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Holiness

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 6:1-13
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe.  Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Isaiah 6:5.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke 5:8

In our Northern European/American religious context, holiness is framed nearly exclusively in moral terms. To be holy, we are taught, is to adhere strictly to certain moral laws and precepts approved by God. Though holiness surely has a moral dimension, it encompasses far more than mere human behavior. Biblically speaking, holiness is the character of God. It is, in its essence, all that is true, beautiful and good.

Truth, it must be understood, is not to be equated with the modernist notion of that term. It does not consist exclusively of empirically demonstrated facts and rational deductions therefrom. To the contrary, as Soren Kierkegaard observed, “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual.” Saint Augustine of Hippo asserts that “God is truth.” These seemingly contradictory assertions find reconciliation in the biblical claim that human beings were made in the image of God and in the miracle of the Incarnation wherein God becomes human. One cannot know oneself fully and completely apart from knowing the God in whose image one is made. Yet one can know God only as God reveals God’s self in the humanity of Jesus.  Truth is relational, not transactional. To know Jesus, then, is to know the deepest truth: that God the Father loves God the Son; that this love, the glue that holds the Trinity together, emanates from the Father and the Son to create, redeem and reconcile the whole cosmos; that we become and know our true selves as we are incorporated into that redemptive Trinitarian love.

Beauty, also, must not be confused with any humanly created and shaped aesthetic. To the contrary, beauty is what creates and shapes our humanity. Holy beauty is the kind one experiences standing on the ocean shore or staring into the evening sky and recognizing how frail one is, how inconsequential are the “great historical moments” that amount to less than a blink of the eye in the great expanse of cosmic history. Holy beauty is taking your new born son or daughter into your arms for the first time and realizing the profound responsibility you have assumed for this new life so frail yet so full of potential. It is a terrifying beauty that evokes the response: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4. Yet the God behind all of this raw and terrifying beauty is not only mindful of human beings, but

“looks far down
on the heavens and the earth[.]
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:6-9.

This God who “looks far down” is nowhere better observed than in God’s “coming down” to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” And this “coming down” is revealed most fully on the cross. There God’s compassion for God’s finite creatures is manifest in all of its infinite, passionate beauty. At the foot of the cross we learn that, whether we like it or not, our little lives matter a great deal.

That brings us to holy goodness. Again, God’s goodness is not to be measured by any human standards of morality. The gospels make clear that God’s goodness consists in that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. God alone decides what is good and God defines goodness relationally, that is, in terms of mercy and compassion. In this respect, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Goodness, like truth and beauty, finally boils down to love. And love is not to be understood in the sense of personal affection or desire, but as the Triune love between Father and Son that breathes its creative, Pentecostal fire into the darkness thundering, “Let there be!” God, who is full and complete in God’s self, nevertheless makes room for the other to be. That is divine love, love that God would infuse into the whole cosmos so that all God’s creatures might find the courage and freedom to allow and assist one another to become all they are intended to be.

Encountering this holy God will scare the socks off anyone with a modicum of common sense. Being confronted with all of this blinding truth, splendorous beauty and pure goodness is a terrifying experience. One cannot help but recognize in the presence of holiness one’s own unholiness. It is terrifying to be stripped of the comfort afforded by all the lies I tell myself about myself. It is frightening to be confronted with the many ways in which I hurt the ones I love, the many opportunities for love I have squandered and the time I have wasted on envy, spite and self-pity. It is disheartening to discover in the presence of perfect beauty the pettiness, indifference and self-absorption that blinds me to such beauty most of the time. And, of course, it is deeply humbling to be compelled in the light of God’s loving kindness toward me to recognize and to own my meanness, cruelty, greed and bigotry-all the things that I so easily justify or overlook in myself while readily condemning them in the lives of others. I can well understand the fear and anguish expressed by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Peter as they found themselves in the presence of God’s holiness.

Yet for all the terror and anxiety our encounter with holiness can induce, it is finally a life-giving force turning us from all that we have been toward all that we can be. Isaiah came away from his vision in the temple with lips cleansed and eager to speak God’s words to God’s people. Peter rose up from his supine posture before Jesus to follow his Lord in catching up the lost and forsaken of the world into the vast dragnet of God’s redemptive love. This Triune God we worship is not safe, tame or easy to live with. This God does not promise to make us rich, deliver us from suffering or bring us happiness and inner peace. But the God and Father of Jesus Christ does promise to make us holy-and that’s a damn sight better than any of those things.

Here is a poem by Luci Tapahonso presented to the graduates of the University of Arizona. It speaks eloquently of truth, beauty and goodness, the elements of holiness.

