Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When I was in college I had a discipline

that really changed me, and I've been considering returning to it.  The discipline is to read through all four Gospels in a week.  89 chapters means, roughly, 12 chapters a day.  I found it was impossible to do unless I got up extra early, and when you're between eighteen and twenty-two, that's not easy.  But disciplines are not about things being cushy, so I did it.  And I did it for a month.

It was an amazing experience.  I'm tempted to describe it, but I'm afraid that doing so would lead you to disappointment if you tried it, and didn't feel the same way.

Now, you would think that I revived this discipline periodically, because it felt so good, but I haven't.  My vocation as a parish priest requires regular study of the Bible, and the only real downside is that it becomes very difficult to pray or study the Bible without it feeling like work--like it's all meant to be preparing for something, some distant sermon, or newsletter submission.  

And that is, to some extent as it should be for inductive preachers (Cf. Craddock, As One Without Authority).  A regular preacher should be willing to let the whole scope of her life and study influence her experience of the text when preaching; however, there is no question that it hinders one from "torah for torah's sake," as the rabbis say.  It is very hard to settle one's mind around a text, or even pray, without the vocational element short-circuiting thoughts of what might be there for the cleric herself.

There is a value in just reading it.  You don't really have to engage anything to let the words pass with familiarity through the eyes.  No attempt at application, no bottom line, no "what does this mean for me today."  Just read it.  I'm not being anti-intellectual.  If you most often "just read it" you would do well to actually study; but if you mostly study this might help.

The benefits of using the Four Gospels for this are several.  First, they are familiar, and you don't have to worry about where you are in the plot.  Second, you will feel the narrative flow.  It won't feel like a collection of short stories, but one story.  Third, you will notice--because you are reading them all in quick succession--how very different each one is from the other.  You will notice vagaries in how the stories are written.  Fourth, it will be emotional.  Fifth, no..really..it will be emotional.  But it won't hurt you.  Sixth, you won't be hungry for God.  And I'm leaving it at that.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas 2013.


Isaiah 9.2-7



            We have come at last to Christmas.  We have gathered ourselves at the hospital maternity window to press our noses against the glass.  Of course, it is somewhat silly to say that, especially since the narrative of Christ's birth confronts us with a much less sanitary account.  We are taken far back in time to a stable and a feeding trough. 


            So much of how we have striven to understand Jesus is concerned with his role as the long-awaited Messiah.  During Advent we have read Isaiah's poetic prophecies, and I've been preaching about them.  Tonight (today), I want to return, yet again, to Isaiah, because the portion we read is a birth announcement. 


            It is a birth announcement for a child born of David's lineage, who was expected to become Judah's king.  Although Isaiah was writing some three hundred years before Jesus was born, we have come to read his words as if they are truly written for Jesus.  They fit so perfectly with our understanding of him, as both Messiah and God, that it seems almost wrong to mention their original context.



            But you might say that, both when Isaiah was writing and when Christ was born, Palestine was in a similar state.  At Isaiah's time, there was great fear of Assyria's cultural dominance; and at Christ's birth, there was great fear of the Roman Empire's cultural dominance.  At both times, there were "people who walked in darkness," without hope for the future.  Isaiah writes not just of darkness but of deep darkness.


            Yet Isaiah speaks of them and of the land as having seen a great light—that a turning point has come.  God has begun again to cause growth.  "You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy—like the joy of the harvest.  For the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of the oppressor, God has broken."


            And how has God done this?  How has God caused this turning point, this light, this breaking of burdens?  By giving the nation a child.  "For unto us a child is born."  Not just any child, but an heir to the throne of David.  The potential exists for this child to be the Messiah.


            And then Isaiah leaps ahead poetically from the child's birth to the eventual coronation as king.  From ancient Egypt, it has become the tradition that during a coronation a new monarch receives their royal titles or styles.[1]  At Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, her styles were and are, "By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."


            In the very same way, Isaiah gives the royal titles of David's line, "He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  Each of those styles indicate something different and important. 


            "`Wonderful Counselor' refers to his wisdom in making decisions."[2] "Mighty God" seems presumptuous to us now, but we know that the kings of ancient Judah could be called "god" (lower case `g') and that it was understood that the king of Judah was—by Almighty God's favor—considered God's son.  "Everlasting Father" is not a title of presumption either—rather it refers to the king's everlasting fatherly care—that the king would not remove his concern for his people.  And "Prince of Peace"—far from the way we understand it with Jesus—was about temporal political peace—an end of military conflict.[3]


            Isaiah goes on, "His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and the righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." 


            All of this meaning that God is watching over his people, and that with the godly leadership of a Davidic heir in the throne, hope and dignity will be restored.  We hear these words reverberate from their original context into the birth of Jesus.  We may hear them best through George Frederick Handel's oratorio Messiah.  The words that could have been given to a temporary king of Judah, are ascribed, even more fittingly to the cosmic kingship of Christ Jesus.


            We looked for a savior for so long—and so much through the lens of temporary politics.  It happens still to this day.  And we are, still, hopeful that whatever our plight, a better day will dawn.  New growth.  Freedom, release from captivity, or from corrupting influences.  But God's ways are not ours.  God has taken the longer view in sending not just a temporary fix, but an eternal one.


