A Grim Isolation

Last week there was a call to abolish solitary confinement in US prisons, at least for under aged prisoners.  Solitary confinement is a very grim kind of isolation, soul destroying

The Dutch artist Heironymus Bosch (d. 1516) is remembered in part for depictions of hell.  Solitary confinement should be abolished, because solitary confinement is indeed a kind of torture or hell.

Another person remembered this year is Cervantes, the famous writer of the book (published in 1605) Don Quixote which has been called one of the greatest novels ever written at least in the West.  Quixote journeys with the earthy farmer Sancho Panza to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and restore justice.  The partnership between Quixote and Sancho Panza is a beautiful description of partnership and companionship – a reaching out for community, which is the very opposite of solitary confinement.

The parade today in Millville is a celebration of community as well: the community of this town.

Our readings today describe the community that there is in the Godhead between Father, Son And Holy Spirit.    Jesus identity with the Father is reflected in his love of and obedience to the Father.  Their unity recalls the prologue of John’s gospel, and the unity between the Shekinah (the glory) and the Memra (the word).

The Holy Spirit inspires the followers of Jesus to remember everything Jesus said, and to preach and teach to word to the world.  In the reading from Acts, we see the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of Lydia of Thyatira. In the Revelation reading we see the community of the believers with the Triune Godhead in the New Jerusalem, where everyone is healed by the leaves of the trees of life and the living water.

So each of us should remember that we are not alone: but rather, deepen our conversation and community with God in the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the Son Jesus Christ.

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Bridges… Destroying, or Building

The year 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s writings.  He described many remarkable characters – and villains.  In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, Edmond is the very picture of cold vengeance and self-interest.  By his actions, he destroys personal relationships, families, and a nation.  Unfortunately, that is not a remote and distant thing:  in our context, we encounter people showing that same cold selfishness in ways small or large.  We can see it in Syria in this moment in 2016.  If we look hard enough, we can see it in ourselves.  One business writer said that the golden rule is that the one who has the gold makes the rules.  Well, that is not the golden rule of Jesus, is it?

The love of God in Jesus (John 13v31-35) is different from that, and has completely the opposite effect.  On 4 May, we remember Monnica from Tagaste, in North Africa.  Her husband Patricius seems to have been of dissolute habits and a violent temper, and Monnica was widowed at the age of 40.  She was the mother of three children.  We know that the eldest one had a wild youth, and Monnica went to great lengths to pray for him and followed behind him to do everything she could to draw him to Christ.  It was not long after his conversion to Christ that Monnica died, in 387 AD/CE.  Her faith, love, and perseverance gave us that child, whom we know as St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian in Western Christianity.  That is a lovely remembrance as we approach mother’s day.

So we can contrast the egotism of Edmond with the self-giving love of Monnica.  There is nothing more important in our lives than love and relationships.

Turning to the gospel reading (John 13:31-35) Jerome said that in John’s old age his message was reduced to this:  “My little children love one another” – a combination of phrases from verses 33 and 34 in our gospel reading today.

In this gospel, the love of Jesus gives birth to the Christian community, he constitutes it, and he forms it.  After that, the love Jesus nurtures in us and between us is a sacrament; one which somehow through us actually represents Jesus himself in the world.  As we follow Jesus through our various experiences, he transfigures us to become more loving than we were before.  This appearance of the love of God in the world calls to those around us ever more than we did before.

If we follow Jesus, then we do not stop our loving at the boundaries of our families or even at the boundaries of the Christian community.  In the New Testament there is the description of the love of God in Christ reaching out to everyone.  God’s covenant love reaches out to us who are unworthy of it, and to everyone – to the middle and upper classes, to people suffering persecution, and to those who have been ejected from and rejected by their own communities for any reason.  God’s covenant love in Jesus is what heals and unites all people.

There are around us unsung examples of people who have spent years in caring work in our local community: Terry Troia, for example, caring for the hungry and homeless of Staten Island; and other gatherings of people of faith, united in caring for those in need.