A Blessing

This morning we gather in gratitude for all aspects of sacredness:
the air, the warmth of fire, bodies of water, plants, the land,
and all animals and humankind.
We gather to honor our students who have achieved the extraordinary
accomplishment of earning doctoral or master’s degrees.
We gather to honor their parents, grandparents, children,
family members, and friends who have traveled with them
on their path to success. They have traveled far distances to be here
this morning: we honor their devotion.

May we remember that holiness exists in the ordinary elements of our lives.

We are grateful for a homeland that has always thrived
on a glorious array of people and their diverse cultures, histories,
and beliefs. We acknowledge the generosity of the Tohono O’odham
in granting this land on which we learn, teach, celebrate
accomplishments, and sometimes mourn losses.

May we always cherish our ancestors as we prepare for the days ahead.
May we remember that we exist because of their prayers and their faith.

We are blessed with distinct and melodious tongues.
Our languages are treasures of stories, songs, ceremonies, and memories.
May each of us remember to share our stories with one another,
because it is only through stories that we live full lives.

May the words we speak go forth as bright beads
of comfort, joy, humor, and inspiration.
We have faith that the graduates will inspire others
to explore and follow their interests.

Today we reflect a rainbow of creation:
Some of us came from the east, where bright crystals of creativity reside.
They are the white streaks of early morning light when all is born again.
We understand that, in Tucson, the Rincon Mountains are our inspiration
for beginning each day. The Rincons are everlasting and always present.

Those who came from the south embody the strength of the blue
mountains that encircle us. The Santa Ritas instill in us
the vigorous spirit of youthful learning.

Others came from the west; they are imbued with the quiet, yellow glow of dusk.
They help us achieve our goals. Here in the middle of the valley, the ts’aa’,
the basket of life, the Tucson Mountains teach us to value our families.

The ones from the north bring the deep, restorative powers of night’s darkness;
their presence renews us. The Santa Catalina Mountains teach us that,
though the past may be fraught with sorrow, it was strengthened
by the prayers of our forebearers.
We witnessed the recent fires the mountains suffered,
and in their recovery we see ourselves on our own journeys.
We understand that we are surrounded by mountains, dziił,
and thus that we are made of strength, dziił, nihí níhídziił.
We are strong ourselves. We are surrounded by mountains
that help us negotiate our daily lives.

May we always recognize the multitude of gifts that surround us.
May our homes, schools, and communities be filled with the wisdom
and optimism that reflect a generous spirit.

We are grateful for all blessings, seen and unseen.

May we fulfill the lives envisioned for us at our birth. May we realize
that our actions affect all people and the earth. May we live in the way
of beauty and help others in need. May we always remember that
we were created as people who believe in one another. We are grateful,
Holy Ones, for the graduates, as they will strengthen our future.

All is beautiful again.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.

Source: A Radiant Curve (c. 2008 by Luci Tapahonso, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953) is a Navajo poet and a lecturer in Native American Studies. She is also the author of three children’s books and six books of poetry. Tapahonso was born on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico and raised in the traditional ways of her tribe along with 11 siblings. English was not spoken in the family home. Consequently, Tapahonso learned it as a second language after her native Navajo. She attended the University of New Mexico with the goal of pursuing a career in journalism. She changed her major to creative writing in her sophomore year, however, and graduated with a degree in that discipline. Thereafter, she earned her masters and held teaching positions at the University of Mexico, University of Kansas and the University of Arizona where she is currently a professor of English Literature and Language. Tapahonso was chosen as the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. You can learn more about Luci Tapahonso and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What it Means to be Pro-Life

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I am and always have been adamantly and unequivocally pro-life. I am convinced that terminating a pregnancy brings to an end the life of a unique human being. For that reason, every effort should be made to preserve, support and encourage the carrying of every pregnancy to full term. The miracle of the Incarnation is the very core of our Christian understanding of God. We believe that God was born of a homeless woman in a shed. We confess that God is weak, vulnerable and in need of care and protection. The vulnerability of God in the womb of Mary compels the belief that human life is sacred from the time of conception and deserving of our most lavish protection. For a lot of folks who march under the pro-life banner, being pro-life equates with picketing Planned Parenthood and supporting legislation limiting access to abortion. That, however, does not come close to being genuinely pro-life. Here is what it means to be pro-life.

The most effective way to prevent the termination of pregnancies is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That requires sex education at the elementary school level. It also requires making gynecological care and access to birth control available to all people of childbearing age, including teens. The argument that availability of birth control and sex education will encourage more teens to become sexually active has not proven to be the case. In reality, neither sex education nor the availability of birth control increases the degree of teen sexual activity, but they do significantly reduce the instances of teen pregnancy. Over all, where women are given access to good gynecological care, including reproductive care and counseling, we find far fewer unintended and unwanted pregnancies; hence, fewer abortions. Support for family planning and sex education is a pro-life position.

