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. 

Worthy of Our Trust: Luke 4:1-13

There’s a tongue-in-cheek joke doing the rounds in our St Martin’s community at the moment. Tongue-in-cheek jokes are the way something of the utmost seriousness is made bearable when veiled with humor. So, the joke goes this way: What’s the new name for Hallworth House – the skilled nursing facility situated on the Episcopal Cathedral precinct? It’s St Martin’s Annex.

The tongue-in-cheek nature of the joke, makes me only too aware of my own anxiety -an anxiety many of us also share. For cloaked behind the joke is the barely masked pain of our encounter with the human suffering of our friends with whom we share this community. 

Of course, Hallworth House is not the only facility in which members of the parish are currently being cared for. Westgate, Bethany Home, and Tochwotten, are also on list of specialist nursing and assisted living facilities within our parish orbit. We are relieved to know that it’s Hallworth House, where a number of our friends currently reside. For we know that those we love are in a place with a trusted reputation for quality in medical, nursing, and rehabilitation care. We are further comforted by knowing that Dr. Denny Scott, henceforth officially designated parish doctor, is the one who is taking care of those we hold dear.

For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another.

There are seasons in our ministries of pastoral care and support when he realities of illness, and death cruelly confront us. We are called upon not only to marshal our resources of compassion and empathy, but we are also challenged by the need to discipline our own fears. For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another. Visiting our parish friends currently in Hallworth House, each of us comes face to face with the frightening question: at what point in my future will illness strike, and what form will it take, and how will it leave me? I find myself uttering the age-old prayer: O God, take me swiftly; let me not linger long in illness’ wake!

And so, we enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to bring a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger, and a legion of envious resentments. The acknowledgment of sorrow in a spirit of repentance for the actions and omissions that have hurt others. Or we might required to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

Domesticated biblical texts are of little use, I think.  We have trained them only to speak when spoken to.  We have taught them to sit quietly until we call for them.  We have developed tricks for them to do that we can predict.

Richard Swanson.

Luke writes of the breath of God leading Jesus into the wilderness immediately following the baptismal declaration: this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Baptism is where Jesus ministry begins. So why does God show his pleasure in Jesus by sending him into the wilderness?

In Mark’s version he leaves what happens to Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness up to our imaginations because he tells us only that while there Jesus was both tempted and also ministered to by angels. Yet our imaginations are not blank canvases. They have been already colored by Matthew’s and Luke’s portraits of the three great temptations faced by Jesus at the hands of the Devil. And in this imagery, lies a problem.

Although translated as tempted, the real meaning of peirazo, the word Luke uses, is tested. The figure doing the testing is not our Medieval Devil, but the Hebrew Satan – the prosecutor general of the heavenly court; the same figure we find putting Job through his tortures. The Satan is not a personal name but the title of the one who acts as the prosecutor or accuser general in the heavenly court.

So, it seems that Jesus’ having been filled with the Spirit of God is by itself not enough. Like an American President, God it seems may nominate only. The wilderness is Jesus’ confirmation hearing before the heavenly court. Under the pressure of accusation and innuendo, the Satan, heaven’s prosecutor, perhaps aware that the proceeding is live on heavenly cable TV, is tasked with testing to confirm Jesus’ qualifications for the role of messiah.

Does Jesus pass his Messiah confirmation hearing? He does, but not in the sense that we often conclude.

Human beings are vulnerable creatures and so we mask our weakness by projecting invulnerability onto our God. We want a Jesus who resists all temptations, coming through with flying colors because he’s our superman messiah who could fly through the skies and jump off tall buildings in a single bound – if he had wanted to.

But these are not temptations which Jesus easily resists because of his secret divine powers. They are the tests that reveal a Jesus so qualified for messiahship because he shares the same limitations of being human as we do. We have no use for a superman messiah, the kind of messiah we need is one who can empathize with us through his own human vulnerability, having travelled this road ahead of us.

Faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not satiate the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice does not flow from omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus once again reaffirms the his human limitations. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his messiah confirmation hearing by acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

We have a messiah who has been tested in every way as we are and thus has been proved worthy of our trust. That’s the point here!

