Monday, December 31, 2012

Tigers, Elephants, and Lobsters at the Creche

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

I’m going to start this sermon with a poem.

“The Nativity”

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with an ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!

C. S. Lewis

What do you make of the presence of barnyard creatures at the manger? The greater surprise is the presence there of a birth-weary human family, isn’t it? Not to mention assorted angels and eastern sages. It’s a farm, a barn, a manger, for heaven’s sake! The ox, the ass, the sheep are right where they belong: it’s their neighborhood, and they are at home. Their presence at the incarnation of God in Jesus reminds us that God is entirely at home with all creatures where they live, and while God enters human flesh, this is for the purpose of redeeming, hallowing, healing all the species of life. God initiates the new creation with the help of human DNA, but as in the first creation human beings were entrusted with the care of all manner of beings, so in this new created order God’s purpose exceeds us and our salvation. We sink or swim, burrow or fly, hand in paw with all God’s precious beings.

When we get to the feast of St. Francis in early October and the church announces its intention to bless the animals, each time we do we discover all over again that at the heart of that ceremony is the gracious truth that our animal companions bless us. They are God’s agents in blessing us, and blessing always has its way of eliciting blessing from the blessed. Look your animal companions in the eye, and remember your calling to live your life in such ways that you actually do bless them. As St. Paul says somewhere, we are all of us members one of another, living links in an astonishingly rich and diverse chain of being.

By that awareness, we weren’t all that surprised to see among the dramatis personae at our Christmas pageant this year a tiger and an elephant. Last year, I distinctly remember a very green frog and a totally pink pig. A penguin makes an occasional appearance at our altar crèche. In the plotline of the film “Love Actually” a London church’s pageant includes two lobsters and one octopus. I’d expect a good backstory to that… but if anyone contacts us to ask why a tiger and an elephant here in the Berkshires, in quiet little Williamstown, what will we tell them except that we have learned in Christ to welcome all as we all have been welcomed by Christ? And given the prophet Isaiah’s riff today on robes of righteousness, if you’ve got the costume, wear it!

Reinforcing the justice that many species should be present at the holy nativity is the view of Christ expressed in the sublime language of St. John’s preamble to his Gospel, where we are told, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

I hear C. S. Lewis treating life humbly and reverently as he confesses his own animal traits on the deficit side of his ledger (he is slow like an ox, stubborn like an ass, straying like a sheep) while quickly naming what he admires in each animal and hopes will be his: the ox’s strength, the ass’s patience, the sheep’s innocence.

If we heard our animal companions and our other-species neighbors speak about the humans they observe, what might we learn? If the animals admitted to having certain less than admirable human traits, what might those be?

I imagine the animals saying that we humans are so darned busy, so distractible that we fail to give time just to play, to adore, to cherish, to hold and caress. Diana reminds me that our sweet old English setter, Abby, used to step on our feet when she wanted our attention. She would put her paw down on the foot of the person, as if to say, Don’t leave—I want you. In more recent times, our entirely trusting cat Bindhu, surrounded by people busily moving about the kitchen, would lie down on the floor—preferably the center, or right in front of the refrigerator—making himself a being to reckon with, transferring to us the responsibility to notice and respond.

While we have neither of these wonderful companions with us any longer, the memory of how they communicated with us makes us think of God. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…” How busily, how busily, we humans fill our moments and our days, and often miss the opportunity, the blessing, the grace, to be still… to adore… to hold and be held, to play, to be present.

Isn’t that what the creatures convey at the manger? Isn’t this how they—and the poet—invite us to treat life humbly and reverently? And isn’t the new year a perfect time to hear and welcome this invitation, all over again?

(Lewis's poem can be found in "Chapters Into Verse", volume 2, edited by
Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Triumph of the Innocents

Scripture for Christmas Eve and Day include Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

On Saturday afternoon, our children staged their annual Christmas pageant. Some of you were here to enjoy that yearly adventure when kids slip on the sandals of shepherds, put on the robes of kings, and get fitted out with angel wings. It’s such a visceral way to claim the story as their own, because it is our story, not just about first-century characters caught in the headlights of a mighty surprising midnight tale, but the story of our redemption, our salvation, our humble and puzzling place in the new creation God brings to birth in Jesus Christ.

We dedicated this year’s pageant to the twenty children cut down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We did that to affirm that their story is also our story. The inexpressible losses suffered by their families have diminished us, too, and require us to keep expressing these losses until we have figured it out as a nation what is to be done to prevent this happening again.

You know it is only St. Luke and St. Matthew who get Jesus onto the stage of human history by telling stories of his birth. St. Mark has him emerge full-grown as an itinerant preacher. St. John introduces him with the song of a philosopher, that great Prologue about the Word becoming flesh.

And Matthew goes to a place in his story that Luke doesn’t seem to know about. This is a dark place of great anguish, the holy family’s night-time escape to Egypt, and King Herod’s vicious slaughter of the innocents, his maniacal ethnic cleansing, massacring all the children in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, attempting to make sure that he eliminates the prophesied king of the Jews, the one whom eastern sages have come to anoint.

These episodes do not make it into any Christmas pageant that I know of. It’s not because there’d be any shortage among the boys to play the parts of Herod’s soldiers. It’s that even grown women would recoil from having to take the parts of all those mothers. Matthew respects their privacy, refusing to narrate the carnage and instead obliquely cites scripture: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

We don’t know what to do with this part of the Christmas story. But it is no less our story. Especially this Christmas.

Without this bleak and haunting part of the Christmas story, we miss how broad, how deep, how relentless the love of God in Jesus Christ really is. The insane violence of Herod, the suffering of those children, the bottomless anguish of their parents, all depict accurately the world into which Jesus was born, as they depict our world into which God’s Word must be made flesh even now.

The full Christmas story tells us that Jesus is not immune to injustice, violence, and sorrow. It is into these conditions that he is born; it is within these experiences that we shall continue to find him. As a child, he escapes Herod’s plot, at the price of the holy family’s becoming refugees for a time in Egypt; but there will be another Herod, another plot in the time of Jesus’s young adulthood, that will place our Lord’s life on the line and this time he will know exactly what he must do to redeem the human race from its ancient bondage to sin and death. He must take on himself the brunt and burden of the evil that faces him, and by doing that show how the way of the cross is the way of life. Precisely this is what his friends continue to do, as teachers did in the hallways and classrooms of that school on December 14th, his Spirit empowering their spirit, his courage undergirding theirs, his embrace drawing them through the eye of the needle, the time of trial that we pray to avoid by God’s grace but more maturely pray to meet by God’s grace when we must.

There is a painting by William Holman Hunt, one of the British Pre-Raphaelite painters of the last quarter of the 19th century. He titled it, “The Triumph of the Innocents.” It’s not as well-known as his earlier painting “The Light of the World,” which you have seen (Jesus stands at a shut door, a door unused and covered with vines, a door that appears to have no outer handle; it is dusk, and Jesus stands knocking with one hand and in the other holds a lit lantern… a direct encounter with Jesus awaits, if the believer will open that door).

A reproduction of “The Triumph of the Innocents” is in the display cabinet at the back of the church for you to see. Hunt shows the holy family crossing the wilderness of Judea by night, Joseph leading the donkey on which Mary is seated, holding Jesus who is straining to reach out to clusters of young angels. There are no wings on these toddlers; but each head has an encircling ring of light—in fact, each of these fourteen children is bathed in light, and while they all look to be about two years old, there is nothing toddling about their gait. They walk with confident stride, and with arms linked (and it’s that vibrant fellowship that Jesus seems to be reaching for). And there are beautiful mysterious bubbles on the road, each holding what might be a little parallel universe… it is as if to say that while Herod has put these children to death, they now push the boundaries of reality. It is as if they are much more real than Herod is; as if they, released from his iron grip, are now free to lead and safeguard and bless the holy family in their migration.

This painting speaks to me, this Christmas when the slaughter of the holy innocents must be part of the real Christmas story. The twenty children of Newtown are leading us as a nation to figure out what we must do to make daily life safer for the innocent. What is happening through them is like brilliant light piercing the dark of our national failures and fears, and we must walk in that light. The Word of grace and truth is being made real in our experience of their deaths, and we must find what is required of us—and do it, that the Word be made flesh among us now.

Monday, December 24, 2012

What the World Says about America and Guns

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

The world’s attention remains fixed on Newtown, Connecticut. As Advent opens onto Christmas, our own attention is torn between there and here, where the season of waiting, the season of training to welcome the Christ, wants to give way to celebration and pleasure. Yet it seems that the only way to there is through here, our present pain and struggle. So even as we may border on feeling some degree of compassion fatigue, I think we might do well to hear what people in other nations are thinking and saying about this American tragedy. I want to harvest a few comments from The Christian Science Monitor and Yahoo News.

In a nutshell, there has been an outpouring of sympathy from the international community, inevitably followed by utter bewilderment at America's continued obsession with lethal weapons.

