life on the other side of their demise...

The second quote, featured in a wonderful new little volume, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, published by Liturgical Press, is taken from a book called Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and its Future among Religions, A Systematic Theology (Continuum, 2006), by James P. Mackey, honorary professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin. He says: “Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story of the diabolical temptation of Jesus at the very beginning of his mission, enabling the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to describe Jesus as ‘one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (4:15). And since the story of that temptation is in the form of a myth, it must not be taken literally as something that happened only just after Jesus’ baptism and before his public mission began. It must be taken as a temptation that is always waiting to surface in the forefront of his consciousness, as it regularly does to all of us...

Just as a side note for clarification: German novelist, Thomas Mann, has defined the word
myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are”, or, as a Swedish proverb puts it: “Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.” And I particularly like one Native American storyteller’s version: “...I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.

The story to which Mackey refers, of course, is Luke’s Gospel passage for today’s liturgy (4:1-13). You and I have heard preachers commenting on it for years, and probably in much the same way, more or less, each time! The devil, Satan, tempts Jesus to perform “Trick #1” on a stone, turning it into bread; then he caters to Jesus’ human side by offering him all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus will first kneel down and worship him; finally, when that doesn’t work, he goes for “Trick #2” and double-dares Jesus to throw himself down off the pinnacle of the temple, so that God’s angels, one can imagine, in a Superman-style dive, will swoop down dramatically, catch Jesus, and soft-land him on the street below, his robe barely ruffled. The point of such commentary usually being: 1) we live by God’s spiritual nourishment, not just our own artisan bread; 2) God alone is the one we worship; and 3) it isn’t wise to test God because, to put it in a modern idiom, “
Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” Such an interpretation of the passage is well taken, but I believe that there must be much more in that passage to help guide you and me on our journey through Lent to Easter.

Notice Luke’s last sentence in the Gospel: “
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Unless I’m imagining it, that’s an early hint that the same sorts of doubts and discouragement which you and I face in doing ministry, would plague the human Jesus for the next three years of his life on the road. Think about the difficulty which Jesus, member of the Jewish community that he was, had in communicating with the Syro-Phoenician woman. He was tempted to put this Gentile woman off because he saw God as “his” God, and in fact he rejects this foreigner at first, only later to be changed and moved by her faith from letting the temptation grow into sin. Think of the scene in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus, because of his excruciating doubts and natural human unwillingness, is tempted to “pack it in” rather than to face and accept what God was asking him to do.

What comes before and after this passage about the Temptation of Jesus might serve to frame our reflection and prayer in this first week of Lent in terms of
call; testing; and renewed ministry.

Just a few verses before this passage Jesus, along with many others, emerges from the Jordan River after receiving a ritual pouring of water by John the Baptizer. It was a simple symbol of repentance for Jews who had transgressed some or all of the over 600 Torah laws, and is in no way connected to later Christian Baptism. That being said, it’s natural and understandable that some elements in Luke’s description (e.g., the pouring of water; the necessity of
metanoia = compunction, reversal, change, translated as repentance in English; and the Spirit’s presence) seem similar to and remind us of what you and I experience in the Christian sacrament of Baptism.

By his presence at the Jordan, Jesus is identifying himself with weak, sinful human beings, and validates and legitimizes John's preaching that people need to repent. In the midst of that scene, Luke depicts God proclaiming this human Jesus also divine: “
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then Luke makes clear, in the opening words of today’s passage, that the Holy Spirit, who’d descended on and taken possession of Jesus, now leads him into the preparation time for his ministry: “...Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness...” Thus, the call.

On the heels of that comes today’s account by Luke of the kinds of testing which Jesus experienced in the wilderness.

Finally, the verses following this passage continue on a similar note as a renewed ministry begins: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee...He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone...”

Call; testing; renewed ministry.

Baptism is our entry into the life of Jesus the Christ, and includes several “moments”:
1) acknowledging that our human existence isn’t in order and that each of us needs to be reoriented. This first step towards renewal involves a two-fold turning: away from sin and selfishness, and toward a life of grace and reconciliation;
2) being accepted into a community of people who profess faith in Jesus the Word, in the Creator, and in the Holy Spirit, whose being is Love; finding an identity, as symbolized by our Christian name; and discovering that as God’s “
beloved” you and I “count” as someone;
3) beginning a process of being set apart, consecrated, sanctified, in which we’re identified with, and indeed become one with, the God’s Holy Spirit;
4) finally, being called, elected, even
ordained to the general ministry of all the Church’s members, the ministry of reconciliation; as well as to our specific ministry(ies) which unfolds and becomes more clear over time.

