Are Your Ears Burning Yet?

In last Sunday’s installment of Christian Essentials, i.e. those core understandings that underpin our identity and experience as Christians living in this present age, we engaged with the second question – Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus? The answer first finds it’s echo in the book of Isaiah’s longed-for expectation of one arising in whom God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. For the early Christians Jesus is the embodiment of this Hebrew longing. In Jesus the first Christians experienced the inauguration of God’s plan of setting not only Israel, but the whole world to rights.

The writers of the New Testament present different portraits of Jesus, and I write about this in more detail in the Christian Essential series on the website. It’s enough to say here that the gospel writers are like portrait painters. Even when the subject of the portrait is the same, the interpretation of what the painter sees is always particular to the painter. The subject of the portrait emerges through the filter of the artist’s world view.

Jesus’ sermon known as the beatitudes is one of his most loved, yet also one of the most misunderstood and argued over of his teachings. That Matthew and Luke depict this incident in which Jesus teaches through the beatitudes differently only adds to the confusion.

In 2019, Epiphany 6 gives us Luke’s portrait of this event in Jesus’ teaching ministry.

The difference between the Matthean and Lucan versions of this story reminds me that in the later traditions of Western religious painting, holy scenes are set in the foreground against a deeper background that is full of highly symbolic detail. It’s the background detail that differs greatly from painter to painter. It is so with Matthew and Luke. The difference in the way each situates Jesus’ teaching against a particular topographical background alerts us to a tension that goes to the very heart of our experience as Christians in today’s world.

In your mind’s eye create the following scene: Matt 5:1: When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said: …. .

Now picture this: Luke 6:17: Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him; so many people healed! Then he spoke: …. .

The scene painted by Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here we see Jesus emerging as the new improved Moses, delivering his new model Torah from the mountaintop only to those who constitute the new and improved community of Israel. 

Luke’s depiction of this scene is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus emerges clothed in the hues of Isaiah’s universalistic figure ushering in the messianic age: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. This is an age characterized by an expansion of God’s promises beyond Israel to include the whole world.

As well as being an embodiment of Isaiah’s messianic vision, Luke depicts Jesus as a cosmopolitan healer, an image that conveyed wide appeal to Luke’s Gentile audience.

Luke’s Jesus, having broken out of the straitjacket of Jewish expectation comes down from the lofty isolation of the mountain top to mix it up with all in sundry in an intimacy with the desperate and seething throng of humanity; promising healing to all.

Between mountain and plain lies the tension between different approaches to what living the Christian life involves; a tension that continues into our own time. There is a Matthean approach that from a lofty height emphasizes the distinction between who’s included and who is not, who’s committed, and who isn’t, where the question always is: how high do you have to jump to get into the kingdom? Then there’s the Lukan approach that assumes that none of us can be included in the kingdom while any one of us remains outside – that is, intentionally excluded from the invitation of the kingdom God.

Matthew’s portrait of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the importance of holding firmly to spiritual values sustained by the promise of future reward. Here Jesus proclaims: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – a phrase that suggests some future state.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus delivering the sermon on the Plain emphasizes human experience in real time. Jesus says: Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God –a phrase that suggest something right now in real time.

To Matthew’s: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, Luke says: Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Matthew addresses his hearers in the third person – they, theirs leaving the hearer with a more impersonal and generalized experience. Luke uses the more direct second person address– you and yours, as in: hey you, yes you, I talking to you!

In truth, a balanced Christian life must acknowledge the Matthean emphasis on an expectation of a future fulfillment of kingdom promises through perseverance and courageous faithfulness in the face of very real present time challenge.

However, it’s the Lukan emphasis on living in the kingdom now, not looking forward to it in the future that is the greater priority for Christians in today’s world.

We need to do more than hold firm in the face of the evils of the world in the hope that all will come right in the end. We are required by Jesus to continue his work of agitating for the arrival of the kingdom of a God who is already present and active in the world, and who requires our assistance through the action we take in real time.

Although I value Matthew’s very Jewish depiction of Jesus’ message as the promise or expectation of future rewards for present fidelity, it’s those who feel comfortable with the status quo of worldly business as usual, ignoring or explaining away the systemic inequalities and injustices that characterize our present social order who will choose Matthew for support. Looking to Matthew’s spiritual emphasis for justification, they avoid the uncomfortable truth of Luke’s Jesus who counters blessing with threat as well as blessing.

But woe to you who are privileged now, for you will be subpoenaed to give account. Woe to you who are now satisfied, for you will know the hunger when self-satisfaction fails to fulfill. Woe to you who are enjoying the good life now, for disaster is always only one breath away.

Luke’s is a political message about confronting economic injustice, the self-satisfied pride of the rich, by living the kingdom’s expectation for greater social and racial inclusion as a present imperative for the Christian life.

This is a call to action, which if heard,are your ears burning yet?

Christian Essentials:3. God Jesus and the Church

Summary so far

  1. God is a community within a single identity (refer back to session1). The Genesis creation accounts of God as Creator bringing order to the universe are set in the predawn before human history. We refer to these accounts a myth or stories that convey timeless truth.
  • In Exodus God self-declares within human history as Liberator in the Old Testament and as Loving Savior in the New Testament. With Exodus we begin the great epic or the story of God’s relationship with Israel and then the Church conveyed within time through the events in human history.
  • Within the divine community we can identify creative, expressive, and energetic elements which the Nicene Creed refers to these as persons. But because they are of the same substance they comprise only one divine identity.
  • The expressive- communicative aspect of the divine community is known as Logos (word, reason or plan). In English we translate this rather inadequately as the Word. The Word enters into creation in the human person of the Jesus (refer back to session 2).
  • The divine person of The Word and the human person of Jesus co-exist alongside each other within a human life. The divine and the human sit in mutual relationship – healing the breach between Creator and creation.
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus – resurrection as understood as life, after life after death – God realizes God’s historic promise of liberation and restoration of the creation through an act of bringing the future into the present. In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated ahead of time as it were, what he intends for the resurrection of a new creation at the end of time.
  • The Church is the divine-mystical and human-institutional embodiment of the continuation of the work begun by Jesus as the Christ-Messiah, work which is now empowered by the third person or energetic element of God we know as The Holy Spirit.
  • The Church sits in the time in-between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the world – the age of The Holy Spirit.
  • As in Jesus The Word and the human co-existed, so now the divine Spirit (the energetic expression of God which hovered the chaos at creation) and the human institution or organization co-exist alongside each other in the life of the Church which as the Body of Christ continues to embody the ministry of Jesus in the world.

What is the Church? The short answer is the Church is the human community that through its divine empowerment by the energetic Spirit of God continues the work begun by Jesus and now continues in us; the work of setting the world to rights.

Doctrine is the articulation of the Church as it understands the truth of God’s relationship with the world.

The Holy Trinity

The Trinity is the doctrine that speaks of God’s essential nature as three persons in one identity. Before the Trinity was a doctrine it was an experience of the first followers of Jesus the Messiah that gave the particular shape to their experience of God. They already knew of God the creator. They had come to personally encounter God present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Finally, they had the experience of God infused within them and all around them as divine spirit.

The first followers of Jesus three-form experience of God was a lived, daily experience. With the passage of time, the immediacy of this experience among the followers of Jesus needed an official articulation. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the successive generations of increasingly Gentile Christians became the tool kit for speaking about a God experienced in three manifestations but was not three gods but one.

