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The Silent Exhortation of the Unnamed Man

March 22, 2020

Today we hear of a miracle, the man healed reflects to the Pharisees: “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 

This is a fascinating text and offers some things for us to us to chew on in this time of pandemic. We observe people who are not aware, people who are looking to solve by pointing the finger, and people who are afraid. Not unfamiliar to us in this time. 

This person, who experiences this profound healing, and is sought out by Jesus afterward, is never given a name in our narrative.  

I think this says something. Somehow it silently exhorts us. 

The opening is interesting. This man is blind from birth and the disciples want to know why. They frame their question by wondering to Jesus whose fault it is: “Rabbi,” they say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  

Who sinned…well everybody. I can hear in some circles today similar thoughts about this pandemic. Whose fault is it? Did we sin and now God’s judgement?  

Jesus’ answer is interesting, He says: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” 

This pushes on our assumptions. We may read this to say: this person was born blind so that they could be healed, and God would be known. But that is not what this is saying. We can tend to put these together: healing means revelation of God or in contrast, no healing means no revelation of God. But that is not what is laid out. Our God is a God or revelation both within and through our limitations. Here, God would be revealed whether the man born blind received his sight or not. That’s just who God is. 

Why is this pandemic happening? We cannot pin that down. We are so limited as creatures. But in it, we can look for God’s works to be revealed.  

God’s works here are healing. This blind person, who has not seen Jesus is strangely healed through spit and mud and washing - and afterward their community, church leaders, and parents let them down.  

In the presence of God’s works being revealed, this person, who is never even given a name is let down. 

First his neighbors show that they do not even know who they are: is this the beggar? They say. No, it’s not the beggar. They do not recognize this person. Not because they look different because they can see, but because they have never noticed the one who needed help in their midst. Ouch. As this person responds to their questions, we begin to see this person’s journey to belief in Jesus. On this first round, they say “The man called Jesus” opened my eyes.  

The neighbors then bring the Pharisees to the person “formerly born blind,” and they respond with contempt toward this work of God. It has happened on the Sabbath. The Law has been broken. To them the person says the one who opened my eyes “is a prophet.” 

For this person Jesus has moved from being merely a man to be a prophet – a messenger of God.  

Then their parents are brought in and they cave under fear of personal consequence: there had already been agreement “that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. So, they say of their son, “ask him.”  

This person has encountered Jesus, is journeying in their faith, and is repetitively let down by those around them: people who do not pay attention, people who respond with contempt, people who cave under fear.  

It’s here the narrative circles back. We see that God has not only met with this person and helped them but is pursuing them. “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him…”  -  Let’s not miss this. We see here how God relates to us: Jesus heard about this person…Jesus was paying attention. Listening. Aware. And further – Jesus found this person. Jesus looked for this person and found them. This brings out concepts we hear from our Psalm appointed for the day: The Lord is my Shepherd.  

The word picture of shepherd is prevalent in scripture. This was a familiar vocation then and there. People knew what it meant that God be shepherd to them. It means that God is with us, carries us, searches for us, sacrifices for us. 

And here we also see that God calls us to follow, to act. Jesus, upon finding this person says: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and remember – this is the first time this person has seen Jesus. Upon seeing and interacting they say: “Lord, I believe.” And they worship. This word for worship here implies that they fall to their knees or prostrate themselves. There is a full body reaction to this profession of faith. This person has moved from seeing Jesus as a Man, to a prophet, to the Savior. 

There are a couple of trains of thought for us to take away from this narrative of a person without a name that are pertinent in this time of pandemic.  

The first is reflection on who we are to people right now. The unspoken exhortation we see here is let’s care for each other even in this time of social distancing. Let’s call, text, FaceTime, skype each other. Let’s not buy out the stores but just buy what we need so there is enough for everybody. 

This person is not named. Let’s pay attention and notice and know who others are. Let us not be like this person’s neighbors who did not ever notice them before. They were someone in their midst but somehow unfamiliar.   

Further, let’s not respond with contempt for the happenings in the lives of others. Let us not label and demean.  

And let us not act out of fear but out of love. Let us advocate for each other and stand together with others during this time of crisis.  

Lastly, let us reflect on the truth of God’s nature and character: The Lord is our Shepherd. To each of us. God meets us and carries us when we need support. God is inconvenienced to care for us – God is listening and looking for us and finds us. God sacrifices to take care of us. 

