Tell Me The Old, Old Story

Tell Me the Old, Old Story

Tell me the old, old story, of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled. 

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Some stories are really old, and I mean, really, – really old.

This really old story was the story about a liberation of a people uniquely touched by their encounter with a God whom they identified not only as the creator but as a liberator and the giver of a blueprint for a new way of life. The key element in this blueprint was an invitation. God invited a people to take their rightful place as collaborators in the task of caring for the creation and of ensuring that their liberation from slavery became the foundation stone of a new kind of society. Caring for the creation and honoring the experience of liberation from slavery became a password – the Hebrew words Tikkun olam – the repairing of the world or putting the world to rights – in real time.

Some 2000 years ago, this already really old story broke anew into the conscious awareness of a small band of men and women whose experience had become reshaped over a three-year period as followers of a wandering rabbi from Nazareth. Without realizing it, their imaginations had been prepared for a startlingly new twist on the experience of their ancient national story.

This old, old story was given a new and completely unforeseen twist that created a new chapter to the old, old story among the Jewish followers of Jesus – this new chapter of Jesus and God’s love.

In the old, old story, God promised to repair the creation thus bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. In the new twist on the old, old story, the first Christians came to recognize that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had taken a decisive step in realizing this dream. Raising Jesus to new life revealed in real time a foretaste of the future promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

The followers of Jesus now saw themselves as living between two bookends; between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Between these bookends they felt called to a new way of living, in a new kind of community, where the goal was now to leave this world in a better state than the one they were born into.

Whenever the word resurrection is mentioned it’s important to clear up a widely held misunderstanding in America today. Resurrection is not a spiritual hope for a future life after death. It’s way more startling than that! As faithful Jews, the first Christians understood resurrection to mean – not spiritual life after physical death – but a new physical life after physical death as part of God’s plan for the remaking of the physical world envisioned for the end of time.

The new twist for the followers of Jesus was that they came to believe that while not under any illusions that the process of tikkun olam had been completed, God had nevertheless through his resurrection of Jesus – as in a return to physical life after physical death,  inaugurated in real time  the ahead-of-time promise of the resurrection of the whole of creation. From henceforth, life is to be lived between the two bookends of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the eventual resurrection of the world.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in–
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin;
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon,
The “early dew” of morning, has passed away at noon.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
    Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love. 


So, this sermon is a tale of two stories – the original old, old, very old story of the Jews, and the newer twist on this story we call the Christian story – a story which for most of us is also now a pretty old one. The problem with stories is that most of us still cling to unsophisticated notions of true or false.

Stories are all we human beings have to make sense of our experience of the world around us. We can’t understand our experience until we find a way to articulate it. That articulation always involves the construction of a story. Even so-called objective scientific observation of the hard reality that we can see and touch only makes sense within the larger story that is modern science.

Stories are never simply true or false. Instead, we might better ask – is this story effective or not – how complete or incomplete a description of experience is it – is it expansive or restrictive – inclusive or exclusionary; a story of love or a story of fear?

Stories that are more complete, more expansive, more inclusionary are more effective than stories that restrict human experience. Expansive stories give us room to breathe and to grow.

In 2019 we seem to be learning all over again, because what we cannot remember we are only destined to repeat, restrictive stories based on fear and exclusion, on competition – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is potentially mine tomorrow, imprison us in definitions of identity and worldviews that are too small and cramped to allow us to flourish.

Stories are rooted in culture. The old, old, story of tikkun olan – of making new that which has grown old, and its new twist of resurrection, is our religious story, by which I mean the religious story of Western Culture.

The old, old, story is a story about creation and the values and dreams that creation inspires coming to a final fulfilment in the recreation of a new heaven and a new earth. Within the old, old story is another story of Jesus and his love; a story of the death and resurrection of Jesus through which God has shown us a preview of the end. This preview is important. Just as in a movie to see the preview is not to have seen the whole film but it does change the way one anticipates the ending.

In the meantime, between preview and ending lies life as we know it. Given my premise that all we ever have are stories – then can we not see that the stories we choose or that choose us – if we are not careful – dictate the shape of the lives we live, and the worldviews we hold.

What stories will we choose to actively shape a future better than the present one we are living through?

Given the conflicting worldviews embodied in stories that shape our lives, some of them stories of power and greed; some of competition and exploitation; others of inclusion and exclusion based on skin or genitalia; on what we do with our genitals – and with whom we do it. These are especially pernicious stories, incompatible with human flourishing.

When measured against such stories- perhaps the old, old story is not such a bad one to live by, after all?

Tell me the same old story,
  When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
  Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
  Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story:
 “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

                                     

Meditation for Good Friday.

Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on our suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.

It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has set for him, seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he knows ahead of time how things will end.

But we must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants in Jesus’ Passion. You see, if we are to be participants then Jesus has to be more like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our lives unscathed. And so if he is to be more like us, then neither is Jesus.

He treads his path, a path he chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time. Jesus is no noble victim sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. If we just stop there, no matter how thankful we might feel, we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love. For Jesus’ chooses the way of love.

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Rose Verse 2

The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for it is

It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taking, who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live …

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

Entering into the way of love leads us to challenge the status quo – risking the consequences. As a community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and its collective memory. It means risking loving without expecting to be rewarded.