The U.S. is home to 270 million privately held guns, which equates to an average of nine guns per 10 people. (In second place, with roughly one gun for every two people, is Yemen, "a conflict-torn Arab nation still dealing with poverty, political unrest, a separatist Shia insurgency, an al Qaeda branch, and the aftereffects of a 1994 civil war," notes Max Fisher at “The Washington Post”.) It is no coincidence that the U.S. also boasts the highest rate of gun-related deaths among developed countries — an American is 20 times more likely to die at the hands of a gun then another member of the developed world. Here, some reactions from around the world:

In Moscow, dozens of Russians spontaneously placed flowers at the US Embassy over the weekend in memory of the 26 victims who were killed on Friday. News of the tragedy was shared across the Internet in China, which witnessed its own school attack Friday. From Germany to Britain to France, heads of state expressed their grief, shock, and horror.

With their empathy, however, came an apparent mounting frustration with a US political system that has left weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 – the civilian model of the M-16 that law-enforcement officials have said the shooter used on his victims Friday – legal and accessible to the public.

Canada's “The Globe and Mail”:

'There is something inexorable about the phenomenon of mass shootings in the United States. We have been forced to write about it with tragic regularity for years. We have exhausted adjectives to describe our horror and revulsion. We have stated and restated the problem…

'The time for platitudes is past... It’s time the U.S. cured its gun sickness.
(Steps Canada has taken include a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and the clever safeguard of requiring gun buyers to have the support of two people vouching for them.)'

Anne Davies at Australia's “Sydney Morning Herald”:

(In Australia, following a mass killing of 35 people in 1996, a national firearms agreement was reached, banning certain rapid-fire guns and using a buyback program that removed 650,000 firearms from public hands.)

'To Australians it seems incredible that U.S. politicians will not move to control guns. It seems illogical in the face of global statistics and our own experience of the success of the gun amnesty.

'The bigger task for America is to become a gentler, more trusting society, so that school children do not have to be drilled in cowering in store rooms.'

Tzipi Shmilovitz at Israel's “Yedioth Ahronoth”:

'America is not ready to talk about how it is easier to get a handgun than it is to see a doctor, not ready to speak about the video games that have extreme violence. It is just willing to sweep up everything under the carpet of tears.'

India's “The Times of India”:

'For those griping about the American right to bear arms, wake up. This is the 21st century and America's a settled state, not the rough-edged, wide open spaces of the 1780s when the Constitution was framed and everything, from land to liberty, was based on violent contests. Bearing arms then might have made sense — doing so today is swallowing the nonsense posed as liberty by commercial lobbies. Some argue weapons empower victims against aggressors. If so, should second-graders pack pistols in their schoolbags? Such shaky logic simply intensifies dangerous situations.'

You probably heard that exactly such shaky logic moved the Michigan state legislature, the day before the Newtown massacre, to approve a bill that would have eliminated "gun-free zones," effectively allowing concealed pistol license holders to bring their guns onto school grounds across the state. The Atlantic Wire reports that this move, unsurprisingly, led to immediate outrage. Governor Rick Snyder had the good sense to veto the measure. Presumably, those legislators intended that their law empower adults to become vigilante intervenors. That fine point was lost on an eleven year old Michigan boy who was taken into custody early last week. He had packed a handgun in his backpack, in case his school was invaded by a deranged gunman. He may have been showing it to his buddies on the playground, but he was charged with pointing the weapon at other children.

Our Gospel today makes clear how central children are to the Christian experience of God. Two babies in utero are cradled in their mothers’ wombs, and before their births these little ones are seen to be great. Only Luke and Matthew begin their Gospels with high visibility of Jesus’s holy childbirth. Mark joins them, though, with the story of Jesus drawing to himself a child (doubtless one of the very children his disciples had tried to shoo away from him), dramatizing his teaching that the Kingdom of God belongs to children; which we take to mean that such qualities as trust, wonder, spontaneity, imagination, humor, playfulness, generosity, expectancy, and use of all our senses are essentials in our spiritual practice—and conversely, that fear, pretentiousness, over-intellectualizing, prejudice, alienation, and other adult pursuits can shut us out of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel message that children rule rings true in John’s Gospel, too, where the great Prologue promises that all who receive Jesus receive also power to become children of God, born not just once of blood and flesh, but born twice, born again of God whose Word, having become flesh, lives among us, full of grace and truth.

As we prepare to welcome the gift of the Christ child, we will honor his coming by recognizing how the children of Newtown are now leading us to make our nation a safer society for all children, and a society more alert, more effective, and more compassionate in treating children of God—and their families-- who live with mental illness. So must the Word be made flesh to dwell among us now, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Heeding Advent Coach Luke

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Advent includes Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

I’ve been talking about Advent as a training season preparing us to welcome the gift of the Christ who comes to us cloaked in humility and paradox. If the evangelist Luke is our coach, whatever is he up to?

Week One of his training regimen had us picture an apocalyptic scene of distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and its waves. On the heels of Superstorm Sandy, with mayhem throughout the Middle East and political gridlock in Washington, this was not hard to visualize, even before Friday’s devastating news from Newtown.

Week Two had Luke setting our sights on a certain moment in history when Tiberius was emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee—a nasty trio we’d all have avoided like a plague of plagues, but representing just the right moment, says Luke, for God to act, and to do so through an unforgettable fellow named John, who emerged from the desert on strategic assignment.

So far, you might wonder what any of Luke’s agenda has to do with Christmas. But wait: isn’t Luke the Gospel writer who gives us most of what we know about the birth and infancy of Jesus? He must know what he’s up to… but what is it?

If we cheated and jumped ahead to next Sunday’s Gospel, would it help? There we’ll find two women and the babies they’re carrying in utero, Mary chambering Jesus in her womb and her relative Elizabeth sheltering John in hers—the same John we meet today, nicknamed the Baptizer for his trademark experience that aligned people with the religious movement he would lead. And when next Sunday comes, we’ll hear Mary sing her song Magnificat, extolling
God for what will come through Jesus her son: scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. Week four will show the central place children occupy in God’s work of redemption, and the divine importance of parental love.

But first, today’s training drill sets us on the banks of the Jordan River, among the crowds who came to John the Baptizer to make a fresh start of life. Except that he knew the scent of falsehood, and could sense the deceit about which T. S. Eliot would write in “Murder in the Cathedral”, “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

John was offering a breakthrough experience based on repentance, a change of heart showing itself in countercultural behavior: putting my second coat on someone else’s shoulders, ensuring that no food goes stale or wasted by sharing it with the hungry, finding contentment in what I rightly have, not grasping what belongs to someone else. These are fruits worthy of repentance, he says.

Scanning the crowds, he knew there were some who would make no such commitment. They had come to be baptized the way people line up for flu shots, to avoid what they fear, but at no great cost to them. He minced no words with these folks who feel entitled to safety because they participate in a mass ritual, or because they come fortunately born from a good upright family—or both, as may be the case with how some Episcopalians see themselves.

John says these self-excusing folks are like snakes slithering away from a woodpile when it’s set on fire. And yes, if that’s not hard hitting enough, poisonous snakes, vipers—to make no commitment to change, no commitment to bear fruits worthy of repentance is to poison the community, the Church, and the body politic.

With Luke as our Advent coach, what are we going to recognize at Christmas?

How profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, our mortal life that is so vulnerable to the violence of the proud and of the poisonous, the tyrannical and the deranged. So vulnerable, yet bearing the divine image, capable of seeing that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, capable of the call to right ancient wrongs and heal ancient wounds.

We will recognize how profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, and how uniquely important to us is our life in the Spirit of God. The Spirit that can change hearts to repent, the Spirit that will wipe our slates clean and free human will for a fresh start, the Spirit that will make us wise enough and brave enough to change the disordered society in which you and I live.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Participating in the Incarnation

Scripture for the Second Sunday in Advent includes Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

If we’re going to find the potential of revelation in a birth in a barnyard, we need Advent to be a training season, not a shopping season. A training season for perceiving what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious; because the stunning beauty of Christmas, the lasting blessing of the holy nativity, lies in the puzzling truth that things are often not what they seem. Insight, foresight, and hindsight are needed to shape our welcome of the Christ who is born in such unpromising surroundings as a feeding trough in a barn behind an inn with no vacancies. Cloaked in humility and paradox is the gift of the Christ child.

“’What fresh hell is this?’… Or something very much like that was Joseph’s response to the decree mandating a trip to Bethlehem in the final days of Mary’s pregnancy. Burden heaped upon burden. In years to come songs would sweeten that trek to the little town of Bethlehem, but just then Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s predicament was a study in hopelessness.”

That’s how Sam Portaro opens his Advent meditation in the most recent issue of “Vestry Papers.” Part of getting the hang of the good news of God in Jesus Christ is realizing that despite all the glam and glitter of our cultural Christmas, the bona fide story underwriting the nativity is about some really hard waiting required of Mary and Joseph—putting up with government tax reform, coping with the indignities of overland travel, not to mention surviving nine months of Jesus robing himself in human flesh, some of this time for Mary jostling bareback on a donkey. The holy family is uprooted. This required trip to Bethlehem isn’t a sweet return to the hometown for the holidays. Nor will Joseph and Mary return to wherever they were living: they will be homeless, and when they leave Bethlehem it will be as refugees escaping a maniac king intent on eliminating them.

Merry Christmas.

