Monday, December 25, 2006

The Risk of Chrismas

Christmas Day – Year C
Isaiah 9:2-4,6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Monday, December 25, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

The angel of the Lord proclaimed, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Bringing a child into the world is an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege. First time parents haven’t a clue as to what to do with a newborn baby – how to care for it, how to raise it. It’s a scary experience, at best. Mary and Joseph would have been no exception. Yet, God places a great deal of confidence in Mary and Joseph by entrusting them with God’s Son. What was God thinking, giving his son into the care of these two novices? And I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt, knowing that they were bringing not just any baby into the world, that they were not going to be raising just any child. Not only did they have the great responsibility of raising a child – no small feat in itself – they were responsible for the welfare of the Messiah, the Son of God They had been given the responsibility of raising he who was to be the hope and salvation for all humanity.


Even though they had both been filled in on what would happen – Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and Joseph in a dream – there was no way they could have really known what they were getting themselves into. There is no way they could have really known what it all meant. It had to be an overwhelming experience for them. They had taken a big risk in accepting God’s call to be the earthly parents of the Son of God.

It wasn’t only Mary and Joseph who risked. The baby Jesus is God Incarnate, God made flesh, God in human form. And God didn’t just become human. He came in the form of a baby – a few pounds of helpless flesh, totally reliant upon Mary and Joseph. The Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, came as a baby, unable to care for even the most basic of human needs. God took a big risk in becoming human. God took a big risk in allowing himself to be put in the hands of inexperienced human parents, in the hands of an inexperienced mother who was nearly a child herself. In so doing, God made himself vulnerable. But under God’s plan for the salvation of humankind, this was necessary. God needed to become a child, God needed to grow into adulthood, complete with all the experiences that process entails – all the joy, all the trials, all the pain that that process brings. God needed to experience firsthand what it meant to be human, so that he could ultimately save humanity. In doing so, God took a big risk. In so doing, God made himself vulnerable for our sake.

And God took another risk in the process. God put a lot of confidence in the human race – that it would be able to accept God’s son as the Messiah, as the redeemer of the world. God, being who God is, undoubtedly knew that not all people would accept Jesus. Some would be shaken by the words and deeds of Jesus – to the point that they would seek to have him executed. But at the same time, these people were necessary to help bring about the fulfillment of what Jesus was called to do – what he was brought into the world to do. God trusted that some would play their part to condemn and execute Jesus – so that he could ultimately be resurrected; and that others would carry on the vision of what Jesus stood for. God risked by trusting that humanity would do its part – that we would embrace his Son, that we would see for ourselves that we are loved by our God.

But all this risk was necessary. It was necessary for our sake. God loves us so much that He was willing to do whatever it took to get our attention, to risk whatever he had to, to demonstrate his love for us. By becoming human, God sought relationship with us. We had not done a good job of relating to an omnipotent, omniscient God. We needed something more tangible to relate to. So God become one of us so that we could better relate to God. In becoming human, God reached out to us.

And now it is our turn to risk. God has reached out to us. The Christ Child born this day in Bethlehem is not just Mary and Joseph’s baby. He is not just God’s Son. He is the child given for all of us. He is our hope and our salvation. He is a tangible sign of God’s love for us, of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and for us to be in relationship with him. Mary may have given birth to Jesus, but we are to risk by sharing in the raising of Christ, to make his love known to all humanity – by proclaiming along with the angel of the Lord, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you – to every one of you – is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Merry Christmas!

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Elizabeth and Mary - Icons for Advent

Advent 4 – Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-49(50-56)
Sunday, December 24, 2006 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Where do you see God in your life? Where do you meet the holy? In what ways does the Divine touch your life?


Last week, the LA Times reported how the holy and the mundane intersected in a rather interesting, if not unusual way, right here in Southern California. In August, the workers at a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, just down the 405, experienced what they described as a miracle. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, appeared to them. This was not an ordinary appearance. She did not come to them in a vision. Rather, she appeared to them in a material form. She appeared in the form of a two and a half inch glob of chocolate. The miraculous confection, extruded from a mixing vat spout, was in the likeness of the Virgin Mary standing in prayer.


This was not the first such miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to humanity. While I was living in Chicago several years ago, the image of the Blessed Virgin appeared in a rust stain on a retaining wall of an expressway underpass near downtown Chicago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it, as the Illinois Department of Transportation promptly painted over the image, much to the consternation of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the local media, and the faithful of Chicagoland. She has also appeared in such items as pretzels and grilled cheese sandwiches. And such unique appearances are not limited to the Virgin Mary. Being a family trait, even Jesus has gotten in on the act, appearing on such mundane items as a tortilla.

Now it may just be me, but being a chocoholic, the appearance of the Blessed Virgin in the form of chocolate is most certainly divine – or at least a sign from on high that chocolate in and of itself is divine.

I always approach such reports of miraculous appearances of the holy in such everyday items as food products and expressway underpasses with mixed feelings. There is the skeptic in me that thinks, “yeah, right. Why would the Virgin Mary appear on a grilled cheese sandwich?” Seems kinda silly to me. But then, there is the part of me that recognizes that people are hungering for a glimpse of the holy in their lives, longing to be touched by the Divine in their otherwise ordinary, even downtrodden, existences. People want to know that they are loved by God. They yearn for assurance that God is really with them, blessing them in a world where no one else seems to care, let alone bless them. They want someone to point the way to that divine assurance – even if that someone is only an image on an everyday object.

Throughout Advent we have heard and reflected on the stories of those who pointed the way to God’s assurance of his love for us – to Jesus Christ. In our lectionary, the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays of Advent focus on John the Baptist. The words of the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” invoke in us the image of John the Baptist, the one who points the way to Jesus, to the Messiah. This is our traditional image of Advent. John the Baptist serves as the primary icon for our understanding of Advent. But I think we’ve gotten it all wrong. John was not the first person to point the way to Jesus as the Messiah. Rather, as today’s Gospel lesson clearly shows us, it was two women who first pointed the way to Jesus – Elizabeth and Mary.

In considering what this means, it is important to remember that at the time of Jesus’ birth, women were little more than property. Their only importance was to provide their owner, their husband, with an heir, with a male child who would carry on the family lineage. Otherwise, they were insignificant. With that understanding, let’s look at each of these women, these remarkable women, and see what they can teach us about the meaning of Advent.

As we’ve already established, the Gospel lessons for two of the four Sundays of Advent tell the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But even so, the lectionary selections for Advent do not even give us the full story. Today’s Gospel lesson comes closest, only picking up a small piece of the story – the interaction between Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, mother of he whom John would precede. But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his mother is likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith – to the foundation of our faith.

If you recall the remainder of the story, Elizabeth and Zechariah, like most married couples, desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and who would care for them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, their fortune changes. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

For all intents and purposes, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. As we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, it is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

And now, for Mary. Since Mary is the mother of our Lord, we know a little more about her. She is certainly featured more prominently than her cousin, Elizabeth, both in Scripture and in our understanding of divine history. Again, as with the story of John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, only the Gospel According to Luke gives us the full story of Mary. Again, our lectionary lessons for the season of Advent do not give us the whole story, but we, of course, know what happens. Just before the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us of the visit from the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God. Or rather, was Gabriel asking her permission? After all, there is a period of discussion, of Mary asking questions of Gabriel, attempting to understand what was being proposed. It almost seems as if Mary might have a choice in the matter. This is particularly emphasized when, after being satisfied with Gabriel’s answers, Mary finally responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Wow! Talk about faith. Talk about discipleship. Mary, a young, na├»ve girl from a backwater town in Galilee is asked to agree to something that is completely unimaginable – to become the mother of the Son of God. Most of us would have gone running from the room. But Mary had faith in her God. She was willing to do whatever God asked of her, even if it did sound a little out there, if not downright impossible. She was willing to trust her God and to allow herself to be used as an instrument of God’s grace.

Mary could not have fully understood what she was being asked to do – to bear the Son of God. But she accepted her assignment willingly. And in the course of her personal Advent, her time of anticipation and preparation for the birth of her son, the Messiah, she came to accept her role and to embody what she was being asked to do. And that’s were we find ourselves in today’s Gospel lesson – at that moment of Mary’s realization of what all this means – at that moment where Mary lives into what it will mean to be the one who will bring the Messiah into the world. In that moment of realization, facilitated by the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, Mary boldly states “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She realizes not only what her willingness to bear the Messiah means for her personally, but also what it means for all of humanity. Through the Magnificat, she proclaims what this action of God’s, made possible by her willingness to serve as an instrument of God’s grace, says about God – about God’s mercy, about God’s strength, about God’s desire for justice.

In this proclamation, Mary is pointing the way not just to the person of Jesus, but to the very message that he would himself proclaim – that his Father is a God of mercy and justice, and not just for the Jews, as had been professed in the Old Testament, but for all of humanity. She points the way to the Good News that God loves and cares for all God’s children.

