Lazarus Unbound

Featured image: Jacob Epstein’s Lazarus Unbound, New College, Oxford

On Passion Sunday – Lent V – we hear the story of the Raising of Lazarus as the seventh in the series of John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom. John has an overarching-transpersonal message he wants us to hear. This overarching message is that Jesus is the Son of God, the Light that has come into the world as the Word of God – who was with God before the beginning of creation; that we come into relationship with God through hearing and accepting this message. John weaves his overarching-transpersonal message into a rich fabric of arresting personal human-interest stories.

John places his seventh sign story at the Bethany home of his friend Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem, conveniently placing Jesus within commuting distance for the start of his final week in Jerusalem.

We’re attracted to the narrative richness of John’s storytelling. But we’re also put off by their complexity for John is always weaving two parallel storylines at the same time. We’re jolted as the narrative wanders back and forth between his overarching-transpersonal and personal human-interest storylines – between the storyline about Jesus’ relationship to the glory of God and the intimate personal storyline of love, loss, and friendship.

In the personal human-interest storyline, the disciples and Jesus are just across the Jordan in the region of Perea having fled Judea after the Judean officials threatened Jesus’ life. Bethany is also in Perea, so they are not too far away when they receive news that Jesus’ friend Lazarus – has fallen gravely ill. His sisters’ request Jesus to come immediately. The disciples are puzzled by Jesus’ response to this urgent request for help. Instead of rushing off to Bethany Jesus simply says that Lazarus’ plight is not one that will lead to his death but is an opportunity for the glory of God.

So here is an example of the John moving rapidly between storylines. In response to the disciples’ human question Jesus gives a transpersonal answer – which at the level of the personal human-interest storyline must have struck them as a callous response. John then moves equally abruptly back to the personal storyline – showing Jesus responding to the disciples’ anxiety by explaining that Lazarus merely sleeps, so no need to be alarmed.

There are other examples of abrupt transitions between storylines as when he answers the disciples’ anxiety about his going back to Judea having only just escaped being stoned there with a transpersonal explanation about walking in the light and stumbling in the dark. I imagine the disciples exchange of puzzled looks – thinking to themselves – now what’s he on about?

We see the interesting contrast between transpersonal and personal storylines in Jesus’ encounters first with Martha, and then her sister, Mary. Incidentally, we know both these women independently of John’s account here. Both Martha and Mary appear in Luke 10:38-42, from which we learn that Martha is the hyperactive one, while Mary is the contemplative. It’s no surprise that while Mary is being comforted indoors, Martha is out pacing the road on the lookout for Jesus’ approach.

Both sisters greet Jesus with identical words: Lord, if you had been here my brother Lazarus would not have died. Martha encounters Jesus within the personal human-interest storyline of friendship and loss but in his response to her, we are jolted back into the overarching-transpersonal storyline. In response to what is in effect Martha’s rebuke – really Jesus, how could you not have come immediately for now Lazarus is dead! – he subjects her to an examination of her belief in the resurrection – hardly evidence of a skilled pastoral manner here. He then identifies the resurrection with himself leading Martha to proclaim: Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. 

Jesus’ response to Martha focuses on the transpersonal -theological significance of Lazarus’ death as an opportunity, not for sorrow, but so that God might be glorified in the presence of the bystanders who will come to believe in him. In the overarching-transpersonal storyline the outcome is already preordained, so there’s no need for Martha to worry.

In contrast, his response to Mary who greets him with the same words as her sister has used, reveals Jesus now responding to Mary from within the personal-human interest story. John describes Jesus being greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. The result is that Jesus too begins to weep with Mary as John presents Lazarus’ death within the parallel storyline of human love and loss. Nowhere else, does Jesus appear more vulnerable – more human – than in his response to Mary. Together, both now weeping, they go to the tomb of friend and brother.

It is at the tomb we see how the overarching-transpersonal and personal human-interest storylines merge. Both storylines are about relationship. In the transpersonal storyline its Jesus awareness of his relationship with God. In the personal storyline it’s his experience of friendship with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Trust the lofty and theological John to offer us the most moving vignette of the importance of human friendship for Jesus. While unashamedly weeping over the death of his friend we see a moving picture of his compassion for this family of friends. In his command Lazarus come forth, Jesus articulates his human sorrow within the narrative of his transpersonal relationship with God.

Despite continued widespread views to the contrary, the raising of Lazarus is not a premonition of the resurrection, a kind of trial demonstration. Lazarus’ emergence from his tomb is simply resuscitation. Lazarus is returned to life for the somewhat specific purpose of glorifying God in the presence of some -note only some of the bystanders. It is not to set up a happily ever after ending. For in the act of glorifying God, Jesus drives others of those who witness his action into the arms of the Judean religious authorities – setting in motion the very resolve that will end in his arrest and death.

Lazarus’ restoration to life is a limited one-time offer only. Nothing is surer that at some future date he will die again. The theological point for John is that what begins in resuscitation will end in resurrection. If you want to know more about the difference between the two – you will need to tune in on Easter Day.

On Passion Sunday we are 14 days from the Great Three Days of Easter and I want to now to make some general comments about the significance of worship – particularly liturgical worship – that is – worship shaped by the traditions of ancient, catholic, and apostolic Christianity – which the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church preserves.

We can commemorate the events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection at a personal level – attaching importance to them to the degree to which they break through the cacophony of noise and distraction at the level of our every-day preoccupations. At the level of personal association, we will treat the events of Jesus passion, death, and resurrection – as either spiritually meaningful to us in the here and now or as merely of historical significance.

In contrast, Liturgical Christianity commemorates these events not so much as a sequence of personal associations, but as collective memory reenacted in present time through participation in a great drama in distinct acts. Act 1 concerns Jesus preparation for his death – on the night before he died Jesus took bread. Act 2 is his death. Act 3 concerns God doing a new thing by raising Jesus to a new and transformed life.

In liturgy we are not commemorating historical events – that is looking back in time. We are bringing history to life in present-time – as if these events are happening for the first time.

Of course, we know how the drama ends. But like a Shakespeare play – our knowing how the play ends does not deprive us of experiencing the impact of the drama in new and unexpected ways. After all it’s one thing to read the play in the comfort of an armchair, but it’s always a more meaningful experience to attend its performance.

A few of us will he here on Maundy Thursday evening, though not enough of us. Many more of us may be here on Good Friday evening, though again never enough of us. A few of us will be here on Easter Eve for the retelling of our faith family story around the new fire of Easter concluding with the renewal of our baptismal covenant. Nearly all of us able to be here will no doubt be here on Easter Day. So let me leave you with this thought. None of us would be seriously content to arrive for the final act of a play having missed the preceding acts. It makes little sense to us to attend the conclusion of the play without having been present at its beginning – hint, hint!!

Mud in Your Eye

Last week in the archeology of a story I noted that John’s approach to story is different from that of Mark, Matthew and Luke where stories flow out of events. In John it’s the other way around. The event emerges out of the story.

A good example of this is the first of John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom – the much-loved story about the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Is this a real event or is it an event created by the story John tells to make a point about Jesus? John’s stories are created to reveal Jesus’ identity rather than as accounts of what did or did not happen.

Today we are two weeks away from the start of Holy Week – a week ending in the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the Fourth Sunday in Lent the scene opens onto John’s sixth Sign of the Kingdom – the healing of the man born blind. There’s only one Sign left after this – the raising of Lazarus and as its title suggests this is a time sensitive story that prepares us for the journey through Holy Week to the Great Three Days of Easter.