Here’s Sam Portaro again: “Advent’s characteristic waiting is not the anticipatory expectation of envisioned gift—like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, or even the pregnant mother’s and expectant father’s apprehensions of birth—but a more difficult waiting, a waiting with no tangible outcome accessible to us, exactly the kind of waiting demanded of us just now: waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.

“We’ve no idea what the future holds for us... We forget (to our peril) that neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. Any and all suggestions to the contrary have been read backward into the story, many centuries after those at the heart of the story had lived and died. None of the apostles could ever have imagined the church as we experience it; none lived to see even an approximation of it. The human aspirations and apprehensions met in Bethlehem’s manger were overlooked by all those present and many who followed for centuries after, for their hopes and fears were founded upon models of messiah and kingship Jesus steadfastly refused. None could’ve imagined what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.

“This isn’t to say that we’re to despair, but rather that true leadership… is unafraid of truth and steadfast in trust. When we let go our own fantasies of a… future conforming to our own desires and designs, we open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. We’ve no idea what awaits us but in the darkness of that scary not knowing, the light of Advent shines. We take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that fresh hell—that wearying trip, compounded by advanced pregnancy, to comply with an onerous imperial order of census and taxation, to a city lacking adequate provision for them—to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as tenuous and as unknown as every child’s.

“That’s what we’re called to, what we come to in this and every Advent. A new life is being born and though we’ll not live to see it fully grown, we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) And we rejoice to be here.”

Even if here and now is a balancing act between counting our blessings and lamenting our losses.

Even if here is a place where young people die out of sequence with their elders, leaving their children and their parents in grief.

Even though here is just a few days away from tumbling over the fiscal cliff.

Even though here is a warming planet with rising oceans.

Even though here is a globe of fractured relationships between neighbors, a Holy Land riven by unholy bitterness, a world that still has too many maniac kings and too many disputed borders.

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction… and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting….” So sings Baruch, scribe to the prophet Jeremiah and author of an apocryphal book that we get to hear, thanks to our new lectionary.

Righteousness is his theme, as it is in all these readings today. Not self-righteousness that believes God loves only those who live on my side of the border, my side of the aisle in congress, my religion, my kind of people. Righteousness is right and healthy relationship centered in love for God and love for neighbor as for self. Righteousness is depending not so much on our own ability to make things right, but on God being at work in our world to make it right (as Paul puts it to the Philippians, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion…”). God needs us to help that completion happen, but as servants and not masters, servants trusted to determine what is best (says Paul) by spiritual powers of love and insight.

A harvest of righteousness, that’s the point of it all, says St. Paul. And we can take that to mean that our Advent training sharpens our focus on piling presents under other people’s trees, like those 23 children we’re providing for through the Giving Tree. There’s a harvest of right priorities.

Another will be our Christmas offering to support three forms of outreach that mirror the story of the first Christmas. Remembering that the holy family were refugees, we will support emergency relief for Syrian refugees. Remembering how shelter, food, and post-natal care are needs we see at Bethlehem, we will care for struggling families here in North Berkshire. And remembering how livestock are front and center in the Christmas story, we will send funds to Heifer Project International.

And yes, you and I will find many quiet private ways to help make rough places smooth and crooked places straight, not just now in December, but often, knowing that the Word will be made flesh over and again as we help God produce a harvest of right relationship, healthy relationship, right priorities that come through Jesus Christ.

Advent training isn’t big on wish lists for Santa, or shopping lists for Santa’s helpers. But goals are in order, goals for a righteous harvest. How about intelligent, fair, honest cooperation across the aisle in Congress? Insistence that our federal budget not be balanced at the expense of the poor? How about courage in the White House and State Department to get Israel and the State of Palestine to sit down for serious negotiations while there is still time? And gun control—remember gun control? What a yet longer list you and I can name, goals for a harvest of righteousness, all worthy of a new year of healthy activism.

Advent training teaches us creative, assertive, active waiting. Unlike our cultural Christmas, we are not counting down to a moment of gratification. We are in Christ building up a capacity to perceive what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious, to recognize the promised presence and power and purpose of God in unpromising surroundings. And to participate with God in the Incarnation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Birthing a Community of Encouragement

Scripture for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

How do these readings lend themselves to what we’re about today, holy baptism?

You may have caught the baptismal images in our second reading: “hearts sprinkled clean… bodies washed with pure water… the confession of our hope… “ and, central to what baptism is about, the faithfulness of the one who promises.

It’s no casual thing that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reaches into his toolkit of baptismal language. He is making his appeal for the new way by which all people , not just a favored few, have access to God. This new way replaces an old system of prohibitive laws with the new creation that God has initiated in Jesus Christ whose love fulfills God’s vision and desire for humanity. This new way replaces the old system of blood sacrifice that made the great temple of Jerusalem a factory manufacturing divine approval in exchange for fees. The writer replaces this old system with his vision of open access to God through a true heart that seeks the full assurance of faith, an open conscience that keeps moving towards love and good deeds, and the encouraging community that meets together to inspire (he says provoke) one another to readiness. This new way, the writer says, is opened to us in baptism. Today, we will claim it for Alexandria Rockwell.

Our first lesson is a real corker for a baptismal Sunday, isn’t it? It comes from a time when polygamy was still thought to be the ticket to the good life. Hannah was well loved and cared for, but her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, irritates Hannah by constantly showing new photos of her most recent baby… while Hannah is said to be unable to bear children.

She dares believe otherwise. She presents herself in the temple and promises God to dedicate the child that comes from her womb—somewhat like promising to send him to seminary. She is passionate about this, and the old priest Eli, watching from a distance, mistakes her emotional expression for drunkenness. Here’s a case study in terrible pastoral care. As if to make up for this, Eli does what he can by saying the Amen to her prayer. So does God, reports the writer; God says “So be it!” and Samuel is born, Samuel among the first great prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Which is itself a case of terrible theology—bargaining with God—but this story is what it is.

It is a story of a miraculous birth. The Christian Church has long retold the story as a forerunner to the Incarnation, God’s Word becoming flesh through the womb of Mary. However you process stories of miraculous births, understand that in this baptism we’re witnessing the result of a miracle today. Let me quickly add, that’s not meant to be a comment about Alexandria’s conception, but about her delivery.

Two months early, in fullblown medical-surgical crisis, late one night in Burlington, Vermont, just before the changing shifts at Fletcher Allen Hospital would have dispersed the top-flight emergency obstetric team whose members were still on duty when the ambulance arrived. It would be days before baby Alexandria was out of crisis, and more days before Rockwell was. The slenderest of threads brought this baby to life, and this mother to recovery. Their double-header miracle is forever woven into the warp and weft of their family tapestry, and the success stories of that remarkable hospital. It took these communities of encouragement to help create a miracle, and by their presence this family helps God deepen the encouragement of this community… for look at them now!

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” the disciples exclaim to Jesus, as they admire the architecture and edifice of the great temple in Jerusalem. For these Galilean peasants and fishermen, this was the pinnacle of the big city tour. Our Lord is not impressed. He is not looking on the outward form, the way people tend to attach their admiration. He has looked behind the curtains of the Emerald City, and found fraud and deception, greed and dishonesty. He is also given by Mark the Gospel writer foresight to see the imperial Roman army’s devastation of the temple, burning it, demolishing it, about forty years off in the future. Nothing material lasts forever. All mortal institutions in time will lose their packaging, and this will be hastened if they have lost their vision, their mission, their call.

Jesus leaves us in no doubt about this. The church that has no other use for the word “building” than to mean the shell within which its people huddle against the world, will not be building broad bridges of outreach to the world, will not be helping build the new creation, and will not keep its architecture for long. A finer design is needed.

God calls the church to build and keep building a community of encouragement and inspiration, not just for its own good but to benefit human society and all our environment locally, nationally, globally. I notice a strong verb in the closing words of our Gospel: rather than building, birthing of a new order is said to be the context in which we will find God, whose will is to be done on earth as in heaven.

That’s the verb for a baptismal Sunday: birthing. If we are to help midwife God’s new creation, we need the baptismal toolkit: hearts sprinkled clean… bodies washed with pure water… the confession of our hope… “ and, central to what baptism is about, the faithfulness of God, who promises open access, constant presence, foresightful grace, the compassion of Jesus Christ, the guidance of Lady Wisdom, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

These powers we seek and claim today for Alexandria and for ourselves:
a true heart that seeks the full assurance of faith, an open conscience that keeps moving towards love and good deeds, and the encouraging community that meets together to inspire, provoke, one another to readiness.

Once for All

Scripture for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Kings 17:8-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Within the hour, the Veterans Day National Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery will start, precisely at 11:00 a.m., with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then, inside the Memorial Amphitheater, a parade of colors by veterans' organizations will follow, and remarks from dignitaries. The ceremony is intended to honor and thank all who served in the United States Armed Forces.

There is a short phrase in our second lesson today which cuts to the chase of the Christian Gospel. It is the phrase, “once for all.” Those three words could be the title of all the collected theological writings of the ages. They sum up the heart of the good news. They are the pulsing of God’s love and the foundation for the Christian hope.