In Luke’s story Jesus echoes Job’s refusal to doubt God’s love no matter how much The Satan ratcheted-up his suffering and pain. Jesus qualifies as messiah because echoing Isaiah’s suffering servant – he is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He qualifies as messiah because he’s just as human as we are. Immersed in our human experience of facing our fear and living through our vulnerability, it is only Jesus who is worthy of our trust.

In our search for a messiah on this first Sunday in Lent I am taken back to where I began –the joke about the St Martin’s Annex in Hallworth House. As we visit our friends, some of whom embody our worst specters of the illness that strikes us in the noonday – unexpectedly and forever changing the trajectory of our lives, we encounter the all too human figure of Jesus who because he has tested human fragility to its limits is able to walk with us through whatever suffering comes upon us. I wish there was a less costly answer – one more to our success oriented tastes. Trust in the absence of a more agreeable answer to the plight of human suffering, is our wilderness testing where we are being asked to trust God as we face the possibilities that lie ahead. This is a very hard testing to endure but try to hold onto this. It is only by God entrusting Jesus to a fully human experience that God was able to do the new thing – the new thing we know as Easter.

It’s God’s Vision: Transfiguration Year C

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Which was it? Were they awake, or were they asleep?


Such is the nature of visions.

Someone asked me recently if I believed in visions.  If by that did he mean do I believe that God has ways of getting our attention in ways that defy our intellectual capacity and even our physical senses? Well yes, I do. The biblical tradition of dream and vision, which spans both testaments from Genesis to Revelation, and the historical tradition of religious mystics like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich to name just three, is a long and—depending on who you’re talking to—an honored one.

But it is a spiritual gift that, if not held with the utmost humility and care, can be easily misunderstood and misused. For example, Constantine’s fourth-century vision of the Chi Rho—the symbol of Christ—in the sky before the battle that effectively made him sole emperor of the Roman Empire and resulted in his conversion to Christianity—this vision entwined Christianity and Empire in a way that Verna Dozier has called the one of the major “falls” of humankind—a major detour from the Way of Jesus and the Dream of God. On the other hand, Teresa of Avila went to great effort to discern the nature of her visions and used them for the spiritual growth and nurture of the members of her community; her spiritual guide, The Interior Castle is one of the classics of Christian spirituality.

The power–and potential danger–of a vision lies in its aftermath—in what actions are taken, or not, afterward, and who is served as a result. A true vision from God illuminates God’s vision for us, not our vision for ourselves.

That being said, here’s another question:

“Was the Transfiguration a vision or did it really happen?”


Either Luke was writing in the language of vision, as he often did, in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, or he was relating an event of such significant import that it was included in all three synoptic Gospels and in the 2nd Epistle of Peter. There was reality and truth here that transcended the ordinary and captivated the imagination. Four men went up a mountain. And when they came down—which is really the most important part of the story—they were not the same.

Look at the context of the writing: Luke’s late-first-early second-century audience was coming to terms with the fact that their idea of Jesus’ “imminent” return–and God’s idea of that return– were not exactly the same. Luke needed to put their waiting into the context of salvation history so that they could find a way to chart their path forward as a community. How were they to live—together, and in the world? What was God calling them to do and be in this transitional moment?

For a transitional moment it was. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration marks a bridge point in salvation history. The vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses—the liberator of the People of Israel, the bringer of the Law from Mount Sinai—and Elijah, the prophet and harbinger of the Eschaton, or End of Days—this vision effectively places Jesus at a fulcrum point between Old and New Covenants. And the Transfiguration itself is the fulcrum of Jesus’ own life: his ministry on earth is almost done, and now he will journey down the mountain, to Jerusalem, death, and resurrection.

Placed powerfully within this vision’s gleaming white brilliance—sees his identity and his path forward with new clarity. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”

My Chosen. Also translated, My Beloved.

In this moment you can almost feel the tectonic plates shifting.

And for Peter, James and John; the witnesses—what now? Stay and bask in the glory, or turn away—leave it behind and head into an unknown future?

