Reflections for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3:14-21

More than the other accounts,
John’s gospel is a meditation on Jesus’ presence in the world
as an encounter, a conflict,
that seems to casts everything into sharply defined oppositions-
life and death, light and darkness, sight and blindness.
And it wrestles with how a person moves between these places,
or doesn’t.

And because John also starts at the very beginning of things,
lets begin there too.

Just as the snake slides into the poem
and the long narrative of struggle begins,
the creation account in Genesis ends by telling us that
human beings, the man and the woman,
were together in the garden and they were naked,
and they were not ashamed to be.

They didn’t know they were naked,
because there was no such thing as being naked.
Nakedness means that something is uncovered that shouldn’t be,
which isn’t how animals work;
nothing in that walked or crawled or swam
doubted that it was complete.
Nakedness is a judgement;
it requires the ability to imagine how other minds see you,
and to perceive that there is something wrong with the way you are.
The human man and woman have no thought like this;
they are creatures, confident
that they are what the LORD
intended them to be in their skin.

So the man and woman
talk to the snake and eat the
fruit of the tree of knowledge.
And what do they know then?
That they are naked.
The first act of human labor
is to sew skirts of leaves to hide themselves.
They had discovered shame.
When they heard the LORD walking in the garden,
they hid themselves away in the trees, out of sight.
So that the LORD, looking for them, called ‘where are you?”
And the human called back
and said “I heard you walking,
but I was afraid because I was naked.”

There is one of the important stories
Genesis seems to be telling about humanity:
we sense that something is wrong with us,
and we are afraid of our wrongness being exposed,
being reflected back to us
to show that we are unfit to be with.
And so we refuse to be seen, we become secret;
we hide ourselves from each other, and from God.
I would rather hide from relationship
than see that I am unfit to be with.

John shows us Jesus flinging the reach of salvation wide.
As wide as the whole world;
announcing that he was sent into the world
out of love and not anger,
not to condemn people but to save.

But some are condemned already,
Jesus tells his conversation partner,
because they have not believed in the name of the Son of Man,
which is another way of saying,
trusted in the power of God present in the Jesus.
But while there’s breath and light,
in what sense is anyone condemned already?
That might sound like the outworking of destiny,
if Jesus didn’t go on talking.
He says, the judgement that condemns is this:
light came into the world, and people preferred the darkness.
Why did they love darkness?
Because their deeds were evil.
Not, Jesus seems to say,
because they were wrapped up in misplaced desires,
in some comfortable, seductive sin.
While those who do what is true come into the light,
carrying the history of their deeds, where they can be seen.
Those who refuse to come to the light, they stand in the dark for fear,
imagining that they can remain secret there, unexposed.
In other words, the Lord came into the world
and is going about looking for them, and they are hiding.

We judge some lives good
and we judge lives to have been lived bent away from the light,
chances to love, chances at companionship, wasted.
Good and bad; part of us wants to sort the world out that way.

But here’s what you and I know well:
humanity is not divided
into those who do evil and those who don’t;
there is no hard edge to the shadow
dividing darkness and light in us and among us.

We’re here in Lent,
with its disciplines of introspection-
we’re here at all-
because we are in struggle
with the evil we accept into us and that we harbor;
that damages our capacity
for friendship with God and one another.
We do things we should not
and we neglect or outright flee things we should face;
we withhold what must be given.
We do wrong.
And we stand in need of forgiveness
again and again.
Our life as people being saved,
our life as people being transformed by grace,
is life with a gradually slackening but never absent
instinct is to pull darkness around those parts of us,
to fill up every space and silence where we might meet ourselves.

Christ came into the world determined to forgive.
To not allow what we have done,
whatever its consequences—the pathetic, petty, ordinary sins,
and the terrible, the fearful, the soul-hollowing-sin—
to separate us from God.
Whoever you are.
And saying yes to that
means trusting the God who encourages us
to a terrible step, into that space
where nothing is hidden,
because that’s the only way
to discover that what we fear will make us unfit for God
does not, and we need not be ashamed.
We will keep discovering forgiveness,
how we are being saved by a love that does not fail.
We’re given life again.


