So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Observing the fervent celebrations of Halloween, an anthropologist studying American culture might add a line in a learned paper:

The eve of All Saints and All Souls remains one of the great folk religious customs that unifies the otherwise fractious and quarrelsome North Americans. 

A little history

The weekend of November 1st  All Saints-All Souls marks a cultural event that has deep religious roots, the significance of which seems lost to most of the population who celebrate it. All Saints-All Souls is one of those thin places, a term from Celtic spirituality identifying a transitional space in time. Thin places can also be locations of place. Glastonbury and Stonehenge are two of many English examples. The commemoration of All Saints-All Souls constitutes a thin place in time opening a strange window into our popular culture, through which flow two great pagan religious traditions, one European, the other Mezzo-American, both with deep roots predating Christianity. All Saints- All Souls is the Christianization of the pagan Celtic Halloween. The great Latino celebration of  Día de los Muertos, similarly is the Christianization of the Aztec dia-de-muertosgoddess Mictecacihuatl, that center of a tradition of ancestor worship.

The significance of both these celebrations lies in the eruption of ancient pagan folk religion, which like all folk religion lies buried underneath the brittle carapace – the hard shell of Christianity. On the 1st and 2nd of November each year, the dead-hand of both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy is shattered by the eruption of deep pagan currents running in the subterranean rivers of the collective unconscious of both Anglo and Latino cultures.

On Friday night, Al and I were FaceTiming with our 10-year-old granddaughter who was modeling for us her Cinderella costume including a long blond wig that completely transformed her appearance in preparation for her trick or treat escapades. Little does she know that the popular practice of trick or treating owes its origins to the great Celtic

Photo:Copyright JOE;CONLON;ATHBOY;;;

celebration of welcoming the transition of the seasons from autumn to winter. On Samhain, the door to the other world opened and feasts were prepared for the souls of the dead. Like our children today, our forebears protected themselves from harmful spirits by disguising themselves with weird and wonderful costumes and painting their faces into grotesque caricatures to hide their true identities from the evil spirits.

Following the English reformation, the celebration of Halloween was discouraged. For the English, the need for a lively celebration at this time of year was transferred to 5th November, the commemoration of Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes or bonfire night celebrates with bonfires and fireworks another cultural form of vanquishing of demons, this time the Papist demon Guy Fawkes and his Jesuit friends, who failed in their attempt to blow-up the Houses of Parliament during a visit of the King, James I. Incidentally, on that occasion of the King’s visit to Parliament, intended by the conspirators to be his last, one Roger Williams, secretary to the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Coke, accompanied his patron among the courtiers and officials in attendance on the King that day. In place of trick or treating, English children used to go from house to house carrying a straw effigy of Guy Fawkes. As householders opened their doors they were greeted with the cry not of trick or treat, but of penny for the guy.

Among the Puritans who settled in this part of America, the celebration of Halloween was strictly forbidden because of its demonic overtones. It seems the popularity of Halloween takes root in America among the millions of later Scots and Irish immigrants who, in their own part of the British Isles, had refused to abandon the old Celtic festival.

Our human nature

Human Nature expresses itself through culture. Our cultures are punctuated with small openings which allow expression of deeper psycho-spiritual needs.  We need these openings to illuminate what otherwise becomes the mind-numbing monotony of the here and now.

In the 1789 and 1928 editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the prayers of intercession bat309470were introduced with the words: Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church, Militant here in earth.

That odd word militant refers not to aggression but to you and me. We are the Church Militant – the Church on the march in the world.Yet, we are not the whole Church. We are only the Church active in this world. The whole Church includes two other states, traditionally referred to as the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. This is the vision of the three-tiered universe, an inspiration that draws from the imagery of the Book of Revelation, from which the epistle reading for All Saints is taken.

The endurance of the pagan roots of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, as vibrant contemporary expressions of popular culture, give testament to the human need, from time immemorial, to hope for more than the idea that life is this world is all there is.

In abandoning the medieval imagery of the Book of Revelation, let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The division between All Saints and All Souls expresses our deep human psycho-spiritual need to build meaning in the face of the reality of death. All Saints is a celebration.