Before we try to unpack what these words mean to us, I can’t help wondering if they weren’t on the lips of most of the men and women who entered military service, whether voluntarily or drafted. What helped them wrench themselves away from their daily lives at home and work and farm and factory was the hope that their sacrifices would rid the world of tyrants and treachery, once and for all.

History tells us that war, however heroically fought, cannot fulfill the hope of “once for all.” It is the Prince of Peace, the humble servant anointed by God, the holy one who has no army, no flag, no currency, and no boundaries, he is the one who fulfills the promise of these words of hope for which humanity has always yearned.

Once, in the fullness of time, the relentless abundant love which created the universe crossed the membrane of heaven and earth, broke the barrier between the “kairos” of eternity and the “chronos” of clock time, set the loom for a new weaving of spirit and flesh—and did all this hidden under cover of what could have disqualified the whole mission.

There was no more unsettled a place than Palestine, then as now. There was no tighter a vise grip on human freedoms than the Roman imperial presence in occupied lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Trade was causing exchange of cultures, but it was a time of sharp aversion to foreigners and things foreign. It was a time when a woman wasn’t counted to be even three-fifths of a man, yet a womb (and the womb of a very young woman not yet defined by marriage) would be the chosen doorway to an entirely new creation.

Once, there and then, at what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the end of the age, God’s relentless long-hidden gracious purpose was revealed. Not in the violent mode of eliminating the old, but in an organic peaceable evolutionary way of birthing the new, a power of transformation was released into this world, available not just to some, but to all… a tiny word we are still struggling to comprehend and practice.

Once. Surgically certain, clearly confident is this short word that means: what has happened in Jesus Christ meets and exceeds all the requirements of God and of humanity to be the foundation for reconciling all alienation. Given, not earned or negotiated, is the power to build on that foundation. No more is needed to fix the foundation or to obtain the power, than what is given in abundant love and received by honest trust. The building, that’s for us to do. The building of unity, the reconciling of opposing sides, that is what we are given to do—and the greatest giving is the power God has already released to do it.

How to do that building? There is a saying by an ancient Christian sage—I did a quick Google search but couldn’t find the source, which won’t prevent me from using it—“The desire to please God pleases God.” The desire to build with God is the beginning to building with God. The desire to reconcile is how reconciliation is built.

What a critical need this is, in post-election America! And if I may put a Veterans’ Day spin on this urgency: the men and women who have generously given military service to this nation did not make the sacrifices they made so that two political parties can refuse reconciliation and paralyze this nation.

Our desire for reconciliation and cooperation is how these outcomes will be built. We may doubt we have much sway over these things—the widow in today’s Gospel is here to tell us otherwise: do what you can with what you have, she tells us. Using our voices to put our own elected representatives on notice that we want unity of purpose is the might we have.

That phrase “once for all” is meant to bring relief to anyone who longs for a fresh start. We don’t have to know how to make things right, how to invent the right approach, how to turn the past around to a better future. We need to allow our longing to open us to welcome the relentless abundant love which is given and is for us to receive and build upon. It is as dependable as that jug of oil in the hands of Elijah. And, as we were taught last Sunday, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is all of a piece, wound like the strands of a rope, woven as warp and weft. So the building that is ours to do in our own fresh starts is not done in isolation, but in community.

And communities, congregations, nations need, now and again, fresh starts. As Christians, we believe there is grace in the gift given, once for all, to keep building on foundations that God provides, broad and roomy enough for all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Signs of Change

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14, and Mark 12:28-34

The ancient words of Deuteronomy tell us that Jesus’s reply to the scribe was not his own invention. The primacy of loving God wholly is expressed in the Shema Israel, the Jewish call to worship, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notice that Jesus adds “and with all your mind.”

The words we heard from Deuteronomy today constitute the opening of every worshiping assembly of Jews on the Sabbath day. The closing words of the lesson call for every Jewish home to have, nailed to the door post, a fragment of God’s word, a phrase from the holy Torah, mounted in a mezuzah, a small decorated holder of metal or clay or wood, present to remind residents and guests alike that in this household the Lord God is to be loved wholly, first, foremost, in all things and above all things. The ground on which that house sits is holy ground. The table fellowship of that home, the cycling of generations through its rooms, the joys and sorrows shared there, all constitute a holy heritage.

Nailed to the doors of oceanfront houses along the New York and New Jersey coastline today are notices in two colors. One designates that the house is condemned and to be torn down. The other says that the house can be repaired and, in time, reoccupied. We know what these notices look like, from just over a year ago when another storm did not skirt, but sliced right through here, and 225 mobile homes in The Spruces were tagged on their doors.

One use of the doorpost bears witness to an ancient faith and a timeless truth: that God is with God’s people. The other posting drives a final nail in the coffin for many people whose households are gone, whose holy ground is torn open, and whose trust in the providence of God faces a sore trial. They too are God’s people, these residents who no longer reside, who are no longer surrounded by what is familiar, but stand with the clothes on their back and, if they are fortunate, their loved ones hand in hand. The promise is made no less to them, that God is with God’s people. But to claim that promise, the homeless cannot look to what is seen; they must look to what is unseen. They will find God present, not in secure surroundings and abundance (which are the subjects of the table graces we pray and the prayers we usually raise on Thanksgiving Day); they will find God present in people who validate the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God is present to battered residents along the mid-Atlantic seaboard in the firm confidence of first responders, the quiet labor of shelter volunteers, the steady progress of linesmen and tree removal crews, through whose efforts relief is felt, shock subsides, and victims dare recall who and whose they are.

For the victims of this superstorm, nothing will ever be the same again. And those are the words that came to mind when I first realized how threatened mighty New York City would be. I watched the film clips of the Hudson and East Rivers overflowing the Battery and I thought that for this great city, nothing could ever be the same again. Urban planning for coastal cities; zoning, development, and rebuilding along beachfronts; and, for us here, building on flood plains and along riverways, all need rethinking. Not motivated by scientific theory and the politics that have sprouted in armed camps around global warming, but motivated by actual storms, experienced events that cannot be argued away from the planning tables. Explain it as we will, we are stepping across into a new sense of normal.

That’s a phrase used in relief and recovery circles. FEMA officials taught us that on average it takes eighteen months for disaster survivors to reach a new sense of normal, a redefined set of standards, hopes and goals that takes everything into account, including sudden recent change. What is true of the individual in recovery may have its parallel in society: When traumatic change deals us a blow, first we need rescue to safety; then healing of heart, soul, mind, and body so we rightly see our choices; then good counsel so we make the best choices we can, taking into account a changed and changing world.

That theme of a changing world is heard in our readings today. The Torah, sampled in our Deuteronomy reading, an ancient system of commandments, statutes, and ordinances, conveys timeless truth such as the primacy of love, love for God first to nurture and inspire love for neighbor. But the Torah bred also an elaborate system of burnt offerings and blood sacrifice, and aren’t we glad we’ve evolved beyond that? As our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, it was the coming of Christ that made that sacrificial system redundant. Language of purification and images of blood sacrifice have shaped this first-century description of Jesus Christ’s mission, and the good news that his generous self-giving, his servant love, has nailed on the doorpost of the old religious factory of burnt offerings a sign that says, “Closed by the Owner: Unsafe for Human Nature.”

Martin Luther would have to reach for hammer and nails fifteen hundred years later in the Protestant Reformation, for similar house-cleaning. The theses he posted on that famous door in Wittenberg didn’t amount to a Condemned sign, definitely more a “needs repair” verdict. But he presents the truth that a friend recently told me, “Jesus Christ periodically needs rescuing from the hands of the Church.”

Because the Church is not the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is what matters most to Jesus, as we hear in Mark’s Gospel. That kingdom is a reordering of life to be in harmony with a whole-hearted love for God and a whole-hearted love for neighbor, caring for others as well as we care for ourselves. While the Church is called to facilitate these great loves, the Church is at best their midwife, helping them be born into a world that deeply needs them.

Which is why I am so grateful to be part of a congregation that gives generously to the world, around the corner and around the globe. St. John’s is, as well, a community that understands how the great whole-hearted loves for God and for neighbors nurture each other, give birth to new life, interact, intertwine. And I thank God that in this remarkable parish, we practice the sharing of what we have, what we do, and who we are not primarily as obligation, but as opportunity to grow spiritually. We take to heart the call to make our welcome warm to people we don’t yet know, as warm as the welcome we have received from God who knows us perfectly.

We understand that the church works for the good of the world. And, given what has happened across the eastern third or more of the United States in the past week, the church across the nation has fresh opportunity to participate in relief, recovery, and preparedness for the future. We open Raile’s Bowl today for gifts that will go in equal proportion to the American Red Cross and Episcopal Relief and Development. We’ll also be watching for what the Dioceses of Long Island and New Jersey are doing in terms of relief work, and may direct some of our giving to these frontline networks whose bishops (Larry Provenzano in Long Island, George Councell in New Jersey) were priests in this Diocese before their election, and are well-known to many of us.

Your gift will be matched from the mission funds of this parish, until we reach $1,000 in gifts. That we can do this multiplication is its own evidence that here we understand that the church works for the world.

