Love Trumps

Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Herein lies an unusually complex problem for our modern scientific-technological mindset. What is the resurrection? What did or didn’t happen? If it did happen how, when, and where, did it happen? The Biblical accounts seem inconclusive from our modern perspective.

John does not tell us how the resurrection happened – only that it happened. In Acts: 10, Luke tells us how the effects of the resurrection changed Peter to tell a new story about the inclusivity of God’s love. The first Christians didn’t so much believe the resurrection as much as they experienced it and became transformed into a community of change agents. In short, the resurrection was a conclusion the first Christians drew from their lived experience.

Can you believe this story? Take a moment to ponder your answer in the privacy of your own thoughts. Our emphasis on the verb believe or it’s opposite, not believe seems to me to go to the heart of why the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is an unusually complex problem for us. A popular view of religion is that it gives answers. The reason many reject religion is because faith poses many more questions than it answers.

In our community, those of you who know Fla Lewis will know that Fla has a mischievous sense of humor. This last week, through the post came a Peanuts cartoon. I knew it was from Fla because who else? Fla knows that I need to lighten up a bit. In the cartoon a conversation between Lucy and Linus is taking place as follows:

Lucy: I have a lot of questions about life, and I’m not getting any answers!

Linus: Looks at her blankly

Lucy: I want some real honest to goodness answers….

Linus and Lucy now gaze into the near distance

Lucy: I don’t want a lot of opinions … I want answers!

Linus: Would true or false be all right?


I remind the community at St Martin’s that we humans are storied beings. However, when we hear the word story we think of something less than true, something made up. Because we are conditioned to think that hard description is the only language that conveys truth. Stories are what we tell children when they are too young to comprehend rational scientific- technological descriptive language. When I use the word story I am describing truth-plus. Stories convey the multilayered complexity of the meaning of life.

Our stories are our attempts to make sense of the world. Our identities are constructed through the quality of our stories. The bigger the story, the more room it offers for a sense of self within an expanded experience of the world. The smaller the story, the more constrained our experience becomes. 21st century scientific- technological realism is a very small story indeed. Without a necessary component of transcendence, it offers so little room for a big vision of humanity.

If you don’t believe me just look at how the popular imagination today is dominated by stories of the supernatural, superhero sagas infused with magical realism. It seems that when it comes to religion especially of the WASP variety, the supernatural or theologically speaking, the transcendent is no longer tolerated. Here in lies the root of our disaffection. Technological progress always offers more than it delivers, i.e. alone it does not seem to make us happy or contented.

Each time we hear a story new challenges confront, new meanings emerge, new understandings dawn for us because we are never in the same place twice. In story, meaning is never fixed, it is always fluid, constantly morphing. If we really listen to our stories, storylines change because either the story is never told the same way twice, or if it is, as, in the case of the Gospel record it is never heard in the same way twice because we are never in the same place twice.

I thought this year I would look back of my Easter Day sermons of the last few years in the hope that maybe I could retread the tire as it were. What I discovered was that despite the sheer brilliance of my previous Easter Day sermons, that was then, and this is now. Today is 2016, I hear John’s account of the events at dawn, three days after the death of Jesus, not as I heard it in 2000, nor as I heard it in 2014, or 2015. I hear it from where I stand in 2016, a new context, a new location, no longer then, but here, and now. Even when compared to this time last year, today the world looks and feels to be a very different place. It is astonishing, what a difference a year makes.

There is a particular poignancy to John’s account of the resurrection as we listen to it from within the current American context of political and social polarization. Today’s discriminatory political rhetoric, which only a year ago seemed if not exactly unthinkable was certainly publically unsayable, is now loudly and proudly trumpeted openly as certain politicians struggle to trump each another with even more incendiary claims. Like Lucy, many of us are seeking answers –real honest to goodness answers  We seem ready to accept simplistic true or more often, false answers that offer the illusion of solutions to the things we most fear. As we grasp after real honest to goodness answers we fail to notice the violence taking root in our hearts.

This story

We receive the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in 2016 in a world in which the threat of global terrorism is today more real than before. In the face of an escalating environmental catastrophe, strident voices of denial attempt to mislead us with the age-old sorry tale of humans putting the short-term profit motive before that of our long-term survival.

The resurrection is an epic story. The resurrection is the big story of the Christian people. From within the Christian perspective, we believe that this is the tipping point event in the history in our relationship with God. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has done a new thing after which everything is changed. In 2016, we hear this story on the cusp of a new tipping point in the political and environmental stability not only of our own nation but of the world.