Through remembering the great exemplars of Christian living, we celebrate a joyful expectation of our continued life in God. Yet, in the face of death we experience sorrow, loss, bewilderment and pain as those we have loved are no longer physically present to us. All Souls expresses this element of human need. Our hearts still reach out for those we have lost. Our hearts open in the urgency of prayer for those who are still achingly loved and yet no longer present to us.

Love and a sense of continued relationship compels us to pray for our loved ones, who comprising the visions of a Church Expectant wait in the hopeful expectation of their fulfillment. A sense of need likewise compels us to seek the prayers of the saints and Saints, whose love and support we implore having already attained the joy of paradise in the Church Triumphant. For we are all united in one Church through the timelessness of relationship now lived out through prayer – uniting militant, expectant and triumphant states of being.

What of Scripture?

imagesThe gospel for All Saints is the story of the Raising of Lazarus from John’s Gospel. This is a powerful story in which the themes of faith and grief are linked together. Jesus confronts Mary and Martha with the need to trust, to risk a leap of faith. He asks them to trust and believe in something greater than surface appearances. It seemed to them their brother was dead. In the face of the human grief that accompanies death, we see the deep humanity of a Jesus disturbed by grief and sorrow. It seems that grief and faith are not incompatible, but complementary.

In the Gospel story of the Raising of Lazarus, God shows us that death is only a biological event, not a human event! Biology ends because it is a condition of life in the Church Militant. Contrastingly, being human is a continuous event that transcends the event of biological death, spanning between the dimensions of militant and expectant life.

Human life is a process of journeying into the fulfillment of God’s Covenant made with us in Christ. This is a promise that our humanity is more than an accident of biology. It is nothing short of the promise of incorporation into the life of the divine community that is God. In the words of the Burial Service of the Book of Common Prayer

For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

Investment of the Heart

In the culture in which I was raised, making a fuss was considered as something that could only invite personal embarrassment. If you made a fuss, in effect you were drawing attention to yourself, and drawing attention was tantamount to inviting social judgment. Consequently, I am someone who hardly ever makes a fuss, at least, not in public. The one exception, are high-end restaurants. Here I have learned to overcome my conditioning when I am encountered by an attitude of condescension, the kind of attitude that with concealed subtlety communicates that it’s a privilege for me to be eating in this elegant and glamorous restaurant while paying through the nose for the privilege of being condescended to. This being the exception, I often find myself hotly ruminating in my mind – going over and over again what I should have said to this or that person, in this or that situation, had I been less inhibited by my fear of embarrassing myself by making a fuss.

As we travel through the enveloping cool of autumn, a season that always conjures up for me the opening lines of Keats’ Ode to Autumn:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless                                                                                                             With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

I am mindful of another season that I secretly dread; that of the parish’s Annual Renewal Campaign or ARC, when as rector I run the risk of making a fuss, or at least provoking the opprobrium of my more conservative parishioners who consider it bad taste for the rector to talk about money, in church. This year at St Martin’s I have enjoyed the relief of being able to soft peddle the usual message about financial stewardship because this year, the ARC occurs within a larger process of our adoption of the RenewalWorks spiritual inventory.

Like many parishes, at least in the Episcopal Church, we struggle with financial stewardship. Often this is presented as a budgetary issue, and meeting proverbial budgetary deficits is an element for careful, and dare I say – prayerful consideration. Yet, for us at St Martin’s, a community where the financial generosity of its members is regularly expressed when it comes to paying for large ticket items such as our recent restoration of the St Martin window, we discern that the challenge of financial stewardship facing us is to deepen our response to the call of discipleship. By this, I don’t mean to suggest the proverbial report card comment – must try harder. I am talking about our need to find a satisfaction for the unnamed yearning of our hearts.

Several years ago, when I served at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, I coined the sound bite – opening our wallets as widely as we long to open our hearts. Glibness aside, in my own life of discipleship, financial stewardship takes me to the heart of an internal struggle to overcome an ingrained attitude of scarcity and to experience life- abundance. To live with gratitude and generosity from a belief that there is always enough, because in my life the experience of enough is more than anything else, an attitude of mind and an orientation of heart. An attitude of scarcity often goes hand in hand with an anxiety about making a fuss. Both are the products of certain kinds of cultural experience.

