Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Spirit In Prayer

In a way, people pray to each other. The way I say “you” to another, respectfully, hopefully, intimately, in desperation, or expectantly: all this is a way of praying. Could it be that praying to God grew out of this human experience of speaking to and communicating with one another?

It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of what we call prayer. Praying is simply there in the holy books of all the religions of humankind. The Bible takes prayer for granted. So much so, that the Hebrews really had no technical phrase for “to pray”. They used words like entreat, rejoice, pour out one’s heart, cry aloud, praise, bless, according to however a person felt in relation to the Divine. The Hebrews prayed to their own God, Yahweh, the only One who could help. Other gods -- and the people of Israel were surrounded by many -- were helpless. Psalm 115:5 proclaims: “Our God is in heaven, and whatever God wills to do comes to pass. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands... Those who make them are like them, and so are all who put their trust in them... 

The Holy God revealed God’s presence, Godself, to Israel. The Hebrew word for God = Yahweh means something like “I am who I am”, but with the added idea of presence, of being with. The unique thing about the God of the Hebrews is that what God says God also does.

God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham is renewed down through history. Each time God remakes the Covenant, God is revealed to the people as a Father with two qualities: 1) lovingkindness, mercy (hesed), and 2) faithfulness, reliability, loyalty, dependability (emeth). Implicit in Hebrew prayer to such a God was a request for life, i.e., total blessing, a filling of all of one’s needs, personal, earthly and spiritual, both for the individual and for the nation, the community.

Everything was allowable for the people of God in prayer. No word was too bold or too spontaneous to be used before God. This was, after all, the same God who walked through the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8); the God whom Abraham, father of the chosen people, tried to “fast-talk” in today’s first reading (Genesis 18:20-32); the God whom Jacob wrestled in fierce competition so as to claim God’s blessing. (Genesis 32:24; 26-28) It’s against this background and within this understanding of prayer that Jesus of Nazareth was formed and lived and taught.

Luke’s Gospel reading (11:1-13) today reminds us of our need to turn back again and again to the words and actions of Jesus in order to learn how to pray. Jesus’ disciples, feeling that their own prayer lacked something, approached him and asked, “Teach us to pray.” They’d seen Jesus pray many times, and knew that it was something important to him. They also noticed that John the Baptizer taught his followers to pray, as rabbis often did. Jesus, a master teacher, offers them a simple and direct way of praying. Only one other text, Matthew 6:9-13, records this prayer. Luke’s form seems to be the original one in Greek. Translated literally, Jesus says something like this: “When you express your wish toward God, say this: ‘Father, may your name be held holy. May your reign come. Give us continually, every day, the bread sufficient to sustain us through tomorrow. And let go, don’t keep any longer, forgive our going wrong. For even we ourselves pass over the dues owed to us by others. And do not bring us to the test, the proving.’

What Jesus hands on to us here is far more than a mere formula: much more than a treasured “Lord’s Prayer” to pass on to posterity, to record in our books of worship and to preserve like some ancient museum piece. What Jesus gives us in these six short lines is a way of touching God’s very Presence. For Jesus, praying means bringing to a personal, loving Father our deepest needs, and then letting go, yielding ourselves to God so that those needs might be in harmony with God’s purpose.

Praying means asking God, as Jacob did, “What is your name?”, i.e., “Tell me who you really are.” To pray is to turn that little word “God” into a name which means something to you and me. Biblically, the name stands for the person. It’s never just a word or a label. A person’s name is full of personal history. Biblical names, especially, speak of the person’s mission or purpose: Abraham, father of a multitude; Isaac, he laughs; Jacob, God protects; David, beloved; Jeshua or Jesus, God is salvation. 

Speaking someone’s name reminds us of all that we share in common and of our whole relationship with that person. Calling someone by name enables the person to be him/herself. It shows that we take them seriously as a person. When a loved one dies, the name spoken recalls his/her presence. By deliberately not using someone’s name, never addressing a person by their first name or always making do with a surname or a nickname, or simply by calling out to someone “Hey, you”, in some way lessens that one’s status as a person. In praying to God by name as “Father” or “Mother”, since God is beyond human designations or categories, and the precedent for which many saints have historically set, we let God be Godself: the Holy One who is with us, the faithful and lovingly merciful God. We show that we take God seriously.