Reflections for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

What happens in Mark’s gospel this morning
is the event the Church calls The Transfiguration—
this moment on the high mountain
when Jesus metamorphoses, becomes something
different than what he appeared to be
as he’s been with them. And a cloud comes down,
and a voice comes down out of it and claims Jesus the Beloved,
and commands the disciples to listen to him.
If you’ve been around the Episcopal Church for a while,
you may have noticed—but don’t feel badly if you haven’t—
that our tradition has a special Feast day to remember the transfiguration of Jesus. 
Its in August. We’re in February.
We’re hearing the story this morning
because this is the story that always comes last before Lent begins.
Its always the hinge between our wondering together about the meaning
of Jesus’ having come to be with us,
and our wondering at the meaning of his death.
Its the hinge in Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry,
that begins with his baptism, and he’s healing and teaching, 
and outside of Caesarea Phillipi,
Jesus starts telling his friends that he must die and be raised.
And then, before he goes to Jerusalem and events tumble toward the cross,
he takes Peter and James and John up a mountain.
My dad was an artist, a painter.
Half the house was his studio.
In there, it smelled like linseed oil and turpentine,
and on tables around his easels were ranks and piles
of twisted aluminum paint tubes,
and the palettes with their beads and swirls
of ochre, umber, viridian,
where he was stabbing with his brush,
scrubbing them together in search of a color that was true.
Cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine;

these were what he had to work with.
Pure, dense pigment, and what an extraordinary luxury!
Until the eighteenth century,
the only way to make the stable,
ultramarine blue was from a stone, lapis lazuli,
dug out of a valley in Afghanistan, drug across
deserts to Italy and ground into the dream of painters.
There was no other way to achieve or even imagine holding that color. 
It was the stripe in the hood of a flower the day it opened,
a racing iridescence across the wet body of a fish;
it was the possibility of painting sky as luminous as the sky feels.
It was the possibility of catching the truth beyond the surface of things,
the deeper pulse of life. 
So here is something that catches me about this story of Jesus’ transfiguration:
Marks writes that, when it happened, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.
His clothes became whiter than any cloth-handler on earth could make.
It was a fairly dingy world. It was hard to make anything clean,
let alone scour wool bright white—
even the robes of the precious people that were
pounded in alkali baths, fumed with sulphur looking for real white.
But in those moments on the mountain,
the ordinary, probably miserable clothes that Jesus wore,
became a color beyond color.
Something beyond earth.
Something divine,
but entwined with earth. 
But Jesus is still Jesus—
he’s still recognizably a human being in a man’s clothes;
he doesn’t blur out of comprehension,
or dissolve into earthquake and fire:
the way the people of Israel once saw Godself on a Mountain.
Jesus is a person. God has become entwined with humanness.
He is not God pretending to be a person.
Mark recognizes that this isn’t a moment that Jesus stumbled into—
his words about separating from the disciples
except Peter, James, and John,
“privately leads them them up alone to a high mountain,”
mean care for who and how this will be witnessed.
But as for what they saw and heard,
we have four staccato sentences:
Jesus was changed somehow;
his clothes became dazzling;
Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with him;
there was a cloud, and a voice sounded.
But the memory of those moments, however fragmentary
opens the greater mystery of God with us:
the dazzling and metamorphosed Jesus is a revelation
that everything the man Jesus did was a revelation of God,
that he was God as much everywhere he went, and everything he did,
as he was on the mountain.
And in the same way that all we see and touch becomes a part of us
—in the same way that everything that happens to us marks us—
everything that Jesus passed through in his human life
is a part of the life of God.
John’s gospel tells us Jesus rose with the wounds of the crucifixion. 
Luke writes that, when the risen Jesus
appeared among the disciples, he said
“Look at my hands and my feet—that I am myself.”
God came as Jesus into the world that God made-
God chose to be revealed like that–
because our Creator is willing to be in pain
with the world as it goes wrong, 
so that everything might be transfigured into its promise. 


Reflections for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Well, here’s a situation you probably aren’t going to run into this week: meat sacrificed to idols.

But that was just grocery shopping in Corinth. The life of that mercantile hub was suffused with religion—with public devotions and festivals in honor of local gods and the wider pantheon of gods, with the the constant sacrificing of animals in the temples of the city. That’s where most of the meat available to buy in the marketplace came from.

The church in Corinth came to be through Paul’s preaching.  Paul: a Jew out on the road carrying the good news of Jesus for Gentiles. And the essential heart of his message was that the spirit and power of Christ made it possible for Gentiles to live in right relationship with God. That meant accepting the God of Israel, and acceptance the God of Israel meant abandoning worship of other gods. That’s bedrock.

And Paul had preached Gentile’s inclusion in God’s covenant promises to Israel without circumcisions, without the food prohibitions of Judaism. Eat what you like.

But what about meat from animals sacrificed to other gods? Some of the believers did to eat it, maybe even in the temples, and there seems to have been uncertainty in the church over whether this was seemly, because those who did eat had an argument that Paul quotes back to them: “no idol in the world really exists.”

For them, eating meat sacrificed to an idol that doesn’t exist, is just eating meat. If anything, it became a celebration of their knowledge that “there is no God but one.” And the spiritual elite among the Corinthian believers seem to have appreciated that kind of thing.