On the face of it – the healing of the man born blind is a story about two kinds of blindness. John wants us to see – ha – see, note the play on words – that this is not only a story about how Jesus cured a man’s physical blindness, but how he struggled with the community’s spiritual blindness – that is their refusal to see. It seems Jesus can restore physical sight but is powerless to remove a community’s blindness – which continues as a barrier preventing the dawning of deeper sight – that is – the discovery of insight.

I’m struck by the way John constructs this story. It’s not a story about any old blind man, it’s a story about a man born blind. It’s not a story about a man who loses his sight as the result of a misfortune. It’s a story about a man born into a state of blindness.

There are two groups of by-standers in this story. There is the man’s family and neighbors. Then there’s the godly -Jesus’ disciples and the serious religious types. The man’s neighbors are overjoyed when he gains his sight. The godly types are perplexed if not downright disconcerted.  They ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus will have none of this. In answer to the question, he tells them, neither!

Jesus spits on the ground to make a poultice of mud and spreads it over the man’s eyes. There’s another whole sermon in this simple act. For here we again see the homeopathic principle in operation. The Hebrew for ground is adamah and the word for the first human being is Adam. Genesis tells us that Adam was made from adamah – the ground. We are formed out of the dust of the earth and it’s this same dust that holds the key to our healing. But I digress.

Having spread the mud poultice over the man’s eyes, Jesus tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does so and returns able to see for the first time in his life – an outcome that amazes his family and neighbors. Yet for the godly among the by-standers, this is a deeply concerning outcome. Their question to Jesus is not how was this man born blind but who sinned that this man was born blind? Blindness is not the issue here, but sin – more particularly – punishment for sin.

Today we understand that in premodern societies illness and sin were closely aligned. Sin explained the arbitrariness of illness – why him and not me, why me and not her? We don’t think this way today because in the wake of advances in medicine we know better. Or maybe it’s just that we think we do.

Today, medical science offers us an explanation for illness. Medical science may explain how and even why someone develops an illness, but in the face of incurable illness knowing the how and why still leaves us with the unanswered question – why them and not me?  Medical science has no answer for the sheer arbitrariness of the way illness strikes some and not others. We’re quick to disavow sinful behavior as a cause for illness. Yet beneath the surface – accusations of carelessness and negligence in lifestyle often persist and are not a million miles away from a notion of sin and blame.

The why him and not me question lies at the heart of the who sinned question of the godly by-standers in John’s story. Medical science may explain the causes of illness, but it remains silent before the question of suffering and punishment. Sin as a cause of illness address the question of suffering and punishment head on.

No amount of medical knowledge can reassure us against the arbitrary and indiscriminate injustice of suffering. Nevertheless, we still seek reassurance in the way we try to distance those who suffer from those who don’t.

We’re not that different from the godly in John’s story. We have many ways of assigning blame to reassure ourselves that we are different from the ill who suffer. She’s only got herself to blame – we say if we’re brave enough or just think if we’re not. Afterall he should have worn a mask – or they should have been vaccinated – or even more far-fetched – it’s because they were vaccinated that they became vulnerable to infection. She should have smoked less, he should have drunk less, you should have not eaten so much.  Our need to pronounce judgement is endless. What matters is that we find an explanation for reassuring ourselves by denying our own vulnerability.

We draw distinctions between conditions we can reasonably catch and those we feel safe from catching. Allowing for the hypothetical that we all may develop cancer – we feel safe around cancer patients because after all they have it and we don’t. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are not a member of a vulnerable population that is genetically predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. We congratulate ourselves on controlling our food intake, drink in moderation, and exercise regularly. Protected by the illusion of reassurance we are too ready to sit in judgment of the afflicted.

As we continue to recover from the Corona Virus plague – as a society we’ve been shocked by how hard it is to maintain the fiction of a protective barrier between us and them. How easily we reverted to ancient fears of contamination from conditions transmittable on the air, through touch, or proximity. How quickly those in authority stoked public fear as we reverted to the ancient remedy of quarantine with all its attendant moral judgements. We’ve been painfully reminded of what it feels like to be treated as a plague carrier. We’ve quickly rediscovered that quarantine is as much a moral as it is a physical segregation.

Having worked for 18 years in acute mental health ministry, I’ve long pondered public fear of those who experience mental illness. Who says the practice of shunning is dead?

Following one of my first patient groups one man who seemed struck by my rapport with the group asked me if I’d ever had mental illness – to which I replied – so far I’ve escaped being diagnosed. Mental and emotional disturbance- whether it ascends to the degree of psychiatric diagnosis is a matter of there but for the grace of God go we.

John’s story of the man born blind is the sixth in his Seven Signs of the Kingdom – which are all theological stories constructed to reveal Jesus’ divine identity to those capable of moving from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight.  For John, Jesus and God are indivisible – a feature that distinguishes his Christology from that of the other Evangelists. Yet, the story of the man born blind is also a story about our denial of human vulnerability and our conflation of illness and suffering as punishment. In John’s story of the healing of the man born blind Jesus challenges us to open our eyes to a new world view – and turn away from judgement and embrace our common solidarity.

If we can what will we discover in moving from blindness to sight and from sight to insight?

In his 1947 novel The Plague Albert Camus echoes John’s portrayal of the tension between Jesus and the godly-bystanders – his disciples and the Pharisees – when he contrasts the responses of Oran’s doctor and the parish priest. The priest condemns the suffering he sees explaining it away as God’s punishment for sin. Who has sinned – Jesus disciples ask him? This man has sinned by healing on the sabbath – the Pharisees complain. Both seek to distance themselves from the arbitrary, indiscriminate nature of illness and suffering.

Camus’ doctor knows that suffering is a cosmic tragedy -and if accepted as such leads to a softening of the heart. Camus’ doctor says that the only way to fight the plague is with decency. When asked what decency means, the doctor responds that decency: is doing my job.

What is that?

Decency and doing our job means committing to living lives of courage -trust fueled by hope. Not the fairytale hope in faith as some magical protection, some divine insurance policy, a denial of vulnerability, but the hope rooted in a refusal to be defeated by fear in response to the seeming random unpredictability of illness and suffering.

The man born blind moved from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight. When we do likewise, we find a surprising rediscovery. In the face of fear, we just need to be decent enough to do the job God called us here to do.

At the Last Supper, having washed his disciples’ feet John has Jesus give them a new commandment to love one another so that the world may know them by their shared solidarity. Accepting we’re all equally vulnerable to the misfortunes of illness and suffering – that we are all in this predicament together – is the greatest sign of Christian – of human solidarity with one another.

The Archeology of a Story

Image by Sadao Watanabe

Here’s a little Bible trivia to get us started. In year 1 of the 3-year lectionary cycle we read from Matthew’s gospel biography of Jesus’ life and ministry – except on the Sundays in Lent when after Lent 1 we switch over to John’s account. Except for a return to Matthew on Palm Sunday, it will be John who will also accompany us through the Easter Season.

Among the Evangelists, John’s approach to story stands out from the rest. For Mark, Matthew and Luke, stories flow out of events. They’re called synoptic gospels because they follow a synopsis of events. Stories emerge out of events often arranged chronologically within a broad theological framework. Nevertheless, story arises out of and explains the meaning of a particular event.

In John it’s the other way around. Events are created from stories. There is no event until the story creates one. So instead of following a broad chronology of Jesus life and ministry, John constructs seven stories around which he builds his very distinctive theology of Jesus. We refer to these stories as John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom. Linking the seven sign stories we also find in John many other stories that do not appear anywhere else. Last week we had the story of Nicodemus, the high-ranking member of the Jewish council who comes to Jesus under cover of night. Today we are given the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.

