The Call to Mercy

Featured image, The Good Samaritan, Vincent Van Gogh

Proper 10 Year C   14 July 2019 . Amos 7:7-17                                                          Linda Mackie Griggs

Prophets are not always what we expect. Amos was “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees”—a shepherd and farmer from the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah, who did his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC. He declares that he is “…neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son”—in other words he is a bi-vocational prophet: not one who had been trained as such (as some prophets were), but one who had been called through vision (and probably unwillingly), away from his home and farm to speak the truth in the centers of power. His message, like those of all prophets, is an urgent one; to wake people up to the Dream of God.

Amos was an enemy of the people. Or so said Amaziah the priest as he tried to shoo Amos out of Bethel, saying that he had offended the king, and that people could not bear his words—words that declared the consequences of their callous disregard for God’s call to justice and compassion for the suffering.

Prophets speak from a place of love and grief. They see a system—an institution, a community– broken, that has lost its way–and they seek to bring it back to its senses—to remember, to repent, and to reconcile. As counterintuitive as it may seem, prophets are not completely outsiders. As Richard Rohr says, prophets speak from the edges of the inside. They know the community to which they preach well enough to see and critique where it has gone astray, and to call it back to itself. To reawaken.

Prophets are not always who we expect. Today on the southern border of the United States the prophets have been as bi-vocational as Amos: Lawyers and doctors and journalists and photographers who have sounded the alarm about the conditions in the detention camps, especially for the children. We know what we know because they speak, and, like Amos, they refuse to shut up. They call us to remember who we are and who our neighbors are.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Our questioner in Luke’s Gospel seeks to test Jesus, and learns, among other things, that one should never ask Jesus a rhetorical question unless one is prepared to come away humbled. Actually, it’s an excellent follow-up: the lawyer has shown himself to be well versed in his Torah and knows the two greatest commandments; that you should love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. His second question gets to the heart of the matter, which is how do love of God and love of neighbor weave together in terms of how we treat people, particularly the suffering and the most vulnerable? How we perceive them—as neighbor or as not-neighbor– is going to be a crucial factor in how we live out the interwoven commandments of love of God and love of neighbor.

The thing is, the lawyer in the story has asked, “Who is MY neighbor?” He asks a question about his own personal ethical responsibility. And that is the way most of us have heard this parable from the time we were children. We learned that the story of the Good Samaritan is about how we as individuals should be kind and caring to people, especially people in need. And this is a good lesson. But Jesus’ response, if we take a deeper look, is arguably more prophetic than it is personal.

But Jesus, like Amos, is neither just a prophet, and certainly he is not just a prophet’s son. The way in which he calls and recalls people into the Dream of God through parable is to prompt us to ask two questions: “Where is God in this story?” And “Where am I (or where are we) in this story? “ It is in how we perceive the answers to these questions that we discover how God convicts us and seeks to awaken us today.

So let’s think first of the road.

Making a journey along that road is treacherous. Desolate, arid, rocky, no more than scrub for shelter, and hot. The sun beats down mercilessly. A traveler along this road is at risk both from the elements and from those who prey upon the vulnerable.

The priest and the Levite are good people—devoted to God, diligent in their work in the Temple, and well versed in Torah. They live responsible lives and take good care of their families—they tithe and give to charity—they are well respected in the community. When they see the wounded man in the ditch—bleeding and broken—left for dead—they both pass by. Perhaps they are worried that they are at risk of violating Torah’s purity codes—after all, they are good responsible people. They have a job to do, and members of their own community to care for who depend on them. They follow the rules—of the Temple and Torah. So they avert their eyes. They move on.

The Samaritan is a good person too—devoted to God and dedicated to his community. But to the Jews he is an outcast—the enmity between Samaritans and Jews was deep and longstanding. Regardless of reason, the important point here is to see him as a despised outsider—go ahead and see him as anyone you find to be questionable, abhorrent, even, and you will see where Jesus is going here. The outcast sees the man in the ditch. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks. Still, he can’t avert his eyes. So he stops.

In this parable Jesus wasn’t just talking about individual behaviors. He was talking about an institution that had lost its way. An institution that had become so enamored of its own purity that it had forgotten God’s repeated call in Scripture to care for the vulnerable and the stranger. Jesus was saying, as he often did in his preaching, that it was the outsider, the outcast, the enemy of the people, who “got it right.”

Who are we in this story? Samaritan? Priest? Levite? If we’re honest? Or have we ever been the one in the ditch, watching through our bruises as people pass by, ignoring our pain and desolation? Grateful for even a small measure of mercy and care, even from the most unlikely source?

And where is God in this story? Is God standing a little to one side with a clipboard, checking off who gets it and who doesn’t? Is God the healing presence of the innkeeper who offers a safe place to nurse the wounded traveler back to health?

Or is God in the ditch? Is God found there with the broken, the bleeding, the fearful and the forsaken?

The prophetic perspective takes us into new territory, inviting us to inhabit multiple roles in this parable, even (especially) if they don’t fit comfortably. It calls us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our institutions. Who are our neighbors and what is our responsibility to them? How do we balance competing needs of different groups of neighbors? How do we as baptized Christians, as a church, and as citizens, live faithfully into our promise to respect the dignity of every human being?

Writer Amanda Brobst-Renaud calls this story the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, and I think it’s a better, more nuanced title than the Good Samaritan. The word ‘compassionate’ invites us into ‘feeling with’, which is essentially the meaning of the term.  And we’re not just invited to inhabit the compassion of the Samaritan, but also the kindness of the innkeeper, the desolation of the stranger in the ditch, even (and perhaps most important) to enter the shadows of Levite and Priest as they wrestle, as good people do, with the competing priorities that pull them to one side of the road, or the other.

God is not found at the edges of this story, nor is God in just one place. God inhabits spaces within and beside each character in the parable: in the mercy of the Samaritan, certainly; the healing kindness of the innkeeper, absolutely; and the wounded stranger in whose eyes we see reflected the gaze of Jesus. But perhaps most unexpectedly we find God walking beside Priest and Levite—the good churchmen, the responsible citizens, just doing their job—God walking with them along the road, loving them and grieving for them—calling them to see the one in fear and pain, and to stop. To wake up—to remember who and whose they are, and to turn back. God is there, calling and waiting.

Jesus said, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

That is the heart of the matter.