Of course Peter’s first reaction (bless his heart) was to focus on the comfort of the glorious present. His intentions may have been good, but he was thinking more of how this vision made him feel, rather that what it was calling him to do. An understandable temptation. Who wouldn’t stand transfixed? Who wouldn’t want it to last forever?

But no. The point isn’t the friends’ vision for themselves. It’s God’s vision for them, and for the world.

“LISTEN.” Don’t just look. Listen. And go down the mountain.

This moment calls to us as well—this is a fulcrum point in the liturgical year. We are at the end of the season of Epiphany, in which we have observed milestones in Jesus’ life that illuminated his identity as God’s son. The divine voice of the Transfiguration echoes Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at the beginning of the season: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”


Named Beloved as Jesus began his ministry at Baptism, and now named Beloved again as he emerges from the Vision and sets his face toward Jerusalem. When the four friends come down the mountain, “they were silent.” Were they excited? Resolute? Anxious?


And as they descended from the mountaintop, the vision fading into memory, they were confronted almost immediately by a different, more gritty and visceral reality—

Crowds. Demons. And frustration.

The father of a suffering child says, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.”… [Jesus responds,]”You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?…Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”

Healing. Reunion. And awe. Such is the nature of the work of the Vision of God.

As we enter Lent in the coming week we are called deeper into the work of the Kingdom; into a new season of looking inward to our hearts and outward to a world in need. We are challenged and called to a season of renewed spiritual discipline; as the Ash Wednesday prayer says, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

As we set our faces toward Lent and Easter, we are called to journey with Jesus; a journey that must begin by going down the mountain, strengthened, but not imprisoned, by the vision. We’re called to hear that we, too, are beloved children of God—beloved with all of our frailty, brokenness and Peter-like tendencies to shoot from the lip. We are called to be liberated and nourished by that knowledge; not in order to bask in it and rest on our laurels but to see and serve that belovedness in the troubled world that lies down the mountain from this Transfiguration moment. It won’t be easy. It isn’t meant to be.

Are we ready for the journey? Are we excited? Resolute? Maybe even a little anxious?


Are we alone?


Christian Essentials 4: a whirlwind overview of Church history

Summary of Milestones in Christian History

First 150 years from 33 The Birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost begins a process of growth with the Gospel. Centered on Jerusalem it begins to be preached further afield in different parts of the Greek and Roman world by the Apostle Paul and his companions. By the early part of the 2nd Century we have the recognizable shape and feel of growing Christianity that we find in the New Testament.

150-800. In the year 312, the young Emperor Constantine, stationed on Hadrian’s Wall separating Roman Britain from the Pictish Celtic tribes of modern day Scotland, had a dream in which he saw the banner of Christ in the form of the Greek letters Chi Rho – an abbreviation for the name Christ leading him into battle.

With the conversion of the Empire to Christianity the period we know as Christendom begins. Christendom describes  the evolution from a disparate number of independent church communities, each with their own history connecting them to one of the original Apostles, into becoming an official religion of the Roman State.

Now theology and politics flow in the same channel and the political needs of the Emperor begin to impact the Church.  

This is a period of consolidation and considerable conflict as four emergent centers of Christianity known as patriarchates: Rome-Western Europe, Constantinople-Asia Minor, Antioch-Syria and the Middle East, and Alexandria-Egypt and North Africa, struggle for power and political influence as theological differences take-on political ramifications.

The Conciliar Period

In the interests of stability, successive Emperors summon the bishops to sit in Ecumenical Council.  There were seven Ecumenical Councils, each addressing the long-running disputes. The main areas of controversy concerned: the nature of God – three persons in one God i.e. the Trinity, the relationship between the human and divine natures in Jesus, and the development of the Canon of Scripture which required decisions as to which books were to be included and which to excluded. To us the passion behind these disputes seems odd, but we need to remember that theology can no longer be separated from political struggles.

1054 This is the year of the Great Schism, which separated the Greek-speaking Eastern regions of Christianity from the Latin-speaking Western region – a slit that neatly represented the existing cultural and political division of the Roman Empire between the two competing administrative centers at Rome and Constantinople.