Like all John’s stories Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is multilayered.  My title for today’s sermon is the Archeology of a Story because if we dig down through the multiple story layers, we come to understand how John shapes the story to become a narrative for building of a new and radical type of community.

John’s is a community made up from disparate groupings – coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others among whom were a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new kind of Christian community. In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well – John seems to have in mind this constituency in his community. Yet the story has an overriding message that would not have been missed by the other sections in the Johannine community in Jerusalem around the end of the 1st-century CE.

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well John is weaving a new story from the fragments of older storylines – some close to the surface of current memory – others more deeply buried and encountered only in places where they poke through from below – with the potential to pose serious trip hazards for some in his complex community.

For example, there’s the storyline of contested origins. As Samaritan and Jewish converts come together in John’s radical style Christian community- they brought with them contested origin stories that come into focus around Jacob’s Well. Both Jew and Samaritan each regarded Jacob as the father of their nation – and hence had contested claims to the Well’s ownership.

We see the protruding tip of another more deeply buried story of dispute over the true site for God’s worship. Was it – as the Samaritans claimed on Mt. Gerizim – the ancient holy site of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before its destruction in 721 BCE or as the Jews claimed – at Jerusalem – a more recent development and a claim particular to Judah?  

The story follows a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman he encounters at Jacob’s Well. As noted, in Jesus’ time, this was a place of contested historical and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were the biracial descendants of intermarriage between Assyrian forced foreign migrations (five in total) and the remnants of the Jewish peasantry left following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after 721 BCE. Nevertheless, the Samaritans – the descendants of Samaria – another name for the ancient Northern Kingdom continued to protest their historic and religious claims against a Judahite Jewish population who regarded them as racially and religiously impure.

John intends his story to shock. You might ask, what is so shocking in a man asking a woman for a drink of water? To appreciate how this encounter challenges social taboos of the time let’s group them under the headings of race, religion, and gender.

Firstly, racial prejudice. Imagine a white man in the Jim Crow south asking a black woman for a drink from the colored water fountain. Or imagine today, an Israeli Settler asking a Palestinian woman to draw water for him from Jacob’s Well – which today sits in contested territory within the city of Nablus in Israeli occupied and annex-threatened Palestine.

Secondly, religious bigotry. A Samaritan woman drawing water for a Jew would have rendered the water undrinkable by virtue of ritual contamination. A religiously observant Jew could not have even entered conversation with a Samaritan woman – let alone drunk water from her hand.

Thirdly, gender conventions. As an adult man, like Mike Pence who reputedly will not dine alone with another woman who is not his wife, Jesus could not have looked at – let alone spoken -unchaperoned- to a woman who was neither his wife nor a close female relation. Yet he does – and this shocks the Samaritan woman into asking: How is it, you a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? In her one question she encompasses all three taboos – racial, religious, and gender.

But she’s not the only one shocked. The disciples on returning were astonished that he was alone and speaking with a woman – but no one asked [her] what do you want or [ Jesus] why are you speaking with her? We can imagine what they were thinking though. Honestly Jesus, we leave you alone for five minutes and this is what you get up to!

Beyond its shock value – that where Jesus is concerned always adds value to any story -John is building a crescendo of storyline around the theological theme of recognition – that is – who sees the truth about who Jesus really is – and who doesn’t.

The water from the well is not any old water but living water. It’s not our physical thirst but our spiritual thirst that we seek slaked. Only Jesus alone has the gift of living water. The woman gets this right away and says Sir, give me this water so I may never thirst again.

Jesus then somewhat perplexingly tells her to fetch her husband. She must admit she doesn’t have one to which Jesus says you are right – for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband. This is the point in John’s story when we might ask one another: sorry, but have I missed something here?

It might appear so until we see how John is slowly ratcheting up his theme of recognition. And here is another trip hazard where an ancient story pokes up for the unwary in John’s community. Jesus’ reference to her five husbands is a historical metaphor for the five forced foreign migrations with whom the Samaritans had intermarried. The man she is currently with, and who by-the-way is not her husband, extends the metaphor to include a sixth forced migration into Samaritan territory under Herod the Great in 37 BCE. That this man is not her husband is an allusion to the later Roman prohibition of intermarriage between this last group and the Samaritan population.

The theme of recognition now builds towards the peak of its crescendo. Following Jesus’ comments about worshiping the Father neither here on Mt Gerizim, nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth – the woman speaks about her messianic hope. She now recognizes Jesus as the One. John wants us to note it’s the despised outsider – and a woman to boot – who comes to recognize the truth about Jesus long before it dawns on anyone in his intimate in-crowd of followers.

The rest of the story focuses on the blindness of the disciples. Unlike the Samaritans who now flock to Jesus in response to the woman’s invitation to come and see- a particularly resonant phrase for John because Jesus’ disciples continue to miss the point of his messianic identity and the nature of his mission for which John offers the metaphor of gathering in the harvest.

Through excavating the buried layers within this story, we can see that for John this is not about the past as much as it is about the future.  It’s a story about the building of a new and radical type of community from among the jumble of racial and religious constituencies sharing contested histories. John’s is a community of disparate groupings coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others – among them a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new way of living.

The upshot of the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is that many Samaritans sought out Jesus and asked to stay with him and many more believed in his word. They believed not because someone else convinced them but because they heard and saw for themselves.  The disparate constituencies that made up John’s community could not have missed the point of a story about the building a new way of being in community. Through the reconciling of historic grievances – required a confrontation with ingrained and divisive social and religious prejudice.

Was there ever a story more pertinent for our time?

The Incident of the Woman, the Snake, and the Apple in the Garden

All fairy stories need a villain – and the snake is as good a villain as any. I remember a memorable dinner party at a former colleague’s house in which a series of terrariums populated by large snakes stood against the walls of the dining room. For someone who grew up in a country where there are no snakes – being surrounded by them contributed to a particularly disconcerting dinner party.

It’s worth noting – before we dismiss the serpent as the all-time villain in our seminal religious history – an incident recorded in the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers. After a serious serpent infestation of the Israelite camp resulting in many deaths from snake venom, Moses instructed the Levites to cast a bronze image of the serpent and raise it up over the camp so that whoever looked upon it was cured.

We can puzzle over how this incident escaped the Second Commandment’s prohibition against the fashioning of graven idols? It seems that bronze serpents are a curious exception to the Golden Calf rule. Yet, what’s interesting about the story in Numbers is that it’s the first depiction of the homeopathic principle – that the toxin is also the antidote.

Some ideas have a universal resonance in human consciousness and it seems the serpents or snakes are a case in point. The Rod of Asclepius – a stave with a single serpent coiled around it became the symbol of healing among the Ancient Greeks. Do you think they had read Numbers 21? The Rod of Asclepius became the symbol of healing in modern medicine and in the United States where two is always better than one – the Caduceus – the double headed serpent stave – was officially adopted as the symbol of the Army Medical Core in 1902.

The OT reading on the first Sunday in Lent records the fateful incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden. Just as God’s plan for creation seemed to be right on course the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden seriously derailed things. This unfortunate incident subsequently came to be known as The Fall.

The reasoning goes that through the gross disobedience of eating the fruit from the only tree God had forbidden them to eat of – Eve and her hapless husband Adam, fell from a state of original grace into the state of original sin.