Our attitude towards change is paradoxical. A kind of back to the future mentality often grips us. We fear and resist change, preferring to retread old tires with threadbare answers, while at the same time we long for some kind of change, any kind of change to break the seedy cycle of business as usual[1].

The first Christians, those who came at dawn on the third day after the death of Jesus on the cross didn’t worry about whether they could believe the seeming impossible evidence of their own eyes. In fact, we can see, reading between the lines, that they didn’t believe in the impossible any more than we do. In time, they came to understand God’s raising of Jesus to new life because they experienced a profound transformation in the way they lived their lives.

The first Christians deliberately chose to use the word resurrection to describe this experience in their lives. For 1st century Jews, this word did not mean what we think it might mean, i.e. a supernatural experience – spiritual life after death. For them, it had a clear meaning. It meant the experience of a return to physical life, after life after death[2]. Like our discovery of dark matter, they came to believe it not because they could see or measure it, but because they felt its effect upon them.

The first Christians became transformed people no longer afraid, no longer looking for scapegoats to carry their fear.

Lucy would not have had much time for resurrection because like most important things in life it cannot be understood through the prism of yes/no answers. Resurrection is not primarily a belief that is either true or false. Resurrection is an experience in living. To borrow a term familiar to card players resurrection is an action through which love trumps violence, love trumps hatred, love trumps fear. Love encourages us to resist the easy answers of true or false; answers peddled by the hard men of this world, concealed behind the seductive masks of their firm certainties.

Our story

In 2016, as I listen to this story of events at dawn, three days after the crucifixion of Jesus, the key question comes down to this. Do I have the courage to let this story empower and transform my living? On my own, I’m one person and my doubts are huge and the answer is – I am not so sure. Yet, my doubt evaporates when I consider that I am part of a community that owes its origins to this story, a community of solidarity shaped by this story, a community that because of this story keeps faith with those who otherwise inevitably will become the scapegoats for my fear.

We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our reality is constructed from the stories we tell each other about how we see the world. Resurrection is our story of the promise of transformation. If we are brave enough, it transforms us to become together, the change we long to see1490Bergognonedetailb

[1] People are hurting and are desperate to see some change, even if all they can only conceive of is in the form of a reversion to old solutions that have failed us in the past.

[2] A comment the biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright is fond of using.

Good Friday Love

reflections on Christ - crucifixionMeditation for Good Friday. 

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 … 

We are required to go deeper, beyond being spectators recalling Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross. The human heart has an affinity with suffering, nevertheless if we go deeper we begin to realize that Good Friday is not about Jesus the 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.

I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our moral, emotional, and spiritual way of being. God invites us to enter into the way of love not by standing back and beckoning us from a distance. In Jesus, God 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 

the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live. ….

Entering into the way of love leads us to challenge the status quo and risking the consequences. As a community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture. It means risking loving without expecting acknowledgment. Yet, above all else it means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of being, one step at a time. In this transformation we are God’s collaborators and not merely, grateful children.

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. ….

The meaning of Good Friday lies in accepting entry into the way of the Cross of Christ. This is the way of love, which leads through risking into believing, hoping and loving. 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 by the impossibility for God, of not loving.

The italicized text comes from The Rose by Bette Midler

Then and Now

Worldly context

History informs us that what we see going on in the current primaries to elect candidates for the presidential election later this year is a manifestation of our national state of crisis. History teaches us that at such points of crisis shared civic consensus fragments under the influence of reemerging tribal instincts. Tribalism is the stage of human social organization that most closely equates to herd mentality. Leadership in this context either calms or inflames the collective fight-flight instinct, the primary instinct that distinguishes us from them.

Between the states of fight or flight, between hope and fear lies a complex mental state called ambivalence.Ambivalence_artThere are moments when I find everything within me rising in hope and I cry out: save me, save us -hosanna! Then in the next moment the impossibility of my hopeful exultation crashes under the weight of a defensive cynical realism, quietly giving voice to my fears and whispering: crucify him!

Spiritual context

Palm Sunday disturbs me by the contradiction of one moment blessing palms and singing Ride on, ride on in majesty before minutes later, hearing a crescendo cry of crucify him, crucify him.