Thank God for God’s presence and power and love.

Nic’s Invitation & Challenge

March 08, 2020

We heard in our gospel reading, some language that we do not often hear in our Episcopal setting. You must be born again. It may sound a bit Evangelical, perhaps even Fundamentalist…but low and behold, here it is…in the Bible. 

What do we do with it? 

It may make us uncomfortable or maybe it assures us… 

In our Epistle and our gospel reading today we hear repeated the words faith, works, righteousness, and belief. And in our Old Testament reading, we pretty much see all of these illustrated through Abram - And remember Abram and Abraham are the same person…A change of name is given by God just a few chapters later in Genesis to more accurately reflect that he is the father of many nations. We are also seeing Nicodemus illustrate these key words today – faith, works, righteousness, and belief - but he is moving more slowly and carefully. 

It appears that God tells Abram to go and Abram simply does. To a place he knows not. 

But in our gospel reading, we are introduced to Nicodemus. He is a pharisee. That tells us, he is educated, and values keeping the law and values making sure the law is practiced by others. He is described as a leader of the Jews. In contemporary terms, he is a respected businessman who is a leader in the community. 

Nic, we’ll call him, is a part of the movement that is offended by Jesus. The pharisees value law, exclusivity, and outer appearances that esteem works – things you do. Jesus, in his ministry, is demonstrating inclusivity, mercy and grace. There is tension, and it is growing. 

But somehow Nic is stirred, curious…and maybe afraid. If he begins to show interest or follow Jesus, it will cost him everything – his standing as a pharisee and as a leader in the community. 

There is a lot at stake. 

So, what does Nic do – he sneaks around. Not a very good role model, but perhaps a person who we resonate with. 

This is in steep contrast to the activation of Abram to go where he knows not. 

Here’s where it gets interesting and maybe comical – Nic’s interaction with Jesus. 

Nic, by what he says, shows his hand. He’s convinced God’s presence is with Jesus: “no one,” he says, “can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Notice he’s not asking a question. But Jesus, “answers” him. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

First Sunday in Lent

March 01, 2020

Three temptations; three choices:

Be amazingly relevant: do something the world will praise you for—make bread out of stones.

Be spectacular: jump from tall buildings so everybody can see how important and safe you are.

Be powerful: bow before the world so you can dominate everyone and everything.

Three responses from Jesus: No, No, and No.

Jesus says “No” and the temptations left, and angels took their place.

For us, right now:

The world would have us feed our hungry bellies with more and more and more stuff; God would have us feed our hungry souls with the very Bread of Life.

The world would have us feed our ego and be safe; God would have us take risks and claim our authentic self as the very image of God.

The world would have us use power to build ourselves up; God would have us share Love that is drawn from the Real Source of power.

Resisting temptation is hard. Discerning our authentic selves and God’s loving presence requires intention. Lent is a good time to learn how to make better choices and to invite our better angels into our journey.

In our Gospel story this morning, Jesus uses the living Word of God to guide his thinking through his choices. In all three responses, he draws from Deuteronomy to make good choices that apply to his own situation. That is one reason we call our Scripture “living.” We can look for rhymes and patterns in God’s Living Word that connect to our own experiences and help us to choose rightly—with integrity. There is a promise in that. There is also a warning: one of the temptations, afterall, were words drawn from Psalm 91. The promise doesn’t mean easy.

For Lent this year, try reading Scripture contemplatively or imaginatively--Lectio Divina for example—reading not for information, but rather as prayer for revelation and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, translating it into our daily life. Reading Scripture this way forces us to be honest about ourselves; it guides us through self-examination, reflecting on our capacity for compassion. It guides us through confession, repentance, forgiveness, and discernment. From our Lenten texts, if we put ourselves into the stories of Jesus’ trials and choices, we find ways to understand and question our own lives. It is how we can learn to live “the way” of Jesus in today’s world.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”

February 26, 2020

 

[words of imposition from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday]