The Holy Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about this triune nature or as I refer to it this communal nature of God. But the primary function of the trinity as doctrine is not to explain God but to protect the mystery that is God from being reduced to only that which successive generations were able to understand.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature or substance – hence three persons in one God.

It might have been simpler for the Early Church if it had used instead of Aristotelian Logic the simple poetry of the Ancient Irish:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all water their origin share,
Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make our prayer.

A modern reframing

Our individual sense of self – who am I, is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me. This is a wonderful analogy for the identities or persons within the divine community of the Trinity.

You might like to visit http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm  which expresses this concept of beholding and being beheld in the gaze of the other. Rublev’s divine persons express their individuality through their look at each other, yet they look with exactly the same face.

Relationship not Function

The Father (the lover) is the creator source of all things. The Son (the beloved) is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit (love sharer) is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but their relationship. They enjoy a relationship which is the fruit of each divine person discovering themselves in the gaze of the other two.

Traditionally we used the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to refer to God. What’s important about these names lies not their gendered nature, but as relational terms. Sometimes we attempt to escape the gendered overtones of these traditional names for God by talking of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. These are certainly adjectives that describe function, but they cannot express relationality. Therefore, we should avoid referring to God by use of functional adjectives and instead find other terms that denote relationship. I prefer lover, beloved and love sharer. Each term links and refers to the other two, which is the nature of relationship.

Baptism – Belonging Preceding Believing

Baptism is the ceremony of entry into the Church. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, baptism is not about individual salvation. It’s coming to belong, about belonging, and about nurturing and growing as part of a community of faith.

Baptism involves four key elements. The first is Spirit. Baptism finds an echo in the actions of God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over the void at creation in Genesis 1. It also finds echo in the Spirit breathing life into the lungs of the human being fashioned out of the elements of the earth in Genesis 2. The Spirit, which is the source of all life, is given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Christians the Holy Spirit is the sanctifying and sustaining energy of God active in the world.

The second element is Water.  Water is necessary for life. It is elemental. It also nourishes, cleanses and restores. In our baptism we find an echo to the passing of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea – a rite of passage. In the waters of baptism, we also die and rise to the new life in Christ whether through the symbolism of total emersion or the pouring of water over the head. Both have the same meaning in the sense that the Eucharist is a meal even though we are only given a piece of bread and a sip of wine.

Thirdly there is Covenant. In the 31st chapter of Jeremiah God speaks of a new relationship with his people in which his law is transformed from a set of commands to something written on the inside of their hearts. In baptism we are signing ourselves into the New Covenant initiated by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Baptism is our response to God’s invitation to enter into covenant. Like a contract, a covenant is a conditional offer that requires a response of acceptance to transforms it into something potential to something realized.

The fourth element is Community. All of created life is sacred. Physical birth ushers us into the goodness of God’s Creation. Being created involves neither a choice nor a response from us. In this sense to be human is to be most like God. Baptism reminds us that no one drifts into the Kingdom of God by mistake. As Christians we embrace the fundamental goodness of creation by making the choice to enter into a deliberate and particular covenant with God. In this sense being Christian is to know that to be human is to be most like God. Baptism is our entry into the saving and cross bearing community we call the Church.

Additional Elements

  1. Baptism is the same for all whether you are three months-old or 30 years-old.
  2. It is a once in a lifetime event.
  3. No prior knowledge or demonstration of faith is necessary to be baptized. What is required is an intention to journey within the community of the Church. Belonging precedes believing.
  4. The importance for baptism is what happens following it. Its meaning and effect grow within us through a daily renewal of our baptismal promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  5. There is no special status within the Christian community beyond that of being baptized. Both St Paul in Romans 12 and the writer of 1 Peter:2 speak of the community of the baptized as a royal priesthood.
  6. Even those set aside by ordination hold the same spiritual rank as all other baptized members.
  7. Ordination for ministry is a call from within the whole body of the baptized for leaders to guide the community into becoming more fully an embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Baptism and The Eucharist

Any baptized person, no matter their age is invited to receive Holy Communion. Why? Because Baptism is the sacrament of entry into community of the Church and Eucharist is the participation in the life of that community. Confirmation was the traditional rite of passage to Communion. This was a historical decision not a theological one because confirmation adds little other than an opportunity to confirm baptismal vows, when made by us as infants. Thus, the current practice of the Episcopal Church is to communicate infants and children who have been baptized.

The Nicene Creed

There is a funny story told about Fr. Harry Williams who was a well-known member of the Community of the Resurrection – one of the great missionary communities in the Church of England (Desmond Tutu along with a generation of South African leaders were all educated by CR.)

Over the top of each monk’s stall in the choir was a light operated by pulling a dangling cord. When the monks all stood for the recitation of the Nicene Creed, Fr. Harry would sit down and turn off his light when they came to particular lines in the creed he didn’t believe.

I am often asked do we have to believe every line of the creed? Well Fr. Harry Williams clearly didn’t. But this is an amusing anecdote because Fr. Harry should have known that we say the creed not as a statement of individual belief, but as a statement of what the Church has always believed.

The Nicene Creed represents the historic faith of the Church. We have a dynamic relationship to shared faith. Some bits we readily affirm while other bits we may have doubts about and this is a continually moving target over a lifetime. This may change from day to day as an expression of how we are feeling – hopeful or despondent.

However, the faith of the Church continues to remain the faith of the historic community. Its truth does not rely on our individual assent, nor is it invalidated by our individual doubts.

The Church has down the ages affirmed its shared belief in God as Trinity, and in Jesus as both divine and human, not in order to explain God but to protect God from being explained away.

For further reflection

  1. One Christian is no Christian. Discuss.
  2. How might a growing sense of 1. above influence the way you live and think about your membership in the Church?
  3. Trace in your mind’s eye the emergent sequence of experiences that led the first Christians to conceive of God as Trinity.
  4. How do the five vows of the Baptismal Covenant BCP pg 304-05 influence your actions and worldview?
  5. Go to the link given for the Rublev Icon of the Trinity. Gaze at it. Note the sequence of movement from Creator to Word to Spirit. Reflect on the experience of gazing at identical figures and ask yourself the question: the figures look identical, but do they feel the same to you?

Christian Essentials Who is Jesus?

Jesus in the Old Testament

The Prophets in the Old Testament look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise to raise up a Messiah – an anointed one – whose coming will usher in a new age of fulfilment for Israel.

The book of Isaiah offers two significant images for the Messiah: that of a child and the other of a suffering servant. In First Isaiah chapter 7 we read:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

In Chapter 9 we also read:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

In Chapters 42,49,50, 52-53 we find the four Servant Songs – made so familiar to our modern ears as the texts used by Mr Handel to set to music in his The Messiah. The one promised who will redeem Israel comes with strength and in hope.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “your God reigns”. 52:7

The mood darkens however, as the Servant is also a figure who through suffering will redeem Israel.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief; as one from whom others hide their faces” he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; … But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 53:2-5

Whoever, the prophets had in mind when they proclaimed their vision for the final fulfilment of Israel, the first Christians understood Jesus to be the embodied fulfilment of both kinds of Messiah, the babe who will usher in a reign of justice and the servant whose suffering will redeem not simply the community of Israel, but the whole world.