To be spiritually healthy and growing, each of us, from the youngest to the oldest, needs to find a way we can be persistently showing the love of Christ – not only in donations, but by our actual personal presence.  One place in which caring work is needed is in visiting the sick, and those in prisons.  I spent some time reading through cases of imprisonment in the world in absolutely appalling conditions.  Each of us can choose to isolate ourselves from these things, as Shakespeare’s character Edmond did.  Otherwise, we can take some step, however small or great, to do something about them.

It is common wisdom that God looks after those who look after themselves.  At the beginning I referred to Shakespeare’s character Edmond, who looked after himself alone.  The bible does not say that God looks after those who look after themselves – otherwise, God would have looked after Edmond.  What is in the bible, in our gospel reading today, is that God glorifies himself in those who do not look after themselves alone, but who look after one another.

Let us be found among those caring not only for ourselves, and caring not only for our own families, but caring also for those beyond: even those that may seem to be our opponents.

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Premonition — Luke 12:1-8

A PREMONITION OF WHAT IS TO COME

Many people refer to the last speech by Martin Luther King by the title, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”.  It is the speech he gave on the day before his assassination, which was on April 4th 1968.  In his words at the end of that speech, King seemed to speak of his coming death:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to …talk about the threats that were out. … Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those words were a mysterious prediction of the death of Martin Luther King, for, how could anyone have surely known of his impending assassination?

VERY EXPENSIVE PERFUME

In our Gospel reading today from John, chapter 12v1-8, we have the scene of Mary anointing of the feet of Jesus with extremely expensive perfume, costing near a year’s worth of a laborer’s pay.  That anointing was a mysterious prediction of the death of Jesus.   In ancient literature, you might anoint the head of someone, especially the head of a king at the time of his coronation.  Nevertheless, the anointing of the feet never appears in ancient literature.  It seems that the anointing of the feet is something which might have been done only be done in the case of death – the anointing of the feet of the corpse, in preparation for burial.  At the moment that Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, only a week before his crucifixion, no one living could have surely known that Jesus would be crucified before one week passed.  So this reading from the Gospel of John today gives us a remarkable or mysterious statement or prediction regarding Jesus’ preparation for death, both by Jesus and by Mary.

This scene also describes the way that Judas was interested in money.  In our reading today, Judas was interested in the sale value of the perfume.  As the gospels portray Judas, he was interested in money, even if it might cost his own soul.  Within the same week to come, we will read that Judas would sell Jesus for 30 silver pieces.

At this very event is Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.  That was the immediate cause of the authorities driving Jesus to his execution (in the Gospel of John, anyway).

In this reading from Luke 12 today we have Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus as the high point of (Mary’s) loving faith in him.  In the days to come, we will read about the session of the Sanhedrin, which convicted Jesus to death.  What a contrast with Mary!  For, that decision and action of the Sanhedrin was the supreme expression of (the) refusal (of the political and religious leaders) to believe (in Jesus as the Son of God).   So we have two very different things:  We have  the extraordinary love and faithful  action of Mary,  on the one hand; and on the other hand, we have the action of the Sanhedrin.  The common thread in both is  prophecy and approach of Jesus’ death.

Is there one person whom we would have anointed their feet with our tears, and to have anointed their feet with perfume so costly, that it took our income from one whole year to pay for that perfume?  Do we love one person to that extent?  Perhaps we actually do have someone in our hearts like that to us.

As we approach Holy Week, the challenge that is in this reading is to pray for God to give us Mary’s kind of love, in our hearts, for Jesus Christ.  The kind of love that means that we would anoint his feet with our tears; to anoint his feet with the most expensive perfume we could possibly purchase.  Her reason for doing this, is something that she does on behalf of us all: that Jesus’ coming death on the cross on Good Friday, and his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday, means more to us than anything else in our entire existence.

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The Feast of the New Creation in Divine Community

 

 

Returning to a loving God, or continuing with deep seated rebellion, and wandering alone?

One Lenten author wrote this:  “I remember a mother coming to talk to me about her drug addicted son.  He had been a trial to his family for a long time.  He had lied to his mother, stolen from her, and even physically threatened her.  He would leave home or be asked to leave but he would always return.  I asked the mother why she kept putting up with this misery.  She said simply, ‘Love always hopes.'”

We welcome, attend and support community initiatives or forums which work on ways of responding to drug or other addictions.

However, we sometimes try to give up on a relationship.  Nothing can take the relationship away, however.