Furthermore, the best way to protect the lives of the unborn is to care for their mothers. Food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services are provided to low-income women, infants, and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC. This program is designed to ensure that women are able to obtain the nutrition necessary to remain healthy throughout their pregnancies and feed their children when they are born. Knowing that there are resources available for women to raise and care for their children creates a strong incentive to continue a pregnancy. Supporting the WIC program and other nutritional support programs for low income persons is therefore a pro-life position.

Health care is a critical factor in preserving the lives of the unborn. Having a child is an expensive proposition when, for whatever reason, one does not have health insurance coverage. This is particularly so for high risk pregnancies, complicated deliveries and post-natal problems. Too often, abortion appears to be the only alternative to bankruptcy or homelessness. Universal health insurance coverage ensures that no baby will ever be “too expensive.” Support for universal health care coverage is therefore a pro-life position.

Finally, there some circumstances under which a pregnancy should be ended. If you believe that a twelve year old girl, a victim of rape or incest, a woman to whom pregnancy and childbirth pose serious medical risks should be compelled by law to carry a pregnancy to term, then your moral compass is oriented to the north pole of a different planet than the earth I inhabit. I doubt we have enough moral common ground to continue this discussion further. But if, like me, you agree that there are circumstances were abortion is a responsible, if tragic, decision; then there is just one question left: Who decides when a pregnancy should be terminated?

Deciding whether to end a pregnancy is difficult and fraught with conflicting interests and priorities. The issues bearing on that decision are never clear and require wisdom, discernment and an intimate knowledge of the persons affected. I am firmly convinced that no one is in a better position to make such a decision than the persons closest to it and most directly affected by it. Women, not the state, not the courts or the medical establishment, are in the best position to determine what, under all of the circumstances, is best for their own well-being and that of their children. Consequently, enabling women to make these difficult decisions by providing access to affordable, medically safe surgical procedures, including abortion, is a pro-life position.

Now let’s boil down to its essentials the phony right wing pro-life position propagated by the likes of Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, evangelist Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of President Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. For these men and their supporters, pro-life means one thing: government control of women’s bodies and reproductive systems. These same people who are so often screaming at the top of their lungs that the government has no business running health care, regulating fire arms or teaching sex education sing an altogether different tune when it comes to women’s health. When it comes to women’s most intimate and personal medical decisions, these so called pro-lifers are saying to women, “Come on, ladies. Don’t trouble your pretty little heads over your health and well-being. Government knows better than you do what you and your families need.” There is nothing biblical about that.

But what about all those pregnancies that continue to be terminated? Shouldn’t we be doing something to stop that? Yes, we should and we are and it’s working. Abortion rates have been declining substantially for the last decade. To be clear, this decline had nothing to do with loudmouth protesters marching around Planned Parenthood centers with idiotic signs, shouting abuse at women seeking all manner of medical services, most having nothing to do with abortion. It had nothing to do with any legislation restricting women’s access to abortion. In fact, this decrease in induced abortions occurred as a result of increasing availability of health care, contraception and sex education.[1]  Improvements in these areas are the only proven method of reducing the frequency of induced abortions. So I won’t hear any pious blather about those poor precious aborted babies out of the hypocritical, self-righteous little pie holes of anyone who is not out campaigning for universal health care, access to contraception and sex education. For all its heated rhetoric, the right wing faux pro-life movement has done nothing for babies, born or unborn.

In short, I trust women to do the right thing without government compulsion or the threats of moralistic, Bible banging bullies.  Yes, it is possible that some women will make poor choices-as do governments, courts and medical professionals. But, on the whole, mothers tend to make the best choices for themselves and their families-especially when given every conceivable opportunity to choose life, including early sex education, access to birth control, nutritional support, gynecological care and adequate health insurance coverage. Nothing can replace a mother’s intuition, wisdom and compassion. That is why God entrusted the life of his Only Begotten Son to the care of a woman. Entrusting the welfare and protection of the unborn to the care of their mothers is, therefore, the true biblical pro-life position.

[1] See “Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access,” produced by the  Guttmacher institute, 2018.

Jesus Gets Political and Things Get Ugly

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’” Jeremiah 1:9-10.

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus is given a hometown hero’s welcome. He has been preaching, teaching and healing throughout Galilee and that has given him some notoriety thereby placing Nazareth on the map. You may recall from last week that, upon entering the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus was handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, opened it up and read the following passage:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Luke 4:18-19.

So far so good. What’s not to like about good news, freedom, healing and liberation? But then Jesus begins to speak about the scope of that good news. Turns out that the reign of God extends beyond the boundaries of the “chosen.” In fact, it crosses borders into hostile territory. It embraces outsiders who don’t seem to belong. Jesus is getting political and his congregation isn’t liking it.