The Message, the contemporary translation of the Bible that uses everyday language and idioms to convey the meaning of Scripture, translates the first lines of the Magnificat as “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.” To me this translation says it all. Mary is filled with the news of God, with the Good News, with God-news. And in her joy, she doesn’t just proclaim it in words. She proclaims it in her very being, as in a dance. She dances the song of her Savior God, expressing God’s message, but at the same time making it her own through her own movements and actions, just as a dancer interprets music through the outward and visible form of her movements.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. And Mary points the way to the embodied message that God is a loving, caring, merciful God who desires justice for all people. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah. And may we embody the message of our Lord as we proclaim the God-news that bursts within us, expressing it in our lives for all to see, as we dance the song of our Savior God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent and Exile

Advent 2– Year C
Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6
Sunday, December 10, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Advent is the season of anticipation and preparation – anticipation of the coming of our Savior at Christmas, and our preparation for that most joyous of events. I love the season of Advent, perhaps more than Christmas itself. I like having this time to reflect on what Christ’s coming means in my own life – how it defines and informs who I am as a person of faith. While I try to take time throughout my day and throughout the year to reflect on these things, Advent is a time when such matters are foremost on my mind, and is a constant subject of contemplation during prayer and my quiet time with God.


This year, as we once again embark on the journey of anticipation and preparation that is Advent, I find that I have a different perspective. In the past, Advent has seemed to me to be a time of private reflection about my relationship with Christ. Yes, our worship services during Advent do have a distinct feel, focusing on the themes of our communal anticipation and preparation. But the content of public worship only seemed to serve as a backdrop to or means of facilitating my own personal reflection and contemplation, of my own personal anticipation and preparation. In short, it was all about me. But now, this Advent season, I find that I am approaching Advent from a slightly different perspective. At this point in my life, I find that it is not all about me, but rather, all about us – about what Advent means to us as a community, what it means to us as the Body of Christ, as the Kingdom of God living here and now, in this time and this place, two millennia after the initial coming of our Lord into our midst.

I can’t help but think that at least part of it has to do with what this [pulling on my clerical collar], this collar and these vestments, represent. During my ordination as deacon, I took vows to not only serve all people in the name of Jesus Christ, but also to “look for Christ in all others” (BCP, 544). Now maybe I’m over-analyzing the situation, but in order for me to be able to do that, for any of us to be able to do that, means that Christ has to be already here in our midst – and if we believe that we are the Body of Christ, then of course he is in our midst. But put in the context of Advent, what does it mean? What is Advent if Christ is already in our midst? To try to answer that, I turned to Scripture – specifically, to the lessons appointed for today.

In previous Advent seasons, in my personal reflections and even in my preaching, I tended to focus on the Gospel story, especially the Gospel story for the second Sunday in Advent – the story of John the Baptist. I considered what it meant for John to be the one who points the way to Jesus, the Christ. I considered what was meant by the famous words from the Prophet Isaiah which are quoted in today’s Gospel lesson: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” I considered what these words, what this image, meant for me as a Christian. And when I happened to preach on this day, what this image meant for all of us as Christians.

The image of John the Baptist is certainly important to the story of who we are as a people. John is the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He points the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament. Specifically, “in [Luke’s] schema of salvation history John marks the end of the age of the law and the prophets and the beginning of a new age of the good news of the kingdom of God” (Scott, 18). He is not to be dismissed – he cannot be dismissed. But this year, I find that I cannot go directly to the image of John the Baptist as a defining icon of what Advent means. I find that I need to take a slightly longer journey, through the history of the Old Testament – through events that formed the nation of Israel; the events that defined the culture and the religion that John was born into; the events that shaped who John would be as person and prophet; the events that shaped John’s understanding of messiah, and ultimately of his message to the world of the need to prepare for the long-awaited coming of the Messiah.

On such a journey, there are a number of equally viable entry points into the history of the Old Testament. But one that seems quite appropriate for me, at least during this year’s contemplation of the meaning of Advent, is today’s Old Testament lesson from Baruch. Okay, for all you Old Testament scholars, I know that Baruch is actually contained in the Apocrypha and not the Old Testament, but the subject matter deals with one of the central, defining moments in Old Testament history – the Exile.

The reading from Baruch is part of a poem to Israel, exiled in Babylon, telling them not to lose heart. It is a cry of hope in a time of crisis – a cry that God will one day come and lead the people of Israel back home. Israel has been punished for her sins, for turning away from God, by being taken into exile by the Babylonian conquerors. “Despite Israel’s punishment for its sin, God will restore the penitent people, [and] their ultimate renewal will serve as a witness to the nations of God’s faithfulness” (Johnson, 22). In his poem of consolation, Baruch provides a detailed account of preparation for salvation, placed in the context of the people’s exilic experience, which has been marked by defeat and despair. To convey his point, Baruch uses the imagery of changing clothes. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). This language implies removing one’s funeral garments, the garments of sorrow and affliction, and replacing them with wedding clothes, the robe of righteousness and the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. This is language of hope. It is an exhortation to act out of confidence in God and God’s mercy and loving kindness rather than solely relying on what is seen and experienced in the present.

Biblical scholarship indicates that in all likelihood, the book of Baruch was not actually written during the Exile, but possibly as late as two centuries after the return of Israel from Babylon. That being the case, the book would not have even been written by Baruch. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Johnson provides a context for this situation. She comments that “Although written in a postexilic context, the author takes as his pseudonym the name of one of the most well known exiles, the scribe of Jeremiah, because he considers himself and his people to be living in yet another time of exile, this one more cultural and religious perhaps than territorial. The people this time are surrounded by hostile forces that may or may not be violent . . . but are nonetheless contemptuous of the people’s attempts at covenant faithfulness” (Johnson, 22-23).

Because of the tone and nature of the book of Baruch, we are not given any clues as to the nature of what Johnson refers to as this cultural and religious exile. We know that the people of Israel were not placed in a physical exile from their homeland at any point following their return from Babylon. Yet, this general concept of cultural and religious exile resonates with me as I contemplate the meaning of Advent for those of us living two thousand years after the advent of our Lord. For we, too, are in midst of a cultural and religious exile.

Despite the doctrine of separation of church and state, this nation was founded on solid Christian principles and was intended to be a Christian nation – as the Pledge of Allegiance states, “one nation under God.” The foundation of our government and of our lives as citizens was our faith in God – as our national motto states, “In God we trust.” But somewhere along the line, we diverged from our founding principles. We are no longer one nation under God. We are a confederation of individuals worshiping whatever god suits us in the moment. But I’m not talking about the gods worshiped by those of other religious faiths, of non-Christian religions. Religious plurality is not the issue, it is not the problem in this cultural and religious exile in which we find ourselves. If anything, those other faiths are our ally in this time of exile.

Our motto is no longer “in God we trust,” but rather “in the Democratic Party we trust” or “in the Republican Party we trust.” Or maybe it’s “in Bill Gates we trust” or “in Alan Greenspan we trust.” As a nation, we no longer place our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, but rather we place our trust in wealth, in power, in material possessions – particularly whatever material goods are flashed on our television screens day in and day out. You don’t need to trust in God, trust in Oil of Olay to stay young and beautiful forever. Trust in Mercedes to make you feel rich and powerful. Run up your credit cards and mortgage your future. It will all be okay, trust us. You don’t even need to turn on the TV. Just drive down the short stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Beverly Hills and Hollywood and look at all the billboards and consider the messages they are sending to our society – to us and to our children.

And while we are being bombarded with the fantasy images of how our lives could be if we just trust in the right things, and while we willingly pursue those fantasies, while we follow society’s mandate to care for ourselves, to pamper ourselves, we are distracted from the central message of the Gospel – that we are to care for one another. We are so distracted by pursuing fantasies or protecting our possessions that we don’t see that there is a whole underclass of our brothers and sisters who are being forgotten, if not trampled upon.

We are living in exile – not a disconnect between a people and their homeland, but a disconnect between cultural values and the Gospel imperatives that Jesus proclaimed. But just as foretold by Baruch, there is hope. “Baruch urges hopeful action rather than hopeful thought or wishful thinking, and he calls on his contemporaries to remember that God did in fact restore those former exiles and to trust that God may similarly be trusted with their current experience of alienation” (Johnson, 23). That hope is provided in this season of Advent. But we have a part to play in keeping that hope alive, in making what is hoped for into a reality. Just as John the Baptist was called to point the way to Jesus 2,000 years ago, we are called to point the way to Jesus. We are called to speak the truth that has been revealed to us, to proclaim to the world that there is a better way, a more fulfilling way, than what our secular culture has fed us. We are called to proclaim the truth that leads to true life, to everlasting life, to life in Christ – and not only for us, but for the entire world, for all God’s children. But that means speaking out and taking action against the so-called norms established by our secular culture – the culture based on power and materialism, the culture that ignores those who do not have power and money, and worse yet, that exploits and uses those who do not have power and money for its own advancement. As theologian Jim Griffiss notes, “An incarnational faith calls for the transformation of the ‘secular’ or ‘political’ world in Christ, a transformation for which all Christians must take responsibility” (Griffiss, 52).

