In the Year of the Lord’s Favor

We continue in Luke’s 4th chapter with an accounting of the beginnings of Jesus’ active ministry. Two weeks ago, in the dramatic scenes Luke described Jesus attending sabbath worship in the Nazareth synagogue. Having taken his place, Jesus indicated his desire to read, and Luke tells us he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Taking the scroll, Jesus unrolled it to a specific place and began to read:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,

Because the LORD has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound …

To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.


Handing back the scroll to the attendant Jesus sits down to begin his further interpretation of the text. Luke reports that all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him as Jesus began with a momentous statement:

today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

Now we know that Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown – the place where he had grown up. Luke reports that at first the congregation were amazed – awestruck at Jesus eloquence.

All spoke well of him, and asked is not this Joseph’s son?

Of course, everyone knew him. They knew his mother Mary and his father Joseph, the village carpenter. They knew his brothers and sisters – they were his friends and neighbors. Because of this they were all the more amazed and perhaps stirred with pride in their hometown boy.

Luke hints that report of Jesus teaching at Capernaum had already preceded his arrival in Nazareth, so the congregation may well have greeted him with already raised expectations. They begged him:

Do here also in your hometown the things that we have head you did at Capernaum.

But Jesus replies:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own hometown.

Oh! You can feel the bewildered deflation.

Luke tells us that at this point the mood in the synagogue dramatically shifts from universal praise to sheer rage – a rage so powerful that in a few minutes it transforms a congregation hanging on his every word into a lynch mob intent on throwing him off the brow of the village cliff face. How come?

We sense Jesus’ unease in response to their acclamation. So he quotes to them the saying that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown. Often interpreted as an explanation for the crowd’s turning on him, if we focus only on these words we miss the point of what’s really going on here. In effect, Jesus is saying a prophet is accepted only if he privileges his hearers relationship to his message in some way – confirming their expectations and affirming their prejudices.

Isaiah’s words were regarded by Jesus’ Jewish hearers as a manifesto for their liberation as God’s chosen people. They are roused to murderous rage at his suggestion that others also – even members of other despised and hated communities – are included in the dispensation of God’s favor.

There’s a whole lot of historical baggage of hatred and animosity between these northern Jews of the Galilee and their Phoenician and Syrian neighbors. Therefore, it’s intolerable for them to hear Jesus including them within Isaiah’s prophecy of liberation. Jesus is referencing God’s favor extending to those who are not like us. It’s one thing to quote with approval from Isaiah – it’s quite another to tell his Jewish hearers that God of Israel’s favor is not exclusive to them. 

Here is Jesus’ first practical teaching on love your enemies – because it’s not up to us to confine the boundaries of God’s favor – which he is at pains to point out – is given without discrimination.

Last week’s weather cancelled both in person and livestream worship. In the sermon I had prepared for then I drew a line of connection between the response of Jesus’ Nazareth friends and neighbors and our current experience of the resurgence of white supremacist nationalism. You can read the text and hear the audio podcast as usual on the worship webpage for last week. The connection I drew out then is this. To be told that God’s favor extends indiscriminately to not only those we consider not like us but to those we historically and culturally consider not only outside the dispensation of God’s favor but the recipients of God’s disfavor -is a terrifying prospect. For Jesus’ Galilean hearers as well as today’s white supremacists, their restriction of the boundaries of God’s favor exclusively to themselves must now be defended and enforced with violence.

Today’s gospel passage from Luke moves us into the next phase at the start of Jesus ministry – the call of his first disciples. The Old & New Testament lessons for today both take up the theme of vocatio – vocation rendered variously as calling, invitation, even summons. Unlike Jesus’ Nazareth family, friends, and neighbors; unlike white nationalists and evangelical white supremacists – we are the recipients of God’s favor not through birth or membership of an exclusive group of racial privilege – not through simply being Jewish or being white skinned.  We enter the dispensation of God’s favor through conscious response. We choose to be among those who receive God’s favor when we respond to the invitation – maybe even for some of us, the urgent summons of the call to follow Jesus.

Isaiah and Paul were both persons who experienced their personal identities collapse, their view of self and world transform in the face of the forceful and mystical urgency of God’s summons to serve. For Peter the response to being called by Jesus began with the experience of being shamed and humbled in the face of an overwhelming experience of God’s generous abundance (the huge haul of fish). All three heard God’s summons – a call to serve in realizing God’s dream for the world. All three accepted God’s invitation. For each the circumstances differed – yet something of a common blueprint for acceptance of God’s call was established in each instance – namely a process that begins with a reordering of self and worldview through a spontaneous act of repentance.

Where’s our experience of repentance without which we will remain blind to the urgency of God’s call to become more fit for the purposes we’re being summoned to? It’s this lack of repentance -the necessary precondition for the reordering of our comfortable lives and our easy and complacent relationship to the world as those who believe themselves to be included within God’s favor without any effort on our part. For aren’t we also good people just doing what good people do?

Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

What is our relationship to the year of the Lord’s favor – are we within or without? Our readiness for an attitude of repentance might be our best guide to the answer.

God’s Favor – a Precarious Thing

Last week, in Luke 4: 1-21, rising to his feet in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This, he proclaims is his messianic manifesto – fulfilled in the here and now. He’s greeted with rapturous applause as his hearers – hearing in his words – a message of nationalist liberation. Today, Luke continues in versus 21-30 to show how quickly moods can change as Jesus seemingly goes out of his way to confront the congregation’s jubilation with two well-aimed inconvenient truths.

To get behind this gospel passage we first need to know a little Jewish history. Jesus lived at the tail end of a period that began around 140 BCE. This was a period that marked an astonishing, if final flourishing of an independent Jewish state, that is, until the the founding, of the modern state of Israel.

In 140 BCE, the Maccabean revolts having liberated Jerusalem and Judea from Hellenic-Syrian control established the Hasmonaean dynasty – initiating a period of Jewish reunification of the territories of the former United Kingdom of Israel and Judah prior to the fall of the Northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE. Yet, despite the successful reunification of former Hebrew territories stretching from the coast to beyond the Jordan, Jewish independence remained a precarious thing. Sandwiched between Hellenic mini-empires –the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemys in Egypt, the Hasmonean kingdom maintained itself as a political entity through alliances of convenience with the Roman Republic to the West and the Parthian Empire to the East.

But in 37 BC the last Hasmonaean king was supplanted by Herod the Great – the Herod of Biblical fame. Herod was not a Jew but an Ituraen – or using the earlier name, and Edomite. His accession marked not only the end of the Hasmonaean dynasty but Israel’s fragile independence. For Herod, despite some appearance of autonomy – was really a proxy for indirect Roman power. On his death the Romans interfered directly, dividing his kingdom into three Jewish protectorates under each of Herod’s three sons – Archelaus, Antipas, and Fillippus as titular rulers of the now Roman provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Iturea-Trachonitus, respectively. In response to the psychopathic Archelaus’ routine massacres of his own people, the Romans deposed him and took over direct rule in Judea placing it under a Roman procurator.