In the Gospel Jesus uses an illustration to make two points about prayer:

  1. To pray takes persistence, work, and trust. Jesus uses the parable of the persistent friend. His point is that we approach God on God’s terms, without giving up, and, above all, with faith. There’s no need to plead with God as with a hostile judge or an insensitive neighbor. God inevitably recognizes our need. Jesus‘ advice is to ask, to search, to knock. The Greek text gives the idea of a continuing action. We’re to pray continually, in all situations of our life, not only on selected occasions of crisis or depression.
  2. A parent listens to the “prayer” of a child. Jesus speaks of a child asking the father for basic food (bread, fish, egg). He tells us that if we can trust a human parent to respond, how much more God. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!

In Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, and elsewhere, Paul speaks of  “the Spirit of Christ”, the presence or closeness of God personified in the Holy Spirit. It’s that Spirit, active in the life of Jesus, he says, which brings you and me freedom, life and peace. “ are not of the flesh; you are of the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you...” That contrasts vividly with what Paul calls, in today’s Epistle, “the elemental spirits of the universe... not according to Christ”. For Paul, the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to prayer: “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) Julian of Norwich records a delightful dialogue with Jesus in her Revelations which always greatly reassures my own personal prayer: “And all this brought our Lord suddenly to my mind and He showed these words and said: ‘I am the ground of your praying -- first, it is my will that you have something, and next I make you to want it, and afterwards I cause you to pray for it. If you pray for it, how, then, could it be that you would not get what you ask for?” This, in essence, is what Paul means in referring to the Spirit’s intercession.

What can we conclude from all this?
  • Prayer requires discipline. It’s an art developed through intention, effort and practice. One learns to pray by praying: not merely by reciting prayers or repeating words. There’s a “holy monotony” in prayer. And there are inescapable distractions. But if your prayer life only repeats someone else’s words, where is the “closeness of the Lord”, the communication, the presence?
  • Addressing God as “Father”, as Jesus taught us, involves an awesome responsibility, viz., addressing one another as “sister” and “brother”. There’s no such thing as “just me and Jesus”. In Baptism, where we become part of the Communion of Saints, we accept the whole Christ. We’re one with him and with one another.
  • Prayer isn’t an application for spiritual welfare assistance! The prayer which Jesus taught us first and foremost asks that God be honored and that God’s reign, God’s presence, be shared universally. Only then do we ask for ourselves, and even then, only for what God knows we need most.
  • In a “Ziggy” cartoon I once saw, Ziggy is standing all alone in darkness on a high hill. Looking up into the clouds he wonders, “Have I been put on hold for the rest of my life?!” We’ve all felt that way. God always answers prayer, but it’s on God’s terms and in God’s time. And in this God is always full of surprises! There’s no way to barter with God, or to try to be a wheeler-dealer or con-artist, as Abraham attempts to do in today’s first reading. Notice the last line of that story: “And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham.
  • The best pray-ers are the man, the woman, the child or the congregation who is willing to trust. “...don’t be anxious about your life...Instead, set your hearts first on God’s reign, and these things will be given you as well.” (Luke 12:22; 31) In prayer we seek not the consolations of God, but the God of consolation.
  • Finally, the fundamental place where you and I meet the Father, Jesus and the Spirit in prayer is here in the breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the Cup. The Book of Common Prayer calls this word and action “the principal act of Christian worship”. We, the praying community, ask for the revelation of God’s name, the revelation of who God is, so that we may come to know who we are. Artist Corita Kent says that “to celebrate is to explain who we are and to say ‘yes’ ceremonially...” 
There’s an old Hasidic story about an ignorant villager who, having heard that it’s a good religious deed to eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, drank himself into a stupor. He awakes late at night, too late for the opening service. Not knowing the prayers by heart, he devises a plan. He repeats the letters of the alphabet over and over, asking the Almighty to rearrange them into the appropriate words of the prayers. The following day, after the closing service, the rabbi asks him about his absence the previous evening. The villager confesses his failing and asks whether his way of reciting the prayers can be pardoned. The rabbi replies: “Your prayer was more acceptable than mine because you uttered it with the entire devotion of your heart. 