Jesus in the New Testament

In the New Testament we have five accounts identifying Jesus. They all agree that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed promised one. But they vary widely in the details.

Mark is the first gospel to be written. Writing for a community undergoing persecution he links Jesus identity to that of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. The Son of Man, the title Mark uses for Jesus, physically takes on the suffering and sin of the world and in doing so enables God to bring about a new beginning. Mark establishes Jesus continuity with the prophetic messianic. Jesus first appears in Mark as an adult man coming for baptism by John. John, for Mark roots Jesus in the OT prophecies for John the Baptist is the embodiment of Elijah, the forerunner who will announce the arrival of the Messiah.

Matthew, writing for a beleaguered Jewish Christian community recently expelled from the synagogues present Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new Law. Matthew offers the first birth narrative in which his opening words are:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David and son of Abraham.

We need explore no further to understand Matthew’s image for Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new Law, in effect condensing Moses’ Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew has an exalted sense of Jesus and so prefers the title Son of God, a title which also has deep Jewish roots.

Luke is the internationalist propagandist of the New Testament. Luke also provides a birth narrative more closely tied to Isaiah 7. Where the focus of Matthew is on Joseph as the conduit for transmitting Jesus’ Davidic heritage, Luke’s attention is on Mary, and his message is of Jesus as the healing reconciler of divisions and the herald of a vision of divine inclusion.

If Matthew’s image of Jesus is a rebuke to newly forming Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Luke’s message has the wider Roman and Greek world in its sights.

Both Matthew and Luke use the title Son of God in its historical Jewish sense – meaning one chosen by God. We have to wait for John to give its characteristically Christian meaning of God the Son.

John’s Jesus harkens back to the Genesis stories of creation we looked at last week. Jesus is God the Son, the logos, or the Word, the communicative element of the divine community, present with God since before the creation of the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us.

If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree on who Jesus is, they differ on how Jesus comes to be who he is. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ unique relationship with God is through birth. For Mark it’s through adoption and baptism. For John, it’s through preexistence as the second person of the divine community, the embodied bringer of God’s love into the world.

Paul, the most influential of early Christian writers communicates a mystical vision of Jesus the Messiah. While on route to Damascus to arrest the Christian there, the Pharisee of Pharisees Saul encounters Jesus in a blinding experience. For Saul-Paul this is- a vision of God appearing with the face and voice of Jesus the Messiah. Paul does not explore the biography of Jesus. However, steeped in the study of the Torah and the Prophets, Paul’s Jesus the Messiah, the promised one, the Lord, in whom the hopes and dreams of Israel have been fulfilled by God.

Who Jesus is and how he comes to be who he is hangs on two baffling and confusing questions.

The Conundrum of the Incarnation

So, is Jesus God’s Son in the Ancient Jewish sense of one anointed by God as Messiah? Or, is he God the Son, the divine nature in human form? And if so, is he more divine or more human? Is he really divine masquerading as a human being? Or is he a human being who enjoys a special level of conscious awareness of connection with God? Or is he a mixture of both divine and human in a uniquely new way?

The Church struggled with these question for the first 5 centuries of its life. Much blood was spilled in the process. Although ‘officially’ settled, the tension in these questions still bedevils us today. Eventually, the official or orthodox position emerged which in the words of the Nicene Creed holds that Jesus is both human and divine, that in him both natures sti alongside each other; neither taking precedence over. We might say that in Jesus the divine and human sit in a mutual relationship of equals.

This belief is crucial to Christian faith. But it is not an attempt to actually describe the nature of Jesus as it is to protect the two truths we do know:

  • That Jesus is in a unique sense connected with God,
  • and that in Jesus God proclaims that to be most fully human is to be most like the divine. Discuss

The Conundrum of the Resurrection

How are we to understand Jesus being raised by God three days after his attested physical death? There are two possibilities: Resurrection could mean life after death? Or it could mean life, after life, after death? Resurrection is commonly misconceived of as a two-step process as n life after death. But it’s a three-step process. First comes life, then comes death, then comes life after physical death. Discuss!!

In a personal reflection on this session, the following statements are in tension. Notice the one that speaks more to you and reflect on why this might be. What does this tell you about yourself and who Jesus is for you?

a. I can relate to Jesus because he was God’s Son and this makes him special, divine, more than human.

b. I can relate Jesus because he was subject to the same limitations and struggles I experience, and this makes him human like me.

c. Resurrection is a spiritual experience that the disciples had of a mystical presence of Jesus still with them.

d. Resurrection is Jesus’ return to physical life after death as the beginning of a process that will finally end with the physical making new the whole creation.

e. My Christian goal in life is to see resurrection as my eventual get out of jail card so that at the end I too my go to heaven to be with Jesus and God.

f.My Christian goal is to live the life of the resurrection in the here and now – working with God in real time in the healing of the world.

h. to believe the right things in the right way is what is important to me.

i. To live in the right way with right relationship with others being more important than believing the right things is more important to me.

Who will go?

An observation: how many of us make the connection between the scene depicted in Isaiah 6:1-8 and the atmospheric tone of our Anglican tradition of worship in the Episcopal Church? Some of us are fortunate to worship in churches where the craftsmen of a past generation have employed stone and wood, color and iconography, glass, tile and rich fabric to create a context rich in the symbolism and atmosphere of Isaiah’s description of his experience in the Temple at Jerusalem.

There are, indeed, contemporary churches where in a different way the architectural purity of unadorned line and spaciousness of dimension recaptures the grandeur of Isaiah’s experience. Yet, even when our church building may seem rather pedestrian and ordinary by comparison with great cathedrals and churches, care is never-the-less taken to make the sanctuary a fitting place for the worship of God.

For the worship of God is what Episcopalians do first and foremost when they meet together on Sunday morning. No matter the building we happen to find ourselves in, the structure of the liturgy communicates the very essence of Isaiah’s experience. At the climax of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the congregation loudly proclaims the Seraphs’ cry:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Isaiah 6:1-8 has created the imaginative template for Christian liturgical worship. Sometimes this template translates as a physical space, but always as an internal space, independent of physical environment in which the members of the worshiping congregation are drawn into a collective experience facilitated by the heartbeat of the liturgy. For worship offers us a collective experience that is greater than the sum total of our individual parts. Whether celebrated with pomp and circumstance or with a simple and quiet dignity by a priest and a handful of faithful worshipers.

A second observation about this passage is that it is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful account of a call or conversion experience to be found anywhere in scripture. Overwhelmed with sensory overload, the young Isaiah in response to the Seraphim song ejaculates: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips: yet my eyes gave seen the king, the Lord of hosts!  Extending the metaphor of unclean lips, a seraph takes a burning coal from the incense stand and seers his lips as absolution is pronounced.

I had a rather facetious thought that I should always have a brazier of burning coals to hand when I hear individual confessions – but I guess that this is not a good way to encourage privatized Episcopalians to avail themselves of this spiritual remedy for a troubled conscience.

My third observation concerning this passage is that immediately the deal has been sealed between Isaiah and the Lord, the Lord makes a request in the form of the question: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

I am struck by the fact that God asks instead of simply assuming; for relationship of the sort God seeks with Isaiah requires the giving of consent. Isaiah consents: Here am I; send me!

