10th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 13; Year B

It is interesting how this Sunday’s readings come together: 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a with Psalm 51: 1-13; Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 with Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-35

The story of God judging David (through Nathan) for his murder of Uriah is part two of the story of David’s adultery. David faces the moral judgment and life changing consequences of his sin. This is a story of our natural desires overcoming our call to do God’s will. The penitential psalm that accompanies it is one that expresses my confession so well when I find myself turning from what I know is true and right and to the way that gives immediate pleasure and satisfaction. We often forsake the good that seems so distance for the pleasurable that is immediately before us. And we rationalize why we do it.

The Exodus story is one of a lack of trust in God’s goodness. Complaining is immediate; trust is less evident but more fulfilling. “Trust in the slow work of God” says deChardin. It may be slow but it is time-less, eternal. So God gives the Israelites what they want: quail and the famous “manna from heaven.” What are the consequences? This passage does not tell us. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not.” Of course, in the long run, they do not. The consequences, according to those who give us the long, sad story of the history of Israel and Judah, comes in the form of exile and subjugation. David took what he craved. God gave the Israelites what they craved. There is no thanksgiving iPsalm 78. Instead, it is re-telling of the story implying that there are consequences.

“I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul pleads to the Church in Ephesus. Live a life of humility and gentleness; be patient; bear with one another in love; make every effort to maintain unity. These are the way of virtue and the path to life in Christ. It leads to the ability to speak the truth in love as Paul also counsels.
This is what promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Such growth takes time. It is easy to turn to adultery and to sating our appetites rather than exercising restraint and, with a consciousness of God’s grace, focus on building up the Body of Christ.

The connection of the Gospel story (John 6: 24-35) with the Exodus story, namely manna and the bread of heaven, is clear. (The Lectionary editors didn’t want us to have to work too hard.). This is a great Sunday to talk about the significance of Eucharist within the Body of Christ, of the sacrament of manna (yes there are Hebrew sacraments) and our Eucharistic meal and of being one with Christ in the Body’s ability and courage to “speak the truth in love.”

But what do we do if we have been following the Samuel story of the development of the Judaic kingdom? This too can be combined with Ephesians and the Gospel passages. There are consequences when we don’t “do the work,” when we choose to continue as “children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”

This is truly a Sunday when we can comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. We all need both messages, often at the same time. It is also a great Sunday to preach about the Christian counter-cultural perspective of patience. Christians know that we do not need it all now. Like others in our society, we may want it all now but God’s time is not our time. “Believe in the slow work of God.”

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The beheading of John the Baptist–Mark 6: 14-29

The Gospel passage for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year B is Mark’s rather gory story of John’s beheading at the request of Herod’s wife via Herodias, his daughter. (The identities of Herod, Herodias [the mother] and Herodias [the daughter] are titles. For “Herod” we can read “the king” and for the two “Herodias,” “the queen” and “the princess.”) The mother despised John because John told Herod that “it is not lawful to have your brother’s wife.” And Herod listened to John. What might have happened if he had not executed John? What did happen in his heart when he thought John, whom he had executed, had been raised?

After John was executed, his disciples “came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” This is language used in the passion and death of Jesus. It is a foreshadowing of things to come. As with John, Herod was complicit in Jesus’ execution. He let it happen rather than directly ordering it. Is that what hardened Herod’s heart? He did recognize John as righteous and seemed to se him as a rabbi. Yet he had John beheaded and still proclaimed that John had been raised. Was Herod’s “heart hardened” thus later leading him to dismiss Jesus so easily?

Mark opens the passage telling us that Jesus was being called Elijah, who had returned to save his people. Others thought Jesus was John the Baptist, who had been raised. Others said Jesus was a prophet “like one of the prophets of old.” So, there was much confusion among those who had heard of Jesus as to his identity

So Mark is asking the question, “who is this man?” He is asking it of all who hear his Gospel. He raises the question in the context of telling us the details of John the Baptist’s execution, The part of the story about John the Baptist is also a flashback. For what purpose? It is the story of executions of prophetic rabbis within Judaism of that day. And it is the prophetic story of the cost of Judeo-Christian discipleship.

There is bargaining in this story, just as there is bargaining around Jesus’ execution. Here, it is the princess bargaining with the king. In the story of Jesus death, it is Herod bargaining with Pilate. Who would order and take responsibility for Jesus’ execution? In both cases, Herod is reluctant to be part of the execution. In the case of John, he orders it and directly sees the consequences. In the case of Jesus, he lets Pilate order it and, probably, hears about the consequences.

