Reflections on the Sunday Lectionary

Featured

Who belongs?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18: Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Yesterday a young white man, who had bought into the theory of the great replacement, murdered ten Black people in Buffalo. The shootings of Asian women in Dallas earlier this week appear to have been motivated by anti-Asian racism. Other shootings in recent years have targeted Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Mexicans, as well as the LGBTQ community. These communities are targeted as outsiders, polluting (in some way) society. So it is a matter of good timing that today’s reading from Acts provides an account of the process whereby Peter came to include gentiles in the Church.

In Acts, Peter returns to Jerusalem and is criticized by the “circumsized believers” (the Jews) and asked why he went to “uncircumsized men” (gentiles) and ate with them. This is a question about purity, one that Jesus had faced as well. Peter describes his journey: he did not initially want to engage with the gentiles. When his vision orders him to get up, to “kill and eat”, Peter refuses, saying “‘nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth'”. The voice from heaven tells him, “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'” This exchange is repeated two more times before the vision ends.

When three men arrive at the house where Peter was, the spirit told him to go with them, and “not make a distinction between them and us”. He follows the men to a house, where the host tells him that he had a vision that he should send for Simon, called Peter, for a “message by which you and your whole household will be saved”. Peter tells his critics that when he began to speak, “he Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning”.

As far as Peter was concerned, if they received the Holy Spirit as the disciples had in Jerusalem, they were included in the Church. And his critics were silenced, saying, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life”. They were forced to see that God acted in ways they did not expect. It is hard to exaggerate what a transformative experience this was for both Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem.

Today we still struggle, in both church and in the world, with questions of who belongs. Sitting in the Diocese of San Joaquin, where a former bishop tried to take the diocese out of the Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop, we are familiar with these debates in the church. But desire for exclusion exists outside the church as well, motivating a wide range of political groups. Whether they are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-Black, anti-gay, or anti-trans, they seek to define some group or groups as outside the boundaries of “us”.

Who belongs? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, in the two great commandments, those who love God and love their neighbor. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, we should “seek and serve Christ in all people”. At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Here being a neighbor is not a fact, but an action. Similarly, for Jesus, love is an action, not a feeling.

In the account from Acts, Peter is taking the teachings of Jesus into a new context, bringing new people into the church. We, as Christians, are constantly challenged with understanding the Gospel in a world very different from the one Jesus lived in. Who belongs, in our church or in our community? How are we neighbors to them?

If we follow Peter, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, we find ourselves looking to behavior. Peter saw that his audience of gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the disciples had. Jesus saw that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor to a man in need. We too need to be neighbors to those in need.

Who belongs? Those who love God and love their neighbor. This is not, Peter tells us, passive. And he, as well as other Christians in Jerusalem, had to admit that their boundaries had been wrong.

We can be neighbors to everyone in need. But we can also say that if you are excluding people from your idea of neighbors, whether because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity or any other characteristic, you are not showing the love that Christ ordered us to show to each other.

Who belongs? From the beginning, the Church has struggled with this question. In today’s readings, both Jesus and Peter offer an answer. If we follow the Spirit, we know, like the early Christians in Acts, God has given “the repentance that leads to life” not just to “us”, but to those we least expect. And so we welcome all who will try, with us, to love one another.

Featured

With the disciples

Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus appears to be solitary. He is not alone, but while others hear the voice, only Paul saw Jesus. His companions lead the now blind Paul into the city, where there is a house where he can sit for three days. We don’t know anything about those three days, other than that he neither ate nor drank.

There are lots of visions in the story of Paul on the road to Damascus: the light that blinds Paul, his vision of Ananias coming to him, and Ananias’ vision of Jesus. The Lord asks Ananias to go help a known persecutor of his followers, and it’s not surprising that Ananias initially balks. But he is convinced, and goes to lay his hands on Saul. Saul/Paul regains his sight, is baptized, then eats. Then “for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus”.

Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus changed his life, but for the rest of the book of Acts (and in his letters) he is always in communities. Being a disciple is not solitary: you are always reaching out to new disciples, and connected to other disciples. The Christian life oscillates, for most of us, between the individual and communal. We pray individually, we have our own experiences of the divine, but we worship together, and we serve together.

All the appearances of Jesus to his disciples (after appearing to Mary in the garden) are to them in a group, whether all of them gathered in a room, two on the road to Emmaus, or the group hanging out at the Sea of Tiberias going fishing. Yet while Jesus is with a group, his interrogation focuses only on Simon Peter: Do you love me? Simon’s repeated assurances that he does lead to the commands to “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”.

The question is always to us as individuals: do you love me? If you do, then you tend to and feed the sheep and lambs. For both Peter and Paul, that meant making their whole lives about proclaiming the good news; both suffered imprisonment and death. They were both alone and worked with other disciples.

How do we tend the sheep and feed them today? Our service and ministries are one way. Worshiping together is another. Other work of feeding and tending comes through our daily work. We do this, as did Peter and Paul, with other disciples, who tend to us and feed us, as we tend and feed others.

Do you love me? The question comes to us as individuals, but we answer it in community.

Featured

Resurrection

Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20-19-31

This Sunday is one of the Sundays where we get the same reading each year: on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas: doubting Thomas, as he is often known. I suspect I am not alone in having a soft spot in my heart for Thomas, who gives all of us permission to ask questions, to talk about what we sometimes can’t believe because we can’t understand.

Every Sunday, we say the creed: we affirm belief. But I know from conversations with many people over the years that there are things that almost all of us have trouble with. The Resurrection is high on the list. What exactly do we mean by it? how do we understand it? The story of Thomas reminds us that such questions go back to the time right after it all happened. Thomas needs to see Jesus to believe the stories he has heard.

I don’t think that when the disciples talked about seeing the risen Christ, he was back like he was before the crucifixion. In today’s gospel, the first time Jesus appears to the disciples, he enters a room whose doors are locked; the next week, he enters again, “although the doors were shut”. Other Resurrection appearances are equally strange: on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) Jesus appears walking next to the two men, but as soon as they recognize him, he disappears. Jesus is embodied after the Resurrection, enough for Thomas to feel his hands and his side; but he is able to move through doors and appear and disappear in mysterious ways.

The Resurrection is something new. It’s not the world we know. We are constantly trying to learn what this mystery means. If, like Thomas, we are sometimes confused and asking questions, it’s not surprising. We are waiting, Paul tells us, for a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). There are moments when the shape of that new heaven and new earth are clear. The other moments, when the outlines are vague, are times when I am reassured by Thomas’s questions, reminded that I’m trying to understand something outside my experience.