And Paul responds “right; we know that there is one God above all powers, and one Christ through whom are all things birthed into being, and through who’s spirit we are becoming something new.”

But in this world dominated by Roman power and Greek culture, acceptance of an imported God almost never meant rejection of others. People saw the cosmos populated with a host of divinities. Many would have reflexively translated whatever Paul said into something that fit their cosmology, and simply incorporated the Jewish God and his Christ alongside the worship of other divinities. Paul knows this, and he worries about it.

His concern is that if believers, who know that meat sacrificed to other gods is just meat, eat it, others may understand their actions differently: as a witness the worship of other gods is still possible. And he goes after the those who claim “knowledge” and spiritual attainment for a failure of love.

When Paul takes this same problem up a second time later in this same letter, he warns them to flee away from the worship in the temples, but then suggests that, if you’re in the marketplace, go ahead and buy the meat that’s for sale, but don’t ask where it came from. And if you go to dinner with those who do not believe, eat the meat they serve it without asking questions about it unless they tell you its a sacrifice. Why? Because the witness of their behavior may confirm others in continuing religious practices.

Paul is saying that the Christian life is less about knowledge than it is about participation. Participation in the life of a body: the body created through Christ’s life and death, and humankind as a body.

Christ set aside all other possibilities of God’s freedom to accept the weakness of the human form, human relations, human death for the sake of God’s beloved. He shaped his human life, his sacrifice, as a gift. And that’s why Paul appeals to that gift in reasoning with the Corinthians; you are wounding, you are contributing to the destruction of those for whom Christ died. And if the goal of human life is to share in the life of God with their brothers and sisters as one family, then this wounding damages their own participation in Christ. He names it sin.

God chose limitless, intimate, commitment to the mess of humanity; God is fundamentally, radically, for us–  that’s the way Rowan Williams thinks about this. I once got the hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who hung by the dying Nazi regime in 1945, struggled to decide whether to participate in the plot against Hitler, and to understand the meaning the Church in the face of structural evil.

Bonhoeffer ultimately concluded that the Church bears witness that the human capacity for relationship gains its full expression in Jesus—in the light shone by Christ. Bonhoeffer came to understand, and I quote here, that “by embracing this world, God shows us that routine forms of human life are a way of participating in divine life. The life of grace is the life of ordinary human sociality, revealed through the incarnation.” We participate in the life and work of Jesus as we live for one other, day by day.

So Paul says he will never eat meat—he would rather never eat meat than cause one of them to fall.

The punchline is clear: Paul was called, we are called, to understand our liberty–and lets recognize that we among all the world’s people, we who love liberty, struggle to do this–to understand the whole concept of liberty through the example of Jesus’ love. And if something about the way we live in the expansiveness of our freedom damages our brother, it wounds us.

What does that look like?

Martyrs died rather than damage the hope of others by backing out. But Paul is talking about grocery shopping. So I’ll tell you that I someone who doesn’t drink alcohol. He has no personal history of struggle. No worry about the disposition of his genes. He doesn’t believe that drinking, or even drunkenness is inherently wrong. He’s free. But he decided that he couldn’t know if the people he was with were struggling. And he didn’t want his example to damage them. Its not my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching. I know a worshipping community that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist every week and the priest announces this is grape juice for those of us in recovery and those of us who should be. That isn’t my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching.

And we’re maybe in closest touch with what Paul’s talking about when we recognize that our actions could damage another, and we start to rationalize in defense of our freedom and question whether the cost of the safest path is worth it, because who knows if it actually helps. And Paul doesn’t know, really, if his course of action will make a difference or not. Is there a causal connection between his eating meat and the destruction of a brother? Maybe, but that’s unknowable. The point is: “I would rather. These are my brothers.”


A Baptism, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

The sons of Eli were scoundrels
who did not know the Lord.
That’s what the Book of 1 Samuel has to say about them.
They were priests, like their Dad,
serving in the temple at Shiloh.
And when the people would
bring meat as a sacrifice to the Lord,
the servants of Hophni and Phinehas
would take it before it could be properly offered.
They stole it from the Lord
and they demeaned the people
who made real sacrifices to fulfill their
obligation of thanksgiving,
only for it to be swallowed up by these priests.
They did this to everyone—
everyone knew that when they went up
to the temple at Shiloh they would
face these scoundrels and their forks and bellies.
Which is to say that that Eli knew,
and he let them go on like this.
One of the people who came up to Shiloh
in those days was a woman called Hannah,
who was a childless second-wife.
And she was desperate. She silently
poured out a plea to God for a son.
Eli saw her, and once she made him
recognize what was happening,
he blessed her and prayed
that she may have what she has asked for.
She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.
On that day at Shiloh she promised God
that she would offer the child to the Lord’s service
and that’s what she did:
she took him to the temple
as soon as he was weaned—he was only two or three—
and left him there with Eli.