Our praying together is like gathering up all the scrambled letters of our lives in the week just past; our hopes, mistakes, good intentions, heroic moments and our failures. Together we hold them in our outstretched hands, particularly when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Communion, and repeat them over and over to our Father, with and through Jesus, in the closeness of God’s Holy Spirit...with the entire devotion of our hearts.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Apostle To The Apostles

To St. Mary Magdalene

You claimed
the false
until you found
the True;
your beauty
until Beauty
wounded you,
and plunged your soul
into a spring so sweet
your tears
fell as chaste pearls
at Mercy's

(A. Page, CSC [aka Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald], Paths From Bethlehem)

Solidarity In Suffering

There’s a scene near the beginning of the musical, Fiddler On The Roof, where Lazar comes upon Nachem the Beggar. Nachem cries out: “Alms for the poor, alms for the poor...” Here, Reb Nachem, is one kopek”, says Lazar. “One kopek!” Nachem yells, “Last week you gave me two kopeks.” Lazar replies, “I had a bad week.” “So,” Nachem whines, “if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?!

Implicit in that comment is the age-old question in the face of suffering: “Why?” “Why me?” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that Job grappled with it, as have people ever since. Elie Wiesel, noted author and Holocaust survivor, whom I was privileged to hear speak at the university here in 1994, has spent virtually his entire life trying to understand, to make some sense of that horrific tragedy and of the question “Why?”, in order to bring hope to future generations.
Christians, generally, and the Anglican and Episcopal Churches  particularly, have a long tradition of people who have known suffering: St. Alban, c. the 3rd century, the first English martyr, who sacrificed his own life in place of another; Bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake in the 16th century; Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, shot to death by Idi Amin’s forces in 1977.

Years ago, whenever, as seminarians, we were faced with difficulties or illnesses, I can remember being advised to “offer it up”; to accept it “all for Jesus”; to embrace “self-denial and mortification”. Such advice often didn’t make sense and fostered the danger of ignoring or denying the reality of suffering. For the most part, our surrounding culture looks upon voluntary suffering as an absurdity, offering no useful lesson other than to make us miserable. Suffering is especially hard to comprehend when we see good people go under, while misfortune often seems to pass by those who are uncaring or who cause evil. Again, it’s the age-old story of Job. In recent centuries it seems that many in Western society have become conditioned against all degrees and kinds of suffering, perhaps because it’s so prevalent.  I remember a sad newspaper story some years ago where a young teenage girl up in Auburn, who’d been arrested with her friends for assault, casually commented: “We stabbed an old woman today. We had fun.
Our society seems to try, with the help of the pharmaceutical industry, to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. All day long TV ads push “doctor-recommended” tranquilizers, sleep-inducers, painkillers and hemorrhoid-shrinkers, intertwining these commercials with the latest news reports on who’s been beaten, robbed, stabbed, raped and maimed lately. Human life has apparently become that cheap for some. Compassion and pity seem to have become low priorities for many. We’ve almost institutionalized a new kind of barbarism, not least in our movies and video games.
The meaning of suffering in any form is difficult to grasp. We often don’t know what it is because suffering doesn’t seem to be uniform. Starvation in Mali or Haiti, for example, isn’t exactly the same as the hunger of a welfare recipient. Dying in the ovens of Auschwitz isn’t quite the same as dying in the bed of a nursing home. The physical pain of cancer doesn’t necessarily feel the same as the inner pain you feel when your spouse leaves you. Perhaps we understand suffering so variously because how we respond to it largely determines how we experience it. Throughout history men, women, and children suffer and are made to suffer. They accept, submit, and resist. The struggle between life and death is fought out in a thousand ways. We know little about the nature of suffering because it’s hard to measure or systematize how intense it is. For one person, a mental hunger may hurt more than an empty stomach. For another, separation and loss through death may affect a lover or mourner more deeply and lastingly than the loss of a home or property.