I want to close with words from Bishop Councell in New Jersey, posted this week on the doorpost of that diocese’s Website: “Sometimes people look at a natural disaster and ask the question, ‘Where was God?’ I believe that a better question to raise is, ‘Where was the Church?’ The Church is us. In this most difficult moment for so many in our Diocese, state and region, may all see the Church of Jesus Christ at work through us, giving loving service and living hope to all.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

That All May See

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

All these Gospel stories we hear resemble pearls on a string. We slide them off, one by one, to notice each one’s particular shape and color and weight and size, but they belong together. And they belong to us. Together, we appreciate them better. I mean that in two ways: taken in context, paying attention to how a stories fit the larger scheme of the Gospel, there’s more to value in any one story. Heard and appraised together in community, we hear how they address the believer (and the skeptic), the community of faith (and the wider world).

So on the far side of today’s portion, the future, the very next scene in Mark is Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story of Palm Sunday, the drama of what happens to Jesus when he completes his public ministry of speaking truth to power, and what happens then when God turns the table on Jesus’s executioners and proves his love to be stronger than death.

And on the near side of today’s passage, what just passed, we recall last Sunday’s pathetic pitch by James and John, sons of Zebedee (Sons of Thunder as they are remembered), who asked Jesus to let them sit with him in glory, his left-hand and right-hand men ruling the kingdom of God… his very own Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

That was a request Jesus could not fulfill. It just didn’t fit his mission, which is God’s will getting done on earth as it is in heaven. The best he could make of this embarrassing moment in the company of the twelve disciples was to hold it up as a good example of how leadership is not to be exercised in the community of faith. Whoever would be great must be servant of all.

And here today we have Mark’s final example of how Jesus fulfilled that leadership model. Servant of all means stopping dead in your tracks to let someone else’s life matter more to you than whatever you had your mind set on in that moment. Jesus had set his mind on Jerusalem, on the final outcome of his mission, only to notice the insistent voice of someone calling out to him from the crowd. And what Jesus hears when he calls this man over to him is a request that he can fulfill, because it is spot-on his own vision. He expressed that himself back at the start of his public ministry, when at his very first appearance, at his hometown congregation in Nazareth, he read from the prophet Isaiah in a way that everyone knew meant he would fulfill the words on the scroll, for he was himself the Word made flesh. Here is what he read.

“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.”

In the course of his two-to-three year journey through cities, villages, and wilderness, Jesus is remembered as having two characteristic passions. One I have already mentioned, his speaking truth to power, fearlessly rattling the cages of sacred cows and secular authorities, to assert the rights of the poor and the discarded, to teach a standard of justice that continues to our day inspiring relief and advocacy for undocumented workers, drawing marginalized people to the very center of the community’s life, applying the community’s resources to the healing of people in body, mind, and spirit.

How he does those things shows us his second characteristic passion: He fulfills his mission person by person, one to one and one by one. Members of Congress provide constituent services. Millennia before, we see Jesus developing this into an art form, and not just for people from his native Galilee and his covenant people Israel; he gives his love away to anyone who wants it.

What happens when he does? Today’s story tells us. On the face of it, this is the report of a physical healing. Jesus restores a certain power this man had lost, the ability to see. This is a power we take for granted until our having it is threatened by injury or disease.

His blindness had cost him a livelihood: he was a beggar. Is it a chorus from the crowd or some of the disciples who try to hush him, sternly ordering him to be quiet (in one translation)? Whoever that was, in their world beggars had no rights: they were at the far margin of society, not its center. But suddenly he is at the center, there with Jesus, who has asked for him.

Is it our stereotype that we expect a blind person to slowly, deliberately, cautiously inch his way along? This man throws off his cloak, springs to his feet, and comes confidently to where Jesus stands.

Doesn’t Jesus know what this man wants? But no: he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man is a beggar: he may want money. If so, he may be out of luck. Jesus wasn’t known for carrying a wallet, you remember. Besides, the chemistry of this encounter requires the seeker to name exactly what he seeks. “Rabbi, I want to see.” Feel how these words come from this man’s deepest, most vulnerable place within him. It is from this interior font that his power of trust rises: “Your faith has saved and healed you.”

Instantly, his constantly dark night is torn open by sunlight, color, contrast, comprehension of how all things fit together, work together, make a fuller sense of themselves. We’re not told how this immediate illumination doesn’t blind him all over again, but the gift proves his resilience. And he responds not by thanking the doctor and going home, but by following Jesus on the way… on the way to his confrontation with untrustworthy powers of church and state, and with the treachery of one of his own disciples… all of which this liberated beggar may have gotten to see and perhaps comprehend from a front row seat.

Now, the story works its way on another level. There is seeing with the eyes, and there is seeing with recognition, seeing with imagination, seeing with the conscience, seeing with insight, seeing truth, seeing one’s duty, seeing how seemingly conflicting parts make up a dynamic whole, seeing the choices before us for what they really are, seeing God where God may be, seeing Jesus in the face of a discarded person, seeing the movement of the Spirit. Any of these could be what we would answer Jesus when he asks, “What can I do for you?”

And all of those ways of seeing play their part in our learning to serve. Without these dimensions of spiritual sight, our efforts to serve may be aimless, we may be flying blind.

I am not suggesting metaphorizing this story to be less than it is. I’m wondering what it came to mean to the early Church, that our ancestors kept telling it, relishing it, feeling that it applied to them, that it came together in their own experience. Together with the community of faith then and now, let’s make sure this story is appreciated for all it can be.

And that brings me to what all this has to do with Lucy and Sofia, whom we will baptize in just a few moments.

It is the responsibility of all of us in this room today—parents, Godparents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and very much congregation—to see, to see our duty and to see our opportunities, to ensure that these girls meet Jesus Christ and come to know him in his two characteristic passions. One is how he fulfills his mission person by person, one to one and one by one. The other is how he speaks truth to power.

Sofia and Lucy are about to experience Christ in the first of those two ways. His cross is soon to be signed on their foreheads. His Spirit is going to dwell within them. They will become members of his body, the church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God-- who does not wait for them to see how all this works, but takes the first step towards each of them, immersing each of them in love that is not earned but freely given.

And given so that each in time may have formed within her a faith, a hope, and a caring that express themselves in the servant love that Jesus calls great, the passion that shows itself person to person, that all the world may see.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At the Holy Creative Center

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In Mark’s Gospel we have two men seeking high office. One sees himself to the left of center, while the other places himself to the right. Neither says persuasively why he should be elevated to such a position of power, but they both expect it to be glorious and good for the kingdom of God if they are. And they picture that what they’ll be doing is a lot of is sitting in glory, in great authority, in places of honor, thrones, oval offices.

I wonder what today’s Bible readings could say to us, as we step into late fall 2012.

In his reply to James and John, whose nickname was Sons of Thunder, Jesus tells them that it’s not enough to want to win an election. It’s imperative to know what it is they’re asking for. Why do they want to sit with him in glory? What would they do with the authority they’re eager to wield? Wield it for what purposes?

And wherever do they get the notion that they will like it when they have gained such power as Jesus can give them? “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

How glibly they respond, “Oh, yes! Our whole lives, we’ve been preparing for this. Our family, advisors, and handlers all tell us it’s our destiny. We are James and John, sons of Zebedee, and we approve this message.”

It’s no accident that we’re also given today the voice of Job, a study in contrast to James and John. This portion comes near the end of Job’s long struggle with the unjustness of God, who has allowed many lifetimes’ worth of misfortune to befall this one good man. And Job has refused to relinquish his self-esteem, despite the clumsy coaching of his friends who assume he is somehow to blame for his own tragic losses, and the prompting of his overwhelmed wife who urges him to give up, to curse God and die.

If James and John could have stood in Job’s sandals and heard the Lord God of hosts speak of the infinite gulf between divine knowledge and the partial knowings that limit even the best mortal human being as he rises up and asks why things are as they are… why, James and John might, like Job, have ratcheted down their self-righteous expectation to get what they wanted.

After much more of this dramatic dressing-down by God, this sharp reminding of who is central to the universe and who is not, this putting Job in his place, when God has had the last word, the Book of Job will end with Job abasing himself before the Almighty. “I had heard of you,” he says to God, “by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

That is not an ending designed to please the modern hearer. We might want to consign it to the dustbin of unnecessarily dour piety. But it would be a shame to miss this point: God has honored Job’s longing for a day in court. God has climbed into the dock, to answer Job’s charge that God is profoundly unjust. For what other person in all the Hebrew Bible has God gone face to face? For Moses… and now for Job.

This ending tells us that for Job this is enough. He will not win this campaign debate by argument. He will not put down the Creator God who is central to the universe. He will not go farther down the hazardous road of making God his adversary when, in fact, God is the very ground for Job’s famous cry of hope, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth… then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.” (Job 19:25-27)

Job’s ending is a beginning of recognition that it is time for Job to shed the mighty chip he has had on his shoulder—understandably—since suffering so many losses. That feisty spirit has brought him as far as it can: face to face with the Inscrutable One who here reveals the desire to be known, the Magnum Mysterium who desires relationship.
We are given Job today to remind us of the virtues of humility, honesty, and repentance; and the roles these human powers play in creating responsible leadership.