Through Baptism you and I are made partners with all the saints of God in proclaiming the Good News, the Word. The first reading from the Letter to the Romans (10:8b-13) speaks of that “
living and active” Word, calling it “the word of faith that we proclaim”. You and I possess faith, it says, outwardly and internally: “on your lips and in your heart”, believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth. One of the most eloquent expressions of this living Word of faith is the St. Peter’s address to the people gathered in the centurion Cornelius’ home: “You know the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ -- he is Lord or God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing...for God was with him...They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear...

For one believes and so is justified, and one confesses...and so is saved.” In the very next verse, however, Paul raises some provoking questions: “But how are they to call on one whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?...” Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles answers: “[God] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God...that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name...” It’s what the Prayer Book means when it says that our call is “to represent Christ and his Church”; to “bear witness to him wherever” we are; and, using the gifts we’ve been given, to continue Christ’s mission of reconciliation.

But you and I know that, however inspiring this all looks on paper, the reality of ministry is often far different. “
Our gifts differ,” says Pastor Berntsen, “and so too do our liabilities and vulnerabilities...At some point, a reality check sobers everybody up.” Who of us hasn’t had to face the fact that, not only do we doubt that we can do a ministry that we’ve been given or taken on, but that maybe we’re not even attracted to it? Often we’re asked to be involved in things for which we have, or think we have, or come to realize that we have, no competency or desire at all. How do we deal with others’ expectations of us? If we’re the conscientious type, we might even find ourselves severely distressed over this. Yet we tough it out, telling ourselves that we’re committed, and what will “Father”, or the Vestry, or whoever, think of us if we bail out now? “If only we could get a fix on our real spiritual gifts and match them up with the right organization or project...”, all would go smoothly. “Maybe going to some Diocesan workshops or studying a little harder...”, we could grow out of our ministry deficits.

Our temptations, in the midst of living out our Baptismal call, mirror those which faced Jesus.
1) The bread which Luke refers to in today’s story is an Old Testament symbol of wisdom. How ready we are sometimes in ministry to depend solely on our own knowledge, intuition, or wisdom, brushing off that of others and forgetting that we are only beneficiaries of the One who is Wisdom himself?
2) The lure of “
glory” and “authority” and the acclaim of others, which ministry can bring, is likewise hard to resist, especially if we already think we have most or all of the answers.
3) There can also be times when we act carelessly, impulsively and thoughtlessly in ministry, insensitive to the ripple effects on other people’s lives, inside or outside the church. In all these forms of testing, God has a way of reminding us that God’s Word of Good News alone is the priority, that God is the only One to be worshipped and served.

Pastor Berntsen again: “
Death and resurrection is not only the subject of preaching, the heart of liturgy, and the spirit of pastoral care, but also the unseen influence shaping the leader’s daily professional functioning.” There’s no shame in recognizing that we’re not equipped to do everything. St. Paul reminds his Ephesian community that “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift...

If we set our hearts to live by the message of the Cross, “
the Word [that] is near you”, perhaps, in our call, we can learn through the testings which arise in our ministries to be humble enough to let go of those things which need to be left behind, so that we can, in a renewed ministry, more faithfully answer God’s call and serve the needs of others. It’s what Berntsen refers to as “downward mobility”: “dying in order to live”. “Humility leads to this down-to-earth approach to ministry...

And so we pray today and throughout the Lenten season: “
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...Amen.

Life's Fragility

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our
infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch
forth your right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus
Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

"Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult -- once we truly understand and accept it -- then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters...And since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy..." (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled)

" is the most honor to [God] of anything that we can do that we live in our penance gladly and merrily because of his love, for he looks upon us so tenderly that he sees all our living here to be penance. The natural yearning in us for him is a lasting penance in us...For this life is our natural penance and the highest, as I see it, for this penance never goes from us until the time that we are fulfilled when we shall have him for our reward..." (Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love)

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Fast of the Heart

Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through the
fast we have begun; that as we observe it by bodily
self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

"...Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father's house. In the words of St John Chysostom, it means 'abstinence not only from food but from sins.'" (Kallistos Ware, The Lenten Triodion)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious
favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our
works begun continued, and ended in you, we may glorify
your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain
everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and
ever. Amen.