From this point-on, Christianity is no longer a unified, if fractious whole, but two mutually antagonistic branches. We see a growing ‘catholic’ identity centered on the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome in the Latin speaking West, alongside several Greek speaking ‘orthodox’ identities divided between the patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.

As Anglican Christians we uphold the teaching of the universal Church – that which was universally believed in both Western and Eastern Churches.  Our doctrine is confined to the existing doctrinal developments up to this point. Anglicanism rejects Roman Catholic doctrinal development after the Great Schism e.g. the Assumption of Mary, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Immaculate Conception which refers to the birth of Hannah, the mother of Mary, Papal infallibility, Purgatory, and a host of juridical classifications of human behavior into mortal and venial sins.

The Development of Anglican Identity

Anglicanism is the Christian tradition of the English people – evolved of a 1000-year period. The term Anglican does not emerge until the 16th C. But the seeds of what comes to be known from the 16th C onwards as Anglicanism are laid down from the earliest times of Christianity in Britain.

The Rule of St Benedict and the influence of the development of the Benedictine tradition is the single major shaper of Anglicanism distinctiveness. It could be said that we are Benedictine Christians. The two Benedictine characteristics we inherit are: a privileging of the local, and an emphasis on finding holiness in the ordinary events of everyday life.

An illustration of privileging the local: Both the Catholic and Episcopal Cathedrals in San Francisco have murals around the walls that represent phases and events in Christian history. In the Catholic Cathedral murals commemorate the conversion of the West to Christianity from Constantine through to the evangelization of the Americas. In the Episcopal Cathedral the murals commemorate key events in English Anglican history and the evangelization of California.

An illustration on holiness in everyday life: holiness is found in the experience of daily life. It’s practical and experiential in a world infused with the goodness of God. Anglicanism is Incarnationally rooted, God made the creation to be good into which he sent his son to proclaim the goodness of love found in ordinary human and worldly events. This is contrasted with more cross centered and redemptive theologies that see the world and an evil place rescued by Jesus, and human beings as sinful in need of complete redemption. It also contrasts with Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on juridical distinctions between sacred and profane, and declarations of being in or not being in a state of grace, which is the necessary state required to receive the sacraments of the Church. Being in a state of grace is not a description of personal holiness but a legal classification that follows having been to confession.

Anglicanism emerges through the events of the English Reformation, and the struggles with extreme Protestant reactions – we identify with the Puritans. The English Reformation led to an affirmation of a synthesis of the Apostolic and Catholic identity of the Church, the three-fold order of ministry – bishop, priest, and deacon, and the sacraments with the Reformation theology of both Luther and Calvin.

The Reformation Upheavals

1517 Martin Luther in challenging the sale of indulgences sparks the first phase of the Reformation. The Reformation is a theological reform movement, but its roots lie in the growth of an urban, economically powerful, and increasingly educated, middle class in Northern Europe, which bitterly resented the financial burden of the Church taxes levied by Rome.

1522 First Bible German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible). 

1533  Henry VIII divorces Catherine, his first wife thus triggering the start of the English Reformation. Unlike the Continental Reformation of Luther, Calvin, and others, Henry’s Reformation is primarily political, not theological. Already Defender of the Faith, Henry declares himself Supreme Head of the Church in place of the Pope. The Church in England now becomes the Church of England, maintaining its essential catholic theology and structure. Henry abolishes the Monasteries in England from 1536 onwards. This is a move motivated by a desire to get his hands on their wealth, rather than Church reform. 1549 the First Book of Common Prayer published by archbishop Thomas Cranmer is the first evidence of more serious theological and liturgical reform.

1547-1558  is a period of instability with more Protestant reforms under Edward VI, followed by a return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I, the synthesis of catholic structure with protestant theological emphasis becomes settled with the accession of Elizabeth I and is known as the Elizabethan Settlement.

1558- 1601 is the period of the Elizabethan Settlement establishing the Church of England as we know it and the emergence of Anglican identityAnglican identity rests on being the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglican tradition is both catholic in structure and reformed in theological emphasis.