Jesus’ home province of Galilee remained under the titular control of Herod Antipas – again of biblical fame. Despite the success of the Hasmonean period, the Jews of the Galilee had suffered periodic brutal incursions at the hands of the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon – the non-Jewish regions along the coastal strip of what is now Lebanon. By Jesus’ time a legacy of considerable racial animosity had built up among the Galileans towards the Phoenicians.

So, returning to events in the Nazareth synagogue, how are we to understand why the congregation was so quickly roused to rage against the man who a moment ago they had been extolling with jubilation?

Not for the last time will Jesus respond to the acclamation of the crowd with a word designed to burst the bubble of misguided enthusiasm. We sense his unease in response to their acclamation as he tells them tells that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown.

This has often been interpreted as an explanation for the crowd’s turning on him. But this doesn’t make sense given that only a moment ago he had them eating out of his hand. Something more is going on here. In effect, Jesus is saying a prophet is accepted only if he tells his hearers what they want to hear.

Isaiah’s words were regarded by Jesus’ Galilean hearers as a manifesto for their liberation as God’s chosen people. They were roused to rage when they heard Jesus referencing from a story about and encounter between Elijah and a widow of Zarephath – a hated Phoenician. They were further incensed at the mention of the encounter between Elisha and Naaman, the general of the Syrian army that had vanquished the Kings of Israel and Judah. It’s one thing to quote with approval from Isaiah. It’s another to tell his audience that they are not the only recipients of God’s favor. 

Here is Jesus’ first practical teaching on love your enemies – because it’s not up to his audience to confine the boundaries of God’s favor – which Jesus is at pains to point out – is given without favor.

In 2021 there are sections of our society which continue to experience historic and systematized discrimination. Discrimination results from historic definitions of who is excluded from God’s favor. Those outside of God’s favor – become the objects of God’s disfavor.

In our society, the favored feel free to assume God’s disfavor with such groups through random forms of violence against them. Serious violence becomes systematized – expressed through economic and environmental discrimination – that continues to disadvantage very specific communities. More serious still, the systemic violence against communities not included in the definition of those worthy of God’s favor – becomes embedded in the DNA of the criminal justice system’s courts, prisons, and police.

Only this week we heard of a current instance of this. Under the First Step Act, an algorithm identifies a low-risk category of incarcerated offenders in deciding who is eligible for early release. It’s been noted that the algorithm currently identifies only 7% of Black and Latino offenders compared with 31% of white offenders as eligible for early release. In our society even the computer algorithms operate racial bias.

There are sections of our society who rather like the congregation at Nazareth have historically assumed automatic inclusion within God’s favor. Like the Nazarites – any challenge to this set of assumptions provokes real fear and rage. Much of the current resurgence of white supremacy is a reaction similar to the way the Nazareth congregation pivoted on the head of a pin from jubilation to rage.

America is growing less white and becoming more polychrome. The problem for groups at the top of the racial pecking order is the fear of falling from preeminence. Such groups become highly vulnerable to political and social media manipulation into believing a culture war is about to displace them with a loss – largely imagined – of privileges and prestige. Therefore, the boundaries of God’s favor must now be defended-enforced with violence.

White nationalist evangelicalism equates a failure – despite some frightening successes – of imposing in God’s name their own cultural norms on the whole of society – as a widespread conspiracy to take away their religious and civil rights. The stark choice presented by the zero-sum thinking is if you’re not on top then you must be at the bottom.

Peter Marty writing in Christian Century identifies behind white supremacy a more aggressive resentment:

a fear-based panic that typically involves some form of rage. Most White grievance is built on a perceived sense of being under siege. The aggrieved think of themselves as a persecuted people, wronged and under attack. In order to cultivate White victimhood, purported enemies must be fashioned or imagined enemies who can then be targeted and attacked.

How quickly the persecutors imagine themselves the persecuted. In psychology we speak of a mechanism called projective identification. This is where our own unacknowledged fears and resentments are projected into others. The unacknowledged violence in our own hearts becomes the fear of violence at the hands of a largely fictional other.

Sections of the white community now fear being on the receiving end of the violence they have historically meted out to nonwhite groups. Thus, historic white-rage-driven-violence is projected outwards and exploited for political advantage – now by one of the two major political parties – to the point of now threatening the very foundations of our democracy. How lethal is the need to preserve the illusion of being the sole recipients of God’s favor.

We cannot completely get inside the mindset of the 1st-century community of Galilean Jews who heard Jesus’ prophetic and political proclamation in the synagogue at Nazareth. Yet we can surmise that their sudden raging reaction towards Jesus had something to do with the sudden realization that they were not the exclusive recipients of Isaiah’s words of God’s favor.  Jesus tells them that God shows favor without regard, even to those they deemed unworthy of divine inclusion. Put into today’s context of White rage – God shows favor even to those you fear – a fear based simply on your own record of persecution of them.

As we have persecuted others so now we fear they will persecute us. After all, everyone is just like us, aren’t they?

Seeing is Believing

Image: Water into Wine, Sadao Watanabe.

The gospel according to John proceeds through its first chapter at a breathless pace. The writer whom we know as John the Evangelist – who while not John the Beloved Disciple is someone who may have known John personally. He is the one who records and passes-on the unique teaching tradition of the Beloved Disciple – a teaching tradition that had remained distinct from the mainstream apostolic tradition recorded in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Feel the pace of the narrative. Chapter 1: 29 we read: The next day Jesus appears before John for baptism. Then again at verse 35: The next day – Andrew, one of men who witnessed the baptism followed Jesus and introduced his brother Simon to Jesus. Verse 43 opens with again: The next day –Philip enters the picture and follows Jesus. Philip finds Nathaniel and announces the joy of his discovery – we have found him about whom Moses wrote, Jesus, from Nazareth – to which Nathaniel, ever the whit replies: can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Day one, day two, day three – a symbolic sequence for John who from the outset wants us to be aware of how the story ends – Jesus’ final three days. John’s  schema is captured by T.S Eliot: The end is where we start from. Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. Chapter 2 opens with: On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.

We catch our breath as we’ve been propelled through the first chapter – having moved from the majestic opening of the prologue – words conjuring up images worthy of any Star Trek movie – to finding ourselves on the planet’s surface -so to speak – watching God’s only son coming and going among the local inhabitants – calling this one and then these ones, before arriving at the most domestic of all scenes – a local small town wedding where there seems to be a problem about the wine.

The first part of John’s Gospel is also known as the Book of Signs. Rather than following the chronological narrative of Jesus birth and life followed by Matthew and Luke according to the blueprint established by Mark, after locating Jesus ‘ identity as the pre-existing Word – the logos – the communicative element of the divine nature – John proceeds to build his Jesus narrative around seven signs – each designed to demonstrate and confirm Jesus’ divine origin and purpose.