Entering upon the way of love – above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of being, one step at a time – a transformation from timid and grateful children into collaborators with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.

From mere spectators to active participation with Jesus on the way of the cross is a movement through belonging into believing; a risking that moves us from fear into loving and being loved.

This is not a hero’s path.  Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On Good Friday, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but motivated by what is for God -the impossibility of not loving enough.

The Rose Final Verse

The italicized text comes from The Rose by Bette Midler

Maundy Thursday: Do This, Because I Love You!

A Meditation from the Rev. Linda Mackie Grigg

The disciples are feeling whiplashed by now. Just a few days ago there was so much hope. The crowds had hailed Jesus as Messiah, Son of David—with hosannas so loud they couldn’t hear themselves think, and palm branches so thick on the ground that the donkey’s feet never touched the dirt. But now the hosannas are silent and all that remains of the palm carpet is a stray frond here and there, curling and forgotten by the roadside.

The adrenalin excitement has been replaced by furtive anxiety. Jerusalem is on edge: The crowds who had followed Jesus are simmering; the Roman and Temple authorities are ready to pounce. The friends had worried who was watching as they made Passover preparations according to Jesus’ careful instructions–double- and triple-checking to make sure they had not been observed as they gathered one by one in the upper room of a nondescript house down a narrow street.

And now? What should have been a celebration for some reason feels more like—a wake.  Jesus seems withdrawn, somehow both focused and distracted at the same time. For once he seems at a loss for words.

Quietly and suddenly he stands, takes a basin of water and a towel, and kneels in front of Andrew. The air is electric as the water pours over his feet and into the basin. Jesus moves to Philip, and then Judas, then Nathanael. Then Peter.

At first Peter draws back in dismay. What kind of a king does this? What kind of a king stoops to serve in such a menial way? Jesus persists, Peter surrenders. The water splashes softly, the towel gently dries.

This is what we do for one another, Jesus says. Wash. Love. Serve. And in turn offer your care-worn, callused, travel-weary and broken self to be comforted and healed. Giving and receiving in a constant flow of care. This is what love looks like. This is who we are, and how people will know us. Do this, he says. Because I love you.

Their hearts are burning. Something begins to shift in the air.

For three years Jesus has spoken of the Dream of God—a kingdom unlike any they can comprehend. Sometimes, in flashes, it has all made sense; but then the world intervenes and they forget. So Jesus tries again to make them understand. And again. And again.

Tonight Jesus knows that there are no more agains to spare. No more time for parables or sermons or signs. But there is bread. And wine. He gazes around the room at his friends. No more time for telling. It is time to show.

He takes bread. Made of wheat; sown, cut, ground, baked. Wine; from grapes, pruned, thirsted to sweetness, crushed, and fermented in darkness. Both from the earth, made by human hands; the embodiment of life made whole through suffering and struggle. This is my body, he says. Given for you. This is my blood, the blood of all who suffer, shed for you. Eat, drink, remembering me.

Do they understand? No; still no. But sometimes it isn’t about understanding. They do know that they are in the presence of Mystery, not to be solved but to be shared.

Do this, he says. Because I love you. This much they can understand.

James, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and the other gathered disciples gaze into the eyes of Jesus and see only love. Their hearts are full.

Judas looks away, and slips silently, almost unnoticed, out the door.

Fatal Intersections: Palm Sunday 2019

Featured Image comes from Mountain View United Methodist Church

He had come to celebrate the Passover. Having traveled from Bethany, Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates to wild acclaim from the crowds that greeted him. They stripped the fronds from the palm trees and lay them as a carpet before him as he entered the city gates.

Present day actions often echo memories of the past. The waving of palms was a gesture that not only tells us something of popular expectations for Jesus, but is also an echo of collective memory. Some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple, bearing palm branches they cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement by the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanies.

The waving of palm branches tells us something of the crowd’s expectations of Jesus as another national liberator, who in the mold of Judas Maccabeus has come to free them from the hated Roman occupation?

At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. He chose to avoid the city’s ancient warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. Pilate and his Roman administration preferred the sea breezes and Mar A Largo conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima; now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea.

Pilate hated and feared the crowds of Jerusalem. He feared them most during the Passover which required him to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection. For Passover was the collective memory of liberation from an earlier period of slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus, were in insurrection mood.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. Three narratives or storylines intersect and clash with an alarming result as Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus all become caught up in an escalation of events none could control.

The storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersects with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing for liberation at whatever cost. Both confront the third storyline which concerns the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world.

Events take an unexpected turn and rapidly spiral out of control, culminating on the eve of the Passover (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples. During this last supper, Jesus graphically demonstrates God’s vision for the world. He turns hierarchy on its head and washes his disciples feet. He takes bread and wine and associates them with his body and blood. He ends the meal with a simple mandate – in Latin mandatum from which we get the Middle English name maundy meaning commandment: love one another as I have loved you. But love has consequences: arrest, show trial, and crucifixion.

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion surfaces in identification with that of Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. We journey with Jesus as part of a community that journeys to the cross bearing within us not only our individual maladies and sufferings but the maladies and sufferings of the world around us.