James and John do not have these virtues, not yet. Notice how patient, how unrattled, how calmly Jesus responds to these two hot-headed, likely well-intentioned, disciples. None of the high-blown oratory of God’s challenge to Job, no trace of indignation, no rapping of knuckles. Jesus is pointblank but gentle: “You two just don’t get it, do you?” Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Do you suppose he means to evoke the same meaning of self-sacrificing servant love that he indelibly attaches to the cup of wine that he will share with them at the last supper? “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins…”

And by holding up to them his own baptism by John the Baptist, when he through whom the worlds were made stood in line with hundreds of ordinary men and women to be immersed in the silty Jordan River, wasn’t that a public sign that he is one with us, bound to us, on our side (as Job would say); and wasn’t it precisely then that he was anointed, empowered, for his brief public ministry that forever would be remembered not for any lording over us, but for his serving us to make us servants of his?

Coming at the height (or is it the depth?) of a presidential campaign, these readings invite us to realize that every candidate for high office is a human being, just a human being. No candidate can be the center of our universe, nor even the center of our nation.

That center is a holy place, a crucible of creative leadership from which can come unification, progress, transformation—if the center is acknowledged to belong, not to a party or a president, but a nation, a diverse commonwealth of us, the people. Treated like a sanctuary, a place for repentance, reconciliation, honest amendment of life, and encounter with the transcendent, the center holds promise. The center is a place of grace.

No leader is the center of power and authority. A candidate who thinks he is will, once seated, find out otherwise. We place a leader near the center so that he or she will draw to the table all who are willing to work for the common good.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like Job, have to shed any major chip he has shouldered, repent of the role he and his party have played in desecrating the holy center, the creative center, of the people; and, in humility, demonstrate what it takes to respect and serve and lead from as near as he can get to that place of demanding and delicate balance.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like James and John, have to forego dreams of glory, in exchange for knowing certainly what he is asking of us, and what is required of him to become great—as a servant.

In a season when passions run high, these readings remind us that at the center of the Christian’s universe is the passion of Jesus Christ—his life, his death, his victory over death—and this passion beats with the pulse of new life. However we plan to vote on November 6th, whether to the left or the right of center, all Christians are centered in Christ, and we’ll do well to lay all our passions at the foot of his great passion, his indelible servant love for all people.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eyes, Feet, Hands for God

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Ah, yes. The amputation metaphors. “This collection of sayings is very difficult for Christians to hear,” writes one commentator. Do you think? Not to mention what non-Christians might make of it…

A Christian friend of mine made a perfect response to these verses. She lives with aphasia; speech is hard for her. Her response to these verses: Arrrghh! Seems entirely reasonable to me.

The commentator adds, Jesus’s audience would have had no difficulty recognizing the fact that he was speaking metaphorically and not literally. Which still leaves us challenged to figure out what Jesus is saying to us about our own discipleship.

His metaphors of body parts include sensory organs of perception and limbs of ambulation and outreach.

First, eyes. How often do we express disillusionment in words like, “Now I’ve seen it all!”? Jesus trains disciples to see by faith, to witness the worst with eyes that have seen the best-- evidence of resurrection-- and will keep looking for grace in every encounter. A popular blessing challenges us to see Jesus in every face we see.

Second, feet. A common word associated with faith is “walk”, as in walking the walk. By contrast, we often feel we’re walking in circles and running out of steam and, as James says today, wandering from the truth. By contrast, running the race that is set before us-- looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith-- has global positioning built into it, and walking the way of the cross is all about finding it to be the way of life. Pilgrimage is not aimless, both because it has a destination and because the journey itself is every bit as important as the arrival.

Then, hands. What our hands reach for is determined by where and how our hearts are attached. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco, the outstretched hand of God impelled by love to create, the receptive hand of Adam showing more than a need for A hand—the need for THE hand that establishes covenant relationship.

So if all this is the positive message, why the negative language, why the verbal extremism? Violence in the language of this part of Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the symptom of sharp disputes going on when Mark wrote this first of the four Gospels. Last Sunday, we heard about the disciples disputing among themselves who was greatest: that was a foretaste of human arguments that would persist in the early Church, magnified mightily by the wicked persecutions waged by the Roman empire, and preachers like Mark (modeling their approach on their bold assertive teacher Jesus) didn’t hesitate to employ a shock factor to rein-in erring church leaders.

Salt and fire are puzzling images, aren’t they? In that day, they’d have been understood as being all about preserving food, preventing decay and poisoning and waste and hunger. These chemical tools are good, as the Gospel says, but as chemical tools they involve reaction and change. We may think that agents of preservation represent the status quo, but in fact they represent change, transformation. In Mark’s hands salt and fire become emblematic of how everyone gets tested in life, and we’re probably meant to be reminded of psalms and other Hebrew scriptures that speak of God refining God’s people to reveal their integrity and prepare them to be agents of God’s own demanding love. The Bible is the many-centuried witness to the puzzling truth that those who are closest to the heart of God are also likeliest to be tested. Think of Jesus. Think of the Jews.

And our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, the eccentric Book of Esther, gets us doing just that: thinking of the Jews. We need some commentary. “The underlying question of the book,” says one commentator, “ (is) the question of destruction or survival for Jews under persecution…”, a religious question. But nowhere in the book is God mentioned. Prayer is noticeably absent. “The spirit of vengeance is considerably more prominent than the spirit of devotion.”

But what a story it tells! We get its denouement today wildly out of the blue. A bit of background: “Esther, a beautiful Jewish maiden living in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, was selected for the king’s harem, and so delighted King Ahasuerus… that he made her his queen. Then Haman, the prime minister, influenced the king to issue an edict authorizing the annihilation of all Jews in the Empire. In this emergency Esther was able to persuade Ahasuerus to proclaim a second edict reversing the situation, thus saving the lives of her people, and accomplishing the annihilation of their enemies. The rejoicing following this victory, the two days of feasting and gladness on the fourteenth and fifteenth (days of the Hebrew month) Adar, was then fixed by Queen Esther as an annual celebration, the festival of Purim.”

Mordecai, the fellow who escaped the fate that befell Haman, was Esther’s cousin and guardian. Though Haman had set him up to seem a traitor, at the last minute Mordecai is discovered by the king as the one whose intervention at just the right moment had thwarted an assassination attempt on the king by one of his top officials. Suddenly, in a true uh-oh moment, Haman’s eagerness to do away with Mordecai appears to the king to be damning evidence. And the tables turn. This is an exciting story of court intrigue, and it’s no wonder that it’s retold annually.

But it’s pretty clear that the story’s origins are not Jewish. Its non-religious character, and the Persian names of the characters in the story, combined with the fact that nowhere in Jewish law is observance of Purim required, all suggest that here we have an example of the profound principle Jesus believes: that whoever is not against us is for us. This Jewish festival of deliverance is rooted in a non-Jewish drama taken over by Jews from their Persian neighbors.

This is delicious, and well worth noticing. I wonder if this isn’t a witness to the wisdom of recognizing how interdependent we all are, in the experience of being human—how we need one another’s best stories.

When your religion motivates you to give a cup of water to a thirsty person, when your faith prompts you to help a person wrapped in anxiety find freedom, when your piety frees you to pray for the suffering and sing songs of praise with the cheerful, then you are tapping into a universal love that will teach you about the divine. And it is then, with the humility and the intensity of beginners, that disciples of Yahweh who is revealed by the law and the prophets, disciples of Jesus incarnating Abba Father and Lady Wisdom, disciples of Allah whose ways are expressed by the Prophet in the Koran, disciples of Lord Buddha emulated in mindfulness, and who knows who else, will discover the salt and fire of being for, not against one another.

May that day keep coming. Remember that the journey there is as important as the arrival—but may the day noticeably arrive, in our lifetime, in that of our children, and may we help it happen by bearing the holy fruits of peace and understanding.

Dorothea Ward Harvey’s article on the Book of Esther is found in Volume 2 of The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon Press, 1962).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Peeps Sunday

Scripture for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

As tempting as the passage from Proverbs is… this preacher wants to keep in mind that this is an unusual Sunday, with a Ministry Fair awaiting us at the finish line, and Lady Wisdom (whose characteristics we heard last Sunday, and aren’t they echoed in that sketch of a capable wife?), Lady Wisdom whispers to me to remember the KISS principle: keep it short and simple today.

We could call today our Peeps Sunday. We need people to embrace ministries that serve all who come through these doors. Jesus embraces little children: we need peeps to embrace mostly little tasks (little, at least, in the great scheme of life), and to discover, as Jesus invites his disciples to learn, that God is served in little tasks as well as in big ones.

Cradle the little ones, Jesus says, and you will cradle God.

What a contrast to the strategic scheming those disciples were up to. They were writing their acceptance speeches while their master was doing his best to reveal what true servanthood requires. How gently he whistles them in. He realizes it’s a deaf ear they’re turning to him, so he waits until they’re gathered at the table and then asks them, “What were you discussing on the road?”

The silence… was deafening. A capable disciple, who can find?

We’re blessed with a lot of talented, dedicated, generous disciples here at St. John’s. You’re going to see some of them at work here today. I think what distinguishes a disciple from a volunteer by any other name is the commitment to learn, to observe how God is at work, and to allow that discovery to shape the work we do.

