'relationalrealities' is a recognition that we are relational by design. Only through our relationships can we come to mirror the relational nature of a God self-revealed as a divine community of persons.
Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on our suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.
It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted
by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has
set for him, seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he knows ahead
of time how things will end.
must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants in
Jesus’ Passion. You see, if we are to be participants then Jesus has to be more
like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our
lives unscathed. And so if he is to be more like us, then neither is Jesus.
He treads his path, a path he
chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as
he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a
time. Jesus is no noble victim sacrificing his life for the sins of the world.
If we just stop there, no matter how thankful we might feel, we fail to see
that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by
suffering, but by the power of love. For Jesus’ chooses the way of love.
Some say love it is a river that
drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to
bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. Isaylove, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….
The Rose Verse 2
The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing
short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of
being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads
us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves
risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for
transformation, for it is
It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never
takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taking, who cannot
seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns
to live …
When the night
has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky
and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the
spring becomes the rose.
Entering into the way of love
leads us to challenge the status quo – risking the consequences. As a
community, it means uncovering and challenging the cosmic forces of
dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and its collective memory.
It means risking loving without expecting to be rewarded.
Entering upon the way of love –
above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new
way of being, one step at a time – a transformation from timid and grateful children into collaborators
with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.
From mere spectators to active
participation with Jesus on the way of the cross is a movement through belonging
into believing; a risking that moves us from fear into loving and being loved.
This is not a hero’s path. Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On Good Friday, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but motivated by what is for God -the impossibility of not loving enough.
The Rose Final Verse
The italicized text comes from The Rose by
The disciples are feeling whiplashed by now. Just a few days
ago there was so much hope. The crowds had hailed Jesus as Messiah, Son of
David—with hosannas so loud they couldn’t hear themselves think, and palm
branches so thick on the ground that the donkey’s feet never touched the dirt.
But now the hosannas are silent and all that remains of the palm carpet is a
stray frond here and there, curling and forgotten by the roadside.
The adrenalin excitement has been replaced by furtive
anxiety. Jerusalem is on edge: The crowds who had followed Jesus are simmering;
the Roman and Temple authorities are ready to pounce. The friends had worried
who was watching as they made Passover preparations according to Jesus’ careful
instructions–double- and triple-checking to make sure they had not been
observed as they gathered one by one in the upper room of a nondescript house
down a narrow street.
And now? What should have been a celebration for some reason
feels more like—a wake. Jesus seems
withdrawn, somehow both focused and distracted at the same time. For once he
seems at a loss for words.
Quietly and suddenly he stands, takes a basin of water and a
towel, and kneels in front of Andrew. The air is electric as the water pours
over his feet and into the basin. Jesus moves to Philip, and then Judas, then
Nathanael. Then Peter.
At first Peter draws back in dismay. What kind of a king
does this? What kind of a king stoops to serve in such a menial way? Jesus
persists, Peter surrenders. The water splashes softly, the towel gently dries.
This is what we do for one another, Jesus says. Wash. Love.
Serve. And in turn offer your care-worn, callused, travel-weary and broken self
to be comforted and healed. Giving and receiving in a constant flow of care.
This is what love looks like. This is who we are, and how people will know us.
Do this, he says. Because I love you.
Their hearts are burning. Something begins to shift in the
For three years Jesus has spoken of the Dream of God—a
kingdom unlike any they can comprehend. Sometimes, in flashes, it has all made
sense; but then the world intervenes and they forget. So Jesus tries again to
make them understand. And again. And again.
Tonight Jesus knows that there are no more agains to spare.
No more time for parables or sermons or signs. But there is bread. And wine. He
gazes around the room at his friends. No more time for telling. It is time to
He takes bread. Made of wheat; sown, cut, ground, baked.
Wine; from grapes, pruned, thirsted to sweetness, crushed, and fermented in
darkness. Both from the earth, made by human hands; the embodiment of life made
whole through suffering and struggle. This is my body, he says. Given for you.
This is my blood, the blood of all who suffer, shed for you. Eat, drink,
Do they understand? No; still no. But sometimes it isn’t
about understanding. They do know that they are in the presence of Mystery, not
to be solved but to be shared.
Do this, he says. Because I love you. This much they can
James, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and the other gathered
disciples gaze into the eyes of Jesus and see only love. Their hearts are full.
Judas looks away, and slips silently, almost unnoticed, out
Featured Image comes from Mountain View United Methodist Church
He had come to celebrate the Passover. Having traveled from Bethany, Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates to wild acclaim from the crowds that greeted him. They stripped the fronds from the palm trees and lay them as a carpet before him as he entered the city gates.
Present day actions often echo memories of the past. The waving of palms was a gesture that not only tells us something of popular expectations for Jesus, but is also an echo of collective memory. Some 160 years before, the triumphant Judas Maccabeus, the last leader of a successful Jewish rebellion against foreign domination, led his victorious partisans into the Temple, bearing palm branches they cleansed and rededicated the sanctuary after its defilement by the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanies.
The waving of palm branches tells us something of the crowd’s expectations of Jesus as another national liberator, who in the mold of Judas Maccabeus has come to free them from the hated Roman occupation?
At the same time as Jesus was entering from the East, another triumphal entry procession wound its way into the city from the West. The Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, at the head of his Roman Legion had also come up to Jerusalem for the Passover.
Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. He chose to avoid the city’s ancient warrens seething with civil and religious discontent. Pilate and his Roman administration preferred the sea breezes and Mar A Largo conveniences of Herod the Great’s former capital at Caesarea Maritima; now the administrative center of the Roman occupation of Judea.
Pilate hated and feared the crowds of Jerusalem. He feared them most during the Passover which required him to come up to the city with a show of preemptive force in order to forestall the potential for insurrection. For Passover was the collective memory of liberation from an earlier period of slavery. Pilate’s arrival was indeed a wise move, for the crowds that hailed Jesus, were in insurrection mood.
Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. Three narratives or storylines intersect and clash with an alarming result as Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus all become caught up in an escalation of events none could control.
Events take an unexpected turn and rapidly spiral out of control, culminating on the eve of the Passover (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples. During this last supper, Jesus graphically demonstrates God’s vision for the world. He turns hierarchy on its head and washes his disciples feet. He takes bread and wine and associates them with his body and blood. He ends the meal with a simple mandate – in Latin mandatum from which we get the Middle English name maundy meaning commandment: love one another as I have loved you. But love has consequences: arrest, show trial, and crucifixion.
Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion surfaces in identification with that of Jesus’. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. We journey with Jesus as part of a community that journeys to the cross bearing within us not only our individual maladies and sufferings but the maladies and sufferings of the world around us.
Liturgy is a form of dramatic reenactment that transports a community through sacred time to where we move beyond memory, becoming participants in the timeless events that engulf Jesus.
In sacred time we become participants with Jesus – as if we too are part of his band of disciples during this eventful last week:
Like them at his Last Supper, we experience the uncomfortable intimacy and embarrassing humility symbolized in washing one another’s feet.
With the disciples, we share in the breaking and sharing of Jesus’ Passover bread and drink from his Passover cup – actions that not only render us a community, but which we can only perform as a community.
With the disciples, we accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where we fight sleep to keep watch with him until Midnight. Like them we long to do the brave thing, until the moment when we don’t.
Over the following 15 hours of Thursday evening and into the Friday we call Good, we follow as part of the band of his disciples viewing with dismay, but from a safe distance, the unfolding of frightening events – Jesus’ arrest, show trial, and crucifixion. In the end, like them we always opt for playing it safe.
Visit our full Holy Week and Easter schedule here.
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
The writer of John’s gospel surely knew the power of scent to
trigger memory and emotion; surely knew that the reader of this passage would
have a physical response to the image of the house filled with the fragrance.
It is intended to carry us to a place of close presence and physicality; of
It is virtually impossible to talk about this passage without
talking about bodies. Lazarus’ own body has been raised from the dead, emerging
blinking into the light, his wrappings fluttering to the ground as his friends
removed them. And now, at dinner at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we
smell the earthy musky mossy scent of nard, redolent of the fertile beginnings
of Creation. We see the dusty journey-worn feet of Jesus. We see Mary’s hair,
intimately undone, as it caresses her friend’s callused skin. These images are
not thought—they are felt—they leap
off the pages and into our senses. It is all in the seeing, the touching, the
smelling. These are what connect us to the story, and to the Good News that
wafts almost elusively through it.
So now imagine the flush of indignation felt by Judas as he
inhales the expensive scent—the rapid calculation of the quantity of nard—one
pound– divided by the rough cost—300 denarii; compared to the amount of food,
clothing, or medicine that could be provided for the poor for the same
amount—the conclusion of outrageous extravagance—all culminating in an
indignant outburst from the Keeper of the Purse: “Silly woman, what are you
John would have us see him as insincere in this moment—Judas has
no credibility regarding fiscal responsibility because he has his hand in the
till. But we know that John, and we, have a particular point of view
when it comes to Judas. Maybe Judas was
stealing from his colleagues. But maybe John has offered that little detail in
order to hammer home Judas’ unsavory character. As if we needed that. But.
Judas was one of the disciples. His
later betrayal of Jesus doesn’t mean that he was never right about anything.
Resources that went to buy a pound of nard (a year’s wages) could have been used for another, less
extravagant and more charitable, purpose. Think about it; if it wasn’t Judas
saying it, we might actually agree with him.
That’s a sobering thought.
But if we did agree with Judas, then we, like Judas, would
be missing the point.
This isn’t about cost/benefit analysis. It’s about love.
Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it
so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor
with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is arguably one of the most misunderstood statements in the
Gospel, and possibly one of the most abused.
More on that in a minute, but first shift our gaze from Judas’
outrage back to Jesus and Mary, as she anticipates his burial.
The care of a body after death is one of the last acts of kindness
a person can do for the deceased. Whether in the first century or the
twenty-first, using herbs and oils or modern materials and technology, the
gentle and competent care of a body is an act of love and respect, both for the
deceased and for those who grieve. It is a tender time, and this act of care is
a true and valuable gift.
Jesus acknowledges this gift from Mary, made all the more special
for its extravagance. He and everyone present are witnesses to the depth of her
caring for her friend. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The greater the love, the greater
This is lost on Judas, who has couched Mary’s gift in zero-sum
either/or binary terms; she has shown great love for Jesus, therefore people
will go hungry as a result.