Invitation to conversation through the gospel reading

The story of Bartimaeus son of Timaeus takes place on the outskirts of the Biblically rich city of Jericho. This is a multilayered story in a sequence of multilayered stories that Mark offers us concerning Jesus’ road trip to Jerusalem. This road trip recalling Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is for those who travel with him the road trip to discipleship. Mark recounts a number of incidents along the way that are all linked by a call to discipleship. Mark chronicles events of blindness and clear-sightedness. The healing of the physically blind becomes the metaphor for another kind of blindness, that of the mind and heart; a blindness repeatedly displayed by the Disciples.

Bartimaeus is a poor man, not simply poor materially, but according to the prevailing religious attitudes of his time, poor spiritually as well. For the religious of his day, his blindness was an indication of his being out of favour with God. Bartimaeus has placed himself by the roadside so as not to be missed by Jesus as he passes. When he hears Jesus approaching he begins to make a fuss, and as others try with some severity to silence him, the crescendo of his fuss-making only increases.

Bartimaeus sits by the roadside on the outskirts of Jericho, which in the 6th chapter of the Book of Joshua we are told was the first town to fall to the Israelites who leveled its walls by making a huge commotion of feet tramping, trumpets blaring, and voices shouting. On the roadside, on the outskirts of Jericho, Bartimaeus sits making a commotion as he calls repeatedly: Son of David, have mercy on me!

Towards cathexis

Bartimaeus’ use of this historic phrase Son of David is a code phrase for his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus, moving amidst the throng of people is halted in his tracks and turning around he tells the crowd to bring him to me. Mark then shows us a man, not a blind man who haltingly rises and moves with caution towards Jesus, but a man who throws off his cloak and springs up and rushes toward Jesus. Jesus asks him the proverbial discipleship question: What do you want me to do for you? Compare Bartimaeus’ response to that of James and John to the same question, reported by Mark in last week’s incident along the road. Bartimaeus with simplicity says: My rabbi, let me see again! 

Whenever we respond to the call of discipleship, Jesus simply asks us: what do you want me to do for you? Unlike Bartimaeus, we will often not know how to answer. For me, the point of this story lies in my recognition that Bartimaeus receives his sight through an experience of cathexis.

Cathexis is a term that refers to the investment of emotional significance in an activity, object, or idea. Bartimaeus becomes deeply invested in the one his heart has been yearning for because the intensity of his yearning heart creates a moment in which he experiences a profound realignment with Jesus.

Sometimes to obtain that which our hearts yearn for requires such a realignment. Realignment, results when we risk to step outside of our sense of social conformity and make a fuss, weathering the storm of public rebuke for doing so. Bartimaeus’ heart moves from yearning via commotion-making to investment in the one for whom he has been longing. Through becoming invested in Jesus, he now moves into the relationship of discipleship.

Today over lunch at St Martin of Tours in Providence, our RenwalWorks leadership team meets to begin to review the data from our recent RenewalWorks online survey. At this point in time, it’s not for me to speak too much about my impression of the data from our responses. What I can say, because it relates directly to my exploration of Mark’s story of Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, is that our survey results provide breathtaking evidence of the strength of the yearning of our hearts for God. The possibility of cathexis is in the air!

Missing The Point: Mark 10 35-45

Mark 10: 35-45 sits within the unfolding of a series of events on the road trip Jesus takes towards Jerusalem. Like all road trips, for some time we remember the isolated events that happen along the road. Over time however, our memory of isolated events along the way, which at the time occur within their own discrete context, become reshaped by the larger meaning and purpose of the road trip itself. So each week we note the happenings along the way, but also need to keep them in the larger perspective of what this road trip is about for Jesus.