We may want to give up on the poor and suffering, or refugees like those from Syria today.  But history shows that the future of any society depends on how it treats the poor, the elderly, and children.

We try to give up on difficult relationships, but we find ‘famine’ in their absence.

Divine love never runs low on hope.  If one person ‘gives up’, another may step in to heal the breach.  At the time of the breakup of my parents’ marriage, my grandfather became a father figure to me, who came to me in my grief and aloneness; and had compassion on me; and embraced me in countless ways.

Lk 15.11-32: “Yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

Henri Nouwen was so taken by Rembrandt’s painting that he wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (1992).”  In the custom of that region of the Mediterranean, for the child to ask for their inheritance was tantamount to wishing the parent dead.  What a wound in a parent’s heart!  Yet, the loving Father did not give up.  Note that no one told the father that the son was coming home.  The father personally waited and with his own eyes strained for the first far off sign of a familiar figure returning home – so it cannot have been a very productive time on the farm!

The loving father’s eyes became fixed on something that the farm workers could not see.  They still could not see what it was, while the Father was already running across the field, taking the shortest way to intercept the thin, lone figure of his son, coming home.

The son suffered adversity.  If adversity brings us home, let adversity roll on.  As Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity / Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous/ Wears yet a precious jewel in his head” (As You Like It Act 2 Sc I).

God works and waits to bring us home.  Our parents and our children wait to have us come home, in our hearts, to them.

Is this to be yet one more day on which our response to them is that of a stone heart? Or can we allow our hard hearts to break, can we allow ourselves not to creep home, but to “run” home, home to God, home to parents, home to children.  We do not merely greet them politely, but rather fall on their necks and kiss them.   This is the very picture of the servant in Phil 2.

Do you experience a “famine” in space between yourself and God, or between yourself and a parent or a child?  If so, then here is the feast of the new creation in Christ:  community.  “Hear, o Israel: love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your being, and all of your mind, and your neighbour”– parents, children, and the suffering stranger–“as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

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Becoming Free and Fruitful

In our first reading (Exodus 3:1-15) the same God who had met with and made the great covenant with Abraham hundreds of years before (in Genesis chapter 15) now meets with Moses.  The epic journey of humans with God, the journey of faith, continues to unfold.

The true story of Moses is a dramatic one.  Up to this spectacular encounter with Yahweh, Moses had been raised in the palace along with the man who by the time of this reading has now become Pharaoh of Egypt.  So the great Pharaoh is the half brother of Moses!

Moses has been an impulsive person, who went so far as to murder an Egyptian slave driver.  Fleeing to the desert and now surviving by minding livestock, the originally quite promising Moses is now a refugee from vengeful Pharaoh.

When Moses followed his own will, the result was pitiful.  So Moses’ life at 80 years old or so has become a picture of futility.  It is a bit like the Stephen King book “1922”, where a murder results in complete disaster for the perpetrator.

This scene of Moses meeting with God in the burning bush is brilliantly portrayed in the Disney movie, “Prince of Egypt”.  In this meeting, Yahweh says to Moses, “I am who I am” – or, “I will be who I will be.”  Insofar as Moses engages with and can learn to identify himself with Yahweh and with the divine purposes, Moses will find his own identity, purpose, and reason for living – namely, to lead Israel out of slavery in the Exodus, the great signature moment of the nation of Israel.

In the gospel reading (Lk 13:1-9) we are warned that life is short and God expects us to be fruitful.  Fruitful is what a growing economy looks like, versus what a stagnant economy looks like – like Detroit today, perhaps.  We may think of all the fruits of the Holy Spirit in Galatians chapter 5 (especially verses 22 and 23).

God expects us to show the fruits of the Spirit, each day.  There are many great examples of using God’s gifts in God’s service, fruitfully.  One example is a person whom we remember on February 27th in the church calendar: George Herbert who died in 1633 at 39 years old.  Life is short! George was a Welsh born English poet –enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist.  Also we recalled Eric Liddell on Feb 22nd, the great Olympian world record holding athlete from Scotland and rugby player remembered in the movie “Chariots of Fire”.  Eric became a missionary to China, dying in 1945 at 43 years old.  Our span of days is very brief!  Moses, George Herbert, and Eric Liddell all came to offer their lives in God’s service and God used them and their abilities for the divine purposes.