I’m not sure what counts as politics anymore or what it means to be liberal, conservative, progressive or radical. I think we have reached the point at which those words have lost whatever inherent meaning they may once have had. About the only linguistic purpose they continue to serve is that of dividing “us” from “them.” They identify members of my tribe and flag those outside as “the enemy.” So when somebody says to me, “Pastor, you are getting political here,” it usually means I am being perceived as giving aid, comfort or moral support to somebody outside of the tribe. That, it seems, is what nearly got Jesus lynched. After all, what gives Jesus the right to say we ought to squander Israel’s covenant blessings upon widows who aren’t even citizens! Israel first! We need to take care of our own. How dare Jesus suggest that God would bless an enemy of the state! Where is his patriotism?

The word of the Lord is inescapably political as anyone who reads our lesson from Jeremiah cannot fail to recognize. The word stands over and against “nations and kingdoms” to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In Matthew 25 Jesus makes clear that the nations of the world will be judged in terms of how they treat the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner and the sick. So you can’t be neutral when it comes to state action and legislation that affects nutrition, health care, shelter, sustenance and justice for these most vulnerable folks among us-regardless whether they live within our borders or whether they are documented. If that offends your politics, you had better get yourself another politics or find yourself a different savior.

That said, one needs to keep in mind the dual function of God’s word. As we learn from the Lord’s call to Jeremiah, one aspect of preaching is to “break down.” At our baptisms we were called upon to denounce the devil, sin and all the forces that oppose God. That means calling for the undoing of structural racism, patriarchy and privilege that perpetuate poverty, injustice and oppression. But that’s only half the job and not even the better half. Jeremiah is called upon also to “build up and to plant.” So, too, Jesus’ message to his hometown is finally good news-or will be when the people of Nazareth are finally able to see past their tribal insecurities.

I think that the breaking down, destroying and plucking up parts of preaching come naturally to most of us. It’s easy simply to be critical. My own church, the Evangelical Church in America, has produced some fine statements addressing systemic racism and the need to dismantle it. Yet we remain one of the most segregated churches in the United States. Though, on the one hand, our church has denounced gun violence, many of our congregations are considering implementation of armed security forces to protect worshipers against possible shootings. Thus, while we worship the Prince of Peace who taught us to put up the sword, we often seem ready to buy into the NRA mantra that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. At some point, we need to model the prophetic vision of God’s just and gentle reign. Otherwise, God’s kingdom remains an abstraction and our public witness amounts to nothing more than preachy-screechy finger wagging.

What sort of preaching is capable of inspiring us to follow Jesus into the thicket of systemic injustice? What kind of preaching will plant in our imaginations the seeds of alternative ways of living and interacting with one another? What kind of sermons are capable of building up the fledgling work of faith communities intentionally seeking to become a church that transcends the walls that divide us and does the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation? What words can we use to illuminate the new thing God is planting and building beyond the ruins of the old order? As important as the content of such preaching is the shape of the church from whence it comes. If we are going to preach the kingdom credibly, we must become in some measure what Koinonia Farm founder Clarence Jordan called “a demonstration plot” for that kingdom. We need to begin practicing as well as preaching “the politics of Jesus.”

Here is poem by Muriel Rukeyser arising from the lived experience of faith communities. It is a “song of the way in” to authentic prophecy and preaching.

Akiba
 
THE WAY OUT

The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys.
Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water;
the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.

All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.

Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.

Music of those who have walked out of slavery.

Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.

We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.

Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.

Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.

Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.

Barbarian music, a new song.

Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.

Ways to discover. The song of the way in.

Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press).  Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was an American poet and political activist. She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University. Rukeyser’s literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Her poems reflect the themes of equality, feminism, social justice and Judaism. Her poem “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century” (1944) was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books. You can learn more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

How to Read the Bible

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

This Sunday’s lessons all deal in some fashion with the scriptures. Nehemiah brings his people together for reading and instruction in the Torah as they make their new beginning upon return to the promised land following decades of exile in Babylon. The psalmist sings of the Torah’s power to revive the soul. Jesus boldly proclaims the fulfillment of scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth. Though Paul is not discussing scripture or its interpretation in our reading from I Corinthians, he nevertheless offers us an insightful hermeneutic. He points out to the divided and fractured church at Corinth that the church is a body made up of many members. In a healthy body, these members all function together using their unique attributes for the common good of the whole. The absurdity of divisiveness within the church over spiritual gifts is graphically illustrated by Paul’s hilarious imaginary portrayal of a body whose eyes, hands and head all declare their independence from one another. Spiritual gifts belong not to the individual to whom they are given, but to the church they are intended to serve. All God’s people are uniquely gifted, but more important than the gift any individual might posses is the way it is put to use. If one’s gift is employed to serve the needs of the church, it is a blessing. On the other hand, when one’s gift is used to enhance one’s own standing, forward one’s own selfish interests or further one’s own personal or ideological agenda, it is destructive to the health of Christ’s Body.