Suffering, as it has existed and exists today in our society, is often a cause of depression, even despair. The great Greek epics and elegies narrate and lament the fall of Troy and the death of great heroes. The tragedies offer their spectators a catharsis, a purging, with pity and terror. Those of us participating in the Diocesan Bible Challenge will have just completed reading the Book of Job this past week. The Book of Job outlines our sad plight as human beings, as well as the hope which Wisdom brings. Yet though all of these leave us with some small glimmer of hope, the question “Why?” remains at the forefront of our minds and hearts. For a follower of Jesus, the answer to the question “Why?” is the acknowledgment of suffering as a reality, but a reality which we confront, not alone, but in solidarity with our sisters and brothers. The Christian viewpoint is not fatalism or defeatism. There is a certain kind of escapism, such as that reflected in Psalm 124:7: “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; Our help is in the Name of the Lord…” Escaping, as Ulrich Simon notes, is “...but a first step in resistance [of suffering].  “As we run away from all sorts of prisons and tyranny we meet with comrades and find solidarity. A suffering shared may become a suffering redeemed or at least eased.” 
For a Christian, the answer to the question “Why?” is also the acceptance of suffering shared as redemptive. You’ve heard the old adage: “Misery loves company.” There must be truth to that because, according to the Good News which Jesus preached, through our solidarity in suffering as people of faith we’re somehow able to lessen it and even overcome it. We can’t argue this by way of the world’s logic. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but when we share each other’s burdens, we experience a sustaining love which goes beyond and conquers suffering and evil. God, in Jesus, has been depicted through the centuries as the eternal sharer in our suffering: most notably, in medieval icons, in the music of Bach, etc. 

The Epistle passage today from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:15-28) helps us understand this: “...I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church…” Paul certainly isn’t implying that a balanced, mature, normal Christian person enjoys suffering or sets out to be a victim or a martyr. But once one faces inevitable suffering, or even death, that suffering and dying can be transformed through union with Christ crucified. Polish workers back in the 1980‘s had a sense of this in the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) workers’ movement. Solidarity with Jesus has been the hallmark of all those who’ve accepted suffering and dying as the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. It’s  never a question of abnormally delighting in pain, but rather of making a conscious choice to bear the reality of our suffering in union with Christ’s Body, in order to go beyond suffering.
Our Christian witness is to share with those suffering and dying all around us, who are part of us, that despite our suffering we and they are in solidarity through the Person of Christ, that their hurts and needs are ours, and that because we are the Communion of Saints, we’re committed to do what we can to minister to their needs.

This message has become an increasing reality for me these past three years especially. During that time I’ve struggled daily with the fact that my closest friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, priest at St. John’s, Lakeport, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and with the reality of his eventual death. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when Leo won’t be around. Our friendship began in September, 1994, when I was Rector here at St. John’s and Leo came as a guest preacher. Two years later, when I was appointed Regional Missioner at Ukiah and Lakeport, we became close colleagues in developing shared ministry in what became the Redwood Episcopal Cluster. I can hardly think of a week, sometimes even days, in a row since then that Leo and I haven’t talked by phone, in addition to our many visits together. As “Roman retreads”, according to Episcopalians, we’ve bantered about the commonalities and quirks of our shared Roman Catholic background: the “in” jokes, the love for good liturgy and theology, and spirituality. As one of the most pastoral priests I’ve ever known, Leo has taught me in so many ways about what it means to genuinely care for others. He consistently represents in his own daily living what the patron of his Order, St. Francis of Assisi, had in mind for his friars. Even in the midst of Leo’s worst suffering over the past three years, his deep spirituality has still enabled him not to lose his devilishly refreshing humor, even his quips about wanting to be remembered as “St. Leo, Virgin & Martyr”! He and I have helped one another over the years through each of our “down” times, thankful for our solidarity in suffering, as we’ve equally rejoiced together in celebrating the good things with which we’ve been blessed.

Through Leo’s incredibly realistic, honest, and wholesome confrontation of his illness, suffering, and eventual death, he continues to convey to me and others what I spoke about earlier: learning hope through the presence and power of Jesus and through solidarity with one another in the face of suffering and death. Leo truly understands Paul’s words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. As he told his congregation at St. John’s, and as he’s told me many times, Leo sees his present journey as one of letting go and “going home”. He inspires and witnesses to all who know him by living with such graciousness, “securely established”, as Paul says, “steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel…” Like Mary of Bethany in the Gospel reading, Leo has “chosen the better part”, that is, being “a [true] servant of this gospel...rejoicing in [his] sufferings for [others’] [his] flesh...completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body...the church”; a true servant commissioned by God “to make the word...fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages...but has now been revealed to his saints.
My prayer is that you and I might be given such grace and courage to cope with our suffering together.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Go & Do Likewise"