In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle, Paul hints at his own conversion experience, which compares well alongside that of Isaiah’s. Saul as he was then known, while travelling to Damascus in pursuit of the followers of Jesus whom he – Pharisees of the strictest party of the Pharisees was persecuting, he is struck down by a vision that leaves him disoriented and blind for several days.

Saul, would have been extremely familiar with Isaiah’s account of his call in the Temple. Many times his meditation upon the text may well have convinced him of his divinely appointed mission to bring the renegade followers of Jesus to book. Perhaps it was his meditation on Isaiah 6 that as his mind sought to fill the time as he travelled on the hot and dusty road, Saul suddenly saw more than the hem of the Lord’s garment. Did Saul gaze upon the very face of God and see the face of Jesus asking him: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul, the Pharisee, driven by a jealous longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel was confronted with the realization that the promise that motivated his waking hours and haunted his dreams had come to fulfilment already in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So far, we have two examples of fairly mystical and somewhat ecstatic conversion experiences. The account of being called that Luke offers us in Chapter 5 is set in the context of everyday activity. Peter and his companions are small boat owners. They are tired after a hard night fishing and frustrated with little to show for it. Who is this guy sitting in a boat talking nonsense about throwing out the nest again?

In most translations Simon addresses Jesus as Master when he protests that they have been at it all night. While grammatically correct, Richard Swanson suggest a more idiomatic choice of boss, suggesting something of a facetious edge underneath Simon’s outward respect to this itinerant teacher who is, frankly, just making a nuisance of himself. In to Jesus suggestion the spirit of Simon’s response seems to convey the meaning of:

Hey boss, you’re the expert – which when it comes to fishing both Simon and Jesus knew was not true.

It’s all a big surprise when the nets are so full of fish they can’t be hauled in without help. In that moment, whatever it is that Simon recognizes, it causes him to fall at Jesus feet exclaiming: Go away from me for I am not worthy enough to draw your attention to me. We hear the echo of Isaiah’s words: I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.

Jesus in effect says: Never mind, there’s nothing to be afraid of because from now on you will be catching people. Luke tells us, Simon and his partners James and John left everything in that moment and followed Jesus.

Do you have a recollection of a call or conversion experience? For most of us the growth into faith is gradual and allowing for some ups and downs, coming to faith is a steady process over time. And yet, can we recall a memory of a moment in time – when looking back – we now see a turning point when we set out on a new path towards faith?

Mine came at the age of 15 when I attended the service of Evensong for the first time in the beautiful stone church of St Barnabas, in Fendalton, the East Side of my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. As I gazed at the altar – alight with two tall candles burning below the great East Window through which the last of the summer twilight filtered, I became enthralled by the sung rhythm of the suffrages – the call and answer responses that are intoned, alternating back and forth between officiant, choir, and congregation. I heard the words in my head: how come I never knew there was anything as beautiful as this?

This memory is more a testament to my internal experience rather than to any extraordinary uniqueness of this particular Evensong; for this is the nature of call or conversion experience. Sometimes, the moment of call comes with dramatic special effects, but mostly it comes through ordinary events that for the individual take on extraordinary significance.

I went home that evening, outwardly unchanged. But looking back, sitting in that church, on that particular evening, I set out upon a different path. It took many years for me to be able to say: here am I, Lord, send me.

We are all people with unclean lips, and we too find in us the echo of Simon Peter’s words: go away from me Lord, for I am not worthy. Yet, the Lord calls uncovers the trustworthiness that is in us.

We certainly live among a people with unclean lips, and it’s clear that the purpose of God’s call to each of us is to advance the expectations of the kingdom identifying and challenging the evils of the human societal status quo which always favors power and wealth in the fight for justice and liberation from all forms of oppression. But we also have seen the Lord of hosts.

Each week we come to worship, where we hear and receive God in the dignity of the liturgy and in the faces of those with whom we worship. We take God into our mouths, and we feed on him in our hearts. We too have seen the Lord of hosts and we are ready, if we will but know it, to take hold of the opportunities and meet head-on the challenges that lie ahead. Yet, one more thing is needed. Our consent. God still asks: Whom shall I send, who will go for us? Do we have the courage to say: here am I, here are we, Lord, I/we will go.

Christian Essentials (2019) What or Who is God?

What is God? God is Creator

What is God?, is question set in mythological time – that is, taking place before the dawn of historical time.

Genesis 1: the first story of creation from which we learn the following:

  1. The Creator exists as the prime mover of creation, existing before the act of creation itself.
  2. In the act of creation, the Creator brings order to the chaotic, swirling elements ordering them in the structures of creation.
  3. The created order is built up layer upon layer.
  4. The final layer of creation is human. All the elements of creation are expressions of the Creator’s desire to make something lovely. But humanity is different – how?
  5. Like all artists each layer of the creation in some vital way is Creator’s self-expression.
  6. However, humanity is the layer of creation that is most like God – able to behold the goodness of creation and to know the Creator of the beautiful ordering of creation – humans are given a quality that only God has up to this point – awareness and self-awareness.

In Gen 1 we learn that God as Creator is relational by nature. God uses the pronouns we and us and our, not I, me or mine -let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created them.In humanity God’s intention is to make a layer of creation that directly reflects back to God the attributes of the divine – the divine as a relational community.

Genesis 2: a second story of creation from which we learn:

  1. That creating humanity is God’s first and the last action of creation. Between the first human being – Adam and the last human being to be created – Eve, we find the other layers of creation established.
  2. Genesis 2 also has a central theme of relationship; each layer of creation is made with the intention of providing Adam with company so that he won’t live in the garden all alone. We can deduce that relationality is a central attribute of the divine community of God.
  3. God waits to see what Adam names each new element in creation – again there is an expression of a desire for intimacy to be an essential attribute in creation.
  4. Finally, God sees that animals are not quite right as true companions for Adam. God realizes he needs a complementary blueprint of being human to provide a true companion for the human Adam.
  5. God takes an element of Adam’s body and separates it out into a separate created being; a true companion who embodies complementarity – the same and yet different;  to Adam’s masculinity comes Eve’s femininity.
  6. Chapter 2 ends with the hint about a special type of relationship – a relationship that expresses the notions of companionship based on both similarity and complementarity.

Where might God’s deep desire for human beings to experience relationship come from if not as an expression of God’s essential nature. Harking back to the ending of Gen:1  –let us make humanity in our own image; male and female God created themAdam and Eve come to mirror the relational and communal character of God.

What can we deduce here?

  1. God is communal – relational and not solitary.
  2. The Divine is neither male nor female but expresses a complementarity of masculine and feminine principles.
  3. We are made to reflect back to God and into the rest of the creation God.
  4. To be fully human is in this sense to be most like God

God and gender – a side note.

God is energetic – in whose nature can be found the creative energies of the masculine and feminine – yin and yang – animus and anima. 

A further question: Is maleness only an expression of masculine energy? Is femaleness only and expression of femininity? If God is neither male nor female then biological gender is not an essential characteristic of God. But in human identity, despite the procreative function of biological gender, identity as it seems to be within God, is a reflection of a variety of energetic combination and recombination of animus and anima, masculine and feminine, rather than a simple biological binary of male and female.

Genesis 3: a third creation story from which we learn about the tensions and interplay between free will, awareness and self-awareness as essential divine elements reflected in human beings.