In 160BC after seven years of guerilla resistance, Judas Maccabeus led the triumphant Jewish Resistance back into a Jerusalem newly liberated from the yoke of the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanies. The Jewish forces carried blessed palm branches with which to begin the cleansing of the Temple; a Temple that had been defiled by the image that Antiochus Epiphanies had placed of himself in the Holy of Holies. The Maccabean Revolt was the last time the Jews could point to a successful assertion of their independence from foreign domination.

I find drawing a connection between the Maccabean cleansing of the Temple and Jesus being welcomed by the crowds bearing branches cut from the trees gives an insight into the hopes and aspirations of the crowd that welcomed him into the city. They saw in Jesus a liberator, a new son of David, a re-embodiment of Judas Maccabeus – one who would liberate them from the foreign Roman domination, and cleanse the Temple of defilement at the hands of its collaborationist, religious caste. Jesus could have inflamed Jewish tribalsim. Instead he chose a different path.

We know the end of the story. We know that as the events of Holy Week unfold, things didn’t go in the direction of fulfilling public hopes and expectations.  Hopes turn to disappointment that fans an angry disillusionment. Ambivalence is too hard to tolerate. So the crowd turns on Jesus, seeking a sacpegoat to blame.

Correlating contexts

I began with a reference to our current political process in which we see clear signs of politicians playing upon our tribal fears. The profound disillusionment of the crowd at large, and of Jesus’ own inner circle, in particular; a disillusionment that Judas eventually gives voice to, plays well in our current experience of the world. Many people today are struggling with the loss of hope as we feel control over our lives and our futures slipping from our grasp. They have become afraid and thus vulnerable to the resurgence of a collective admiration of brute strength, and a willingness to find scapegoats to provide the illusion of easy answers to complex problems.

We approach Holy Week and the great three days of Easter caught in an ambivalence between our worldly and spiritual contexts. We can approach the spiritual context from a ringside seat, viewing it as a great epic drama of events set in a time, long ago. We can travel through the events of Holy Week and Easter as if they are consecutive performances of a Shakespeare history play or the demanding three days of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. We emerge from the experience moved, disturbed, elated, saying to one another: gee that was powerful!  However, is being a spectator really satisfying?

I keep reminding my community that Episcopalians are liturgical people. Liturgy is commonly misunderstood as a spectacle to watch. This could not be further from the truth. Liturgy requires our participation. The word liturgy means the work of the people of God. Liturgy is not a play we watch. It is a drama in which we join the action as fellow participants with Christ. Liturgy demands that we lend a hand to that work of the people of God. We do so through being present. Through liturgy the I becomes the we

There are two ways to change the world. The first is to engage in concerted action, following a political or social agenda. The second is to become changed from within, to become the change we seek to bring about. Through our participation in the great liturgies of Holy Week and the great three days of Easter, we participate in the cosmic triumph of love over fear. We contine to be transformed as Sunday-by-Sunday we participate in the work of God’s people by being present in the liturgy.

imagesOn Palm Sunday, I see myself in the crowd crying both hosanna and crucify him. I am full of hope and longing for my world to be transformed beyond the maintenance of the status quo, the endless repetition of business as usual. Yet, my very hope and longing also terrify me. So often it’s safer to resist the change I most long for in order to protect myself from my fear. Can it really be true that sacrificial love can change the world? Can it really be true that sacrificial love is enough to confront the misuse of power through the threat or actuality of violence? Alone, I am not so sure. But, what about as a member of a community?

Through liturgy and this is especially true of the great liturgies of Holy Week and Easter the I becomes we. My fear of what an allegiance to self-sacrificial love might cost me, what following Jesus to the other side of the Cross might demand of me becomes manageable when I join with others and together we participate as members of a cross-bearing and love-affirming community. This is the message our current nation and world needs so urgently to hear.


A Scandalous Evening in Bethany

The power of Scripture lies in the way it mediates for us an encounter with God that is literally of the moment. The power of Scripture lies not only in the objective elements of story but in the subjective impact of narrative upon us. Subjectivity means that we are never in the same place, twice.

There is a 1st-century backstory that lends a poignancy to John’s portrayal of a particular evening in 12:1-8 evening. Both Lazarus and Jesus are in danger of assassination by the Temple authorities, who after Jesus’ calling of Lazarus back from death have put out a contract on both their lives. Here, in an atmosphere of events of enormous import looming, an anxiety fuelled by the uncertainty of their outcome, there is a tone of urgency, there’s no time now to lose. It’s now or never. Social convention, fear and anxiety cannot be left to stand in the way of expressing love and affection; not only love and affection, but also anger fuelled by growing disillusionment.

