Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Scripture for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Our readings today invite us to consider the theme of power. Our collect of the day prays that the Church may show God’s power among all peoples. The Book of Exodus gives us a snapshot of the Egyptian pharaoh wringing his royal hands over the increasing power of an ethnic minority in his kingdom, the Hebrews. St. Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, urges a religion of transformation. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, gives to his Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven, a transfer of power that Christians continue to cite as being the font of the Church’s authority on earth.

Let’s take each of these, more or less in turn. The prayer that Christians, “being gathered together in unity by (the) Holy Spirit, may show forth (God’s) power among all peoples, to the glory of (God’s) Name,” expects a lot, doesn’t it? Sure doesn’t sound like a religion of navel-gazing… or a faith that fears rocking the boat… or an other-worldly spirituality.

Or, to use St. Paul’s language, a Christianity of conformity. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…” and then do it, urges Paul. That doing is apostolic Christianity.

And when Jesus passes into Peter’s hands the power, the authority, represented by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, you might see those keys as throwing-open any and every wall, obstacle, roadblock, and previously-imagined locked door between God and the human heart. It is all about mercy and forgiveness to loose people from paralyzing blame and crippling guilt and relentless futility and defeating self-absorption. It is all about binding people to a yet more excellent way that rejects violence, recognizes God in the alien and the stranger, practices generosity, and cheerfully acts on the impulse of compassion and insistence upon justice. Such strong stuff is the rock on which Jesus builds his Church.

Christianity may tell its own story as if Jesus invented his Church as sheer innovation. Not so. There was already a church, if by that you understand church to be the gathered people of God, gathered by God’s call, imbued with God’s gifts, summoned to do God’s work in the world. The established church that Jesus knew in the early decades of the first century was Judaism, the temple, the law and the prophets.

That church was founded upon the power of God. The Hebrew Bible attests to that, and today’s passage from Exodus makes that point. The pharaoh fears the growing power of the Hebrew community, but he hasn’t got a clue what power he’s dealing with. That hidden power is suggested in the verse, “But the more (the Hebrew people) were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…”

And when the author of Exodus tells the sweet but near-tragic story of Moses in the bulrushes, the theme of God’s deep power is sounded in the innocent words of Pharoah’s daughter, who named that swaddled baby Moses because, she said, “I drew him out of the water,” playing with the meaning of his name—a royal Egyptian name co-opted by the Exodus author to remind every subsequent Jewish reader and hearer of this story—and every Christian reader and hearer, let’s add—to understand the name to mean, in its Hebrew form, “God has drawn us out of mighty waters.” Deliverance, rescue, salvation—the power of God at work to safeguard the vulnerable, lift up the lowly, transform falling into rising—this is what the rescue of little Moses anticipates, a greater deliverance that will be worked through the God-given power of Moses. And lest all this be lost on any hearers, this story happens on the banks of a river, and at a similar spot, the Red Sea as we like to call it, though the literal Hebrew is Sea of Reeds, Sea of Bulrushes, where mighty Moses will lead Israel through the parted waters to a promised land, the finest of Pharoah’s army in hot but futile pursuit, for their power is as nothing compared to the power of God.

Upon that foundation, the church Israel was built. Yet, by the time it came to Jesus’s generation, the might of God’s power had been fossilized, institutionalized, supplanted, by the mighty temple, the powerful priesthood, the demanding law, the domesticated prophets—much as the church Jesus built upon the rock of trusting faith and counter-cultural courage gets reduced, over and again, to the ecclesiastical politics that keeps dividing the Body of Christ, the edifice complex that keeps dominating church agendas, and lovely liturgies that have more to do with conformity than with transformity. (That’s not a word, I know-- but it ought to be.)

It will help us reclaim and show forth the power the world needs if we recognize that there is one God doing the building of one gathered humanity, one God endowing all life with the right gifts needed for binding and loosing, one God summoning us out of our locked enclaves, paralyzed governments, and close-minded sects, one God rattling the keys to remind us that he has placed them in our hands.