Featured

Useful discomfort

Sunday of the Passion/ Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49

Today is the Sunday of emotional and spiritual whiplash. We begin our service waiving palms and singing Hosanna, and then the church gives us the trailer for coming attractions, so we end with Jesus dead. Jesus enters Jerusalem cheered by throngs on the roadside, and leaves it on his way to be crucified. It’s a lot. Some churches stay with the Palms and hosannas, leaving the Passion for later in the week. But I’m always glad they come together

The conjunction of palms and the Passion means we can’t be too comfortable. The readings are grounded in faith, with Isaiah’s proclamation that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty. The Psalmist is a little more anxious: “I have heard the whispering of the crowd . . . they plot to take my life”; but still, “But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord”, so “Make your face to shine upon your servant/ and in your loving-kindness save me.” Threat and faith are both there.

The Passion narrative is oten read as a play, with a narrator and speaking parts, with most of the congregation as a chorus. When I have participated in such readings, the hardest part is when all of us, as the crowd, have to call for Jesus’ death: we’re all part of the story. A few times I have served as the narrator, and the best part was that I didn’t have to join in. What we learn, again and again, is that we all fail sometimes.

In the longer version of the Passion narrative (Luke 22:14-23-56), we are reminded that even Jesus’ closest followers failed repeatedly. He chooses a few to join him in prayer at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. Peter, on whom Jesus promises to build his church, denies his relation to Jesus. And these people were his close companions, who had been with him on a daily basis.

Jesus is joined on the cross by two thieves, one of whom taunts Jesus by asking him to save them all. The other, often seen as the good thief, acknowledges his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him. The poet and theologian John Shea reminds us: “I am both thieves/ scrounging for the kingdom/ and cursing the cross.”1 We all are.

We spend Holy Week going back and forth. We’re never allowed to settle in one place. The movement back and forth provides a reminder of our frailty; it makes me a little less sure of my virtue. If we don’t rush to Easter, we can use the time to become more honest with ourselves.

1John Shea, “Prayer to Jesus”, in The Hour of the Unexpected (1977), p. 12

Featured

Extravagance

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Phillippians 3: 4b-14; John 12:1-8

When I came to live in Merced, the passages of scripture that speak of water in the desert took on new meaning. “I will make a way in the wilderness/ and rivers in the desert”, Isaiah promises us. The psalmist, in rejoicing that the Lord had restored the fortunes of Zion, adds, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord/
like the watercourses of the Negev”. All of this, Isaiah tells us, is because the Lord is “about to do a new thing”.

The Hebrew scriptures today are full of promise, of joy and celebration. It’s a bit odd to see this in the middle of Lent, but that’s what we’ve got. It is a reminder of the promise: after all, we know the end of the story. It is why Paul can celebrate “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

In the midst of all this, the gospel may seem a bit surprising. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus is with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha is serving. And then Mary, instead of sitting and listening as at other times, herself serves. She takes a pound of expensive perfume, puts it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. This gesture is both extravagant and erotic, expressing love and intimacy.

In the exchange that follows, when Judas suggests the value of the nard might more usefully given to the poor, Jesus pushes back. The perfume had been bought for the day of his burial, and he will not always be with them. Extravagance is not unreasonable with those who face death. I’ve known people with cancer diagnoses who immediately start crossing things off their bucket lists: they visit places they have always wanted to visit, or return to favorite places; they spend time with those they love. When time was finite, they used resources to celebrate life.

The gifts I have appreciated the most are the least expected: the ones that come not at birthdays or Christmas, but on a random day. And they are not always expensive, but they represent care and affection. That is true of all gifts: what resonates is the relationship they carry. As Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, she tells him what he means to her.

Sometimes this passage is read with a focus on “You always have the poor with you”, suggesting we don’t need to do anything for the poor. But that misses the point. Mary celebrates Jesus’ presence, and takes something valuable to serve him, to care for his feet. That’s not wrong, we’re told. If we are to celebrate the new thing that God is doing, how do we do it? What are our extravagances?

Featured

Celebration?

4th Sunday of Lent: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Many years ago, I attended a vestry retreat where the leader, a professor at the local seminary, guided us in a reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, our gospel reading today. We were asked to put ourselves into the story. Given that we were all active members of the church, and were willing to take on service, it is not surprising that all of us identified with the older brother: he stayed home, was responsible, and never had a big party thrown to celebrate him. The father tells his older son that, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”. But that’s not what the older son feels.

I have often thought about that discussion, because the more I reflect on it, the greater the problems are. First, this makes engagement as a layperson in the life of the church appear to be a joyless experience. If that’s the case, the church has failed. Yes, there is work: we fill out reports for the diocese, and the national church; we make sure we have materials for our services; we set things up and we take them down. It can be a lot, especially when you are a small congregation. How do we make this work (because it is work, let’s be real) be to some extent filled with joy? What is needed so we feel we have been celebrated, that we have not been taken for granted as workhorses?

The other problem is that we are all, at some time or other, both brothers. We may not, like the younger brother, have wasted our inheritance on sex and drugs, but we have turned our face from God. Even though we work hard, our confidence in our virtue may be a bit too smug. And maybe, sometimes, we are the father, welcoming a friend, sibling, or other relative who had drifted out of our lives.

Paul tells us that “from now own, we regard no one from a human point of view”, but that seems to me a counsel of perfection. We are all too human, all too often. Many of us often, no matter who we are and what do, feel put upon and taken advantage of: we are the older brother. But if we remembered, like the older brother, that God is always with us, would that make it easier? Would we take some of God’s abundance to celebrate?

Lent asks us to examine ourselves, to be honest about our failings. Even if we are often the older brother, we can think about how we too, like the younger brother, have not always had our eyes on God. We too need God’s mercy.

There’s a corollary, though. If we are the younger brother, we need a big party to celebrate that we are here, we have turned our focus to God. We need to learn to celebrate as we go, so we can embed joy in the work.

Featured

Are they worse sinners?

Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

One of my pet gripes are people who attribute some longed for outcome, whether recovery from illness or the return of a missing loved one, to prayer. I appreciate their gratitude, and know the value of prayer. My first response however, is to think of those who have also prayed for a loved one who did not recover, a missing person who is found, but dead. Why is one set of prayers accepted and not another? Are those who are found alive, or who recover, more virtuous than those who die? Does anyone deserve to suffer as those whose prayers are not answered do?