Liturgy is a form of dramatic reenactment that transports a community through sacred time to where we move beyond memory, becoming participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, he or she no longer is.

We long to do the brave thing, until that is, the moment when we don’t.

In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week:

  • Like them at his Last Supper, we experience the uncomfortable intimacy and embarrassing humility symbolized in washing one another’s feet.
  • With the disciples, we share in the breaking and sharing of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup – actions that not only render us a community, but which we can only perform as a community.
  • With the disciples, we accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we fight sleep to keep watch with him until Midnight. Like them we long to do the brave thing, until the moment when we don’t.
  • Over the following 15 hours of Thursday evening and into the Friday we call Good, we follow as part of the band of his disciples viewing with dismay, but from a safe distance, the unfolding of frightening events – Jesus’ arrest, show trial, and crucifixion. In the end, like them we always opt for playing it safe.

Historical associations trigger memory in real time, giving expression to our contemporary tensions. You see, human beings don’t change much over time.

Like the crowds praising Jesus as he entered the Holy City, we enthusiastically hail our next political savior until that is, he or she no longer is.
We long to do the brave thing, until that is, the moment when we don’t.

Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.

The Aroma of Christ: John 12:1-8

                                                                         

    

A Sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

 The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

The writer of John’s gospel surely knew the power of scent to trigger memory and emotion; surely knew that the reader of this passage would have a physical response to the image of the house filled with the fragrance. It is intended to carry us to a place of close presence and physicality; of bodies.

It is virtually impossible to talk about this passage without talking about bodies. Lazarus’ own body has been raised from the dead, emerging blinking into the light, his wrappings fluttering to the ground as his friends removed them. And now, at dinner at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we smell the earthy musky mossy scent of nard, redolent of the fertile beginnings of Creation. We see the dusty journey-worn feet of Jesus. We see Mary’s hair, intimately undone, as it caresses her friend’s callused skin. These images are not thought—they are felt—they leap off the pages and into our senses. It is all in the seeing, the touching, the smelling. These are what connect us to the story, and to the Good News that wafts almost elusively through it.

So now imagine the flush of indignation felt by Judas as he inhales the expensive scent—the rapid calculation of the quantity of nard—one pound– divided by the rough cost—300 denarii; compared to the amount of food, clothing, or medicine that could be provided for the poor for the same amount—the conclusion of outrageous extravagance—all culminating in an indignant outburst from the Keeper of the Purse: “Silly woman, what are you thinking?”

John would have us see him as insincere in this moment—Judas has no credibility regarding fiscal responsibility because he has his hand in the till. But we know that John, and we, have a particular point of view when it comes to Judas. Maybe Judas was stealing from his colleagues. But maybe John has offered that little detail in order to hammer home Judas’ unsavory character. As if we needed that. But. Judas was one of the disciples. His later betrayal of Jesus doesn’t mean that he was never right about anything. Resources that went to buy a pound of nard (a year’s wages) could have been used for another, less extravagant and more charitable, purpose. Think about it; if it wasn’t Judas saying it, we might actually agree with him.

That’s a sobering thought.

But if we did agree with Judas, then we, like Judas, would be missing the point.

This isn’t about cost/benefit analysis. It’s about love.

Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

This is arguably one of the most misunderstood statements in the Gospel, and possibly one of the most abused.

More on that in a minute, but first shift our gaze from Judas’ outrage back to Jesus and Mary, as she anticipates his burial.

The care of a body after death is one of the last acts of kindness a person can do for the deceased. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, using herbs and oils or modern materials and technology, the gentle and competent care of a body is an act of love and respect, both for the deceased and for those who grieve. It is a tender time, and this act of care is a true and valuable gift.

Jesus acknowledges this gift from Mary, made all the more special for its extravagance. He and everyone present are witnesses to the depth of her caring for her friend. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The greater the love, the greater the grief.”

This is lost on Judas, who has couched Mary’s gift in zero-sum either/or binary terms; she has shown great love for Jesus, therefore people will go hungry as a result.

But not, admonishes Jesus, if you are participating in the Dream of God. In God’s economy the binary is erased. This is not a matter of choosing Jesus or the poor. In the economy of the Kingdom, it isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.

And this is where we confront one of the most problematic quotes in scripture: “You will always have the poor with you.”

This has historically been an excuse for not addressing the plight of the disadvantaged, particularly in a systemic way. The argument goes that there is no point in addressing a problem as intractable as poverty, because this is just the way it is and ever shall be; Jesus said so, right there in John 12: 8, right?

This is what I call, “the convenient ‘No’”. When cherry-picked and misread, this quote makes it easy to say that the problem is too big and our resources are too small. That makes it easy to stay comfortably within the status quo.

When has Jesus ever asked us to do that?

You will always have the poor with you.

Interestingly, the Greek word for “to have” can be the same in both the indicative tense (a statement of what is) and the imperative tense (a statement of what should be.) So it could be read, “You will always have the poor with you…”

…or, “You should always have the poor with you.”

Now that sounds like Jesus. When has he not sided with the poor and called us to do the same?

You should always have the poor among you. Not either/or. Both/and.

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, anticipating his death. Her grief and her tenderness are woven together. And in the face of Judas’ indignation, Jesus guides his attention away from money to relationship. Because grief only occurs in the presence of relationship.