The Apostle Paul was at pains to map out the history of sin from Adam to Christ in his epistle to the Romans – our second reading for Lent 1. He maps out the notion of felix culpa – felicitous or happy sin. Happy in the sense that universal salvation through Christ became its ultimate consequence. Following Paul, Augustine chose to place the emphasis on the sin side of the sin-redemption equation – thus creating a doctrine of original sin – transgenerational sin from which no human being could ever escape being born into.

It’s curious that upon receiving the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve’s first discovery was shame at their realization of nakedness. For Augustine, this was proof enough of sex as the means of intergenerational transmission of an unalterable genetic fault.

As Anglicans, Episcopalians don’t pay much mind to the doctrine of Original Sin – good news to those of you raised in either Roman Catholic or Calvinist traditions. Although Archbishop Cranmer included the doctrine in article 9 in the 39 Articles of Religion – given the times how could he have not done so – the direction of Anglican theology has been to place the emphasis on redemption through grace and not on the sin of Eve and by extension, her hapless husband. Anglican Tradition recognizes the necessary tension between the influences of sin, and freedom of choice. That we are subjected from birth (and not before) to sin’s influence is a matter of environmental nurture not intrinsic nature. Our human vulnerability to self-centeredness restricts and distorts our exercise free will – requiring us to look to God for our ultimate hope and salvation.

Matthew picks up this theme in his depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Following Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, Matthew tells us that- Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness – there to be tempted by Satan.

Satan – that ancient Serpent appears again – taking us back to the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple – but this time, note not in the garden, but in the wilderness. Since the fall the gates to the Garden have been firmly shut – consigning humanity to an exile of toil and suffering in the wilderness.

Satan tempts Jesus with a series of metaphorical apples – everyone the promise of omnipotent power that flows from possessing the knowledge of good and evil. However, unlike the spiritually adolescent Eve, Jesus has the spiritual maturity to see through the Serpent’s ruse.

An important re-reading of the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden reveals God’s prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – is not as some have conjectured – a divine desire to keep Adam and Eve in a state of infantile immaturity but the safeguard of parental protection. In the process of their creation, God imbued Adam and Eve with freedom of choice. To understand this seeming paradox, we need to view the incident through the lens of parental guidance.

The skillful and loving parent leads the child to an eventual state of full independence by protecting the child from being exposed to making certain choices – before they are fully mature enough to understand them. One of the signs of that maturity is to understand the consequences of the decisions we make.

Today, multiple, and shocking survey evidence is revealing to us the damaging consequences for our adolescent and young adults of being exposed to choices – the consequences of which they have neither the full cognitive development nor emotional maturity to understand. We are beginning to wake up to the pernicious effects of social networking in prematurely exposing our young to a knowledge of good and evil which they are not yet ready to handle. The result is an epidemic of youth depression, social bullying, and suicide.

Jesus enters the wilderness to face the temptation of being presented with the illusion of omnipotent freedom of choice. Unlike Eve and her hapless husband, Adam, both still at the stage of adolescent omnipotence – Jesus is a fully mature human being with wisdom and foresight beyond his chronological years. He sees through Satan’s allurements to affirm his rootedness in the wisdom of God.

Last week I ended my reflection with coming down from the mountain of transfiguration into the rocky and barren terrain of the lent of our lives. The wilderness not a place – it’s a metaphor for a particular lens that reveals sinfulness at the heart of everyday life. Through the wilderness lens we come to see more clearly how sin – when not openly acknowledged -restricts and distorts the actual freedom of our moral choices. Sin, like the serpent’s venomous bite acts like a toxin at the center of our daily lives. If sin is the toxin, then repentance is the antidote.

The Prayer Book invites us to contemplate keeping a Holy Lent through practices that trigger self-awareness – bringing us to a fuller appreciation of how sin distorts the quality of our choices.

  • Self-examination and repentance reconnect us with our sadness and sorrow, our hatred and anger, our refusal to acknowledge our selfishness and greed. Self-examination and repentance- makes us more sensitive to, and mindful of, the way we speak to and about others. Self-examination and repentance remodulate our internal voices of judgement and criticism – esp. the pernicious self-criticisms which feed the hardening of our hearts.
  • Fasting and self-denial introduce elements of physical and emotional discomfort that trigger a more conscious sense of the food we eat and how we eat it. Food here can be a metaphor for all our cravings. We deny ourselves something and the experience of frustration – the mildest deprivation – makes us mindful of our normal patterns of over consumption and waste – our collusion with social inequalities of access and distribution and our despoiling of the natural world. Through self-denial we are reconnected to an experience of a bountiful God who requires us to preserve and not just consume.
  • Through worship, prayer, and study – through the cultivation of habitual recollection (every moment mindfulness) – we retune to the presence and goodness of our Creator in the human and natural world around us. In so doing we rediscover the sources of gratitude that bring us the pleasure and fulfilment only found in generous living.

In the temptation in the wilderness Jesus shows us what humanity – mindful of our relationship with God, is capable of. Let’s keep this realization front of mind as we embark on the journey through the lent of our lives – only to arrive prepared and ready for the great celebration of Easter.

I’ve been to the Mountaintop (MLK Jr)

Last week I noted that in the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear evolution in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity.

The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god who through control of the elements – reigns down fire, deluge, and drought; famine and earthquake – on hapless humanity. The Hebrew god is a god of transcendent encounter in the external world. But by the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of a god increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space.  No-longer a god encountered on mountain tops but a god encountered in the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his massive opus A Secular Age explores the historical, religious, and political developments in the evolution from an age of belief to our current secular one. He contrasts the year 1500 when it was impossible not to believe in God with the impossibility of such belief for many today.

The Bible communicates the broad sweep of evolution in human perceptions from the Hebrew mountaintop god of Moses to the 1st-century Jewish god of heart, and mind – the god of Jesus. Likewise, Taylor charts the broad sweep of development – tracing in some detail the route of travel as the culture of the West moved from the impossibility of unbelief to the impossibility of belief.

Another way of speaking about the evolution in religious consciousness of God – both in the biblical record as well as the subsequent evolution of Western culture – is to note a movement from transcendence to immanence. In the long 400-year emergence of our current secular Western mindset, Taylor notes the gradual transition from the age of enchantment to the age of disenchantment. By disenchantment Taylor is commenting on our loss of a connection to the transcendent.

God, who in human experience was once transcendent over the vastness of external space became God, now discerned within the immanence of spiritual awareness, and emotional experience.

Taylor notes that when our connection to the transcendent is lost, all we have left is ourselves alone occupying center stage. The opposite of transcendence is immanence. With the loss of belief in spiritual transcendence the Western mind eagerly embraced the experience of immanence – weighing the costs of disenchantment off against a hubris of omnipotence. Afterall, we may find ourselves alone on center stage, but in our hubris we consoled ourselves that it’s now we – and no longer God – who from center stage commands the world.

To find ourselves center stage is a lonely and at times alienating experience. Thus, the Western spirit continued to frantically seek to recapture through entertainment and fiction the experience of enchantment in a world of lost transcendence. In fact we’ve coined a new term for this recapture of enchantment – we call it magical realism. And today we find magical realism everywhere.

We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent – that of Moses and that of Jesus. Both are stories of transcendence – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. But as the disciples with Jesus were to discover, peak experience is always problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy, awe, and wonder can be found, captured, and forever held onto. With minds clouded by this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.

It’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of our preoccupation with seeking transcendence somewhere other than where we happen to be.

The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach – driving us crazy with a promise of bliss. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of our preoccupation with seeking transcendence somewhere other than where we happen to be. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experience. Experiences of transcendence await us – not elsewhere – but in the here and now.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of our disenchantment – our blind acceptance of lives that have no space for the possibility of belief.