Advent is a time of anticipation of and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It is the time to anticipate and prepare for a better way of life – a life based on the Gospel, a life that points to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the light. As Christians, we don’t need to anticipate. The Messiah has already come. As the Body of Christ in the world, we are proof of that. We know it, but the rest of the world needs to know. Our secular society needs to know it. What we do need to do is prepare the way. And to do that, we are called to go into the world, to be an example through our words and our actions, to live the Gospel boldly and unashamedly, and to bear witness to the fact that Jesus has come into the world and that we are his Body.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Griffiss, James E. The Anglican Vision. Vol. 1 of The New Church’s Teaching Series. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997.

Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Proclamation 6, Series C: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Advent/Christmas. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 6 - Elizabeth (Advent)

Reflection on Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 56-66 (Elizabeth and Zechariah)
In all three years of the lectionary, the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Advent tells the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his parents, and particularly his mother, are likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith.

Like most married couples, Elizabeth and Zechariah desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and be able to take care of them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, as our lesson for today tells us, the tables were turned. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

In many ways, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. It is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Seeds of Jerusalem

[I prepared the following for my monthly article in the December 2006 issue of The Good News, St. Alban's monthly newsletter.]


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

On November 9, the newly formed LA Clergy Association hosted a Pre-Advent Day of Refreshment and Renewal. Our keynote speaker was the Right Reverend Mark MacDonald, Bishop of Alaska and Navajoland. The focus of his talk was on the shifts in missiology (the theology of doing mission). One of the key shifts that Bishop MacDonald discussed is that we need to be aware that God is present and working in society. With so many problems in our world, we often forget that God is alive and well and at work in the world. This is nowhere more apparent than in our own backyard. In a place like Los Angeles, with its emphasis on image and perfection (and the creation of the illusion of the same), it is easy to question where and how God can be in the midst of such unrealistic images and fantasies.

As Bishop MacDonald pointed out, how could there be so much creativity and so much influence on society if there were not holiness here? There is a sacredness in this place that allows us to flourish in that creativity. There is a sacredness in this place that allows us to influence the rest of the world. He terms this sacredness the seeds of Jerusalem – the holy city of God. Every city, even ours, has within it these seeds of Jerusalem. But, at the same time, every city also contains within it the seeds of Babylon – the power of the secular world that attempt to deny and even destroy the sacredness that is inherent in God’s creation. Our job, as the people of God, is to uncover the seeds of Jerusalem and to allow the sacredness to flourish in our midst.

How do we do that? By believing and even expecting that God is indeed present in the world around us, and by pointing out where God is in our midst. Our job is to help people to see God where they least expect it. And what better place for that to happen than at the doorstep of UCLA – a world-renowned institution dedicated to the discovery of truth and knowledge? Here at St. Alban’s we have to the opportunity to offer an alternative perspective on the truth, the truth that God is in our midst and active in the world around us. Faith and Reason – it’s not just the name of our educational program, it’s a challenge, even a mandate, for how we approach our relationship with UCLA and the rest of Los Angeles. It is the unique perspective that we bring as the people of God, charged with pointing out God’s presence in the world around us.

As we face yet another Advent season, a time of preparation for the coming of God incarnate, the Christ, into the world, let us be aware that he is already in the world. What we need to be doing is preparing ourselves not for his coming, but to recognize him in the midst of our everyday lives. It may take some doing, but if we look hard enough, we will find him. And when we become more proficient in being able to recognize him in our own lives, we will be in a better position to help others recognize him too.

I wish you a blessed Advent, filled with the joy of discovery of God and Christ in your midst.

Yours in Christ,
(The Rev.) Michael Fincher


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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christ the King

Christ the King – Year B
Daniel 7:9-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:1-8; John 18:33-37
Sunday, November 26, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Here we are at the end of another year. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, of a new year, liturgically speaking. On this, the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we traditionally commemorate the feast of Christ the King. This feast is observed in “celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead [humankind] to seek the ‘peace of Christ’ in the ‘Kingdom of Christ’” (Cross, 332). In a way, this commemoration serves to remind us of who Christ is as we prepare for his coming, as well as what it means to live under his kingship.


The imagery of Christ the King is evidenced in various ways in the readings appointed for today. The Old Testament lesson from the Book of Daniel paints an apocalyptic image of a heavenly court, home to the Ancient One, to God, who sits in judgment over all of creation. And into his midst comes a human being – literally “son of man” – to whom is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him.” There are a number of interpretations as to what this imagery would have meant to the Jewish readers of the time. But for Christian readers, it is hard not to view this “son of man,” one who will have everlasting dominion and whose kingship shall never be destroyed, as Christ. In so doing, we have a traditional image of Christ as king over all creation. Even more explicitly, the New Testament lesson from the apocalyptic book of Revelation, specifically proclaims Christ as “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “made us to be a kingdom,” and who is to be given “glory and dominion forever and ever.” This is the image we tend to have of Christ the King, the image we tend to commemorate on this day.

As I contemplate these images from our Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, particularly as they relate to our commemoration of this feast day, I am struck by an incredible sense of incongruity. This sense of incongruity occurs on several levels, which makes it all the more puzzling. First, how can we, as twenty-first century Americans, relate to the image of king and of kingdom? After all, this nation was founded 230 years ago in a revolution rebelling against the authority of a king and by renouncing our participation in and existence as a kingdom. Our whole system of governance is based on a fundamental belief that monarchical rule is contrary to our God-given right to self-determination and self-governance. This was reinforced during our most recent elections, in which Americans went to the polls and overturned 12 years of rule by the majority party – effectively issuing a proclamation that the direction the current government is leading our nation is not acceptable to the majority of the populace. Such events could never have occurred under a monarchy.

We see similar events unfolding in our own ecclesiastical structure, within the governance of the Episcopal Church, particularly as related to our relationship with and position within the Anglican Communion. Over the past few decades, we in the Episcopal Church have chosen to break with the generally held positions of a majority of our Anglican brothers and sisters on a variety of issues. In the context of kings and kingship, it is not a matter of whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions the Episcopal Church has taken. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of these potentially divisive issues, the fact remains that neither we as the Episcopal Church, those within the Episcopal Church seeking to disassociate themselves and realign with other provinces of the Anglican Communion, or those in other provinces of the Communion, would be in a position to exercise our own understandings of what it means to live the Gospel if we operated under a monarchical ecclesiastical structure. We do not have, and in fact, since the founding of the Anglican Church during the Reformation, have fervently avoided the creation of systems of governance that concentrate power within a single person such as a pope. Despite having a hierarchical structure, our system of governance does not concentrate absolute power in the person of the Presiding Bishop or even in our own diocesan bishops. While our governing officials have substantial influence, the reality is they are not the ultimate authorities. We have insisted on a system of governance far more democratic than monarchical.

It is in light of these incongruities that we are presented with the paradoxical vision of Christ as King in today’s Gospel lesson. On first reading, this lesson seems to paint a counter-intuitive picture of what it means for Jesus to be King. This is the story of a presumed king being treated in a quite un-king-like manner. In this story, a presumed king has been mocked by both the religious and political authorities, humiliated and mistreated by his opposition. Is this any way for a person, particularly a king, to be treated? And even more poignantly, how could someone who is supposedly a king submit to this type of treatment, to this humiliation, without putting up a fight? How could this person possibly be considered a king?

In fact, Pilate’s own disbelief is revealed as he starts his interrogation with the point-blank question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This question, which is incredibly loaded from both the prevailing religious and secular perspectives, begins a dance around what it really means to be king. The religious authorities have referred the matter to the Roman authorities as the Temple officials recognize the danger to their own power base of having a person proclaimed as the Messiah running around the countryside. They want to be rid of this alleged Messiah, but have no means of doing so themselves. Therefore, they refer the matter to the Romans, who they know will not look kindly on such an allegation. “The prominence of the kingship motif underscores the intersection of religion and politics in the trial narrative. Political sedition fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman courts, and Pilate’s questioning about Jesus’ political claims points to the Roman awareness of the potential threat Jewish messianic hopes posed to their governance.” (O’Day, 816).

In response to these accusations, Jesus neither directly affirms nor denies Pilate’s assertion that Jesus is a king. Instead, Jesus describes the nature and function of his kingship, not a physical place over which he is the presumed king. In so doing, Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world. The meaning of this statement can be somewhat confusing. Traditionally, “Translations have usually rendered Jesus’ dictum as ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ widely taken to mean that Jesus was a spiritual teacher offering individual salvation who had no interests and concerns in social and political matters.” (Gottwald, 24). The argument then follows that, as members of this kingdom, we have no need for or concern with the matters of the world. This interpretation is inconsistent with the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels “The better translation, ‘My rule is not derived from this world,’ honors the source of Jesus’ authority and mission in God but in no way excludes social and political matters as spheres in which his way of life is to be carried out. The teaching and conduct of Jesus touch and invade the social, economic, and political spheres of life again and again” (Gottwald, 24).