I’d like to share a story with you, written a number of years ago by Eileen Suckley, an Episcopal laywoman and parishioner at Grace Church, Manchester, NH:

I need glasses, so when I arrived at the library one morning at 9 only to discover that the sign said it opened at 9:30, I was totally exasperated. To make matters worse, there, seated on the marble doorstep, was the grubbiest street person I have ever encountered. 
‘Terrific,’ I thought. ‘My one morning off, a dozen errands to run and I’m going to waste 30 minutes of it with this derelict.’
It was a hot, sultry morning without a hint of a breeze. I sat down at the farthest edge of the second stair. The marble steps felt cool against my back. A cordon of ants made their way along one of the cracks.
‘See him?’ my companion inquired.
‘See whom?’ I replied in my iciest tone.
‘Muskrat,’ he said, pointing to the base of the tree on our right.
After a moment...‘Yes, yes I do see him!’ 
‘He lives here...comes out every morning to collect his secret stash of food...third bush on the right.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because -- that’s where I keep my stash.’
‘Why doesn’t he eat yours, too?’
‘Because mine is in a bottle with a cork stopper.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to my legal pad.
‘It’s my to-do list.’
‘Don’t you know what to do without a list?’
‘Yes, of course, well, no, I just...How do you keep your daily appointments in order?’ I asked, making no effort to veil my sarcasm.
My companion just chuckled. ‘You never forget what’s really important to you. What are you reading? He pulled one of the books out of the top of my tote bag.
‘Now, really,’ I began to sputter, but he interrupted, ‘T. S. Eliot -- good man!’
‘You read T. S. Eliot?’ I asked incredulously.
‘You know, you’re a bit of a snob. Surely the similarities between Prufrock and myself have not escaped you!’
‘Not entirely.’
‘But I am most enamored of the ‘Four Quartets’: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’
I just sat there, off balance and uncomfortable. I absently wiped the sweat off the back of my neck. He reached into the recesses of his pocket and offered me a small flat bottle of some unspeakable libation. I did not avail myself of his hospitality but it touched me. I knew he was offering what he had, all he had.
‘No thanks.’
He shrugged and started down the stairs toward the street.
‘Wait!’ I started down the steps after him. As he turned, I offered my hand across the space between us. ‘Goodbye Mr....’
“Winn,’ he replied, taking my hand and raising it to his lips. Then he bowed slightly and strode off. Cary Grant never made a smoother exit.
Almighty and everlasting God, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon us, especially on one so blind of eye and callous of heart that she fails to see a child of God beaming in an unshaven face from the folds of a filthy overcoat.
I went back to the library several weeks later. The steps were empty. A landscaper was working in the front yard. The Muskrat chose not to appear. I’d brought some cookies, wrapped tightly in foil. I placed them under the third bush on the right alongside a small bottle. It was No. 7 on my to-do list. Mr. Winn would have been amused.
+ + +

Which brings us to Luke’s passage today in the Gospel (10:25-37) about knowing who the neighbor is and doing for the neighbor. It echoes the lovely Collect for today, where you and I have just prayed that God may mercifully grant that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” A teacher of the law tries to test Jesus by first asking what one has to do to “inherit” eternal life. Jesus throws the question right back at him, knowing that he’s the supposed expert in Mosaic Law and that he surely would know the answer to something so basic. And, of course, the lawyer’s answer shows that he does: “Love God with everything you have and are, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms his correct response, and adds: “Do this, and you will live.

But, being the Jewish legal expert that he is, accustomed to the usual rabbinic give-and-take of a good argument, he can’t let it go, and so he asks: “And exactly who is my neighbor?” Luke uses the Greek word plesion = whoever’s nearby, to designate who a neighbor is. In his customary way of teaching, Jesus tells a story, much like the one with which we began, the story of the Good Samaritan.

A Jewish man travels from Jerusalem to the marketplace in Jericho where the caravans met. Valuable cargoes were transferred there. Messages delivered on the way. Money carried from money-changers and banking interests in Jerusalem. Today Jericho is about a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem, on a very winding, meandering road, which in Jesus‘ day was called the Way of Blood or the Bloody Pass, because of the high rate of robberies and assaults that happened there. Sure enough, the Jewish man is attacked, stripped and beaten, almost to death. A priest, symbol of all that’s presumably best in Jewish society, happens to be coming by, sees the man, and passes on. So also a Levite, who had various religious and political duties, and was devoted to studying God’s law.