Jesus takes this point from the other end: in responding to allegations that Pilate had mingled the blood of dead Galileans with the blood of Roman sacrifices, in violation of Jewish rules for caring for the dead, he asks if they “were worse sinners than all other Galileans”. And the obvious answer is no. The same is true for the eighteen people who died in the collapse of a tower. Instead, we are told we all need to repent: to turn to God. That doesn’t mean that we won’t die, but in repenting, we gain the life that matters, eternal life with God. Repentance does not exist on its own, however. Jesus turns from telling us to repent to the parable of the fig tree. And the gardener reminds the owner that the fig tree needed to be fed; it needs manure. And we are both the gardener providing nourishment and the fig tree needing it. Repentance involves not just an inward turning to God, but action.

In my experience, these are all intertwined. I can’t feed others unless I am fed. We are fed in many ways: by hearing the word in scripture, by prayer, and by teaching, of course. But we are also fed in our human relationships, the communities in which we live. All of those can serve as food for us as we seek to turn towards God, and then feed others.

Exodus today gives us the story of Moses and the burning bush. I was struck by God’s assertion that “‘I have observed the misery of my people … I know of their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.'” While the Hebrew scriptures focus on the special care the Lord has for the Israelites, we know too well that the Lord does not rescue all who suffer. You only have to observe what is happening in Ukraine at this moment (or any other war) to know this is not true. The history of atrocities (including many carried out in Jesus name) is a reminder that suffering has not disappeared. Jesus knows that those who suffer are not more to blame than the rest of us. What is offered instead is eternal life.

When the Lord tells Moses that “IAM WHO I AM”, there is another promise: of God’s presence with us. We will not be alone. Sometimes that is even more important.

In a few minutes we will pray for the world and those in need. We offer these prayers knowing that many prayers we offer regularly cannot be answered easily. When we pray for the hungry and the homeless, refugees and migrants, for victims of war and oppression, and for those we love who are sick in body, mind and spirit, we do not expect instant solutions. I hope that those we pray for feel God’s presence. But our prayer is not enough: we turn to doctors, nurses, and others when we are sick. We provide food for the hungry, and work to house the homeless. We try to figure out how we can help victims of war. In doing these things, we do Gods work in the world. Through us, and the things we do, we hope we share God’s presence with those who suffer. Eternal life is indeed good news that feeds us, and allows us to help others.

Featured

Promises

Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

The authors of scripture were, like many of us, often anxious and afraid. The world was uncertain. In today’s reading from Genesis, the Lord speaks to Abram in a vision. The focus is on Abram’s anxiety about his legacy. He is childless, yet the Lord still promises Abram that he will be succeeded by his own child. He tells him to “look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars. Abram believed this, unimaginable though it might be. Then the Lord promises Abram the land he was in “to possess”. After Abram offers a sacrifice, the Lord makes a covenant that Abram and his descendants will hold all the land from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates.

I read this with a sinking heart. There are many wars around the world, most over who possesses, or controls, the land. Is Ukraine part of Russia? How would we know? What are the appropriate borders of Israel? What rights have people who live as minorities in nations around the world? These struggles take place in the context of nation states, entities which largely emerged in the 19th century, swallowing smaller political units with different linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. As a historian, I know that there is nothing about thinking God has provided land to you which has been good for the world.

Today’s Psalm takes on fear and anxiety in another way, focused on trusting God: this is not about conquest and possession, but surrender to God. “One thing have I asked of the Lord; on thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life . . . The Lord will sustain me . . .O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong and he shall comfort your heart.” (Ps. 27:5, 14, 18) This is another way to imagine a covenant with God: not as offering possession, but offering protection and comfort.

The image of protection recurs in the Gospel. Luke has Jesus foretelling his death, while telling the Pharisees it is not yet time. Unlike most of us, at this point Jesus is not driven by fear, just by his understanding of time. And then he offers the lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

We are seeing terrible scenes of destruction in Ukraine; while Ukraine is not the only place suffering from war and destruction, its location in Europe has made it a focus of greater attention than other such struggles. The battle for possession is one that leads to violence and grief. If we think of the Lord offering shelter and comfort in the psalm, or Jesus as a hen seeking to shelter her children, we are offered a way to engage with these conflicts. How can we help? What can we do to offer help, shelter, and comfort? The Psalmist hopes that,”In the day of trouble, he shall keep me safe in his shelter.” Can we too be like a hen gathering her brood to protect them? God acts through us; it is our job to find ways to act for God.

Featured

He shall give his angels charge over you

First Sunday in Lent: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” This passage from Deuteronomy is one of the oldest in the Hebrew scriptures, and its commandment a central one in the Hebrew scriptures. It includes the instructions to the Israelites of how to thank God. That thanks comes with a recitation of the salvation history to that time: life as an alien in Egypt, enslavement, and escape. They say that Lord saw “our affliction, our toil, and our oppression”. They acknowledge that the departure from Egypt was accomplished with “a terrifying display of power”. And then brought them to the land they are now in, a “land flowing with milk and honey.” In response to that gift, they are to present to the temple the first fruit of the ground they have been given.

Reading this while watching scenes of refugees from Ukraine traveling to Poland and other European nations reminds me that there are still many “wandering Arameans”. It is not just Ukrainians: Afghans, Iraqis, Congolese, Uighurs, and Rohingya are among the many who have taken to the roads fleeing war and violence. They are fleeing because of “terrifying displays of power”. The Israelites were fortunate, because their Lord gave them a rich land; but not all are so lucky.

The passage from Deuteronomy is not really about refugees, though it is difficult right now not to think about them. It is about giving thanks, giving back to God from the gifts we have been given. Our offerings are a representation of our thanks.

Today’s psalm is full of promises: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge. . .There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.” It is a lovely promise, but many of us can provide examples of how it has not come true. Many of those who have trusted in the Lord have suffered, whether through war and violence or illness. What does it mean when God gives “his angels charge over you”? Are we to be the angels? I think the core of the psalm is later, because trouble will come, and then God says, “I am with him”. And sometimes, in my experience, that is enough.

As we enter Lent, many of us have given something up, or taken something on, to better attend to God. In the Gospel, Jesus reminds the devil not to put God to the test. Instead, he fasts for 40 days in the wilderness. My mind keeps returning, though, to refugees fleeing war. They have already given up so much. They are trusting: maybe God, maybe just other people. May we do what we can to help them. And may God give his angels charge over them.

Featured

The Face of God

Last Sunday of the Epiphany: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9: 28-36.