“Although Jesus is nominally on trial here, he is the one who testifies to the truth, and the world is judged by its response to his witness” (O’Day, 817). In this, he exercises his reign in a way very unlike that of any other king – certainly any king up that point, or any king to reign since. “Jesus poses a threat to the political and religious structures, but it is not because he aspires to office” (Hanson, 62). On the contrary, he is a threat because of what he inspires in others. The Romans were right to fear Jesus as a potential king. They feared that such claims would lead to a revolution that would overthrow Roman domination in the region. Pilate and the Temple authorities think that by putting Jesus to death, his kingship would end. They were wrong. The ultimate irony is that not only is Jesus on trial, but the world is also on trial for its life – we are on trial for our lives. And in that trial, Jesus, the Christ, must be condemned and executed so that the world may gain its life. In reality, this trial is just the beginning, a “prelude to his exaltation and final ‘enthronement’ on the cross” (O’Day, 827). The irony of this trial was that the condemnation and execution of Jesus did not stop the revolution feared by the political and religious authorities. Rather, it started a revolution that has been waged now for nearly 2,000 years.

But where have we gotten in the last 2,000 years? As a society, we have slowly and systematically disassociated ourselves from the notion of kingdom. We have developed the notion that kingdom is not a particularly viable form of governance, that we can be more effective, or at least happier, if we take matters into our own hands. We have developed the idea that it is our God-given right to determine our own destiny. We have developed a “lone-rangerism,” both individually and as a culture, in which deference to a king is no longer welcome, if not anathema. But, is humanity really better off for having tried to go it alone?

Biblical scholar Gail Ramshaw notes that in the midst of this on-going revolution, we find that “Speaking of Jesus as king . . . is the odd speech of metaphorical paradox. Yet the language can” and does “easily become literalized. Ecclesiastical art depicting Jesus in royal robes or triumphalistic hymns reminiscent of a coronation need to be juxtaposed to Jesus’ identification with the poor and to serious attention to the world’s injustices. That many contemporary Christians do not live in a kingdom and perhaps do not even respect that classic form of civil society makes the task of interpretation” of Christ the King “a considerable challenge” (Ramshaw, 254).

Despite this challenge, the image of Christ as King holds a lesson for all Christians, and maybe particularly for those of us living in a non-monarchical, democratic society, in a society that is founded upon “rugged individualism.” Ramshaw comments that “the idea of the community of believers realizing itself as God’s kingdom” can provide us with “a comfort in times of oppression and in inspiration for unified action within and outside the circle of faith” (Ramshaw, 255). This is a crucial function of the kingdom. Few of us in this room experience oppression, or at least, experience it on the level that was experienced by the lepers, widows, and orphans of ancient times. But there continues to be oppression in our day. It just has a different face. Today, it is the face of the homeless person, of the malnourished child, of the illegal immigrant seeking a better life, of the elderly person forced to choose between paying for food and paying for needed medication. The list goes on and on. Despite 2,000 years of revolution, and despite our best intentions, despite our attempts to move away from monarchical structures so that we can better act for our own good and the good of others, we have missed the mark. We have taken Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” too literally. His kingdom may not originate in this world, but it most certainly is of this world. His kingdom is here present among us. It is the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. We are Christ’s kingdom.

“Especially in the sacramental life, the image of Christ’s kingship and the church’s kingdom are important. The baptized are sealed with holy oil as a sign that believers are anointed by the Spirit of God, as was Jesus, to reign in the kingdom of God” (Ramshaw, 255). We are not only Christ’s kingdom. We share in the reign of that kingdom by virtue of our baptisms. But it doesn’t work if we go it alone and try to treat it as a democracy, with each of us looking out for our own interests. Jesus tells Pilate, and he tells us, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We cannot see the whole truth, not as Christ sees it. If we claim to belong to the truth, we must listen to Christ’s voice. We must have that guide to keep us on track with the goals of the Kingdom, lest we wander about aimlessly and ineffectively.

The truth is that we are part of a kingdom that is unlike any other kingdom. Kingdoms, democracies, and republics rise and fall. But the Kingdom of God will last forever. We must do our part to make that Kingdom function as God intends it to. That can only happen if we follow our King. The good news is that we have a King who is unlike any other king. We have a king who loves us enough to die for us. We have a king who feeds us, nurtures us, comforts us, and who can, if we let him, inspire us. Our response is that we must trust in our King, who calls us to listen to the truth; and to proclaim the truth, in word and deed, that his Kingdom is present, here and now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hanson, K.C. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Lagerquist-Gottwald, Laura and Norman K. Gottwald. Proclamation 6: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Ramshaw, Gail. Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 5 - Thanksgiving

Reflection on James 1:17-18,21-27

One week from today is Thanksgiving. Since we will not be meeting next week, we opted to have our liturgical commemoration of Thanksgiving a week early. The Scripture lesson we just read is one of the lessons appointed for Thanksgiving Day, and is part of a longer passage addressing God’s relationship to humankind. Our lesson picks up by addressing the right and wrong responses of humans to this relationship (Johnson, 188). Specifically, humans are meant to be a “first fruits of [God’s] creation,” representing all creation before God (Johnson, 189). The basic point of this passage is clear – that for faith to be real, it must be translated into action. To do otherwise would merely be self-deceptive. By “looking into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” by looking at the examples presented in the Torah, such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah, one may learn how to turn one’s faith into deeds, and thereby be blessed (Johnson, 189).


For me, this is what Thanksgiving is really about – or rather, what it should be about – turning faith into deeds. It’s one thing to be thankful for what we have received – to express our gratitude to God for all that God has provided us. That’s the easy part. It’s easy to say the words. Of course, the words are important. We need to be able to express what we are feeling. But that’s only the beginning. The true test of thankfulness, according to the passage from James, is that we put that thankfulness into action

Think of it this way –you have a friend who gives you a gift. Let’s say your friend takes you out to lunch and pays for your meal. You naturally express your gratitude by saying “thank you.” But if you are like most people, your expression of gratitude does not stop with the words “thank you.” At some point in the future, you will likely take your friend out to lunch or dinner as another way of expressing your gratitude for your friend’s previous kindness, but also as an expression of your continued gratitude for the relationship you share.

Now faith is your relationship with God – you believe in God and have a relationship with God. It is a friendship of the ultimate kind. As part of that friendship, God buys you lunch – lots of lunches – and lots of dinners, and give you all kinds of other things, like a home, and all your possessions, and gives you all sorts of opportunities for a rich and fulfilling life. In fact, God give you life itself. And not just your physical life, but God even gives the gift of eternal life – of salvation through the gift of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Of course, out of gratitude for all these gifts, you say “thank you” to God. In the Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgiving to God for all the gifts we are given. On special days like Thanksgiving, we specifically remember to express our gratitude to God. But is that enough? Would it be enough just to say “thank you” to any other friend who has given you wonderful, even priceless, gifts?

With such a wonderful and generous friend as God, wouldn’t it be appropriate to buy God lunch on occasion, as a way of expressing our gratitude? Or to give God a gift as a sign of love and friendship? Well, obviously, because of the nature of God, we can’t buy God lunch. But we can do the next best thing – we can buy lunch for another of God’s beloved children – for one of God’s beloved children who, through circumstances we may not be able to fully understand, does not have the benefit of the abundance with which we have been blessed. By giving a gift to one of God’s children, we are giving a gift directly to God. But perhaps more importantly, by putting our faith into action, by expressing our gratitude to God through our kindness to God in the form of kindness to another, we are blessing the life of someone else, just as God has blessed our lives. And, in so doing, we are acting on God’s behalf so that, through us, others may know the wonder of God’s abundant love and mercy. What greater gift could we possibly give to God?


References

Johnson, Luke Timothy. “The Letter of James: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. XII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 4 - All Souls Day

Reflection on Isaiah 25:6-9

The Scripture reading we just heard is one of the options for the Old Testament lesson for the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, or All Souls Day, which we remember today. This passage heralds an announcement of salvation using strong eschatological language – language referring to the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of humankind. According to Isaiah, this image of salvation has two components. The first is a feast, a ritual meal of unimaginable plenty, on Mt. Zion., set out for all people. The second is an end to suffering, an end to death that casts its pall over all people, over all nations. In so doing, God will “wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of [God’s] people [God] will take away from all the earth.” One thing is abundantly clear from this passage – salvation and the banquet symbolizing that salvation are made available to all. It is our deepest hope as we face death, be it the death of a loved one, or as we face the specter of our own mortality. Either way, this passage expresses “the deepest human hopes for an end to mourning, to death itself, and to all grief” (Tucker, 217). This passage promises an end to death not just for an elect few, but for all God’s children.


In his commentary on this passage, Gene Tucker ponders “How are we to understand the promise that the Lord ‘will swallow up death forever’? Is it to be taken literally or metaphorically? Certainly the language is metaphorical, but the prophecy looks to a time when death will be no more” (Tucker, 217). As we read this passage, we tend to focus on the theme of the end of death. But more importantly, this passage emphasizes the promises of an end to mourning. The emphasis is on the effect that death causes for those who alive – on the survivors who mourn their personal losses, the loss of their loved ones. This says something about our God, and about what God deems important. The “prophetic voice declares that life, not death, is what God endorses” (Tucker, 217).