Last Sunday, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, called for prayer to be offered in all our parishes for the people of Iraq and Syria. She recommended the use of a prayer that we used then, and shall today, right after communion.

That is an appropriate moment because the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood unites us to the church in Iraq, whose ancient city Nineveh figures in the Hebrew Bible, and whose ancient city Mosul is the site of a monastery dating back to the 4th century. Before the Second Gulf War, one million Christians lived in Iraq. That number dropped to one hundred thousand by the time of this year’s Islamic State insurgency, and most of that number are now among the internally displaced people of Iraq, fleeing the Islamic State’s vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. Caught in the same exodus fleeing from execution are the uncounted but likely greater number of Yazidis, a reclusive religious minority, and another religious minority, the Shi’ite Muslim Terkmen. Our communion today summons our compassion equally for all of them, and for all the 2.7 million displaced Iraqis and the 2.5 million Syrians who have fled the violent chaos there.

Episcopal Relief and Development has feet on the ground in Iraq, through the Episcopal Diocese of Cyprus and the Persian Gulf. Today we open Raile’s Bowl to collect donations for humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq and Syria. Your gift will be matched from the parish’s mission funds.

We may feel powerless in the face of sheer malignant genocide conducted in the name of religion. In its long and checkered history, the Christian church has stood accused and guilty of wielding such abusive power. Our scriptures hold our feet and our hearts to the fire of the divine power that gathers us, binds us to justice and compassion, looses us to freely use the gifts God has planted in us, and summons us to welcome and embody the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Falling, Rising

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28.

The Episcopal Church expresses its dependence upon the Bible, its commitment to taking the Bible both seriously and joyfully, by a disciplined hearing of holy scripture each Sunday in the parish eucharist, and each weekday in the offering of morning and evening prayer.

Sunday by Sunday, readings are chosen—a text from the Hebrew Bible, a psalm from the Hebrew Bible, a portion from the letters (and other writings) of the Christian scriptures, and a portion of one of the four Gospels—chosen not by the pastor locally, but by the wider Church. And by “wider” I mean beyond the Episcopal Church, for the table of readings that we use here on Sundays has been set by a consortium of denominations so that Christian unity may be promoted.

And by language like “setting the table” I mean to acknowledge that in this holy meal that draws us together, it is not just bread and wine that are offered, but also the food and drink of ancient wisdom, pithy proverbs, puzzling parables, prophetic oracles, apocalyptic visions, compelling narratives of holy lives, poetic reach towards the transcendent, and the witness of amazing grace revealing the holiness of each moment of life.

The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Jesus Christ the Word made flesh shapes his likeness in us. The Holy Spirit hovers among us, dwells within each heart, her grace and wisdom nurturing from birth and baptism each soul’s growth into the full stature of Christ.

On a good day. I mean, that quick sketch of spiritual growth sounds way too smooth and easy, doesn’t it? But if I’m right in the claim that every moment is holy, no moment devoid of the grace of Christ and the presence of the Spirit, then at least we might agree that much of our spiritual growth is hidden, much of it eludes our understanding and analysis, and much of it seems to resemble (to recall our Lord’s summertime parables) a garden that requires a load of manure in order to do its yielding, and a healthy regard for the tenacity of weeds. And, to borrow from our late summer pilgrimage with Joseph, the favored child sold into slavery by his brothers, the gifted young man who went down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into Pharoah’s dungeon, only to rise to the pinnacle of power in ancient Egypt, we see presented the familiar human pattern that first you fall, then you rise. No death, no resurrection.

If the menu at our Sunday banquet is not only bread and wine but also the Word of holy scripture, there comes also at the start an appetizer, the collect of the day. A collect gets its nickname from its purpose, to collect all our attention deficits and invite the harnessing of our hearts and minds to the Word we’re about to hear.

