Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Do 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...” Imagine my surprise upon first reading that, and noting that the writer was Ellen G. White, pioneer of the Sabbatarian Adventist movement, later known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church! 
Lent, with its disciplines of prayer, fasting, and outreach to those in need, fosters an awareness of our utter need of God. In American society most everyone makes use of some sort of professional service(s): 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 hear 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 today’s Scripture readings, the question, “What is it that I want?”, seems terribly relevant. How would you or I respond to Jesus if he were to come here today, to sit down and spend time with us, giving each one of us, personally, ten minutes to answer his question: “What can I do for you? What do you really want?” 
In the first reading (Genesis 15:1-12;17-18), Abram asks point-blank a 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?” According to 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. The Nuzi 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 the patriarch and his wife in their old age, and to provide for their burial in return for the slave’s endowment.

Taking Abram outdoors, God tells him: “You’re worried about the wrong thing. I’ve got something 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 onto 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...” 

The Covenant, 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 contracts among people in ordinary life. To ratify the terms, 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.
For God to make a covenant with a human being was astounding. 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.” 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”. 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; 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,...Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Paul puts his finger on what it is that you and I really want: God’s love, God’s presence, God’s Spirit: for us.
In the Philippians passage, Paul indicates that when people lack faith, such as Abram’s, it becomes normal for them to want what is destructive. He speaks 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 talks about “their shame”, i.e., the insatiable lusts of body, mind, or spirit which end up “eating” us alive. 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 he 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...
Paul wants all those in the community of faith, including us, to sustain and be sustained by each other’s example, to show in our lives 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 community, who seem to prefer selfish priorities and willfully reject Christ by their attitudes and actions, mirrors Jesus’ sentiments 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 those of 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 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 [and I] 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 experience. Yet, God continues to pursue us despite our stonewalling, even in the face of our rejection and 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 Francis Thompson, in his moving poem, The Hound of Heaven

He 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?...

As we continue on through these weeks of Holy Lent, I commend to you this prayer of Blessed Julian of Norwich:

God of your goodness, give me yourself
for you are enough to me;
and I can ask for nothing that is less
that can be full honor to you.
And if I ask for anything that is less,
ever shall I be in want:
for only in you have I all.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lent 1

A Litany of Repentance & Forgiveness

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy on us.

For self-centered living,
and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.

For longing to have what is not ours,
and for hearts that are not at rest within us;
For misuse of human relationships,
and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.

For jealousies that divide families and nations,
and for rivalries that create strife and warfare; 
For reluctance in sharing the gifts of God,
and for carelessness with the fruits of creation:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.

For hurtful words that condemn,
and for angry words that harm;
For idleness in witnessing to Jesus Christ,
and for squandering the gifts of love and grace.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One, have mercy upon us.

God, whose patience goes far beyond our erring, is gracious and merciful.
God brings you new life, forgives and redeems you.
Take hold of this forgiveness and live your life in the Spirit of Jesus.

(Taken from the Sunday bulletin for Lent 1, February 17, 2013,
The Chapel of St. George - The Bishop's Ranch, Healdsburg, CA)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Lord's Fast

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 

 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am." (Isaiah 58:6-9)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shrove Tuesday: A Day To Laugh

Fr. Karl Rahner, in his delightful chapter on Shrove Tuesday in The Eternal Year, urges us to laugh heartily today. He decries those who take themselves so seriously that they look askance at a good belly laugh or criticize those who are adept at a good guffaw. He actually suggests that, not only does that smack of ungodliness, it's a possible sign of downright lack of love.

Spontaneous laughter, especially at unexpected moments, reminds us that we are human, that we're not the Almighty, that, as Rahner says, we are "that manifold, incalculable being that never factors out without a remainder. The being that can be broken down into no common denominator other than that which is called God--which you are not, and never will be." In acknowledging ourselves to be humans, we are acknowledging God who has given us life in which there are all sorts of times and moments, including "a time to weep and a time to laugh.

Secondly, who can doubt that Godself laughs? Amidst all the human antics and foibles for which we're responsible here below, who cannot visualize our great God roaring with laughter at our naiveté, our bumbling attempts at dignity and seriousness, our utter inability, most times, to "get it".

Finally, our laughter, our joy is but a foretaste, a tease, to keep us on the journey toward the unspeakable joy and laughter which await us as we pass from human life into resurrection. 

Most of us will probably be attending Shrove Tuesday celebrations at our parish of choice this evening. So go ahead, dig into the flapjacks, smear on the butter, pour on the maple syrup and laugh with abandon as you enjoy the company of your sisters and brothers!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Lent Madness - Not On the "Give-up" List

LENT 2013: With the Super Bowl over and the NCAA basketball tournament weeks away, sports fans throughout the Episcopal Church in California and the U.S. are turning their gaze toward Lent Madness. Mixing spiritual enlightenment and competition, people have found a way to create a win-win situation. Many participants choose to donate all of the entry fees to a local or other charity. 

Based loosely on the wildly popular NCAA basketball tournament, Lent Madness pits 32 saints against one another in public voting as they compete for the coveted Golden Halo. But it is more than that: Lent Madness is really an online devotional tool designed to help people see how God works in the lives of ordinary women and men. The competition begins on Thursday, February 14 and takes place at

Lent Madness offers a fun and creative way to learn and be inspired by some amazing people, whose lives were outstanding in terms of their sensitivity and compassion for others. In learning about them, we’re likely also to learn about ourselves and how we might contribute to the world’s betterment.