Confounding Expectation

Proper 9 Year C, 7 July 2019 2 Kings 5: 1-14, &  Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20   

Linda Mackie Griggs

Six years ago, in the summer of 2013, I stood on the bank of the Jordan River. And wondered what in the heck I had been thinking.

Backing up a little bit: I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between the second and third years of seminary, and our itinerary for that day was to renew our Baptismal vows at the Jordan. How cool is that?

I was so excited, picturing it in my mind: Walking in the footsteps of Jesus and John the Baptist–the beautiful expanse of cool clear water sparkling in the morning sun. The gentle breeze proclaiming the presence of the Holy Spirit. Maybe even a dove would perch on a nearby branch—what a story that would make for my journal—right?  I was ready. Bring on the transcendence.

The bus pulled up next to a beat-up old car in a dirt parking area next to what looked more like a big creek than “Jordan river, deep and wide.” Pieces of trash and an old tire littered the ground. Music issued from a boom box near where a few young Palestinian fishermen smoked cigarettes, talked, and laughed. We swatted at bugs as we walked toward the muddy water, suspiciously eyeing a couple of red 55-gallon drums floating offshore.  I kid you not, we sang, “Shall we gather at the river; the beautiful, the beautiful, river…” I wasn’t the only one feeling the irony.

Where was the holy? Where was the transcendence? How did it get so cluttered with—reality? Faced with the prospect of being sprinkled with that muddied water, we all wanted to duck and cover.

This was a prime example of my latest favorite aphorism: expectations are resentments under construction.

I remembered all of this when I read about Naaman, a general from Aram, the country right across the Jordan from Israel, in modern-day Syria. In his latest military victory Naaman was probably responsible for the death of the father of the king of Israel. So when a captive slave girl suggests that Naaman go to that same king of Israel to see if his prophet might heal Naaman’s leprosy, you can imagine that it didn’t go over well.

“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But the prophet Elisha overrides the king’s suspicions because, rather than smelling a plot, he smells an opportunity—to show the power of his God to an unbeliever. So Elisha sends for Naaman.

But when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, suffering with lesions and sores and bearing a massive co-pay of silver, gold and garments, the famous prophet doesn’t even come to the door—he merely sends a messenger with instructions to bathe, not in one of the gleaming rivers of home, but the puny Jordan–the dividing line between Israel and Aram. The border between Chosen People and Not Chosen people.

Naaman is insulted, and furious. He had expectations for this healing. He wanted something else in return for his journey, for his silver and gold and ten suits of clothes. He wanted something powerful—flashy–magical. And instead he’s told to take a muddy bath—not once, but seven times.

He’s so angry his servants have to calm him down enough to follow Elisha’s instructions. And when he does—when he surrenders to the water– the healing grace of God flows over this leper of Aram—this doubly Not Chosen person—and his wounded skin is restored “like the flesh of a young boy.”

Aram and Israel. Kings, and prophets. Chosen and Not Chosen. Power and vulnerability. Mud and mercy. And all unexpectedly saturated with grace and healing; the blessing and presence of God. The Holy foundamong the complications and contradictions that clutter reality.

Centuries after Naaman’s story Luke wrote of an Israel that had not lost its capacity for complication, contradiction and conflict. Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Judeans,

Samaritans, Pharisees, and Sadducees, Pure and impure, Powerful and vulnerable,

Chosen and Not Chosen. Things really hadn’t changed much.  And into all of it Jesus sends the Seventy ahead of him, not in style but as lambs among wolves. He sends them to wade into a muddy conflicted world without bag, purse, or sandals. They are figuratively as naked and as vulnerable as Naaman—forced to rely on the grace of God and hospitality of others in a world that may—or may not—welcome them. The only thing they carry is the Good News of the inbreaking Kingdom of God. They are instructed to heal the sick—to restore people to shalem—the Hebrew word for wholeness. Jesus warned them that they would not always be successful—they would sometimes need to shake the dust off of their feet  when they left a place that did not accept the peace that they offered.

They were metaphorically being thrown into the deep end and told to swim. What would they encounter? What dangers might they face? The odds of success in these circumstances seemed pretty slim—more likely that they would return at length, dispirited and disillusioned. But no: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” With joy. They were sent out to do God’s work and they did it. They didn’t necessarily find it to be easy—but they did find it in the long run to be energizing and fulfilling in spite of the challenges—or perhaps because of them. They found blessing—they encountered the Holy–through God’s sustaining presence as they were sent into a hostile world.

Encountering the Holy doesn’t depend on our expectations. It confounds them. And these stories articulate a narrative of hope that is crucial in our own day—in our own world of complication, contradiction and conflict. We need to train our eyes to see where God is nudging God’s way into the mess, and drawing our attention to something new amidst the chaos.

During the pilgrimage I mentioned earlier I met Fr. Fuad Dagher, the parish priest of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefa ‘amr in the West Bank. His little church had recently opened a cultural center and school serving those in need regardless of faith tradition—Christian, Muslim, Jew. The mission of the church is to serve joyfully as the hands and feet of Christ—to bring shalem to the broader community.

I was really impressed with Fr. Fuad and his clear-eyed view of the complexity of his world—a part of Israel no longer occupied by the Roman Empire, but occupied nevertheless. The situation in Israel/Palestine grieved him. But he knew the difference between grief and despair, and he had no time for the latter. He embodied the complication of the world in which his community pursues its ministry, describing himself as: An Anglican, but not English. An Israeli but not a Jew. An Arab but not a Muslim. A Palestinian but not a terrorist. In short, what I encountered in him was a source of God’s grace and healing in an unexpected package. He was a conduit for the Holy, sent out seemingly as a lamb among a political wolfpack.

That was six years ago. Six years on, and the world has just gotten more complicated, more conflicted, more dangerous. I thought again about Fr. Fuad. Is it possible that he is still there? Surely things have gotten too complicated. Surely reality has muddied, if not destroyed his dream. Surely he has given up—disillusioned, disappointed.

But I thought, what can it hurt? So I emailed him. He is now Canon Fuad. Canon for Reconciliation for the Diocese of Jerusalem.  Serving, with joy. Still involved with the flourishing ministry of St. Paul’s in Shefa ‘amr, but also working with the wider community to spread the Good News of peace, justice and reconciliation. This somewhat sums up his mission: “We as a Church in a wounded Land, [have] a role to play, a role of Love and Acceptance, which does not mean relinquishing One`s own right and accepting defeat, but [instead] saying the truth in great courage and working for the truth in order to Reconcile [within] it.”