So far, we have been building up a picture of God through the idea of humanity being an image of God. An essential element of the Creator’s nature is that God is free. Therefore, God must also intend humanity to be more than lovely puppets to be played with and adored. God intends humans to be truly free to know our own mind through the exercise of choice.

In Gen 3 we see the tensions played out when the creation exercises the full rights given to it by the Creator It becomes messy. Did not God foresee this? It seems not.

No relationship can exist if one party is not free to choose. God seems to understand this from the very beginning but also seems strangely unprepared for what happens when humans do what humans are created to do – make choices as an expression of free will.

In the 3rd creation story humanity comes of age, maybe a little sooner than God intended and sooner than Adam and Eve seemed able to cope with, like children prematurely thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood.

What is God? This is a back-to-front way of really asking, who are we or what does it mean to be human? The answer to this is that to be human is to be made in the image of God. To be fully human is to be most like God. We are made for relationship with one another and with God.

Who is God? God is Liberator

Who is God?, is a question set in epic time. – that is, unfolding within human historical time.

So far by exploring how our human identity as a reflection or image of God reveals some essential aspects to what God is – What is God, God is creator.

The question: who is God takes us into epic time recounted in Exodus 3. Here we find a different kind of question to explore namely who is God, that is who is God in human history?

In the story of the call of Moses we encounter God operating within human history, building a relationship with the man Moses. In Exod 3 we have a completely new question and a new answer. It’s no longer what is God, but who is God?

In revealing [himself] to Moses God identifies as:

The God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Furthermore, I am the one who has heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt and I have come down to deliver them.

Who is God?

God is the liberator who hears the cry of the oppressed and frees them from bondage. 

To be fully human is to be most like God.

Who is God? God is love

Revelation occurs when God breaks into history with a final and complete self-identification.

John’s Prologue speaks of God as Logos or Word. The Word is in the beginning with God and is God. The Word is identified with Jesus, who was with God at the beginning of creation and has now finally come into the world – full of grace and truth. 

In the human face of Jesus we find God’s final and fullest self-revelation – the ultimate answer to the question: who is God? The Creator moves from outside the creation to become one with the creation. The Creator becomes by choice, subject to the conditions of creation as an expression of profound love. We will take this up more fully in the next session Who is Jesus?

Questions to ponder.

  1. What does it mean to me that I am made in the image of God and how might this realization change my view of God and or my view of myself?
  2. Is it important to me to discover that God is relational and a community rather than solitary and individual? If so how does this change relating to God for me? How might this affect how I relate to other people?
  3. Understanding that I have free will – freedom to respond or not to respond to God – how might this help me in the experience of life – day by day?
  4. What implications flow for us from God as the one who hears, is concerned for, and who is the agent of liberation?

…And the Greatest of These…

  1 Corinthians 13 A Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

As I was listening to the Epistle passage from Corinthians I half expected to look out at the congregation and see a bride and groom, gathered families and friends, and a phalanx of groomsmen and bridesmaids. I’m taking a poll: How many of you had this passage read at your wedding? How many have heard it at another person’s wedding?

This is The Wedding Passage. Which would have been quite a surprise to Paul—I can imagine him snorting in Pauline derision. He wasn’t writing with the attitude of a kind old guy offering avuncular advice to a happy dewy-eyed young couple. It was more like, “Don’t make me come down there.”

The Paul’s “first” letter to the Corinthians was his lengthy reply to a litany of questions that the Church had sent to him in response to an earlier letter that he’d written, now apparently lost.

According to New Testament scholar Douglas A. Campbell, the Church at Corinth was, to use a technical term, a mess. It was located in a socially, economically and culturally diverse city in south central Greece, and it was that diversity combined with the success of Paul’s mission that was the core of the problem.  The conflicts that the Corinthians presented to Paul were a toxic combination of rivalry and infighting among factions, conflicts between haves and have-nots, backstabbing and gossip; sexual immorality, real and perceived; and of course there was holier-than-thou in spades. A mess, indeed.

If you’ve seen Rembrandt’s painting, Saint Paul, it depicts the Apostle perfectly for this moment: seated at a writing desk with his pen drooping unheeded at his side, and his head cradled rather sadly in his hand. It’s easy to imagine him trying to figure out what to write next; how to untie the knots of discord that threaten to strangle his young church.

His letter, especially chapters 12 and 13, which we’ve been hearing for the past couple of weeks, is a call to his flock to come into right relationship with one another and to focus on God. In chapter 12 he urges them to embrace the diversity of their spiritual gifts and not to prize one gift above another. He offers them the image of the human body, with its many members, all of value to the One Body, as they are each of value to the Body of Christ. And today, in what is arguably the high point of the letter, he describes the foundation of the Christian faith: and that is Love. Not just any love, but THE Love. The kind of love that is vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, and that was completely countercultural to the Corinthian milieu.

I can’t overemphasize how serious Paul was about this. It really is time to rehear this passage without the preconceptions of over-repetition and weddings dulling its original meaning for the community at the time.

Listen: “If I give away all of my possessions…if I hand over my body…but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Without love, nothing matters.  Nothing. Love never ends. Prophecies, tongues, all of knowledge, for heaven’s sake, will end before Love does.

There is only one thing that is eternal beyond everything. God. The Love that is grounded in God is the foundation for all of Creation, because Love is what God is.

This isn’t sentimental; this is powerful. And Paul knew that his flock couldn’t wrap their heads around it—he writes, “we see in a mirror dimly”—think of how a reflection is distorted in polished silver or brass. Paul asks his church to trust that they would ultimately be able to understand—when they knew God face to face—when they knew Love face to face—they would ultimately understand that to truly love is to participate in God’s very Self.

News Flash: The church today isn’t so different from the Corinthians. I know, it’s hard to believe, but we do have some experience with infighting, gossip, sexual immorality (and conflicts over how to define it), factionalism, elitism, and, yes, holier-than-thou-ism. Shocking, I know, but there it is.

Paul’s urgent message to the church then and now is a call to follow the One who showed the Way of compassion, healing and justice; the One who gave himself—handed over his body—out of love for a broken world. That’s a lot of love– the Love that springs forth from the Source of all that is.

It’s not that we are devoid of Love. It’s not that we have never experienced it in our lives or seen it glimmer in the face of another. But as a society and as a church we have yet to fully realize the power and magnetism of what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. If we were to do this we would become a community that others would look to and say, “What is it about them that draws people in?” and “Can I be a part of that too?” And not because it is a fashionable group to join but because it’s a community that is changing the world.

As I meditated on that painting of Paul at his writing desk (you’ll find it on our website), I imagined that his list of qualities of Love was incomplete—that as verbose as Paul could be, even he could have said more. Think about it. Yes, love is patient and kind and humble and faithful. In what other ways might you describe Love for a community changing the world?

Love is courageous. Love is energetic. Love is creative. Love is trusting and trustworthy. Love leads with compassion and wisdom. Love is just. Love goes to the edges, builds bridges, and loves those whom the world finds unlovable.

Love transforms the Lover and the Beloved.