Then, according to Jesus, comes a Samaritan merchant, one of a group much hated and avoided by Jews of that time. Not only does he stop immediately, recognizing the man’s crisis, but he immediately does something: “He went to him” Luke says; he made himself available to the injured man. He disinfects the Jewish man’s wounds, probably with wine and healing oil, and binds him up. He sets him on his own beast and transports him to the nearest inn. It appears from Luke’s context that the Samaritan merchant may have been a “regular” at the inn. He gets the Jewish man a place to stay, and takes time to see that he’s comfortable, then gives the innkeeper money enough to cover costs, and tells him to put anything over and above on his tab and he’ll pay it on the way back.

Then Jesus turns to the legal expert and asks: “Now, how do you ‘read’ this experience?... Which of the three proved to be ‘neighbor‘ to the man in need?” The lawyer gives the obvious response: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus concludes: “There’s the answer to your question about ‘Who is my neighbor?‘ It’s whoever’s nearby and in need...Go and do likewise.” God had revealed the Sacred Name to Moses and to the Hebrews long before this incident: Yahweh = I Am Who Am With You, I Who Am Nearby, I Am the One Who Shows Mercy...I Am the Neighbor, and this is what neighbors do for one another.

When I was in seminary many years ago I read a novel that I never forgot, called God’s Frontier, by José Luis Martin Descalzo. In it, Don Macario, an old priest, battered by life and now dying of cancer, says to a younger priest: “This is not what your spiritual advisor said to you in the seminary. But if we were all sincere, we would confess that we could not stand Christ as a neighbor...” Nevertheless...Jesus calls us to be neighbor, to be there in compassion, for whomever comes our way. Fr. Daniel Berrigan once said that the opposite of love isn’t hatred: it’s indifference. Indifference is the skill of ignoring others, of putting our own well-being and options first. Berrigan says, rather sharply, that “at that point, life has become hell. We need be no more thoroughly damned.”

As you and I reflect this week on the words of Luke’s Gospel, might we ask ourselves how many folks’ lives would be touched if we lived just as we have this past week? How many more people would be comforted, consoled, loved, in less pain, and less depressed in just one square block of our neighborhood if we  were truly open to them as a neighbor? In the week ahead Jesus says to us, as to the legal expert: “Go and do likewise.” 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Giving Up Control

A familiar verse from Psalm 30 (v. 12) jumped out at me again this morning: "You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy." I say "again" for that verse was vivid in my heart on the June day in 2001 when my son came to visit me in Ukiah, he walked across the lawn to embrace me. For the previous year and a half, he'd been struck down suddenly with an autoimmune disease called Bickerstaff's encephalitis, the effects of which he still copes with today. For some time during the last two months of 1999 and into 2000, he was partially paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and I, at least, was fearful that he might never walk again, much less dance again on the ballet stage. God and he proved me wrong, and he eventually resumed his dancing career for another six years before retiring. His loss of control in the use of his body, and my loss of control in be utterly helpless to help, was a hard lesson, indeed.

The liturgical readings today hint at the difficulty and the necessity of giving up control. In the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Kings 5:1-14) Naaman a highly decorated military officer and commander faced losing control on two counts: 1) he was unexpectedly struck with leprosy, a huge embarrassment, and 2) he was sent into an adjoining territory to the prophet Elisha for a cure, only to have one of Elisha's underlings be sent out to greet him instead of the prophet himself, and to instruct Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan River. Interestingly, Naaman got to Elisha through the savvy suggestion of one of his wife's servants who knew of Elisha's reputation for healing in Samaria.  

Military brass don't take readily to second-rate treatment. Naaman was angry and insulted at Elisha's perceived snub, to say the least. The writer says that "He turned and went away in a rage." In another remarkable instance of simple servants' wisdom, Naaman's own staff pushes him to reconsider: "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean!'" Touché! Naaman swallows his pride, relinquishes control, goes down to the river and, voilà!, "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean."