Approaching John’s story of the dinner party that Lazarus, Martha, and Mary throw for Jesus six days before the Passover from within the subjective experience of living in March 2016 attunes me to the way society constructs different meanings for different bodies. This is a story about bodies – Jesus’ body, Mary’s body, and Judas’ visceral, bodily reaction.


In our time, white, heterosexual male bodies matter. They matter because they are accorded a privilege that is denied to non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual bodies. The politics of race, gender, sexual and gender identity, poverty and wealth confiscation are currently playing out around us with increasingly ferocious effect. We all feel that events of momentous, but unpredictable import are building all around us.

There appear to be no black, gay or transgendered bodies in this story. That is, at least as far as we can tell. Because black and gay bodies are usually invisible in the patriarchal gaze, it’s important we don’t confuse invisibility with absence. Rather the female body of Mary in this instance seems emblematic of the black and gay body experience in John’s story. I also think black and gay body experience is represented in Jesus’ non-white, non-patriarchal, male body – evidenced in his unusually open and accepting response to Mary.


Mary literally lets her hair down. This is an action remarkable for its potential to cause a scandal. In patriarchal society, women cover their hair. This remains as true today in much of the Islamic world, as it was in Jewish 1st-century society. Even today in ultra-conservative Jewish and Christian worlds, women still cover their heads because hair expresses a woman’s sexuality and female sexuality is considered a subversive thing to be controlled. This may well be the reason that Mark, Matthew, and Luke identify this Mary as Mary Magdalene, a more fitting candidate because of her reputation as a prostitute. Only John identifies the woman who anoints Jesus feet with the respectable Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

In the secular West, we feel we have become more enlightened and we scoff at male sexual anxieties being aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair in the same way as we laugh at Victorian male anxiety provoked by the sight of female ankles and legs. Consequently, we miss the counter-culturally sensuous flagrancy of Mary’s action.

Smell is our most potent and evocative sense. Mary fills the room with the sensuous aroma of the ointment and then proceeds to anoint Jesus feet with her hair. Note feet not head. Unlike in the other Gospels, in John, Mary does not anoint Jesus’ head, a respectable part of his body, but his feet. Later in this week, Peter will object to being washed by Jesus, because Jesus insists on washing his feet, an action that suggests both subservience and provocative with intimacy.

Mary uses her female body to express her deep love for Jesus. In contemporary America, we may no longer so clearly associate a woman’s hair as an expression of sexuality. Yet, the death throws of patriarchy continue to play out with disastrous effect for women’s bodies in contemporary America. There is a photograph of George W. Bush, taken in 2003 signing into effect laws tightening the availability of abortion. It’s striking to note the line up of men behind him in the photograph. There is not a woman legislator in sight.

My point here is not to come down on either side of our society’s conflicting views on abortion itself, but to highlight the legislative attempts to restrict a woman’s rights over the management of her own body. This is a male impulse as old as patriarchy itself. Abortion is something I am not in favor of unrestricted access to. Yet, as far as I can judge abortion is not the issue here. The issue is the privileging of male heterosexual anxiety’s need to control women’s bodies.

The curious thing about patriarchal anxiety is that in a sense male patriarchal identity transcends gender, for women who support patriarchy also share this anxiety. Yet, this anxiety has its roots in male sexual anxiety and a consequent need to control the female body. It extends well beyond the debate on abortion to increasing attempts to control all aspects of female reproductive health – a contemporary instance of the age-old male denigration of the female body.


Against Judas’ attack, Jesus welcomes Mary’s actions and defends her extravagant wastefulness and the use of her body to honor him. John sticks to a simplistic portrayal of Judas as a thief, who is provoked by Mary’s wasteful extravagance, not out of regard for the plight of the poor, but because of the diversion of resources out of his control. John may have had his reasons for portraying Judas so, but I don’t buy his depiction.

Judas is angry. We can argue with John over the reason for his anger. I prefer to see him as less venial and more political. Judas is politically disillusioned. He sees the way things are beginning to go and he fears Jesus is betraying all Judas’ messianic hope and expectation for a better world, at least, a better world in terms that he can understand. It’s not his desire to steal the money that could have been realized by the sale of the ointment. His anger is fanned by his perception of valuable resources being diverted away from the central cause of messianic liberation. Thus, he comes up with a clever pretext of wasting resources that could have been spent on the alleviation of poverty.