How, then, does any of this apply to our interpretation of the Scriptures? In the first place, it is essential to understand that the scriptures, like the gifts of the Spirit, belong first and foremost to the church. They are to be used to encourage, admonish and instruct the members of Christ’s body to the end that “the mind of Christ” be formed within his church. Philippians 2:5. The Bible is not a personal self-help manual. It must never be read individually, but always communally. Thus, even when I read the Bible devotionally in the privacy of my home, I never read it alone. I always read the Bible in dialogue with Ignatius of Antioch, John of Damascus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my pastor, every teacher I have ever had and the fellow members of my own faith community. Scriptural interpretation is too important a job to be left in the hands of any one individual.

Second, the Bible does need interpretation. It is not an easy read. The Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of literary pieces consisting of narrative, poetry, drama, law and chronology. It is also a dangerous book. It contains stories, images and commands that are altogether fulsome. In seizing upon particular biblical passages and taking them out of their context, individuals and groups throughout history have cobbled together hate filled ideologies that, sadly, have too often wormed their way into mainstream Christianity.  While one does not need a seminary education to read and understand the scriptures, one does need instruction or, as the ancient church called it, “catechesis.” We need to be taught how to read the Bible. This teaching does not come chiefly through sitting in a class room. It comes through regular participation in the disciplines and practices of faith: baptism, eucharist, recitation of the creeds, regular worship famed by the rhythms of the church year, public witness, tithing and service. It is within this sacred communal context that the Holy Spirit employs the precepts of the Lord to rejoice the heart and enlighten the eyes. Psalm 19:8.

Finally, just as Paul’s “more excellent way” of love must drive the use of our spiritual gifts, so too love must guide our interpretation of the scriptures. God knows there are plenty of preachers using the scriptures in altogether loveless ways. The Bible has been cited in support of slavery, patriarchy, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, nationalism and genocide. And let’s be perfectly honest here. You can find biblical passages that, shorn of their context and taken at face value, can be so construed. That is why Jesus tells us that not all biblical texts or teachings are equal. The greatest commandments, Jesus tells us, are to love God with all the heart and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Upon these commands hang the whole of scripture and a faithful Christian interpretation of the Bible is always and only made through this lens.

It is telling that when Jesus was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah, of all the passages in that sixty-six chapter book he could have chosen to address, he selected the following as reflecting his priorities: “good news to the poor” “release to the captives” “recovery of sight” “freedom for the oppressed” and “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Because Jesus is our hermeneutic, disciples of Jesus are able to interpret the scriptures in ways that liberate, enlighten and reconcile. In him, with him and through him the Bible proclaims the Lord’s favor to a world under the curse of sin. That is God’s word, God’s good news, our “great heritage.”

Below is a hymn by Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig celebrating the Holy Scriptures and the role it plays in the life of the church. It is taken from the Lutheran Hymnal, the book of worship that served churches of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in which I grew up. Sadly, this hymn did not make the cut for subsequent hymnals now used in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

God’s Word is Our Great Heritage

God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations. Amen.

Source: The Lutheran Hymnal (c. 1941 by Concordia Publishing House) # 283 Written by Nikolai F.S. Grundvig, Translated from the Danish by Ole G. Belsheim, 1909. Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) was a Danish pastor, author, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher, politician and contemporary of Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard. He was a prolific writer of hymns that have become staples in the Lutheran Church throughout Europe and the United States. Grundvig’s philosophy gave rise to a new form of nationalism in the last half of the 19th century. In particular, he is credited with shaping Danish national consciousness. You can read more about Nikolai F.S. Gruntvig at The Lectionary, a site containing Lectionary resources for the Episcopal Church.

Signs of Glory in Inglorious Places

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine-a ridiculously huge volume for what must have been a modest wedding reception. Moreover, this was not box quality. We are talking Richebourg here, the kind of liquor you dole out sparingly with the hors ’doeuvres. It’s not the cheap stuff you save for after-dinner dancing when everyone is so thoroughly trashed they don’t know or care much what they are drinking. This, the gospel tells us, was Jesus’ first sign.

In a sated culture like ours where there exists a milti-billion dollar industry selling diets, drugs, exercise, twelve step programs and surgery to help us stop eating and drinking ourselves to death, Jesus’ contribution to the wedding feast might appear excessive. But to a community in which all but the wealthiest of individuals lived just one famine away from starvation, the significance of this sign would have been hard to miss. For a people whose life was just one day after another of back breaking work and scarcity, a wedding celebration provided the one single occasion on which they could forget their difficult existence and eat and drink like royalty. Wine, a precious and rationed luxury, was an integral part of these festive celebrations. As New Testament scholar, Lindsey Trozzo, points out:

“Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.” See Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Indeed, our lesson from Isaiah echoes this theme by characterizing the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland as a “marriage.” Isaiah 62:4-5. The meaning of Jesus’ sign was crystal clear. God’s gentle reign of abundance for all had begun.