But not, admonishes Jesus, if you are participating in the Dream
of God. In God’s economy the binary is erased. This is not a matter of choosing
Jesus or the poor. In the economy of
the Kingdom, it isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.
And this is where we confront one of the most problematic quotes in
scripture: “You will always have the poor with you.”
This has historically been an excuse for not addressing the plight
of the disadvantaged, particularly in a systemic way. The argument goes that
there is no point in addressing a problem as intractable as poverty, because
this is just the way it is and ever shall be; Jesus said so, right there in
John 12: 8, right?
This is what I call, “the convenient ‘No’”. When cherry-picked and
misread, this quote makes it easy to say that the problem is too big and our
resources are too small. That makes it easy to stay comfortably within the
When has Jesus ever
asked us to do that?
You will always have the poor with you.
Interestingly, the Greek word for “to have” can be the same in
both the indicative tense (a statement of what is) and the imperative tense (a statement of what should be.) So it could be read, “You will always have the poor with you…”
…or, “You should always
have the poor with you.”
Now that sounds like
Jesus. When has he not sided with the
poor and called us to do the same?
You should always have the poor among you. Not either/or.
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, anticipating his death. Her grief and
her tenderness are woven together. And in the face of Judas’ indignation, Jesus
guides his attention away from money to relationship. Because grief only occurs
in the presence of relationship.
Do the privileged grieve the situations of the unprivileged? Do
they see the outrageous income disparities, the food deserts, the inequities in
housing, healthcare and education? Do we truly see the people left vulnerable
by climate change? Do we grieve for them as we would for Jesus?
It’s a crucial question, because Jesus tells us that they are one
and the same—the poor are as worthy of Mary’s tender, extravagant, loving care
It’s not about cost/benefit; it’s about relationship.
Where Judas sees a gap
between privileged and unprivileged, Jesus sees a relationship. In the Dream
of God, charitable giving is transformed into mutual ministry; a place where
giving and receiving are not two sides of a transaction, but a multidimensional
tapestry of shared vulnerability and experience. Where names and stories are
known, laughter and hugs and tears shared. Where each can see in the other—in
the hands, the feet and the faces, the divine traces of the God who created us.
This is what St. Paul calls the aroma of Christ.
You shall always be with the poor. A challenging invitation. Do we
expect any different from Jesus?
Every Saturday afternoon, in Burnside Park, Church Beyond the
Walls takes that invitation seriously. They are a street-church community that
meets out of doors; a special mission of the Diocese with a Eucharist-centered
focus on building solidarity between people from all walks of life and
circumstances. It’s the Dream of God in action, and it’s a couple of miles
Here is how the community is invited to Eucharist:
This is Christ’s table. Come, you who feel weak, and unworthy, you
who come often, and you who have stayed away. Come, you who love Jesus, and you
who wish you could. Come sinners and saints, women and men, gay and straight.
Come you who are homeless and you who have a place to rest your heads. Come you
who are citizens of this land and you who are not. Here you are citizens of the
Kingdom of God. Now join God’s people at this feast prepared for you from the
beginning of the world.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12.
first encounter with Lois and Pres was in the summer of 2014. I had been in the
parish a couple of weeks and Pres had just returned home following his recovery
from a broken hip – I hope I recall that correctly, Pres? Being fresh to New
England, my mind already colored by stereotypes of frigid Yankee stoicism – and
with Susan Esposito’s words ringing in my ears about Lois and Pres being two of
the St Martin’s most venerable members, I set out to bring Holy Communion to
them at home in the firm expectation of encountering two ancient and crusty WASPS.
were of course, utterly dashed. For I met two warm and witty persons who seemed
greatly surprised that I should have taken the trouble to visit them at home – after
all as Lois would continue to remind me at every subsequent visit: This is wonderful Fr. Mark, that you should
find the time in your busy schedule to bring Communion to us – to which I
would mutter some such throw away rejoinder about it being a privilege. But – and here Lois do forgive me for beginning
a sentence with a preposition – it was a privilege! So much was it a privilege that
with Lois and Pres, the Rector had to take his turn in the que of Eucharistic
Ministers keen to visit them each Sunday after it seemed safer for them not to
risk coming to church. In fact, David Whitman, I always envied the fact that
you were offered sherry afterwards and I never was. Well, such is the burden of
being too busy – I guess.
think Lois ever really understood how much of a privilege for me, and I know
for others, it was. Because Lois was a woman who did not think more highly of
herself than she ought to have thought. Lois carried herself through life
girded by a very sober judgment of herself, according to the measure of faith
God accorded her.
after my first visit , I was summoned – for this time it felt a bit like a royal
command – by Lois and her prayer partner Jean Richardson, who taken together presented
a most formidable couple! This was my first discovery of the rich depth of Lois’
spirituality. Lois was a formidable intercessor, and with Jean they operated an
extensive prayer chain. I felt the purpose of this visit was to be assessed as
to my support for the efficacy of prayer. I think I must have passed. Again,
another stereotype of WASP crustiness – crushed.