            Staring up into our eyes from Bethlehem is the hope, the light, the freedom we seek.  That may sound naïve, or perhaps sanctimonious, but this child named Jesus is more than we can fully appreciate, even now.


            Jesus is a living mystery.  Born, alive, and crucified at a particular time.  Those who only see their hand in front of them believe him still dead in the tomb.  "But to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."[4]  


            To any of you who have eyes to see him, he is not merely born, lived, and died: "He is risen as he said," and no longer occupies only one point in time, but all time, and for ever.[5]


            If you are a person who has walked in darkness—either through sins you have committed, or from the slings and arrows that life has hurled your way—the light is shining for you.  As you receive him tonight (today) through the holy mysteries of his Body and Blood, invite into your own particular time.  Your life; your memory; the place of your deepest pain, the broken relationships you may have with others, and with yourself.  Allow yourself to trust him—to become vulnerable with him.  And he will collapse all time, and come to you—just as beautifully as he did so long ago.


            He is—truly—the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  O come, let us adore him.






Merry Christmas!


Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1, pg. 103.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John 1.12

[5] Matthew 28.6

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reassurance in the form of a child

To listen, click here.

Advent 4A.  22 December 2013.


Isaiah 7.10-16


The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted."



            You may have noticed that I've been preaching on the Old Testament lessons from Isaiah each Sunday since the first Sunday of Advent.  We missed last Sunday's lesson, because I chose to preach the sermon I had prepared for the day we were snowed in.  But I'm picking up again today with Isaiah.


            As with so much of the Bible—as with so much of life!—once the situation is explained, the human reactions become understandable.  Yet, if you just tuned in to this lesson without the full context, it seems foreign and incomprehensible.  If you were to sit down with a modern translation of the Bible and pick any one of the books and started reading it, you would likely discover that you can understand the plot lines, feel the suspense.  I remember the first time I read first and second Samuel from beginning to end, and I was shocked at how the story kept me on the edge of my seat. 


            So in order to get into this lesson, I need to go back to King David.  Israel was a united kingdom under David, and under his son, Solomon.  Solomon made Israel a wealthy kingdom, but he did it on the backs of the people.  He sold land; he forced people into slavery.  It was not good.  And when he died, the northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam.  So they broke off, and called themselves the kingdom of Israel, leaving the south to become the kingdom of Judah.  And the division remained for 200 years.


            Incidentally—and this happened long after the era of the divided kingdoms—but Jesus was from the north—Nazareth, Galilee is in the north, but remember, he was born in Bethlehem in the south.  So even if you held to some ancient rivalry, either side can claim him.  My wife was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, but she was baptized in Virginia, so she's okay.


            (If you would like, please turn to page 554 in the Pew Bible.)  The lesson from Isaiah is during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah, in the south.  To the north, the king of Aram, which is the same as saying the King of Syria, has formed an alliance with the tribe of Ephraim, one of the tribes of the kingdom of Israel.  Isaiah reads (7.2) that when King Ahaz heard that Syria and the tribe of Ephraim had become allies, his heart, "and the heart of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind." Well, of course, they did.


            Let me put it into local terms, but to do so you have to forget democracy and go back to the idea of  lands ruled by kings.


            Let's say the king of Maryland wants to take over the Shenandoah Valley.  And the king of Winchester is friends with him, and all the people of Winchester are friends with him.  And let's say you are the king of Shenandoah County.  And Jerusalem sits in Shenandoah County with all its symbolic power and wealth.  And the king of Maryland wants to capture Jerusalem and set up his son as the new king of Judah.


If Winchester held strong, it would be easier for you to hold strong, but now you know that if there is a military action, Strasburg is going to be the front lines.  Your heart would shake as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.


So, the prophet Isaiah and his son come to talk with you.  In 7.4 Isaiah says, "Whoa up, there, big fella! Slow down, take heed, do not fear, because of the smoldering stumps of firebrands—those hotheads—Aram and Ephraim.  Isaiah says, v.7 "it shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass…within sixty-five years there won't be a tribe of Ephraim." 


You can imagine Ahaz thinking, "Well, okay, but in sixty-five years we're all dead, so how does this help us now?"  So here comes our lesson for today, the Lord tells Ahaz through Isaiah to ask him for a sign.  v.11 "Let it be as deep as [hell] or as high as heaven." Go ahead and ask, Ahaz.


So let's stop for a moment to consider the uniqueness of this situation.  Ahaz is shaking in his boots, and God is challenging Ahaz to come up with a sign that Ahaz will actually believe.  Ahaz says, "I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test." 


It's a cop-out, see?  He's scared.  He's too scared to ask God for reassurance, but he puts it off like he's being religious. 


So Isaiah responds anyway, "Oh, Ahaz, is it too little for you to weary your people that you have to weary God, too?  Are you so tiresome you have to wear out God as well as your own flesh and blood?  Look, there is a woman from Judah who is with child.  And she is going to give birth to a son, and the birth of that child symbolizes that God is with us.  Do you see that?  Do you have eyes to see that if God can be faithful to a mother having a child, then God can be faithful to you, too?