In the Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-11; 16-20) Jesus commissions 70 new disciples, to whom he's presumably given some training, and sends them in pairs as a sort of advance, preparatory cadre to those places he intended to visit. If anyone wants to learn about giving up control, just listen to Jesus' explanation of their required modus operandi: "I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves..." No purses, no bags, no sandals, no greeting anyone on the road. When you enter a house, wish them "Peace" (shalom) and you'll know you're welcome if they return the wish. If you're not welcome, well, they'll for sure let you know! Stay with those who volunteer to put you up, and accept room and board. Don't move from house to house. Do the same to the towns you visit and who welcome you, accept their hospitality, and in return heal their sick and assure the folks there that God's reign has arrived. On the other hand, if the townspeople send you packing, go out into the middle of the street and wipe off the dust of the town from your feet as a sign of protest, then remind them also that God's reign has arrived.

Can you imagine what it felt like to give up control, simply based on Jesus' word, and to venture out among complete strangers to spread the Word, without the benefit of all the props, the reassuring comforts, and all the "stuff" with which we surround ourselves? Apparently, though, after they'd gotten the hang of it, the disciples eventually returned to Jesus "with joy", Luke says. But the thing that tickled them most was the fact that "even in your name the demons submit to us!": the kind of response you might expect from teenagers with a new X-Box! Nothing about the honor of sharing God's Word, nothing about all the different and good people they met along the way, nothing about the renewed hope of those who were healed...just that they seemed to have some control in zapping demons! Jesus provides a reality check by reminding them that it's God who is in control, and that without Jesus' empowerment they'd be able to do nothing. He says that what they should really be shouting about is that "your names are written in heaven". The reason for that is hinted at in the succeeding verses (21-24), namely that the Father has, intentionally, hidden the marvels of which they've been a part from "the wise and intelligent and [has] revealed them to infants..." One wonders if Jesus' use of the reference to "infants" was lost on the disciples! He impresses on them how blessed they are: "I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it." In Jesus, who is speaking to them, God's reign is embodied. It's here and now. And these disciples are blessed to have the reign of God in them, in their hearts and actions, by the grace of God present in their Master.     

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sermon In Response to DOMA & California's Proposition 8

This past Sunday I was privileged to hear one of my colleagues, The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris, Rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Sebastopol, CA, as she gave an inspiring homily relating some of the issues confronting our country and the Supreme Court's decisions this past week to St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians (5:1; 13-25). With her permission, I'm sharing it with you here. You can also find a link to St. Stephen's website at:
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Proper 8, Pentecost VI, June 30th, 2013 

The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris 
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 

It’s been a big week in the life of our nation. The Supreme Court has come back with verdicts about the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s own Proposition 8, along with some other less headline-grabbing verdicts. Many of us have been riding an emotional rollercoaster as we’ve heard the verdicts—anger, frustration, joy, jubilation, relief, peace. There have been celebrations in the streets and opinion pieces decrying the error of our ways. There have been tears of joy and tears of frustration. 

In her article released on Wednesday, our Presiding Bishop, the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, voiced her support of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA, reminding us that our Church has taken the position that neither federal nor state governments should create constitutional prohibitions that deny full civil rights and protections to gay and lesbian persons, including those available to different-sex couples through the civic institution of marriage. 

She writes, “I am deeply aware that faithful Americans find themselves on all sides of these issues, including those who have not yet clearly discerned an effective or appropriate response. It is possible to disagree AND work together for the good of the larger community. That is the bedrock of our democratic political system. It is also the foundation of life in the Body of Christ. Together we can help to build up the whole community, particularly if we have the courage to listen deeply to those who hold a different view. The Episcopal Church has an ancient tradition of attempting to hold divergent views together for the sake of deeper truth. All are beloved of God, and the flourishing of each is what we believe God intended from the beginning of creation. May we help to build a beloved community in which each and every person is treated with dignity, knowing that each and every one reflects the image of God.” 

Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia contains a similar plea. Paul entreats the Galatians to love their neighbor as themselves. The Galatian church has become divided over the issue of circumcision. You might notice that our reading today jumps from the first verse of chapter five to the 13th verse. It is in these verses that Paul discusses the situation that frames our passage today. When Paul arrived at Galatia, the people were non-Jews, they were pagans. He introduced them to Jesus. After he left, other Christians of Jewish background came through and convinced the Galatians that in order to follow Christ, they needed to take on Jewish practices. 