So we too are to take off our shoes because we stand in the presence of an awesome and holy God.  As we worship God and as we lay our lives before God, like the Israelites, we are freed from slavery and addiction.  As we follow God’s call to us, like Moses, Herbert and Liddell we find our true identity and the meaning of our lives.  Also, God brings from us fruit that is tasty and with a sweet aroma.

In honor of all those endowed with musical gifts who adorn our praise of God, here is one of George Herbert’s hymns:

King of glory, King of peace, I will love thee; and that love may never cease, I will move thee.  Thou hast granted my request, thou hast heard me; thou didst note my working breast, thou hast spared me.  Wherefore with my utmost art, I will sing thee; and the cream of all my heart, I will bring thee.  Though my sins against me cried, thou didst clear me; and alone, when they replied, thou didst hear me.  Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee; in my heart though not in heaven, I can raise thee.  Small it is in this poor sort to enroll thee; even eternity’s too short to extol thee.              

 

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Rising to What We Can Be — Lk 13:31-35

Lk13v31-35

Lent 2C Ps 27/ Gen 15.1-12, 17-18/ Phil 3.17-4.1/ Lk 13.(22-30) 31-35

RISING TO THE TRUTH OF WHAT WE CAN BE

In the news, there is often a recall of vehicles or other products, due to some fault that has caused destruction and pain.  The repair has to be undertaken by the manufacturer.  The individual owner of the product cannot undertake a reliable repair.  Another manufacturer cannot do the repair, and neither can the government.

In Lent, we are urged to self examination, for example, in meditating on the Ten Commandments.  God gave us the Ten Commandments, but quite evidently, we fail to keep them.  No one succeeds, and our failures cause a cascade of destruction and pain, a moral failure which spreads to ruin everything.  Something has to be repaired in us, the repair of which can be done by our maker alone.  No human agent can repair us.

Our gospel text for today is Lk 13.35: You will not see me at all until you say, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” One meaning is this: We will only see the healing or repair of God in our lives when we embrace Jesus Christ as our own Messiah.

The source of our failures is evil in some form or another, whether Satanic, individual, or social.  As with the truth told in the words of a good doctor, unpleasant as it may be, when told in love, the truth is medicine that can stop and heal that evil, and rescue us from further evil.

Jesus is portrayed as the Messiah who comes in history, in person, in space and in time, to rescue the people of God – a Messiah who is a healer, a prophet, a priest, and a king.  Notice the difference from any other world or religious leader:

  • Jesus comes as a healer – ‘Yesterday and today I am casting out demons and performing cures’.
  • Jesus comes as a prophet – ‘Jerusalem… kills the prophets’. A prophet tells God’s truth:  Jesus came as the truth, born of humanity, and of divine love and truth. Jesus loves us.  When he tells us the truth, it is not to dismay or destroy us, but in order to gather us ‘as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ in this lovely feminine image of God – to protect us:  to stop the evil, to heal us, and to prevent further evil. It is the kind of truth that our mother may tell us about ourselves. She knows us and knows our shortcomings; and when she says as much, it is for the sake of building us up into something better.
  • Jesus comes as a priest because he offers himself as a sacrifice for us, and is then raised by God – ‘On the third day I finish my work.’ At this time of year there is the anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.  As God’s love and truth in person, Jesus the Messiah came to carry out the most significant battle of all time, which he carried out alone: That, on the cross in Jerusalem, Jesus “must” (Lukan dei) meet and defeat the source and focus of evil in person.
  • Jesus comes as a king in his return in glory – ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

The Gospel says that we will not see the deliverance of God in our lives until we welcome the love and truth of God in Jesus as our own personal Messiah.  Or, vice versa, when we welcome God’s love and truth in the Messiah, then we will see the deliverance of God, and begin to realize what we were born for.

We live the life that God intends for us when we welcome those that remind us to worship God, remind us of love, and of truth; remind us of what we can become; and when we dare to rise to the fullness of life to which God points us.