So, if, as Tucker posits, God endorses life and not death, then why do we do it? Why do we have the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Why do we remember those who are dead, and in so doing run the risk of dredging up feelings of mourning and grief? After all, if Isaiah is correct, and if our understanding of life after death is correct, those who die are assured of salvation – and not only salvation, but a fantastic feast commemorating the event – an endless feast beyond our wildest imaginations. If Isaiah is correct, and if Tucker’s assessment of this passage is correct, then, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is not so much about the departed as about the living. I would have to agree. At least for me, remembering those who have gone before is an occasion that can be filled with joy for the reasons Isaiah implies – death is not an end of life, but the beginning of new life, of everlasting life. Now, of course I miss my friends and family who have died. But in remembering them on All Souls Day, or any other day for that matter, I chose not to dwell on the fact that they are no longer physically present, but rather I think about how they are still present in my life. I know that my loved ones who have died have somehow touched my life and given me a part of themselves. They have helped to form the person who I am through their love, their influence, their example of what it means to live a faithful life. Without them, I would not be the man I am today.

The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is a celebration of life. While we cannot help but feel some pain at the loss of loved ones, let us remember that God endorses life and not death. Let us remember those who have gone before not with grief, but with gratitude. Let us remember the joyous lives that these saints have lived. Let us remember that those who have gone before continue to live, not only in the Kingdom of Heaven, but also in our own lives – in our hearts, in our memories, and in our very beings.


References

Tucker, Gene M. “The Book of Isaiah 1-39: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VI of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 3

Reflection on John 4:22-26

Today’s reading is a small part of the much longer account of the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. The story in it’s entirety happens to be the longest dialogue recorded in the Gospels. In this story, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are discussing the Jewish and Samaritan faiths, which, while similar in many ways because they have the same roots, differ in some of the particulars. One of the key differences is that the Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as Scripture. From the Jewish perspective they had an incomplete picture of God” (O’Day, 568).

At the heart of today’s passage is the concept that true worship of God entails worshiping in Spirit and truth. Conceptually, this creates a conflict between the Samaritan woman and Jesus, a Jew. While not specifically discussed in the passage, they have differing interpretations of what worshiping in Spirit and truth means. The one thing they can agree on, however, is that a Messiah will come to bring salvation to the world and will reveal the truth. While the Samaritan woman believes that this will happen at some point in the future, Jesus knows differently. He informs the woman that the Messiah has already come, and that he, Jesus, is the Messiah. Looking at the entire story of salvation as portrayed in the Gospels, we see a paradox, however. “Salvation does originate from God’s own people, the Jews, but some Jews do not receive that offer of salvation in Jesus. For example, the offer of salvation made by Jesus (a Jew) has been rejected by the Jew Nicodemus but will be accepted by the Samaritans” (O’Day, 568).

To me, this paradox all boils down to the central concept of worship in Spirit and truth, on how various faith traditions interpret Spirit and truth. Biblical scholar and homiletics professor Gail O’Day notes that “Worship of God in spirit and truth does not point to an internal, spiritualized worship but to a form of worship that reflects and is shaped by the character of God” (O’Day, 568). As Christians, we are constantly attempting to discern what is Spirit and truth, what it means for us, and what it reveals to us about God and about our life as God’s children. In this respect, we are not so different from the Samaritan woman who seeks to understand Spirit and truth, and in a chance encounter, meets it face to face.


References

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.


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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Memorial Service for Charlie Hart

Memorial Service – Charles McKey Hart

(June 9, 1919 – October 8, 2006)
Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33; Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5; Psalm 23; John 14:1-6
Tuesday, October 17, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

As we gather to say our farewells and to honor the life of Charlie Hart, I think it is particularly appropriate that we have this Gospel reading from John. This passage that we just read is the beginning of Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples. In this discourse, Jesus sums up the purpose for his completed ministry on earth and tells his disciples about what is to come – about his death and resurrection. More importantly, for them, and for those of us gathered here today, he tells about what it means for humanity that he will be resurrected and ascend to Heaven.

When Jesus talks about going to his Father’s house, he is not just talking about location, but also about relationship (O’Day, 740). “The imagery of the dwelling places points to the inclusion of others in the relationship with God and Jesus. Jesus uses the domestic imagery to say ‘My return to God will make it possible for you to join me in the relationship that the Father and I share’” (O’Day, 741). For him to go, through death and resurrection, to his Father's house, with dwelling places for all, was to prepare a place of permanent fellowship. This Gospel passage is, therefore, not about separation, but about deeper fellowship.

Jesus promises to take his own to himself. This is a “promise of the arrival of the hoped-for age, which is marked by reunion and reconciliation with God, by inhabiting one’s ‘place’ in God’s home” (O’Day, 741). Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide us with the certainty that we are God’s beloved children and that God wants nothing more than for us to be reconciled to Him in this life, and to spend eternity with him when our lives on this earth are completed. His life, death, and resurrection provide the means by which this can and will happen for each and every one of us.

As evidenced throughout scripture, our Judeo-Christian faith is all about relationship – our relationship to our God and our relationships to one another. Ours is a story of a God who created us in his image. Ours is a story of a God who continually seeks to be in relationship with us. Ours is a story of men and women who seek to be in relationship with one another. Because of our story, we know that it is through relationship that we ultimately seek to know and be known by the One who created us. We accomplish this through community – through our communities of faith, and through the communities that are our families and friends. This importance of community was exemplified by the life of Charlie Hart.

While small of stature, Charlie was a giant among men when it comes to creating and being part of community. Charlie has been characterized as having twinkling eyes and a big, cheerful smile. These physical attributes complimented a similarly winning personality – a non-stop and contagious sense of humor, a strong sense of integrity, a genuine interest in those he encountered, the ability to inspire and cheer on others, a passion for a number of varied activities, and compassion for his fellow human beings.

First and foremost, Charlie was a “people person.” Because of his winning personality, everyone loved Charlie and loved to be with him. And he obviously loved being around other people. Alice, his wife, once commented that there was “never an invitation he said ‘no’ to.” Even later in life, he would not allow a little thing like being confined to a wheelchair to keep him from accepting an invitation. On one occasion, he attended a party while in his wheelchair. Rather than be relegated to the sidelines, he insisted on sitting in the middle of the room so that he could be with all the other partiers and be in the midst of all the action.

When Cynthia and Mary Ann selected the Gospel reading for this service, I immediately had an image of Charlie entering heaven and instantly going from room to room, introducing himself and getting to know the neighbors. And I’m sure that if there were not a party for him to be invited to, he would get busy and organize one himself.

But his greatest joy was his family. He deeply loved his family, particularly his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with each of whom he had a special and unique relationship. He was always there for each of them, no matter what the need. And as a result, they were always there for him, even to the end. He obviously taught his family the meaning of love, which they gratefully and joyously returned to him. But as much as he loved his family, by far his greatest love was Alice, his beloved wife. At one point near his death, he commented that he just wanted to hold her hand. After five years apart, he finally got his wish.

If unconditional love and devotion to community are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, Charlie will fit right in in Heaven. And I think it’s safe to say that he certainly provided a foretaste of that Kingdom while he was here. Charlie lived the Gospel and proclaimed it to all he met through his actions.

Remember, today’s Gospel is not about separation, but about deeper fellowship. When Jesus opens his discourse by saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he is exhorting his disciples “to stand firm in the face of his departure, when the events [of his death] may look to them as if evil and death are having their way. It is a rallying cry for strength” (O’Day, 740). These words and their intended meaning ring true for us here today, just as they did for the disciples. In this time of grief, and in the days ahead when the loss of Charlie’s life and his absence will be most painfully felt by you, his family and friends, remember this rallying cry. Yes, Charlie is no longer here physically, but that does not mean he is gone. He is still with you. He lives on in your hearts – in the memories of your time together and the joy you feel when you think about them, in the lessons that he taught you, in how he touched your lives to help form the persons you are today.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler and Listening for the Heartbeat of God

Proper 23 – Year B
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:1-8,12; Hebrews 3:1-6; Mark 10:17-27(28-31)
Sunday, October 15, 2006 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Now you have to admit, as we start our annual stewardship campaign, today’s Gospel lesson is pretty scary. How would you like to have Jesus as the chair of your stewardship committee? Imagine that stewardship talk.

“Do I have to pledge to be a member of the parish?”

“Of course you do.”

“Well, how much should I pledge?”

“You know the guidelines.”

“So I should do proportional giving?”

“Sorry, not enough.”

“Okay, so I have to tithe to be a member?”

“Nope. Still not good enough.”

“Well then, what do I have to pledge to be a member?”

“Everything. You have to give all your money to the church. Oh, and you have to sell all your possessions and give that money to the church, too. If you do that, then we’ll talk about your membership status.”

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, the vast majority of us would go running for the door. The pews would be empty, or at least, pretty nearly so. Come Monday morning, the rector would have received so many calls she would have no choice but to call a special vestry meeting to figure out what to do about the situation.