It's so hard to keep from compartmentalizing our lives: family life here; work life there; God's time, in church on Sunday. How much we have to recognize our utter need of God's loving direction in all our doings, continually! How often do I begin and end what I'm doing in such a way as to allow God's mercy, compassion, love, protection, peace to be the "atmosphere" of that beginning or doing?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dust Is What We Are

It didn't take long after the Fall for God to spell out to the earth man, Adam, and to the woman, his helper and partner, Eve, mother of all the living, the precise meaning of what it means to be human: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19) Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word "dust" to Middle or Old English dust, akin to Old High German tunst = storm; probably akin to Latin fumus = smoke. Among the possible meanings are: fine particles of matter/earth; particles into which something disintegrates; something worthless; a state of humiliation; a place of burial; the surface of the ground; and, in British use, refuse ready for collection. In his book The Eternal Year, the late contemporary theologian, Karl Rahner, observes: "Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing: it has no content, no form, no shape; it blows away, the empty, indifferent, colourless, aimless, unstable booty of senseless change, to be found everywhere and at home nowhere." How's that for triggering some insecurity and desperation in you as a human being?!

We are dust and flesh, words with which Scripture refers to our whole human person. Rahner says that "[i]t designates us precisely in our basic otherness to God, in our frailty, our weakness, our separation from God, which is manifested in sin and death."

Even a short read-through of the simple and beautiful liturgical service for today reveals that it very much assumes this reality. Yet, aware of another Scriptural reality: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us...[f]rom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace...", Mother Church places the ashes on our foreheads today as "a sign of our mortality and penitence", but only so that they can help us to "remember that it is only by [God's] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life..."

We "dust people" have quite an agenda for the next six weeks: "self-examination and repentance;...prayer, fasting, and self-denial;...reading and meditating on God's holy Word..." I'm always struck, and made incredibly uncomfortable, by many of the items in today's Litany of Penitence which are highlighted for each of us to confess: being deaf to God's call to serve; grieving the Holy Spirit; anger at our own frustration; our failure to commend the faith that is in us; blindness to human need and suffering; indifference to injustice and cruelty; contempt toward those who differ from us (as in various Church groups, political parties, etc.); our waste and pollution.

Ash Wednesday's liturgy comforts and assures us that "[God] pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel." The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the earnest prayer "...that those things may please [God] which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to [God's] eternal joy..."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Lent

Today is Mardi Gras = Fat Tuesday, the day before we enter into the 40-day holy season of Lent. Some view the day as a last blast of outward and visible venting of our various lusts before we get serious for awhile. Others see it as what we're called upon to do most every day of our lives: focussing our attention on specific areas of spiritual growth.

My dear friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, of Little Portion Hermitage, Kelseyville, and pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lakeport, has written a wonderful introductory piece for Lent for his flock, and I thought it was so good that I wanted to share it, with his permission, with a wider audience.

+ + +

Mardi Gras: The Morning After
Fr. Leo M. Joseph O.S.F.

There’s an old joke that goes: One day in February back in the 1950’s, the legendary Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the original televangelist, was at a TV studio in New York to tape one of his Lenten programs (sponsored by Progresso Soup) and it so happened that he crossed paths in the hallway with the aging iconic “Bad Girl” of stage, film and TV, Mae West. She paused in front of him, in all his bishop’s regalia, gave him a slow once over and cooed, “
Not bad looking. Why don’t ya come up and see me sometime.” Bishop Sheen reared up in righteous indignation, turned as purple as his pontifical mantle, and replied, “You wicked Jezebel! Don’t you know that it is Lent?” As she sauntered off Mae West snapped, “Well, no, I didn’t. But uh, why don’t you come up and see me when you get it back...

Theses days, Mae West is not the only one who doesn’t know about Lent. The mass media will have plenty of footage showing the revelry in New Orleans as Mardi Gras winds up its weeks of partying in the streets, but little mention of the “morning after”: Ash Wednesday and the forty day observance of Lent. Yet for Christians all over the world this is a time-honored tradition that dates back in one way or another to the earliest days of the Church. For Episcopalians, as well as Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some Protestants, Lent is a forty day period of introspection and prayer in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when we gather in church to hear the Scriptures concerning the solemn fast, and present ourselves for the imposition of blessed ashes as a symbol of our mortality, a sign of our humble turning back to our loving Father. We then celebrate the Holy Eucharist, or Mass, as a pledge of Christ’s healing presence among us.