The incident concerning James and John’s request to Jesus for the ultimate places of honor strikes me as a difficult reminder of our human propensity for over-valuing ourselves. Within Mark’s larger road trip narrative this is the third time the disciples have not heard Jesus correctly, or so it seems. Along the road, Jesus takes time to explain to his disciples his larger purpose for making this journey. He speaks of his expectations of humiliation, failure, death, and resurrection that lie ahead.

How did he know this? Is Jesus omniscient? Does Jesus share God’s bird’s eye panorama of the events unfolding? Maybe? However, I prefer to think of Jesus not as omniscient but as simply bringing to bear a very human awareness, unclouded by wishful thinking. Jesus knows all too well the consequences of confronting systems of power and oppression. He seems amazingly free of any fantasy expectation that he is going to win in this confrontation.

Along the road, Jesus speaks of the inevitability of his impending death three times. After the first time, Peter is so incensed he rebukes Jesus. A second time Jesus tries and while he’s speaking the disciples argue out of his earshot, or so they think, about who is going to be the most important among them when they reach the road trip’s destination. For them, the road trip is a political campaign tour on the way to winning the election. They are the Jesus campaign activists seeing him as the candidate of choice for the position of Messiah. They expect that when he wins power, there will be goodies for everyone who has supported him. Jesus tries one more time to tell them what to expect, and again his words fall on deaf ears.

The other disciples when they find out what James and John have asked Jesus become indignant, and maybe this is our response to them as well. Isn’t indignation our response in the face of another’s blatant attempts to curry favor?

Now maybe James and John, a story coming out of the mists of time has lost any real power to affect us beyond being mildly amused at their audacity. Yet, this story needs to be connected up with our own experience. When we relate to James and John’s grab for power, ditching their friends along the way, this story is a story that uncomfortably resonates with our ordinary everyday lives and becomes a conduit for our feelings of outrage at the unashamed grab for power and influence by others. Yet, the more complicated truth is, aren’t we also James and John?

Mark presents the disciples as stupid and slow to understand, in the grip of a fantasy of having their own day basking in the sunlight of freedom and prosperity. Yet, they are only doing what Christians have done ever since – view Jesus through the prism of our own worldview and self-interests.

It seems to me there are two ways of seeing James and John and all the James’ and John’s we daily encounter in our everyday lives. We can see them as main-chancers. Coming from near the bottom of society the promise of social advancement as followers of the man who was about to take Jerusalem by storm, must have been too much to resist. We can also see them as a kind of everyone. We all live in tension with our unfulfilled needs and longings to be more than we are, to be better than we are, and maybe more pressingly, to have more than we already have. 

Missing the point

What is remarkable is not the motives behind their request. These seem all too understandable enough. What is remarkable is Jesus’ response. What is remarkable is that the disciples missed the point, and so do we, but for different reasons.

The ironing out of a confusion

We live at the end of a line of political and social development that has given us social democracy, sometimes also referred to as liberal democracy. Social democracy is characterized by the possibility for social mobility alongside the idea that the governed should determine who governs them. The old hierarchies of power and influence still pertain – after all human nature is still in a process of perfection, yet social mobility has until comparatively recently been a striking characteristic of our democratic society. Fuelled by a national system of education coming on the back of secularization, that grand post-Enlightenment momentum of social perfectibility, hitherto undreamed of possibilities for social and economic mobility opened up for many ordinary folk in our grandparents and parents generations.

Sadly, we now seem to be at the end of this line of social and political momentum and our 21st-century society seems to be coming to more closely resemble some of the gross inequalities more characteristic of Jesus’ time.

Another characteristic of social/liberal democracy that blinds us to the radical nature of Jesus response is our familiarity with the development of an ethic of public service. The age-old pattern of governmental appointments as tools for personal self-aggrandizement and financial enrichment through public theft was in the 20th century replaced by the concept of a civil service, the members of which were paid out of the public purse in order to serve the interests of the public good. All of this would have been quite alien in the society of first-century Palestine, as well as much of the following 2000 years of European social history. As with social mobility, as the 21st century progresses, notions of public service (servanthood) seem increasingly to be the mark of a previous age.