"And what is more, Ahaz, before the child knows good from bad—which is like saying by the time the child is two years old!—the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted."  In other words, in two years—by the time that woman gives birth and weans her child, Aram and Ephraim will be nothing."


 See in its context, the mention of a child called "Immanuel"—God with us—is not really about the child, and not really—again, in context—about a Messiah.  Isaiah is simply trying to reassure a king who has become overwrought with fear, and he's saying, "God is faithful to a pregnant mother; God will be faithful to you.  But like a mother, you have to wait and pray and believe.  She understands that the child is a symbol to her that God is with us."



            Now, of course, the Church has always read Jesus back into this story.  We heard that in Matthew's Gospel, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet, `Look a young woman will conceive and bear and son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.'" Isaiah's story becomes Joseph's dream that taking Mary was going to be okay.


            So you see the interesting contrast here.  Ahaz wants reassurance that everything is going to be okay.  Joseph wants reassurance that everything is going to be okay.  Two very different stories.  Ahaz is afraid of a military invasion.  Joseph is worried about being a disgrace to his people for taking a pregnant woman as his wife.  And the reassurance comes.  For Ahaz—it's a child, any child.  For Joseph, it's this child… 


            But the bottom line for both is that God is being faithful. 


            If only Ahaz would accept the reassurance, but you and I know that that's very hard to do.  For Ahaz to accept the reassurance, he has to trust in God.  In the Deuteronomistic history—which is a fancy way of saying the covenant history of the Hebrew people—the theology very simple and very conditional: If we are faithful to God, then God will be faithful to us.  If we are not faithful to God; then God will not be faithful to us.


            But Jesus turns all of that on its ear.  In the New Covenant, God will be faithful to us; and we will do our very best to be faithful, trusting that God will forgive us when we fail—believing that God will never leave us or forsake us.


            But we still want reassurance, don't we?  And reassurance is sometimes very hard to accept because it is so easy to be cynical.  It is so easy to say, "Show me first."  If the king of Maryland was friends with the king of Winchester, and you are the king of Shenandoah County—waiting to see the troops line up on the border of Strasburg—is your first instinct to trust and keep on keeping on?  I wonder.


            And similarly in the other trials that beset us, sicknesses, financial worries… Concerns about everything from the choices our families make to the price of gas…  What is our posture?  Shaking like trees in the wind? 


            The pulpit said, "God will be faithful to you."  How did you hear it?  Did it sound a little hollow? 


            Reassurances can sound so vague as to be silly.  Maggie stood on the diving board in the Edinburg pool with a teacher's hands steadying her, and another teacher in the water, saying, "It's okay.  Jump!  I'll catch you!"  And you could see the little gears in her brain calculating the probability that it was a lie.


            Faith.  Trust.  Belief.  My favourite quotation about faith is one of the least faithful things I've ever heard.  It's from Mark Twain who said, "Faith is believing in something you know just ain't so."


            The letter to the Hebrews reads, "Faith is essence of things hoped for, the assurance of things unseen." (11.1)


            What is your posture towards the outward and visible evidence?  You read the news.  You check the forecast.  And look at what happens.  They predicted wide-spread power outages, and ice for days.  I don't think anyone lost power, and we were never completely snowed in.  "Yeah, this time!  This time!  But just you wait till next time!"  Well, I don't know.  Maybe it's never really as bad as we think it's going to be.   I mean, seriously, folks: Has it ever been as bad as you thought it would be?


            What do you fear the most?  What is the thing that makes you shake in the wind like the trees of the forest?  They say all our fears are really just our overall fear of death. 


            And the reassurance comes, Behold, a woman is giving birth.  A rose blooming from tender stem amidst the cold of winter.  And the child—any child—but especially this child, is proof that God is with us.  For as Isaiah also wrote, "He will swallow up death for ever.  And the Lord will wipe away all tears." (25.4) 





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 16, 2013

A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse

Preached on Advent 3 since we were snowed out on Advent 2

 Advent 2A.  8 December 2013. 

Isaiah 11.1-10



            Advent is a season that richly mixes various themes from the biblical material.  Today is a dizzying blend of Old Testament vision, and New Testament fulfillment.  You will notice how much the early church—well, Paul anyway—treasured the reading for today from Isaiah.  "A root shall come out of the stump of Jesse."


It is echoed in Paul's letter to the Romans, which we read. [1]  How interesting that Paul heavily sprinkles his quotations from the Hebrew Bible in his letter to the Romans!  Remember he was writing to people who came to believe in Jesus, but who were not ethnically or religiously Jewish!  So he's quoting Isaiah to people who had not been raised on Isaiah! 


            But that's beside the point.  The early church loved Isaiah and his myriad prophecies of an anointed leader who was to come.  They loved Isaiah's language because it was so richly poetic and so obviously fulfilled in their understanding of Jesus. 


            Yet, Isaiah was writing, originally, not to Christians, but to Jews who had a very different sort of hope and expectation for a messiah.  If you read through the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—you will notice the awkward sort of relationship the Hebrew people had with leadership and authority. 