Yet there is something a little strange about this sign. Jesus’ act of miraculous generosity went largely unrecognized-at least by those who seem to matter. The steward of the feast knows only that more wine, very good wine, has come in the nick of time from somewhere and that an embarrassing social faux pas has been averted. He has no idea where the wine came from and the only explanation he can find for its excellence is that somebody screwed up and served the poorer quality wine first. The bride and groom appear to have been oblivious both to the depletion of wine and Jesus’ remedy. For all we can tell, the wedding reception went on as though nothing unusual had happened. How can something be a “sign” when nobody sees it?

Actually, some people did see it. Jesus’ mother, for one. In contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke, who identify Jesus’ mother as Mary, the mother of Jesus remains nameless in John’s gospel. Yet she is the one who recognizes the debacle with the wine and calls it to Jesus’ attention. More than that, she prods him into doing something about it. This is one of those rare occasions, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking exorcism for her daughter, when Jesus needs a poke to get him to do the right thing. (See Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28)

The servants are also privy to the miracle. These are the folks in the hotel uniform you see at wedding receptions. They bring in the main courses, clear the table and pour the coffee for desert. But they have no stake in the wedding festivities. They don’t sit at any table in the reception hall, share in the food and libations or dance with the wedding guests. There would be hell to pay for them if they did. They are outsiders. Servants have one and only one function: make sure the bridal couple, their attendants and the guests receive the best hospitality the facility has to offer. Yet in our gospel story, the servants, not the bridal party or the guests, are privy to Jesus’ very first sign.

Finally, the disciples witness the miracle-and believe. Or do they? Undoubtedly, the disciples recognized the miracle-but did they see the sign? If they had really seen this sign, would they have been in such consternation over how to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish? Would they have seen in a blind man, not merely a theological riddle, but an opportunity for the revelation of God’s healing power? If the disciples had really seen this sign, you would think they would have been more receptive to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning when she burst into the room where they were cowering in fear with the remarkable good news: “The Lord has risen!” Whatever “belief” this sign might have generated in the disciples, it is clear that it has a long way to go before it matures into genuine faith.

Turns out this first of Jesus’ signs involves more than the remarkable transformation of water into wine. This is a sign telling us that God’s glory is manifested to nameless women, minimum wage servers who are not even a part of the main event, and to a church that is too often blind to signs happening in front of its face. Our gospel lesson invites us to “search for signs,” to take a closer look around us. It challenges us to take notice of the people and events occurring in the back ground that we might otherwise lose in the glare of the “main attraction.” There are signs to be seen of God’s compassion, generosity and redemption. What will it take to make us recognize them and believe what they are telling us? That is the question explored in the following poem by Alan Brilliant.

Searching for Signs
 
I am searching for signs and wonders
which, when younger, I might have had
for nothing, nothing at all, but which,
when older, I threw, despised, in the street-
things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What where these things? The works that
embody and in their time transform
all poets destined for great singing
when, in their maturity, they pick up the pearl
lodged and nourished in the treasure of their heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
there will be no art
no enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamour
of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
and since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, and artifact
but only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
up in a ball and following
until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
screamed Paradise I examined and searched
pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
to look in mud and in that mud
lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, September 1969 (c. Alan Brilliant). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California and served as its Director. He is married to Teo Savory.  Both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn Press. Brilliant was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, the prolific Trappist monk who authored the autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain and several other contemplative and devotional works. You can read more poetry by Brilliant at The Sun website.

 

 

No Compromise with Tyranny

See the source imageI understand frustration over the government shutdown, especially on the part of government employees who are bearing the brunt of all this.  I know that you are among those of us who can least afford to lose your salaries. Both my parents were government workers earning considerably less than their private sector counterparts without the benefit of meaningful union representation. I understand the sentiment expressed by so many people inconvenienced by this shutdown that politicians should “stop bickering and simply do whatever it takes to get the government open again” so that life can go back to normal and we can get back some measure of security.

But here’s the thing folks. This is not “just politics.” This isn’t a tug-of-war between two equally unreasonable and stubborn forces. This is the case of a United States president bypassing the will of congress to use our tax dollars in financing a wasteful, unnecessary and ineffective border wall. He is doing so by effectively shutting down essential government services until he gets his way. Giving in to the president’s demand will set a dangerous precedent for executive overreach, leaving the constitutional framework of our government in tatters. For those of you who think that congress should simply cave in to Donald Trump’s infantile temper tantrum and give him what he wants so that we can all have some peace and security, I would strongly encourage you to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Americans in every generation have died to defend the constitutional system of checks and balances ensuring protection of our basic freedoms. If we can’t put up with some short-term pain to ensure that our constitutional framework is preserved, we dishonor the graves of all those who died to establish it and preserve it for us. If we  cannot bring ourselves to stand for our constitution, then we deserve to live on our knees.  Here’s hoping that the House of Representatives stands firm.