So what is Mark saying to us? What do we get out of the story? One way of approaching it is by assuming one role or another while reflecting on the story. Am I the passive John the Baptist? Am I the troubled Herod whom, Mark implies, has a troubled conscience over what he has ordered? (Does that troubled conscience extend to his part in Jesus’ death?) There is Herod’s wife and his daughter. And there are John’s disciples. (Do some of those become Jesus’ disciples?). There are the guests, who are there to celebrate Herod’s birthday?

Whom do I initially identify with? (Here is the personal question.) I am one of the guests. I stand by in the midst of the celebration, too frightened to say anything even as I have been one of those with questions about the wild prophet. John, as prophet, risks his life to remind Herod of the seriousness of the Law. I am a Jewish friend (because Herod was Jewish). But I am a friend with insufficient commitment to my religion and to the Law to courageously join John. I do not stand and join John in proclaiming Truth to Power. I do not stand in support of John in his prophetic role. In this weakness I too ignore the Law, the Way to which I am called. Mark is telling us of the tragic consequences that can result from this way of living. Perhaps, in this flashback, he is telling us that we need to stand with the prophet.

However, this story of John the Baptist’s beheading is so graphic and captivating that we forget the preamble: the mystery of who Jesus, the healer, is. Is he John the baptizer, or Elijah, or a new prophet in the line of the great prophets of Israel? Just as the story of the beheading of John is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own passion and death so too is this preamble a foreshadowing of Mark 8: 27- 29. Here the question is left open as we move into the drama of John’s beheading.. In Mark 8 we get the disciples’ report of what the people are saying. In Mark 8, Peter answers the followup question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the answer that Jesus’ disciples give if they are truly his disciples. He is the Messiah. In this preamble Jesus cannot and does not order his disciples not to tell anyone of this revelation. Neither Jesus nor the disciples are directly part of the story. In Mark 8, they are and so we are left with another instance of the messianic secret.

Because of the drama of the story, it is easy to focus on John’s beheading in today’s reading. (That is where my thoughts focused.) Perhaps the preamble is more important. It does not involve Jesus’ disciples and their realization of Jesus as the Messiah. But we do have two foreshadowings in this passage: that of Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah and that of Jesus’ passion and death. The entire story of Mark 6: 14-29 is about John the Baptist, who is not the Messiah. Mark 8: 27 – 30 and the story of Jesus’ passion and death are about Jesus. In the first the people mistakenly identify Jesus as John. In the latter, Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. In the first, the people do not get it but nonetheless a prophet is beheaded. In the second, the people still do not get it but Jesus is executed because he, like John, is dangerous to the established order.

Both are dramatic illustrations of Mark’s previous commentary that prophets are not appreciated in their own land.

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The madness of religious prophets -Mark 3: 20-21

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”Jesus’ family tried to restrain him because people were saying that he had gone out of his mind, that he was crazy.

Meandering thoughts on the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B:

The people came together again, (crowding Jesus & his disciples??). His family goes out (to the crowded place — where were they before this? Did this happen in Nazareth?). “People were saying…” Were these the same people as those who “came together again”? There is an impression that some thought Jesus crazy. (“he has gone out of his mind”); some may have thought him to be one who spoke the Truth; perhaps some just curious. His family goes out to RESTRAIN him. Do they think he has gone out of his mind? Were they trying to protect him? Did he embarass them by his words and actions? Did they want to hide him away “far from the madding crowd”? These are meandering questions for which that aren’t necessarily attempted answers in the following.

Many prophets are dismissed by calling them crazy. Their message doesn’t make sense to those who live day by day in their subconscious world. (See Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Chpt 19, pp 140 ff. It may start to make sense to those who live with a conscious mind.). It is easier to dismiss the prophet as crazy, as spouting nonsense. The message sounds absurd to us who say they have to live in the “real world” of worries about money, health, family, job, survival. Jesus’ message about why worry; see the birds in the air and the lilies of the field seems crazy. If God takes care of them, won’t God take care of you as well? Simplistic and crazy.