The reality is that in contemporary American society, people cannot readily survive without money and possessions. Our society and its institutions just aren’t set-up or equipped to deal with that way of life. Even our ecclesiastical institutions, our parishes, diocese, the Episcopal Church, or the entirety of Christianity, are not equipped to deal with that way of life – with a constituency comprised entirely of people without financial means or material possessions, of a constituency totally reliant upon society or the Church for their support. This is most vividly evidenced by the lack of success of our nation’s welfare system, and of the lack of sufficient resources available to care for the needy in our midst – the hungry, the homeless, and those without access to basic human services.

Yes, the demands that Jesus places on his disciples and the demand he places on the rich young ruler to give up everything to follow him may be the Gospel ideal. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if our society, if our religious institutions, were able to provided for all the needs of all the people? Personally, I would love to not have to worry about having enough money to pay the bills, or provide maintenance and upkeep on my possessions. Sure, there are small pockets within the Church where this is possible. There are monastic communities where the men or women living in them have given up all their possessions and all their money to serve God. And in return, they are provided with what they need for a reasonably comfortable life. But such communities are the exception, not the rule – they are the exception to our societal norms, because they follow the rule of the Gospel.

But the fact remains, we have this difficult, if not troublesome, passage from Mark’s Gospel. “Jesus’ sayings on the difficulty in entering the reign of God is repeated twice for emphasis. We cannot ‘read around’ it; it is not a minor point in the passage, but at its heart” (Hanson, 21). So, let’s take a look at what this means, and then we can start to figure out what to do about it – we can start to figure out our response so that we may remain true and faithful to the Gospel and living as Jesus commands us.

First, let me say that if we are astonished by the demands made by Jesus, and the seriousness with which he seems to make them, we are not alone. According to Mark, Jesus’ “exclamation that it is difficult for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God” also astonishes the disciples, “presumably because they, like many of their contemporaries, saw wealth as an indication of God’s pleasure” (Hooker, 242). The understanding of the day was that God granted wealth and power to some people and that these people would use those gifts for the service and betterment of society. Even today, this perspective continues to be prevalent among many who have wealth and power. So, for Jesus to make statements condemning wealth and demanding that people give up all they have was a radical indictment against prevailing social constructs. His statements and demands floored everyone, including his closest followers and companions.

In explaining the meaning of Jesus’ demands, Biblical Studies scholar K. C. Hanson frames the argument in terms of the economic institutions of the day – the patronage conferred by the wealthy and powerful upon those of lower social and economic status. Hanson writes, “Put in terms of patronage, the wealthy tend to see themselves as self-sufficient. Jesus’ call to discipleship entails a commitment and loyalty to God, his patronage (the kingdom), his broker (Jesus), and the community of his other clients (Jesus’ followers). The wealthy have their own clients, estate obligations, and complex business arrangements. The time, energy, and commitment that Jesus is calling for is precluded by the life-style of the wealthy” (Hanson, 22). While the terms may be slightly different, the concept continues to apply today. And while many of us would not consider ourselves wealthy or powerful by contemporary standards, the principles nonetheless apply to us. Compared to the rest of the world, we are the wealthy and the powerful. The bottom line for contemporary society, according to Hanson, is that “one thing is clear from the Gospels: Jesus did not try to cover up the consequences of discipleship. Following him means calling our commitments and loyalties into question, both in terms of our values and of the institutions to which we align ourselves. He does not call us to be more ‘pious,’ but more loyal” (Hanson, 23). Jesus’ demands are not related to “asceticism, but to commitment and loyalty over against self-sufficiency” (Hanson, 21).

New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins shifts the perspective ever so slightly, noting that “the story of the rich man who turns down the invitation to discipleship illustrates the fact that desire for wealth can stifle the seed sown by the Word” (Perkins, 648). The complexity of dealing with wealth and possessions occupies our time and energy and keeps us from focusing on what the Gospel commands of us. Perkins goes on to relate the situation to contemporary Christians, regardless of social or economic status. She asserts that “Resisting the pressures of a consumer culture, which generates perpetual needs for more and new possessions, is difficult for many Christians today. Our excess consumption may deprive others of resources they need just to survive. It is a hidden form of structural greed that wastes the world’s resources and creates suffering for others we may never meet” (Perkins, 649). But despite this indictment against all of us in twenty-first century American culture, Perkins offers a glimmer of hope. She points out that today’s Gospel lesson “provides an important example of how the apparent impossibility of renouncing all things to follow Jesus can be both possible and even rewarding. The key lies in Christianity as a new community, the ‘family’ gathered around Jesus” (Perkins, 651).

How do we avert the dire consequences implied in Jesus’ discussion on wealth and obtain the rewards that he alludes to at the end of the Gospel passage? If we answer that, we are well on our way to addressing the issue of stewardship. After all, stewardship is about more than just money. It’s about our entire relationship with and use of everything God has given us: money, material possessions, time, our gifts and talents, and our entire selves – body, mind, and spirit.

This past week, I attended the Fall Clergy Conference in Solvang. While actually a misnomer, the event was not so much intended to be a conference as a retreat. The primary purpose of the event is to bring clergy together from all over the Diocese for fellowship, to reconnect with one another, and to provide a time of rest and relaxation. In addition, there is some content built into the event. The focus of this clergy conference was on spiritual self-care, on exploring ways of connecting with God, on the theme of listening for the heartbeat of God.

Monday morning, the first full day of the conference, was absolutely wonderful. After morning prayer, we had a brief program to help set the tone for the day. Melissa McCarthy, a priest in the Diocese, a former dancer, and a dear friend, led us in an experience involving breathing exercises and body movement. Done in a very safe and non-threatening way, the experience was designed to help us to be present to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives at that moment and to help us listen for the heartbeat of God.

After the breathing and movement exercise, I decided that I would take a long walk into the countryside. I set off with no preconceived agenda about what I would do or what I would think about. I just wanted to walk and allow myself to be open to the promptings of the Spirit. At first, I had no particularly profound thoughts. I was just enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside and being in the beauty of God’s creation. After awhile, I discovered that my thoughts turned to the exercise that guided me to hear the heartbeat of God in the midst of an otherwise crazy period. Guided by the Spirit, my mind started making connections to the sense of being in community and the importance of community to us as a people of faith; and to the importance of listening for and actually hearing the heartbeat of God, both as individuals and as a community. I began to realize, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the connection between that morning’s activities and the message that Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel lesson.

When Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he must sell all that he owns, give the money to the poor, and to follow him, he is telling the young man that he must listen for the heartbeat of God. Jesus recognizes that all the hub-bub of every day life, all the frenetic activity that life demands of us, our concern over money and the material things in life, only serve to get in the way of hearing what God is saying to us – they distract us from hearing the heartbeat of God. Only by clearing our minds and our lives of all those concerns will we be free to sit and listen for and to the heartbeat of God. And when we are able to do that, we will be able to hear and understand what is of greatest concern to God. We will begin to realize what it is that we must do to live in harmony with God’s desires.

If we listen to the heartbeat of God, we will hear God calling us to engage in the work of creating equality for all God’s beloved children. We will begin to recognize how out of whack our society is in the work of inclusivity and social justice. We will begin to recognize that “the price society pays for a few to be wealthy” results in many who are poor. We will begin to recognize how seriously God, as revealed in Scripture “take[s] the challenge to do economic and social justice” (Gottwald, 13). By attending to the heartbeat of God, we will see that we are all God’s children, rich and poor, powerful and weak.

The message of today’s Gospel lesson is specifically intended for us, the wealthy and powerful of the world. It is a call to action. It is a call to stewardship. In this lesson, we are the rich young ruler who is called by God to be stewards of all creation, to care for all of creation. The most precious resource in all of creation is humanity, which is made in God’s image. For God, that means leveling the playing field so that all may be equal, not only in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of one another. We can only come to that realization through stripping ourselves of all that distracts us and listening to the heartbeat of God, which cries out for justice. The Church, as the physical Body of Christ in a broken world, is the instrument by which justice for the poor and the oppressed can be achieved. By giving of ourselves to the Church, through our financial resources, as well as our time and our talents and gifts, we strengthen the Church to do the work that God, through Jesus, has called us into – to care for our fellow human beings, God’s children.

Does that mean giving up everything we have? I don’t think so. In our contemporary society that is not feasible. But today’s Gospel does call us to take a long hard look at how we use our resources. It means loosening our attachment to the material, reducing our obsession with our own agendas and self-concerns, and diverting our attention to those things that are of concern to God – to listening to the heartbeat of God and acting in concert with what we hear by using our resources – all our resources – to not merely give lip service to proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but to work toward really making it happen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Hanson, K.C. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to Mark. In Black’s New Testament Commentaries series. London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Lagerquist-Gottwald, Laura and Norman K. Gottwald. Proclamation 6: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VIII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.