Jesus responds to Judas with strikingly contemporary anti-welfare reasoning, appearing to be saying: Judas, don’t worry about the poor there is nothing that can be done for them, they will never change and throwing money at the problem is no help to them. This interpretation of Jesus’ words runs contrary to every other statement and action of Jesus’ recorded not only by John but Mark, Matthew and Luke. Jesus is portrayed always as the friend of the poor and he unequivocally proclaims economic justice as central to God’s expectations for the coming of the Kingdom.

Jesus facetiously sees through Judas, as so many today are finally beginning to see through the 30-year dominance of the doctrine of trickle-down economics.

Although I don’t go along with the simplistic characterization of Judas as a common thief, as we listen to this story in the opening decades of the 21st-century issues of theft are alarmingly current. We are witnessing a seismic rejection of the political culture spurred by anger and disillusionment. Whether you vote for Donald or Bernie, the common thread is you are likely to be someone who is feeling angry and disillusioned by what you experience as a betrayal by the economic and political establishments.

Among the Donald followers:

  • Globalization has sent what they once believed to be American companies, working for our common good off in pursuit of cheap labor with the consequent loss of jobs and the prospect of earning a living wage.
  • The unbridled greed compounded by the failure of regulatory oversight has lost many the only investment they had- investment in home and hearth.
  • Changing demographics threaten a loss of white racial and male gender privilege.
  • The adulation of naked brute power as a panacea among those who feel most powerless.

Bernie is a lightening rod for a completely different set of dissatisfactions:

  • The abandonment of higher education to market forces has left our young people with astonishing levels of debt and profound doubts about education being the route to social mobility and the kind of future many of their parents took for granted. For the first time since 1945 things are not going to get better.
  • Non-universal healthcare as a protection for the profits of insurance companies and healthcare providers continues to result in health poverty for the poor, and unsustainable economic burdens for the middle classes.
  • The organized manipulation of wealth by large corporations working against national interest.
  • Dirty industry’s purchase of political protections that allow the steady degradation of the environment in the interests of profits.
  • A financial system that colludes with wealth creation and accumulation of power for the now proverbial 1%.

Whether Judas is a thief or not he experiences a visceral – in his body- alarm and growing disillusionment. It is this that leads him to make the wrong choice.


Finally, how do we see Jesus in John’s story about the dinner party at the house of Lazarus and his sisters six days before the Passover? Jesus appears to be fully aware of how events are going to unfold. Jesus seems to know that the way things are going to play out will result in his death. His foreknowledge is not of the omniscient variety, as in God knows all things ahead of time and has planned for Jesus to die. Jesus knows his future because he is keenly aware of the contours of the human heart. He knows the consequences of speaking truth to power. He knows also that there is no other way through the darkness into the light of a new order in creation. In Jesus God confronts the darkness of the human heart.

The days of Lent are ebbing away as we transition into the time of Jesus’ Passion. All around us, millions seem easily seduced by the promises of political saviors who have no power to fulfill their messianic promises. Speaking truth to power is not the road to easy answers. It is instead, the hard road to change. As we receive this story from John about events at a dinner party six days before the Passover, we come to see that things are never what they at first, appear to be.

The power of Scripture lies in the way it mediates for us an encounter with God that is literally of the moment. The power of Scripture lies not only in the objective elements of story but in the subjective impact of the narrative upon us, an impact we register only in the here and now. Subjectivity means that no subsequent reading of the story produces the same affect as the previous reading. We are never in the same place, twice.


True Inheritance

The Lent IV sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

“There was a man who had two sons.”

One of them squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

We call this The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and we’ve known this story since childhood. But this is one parable whose title robs us of much of its meaning. For one thing, when I first heard this story as a child I thought the word, ‘prodigal’ meant ‘badly behaved’, rather than ‘wastefully extravagant.’ This may not be an issue for those with greater vocabulary than I had, but this simple misconception deprived me of part of the deeper meaning of the story. But even more important than that, note that the title focuses on just one character. If we look only at the son we see him as just a son, and not also as a brother. If we fixate on his transgressions we lose sight of the nature of the celebration at the end. And if we fixate on the inheritance of money and property we lose sight of what the two sons’ true inheritance really is.

“There was a man who had two sons.”

One of them squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

Which son was which?