For years I have felt such a degree of bewonderment at a Lenten phenomenon that used to make me sit up and take careful notice.  At my former church home in New York City, within that highly congested, yet all too significant crossroads of Wall Street and Broadway, 15-20,000 people made their way, and for that matter still make their way, to Trinity Church on Ash Wednesday.  They come every year without fail.  They come to have carbon black smudged on their heads in the form of Cross.  They come to be reminded of their mortality.  Now that is a staggering number of people, and such a swell in weekday attendance, that it demanded we marshall every possible black-cassocked resource in the southern part of Manhattan to do the work of imposition.  You should have seen our thumbs when all was said and done.  From way before sun up to way after sundown, we stood there amid long queues of somber souls who wanted that simple ministration of being ashed with a cross, along with the sobering words “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Remember, don’t you ever forget, keep it fresh and green in that mind and heart and soul of yours that you are but a speck of lifeless, burned-out matter as you enter this holy place…that’s your heritage, that’s your present tense in one sense, and as a matter of fact, that’s your destiny as well…and if, in your arrogance, you think you’ve got something going for you, think again!  Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.  Oh I know there’s much more to be said about who and what we are in the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, but we’ll get to that truth in due course…like Easter and Pentecost.  For today, let’s honor one truth at a time. 

In this season of life when we’ve become a notoriously impious lot who taste and nibble at any spirituality on the market that will tell us I’m OK and you're OK and we’re OK, I think it nigh incredible that we would ever even listen to such a dust-laden dictum, much less have it smudged on our consciousness.  I’m surprised the Standing Liturgical Commission hasn’t decided to remove the medievalism here, extract the penitential, and substitute new words: “My brother, my sister, you are lovable and adorable, and God just thinks you are peachy-keen. —and, instead of ashes, then perhaps sprinkle the imposee with the silver glitter of fairy dust. 

More Fully Confirmed

February 23, 2020

Transfiguration Sunday. Matthew tells us: “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them…”

Transfigured – Metamorphoo in the Greek – makes us think of metamorphosis…maybe a butterfly…literally to change to another form: caterpillar to butterfly – in that case unrecognizable in the change one to the other – in this case, recognizable, but more. In Luke’s account of this, instead of transfigured he says, “the appearance of his [Jesus’] countenance was altered.” 

But remember – both Luke and Matthew were not there. They are describing what they have heard – after some time went by – Peter, James, and John were “ordered” not to say anything about this until after the resurrection. Interestingly John, who was there, does not report this experience in his gospel. Maybe it was too personal? Maybe it’s simply, as Loisy asserts (Bromiley on Transfiguration), because John’s gospel is a “perpetual theophany” – a never ending revelation of God. 

What I love about the Bible is that is tells us crazy ungraspable things so casually. It’s almost like dinner time conversation: “Please pass the potatoes:” only Jesus was transfigured. So calm. So tidy. 

But this is crazy. I was reading in the Bromiley Encyclopedia on the Transfiguration. And it also asserts an understatement: this is a difficult passage. 

And here we are. 

The timing of this is so great – it’s the Sunday before Lent begins. We may find challenge, assurance, and umph for the Lenten season in this passage. 

Part of the fun of today’s readings is the conceptual overlap of the Old Testament and Gospel as well as the recollection we hear from 2 Peter. 

In Exodus Moses takes his assistant, Joshua, with him up a mountain for a 40 day and 40-night conversation with God. In the gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. 

Israel is on the brink of wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus’ followers are on the brink of witnessing Christ’s suffering and death. For both, they are on the edge of the unknown and unsure where it is going. This may stir us as we approach Lent.

6th Sunday after Epiphany

February 16, 2020

On rare occasions, our readings on a Sunday morning veer in the direction of the Apocrypha, i.e. the 15 historical and prophetic books of sacred literature that Anglicans/Episcopalians use for purposes of edification and spiritual counsel.  Today our case in point is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. The category is Hebrew Wisdom Literature, a life-giving source of ethical teaching written two centuries or so before Jesus’ birth. 

“If you choose,” says Ben Sira the writer of this account, “you can keep the commandments of God, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God gives you the power to do just that.  He has placed before you fire and water; so stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”

This past week I conducted a clergy conference In Lisbon, Portugal, and I used these words of the rabbi in my addresses. It was a gathering of the Convocation of American Episcopal Churches in Europe together with our sister church—the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal (not Roman Catholic—but Anglican—and what a name—I like to say it: the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal).  We met together in that beautiful capital city of Lisbon, and I was invited to come over with an expectation that I might assist them in understanding and addressing the spiritual dynamics of addictive illness, alcoholism in particular—along with its insidious effect on families of those so afflicted. Our American congregations abroad—scattered throughout the European continent—are having quite a time with this disease and its many ramifications in church life, so they pocketed their pride, and they asked for help.  33 years in recovery from the disease of alcoholism, and a doctoral degree in spirituality, and the emergence of a life’s work helping addicts and their families—provide me with some degree of expertise when it comes to leading such a conference—“Been there, and done that” as the saying goes. 