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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 2

Reflection on Luke 7:36-50

As I pondered today’s reading from the Gospel According to Luke, I was struck by the image of the woman who came to Jesus, knelt at his feet, wept, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry his feet with her hair. And then, she kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. This reminded me of the tradition at Maundy Thursday services of washing people’s feet. For me, it is always an incredibly humbling experience to have someone else tenderly wash my feet and then to dry them with a soft towel. I also find it very humbling to actually wash the feet of another person. While I find this simple act to be humbling, I also find joy in washing another’s feet. There is great joy in being able to be of service to another – to wash and soothe the tired feet of a fellow traveler on life’s journey

Now in Jesus’ day, it was the custom to provide water to one’s guest so he could wash his feet after a journey in sandals along dusty roads. This was a sign of hospitality and of providing refreshment to weary travelers. Generally, water was merely provided. The guest would have to wash his own feet, which was fine, as the feet were considered to be an intimate part of the body. If the host was wealthy and had slaves, one of the slaves might be directed to wash the feet of the guest.

Admittedly, the actions of the woman, who is characterized as being a sinner, are a little over the top, even given the customs of the day. She was not a slave in the household, so had no official standing for washing anyone’s feet. In fact, she was an uninvited guest in the home of the Pharisee. No one seemed to know who she was, other than the fact that she was a harlot. She did not use water to wash Jesus’ feet. She used her own tears. She did not use a towel to dry Jesus’ feet. She used her own hair. And then, as if that weren’t enough, she actually kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with ointment, with expensive, perfumed oil. The woman completely violated social convention. Touching someone’s feet was considered an intimate, act, carrying sexual overtones. Similarly, a woman letting down her hair also carried sexual overtones. Everyone in the room, with the exception of Jesus, was scandalized by the acts of this brazen woman.

So why did this unnamed woman do such scandalous things? We aren’t told how or why, but somehow, she knew who Jesus was. She knew that he was the key to her salvation, that he was her savior. Her actions demonstrated her love and gratitude. In a moment of abandon, she expressed that love and gratitude in a completely unconventional and unorthodox way – in a way that defied all social convention. She abandoned every shred of dignity she might have had and unashamedly professed that love and gratitude not with mere words, but in her very actions. And in so doing, Jesus saw that she truly loved him and that she was truly grateful for what he would do for her – for the forgiveness that he would grant her. She probably didn’t know it at the time, but deep in her heart of hearts, she has such profound faith in Jesus that could only be expressed in action.

In the eyes of the Pharisee, the woman’s actions were not only scandalous, but they also represented a challenge to his honor. The woman had honored Jesus in a way that he did not. Even more so, the woman honored and loved Jesus in a way that he could never bring himself to do – through intimate actions that would have not only violated social constructs but which would have destroyed his standing as a person of wealth and prestige, his standing as a Temple authority. The Pharisee was so wrapped up in what was proper and what was “demanded” by his position in life that he was not able to recognize his need forgiveness. As a result, he gained nothing. The woman, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. She recognized her need and received forgiveness joyfully and in abundance. Her selfless, loving response is accepted as faith, which results in not only her forgiveness, but also in peace.

Two thousand years later, we still have the same dilemma as illustrated in the Gospel lesson. Like the Pharisee, we invite Jesus in. But how far are we willing to go to gain the forgiveness and the peace that he offers – that are ours for the asking? Do we play things safe and live by societal expectations, or do we go against those expectations and give in to the passion deep within us and act in love and gratitude made possible by faith to embrace Jesus in a most intimate way?

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 1

Reflection on Luke 4:14-30

This is a time of new beginnings. We are beginning a new academic year. We are beginning a new program year at the Episcopal Campus Ministry and at the United Methodist Campus Ministry. For me, it is my first year as an ordained clergy person. For some of you, this is the beginning of a new way of life – a life away from your parents, on your own, possibly for the first time – a life as an adult. All of these are significant new beginnings.


New beginnings are terribly exciting. There is the sense of excitement and exhilaration at the prospect of starting something new, of becoming someone new, of entering into new possibilities. There is a sense of anticipation about what will yet be. But, at the same time, new beginnings can bring a sense of uncertainty – they hold an element of the unknown, potentially bringing with them a sense of confusion, questioning, or even fear. What will this new thing, this new phase of my life look like? What will it feel like? How will I be changed by the experience?

Today’s scripture passage provides some guidance to help us face new beginnings head-on. The passage we just read from Luke tells of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In his first public act following his baptism and being tested in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Nazareth, his home town. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read. Unlike today, there was not a fixed lectionary – a designated set of readings for the day. Jesus had the opportunity to choose the lesson that he would read and use as a basis for the subsequent teaching – for the equivalent of the sermon. What passage did he chose?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

On the surface, this was a pretty typical passage to be selected for reading in the synagogue. This passage, which would have been known to all Jews, is about the hope of the coming of the Messiah – a pretty good, and pretty safe topic for the start of public ministry. But then Jesus blows the congregation out of the water. He begins his teaching by saying “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Right off the bat, he basically equates himself with the Messiah – that he has been anointed by God to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to free the oppressed. Talk about a gutsy statement for your first day of ministry! Now, of course at this point in his public ministry, which had only just begun, Jesus had not accomplished all these things. But what he was doing was laying out the agenda for his ministry – he was giving a preview of what he would accomplish over the next three years. Of course, on this side of Christ’s death and resurrection, we know that while these things he cited in Luke were pretty miraculous, they were only a fraction of what he would ultimately accomplish during his ministry – of what he would accomplish on our behalf.

Did Jesus know exactly what his public ministry would entail? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But one thing is certain from this Gospel lesson – he had a vision for what his ministry would look like and he was able to boldly proclaim that vision by taking the words of scripture and applying them to himself, by making them his own.

By starting this year by attending this worship service, we are making a statement about the true source of our visions and the source of strength that will help us achieve those visions, just as Jesus did in that synagogue in Nazareth. As we begin this new year, this new phase of our journeys, I challenge each of us to follow the example of Jesus and boldly proclaim our vision for our own paths, and to boldly live into that vision, trusting in the power of the God who sent Jesus to minister to the world, and who likewise sends us to minister to the world in our own unique ways.


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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ephphatha!

Proper 18 – Year B
Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 1:17-27; Psalm 146:4-9; Mark 7:31-37
Sunday, September 10, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, explains openness and interdependence employing the imagery of begging bowls used by Buddhist monks. He says, “The begging bowl of the Buddha represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings . . . Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence” (Brussat, 335).

The Gospel equivalent of this illustration is portrayed in today’s lesson from Mark. It is the story of a man who is deaf and has, as Mark terms it, “an impediment in his speech,” who is brought to Jesus for healing. Mark tells us that those bringing the man begged Jesus to “lay his hands on him.” The fact that they begged Jesus to heal him implies the desperate plight of the man (Gundry, 383). He is unable to speak for himself and must rely on others, on his community, to speak on his behalf. Since we humans rely so much on our sense of hearing to obtain information and to know what’s going on around us, it is likely that the deaf man did not know who Jesus was or that he had the ability to heal his affliction. He is totally reliant on his community to take action on his behalf – to take him to this mysterious man from Galilee in the hopes that he might be healed.


The story that ensues is an account of the healing that occurs. In a rather strange ritual, Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue with his saliva, and says “Ephphatha” – an Aramaic word translated as “be opened.” And with the performance of this ritual and the utterance of that seemingly magical word, the man’s entire life changed. He is completely healed. Perhaps, for the first time in the man’s life, he can hear and he can speak properly. And in those first moments following this miraculous healing, the man undoubtedly uses his newly acquired gift of proper speech to proclaim the wonderment of what he had experienced, to proclaim the praises of the man who healed him, and to proclaim thanks to the God who had made this all possible.

But what Mark tells us is only about the physical healing. There is also a spiritual component to the healing which is probably even more important for the man, and most certainly for us. Now, we don’t know anything about the man’s spiritual life. But Alistair Bain, a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia, notes that “It is important to remember that people such as the deaf-mute – and lepers and the less-obviously physically ‘objectionable’ – were effectively excluded from any kind of public or outward access to God through the temple. The advent of Jesus meant that the outcast and marginalized suddenly –perhaps for the first time in their lives – had direct access to God” (Alistair Bain). Perhaps, prior to his healing, the man had some sort of faith in and devotion to God. But that faith and devotion would have necessarily, by the circumstances of his afflictions, been relegated to the confines of his own home and his own heart – it would not have been permitted to be expressed in places of public worship. So, for the first time in his life, this man is able to publicly proclaim praise to God.

For us, “the physical restoration of the [man] represents the ability to hear and see spiritually which is given to those who believe in Jesus” (Hooker, 184). This is very important, for as New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins points out, “unless people can tell others what they know, they do not really know it. Believers need to recognize the need to speak about their experience of salvation. They speak to others in testimony and to God in thanksgiving and praise” (Perkins, 613). In his newly acquired ability to speak properly, the man was able to express what he believed. And undoubtedly, because of the miracle that he had just experienced, that expression of what he believed was far stronger and emphatic than anything he had thought about or felt in his heart up to this point.