I am conscious that everyone here today has more numerous and richer memories of Lois than I can have given the shortness of my time knowing her. Elsewhere five years might be considered a long time, but in Rhode Island not so! Yet we will all agree that Lois had that rare gift for friendship. John Bracken commented to me that: She had such a bright smile. Always made you think she was happy to see you even if she barely knew you. A real gift. A real gift indeed! Lois was a friend to those she met, and she was a friend to the many countless more she carried in her prayers.
a modern world where sharpness of intellect, keenness of perception, and soundness
of judgement are no longer qualities normally associated with so call ‘religious’
people, Lois had the sharpest intellect, the keenest perception, and the
soundest judgment of any one I have ever known. What’s more, she faithfully read
my sermon blog each week, and when she was able to be in church delivered that
rear combination of insightful and charitable comment. Her professional
literary career when placed alongside her Christian faithfulness should be an
inspiration to each and every one of us of how we might better integrate mind
and heart in fruitful living.
my central task this morning is to speak about the Christian vision of life. This
is a bifocal because in near sight it’s a vision of what is, and in far sight it’s
a vision of what will be.
live in a world where many of us are in thrall to a materialist vision of life.
This is a vision of life as simply a biological process that unfolds within the
three dimensions of matter, time, and space. I think therefore I am; I feel
therefore I am. Lois would have agreed with both these statements, but she
would have gone on to add: I pray, therefore I am.
is another vision in today’s world that masquerades as Christian. This is the vision
of life where you can turn a blind eye to the injustices and corruptions of
this world so long as you can recite the religious formulas that will buy your ticket
on the heaven bound express. We see how this vision infuses the so-called
Christian Right with an ends (heaven) justify means (toleration of injustice)
approach to living.
there is the vision of life that Lois espoused. Lois believed that biological
life was simply the first stage in a longer process of growing into the fullness
of life with God. She believed in the on-going-ness of life beyond biological
death, which for her was only a junction point. How do I know this? Did she ever
communicate this understanding to me? Well not in so many words, but I infer it
from her life life-long practice of intercessory prayer and faithful public
imagine that as with all questioning and curious minds, doubt was an ever-present
companion for Lois. Yet, she knew two things. The first was that doubt is not
the enemy of faith, she knew that was fear. And she knew that despite her human
inability to fully comprehend the how
and the what of the next phase of
life, she knew it that her sense of a larger life, that there was more to life
than this, mattered.
here is the crux! Lois knew that the ongoing greater life in God’s love
mattered not because it was an end in itself – a pie in the sky when you die
sort of thing – but because the prospect of eternal life continually refocused
her attention on this life and what mattered, really mattered for her, in this
life. Authentic Christian living is to live with our attention focused on this
world where with every fiber of our being we need to work tirelessly for the
unfolding of God’s vision of the good
creation as a reality in real time. Lois knew the truth of the sentence in
the Lord’s prayer: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done – in this world –
regardless of how we might imagine it being done in heaven.
is the most important quality in the spiritual life and Lois possessed it in
spades. As I administered the ritual of
the Last Rites to her seemingly unconscious body, a palpable sense of her
curiosity as she navigated the transition between dimensions, flooded the room.
None of us present could be left in any doubt of Lois’ excitement as she began
the process the Book of Common Prayer refers to as life changed but not an ended.
her death, Lois has passed on the baton. And our task now is to run with it for
the rest of our earthly lives, and hand it on at our death! I hope we might be
worthy of her example.
speed dear friend. We know you will continue to keep us in your prayers.
In Ephesus, things had gone seriously wrong. In response to a two-pronged attack from both the local Roman notables and prominent Jewish influences in the city, Paul had been imprisoned under a sentence of death. It’s during these very dark days that Paul hears news from Corinth, news that breaks his heart. For the Corinthians have delivered the ultimate betrayal for Paul – they have questioned his authority as an apostle and suggested that if he ever wanted to visit again he would have first to present and defend his credentials.
Paul had visited Corinth twice before and between these visits he had written his first letter to them admonishing them for their internal divisions – divisions based on the discrepancies of wealth and status among members of the church community. Now since his last visit, the Corinthian church has come under the sway of some very smooth and slick conmen, who seemed to have successfully discredited Paul and his message and turned the church against him. It’s not difficult to imagine the wealthy Corinthian church wanting teachers more in line with their worldview, a worldview that prized success and prestige. Somethings never change – for narcissistic cultures tend to seek self-validating reflections of themselves in the narcissistic leaders they place in positions of power and prominence. After all, everyone likes a winner, even if it means winning is the con.
In response to Corinthian susceptibility to boasting leaders, Paul asks: so you want me to boast? Then if I boast I will boast of my weakness! If I need references, then you are my reference!
In 2 Corinthians, we feel Paul’s deep suffering as a result of what today we would recognize as accumulated PTSD. The seriousness of his condition is evidenced not simply in his despair and depression, his anger and pain, but in the style and feel of 2 Corinthians; a choppy letter of false starts, with extra additions inserted. With an agitated mind and aching heart, Paul seems to have found it hard to organize his thoughts into a unified theme.
Paul pens this letter while visiting the churches in Northern Greece somewhere between 56-57 A.D. From the direction of his journey we can see that he is assiduously avoiding going anywhere near Corinth. Corinth was by far the largest, most prosperous and politically influential of Paul’s Romano-Greek church plantings. The wound Corinth had inflicted on him is deep and his sense of betrayal great.