From the Exodus out of Egypt, through the covenants of Sinai and Zion, the Hebrew people understood the land to be given to them by God, and that God was to be their king. 


            In the Deuteronomistic history, you see this tension of wanting and needing a leader—a king—and at the same time believing that God alone was their true king.  In the story of the Exodus, it's like God is the unseen president, and Moses is the chief of staff; or, God is the chairman of the board, and Moses is the CEO.  God sets the vision.  God oversees the endeavor, and conveys through Moses what needs to be done, and where to go.  Moses then conveys God's wishes to the people.


            The most important aspect of Moses' leadership was his fidelity to God—that the people could trust that Moses was being obedient to what the Lord was telling him.  And that becomes a crucial aspect of understanding the covenant that God made with David.  David was to be the godly king who could be trusted, and through whose lineage would come anointed leadership.  Messiah literally means anointed.


Assyria, to the north, had grown in size and in social and political dominance.  It's hard for us to understand how they felt because America is the top dog now.  We're the country the nations look to, but then Assyria was flexing its muscle and that affected even the religious contours of Judaism.  Fertility cults were a major problem—in fact, there were places in the Temple in Jerusalem where prostitutes could be sold for unspeakable cultic rituals.


Isaiah had been hoping that King Hezekiah would be kind of godly king who could restore the stature and dignity of Israel, and cleanse Israel of Assyrian ways.  But Hezekiah failed to live up to what Isaiah had wished, and so he writes,


shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.


When he writes "a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse," what he is saying is that new growth will come from the lineage that brought forth David.  Why doesn't he just say, "From David's line"?  Well, by going back to David's father Jesse, Isaiah is going back in the lineage to complete obscurity--like saying, "from the dust of the earth."  Plus, by saying "the stump of Jesse" is a poetic way of addressing the fallowness of that lineage.  David's reign was a distant and nostalgic memory.


Isaiah says that the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.  "He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear."  What does that mean?  Well, it was a euphemism of the day that what a king's eyes see may be a bribe, and what their ears hear may be merely propaganda.  Isaiah describes a man who will not be swayed, but will seek the truth. 


 ..With righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.


            And you know what kings wear, right?  They wear royal regalia.  They wear soft clothes, silks and fine fabrics.  But not this king. 


Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.


            And then, again, just like we read last week from the second chapter, this image of beautiful, peaceable kingdom,


The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

They will not hurt or destroy

on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

            When God is exalted, and the one anointed by God—the one who is godly and righteous is in power—then there is peace.  And you would not be mistaken in reading the Garden of Eden into this description.  The peaceable kingdom is a return to innocence, like a nursing child who can play with snakes and not get bitten.  Nothing hurt or destroyed. 

            And for the early church to read back over these lines again, as they did—as St. Paul surely did—there was a sense of fulfillment.  For the brief, bright days and months and years when Jesus walked the earth, the lame could walk, the blind could see, and poor had the good news brought to them. 

            Jesus fulfills these hopes, and inaugurates the kingdom of God in doing so.  Instead of a social or political fulfillment, the culmination of prophecy that ushers in the temporary leadership of a king, Jesus inaugurates a cosmic reign—eternal and everlasting.  No longer do we look for new life to come from the dead old stump of a single family lineage, but we find God in Christ breaking into life through his Spirit.

            You are now that shoot that comes out of the stump.  Have you ever thought about that?  John said it more poetically,

12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

Before Christ we looked for someone to come who would be our champion, and when we got him, he turned around and said, Okay, you've got a Messiah.  More than that, your sins are forgiven and put away, but now the waiting is over.

You can no longer say "Someday we'll have a messiah; someday we will have godly leadership," this job is yours now, as well. 

You go out there into the lives you have been given—lives that you have been born into, lives that you have structured through your decisions— and you be a child of God.  You bring a message of salvation.  Because this vision of someone who can be a godly leader can be you, too, but it's up to you to make the Word of God flesh.  Your flesh.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] Romans 15.13

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

First words

Advent 1A.  1 December 2013.

The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail


Isaiah 2.1-5


The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!



            Some time ago I mentioned that the last words of someone, especially in ancient times, were considered very, very important.  I was preaching on what the author of Timothy gives as Paul's last words.  The Bible gives a faithful account of the last words of David.  Of course, we consider some of Jesus' last words each Sunday when we recite the night before he was handed over to suffering and death, and said, "This is my body.  This is my blood."  Last words are powerful.


Today I was interested to see what would be the first words.  Today begins the new ecclesiastical year, which also begins a new year of readings from the Eucharistic lectionary.  For those of you who may not know, or may not remember, the Eucharistic lectionary is a three year cycle labeled A, B, and C.  So we're not just at the first words, we're at the very first words of the whole three year cycle. 


And I was interested to see, since we always read an Old Testament lesson first, what the lectionary writers wanted us to read and hear.  If the decision were mine, I might start at the literal beginning of the Bible, Genesis 1.1, "In the beginning, God created…" 


However that would not take Advent into account.  Advent concerns itself with preparation.  We prepare once again to receive the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, which we then attempt to make our own flesh. 