1611 sees the publication of the King James or Revised Standard Bible, named after James I. James continues the Elizabethan Settlement. The KJ Bible becomes the most formative religious text for the English-speaking world.

1611-1642 is a period of religious flowering under the inspiration and scholarship of a group of bishops known as the Caroline (Carolus the Latin for Charles) Divines during the reigns of the Stuart kings, James I, Charles I and Charles II. They represent the classical period of Anglican spirituality and traverses the interruption of the English Civil War.

1642–1660 marks the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell following the execution of Charles I. During the Commonwealth the Church of England was abolished and Anglican identity suppressed. While this conflict has a religious flavor its roots are in the political conflict between autocratic monarchy and early parliamentary democracy.

1660 sees the restoration of the Monarchy and the Church with the return of Charles II accompanied by many bishops and priests who had fled to France in 1642.

1662 a new Book of Common Prayer is published for the purpose of reestablishing a strong Anglican identity. In the Church of England, the BCP of 1662 is still the authorized Book of Common Prayer.

1600-1776 covers the period of initial settlement of the 13 American Colonies. While many Puritan and other religious dissidents fled England to settle in the New England colonies, the Church of England became firmly Church in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies. This period ends with the War of Independence.

The Episcopal Church Emerges

1784 Following the Revolution, Samuel Seabury becomes the first bishop consecrated for the newly formed American Episcopal Church. He was consecrated in Aberdeen by the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Seabury was consecrated in Scotland by the Scottish Episcopal bishops, who had already separated from the Church of England, because he was unable to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King demanded by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A curious aside: The Scottish and American Episcopal Churches were the first Churches of Anglican Tradition independent of the Church of England. This move laid the groundwork for the development of the Anglican Communion – the world-wide body of autonomous Anglican Provinces, in the 19th C. After the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the second largest single tradition of Christians.

In 1789 the first American Book of Common Prayer is published as a political adaptation of the 1662 BCP. One condition of the Scottish bishops in ordaining Seabury was that the American Church would take the Anglican Church in Scotland name of Episcopal Church, and that it would incorporate the more catholic theology of the Scottish book’s prayer of consecration in the Eucharist.

The first decades of the Episcopal Church saw growing tension between the episcopal minded Anglicans and the burgeoning Methodist societies. The Methodist societies had been part of the Church of England in the Colonies and represented a revivalist low church tradition among the rural population, esp. in the South. Seabury’s refusal to ordain Methodist lay preachers without a university education resulted in the Methodist societies leaving the Episcopal Church to form their own church. A great swathe of the rural population thus left the Episcopal Church, leaving it concentrated in the urban centers of the East Coast.

Joke: The Baptists evangelized the West by walking, the Methodists rode horses, the Episcopalians had to wait for the invention of the Pullman Car.

Two Key Anglican Concepts

The Centrality of Worship 

This is a crucial period in our history. You may have wondered why the Episcopal Church emphasizes its identity as a community of worship, tolerant of differences in theological emphasis and outlook? It stems from the historical accident of this period when everyone regardless of theology or politics had to belong to the same church. The experience of people who agreed about little, sitting alongside one another in the same pews, meant that identity had to rest on relationships structured around common worship, rather than shared belief. Over time the magic of the Book of Common Prayer molded a community of common worship, which is the unique foundation of Anglican identity.

Today Anglican define their identity as those who agree to worship together using the BCP. Worship defines us not common or shared doctrinal statements or beliefs

 The Three Legged Stool 

This is the name given to a distinctive characteristic of Anglican Tradition. The three legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Anglicanism maintains these in a mutual tension with no one aspect being more important than the other two. In Protestantism, Scripture is the most important aspect, in fact the sole defining aspect – sola scriptura –only scripture. In Roman Catholicism Tradition is the dominant aspect.

Scripture is the Bible. Tradition is how the Church interpret the Bible and theology, i.e. the teaching of the Church,  Reason relates to a sense that there are ways of perceiving God and affirming the existence of God that are independent of scriptural revelation. In viewing the goodness of creation and the natural world, human beings become aware of a higher set of values such as love, beauty, honesty and human integrity-nobility – a kind of natural law.