There is no one history of Lent, (the name in English comes from the old Anglo-Saxon
Lengtentide, that is, Springtime, when the days are lengthening), but it began as a period of final preparation for those who were to be solemnly baptized at Easter. Later it was also a time of penance for those who had fallen away from the faith and wished to be reconciled so as to be able to receive Holy Communion on Easter. Eventually the discipline to observe this forty day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving was required for all the faithful. The fifth century Bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, pointed out that fasting is a means and not an end in itself; its purpose is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. He coined the famous phrase: “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.

Today we have regained much of the original focus of Lent as a preparation for Baptism and the renewal of our Baptismal Vows at Easter. It is a time of self-examination on how we are living our lives in light of the promises we made at Baptism, and to “repent”, to turn our hearts around and turn back to God. In this we can be aided by the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer may be just creating an intentional space and time of silence to place ourselves in the presence of the Divine. Being more conscious of our eating habits, choosing only wholesome food in more healthy amounts; and reducing our “carbon footprint” may be an excellent way to practice fasting. Being aware of and responding to the needs of others, whether in our immediate circle or, for example, in the catastrophic situation in Haiti, will nurture a deeper sense of compassion in us.

There is nothing which we can do this Lent that will make God love us any more than God already loves us; but by simplifying our daily lives of endless distractions so as to better focus our consciousness on God and a just relationship with our fellow human beings, we will better comprehend the depth of God’s love for us and for all of creation.
The best image I can suggest for this Lent is to reflect on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel. It is a story about coming to our senses and remembering whose child we are, as made known to us in our Baptism, and making our way back to the Father who is ready to meet us on the road and restore us to our rightful place in the divine household.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thomas Bray (1656-1730)

Thomas Bray: priest, Oxford professor, husband and widower (twice), father of two children, pastor and teacher, author, co-founder of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), founder of schools and libraries, and often called "The Father of American Libraries", fundraiser for missionary work, vigorous proponent of the consecration of an American bishop, advocate for prison reform and for social justice among American Negroes and Native Americans.

In the Dictionary of English Church History, Archdeacon W. H. Hutton writes of Bray: " no one in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries does the practical work of the English Church owe a greater debt."

"O God of compassion, you opened the eyes of your servant Thomas Bray to see the needs of the Church in the New World, and led him to found societies to meet those needs: Make the Church in this land diligent at all times to propagate the Gospel among those who have not received it, and to promote the spread of Christian knowledge...Amen."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Last Sunday after the Epiphany - The Wisdom of Christ in Glory

We stand in the space between seasons of Epiphany and Lent in the liturgical year. During Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany we’ve contemplated the human figure of Jesus: his coming and taking on our human condition, and his being manifested, revealed, to all the world. More recently we’ve begun to look at his relationship, as a human being, with God, and through incidents from his life, to reflect on the meaning of call, of vocation. Kristen Glass, writing on this, says: “Vocation does not need to be ‘found’, vocation needs to be lived. By nature of being born, you have a vocation... Developing your vocation is about answering the world’s specific call to action as the person you are...It’s a call for reflecting on yourself, on your role in the world, and on the gifts given to you that in turn you can return to the world...[it] is responding to the portion of reality that is claiming you...

From the time Jesus met his apostles, this is exactly what he’d invited them to learn how to do. For Jesus himself, from his earliest years, it had taken the form of being led by God to proclaim a hands-on message of hope, and love, and compassion by reaching out to the lowliest and and poorest and neediest of God’s people. The Apostles wouldn’t have been strangers to the idea of God’s “glory” and “majesty” continually breaking into human lives. Jesus and they had, in their Jewish Scriptures and history, witnessed God’s holiness, justice, judgment, and mercy at work in the human lives of their forbears. God was always intruding through strange, awsome, even intimidating, events, often confusing and beyond human explanation, but always in behalf of the lowly and the poor.

Jesus’ whole ministry was an attempt to get the apostles and others to see that in his words and deeds, in his very person, this glorious, majestic God of hope, justice, love, and compassion was coming out, bursting in, breaking into our familiar world through unforeseen happenings, utterly amazing occurences, shattering all human expectations. Think of the steward’s reaction in the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of the Second Sunday after Epiphany; think of last Sunday’s Gospel about the unexpected, abundant, net-breaking catch of fish, and of Peter’s flash of understanding. Unfortunately, these occasions of insight for most of the Apostles were few and far between. Most of the time they simply didn’t “get it”. The Apostles seem to vacillate between insight, faith, and lack of insight, disbelief.