When we use that very biblical expression from John's gospel, "the Word was made flesh," it may be that the dignity and elegance of the words obscures from our minds what they actually mean.  Think them through.  That the Word—the teaching, the Torah, the law, the order of God—became flesh.  That someone actually lived the words.  That's a very profound idea, when you really consider it.


Think of all the words that surround your life.  Most of them don't actually change your behavior.  You read an article in the paper and the meaning informs you, but it doesn't necessarily change how you live.  But then, you might have an appointment on your calendar that simply says, "haircut."  And from that word, you get into your car, and go. 


Consider for a moment the Torah—the teaching, the law of God.  In essence it hasn't really changed dramatically from the Old Testament to the New.  The Torah of God has always been, "Hear O people of God, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6.4,5)  Everything that follows that simple statement that calls for our spiritual devotion to God has to do with embodying that devotion in our relationships with others.


And when we begin to talk about Jesus, and prepare for his birth, and begin to recall the saving acts through which he brings us into a deeper and fuller relationship with our heavenly Father, we begin to speak of a man who was able to live those teachings.  And more than that.  He was those teachings.  Whereas you and I strive to emulate and follow, Jesus required no such striving.  He lived them naturally.  He showed us what it looks like to live the words of God, the Word of God.


 The vision of Isaiah—the first words from the Old Testament in our lectionary cycle—is a vision of all people, not just the people of Israel, but all people streaming to the mountain of the Lord.  The mountain of Lord means Jerusalem, the holy city, which is built around the Temple, which Isaiah calls "the house of the God of Jacob."


Tell you what.  Let me just read the lesson again, and as I do, please don't tune it out.  Really listen to what Isaiah envisions.


In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!




So Jerusalem, the Temple, is not understood in this vision of Isaiah, as merely a place for Israel, but for all people, and that all people will stream to it.  And from this place, from out of this place, shall go instruction.  The people are to come to receive instruction, that the God of Jacob, יהוה, would teach all people his ways that they may walk in his paths. 


            That's the first part of the vision, but please don't underestimate it.  Think for a moment about instruction.  It's what I'm doing right now.  You weren't thinking about any of these things before I began to talk about them.  If you have been listening to me, it means that you have some level of trust that what I am telling you is valid and worth considering, and that continuing to do so will be beneficial somehow. 


            At what age did you begin to value instruction?  I mean, when we're children we get instruction, but you know…it has to come very simply at first.  And our capacity to receive it, and use it, is limited.  Instruction is everywhere when we are kids.  We're told to do things, and there is discipline or punishment if certain things are done wrong.  It's hard to value instruction when it's there all the time.  We transition from childhood to adulthood through adolescence, wherein we continue to get instruction, but we're starting to want less of it.  "Get off my back!" 


            I think the most unnerving thing about reaching adulthood—and maybe you can remember this, too—is that unlike childhood or adolescence, the alarm bells don't go off when we're about to make a mistake. 


When you're a kid, you get warnings when you're close to the edge.  And then you get into the grey area of adolescence when sometimes the bells go off, but often they don't.  So we have to learn to sound our own alarms.  We have to trust ourselves enough, hoping that we've learned enough when something we might be able to avoid comes up.


            Maybe it's at this stage that we begin to truly value instruction.  Sound advice.  Thoughtful words.  I don't think I really valued much instruction or advice when I was in my twenties.  But you keep living long enough and sound advice, good instruction becomes the most valuable thing you can get. 


You start gathering it in ways that you never did before.  You read books differently; you watch the news differently.  Suddenly motivations mean more.  Why is he telling me this?  Is it true?  Does she stand to gain something from telling me this?  Is he just trying to get me to buy something?


The most valuable instruction is how to have a better life, isn't it?   It can range from how to assemble a piece of furniture from IKEA to how to navigate a tricky situation.  But the instruction that is really helpful is how to find peace of mind.  How to manage the squirrels that run on the treadmill in your mind about what to do, where to go, how to discern…


And the vision of Isaiah is that all nations—all people—not just the people of Israel will be privy to this instruction.  That God will offer his Torah to all people.  Love God; be good to others. 


And what follows in Isaiah's vision is a natural outcome of all the nations streaming to Zion to receive this instruction, and learning to walk in these paths, is that justice will come.  God will render just punishment, so that people will get a fair shake.  That God will arbitrate between the nations, settling old disputes, and putting away ancient malice.


And once this vision is fulfilled—instruction, justice—then God will inaugurate a peaceable kingdom.  People will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks [Weapons will be used for harvest.]; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." 


This is the vision of Isaiah for how salvation will come.  And it all begins with God's desire, and the people's desire, to make the Word—the Torah of God—flesh.  Their flesh.  To value and live in the ways of the Lord.


As we begin another Advent, the Collect of the Day--(which is perhaps my favorite one in all of The Book of Common Prayer ) asks God for the "grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now…"  "Now in the time of this mortal life in which God's son came to visit us."


The first words, the first lesson of the new year encourage and enjoin us to this pursuit, which is the vision of God.  That all the world would stream to the heavenly throne to receive instruction to walk in the paths of the Lord, to receive justice from God's merciful hand, and to live more just and noble lives. 