We no longer observe “Alcohol Awareness Sundays” in the Episcopal Church.  Such Sundays used to be de rigeur in Episcopal life and practice, but sadly they have disappeared.  I’ll use to my time in Portugal as an opportunity to share with you what I shared with some of them…and we’ll make this our own Addiction Awareness Sunday.  Back in the olden days, especially in churches of the south where preachers still had a measure of credibility and their words a powerful sway, people like me could get up in a pulpit and raise the dickens with their congregations about the evils of smoke and drink.  And those dickens appeared to pay dividends—at least to some extent. Preachers screeched, temperance clubs flourished, stills were smashed in the name of Jesus—especially up there in NW Arkansas—Newton and Boone Counties to wit.  We had teetotalers all over the denominational map signing pledges of abstinence and promising on Bible stacks to lead lives along the proverbial straight and narrow—ultimately giving way in this country to Prohibition — Can you imagine?  13 years of Prohibition.

Encouragement in Our Now from Mary & Joseph

February 02, 2020

Today we continue in our Epiphany season – seeing God’s revelation and affirmation of Christ – the reality of the Messiah arriving on the scene. 

What’s weird about this season of is that Jesus is a baby one week and an adult the next and then a baby again…The point is not to be linear but to show – which is really the definition of Epiphany – to show. 

There are things going on in our gospel reading today that serve as example to us. We are in a strange place globally and nationally and maybe personally – and so were Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna.

We, today, have a Senate impeachment trial – only the third time in our nation’s history has a president been charged by the House of Representatives and a Senate trial taken place. Republican or Democrat – this is hard and challenges ideas for us all about faith, character, commitment, and constitution – our very democracy. Leaders in these trial presentations are not always behaving really great. It leaves us asking some questions: is this who we are? what will become of us? Where are we going? 

We are at an historic moment as a nation that is challenging for each of us. 

Additionally, there is this coronavirus. An outbreak internationally that began in China and has a lot of unknown with it. In the vein of movies I have seen, this illness quickly has come to the place of being spread person to person. A little scary as we consider other historic outbreaks. 

Right now, watching the news is actually worse than most scary movies I have seen. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic about our “now.” I realize that in every generation there are those things that take place that can shake us to our core: politically, economically, ideologically.

But our national and international news is a bit core shaking these days.

On top of that, there is the tragedy of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and ripped apart with horrifying suddenness four other families. That intersects with us – the worse can happen to any of us at any time. It does not matter of you are rich or poor famous or unheard of – none of us gets a pass on suffering and death. We are all out of control. It’s just not something we are always aware of…

There is a Wildness to Baptism

January 12, 2020

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. We acknowledge, we honor, and we respond.

But what is this baptism thing? It is a sacrament and if I asked what a sacrament is, many of you, perhaps from your preparation for confirmation back in the day could spout it off. A sacrament is (and this is found in the catechism section of our Book of Common Prayer in page 857): “sacraments are outward signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Simply put sacraments are things familiar to us that God uses to show God to us. 

In our contemporary culture baptism may be thought as something we do to babies and we go Awwww. And in our building lay out, we do it often a little clandestinely in the back corner. What’s going on back there anyway? 

Well, a lot. 

This bowl of holy water and little babies make baptism seem tame, but there’s a wildness to baptism, a recklessness, a danger to consider.   

The wildness comes as we take in all the angles of action going on. 

In our narrative this morning, the Trinity is uniquely present – Jesus – incarnate God, the Holy Spirit as a dove, and God the Father expressed through voice, speech. 

As we look at this, quite dramatic expression of the Trinity, let’s remember that Jesus is Savior, but also, that Jesus is also our model. He shows us how to live and informs our understanding of what is happening. So, a part of baptism for us now, today, is that the Trinity is expressing God. All of God present. All of God moving. 

The wildness comes as we consider God’s voice and the water. We heard in our gospel account: “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” 

Just as he came up from the water. 