As I wrote in my epistle in the E-News this week, and as you’ll see in today’s bulletin insert, the Presiding Bishop has launched an initiative that seeks to make the Way of Love into a way of living; incorporating a series of seven spiritual disciplines into a rule of life—a spiritual framework that guides and supports us as individuals and in community. I won’t repeat what is already in front of you, and what is very well articulated on the website  (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love ), but I do encourage and invite you to participate in the Diocesan-wide kickoff of The Way of Love on February 16 at St. Mary’s Portsmouth. We’ll begin to explore what it means to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest as part of our lives, and how we can encourage others to join the journey.

If some of these terms seem somewhat nebulous as spiritual practices, (“Go” as a spiritual practice?)that’s okay—it’s meant to pique your curiosity.This session on the 16th is intended as an opportunity for creativity, worship, fellowship, and inspiration to help us begin to build the framework of these practices in community.

This is for everyone—clergy, lay, ministry leaders and so-called church mice who cannot imagine that the Spirit could ever call them to lead or initiate anything. Who knows? Never say never; let the Spirit surprise you.

I hope you’ll join us on the 16th.

“…And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three… “ God is calling us to abide—in the Way of Love.

The Breath Of The Lord Is Upon Me

And Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth on the sabbath. But it’s not just any sabbath. As Richard Swanson points out the accurate translation from the Greek is the day of sabbaths, surely a reference to the day Jews refer to as the Sabbath of Sabbaths -Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. So, on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Jesus comes to his home town and standing up in the synagogue he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming his understanding of his mission from God.

It’s a stretch for me to suggest that the day of the parish’s annual meeting is in any sense an equivalent to the Day of Atonement. Yet Annual Meeting Sunday is a time for reflection on the year passed, and a time to rededicate ourselves to meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities of the coming year.

For those of us relatively new to the Episcopal Church, the Annual Meeting is the important anchor the holds our Church governance secure from year to year. It is the best expression of how we as a community hold ourselves accountable to one another. For me, transparency and accountability are not always comfortable concepts but are at the end of the day, essential values to cherish and protect.

Have we been a welcoming community in 2018?

The first signal to the wider world that we are a welcoming community is found when strangers visit stmartinsprov.org. It’s here they encounter the tone of our community.

Physically, a visitor’s encounter with us is set within the first seconds by the warmth of our greeters and the supportive efficiency of our ushers. This year 38 families and individuals completed visitors’ cards. Every completed visitor card was followed up by email or letter during the following week.

Because church going patterns are more variable and flexible these days the traditional measurement of the average Sunday attendance (ASA) is no longer an accurate measure of our size and commitment. Yet, overall impressions from 2018 are that the numbers of new faces we are seeing week by week is an indication that we are becoming a more magnetic community. Yet, our magnetism is only as good as the quality of our welcome and outreach. In 2018 we had increased attendance at both Easter and Christmas services; a measure of our increasing impact in the wider community of fringe church attenders.

Our magnetism is only as good as the quality of our welcome and outreach, and we have to work hard to ensure that the caption The Episcopal Church Welcomes You does not remain our best kept secret.

The contribution from some newer members to the planning and implementation of the St Martin’s Feast this year contributed fresh ideas to the enormous success of this celebration.  It was good to welcome Rabbi Howard Voss Altman from Temple Beth-El as our guest preacher at Choral Evensong.

2018 has seen continued growth among families with young children. The Children’s Ministry flourishes thanks to Linda’s+ leadership and the amazingly strong commitment of parent involvement. The Christmas Pageant this year was certainly evidence of the fruit of this pudding, as was also the Children’s involvement in putting together toiletry care packs for distribution at the Epiphany Soup Kitchen – a ministry where serving growing numbers of the working poor has steadily increased over the past 12th months.

2018 saw the launch of a new men’s fellowship ministry, recently renamed Gander. We have all been astonished by the speed and strength of Gander’s development. You can read more about this in my Gander report in the AM pack.

Have we explored new avenues for sustainability in 2018?

In 2018, the Thrifty Goose, our thrift shop in the basement has undergone a complete makeover. The makeover is a reflection of a transformation in ethos from one of the traditional church charity shop to that of a right livelihood enterprise. Right livelihood enterprise is a term I have imported from The London Buddhist Center which over the years has sponsored a host of RLE’s. These are spirituality -values-based initiatives with a commercial priority as a key objective. I appreciate for some of us, and certainly for some who have given long service as volunteers in the Thrifty Goose, making a profit can seem a jarring concept. Therefore, let me make three comments in this regard.

  1. The primary objective of the Thrifty Goose as RLE is the repurposing of high-quality clothing. Where else can you get a Brooks Brothers shirt for $15, or an article of women’s designer wear for a fraction of its original price tag – not to mention the unearthed treasures from 1950’s and 60’s that have languished at the back of many a wardrobe. Repurposing is not only a spiritual value, it’s also great fun!
  2. The Episcopal Church universally, and not just at St Martin’s is facing a painful revolution in its economic model, which has since 1945 been based on the member pledge. In 2018, our pledge income remained strong; slightly increasing – and thank you for that. However, the longer term stats show our numbers of pledging members growing smaller and will continue to do so as the boomer generation passes-on to God’s greater glory. At this point in time, there is no clear picture of whether millennial and post millennial generations will recover the same level of commitment to the church as a vital institution that contributes to the greater good of our society.
  3. The signals are mixed, and so we need to be open to new ways of thinking about our financial sustainability.

How have we benefited in 2018?

  1. In this last year, Thrifty Goose profits together with that of two estate sales enabled us to devote 10% – the Biblical tithe – of above budgeted profits to outreach, increasing the budget for outreach grants to community projects from $5,000 to $7,000.
  2. In 2018, we gave away $129,615. This is a remarkable achievement, thank you!
  3. Goose profits also enabled us to begin the refurbishment of the Great Hall. The Great Hall is another important potential source of additional income. If you want to know the importance of upgrading our rental facilities just take a visit down city to see Grace Church’s, new state-of-the-art Pavilion. Upgrading and making our church plant accessible for wider community use is a right livelihood activity. My thanks to Brigit Timpson and the team of volunteers for transforming the Thrifty Goose into – if you will excuse the pun – a goose that lays the golden egg.

One big change in 2018

I want to draw attention to changes in our music ministry. Music is a vital component of the way St. Martin’s positions itself in the religious marketplace. We revived the Carol Sing just before Christmas, filling the Great Hall with so many new faces as the wider community came to enjoy the experience of community carol singing. In 2019 we will seek more opportunities to make community music and singing, in particular, part of our programed events.

The Episcopal Church maintains its strong commitment to the Anglican musical tradition in which music regulates the steady drumbeat of the liturgy. A series of developments in 2018 led me to make permanent, the interim arrangements separating the roles of choir director and organist. It’s timely that on the Sunday of this Annual Meeting we have the good fortune to commission two highly accomplished church musicians into each of these roles.

I want to make three additional comments about music.

  1. Under Gabe Alfieri the adult choir has regained much of its strength and through making more use of our paid singers we have been able to reintroduce Evensong (sung vespers) as part of our monthly liturgical schedule.
  2. Gabe has also begun to build a growing and enthusiastic children’s music program, which expanded this last fall from three to ten children regularly attending rehearsals at 6:15pm on Thursdays. This remains an exciting area for our commitment to a children’s ministry outreach in the wider community.
  3. With the arrival of Steven Young as our new organists, I look forward to Steve’s and Gabe’s visioning as together we explore the way the Anglican musical tradition can speak appropriately to our distinctive combination of traditional worship and radical theological messaging.