In the chapter where we find this passage Luke has placed the parable with two others—all of which are told in response to the Pharisees’ and Scribes’ judgmental statement and implied question of Jesus: Why do you consort with sinners? And in the first two parables, the parable of the lost sheep (in which the shepherd left the 99 sheep and searched diligently for the one that was lost) and the lost coin (in which a woman lit a lamp and scrupulously swept and searched her house

until she found the errant coin,) Jesus’ emphasis is not on the losing but on the finding of the sheep and the coin, and on the celebration of their return. If we turn a similar lens upon today’s parable, what will we see? What will we see if we shift our gaze away from the loss—the Son who Squandered Everything –and see instead the true nature of the celebration of his return, and what it meant to be invited to sit down at the banquet?

The younger son essentially wished his father dead when he asked for his share of the property. It was that bad. And he wasted it spectacularly, thereafter hitting rock bottom and sleeping with the pigs. And for a Jewish audience hearing this parable—it was that bad. It couldn’t get more unclean and outcast than to be so hungry that he was willing to eat the food meant for the pigs. So ‘coming to himself’ was a hugely humbling experience. He vowed to return home, ask forgiveness of his father and take his place in the household as an employee.

So the father sees him from far off and responds in prodigal fashion—outrageously killing the fatted calf, clothing his son in the finest robe and putting a ring on his finger. Remember, this is the child who—essentially– disinherited his own father. Yet he is welcomed back into a sonship that he had cruelly rejected. And his father is ready to offer all of this even before the son opened his mouth to deliver his well-rehearsed speech of penitence. The forgiveness was already there; the robe and ring ready; the banquet table already set. Ready for the celebration.

So the party begins.

And the Prodigal gratefully takes his seat.

Now let’s shift our gaze to the elder son. He hears the noise of the party, finds out what is happening, and rather than being overjoyed that his brother has returned, he is enraged. It is telling that when he confronts his father he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” The elder brother feels rejected, wounded at the perceived unfairness of his father’s generosity toward this other wayward child. The elder son has not the least understanding that his father has enough love—enough of everything– for both of them.

It is the nature of parables to be loaded with symbolism, and this one is no exception. Jesus’ stories in response to the Pharisees are an illustration of the nature of God and the Kingdom. Of course the little ‘f’ father is a metaphor for the big ‘F’ Father–God. This Father’s prodigal response to both of his children exemplifies God’s economy of abundance that is completely at odds with an all-too-human tendency toward an economy of scarcity. The elder son is already in possession of his inheritance of property—the father reassures him that “All that is mine is yours”. But not only that, he is also told that he has a place at the banquet. He is called to ‘celebrate and rejoice.’

But he will have none of it. He only wants to feed on his fury. He is a man trapped in the mire of his own resentment. He is actually a figure that is at the forefront of much conversation these days. Jennifer Finney Boylan, in the New York Times last month, wrote an op-ed called “The Year of the Angry Voter.” She expressed her despair at the current political climate; at an atmosphere of othering and vitriol that keeps rising to new heights on a daily basis. Yet, she notes, the problem isn’t necessarily anger per se. It’s a certain kind of anger. And here she distinguishes narcissistic anger from transformative anger. Narcissistic anger is rooted in the wounded ego; in the feeling that I have been unfairly deprived of something that is rightfully mine. It is based upon a worldview of scarcity. It sees others as being in competition for limited resources. Narcissistic anger seeks to exclude; whereas transformative anger is the kind of anger—or passion– that seeks to change the world. It looks outward and inclusively toward the other. It is based on a vision of compassion and a desire for healing and wholeness. Boylan quotes the Rev. Amy Butler of Riverside Church in New York City, who notes how the two distinct and opposing kinds of anger respond to challenges: “Either our instinctual response to threat is all about us—who we are, what we want, what we need—or it becomes about something bigger than ourselves.”

The elder son in the parable is not thinking of anything bigger than himself. He is in the grip of narcissistic anger. He has lost sight of his brother; and of his own brother-hood. And yet. And yet there is still a seat at the table with his name on it; a plate full of food and a cup filled to overflowing just waiting for him. As the father has said, “All that is mine is yours.” There is no less for him now that his brother is home. He has only to choose to take his place at the table with the rest of the family and the household.

But to make that choice will require an act of humility. It will require him to let go of his anger and his ego focus. He will have to see himself as one in as much need of his father’s mercy as is his brother. But for now he does not see himself as being in need of anything. He only sees himself as having been deprived of a privilege that should be rightfully his.

