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16
May

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48

A centurion named Cornelius lived in Caesarea, and he had a dream vision of an angel. The angel called him by name and said: send men to Joppa to bring back a man with two names, who’s staying at the house of a tanner.

He sent them. Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa on a rooftop having a dream of his own,
about a descending sheet full of animals. And a voice told Peter to kill and eat.
But some of the dream-sheet animals were forbidden to Jews for eating. So Peter said, essentially, “nope; some of these things are unclean.” And the voice said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So Peter sat on the roof, thinking about this confusing dream. And the men from Cornelius the Centurion showed up. A voice told Peter that they were sent by the Spirit, and that he should go with them. So he, and a group of Jewish believers, went.

He must have kept on wondering about that sheet and the animals and the voice on the walk to Caesarea because, once he saw the crowded house waiting for him, he said “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He asked what this was all about,
and Cornelius told about his vision, and said they had gathered to hear what the Lord has given Peter to tell them.

“I now realize,” Peter says, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” But he told them again—told them the good news of what Jesus had said and done.

And then right in front of them, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius, his friends, his slaves, his family. And “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Cornelius was a Gentile—a non-Jew. He was born outside the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the people God had made covenant with. Jews were blessed and separated, but knew that being outside the covenant people of God, not a descendent of Jacob, is not to be outside all covenant or outside the love of God. Peter says “I realize how true it is that God…accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”He’s not being struck with a new idea; he’s being confronted with something he knew already, but hadn’t fully reckoned with: God had always promised a wideness of blessing among the nations and peoples of the earth. And here is Cornelius—a Gentile who has seen an angel, who prays to God and supports the poor of the synagogue, who Luke describes as “a devout man who feared God.”

When the New Testament writers—when Jewish writers of their generations—
talk about a Gentile who “respects God,” they’re talking about a particular sort of person:
a God-fearer. A God fearer was a person who, in the stew and swirl of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean world, had encountered Judaism, and were drawn to trust the power of the God Jews worshipped. Many adopted parts of the way of life that came with that relationship. They went to pray and hear the Scripture read in synagogue; some ate the way Jews ate. But they had not abandoned their ancestral gods. Jews were glad to accommodate Gentiles who fell into this category. For God-fearing Gentiles to go further meant circumcision but also—and in a way that can only have been traumatic—abandoning your whole way of being a person in community, in a world where acting out loyalty to the religion you had inherited meant everything.

Cornelius and his household haven’t gone that far. He probably respected and devoted himself to all kinds of gods. Actually, as a Roman Centurion, that would have been inescapable. But he’s more than a casual, curious, occasional attendee at the synagogue. He and his family have come to know a particular and powerful relationship with the God of Israel. They are God-fearers and, from the perspective of neighboring Jews, they’re righteous Gentiles. They’re pagans who get it. But they have not given up their old, inherited identities. And I think that matters. It isn’t like Cornelius has been banging on the door to Judaism and the Jews have kept him out. He could have accepted circumcision, given up the other gods, and been a Jew like that. He didn’t.¹

Turning to God alone, with all its painful consequences in their social world, is going to be the central demand made on Christ-believing Gentiles. That’s what Paul will go to the Gentiles preaching. And, if we could hear what Peter and his friends spent those next days talking about with Cornelius, it would probably be just that. But Peter doesn’t say a thing about that here; he’s just retelling them the good news of Jesus that they’ve already heard, and that has charged them with anticipation. But there’s probably an altar to some other god in plain sight while Peter’s talking.

The household of Cornelius, as they were, turned to hear what God had to say.
And as they were, the Holy Spirit fell on them.
If that surprises us—that God would act like this—then maybe we can recognize
how we still get to share in the astonishment Peter and his friends experienced.

We see difference easily.
Its fairly easy for us to decide that the ways we are different make us unequal. That’s the endless wound of human tribalism and we all participate in it, in large ways and small.

We also participate in a different kind of storytelling—
a kind of storytelling in which we regard one another as equals
by identifying with others in a way that renders our differences superficial, illusory.
We decide that we are the actually the same, and so we’re equal.
We do this. We say things like, “I don’t see color.”
And what we’re doing is erasing each others’ particularity—erasing one another’s histories, stories, perspectives. We look at someone else and just see ourselves,
which means we can’t actually see them at all.

What radically strains our hearts, is to accept someone else as both actually different from us, and also equal. That way of seeing and regarding is what we are called to in this story.

The Pentecost of the Gentiles is not the destruction of “us and them.”
There are Jews, and there are Gentiles, and difference between them is meaningful.
What’s happening is the shocking, undeniable, inrushing of the Holy Spirit in a way that forces Peter and his fellow disciples to confront that they are different and of equal worth to the God who pours our grace with scandalous impartiality. “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” Peter says.