Do the privileged grieve the situations of the unprivileged? Do they see the outrageous income disparities, the food deserts, the inequities in housing, healthcare and education? Do we truly see the people left vulnerable by climate change? Do we grieve for them as we would for Jesus?

It’s a crucial question, because Jesus tells us that they are one and the same—the poor are as worthy of Mary’s tender, extravagant, loving care as Jesus.

It’s not about cost/benefit; it’s about relationship.

Where Judas sees a gap between privileged and unprivileged, Jesus sees a relationship.  In the Dream of God, charitable giving is transformed into mutual ministry; a place where giving and receiving are not two sides of a transaction, but a multidimensional tapestry of shared vulnerability and experience. Where names and stories are known, laughter and hugs and tears shared. Where each can see in the other—in the hands, the feet and the faces, the divine traces of the God who created us. This is what St. Paul calls the aroma of Christ.

You shall always be with the poor. A challenging invitation. Do we expect any different from Jesus?

Every Saturday afternoon, in Burnside Park, Church Beyond the Walls takes that invitation seriously. They are a street-church community that meets out of doors; a special mission of the Diocese with a Eucharist-centered focus on building solidarity between people from all walks of life and circumstances. It’s the Dream of God in action, and it’s a couple of miles away.

Here is how the community is invited to Eucharist:

This is Christ’s table. Come, you who feel weak, and unworthy, you who come often, and you who have stayed away. Come, you who love Jesus, and you who wish you could. Come sinners and saints, women and men, gay and straight. Come you who are homeless and you who have a place to rest your heads. Come you who are citizens of this land and you who are not. Here you are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Now join God’s people at this feast prepared for you from the beginning of the world.

Lois Atwood R.I.P.

Sage advice from the Apostle Paul: 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12.

My first encounter with Lois and Pres was in the summer of 2014. I had been in the parish a couple of weeks and Pres had just returned home following his recovery from a broken hip – I hope I recall that correctly, Pres? Being fresh to New England, my mind already colored by stereotypes of frigid Yankee stoicism – and with Susan Esposito’s words ringing in my ears about Lois and Pres being two of the St Martin’s most venerable members, I set out to bring Holy Communion to them at home in the firm expectation of encountering two ancient and crusty WASPS.

My expectations were of course, utterly dashed. For I met two warm and witty persons who seemed greatly surprised that I should have taken the trouble to visit them at home – after all as Lois would continue to remind me at every subsequent visit: This is wonderful Fr. Mark, that you should find the time in your busy schedule to bring Communion to us – to which I would mutter some such throw away rejoinder about it being a privilege. But – and here Lois do forgive me for beginning a sentence with a preposition – it was a privilege! So much was it a privilege that with Lois and Pres, the Rector had to take his turn in the que of Eucharistic Ministers keen to visit them each Sunday after it seemed safer for them not to risk coming to church. In fact, David Whitman, I always envied the fact that you were offered sherry afterwards and I never was. Well, such is the burden of being too busy – I guess.

I don’t think Lois ever really understood how much of a privilege for me, and I know for others, it was. Because Lois was a woman who did not think more highly of herself than she ought to have thought. Lois carried herself through life girded by a very sober judgment of herself, according to the measure of faith God accorded her.

Soon after my first visit , I was summoned – for this time it felt a bit like a royal command – by Lois and her prayer partner Jean Richardson, who taken together presented a most formidable couple! This was my first discovery of the rich depth of Lois’ spirituality. Lois was a formidable intercessor, and with Jean they operated an extensive prayer chain. I felt the purpose of this visit was to be assessed as to my support for the efficacy of prayer. I think I must have passed. Again, another stereotype of WASP crustiness – crushed.

I am conscious that everyone here today has more numerous and richer memories of Lois than I can have given the shortness of my time knowing her. Elsewhere five years might be considered a long time, but in Rhode Island not so! Yet we will all agree that Lois had that rare gift for friendship. John Bracken commented to me that: She had such a bright smile. Always made you think she was happy to see you even if she barely knew you. A real gift. A real gift indeed! Lois was a friend to those she met, and she was a friend to the many countless more she carried in her prayers.

In a modern world where sharpness of intellect, keenness of perception, and soundness of judgement are no longer qualities normally associated with so call ‘religious’ people, Lois had the sharpest intellect, the keenest perception, and the soundest judgment of any one I have ever known. What’s more, she faithfully read my sermon blog each week, and when she was able to be in church delivered that rear combination of insightful and charitable comment. Her professional literary career when placed alongside her Christian faithfulness should be an inspiration to each and every one of us of how we might better integrate mind and heart in fruitful living.

However, my central task this morning is to speak about the Christian vision of life. This is a bifocal because in near sight it’s a vision of what is, and in far sight it’s a vision of what will be.

We live in a world where many of us are in thrall to a materialist vision of life. This is a vision of life as simply a biological process that unfolds within the three dimensions of matter, time, and space. I think therefore I am; I feel therefore I am. Lois would have agreed with both these statements, but she would have gone on to add: I pray, therefore I am.