What have been the challenges faced in 2018?

  1. We are blessed with a beautiful stone building, that as one wag remarked was designed to leak. Beautiful though stone churches may be, they are an increasing burden for modern day communities such as ours. In 2018 the Buildings Committee embarked on a systematic survey of the sources of the multiple water leaks we see all over the church. As a result, we have a better idea of a strategy of staged repairs to fix multiple problems. I am grateful to Peter Lofgren for bringing his architect’s professional knowledge, experience, and network of contacts to bear in charting a way forward in this area of daunting challenge, which with Gordon Partington’s retirement is likely to become more so.
  2. As you will all appreciate, the repair and upkeep of a church like ours is a very expensive affair. Fortunately, our forebears have left to us a moderate endowment to help us with major buildings upkeep. Unfortunately, it’s not large enough for us to feel complacent, and Fla Lewis, chair of the Finance Committee continually warns us against eating our seed corn. Therefore, another gratifying development in 2018 has been the implementation of a Planned Giving strategy. Thank you to the team led by Fla that has opened up our understanding of the variety of ways we can all regularly contribute to the strengthening of the Endowment in addition to contributing to routine running expenses.
  3. We cannot function without the generosity of all our volunteers. However, in 2018, despite some of us devoting serious time and talent to supporting our community life, we are experiencing a volunteering crisis, as there seems to be fewer people than needed to do what needs to be done.  The sharp decline in our volunteer culture is complex and multifaceted, a reflection of wider societal shifts, with the church playing a less central role in our social lives. We must guard against an assumption that there is always someone else to do what we choose not to do; someone else who will be prepared to plug the gap left by our lack of engagement. Let me emphasize, there isn’t!

As your rector, I see my role as one of nurturing healthy community through the stimulation and encouragement of lay-led ministry initiatives. As ministerial priests, it is Linda’s+ and my role to call all of you into the fullest possible participation in the New Testament’s vision of the responsibilities of all the baptised as a royal priesthood of all believers.

You have heard me say many times that it’s important to follow your passion in choosing a ministry to participate in. But this statement is also a double edged sword for its corollary is – if you wait to be gripped by passion then you might end up doing nothing at all. We no longer have the luxury of carrying members who do not participate in strengthening this community with their generous giving of time, talent, and treasure. Commitment to action is not an optional choice for Christians.

Jesus accepted God’s mission for him as he read from the words of II Isaiah.

He stood up to read.
       It was given to him: a book of the prophet Isaiah.
            He opened the book; he found the place where it stood written:
                 A breath of haShem (the Lord) upon me
                           because of which he anointed me
                                to bring good news to the poor.
                      He sent me,
                           to proclaim
                                to exiled captives:
                                     release;
                                to blind people:
                                     seeing again;
                           to send those who have been crushed into release,
                     to proclaim a year of haShem acceptable.
        He rolled the book. He gave it back to the attendant.
            He sat. The eyes of all in the synagogue
                      were staring at him.
        He began to say to them:
                  Today it has been fulfilled,
                       this writing, in your ears.

Richard Swanson

As members of Christ’s body in the world we are Jesus’s followers in this time and place and therefore our intentions and actions matter to God!

By any measurement 2018 was a fruitful year for our community. On behalf of all of us let me thank you! I especially want to thank those members of the Vestry who are rotating off from their three year commitment. As we begin 2019, let the year of the Lord’s favor be fulfilled in our lives. God’s love makes claims; claims that render us accountable to God and to one another.

Transformation

2 Epiphany Year C  21 January 2019 . John 2: 1-11

         the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, amen.

The steward’s was one of those jobs where you didn’t want to be noticed. Because if you’ve been noticed, it means you’ve screwed up. His job, and that of the people who worked under him, was to be anonymous. Anonymity meant seamlessness; that all was well, and no one would yell at you, or worse.

Yet in spite of his best efforts, meticulous planning and endless preparation, his anonymity was in serious jeopardy. The weeklong wedding celebration was still a couple of days from ending, and they were out of wine. He had already heard a woman whispering to her son, “They have no wine.” Soon everyone would know. And it was his responsibility.

He didn’t hear the man’s response to his mother; instead the steward had hurried to tell the bridegroom about the brewing disaster. His heart was in his mouth. How could this happen? Everybody was supposed to contribute to this celebration—that’s they way it was supposed to work—but it hadn’t. Where in the world would they get enough wine to serve the rest of this party?

He didn’t notice the servants. They remained unheeded, except for the attention of the woman and her son, who quietly told them to fill the jars. They had no idea how jars of bathing water would solve the problem, but theirs was not to question or raise a fuss. So, as quietly and covertly as possible, they set about following the stranger’s instructions. Six heavy jars filled to the brim. By the time they were finished they were sweating, but they had done the work, while the steward panicked and the guests—at least for the time being—paid them no mind.

The stranger—what did he just do? Did he speak, or touch the water somehow? It happened so fast—then he asked them to ladle out some… no, wait. Abundant, garnet-colored, and fragrant with berries and late summer sun… What had they just witnessed? Who was this man?

The steward, mystified—and incalculably relieved—distributed the wine to the guests, and then returned to his blessed anonymity; yet with the knowledge that he had been part of something extraordinary. But the servants—the carriers of the water, the silent ones on the edge of the party—would they ever be the same? I like to think not. I like to think that this was a life-changing encounter for them. This is a glimpse of the Dream of God.

In this, the first of the miracles or “signs” in John’s Gospel, intended to illuminate his identity as the Son of the Living God, Jesus has wasted no time in upending the customary perception of who are insiders and who are outsiders. This is not a story of the bridegroom and his new bride, nor of the glittering days-long nuptial celebration with its honored guests and healthy dowry. No; the ones privileged to witness the miraculous transformation of the ordinary into the sacred are themselves the ordinary ones; the unnoticed ones who faithfully do their work on the margins. The ones that no one usually notices unless something goes wrong. Jesus privileges the unprivileged, inviting them to join with him in revealing that the Dream of God is at hand.

So we have here an open-and-shut case of Kingdom inversion; a perfect example of how Jesus turns our expectations upside-down and gives everyone a seat at the table at God’s banquet. Right? Not so fast.

Sometimes, when reading Scripture, something bothers you, like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. The easy thing to do is ignore it and move on—address the parts that make sense and that do fall neatly into place. But the problem is, no matter how hard you try to complete the picture—that hole is still there, waiting to be addressed.

If this were an open-and-shut case of Everybody Is Welcome to God’s Party, wouldn’t the servants have gotten to drink the wine? But they didn’t. They passed it to the steward, who passed it to the bridegroom, and the guests went on as if nothing had changed. This is disturbing. And it should be.

Jesus privileges the servants; the unprivileged and the unnoticed. They (and the disciples) witnessed an amazing miracle. But for the hosts and the rest of the guests, that miracle took place without their knowledge. The wine shortage crisis, so quickly and quietly averted, might never have happened. Except that it did. Right under their noses.

Surely there is a parable here; a parable that imagines us as the wedding guests, blissfully unaware of the work of the Kingdom that calls to them from the anonymous margins.

Perhaps this parable is telling us that the transformation of ordinary to sacred—of scarcity to abundance– is incomplete unless and until we participate in it. Perhaps it is calling us to take notice of that which has been unnoticed—until there is a crisis.