In Anglicanism, Scripture is held in check by being subjected to the understanding of the community of faith i.e. Tradition. This means that the community of the faith – the Tradition of the Church, decides what importance to give to various parts of Scripture and is able to declare parts of Scripture no longer binding, e.g. the N.T. texts supporting slavery. But Tradition is subject to the independent challenge of Scripture, particularly the Gospel. Custom and practice of belief has to sit under the critical evaluation of the Gospel. Both are subjected to the assessment of Reason. Reason challenges the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition when either fly in the face of the higher values of the natural law.

Scripture, Tradition, Reason and the pendulum swing or looking at history through another lens. 

A simple way to view the major shifts in Anglican Church history is to see them as a playing-out of the tensions between the three legs of the stool. Inevitably one leg either grows too long or begins to shrink, either way causing the stool to lose its stability. This results in a correction that returns, for a time at least, some stability to the stool.

Key Swings of the Pendulum

The English Reformation period from 1533-1660 represents a period in which Scripture and Tradition are in serious tension. The movement begins with an elevation of the importance of Scripture as a challenge to Tradition. Remember Tradition is not everything the church does, but represents the major emphases that shape understanding and practice. The dominance of Tradition, always more important in Roman Catholicism, makes sense when most people can’t read and have no direct access to the Bible. In this context, Tradition as represented by the bishops and clergy dictating the content of faith.

Once people start to read the Bible, esp. in their own language, it then becomes possible to challenge Tradition, to challenge the stranglehold of clerical power. This is the underlying dynamic of the Reformation, which elevates Scripture’s position as a counter to Tradition. During this period the balance of power shifts back and forth. Tradition is challenged by people’s direct access to Scripture. This results in a reform of Tradition and an example of this is the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The BCP had three major revisions (1552, 1559, 1662) during this period in response to the tensions between Scripture and Tradition.

During this period the extreme scriptural party, known as the Puritans, are in continual struggle with the more centrist Anglican and Calvinist theologies represented in the mainstream church. An important development of this struggle led to the Puritan emigrations to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in search of a place to practice their form of extreme Biblical Protestantism, and in turn to persecute others who disagreed with them. Political (King verses Pope, King verses Parliament) and economic (rise of educated wealthy merchant class) drivers of social change are all mixed up with theological reform (Protestant direction) and counter reform (Catholic direction) in this period.

After 1660 and throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries there is a tension between the growing influence of Reason spurred-on by the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Remember that Newton and Bacon and all the great scientific figures of this time are all Anglican priests because until the early 19th Century to teach in the Universities required ordination.

Throughout this period the importance of Scripture wanes dramatically and Tradition and Reason are in principle contention. Tradition fights a series of losing battles and Reason triumphs with the forces of the Enlightenment. By the latter part of the 18th Century, Reason is supreme, and this is represented by a movement known as Deism.

Deism replaces the Christian revelation of God with God as the supreme architect of the Universe. Creation comes to be seen as a clockwork mechanism over which God reigns from a distance leaving human agency, guided by reason to keep things in good running order.

Church architecture follows a return to Classical Greek and Roman styles. American civic architecture, established in this period displays the strong influences of the Roman Imperial style of domes, columns, and heroic friezes.  

The Founding Fathers were not as often contended today, good Evangelical Christians, but Deists. The God of Jefferson and Washington was the God of rationalism, the natural laws of self and social improvement, and political and scientific enlightenment.

1790’s to 1850 are dates marking a broad period when Scripture begins to challenge the triumph of Reason. John and Charles Wesley represent a growing desire to return to Scripture and the centrality of a heart-felt relationship with Christ that is capable of changing lives. This is the period of the rise of Methodism and the Evangelical Revival.