“Ephphatha,” while foreign to the Greek-speaking inhabitants of the region, was not a “magic” word, like “abracadabra” – it was a common Aramaic word – a common word in the language Jesus spoke regularly. Mark records it to emphasize the power that a magic word would be thought to have (Gundry, 384). But the power and significance that the word had was far beyond a command for the ears to be opened and the tongue to be loosed. “Jesus addresses the word, not to the man’s ears, but to the man himself” (Gundry, 384) – to be open to healing, but also to be open to receiving the love of God – the love of God that makes the healing possible – the healing that is the sign of God’s love. Therefore, that one word, “Ephphatha,” expresses the obvious opening of the man’s ears and loosening of his tongue. But it also expresses his openness to God’s love, manifested in his healing, and his openness to publicly express his faith and to proclaim the love of God that he has experienced first-hand through the miracle bestowed at the hands of Jesus. Jesus is addressing the word to the man, with the intent that it be heard by all of us – “Ephphatha” – be opened.

So what does “Ephphatha” mean for us? For those of us who are able to hear and to speak? For those of us who are able to publicly proclaim our faith? Obviously, this word, spoken to us, today, in this place, is not in response to physical deafness or muteness. Rather, it is in response to a spiritual deafness, which leads to a spiritual muteness. Or rather, I should more appropriately say it is in response to the potential for spiritual deafness, which leads to spiritual muteness.

Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary defines “deaf” as “lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing : unwilling to hear or listen.” “Mute” is defined as being “unable to speak : lacking the power of speech : characterized by absence of speech: as felt or experienced but not expressed.” If we are spiritually deaf, we are unwilling or unable to hear or listen to what God is saying to us, what God is calling us to do or be. If this happens, the likely result is spiritual muteness – a condition in which we may have felt or experienced God’s grace and mercy, but are not able to express it. It’s not that we haven’t had experiences of grace in our lives. It’s more a matter of either not having the language to express it, or not having recognized God working in our lives because we have, for whatever reason, tuned out God’s voice.

I don’t mean to come off as accusatory or unduly harsh. Spiritual deafness is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of being human. I believe in large part that it is a symptom of our current age and society. It has been since at least the Enlightenment, if not before. I myself have been known to suffer from this affliction. Let me tell you about one of my “Ephphatha” experiences – perhaps my biggest “Ephphatha” experience.

Ever since high school, I have struggled with a sense of being called to ordained ministry. Invariably, I would be going along my merry way, engrossed in my own life, when all of a sudden I would get this overwhelming feeling that God was calling me to ordained ministry. Being basically happy with my life the way it was, I would generally just ignore those feelings, and they would go away. The spiritual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying loudly, “La la la la la, I can’t hear you.” And sure enough, God would go away. So I would continue with my life for awhile, until, boom, there were those feelings again. This went on for a number of years. I would have months of uninterrupted bliss and then God would pop in again with the same old request. I don’t remember when exactly it was, but ignoring these periodic interruptions by the Divine just didn’t seem to work anymore. I suppose it made God happy that I was finally listening. God now had my attention, but I still had no intention of actually hearing, let along acting.

I decided that I needed to change my approach. So, I began arguing with God. I came up with all sorts of great reasons why I shouldn’t go into the priesthood – all sorts of roadblocks to preclude me from following God’s call. Even though I wasn’t listening to God, God seemed to be listening to me. God took the hint and left me alone. And I continued with my contented little life. For a little while, anyway. But God can be persistent. After a while, God would come back with the same old request. And I can be very stubborn. I would rattle off the same list of excuses, plus any new ones I have come up with. This went on for years – the battle of wills between God and yours truly. Over time the frequency between interruptions became shorter and shorter, and the intensity of the encounters with God became stronger and stronger. Eventually, the sense of call became so intense that I finally had to give in to God and start listening to what God was saying – to start really hearing the message. I realized that I had to be open to God. And the rest, as they say, is history. But one of the things that I learned through the experience was that when I really listened to what God was asking and was open to God, I was blessed beyond measure. All the roadblocks I had thrown up disappeared, and all the problems I anticipated never materialized. God took care of it all.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once commented, “The moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance, which no man would have dreamed would come his way” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). But if I am brutally honest with myself, I still have bouts with spiritual deafness. Only now, it’s more a matter of just plain not hearing, as opposed to willfully tuning out or ignoring God. Having completely turned my life upside down to follow God’s calling, I know better. I know the love and mercy of God that Goethe was talking about. Sometimes I just get too wrapped up in what I’m doing and don’t take time to listen for God’s voice. That gentle voice gets drowned out by the cacophony that is my own thoughts and frenetic activity.

That’s one of my own examples of struggling with spiritual deafness. Perhaps you have your own, to some extent or another. So how do we counteract the affliction of spiritual deafness? We need to learn to listen in a new way. Rather, we first need to be opened to listening, to hearing, in a new way. As today’s Gospel demonstrates, Jesus has spoken the invitation to allow that to happen – “Ephphatha” – be opened. He has spoken those words to us a number of times. They are spoken to us every time we walk into this place. They are spoken to us and made part of us by virtue of our baptisms. They are spoken to us and reinforced every time we approach this table to participate in the Eucharist and partake of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Sometimes the invitation to “Ephphatha” can actually be heard with the ears. Sometimes it is heard in the words of Scripture – possibly even an old familiar passage you have heard numerous times before, but then you hear it as with new ears, speaking to you in a way it never has before. Sometimes it is heard in the words of our prayers – in the Prayers of the People or a collect or the Eucharistic Prayer. Sometimes it is heard in a hymn sung by the congregation or an anthems sung by the choir. And hopefully, on occasion, it is heard in the words of a sermon.

But the invitation to “Ephphatha” is not always heard with our ears. More often than not, the invitation to be opened is not audible, but is conveyed in more subtle ways. Maybe it is experienced in the gentle smile of a fellow parishioner. Or maybe felt through a handshake or an embrace during the Peace. Or perhaps it is conveyed in a kind gesture or a helping hand. In these cases, the invitation of “Ephphatha” is only discerned as a gut feeling – it is felt in the heart. You may not know it at the time, but that’s what’s happening. The Spirit is issuing you a subtle invitation to be opened – to be opened to the love of God as manifested through another person.

To more fully hear what God is saying to us, our hearts need to be opened – opened to the Word proclaimed in the liturgy, and to the inaudible word proclaimed in the actions of those around us. We need to start listening with our hearts. I wish I had some magic formula for how to make that happen. But as Rabbi David A. Cooper comments, “Our work is not so much to find a teacher as to improvise our own receptivity and sharpen our ability to hear the teachings all around us” (Brussat, 283). What I can offer is the example of the deaf-mute in today’s Gospel lesson. What his example tells us is that to be able to listen with our hearts, we need to be open to the healing power of Christ – to the knowledge that regardless of who we are or what we have done, Christ offers and gives the gift of healing – the gift of hearing in a new way, with our hearts.

In his book Silence of Unknowing, Terence Grant, a specialist in Eastern and Christian mysticism, offers the following suggestion: “If we want to learn more about Christ, if we want to experience Christ more deeply in our lives, then we have to be open to things that might seem alien, threatening to us” (Grant, 35). We must allow ourselves to be open, to be vulnerable, to be willing to trust in the God who gives us these experiences – and to be willing to take the time to sit in silence with those experiences, with the God who reveals Godself in them, and to discern what is being spoken from the heart of God to our own hearts.

Receiving the gift of healing and hearing requires that we respond in some way. As demonstrated in the Gospel lesson, the opening of the heart that occurs not only brings new hearing, but also a new ability to speak. We gain the ability, even the uncontrollable desire to proclaim God’s glory and praise. This serves as an example to others, just as the deaf man is an example to us. And while not specifically discussed in the Gospel, Jesus’ overall message is clear – we are called to be opened to others. We are called to help others to hear the word of God. We are called to help others be healed and transformed into the persons God has called them to be, just as we are being transformed into who God is calling us to be. And we are called to help others speak – to speak for those who have not been heard by society, so that they too may be healed and transformed into who God is calling them to be.

“The basis of the Good News about Jesus in Mark's Gospel is that Jesus restores people to community. His healings are about incorporating people into a new system where there are no outcasts” (Br. Clark Berge, SSF). Christ died so that we might be healed, that we might be given a new way of hearing and speaking, that we may no longer be alienated from God or each other, but be restored to community. We are called to be open to God’s message; to be open to the possibilities; to live into that example; to proclaim the love and mercy that God has for all creation; and, in the process, to welcome each other into a new way of being where we are all sisters and brothers, inextricably linked in and through the heart of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Bain, Alistair. “Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B.” Sermons That Work: Selected Sermons, September 2000 (5 September 2006).

Berge, Clark. “Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B.” Sermons That Work: Selected Sermons, September 2000 (5 September 2006).

Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Grant, Terence. The Silence of Unknowing: The Key to the Spiritual Life. Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 1995.

Gundry, Robert H. Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to Mark. In Black’s New Testament Commentaries series. London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VIII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.


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