But that message seems absurd. The Gospel passage indicates that it sounded absurd in Jesus’ time. It has sounded absurd to most down through the centuries and it sounds absurd to many today. The Dessert Fathers were seen as crazy. St. Francis was judged crazy. People didn’t understand Mother Teresa. (And many took delight when they found out that she confessed a lack of faith at times during her life.). Again, this is not just the way of Jesus and the Christian prophets. It is a common response, the response of the subconscious mind, to any who proclaim an absurd simple life of faith. The conscious recognize an “element of truth” in the proclamation to love because that is what we are called to do, to forgive with no expectation of reciprocation, to give without wanting something in return.

And then there are those who find such proclamations dangerous. These are the “powerful” in the worldly sense of power. Prophets speak “truth to power.” They are killed because of that. Jesus, the many martyrs for the Holy (both Christian and non-Christian), Martin Luther King Jr. — these are the ones who come to mind. But it is “safer” to first try other options. Proclaim the prophet to be crazy or mad. Tell the people that s/he endangers their way of life. The prophet does endanger that way because our everyday way of life is not the way to holiness.

A priest recently told me that Christians should not assume an attitude of “victimhood.” What does that mean? This was in response to my assertion that Christians live with a different set of values than many in our secular society. Western Christians need to become more aware that following Jesus means following him to the cross as much as if not more than following him through the every day path of teaching and preaching. The Jesus Movement is not easy. “Life in Christ is life in the mystery of the Cross.” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 166)

What does “victimhood” look like? Many point to the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. They “willingly” went to the ovens with a belief that “this is God’s will.” Is that “victimhood” or is it an awareness of the explanation of why the Jewish people were exiled and became a “subservient” race? (There was a Jewish resistance movement that we hear little about. Who was acting according to “God’s will — those who “passively” went to the gas chambers and ovens or those who fought against the Nazi evil, or both, or neither?)

Recently, someone burned a Gay Pride flag that was flown at Trinity Cathedral during June, Gay Pride month. The Trinity response is to buy and hang another flag. As some have pointed out, burning the flag called more attention to June as Pride month and to Trinity as a welcoming community of faith. Some will see Trinity’s response (especially if burning and buying were become a pattern) as a foolish, (crazy?) way to go. Other’s see it standing against evil. But it certainly is not “victimhood.” But is it prophetic?

A huge question remains. How do we know the message is “true.” Was it true in Jesus’ day because it conformed with that of the prophets before him? Is it true yesterday and today because it agrees with the kerygma, with Jesus’ message. Is it true because Buddha preached detachment and so we still try to be detached from all that is material and that ties us to our selves? That seems to be the criteria. Communally we recognize truth that is proclaimed by those who strive to hear God and then feel called to be the voice of God. They are called to be that voice in word and deed and they cannot resist the call. Read about Jeremiah, Jonah. Listen to those who are called to ministry and resist with all of their will but cannot not follow.

“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him.”

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Lent & the Catechumenate

It may seem strange to be focussing on Lent during Eastertide but insights come when they will.

My brother-in-law and I oftentimes discuss “matters religious” when we get together. He is a conservative Catholic for whom doctrine and dogma are important. I am progressive and, hence, a former Roman Catholic and now an Episcopalian (Catholic). For me, as for many in the Anglican Communion, being able to pray together is more important than a common adherence to specific doctrines and dogmas.

Recently, part of our discussion has dealt with the possibility of persecution of Western Christians. (For Andy this means the persecution of Roman Catholics. My perspective is that there are Western Christians who do not identify themselves as Roman Catholic but who are members of the Body of Christ.) We agree that there is a strong possibility for persecution as the Body of the Faithful (“Church” may be too broad a term here) moves forward in our increasingly secularistic society. Roman Catholics have had this “fear” for many years. Jim Dunning used to refer to it when he talked about the catechumenate as a way to form disciples who can witness Truth to Power. On the other hand, on the Protestant side, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the same “fear” and realization. We find his thinking on the matter in The Cost of Discipleship and in his wrestling with whether joining an effort to assassinate Hitler was a “right” thing for a Christian to do.

I raised the issue during a discussion of John 17: 6-19, the Gospel passage for May 17, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. This text is complex. Jesus is overheard praying for his disciples. Jesus prays to his Holy Father that Jesus has made God’s name known to the disciples. They have kept God’s word. Jesus asks his Heavenly Father to protect them “in our name.” “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

John’s Gospel was written early in the Second Century. Both Jews and Romans were persecuting Christians. They could find comfort and strength in this passage. God sent Jesus into the world to proclaim God’s Word, and he was crucified. God is sending Jesus’ disciples into the world to proclaim God’s Word. They too can expect persecution and possibly death. But they are to believe that they are sanctified in Truth. So they minister in hope as followers of Jesus.