This very necessary swing back toward the importance of Scripture and personal piety lays the foundations for great social reforms, the greatest of which are: the movement for the abolition of slavery, Quaker led reform of the prisons, and the abolition of child labor. The evangelical God is a God who is no longer dispassionate, overseeing from a distance, but a God who cares about and is involved in the plight of individuals. The British social democracy tradition of the Labour Party is not the legacy of Marxism – as many American believe,  but Christian Socialism – of Evangelical and Quaker application of the Bible in the service of social reform.

1840’s to Mid 20th Century. Nothing is more certain that after a period of steady rise in the assertion of Scripture over Reason a swing in the direction of Tradition was inevitable. The Oxford Movement was a reassertion of Tradition, which led to a revaluing of Anglicanism’s catholic heritage.

The emphasis of this movement marks a return to the centrality of liturgical worship as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. This essentially conservative Tradition-focused swing expressed itself in a revival of the medieval Gothic style of architecture, and a return to ‘catholic’ ceremonial.

Throughout the period of Reason, the main Sunday service would have been Morning Prayer with a very long sermon. The Evangelicals didn’t favor liturgical worship much at all, preferring revivalist styles of gathering with fervent hymn singing. The Oxford Movement, reestablishes the Eucharist as the first service on a Sunday with Sung Matins remaining the main service, now much embellished by the addition of ceremonial and music etc. Eventually, in many Anglo-catholic Churches Matins was replaced by a return of the High Mass – a very elaborate celebration of the Eucharist.

Parishes described as ‘Broad Church’, which had stood out against the Anglo-catholic movement became influenced by the Parish Communion Movement following the First World War. By the middle of the 20th Century Eucharistic Anglican liturgy, as we now know it, had fully returned to most parts of the Church. This ‘liturgical’ development was finally completed in the Episcopal Church with the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer instituting changes to the structure of the Eucharist as the fruit of the liturgical reform movement of the Second Vatican Council.

The Mid 20th – 21st Century is a period of balanced equilibrium between the three legs of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. 

Scripture was strengthened by contributions from the new academic disciplines of history, archeology, and textual analysis. It became possible to understand the complex textual and historical developments that produced the books of the Bible in a new and deeper way. We will look at this in greater detail when we come to study the Bible. 

Tradition now played a central role, not only in stressing the importance of Eucharistic-centered liturgical worship, but Tradition as the expression of the mind of the community of faith built-on developments in understanding and interpreting Scripture. For instance, Anglican Churches came to understand the changing relationship between men and women as a shift in Scriptural emphasis. More recently, the emancipation of LGBT people follows a similar pattern. Tradition also encouraged a return to spirituality and the importance of a devotional life. 

Reason brought new ways of making sense of the Christian Faith in the light of scientific progress. This has allowed Anglicans to accept that the value of science lies in its observational and explanatory approach to the material world. The value of religion lies not in a competing explanatory power but as the rich source for truth as history and truth as metaphor.

The Relationship of Revelation and Experience

Revelation and experience are integral to each leg of the stool, yet, each leg represents a position on the continuum between revelation and experience. Scripture is the revelation end of the continuum. Scripture is the primary source for revelation. Yet, Scripture is dead if that revelation does not evoke experience of God in the personal and communal spaces of the here and now. Tradition lies at the experience end of the continuum. For Tradition is the revelation of Scripture embodied in the lived experience of the community. Lived experience of the community is a good tag for Tradition. Through being faithful to our participation in the lived experience of the community we remain open to being touched in new ways by revelation. Reason, is the farthest from Scripture on the continuum. Reason contains its own sources for revelation independent of Scripture. This is revelation that comes to us through our natural senses of the world around us, and our ability to consciously reflect on our experience. So reason is revelation at its most experiential. 

The three-legged stool as metaphor is limited by the mental picture of the stool. The image of the stool is about the need to communicate the importance of stability that comes only when no one leg is more important than another. Yet, another image is of the three-stranded cord, and maybe this offers a more dynamic flexible image. Yet, the relationships between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are always dynamic as history shows the ebb and flow between them. Also within each there is a dynamic flux between revelation as that which is given to us, and experience, which is how we make this, our own.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does the balance between the importance of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason play out in your temperament, i.e. which do you find more important for you?
  2. Do you need to pay more attention to your development in one of these areas?

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