There are seven signs in all beginning with:

  1. Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11)
  2. Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54)
  3. Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15)
  4. Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14)
  5. Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21)
  6. Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
  7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45)

John’s sign stories certainly contain inexplicable-miraculous happenings. But to get into a debate about whether miracles as supernatural events happen or not is to miss John’s purpose. Signs always have the function of pointing beyond themselves to something greater. We are in the season after the Epiphany and John intends to draw our attention to a rolling sequence of epiphanies – a Greek word meaning showings that reveal to the disciples an inner truth about Jesus’ divine identity and purpose – truth accessible only through the medium of faith.

The Wedding at Cana is a favorite text at weddings. It’s noted in the Preamble to the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer that Jesus was present at this wedding event – seemingly an indication of God’s valuing of lifelong marriage as a reflection of relational love shared within the divine community.

The story has some other interesting features.

  1. We are told that Mary, who in John is never referred to other than as the mother of Jesus seems one of the principal guests – named first with Jesus lumped in with his disciples in second place.
  2. We are left to wonder why the bride and groom appear nowhere in the story. Their wedding is simply the convenient backdrop for the focus of action between Jesus and his mother and then between Jesus and the minor servants.
  3. When Mary tells Jesus the wine has run out he responds: Woman, what concern is that to you or me? Addressing his mother as Woman seems abrupt and dismissive to our ears. Yet, we need to note however, that his use of the address woman – sounding to us like the all too familiar patriarchal putdown of women – is also the way he addresses Mary when standing at the foot of the cross he entrusts her to the care of John the beloved disciple: Woman, behold your son. Here, woman communicates respect and the agonies of love and loss.
  4. Having seemingly dismissed his mother’s concern, her response is in the vein of whatever son.  She dismisses his tone of rather priggish self-importance and remaining confident he will do the right thing instructs the servants to do as he tells them.
  5. Having appeared to dismiss his mother’s implicit request, Jesus does as she obviously intended him to do.

Christian commentators have seen in the transformation of the contents in the huge stone jars of water reserved for ritual purification into wine as a sign of Jesus abrogating the old law of the Mosaic Covenant. A better interpretation of this is that water used to delineate the boundaries of ritual purity – a form of exclusion –now becomes the wine of welcome and inclusion.

Who is the audience witnessing this first sign? Only Mary and the disciples witness and understand what Jesus has done. No one else at the wedding has any inkling – which causes the steward of the celebration to exclaim wonderment at why the groom has broken with common sense and custom and served the best wine last after everyone is well on the way to being drunk.

Down the centuries, the more Puritan in the Christian community have felt perplexed that John should report a wedding event as the first sign of the kingdom. After all, a wedding where the main thrust of the narrative revolves around the quantity and quality of the wine- seems a somewhat trivial if not unworthy image for the coming of the kingdom.

Others, however, have welcomed and been affirmed by John presenting Jesus at a wedding as the setting for the first of his signs that the kingdom has come. It’s reassuring that Jesus seems to have enjoyed parties – and that occasions of joy and merriment involving eating and drinking reveal a great deal about the nature of God’s kingdom – as a place of abundance in the form of the good things of life – wine and food, celebration of love, drunken bonhomie – symbolizing the goodness of creation.

This story of the Wedding at Cana is unique to John. There is no overlap here with the synoptic tradition. Nevertheless, my question this morning is how do we hear the first of John’s signs of the kingdom as a 21st-century audience?

In the short term, receiving this story finds us in a place of need. Into the third year of a global pandemic amidst the heedless head-long rush towards an ecological cliff, we have a need to see God’s invitation to faith as an invitation to celebrate social joys. This is more important now after three years of on-and-off quarantine that has left us not simply yearning for a return to our previous enjoyment of social life, but more worryingly, has now instilled in us a reticence – a wariness of social situations that may not so easily dissipate with the end to the COVID emergency. The Wedding at Cana reminds us of the essential nature of social celebration – something not only essential for human wellbeing but also a central manifestation of God’s intention for the world.

Over the longer view we hear the first of John’s signs of the kingdom as a 21st-century audience by being reminded of the importance of seeing the world through an active faith lens. For many of us this is a tall even risky ask. Whether Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathaniel had a greater imaginative acceptance of the miraculous that we have – or not – we are not privileged to their 1st-century mindset – they were changed as they witnessed in Jesus the quiet and unseen way divine action in the world comes about.

Like them, we are hungry to be changed and yet remain fearful of change. This is a balancing act and so what is needed to tip the balance on this scale? The disciples hunger led them to begin to trust Jesus enough to follow him. Now he rewards them with this first in a series of signs. They will go on the experience seven signs yet one sign is enough to completely rewire their whole world view.

What we call reality is never real – reality is only the way we see things. Our current worldview lens equips us to see somethings – usually the bad things – and remain blind to others – usually the good things – chief among them the quiet and unseen ways divine action in the world comes about to break open the dead shell of yesterdays to equip us to do what we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more (John O’Donohue). Food for thought – no?

The Starkness of Choice

Our current struggle in the information age – is on a daily basis to decide between multiple stories. These stories no longer present different interpretations of commonly accepted facts, but now present us with different sets facts. There are facts and there are now alternative facts. There is truth, it seems, and there is alternative truth. There are stories, it seems, and then there are other stories.

Yet, this has always been true – if expressed in less extreme and less incendiary ways. Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together, as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins. Who are we? Why we are here? How do things come to be the way we experience them? Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us. And herein- lies our current dilemma as a culture and as a nation. We no longer share agreed upon interpretations of events -events that shape our perceptions of who we are, why we are here, and how we came to be this way?

Christmas is a story about how God becomes known to us – not through timeless mystery – but within the flow of events that forms our shared human history. Even so – there have always been differing interpretations of how God entered into the flow of events in human history.

You see, there is, and has always been, more than one way to tell a story. I can tell my own life story as a story of a glass half full. Or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and generosity – a story of a glass overflowing. This second way of telling makes the quality of my experience ever more fruitful. Between these two stories designed to explain my experience to myself, lies the area of personal choice. Which will I choose?

As we all have multiple stories from among which to make choices, so we discover that Christmas is not one story, but multiple stories.

Matthew’s birth of Jesus story is story about Jesus and Joseph and the fulfillment of Israel’s long dream of a new Moses. In Matthew it’s the kings of the earth who come to pay homage to Israel’s infant king. Like Moses, Matthew has Jesus taken down into Egypt, but not as prince but infant refugee in the company of his parents, who are in flight to protect the young boy-king’s life. In 2021, we easily identify with Matthew’s story of forced migration and flight to safety as the world is rocked by the largest global movement of peoples, now on course to exceed that in the aftermath of the Second World War. Choosing to believe in response to Matthew’s version of the story might help us to clarify what are the priorities for us in the current conflicting immigration debate. In Jesus, God enters into the experience of homelessness – in order to call our homelessness – home.