Canon Fuad and his ministry are thriving. With joy.  Against the odds.

The narrative of hope calls us to expect to be surprised and confounded, even bemused and discomfited by the fact that the Holy thrives in places where we could not have imagined. The narrative of hope calls us not only to see it, but to embrace it.

I know I left you hanging back there on the banks of the Jordan—so what did happen there? Well, to be honest, in the end we felt pretty much as awkward when we got back on the bus as when we got off. But here’s the crucial point: when the muddy river water had been sprinkled and splashed in our direction, as much as we may have been tempted, we didn’t duck. As those drops landed on our heads –and hands—and feet–we became part of the narrative of hope–part of Naaman’s story, the story of Jesus and the Seventy, and of Canon Fuad’s story as well.  We are all part of the often complex and disturbing Holy story—of human nature’s need for healing, of yearning for the Kingdom that is already and not yet, and of God’s ever-flowing grace and invitation to shalem,–however and wherever it may lead us. Amen.

Tension Harnessed

I want to begin with some questions, which as this unfolds you may be left initially bemused by. But stay with me and I trust all will become clear.

  • Are you a rule keeper or a rule breaker?
  • Do you value time honored traditions and rely on them as a guide in new situations, or do you recognize that new situations might need completely new responses?
  • Are you and extravert or are you an introvert?

The answer to these questions will indicate your likely approach to the tension created when tradition meets new challenges in how to be Christians in the contemporary world.

The collect for Pentecost 3 tells us that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus himself as the chief corner stone. This collect is particularly associated with the Sunday closest to June 29th, because June 29th is the day in the calendar when we celebrate the holy apostles Peter and Paul.

Both Peter and Paul have their own special day in the calendar, but June 29th is when the Church remembers them as two sides of the same coin. If as the collect says Christ is the chief corner stone, then to change the metaphor slightly, Peter and Paul are the towering pillars of the Christian Tradition.

The durability of custom and tradition and whether these are fit to meet the challenges of the times occupies us as a nation as we head into the 2020 elections. We are also grappling with his tensionit as we undertake the first major restoration of St Martin’s in 40 years. Someone asked me if I thought Jesus was interested in stones? I guess not in the sense of preserving them against the priorities of the coming of the kingdom. Buildings versus kingdom – no in that sense I don’t think God is interested in our stones.

Yet, buildings express something about the nature of human aspiration. What and who does our building inspire us to be in the world? In this sense it’s nothing more than a metaphor for the spiritual temple of Christ’s people at the corner of Orchard Ave and Orchard place.

In the O.T. reading on Pentecost 3, as Elijah’s mantle falls upon the shoulders of his servant Elisha – we can see the power of tradition being passed on. Authority and responsibility have fallen upon us to ensure that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls. In this way, authority and responsibility, two indivisible concepts, pass from one generation to the next.

So back to my opening questions.

Each question highlights two approaches to life. There are two kinds of human temperament and we see this played out in the tension between Peter and Paul. By bringing them together in this combined commemoration on June 29th each year Christian tradition recognizes that we must navigate the tension between two different ways of looking at the world – each represented in Peter and Paul.

In its wisdom, the Church recognized that Peter and Paul are the two sides of the one coin; harnessing the energy of difference in the service of the wider community of the church.

When we are able to navigate the tension between old and new wine, the church remains true to the mission of Christ in the world.

Peter is the expansive, passionate, and loving extravert. He’s the life and soul of the party. He burns hot and fast; a man whose energy requires harnessing within the boundaries of customs and traditions. Peter means rock. He is indeed the rock upon which the Church’s tradition is founded.

Paul is likewise an expansive and passionate man but he’s the charismatic introvert. He’s not an easy kind of guy to get along with and it’s easy to fall out with Paul. His passion is a passion of the curious and the questioning. He burns cool and slow until his energy, kept well in check suddenly blazes with a searing heat burning everyone in the room. When faced with the conflict between following custom and doing something new, Paul’s answer is always why not do the new thing – maybe thinking of Jesus parable saying new wine needs new wine skins.

Peter is the uneducated Galilean country bumpkin, a fisherman by trade who speaks before he thinks. Paul is the cosmopolitan product of the strictest religious faction; a pharisee of pharisees. But it’s Peter who shelters within the well fenced pastures of the Jewish Law, while Paul breaks out into unchartered territory among those hitherto considered as outside Israel’s promise.

There is a curious incident recorded in Galatians 2 when Peter comes up to visit Paul in Antioch, an incident that stimulates reading between the lines.

On entering the gentile Christian community in Antioch, Peter seems to have enjoyed the greater freedom from the strictures of Jewish law. But when the heavy hitters arrive from James, the head of the Jerusalem community, Peter runs for cover as the shit hits the fan over issues of food and circumcision.

Paul is incandescent with rage and confronts Peter to his face accusing him of being two faced. He says to Peter: you enjoyed fraternizing with non-Jews and eating non-kosher foods until these conservatives arrived from Jerusalem, when upon you pulled back and ran for the cover putting as much distance between you and your hitherto non-Jewish friends. If you a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your Jerusalem cronies?

We sit in a period of time when the demographic shift in church membership reflects a generational transition that at the moment does not look good for the future of institutional religion as we have known it. I imagine earlier commentators have said much the same in times of uncertainty and change, only to be proved wrong. In times of uncertainty, when the Christian tradition as we inherit it, seems inadequate to meet the needs of a new age, it’s important to remember that the pivotal points of change in have also given rise to the next great awakening.

It is misleading to view the future as a choice between being faithful to Tradition and reinventing the wheel. The incident reported in Galatians, reflects the enduring tension between fidelity to the tradition as the source of wisdom and experience of new challenges as boundaries expand.

The question is not how does the new replace the old, but how does tradition become renewed in the encounter with new challenges.

In the Episcopal church we deliberately position ourselves in that place of tension. Unlike the current iteration of Catholic authority, we do not seek to impose the tradition upon changing circumstances in the face of new challenges. It’s not an effective response to batten down the hatches of tradition because it does such violence to us as we struggle to live the lives we live. Also, it’s worth noting that what conservatives see as unalterable tradition is only the interpretation of tradition our grandparents handed on. Neither as liberal Protestantism has tended towards do we throw out the baby with the bathwater and invent the wheel all over again.

The Episcopal church remains faithful to the tradition we receive from the past because it’s our task to reinterpret to meet the needs of the times in which we live.