These little treasures of prayer trace a bloodline that goes back to the 4th and 5th centuries, others from the middle ages, some from catholic missals, others from the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. These prayers sometimes have about them an air of Where’s Waldo, as they catch wind of a great theme that blows through the readings that day, and invite us to listen for it.

And often, as in today’s collect, there’s a gracious touch of catechism: we learn today that at the heart of the spiritual journey is thankful receiving of the redeeming work of Jesus, in particular the grace to follow daily in the steps of his holy life. That desire to follow him is what we bring to the equation of spiritual growth—and this collect makes it clear that we bring this desire not from obligation or guilt, but from appreciation and gratitude. And right from the get-go, the collect teaches us, the freedom we need to have this desire is itself a result, a fruit, of Jesus’s redeeming work. We love because he first loves us.

And it is for the replenishing of love that we come to this table that is set for us. The sabbath rest we choose by coming here repairs us from the week that was, prepares us for the week that comes.
This past week has been especially brutal. Vicious genocide in Northern Iraq. The ongoing pathos of unending violence between Israelis and Palestinians (neither side willing to feel pathos, empathy, for the other). And the shooting death of an African American teenager by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

Yet, with all this violence, nothing prepared us for the news, last week, of Robin Williams’s death. Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Armand in The Bird Cage, Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam… Robin Williams long ago insinuated himself into my personal pantheon of gifted actors I admire. Beyond zany, able to slip from serious to crazy in the twinkling of an eye, when he was in role he could do anything, and he did, including tenderness, steadfastness, wonderment, fearlessness, quiet intensity, and, of course, crack-up antics.

Hearing that he had taken his own life, I wondered, “Why would someone who seemed able to do anything do that?” As if a talented actor, in particular a zany comedian, should be immune from despair. As if clowns don’t cry. It didn’t take me long to realize I should know better.

We live in a culture that mistakes entertainment for news, and therefore treats everything that happens to entertainers as if it were newsworthy. Our culture also exploits personal tragedy. Believing these things, I wanted to impose a buffer around this man’s death, to let its sadness and violence recede and perhaps revisit it all later, when it would feel less raw. When I heard myself, thick in denial, I recognized how this compartmentalizing couldn’t be an option for countless people who have lost a loved one to suicide: there’s no arm’s length option for them, and there isn’t for any of us. How many of us have almost lost someone to this form of death? How many of us have almost lost our own life this way? And what gradations of self-directed violence are there, short of calling in the coroner? What degrees of self-neglect and self-abuse count in a countdown to serious illness? For how many of us does the gap between the true self and the self we show to others grow wider and wider?
I read recently an interview with Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist priest in Japan who counsels suicidal people and grieving survivors. His words are so simple and direct. “Suicide is really tough. The killer and the killed are the same person, so you don’t know what to make of it. You don’t know where to direct your anger. The wound stays with you for a long time.”

If ever there is a moment to recall John Donne’s way with words, it’s in the wake of a very public self-killing like this one. Hear both the familiar words from his Meditation XVII, and the less familiar (and grammatically challenging) words that follow it:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, insists that our security lies in the gifts God has planted in us, and the call God issues to us to use these gifts to reach out to people who most need to be immersed in the mercy of God.

Security likely has little to do with protecting us from danger, risk, or affliction. Joseph’s long saga of falling and rising, falling and rising, calls us to imagine security being mostly about resilience and flexibility and trust.

And what do we make of John Donne’s attitude towards affliction? It is a treasure… that we don’t want, but once we have it, our attitude towards it helps shape the future, both our own and that of others around us. Robin Williams’s wife reports that he had been diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease. I wonder if he knew people, as I do and as many of you do, who live with this disease yet find there is still gold to be mined from life.

In understanding the complexity of suicide, must there not be multiple insecurities that account for the anguish and despair that can shut tight the windows and doors of the soul?