There is another vision in today’s world that masquerades as Christian. This is the vision of life where you can turn a blind eye to the injustices and corruptions of this world so long as you can recite the religious formulas that will buy your ticket on the heaven bound express. We see how this vision infuses the so-called Christian Right with an ends (heaven) justify means (toleration of injustice) approach to living.

Then there is the vision of life that Lois espoused. Lois believed that biological life was simply the first stage in a longer process of growing into the fullness of life with God. She believed in the on-going-ness of life beyond biological death, which for her was only a junction point. How do I know this? Did she ever communicate this understanding to me? Well not in so many words, but I infer it from her life life-long practice of intercessory prayer and faithful public worship.

I imagine that as with all questioning and curious minds, doubt was an ever-present companion for Lois. Yet, she knew two things. The first was that doubt is not the enemy of faith, she knew that was fear. And she knew that despite her human inability to fully comprehend the how and the what of the next phase of life, she knew it that her sense of a larger life, that there was more to life than this, mattered.

And here is the crux! Lois knew that the ongoing greater life in God’s love mattered not because it was an end in itself – a pie in the sky when you die sort of thing – but because the prospect of eternal life continually refocused her attention on this life and what mattered, really mattered for her, in this life. Authentic Christian living is to live with our attention focused on this world where with every fiber of our being we need to work tirelessly for the unfolding of God’s vision of the good creation as a reality in real time. Lois knew the truth of the sentence in the Lord’s prayer: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done – in this world – regardless of how we might imagine it being done in heaven.

Curiosity is the most important quality in the spiritual life and Lois possessed it in spades.  As I administered the ritual of the Last Rites to her seemingly unconscious body, a palpable sense of her curiosity as she navigated the transition between dimensions, flooded the room. None of us present could be left in any doubt of Lois’ excitement as she began the process the Book of Common Prayer refers to as life changed but not an ended.  

Through her death, Lois has passed on the baton. And our task now is to run with it for the rest of our earthly lives, and hand it on at our death! I hope we might be worthy of her example.

God’s speed dear friend. We know you will continue to keep us in your prayers.

It’s on Our Watch: Lent 4. 2 Corinthians 15

Prison leaves its scars, not only on the body but also the mind.

In Ephesus, things had gone seriously wrong. In response to a two-pronged attack from both the local Roman notables and prominent Jewish influences in the city, Paul had been imprisoned under a sentence of death.  It’s during these very dark days that Paul hears news from Corinth, news that breaks his heart. For the Corinthians have delivered the ultimate betrayal for Paul – they have questioned his authority as an apostle and suggested that if he ever wanted to visit again he would have first to present and defend his credentials.

Paul had visited Corinth twice before and between these visits he had written his first letter to them admonishing them for their internal divisions – divisions based on the discrepancies of wealth and status among members of the church community. Now since his last visit, the Corinthian church has come under the sway of some very smooth and slick conmen, who seemed to have successfully discredited Paul and his message and turned the church against him. It’s not difficult to imagine the wealthy Corinthian church wanting teachers more in line with their worldview, a worldview that prized success and prestige. Somethings never change – for narcissistic cultures tend to seek self-validating reflections of themselves in the narcissistic leaders they place in positions of power and prominence. After all, everyone likes a winner, even if it means winning is the con.

In response to Corinthian susceptibility to boasting leaders, Paul asks: so you want me to boast? Then if I boast I will boast of my weakness! If I need references, then you are my reference!

In 2 Corinthians, we feel Paul’s deep suffering as a result of what today we would recognize as accumulated PTSD. The seriousness of his condition is evidenced not simply in his despair and depression, his anger and pain, but in the style and feel of 2 Corinthians; a choppy letter of false starts, with extra additions inserted. With an agitated mind and aching heart, Paul seems to have found it hard to organize his thoughts into a unified theme.

Paul pens this letter while visiting the churches in Northern Greece somewhere between 56-57 A.D. From the direction of his journey we can see that he is assiduously avoiding going anywhere near Corinth. Corinth was by far the largest, most prosperous and politically influential of Paul’s Romano-Greek church plantings. The wound Corinth had inflicted on him is deep and his sense of betrayal great.

Then, Paul’s mood lifts when Titus arrives with news from Corinth. It seems the Corinthians have had second thoughts, maybe coming to the realization that their new found slick teachers have delivered a good deal less than they promised. Titus brings news of the Corinthians deep sorrow for the pain they had inflicted on Paul. While Paul is clearly overjoyed, painful memories of a breach in relationship are not easily forgotten. How can relationships repair following a deep breach of trust? This is what Paul is now working out in the middle section of his letter.

Paul has learned through his recent sufferings a powerful lesson. In chapter four having accepted his own vulnerability he writes:

We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God. Not to us. We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our whit’s end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed. We carry the deadness of Jesus about in our body, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.

2 Cor 4 Trans. N.T. Wright

In chapter 5 Paul states that:

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Cor 15:16-21

Words matter. Paul’s statement that the old order has died and everything-everyone has become a new creation in Christ is truly overwhelming to contemplate. It’s easier to let such a statement go in one ear and out the other because it strikes at the very core of our defensive, fear driven way of relating to one another. It also profoundly impacts our global world view – esp. with regard to care for the environment. What would it mean to actually take his words seriously? Given our fallibility and fragility – our earthenware nature, how can we possibly live up to such a statement with all its expectations or repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation?