Luke’s birth story is about Jesus and Mary. In Mary, an adolescent girl, pregnant out of wedlock and scared out of her wits by the dangerous predicament she finds herself in becomes an image of courage born of vulnerability. On Advent 4, I wrote about how in 2021, Mary’s story evokes powerful resonances to the vulnerability of women – in the face of a ruthless patriarchy – that even today continues to control women and their reproductive bodies. Luke’s story is about the role we human beings play as the essential agents who collaborate with God’s dream of putting the world to rights. Luke’s Jesus is a universal savior, born in utter obscurity, witnessed not by kings but by illiterate peasant shepherds and field hands. Luke’s Jesus is born among the outcast and excluded, those of us who are of little account in this world.

John’s story offers a completely different take on how God the creator enters within the experience of the creation. In John there are no birth facts – no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, or shepherds, or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ entry into human experience is reframed as a new Genesis event  – harkening back to the very origins of the creation, itself.

John’s begins with: In the beginning —–. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and earth, the Word already was. Logos, translated in English as Word, points to the action of God in creation. Jesus is the Word -that is, God in the communicative action – radiating outwards through the energies of light and love. In Jesus, God as the Word self-reveals in the contours of a human face and in the unfolding events of a human life.

From his opening words, John quickly sketches out his plot line. God’s self-giving as the Word, has come into the world, but the world is not ready for this and fails to recognize what God is doing. Because the world remains mired in the self-interests of the status quo. John’s story of how the Creator pours into and becomes one within the creation presents us with the stark outlines of choice. Will we, do we make the choice to believe – inspired by John’s story to become allied with God’s purposes in the Incarnation?

Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their own time and place. Each of these stories poses for us a challenge of particular choices, accepted or refused.

We modern Westerners are preoccupied with the question of truth. Is this version of event true or not? We tend to treat the birth narratives in the Gospels as fairy stories, which for many of us places them in the not true category and consequently of not true for us. But the question – is this story true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to story. The real question is: what implications flow from believing or not believing in the incarnation story? We choose whether to find value or not in our large faith stories.

The choice of story is always ours. The enchanted magical-realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie a set of tensions that do – tensions between safety and risk; between invulnerability and vulnerability; between collaboration and resistance; insiders or outsiders.

In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to those of us with science-fiction rich, post-modern imaginations in the way that Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories once functioned for the pre-modern mindset. For me, John’s more cosmic and expansive reframing of the Creator’s entry into the heart of the creation fits better with my sci-fi – Quantum field influenced imagination. Picture

in the beginning, was the Word, the Word was with God  ….. the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it  ….. and Word became flesh and lived among us  …..and we have seen his glory …..God’s only son full of grace and truth.

scrolling across the wide screen of a new Star Wars postquel epic.

I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives – because they change my life. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of events, but because to not believe in them is to reject their implications for human living – to prefer lesser and more self-serving stories that impoverish and limit my imagination, cramping the space for creative living. I choose these stories to live by because they are large expansive stories that challenge the forces – both in me and in the world around me that resist and work against God’s healing of a broken human world.

Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from – or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Viewed in this way, the Christmas story might be worthy of our closer consideration?

A Christmas Blessing

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.

My paraphrasing from John O’donohue A Morning Offering

This is how the truth comes

Featured Image: He Qui’s The Visitation-Sacraparental

How old is she, I wonder? 13-15 years-old? We don’t know. What we do know is that she’s just a girl. Maybe a girl already betrothed, but a girl nevertheless. A girl betrothed as was the custom of her people. But a girl according to the betrothal custom of her people should not have yet come to know the man to whom she is betrothed in the intimacy of sexual intercourse. She hasn’t, – well as far as she knows. Yet, how to explain the strange stirrings in her belly? Whatever – however – these things are happening. Mary is very, very scared.

She’s scared, and yet, somewhere deep inside her she feels something else, a consolation, a rightness that defies all rationality. At night her mind flits to-and-fro, back and forth. One moment calm, she feels the assurance of a consolation. In the next moment – the grip of terror takes hold once again.

Two questions vie within her.  What is happening to me? A question that stirs her curiosity. Only to be followed by another question: what will Papa do to me when he finds out?

St Martin’s, Providence, is one of the finest examples of both English domestic Gothic form and ecclesiastical Arts and Crafts in New England, if not wider afield. It has both nave and clerestory levels of stained-glass windows telling the story of faith and life. Although put in over a 40-50-year period, all the windows stylistically conform to a master schematic – presenting a holistic integrity in style and an orderly progression of themes. Like the Medieval cathedrals and churches, St Martin’s windows are more than decoration, they tell the story of Christian faith and Western culture.

The nave windows form a progression in which the story of Jesus’ life unfolds in sequential chapters. The first window begins with the chapter occurring before the one we hear about in Luke’s Gospel on Advent IV – the announcement from the archangel Gabriel to this 12-13-14?, year-old girl. The next window depicts the events of Luke 1:39-55. In this window we see two adult women, one clearly middle-aged while the other in the full bloom of early womanhood. Both sit appearing to be in conversation; each depicted with a boy toddler – two maybe there year old, sitting in their lap.

St Martin’s Visitation Window

This is the window that depicts the event we call the Visitation, when Mary journeys some distance to visit with her older cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also pregnant. Again, her pregnancy, like Mary’s is unexpected. But in her case, the surprise is one that defies biological rather than social convention, because Elizabeth is decidedly post-menopausal.

There are deeper strands of significance weaving through this story of Luke’s. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins. Luke tells us that Elizabeth is married to Zechariah, and that Zechariah is of the priestly clan. Luke, here, clearly wants us to know that Mary too is related a priestly family, thus telling us how Jesus is connected into the institutions of his Hebrew people. For his readers, this is a matter of some importance in supporting their claim that Jesus is the one promised to Israel. Elizabeth’s son is John the Baptist, who is not simply the cousin to Jesus, son of Mary, but the prophetic Elijah, who later in the wilderness will announce the arrival of the promised one.

One final comment about the Visitation window. This window is clearly a euphemized depiction, a pleasant cover for the unpleasant or embarrassing truth of the actual event.

At the time of their meeting, neither woman has yet given birth. Yet, here they are with two toddlers in their laps. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the year the window was made – 1924, a period when WASPy social convention was clearly uneasy with the depiction of pregnancy in the sacred precincts of the church. This is how we dress-up, gloss over in order to distance ourselves from the rawness of the biblical story.

Back to Luke’s actual story –  In those days, Mary went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Because of the discrepancy in their ages, it seems probable to assume Mary’s and Elizabeth’s relationship is one more typical of niece and aunt. Maybe this is the reason Mary has come to Elizabeth. Uncertain of her own mother’s reception of her news – she comes to the woman who has always looked out for her and whom she knows will protect her. Mary rises early, and with haste, flees to the bosom of her aunt.