Will you strive to let these words become your own flesh?  Will you be enthralled by the wondrous call of God for a life more deeply rooted in the Torah?


Because this is God's desire for you.  It is God's desire for all people and all the nations of the earth.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, November 25, 2013

He took our hand and walked into the dark room with us.

Christ the King C.  24 November 2013.[1]


            As I read the Gospel lesson, just now, it may have seemed a bit abrupt that we would find ourselves at the Cross.  In the Episcopal Church we are not accustomed to reading the story of the crucifixion of Jesus outside of the full story of his trial and the events leading up to the Cross. 


            So often we have encountered it as one long "Passion reading" on Palm Sunday or Good Friday—with so much for the listener to hear that it feels like drinking from a fire hydrant.  Any little bits of the story that intrigue you, or move you, as you listen become lost as the narrative carries you ceaselessly to the Cross.  You think, "what was that about?"  But before you can reflect, we're on to the next.


            One such part of the narrative is the part we read today, the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals who were hanged beside Jesus.  When we see the image of the Cross—like on the Altar, or around someone's neck—it is usually a solitary cross.  If the Cross also bears a likeness of Jesus on it, it's called a crucifix.  Either way, we remember Jesus being crucified, but rarely does that image encompass the two criminals.  Even more rarely do we remember that there was a discussion between them. 


            It is likely that we don't remember it that way because this discussion is only recorded in Luke's gospel.  Matthew mentions that two bandits were also hanged with Jesus—but no dialog.  John records Jesus' conversation with the disciples and Mary, and simply writes that "two others" were crucified with him.  Mark doesn't mention anyone at all. 


            I want to try to talk about this interaction between Jesus and the two criminals, but there is an over-arching context to this text that gives it a power we could easily overlook. 


            The power of these sentences can be eclipsed by reading ahead too quickly to the Resurrection.  And we do that.  We do that quite naturally, because the Gospel of Christ is the Resurrection.  It is our "Alleluia" that Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and sickness and hell, and rose again from the dead, giving life to all who want it.  That is our story, but you cannot have the Resurrection without the Cross.  He has to die.  He has to be utterly and completely dead, or the story isn't the story. 


            The pathos of the part we read is that these three men—Jesus and the two criminals—are dying.  They are dying a very painful and embarrassing death in front of who knows how many people.  It was painful.  The word we use to describe pain of this magnitude is what?  Excruciating. 


            The word excruciating is derived from the Latin word ex-cruciare, which means to crucify.  The word carries in its full meaning the total horror of crucifixion.  That it is embarrassing, torturous, and agonizing—all three of those words combined.  Humiliating emotionally.  Mentally torturous—meaning, not knowing when it will end or how bad it is going to get.  And agonizing—painful to the body. 


            When people say they felt "excruciating pain," God bless them, but typically they are describing agony.  Excruciating is a complete assault on every faculty of one's being for who knows how long before death.  You and I cannot imagine it, unless we live it.  And if we lived it, we could not live to explain it.  Do you see what I'm trying to say?


            Here are three men who are being excruciated.  If they were only dying it would still be horrific, but do you understand that they are not only dying? 


            It is one thing to know you are dying, and another thing entirely to know when.  We all know that we are dying.  I remember very clearly when I was a little boy finding out that in time we all die.  I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I was probably about Peter's age, and I was sitting on the front steps of our house.  The girl who lived across the street was also sitting on the front steps of her house and we were talking across the street at each other.  She was a little older, and I don't remember how it came up or exactly what she said, but I remember her saying, "Everyone dies.  You will die one day."

            It was like Eve giving me the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.  And I ate the apple.  And I looked down and realized that we were both naked.  Not really, of course, but that's what it feels like when you realize that you are not as safe as you thought you were. 

            It happens in little bits over the course of your early years.  And when you are a child you can't always accommodate new information.  You go to your room and play with your toys, but your mind creates these little tangled thoughts and questions that lie around on the floor.  Sometimes they can actually form coherent thoughts, like "Grandma got sick and died.  If I catch a cold, will I also die?"  "My mother takes medicine.  If she stops taking it, will she die?" 


            Children ponder these sorts of things long before parents know, and sometimes there is a breakdown in their ability to express the anxiety that those early thoughts produce.  They don't know what to do with their thoughts.  No one can get inside their heads with them to see what they are thinking and to gauge the limits of their mind's ability to put things together.


            When we are very very young and we first encounter the concept of death, it is like opening a door to a room with no windows and no light switch.  The light from the hallway only goes so far.  We can see the floor leading in, and we're able to put our head inside just to see what we can see, but it isn't much. 


            We spend most of our days walking past that room.  We know it is there, but we don't really like to think about it.  Occasionally someone opens that door and walks through it into the room, and they don't walk out.  And we gather around the door frame in our "Sunday best" and the priest tells the story about a man named Jesus who once walked into that room and came out again. 


            That's our story, you see?  That's God's answer to the many little tangled questions we started asking when we were kids—and continue to ask, even now.  (Pause.)