To our ears, Jesus teaching on servanthood, the first to be last and the last first is not so revolutionary, though it remains difficult to put into consistent practice. However, to the ears of his followers, it was incomprehensible – literally speaking. As human beings, we can only comprehend that which is already imaginable. Jesus suggests a radical vision for social relations beyond the social imaginary of his first-century hearers, and so – they literally miss the point. Each time he reiterates his vision of servanthood as the way his followers should relate to one another, the response is startling. It is as if a cone of silence comes down between him and them, preventing the words he speaks from being heard by them.


The disciples do eventually come to belatedly understand. Because Jesus with self-sacrificial consistency models the way he wants them to behave, they eventually do come to understand. Their still patriarchal and hierarchical worldview notwithstanding, the followers of Jesus come more and more to be able to not only comprehend his message but to begin to live it out in practical, everyday ways.

Here, is where the confusion needs to cleared up. It’s important to note that the development of a culture of servanthood is not the fruit of an early kind of project of self-improvement, which secularization and social democracy have shaped us to value. The followers of Jesus are radically changed not by their own growing social sophistication, but by what his death allows God to do. God raises Jesus to life, after life after death.

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

In the Tradition we have often come to see Jesus’ death as the price God paid to liberate us from the death of sin. There is a strong tendency to see Jesus as a heroic figure, freely and nobly offering up his life for the world. However, the efficacy of Jesus’ death lies not in its nobility, nor in it being the blood price demanded. The efficacy of Jesus’ death lies in what it allows God to do. Jesus’ death leads to the possibility of resurrection. This is the new thing that God does. And one of the most immediate fruits of this new thing, this fundamental change, is the development of a real culture of servanthood as the unique mark of community among the followers of Jesus.

Arriving at the point

The disciples do not achieve the servanthood Jesus called them to through the expansion of their own individual and social imaginations. The did not achieve anything. Instead, they became transformed as the spirit of Jesus was given back to them in the form of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit, not their self-improvement, that empowered them to emulate Jesus’ example of servanthood.

Bringing the point home

This last point is for us, the crucial one. The question of servanthood lies at the heart of our journey of spiritual renewal at St Martin’s. The danger is that we will be content to simply exemplify the best of our secular society’s notions of mutual respect and in the broader world, the ethic of community service motivated and empowered by our acceptance of the best traditions of social democracy. If our aim is to only do what good people do then we will miss our mark. Because, if this is all that happens we will as individuals and as a community remain unchanged. Remaining essentially unchanged means remaining unsatisfied.

I believe that our spiritual deepening has important implications for how we treat one another, how we serve and allow ourselves to be served by one another. This is not just a matter of becoming better than we are, doing better than we’ve done. It is a matter of becoming transformed by the power of God’s Holy Spirit moving among us. Like the first followers of Jesus, for us following Jesus is not a matter of self-assertion, not a matter of finally getting it. Following Jesus is a matter of allowing ourselves to become transformed by the power of the Spirit working among us. Like the first disciples before us, only radical transformation can bring about the change that our hearts are yearning for.

Gripping Tightly or Holding Lightly (Mark 10:17-31)

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The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, Deacon and Director for Spiritual Formation, St. Martin’s Church.

Two wrenching images stand out in today’s Gospel lesson. The first is of a young man grieving; trudging away as if weighted down by everything he owns—realizing for the first time the what the high cost is of following Jesus. The second image is that of Peter—aghast, perplexed, standing with his empty palms outstretched to Jesus, complaining, “Look, we have left everything and followed you”! Imagine all the disciples clustered together behind him, no money, bag or possessions between them—Breathlessly asking, “Then who can be saved?” They must feel, even if only for a millisecond, like twelve victims of a massive theological bait-and-switch.

But as is typical with Jesus, what seems at first blush to be an overwhelming challenge is really an invitation. He has taken the original question, about how to inherit eternal life, and transformed it instead into a description of the Kingdom—the Reign of God. But Jesus hasn’t so much evaded the man’s question as he has tried to shift his perspective.

We have a clue to Jesus’ objective at the very beginning of this encounter. The man kneels, paying homage, and calls him, “Good Teacher”. Jesus gently rebukes him, pointing the man’s attention away from himself and toward God: “No one is good but God alone.” It is this statement that sums up everything that follows.