I think both Peter and Paul would agree with me when I say tradition is a poor cudgel, but a brilliant searchlight, illumining new pathways into the future.

It’s the Little Things

The featured image is courtesy of Catholic Online

In the reading from the First Book of the Kings the prophet Elijah is in a pitiful state of mind. He has just come from a major confrontation with the prophets of the Phoenician God Baal which has deeply angered Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. She’s now out for his blood. Despite his great victory over the prophets of Baal, his courage fails him, and Elijah flees to the southern kingdom of Judah from where he takes a day’s journey into the wilderness where he simply gives up and prepares to die under a broom tree. Yet, God has other plans for Elijah and I’ll return to these later.

By temperament I am drawn to the big brushstroke vision end of the spectrum. This means that for me being faithful in little things does not always come easily.

In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa of Calcutta  writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

This is a timely reminder for me and I suggest for all of us.

Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Mother Teresa

Last Thursday John Bracken, our Senior Warden, hosted a lunch for previous churchwardens – those still living, that is. Nine were able to accept John’s invitation and gathered around a long lunch table for what in essence became a process of shared reminiscence. We heard how each warden in their time had faced and surmounted difficult challenges. Amidst tales of woe, there was also much laughter as we mused upon some of the absurdities of human behavior.

No one at the table on Thursday imagined themselves as heroes who had achieved great things. In fact, I felt their experience was more akin to an attrition by a thousand small and tedious cuts. Yet listening to the men and women around that table brought home to me my deep admiration and gratitude for all those who when called answered the call to serve. In so doing these former churchwardens revealed a quality that Mother Teresa called the practice of fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that God is doing in our midst.

Sometimes we approach the call to be faithful with gritted teeth. But fidelity is a joyful experience and if we can be careful to note the desire to overreach, we can relax and enjoy being faithful, and take time and trouble in the small things of life.

An important question for all of us to ask ourselves is what sustains our life together in community? As I’ve noted community life can often feel like attrition of a thousand cuts that leave us drained and worn out. Servanthood can be costly and therein lies its real value because there’s no such thing as cheap grace.

Since Easter, increasingly aware of approaching the beginning of my sixth anniversary as rector, I had been asking God what is it that will emerge to sustain me for the next phase of my journey at St Martin’s. God responded with: I’m giving you the roof, Fr. Mark!

Actually, God doesn’t address me as Fr. Mark, but that’s beside the point for I have definitely heard the message of it’s the church roof. All I can say to that is ha God, you’re quite the joker!

This was not the message I wanted to hear. In fact, it frightened me because it immediately raised a question in my mind – will I be able to rise to this challenge? As the reality of a major renovation and the anticipation of a capital campaign sinks in, what I am coming to understand more clearly is that the roof is a catalyst for moving St Martin’s into the next phase of our journey as a community.

So, I want to share with you what I have discerned so far.

​Firstly, the church roof and tower are clearly physical realities that need urgent attention. Yet, they are also symbols and metaphors for something more than blocks of stone and strips of copper flashing.

​Secondly, roofs and walls are metaphors in stone and slate for the protection and nurturance of Christian community. We have been given a trust to fulfill so that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls.

​Thirdly, in the course of new renovation work we ​will ​have an opportunity to also update our facilities so to become a better resource for the wider community we are here to serve.

​Finally, the building as​ a​ temple is only a metaphor for the community as the temple of God’s presence in the world. Mounting a long overdue capital campaign enabling us to provide for a dynamic future, built on the solid foundations of a strong community will challenge us, ​requiring us to dig deeper discipleship wells in our own spiritual garden.

In First Kings 19 a passage rich in symbolism Elijah, who has slumped down under a broom tree, waiting to die, is roused from his lethargy and given food that will sustain him on his journey to the mountain of God where in an earlier time Moses had encountered God. Whether he realizes it or not, at a point of real crisis when the covenant between God and Israel is in real peril, Elijah returns to Israel’s spiritual wellspring.

However, despite this Elijah still does not know why he’s come. When God asks him why are you here? he continues to cry out in self-pity: why me, God; why has this disaster come to me; how can it be that I am left as the only prophet in Israel? Elijah in his depression and self-pity has forgotten that he’s not alone for at least 100 other prophets of Yahweh have also escaped Jezebel’s wrath.

Elijah is then given a lesson about the source of spiritual courage. He witnesses God’s devastating display of pyrotechnics; which seems thrown in simply for entertainment value.  After the noise and turbulence subside there comes upon Elijah the experience of sheer silence. This palpable silence piques his curiosity and draws him to the opening of the cave. This is as much a metaphor for emerging from shock and depression as it is a description of emerging from the physical cave in which he’s found shelter.

Elijah emerges into the silence to hear once again God’s question: what are you doing here Elijah? Although from the text Elijah seems to give his previous answer to this question, something in him has shifted. Elijah has discovered through the sheer silence of God’s communication that faithfulness is a series of small steps taken one after another. He’s now ready to hear God calling him to return to his mission.

. . . Be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Teresa of Calcutta

Happy Father’s Day and Happy Trinity!

The Easter Season comes to a close with three essential recognitions:

  • The first is the Ascension of Jesus at which God embraced the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. Can you imagine what that means? Being fully human is not simply a projection of the divine nature, but that the full humanity of the Our-Space dimension is now incorporated into the energies of the God-Space. If there was only one reason to be Christian, for me, this insight is it because of its implications for the way we live in Our-Space i.e., to be fully human is to be most like the divine.
  • The second concerns the meaning of the day of Pentecost. which I liken to the contra-flow to the Ascension through which the energies of the God-Space flow across the dimensional membrane to infiltrate and infuse Our-Space.
  • The third recognition is the celebration of the Holy Trinity.

Some of us are God people in that our temperament is attracted to the mysteriousness and essential un-knowable-ness of God the creator. I myself have a strong sympathy in this direction.

Others of us are Jesus people in that it’s the intimacy of God in the face, the life and actions of the human Jesus that speak to us because he was like us in every way. Because I’ve admitted my sympathies for the God the creator, I am also attracted to knowable-ness of God in the humanity in Jesus Yet, at times it’s all too close for comfort. Being ever mindful of God radiating through the human face of Jesus requires me to live with greater care and concern for my human neighbors than I feel comfortable with most of the time.