Amen

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The Devil’s Test — Luke 4:1-13

The Devil’s Test — Mt 4:1-11// Lk 4:1-13 – Sunday February 14 2016

“Lead me not into temptation… I can find it myself” says one bumper sticker, pointing up temptation in the Lord’s prayer. Indeed, the three temptations of Jesus link closely with the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer we are called to pray and live by every day.

In the first temptation, (changing stones into bread) the Devil challenged the hungry Jesus to use his power and ability for Jesus’ own benefit.  Jesus refused this and the other temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy. One implication is that where ancient Israel had failed, Jesus here succeeded.  Jesus would only use his power and ability towards the goal that God had given to him – to devour God’s word, and benefit the people of God.

We face and fail such a test every day when we are tempted towards short term gains while ignoring the greater costs – to ourselves, or to others.  In using fossil fuels, it benefits us immediately and yet it is driving our descendants and the whole creation to destruction.

As a positive example, this week we remember Frederick Douglass (d. 1895).  He risked returning from sanctuary in England, risked being re-enslaved or being killed, to effectively urge Abraham Lincoln towards the emancipation of slaves.  Frederick Douglass cared more about serving God and others, than about personal survival and well-being.

We follow Jesus when we pray wholeheartedly the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”.   It is not a request for a free lunch; rather, it is a request to “Give us what we need to serve you, God, every day, and serve other people in your name.”

So the first temptation is about selfishness, about using our abilities solely for self interest.

In the second temptation, (that Jesus could have all the glory and power in the world if he worshiped the devil) Jesus is challenged to gain celebrity and influence through accepting authority or dominion from someone other than God.

Examples of this are the false prophets in ancient Israel, ready to sell themselves for material gain. This week (Feb 11, 2016) we had the trial of Reinhold Hanning, another Auschwitz death camp guard whose defense was that he was only following orders.  To save his own skin, he delivered 170,000 people to perish in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.  For ourselves, in order to gain promotion, we may be tempted to find the way of least resistance, and agree to things we believe to be wrong.

We follow Jesus, however, when we pray wholeheartedly the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “May your kingdom come” – not someone else’s kingdom!

So the second temptation is about accepting authority or dominion from something or someone other than God.

In the third temptation (Jesus to throw himself down because he could make God’s angels save him):

(1)   Jesus was perhaps challenged to (ignore what is right and what is wrong and) conform to what was popular or to popular ideas of the kind of leader that people wanted.  The crowd would surely have loved it if Jesus forced angels to provide entertaining spectacles, such as surviving a fall from a high place!

As an illustration of this same principle, there is the phrase, that, “You are not your children’s friend; you are your children’s parent.”  Surely a true friend will speak the truth to a friend.  Doing what is right is not always popular.  We want to avoid conflict.  We want to avoid mentioning what is wrong in our context.  Look at the global financial disaster that has come from one bank after the next lending money to people who can never repay.  In a comparable way, for far too long, the church tolerated slavery or discrimination. We condone what is wrong for the sake of acceptance.

(2)  Furthermore, in this third temptation, the insistence that God can be implored to give us every success and made to preserve us from any ill comes close to a religion of positive thinking or the erroneous thinking of Christian Science. When we follow God’s will, things may not always be to our taste.  If our only intent is to follow God’s will, our path may be more like that of Jesus in Gethsemane (‘take this cup from me – yet thy will not my will be done’); or like the martyrs St Paul, St Peter, and St Stephen.  There may be hard parts, and they may endure to the end of our earthly lives.

We follow Jesus when we pray wholeheartedly the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “May your name be sanctified” – God’s name above all others.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is tempted specifically as ‘the son of God’.  In the Gospel of Luke (and Acts) generally, Luke describes the disciples as like Jesus, as like Mary, and as like us.  Luke describes Jesus as an example to us, an example which we are quite seriously meant to emulate.  So it is that Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to offer the petitions that God help us through the same temptations that Jesus faced:  “May your name be hallowed; may your kingdom come; give us each day our bread for subsistence.”

 

In doing these things, we will surely have to deal with a devilish level of unbelief and hostility, just as Jesus did.  But the Holy Spirit of God will be with us, to give us the words, to strengthen us and encourage us, until our job is done.  

When we stumble or fail, as we all do, we seek God’s forgiveness in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  We are required there to simultaneously forgive others also.

 

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