Jesus asks the man about his knowledge of the Law, by reciting the Commandments. Note, however, that he names only six of them, not all ten.The ones he cites are the LAST six—the ones that have to do with relationships of people with each other. The four Commandments that Jesus has left out of his list are the ones that focus on peoples’ relationship with God:

You shall have no other gods;

            You shall not worship idols;

            You shall not take God’s name in vain;

            You shall keep the Sabbath holy.

These four are the ones that should align our priorities. When that alignment happens, the other six Commandments fall into place. It’s like Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “You shall love the lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” God first, neighbor next; everything that comes from this is like a tree which grows from a single fundamental nourishing root; God alone.

And Jesus’ questioner thought he was doing everything right—He had kept Jesus’ list of Commandments all of his life. He was a good man. But Jesus needed him to internalize the fact that unless he had God as his focus, his good intentions would ultimately fall to shreds.

There was One Thing lacking—one thing that was the thread weaving through it all; a realignment of his priorities. And so Jesus tells the man to rectify his focus—to shift it back to God: “…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And the man leaves, grief-stricken, because he has many possessions.

The common perception is that the man is devastated because he has decided that he won’t be able to follow Jesus. But what if it is because he’s decided he WILL follow Jesus, only now he knows what it will cost him?

He realizes he’s got to let go. Letting go of our idols, by definition, requires loss. It also requires Trust. Trust that, though we are leaving something cherished behind—money, status, pride, resentment, anger (and yes, it IS possible to cherish and idolize our anger and resentment)–that it will be okay. That somehow, the loss will be worth it. Somehow.

But it’s hard. And Jesus knows that. Which is why, “looking at him, Jesus loved him”. He knew that what he was asking for was a leap of faith into the arms of God. He knew that, human frailty being what it is, God’s children tend to hold tightly to things. Prying those fingers loose is some kind of spiritual heavy lifting.

Jesus said, ‘…how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” He uses the ludicrous image of camels in tiny spaces to illustrate the difficulty—Scholars have tried to explain it away and make it somehow more palatable. But the message is clear: Letting go is a tight squeeze. But it’s vitally necessary for our wholeness as human beings and as beloved children of God.

We know from the first months of life the importance of holding on to something. Babies have a grip reflex—where you can gently press your finger into a baby’s hand and he will automatically grab on tight– That reflex is so strong that babies can sometimes hold their own body weight. We need to know how to pick things up and move them from place to place. We need to know how to hold a spoon, or a pencil, or take someone’s hand. But the reflex itself only lasts three or four months into a baby’s development, until she begins to close and open her hands voluntarily. So even our developmental DNA knows that proper motor skills involve not just holding tightly, but letting go. It’s the only way to make progress. You can’t just keep carrying along everything you pick up without leaving some stuff behind as you discern what you need and what you don’t. And if you’re loaded down with a lot of junk, how can you grasp what is really important when you find it?

Our spiritual and emotional selves can learn a lot from our physical selves. God’s Kingdom isn’t about staying stuck and weighed down. And that is what happens if we continually hold tightly to an ideal of perfection and achievement and acquisition that we can never attain because the bar of worldly expectations will always be set higher than we can reach.

You may have heard of what John D. Rockefeller said to someone who asked how much money is enough. He responded, “Just a little bit more.”

But it’s not just about money that Jesus was speaking. The idea of letting go also pertains to the misconception that life should be perfect and painless and effortless, if only we do it right. Whatever ‘it’ is.

We do our best. We work, we save, we exercise, we eat our fruits and vegetables, we follow the rules. And still jobs are lost, health fails, loved ones die, tragedies and natural disasters wreak havoc.

Jesus offers the rewards of the Kingdom in this age, but it is not what contemporary culture—our own or that of the first century—would expect. Jesus warns us to expect that things won’t be perfect—that the Kingdom entails “persecutions”. There are battles to be fought and suffering to be encountered. This is the counterintuitive Kingdom that Jesus describes. It asks us to give up so that we can gain even more.