I see this text as a reminder to Christians, even during Eastertide, that the Cross is part of our lives. This text shows the importance of intense reflection on the meaning of the Cross for us during Lent. It means we must accept that cross before we can move into the new life of a follower of Jesus. Christians celebrate Easter in the knowledge that they can carry the Cross and proclaim that Life overcomes Death, Alleluia, alleluia!

Another person in the group cautioned that we should not become alarmists and implied that Christians could become unduly paranoid if such an interpretation is advanced. I disagree. We need to have the Cross in front of us at all times as the possibility that we may be called to witness in a way that will lead to our persecution and possibly our deaths.

“Come on, Jerry. Where do you see this in our society?” Advocating for the sanctity of life is one example. Christians advocate for life. This means that we oppose abortion (but minister to the woman who is considering or has had an abortion). It also means that we advocate against our current prison system as well as against capital punishment. Christians face harsh responses when we stand up for honoring life, period. (And we often, very often, fail this command, “Thou shalt not kill.” Indeed, most of us certainly fail in our attempts to follow Jesus’ “radical” interpretation of this commandment –Do not be angry or insult or denigrate others. Opposition to abortion, capitol punishment and acts of hatred, insult and denigration is part of the Way of Jesus. Following these commands will lead to persecution.

James Finley, a commentator on Merton’s works, notes that people are good at saying “I follow Jesus” as long as that means following Jesus in his life up to but not including his passion and death. Following Jesus into and through that last part of his life is, of course, very difficult.

All of this has led me to reflect on the “Intense Preparation” (i.e. usually Lent) stage of the catechumenate. Like many catechumenate ministers, I have “tread lightly” when guiding candidates into and through Lent. We don’t want to consider the suffering to which we might be called. We don’t really want to reflect on Jesus’ Passion and Death. We don’t want to reflect on the meaning of the Cross in Christianity. We don’t want to scare away the potential candidates of baptism. But we do a disservice to our catechumens when we discount that their commitment to Jesus’ call includes a call to service and possible suffering and persecution because of that service. Perhaps we need to consider that this is part of what they hear in their call.

When the catechumenate is done correctly, the Catechumenate stage can, and often will, take more than the 6 – 8 weeks that we usually give it. It often takes a good long time to realize that following Jesus means following him into the Garden. Candidates will know when they are ready for the next “scary” step of following Jesus into the Temple and out onto the Way of the Cross. That next scary step is what Lent is all about, or should be about. Christians have diminished the importance of Lent by making it a matter of “giving up something” or resolving to do “something to help me grow” (analogous to a New Year’s resolution). The intensity of Lent includes the Presentations of Creed & Prayer, profound, guided reflection of the conversion stories and the “Prayers for Healing and Deliverance” (also known as Scrutinies and Exorcisms in the RCIA). It can also include praying and reflecting on “The Way of the Cross.” All of this is to help the candidates in their final, intense reflection of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Only when we and they take the profound suffering to which we may be called into our hearts and lives, can we celebrate Resurrection.

We are asking a lot of those who seek baptism. We are asking a lot of ourselves.

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No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15: 13-14)

In his daily meditations this last week Richard Rohr focussed on friendship. On Wednesday he wrote about the implications of having a friendship with Jesus. Thursday he wrote about “Making new friends.” On Friday, he addressed God as Friendship (note that this is different than having a friendship with Jesus.

Making friends and having friends is difficult for me. Making friends demands that I step out of my protecting shell. Embracing protection can be comfortable but it can also be limiting. Those limitations include lack of growth. They certainly don’t include listening and discernment. To listen, listen actively and deeply, requires moving out from the shell to the unprotected where I can find the love of another or possibly rejection from the Other. Both are possible. We live in a time of suspicion but we also live in a time of isolation. People search for someone with whom to share. But for many, as for me, it is difficult to share. That takes being vulnerable but the reward is great.