She left
him and went home,
and every year would try and
guess how much he’d grown
to make him a new little robe,
to give to him on their yearly trip to the temple,
when Eli would pray that she might be
blessed for this gift of Samuel.
And now we’re getting into today’s story.
The boy Samuel is asleep one night
and he hears a voice calling him by name,
and he answers “Here I am.”
But he thinks its his master calling him,
so he runs to Eli to ask why. And Eli says,
like a father says in the night, “its nothing son.
Go lie down and sleep again.”
It happens again, and Eli sends him to bed again.
But the third time, Eli realizes that the voice
the boy hears is the voice of the Lord,
and he becomes a teacher, he becomes the midwife.
This falling, failing priest becomes the midwife for the thing
which is about to happen in Samuel’s life.
He tells the boy just what to do and say:
“go lie down and when he calls again, you say:
speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What Samuel hears is a terrible word
against the man who, as far he was concerned,
may as well have been his father.
And in the morning, he was afraid to tell it.
Eli knows its bad, but he calls for the boy,
and in a gentle, but absolutely clear way,
demands the truth, demands that Samuel
be the prophet and priest the Lord has made him.
God is seeking Samuel to be
a remarkable person among and for his people.
But becoming that person
depends on the willingness of his parents
to give him up to that identity.
And it depends on Eli becoming his guide.
It depends on Eli respecting the possibility in this child.
The Lord calls Samuel, but he calls him through Eli;
he doesn’t name or reveal himself.
He chooses to require an interpreter: Eli.
A person who has failed his vocation,
failed his people, failed his sons.
He chooses Eli.

We are going to baptize Margot today.
And for the people who love her
that will mean entrusting her to the Holy Spirit:
the same breath that hovered
over the waters in creation, mothering, loving
all that is into being, and that hovers over her now,
and always will. Re-creating her, enlivening her.
And that Spirit is beyond our control. Like Hannah,
you can only give her up to that.

And at the same time,
she becomes a part of our life and our calling.
We receive her into the family of God
in which each of us bears the obligation to always,
always see her through the lens of this moment,
remembering that she is a child of God
and therefore a child of infinite possibility,
and to trust the possibility that God may reach toward her through us,
as God did through Eli.
Through our regard for her as a sister bearer of God’s image,
through our encouragement,
our care and honest concern,
our walk and witness as baptized people.

In a few minutes
we are going to reaffirm our baptismal covenant,
as we do at every baptism.
And I beg you to hear yourself saying these words,
to hear one another saying them. Together.
Because this is who you are,
this is who we are called to be.
This is what it means to be joined into
the life of Christ through the water of Baptism,
to be joined into the resurrection here and now,
into that inexhaustible, transforming, creating power.

Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you choose this way of life?
Will you let your life be shaped
by the body which you’ve been made a part of—
by the teaching and tradition carried
by the Church across centuries,
by the patterns of prayer that have been the root of her wisdom?

Will you come to this table
where the whole story of God with us becomes present,
and where we’re asked to risk seeing
God’s hope and future already present
in the faces those we love
and those we struggle to get along with?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you refuse to allow what distorts and breaks us,
what turns us away from the light and our own aliveness,
the pain of sin that we endure,
to make you forget that there is a bond between you and God.
Will you remember that perfectly faithful
relationship is the nature of God,
and that God holds onto you.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you be a witness?
A witness in what you say
and in the way you go
that Jesus is here, at work in you and in the world;
reconciling, gathering all things to himself.
Will you try, one commonplace decision at a time,
in your times of reckoning,
to try and live like that’s true?
Will you live like that?
Will you practice to die like that?

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?
The willingness to see Christ
in all persons will take us places we may not want to go.
We can’t strive for justice at a safe distance,
without placing ourselves, our hearts and bodies,
where injustice lays its wounds in the vulnerable.
To strive for peace
means placing ourselves where peace is being broken.
To respect the irreducible dignity
of God’s own image within every human being
challenges some of our deepest
and most distorted
instincts to separate and devalue
what God has made precious.
Living that kind of life means seeing with the eyes,
feeling with the heart, of Jesus.
And we have to be reborn, remade,
again and again for that.
And it begins here, in water.
So let us pray, as we baptize this child
that she, and we ourselves, be upheld
in that life by the Spirit we have received,
because it isn’t easy. And let us give thanks,
because it is a beautiful life.