Historically, people were baptized more regularly as adults, and it was more regularly done as a full immersion – all of a person all the way under the water. Now, that changed over time, because of need and in response to culture. That’s the beautiful thing about liturgy – it is dynamic, not static. It changes in ways that are discovered with care in response to culture and crisis. The crisis of change with baptism was infant mortality. By illness and other factors, so, the sacrament of baptism began to be done with infants – because they might die.

Sacraments are familiar things…

No Place Like Home

January 05, 2020

Are you ready now? The good witch asks the farm girl. 

Yes, she answers, but hesitantly. Behind her stand beloved friends: a tin man, scarecrow, and lion. She draws a deep breath and says, her doubt resolved:

Say goodbye Toto. Yes, I’m ready now.

Then close your eyes, and clap your heels together three times.

Eyes closed, she taps the ruby slippers.

And say to yourself  “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

I’ve told you before that the father of my first year college roommate was Robert Penn Warren, the novelist. I don’t believe I have previously mentioned that the great uncle of my second year roommate was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve used All the Kings Men and The Wizard of Oz for sermon fodder so often through the years I may owe my roommates royalties.

I left home, here, for college in 1973. My father’s bishop’s diary entry for that September 3 reads: “Labor Day weekend with family. Down to two children at home. Tomorrow it will be one.” September 4: “Put son Christoph on the plane for Amherst College. Felt somewhat like the old rancher in the classic Norman Rockwell picture.” “Breaking Home Ties” is the name of the painting. A sad father sits at the bus stop with his eager son, who is leaving for State U. 

This eager son boarded the plane and was homesick all the way to Massachusetts. Four years later I collected my diploma and came right back home. 

On June 26, 1982—my sister Patty’s birthday––I was ordained deacon here. I was the only ordinand that day. As my home parish, you presented me for ordination. Somewhere down deep in the Cathedral archives there must be a vestry vote recommending me for ordination. My father came out of retirement to preach, from this pulpit, about the life and work to which I had been called. 

So kneeling on those steps, X marks the spot, is where I started out in ordained ministry, a yellow brick road that wound around the state: south to Pine Bluff, west to Van Buren, back east to Little Rock (St. Margaret’s); up north again for some extra years of school, then south back to St. Margaret’s, and finally right back here, home base, six years ago.

The First Sunday After Christmas

December 29, 2019

Today, on the first Sunday after Christmas, we hear the Christmas story from a different perspective, as poetry, through the prologue of the Gospel of John.   I can’t imagine understanding Christmas, or the rest of the story, without the Gospel of John.  It is on our calendar for every first Sunday after Christmas and it is also an option for every Christmas Day.   There is a good reason why it rolls around every year.  It’s a profound introduction to the meaning of the rest of the story.

So, John says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Our Gospel this morning is describing an intimate relationship and to understand the relationship, John’s poetry invites us to enter through the Genesis Creation story:   

In the beginning, Genesis says, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. 

What does our Gospel say that has come into being through God?  Life.  And the life, John says, was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Light has Life in it.

Christ is that Light.  Christ is that real Light that John the Baptist keeps pointing us toward.  In our poetry this morning, John the Baptist keeps popping up to point to the real person, Jesus, who is that true Light that has come into the world to enlighten every one of us.  If we want to know what it means to be made in God’s image, we can look long and hard at Jesus.  Through Jesus, the Word speaks anew into creation, “Let there be light.”

It’s a strange phenomenon that we don’t always notice the Light of Christ.  Our Holy Bible and, if we are honest, our ordinary lives, point out, again and again, that it is common for us to not recognize it, to ignore it, to resist it, to forget about it. 

I have my own annual ritual that keeps me remembering that Light shines in the darkness.  Every Spring, I plant Morning Glories and Moonflowers in my backyard.  My little blue Morning Glories start blooming around dawn and close in the late afternoon; my Moonflowers start blooming at dusk and bloom all night.  What a marvelous sign from God’s creation that says “he makes the dawn and the dusk both sing for joy.”  [i]   I’ve had Moonflowers outside my bedroom window that grow profusely, and the white blooms can be six inches wide.  Moonflowers literally shine in the dark.  They remind me of the year I went through my “Dark Night of the Soul.”  It gives me great comfort knowing that God’s plan includes flowers that bloom only in the dark.

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