This observing, this allowing of discovery, this shaping finds expression in two moments of our weekly worship. One is the silence, the other communion. In silence, servant love is conceived. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…” In sacrament, servant love is nurtured, repaired, and built.

In our silence, we clear the decks. We offer a little time, sabbath moments, for doing nothing but listening. No turning of pages to keep up or get ahead. No checking our smartphones to keep up or get ahead. No mental list-making to get a leg-up on the week. Just breathing—catching our breath, perhaps for the first time today. Lapsing from control to submission, consciously choosing to be still, letting-go the inner chatter, discovering that it is up to us what we pay attention to.

In communion we find encounter with the God who feeds us, we find solidarity with the people who (like us) need this feeding, and we find purpose renewed in the call to go and feed the people who fill our weekday hours. And we try not to rush out from here when we’re told the liturgy has ended: we keep practicing communion as we greet old friends, meet new ones, and gather around yet another table where food and drink are set for us, giving time and place for yet more encounter, solidarity, and renewed purpose.

Jesus put a child in the middle of the room. Today, Peeps Sunday, several people will locate themselves in this room, inviting you to embrace one or another of the ministries they represent. Even if you’re not ready to embrace one more task in your life, cradle the information you’ll get when you approach one of these people (they’re ready to share with you what their particular form of service involves, and what it gives).

And to sweeten the encounter, refreshments will be served right here today.

Plain-speaking St. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” We have ministries that need peeps, disciples, learners. Today, we’re asking!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lady Wisdom

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom 7:26-8:1 (in lieu of the psalm); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Lady Wisdom greets us today from two places, one the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, the other the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, from the library of books known as the Apocrypha, a collection of writings not included in the Old Testament though they sound as if they could have been. A reading from the Bible and a psalm of praise from the almost-Bible, both speak of God’s wisdom as a lady.

What kind of lady? Not a lady to the manor born. More Sojurner Truth. Or Susan B. Anthony. Or Joan of Arc. Golda Meir. Eleanor Roosevelt. Or, if you prefer more subtle candidates but with long arcs of influence, Emily Dickinson. Marianne Anderson. I’ll stop. (I wonder who you would name?)

For sure, she’s no shrinking violet. She cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out, and she is confrontational. She takes no prisoners: if you don’t pay attention to her in good times, she will not run after you in bad times. Ignore her counsel day by day, and when disaster strikes her voice will be lost to you in the storm of panic.

Think of the flashpoints in our world where extremism erupts into violence. Where is Sophia, Lady Wisdom?

Think of our recent political conventions. Did you notice her there?

What fascinates me about this biblical figure is how she pre-figures Jesus Christ in the New Testament. She is a flawless mirror of God’s activity. She transforms all around her. She can accomplish everything, taking ordinary people and making them friends of God and prophets of God. And she is not limited to one culture or one nation: she spans the earth from pole to pole. She re-orders an unruly and wayward creation. She shakes up complacent humanity.

All of these are things that will be said of Jesus Christ, when we step across into the New Testament.

“Who do people say that I am?” he asks his disciples, as he exhibits Lady Wisdom’s clever way to get a bunch of men to fess up what they themselves are thinking. They report what they’ve heard in the streets and villages, answers that show how people are groping for the truth, recognizing the holy but stumbling as they try to name it.

“But who do you say that I am?” he asks, wisely posing a question to knock on the door to their own awakening. Peter’s dart hits the bulls-eye: You are the messiah, the holy one of God.

It has been said, tongue in cheek, that the order Jesus then issued is treasured by many Episcopalians as their favorite commandment: not to tell anyone about him. Evangelism? Ooh, not us!

It was not them either, until he had taught them who he is, what he must undergo, and what will become of him. Peter promptly scolded him for sounding so grim, such a spoil-sport. Which was evidence of a sort that Peter was slowly catching on that Jesus was forecasting not just his own future, but theirs.

And ours, lest we miss the thrust of his teaching and have nothing to say to people regarding him. For this is the one who shows us how to set our minds on divine things as well as human, transforming all around him, making us friends of God, even prophets of God who can look deeply into human experience, name the divine within, and make plain the claim God has upon us.

Which includes our tongues, insists St. James. Very much includes how we speak of God, of one another, and of ourselves.

I love James’s plain way of speaking. He knew the voice of Lady Wisdom. She spoke through him, and her subject is faithful truthful speaking. This is what our world most needs to hear modeled and practiced by politicians that they may lead us without deceiving or dividing us, by religious leaders that they may use their leverage to overcome prejudice and violence, and by all of us ordinary types that we may be open to wisdom, put out fires, bless and not curse, and help one another bear the fruit we are meant to bear.

How will you immerse yourself in wisdom, this fall?

Will you set yourself a goal and a simple pattern to encounter Lady Wisdom and Master Jesus in Bible reading? Try “Forward Day by Day” as a manageable pattern, or a chapter per day of a Gospel?

Is it time to join or re-join or start a small group to help feed your spirit? Talk to me about that. Perhaps a group that starts by reading a spiritual classic and parallels that mind-work with the heart-work of prayer?

The counsel of wisdom is always within reach, closer than breath itself. What are you hearing?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Faith Unlocks our Future

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

I made two visits and several phone calls to our veterinary hospital this past week, and dropped a bundle of money, all in my role as co-director of assisted living for our aging pussycat. I am relieved and grateful to report that he has successfully come through last week’s dilemma, a loss of appetite caused by too strong a dose of his hyperthyroid medication. His recovery was aided in part by a small dose of an appetite stimulant designed for human use. A bit of nutritional coaching resulted in my buying yet a second and a third brand of cat food carefully calibrated to protect kidney function in senior cats, who evidently require occasional varying of their menu.

A quick check with the concordance shows that the word cat does not appear in the Bible anywhere. Dogs do appear, as we notice today, and while this disparity would puzzle my cat if he knew it—and I’m glad I don’t have to explain it to him—my investment of time and attention and money in his well-being is a story familiar to all dog owners (or should I say all who are owned by their dogs, as I am by my cat?).

Those dogs under the table hypothetically set by Jesus and the woman in today’s Gospel were members of a household. In the disturbing story of her encounter with Jesus, she is a stranger; but those dogs are well-known both to him and to her, as they glide back and forth as figures of speech in this astonishing encounter, a candid sound-clip we’re just not ready to hear.

What does it mean that this woman carries labels, like Gentile and Syro-Phoenician? Geography is a political science. Land lies at the root of every war, and land lies at the root of religious conflict. That she is a Gentile says that she is not Jewish: to Jewish eyes, she is a stranger to the covenant love God has for Israel. That she has Phoenician blood means that, many generations back, her people were Canaanites, the original settlers in what Israel came to call the promised land, the land overrun, taken, and occupied by Hebrew settlers in the name of their God. The prefix Syro- says that, by the first century in the common era, Phoenicia was part of the Roman province of Syria. This woman is a stranger whom it may be timely for us to meet.

But before she stands unknown before Jesus, he is the stranger in her land. He has crossed the border between Israel and the Phoenician region of Tyre, where he enters a house and does not want anyone to know he is there. He has been swamped by crowds seeking his healing, his teaching… and all too often just seeking the buzz that he generates as he goes from place to place. He has had it, he’s exhausted, he needs a place, a safe house, to recover in.

And to make matters more oppressive, in the days before his flight across the border Jesus has been embroiled in controversy with religious conservatives finding fault with how he and his disciples observe the purity requirements of religious law. He has not been cautious in his response, calling his opponents hypocrites. Even his disciples have been anxious and demanding, and he just needs to get away on his own—can you relate to this?

Suddenly, he is not alone. You may think I mean that a woman from Syria has sought and found him. We’ll listen to her in a moment. But first I mean that the Church is crowded into that house with them, watching, listening. I know, St. Mark implies that Jesus desired solitude, but he often had two or three disciples with him, and aren’t we to imagine that we’re hearing what happened through their telling the story?

And their story was of unique interest to the entire young Church, for whom the burning missionary question was, “Is the Gospel of Jesus just for the house of Israel, or does it call to faith also the Gentile world, and women, and children—none of whom commanded much attention before this?

How complex this encounter will be. By the purity standards of Israel’s religion, Jesus and his disciples should not have crossed the border into Syria. By these old values, the Church of Jesus should have no public mission to Gentile Phoenicians.

Consider the encounter another way. Tyre was a coastal port city, wealthy by comparison to the hinterlands of Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from. Back there, Jewish farmers raised crops on which the wealthy Gentile cities like Tyre depended. Galilean Jews, seeing their produce consumed by strangers, might well feel hostile. The poor in Galilee needed Gentile markets, but might go to bed at night hungry, they and their children.

In this swirling vortex of religious, political, and economic judgment, how is Jesus remembered to have responded to a stranger, a mother seeking the healing of her perhaps epileptic daughter?

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’s answer: “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

We’re stunned to hear our Jesus talk like that. He relegates this caring anxious mother and her sick daughter to the category of dogs?

It was a more generous response than first-century religious people would have given: “Stand in line” isn’t “Go away.”

I think Jesus’s weariness is showing. Those endless lines of people wanting to be healed, back across the border in Israel: he cannot forget those children of God… they must come first, for his mission originates in Israel, the chosen covenant people of God.