Our struggle is not how to attain transcendent experience – how to seek and capture (Lord it is good to be here, -I will make three dwelling places) experiences of peak bliss. Our struggle today is the struggle to rise above our own individualized preoccupation. In our secular age, spiritual transcendence is found within the immanence of our everyday emotional lives – when we are able to move beyond our immediate self concerns and embrace an encounter with God through everyday relationships with others. For this is where the god who inhabits the heart and the mind is to be found.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind within us. We escape our arid experience of immanence – lonely life centerstage – not into the emptiness of bliss – but into the fullness joy.

The great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore noted:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

Joy is an experience of connection, communion, and presence – of divine grace reconnecting us to experiences of transcendence within the immanence of our daily lives. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.

She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the isolated self, confined within the hubris of disenchanted omnipotence.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.

Intention Means – Paying Attention!

In the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear character development in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character through the eyes of Israel’s religious story.  By thoroughly analyzing scriptural text, Miles contends that the broad sweep of Israel’s relationship with God reveals a god who is a learning god. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God evolving – learning as he goes along from the events of a long and tumultuous relationship with humanity as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes – is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

It’s a startling notion – hypothetically speaking of course – that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of God – a god who also learns from experience.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity is full of instances where God changes god’s mind. God seems open to argument – able to be convinced by human beings like Moses into a change of mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God can be convinced to moderate genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human disobedience.

How does this notion square with the theological assertion that God is unchanging – omnipotent, as in can do whatever God likes – as well as omniscient – knowing all outcomes in advance?  One way of getting around this theological conundrum is simply to say it’s not God who changes but human understanding of God that is deepening over historical time. The god of Moses and the god of Jesus – although recognizably the same god – nevertheless are dramatically different. My point is not so much to challenge the traditional theological assertion of divine unchangeability, but to recognise in the broad sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish evolving understanding of God’s character in the direction of complexity and sophistication.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as one of fidelity and obedience to God’s commandments given through Moses. Obedience not only demonstrated being faithful to God, but also ensured justice in community life. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way of contributing to the building up of society through performing the actions that support the evolution of the world in line the dream God has for it -as revealed in the teaching of the Law and the Prophets.

The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god controlled the elements – reigning down both blessing and punishment. This is a god of external spaces.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space.  No-longer a god of mountain tops but a god of the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 – in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times – as his springboard into a developing Jewish inner consciousness of God.

But of course, Jesus takes things to a new level by thrusting Jewish ethical teaching into the deepest recesses of his hearers’ minds and hearts.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the appeal of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, Jesus’ teaching is frightening in its seeming impossible confrontation with human nature. For whom among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses, and motivations, let alone our fantasies that Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions. This is impossible.  

Despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives – if we are to take Jesus literally – we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts. And the penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed! Eyes are to be plucked out, hands to be lopped off and hearts and minds exposed to the most searing condemnation. Moses’ cry: today choose life or choose death makes death the only obvious proposition.

We are not fundamentalists and so to interpret this passage as Jesus setting impossible standards – so as to continually reaffirm through failure our broken and sinful nature – contradicts his primary message of God’s love and forgiveness. Another way that is consistent with our understanding of Jesus primary message – is for us to understand Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and esp. this section, as the next step within the evolution from ancient Hebrew to 1st-century Jewish understandings of God.

Through his frequent use of hyperbole Jesus invites us to pay attention to the hardness of the unruly passions lurking in the darker recesses of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this invitation as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that ethical and spiritual health are not simply a matter of the actions we refrain from taking but also concerns intentions we entertain. To get a better sense of what Jesus means we note in Matthew 15 his further development of his theme here in chapter 5 – when he tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body but by that which flows from the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age with the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations – religious observance now requires a subjective examination of conscience – esp. with regard to the disordered projections of fear, rage, and desire that if ignored harden our hearts.

Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better.

This is the focus of Jesus’ teaching, and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God and with one another.

Psychologically speaking, none of us is without a rich inner fantasy life in which we can detect thoughts and feelings that we have absolutely no intention of acting upon. But our best protection against acting out is to know such thoughts and feelings are there and to see them clearly. For most of us to act on our darker fantasies of rage, hurt, and desire would create an intense conflict with our higher self-aspirations.

Our refusal to act upon our darker urges motivated by rage, pain, and desire is not enough, however. We also need to be able to recognize them and look them in the eye. The ability to recognize and to know our darker impulses and to reign them in – is what makes us fully human as reflections of the divine nature – imperfect though this reflection may be.

Returning to the theme of learning from experience leads me to conclude with three questions of the moment that remind us of the importance of calling out our darker urges and looking them in the eye.

  • What can learn from the gradual erosion of restraint of darker motives now afflicting our current political culture – unrestrained urges that were on full display in Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address?
  • What stirs us as we witness the brutality of Putin’s war in Ukraine – a situation that challenges us to learn from the mistakes of the past?
  • Will we learn something vital about ourselves as we confront potentially irreversible environmental changes – so as to ensure a brighter future for generations to come?

The process of learning must first begin with looking into the darkness of our human hearts.

Good intention means paying attention!

Procreating the Gospel

It is customary to use the sermon on annual meeting Sunday to offer a kind of state of the parish review. The problem is when I’ve tried to do this in the past – I fear it becomes rather tedious to listen to a list of all the previous year’s accomplishments – which could be seen as a nice problem to have. However, it’s difficult to single out ministries of particular significance without those ministries not singled out – feeling left out.

In the Rector’s written Introduction to the annual report, I do attempt to convey an accurate overview but again, the details are actually in the ministry reports, and I do not attempt to reproduce these in my introduction.

So can I ask you all to please read the annual report – hard copies will be distributed at the meeting. For those of you who are viewing this via livestream and those of you present today unable to stay for the meeting – though I trust all of you will – you can find the full report on the website under the who we are drop down menu at the top of the screen. The report is actually very interesting. It gives us the most accurate overview of the state and health of the parish by showing the range and depth of our ministry activities in 2022.

If there’s one tag line that sums St Martin’s up it’s a community punching above its weight. For the actual size of our membership, we run a ministry program that would put to shame many parishes twice our size. I believe this to reflect the caliber, skill, and dedication of those of you actively engaged in one ministry or another – and who in most cases – will be involved in several at the same time.

So thank you to you all, for everything you do to ensure that together we can make a greater impact on the world than anyone of us could, alone.

As you read the reports, it might be helpful to note how particular reports belong together. For instance, an area that has really flourished in 2022 has been our small group ministries. It’s helpful to view Women’s Spirituality group, Gander Men’s groups, 20/30’s group, and Knitting as all aspects of a flourishing area of portal (gateway to the community) ministries using small group settings.

Likewise, we have a very hopeful report from the Finance Committee which shows that despite the economic turbulence and uncertainties in 2022, we ended the year on target and enter 2023 with a continued strong level of financial commitment as an expression of confidence in the vitality of the parish. You might read the Thrifty Goose which is reporting an incredibly successful year thanks to the dedication of its team and the Estate Sale report alongside the Finance report.

Worship is a handy heading to keep in mind while reading the Music, Altar Guild, and Meditation Hour reports. It’s helpful to read the Pastoral Care and  Education-Formation reports as ministries closely related to our worship life.

While the Property report offers a dizzying list of repairs and improvements – some anticipated and others an unwelcome surprise -it stands alone but it’s also helpful to read the Memorial Garden report in this context.