But what is it that we gain? This is not some prosperity Gospel, which falsely promises that giving your money away is going to yield a bountiful financial return. This is wrongheaded and dangerous teaching.

No; when Jesus says that we will gain a hundredfold brothers, sisters, and fields, he speaks of the brothers and sisters in Christ that we are called to serve, in fields of generosity, justice, and compassion. And the joy that it brings is not the same as superficial happiness. Joy is God-rooted—deeper, richer, more eternal, and most often seasoned with deep knowledge of pain and struggle.

One of my earliest memories is of my own baptism. It may have been only a dream, but I remember myself as an indignantly squalling freshly-splashed infant. Mostly , though, I remembered love: The love of my new church family as I was paraded up the aisle of my little church. I remember being held; held in strong arms. Safe, secure. I myself held nothing; instead, I was held, and I trusted those arms.

This morning we will baptize Ryn Mulholland. We will vow that by our prayers and witness we will help her to grow into the full stature of Christ. What will that look like? What will we teach Ryn about the Kingdom of God?

We will teach her that being a Christian is countercultural. Being a Christian invites her to hold lightly, not tightly, to the superficial criteria of success that our culture offers. Being a Christian asks that she move through this world, not fearful of scarcity but reveling joyously in the abundance and wholeness of a life lived securely in God’s embrace. We will teach her that the Kingdom is an enormous family—hundredfold brothers and sisters who love her. We will teach her that the Kingdom doesn’t mean that life is easy.

The world is a scary place sometimes. Pets die, friends move away, knees are skinned and bones get broken, but we, the whole Christian family, are with her all the way, through seasons of despair as well as joy, holding her in prayer and love.

We will teach her that seeing the world through the eyes of the Kingdom means seeing how she can hold others through Christlike compassion and service. Most of all we will teach her the countercultural lesson that there is freedom in letting go, freedom in trusting God, and in living faithfully into the knowledge that, for God, all things are possible.

For the softening of the heart

imagesLast week I took the easy way out. I preached from the Letter of James instead of tackling the thorny text from Mark, in which Jesus talks about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. James chapter 5 is a significant text for any Christian community with its vision of healing as flowing from the dynamo of the community’s prayer, channeled through the elders of the Church and other individuals who have been called by God to this particular ministry. Nevertheless, avoiding the gospel because the text is too challenging is something I don’t feel I can pull off two weeks in a row.

Mark Chapter 10, contains a series of events, all of which are interconnected by Mark’s use of the word and, implying linkage. The chapter opens with today’s reading in which Jesus delivers what on the face of it appears to be a clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. For most of the last 2000 years, the Church has understood this text as a prohibition on divorce.  Christian’s who still hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible continue to read Mark 10: 2-16 this way. For different reasons, the Roman Church also interprets this text similarly.

In the Episcopal Church the remarriage of divorced persons is at the discretion of the bishop, who on the recommendation of the priest concerned gives or withholds his or her permission for the marriage to be solemnized in church. When I am approached by two persons seeking marriage, one or both of whom have been previously married, I am required to ask the person or persons to share with me their perception of the issues that led to the failure of the previous marriage. The quality of this conversation will determine whether I feel able to advise the bishop to grant their request to marry again in the Episcopal Church.

What is the scriptural authority for this practice? Many continue to see the Church’s stance as simply an accommodation with the declining moral standards of the secular world. Maybe, so, it certainly can be read this way. Yet, the recognition of divorce is not the first time that the humanist-inspired championing of civil rights in a secular society has led the Church to review its previous stance on the interpretation of Scripture.

Mark 10: 2-16: a softening of the heart

There are two distinct scenes in this passage The first scene opens with a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees, in which they seek to force Jesus to come down on one side or the other of a dispute between them. Judaism held two competing views on the interpretation of the writ of divorce. The strict party allowed divorce only in cases of (the wife’s) sexual infidelity. The more tolerant party allowed a number of justifications for divorce. The question the Pharisees put to Jesus in effect is teacher, which interpretation do you favor? Jesus shocks them with his answer the effect of which is to sayI do not favor divorce under any circumstances. 