Then, Paul’s mood lifts when Titus arrives with news from Corinth. It seems the Corinthians have had second thoughts, maybe coming to the realization that their new found slick teachers have delivered a good deal less than they promised. Titus brings news of the Corinthians deep sorrow for the pain they had inflicted on Paul. While Paul is clearly overjoyed, painful memories of a breach in relationship are not easily forgotten. How can relationships repair following a deep breach of trust? This is what Paul is now working out in the middle section of his letter.
Paul has learned through his recent sufferings a powerful lesson. In chapter four having accepted his own vulnerability he writes:
We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God. Not to us. We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our whit’s end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed. We carry the deadness of Jesus about in our body, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.
2 Cor 4 Trans. N.T. Wright
In chapter 5 Paul states that:
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
2 Cor 15:16-21
Words matter. Paul’s statement that the old order has died and everything-everyone has become a new creation in Christ is truly overwhelming to contemplate. It’s easier to let such a statement go in one ear and out the other because it strikes at the very core of our defensive, fear driven way of relating to one another. It also profoundly impacts our global world view – esp. with regard to care for the environment. What would it mean to actually take his words seriously? Given our fallibility and fragility – our earthenware nature, how can we possibly live up to such a statement with all its expectations or repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation?
Our earthenware fragility, our feet of clay make us vulnerable to one another. Victims have a habit when opportunity presents of becoming perpetrators; hurt triggers hurt, violence begets more violence – usually camouflaged as righteous anger. Yet, Paul pictures us as moral ambassadors of reconciliation; reconciliation first with God and then with one another. No wonder we don’t want to take his words seriously!
In English, reconciliation carries the overtone of smoothing over differences. The search for reconciliation produces an endless search for compromise solutions to paper over those differences. Fine though this may be, this is not what Paul means. Paul is drawing our attention not to the need to reconcile difference but to realize that our very differences highlight what we share in common.
Think of the pain of personal betrayal. On the larger stage think of exploitation of the weak by the strong as in what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is potentially mine tomorrow. Think of racism, gender bias, the unlevel playing field that results in unequal access to the necessities for human thriving: food, water, a safe environment in which to live, meaningful work to do, education, healthcare, and equal access to impartial justice. Now think of our willful destruction of our common home -the environment. These are all examples of how we prefer to walk back through the door to the old life – the life before Christ – the life that brings only death. These maladies are all so fixable when we see them as the result of our human propensity to fall short of the mark; the life of a new creation God sets for us.
Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet said that to err is human, to forgive is divine. God is endlessly forgiving, knowing that we are bound to miss the mark, the bullseye that is the new life of those entrusted by God to set the world to rights.
Questions abound. Will we notice the ghosts of past failures of reconciliation in a history of slavery and genocide? Will we notice how in the present, past ghosts perpetuate racial discrimination and injustice – only now masquerading as criminal justice, and the multiple indices that measure poverty? When we notice, will we, with hearts transformed and our minds renewed through repentance, refocus aim on our target of living the new life of God’s promise? Or will we compound error and injury with defensive, fear driven self-justification?
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
2 Cor 15: 16-21
To become a new creation is to be reconciled to God. Being reconciled to God we strive for justice by not only responding to immediate needs but also questioning and challenging the systems that perpetuate injustice.
Environmental and social justice are linked by the flow of our new life in creation. God has inaugurated the new creation in Christ and will ultimately bring it to fulfilment in the resurrection of the whole world. Until then, putting the world to rights is the responsibility on our watch.
Whilst in London last week for the funeral of an elderly friend, Al and I visited another long-time friend who is now in a nursing home. We were both shocked by how we found him. Lying at an awkward angle in a railed bed, disheveled, his spectacles held together with tape, and offering only monosyllabic responses to our questions, we were not sure if he even recognized us, though it was difficult to tell. On saying goodbye, we both struggled to make sense of our upset at the decline in our friend by reminding ourselves that, after all, he had always had a strong tendency to accommodate himself to every new aspect of decline. In other words, we had long felt that our friend had always had an unhealthy desire to embrace invalidity. This perception helped us to an extent because it enabled us to see our friend as in part responsible for his decline. If he had planned better for his future, if he had resisted harder the gradual process of aging, he might not have ended up in the very pathetic state in which we now found him.
We are all haunted by an anxiety that finds its fullest expression
in there but for the grace of God, go I. As
wise sayings go, I guess it’s not a bad one. It protects us from a reality that
we want to hide from. This reality is that all of us, most of the time, feel helpless
in the face of the flow of events that may visit upon us some form of calamity or
The idea that it is only by God’s grace that we are spared from calamity underscores our helplessness in the face of the randomness of chance events. But we also use the idea of God’s grace to imply the very opposite. Used in this way it becomes an individualized protection, implying that the disasters which befall others will not knock on our door, because we have the special protection of God’s grace. Unfortunately, religion when seen in this light offers a very poor insurance policy.
The invidious connection that links great calamity with individual responsibility is as old as human thought is long. You will remember that in the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus: who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus rebukes them, telling them that neither sinned. Illness is not the result of sin. Thus, Jesus breaks the intuitive connection between sin punishment, between adversity and personal responsibility.
Nevertheless, as my opening vignette shows, we continue to connect adverse circumstances with personal responsibility – well they’ve only got themselves to blame. In this way we insulate ourselves not simply from the pain and suffering of others, but from the existential anxiety that – there but for the grace of God, because we know their misfortune could easily be ours.