What is the reward. I don’t think it is “a friendship with Jesus.” Seeing, feeling or knowing Jesus as friend can be a basis for friendship in the here and now. Hearing the stories about Jesus reaching out first, to those he knew in his village and calling them to be his friends and to travel with him can inspire, especially if I reflect on the stories and the dynamic, risk taking they relate. Then the Gospel stories tell of Jesus reaching out to others: those who are cast out from their villages and communities, those who suffer from illness or who behave in an “unacceptable way.” He reaches out to the people who others see as possessed by demons. He reaches out to tax collectors. He reaches out to Mary Magdalene and to the Samaritan woman at the well. And others, including his friends (his disciples), are amazed, scandalized, and, in some cases, taught from seeing his courage. We too can learn from these stories if we spend enough time with them.

Rohr’s reflections continue on Thursday in recognizing the difficulties we may have with reaching out to others who may become new friends. He quotes Brian McLaren: “Christian mission begins with friendship, not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing…” What does McClaren mean here? He goes on to define Cristian friendship as …”friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking and enjoying this or that neighbor in particular….” Perhaps it is what I have done in the past. At Trinity I would make an effort to reach out to some of the unhoused who came to Trinity to find some sustenance — through food, rest, a place to go that has indoor plumbing, privacy, water and soap, protection and, possibly some friendship. I reached out to most as a way to show others that I was not afraid to reach out. But, often, I was not genuine. I did it for show. It was utilitarian. I was using them to show others. But then there is “Big Robert.” Trinity was a home for Big Robert. He came every day and would sit on a bench in the covered patio area. Eventually I learned his name, then a bit of his story, then who his family was and to whom we could reach out if he had health issues. I saw Robert “in action” as he gradually came out of his shell. We became friends. For me that was not for show (although at times I did use my friendship with Bob to show others that I could be a friend to the unhoused).

Where did the drive to be a friend to Big Robert come from? Reading and reflecting on the stories about Jesus helped. Perhaps it was also the parables that Jesus told to us, parables that can be heard as describing God as friendship, that reached my heart and soul. God as friendship is a way of describing God as the One who gives and the One who receives and the One who is the joy-filled delight in that relationship. I was not aware of the “inspiration of Jesus” in either way but perhaps that is part of what being a Christian is about, even when I don’t realize it. Perhaps it is part of what becoming a Christian is.

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Greeks seeking Jesus: John 12: 20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 

This part of this passage may seem trivial in the context of that which follows. It is the prologue to Jesus telling us that the Son of Man will be glorified and that, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. In other words (or it it in other words?) Jesus — and his followers — must die in order to bring new life to the earth.

Then Jesus goes on to talk about how he will die and why he must die. When he [dies] and is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. There is much implied in this passage. But when we look at it, there really is very little that directly says that Jesus will die in order save humankind or to save the world. We read that into it.

This last week Matthew talked about how the Gospel texts from the 4th Sunday of Lent on through to Good Friday point us to the significance of the cross. It was fairly easy to see this last week: Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Jesus suffers death on the cross in order that we may have eternal life. Matthew went on to talk about two different theologies of atonement: substitutionary satisfaction atonement in which Jesus substitutes himself for us in order to save us from our sin (Anselm’s theology), and the moral influence of atonement in which Jesus died as the demonstration of Gods love that can change the hearts and minds of sinners and be our cause for repentance, our turning back to God (Abelard’s theology). The way Matthew laid it out was clear enough so that we did not need to be learned doctrinal theologians to understand the difference. And, he concluded, most Episcopalians lean toward the moral influence theory. But that was not the point of his sermon..The point of his sermon was that, in John 3:14, we have a reference to Jesus dining on the cross in order to atone for our sins.

A friend told me this last week that she now had the insight that we don’t get to Resurrection without going through the cross, without Crucifixion. I have heard this many times but it meant much more to me this time in terms of atonement. I cannot celebrate my resurrection, my new life (or that of others) unless I first die to my sins (and they to theirs). This gives me much more motivation to practice “Lenten disciplines. It gives me a greater realization of what “Lenten disciplines” are about. They are about dying to the selfish, sinful parts of me so as to be cleansed, to be purified, to be raised into new life with Jesus the Christ.

Now, if this all seems very foreign and pietistic, it is because it is. I don’t want to think in these terms even though I find myself increasingly doing so these days. In order to grow into the Divine, I need to stop trying to grow into the divine. In order to be able to listen to others and discern where they and I are called to travel, I must stop trying to discern. As my spiritual director and I concluded yesterday, I need to surrender my attempts to grow and to discern. I must just be and recognize that God is doing the “work.” Recognizing that is, in itself, enough. It is God’s grace. But there is more. I am not just along for the ride. I need to remain aware as much as I am able. That is my “work,” my discipline. That is what I must accept in the dialectic of surrendering and accepting.