            Three men were up there, excruciating.  Slowly, painfully, dying.  Two of them were criminals, being executed for crimes they committed.  One of them offered no defense at his trial, and did nothing worthy of execution.  What was passing through their minds?  We have no real idea.  Trying to look into their minds is like trying to look into the dark room, and only being able see but so far.


            As they hung there, they were mocked and derided by the crowds, especially Jesus.  As the criminals heard the epithets being flung at him, one of them joined in.  I want you to look at him with great compassion.  He's desperate.  He doesn't know what else to do.  He's in pain that we cannot imagine.  He said, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save us and save yourself."


            Luke writes that the other criminal fired back at him, "We deserve this.  We were condemned for what we did, but this man did nothing at all."  And then he said, "Jesus.." 


            Did you catch that?  Not Rabbi.  Not Teacher. Do you remember the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary?  He said, "You shall call him Jesus."  The name Jesus is the common form of the name Joshua.  The name Joshua… Can anyone tell me what the name Joshua means?   It means, Salvation…Deliverer. 


            The other criminal is not showing any disrespect by using Jesus's name.  Quite the contrary.  The criminal is saying, "You are the One who delivers.  You are the One who brings salvation."  And he says,  "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."


            Now, don't fast forward to the end, or you will miss this!  They are dying.  This is it.  They are walking into the dark room together.  And from the cross of a desperate, dying man comes this prayer of faith.  "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The second criminal does not believe that this is the end.  More than that.  The second criminal believes that the man beside him is a king.  And in death, this king will be bringing in a whole new kingdom.


            This is the Coronation of Jesus—the climax of his ministry.  Offering himself to be excruciated: tortured, humiliated, agonized for as long as it takes to kill him.  He does nothing to bring himself down.  As he dies, humanity, hanging there dying beside him—in the form of a convict—finally recognizes who he is


            Humanity, facing death finally sees Jesus for who he is.  He's a King.  He is the One.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  He is the Lamb that has been slain.  He is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end. 


            The criminal and the Savior join hands and walk through the door of the dark room together.  But before they do, Jesus says to him—and by extension to all of us: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."


            At the point of death—the final words from Jesus are not a reproach, a criticism, a parable, a thought, a meditation, or even a verse of Scripture.  They are a reassurance.  We will see him there, and there will be no cross, and no excruciating.  The dark room that has scared us since we were children will be bright, and we will never have to peer into the darkness again.


            That's our story, you see?  That's what makes us Christians. 


            When time takes our hand, and the shadows lengthen, and the unbearable is borne, we are not alone.  From the Cross, humanity had the grace to see the King and his coming kingdom.  And as we finally tried to give him the robe and crown, he meekly, but beautifully, took our hands and walked into the darkness with us. 


            Our gospel, our joy, our song is that he will also take our hands and walk us out.




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[1] Adapted from Christ the King C. 21 November 2010.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Love never ends; but that's not really what they're asking about.

To listen, click here.

Proper 27C.  10 November 2013.


Luke 20.27-38


            An elderly man is driving on the Interstate.  It's a beautiful Autumn day.  The leaves on the trees beside the road and on the medians are glorious reds and gold.  The sun shines amidst fluffy white clouds, displaying the full splendor of the deep blue sky.  The man revels in his thoughts.


            Without warning, blue lights appear in his rearview mirror.  He checks his speedometer.  All is well, but the state trooper comes right behind him, and the man pulls over.  He lowers his window, and the state trooper says, "Sir, are you Adam Corry?"  "Yes, officer.  What seems to be the problem?"  "Well, sir, you left your wife at the rest area about twenty miles back."  To which the man responded, "Oh, thank goodness!  I thought I went deaf!"


            Now, please forgive me if that joke offends you, but I'm talking about the lesson from Luke's Gospel this morning, and it's about marriage.  I wanted to start out playfully. 


            Marriage has so many contours and complexities, and can be very dangerous to talk about from the pulpit.  It's so much easier to joke about.  In fact, I didn't want to preach on this lesson at all when I first started my research.  Part of why was that I focused my attention on the conflict between Jesus at the Sadducees. 


            As the lesson reads, the Sadducees, which were the priestly class in Judaism during the first century, did not believe there could be resurrection from the dead.  The Pharisees did, you see.  And the reason for that difference is that the Sadducees limited their scriptures to those written by Moses.  The Pharisees allowed layers of tradition and writings beyond the texts of Moses to inform their understanding of life and God.  And Jesus was likely from a Pharisee background.


            Now please don't let that alarm you.  The Pharisees were not bad people at all.  They were very devout.  The only thing that Jesus didn't like—which is not specific to them at all—is that they had allowed their religious observance to shrink down to stale little rituals and habits.  Jesus preached a faith of the heart and mind—not a rote recitation of prayers and mindless acts of charity. 


When I say it was likely that Jesus was from a Pharisee background, it stands to reason that Mary and Joseph were of that class.   These were the people who went to the synagogue and knew the sacred texts.  You can't expect Jesus to emerge from outside the common people of his day and be the Messiah. 


            So, this challenge to Jesus is not really, fundamentally, about marriage at all.  It's about the theological differences between two groups of Jews—those who do not believe that resurrection from the dead is possible, and those who do.