The collect today calls us to secure ourselves—windows and doors open-- by allowing Jesus Christ to free our ability to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to free in us the desire to follow Jesus daily, step by step, not knowing exactly where that takes us, but knowing him, and not controlling the journey as much as trusting the falling and the rising, the falling and the rising.

As Buddhist wisdom puts it, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

(For the interview with Ittetsu Nemoto, see the Spring 2014 issue of “Tricycle”.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Holiness of Each Moment

Scripture for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”—do you remember the musical that brought the Joseph saga to the stage and screen?

That coat of many colors—notice how the New RSV translates the phrase “a long robe with sleeves,” suggesting the play that is possible within a biblical text, not to mention what keeps Bible scholars at play—whatever this sartorial splendor was, it only intensified the hatred Joseph’s brothers bore against him. That stemmed from the special love their father Jacob (who is also named Israel) felt for this youngest son of his old age, who reminded him of his beloved late wife, Rachel.

So the stage is set for a long blockbuster series of stories centering on Joseph. As we hear today, he is sold into slavery by his brothers, sent in chains to Egypt—the kind of radical demotion Jesus would feature, centuries later, in his story of the prodigal son. Once in Egypt, Joseph, by his beauty, his trustworthiness, and his managerial skill, rises to prominence in the household of Potiphar, a high muckety-muck of the Pharoah.

Mrs. Potiphar falls head over heels for this young slave, but he resists her wiles, proving his integrity but caught in a web of circumstantial evidence that lands him in jail. As bleak as that sounds, the skillful storyteller in Genesis is creating the drama that will elevate Joseph to the very pinnacle of power in Egypt: as far as he has descended—down into that pit, down into Egypt, down in Pharoah’s dungeon—just as high will he rise, in time becoming Pharoah’s right hand man. I would bet that the early Church treasured this story as a forecast of our Lord’s betrayal and vindication, his descent into the jaws of death and his rising to the right hand of God.

What saved Joseph from rotting in prison was his extraordinary gift for interpreting dreams. Back in Hebron, he had shamelessly explained to his family his own dreams as a young man about whom it could be said that he was full of himself, for his dreams foretold the day that his brothers, even his father and mother, would bow down to him. That gift failed to endear him to his brothers, but in Egypt it was his ticket to freedom as he reveals the meaning within the dreams of two of Pharoah’s servants who displeased their master and wound up jailmates of Joseph. After word of his success traveled, Joseph was summoned by Pharoah to interpret his royal dreams, and with that Joseph becomes a royal advisor on his way up the ladder of power.

And there he will face, and help Egypt survive, longterm devastating widespread drought and famine. Having become the chief administrator in all the land, he devises bold, cold ways by which the poor would survive, but at the expense of losing title to their land which passed into the hands of Pharoah. What we are to make of this steely competence is hard to say—though historians tell us that exactly this kind of shift in land ownership happened in ancient Egypt.

It isn’t long before Joseph’s family, back in Hebron, runs out of options and turns to Egypt, where they’ve heard it is still possible to buy food. So the stage is set for dramatic reunion between Joseph and his brothers in scenes that are among the most affecting in the Hebrew Bible.

Whenever we get a story from the Book of Genesis, we get a time-treasured answer to some big question, bigger than just the cast of characters and their interactions. Here the question answered is, “How did the Hebrew people wind up in Egypt?” The answer: economic necessity, as the tribes of Israel, represented by those sons of Jacob, made their way to the storehouses Joseph established. And how is it that they became slaves to Pharoah? At first they weren’t, with Joseph’s prestige protecting them; but in time the same harsh realities that reduced Egyptians to landless slavery reduced also Israel’s offspring.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel says of Joseph that he was the first Jew to link Israel to the wider world. “Everything happened to him, and never on a petty scale. In defeat, he touched the bottom of the abyss. In his glory, he was the peer of kings who regarded themselves as peers of the gods… He aroused hate or love, fear or admiration. Never indifference. .. Nobody failed to take a stand for or against him. He was to be found everywhere, embroiled more often than not in incredibly complex situations which he usually enjoyed confusing even further. While still a child, he behaved like a king. When he became a king he often behaved like a child… He loved to shock people and knew he could do it with impunity… In the context of the Biblical narrative, he was a new kind of hero, heralding a new era.”