We need to hear this.
We need to hear this because we are embedded in connected but different histories.
We embody histories, and we have different stories. We do not experience the world alike.
We are different—we have constructed difference, made it real—
and we cannot erase one another by denying that.
We cannot look say we are the same
when that refuses the truth of one another’s experience.
That is not the community called together and gathered up in Christ,
the communion born through the Spirit.
We are different and not erased in that body. We are equal,
and absolutely and equally beloved by God.

 


Notes

1. In thinking about Cornelius’ identity as a god-fearer, I’m indebted to Paula Fredriksen’s scholarly exploration of early Christian belief in the context of ancient near-eastern religious life. For more about this discussion of god-fearers, see especially her article “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins who’s time has come to go” http://www.academia.edu/15574563/_MANDATORY_RETIREMENT_Ideas_in_the_Study_of_Christian_Origins_whose_Time_to_Go_has_Come_
and also an essay “How Later Contexts affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect is the Mother of Anachronism” http://www.bu.edu/religion/files/2010/03/CRINT-13-Fredriksen-offprint.pdf

24
Apr

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (And also Earth Day)

John 10:11-18

The good shepherd lays down life for the sheep given into their care. They do more than place their life in danger; they choose final sacrifice. That’s what makes the shepherd good. Jesus says that the Father loves him because he lays down his life freely, and he lays it down for the sake of the sheep he is gathering up into one flock—that know him with the same perfect comfort that is between Father and Son.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” I once heard a preacher say that answering the question that Jesus asks pointedly in three of our Gospels— “who do you say that I am”— leads inescapably to another question: “who does Jesus say that you are?” Well, Jesus seems to say that we’re gathered and incredibly beloved sheep. Sheep who listen and follow his voice. And since Jesus says, again and again, that his way of life and death should become our way of life and death, the Good Shepherd, seems to be calling us to see that being his sheep means being good shepherds too.

So, you’re a shepherd in ancient Palestine. You don’t own sheep. You hang out with somebody else’s sheep. You keep them together; you keep them moving over good grass and watch out for hurt ones and sick ones; you face whatever threatens them in the middle of nowhere with a stick.

We get swept up in this metaphor because it speaks of God’s selfless, self-emptying, love. And we get swept up into the metaphor because we know we’re the sheep here. Saving us at the cost of everything seems awesome because of how we value what’s saved. We have dignity, worth. We matter. Actual sheep matter less.

I’ve known and liked sheep. But if its ever down to me or a sheep….

So here’s the crux of this metaphor about shepherding: Allowing yourself—precious and remarkable you—to be killed for the sake of something like a sheep. Deciding they are worth your life. And who here is going to watch the bandits or the wolves come down the hill, and think, “this seems like a good trade.” But if we’re imagining ourselves into the parable, that’s what happens. And there you are dead in the valley. The sheep don’t have any capacity for gratefulness; they’re munching grass around you like you’re a weird rock. Those who find you will not think this was noble. They will figure you tripped and something inexplicable happened. No one in your family can write, so your people will remember until they don’t; nobody is going to carve a stone that says, “died for sheep.”  There’s a deeply uncomfortable, almost tragic, smallness to that right?

But that’s what the good shepherd does. What the good shepherd does smashes against our instinct to weigh everything against ourselves; the constant evaluation we’re in the midst of: is this person, this place, this thing worth me, a piece of me, all of me.

Jesus doesn’t choose the sheep he cares for. They belong to him because the sheep have been given to him. And he lives out the demands of love for them because it is the command of the Father who sent him into the world, out of love for the world.

What are we given to be shepherds of?

Articles appeared this last week that described the data and conclusions of a just completed survey of the Great Barrier Reef—those multitudinous galaxies of coral that have arced the northwest coast of Australia since a time when humans were wandering tribes; before agriculture; before bread;

fifteen thousand years before the faintest trace that humans imagined cities or kings. In the summer of 2016, water warmer than ever possible since this great reef began, briefly smothered its northern reach. The same phenomenon developed last summer in a different stretch. The effects were instantly recognized as catastrophic, but what’s clear now is that half the living coral along its 1,400 miles starved or died in the heat. The reef in those places now is an archipelago of bones: what the reef has left behind, as some new, radically different and radically less diverse system emerges.

These smothering periods of warm water began in the late 1990s, and marine scientists expected that the sensitive corals would suffer as Coral Sea and earth’s oceans warmed and their circulation altered. But there’s shock nonetheless that in the space of two summers this much of the reef, and the vast web of life it has nourished, has collapsed. The expectation has been that if dramatic and immediate transformation of the way humankind pollutes the atmosphere arrests that warming of our planet below an increase 2 degrees Celsius, the reef would survive in some form. That’s not what is happening.