The Hospitality report is a significant indicator of how 2022 has been a year of coming back together after the disruption and shutdowns of the pandemic – a sign that although we are not out of the COVID woods and maybe never will be, we are determined to celebrate as fully as possible our community life together. The resumption of the St Martin’s feast was a clear signal that our legendary love of celebration is back.

By far the largest report is the Outreach and Philanthropies report, which speaks volumes about the importance we place on serving the wider community. The report very helpfully outlines the different areas of our outreach. The report offers a helpful table of contents at the beginning – even more necessary because of the wide scope of our six outreach ministries. You might also read the Episcopal Charities report in conjunction with outreach.

Having directed your attention to the importance of our ministry reports from 2022, I want to spend what time is left in addressing parish life against a post pandemic wider societal context. Today we are increasingly affected by the process of demographic change signaling significant shifts in societal attitudes to church-going – leading some to now declare that the Christian Church – and particularly our brand of it, is in sharp decline.

This view makes sense only if our current situation is judged against the years of post war boom which is an historical blip that provides a poor benchmark against which church life going forward can be measured. We should also not forget that the post war boom years in church membership were years in which Christianity became subsumed into a suburban, white, middle-class vision of American life. This is a vision of Christian life often sharply at odds with the teaching of Jesus outlined in Matthew’s beatitudes. Jesus taught that big is not best, wealth is not a sign of being blessed, success if not a sign of God’s favor, – neither is grief nor suffering a sign of God’s disfavor.

It’s important to warn ourselves against allowing memories of the past to cast an unrealistic shadow over understanding our present and casting gloom over our future remembering it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

Even as we mourn the losses associated with inevitability of change, we are also gearing up to grasp the new challenges of returning to a model of church life, more akin to the world in which the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians in our NT lesson this morning:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

So what do we notice in our own St Martin’s community that reflects wider societal context. Living in an increasingly non-churchgoing part of the world, I liken sustaining our parish community as akin to swimming against the cultural and social tide. It’s important that we do not interpret our society’s declining pattern of churchgoing as a reflection of our failure. The post war church boom and current social trends in the other direction both demonstrate to us that it’s affluence not adversity that dilutes the impact of the gospel’s message.

2022 shows that despite a return to in person worship, the pandemic has only exacerbated the longer-term trend of less frequent and intermittent church going. The Episcopal Church has always assessed its strength by the ASA – average Sunday attendance. But this is no longer an accurate indicator of parish vitality. The big learning from 2022 for us is that it’s important to know how to accurately read the signs – which is why a closer reading of the annual ministry reports is essential. From them we note that worship attendance is down but giving is stronger than anticipated. Pledge numbers are stable and the dollar amount is up. The amount of plate receipts – non pledge giving through the Sunday collection and online plate is far stronger than expected.

As I’ve noted the ASA’s appearance of falling numbers is a reflection of changing worship attendance patterns rather than an indication of loss of members. Our overall membership numbers remain stable with around a dozen new members having joined us in 2022. As the culture of church volunteering  is impacted by living more pressured lives, investments of time seem to be our most scarce and precious commodity. Nevertheless, the vibrancy and impact of our ministries is stronger than ever. Despite the impact of demographic and changing social attitudes to church going our parish community remains strong and vital. It’s a mistake to equate size with strength or even more so, to equate size with success.

Organized Church life in New England maybe akin to swimming against the societal tide, yet a better metaphor might be salmon swimming upstream. Think for a moment about why salmon swim upstream. They do so as part of their procreation cycle. Like the salmon we have some mighty swimmers swimming together in the service of the Gospel’s eternal cycle of procreation.

Subconscious Listening

This is the second Sunday in a row when the Gospel has presented the call to discipleship. The call of discipleship – is as I mentioned last week – the overarching theme for the season of Epiphany.

Last Sunday, we heard John’s version of events. Today, we come to Matthew’s construction of supposedly the same events. There is always more than one way to tell a story and we might be struck by not only the differences between John and Matthew’s version of the same events – but also the similarities.

Both Evangelists set Jesus’ call of his first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But each sets this scene against a different historical figure and scriptural backdrop. John sets the scene against the backdrop of John the Baptist and the long Jewish tradition of the messiah’s arrival being preceded by the message of a forerunner – preparing the way.

Matthew sets the first call of the disciples after John had been arrested – whereas John reports the Baptist still loitering about the lake shore. Chronologically, Matthew comes first, so John’s later account is playing fast and loose with the timeline and his setting of the call against the backdrop of the Baptist’s ministry requires some literary license.

Matthew places Jesus in the historic tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading for Epiphany 3. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali correspond to the area which by the 1st century CE was known as the Galilee. As in Isaiah’s day, so in Jesus’ – Galilee was a border region – a buffer area – subject to waves of invasion as well as persistent cultural infiltration by the non-Jewish peoples of Syria and the Phoenician coast.

Each Evangelist uses a different historical figure not only to authenticate Jesus’ identity as messiah, but also to imply something about the meaning of his coming.  Here they share a similarity. Jesus is baptized in the Jewish heartland of the Jordan valley. But he begins his ministry in the cosmopolitan melting pot of the north. Their plot timelines may conflict and yet they agree on the location – both setting the call of the first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee – each portraying the power of Jesus’ charisma to change the direction of people’s lives.

Matthew’s depiction of the call of the disciples is startling and somewhat alarming – if we take it seriously. Can it really have been the case that Simon, his brother Andrew, together with James and John, the sons of Zebedee just dropped everything and abandoned their lives with all attendant responsibilities? I mean what happened to poor old Zebedee, now two sons and four hands down? How will their father now crew his fishing boat?

What must it have been about Jesus’ amazing pulling power to wrench men from their busy lives?

Why John and Matthew are at pains to set Jesus’ arrival at the beginning of his active ministry against the backdrop of very particular Jewish historical themes is because they are not only telling us who Jesus is but also hinting at the expectations of those who dropped everything to follow Jesus and why they did so.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John were already waiting and ready for Jesus’ call.

Conditioned by their Jewish longing for the Messiah they were thus receptive to Jesus’ call with its strong message of repentance as the engine for change. They heard Jesus’ call because whether conscious of it or not, they were already waiting for it and like so many of their fellow Jews, they were subconsciously listening for it. The power of Jesus’ call to follow him spoke directly into the deepest longings of their hearts, both as human beings and as members of a nation consumed with a longing for change.

Today, our psychologically informed awareness of the power exercised by charismatic leaders over their followers casts an interesting light on Jesus’ call of his first disciples. The charismatic leader’s call to discipleship –whether spiritual, political, or personal – speaks into our experience of futility and powerlessness.  The charismatic leader appeals to our longing to live with deeper meaning and higher purpose. Being called is the experience of being recognized – singled out – speaking to our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Being called is to be chosen. Being chosen is an intoxicating experience that satisfies not only our longing for something deeper but also our desire for intimacy – an end to our sense of personal isolation.

The call of the charismatic leader does not sound into a vacuum. What do we hear in Jesus’ call for us to follow him? The answer to this will depend on what we are subconsciously listening for.

We respond to a call because it comes to us in a context of our expectations shaped by a belief that God has a purpose for us and has a need for us to play our part. It’s these expectations that precondition us – making us receptive to hearing Jesus’ call to follow him. Many of us may not hear his call as a distinct experience – like a voice in our heads. Most of us will hear his call in dispersed ways – a comment here, a thought there, a confirmation coming at the right moment for us to take a course of action. We will have a sense of how we want to act in life – how we want to make the world better than we find it to be.