Which brings us to this Gospel (Luke 9:28-43) in the space between Epiphany and Lent. In the first verse, Luke situates us by saying “
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray...” What are “these sayings”? They’re what Jesus spoke in the six preceding verses, and they’re “hard” sayings: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” I’m betting that the apostles probably thought this “Son of Man” stuff referred to someone other than Jesus. Jesus says further that if anyone really can comprehend what’s at stake here, they’ll willingly “deny themselves and take up their cross daily” and follow him. If all you can do is hang on to and cling to what you have to give to those who need it most, then you’ll lose your life; but those willing to “lose their life for my sake will save it”. The apostles didn’t like this talk of suffering and sacrificing and dying. It didn’t “become” this Man whom they knew equated himself with God. But Jesus insisted: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father...” Shortly after this Peter, even after witnessing Jesus’ glory and the glory of God’s voice confirming Jesus as God’s Son, will make a lame comment about building permanent “dwellings” on the mountaintop, on which Luke wisely comments: “...not knowing what he said.” Peter missed the whole point.

To better understand Luke’s passage today we can go to no finer source than the magnificent painting called
The Transfiguration, by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known to us simply as Raphael (1483-1520). I remember standing in awe at his tomb at the Pantheon in Rome in 1998. Later, in the Vatican Museum, I viewed another of his famous paintings, The School of Athens, though I missed seeing The Transfiguration.

Raphael was commissioned to do this painting in late 1516 or early 1517, by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. It was meant to go to the Cathedral of Narbonne, France, along with another painting by Sebastiano del Piombo. It never left Rome, however; it was almost completed, except for the bottom right-hand area, but had to be finished by others after Raphael died in 1520 at the age of 37.

The two main sections of the painting encompass today’s whole Gospel story. In the topmost section a resplendent Christ, clothed in snow-white raiment, seems to float, as if suspended before the painting itself, hands raised in an almost ecstatic gesture toward the unseen divinity of the Father and the Holy Spirit, united and concentrated in himself. Jesus is flanked on either side by Moses and Elijah. Spectacular light effects blind the trio of Peter, James and John, contrasting with the darkness of the lower scene. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century Italian painter, architect, and biographer of the great Italian artists, in his Lives of the Artists, refers to “
...the perfect art of Raphael, who seems to have summoned up all his powers in such a manner, in order to show the supreme force of his art in the countenance of Christ, that, after finishing this, the last work that he was to do, he never again touched a brush, being overtaken by death...

Off to the left, Raphael shows two kneeling figures identified as SS. Justus and Pastor, two 4th century Spanish saints, who died under the governor, Dacian, in the co-reign of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. They were schoolboys, Justus, age 13, and Pastor, age 9, who allegedly ran out of their school, loudly proclaiming their Christian faith, just as Dacian was torturing a group of Christians. Dacian became so enraged that he had them severely beaten, then beheaded. They later became patron saints both of Alcalá, Spain, where their relics are kept, and of Madrid. By including them Raphael underscores the necessity of faith in understanding the vision. Justus and Pastor see and are illuminated by faith, and, evoking the role of the saints, kneel as intercessors for the beholders. In the painting the upper scene, with its light, color, and transcendence, as a vision occupies a different pictorial reality from their own.

What you see in the bottom half of the painting is the second main section, which really has three parts: the nine other apostles on the left; the demon-possessed boy, his father, and others surrounding them on the right; and then the figure of a kneeling woman, separating the two groups. Giorgio Vasari, describing the right-hand section says: “...There may be seen a young man possessed by a spirit, who has been brought thither in order that Christ, after descending from the mountain, may deliver him...” Vasari describes the boy: “ a distorted attitude, crying and rolling his eyes, and reveal[ing] his suffering in his flesh, his veins, and the beat of his pulse, all infected by that malignant spirit; and the color of his flesh, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures, is very pale.” Next to the boy, holding him, is a man, presumably his father, with a furrowed brow and wide open eyes looking directly to the apostles, as if alternating between hopefulness and fear.