However, there is a third temperamental option – and some of us are Spirit people who just pulsate with the power and energy of the Spirit’s infusion. My temperament makes being a Spirit person the least likely option, Although I am not without passion, to live too closely to it is way too hot, too emotional for me. Spirit people run a gamut. Aat one end, there are those whose passion and energy achieve pioneering things, realigning the experience in Our-Space more closely with the expectations of the God-Space. At the other, lie those who luxuriate in a warm sentimental spiritual bath which celebrates the hubris of individualism. These are those who say they don’t need to be religious to be spiritual, those who don’t need to be a contributor to the work of God’s people in this world to be close to God.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus his followers were faced with reconciling an experience of God that contradicted everything they as Jews had come to understand about God.

These first followers of Jesus and those for several generations who followed after were not Christians as we understand the term.

We assume a clear-cut separation between Christianity and Judaism. Those we call early Christians simply thought of their new understanding of God as one option within a range of competing visions for 1st and 2nd-century Judaism – particularly in the period following the destruction of the Temple. However, it’s their new understanding of God that makes them stand out and leads eventually to what we now recognize as a separation into two distinct yet interconnected religious traditions.

The followers of Jesus knew God as the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew about the mysterious un-knowable-ness of God the Creator. Yet, they’d also had an experience of God encountered within the intimate boundaries of a human relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, who inextricably had died and yet been resurrected to a new life, a life after life after death. After Pentecost, they had come to know God as the all infusing and empowering Spiritual presence in the world. Jesus was no longer with his disciples because he had become Jesus now in his disciples; reshaping them into a new experience of being human that shaped and reshaped the magnetic nature of the way they lived together in communities – communities that eventually changed the ancient world.

Eventually, by around the 4th-5th centuries the immediacy of this early experience of God mediated in three distinct, yet unified experiences had dimmed with the result that a whole host of competing explanations about who and what Jesus was and the nature of his relationship to God arose to endanger the distinctiveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Was Jesus just a man (Arianism) or was he really a God in disguise (Docetism)? Was the Holy Spirit the spirit of Jesus in the world or was it an independent force that allowed an end-run around Jesus making him redundant because the believer now had an unmediated and individualized relationship with God (Gnosticism).

What we know as the doctrine of the Trinity as distinct from the intuitive experience of the triune God arose as a need not to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the mystery of God and the Christians experience of God from being reduced to only that which human beings in this or that time and place were able to comprehend rationally – a bit like the modern practice of rewriting the creed so that it makes rational sense to us in our day and age. For modern people the doctrine of the Trinity is couched in a philosophical language that is no longer ours and which we don’t really understand. Yet, maybe even in the 4th-5th-centuries it was no better understood because to make it comprehensible was never the aim. 

This brings me to my central point.  

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an explanation of the mystery of God but a protection of God’s freedom from being reduced and imprisoned within the limitations of human understanding.

In the 14th-century the Russian painter Anton Rublev conceived the revelation of the Trinity as three figures seated around a table. What’s most striking about Rublev’s icon is that each of the figures has exactly the same face. They gaze upon one another with exactly the same look of loving intimacy. Except for their dress and location around the table the figures are each mirror reflections of each other. The essence of the relationship between them lies in the quality of their mutual gaze; a gaze of loving recognition of their shared identity.

We are made to be relationship seeking beings. We find ourselves reflected in one another within the context of relationships and communities. In short, human beings are both relational and communal by nature. Why is this so?

The answer is that we are made in the image of a God who is a trinity – a divine community formed out of the interplay of loving relationship. The distinct elements of the divine community that we traditionally refer to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a statement about God’s gender but God’s mutual relationality. You can come up with alternative terms so long as these are capable of denoting the mutual relationships within the divine community. In this regard I prefer Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer to bring home to us a sense of ourselves as reflecting the centrality of relationship and community – the essential attributes of God. For instance, this is in sharp distinction to the attempt to escape gendered language by referring to God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. These are descriptors of function not articulations of relationship.

We thus become free to celebrate the multiple expressions of relationality encompassed within the divine nature. In 2019 the coincidence between the date of the Trinity and Father’s Day enables us to celebrate our human fathers [1]as the all too often imperfect but necessary and much loved expressions of the creativity, protection, and containing nurture of fatherhood of God.

Happy Father’s Day and happy Trinity Sunday!


[1]

  • Fatherhood is the masculine principle of creation, and a counterpart to the feminine principle of receptivity motherhood – both equally core attributes of God.
  • When our male fathers embody the divine principle of fatherhood, they become co-creators not just in the sense of biological procreation but as creators and protectors of an environmental and emotional space– within which the mother and infant experience an uninterrupted enjoyment of one another.
  • Fatherhood as a masculine principle is not coterminous with male gender.
  • Fathers need not be perfect but like mothers, need only to be good enough. They will sometimes fail in their early role as creators and protectors of the mother-infant relationship due to their own emotional unpreparedness for their role.

God’s Grandeur: Pentecost 2019

Prologue

Learning to read was a great gift to our granddaughter Claire – who has continued-on to become an avid reader. As a 3-year-old she would mimic her parents reading in bed. Lying on their bed she wanted to show us that she too could read a book. She would gabble away to herself in her 3-year-old language, clearly delighting in some gripping yarn, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that she was ostensibly reading the book upside-down.

When Claire first started reading whole books, I would ask her what she was reading? I’m reading a chapterbook, she would reply. I was struck by her response, which was to tell me about the type of book she was reading and not its content. By referring to her book as a chapterbook she got me thinking about the nature of story. Chapters organize the development and progression of  more complex stories. That was the point she had grasped; she was no longer reading books with a single simple story but was now reading books where the story progressed in stages by means of chapters.

Chapter 1

The term theology often has an adjective attached. For example, there is systematic, moral, pastoral, soteriological (salvation), ecclesial, mystical, and process theology, etc., etc. To call myself a theologian always seems somewhat pretensions and overblown, yet even if I think of myself as more of a practitioner, I guess theologian is an appropriate title for who I am and what I do.

But what kind of theologian am I? I suppose the adjective the I would attach to the title theologian would be narrative. As I continually assert in the entries of this blog, narratives are the building blocks of meaning. We make sense of the world around us, including making sense of ourselves to ourselves as well as to others through the construction of stories.

Constructing a story to make sense of her 3-year-old world was what Claire was doing when she lay on her parents’ bed mimicking their reading. It was irrelevant to her construction of a story that she was holding her book upside down. At 3-years of age, the problem for the rest of us was that only she could understand the story she was making.

The Bible is in a sense like one of Claire’s chapterbooks. It builds the story of God chapter by chapter. It’s primarily a story about God told from our perspective and each chapter is our attempt at making sense of our world.