But our expectations also pose a danger. As Episcopalians we are often too closely identified with polite society’s wish to keep expressions of Christian faith private so as not to cause offence. We may be waiting – but the question is what are we waiting for?

Speaking about the call to discipleship to those in church on a Sunday morning is essentially preaching to the choir.  Because we are the ones who for whatever dimly grasped reasons are responding to Jesus’ call to worship God. If you think this is a small matter, then recall that the central symbol of our worship is that of being nourished at God’s table to go out in to the world strengthened for action.

To worship God – as we do in the Episcopal Church – through our unique synthesis of timeless liturgy and of-the-moment theological messaging is an increasingly counter cultural action in 2023 America – esp. here in the New England. If you doubt me then ask yourselves why fewer and fewer of us are prepared to do so.

Worship is the water in which we swim like the messianic longing of the Jews of Jesus’ time, it shapes us in unseen ways – making us receptive to God is ways the world around us as ceased to be open to.

To worship God as we do is to want to be changed to become agents for change in the world. The crucial eucharistic transformation is not only in the bread and wine but in the transformation of our hearts and minds to be better fit for God’s purpose in the world. In a sense Jesus calls us is to realize that through eucharistic transformation we become the ones we have been waiting for. As Christians, everything we do in the world flows from this point.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John, the first of a trusty band of brothers heard Jesus’ call and responded without equivocation because he spoke into their longed-for expectations. They heard a promise of change in Jesus’ call. They knew the only thing they had to lose was not changing.

I’m reminded of the cartoon with a somewhat salutary message. It pictures Jesus dressed in 1st-century long shift with shoulder length hair sitting with a young guy who looks like he’s sleeping rough. Jesus has just asked the young guy to follow him – to which – the guy replies Facebook? Jesus says No I really want you to follow me. Still a little perplexed about what Jesus is getting at – he finally exclaims – So ….. Twitter? Jesus says: I’m going to start again and you can let me know where I lose you.

God Calling

We mark the Sundays from The Epiphany to Lent as the Epiphany Season. On the second Sunday after Epiphany we pick up the theme of the call of discipleship. Over and over, we hear how Jesus met people who accepted his invitation to join him. From a cursory reading it appears that those whom Jesus met, just dropped everything – left their lives and existing obligations to go off into new lives as his disciples – they literally followed him.

Isaiah paints a movingly intimate picture of his sense of God’s call in the Old Testament reading for the second Sunday after the Epiphany. He announces: Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me. Isaiah is describing God’s call as his awakening realization of his life’s purpose. His is a life changing realization of encompassing spiritual intensity. Oh, that we could feel so intensely.

The psalmist in Psalm 40 captures the life-changing nature of God’s call: I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit … He put a new song in my mouth. Waiting with longing and patience – who can bear such things? He then connects his call with his passion. He finds his song, and it’s not the same old song of his frustrated life.  He finds himself singing a new song. He cries out – for the new song in his mouth is a song of praise of God that excites not only him alone – but the many who experience his joy and passion. Hearing his song – they will be deeply moved – and like him be encouraged to listen for their own call from God.

Likewise, Paul’s opening words in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 14 words he hints at the life transforming nature of his experience of God’s call. Paul was a man who had never lacked zeal or passion. As Saul, he had been the most zealous hound and persecutor of the followers of the way – who were for him a heretical Jewish sect. In 14 words he is recalling his bruising encounter with God’s call on the road to Damascus when suddenly blinded he fell from his horse and heard Jesus saying to him: Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? From that moment his priorities were violently reordered so that years later he is able to write: [I] Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.

The Evangelist John paints for us the amazing domino-like effect of God’s call to follow Jesus. John the Baptist testifying to his experience of baptizing Jesus, seeing Jesus’ approach whispers to his disciples standing near –Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the one I’ve been telling you about – the one who confirmed everything I had been dreaming about. John continues into an impassioned account of how Jesus came to him for baptism -electrifying his disciples nerve endings – exposing in them a longing they didn’t know they had. The next day – by the way this is an important rhetorical device for John the Evangelist – momentous events always unfold over a sequence of days – the next day the same thing happens. John and his disciples are once again loitering with intent – observing the goings-on along the lake shore as Jesus walks by. Two of John’s disciples break off from the group. Their hearts pumping, their ears deafened by the surging of blood, pulsing – as if in a trance, they follow Jesus. Jesus aware of being followed turns and looks at them.

Have you ever had the experience of secretly admiring someone from a distance and getting caught out? Thinking you are unobserved, the object of your admiration spots you. Bamm! You’ve been rumbled – you feel exposed – stripped bare – feeling shame as a red blush spreads across your cheeks.

Making due allowance for the somewhat distanced and polite translation of the NRSV – we can detect that this is the kind of experience the Evangelist is describing when he tells us that Jesus, seeing them – a better rendering might be – that Jesus, spotting them asks: what are you looking for? Imagine the men stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying? I mean what else is there to say in the heat of such an intoxicating moment? Jesus simply says: come and see.

The dominos keep falling– Andrew, one of the men who has spent the whole day with Jesus – as evening comes rushes off to find his brother Simon. Finding him – out of breath he exclaims we’ve found him. Yes, HIM, the one we’ve been waiting for. Andrew, returning to Jesus with his skeptical brother in tow, brings Simon to Jesus. And what happens? Jesus – as if expecting Simon’s arrival gives him a new name.

Remember my message of two Sunday’s ago on the feast of the Holy Name on New Year’s Day – that names really matter? Well, here we are again. Simon is renamed Peter which means rock. There is an echo to Isaiah here. Peter is the name as if given to him by God while he was still in the womb, unknown to him until the moment when it was awakened in him by Jesus’ call.

Let me recall for us and image I’m sure we will all be familiar with from World War II movies where a small group in Nazi occupied Europe have secretly gathered around a radio dangerously tuned into the BBC broadcast frequency. Knowing the German radio detector van might not be far away, they wait – feeling a mixture of trepidation and expectation. Finally, the airwave crackles to life and they hear the announcer’s voice: This is London calling! This is the call they have been waiting for. A voice that calls them to hope -reviving their longing to be free.

Listen to me you coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb, he named me.

I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry.

I Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus – by the will of God.

Jesus asked them what are you looking for? Stuttering and spluttering before finally their tongues untied, they get out a few words: Rabbi –where are you staying?  Jesus says to them: come and see.

This is London calling! The callsign of hope in their liberation.

We may not feel much like it, but we are those who probably without knowing quite why – have amidst the cacophony of busy lives filled with petty preoccupations have responded to God’s call to worship and got ourselves somehow, to church.  ourselves together enough to get to church this morning. We are the ones who have woken early enough to tune-in to the livestream of this service in real time. Or maybe we will be those who will remember later in the day or week to click on the livestream link. The point I’m making is that we are present to worship God because we have for reasons maybe unclear to us, chosen to do so.  

Despite competing pressures, worship remains important to us – although we are a dwindling constituency among those who nevertheless remain committed to this church community. Gathering for worship in the New England of 2023 is God’s call to engage in an increasingly countercultural practice. So let us be encouraged by this suggestion while keeping in mind the deeper question for those of us whose expression of faith is often muted by our too close alignment with prevailing culture and social trends.

God is calling. The message from the scriptures this morning is that unless we are listening – unless we are expecting, unless we are hopeful, unless our expectation is tinged with enough patience to tolerate waiting, we may not hear God’s call when it comes because we have stopped listening. It’s one thing to listen and quite another to expect to hear something.