Mary leaves in haste, because she is very, very scared. She lives in a society that practiced honor killing for girls made pregnant outside wedlock – interesting word. Though betrothed to Joseph, Mary is not yet locked into the social convention of weddedness that would explain and approve her pregnancy.

The Law of Moses dictated that a girl in Mary’s predicament was to be stoned to death. But Mary is from a priestly family and a special method of honor killing was prescribed for her. In priestly families, the daughter in Mary’s predicament was to be strangled by her father at the door of their house.

So, Mary sets out with haste – in flight – to the protection of her aunt – in the distant hill country of Judea. It’s speculation, but maybe she continued in the seclusion of Elizabeth and the kindly Zechariah’s protection until the middle-aged Joseph agreed to marry her. But the content of Joseph’s mind is part of Matthew’s telling of this story, not Luke’s. For Luke this is a story that begins in the solidarity of two women plotting against the age-old patriarchal control of a women’s reproductive body.

Luke’s story is about two women the elder protecting the younger from the harshness of the patriarchal heart. Between Elizabeth and Mary lies a recognition and a solidarity because the vulnerability of women to the hardness of the patriarchal heart is a story older than time and as recent as the last 24 hour news cycle.

Luke take an earlier song of a woman’s jubilation – Hannah’s song from the second chapter of the first book of Samuel – and transposes it into Mary’s key. Mary sings out in jubilation the story of God’s generosity towards her, and through her, to generations yet to come.

What is the essence of Mary’s jubilation? It is that at a deeply intuitive level she perceives the significance of her acceptance; of the exercise of her individual responsibility to participate in God’s dream for the world. This is how God’s call for human collaboration comes. She sings out:

It extols,
  my life does,
It rejoices,
   my breath does,
   at Elohim[2] my deliverer.
 Because Elohim looked on the humility

   of his female slave.

Mary sings out that this is a dream for justice, of putting to rights those things that are currently so very wrong:

His mercy extends
into birthings and birthings
of those reverencing him.

He made strength with his arm,
 he scattered those visibly superior
  by the intentions of their wills.  
He put down the capable from thrones
    and exalted the humble ones.  
Hungry ones he filled full of worthy things,
     rich ones, out and away he sent them,


Richard Swanson’s evocative translation

How will the Messiah – the promised one – come? He will come in obscurity, through the courageous cooperation of human agents like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah. He will come – the homeless God – who calls all human homelessness, home.

In the womb of an adolescent girl, untimely pregnant, who has had to run for her life, the next chapter in Israel’s long story of God’s dream for the world awaits fulfilment. How many other countless young mothers are running for their lives, shielding their unborn and shepherding their born children from danger in the hope of finding the equivalent of an Elizabeth and Zechariah – who in the bigger picture are representations of you and me – for all us together – we who have the power and resources to provide a place of safety?  

God comes into the world not as a prince, born to power and priviledge, a political figure of power and influence. God comes into the world not as a successful culture icon, but as a babe, protected for a time within the womb of an adolescent girl who finds shelter in a world of patriarchal danger. God comes through the collaboration of a frightened and courageous girl-woman – given shelter and protection by an older woman for whom God also has an untimely purpose. Pray God that like Mary and Elizabeth we may not be found wanting when the time for our decision making comes.

Mary’s story is our story too. The nature of truth is stranger than fiction because you couldn’t make it up even if you tried!

[1] HaShem. noun. Judaism a periphrastic way of referring to God in contexts other than prayer, scriptural reading, etc because the name itself is considered too holy for such use. [2] The true God

Featured Image ‘The Visitation’ by Dr. He Qi, China/USA

Of Hope and Home

The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us.

Alice Miller, prominent 20th-century child psychoanalyst.

Zephaniah’s short three-chapter prophecy is exceedingly gloomy except for this passage appointed for today 3:14-20.

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more. … I shall save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home ….gather you….make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.

It’s so out of character with the rest of the book that it’s now thought to be a later insertion. But for me, its relevance lies in God’s promise to bring the outcast and the shamed, home.

The passage is a fine example of hope realized in the sense which I think Alice Miller is getting at. The definition of hope is something both looked forward to. However, the crucial point Miller identifies is that hope prefigures future expectation in present-time action.  For while the focus of hope is future directed, the process or action of hoping is always a present time activity. Thus, the power of that for which we hope in the future is already effective within us – by virtue of the action of hoping in the present.

Knowing what God promises to do has the power to reshape our perspective on present time events – and when reflected upon – influences the choices we make and the actions we take.

The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us. Another way of putting this is to say that without hope we have no compass to direct our present time actions. Miller’s words find an echo in another great 20-century figure, the philosophical theologian, Paul Tillich who wrote:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. 

Returning to God’s promise to bring the outcast and the shamed, home in the Zephaniah passage. Where exactly is home?

This past week, a community hope came one step further towards its fruition. Inspired by our common religious obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless, St Martin’s and Temple Beth-El have teamed up in a joint initiative to support what may eventually be up to three Afghan resettlement families. The first step was some weeks ago to meet and plan for the collection of household furniture and other domestic resources. Following our recent estate sale St Martin’s donated furniture to Dorcas International and we are thankful for the members of both communities who generously continue to support this appeal.

Then, this past week we came one step closer to our hope becoming a reality when a small group from both communities; our contingent led by the ever resourceful Susan Esposito, ably supported by Jennifer Kiddie, Julienne Isaacs, Lori Istok, Burleigh Morton, and Carol Tucker – readied a two bed apartment provided through Dorcas International, into which it is planned to move a family of seven.

Although the inspiration comes from our long shared Judeo-Christian Tradition, I am aware that our national response to the Afghan resettlement program differs from our normal regrettable attitudes to the resettlement of refugees.

Americans have come to deeply regret our involvement in Afghanistan, and despite the many good things accomplished in the process of rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure, nation building with the establishment of a thriving democracy with Afghan features has been a failure. Alas some very Afghan features did democracy in.

The profound implications of this failure, is something for which we bear a huge responsibility. We repeat the same mistakes – made all those years ago in Vietnam and repeated elsewhere, with our historic tendency to support corrupt and oppressive agencies in the interests of maintaining our own security interests. This mistake came home to roost with a vengeance with the collapse of the Afghan government, revealed to be nothing more than a house of cards. The rapid Taliban takeover in the face of collapsed resistance from an overly equipped Afghan National Army is less an endorsement of ordinary Afghans support for the Taliban than it is an expression of their hatred for a corrupt government and brutally oppressive warlord system.

Our response to the resettlement of Afghan refugees shows how national guilt and shame can be a powerful catalysts in driving us to rediscover the obligations our faith places upon us.

The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us because when we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us.

Paul Tillich

If I look deeply into my own heart what I cannot escape from is this: the resettlement of Afghan evacuees and their successful integration into our Rhode Island society is a symbol for my own largely unaddressed sense of homelessness.