How does that relate to this Sunday’s gospel passage? Perhaps it is in the prologue. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Why is there a “chain” of those who pass this request to Jesus? Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus does not say, “Okay, let’s go see them.” He responds to Andrew and Philip! The Greeks seem to be out of the picture. Perhaps, we are the Greeks who stand “outside” of the rest of the story and hear Jesus explaining what his death will mean. The hour has come (or, in our liturgical time, is about to come) for the Son of Man to be glorified. Am I able to see it? A grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die in order to (come to life?) and to bear much fruit. Do I understand that is about Jesus? Or is it about me? I must lose my life, indeed hate my life, in order to keep it for eternal life. Does that mean “for eternity”?

The truth, if it is the truth, seems clear. I am called to surrender myself in order to accept new life; in order to accept a new sense of life that is eternal. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what that means. All I can do at this time is try to believe it. And that is more than understanding it.

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Poisonous Serpents (Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3: 14-21)

Confession: When I first read this Sunday’s readings, I didn’t see any connections between the Israelites’ problem with serpents and our current times. But then we had a discussion of the Gospel during “Gospel Preview” and things became clearer. (Dean Matthew established Gospel Preview when he first came to Trinity as a way to use lectio to help him clarify his direction for his Sunday sermon. There are usually 5 or 6 of us who participate.)

We are the people who become impatient, or at least some of us do. We find ourselves in the midst of this wilderness called Pandemic. We speak out against those who are up front and tell Truth. We don’t want to hear it. On the micro level (i.e. our wealthy nation), many of us protest wearing masks; they are a sign of authoritarianism. We protest staying home; it is too confining. We protest not going to bars; we want to see our friends and party! We are independent individualists. And we are malcontents. We harvest the fruits of radical individualism. No one can tell us what to do. Many die. The Israelites repent. Sadly, we don’t know how to do that.

On the macro — the way of the whole world — we ignore those with no food, no water, no habitats, no clothing. We have those who are unhoused and hungry and in need of clothes and the basic for life here in our midst. They are reminders of a larger reality of the great deal of absolute poverty in places we would rather forget. And those places are the serpents that will bite us.

God gives a way a way out. Oddly we might mistake the symbol as an idol. It is a bronze symbol of the poison that is killing us. If I am bitten but recognize the poison within me, I can repent and live. I must turn toward the symbol of that which is killing me. I must acknowledge it for the death it contains.

John gives us the direct connection to this story in John 3: 14. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

I remain baffled by those who rebel against science. And yet, from a philosophical sense, it is understandable. Our radical individualism is the result of a progression of individual liberties. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence.). The Declaration of Independence does not necessarily lead to the radical individualism that we experience today but the sprouts are in it. “To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all of the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.” The seeds are in the Magna Carta. Or are the seeds even further back in our history? The writers of both documents had a certain idealism that we could and would work together to establish and maintain our rights. Then capitalism stepped in. It was held up as the bronze serpent that will save us. Instead it is a golden calf because it is based upon selfishness and succeeds because of selfishness. Capitalism combined with individualism is toxic. We cherish both but do not see the toxicity of the combination. That can destroy us.

But I get far afield. Or do I? Christians have always been called to sacrifice themselves. This is foolishness in the eyes of the world. And it is frightening to those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. We are called to live in communities, both micro and macro, who share all of our possessions. We are called to care for others rather than for ourselves. We are called to give what we have to those who have little or nothing. But we don’t for so many reasons. We rationalize. If we give it all away, then we will having nothing left to give. What good will I or we be then? These meandering thoughts seem to be part of a guilt trip. they aren’t. They are part of recognizing a call, a call to give from my wealth, to simplify, to give of my time. I am wealthy and I am fearful to give away.

Thank God for the bronze serpent. May I, may we, not lose sight that this odd symbol of God’s forgiveness. May we turn, recognize grace and live.