For countless generations of Jews, Joseph “is the object of passionate admiration bordering on worship… a Jew whose tribulations had a happy ending… who imposed his ideas on hostile surroundings thanks only to his natural gifts, who transformed exile into a kingdom, misery into splendor, and even humiliation into mercy. He was indebted to no one and that made him a free man, a man free to do whatever he chose.”

Later Judaism would yearn for the Messiah, the anointed agent of God who would accomplish the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven, righting all ancient wrongs. The worse life got for the Jews, the more deeply they longed for the Messiah. When pressed to describe him, they would point to their great King David. They would point also to Joseph.

As does the New Testament, where followers of Jesus declare their belief that the carpenter from Nazareth is the Messiah of God, and the Christian scriptures point to Joseph’s significance to the Church. His saga is re-told in chapter seven of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, as if Joseph helps establish the pedigree of Jesus. And because little in the Gospel narrative is coincidental, notice that Joseph is the name of Jesus’s earthly father, and it is through dreams that God reveals to this Joseph the wisdom of a hasty retreat to Egypt, saving the holy family from King Herod’s wrath.

Do our two New Testament readings play well with Joseph’s story? Both St. Paul in his letter to the Romans and Jesus in Matthew make clear that Jesus the Messiah is master of the present moment. No story says that better than Matthew’s snapshots of Jesus on the sea, the disciples in the boat, Peter rising, falling. Freeze-frame moments full of Jesus’s presence.

First, their moment of fear, into which he speaks: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then the moment when Peter dares to go where Jesus is, and Jesus commissions him: “Come.” And after moments of focused obedience, one foot in front of the other, Peter is distracted by strong wind. In the moment of terror, the kind known by every one of us who has lost bearings in an attack of panic, Peter throws himself forward to Jesus, who catches him. Then, the stilling of sea, sound, silence. Finally, the boat rocks with praise.

It all resembles steps, stages, phases in faith formation, doesn’t it? In each of these powerful moments along the wet windy way, Jesus is Lord. None of these steps is more or less holy than the next.

St. Paul also draws us to locate the Messiah, God’s presence, not up in heaven or down in the abyss, but in the present moment. Jesus Christ does not need to be sent for from heaven for a rare appearance in ordinary life; nor is he confined in some mausoleum of the past. His word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts. Faith is the heart’s ability to trust.

With every Bible story, every portion we hear from the Hebrew scriptures and from the Christian, something is being said that is bigger than the actions and words of the characters on the page. Each encounter we have with the Word of God invites us, challenges us, to discern what that bigger message is… and to welcome it.

Today, the holiness of every present moment is the theme that draws our attention. In the long saga of Joseph, every moment of his descending and his ascending is of equal importance to the whole story of his life’s transformations. Each moment is a fresh opportunity for choice to be made, justice to be shown, inspiration to be trusted, opportunity to be claimed, responsibility to be shouldered, gratitude to be expressed.

We may long for mountaintop experiences, and we may dread anxious times—but our readings call us to recognize that no moment is more or less holy than another, no more or less valuable, playing its part in transformation whether or not we understand what that part is, or just why it happens as it does. In what moment of that stormy boat ride is grace not active on behalf of those disciples? God’s grace is not a stranger to any of our moments. The hand of Jesus Christ is within reach of us. The Spirit is already present in the moment ahead.

The bigger message, the good news, of these readings is clear: “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.”

(Elie Wiesel’s commentary on Joseph is found in his book “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends”, Elirion Associates, Inc., 1976.)