St Augustine noted, we human beings are endlessly restless. The cause of our restlessness is our continual searching for a coming home. We deal with our restlessness through diverting our time and energy into endless busy-ness. The paradox is that when our Christian faith presents us with the possibility of coming home, we reject it because we are too busy. And so, we tell God in a myriad of ways, don’t trouble us God, please don’t make any demands on us, we are too busy with the demands of life as it is.

The result is we are the agents of our own continued alienation from the longed-for experience of home coming when we reject the priorities of the Kingdom. Our sense of being spiritually and existentially homeless is because we are already too busy, thank you God – little recognizing that it is God’s call to come home that we need to be busy about.

John the Baptist attracted all conditions of people into the desert beyond the Jordan. The pious, the comfortable, the despised security thugs of the oppressive regime – Jewish as well as Roman. He warned them all that the axe is already laid to the roots of all they place their misguided hope and faith in.

In her commentary for Advent 3, Jane Williams writes: It is God’s willingness to be homeless to bring us home that we celebrate at Christmas and spend Advent trying to imagine and prepare ourselves for. She quotes from the final stanza of G.K. Chesterton’s poem:

To an open house in the evening, home shall all men come to an older place than Eden and a taller town than Rome. To the end of the way of the wandering star, to the things than cannot be and that are, to the place where God was homeless, and all men are at home.

G.K.Chesterton The Christmas House

As we prepare for the coming of the homeless child, let us recognize our own sense of spiritual and existential homelessness as an expression of our desire to build false homes in the wrong places. We need to ask in all honesty where exactly is home? The answer is rather crucial because those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.

Who can abide the day of his coming?

Abstract: The theme of Advent’s second Sunday is the coming of the messenger. The concept of a messenger whom God will send firmly links the O.T. reading from Malachi with Luke’s account of the arrival of John the Baptist upon the scene. There is a striking resemblance between Malachi’s messenger and Luke’s John the Baptist. The unexpected nature of the message poses a challenge to the hearer.

The searing words of the prophet Malachi burst into our own time with an intensity that is truly daunting when we stop to consider them:

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Malachi 3

Of course, these words immediately conjure to mind Handel’s haunting melodic aria of the same name in his oratorio The Messiah. Charles Brenner, a wealthy English landowner and a principal patron of George Frederick Handel complied the libretto for The Messiah, which Handel set to astonishing musical effect. In fact, Brenner complied the libretti for no less than five of Handel’s oratorios.

Malachi is among a slew of prophets known as the minor prophets, or alternatively, as the Twelve. The term minor refers not to the importance of their message but to the shortness of the books that bear their names.

We don’t know much about the prophet Malachi. In fact Malachi is not his name, but simply means messenger – something he makes clear in chapter three addressing the post-exilic community.

All twelve of the minor prophets speak into the historical period in the decades following the return of the Babylonian exiles in the middle of the fourth-century BC. The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple expressed a powerful hope for a return to the glory days of King David.  The hope in this period could be summed up in the soundbite -let’s make Israel great again!

As Malachi surveyed his society he saw the misguided hopes of reconstruction that had failed to recreate the nostalgic dream for a new Davidic age. The renewed institutions of national life centered on the temple were debased and impoverished replicas of the return of longed for past.  Worship had degenerated into a listless perpetuation of form. The study of the Law – neglected. Taxes – unpaid. The Sabbath routinely broken. Intermarriage with pagans seemed the order of the day. The priesthood – corrupt, and the political leadership – self-serving. Into this moral vacuum Malachi proclaims God’s impending judgement- sounding a warning – the coming judgment of the Lord will be hard to bear.

The Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.

Malachi 3

The reference to the descendants of Levi makes clear that it is the priestly cast that Malachi has in his sights.

Judah’s Post-Exilic period typifies the problem when a nostalgic longing for a past that existed only in the hindsight of imagination becomes the template for a future as yet not only unrealized but unrealizable. This results is a present-time – marked by disillusionment and moral malaise. Doesn’t this at all sound rather familiar?

The contemporary religious scene in America is one in which the religious right continues to spiral into darker visions of craziness in their rush back to a past characterized by the violence of its racial and cultural white supremacy – the very qualities that are making this version of the past unrealizable in the future where the world has fundamentally changed. In their fear and frustration, they abandon the teaching of Jesus for the comforting paranoia of a primitive tribal religion of them and us. The left grows increasingly indifferent to, and dismissive of, a Christian voice in the civic square- while the middle ground of traditional moderation writhes in a crisis of confidence. Having privatized his message, the sensible middle no longer has the courage or energy to believe in the power of Jesus’ message of the kingdom.

We live in the post prophetic age. After John the Baptist there are no more prophets. As John proclaims – after me, there is only Jesus. We live in the post resurrection age or put another way – in the age between the first and second acts of the drama of the resurrection – between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the whole of creation. We live in the information age where there is only the message. Yet the blight of the information age is the confusion of misinformation. There is now a greater profusion of messages than ever before echoing the words of a more contemporary prophetic voice:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no near to God. ….

The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Choruses from 'The Rock' T.S. Elliot

The challenge for us is to know which message to trust and to give our allegiance to. We want an easy message or a message that does not disturb us too much. Most of us just want a quiet life.

The world of the first quarter of the 21st-century is in transition as the 20th-century’s social and political tectonic plates break apart and begin to realign. The rampant creed of individualism – unchecked, of globalized, unrestricted venture capitalism -unleashed, of wholesale destruction of the environment -present us the prospect of humanity’s very sticky end. As the tectonic plates of former certainties shatter, it will be the kind of message we embrace that will matter.

As the world continues to fail to meet the challenges of a global pandemic and climate emergency, we are reminded only too painfully that there will always be those who are easily manipulated into embracing the small and pernicious stories of our culture; stories which in the past have led us nowhere good. I speak here of traditions of racism, of gender oppression, of military adventurism, of planetary exploitation for personal profit, of both laissez faire economics and nationalist protectionism.

In times of affluence and prosperity the Christian message of hope loses it potency. Cocooned in self-satisfied prosperity, the Christian message loses its political bite. In such a world we who are self-sufficient have no need of it – as evidenced by declining church attendance. And yet in Advent we are reminded that hope springs eternal. Nevertheless, T.S. Eliot cautions us that hope will easily slip into hope for the wrong thing if our hope is only to be comfortable and left undisturbed. The danger for human beings is our tendency to settle for only that which our impoverished and venal imaginations are capable of conjuring. Hope, Eliot reminds us, is fulfilled only when we have the courage to wait as a future reshaped emerges slowly and at times painfully from our acknowledgment of past failures and a determination to learn from our mistakes.

The times when all seem lost are the times when we most need to see the people and ideas [the messenger and the message] trailblazing the way out of the muck.  

Ibram X Kendi with my bracketed insertion.