A Mark too Deep to Erase

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Recently, I came upon a website run by an organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation on which you can download a “Debaptism Certificate” renouncing your baptism. The appeal is to persons who were baptized as infants or before such time as they were able to give informed consent to receipt of the sacrament and who now wish to reject their baptismal faith. The certificate is free for download and printing. If you don’t mind paying a small fee, you can get a certificate with an embossed seal and original signature by the organization’s president suitable, I presume, for framing.

I must confess that I find this puzzling. If you believe, as I assume most persons in the market for debaptism do, that baptism is a meaningless rite because the God behind it doesn’t exist, why would you dignify it with a certified denunciation? Why go to the trouble of erasing what isn’t there? In a strange way, this compulsion to “undo” one’s baptism testifies to its ongoing potency. These persons so hostile toward their baptisms are perhaps a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couple bringing their child to the church for baptism though they have not attended church since confirmation and have no intention of doing so again until they are carried through the sanctuary doors in a box. For the debaptism certificate holder, baptism at means something. At a bare minimum, it merits the dignity of a formal renunciation.

However much cathartic relief debaptism might bring to someone coming away from a bad experience with Christianity, it remains a nullity. For better or worse, the things we do and the things done to us shape our character and destiny. It is significant that the gospels place Jesus’ baptism immediately before the start of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke each testify to the divine voice declaring Jesus’ sonship as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan. John’s gospel has the Baptist testifying to how he witnessed the Spirit remain upon Jesus. The rest of the gospel narrative can properly be understood as an unfolding in Jesus’ life and ministry of what that baptismal declaration means.

Similarly, the sacrament of Holy Baptism sets one on a trajectory of faithful witness to God’s reign. It identifies one as a child of God, thereby bestowing a unique and holy significance to one’s name. As we all know, and as Jacqueline Woodson’s poem illustrates, the power to name has a real creative potency. A name can shape one’s destiny, for good or ill. To ensure that baptism’s potency continues to be redemptive in one’s life, baptism works in tandem with the sacrament of Holy Communion, the preaching of God’s word, the communion of saints and the mission of the church. It is within that communal context that the mystery of each individual baptismal seed takes root, blossoms and brings forth its own particular fruit.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I believe that baptismal practice among mainline protestant churches, such as my own, leaves much to be desired. We routinely perform baptisms of children whose parents have virtually no relationship to any church and no interest in affiliating with one. We often do little to educate these families about what we are doing or following up when, quite predictably, they disappear from our midst. For more on this ecclesiastically irresponsible baptismal promiscuity, see my post for January 11, 2015.

Notwithstanding all of the above, a baptismal certificate warrants that God’s solemn promise of salvation was spoken to the person it names and that a congregation vowed to assist that person in growing into faith and discipleship with Jesus. The stubborn fact is that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop God from believing in you. We break our promises to God with depressing regularity, but God keeps the ones God makes to us. Is one’s resort to debaptism a desperate attempt to break the grip of that “love that will not let us go?” I don’t know because I cannot get inside the head of another person. All I do know is that such efforts are futile because God is not an absentee parent. God never gives up on God’s kids-not even the problem children.

Here is the above named poem illustrating the power of bestowing a name, a power that is in many respects analogous to what we are doing in Holy Baptism.

a girl named jack

Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don’t see why
she can’t have it, too.

But the women said no.
My mother first
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.

We won’t have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father’s sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can’t help but
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she’ll make that name her own.
Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.

And back and forth it went until I was Jackie
and my father left the hospital mad.

My mother said to my aunts,
Hand me that pen, wrote
Jacqueline where it asked for a name.
Jacqueline, just in case
someone thought to drop the ie.

Jacqueline, just in case
I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
and further away from
Jack.

Source: Brown Girl Dreaming (c. 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Nancy Paulsen Books) Jacqueline Woodson (b. 1963) is an American writer. She has produced several books for children and adolescents. Though born in in Columbus, Ohio, she spent her early childhood in Greenville, South Carolina and moved to Brooklyn New York at the age of seven. She is best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles, After Tupac and D FosterFeathers, Show Way and Brown Girl Dreaming, the work from which the above poem is taken. Woodson served as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015–17 and was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

A Fragile God

See the source imageEPIPHANY OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of the Day: O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew 2:2.