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I Corinthians 1:18-25 — 3rd Sunday of Lent

Isaiah 29:14: I will destroy….I wil thwart

This passage always brings me up short. It is a warning to those of us who strive towards faith either through study or meditation. The opening verse is the first clue: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” It is foolishness because the message of the cross is to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. That was part of the message from last week’s gospel pericope: “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8: 35). How is it that I don’t perish if I deny myself, take up my cross and perish?

Paul continues his warning with the verse from Isaiah 29: 14 — “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” For years I strove for “wisdom” in my studies of philosophy and theology. For Paul “wisdom” connotes philosophy (philosophia),the pursuit of the Greeks. Now, I am trying to become a person of greater discernment. According to Paul, both pursuits are in vain. My studies will be destroyed; my efforts to discern will be thwarted. Why? I suspect that Paul is getting at the truth that one cannot gain wisdom through study and books alone. We need to be able to step back, to “stop and smell the roses” if we truly are to use that knowledge, that “wisdom,” to understand life and the world. This step back may be conscious or unconscious. But to be able to see the Grace of God’s gift of creation is itself a gift.

What about my current efforts to become more discerning? Why will they be thwarted? Again, I can read the mystics (right now I am reading and consciously contemplating Merton’s works). That may give me some insights into what discernment is about. It is being able to listen to the Other. But such reading and study will not make me a person of greater discernment. I may try to meditate but that won’t improve my “discernment” abilities. What will? Again, I need to internalize what I read. God’s gift of discernment is a gift freely given. It is not one that I can work for and receive as a reward.

There is a well known passage in Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. “What is serious to men is often trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what he Himself takes most seriously. At any rate, the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of his Creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.” Merton warns us who are trying so hard to gain insight and to listen to the Other, to back off. “Don’t seek the Divine in my writings,” he is warns us. The seeds of contemplation are here but only the Holy can grow those mustard seeds into the mighty bush. “Let go and let God.”

So what must we do? Nothing EXCEPT have the courage to surrender, to let go and to let God. For me this is extremely difficult. Why? Because it is foolishness. How can I live this way? Yet it is the only way. Take the time to recognize Grace and to really listen to the Other. But then again, as Paul reminds us, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.” (I Cor 1:25)

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“Get behind me, Satan!” — Mark 8: 31-38

Peter gets rebuked, again. Peter is the bold one. He is the one who steps forward and says what he (and the others?) are thinking. Or are they? Mark never says what the other disciples are thinking. Peter often acts as the voice for the others. Perhaps this is why he is recognized as the “lead” disciple as the followers of Jesus become the Jesus movement become the house churches become the Church that recognizes Peter’s primacy. Perhaps he represents “the Church” here. This is not a new insight but a significant one.

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is so easy to do. Church history relates themany times that we followers of Jesus move from setting our mind on human things rather than on divine things. And what does that even mean? It certainly means that we strive after power and wealth more than after vulnerability and poverty. Not that the former are “bad” and the latter are “good.”

In reading some of Thomas Merton’s reflections and the insights of Jim Finley and Richard Rohr, I am realizing that power and vulnerability, wealth and poverty and the other contrasts that are set forth in the Gospels are not dualistic (either/or) or black and white but the both-and, the paradoxical, the combined. The latter is in the uncomfortable realm of the grey. David Tracy points this out in his distinction of the catholic both-and perspective and the protestant mind-set, the realm of dualistic thinking. I don’t think he is talking about the historical divisions established in the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Those are historical embodiments of two different mindsets that each of us wrestle with all of the time.

It is easier to live in either/or, the “clarity” of that which is defined. But our understanding of the Divine is, by the very nature of the Holy, not so clear. When we know, or even think we know, who God is and we grab onto that “certainty,” we find ourselves idolizing our perception. God is Mystery that we, in our limitations, cannot wholly perceive. This paradox that Kierkegaard and the mystics recognize is the same as that which is hinted at in so much of the Scriptures. The golden calf is not the Holy. The Bible, the physical book, is not the Holy. There is no “this” when the deacon holds up the Book of the Gospels and proclaims “The Gospel of the Lord!” The bread and wine are not Christ. Professing that they are is where our catholic side moves from greyness to the seductive black-and-white. But it takes a great effort throughout our lives to try to live in ambiguity. It isn’t comfortable. It’s scary. It is where the catholic mindset would have us live.

Ironically that is where Peter, the head of “the church,” does not want to be. He rebukes Jesus for his teachings because they flip our comfortable world of certainty on its head and leave us floundering. Jesus explicit teachings, as well as those paradoxical ones that are in the second half of this Sunday’s pericope and in the parables, point us to the vulnerable place where we live only in the faith that all is good and all will be good.