The Advent hope is the greater story of the reign of God’s justice: 

  • where racism is no longer intersecting with other bigotries to manipulate people away from their self-interest.
  • Where native and immigrant are united by common interest.
  • Where free high-quality healthcare is a universal right.
  • Where guns are as controlled as much as motor vehicles.
  • Where voting is easy and accessible.  Where human activity is no longer the principle cause of environmental catastrophe.
  • Where to be fully human is through embracing humanity fully?

Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming? The future begins now!

It’s in the Air – can you sense it?

Image taken from the Coit Tower in San Francisco murals commemorating the Work Progress Administration 1934

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

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

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

I am mindful of autumn as a season of renewal – taking spiritual inventory of all the blessings of life.

Last week my sermon took the form of an extended meditation on the inner conflict we experience between the fear of scarcity and the experience of abundance. I commended that passage from Matthew where Jesus tells us that where our treasure is – there also we will find our heart. Paradoxically, the spiritual life is not about money yet financial generosity is one of the key fruits of the spiritual life. What we choose to do or not do with the resources God entrusts us with – proclaims our values to the world. What we invest value in  -we also draw value from.  

Low investment leads only to an experience of a poor return.

The story of Bartimaeus son of Timaeus takes place on the outskirts of the historic city of Jericho. This is a multilayered story in a sequence of multilayered stories that Mark offers us concerning Jesus’ road-trip to Jerusalem. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is for those who travel with him – the road to discipleship. Mark recounts several incidents along the way that highlight the tensions within us as we hear the call to discipleship.

Mark chronicles events of blindness and clear-sightedness, of fear and hope, of the fear of not being seen and the desire to be see too much. Like all these experiences the healing of the physically blind becomes the metaphor for another kind of blindness, that of the mind and heart; a blindness repeatedly displayed by the disciples.

Bartimaeus is a blind man, his blindness leaving him not simply poor materially, but according to the prevailing religious attitudes of his time, poor spiritually as well. The 1st-century conventional religious view was of blindness or any kind of illness as punishment for sin. Bartimaeus has placed himself by the roadside so as not to be missed by Jesus as he passes. When he hears Jesus approaching, he begins to make a fuss, and as others try with some severity to silence him, the crescendo of his fuss-making only increases.

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

Jesus, moving amidst the throng of people is halted in his tracks by Bartimaeus’ use of this historic phrase Son of David – an early recognition of Jesus’ messianic secret. Turning around he looks for the source of the voice and spying Bartimaeus he says call him to me. Bartimaeus wastes no time. Mark loves to describe action using the continuous present form of the verb as a way of communicating a sense of immediacy for the reader. He tells us that throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.

Jesus asks him the proverbial discipleship question: What do you want me to do for you? Compare Bartimaeus’ response to that of James and John to the same question, reported by Mark in last week’s incident along the road. Bartimaeus with simplicity says: My rabbi, let me see again! 

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

Realignment describes the opening of the heart and mind through investing emotional significance in a person, an object, or an activity.

Realignment describes the opening of the heart and mind through investing emotional significance in a person, an object, a cause or an activity. Bartimaeus becomes deeply invested in the one his heart has been yearning for. The intensity of his yearning heart creates a moment in which he experiences a profound realignment of his world.

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

It’s not a coincidence that the renewal of our stewardship falls within the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In this season we are invited to give thanks as we review and reflect on our spiritual priorities. In this season when -giving thanks for the fruits that load the wines that run around and through our lives – we open to the possibility for spiritual and emotional realignment.

Jesus asks what do you want me to do for you? Yearning and longing for what- maybe we don’t quite know – but longing to discover. The possibility for personal and communal realignment is in the autumn air. Can you sense it?

For Where the Heart Is

Any attempt to speak about money in the church runs the risk of provoking a defensive response from the overly cynical. Sometimes, understandable as such cynicism might seem, this response misses the point that money is a primary metaphor for values reminding us of that wonderful insight in Matt 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

When we make a commitment to financially support an organization – it tells others something about our values. It further identifies our desire to contribute value to – as well as derive a sense of value from- because investment is a two-way process providing a sense of purpose and essential meaning.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

Money can make me anxious. I can trace my anxiety back to my early experience of how conversations about money were negotiated in my family.  Hence the question I posed in this week’s E-News: What is your first memory of money – is it a positive or an anxious one?

This early experience has left me with a default expectation of scarcity that is in direct conflict with my actual experience of a life of abundance. This discrepancy between expectation and experience is a paradox- one I am sure I am not alone in having.

God’s promise of abundance is a presumption invites us to trust – despite the countervailing voices of warning sounding in our heads. Because of the evolution of the human brain, fear is a more primary impulse than trust. The architecture of the brain reflects the primal instinct to survive, and fear is more useful than trust in this regard.

Remembering and reflecting on the difference between my fearful expectations and my actual experience in life leads me to recognize that God has been indisputably generous to me. Connecting the dots reminds me that a fear of scarcity, at least in my case, is simply a default state of mind stemming from early memories – fears that persist even in the face of an opposite experience in life.

Our fear of scarcity masks and hides from us our actual experience of abundance. In the grip of presuming scarcity to be the more accurate reflection of reality we fear that being generous will lead to loss of the resources and reserves we might need.

America is the most prosperous country on the globe, maybe the most prosperous society in human history and yet it experiences the highest levels of scarcity anxiety. As the land of plenty to overflowing, we condone unforgivable levels of poverty and deprivation.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between our national prosperity and our levels of societal anxiety.  There persists a belief that there is enough economic capacity for massive tax cuts to the already obscenely wealthy but not enough economic capacity to tackle endemic poverty and inequality. The presumption of abundance, fostering a practice of generosity IS the only effective protest in the face of societal inequality and injustice.

In setting the date for the launch of this year’s fall stewardship drive I should have paid closer attention to the lectionary because it is last Sunday’s gospel reading, I really want for today.

It’s Mark who gives us the most complete sequence of events occurring as Jesus and his disciples take to the road to Jerusalem. The road of course is both an actual road – Jesus and disciples are literally travelling to Jerusalem – and a metaphor for the journey of discipleship.

At Mark 10:17 Jesus is approached by a man who kneeling before him honors him as Good Teacher – then asks what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus – ever attuned to the voices of false flattery reminds the man that only God is good. He then in a roundabout way asks the man about following the commandments – presumably the conventionally understood path to eternal life. 

The man responds by telling Jesus he has assiduously kept the commandments since his youth. There then occurs one of those moments best described by the Sanskrit word darsana or darshan – meaning to look beyond the appearance of things into the heart of the matter.

In this moment of darsana – seeing into the heart – Jesus acutely discerns the nature of the man’s dilemma. Despite his sincere and disciplined practice of the religious life he’s been unable to really come to know his need of God – leaving him tortured by the sense of something still lacking. Mark reports that Jesus looking at the man, loved him, confirming that there is indeed onelacking.