The Rev. Tim Schenck, an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts, combined his love of sports with his passion for the lives of the saints to create Lent Madness in 2010. Schenck partnered in 2012 with Forward Movement, a publisher and catalyst for spiritual vitality in The Episcopal Church. 

Here is a chance to show that, even during the traditionally penitential season of Lent observed in many places, we’re not required to give up our sense of humor,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement. “Last year we reached over 50,000 people with Lent Madness, and we hope to spread reckless joy and contagious discipleship with even more people this Lent.

Visit to view the full bracket of saints, learn about the contributors, and, starting on February 14, to vote.

Forward Movement has worked since 1935 to reinvigorate the life of the church. Based in Cincinnati, OH, Forward Movement is widely known for the daily devotional, Forward Day by Day. Lent Madness is one of many ways that Forward Movement, an outreach of The Episcopal Church, hopes to encourage spiritual growth in our daily lives. 

The Space Between Epiphany & Lent

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We stand in the space between the 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 the Sunday Gospels have begun to look at Jesus’ 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, from his earliest years, it had taken the form of being led by God to proclaim a hands-on message of hope, love, and compassion by reaching out to the lowliest, 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, awesome, even intimidating, events, often confusing and beyond human explanation: but always in behalf of the lowly and the poor. 

Jesus’ entire 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 working, and bursting in, breaking into, our familiar world through unforeseen happenings, utterly amazing occurrences, shattering all human expectations. Think of the steward’s reaction in the wedding of Cana in the Gospel of the Second Sunday after Epiphany; or recall the Gospel incident of 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 passage in the space between Epiphany and Lent (Luke 9:28-43). Luke begins by situating us, 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 comprehends 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, rather than 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”. This talk about suffering, sacrificing and dying was distasteful to the Apostles. It didn’t “become” this Man who seemed to equate 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, I want to urge you, at your leisure, to look up a copy of the great painter Raphael’s magnificent work called The Transfiguration. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, his full name, lived from 1483 to 1520. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici commissioned Raphael to do this painting in late 1516 or early 1517. It was intended to go to the Cathedral of Narbonne in France, but, in fact, it never left Rome. It was left uncompleted, except for the bottom right-hand area, and had to be finished by others because of Raphael’s premature death in 1520 at age 37. 

There are two main sections of the painting and they encompass today’s whole Gospel story. In the topmost section Raphael painted a resplendent Christ, clothed in snow-white raiment. It seems to float, as if suspended before the painting itself, Christ’s 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 Apostles: Peter, James and John, notably contrasting with the darkness of the painting’s lower scene.  

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. They were schoolboys, Justus, age 13, and Pastor, age 9, who, according to pious legend, ran out of their school, loudly proclaiming their Christian faith, just as Dacian was torturing a group of Christians. This so enraged Dacian that he had them severely beaten, then beheaded. By including them in the painting Raphael sought to underscore the necessity of faith in understanding the vision of Christ. Justus and Pastor see and are illuminated by faith, and, evoking the role of the saints, kneel as intercessors for the beholders. 

The bottom half of Raphael’s painting of The Transfiguration is the second main section, and has three parts: 1) the nine other Apostles on the left; 2) a demon-possessed boy, his father, and others surrounding them on the right; 3) 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 furrowed brow and wide open eyes looking directly to the Apostles, as if alternating between hopefulness and fear.

The viewer’s eye, moving slightly toward the center, 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 in the upper half of the painting; 4) she is spatially and tonally set apart from both the other groups; and 5) Raphael paints her kneeling in what artists call 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. 

In a way, the female figure appears as someone addressing the group of the Apostles. The gesture of her gaze and pointed arm and finger “speaks” directly to them, appealing to them to look at the demoniac boy. But, despite her striking presence, Raphael paints the Apostles as either looking down or looking past her, unresponsive to the boy’s 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’s 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 leaves no doubt, saying: “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 today’s Gospel story, sees it as a parable for the need to have genuine faith in addressing the needs of others, and this female figure, ignored by the Apostles, highlights their failure of faith to care, to see, to understand, much less to do anything about the possessed boy’s problem. 

In this space between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of the Lenten season, both the Gospel reading and Raphael’s depiction of The Transfiguration invite us to reflect on the questions which both raise for us. We may feel somewhat overwhelmed, confused, uncertain as to what to make of them, as we try to uncover the meaning beneath the literal words. My own hunch, though I don’t know 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, through the power of the Holy Spirit, at the deepest places of our need. She asks 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?” Is it in hopefulness? in fear? in desperation? In our relationships with one another, Sophia/Wisdom calls us to task for 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.

We need time to reflect on this Gospel story, to pray about it, to discern where its message might be guiding us. Luke says that “a cloud came and overshadowed them”. There are only two times in Scripture the Greek word epikiázo = to cast a shade on, to envelop, to overshadow is used: 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. In our silence we might well think about a prayer to Jesus on the mountaintop, written by the noted biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann: 

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! 

But bear in mind, while praying thus, that it’s only in and through you and me, by the Spirit’s power, that the transcendent Christ can come down!