“Get behind me, Satan!” You are setting your mind not on the Divine that is always ambiguous in its Mystery but on the human and finite that is always more definite. Paradoxically, when we realize the limitations of the definite, we are lead to a sense of the Mystery that is beyond it.

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Ash Wednesday: Invitation to a Holy Lent

“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a                                                          season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided 
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy 
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of 
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful 
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to 
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation 
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set 
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all 
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning 
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now 
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Every year, when we hear the celebrant invite us to observe Lent, I rejoice in these words. The part that has the greatest appeal are the sentences italicized above. They remind us of why we have the season of Lent. We have Lent because of our catechumens, those preparing for baptism, and because of our penitents, those preparing for absolution and return to the fellowship of the Church. Roman Catholics recognize several orders among the faithful. There are the “holy orders,” those of deacon, priest and bishop. There is the order of the faithful. And there are the orders of the catechumen and of the penitent.

The order of the penitent is not spoken of very much these days. That is because there is little recognition of the gravity of “notorious sin” and its ability to be a stumbling block, a scandal. Notorious sins are those that are so blatant as to cause those who might think of becoming Christians to doubt following that Way. Actions that truly cause people to recognize Christians as hypocrites are notorious sins. Sins that can cause those who are members of the church to doubt their faith are notorious sins. The Church realized fairly early that, while we all sin, not every sin is grave enough to cause such hindrances. Only the most grievous sins, the “mortal sins,” the “notorious sins” do that. Through such actions one does great harm to the Body of Christ. Those would be things like murder (is abortion is in this category?), adultery, grand theft, blasphemy and a host of others.

Is there anyway back into the fold? Yes. One must recognize and admit to one’s sin. Through self examination one answers the question of what have I done (or not done) that has separated me from the Church? What have I done or not done that scandalizes others? What must I do to restore my life in Christ, i.e. what is my penance? The sin was done in public therefore the penance is done in public. A bishop or priest must recognize one’s repentance and then grant absolution in the name of Christ. Lent is the period of repentance. In recognizing that everyone sins, we have generalized the notion of sin and done away with the recognition of notorious sins.

But I am getting too far afield. What I really want to point out is that repentance involves stages, just like those for the catechumen. The journey is one of recognition and admittance of one’s sin, reformation through penance, and a celebration of absolution and re-entry into the fellowship of the Church. Lent and Holy Saturday are the occasions for the last two stages of this journey.

Catechumens take a similar journey. They recognize that there is something missing in their lives. Together with guides, they inquire what that might be. They enter the order of the catechumenate, i.e. they enter the Church, and learn what following the Way of Christ involves. During Lent the are “prepared for Holy Baptism.” Lent and Easter are the last two seasons of this journey.

It is true that the entire order of the faithful join the catechumens and penitents in this journey. The invitation to Lent recognizes this. “Thereby, the whole congregation [is] put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

I enjoy this invitation because it reminds us of the origins of Lent. It can also lead us to reflect on what generalizing the need for Lent does with the journey for those seeking baptism and those seeking forgiveness. The restoration of the catechumenate is bringing us to a renewed recognition of the centrality of Baptism in our Christian lives. How we observe Lent reflects the importance we place on celebration of Baptism. For centuries, Lent was seen as the time for the faithful to prepare for Easter through repentance of their sins. We lost recognition of the order of catechumens. We lost recognition of catechumens’ ministry to us by leading us in that preparation. The public rites of healing (the scrutinies) that occur during Lent help all of us remain aware that we are preparing to renew our baptismal covenant.

The notion of the need for repentance from notorious sins was diluted in the recognition that we all sin. Everyone was expected to “go to confession” during Lent. The recognition of the order of the penitent remains lost to us. We have lost recognition that there are notorious sins, those that seriously damage both the Body of Christ and the sinner.

In recognizing that God is all loving and all forgiving, it is easy to forget that Divine infinite love and forgiveness calls for a response from us. We need to love in return. Helping those seeking God to realize Infinite Love through Baptism is one way. We need to forgive in return. Helping those seeking to recognize Infinite Forgiveness is also a way. Both bring us all together in Lent. The invitation to a holy Lent is the invitation to the journey of preparation and repentance.

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