Moving slightly to the left, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the blonde-haired woman, kneeling in the middle. Vasari refers to her as “
...the principal figure in that panel who, having knelt down before the Apostles, and turning her head towards them, stretches her arms in the direction of the maniac and points out his misery...” This figure differs from the others in several respects: 1) she’s not mentioned in the Scriptural passage; 2) she’s the only identifiable female figure amidst all male figures; 3) Raphael paints her skin and draped clothing in much cooler tones and illuminates her pink garment, such that it almost shines as white as the clothing of the transfigured Christ, Moses, and Elijah; 4) she is spatially and tonally set off from both groups; 5) Raphael paints her kneeling in a contrapposto pose. Contrapposto is an Italian term used in visual art to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot or knee so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs, giving it either a more dynamic or relaxed appearance. The technique was also used, particularly in sculpture, to demonstrate the body’s ability to convey a whole range of human dispositions and experience, which is what Raphael seems to have done using the medium of painting.

The painted female figure serves the same purpose as someone addressing the group. The gesture of her gaze and pointed arm and finger “speaks” directly to the apostles, appealing to them to look at the demoniac boy. But, despite her striking presence, the apostles look past her, remaining unresponsive to the boy’s real need. Their inability to “see” the sick boy as a test of their faith, in effect, prevents them from being able to heal him: as the boy’s father tells Jesus later, “
I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.” The beauty and white-shining skin of the woman suggests that she figures here on earth the divine manifestation of the radiant, compassionate Christ; she is a bridge figure between the Apostles and the group around the boy who needs to be released from the demon.

Luke’s Jesus uses the words “
faithless and perverse” in rebuking the Apostles later. In Matthew’s version of the story, when they privately ask why they couldn’t heal the boy, Jesus spells it out plainly: “Because of your little faith.” And that’s what Raphael is trying to express in his use of the female figure. St. Augustine, commenting on this story, sees it as a parable for the need to exercise faith in addressing the needs of others, and this female figure, ignored by the apostles, highlights their failure of faith to see and to understand, much less to address the true challenge of the possessed boy.

As we pause and gather our thoughts in this space between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of the Lenten season, the Gospel reading and Raphael’s depiction of the Transfiguration invite us to reflect on the questions which both raise for us. That isn’t easy! Honestly, Luke’s story and Raphael’s painting leaves me somewhat overwhelmed, confused, uncertain as to what to make of it, struggling to uncover the meaning beneath the literal words. My own personal hunch, though I don’t claim that this was Raphael’s intent, is that the female figure might represent
Sophia = Wisdom. She reflects, in an earthly fashion, the fullness of God’s glory and splendor, expressed in God’s being as holiness, justice, judgment, mercy, love, and grace. She understands that each of us is called to be that for one another, at the deepest places of our need. She asks of each of us to identify what our true need is, and asks “To whom do you and I reach out, and how do we reach out?”: in hopefulness? in fear? in desperation? In terms of our relationships with one another, Sophia/Wisdom calls us to task on our inattentiveness, our ignorance, our insensitivity, or even our willful overlooking of one another’s cries for help. She seeks to draw us into her vision, the glory and power of Godself, into faith, to help us realize that we, in Christ, are “the son/the daughter, the chosen”, every one of us, responsible for each another.

To realize this and to implement it in day-by-day living takes time. Sometimes we get TMI = "Too Much Information" as, for example in this Gospel, in the painting, and in this reflection on it! We need time to ponder over it, to pray about it, to discern where it could be leading us. Luke says that “
a cloud came and overshadowed them”. There are only two times in Scripture that the word epikiázo = to cast a shade on, to envelop is used: the first, at the Annunciation to Mary [“the power of the Most High will overshadow you”, and secondly, in this Transfiguration story told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Artist Jan Richardson notes that “Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people...God makes architecture of our anatomy. God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.” After Mary is “overshadowed”, she silently carries Jesus in her womb. After the Transfiguration, Luke says, “they kept silent and...told no one any of the things they had seen”.

And so, perhaps, must we. But in our silence it might be wise for us to join the great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in offering his prayer to Jesus on the mountaintop:

You, majestic sovereign...move off the page!
Move off the page to the world,
move off the page to the trouble,
move out of your paged leisure to the turmoil of your creatures.
Move to the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses,
and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children.
Listen to the groans and moans,
and see and hear and know and remember, and come down!

Bear in mind, though, in praying thus: it’s only in and through you and me, by his grace, that the transcendent Christ can come down!