In the gospel passage from Luke 13 Jesus refers to two calamitous events
that had recently taken place. Pilate had executed a group of Galileans, who
had come up to Jerusalem to make sacrifice in the Temple. Why he had killed them,
we don’t know. But to cause maximum offense he not only killed them but mixed
their blood with the blood of their sacrifices; a major desecration for any Jew.
Jesus asks his listeners: do you think they suffered this fate because they
were worse sinners than other supplicants? He answers, no they were not.
Of another recent calamity where many people were crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed, he asks a similar question. Do you think they were worse offenders than anyone else living in Jerusalem?
Such questions still ring in our ears today. For the Galileans slaughtered by Herod in the Temple, substitute worshipers gunned down in two Christchurch mosques. For the victims crushed beneath the tower, substitute the inhabitants of Midwest states devastated by unprecedented flood waters.
As in Jesus’ time, we continue to struggle with the why question, and we like to pretend for peace of mind’s sake that we know the answer, suggesting that in some way victims of untimely and unforeseen calamity have in some sense brought it on themselves. If Muslims didn’t look so different and had only blended in more, or better still just stayed in their own countries, then this would not have happened. Or, the floods are God’s punishment on people who need to give up their denial of the science of climate change. Of course, the Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida were God’s punishment on the club’s LGBT patrons. Of course, the devastating fires in California were the result of poor forest management. We could go on, and on.
In the face of the why question Jesus explains that sin makes no distinction between one person and another, calamity is not personal, it’s random. He asks -were the victims crushed when the tower fell worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? No, he exclaims, they were not, and unless you repent you will all perish as these unfortunate others have done.
Just when we think things are clear, Jesus muddies the water. What
does he mean by repent? Can he really mean that if we repent we will be spared,
if we don’t we won’t? Is this not a direct contradiction of what he had just
been saying that calamity is random and not personal? Are we back to the idea
that calamity is in some way connected to a lack of repentance? In other words
it’s our fault?
Which brings us to the story about the fig tree; a horticultural
lesson on repentance. This is a story about fruitfulness. Fruitfulness provides
the context in which Jesus invites us to reflect on the need to repent. The
story of the fig tree highlights two important lessons. The first is that fruitfulness
needs nurturing or fertilizing. The second is fruitfulness may take time to
The Greek word used by Luke for repent is Metanoia, which implies more than saying sorry. In its fullest meaning metanoia implies becoming transformed into a completely different way of seeing the world. Repentance is not something we do, and action we undertake, it’s an openness to change – a heart and mind 180-degree transformation. Repentance is the equivalent of digging manure around the tree’s roots in the hope of coaxing forth the fruit; the fruit of a changed heart and renewed mind. In short, repentance is a complete makeover. But patient work and waiting is required.
Jesus words about the need for repentance now become understood as – unless you change your whole way of thinking, you will die as they did. The emphasis here is not on whether we are lucky enough to escape a sudden and unprepared death – death being code for a host of calamities that may overtake us. Jesus’ question is – in what moral and spiritual state will we be in when calamity strikes?
Shit happens, as we say. It’s not our place to explain away the chance occurrences of natural disasters, random acts of violence, the rapid and unforeseen onset of illness, and the slow and steady breakdown of the body. To repent, is to face up to the source of our existential anxiety – namely our helplessness in the face of chance events. It’s not whether we can control our fears or not, but how we live in the face of them. Repentance is to pay attention to what we are doing regardless of the risk of calamity’s strike.
To repent is to be changed. To be changed is a process of reordering
We can’t predict which building may fall down and upon whom it may
fall, but we can ensure strict building codes are followed and severe penalties
are imposed when breached.
We may not be able to stop natural disasters occurring, but we can
vote wisely in support of political solutions to reverse policies that deny the
science of climate change and severely punish those who in pursuit of profit
endanger our common environmental home.
We may not be able to make wars cease and stem the flow of mass
migration, but we can support international aid programs that build economic infrastructure
in places where people are forced to leave because there is none. We can welcome
the stranger who of necessity flees for life and liberty to our shore where both
are ensured as a basic human right.
To face the challenges of the present we need to have dealt with the ghosts of the past. We may not be able to predict when the terrorist may strike, but like the government and people of New Zealand have just demonstrated, we can face down hatred and the violence it spawns. We can reaffirm our commitment to be an inclusive and welcoming community. See my fuller comments on this here.
We may not be able to cure our friends and loved ones when
disabling illness strikes, but despite our own fears of there but for the grace
of God go I, we can be there for each another; in other words we may not be
able to work miracles but maybe the power of our loving presence is in some sense,
To repent means to stop running from our fragility and
vulnerability in the face of the flow of events we can neither understand nor
Towers fall. Tyrants slaughter (Luke 13).
Stopping such events is an important human activity. But until we end pointless death, we have other work to do. The prophet Micah made it clear: Do justice; love kindness and walk humbly with God. Those would be good things to be doing when the tower lands on you.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
It doesn’t take much to imagine the longing in these words, does
it? To feel that the world is spinning out of control and there is nothing we
can do about it? To think, If only they—whoever ‘they’ are– would wake up, and
pay attention to what faces them! But you can’t make people do what they will
Welcome to the world of the prophet. The world of Amos, Isaiah,
Hosea, Micah, Ezekiel, and others who spoke, cursed, cajoled, wept and suffered
as their messages of repentance went unheard.