Our earthenware fragility, our feet of clay make us vulnerable to one another. Victims have a habit when opportunity presents of becoming perpetrators; hurt triggers hurt, violence begets more violence – usually camouflaged as righteous anger. Yet, Paul pictures us as moral ambassadors of reconciliation; reconciliation first with God and then with one another. No wonder we don’t want to take his words seriously!

In English, reconciliation carries the overtone of smoothing over differences. The search for reconciliation produces an endless search for compromise solutions to paper over those differences. Fine though this may be, this is not what Paul means. Paul is drawing our attention not to the need to reconcile difference but to realize that our very differences highlight what we share in common.

Paul had realized a paradox – the pain we feel and act out over the very things that divide us – that pain is none other than the source of what unites us because pain is the universal experience that weaves us together.

Think of the pain of personal betrayal. On the larger stage think of exploitation of the weak by the strong as in what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is potentially mine tomorrow. Think of racism, gender bias, the unlevel playing field that results in unequal access to the necessities for human thriving: food, water, a safe environment in which to live, meaningful work to do, education, healthcare, and equal access to impartial justice. Now think of our willful destruction of our common home -the environment. These are all examples of how we prefer to walk back through the door to the old life – the life before Christ – the life that brings only death. These maladies are all so fixable when we see them as the result of our human propensity to fall short of the mark; the life of a new creation God sets for us.

Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet said that to err is human, to forgive is divine. God is endlessly forgiving, knowing that we are bound to miss the mark, the bullseye that is the new life of those entrusted by God to set the world to rights.

Questions abound. Will we notice the ghosts of past failures of reconciliation in a history of slavery and genocide? Will we notice how in the present, past ghosts perpetuate racial discrimination and injustice – only now masquerading as criminal justice, and the multiple indices that measure poverty? When we notice, will we, with hearts transformed and our minds renewed through repentance, refocus aim on our target of living the new life of God’s promise? Or will we compound error and injury with defensive, fear driven self-justification?

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Cor 15: 16-21

To become a new creation is to be reconciled to God. Being reconciled to God we strive for justice by not only responding to immediate needs but also questioning and challenging the systems that perpetuate injustice.

Environmental and social justice are linked by the flow of our new life in creation. God has inaugurated the new creation in Christ and will ultimately bring it to fulfilment in the resurrection of the whole world. Until then, putting the world to rights is the responsibility on our watch.

Fig Trees Require Patient Nurture: Luke 13 1-9

Whilst in London last week for the funeral of an elderly friend, Al and I visited another long-time friend who is now in a nursing home. We were both shocked by how we found him. Lying at an awkward angle in a railed bed, disheveled, his spectacles held together with tape, and offering only monosyllabic responses to our questions, we were not sure if he even recognized us, though it was difficult to tell. On saying goodbye, we both struggled to make sense of our upset at the decline in our friend by reminding ourselves that, after all, he had always had a strong tendency to accommodate himself to every new aspect of decline. In other words, we had long felt that our friend had always had an unhealthy desire to embrace invalidity. This perception helped us to an extent because it enabled us to see our friend as in part responsible for his decline. If he had planned better for his future, if he had resisted harder the gradual process of aging, he might not have ended up in the very pathetic state in which we now found him.

there but for the grace of God, go I.

We are all haunted by an anxiety that finds its fullest expression in there but for the grace of God, go I. As wise sayings go, I guess it’s not a bad one. It protects us from a reality that we want to hide from. This reality is that all of us, most of the time, feel helpless in the face of the flow of events that may visit upon us some form of calamity or other.

The idea that it is only by God’s grace that we are spared from calamity underscores our helplessness in the face of the randomness of chance events. But we also use the idea of God’s grace to imply the very opposite. Used in this way it becomes an individualized protection, implying that the disasters which befall others will not knock on our door, because we have the special protection of God’s grace. Unfortunately, religion when seen in this light offers a very poor insurance policy.

The invidious connection that links great calamity with individual responsibility is as old as human thought is long. You will remember that in the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus: who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus rebukes them, telling them that neither sinned. Illness is not the result of sin. Thus, Jesus breaks the intuitive connection between sin punishment, between adversity and personal responsibility.

Jesus breaks the intuitive connection between sin punishment, between adversity and personal responsibility.

Nevertheless, as my opening vignette shows, we continue to connect adverse circumstances with personal responsibility – well they’ve only got themselves to blame. In this way we insulate ourselves not simply from the pain and suffering of others, but from the existential anxiety that – there but for the grace of God, because we know their misfortune could easily be ours.

In the gospel passage from Luke 13 Jesus refers to two calamitous events that had recently taken place. Pilate had executed a group of Galileans, who had come up to Jerusalem to make sacrifice in the Temple. Why he had killed them, we don’t know. But to cause maximum offense he not only killed them but mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices; a major desecration for any Jew. Jesus asks his listeners: do you think they suffered this fate because they were worse sinners than other supplicants? He answers, no they were not.

Of another recent calamity where many people were crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed, he asks a similar question. Do you think they were worse offenders than anyone else living in Jerusalem?