That isn’t happening because so many remarkable ways of human flourishing are bound up with the burning of fossil fuels. The human experience has been transformed, and continues to be transformed, by an outwardly racing horizon of knowledge, mobility, sustenance. Staggering newness and possibility. It goes on. But our way of being in this world is absolutely dependent on pollution on a vast scale. And we are being overtaken by the costs.

The reef is being destroyed—this planet is being devastated within the space of human generations—because God set us in the midst of creation to be its caretakers but we have been thieves, and we have been bandits, and sometimes we have behaved like hired hands, but we have refused to be creation’s shepherd. Would you lay down your life to redeem a billion—a billion—dead corals?  God forgive us that in unison we would say no in our hearts.

And thank God for so loving the world. The scripture does not say that God so loved humankind. God so loved the world: the whole creation that has its breath and tide from God. And we should consider the possibility that the God who set us in a garden has not willed our salvation as an end in itself, but for the sake of the whole groaning creation. Consider that we are being made fit creatures to dwell as a part of this. Made fit to live as God’s image-bearing creatures in the world—to be God’s shepherding creatures, as Christ has shepherded us. And that no more diminishes us than the Good Shepherd, who laid down life for his sheep, is diminished by his sacrifice. That is Christ’s glory. And the only glory of humankind is to reflect that glory in our capacity to take up the caring, loving labor of God in the world.

01
Apr

Reflections on Good Friday

All the careful, distinguishing detail—
all the detail
in which the Gospel writers
tell their stories of Jesus’ judicial murder—
arrives at a common silence:
When the procession—Jesus;
the scattering of disciples, mostly women,
who would have been waiting outside Pilate’s headquarters, sick,
not knowing what was happening until he emerged with the crossbeam;
his executioners; the military and religious functionaries—
when the procession arrives at Golgotha,
and all of the accounts simply say “they crucified him.”
The whole process of breaking a human being onto pieces of wood.
The tools of it. The executioner’s craft. The flinching outcry of nerves.
All of that, disappears within a
verb.
“They crucified him;” they made him into a dying person.
And I am struck by the ordinariness of it—
how the act of crucifixion itself required no explanation,
the particular experience of a person merited no elaboration,
because if you had seen one person tortured like this,
you had seen them all. Flesh is flesh.
The instinct to survive is what it is.
Nails are nails.
Jesus enters a horrifying
commonplace.

John tells us that a handful of women
came to stand near the cross
— his mother, his aunt, Mary Magdalene.
This is nearly the last, before Jesus turns away from earth:
he looks at them.
He sees his mother, looking at him.
He watches her, watching him
breath out the life that had bloomed in her body.
They are entwined in this pain;
their gaze is an exchange of sorrow,
a bottomless wound.

This is how God,
the Mother of creation,
has always watched her children.
Near. Willing anything to make it stop.
Refusing to look away.

26
Mar

Reflections for Palm Sunday

Mark 11.1-11

Why are you holding strips of palm right now?
I don’t mean “why” like this is catechism class, like Question: why do we wave palms on Palm Sunday? Answer: to remember Jesus’ entry into the holy city of Jerusalem when the people met him with leafy branches like a King. The prayer of blessing over those palms asks that they be signs for us of his victory. But why act it out in the parking lot? Why do I have, as one of my few, really vivid childhood memories of church, an indifferent-looking donkey being led up and down a lawn?

Partly, its tradition.
We don’t simply listen to this story because Christians have always walked and waved this story. If you were a pilgrim to Jerusalem just a few hundred years after the Jesus came, you would have gone with crowds carrying branches and palms, following the Bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city. Was it probably easier for them to squint and see it happening,
right there in the self-same dust? Easier than our parking lot, I mean. Probably. But they were still asked to go into it with their bodies, into the jostle of bodies, the smell of hot olive leaves, the glimpses of the donkey, the disjointed wail of psalms. And maybe, for a second, some piece of you could say: “Here I am. Its that day and I showed up.”

What could we be asked to imagine?

Another passover. But maybe its the Passover. The last Passover. The people know Jesus is going to Jerusalem. He preaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, nearer than it has ever been. Something is going to happen. So when Jesus leaves Jericho the crowd goes with him to Bethany, just outside the great city, where he stops. He sends disciples into the village to fetch him a donkey and to let word spread into the city that the Teacher has come and is waiting to enter.