This passage from Luke weaves beautifully with the beginning of
our Lenten Program this year, because the text we are focusing on for the
course begins with the words of another prophet: Jeremiah. He writes: “How long will the land mourn, and the grass
of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals
and the birds are swept away, and because people said, ‘He is blind to our
ways.’” Jer. 12:4
In this lament Jeremiah, like Jesus would do centuries later,
grieves for his city. In 597 Jerusalem was destroyed and her people sent into
exile in Babylon. Jeremiah is mourning for a city lost because her people would
not listen and return to the God who called them under her wings.
In our Lenten program–which we began on Tuesday evening and which
I will reprise this morning in the Adult Forum–the Bishops’ Teaching on the
Environment invites a little imaginative reflection on the words of Jeremiah.
The bishops ask, how can we read Jeremiah’s words in the context of the
perilous plight of this fragile earth, our island home? Can the earth mourn,
and what does that look like? Think dying bees, disintegrating ice sheets,
waterways choked with plastic, year-round wildfire seasons, receding glaciers,
vanishing rainforests; and that’s just a start. Continue pondering: Is there a
way that humans are in exile from the environment? Consider the islands in the
Pacific that are being swallowed by rising seas; their people desperately
seeing to relocate to higher ground or to leave their home altogether. Think of
how many more people you know of with allergies and cancers than you did a
generation ago—a kind of physiological exile. Consider how long it has been
since you’ve seen huge flocks of birds in autumn migration. Or the summer dusk
aglow with fireflies. Or the Milky Way amid a velvet black carpet filled with
twinkling stars. The next generations will be exiled from the joys of these
How long will the land mourn?
Is Earth our Jerusalem?
The House of Bishops’
Teaching on the Environment was produced out of the Bishops’ semiannual
meeting in Quito, Ecuador in 2011. They don’t always produce teachings at their
meetings, and this one was especially significant in that it was the first one
that addressed environmental issues. Even so, you will notice that it was
promulgated eight years ago. That may
not be long in God’s time, but in human time it’s a gracious plenty. Which is
why our Lent course, A Life of Grace for
the Whole World, begins with repentance.
Our Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence refers to “ Our
self-indulgent appetites and ways” and “…our waste and pollution of [God’s]
creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
Repent. Even for those who are already personally on board with a
sense of environmental urgency, it is important to articulate our situation as people of faith; to connect the
plight of the planet with our relationship to the God who created everything
and called it Good. We are caregivers of a gift of incalculable value. As I
wrote in my epistle this week, we are called to repent of a worldview of
subduing and dominating Creation. We are called, rather, to live within Creation as fellow creatures
within an interdependent ecosystem of animals, plants, and the systems that
nurture us all.
We are called to repent; not in order to grovel and wallow,
but to turn in a new direction; to
turn and choose to gather beneath the protective wings of a God who yearns for the
reconciliation and healing of all of Creation.
we are addressing in this Lenten course is challenging. Even if we know that
Earth is in a perilous situation, the need for, and nature of, action can be a
hard sell. There are costs to be weighed and benefits to be balanced. There is
comfort in the status quo. Well, there is comfort for the comfortable ones,
anyway. But for those whose lives and livelihoods are already feeling the
impacts of climate change—those would be the poorest and most vulnerable of the
world’s population—for them, comfortable is only a memory. Still, for us here,
in this privileged space, it can be a hard sell.
But Jesus didn’t back away from the hard sell. His was the life and destiny of a prophet. He set his face toward the city that he loved; that had nurtured him and his family as he grew up, regularly worshiping in the Temple, “as was their custom.” Yet that same city would soon reject him in the cruelest way by killing him on a garbage heap outside the walls. In spite of what awaited him (or because of it) he remained undaunted, refusing to be distracted by death threats from a petty tetrarch, dismissing Herod as a mere fox, not worth his attention. Instead Jesus pressed on from Galilee toward Jerusalem—a prophet meeting a prophet’s fate, while lamenting in his desire to spare his beloved city, if only her chicks would come to him for shelter.
5 of the Bishops’ Teaching calls us to “speak and act on behalf of God’s good
creation.” In pondering this invitation the other night the group reflected on
a time in our lives when someone spoke or acted on our behalf. We thought about
how that made us feel valued, validated, even loved. We then identified
characteristics of a person who would come to the defense or protection of
another. Almost immediately the responses came flying: Courage. Empathy.
Listening. Understanding. Persistence.
marks of a prophet.
we have the marks of what it takes to
be prophets for our Jerusalem?
isn’t easy, but it isn’t hopeless. The people in Tuesday night’s group couldn’t
wait to get beyond the confession and repentance section of the course to the
solutions sections. They were ready to go—jotting down ideas and making note of
resources that will be helpful as we go forward. When we left at the end of the
evening I felt hopeful. As though something is turning in a new direction.
a reason Jesus chose the image of a hen as the protector of his world, as
opposed to other Old Testament images of a lion or an eagle. The eagle and the
lion are predators. That’s not Jesus.
His entire life and ministry were about the strength of vulnerability, and the
protective power of all-enfolding love.
hen stands, her feathers fluffed up to almost twice her size, her wings wide.
She clucks her warning as the wind blows, the rain begins, and the fox lurks nearby.
She has done all she can. Now she can only wait for her chicks to perceive the
danger and to gather in her care before it is too late. If only they are
fragile Earth, our island home. Our Jerusalem.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek joke doing the rounds in our St Martin’s
community at the moment. Tongue-in-cheek jokes are the way something of the
utmost seriousness is made bearable when veiled with humor. So, the joke goes
this way: What’s the new name for Hallworth House – the skilled nursing
facility situated on the Episcopal Cathedral precinct? It’s St Martin’s Annex.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of the joke, makes me only too aware of my own anxiety -an anxiety many of us also share. For cloaked behind the joke is the barely masked pain of our encounter with the human suffering of our friends with whom we share this community.
Of course, Hallworth House is not the only facility in which members of the parish are currently being cared for. Westgate, Bethany Home, and Tochwotten, are also on list of specialist nursing and assisted living facilities within our parish orbit. We are relieved to know that it’s Hallworth House, where a number of our friends currently reside. For we know that those we love are in a place with a trusted reputation for quality in medical, nursing, and rehabilitation care. We are further comforted by knowing that Dr. Denny Scott, henceforth officially designated parish doctor, is the one who is taking care of those we hold dear.
There are seasons in our ministries of pastoral care and support when he realities of illness, and death cruelly confront us. We are called upon not only to marshal our resources of compassion and empathy, but we are also challenged by the need to discipline our own fears. For empathy means the capacity to see ourselves in the situation faced by another. Visiting our parish friends currently in Hallworth House, each of us comes face to face with the frightening question: at what point in my future will illness strike, and what form will it take, and how will it leave me? I find myself uttering the age-old prayer: O God, take me swiftly; let me not linger long in illness’ wake!
And so, we enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to bring a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger, and a legion of envious resentments. The acknowledgment of sorrow in a spirit of repentance for the actions and omissions that have hurt others. Or we might required to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
Domesticated biblical texts are of little use, I think. We have trained them only to speak when spoken to. We have taught them to sit quietly until we call for them. We have developed tricks for them to do that we can predict.
Luke writes of the breath of God leading Jesus into the wilderness immediately following the baptismal declaration: this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Baptism is where Jesus ministry begins. So why does God show his pleasure in Jesus by sending him into the wilderness?
In Mark’s version he leaves what happens to Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness up to our imaginations because he tells us only that while there Jesus was both tempted and also ministered to by angels. Yet our imaginations are not blank canvases. They have been already colored by Matthew’s and Luke’s portraits of the three great temptations faced by Jesus at the hands of the Devil. And in this imagery, lies a problem.
Although translated as tempted, the real meaning of peirazo, the word Luke uses, is tested. The figure doing the testing is not our Medieval Devil, but the Hebrew Satan – the prosecutor general of the heavenly court; the same figure we find putting Job through his tortures. The Satan is not a personal name but the title of the one who acts as the prosecutor or accuser general in the heavenly court.
So, it seems that Jesus’ having been filled with the Spirit of God
is by itself not enough. Like an American President, God it seems may nominate
only. The wilderness is Jesus’ confirmation hearing before the heavenly court.
Under the pressure of accusation and innuendo, the Satan, heaven’s prosecutor, perhaps
aware that the proceeding is live on heavenly cable TV, is tasked with testing
to confirm Jesus’ qualifications for the role of messiah.
Does Jesus pass his Messiah confirmation hearing? He does, but not in the sense that we often conclude.
Human beings are vulnerable creatures and so we mask our weakness by projecting invulnerability onto our God. We want a Jesus who resists all temptations, coming through with flying colors because he’s our superman messiah who could fly through the skies and jump off tall buildings in a single bound – if he had wanted to.
But these are not temptations which Jesus easily resists because of his secret divine powers. They are the tests that reveal a Jesus so qualified for messiahship because he shares the same limitations of being human as we do. We have no use for a superman messiah, the kind of messiah we need is one who can empathize with us through his own human vulnerability, having travelled this road ahead of us.
Faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not satiate the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice does not flow from omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus once again reaffirms the his human limitations. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his messiah confirmation hearing by acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.
In Luke’s story Jesus echoes Job’s refusal to doubt God’s love no matter how much The Satan ratcheted-up his suffering and pain. Jesus qualifies as messiah because echoing Isaiah’s suffering servant – he is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He qualifies as messiah because he’s just as human as we are. Immersed in our human experience of facing our fear and living through our vulnerability, it is only Jesus who is worthy of our trust.
In our search for a messiah on this first Sunday in Lent I am taken back to where I began –the joke about the St Martin’s Annex in Hallworth House. As we visit our friends, some of whom embody our worst specters of the illness that strikes us in the noonday – unexpectedly and forever changing the trajectory of our lives, we encounter the all too human figure of Jesus who because he has tested human fragility to its limits is able to walk with us through whatever suffering comes upon us. I wish there was a less costly answer – one more to our success oriented tastes. Trust in the absence of a more agreeable answer to the plight of human suffering, is our wilderness testing where we are being asked to trust God as we face the possibilities that lie ahead. This is a very hard testing to endure but try to hold onto this. It is only by God entrusting Jesus to a fully human experience that God was able to do the new thing – the new thing we know as Easter.