If the weekend when we commemorate the call and life changing mission of Dr. Martin Luther King is not the time to question are receptivity to God’s call, then when will be the opportune time?

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Image: Rose by Alan Jones

This year the Sunday after Christmas falls on New Year’s Day – a day dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. When the two major public holidays of the year – Christmas and New Year’s Day coincide with Sunday religious observance, I thought it best to scale back to a single service today. Call me a realist if you like. But having only one spoken service on New Year’s Day gives a necessary break for our wonderful church musicians.

In the media we are being treated to endless reflections on the year-gone-by, but today I want to review a more focused timeframe with you – that of the week falling between Christmas and New Year’s Days.

The Calendar for the week following Christmas Day is – unfortunately – crammed full of commemorations. On the 26th the Calendar commemorated St Stephen, first Christian martyr. I feel so sorry for churches like our near neighbor, Smoky Steve’s whose patron saint is St Stephen because I guess the day after the Christmas highs is not the best time to hold your patronal festival. Churches dedicated to St John, Apostle, and Evangelist fare little better with December 27th being his commemoration.

On December 28 the Calendar commemorated Holy Innocents, as the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants born around the time of the birth of Jesus. I’m in mind of Marcus Borg’s throwaway line that the Bible is true and some of it actually happened. The corollary of this is that many events in the Bible are not historical but symbolic or metaphorical. Josephus, the most reliable Jewish historian of the 1st-century makes no mention of this infanticide despite amply chronicling Herod’s extensive abuses of power.

The massacre of Bethlehem’s boys aged one and under is part of Matthew’s dramatic account of the context in which the birth of Jesus took place – a context of political violence and instability. Herod the Great, alerted by the Magi’s search for the birth of Isaiah’s prophesied king is determined to snuff out all possible rivals. Matthew tells us that Joseph being warned in a dream, takes Mary and Jesus, and immediately flees to Egypt for safety.

The Incarnation celebrates the Creator’s entry within the tent of creation through the precariousness of a human birth. To celebrate this great festival with any integrity requires us to struggle with the deep human pain of the refugee crisis even though no satisfactory solution seems in sight.

In my Christmas Eve Sermon, I drew on the Matthew account with a particular reference to the Holy Family’s flight on the refugee road to safety in Egypt because I wanted to counteract our treatment of Jesus’ birth as a delightful, if imaginary, fairy story. The birth narrative details matter much less than the significance to which they point. To highlight the refugee element in Matthew’s story concerning the Holy Family’s flight functions as a challenge to our humanity in the face of an unprecedented world-wide migration and refugee crises. The Incarnation celebrates the Creator’s entry within the tent of creation – made visible in the precariousness of a human birth. To celebrate this great festival with any integrity requires us to struggle with the deep human pain of the refugee crisis even though no satisfactory solution seems in sight – well no satisfactory solution, enough of us, can agree upon.

Is this not the function of religious story – to alert us to what remains uncomfortably yet profoundly true to our human experience?

Matthew and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth function on several levels but chiefly, they function as good drama. As good drama, they construct details to reveal a profoundly truthful picture of the world. The construction of the massacre of the innocents is the way Matthew connects the birth of Jesus with Moses’ birth recorded in Exodus 2. Like Moses, Jesus also survives a threat to his infant life. For Matthew this connection is significant. For Moses is Matthew’s template for the Messiah Jesus. Jesus, like Moses, is the savior of his people.

On Thursday, December 29, the Calendar takes a particular English turn with the commemoration of St Thomas-a-Beckett, Henry II’s former chancellor and enabler turned archbishop and chief critic. In the year 1170, acting on the king’s mafia-like, unspoken yet strongly hinted at suggestion, three knights took it upon themselves to murder the archbishop on the steps of the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral – thus silencing the king’s most vociferous critic. It’s a story many will be familiar with having been immortalized by T.S Elliot in his play Murder in the Cathedral.

We arrive at the first Sunday following Christmas Day, which in 2023 is also New Year’s Day. In other years, on the first Sunday after Christmas, the Calendar gives a gospel proclamation from the Prologue of John’s Gospel – in the beginning was the Word etc. This year, New Year’s Day is actually the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. On the eighth day the Calendar commemorates the Holy Name of Jesus.

I do not recall ever having preached on the Holy Name in 38 years of ministry because Holy Name usually falls on a weekday and so for Episcopalians, like most weekday commemorations, it goes unnoticed except by a very few. The commemoration of the Holy Name records Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day following his birth as according to Jewish custom.

Circumcision presented a major conflict between the early Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus. The issue was finally settled at the Council of Jerusalem where Paul persuaded the other Apostles to lift the circumcision requirement on gentile male converts. As a result, the Church was ambivalent about commemorating so Jewish a practice in the life of Jesus. Instead it chose to focus on the naming element of the circumcision ritual – as a commemoration of the eighth day after his birth.

Matthew does not record Jesus’ circumcision – being the most Jewish of the gospels I guess he assumed it as a matter of course and so felt no need to mention it. Recording the event of the circumcision falls to the ethnically ambiguous Luke. Luke’s ethnicity remains contested. Was he a gentile or more likely, was he a highly Hellenized Jew?  Either way, Luke writes for a gentile readership for whom it seems important enough to Luke to remind them of Jesus’ Jewish cultural identity.

What’s in a name? Shakespeare has Juliette in the famous balcony scene exclaim A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – to argue that names do not affect the way things really are. Juliet compares Romeo to a rose saying that if he were not named Romeo he would still be handsome and be Juliet’s love. This states that if he were not Romeo, then he would not be a Montague and she would be able to marry him without hindrance.

I wonder though about Juliet’s desire to believe that a name does not denote anything essential in the real world. Most cultures treat names as things of the essence of personhood. Either a name is the mystical expression of our personhood, or being given such and such a name, dictates and subsequently molds us into the persons we become.

Modernity follows Juliet’s reasoning. Remember Shakespeare is the greatest English wordsmith of the early modern period. The words he gives Juliet prefigure modernity’s view that names do not reflect anything real or of the essence about a person.

Many of us feel free to change our names at will – an action unthinkable in traditional societies. Yet, why would we want to change our name – unless we felt it a poor fit with who we feel ourselves to be? Most of us would find it hard to seriously imagine being called by any other given name. For me, I am a Mark. Mark is part of my identity, and I could not seriously contemplate being called by any other name. Robert is my other given name- what we call my middle name. But Robert is a family name. It’s not personal to me. It was the name in various combinations given to all the males in my paternal family line. I say was, because being the only childless son – the practice dies out with me. Yet, I know of people who have reversed the order of their given names because having been given a family name as their first name, they adopt their middle name to express their essential individuality.

Yet, why would we want to change our name – unless we felt it a poor fit with who we feel ourselves to be?

Luke records that after eight days had passed, Jesus was circumcised and given the name mandated by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. That’s Luke code for the name God gave to Jesus. And here we come to the main point about names being and expression of unique personhood. It’s important for us to remember that Jesus is the Greek iteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means YHWH saves. Yeshua – savior is the clearest statement we have as to who Jesus was born to be. Just to ram the point home, the early Christians tagged onto Yeshua or Jesus another name, Christos in the Greek or Mashiac in Hebrew – meaning Messiah.

Yeshua is not simply the one who was prophesied would save his people – YHWH saves. For Christians Yeshua is also the Christ – the one who came to save not only his Jewish people, but all humankind.

It’s hard to disagree with Shakespeare but in this instance I think we must. Names matter! A rose by any other name may well smell just as sweet – but would it still be a rose?

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