The practice of the spiritual life is incomplete unless it propels us beyond mere duty or a desire to do the right thing into a compassionate and passionate engagement with the world around us. The man is shocked by what Jesus tells him – this certainly is not what he wanted to hear -and he goes away grieving in the knowledge that what he so desperately seeks will forever elude him.  

Jesus’ prescription for eternal life is simple. Yet, it’s simplicity reveals its degree of difficulty. For the quest for eternal life is to follow Jesus. Yet to follow Jesus requires an examination of his relationship between his fear of scarcity and his desire for an experience of spiritual abundance.

That evening in the daily review with his disciples of the events of the day – to emphasize the nature of the difficulty for the rich man in connecting up his fear of scarcity with his longing for spiritual abundance  – Jesus uses a metaphor for the seeming impossibility. He says to the disciples: Children, clearly emphasizing their spiritual immaturity – how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Now before we misinterpret Jesus as a preaching naked socialism – a misinterpretation that nicely exempts us – well most of us – from his warning about being rich as an impediment to eternal life. We need to pause and take a second look. Jesus is really talking here not about the enjoyment or perils of financial abundance but about the way financial abundance is seen as  th source of self-sufficient security. The problem is not possessing abundance, but the way our abundance is possessed -possessed defensively as a bulwark against the fear of scarcity. It’s all a matter of attitude.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us. In acknowledging this  we come to know our need of God. Between now and November 14th – ingathering Sunday – I invite us all to consider the necessity of cultivating practices of generosity. I would also ask you to remember that the practice of generosity fundamentally is the strongest and most effective protest against inequality and injustice. As individuals, through our support of St Martin’s we can do so much more in furtherance of these aims than any one of us can do alone.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

 For where your treasure is -there your heart lies also.

Matt 6:21

Liminal Times: Job a meditation

Image: Job and his family restored, William Blake. The Morgan Library & Museum

At St Martin’s, we find ourselves between the joyful celebration of the success of Opening Our Doors to the Future – the capital campaign and the launch of our Annual Stewardship Drive for 2022. The capital campaign – beyond dollar amounts raised – is an expression of confidence from our current members in the future of St Martin’s. Next week, we will officially launch the stewardship drive for 2022. Over the course of its five-week duration, we will be asking our membership to review and renew their estimate of giving so that we can effectively plan for 2022, our 125th year.

However, this review and renewal process asks us to reflect on the question: can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow more freely into our world?

We find ourselves in what Susan Beaumont in her insightful book How to lead when you don’t know where you are going –described as a liminal season. A liminal season is a shoulder season – a time in-between. How do we proceed when between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear?  It’s not only in the church but as a wider society we find ourselves in a liminal time when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. Prophetic words for us in this moment of history.

St Martin’s endeavors to occupy a place of tension weathering the uncertainty of the times through a commitment to traditional worship combined with a radical theological messaging that recognizes and attempts to speak into the uncertainty of the times. We are all watching the stalwart generation of faithful members pass on to the next great adventure and wonder who is coming up behind them to take their place? Our fear that we are on a trajectory of decline fills some of us with despair while provoking in others a manic attempt to delay what we all fear is inevitable.

In last week’s sermon I offered a sweeping overview of the essential themes found in the book of Job – a book that offers one of the most profound explorations of the nature of human suffering in the face of a God who often seems to us uninterested in our plight – a God who from our experience remains silent in the face of humanity’s age-old question concerning suffering – why?

In today’s Job portion we hear him exclaiming:  Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his dwelling. We might read this sentence as Oh what I wouldn’t give to know that God is really there. Words that remind us of the partial nature of our knowledge and the narrowness of our vision.

Our vision is clouded with self-preoccupation and protests of self-importance – cutting us off from the divine energy for renewal. So much of our vision – both individually and in community is hedged-in by our need for reassurance. We strain to hear a false note of security – a grasping for knowledge as a defense against the uncertainties of the future.

Job continues:

I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments, I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Eventually, God will respond to Job in rhetorical metaphors that expose the human dilemma; we cannot know what we feel we need to know. We fill the vacuum in our knowledge with simplistic answers such as leading a charmed life is a sign of God’s favor and suffering means God’s punishment or abandonment. Feeling alone and abandoned in an indifferent universe – we cast ourselves even further adrift when concluding that because our suffering is not instantly alleviated – we are not given the miracle we demand, we cease to matter to God.

In the end, God responds to Job by effectively sidestepping his complaint. God will not meet Job’s complaint by justifying divine action or inaction. Instead, we will hear God reminding Job of the paradox of his quest for omniscience -to know the entirety of things:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell me if you have understanding who determined its measurements – surely you know! Who laid the cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

We cannot know the entirety of things. We cannot know the future except in outline – glimpsed through a glass darkly. Yet, journeying into the future has never required us to know where we’re going. Oh, I know we like to pretend that we often do, but, we have never known the future before it arrives. In this lies grounds for hope. Instead of being preoccupied with our own construction of a future of either doom and gloom or of false and brittle certainties – can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow  with greater freedom?  Our future lies in the mind of God and always has done!

If we learn anything from the serious practice of a spiritual life, God’s surprises are so much more exciting and fulfilling than anything – when left to the impoverishment of our own imaginations -we could predict or plan for ourselves.

Between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the epilogue lies the experience of his suffering. Job’s is not an experience of senseless suffering although through protest he demands for God to show him its meaning.

God never gives Job an answer to his insistent question why. Many see in this refusal to satisfy Job’s demand a suspicion that maybe God can’t give Job a satisfactory answer. Nevertheless, between beginning and ending lies the experience of change and being changed – albeit by something pretty awful. Maybe this is the purpose of Job’s suffering – a catalyst for change.

In the beginning, before Job has everything he cherishes taken from him, he believes that his prosperity reflects his own greatness. In this he is a great icon for many of today’s obscenely wealthy 1%-ters. The book ends with God’s restitution to Job not simply of the original wealth taken from him but of a magnification of that wealth tenfold. But Job is not the same man he was before. Suffering has changed him, and he now understands his wealth as a sign not of his greatness, but of God’s. His wealth is no longer his, but a sign of God’s generosity.

Job’s response to God’s generosity is gratitude. How might any of us express our gratitude? By a dedication and commitment to live in turn, with greater generosity.

Job now does something unheard of – as a sign of his gratitude for all he has he rewrites his will – settling portions of his estate on his three daughters as well as his male heirs. In the time in which this story is set, this action would have been unthinkable -beyond the capacity of the ancient imagination.

Can anything be a clearer demonstration of job as a changed man?

Living amidst the uncertainties, the fear, doubts, and violence of a liminal time, we might pay greater attention to our part in the unfolding of God’s dream for the world. The flow of God’s dreaming for the world requires only two things from us. The first is a capacity to be endlessly curious in the face of doubt and fear. And the second is a willingness to be changed in the direction of becoming more fit for God’s purpose!

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