Paul argues that this emphasis on practices distracts from the gospel. For those of you who find Paul wordy and maybe even dull, you should know that he works some humor into his writing. He writes, “you who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ” (4a). Get it? Circumcision? You’ve “cut yourself off from Christ?” Later, in his passion, he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Woa! 

But more to the point, Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (v6). The Galatians have become distracted by the issue of circumcision and have begun to bite and devour one another. They are failing in the most important area… they are failing to love each other in Christ’s love. 

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” 

The claim of the gospel is that Christ has set us free. But contrary to the way we often view it, freedom does not mean the absence of entanglements[1]. It does not mean we do as we like without any thought to the impact of our actions. It does not mean a separation from relationships. In movies, our culture often likes to depict a contrast between young single men, living the wild fun life and those poor men tied down by the ball-and-chain wife. 

This is not Paul’s understanding of freedom. Freedom is a feature of our relationship with Jesus Christ and, therefore, becomes a feature of our other relationships. We are called to freedom… called to reveal Christ’s freedom in our lives and in our actions. 

But what does this Christian freedom look like in our relationships? It looks like relationships shaped by love of neighbor. Paul is arguing unequivocally that freedom is for love…freedom allows us to love, empowers us to love. Discerning what God has done for each of us in Christ shapes the way we love our neighbors in response. And in loving our neighbors, we grow to better understand what God has done for us. 

The harsh debates and infighting among the young Christians in Galatia were outward and visible signs of ongoing enslavement—signs that they had not fully embraced their freedom. Practicing faith with zeal which gives rise to anger, malice, and divisiveness ceases to be faithful, ceases to be life-giving. Paul calls the Galatians to faith working through love. 

The Galatians were allowing their debates over the law of circumcision to be given precedence over the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. By staking their claim so firmly as either circumcised or uncircumcised they began to lose their true identity as children of God called to love God and God’s other children. 

No matter what side you fall on each of the rulings this week, we are all at risk of this outcome. In the heat of our emotions, passions, and convictions we are all at risk of forgetting our central identity as children of God and of failing to see those who disagree with us as our siblings in God, as our neighbors God calls us to love. 

It is easy for those who disagree with us to become so “other,” so foreign, so wrong, that our hearts grow hard against them, that we falter in our love for them and care for them. We know well that there are differing opinions within this nation, between the denominations of Christ’s body, within the Episcopal Church, within this our church community of St. Stephen’s and, I would daresay, many times within our own individual families. 

We cannot afford to write off and stop loving those with whom we disagree. In doing so, we fall back under the yoke of slavery, we turn from the freedom we have in Christ. As we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, we fail to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strength, and with all our mind (Luke 10:27). And we begin to displace our own central identity as children of God. 

The striking down of DOMA and the confirmation of the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8, mark a very important moment for this country. Equality and justice are gospel issues—gospel issues that we are told time and again throughout our Holy Scripture are very dear to our God’s heart. 

Our Episcopal Church as a body—a body of elected lay people, deacons, priests, bishops—informed by theologians and Biblical scholars— has taken a clear stand against federal and state governments creating constitutional prohibitions denying the full civil rights and protections to gay and lesbian persons. 

Internally, the church is presently engaged in a period of study and dialogue about the nature of Christian marriage. At our General Convention of the entire Episcopal Church in 2012, a liturgy for same sex blessings was approved for trial use. While the canon law of the church has not yet been amended and these liturgies are still in the trial phase, in this diocese, our Bishop has written and given the clergy permission to act as agents of the state for the purposes of a marriage and as clergy of the church for the blessing. 

Speaking about the same-gender marriages once again being legally possible in California, our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barry Beisner, wrote on Wednesday, “As you know, I have been openly in favor of the restoration of such rights, which I take to be a matter of basic civil rights. I am, therefore, among those who rejoice at this decision, as I know many of you do. I am also mindful that others among us may feel differently about this issue, particularly when it comes to the matter of marriage equality in the Church. May God help us to hold each other in that respect and love to which we are committed in the promises of Holy Baptism.” 

Each time we renew our baptismal covenant, we are asked: 

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? 
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

May we continue to answer with our words and our lives: I will, with God’s help.  AMEN. 

 [1] Mark Douglas, “Feasting on the Word,” Year C, Vol. 3