The City of David is swollen with pilgrims from the countryside. From far off in Syria, in Aegyptus. Hundreds of thousands pack the streets and the marketplaces—working their way into the courtyards of the Temple to bring their offerings, to be ritually purified by the sprinkling of the thousands of priests, trying to get a place to stay—a room, a roof—so that their household can eat the passover meal. Eager, impatient, excited, frustrated. And armed. A man in each household, at least, goes with a slaughtering knife in their belt as a symbol and the actual instrument of the sacrifice of the lambs. It is the festival of blood on the doorpost and dead Egyptians on the beach, YHWH fighting for Israel—an Exodus that wasn’t yet complete. Its heated anticipation. Its piled, dry brush.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea, wants as little as possible to do with the actual management of Jerusalem. His purpose is to preserve the peace, and his instrument is the High Priest of the Temple; Caiaphas runs the city and the temple guards keep order. But things have gone wrong at Passover before, so Pilate leaves his villa and headquarters at the coast and processes down into the city with his command of Roman soldiers. They’re hated, their presence itself is an offense. Its a fine line: menace with the sword, without starting a riot. Place a really sharp incentive behind your man Caiaphas to keep a reign on the crowds and douse any sparks before a fire gets out of hand.

But that’s about to happen.
The herald disciples find a donkey for Jesus, and word spreads.
A crowd—is it Galileans who’ve heard him, is it Jerusalem people who’ve heard of him?—goes out to meet Jesus and the band coming with him.
They’re heard what he’s saying, and now they’ll say it for him with their bodies and shouts. They greet him like a conqueror with this rare and profound gesture of praise, spreading their cloaks out on the road for him to walk on. Then they assemble a proper triumphal procession,
some going ahead of him, and some following him. And he rides, an unarmed king. And the people go with him shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They bless him, shouting this thanksgiving hymn, this ancient victory song. They know what they’re doing. They’ve showed up on the day the Messiah and the Kingdom comes.

But they don’t know what its going to look like.

Whatever faction assembled in Pilate’s courtyard to condemn him in the end, whoever shouted “crucify him,” the crowd was with Jesus. The crowd was so volatile and energetic in its enthusiasm for Jesus that Mark describes how the chief priests, again and again, agree that Jesus must be gotten rid of, but they don’t dare do anything for fear of the people. They ultimately need Judas—Judas is only useful as a betrayer—because he offers a way to get Jesus away from the crowds, while everyone is eating the passover.

The crowd was with Jesus. They knew that this healer, this reconciler of the lost, this lover of souls, riding on a donkey was the one God had sent into the world with might to turn it upside down.
And when I say knew, I mean that some part of them caught that possibility by their fingernails before it blew away.
They hoped.

As the city stirred awake later that week they found that Pilate had him on a Roman cross with a sign above his head reading “King of the Jews.” Pilate and Caiaphas could have quietly murdered him. But Pilate meant Jesus himself to be a sign—a sign to the crowd that they were wrong about the man from Nazareth, and to get back on with their lives. Which is what very nearly everyone did.

What had they been a part of?
What did that victorious procession into the city mean?

Those of us who’ve walked with this story know that Jesus had told his friends what was going to happen when the power of God coming into the world met the powers that ordered the world: A cross. That would be the last procession, the consequence and fulfillment of his life— God’s life—in flesh here with us.

And it is the beginning of the world again.

I’m talking about crowds so much this morning because we have long read the Jerusalem crowd as a seething mob that hailed Jesus but, in the end, demanded that Jesus’s life be wrung out of him, no matter the evidence in our own holy texts. And that is simply mangled, distorted history. Pilate and elites of the city had Jesus publicly humiliated and killed because the crowd was with him. And reading against the evidence, the reading of a crowd that pivots violently, has shaped the accusation hung around the necks of the numberless Jews hounded across continents, dispossessed, murdered, for centuries.

In recent times, we have tried to hold onto that traditional reading in light of that history, by identifying ourselves with the crowd. We have made the crowd ourselves, and the condemning crowd a story about the ways we refuse and reject Jesus. And that has become its own reason for continuing to read and proclaim this text as an indictment. That’s why the congregation is usually invited to take the part of the crowd when the Passion Gospel is read.

I won’t ask you to say “crucify him,” to give your voice the words of those who wanted rid of Jesus. I won’t, because I look at you now and I know that something has happened in your life that told you that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, offers life. Inextinguishable life. An answer to our traps, our endless cycles of grief and wounding. Or maybe you are longing for a reason to believe. You hope.
And hope can be fleeting, darting. So hope. Hope with the people who saw him ride into Jerusalem and grasped at him. Hope with the ones who saw him hanging, and thought
“maybe, still, somehow.”
Hope.

And come. I invite you to stay on the journey though Holy Week together, to come together as we face the events, and meditate on the meaning, of Jesus last days in Jerusalem. His passion and death. We are standing within the heart of the our Christian life.

13
Mar

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.

11
Feb

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. 

31
Jan

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.”

16
Jan

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.

11
Nov
23
Oct