            Jesus answers that Moses implied that he believed in resurrection because he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And his argument is that for God to acknowledge Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it implies that those men are resurrected, and in the near presence of God. 


Now, if you think that that argument is a little weak; you are right.  Moses could still reference God as having been the God of those men, even though they are now dead and may or may not be resurrected some day. 


But the Sadducees heighten the emotional element of this question by tying it to marriage.  In this culture, the scenario the Sadducees spell out was not utterly impossible.  Remember that women were very vulnerable in this culture.   Being married was what kept them protected and fed.  A widow could not defend herself.  Women could not inherit.  Money and possessions could only be inherited by men. 


See when we think of married, our minds naturally snap to falling in love.  And we find it amusing and…well, unthinkably incestuous, that a series of brothers could fall in love with the same woman.  Back then, marriage could be, but wasn't necessarily, predicated on love.  It may have just been about survival.


So, Jesus, let's say that a woman gets married to a man who has six brothers.  It's an exaggerated scenario, but what do you think?  Let's say all seven brothers marry her, each in turn, and as one dies, and the other steps up to care for his brother's widow.  So she's married to all of them at one point, and let's say that none of the marriages leads to the birth of children, which would then anchor the woman, by relationship with the child, to one of the men.  So if there is resurrection, whose wife is she?


And Jesus responds… And I'd like to read from the New Alexander Paraphrase, "Resurrected people aren't tied to one specific relationship."  And I want to put more words in Jesus' mouth here, but I shouldn't.  But, let me just tell you what I think. 


I think Jesus' implication is that resurrection allows us to enjoy a perfectly wonderful and fulfilling relationship with everyone.  That the qualities of knowing and being known that we have with just one person in this life prefigure a much happier life to come where we are able to have a deep measure of connection with everyone.


In The Book of Common Prayer, it reads that "marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church."  I want to say that we are eventually unified with Christ, and through his auspices—I know not how—he gives us the joy of his union with everyone. 


But I want to say that that doesn't render our marriages as meaningless or purely tied to just this life.


We joke about marriage.  It's something we care about so deeply that we almost have to.  We make light of how much we care about our spouses.  We complain about foibles.  Everyone knows that if the marriage is foundationally secure, we'd sooner fall on our swords than see anything bad happen to our wives or husbands. 


And if you are reading this lesson as widow or widower, you may want to throw the Bible across the room, because it's unthinkable to not be reunited—in some way—with your spouse in the resurrection.  Mark Twain said, "If there are no cigars in heaven, I shall not go."  I don't know about that, but it just seems unthinkable that if you love someone all your life….


I don't think that Jesus is saying that marriage just vanishes.  It doesn't fit with the character of God that we would spend most of our lives caring and loving, and desiring another person and that he or she would simply be like everyone else in heaven.  But, again, we're reading this text from the perspective of romantic love, as people who now see marriage as union of mutual respect and affection.


Jesus is talking about marriage as the ownership that a first century man had over a first century woman, which is at the heart of this scenario.  In that light, the text really should not read, "Whose wife is she?"  But "Who owns her?"  Jesus is saying, There's no ownership of people in heaven—except that we belong to God.


That may be some genuine comfort to those who perhaps have found themselves in marriages that are based not on love, but on duty.  And sad as it is, some men still marry women, and some women still marry men based on little more than what you are going to for me.  That's not a marriage as we have come to understand it; it's a contract.  And I think the Lord is saying here that those sorts of entanglements that men impose onto women, or women perhaps impose onto men, will not endure in the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.


 Marriage is a lifelong dance of teamwork and helping each other along.


I recently preached at my high school, and I told the student body something that made them laugh.  I said, "You know, marriage is mostly just talking and eating together."  It looks like that on the surface, and it sometimes feels that way, but it's impossible to convey how sacramental those dinners and conversations are.  


I have heard many widows and widowers say that they still talk to their spouses, and that they still feel their presence from time to time.  If you cannot be moved by that, you must be made of stone. 


I don't have a complete theology of that.  I have no idea what is going on there, really, but I choose to believe that it's a gift and grace from God. 



Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and on earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy."   There are words to that effect in Holy Scripture.  St. Paul wrote, "For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."


Marriage is one of the sacramental rites of the Church precisely because it mediates to us a deeper spiritual understanding of our connection to God, and through God to everyone.  If a widow or widower experiences the presence of their spouse, I can only think that God is using that experience to reassure us all that, as St. Paul also wrote, "love never ends."


We're coming into a time of the year that is very much about family and memories.  Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas.  The joy of gathering around the table can be somewhat muted when we remember to pull out one less plate, or several fewer plates. 


I don't need to tempt you any further down the misty path of nostalgia, but I would suggest that you open your heart to those gifts God may wish to give you, and to not shy away from those feelings of belonging.  I am not suggesting some sort of spooky spiritualism here, but if in the process of drawing near to God in prayer you feel some impartation that perhaps reminds you of your spouse, or your father, grandfather or mother, or whomever, receive that as a gift from God.  After all, our spouses and family were a gift from God to begin with.





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel