Thursday, October 29, 2009
This Sunday is All Saints Day. During the course of my priesthood I have been asked by people both young and old what happens to our loved ones when they die. This question is not a scientific inquiry, but a question of the heart. Death separates us from those we love—husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends.
So it is only natural for us to ask about those who have died.
All Saints day is not just about the famous saints we have heard about or after whom the Gospels are named. Saints , as one of the hymns we will sing this Sunday says “are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
When we think of our loved ones who have died we discover a deep sense of longing for that person to be present to us again because we experienced in them a bit of God’s tender loving kindness towards us.
Paul Tillich wrote: “The saint is a saint, not because he is ‘good,’ but because he is transparent for something more than he himself is.” I have now lost my parents and their whole generation whom I called family. I lost my Dad when I was very young and his death was a deep loss for me.
The depth of this loss, I have come to believe, is made so by the reality of my Dad’s life as a saint, as someone through whom God was visible. I believe that my Dad was more than good, he was God’s presence to me and that is what caused me to feel the pain of his death so deeply.
Where is my Dad now. The simple answer is that he is with God not because he earned his way into heaven, but because in his life God’s loving kindness and presence was seen through the eyes of those who knew and loved him. I believe in the communion of saints and my Dad was a saint, a common, ordinary saint through whom God’s light was shed in the world.
In our Gospel for this All Saints Sunday, we will hear the story of Jesus coming to the village of Bethany because his friend Lazarus had been ill and died. Jesus loved Lazarus and Lazarus was loved by his sisters, Mary and Martha.
They saw God in Lazarus and so did Jesus. How could Jesus, who could heal the sick allow their brother to die? If only he had come sooner, maybe Lazarus would have been saved.
Perhaps the real purpose of life for each of us is in allowing God to be seen in our world by others. I am not talking about a show of self-righteousness or holier than thee or thou behavior, but in the many ways God’s love seeks to be present to those in need, those who are hungering and thirsting for a world of merciful love.
When Jesus comes to the grave of his old friend, he raises him from death as a witness to the God whose absence Mary and Martha grieved at the death of their brother. They saw this light in Jesus and more.
They were saints too, but you can’t be a saint by yourself. Saints can not see how the light and love of God flows through them to others in the most ordinary kinds of relationships.
Jesus raised Lazarus, not as a personal favor to an old friend, but as a demonstration that God intends to shine through us and through his whole creation no matter how hard we sometimes try to shut him out or to ignore him.
Our grief at the death of a loved one is a sure sign of our hunger for God because in these loved ones, we experienced in someway or another, the loving kindness and grace of God.
As Blaise Pascal reflected, “Grace is required to turn a human being into a saint; and he who doubts this does not know what either a human being is or a saint is.” If we grieve the loss of a loved one , we grieve and ache for the presence of God. If we ache for the presence of God in our lives, we are on our way to becoming saints to others.
Here are the lyrics to the hymn, "I SING A SONG OF THE SAINTS OF GOD." Read them over and offer thanks to God for being present in those whom you love, but see no longer. It is in our losses that we discover our deep love for God and God's saints.
I sing a song of the saints of God
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God --- and I mean
God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus' sake,
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there's not any reason --- no not the least
Why I shouldn't be one too.
They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still,
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him,she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord,if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?"
They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was
lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man,said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."
Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone.
And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face
wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them,"Unbind him, and let him go."
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The Blind Boys of Alabama sing soulfully about their faith. Sunday's Gospel may just record for us what it means to be blind and yet to see as a person of faith. Healing blindness of the heart is more of a miracle than healing eyes that cannot physically see.
As Jesus is leaving the city of Jericho, a man cries out to him for mercy. Asking for mercy lacks definition. What is it that this man wanted. If you asked Jesus for mercy what would you be asking for?
The city of Jericho may just be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world dating back to 9,000 BC. Out of this ancient city with a rich secular as well as a religious history, Jesus continues on his way up to Jerusalem. His disciples have shown themselves to be spiritually blind to what is going on in the life of their teacher, Jesus.
They have argued about who is the greatest in the midst of Jesus clearly telling them that he would be turned over to the Romans; falsely accused; humiliated; shamed; tortured; and finally killed in a most public and vilifying way. He would be labeled as anti-God and anti-empire. His kingdom would be shown to be non-existent and built upon the wrong ideas (forgiveness, love, charity, mercy, peace without exclusion). He was deemed a traitor to his own people and to the Roman Emperor and Empire.
And yet, as he leaves Jericho, a man cried out to him for mercy. Jesus asked him to be more specific: "What do you want me to do for you?" How would you answer Jesus' question if he asked you what you wanted him to do for you?
The man called Jesus "My teacher." Teachers are people who show us how to see things in a new way. Teachers offer us new information, new insights, and inspire us to embrace a new vision of how things could be. So, this man calls Jesus his personal teacher and asks him to let him see again. Of course, this man was blind, but in his blindness he knew a deeper darkness in his spirit that was in need of the mercy of God. He lived in a world of darkness and he was hoping for light, for vision.
Jesus tells this man that his faith has made him whole. Faith gives us the eyes of God to see the world as God sees it. Such a vision of the world through God's eyes stands in stark contrast to the vision of the world which we currently see. The world that saw Jesus as the enemy of peace and unity remained blind. This blind man became the witness to the crucifixion. His name is Bartimaeus (his name means son of honor)and he has the eyes to see more than just another senseless death at the hands of power. He sees and witnesses to a deeper and more profound act of God pouring himself out for life of the world.
Amazing grace and mercy--increase in us your gifts of faith, hope, and charity that we might see you in this world which you created and for which you give your life and love. Amen.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Have you ever wanted to be the person who sits next to a very important person? Many of us are shy about such things. Even though we would really like to be seen with a VIP, our modesty or sense of place warns us against asking for such a special favor from the one we admire.
The Gospel for this Sunday is the story about two of Jesus' disciples asking Jesus for the honor of sitting on his right and left side when Jesus comes into his glory. Does their request cause problems for them with the other disciples? How does Jesus respond to their request? Here is the Gospel reading for this Sunday.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
Imagine asking such a thing of Jesus or of anyone? Now children often use this tactic with their parents, but adults usually understand that asking for a blank signed check from someone is just not good form. So, Jesus’ response is remarkable for his openness to being asked and his willingness to meet their request.
And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
Their request reveals their child-like desire to bask in the glory of Jesus. They have imagined glory in a way that we might all understand. Glory is about being number one; about being the winner; about having all the power, control, and marbles in the game of life. To sit on either side of such a person of glory would most certainly reflect rather nicely on those who were granted these seats of honor.
But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
What does Jesus mean by this response? “Drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with,” perhaps was a reminder of Jesus’ baptism in the wilderness. Drinking the cup sometimes refers to the sort of life one ends up living by choice or otherwise. What was the cup that Jesus was drinking?
They replied, "We are able."
I have volunteered to do things in my life that later turned out to be real challenges to me intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Sometimes I knew what I was getting myself into, but most of the time I did not.
For the love of God that I discovered in the church, I said yes to being baptized.
For the love of God that I experienced in the church, I learned to accept God's love from others and to share God's love with others, I said yes to being confirmed.
For the love of God that I discovered in the One whose mighty and all embracing love stretched around the world to embrace those outside of the church, I said yes to being ordained to serve as a priest.
Each of these decisions I made had no guarantee of the sort of consequences that would follow. In fact, I really said yes to the love of God without realizing that my response would result in the life I have lived thus far. And so it was with the disciples. Jesus’ love for them and the world made them ask for something that would result in consequences they could not predict.
Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
Jesus was not able to guarantee seats next to him. In fact, he did not even know who would be next to him. But, he did know that these two disciples would drink the same cup he was drinking and be baptized with the baptism he was baptized. I believe that Jesus saw in these two people a love for him and for his Father that would result in their following him so closely in the way he lived his life, that their lives would look like his.
Do you remember that Jesus referred to a cup during his last agonizing and prayerful moments in the Garden before his arrest, trial, suffering, and death?
“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’" Matthew 26:39
For the love of God, these two disciples sought to live in that kingdom of heaven so graciously and joyfully described and offered by Jesus. They wanted to be near Jesus, they wanted to be in his Father’s Kingdom.
I have asked my friends on Face Book who they thought the two people would be who were seated on the left and right hand of Jesus in his glory. Many have offered various saintly souls, but I believe these two seats next to Jesus refer to the two crosses that flanked Jesus on his cross. On one cross, there hangs a repentant thief and on the other cross an unrepentant thief. This is Jesus’ moment of glory hanging between those for whom he lived and died.
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Of course rivalry is part of our world. Jesus did not lecture James or John. Rather, he reminded the other ten of the cup which we share with him and the baptism with which we are all baptized. It is Christ’s cup and Christ’s baptism that is our cup and baptism. We, like our Lord, are not here on this earth for this brief time to be served or to lord our power or wealth over others. We are called to be servants of God and of others.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
The First Adam Meets The Second Adam on the Road to Jerusalem
I am doing some praying over this coming week's Gospel reading from Mark. It is set in the context of the disciples' failure to really understand who Jesus is and his moving towards Jerusalem where his identity and the very nature of God will be put on trial and found guilty by the judges of his day.
Jesus says that this human way of judging him shows how little we really know about the nature of things: sin (what divides us by uniting the majority against a perceived threat from others, usually a minority with less power than the majority), judgment (the sense of being absolutely right in how we determine the evil in others and the good in ourselves), and righteousness (how we are related and brought together with one another and God by God’s initiative, not our own). And somewhere along the way to Jerusalem, a man comes to him and falls at his feet and implores Jesus to tell him how he can inherit eternal life.
Perhaps the man sees eternal life as a consumer product rather than a gift of relationship with God and other people. Is eternal life something you can get in return for good behavior or appropriate giving? Eternal life is often seen today as a personal improvement in status or reward which begins when we die.
But there is no life, eternal or temporary, that is divorced from our primary relationship with God as our Creator and Father and all of God’s children without exception because eternal life is about how God deals with sin, our human way of judging, and reconstituting the way we create community.
This man is apparently very wealthy and very religious. His relationship with God has been reduced to following laws and following them without a misstep. Jesus looks deeply into the eyes of the man and loves him. Does Jesus see himself in this man? Does Jesus see us in this man. Is the rich young man who is unnamed in Mark's Gospel this Sunday really the first Adam who continues to walk away sadly with his wealth?
Is Jesus the second Adam who continues on his journey to Jerusalem to offer the wealth of the universe for the salvation of the world? Hmm...sounds a bit Twilight Zonish, but it appeals to my heart and soul this morning as I pray with this text.
We shall see where further prayer and reflection takes me before this message is preached on Sunday.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Humanity has wrestled with the issues of marriage and divorce for a very long time. But I wonder if the question about divorce that was directed to Jesus by the students of the law was simply a foil to trap Jesus and not really a serious attempt at exploring the meaning of marriage and divorce. Most people have their minds pretty well made up about these core issues of human life and so they really become sources of division rather than invitations to a deeper understanding.
It is certainly true today. Issues of human sexuality and relationships seem to be hot button topics within the church and the world culture. Politicians can mobilize whole groups of people based upon their stands on such topics.
Laws that govern human relationships and especially divorce and marriage reflect the collective understanding and moral values of the society in which such laws are established. Consider laws that have changed in the course of our national history.
Prohibition sought to stop the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. This amendment to the United States Constitution reflected the values of a vocal group of Americans at the time who used the Bible to support their cause. Prohibition was repealed and alcohol was legally reintroduced to American life.
Just so, the Episcopal Church amended her canons (laws of the church) regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the church after much study, debate, and conflict. Does prohibiting divorce strengthen the institution of marriage? If prohibiting divorce and marginalizing divorced people in the church by banning them from communion did not stem the tide of divorce within and outside of the church, what could the church do to support marriage?
In 1979 the Episcopal Church approved a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer and made changes in the canons regarding marriage and divorce. The intention was not to deny the importance of marriage as a life-long union, but to provide more support for couples as part of their pre-marital preparation.
Jesus understood the laws surrounding marriage and divorce. There were two main rabbinical schools of thought about the grounds on which a man could divorce his wife. One school was more “liberal” in allowing a man to divorce a woman for almost any reason (School of Hillel). The other school (School of Shammai) was stricter on the male prerogatives and only allowed divorce of a wife in the case of adultery on her part.
The Pharisees’ question must be understood for what it was, a test of Jesus. They wanted him to take a position on the legality of divorce: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus pushed the question passed the current intent of his questioners to a time he called “the beginning.” He said that the whole question of divorce was a product of humanity’s “hard heartedness.”
Read the Gospel for this Sunday and then look at the cultural practices of Jesus’ day that might suggest what he meant by “hard heartedness.”
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"
They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her."
But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The Following information comes from Harpers Encyclopedia of Bible Life (Madelein S. and J. Lane Miller).
Marriages were arranged and not a matter of couples falling in love. A father with a son would approach the father of a potential bride to see if he would be willing to enter into a marriage agreement. If the father of the potential bride agreed then negotiations would begin. The daughter had absolutely no say in whether she would agree to such a marriage. A father with daughters had the authority to sell his daughters into concubinage if he wished.
A Mohar (Dowary in reverse)was the price the father and son of the groom paid to the father of the bride and usually averaged 50 shekel which was the amount of money paid to the father of a daughter by the man who raped his virgin daughter and who was then required to marry her.
Marriage was a transfer of property from one man to another. The term Husband is more accurately translated from the Hebrew as “owner.” The average age of a groom was 20 and a bride was usually 15. Being a bachelor was not an option in this culture.
1.Is marriage and divorce the same in Jesus’ day as it is today?
By saying that divorce was unacceptable was Jesus somehow defending marriage even if the marriage was abusive to either party?
2.Consider the first relationship recorded in Genesis between Adam and Eve. What was the basis for their relationship and how was it different from the understanding about marriage in Jesus’ time and our time?
3. In the story of Adam and Eve there is an event which changes the relationship between them. When Jesus speaks of “hard heartedness” is he referring to the pre or post moment of refusing to acknowledge God’s transcendence in their lives (the “from the beginning” moment)
4. Do you believe law can reduce divorce by making it harder or easier to obtain?
Is “no fault” divorce causing more divorces; improving the quality of married life; or making divorce less destructive to those families who go through such a divorce?
5. Do you agree with the Episcopal Church’s decision to allow remarriage in the church and to allow divorced people to receive Holy Communion?
What would be the practical impact on family life today if divorces were strictly denied by our laws and courts?
6. What is the relationship between marriage and being a Christian? Is the Christian norm for individuals to be married? How do we view people who are unmarried? How do we view people who stay single by choice and prefer not to have children?
These are some of the many sorts of questions that marriage, divorce, and remarriage raise for us and for our culture. The Episcopal Church seeks to address these questions and other questions of relationships within a calm and open forum.
Here are some interesting sites for your further study of this important issue.
History of resolutions regarding marriage and human sexuality
House of Bishops on marriage and human sexuality