Chapter 2

For Christians, the Story of Jesus forms the penultimate section of chapters in the long Biblical story. The the story of Jesus builds through the chapters chronicling Jesus’ birth. We read of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, before coming to a close with his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world.

The Jesus chapters form the penultimate part of the chapterbook of God because as Patel, the hotel manager in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us: Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.

Continuing with my analogy of the Bible as a chapterbook, Pentecost is the final chapter in the story of the Jesus cycle. In the previous chapter of the story called the Ascension, the all too human Jesus has passed through the membrane separating the parallel worlds of Our-Space and God-Space. As parallel dimensions, Our-Space and God-Space occupy the same location although separated by a permeable membrane that allows energy to flow from one to the other.

At the Ascension the post-resurrection but still human body of Jesus passes through the membrane from Our-Space to God-Space. In doing so Jesus does not jettison his humanity like a worn-out suit of clothes in order to don a new divine suit on the other side.vIn the Ascension, it’s his very humanity that is embraced and incorporated into the nature of God’s self.

In the present chapter called Pentecost, energy passes in the opposite direction, i.e. from God-Space to Our-Space. Having received Jesus’ full humanity into the divine nature, God now sends the divine Spirit back through the membrane to empower us – now constituted as the community called Church – to continue the work begun by Jesus.

Chapter 3

We have two ways of talking about Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter. The first focuses on the pyrotechnics of the day: wind, fire, and an experience of instantaneous translation between the speakers of myriad of languages. The second is to develop a wider perspective with a focus on the fruits of the day itself.

Tom Wright describes Pentecost as:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples

Pentecost Day Sermon 2017

This is how Luke tells the story.

Awe came upon everyone, ….All who belonged were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Acts 2

Luke’s description of the early Christian community is a description of what Our-Space infused with the energies of God-Space looks like. Equality and magnetic inclusion become the hallmarks of such a community where the phrase: from all according to ability -to all according to need – is lived out in real time. This produced among the first Christians the most magnetic community that drew increasing numbers of people into a new way of being human – in a new kind of community – namely –a community investing itself in those who had yet to become members.

Chapter 4

This image of Christian community frightens us – and so it should! For it stands as a perpetual indictment upon the values and practices thatwe live by in our own society.

Luke’s story in Acts 2 raises serious questions for us. Chief among them is how is this vision of transformation and risky living shaping the story we currently tell ourselves about American society? Clearly, there are several answers to this question because there are always competing visions. What matters is not the competing visions for our society, but the kind of Christianity that informs these visions?

As Episcopalians we pride ourselves on espousing a tolerant inclusive Christian vision. Yet, while heavy on tolerance and inclusion we run light on accountability. We like faith as a comfort as long as we can remain unchanged by its disturbing imperatives.

Many of us understand faith as personally life changing. We also understand that there is a connection between personal transformation and the process for social change – the WWJD -what would Jesus do, question. Yet, we also expect our faith to let us off lightly by making few demands on us. We do not expect to be made accountable to the imperatives of our faith.

The presence of God’s Spirit in the world of Our-Space demands of us transformation along the lines experienced by the first Christians.

To make a start:

  • We cannot engage in acts of charity towards the less fortunate while failing to confront systems that deprive whole communities of access to the fruits we expect to enjoy.
  • We cannot reject calls for personal accountability in our communities – leaving when we fell challenged or uncomfortable might be an option for members but not disciples.
  • The story we live by tells us we need to feel troubled if the fruits of our own material success blind us to the inequalities in wider society.
  • We need to stop expecting our faith to insulate us and allow it to disturb us.

Conclusion

Next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, signals the beginning of my 6th year at St Martin’s. I view my first five years as the period when we together stabilized the parish community and prepared it for new change and growth by deepening our encounter with spiritual resources, chiefly the Bible. So, what will the next five years bring us? More particularly, how will our challenges open us and to unforeseen possibilities? All I know at the moment is that without challenge, the stability we have achieved will slowly dissipate over time.

Pentecost reminds us that in looking forward to the next stage of community life, we know three things:

  1. In a community where many of us earn our daily bread in the financial investment sector, we of all people should know that the more we invest, the richer the return on our investment.
  2. Therefore, our community is only as real as the energy we invest in transforming whatever challenges lie ahead into opportunities.
  3. That which we can imagine for ourselves; that which through hard work and effort we can build by ourselves, pales in comparison to that which God – working through us – can and will empower us into.

Let us not forget that Pentecost celebrates:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples was translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples. 

PARAPHRASE of N.T. Wright

Now herein lies both our challenge and our opportunity!

Nobody’s Free until Everybody’s Free

Easter 7 Year C  Acts 16:16-34   

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs

It’s sad that I almost forgot about a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, she was a community organizer and civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights activist who was poll-taxed, literacy-tested, censored, arrested and mercilessly beaten in her struggle for justice and equality in the 1960’s and early 70’s. In her speech at the founding of the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 she made the declaration that you just heard.

“The changes that we have to have in this country are going to be for the liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer was outshone by other bright figures in the movement—M.L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, but her courage and persistence in the face of so many obstacles deserves more than a footnote in history.

That’s why it’s sad that I almost forgot her. Growing up in (barely) post-Jim Crow Virginia I didn’t hear much about her—certainly not in school–so I suppose it’s understandable. Threats to the racial status quo were rarely part of the standard school curriculum in my part of the country. But those of us who didn’t learn enough about Fannie Lou Hamer missed out. And since she has shown up on my radar twice now in the past few weeks, I’m taking the opportunity to see what she still has to say.

Today’s lesson from Acts is all about freedom and becoming free. It’s also about what still enslaves us.

The Acts of the Apostles, or Acts, is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author. Luke’s Gospel ends, and Acts begins, with the same event; the Ascension of Jesus into glory at God’s right hand, which we celebrated this past Thursday evening, marking 40 days after the Resurrection. This period we are now in—the ten days from Ascension to Pentecost next Sunday, marks the birthing of the Church. Acts chronicles the first steps of the Body of Christ as the growing communities wrestled with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

It isn’t called “Acts” for nothing. It is one adventure after another as Paul, Peter, Silas, Timothy and the gang encounter mobs and demons, shipwrecks and assassination plots, miraculous healings and impossible escapes as they make their way around the Mediterranean world spreading the Good News and expanding the Church by leaps and bounds.

It is exciting and fun to read, but there is more to the story than action, drama, and the occasional earthquake ex machina. Today’s passage is about encounters with various kinds of enslavement: Paul, Silas, and their companions arrive in Philippi, a colony that is under Roman political domination. They encounter a woman possessed both by master and spirit. The apostles are imprisoned and tortured for threatening to upend the cultural and political status quo. The shackles aren’t just in the inner chamber of the dungeon—they are everywhere in this story—political, cultural, economic, and spiritual.  This story is about how the bound became free; but not all of them. It’s about whether, at the end of the tale, we will not only celebrate those who have been liberated, but remember that one has been left behind.

…as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.

Paul being quoted by Luke

This is a woman twice-bound: possessed both by a spirit and by her owners, for whom she is a source of income. As she hounds Paul for days, identifying him to everyone as a follower of Jesus, we wonder what is wrong with her message. Is she not speaking the truth that the missionaries serve God and proclaim the Good News? Yes, but the context is important. The word Luke uses for the spirit of divination is very specific—pneuma puthonos, or spirit of Python. Python is the mythological snake, slain by Apollo, which once guarded the Oracle at Delphi. So when Paul, finally fed up by being badgered by this spirit, orders it to leave the woman, he is exerting power, not over a demon, but over a vital cultural norm of the Roman community; the worship of pagan gods. Anti-Jewish sentiment was already powerful in the colony, and what Paul has done is a major insult.

So the woman is freed from the spirit, but remains bound to her masters, who now see her as useless to them, and for this they publicly blame Paul and his friends:

These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.

Christians were perceived by Romans to be a threat to the order and organization that made their civilization—the Pax Romana—possible and successful. Obedience and conformity to societal norms were hallmarks of the Roman way of life, and these upstart Christian Jews, who worshiped just one God, refused to pay allegiance to the emperor, and whose worship included cannibalism (body and blood, really?) were not to be tolerated.

One of the characteristics of Empire is its need to preserve itself, often regardless of the cost. And thus the brutal treatment of Paul and his friends is accepted as justified. But the jailer arguably shows himself to be as much victim as perpetrator in this situation. Imagine knowing that your only choice in the face of disaster is to kill yourself: Is he not as bound by the Empire as are his captives? So in the aftermath of the earthquake and in the presence of God’s mercy, is he not also freed? He is free to feed the hungry prisoners and to bind up their wounds. And he is freed to spread the Good News to others, adding to the growing tally of baptized believers.

Richard Rohr would describe the liberation of the jailer in terms of transformation through the Spirit: transforming the jailer from being a hurt person hurting people into being a wounded healer healing people. Because God’s liberation is not just the liberation of the oppressed. It is the liberation of the oppressor. The freedom into which most of the people in this story emerge is not a freedom to do whatever they want. It is the freedom to follow God’s call to serve and proclaim, free of the shackles of fear of difference and unrealistic expectations in others and ourselves; freedom to be vulnerable and to serve with joy. It is freedom from the need to commodify our relationships–of objectifying others as a means to our own ends, and instead being freed to relate to everyone as the beloved children of God that they are.

This story calls us to celebrate God’s liberating power. It calls us to celebrate the courage and trust it takes to surrender to the freedom of the Kingdom work of healing, compassion and justice.

And this story calls us to do something else. Something we almost forgot.

Remember?

Remember the slave girl? Remember that, freed of the spirit of divination, she is no longer of monetary value to her masters. She is now silent; she hasn’t said a word since Paul’s exorcism. She is the one person in this story for whom freedom is not complete.  The potential future scenarios for a woman no longer of worth or profitable use in the first century Roman world are not pleasant to contemplate. Her fate is a lingering question, a part of the story that remains unwritten. What are we to make of it?

Let her silence speak to us. Let it speak for all those in every age who remain economically culturally, politically, or spiritually imprisoned or enslaved. Let this silent nameless woman speak for them.

Never forget: Nobody’s free until everybody’s free

Amen.

Memorial Sunday Thoughts

The Memorial Day weekend betokens the promises of summer. We are all exhausted; exhausted by the long grueling New England winter; exhausted by a culture of work that despite its rhetoric despises and works against the interests of an effective work-life balance; exhausted by low paying and therefore the need for often multiple jobs. Our kids are exhausted by an outdated culture of teaching to tests and the consequent parental anxiety that results in overscheduling. The three-day Memorial Day Weekend is a godsend for many of us, and so I trust that families and friends will find time for well needed recreation.

However, the three-day weekend commemorates a more solemn theme; which is an invitation to a grateful nation to honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

After 20 years of involvement in continual low level conflict in the Middle East sanctioned by a seeming permanent State of Emergency, we face the risk of growing even more cynical about of our national global military strategy, or the seeming lack thereof.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War Joseph Laconte writing about the tenacity and courage of the ordinary British soldiers who endured the unspeakable horrors in the trenches of the Great War, comments:

Historians still debate the ultimate achievement of these soldiers, and the causes for which they fought. Were they merely fodder for a vast and merciless military machine that ravaged Europe to no good end? Or did they play a vital role in halting ….. aggression and preventing the dominance of a brutal and oppressive juggernaut over the Continent?

In this section of the book, Laconte is locating the origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision for the Hobbits and the role they played in his seminal Lord of the Rings epic. Tolkien the soldier, lived among, and fought alongside, very ordinary men plucked from the shires and towns of the British Isles. Laconte continues:

Thus the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work.

Joseph Leconte

Laconte’s words could equally be applied to the men who made up the armies of the American Civil War; men plucked from the farms and towns of a nation barely 90 years old. It is said that there is no more brutal conflict than when fellow citizens – brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles take up arms against one another. As the armies of the Civil War crossed and re-crossed each other in what must at the time have seemed an endless game of tug-of-war for territory and advantage, it was also the women, the children, and the old men who remained at home who bore the brunt of this savage conflict. The American Civil War was the first mechanized war of the modern era. It presaged the true horror of a fully mechanized conflict between industrialized nations in the First World War, still rightly referred to as the Great War.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. He commented that:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.

General John A. Logan

Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was first known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. [1]

In 2019, the commemoration of the nation’s fallen in war evokes complex feelings. The great national emergencies of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War make it easy to feel proud of our experience of war. Both wars were fought in pursuit of a noble cause. However, the Vietnam War together with today’s continuous low level conflict in the Middle East evoke more ambivalent feelings in us about the merits of war.

Today, Memorial Day reminds us of a largely hidden veteran presence among us; a population of minds and bodies scarred by the trauma of war; war no longer as an epic struggle involving the whole nation, but of war as an interminable state of low level conflict the brunt of which is born by members of racially and economically deprived sections of society.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, And A Great War, Joseph Laconte seeks to uncover the sources of the hugely imaginative writings of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S Lewis. Both men enjoyed a strong friendship forged by their common experience in the First World War. Their friendship grew out of a mutual need to take the memory of the horror of their experience of war and sublimate it into imaginative works of fiction that hold in tension the horror of war with the hope for something better. Together, Tolkien and Lewis created a transgenerational rediscovery of faith, friendship, and heroism.

In 1912, Cecil Spring Rice was appointed Ambassador from the Court of St James (Great Britain) to the United States. He was hugely influential in persuading Woodrow Wilson to commit America’s entry into the Great War. In 1918 he was recalled to Britain. Before he left he penned the words to the text that became the hymn I vow to thee my country. Rice’s words were later set by Gustav Holst to the tune Thaxted, a tune taken from the Jupiter Movement of his Planets Suite.

The two verses of the hymn are juxtaposed and give voice to a tension – a tension that also weaves its way in and out of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ writing; a tension we are today still grappling with. Is love of country and love of God one in the same?  Often these two loves are rolled together as if they are one, to love country is to love God and vice versa. But Rice juxtaposes the verses to evoke a tension between two kinds of love.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Cecil Spring Rice

The love that leads men and women to sacrifice their lives in war, while noble is also regrettable and grieves the heart of God. If we could but focus on our love of God, perhaps war as the embodiment of love of country would no longer be a continued reality in our national life.

Nevertheless, we can leave the unanswered questions about the purpose for and end achieved by particular wars. With gratitude we remember those who willingly, yet also with regret, were called upon to give their lives simply because they were unfortunate enough to live in a time when this sacrifice was asked of them. Let us pray that it not be asked of us.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. For the Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon


[1] Taken form the History.Com

Heaven on Earth

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_ju7o4Kl6Y

I am grateful to Bret Neely in the blog A Plain Account for reminding me of Belinda Carlisle and her song, a veritable blast from the past for all us 80’s boppers. Belinda Carlisle spoke about the song as a song of hope that might encourage each of us to make our lives a little piece of heaven on earth.

I am today, by which I mean that I have not always been, a card-carrying member of the Tom Wright fan club. Tom Wright is an Anglican bishop and our Tradition’s foremost biblical scholar -more commonly known in his writing as N.T. Wright.  

I am not uncritical of some of his more socially conservative opinions, but in the area of biblical scholarship I find him inspiring. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright tells us that:

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. 

Many Christians today think that resurrection means being raised to spiritual life after death. According to this view resurrection is a triumph of love over death. We don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that – because resurrection is really an internal spiritual experience that means that all of us will go to heaven to live with God after we die. This is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. This may be a cleaver example of alliteration where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one, but it is truly, terrible theology.

In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise.  Throughout the Old Testament God continually affirms his promise of a final resurrection of creation in a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time. It’s only within the continuity of this promise of final fulfilment of creation itself, that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense. Jesus’ resurrection is not a generalizable spiritual event. It’s a next step in the unfolding of God’s purposes, made plain in the promise of total renewal of the creation in a new heaven and new earth.

On Easter day I spoke about living between two bookends. Our earthly life unfolds between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of in a new heaven and new earth. Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present.

This first point is this. There is the important distinction between simply looking forward to a future fulfilment of the promise and anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Tom Wright contends that the first Christians deliberately used the Jewish concept of resurrection –a belief they shared with many other Jews, in particular the Pharisees.  Here is the second point to note. For Pharisee Jews and the followers of Jesus, resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-long promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death. This is what is meant by a new heaven and a new earth. Which brings me to the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the epistle appointed for Easter V.

Resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-old promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death

In the N.T. we have possibly four Johns. There is John the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, the gospel writer who must have been closely connected to John the beloved of Jesus, John the Elder who is the author of the letters of 1st and 2nd , a early second-century leader of the community established by John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos or John the Divine, the recipient of a powerful dream of the end time, which he wrote down in the book of Revelation.

Revelation is a tricky book to interpret and most Episcopal preachers stay as far away from it as we can for fear of being tarred by the wilder excesses of literalist interpretations that circulate in Pentecostal and fundamentalist versions of Christianity. Yet, Revelation is part of the apocalyptic (end time) literary genre that is woven-throughout the Old Testament and on into the New; a genre couched in dream imagery and the language of mystical symbolism.

The main thing to note in Revelation 21 is that the heavenly new Jerusalem, bedecked as a bride for her wedding day is not ascending into heaven, but is coming down from heaven to establish a new order in this world. In the promise that there will come a time when there is no more mourning and crying , a time when pain will end, God proclaims not only that he is making all things new, but that the home of God is not in heaven but down here among mortals, with us, in real time.

Between the resurrection of Jesus and the final completion we live in the here and now of eternal life. That does not mean we will live forever and never die. It means that the purpose of our earthly lives is eternal. Eternal life – whatever it might mean after physical death – is in this life a purpose and energy not subject to the limitation of time.

Eternal life is to live in anticipation of the resurrection as something that is already taking place and not simply something that happened to Jesus alone, or is still to come.

On Sunday morning we will baptize a new baby girl named Amaya.  Amaya will be baptized into eternal life. By this I don’t mean her soul will be saved. I believe that in the beauty of her birth, her soul is already God’s. No, though baptism Amaya will be made a member of the holy people of God, a member of Christ’s body on earth, a servant of heaven in this world. Amaya will be made a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the holy people of God in this world.

Remember Tertullian’s cry: one Christian is no Christian. You can be a spiritual person and you can even perhaps have a generalized spiritual experience of the triumph of love over death, but neither of these makes you a Christian.

Being a Christian is about belonging, before believing. It’s about being part of a grand project if working tirelessly for the healing of the world, of being partners with God in putting the world to rights. It is living a life bracketed between the bookends of Jesus resurrection and the resurrection of the world. A living in anticipation of resurrection as already taking effect.

A life of anticipation that is the hallmark of bringing about the new heaven on earth – in real time!

In the resurrection God raised Jesus to new life after life after death as the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven (Tom Wright). Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

It might come as a surprise to many of us to discover N.T. Wright and Belinda Carlisle in the same company – ha!

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