Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Homily July 23, 2017 the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

16sun5The parable of the wheat and weeds like the parable of the sower last week has an allegorical interpretation added to it at the end. If we put aside the interpretation, we can most likely see the parable as Jesus spoke it. What then is the point of the farmer asking to let the 16 sun 1weed and wheat grow together? It would seem that in the context of the gospel, the parable was probably a warning about judgment. A warning to church leaders to step back and let men live and grow together, letting God be the judge at some final time. It is not the role of any man to sit in judgment of others. Each of us is but one small part of creation with our 16 sun2own growth and potential. It is a reason for mentioning the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds producing the largest plant, or the yeast that makes flour rise for the baker. All things need time to grow and develop and jumping to conclusions or being too quick to settle our sights or judgments might in the end be contrary to our call and mission and doing a disservice to our fellow Christians. God is 16sun3the one to judge. Remember, Jesus taught about relationships and love and forgiveness and mercy toward each other. His church was for him a community of women and men serving and loving each other. The disputes and turmoil and judgments of the early community led to some discussions and lessons about judging, most likely over the questions of the gentiles entering the church. Unfortunately, it seems to have become a lesson for the ages as in one way or another we all seem to be quick sometimes to judge.

When Differences Bring Understanding

Pentecost 6-4-17 Acts 2:1-11, Ps: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13, John 20:19-23

When Differences Bring Understanding

St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day.  How do we know that?  Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ.  Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”

John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.”  John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.

Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week.  And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane.  They have a lot to answer for.  They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say?  “Peace to you.”  Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side.  He literally opens himself up to them.  It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer.  Next, he repeats “Peace to you.”  Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.

“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed.   It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.”  No.  It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace.  (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.)  Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them.  This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life.  It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.

Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop.  Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.

The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.

These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.

Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”.  The Spirit brings closeness.  Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language.  We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before.  The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on.  We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self.  We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.

What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say.  What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?

This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.”  Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?

In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing.  But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven.  What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone?  What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?

What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’?  Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?  Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”

 

The Man Formerly Known as “Blind”

Lent 4th Sunday A 3-26-17; 1 Sam16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Ps: 23: 1-6; Ephesians 5:8-14;  John 9:1-41

The Man Formerly Known as “Blind”

I don’t have any hard facts for what I am going to tell you. Don’t complain later I am gave you fake news; this is just a theory of mine:  I think maybe God gets more frantic prayers (from adults) during tax season than any other time of year, like the ones from my house over the last few weeks.  My brother’s a tax wiz – he didn’t know the answer to my tax question.  The lady at the bank had a CPA friend.  He didn’t know.  I asked lots of people.  Then Monday night, my daughter-in-law, I love that girl, emailed a friend who knew a guy who might know.  Tuesday I had my miracle.  I had the right answer from a man who ran a tax office – and he had the software for the form.  My taxes are done – and filed….and I didn’t have to pay anything.  God is good.

Now, a year ago I might have said that my tax miracle ranked right up there with the miracle healing of the blind man in today’s Gospel. After nearly going blind in my right eye and having the “opportunity” to consider being blind, for real, I can tell you that blindness is several levels above taxes.  But frankly, the blindness of the men called “Pharisees” in this Gospel scares me more than either taxes or loss of eyesight.

I’ve always wanted to think I was a child of Lake Woebegon.  According to Garrison Keillor, all the children of Lake Woebegon were above average.  (All the women there were beautiful, too.)  But I have had some difficulty finding hard facts about being above average.   So I worry about convincing myself that things are true, when they’re not true.  These Pharisees have something very special and exciting right in front of them, but they vehemently deny it.  They verbally assault the man formerly known as “Blind”, whose value was reduced solely to his visual acuity.  They threw him out of temple, which is a very big deal, since the Jerusalem temple was the only place in the world, according to their rules at the time, where God lived & a Jew could make sacrifices to God and worship as required by the Hebrew Scriptures.

Usually I talk about Jesus being the light of the world, and what it means to be a light in this world. I talk about not assuming that bad things only happen to bad people.  I talk about the symbolism and the culture that would have understood the clay and saliva thing.  I talk about fearing Pharisees.  I talk about how Jesus returned to tell “formerly Blind” that he was the Messiah, and that he believed and worshiped Jesus.

The Pharisees had powerful motivation for not acknowledging the miracle of the healing of blindness. They were the guys with the answers to all questions.  Their job was the Hebrew Law, and they spent their days quibbling over fine points of the Law.   Their job was to be right, to be smarter than others.  It was their life.  They were supposed to be walking, talking Mr. Right-all-the-Time.  That meant they were in charge and got to make the decisions and call the shots.  It felt good, like a lot of power, a place of authority, and a way to control little people like Mr. and Mrs. Who-Must-have-Sinned-Because-their-Son-is-Just-a-Blind-Beggar.

Jesus must have annoyed the Pharisees a lot.   They wanted to nail him on the “working on the Sabbath” charge and shame him and put him out of the Temple too, and end that irritating habit he had of asking those questions they couldn’t answer.  Equally was annoying was the fact that the uneducated, ragged, beggar “formerly Blind” said in front of everyone that they were wrong – and they hadn’t been able to respond to him.

But today I only want to focus on the last 3 sentences of our reading. “Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see – might see; and those who do see – might become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees… said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see’ so your sin remains.” I know, on every level, which side of that I want to be on.

Jesus offers forgiveness, but no one escapes judgment. At some point, in some way, we must face being wrong, of grasping power and authority which we have no right to.  We have to confess our part in keeping this unjust society rolling along, and the times our wants win over someone else’s need.  Our clothes are cheap because the people who made them live in cardboard huts.  Our chocolate is good, because it’s harvested by children who are only paid with a meal for a hard, long day’s work.  Our breakfast eggs are the result of chickens fed chemicals and raised in cages so crowded they cannot walk, and so on.  We know this but take great pains not to see too much.

I learned one thing in 7th grade Social Studies, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  That day I understood that I was ignorant, and it could be my downfall, not my salvation.  Now it’s almost impossible to be blind to the conditions in refugee camps and for Syrians trapped in the war there.  Do these things lead us to choosing blindness, or do they open our eyes?

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” but he shines his light everywhere, even the places we don’t want to see. My experience volunteering in a sub-standard nursing home where abuse and neglect were rampant taught me that there are a lot of Pharisee-types around, well-funded and backed by heavy handed legal departments.  Since I was barred from that Nursing home for filing complaints about patient care with the State Ombudsman office, the State of Maryland Attorney General has filed cases against some of the tactics used in that nursing home.   He had eyes to see.  There are forces working for good.  But Jesus acted so purposefully that I think he meant us to act too, not just see, and our action, regardless of short-term success in bringing social change, frees us from our blindness.

Homily, March 5, 2017- the 1st Sunday in Lent

lent2Recently, we had the experience of sharing in the birth of little Isaac. What is there not to love in the birth of an infant? But, you know what comes to mind in seeing this, is that each infant, each person in this world is entirely unique. Even identical twins or triplets etc, are individually unique because at gestation everything becomes different for each one. Each person though does have a relationship with God, even if the person chooses not to pursue it. As each of us develops, we are certainly conditioned by family and all our surroundings and experiences. Jesus himself was a unique human being, but even more so lent-1as he had a second nature as he was divine also. His life, his work was to make it possible for humans to have a relationship with God. His life seems to have been a period of gradually preparing to do his ministry. After his baptism, we see today he goes off alone to the desert to contemplate, to prepare. As is common in Mediterranean culture and the middle east, the spirit of evil or the devil appears to once again challenge humanity to somehow be equal to God as we saw in the Genesis reading today. As we see in today’s gospel, Jesus rejects the devil and moves on to his ministry.

lent-4For us, the gospel and the story of the garden reminds us that as human beings we are vulnerable to overestimate ourselves, to have an inflated notion of our very self, to want to stand out in some way. Yes, our uniqueness can sometimes make us feel more important or even superior to others. We all know that within a family it is important to know and accept each other as they are, and so it is in the family of humanity itself. Christ’s message of love and care of each other means that we live and work and accept others. In doing this, we must learn and accept the abilities of all and the role we play in working together. While we certainly can not solve all the ills of the world, we certainly shouldn’t be adding any to the list. As we look forward to the coming weeks, we should be positive in examining all the good things we do and what more we can do or change to further the kingdom Jesus has given us. This will truly make us ready for Easter Morning.