As Fr. Mark has noted in his weekly epistle, the partial government shutdown has become a matter of increasing concern, especially to the 800,000 workers and their families who are directly affected. I confess to a degree of complacency in the early days–I hadn’t given much thought to the impact the hitherto unnoticed work of so many people has on the rest of us–people often working quietly on the sidelines— the Coast Guard, the TSA, air traffic controllers, the IRS, the Park Service, the FDA–  for not a whole lot of money. They make so many aspects of our lives run more smoothly and safely and we haven’t paid much attention– until now. And as the shutdown goes on we hear stories of parents skipping meals so their children can go to daycare or the doctor. Frantic negotiations with landlords and utilities to put off bills until the paychecks start flowing again. This isn’t just a story of political conflict—it is a deeply human story that goes to the heart of who we are called to be as Christians—to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Dr. King, who we honor this week, had a name for what we are called into. He said,

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

MLK

There are signs that eyes are opening to this crisis. Reports abound of local efforts, like Roger Williams University’s offering of free meals to Coast Guard families, restaurants serving free dinners to furloughed workers, while customers of those same restaurants donate funds to help. Food banks, like the ones at PICA and Camp Street Ministries are opening their doors wider and need our extra support, which is why we’re encouraging everyone to be generous with your donations of non-perishable goods in the baskets at the back of the church. Eyes are opening. The unnoticed is being noticed. It’s what the New York Times calls “a makeshift national safety net, stitched together by private businesses, banks, local governments, organized labor and charitable organizations…spreading slowly and unevenly across the United States…”

Transformation – a qualitative change in our souls – like water into wine, from the ordinary into the extraordinary. From complacency into generosity. Whispers of the Beloved Community.

The story of a single miracle tells us who Jesus is. The rest of the story, being written right now, is what tells us who we are, and who we can be: filling the glass to the brim and offering everyone a drink. Amen.

servant and water jar

Stories of Birth and Adoption

There is more than one way to tell a story.

The New Testament offers us four different accounts of Jesus’ identity as Son of God. They differ so markedly that to the modern ear they can’t all be true. In fact, the modern, factually attuned ear probably will dismiss all of them as fairy stories.

Matthew and Luke both offer birth narrative’s rich in magical realism. These are stories of angels, shepherds, wise men, a genocidal king, and a star. As in our glorious children’s Christmas Pageant, we often combine the cast of characters -angles, shepherds, wise men, and the star appearing in a compilation of Matthew and Luke’s stories -run together as if they are the same story. But there is a different cast of characters in each story.

Matthew highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus as the new Moses. His opening sentence begins –An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. His story focuses on Joseph, and is populated with angels, wise men, a wicked king and a star and ends with a heart-rending (because of the events on our southern border) detail of flight from persecution – And an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain until I tell you”.  …Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Luke presents Jesus as God’s son who is the universal savior of humanity. The focus of his story is Mary and the birth of Jesus witnessed not by kings but by the to the ordinary people of the land. Luke’s story locates the birth within the wider context of the Roman world- In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke’s opening sentence addresses one Theophilus – a Greek or Roman patron? We don’t really know. But Theophilus signifies Luke’s sense that through the birth of Jesus God is speaking to the whole world and not only to Israel.

Matthew and Luke, though relating the same event, each lend a different coloring of meaning to the story of Jesus’ birth

In John the language of magical realism is replaced by that of a more science-fiction bent. Instead of an infant birth, John’s Jesus enters into the world through a cosmic creation event that harkens back before the dawn of time – in the beginning, already was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was God.

On Christmas Eve I spoke about the Matthew, Luke, and John stories and as I was greeting worshipers after the service a man came up to me and asked why I had omitted to mention Mark’s account? The reason, I explained, is that Mark offers no account of the birth of Jesus at all. His first mention of Jesus is as a fully-grown man – in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

In year three of the Lectionary we read about the baptism of Jesus from Luke’s version of the story which he basically copies from Mark. Challenged on Christmas Eve, I was quick to make justification for omitting Mark. But was I correct in doing so? On deeper examination although neither a birth story nor a cosmic genesis event, the Marcan story of Jesus’ baptism is nevertheless a birth story of sorts; a story of birth through adoption. God’s voice booms from heaven: this is my son in whom I am well pleased.

The Marcan story of Jesus’ baptism is nevertheless a birth story of sorts; a story of birth through adoption. God’s voice booms from heaven: this is my son in whom I am well pleased.

In what sense is Jesus God’s son?  Behind the question of how Jesus becomes God’s son lies the deeper question of identity. What is identity and how does it come about? Is identity – that sense of who we feel ourselves to be and who others recognize us being –the fruit of birth or adoption. Are we born into self-identity or do we become ourselves through adoption -i.e. the choices we make?

On January 4th I went for my U.S. citizenship application interview. I had memorized the answers to all 100 possible questions but only got asked six of the easiest. I’m not complaining mind, but if I am honest, I felt a little short changed by the lack of challenge. Anyway, I am relieved to say my application was approved.

On hearing of the news one Phoenix friend exclaimed: my God, what have you done? I assured him that all I had given up was the right to foreign titles so henceforth he would have to stop addressing me as Viscount.

The point of my relating all this is that when sworn-in, I will hold citizenship of three countries – only one of which is a citizenship conferred by birth. My American citizenship will be by adoption. So, does that make me less of a citizen than any of you who are citizens by birth? In the atmosphere of the current immigration controversy, this is a question that should focus our minds.

For each one of us, the interplay between the significance of being born-into and adoption of identity will vary. I have known a number of persons for whom this interplay is a painful one; resulting from the experience of being adopted by parents other than those who gave birth to them. The experience of infant or child adoption for many raises excruciating questions of identity because for most of us, identity is primarily shaped by factors of birth. For others, and I count myself among this group, the most important aspects of identity flow from processes of adoption.

Within each of us, identity is multifaceted resulting from the interplay between being born into and becoming by adoption. Some aspects of our identity are firmly rooted in birth identity. Yet, many other aspects of identity come through adoption, i.e. the decisions we make.

The story of the baptism of Jesus is a very important one for us. You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We become the children of God through adoption. Like God’s adoption of Jesus – this is my son on whom my favor rests – it is through baptism that we too become adopted as those in whom God is well pleased.

The writers of the New Testament understood that there is more than one way to tell a story. In fact, they seem to have realized that in order to do justice to the complexity of the confluence of human and divine identities in the human life of Jesus several different, yet overlapping stories were needed. A story of identity through birth alongside a story of identity by adoption remind us that the most significant source of identity is very often not the one we are born into but the one we choose for ourselves, the one we are adopted into.

The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg once commented that the Bible is true and some of it actually happened.

What he meant was that truth is more than the recording or relating of an event as if it’s only a set of facts awaiting reporting. Truth resides in the enduring quality of a narrative – a story constructed to talk about the meaning of an event. Stories that bear the hallmark of truth are stories that not only align with our experience of the world but encourage in us to be better than the current versions of the people we happen to be.

Adoption takes us to the heart of what it means to have faith. Faith is not an accident of birth but something deliberately chosen.

Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter! For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.

To be fully human is to become most like God. To be baptized is a choice taken to live in the conscious knowledge and self awareness of our adopted status; that to be fully human is to be most like God.

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