For the Galileans slaughtered by Herod in the Temple, substitute worshipers gunned down in two Christchurch mosques.

Such questions still ring in our ears today. For the Galileans slaughtered by Herod in the Temple, substitute worshipers gunned down in two Christchurch mosques. For the victims crushed beneath the tower, substitute the inhabitants of Midwest states devastated by unprecedented flood waters.

As in Jesus’ time, we continue to struggle with the why question, and we like to pretend for peace of mind’s sake that we know the answer, suggesting that in some way victims of untimely and unforeseen calamity have in some sense brought it on themselves. If Muslims didn’t look so different and had only blended in more, or better still just stayed in their own countries, then this would not have happened. Or, the floods are God’s punishment on people who need to give up their denial of the science of climate change. Of course, the Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida were God’s punishment on the club’s LGBT patrons. Of course, the devastating fires in California were the result of poor forest management. We could go on, and on.

In the face of the why question Jesus explains that sin makes no distinction between one person and another, calamity is not personal, it’s random. He asks -were the victims crushed when the tower fell worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? No, he exclaims, they were not, and unless you repent you will all perish as these unfortunate others have done.

Can he really mean that if we repent we will be spared, if we don’t we won’t?

Just when we think things are clear, Jesus muddies the water. What does he mean by repent? Can he really mean that if we repent we will be spared, if we don’t we won’t? Is this not a direct contradiction of what he had just been saying that calamity is random and not personal? Are we back to the idea that calamity is in some way connected to a lack of repentance? In other words it’s our fault?

Which brings us to the story about the fig tree; a horticultural lesson on repentance. This is a story about fruitfulness. Fruitfulness provides the context in which Jesus invites us to reflect on the need to repent. The story of the fig tree highlights two important lessons. The first is that fruitfulness needs nurturing or fertilizing. The second is fruitfulness may take time to emerge.  

The Greek word used by Luke for repent is Metanoia, which implies more than saying sorry. In its fullest meaning metanoia implies becoming transformed into a completely different way of seeing the world. Repentance is not something we do, and action we undertake, it’s an openness to change – a heart and mind 180-degree transformation. Repentance is the equivalent of digging manure around the tree’s roots in the hope of coaxing forth the fruit; the fruit of a changed heart and renewed mind. In short, repentance is a complete makeover. But patient work and waiting is required.

Jesus words about the need for repentance now become understood as – unless you change your whole way of thinking, you will die as they did. The emphasis here is not on whether we are lucky enough to escape a sudden and unprepared death – death being code for a host of calamities that may overtake us. Jesus’ question is – in what moral and spiritual state will we be in when calamity strikes?

Shit happens, as we say. It’s not our place to explain away the chance occurrences of natural disasters, random acts of violence, the rapid and unforeseen onset of illness, and the slow and steady breakdown of the body. To repent, is to face up to the source of our existential anxiety – namely our helplessness in the face of chance events. It’s not whether we can control our fears or not, but how we live in the face of them. Repentance is to pay attention to what we are doing regardless of the risk of calamity’s strike.

To repent is to be changed. To be changed is a process of reordering our priorities.

We can’t predict which building may fall down and upon whom it may fall, but we can ensure strict building codes are followed and severe penalties are imposed when breached.

We may not be able to stop natural disasters occurring, but we can vote wisely in support of political solutions to reverse policies that deny the science of climate change and severely punish those who in pursuit of profit endanger our common environmental home.

We may not be able to make wars cease and stem the flow of mass migration, but we can support international aid programs that build economic infrastructure in places where people are forced to leave because there is none. We can welcome the stranger who of necessity flees for life and liberty to our shore where both are ensured as a basic human right.

To face the challenges of the present we need to have dealt with the ghosts of the past. We may not be able to predict when the terrorist may strike, but like the government and people of New Zealand have just demonstrated, we can face down hatred and the violence it spawns. We can reaffirm our commitment to be an inclusive and welcoming community. See my fuller comments on this here.

We may not be able to cure our friends and loved ones when disabling illness strikes, but despite our own fears of there but for the grace of God go I, we can be there for each another; in other words we may not be able to work miracles but maybe the power of our loving presence is in some sense, enough?

To repent means to stop running from our fragility and vulnerability in the face of the flow of events we can neither understand nor control.

Towers fall.  Tyrants slaughter (Luke 13).

Stopping such events is an important human activity.  But until we end pointless death, we have other work to do.  The prophet Micah made it clear: Do justice; love kindness and walk humbly with God.  Those would be good things to be doing when the tower lands on you.

Richard Swanson

Because it will – somewhere, sometime! 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

A sermon from the Rev.  Linda Mackie Griggs

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

It doesn’t take much to imagine the longing in these words, does it? To feel that the world is spinning out of control and there is nothing we can do about it? To think, If only they—whoever ‘they’ are– would wake up, and pay attention to what faces them! But you can’t make people do what they will not do.

Welcome to the world of the prophet. The world of Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Ezekiel, and others who spoke, cursed, cajoled, wept and suffered as their messages of repentance went unheard.