A few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we recognized our neediness. As we began our Lenten journey we were marked with the ashes of our mortality; acknowledging our source and ending in God. One of the most powerful things about those ashes is that we are called to remember that WE are dust. We are not able to see the ashes on the heads of others without deeply knowing that those ashes mark us as well. When we accept the mercy of God we accept, by definition, that we are IN NEED of that mercy. We thereby accept, and embrace, our own vulnerability. It’s a fine distinction, but to internalize it is to begin to see the power, and the scandal of what Jesus was telling the Temple authorities with this story.

The Scribes and Pharisees thought they were not in need of mercy because they had set themselves apart from the sinners and tax collectors. But Jesus was telling them that they too were called to sit with the sinners; the celebration is for everyone who chooses to take their seat at the table. All they had to do was acknowledge that they were hungry for the banquet of mercy set for them. But to do that they would have to climb down off of a mighty high horse; one they shared with the elder son in the parable.

“There was a man who had two sons.”

One squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

Which brother was which?

The true inheritance is God’s abundant mercy. A mercy “like the wideness of the sea.”* It’s an inheritance that has nothing to do with what we have, and everything to do with what has us. And what has us is a God whose last word, like the father in the parable, is Life and resurrection. The inheritance of mercy requires nothing of us save courage; the courage to claim our vulnerability– our brother- and sister-hood as fellow sinners and children of God. The courage to take our seat at the banquet table, where the place card reads, “Beloved.”







Community as Spiritual Practice

Church is a place for community. We often view this in social terms and miss the point that church as community is like no other. Participation in community is not about membership it’s about discipleship and participation is a form of spiritual practice.

Members view community as a place where they get their needs met when they chose to come and be present. Disciples view community as the agency for God’s purpose not only in their own lives but in the wider world.

Henri Nouwen puts it like this:

The Christian community is not a closed circle of people embracing each other, but a forward moving group of companions bound together by the same voice asking for their attention.

Michelle Heyne comments that:

If we consciously adopt that as our stance and see part of our purpose as attending to the call of that voice in community, it is less likely that the parish will become simply another demand on our time, or a place characterized by turf struggles and pet projects (however worthy) pg 73-74. 

Heyne notes that three key words stand out in relation to Christian community: Formation, Renewal, Apostolate. 

Formation-the maturing of Christian identity around the living-out of the baptismal covenant. Spiritual practice is the means by which we grow in experiential understanding, loving affection, and holy action – doing motivated as an expression of reliance on God.

Renewal – occurs through worship, daily spiritual practice and community involvement and participation.

Apostolate – participation in the work of Christ in service, evangelization, and stewardship – tender competence – in the parish, the workplace, among family and friends, and in civic life. 

The Specific task of the Church – to create healthy communities in which individuals grow into mature Christian disciples.

Scott Peck (The Different Drum 1987) states that the dysfunction in most communities is the result of an inability to create true co-operation. He outlines four stages in moving from dysfunctional to functional community: Pseudo Community, Chaos, Emptiness, and True Community. 

Pseudo Community

A community that pretends all is well through denying the presence of conflict. This is the community where no one confronts the problems but bitches endlessly about them in the car park.


When someone or a group break rank and accuse others of ignoring the problems. Because this group has no mature resolution skills it descends into chaos. In such a state the community will either revert to Pseudo Community or move on into Emptiness.


The group refuses to return to denial. It begins to ask questions that create space for reflection, testing out and seeks to create understanding rather than being understood. This lays the possibility of moving to True Community.

True Community

Is marked by a quality of collaboration and flourishing. Energy levels rise, folk engage with what they are passionate about and don’t fear communicating about this, and people enjoy being together.

St Benedict emphasized the importance of cultivating obedience in community life. What he meant by this is the cultivating of the skill of really listening. Not listening selectively, or only when not feeling threatened, but really listening to God’s Word, (Scripture) the consensus in community (the Rule), and the counsel of leadership (authority). He understood the experience in community to be one of life-long learning in the building of a community fit for the Lord’s service.

For Benedict community was the mark of God’s presence in the world. It is through community that we hear God speaking to us. When we pray with each other in mind, when we reflect on God’s Word for our own living and action, but chiefly when we gather for worship, God continually speaks to us, and through us, into the world. These are the deeply Anglican values of community.

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, form neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found … That is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced. Henri Nouwen Reaching Out.

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