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, where we rejoice in Jesus’ presence among us. And two of our readings focus on encounters with God and their aftermath. In Exodus, we hear that when Moses returned from Mt. Sinai having received the ten commandments, his face was shining because he had been talking with God. Aaron and the other Israelites were afraid to come near him. When Moses reported on his encounters with God, his shining face was the sign that he had spoken with God. After he had told the Israelites what he had heard, he covered his face with a veil.

The account of the Transfiguration in Luke is a partner to this story. Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray, accompanied by Peter, John and James. While he was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah appear, talking to Jesus, and after they leave, a cloud descends on the mountain. The disciples were terrified even before a voice comes from the cloud. Luke tells us that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” (Luke 9:36)

There are many things you can say about the Transfiguration. What strikes me today is that it is terrifying to see the face of God. It is also terrifying to see those who have seen the face of God. We ask for God’s presence, assuming it is comforting, but maybe not. God is not only comforting, but also challenging. I can’t hide from God those things I would rather keep hidden. Maybe God will comfort, but God may also make us uncomfortable. The shining face of Moses and Jesus are signs of God’s power.

It is a terrifying thing to see the face of God, but still we seek it. At the same time we fear being seen as a whole, we long to be. It may even be comforting to be seen for who we truly are.

Featured

Love your enemies

Seventh Sunday of Epiphany: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

There’s an awkward moment in the story of Joseph when he reveals himself to his brothers. “But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” In that moment, we see them dealing with their own guilt, uncertain what awaits them now. They had, after all, sold their brother as a slave. When they had first gone to purchase grain in Egypt, Jacob had kept Benjamin, being loath to lose him as well as Joseph. In Genesis 42, the writer tells us that when Joseph had asked them to bring their younger brother, they had turned to each other lamenting that they had sold Joseph into slavery. The guilt they had displayed then was nothing to the dismay of finding that the man who controlled their fate was the brother they had sold.

While few of us have been sold into slavery by our brothers, I suspect most of us have had people do things that hurt us. Every now and then we are in a position to help those people later, and the human impulse is not to do it. Joseph, however, does not seek revenge. instead he treats his brothers with generosity. After the first awkward silence, Joseph suggests that their actions were part of God’s plan, so that he could save them now. And after that, they talked.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Do what Joseph did. Anyone, Jesus reminds us, can be nice to people who are good to them. Loving those who harm you is hard. People sometimes think that because the Gospel talks of love, it’s nice. And while the outcome may be rewarding, it’s difficult. Jesus is asking us to not respond with our first response, but to find a way to respond with generosity of spirit. It’s a lifelong journey.

The psalmist is also thinking about this, and maybe this is the message we need to remember:

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
(Ps. 37:8-9)

It is a life-long journey to learn to leave rage alone. May we always feel God’s presence as we learn to love our enemies.

Featured

Love one another: The Feast of Absalom Jones

February 13, The Feast of Absalom Jones: Isaiah 42:5-9; Psalm 126; John 15:12-15

Though generally this would be the sixth Sunday of Epiphany, we have observed the Feast of Absalom Jones. For those who have not encountered him before, Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was born enslaved in Delaware. His family was separated by a sale, and at 16 he moved to Philadelphia. He first purchased his wife’s freedom, then then his own in 1784. After he was free, became a lay leader in the Methodist church in Philadelphia. When that church decided to segregate its seating, requiring Black people to sit in the balcony, so the Black members left. Jones, along with Richard Allen led the group which established first the Free African Society, a mutual aid group, and then in 1791, the African Church. The African Church became St. Thomas African Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794. Jones was ordained Deacon in 1795 and priest in 1804, becoming the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church.

Absalom-Jones Peale.jpg
Absalom Jones, by Raphaelle  Peale, Delaware Museum of Art (public domain)

There are many issues, social, political, and theological, that Jones’ life, and the readings for today raise. For instance, the Methodist church only separated Black and white members when the number of Black members had rapidly increased. Modern research that shows that a dominant group, whether white people, or men, or any other dominant group, tends to feel that they are outnumbered once a non-dominant group makes up about 30% of the group. In other words, long before a group is a minority, they are concerned about losing status. Do we do that? How do we respond to demographic change?

If the fear of the Methodists which led them to isolate Black people in the balcony reminds those of us who are white to watch our own responses to demographic change, the community around Absalom Jones which formed the African Church provides other lessons. They experienced discrimination together, and they stayed together. Today’s reading from John exhorts the disciples to “love one another as I have loved you”. And this is what Jones and his friends did. As the Free African Society, they functioned as a mutual aid group: they played an important role in helping their fellow Philadelphians through the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. But they also sought to worship together, and they sought to worship as part of a larger group. They built and sought community.

For Absalom Jones, one of the most important elements of loving his community was his advocacy for freedom. In 1797 and 1800 he petitioned Congress for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves, a petition that Congress would not even accept. He regularly preached against slavery. His Thanksgiving Sermon, preached on January 1, 1808, celebrated the end of the legal importation of enslaved people to the US. He preached on a text from Exodus, emphasizing the connection of enslaved people in the US to the experience of the Israelites in the Bible.

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by  reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.

In his sermon, Jones insisted that God was on the side of the oppressed: “The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.”

How do we ensure that we join God on the side of the oppressed and innocent? I generally hope that, in spite of Jesus’ commandment, we don’t have to die for each other. We do have to love one another. When we live in community, we make decisions in relation to each other and each other’s needs. As Jones and the other members of the Free African Society showed in Philadelphia in 1793, that is the whole community, not just your friends. We are called to pay attention, listen, and then act.

Featured

Are we worthy?

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

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” (1 Corinthians 15:9)

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

Isaiah, Paul, and Simon all express a sense of inadequacy. They are, they know, sinful, not worthy of God, and certainly not worthy to speak for God. All experience something miraculous: Isaiah’s vision of God, Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, and Simon’s with Jesus in the early days of his ministry. And in spite of their self-proclaimed inadequacy, they are all called to witness to God’s wonder and majesty, as well as God’s mercy.

We are in the midst of what pundits are calling the great resignation. As reporters explore the phenomenon, they note the ways in which our culture makes us feel that we are not doing enough. In minimum wage jobs, it can be because no matter how hard we work, we can’t get ahead; in professional jobs, there are often few boundaries to say when we’ve done enough: there’s always more to do. Two years of living in a pandemic, and people are rejecting the culture of never enough. They want better pay, or better boundaries to their work. They want to feel as if they are doing enough.

The church too, can be guilty of setting impossible standards. We’re often small groups of people, trying to live out the Gospel, and there are so many needs, but not enough of us, or of time. And beyond the needs of the world, the institution wants us at meetings and trainings. While we may rationally know that it is critical to choose your tasks, I at least am generally more aware of all I am not doing than what I am doing.

Today’s readings suggest that we let go of our feelings of inadequacy. Isaiah, it turns out, can prophesy; Paul can preach; and Simon can catch people for Jesus. They may have sinned, but it turns out they are good enough. “Do not be afraid”, Jesus tells Simon. Again and again, scripture tells us we are enough. We should not be afraid of our failures. That is indeed good news.

Featured

The greatest of these is love

4th Sunday of Epiphany: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4: 21-30

Today’s epistle is one of the more familiar passages of scripture, where Paul tells us that love is the greatest spiritual gift. When I first saw that this was the reading, I thought, oh, yeah, I know this. No need to think. But as I read it again, I realized that it is a message for all of us. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard Paul talking about spiritual gifts, and today he tells us that if those gifts, whether speaking in tongues, prophecy, or faith are not exercised with love, they are worthless.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude”. Uh-oh. I like to think that my faith is anchored in love, and that I show love at all times. But we’re two years into the pandemic, and my love for those who have not been willing to make the small sacrifices to protect others has been sorely tried. No, let me be honest. I am impatient with those who won’t wear masks, and who won’t get vaccinated. I’m arrogant about my choices, and while I’m not rude in public, I am in my head.

Christians have always divided on a range of issues: whether the nature of the Trinity in the 4th century, or the meaning of the Eucharist in the 16th. Today those debates are centered on issues of identity: race, gender and sexuality. Can women preach? Can gays and lesbians be married? Is abortion the greatest sin? What do we owe (if anything) to the descendants of those slaves who built up the wealth of this country, and of many of our churches? Many of these have become not just religious debates, but political ones. It’s complicated, and hard.

Opponents of the ordination of women, or gay people, or of abortion, or reparations have not been precisely loving to those of us who disagree with them. It is difficult to respond to demonization with love. But that is exactly what God is calling us to do. It’s hard work.

Given this, I was grateful for today’s psalm, one of my favorites.

“Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;

you are my crag and my stronghold” (Psalm 71:3).

Whenever I read this, I think of Durham Cathedral in England, perched on a rock above the River Wear. Now they tout the woodland paths along the riverbank, but the walls of the Cathedral were part of Durham Castle; the Bishop had not only religious but political and military power. It was indeed a castle to keep you safe. If we have that strong rock, we may have the courage to love.

Durham Cathedral from the River Wear
Featured

Though we are many, we are one body

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

The beginning of today’s reading from 1 Corinthians offers a radically inclusive vision of the church. We were all baptized into one spirit, Paul tells us, whether we are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. The rest of the passage uses the metaphor of the body to insist that we are all important, whatever our gifts and whoever we are. There’s a tension, at least for the modern reader, between the insistence on the importance of all, the shared spirit, and the hierarchical vision of both gifts and the body. But the point of one body, while there are, Paul suggests, less respectable and more respectable members, we all depend on each other. Paul says that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible”.

In today’s gospel, Luke tells the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue where he grew up. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, where Isaiah announced that he brings “good news to the poor . . . release toe the captives and recovery of sight to the blind”. If the reading was familiar, none of his listeners expected him to tell them that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is Jesus’ radical proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

Let the oppressed go free. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. We can only help bring Jesus’ proclamation to life if we remember we are one body, and that we depend on all the members of that body. Most of us have at least on member we would rather not depend on, but that’s not our choice! Recognizing the other members of the one body is often hard, but it is our challenge and our task.

Featured

Simple Gifts

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

“Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit”. (1 Corinthians 12:4)

Paul’s discourse on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians emphasizes that while we are different, with varied gifts, activities, and services, the work we do is for and led by the same Lord, “for the common good”. Paul mentions some gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues. These are clearly gifts of the spirit.

Over the years, I have come to expand my understanding of spiritual gifts. After all, no one who has been part of a church community thinks you can get along with just the gifts that Paul lists. These are important, especially teaching and wisdom. But so too is hospitality, generosity of spirit, and willingness to serve. It may not seem spiritual, but the people who stay after a parish pot luck to put away the chairs and take out the trash are demonstrating spiritual gifts of generosity and kindness.

We hear in today’s gospel the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus did his first sign, turning water into wine. The working of miracles was one of Jesus’ gifts, along with all the others in Paul’s list. This is the first one he does, and he isn’t exactly eager. It is his mother who grasps the problem of hospitality (it would be a woman, wouldn’t it?), and tells him to act. Although he resists, when she tells the servants to obey him, he does. Like the miracle of loaves and fishes, the wedding at Cana solves a practical problem. What if we saw the fact that our communities functioned as a miracle just as much as turning water into wine? These things are, like the gifts Paul lists, done for the common good.

Churches speak often of gifts, of time, talent, and treasure. But time and talent are not always recognized as spiritual gifts, and, like treasure, seen as meeting the practical needs of the congregation. In the familiar Shaker hymn, “‘Tis the gift to be simple” (Hymnal 1982 #554), we learn that “when we find ourselves in the place just right,/ ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.” One way of recognizing our spiritual gifts is noticing the place that feels “just right”. When we find it, we are indeed in a “valley of love and delight”.

Featured

With you I am well pleased

1 Epiphany: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord: when Jesus shows up at the place where John the Baptist is baptizing people. John baptizes him, and then the dove shows up and tells him, “You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased”. Jesus really hasn’t done anything special, but God is pleased with him nevertheless. This strikes me as something we might all ponder: God can be pleased with us just as we are.

But I’m more interested in the nature of baptism here. The crowds have begun to wonder if John is the Messiah, but he quickly tells them he isn’t. He makes a distinction: he baptizes with water, while the Messiah will baptize with the “Holy Spirit and fire”. A similar distinction between types of baptism is made in the book of Acts: Samaria had accepted the “word of God,” and had been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. But they had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are sent to pray for them “that they might receive the Holy Spirit”.

This distinction, between baptism in the name of the Lord and receiving the Holy Spirit is interesting. It frames thinking about faith as an ongoing process: we start with being baptized with water, becoming part of the family. That is indeed a singular process. But the rest isn’t. Somewhere along the line, we receive the Holy Spirit. But for me at least, it’s not as dramatic as what is described in Luke. The work of the Holy Spirit is not a one time thing, but an ongoing process. I think I’ve got it figured out, and then something happens, and the Spirit pushes me somewhere new. The Holy Spirit is moving, in our lives and in the world.

Featured

Flee to Egypt

Second Sunday of Christmas: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (or Matthew 2:1-12, or Luke 2:41-52)

Last week I reflected on how Christmas is shadowed by death and grief. The three kings come, and bring gifts, including the myrrh used to anoint the dead. In today’s gospel, Joseph is told in a dream to take the child and his mother and “flee to Egypt” because Herod wants to destroy the child. Matthew makes this journey seem straightforward: “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and to to Egypt”. But the journey of the refugee fleeing danger is not, we know, so straightforward. Bethlehem is not right next to Egypt, so it’s not like Joseph, Mary and the baby could just take a stroll and get to a new country.

This is also a journey driven by fear. Herod wants to find the child “to destroy him”. In this 18th century Andean version of the flight into Egypt, you see Herod’s agents killing the children in the background. Over the past 20 years, we have seen many scenes of desperate refugees fleeing war and violence. They have not always received a warm welcome; many are victims of traffickers who take their money but don’t protect them. I wonder about Joseph heading to Egypt: does he encounter danger? Who helps them? Are Joseph and Mary welcomed in Egypt? Or do they face, like so many migrants today, hostility and mistrust?

Anonymous (Andean, 18th century) , The Flight into Egypt | Christie's

(Anonymous, Andean 18th C, “The Flight into Egypt“)

Featured

Incarnation

First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21 OR 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  • Psalm 148  • Colossians 3:12-17  • Luke 2:41-52

There are two sets of readings for today (different versions of the lectionary) and I had written on the one we didn’t use before I realized my mistake! So this will be a bit disjointed, but I didn’t want to lose what I’d thought about this afternoon.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is a text of mystery: the sentences don’t entirely make sense. But the central point, that God came and lived among us. From him we have received “grace upon grace”, “grace and truth”. But this grace is only possible because, as John puts it, “the Word became flesh”. In the midst of the mystery of John’s text is Jesus’ humanity.

Christmas is, like Easter, a time when we are confronted with Jesus’ humanity. But at Christmas, we also see Christ as part of a family, connected to parents and neighbors. It is not accidental that most of the readings that make me giggle focus on this part of Jesus’ life. The Gospel of Luke today pushes us twelve years ahead from where we were yesterday. You can read it several ways: the gospel presents this as a sign of Jesus’ precocious wisdom, though his ministry is 18 years away.

I read this account from the perspective of Mary and Joseph. It’s hard to be a parent to God’s son, and the rules are not at all clear. They are evidently a pious family, heading to Jerusalem every year for Passover. This time, we have a slightly rebellious tween staying behind to ask questions and engage with the teachers in Jerusalem. His parents are worried: they had traveled a whole day from Jerusalem, and have to go back to find him. It takes three days to find him. Most parents I know would be extremely anxious about this. You can hear Jesus’ response, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house” as a sign of piety, but I’ve known enough 12 year olds in my life to hear it also as the voice of a child trying to claim independence, even if not quite ready for it. Like most 12 year olds, Jesus knows more than his parents.

Our secular Christmas celebrations are all happy and celebratory, but Jesus’ death is never far away in our readings. For the feast of Holy Innocents on Tuesday, we learn of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing as refugees to Egypt, while all the children under two in Bethlehem were slaughtered. The gifts of the wise men include myrrh, used to anoint the dead. And today’s reading takes place at Passover in Jerusalem, the time of year and the place where Jesus will be killed by the Roman state. We are not allowed to forget pain and sorrow while we celebrate.

One of my favorite prayers comes from Evening Prayer II

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 124

Many years ago, this was prayed for me when I told my reading group that I was engaged. We always hope we can shield the joyous. But we cannot do so forever. We celebrate, as we do at Christmas. This year we are reminded, maybe more vividly than in other years, and that death is a part of life.

Featured

Rejoice in the Lord always

Third Sunday in Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:-4-7; Luke 3:7-18

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” What a great way to start listening to the readings! We move on to Paul, telling us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. We are told that if, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” offer our requests to God, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. This is a promise.

But don’t get too comfortable: we move from Paul’s promise to John’s preaching to the crowds. “You brood of vipers!” I can’t say that this is the most welcoming message I can imagine. It doesn’t invite you to feel good about yourself. And yet John is surrounded by crowds, evidently people who understand their need for a baptism of repentance, to change their minds, and their lives. And that change is not necessarily big: if you have two coats, give one away; if you have extra food, share. You don’t need to leave your job, even if you are a soldier or tax collector, just don’t take advantage of your position to exploit or extort others.

We have to repent, to change our minds and lives, to get to where we can, with Paul, rejoice in the Lord always. What John and Paul leave out is the way that this is something I at least need to do over and over. There’s a reason I am relieved that we say the confession every week. I get distracted by the world, and need to shift my focus back to Jesus. When I do, I can once again rejoice in the Lord, and sing with all my heart.

Featured

Changing our minds

2 Advent: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Advent is a time of waiting, and waiting for change. But the readings today focus more on the change. In Baruch, we are called to “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” The image is concrete: we need to be dressed to celebrate. Baruch tells Jerusalem to rejoice that God has remembered them. “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” What a promise: that God will smooth the ground to make your way safe! Luke refers back to that promise at the end of today’s gospel, seeking to create continuity between Jesus and the salvation history of Israel.

In the gospel, we also hear about John, preaching “a baptism of repentance”. Yesterday I read an essay by Professor Brittney Cooper, a Black feminist scholar, on repentance. It was part of a series in The Christian Century on “how I changed my mind”, and the title was “Why I came back around to repentance“. Cooper suggests that we should think of repentance not as cataloguing and confessing sins big and small, but changing our minds, as we get rid of ideas that separate us from God. “What if”, she asks, “at base, our faith practices were about a willingness to change our minds in ways that allowed us to bend more easily toward love, justice, mercy, and grace?”

The season of Advent is a season of waiting for change. We think of the change as the birth of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance. I have always understood sin as that which separates us from God, and repentance as bringing us back to God. If we understand this as a season of changing our minds, it moves our focus to how we, as a community of Christians, can collectively let go of ideas and actions that harm us and others, and follow God in trying to make “the crooked straight, and the rough ways smooth”. When we do that, we will be on the road to justice and love. And we will be ready to welcome Jesus into our lives.

Featured

Waiting

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the liturgical year. But instead of parties and shouts of “Happy New Year,” the church starts the year with anxious waiting. Advent is not quite penitential, but it is filled with a combination of hope and fear. In the Gospel, Jesus talks about “the signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” He goes on to look forward to the time when Heaven and Earth will pass away, and warns us to be ready for that day. Not a very happy message, but one that resonates with many of us, facing climate change and its impact on the world we live in, never mind a pandemic that has been going on for almost two years now. The earth is sending us messages. But between wars, famines, droughts, and earthquakes, such messages have been heard at many times and in many places. Not surprisingly, the apocalyptic writings of scripture have been among preachers’ greatest hits fairly regularly over the last 2000 years! We live in a world where things go wrong, and people suffer. The end of that might not be a bad thing.

If Luke warns us to be ready for all the terrible things that will happen before Jesus comes again, I found myself drawn more to the words of Jeremiah, where he describes the world that God will bring, when God “will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel”. Jeremiah reminds us why we might look forward to that. When the “righteous Branch” of David comes, “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is the world we want to live in. As the US continues its long racial reckoning, and the Sunday after the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty, it is good to remember that justice brings safety.

The psalmist is not concerned with the coming of a new world, but offers us a path. He asks to be taught — “Lead me in your truth and teach me”. We’re told that the Lod’s “compassion and love . . . are from everlasting”. And he asks the Lord, as we all must, to “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love.” The psalm offers reassurance that “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

I am glad that we get to Luke’s warnings after we have heard from Jeremiah and the Psalmist. They put justice and love at the center. Building a world of justice and righteousness, we have learned over thousands of years, is not easy. But movements toward justice have often come from what felt like end times. The warnings that Luke offers and the promise that Jeremiah gives us are necessarily intertwined. I don’t know what it means to be ready for the “Son of Man coming in a cloud”, but if that is what it takes to get to the world of justice, righteousness and safety, I will do my best, like the psalmist, to follow the Lord’s paths.

Featured

Christ the King

“My kingdom is not from this world”, Jesus tells Pilate in today’s gospel (John 18:36). This Sunday, the last in the church year, is commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday”, or “The Reign of Christ”. If Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, what does it mean in this world? In the epistle, taken from Revelation, we’re told that Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). In our first reading, the last words of David, we are told that “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Samuel 23:3-4). All this talking about kings and kingship is a bit strange for those of us living in a republic founded on the rejection of kings!

I’m not sure I know what to think about Christ’s kingdom: it’s not from this world, but this world is the only one I know. The multiple metaphors around the idea of Christ’s kingship suggest it’s one that many have struggled over. When I read about the light of the morning, I know it is a kingdom I wish for. It is simultaneously not from this world, but one we seek to build in this world. So today I have no bright ideas, just a question to ponder. What does it mean for you that Christ is King, that we are living in the reign of Christ? What do you differently because of that? How can we feel the light of morning? What are we doing to build the kingdom?

Featured

Making a spectacle

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we hear the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:4-20). Hannah is much loved by her husband Elkanah, but she has no children: “the Lord had closed her womb”. Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, had “sons and daughters”, and taunts Hannah with her childlessness. Hannah, we’re told, grieves her childlessness. The account in scripture suggests very messy family dynamics, as Hannah is apparently the favorite wife, even though she was childless.

Hannah goes to the temple to pray, “deeply distressed”. She is watched by the priest Eli as she prays silently and weeps, and he asks her “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” When she tells him she is not drunk, but praying from “anxiety and vexation”, he asks the God of Israel to grant her petition. And so it is: the story tells us that she and Elkanah worshiped before the Lord, went back to their house, and that Elkanah “knew his wife Hannah”. She conceived and bore a son, Samuel.

I am intrigued by Eli’s initial reaction, his concern that Hannah is making a spectacle of herself. She’s altogether too emotional in her prayer. Is Eli a closet Episcopalian? I’m uncomfortable with people who make a big deal about their faith. Like many Episcopalians, I’m not big on extemporaneous emotional prayer! Yet when we pray from our hearts, sometimes it is emotional. If we’re sharing with God our deepest joys, longings, fears, and griefs, there should be emotion. Maybe it’s time for me, like Eli, to better value the prayer that comes from the heart. And even make a spectacle of myself!

When I read the scriptures for today, I was struck that we have spent the last few weeks with women who need or want to bear a child. Ruth and Naomi are widowed; without a husband and a child, their place is uncertain. When Ruth bears a child to Boaz, Naomi helps raise him; they are safe. Ruth’s son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Hannah’s position is more secure, loved as she is by her husband, but she longs for a child, and may feel that her long term security depends on bearing one. Again and again, we are reminded that God’s purposes are effected through the birth of children. As we hear Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, talking about the “birthpangs” of the new creation, his metaphor reflected the very real importance of bearing children in his society.

Featured

Am I one of the scribes?

Today’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) tells the story of Jesus watching people coming to the temple and making gifts to the treasury. The reading starts with Jesus’ warning, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces . . . they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

My first reaction when I read this was to smugly assure myself that I’m not one of them: it is other people who pretend to piety but rip people off. I’m certainly not one for long prayers! And I don’t think I devour widows’ houses. But the second part of the reading brought me up short. Here Jesus observes rich people putting in “large sums” to the treasury at the temple, and then a poor widow put in two coins, worth a penny. She had given more, Jesus tells us, because she gave not out of abundance, but out of scarcity. She gave “everything she had”.

Maybe, then I am like the scribes: I haven’t given everything I have, either financially or otherwise. I own a house, travel for pleasure (at times), and give time and attention to things other than God. My job certainly takes up more of my time and attention than God or Church. Church is one of my things, but by no means the only one.

Our congregation has been asked to be more intentional about stewardship. My old church talked about stewardship of “time, talent, and treasure”. What would it mean for me to give, if not everything I have, more of what I have? What can I do that’s sacrificial? Like so many of us, there are many demands on my time. If I am, like the widow, to give “all that I have”, maybe that’s where I need to focus. How can I make more time for God? If I don’t want to be a scribe, I need to think about this.

Featured

Love

We think we know what love is, but today’s readings remind us of its many dimensions.

Today in the Gospel of Mark, we read the familiar great commandment, as Jesus answers what is clearly asked as a test: “‘The Lord our God , the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Mark 12:29-31) This passage was memory work in my Sunday School in 3rd grade. I’m always intrigued about what I hear when we read such familiar words. Today, it was the way loving God was a full body experience: heart, soul, mind and strength.

We also see love that involves heart and mind and strength in the reading from Ruth. The custom of the Hebrews was what is called levirate marriage: a childless widow is expected to marry the next brother, and her first child with him will be considered that of her first husband. If that’s not possible, a woman should return to her birth family and be married again. Naomi has no more sons, and is to old to bear another. As a foreigner in Moab, Naomi is planning to return home: there she will not be a stranger but a neighbor. Ruth resists the rules of patriarchal society, refusing to return to her mother. Somewhere in the years of her marriage, Naomi had become important to her. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

We often hear this passage read at weddings, where the love and loyalty that creates unity is focused on husband and wife. But the love that frames the story of Ruth was not the conventional love of husband and wife, but the close ties between women across generations. That love was strong enough for Ruth to break the rules. She went with Naomi back to Judah, where she was a stranger and a foreigner. The familiarity of the passage obscures the risk that Ruth took.

Love, scripture repeatedly reminds us, is not easy, and it’s certainly not soft. The great commandment tells us that loving God takes everything we have; loving another human being, as Ruth does Naomi, is how we learn to take the risks, and maybe even breaking the rules, that loving God demands of us.

Featured

Restored

Job 42: 1-6, 10-17. Today we reach the end of the book of Job. Job, having listened to God’s assertion of their primacy, acknowledges his ignorance. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3) The lectionary moves on, skipping verses 7-9, and recounts how Job’s fortunes were restored, to “twice as much” as Job had had before. Job now has 14,000 shee, 6000 camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and another 1000 donkeys. He has more children, and “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters”. (42:15)

But I’m interested in the bit that is barely visible in the lectionary reading: what happens between Job’s acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and the restoration of his wealth and position. Here God gets angry at Job’s friends: the ones who had tried to protect themselves by telling Job he must have done something wrong. They are required to make a sacrifice and bring it to Job. Then Job prayed for them. It’s only after Job prays for his “friends” that his fortunes are restored.

From time to time on social media someone will quote Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Job would have been more than justified in ignoring his (former?) friends: they had showed him that they would not stand with him. I find it hard to think that they are still his friends. Instead, Job prays for them. That prayer opens the door for Job’s restoration. It’s something to think about: maybe we need to believe people are who they show themselves to be, and also pray for them. Praying for those who have hurt me is hard, but it’s also a comfort, because I can imagine that someone who I’ve hurt is praying for me.

Featured

Where were you?

Job thinks he’s been hard done by. After all, he was a righteous man, who did good, and followed God’s commandments. But since God’s deal with Satan, misfortune has overtaken him, and he doesn’t understand why. His friends are no help, suggesting maybe he really deserved it, if he’d done this or that differently he’d be fine. Now, in today’s reading, we hear the beginning of God’s response: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) The following verses proclaim God’s work in creating the world and watching over it. God reminds Job that Job’s not in control, God is. These words are echoed in Psalm 104, where the psalmist asserts, “You have set the earth on its foundations . . . O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. (Psalm 104:5, 25)

We would mostly, like Job, want there to be a reason for suffering. “Why me?” is our frequent response to problems. Few of us want illness, suffering and pain, and if we can do something to prevent them, we will. People want to think that by virtuous living (whether it’s diet and exercise, or ethical decisions, or going to church every Sunday) they can escape illness, disaster, and loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Our response to such events is like Job’s: to lament, to cry out in grief and rage and ask why.

God’s response to Job is a reminder that we can’t control the outcome, which takes some responsibility off us. At the end, Job, who has now heard God’s voice again, proclaims not his virtue but his ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, thing too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3) I’m not happy with ignorance, and our own stories don’t always wrap up as neatly. Few of us have the reward of Job, who received “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10)! As we confront the losses we inevitably face, Job reminds us that this is not a new story; if we’re lucky, somewhere in the midst we will hear God’s voice.

Featured

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me

The psalm for today is Psalm 22, whose first verse Jesus cries out from the cross. The despair mirrors the despair of Job, who in todays reading (Job 23:1-9, 16-17) laments that he cannot find God. In spite of his prayer, God’s hand is “heavy”. Prayer is not a magic spell, and the prayer of lament is a frequent form. Job and the psalmist have been abandoned, they think, by God. While Job is absorbed in God’s absence, the psalmist complains loudly, and notes that his enemies “laugh me to scorn”, because he trusted in God and God has abandoned him. His fate, he suggests, makes God look bad. This is not quite the feeling of “Why me?” that all of us have felt at one time or another when something terrible happens: these writers don’t understand why God isn’t there for them.

The dark night of the soul is a common experience in the lives of mystics, saints, and many people of faith: a feeling of being alone, being abandoned by God. It leads to doubt and fear. God isn’t there. Here’s the thing: they don’t stop talking to God. Job doesn’t stop, the psalmist didn’t stop. Mother Teresa spent 50 years worrying that God had rejected her, but she continued her ministry. Somehow they (and many others through the centuries) kept going because that seemed right. This is truly faith. Because of this, it’s too bad that the lectionary doesn’t include the last two verses of Psalm 22:

21  I will declare your Name to my brethren;

         In the midst of the congregation I will praise you

22  Praise the LORD, you that fear him;

        Stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel

        All you of Jacob’s line, give glory.

Featured

The exact imprint of God

According to Hebrews 1:3, Christ is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”. In our Baptismal covenant, we are asked if we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”. Since we recently celebrated a baptism, I made connections between these readings. If Christ is the exact imprint of God, and we seek Christ in all persons, who or what are we looking for? What is the “imprint of God’s very being” that we can see not just in Jesus, but implicitly, in everyone we meet? This exact imprint obviously isn’t the old man with a beard from Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine chapel: we meet plenty of people who don’t look like that! So the “exact imprint” is not physical; it’s about how we are in the world. And the Hebrew scriptures together give us an astonishing range of images of God: creative, disappointed, angry, judgmental, generous, kind, and merciful (to name a few). God looks very much like us. So maybe we don’t have to do anything special to be in the image of God. But there’s more: after God is angry (say, the flood), he is merciful. The world continues. This doesn’t help with our image of God if we want a physical image, but it does help us build an image of the living God.

Michelangelo, Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling, God dividing the land from the waters

Featured

Praying for . . .

“Pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

Reading this in September 2021, after 18 months of COVID-19, made us think today about what we’re praying for when we pray. We have seen plenty of evidence that we can’t pray ourselves out of a pandemic, or to heal from a virus. But still we pray. We offer to pray for friends and even strangers who suffer illness or loss. We pray for ourselves and our loved ones, for peace and wisdom, on a regular basis. We pray for our worshiping community. We pray for refugees and migrants, for the hungry, the sick, and those who care for them. We pray for our nation and the world. It’s not magical thinking: we haven’t ended hunger or illness; there are still refugees and migrants. Instead, in doing so we are connected, to God and to each other. When we pray we are not alone, and those we pray for and with are not alone. We know that God is with us, present in the world.

.