A new born baby is a slim reed on which to hang the fate of the universe. All the more so in the first century when infant mortality approached 50% among the common people and children surviving birth and infancy often failed to reach adulthood. In addition to these bleak odds, this particular infant has acquired a powerful enemy, namely, King Herod. The promise of God’s just and peaceful reign appear to rest on the shakiest of foundations.

The miracle of the Incarnation forces us to rethink everything we think we know about God. If we embrace Jesus as the new born king, we must let go of our understanding of god as the powerful controller who pushes the buttons that make things happen here below. We need to let go of our belief in the god who interferes with the the natural flow of things to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes. We need to let go of the god who favors nations, peoples and religions with conquest, success and prosperity. According to the Nativity narrative, the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of a helpless infant. There is no other.

For me, Sunday’s Epiphany gospel is always clouded by the shadow of Holy Innocents. We cannot escape the paradox. The wonderous star that brought the magi to the Christ child also triggered the genocidal fury of Herod against Bethlehem’s children. Why did not God intervene to stop this horrible atrocity-or all the others that have occurred throughout the bloody course of human history? If we have been paying careful attention to this Sunday’s gospel, we know the answer. God’s power is not the sort we so desperately want God to have. God’s power consists precisely in God’s making God’s self completely vulnerable to us. God’s “strength,” says St. Paul, is precisely God’s weakness. I Corinthians 1:25.

For many people who take comfort in the belief that “God is in control,” this view of divine power is unsettling. We would like God to be that all wise and all powerful parent who can “fix” anything. But as every real parent knows, “power” and “control” don’t really fix any of the jams our children get themselves into. What our children need most is our understanding, our compassion and our modeling of the virtues we would like to see instilled in them. Moreover, it seems we must re-learn in every generation the limits of political and military power as well as the dangers of putting our “faith in princes” or presidents either, for that matter. Psalm 146:3. The power of coercive force that has proven so destructive and dehumanizing when used by us against each other is unlikely to save us when wielded in greater measure by God. Peace maintained by the threat or use of violence is no true peace.

It turns out that the God revealed in the manger is the only one who can save us and the only one worthy of our devotion. Belief in a god who stands above and outside of creation manipulating it without regard to the consequences of its creatures; belief in a god who creates sexual beings of various orientations and ruthlessly punishes them for living out their sexual identities; belief in a god who would have us place the welfare of our own nation, race, tribe or culture above the welfare of all others is not biblical faith. Better to be an atheist than worship such a god. The God we are invited to worship on Epiphany is the One we can kill, the infant that extends his tiny hand to grasp the finger of the visiting magi.

This Epiphany gospel invites us to view the fragility of God, the fragility of our environment, the fragility of so many vulnerable people on our globe and the fragility of life itself. It is a frightening thought that we might indeed severely and irreparably damage our earth’s life sustaining capacity by our selfishness, greed and indifference. It is horrifying having to face the reality that our world might indeed slip into a dark age of chaos, violence and war. It is terrifying to confront, as we must, the fact that there is no god at the control panel to turn the tide of history from the destructive course on which we have set it.

So what, then, is the good word in all of that? Just this: that the God who sent his only Son,  who gave us the best God had to give, is stubbornly determined to love the hell out of us. If the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection tell us anything, they tell us that nothing we can do will ever stop God from loving us. Even as we seem bound and determined to extinguish life, God is with us in our suffering and intent on giving us life. That life is revealed in fragile congregations on the verge of extinction that nevertheless find the courage and compassion to witness to and serve their communities. It is revealed in refugee camps throughout the world where fragile groups of people of all faiths and no faith at all toil to bring a measure of relief to people living in despair of ever finding a home. It is revealed in the shadow of tyranny where courageous though fragile people dare to speak truth to power-even when their voices are shaking. Fragile as these epiphanies of God’s life among us may seem, they nonetheless testify to life that is eternal and to power that is truly transformative.  They  bear witness to the only life worth living and the only power worth having.

Here is a fitting poem by Joseph Brodsky helping us to contemplate the Epiphany of our Lord and his fragility.

Star of the Nativity

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

Source: Joseph Brodsky, Joseph, Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999 (c. 2000 by Joseph Brodsky, pub. by Farrar Straus and Giroux,) Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1940. He held a number of jobs in his youth, including mortician, ship boiler room operator and geologist. He began writing his own poetry in 1955 and became well known in Russian literary circles. Though his poems were largely apolitical at this time, he nevertheless came under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Soviet authorities. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as anti-Soviet. His papers were confiscated, he was interrogated and twice put in a mental institution. Finally, he was arrested and charged with “social parasitism.” He was strongly advised to emigrate from the Soviet Union and did so in 1972. Brodsky settled in the United States with the help of poet W. H. Auden. He spent the rest of his life in America teaching at Mount Holyoke College, Yale, Columbia and University of Michigan. You can find out more about Joseph Brodsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.