This passage from Luke weaves beautifully with the beginning of our Lenten Program this year, because the text we are focusing on for the course begins with the words of another prophet: Jeremiah. He writes: “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, ‘He is blind to our ways.’” Jer. 12:4

In this lament Jeremiah, like Jesus would do centuries later, grieves for his city. In 597 Jerusalem was destroyed and her people sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah is mourning for a city lost because her people would not listen and return to the God who called them under her wings.

In our Lenten program–which we began on Tuesday evening and which I will reprise this morning in the Adult Forum–the Bishops’ Teaching on the Environment invites a little imaginative reflection on the words of Jeremiah. The bishops ask, how can we read Jeremiah’s words in the context of the perilous plight of this fragile earth, our island home? Can the earth mourn, and what does that look like? Think dying bees, disintegrating ice sheets, waterways choked with plastic, year-round wildfire seasons, receding glaciers, vanishing rainforests; and that’s just a start. Continue pondering: Is there a way that humans are in exile from the environment? Consider the islands in the Pacific that are being swallowed by rising seas; their people desperately seeing to relocate to higher ground or to leave their home altogether. Think of how many more people you know of with allergies and cancers than you did a generation ago—a kind of physiological exile. Consider how long it has been since you’ve seen huge flocks of birds in autumn migration. Or the summer dusk aglow with fireflies. Or the Milky Way amid a velvet black carpet filled with twinkling stars. The next generations will be exiled from the joys of these simple pleasures.

How long will the land mourn?

Is Earth our Jerusalem?

The House of Bishops’ Teaching on the Environment was produced out of the Bishops’ semiannual meeting in Quito, Ecuador in 2011. They don’t always produce teachings at their meetings, and this one was especially significant in that it was the first one that addressed environmental issues. Even so, you will notice that it was promulgated eight years ago. That may not be long in God’s time, but in human time it’s a gracious plenty. Which is why our Lent course, A Life of Grace for the Whole World, begins with repentance.

Our Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence refers to “ Our self-indulgent appetites and ways” and “…our waste and pollution of [God’s] creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”

Repent. Even for those who are already personally on board with a sense of environmental urgency, it is important to articulate our situation as people of faith; to connect the plight of the planet with our relationship to the God who created everything and called it Good. We are caregivers of a gift of incalculable value. As I wrote in my epistle this week, we are called to repent of a worldview of subduing and dominating Creation. We are called, rather, to live within Creation as fellow creatures within an interdependent ecosystem of animals, plants, and the systems that nurture us all.

We are called to repent; not in order to grovel and wallow, but to turn in a new direction; to turn and choose to gather beneath the protective wings of a God who yearns for the reconciliation and healing of all of Creation.

What we are addressing in this Lenten course is challenging. Even if we know that Earth is in a perilous situation, the need for, and nature of, action can be a hard sell. There are costs to be weighed and benefits to be balanced. There is comfort in the status quo. Well, there is comfort for the comfortable ones, anyway. But for those whose lives and livelihoods are already feeling the impacts of climate change—those would be the poorest and most vulnerable of the world’s population—for them, comfortable is only a memory. Still, for us here, in this privileged space, it can be a hard sell.

But Jesus didn’t back away from the hard sell. His was the life and destiny of a prophet. He set his face toward the city that he loved; that had nurtured him and his family as he grew up, regularly worshiping in the Temple, “as was their custom.” Yet that same city would soon reject him in the cruelest way by killing him on a garbage heap outside the walls. In spite of what awaited him (or because of it) he remained undaunted, refusing to be distracted by death threats from a petty tetrarch, dismissing Herod as a mere fox, not worth his attention. Instead Jesus pressed on from Galilee toward Jerusalem—a prophet meeting a prophet’s fate, while lamenting in his desire to spare his beloved city, if only her chicks would come to him for shelter.

Is Earth our Jerusalem? Who are the prophets that we have shunned? Where are the opportunities for repentance—turning—that we have disregarded because we were not willing?

Paragraph 5 of the Bishops’ Teaching calls us to “speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.” In pondering this invitation the other night the group reflected on a time in our lives when someone spoke or acted on our behalf. We thought about how that made us feel valued, validated, even loved. We then identified characteristics of a person who would come to the defense or protection of another. Almost immediately the responses came flying: Courage. Empathy. Listening. Understanding. Persistence.

The marks of a prophet.

Do we have the marks of what it takes to be prophets for our Jerusalem?

It isn’t easy, but it isn’t hopeless. The people in Tuesday night’s group couldn’t wait to get beyond the confession and repentance section of the course to the solutions sections. They were ready to go—jotting down ideas and making note of resources that will be helpful as we go forward. When we left at the end of the evening I felt hopeful. As though something is turning in a new direction.

Repentance is hopeful.

There’s a reason Jesus chose the image of a hen as the protector of his world, as opposed to other Old Testament images of a lion or an eagle. The eagle and the lion are predators. That’s not Jesus. His entire life and ministry were about the strength of vulnerability, and the protective power of all-enfolding love.

The hen stands, her feathers fluffed up to almost twice her size, her wings wide. She clucks her warning as the wind blows, the rain begins, and the fox lurks nearby. She has done all she can. Now she can only wait for her chicks to perceive the danger and to gather in her care before it is too late. If only they are willing.

This fragile Earth, our island home. Our Jerusalem. 

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