But is this really the message of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the master of radical hospitality? Or is he mouthing the expected words that sum up the current state of religion, geography, politics, and economics so that the Church will hear… and be appalled and shocked into change?

“Of course, Master,” she replies in Peterson’s version, “But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

This is oral combat, says one commentator. And the Syrian woman wins. Dogs under the table are within the household.

We have witnessed what the first-century Church discovered over time: that the bread of Jesus’s body is broken not just for the traditionally religious and the confirmed members in good standing. Jesus receives, perceives, conceives, how radical is the love of God and the mission of his Church.

What he then proceeds to do for a deaf man who could not speak clearly, Jesus does for his Church: he opens our ears and frees our tongues to receive and transmit the gift of faith in the God who calls no one stranger.

James in his letter today asks, “Can faith save you?”

Jesus in his Gospel answers, “Yes.”

Faith in the one God of all, Syrian and Jew, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, female and male, saves us from treating anyone as stranger. In that respect, faith saves others from getting the worst that is in us.

Faith saves us from wasting our lives asking questions that get us nowhere, saves us by calling us to ask questions that lead to truth.

Faith saves us from the bondage of lies perpetuated by geography, politics, economics, and religion.

Faith unlocks our future.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Keep James in Mind

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

As today’s leaflet reports, I aim to give not a sermon, but a homily—which, customarily, is shorter than a sermon. Traditionally, a homily attempts to be practical and spiritually illuminating, while a sermon by tradition gives an exposition of religious doctrine. (Put it that way, and I should prefer to give a homily rather than a sermon every time I preach.) Homiletics is the academic discipline that teaches seminarians how to preach. (Somehow, I got through seminary without taking a homiletics course—something I’ve never admitted to Thomas Mikelson, who taught homiletics at Harvard Divinity School.) The funny word “homiletical” sounds like “omelette”, which suggests that if it takes three eggs to create a sermon, a homily requires just one. A single text, a single point.

I will choose the Letter of James, because he writes about the importance of doing, not just hearing, the Word of God. His letter pokes a very sharp point into the inflated self-importance of people who claim they believe earnestly but fail to show it by their actions. He hits this nail firmly on its head in this passage:

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (2:18-19, 26)

Here is the flip side to that famous story of two sisters, contemplative Mary and activist Martha, in which Jesus appears to value them both but favors listening Mary over bustling Martha.

James comes down on the side of results. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:14-17)

That was the outlook of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, a mouthful to say and much about filling empty stomachs. With community service their common denominator, this team of allies filled a vacuum created when the Community Action food pantry lost its funding. On the order of 600 families are now finding assistance and respectful welcome at the Friendship Center on Eagle Street.

I recall a vestry meeting just before summer started. Several members said, “Wouldn’t it be great if St. John’s had a vegetable garden and the produce went to the Friendship Center?” Three of those members, with one spouse and one dog, tilled the northwest corner of the rectory yard and planted chard, squash, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, broccoli— just as the fig tree put forth its figs in the Song of Solomon, this garden has produced plentifully!

And I’m reasonably confident that these volunteers would tell you they have been blessed in their doing.

What I notice about James’s discourse (let’s call it a homily) is how he defines religion. It isn’t defined by saying things, or by believing in a certain way, or by worshiping in one way or another, but by the kind of doing that cares for people and contributes to the integrity of the doer, the worker.

Labor Day gets us reflecting on work, reflecting on ourselves as workers, and considering what it means to be unemployed, under-employed, and formerly-employed. Later in this service, as we present objects which symbolize our work, we hope to hear results of such reflecting. Which is why I am serving up a one-egg omelette, not the usual three.

Keep James in mind. Work can be downright holy, work that cares for people, work done with care for the people involved, work that contributes to the integrity of the worker by (to paraphrase Jesus in today’s Gospel) stimulating the human heart to intend what is good, and (to sum up James) achieve it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Surviving the Rites of Succession

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

It may be with some relief that we hear today that David has gone to sleep with his ancestors. It has been a long summer hearing his royal saga. And no wonder: he ruled Israel for forty years. That’s a lot of material. Today we’re reminded that David passed the baton—or the crown—to his son Solomon, and thus was born a dynasty.

That may be a more practical model of governance than electing a president every four years. On the down side, dynastic rule does tend to entrench the bad ideas and mistakes of the past; but even in a democracy those seem to have a long shelf life. And even in a democracy we occasionally get dynasties, however short-lived.

But at the rate of David’s tenure, his dynasty would be a long one. And sure enough, Solomon also ruled Israel forty years. His reputation vies with that of his father. It was Solomon who built the great temple in Jerusalem that David wanted to build for God. Among Solomon’s wives was the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, which gave commerce a boost and made the good times roll. Solomon is celebrated for his wisdom and his wealth. Jesus used his name as a benchmark when he urged us to recognize God’s superabundant blessings in life, calling us to admire the lilies of the field, which Solomon in all his glory could not out-dress—a famous sermon which makes the point that we should choose gratitude as an antidote to anxiety.

Solomon’s prayer to God, early in his reign, is strong in gratitude for all that God had done to secure the reign of his father David. Solomon saw this as God’s approval of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart towards God. Huh? Wait, there’s more: Offering Solomon access to that same covenant mutuality, God says to him, “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Now, hold it. Hear the umpire’s whistle on that play. Is this the same David, now being saluted by God, the same David who went way beyond coveting his neighbor’s wife, stealing the lovely Bathsheba, eliminating Bathsheba’s husband by the dirtiest of deeds?

Yes, but when you’re King you get to tell the story, and, Bathsheba being Solomon’s mother, he puts the best of faces on his royal history and hers, the ends justifying the means.

And yes, there is one more aspect for which Solomon is remembered: his wisdom, his wealth, and his women. So many wives we lose count. And through them, Solomon was drawn to dabble in the religious practices of their native cultures. While this put the King at odds with the orthodox, the criticism in today’s reading represents a soft landing: “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” Lesser mortals would have been drummed out of Israel for that offense, but again, the King gets to tell his own story… and, after all, he kept the economy brisk, those forty years.

What endeared Solomon to his own and subsequent generations appears to have been his humility before God. Again, from his inaugural prayer: I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. I don’t know everything and I’m not going to pretend I do. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. I don’t know how to do this without you. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; I am not always going to know which is which. And who can govern this your great people, without your guidance?”

Humility, understanding, ethical discernment… doesn’t that sound like a winning package in a head of state? When you hear these signs from a candidate this fall, vote for that person!

And read the whole story in the First Book of Kings. This royal succession was not as smooth as we might imagine. Solomon’s older step-brother wanted to be King, even declared himself enthroned moments before Solomon’s backers gave him the title. You’ll find that Solomon could be ruthless, not above having his step-brother and his father’s chief general executed in order to secure his throne. While we expect there to be blood along the campaign trail, in our day it’s metaphorical; in Solomon’s day, it was actual.

Notice the blood in our Gospel today. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. ..”

I remember the deep offense felt by a parishioner, hearing these verses. I remember telling her, Yes, it’s meant to offend us, to catch our attention and wrestle with its meaning. But the King gets to tell his own story, and sometimes it’s not pretty.

And what is it Jesus is talking about here? Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar, we heard today. Now, there’s blood. Jesus spoke to a first-century culture that still believed God required and delighted in the blood sacrifice of animals, though by the time the Gospel-writer John put these words on parchment, the temple had been shut down, obliterated by the Roman emperor’s army as the final blow to the Jewish movement to free Israel. Ceremonial cultic blood sacrifice was a thing of the past by John’s time. By then, for Jews and Christians alike, worship was centered in homes around kitchen tables and in upper rooms for fellowship among neighboring households.

For Jews and Christians, worship was intimately related to mealtimes. The defining ceremony for Christians melded the Jewish Passover supper with all that Jesus did with that liturgy to convey the great and steadfast love of God in the present moment—not just in one historical moment, but now.

But he isn’t describing here the sacramental act of eating the bread and drinking the wine of the eucharist. He digs deeper, into the heart of what that last supper means. His flesh and blood is what God chose to enter and occupy in the Incarnation. In Jesus’s flesh it is God who washes the feet of the disciples, even the treacherous one. The pulsing of Jesus’s blood through the chambers of God’s pure compassion always sustains our Lord’s reach to touch the sick with healing and the obsessed with freedom.

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is to want God, to need God with the earnestness of young Solomon. It is to take into ourselves the matter of God on the frontier where divine Spirit must meet our flesh, right in our gut. It is to say, God, we cannot manage our day to day life without you. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

It is, to quote the writer to the Ephesians, being careful—full of care—how we live, as wise people making the most of the time, choosing to be filled with the Spirit that dwells in the flesh and knows how to guide and inspire from within.

We are what we eat. Let it be God. Let it be what is good. Paraphrasing Jesus in his sermon that mentions Solomon, our daily diet will result in either an anxious heart or a grateful one, isolation or communion, pointlessness or mission.

In the vortex of political campaigning swirling around us more and more intensely, we are being asked to swallow a lot, much of it fibs and nonsense. We need the antidote of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, the way, the truth, the life, the Word made flesh.