What is in Jesus’ mind becomes clearer when we recall that he reminds the Pharisees that Moses’ allowance of a writ of divorce was an accommodation with the hardness of the human heart. He compares this accommodation with God’s intention at creation. God intended the marriage relationship between two persons to be a sign of the covenant between God and humanity. When Jesus says: what God has joined together let no one separatehe is saying that God’s intention takes precedence over the Mosaic writ of divorce. The Pharisees go away muttering to themselves.

A second scene now opens with Jesus talking privately with his disciples, who ask him to explain himself again. Jesus then utters these words: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. So far, no surprises here. But then he says: and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. The disciples must have been shocked by this. What on earth is he talking about? Surely, they think, Jesus must know that a woman cannot divorce her husband?

Jesus is making clear that God’s intention at creation is for marriage to be a relationship between equals and not simply a legal property arrangement that can be put aside by the man whenever he chooses because the patriarchal law accommodates his superior status as a male.

Now, there are two ways of reading Moses’ allowance for a writ of divorce. Although the writ became a weapon in the hands of men, perhaps its original intention was for the protection of women. The writ of divorce ensured that what little legal protections marriage gave a woman, could not be lightly put aside by her husband without his having to go to court to do so, thus preventing a cruel and capricious husband simply casting his wife out of the house. Jesus is saying that Moses allowed a writ of divorce as a necessary protection for the woman against the hardness of the male heart.

A curious echo of this continues in England. In the marriage services of the Church of England the couple sign the register in front of the congregation because the marriage register of the Establish Church is the legal register of marriages. After signing the register, the couple sign the certificate of marriage, which the priest then gives to the bride.

As I handed over the certificate I would explain this ancient practice to the couple telling the bride that the certificate legally belongs to her and not to her husband. Now, an anachronism, in the past the certificate was her proof for the protections accorded her by marriage in an otherwise patriarchal society, in which property law accorded her few rights.

A relationship between equals

Jesus endorses our modern acceptance of human beings as relational beings. God is relational and the very act of creation is a desire for relationship with human beings. Through forming relationships with one another, we come to be reflections of God.

We are relationship seeking beings. Yet, as with every other aspect of being human our relationships are also fallible. Some succeed while others fail. The quality of our relationships is an expression of our emotional maturity. The failure of our relationships is often, sadly, an expression of our emotional immaturity.

In marriage preparation, I invite a divorced person seeking remarriage to share with me their perception of the reasons why their marriage ended in divorce. In their story, I listen for the echoes of sorrow. I am hoping that I can hear in their story a sense of loss – a  loss of innocence. I listen for signs of the pain and disillusionment at finding failure where they hoped for fulfilment in relationship. My question is: how has this experience of loss of innocence deepened their self-awareness so as to better equip them to have a more mature expectation of themselves and their new marriage partner? It seems to me that no-one who had been through a divorce has remained unscathed by the loss of their once innocent belief that when you make sacred promises everything should work out, and people should live happily thereafter.

Because the loss of our innocence leaves a deep and often ugly scar in us, it is all the more important that we have an opportunity to learn from experience by making a new and fulfilling marriage with another person. In this way, a second marriage holds the promise of reparation. In God’s relationship with us there are always second chances. Why should this not also be so in our relationships with one another?

The Mosaic writ of divorce had become by Jesus’ time an expression of the hardness of the human heart. Jesus moves the goal posts away from the legalistic debate among men concerning the justifiable grounds for divorcing one’s wife, into a new conversation that recalls God’s intention for marriage as a covenant reflecting God’s love for us in creation. There is more than a hint here, at our own contemporary approach to seeing the relational failure resulting in divorce as an expression for the softening of the human heart.

As Anglican Christians in the Episcopal Church we live in the tension between our parental generation’s interpretation of Scripture and Tradition and the reality of the lives we actually live; lives also illuminated by a fresh encounter with the written Word of God. This place of tension is where we expect to encounter God, not only in our successes but also in our failures. It is in this tension that God comes looking for us.

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