Epiphany 4: Mark 1:21-28

On the Sabbath Jesus does what most Jewish men do. He goes to the synagogue to read the Torah and Prophets and to pray. This was in Capernaum and he was traveling, presumably with those he had called earlier to travel with him. The custom at that time was that any of the men who felt so inspired could stand up, select a passage and teach about it. In this case we don’t know what passage Jesus chose. Mark has stories of Jesus entering and teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee.

“Authority” is a key word in this passage. He taught with authority and not as the scribes. After he exorcised the man with the unclean spirit, those present recognized that he has a “new teaching – with authority!” Granted, before the exorcism, the description is that “he taught them as one having authority.” Maybe Jesus had authority; maybe he didn’t. After the exorcism, those in the synagogue doubted no longer. “What is this? A new teaching–with authority?” Jesus’ healing exorcism is a teaching and it is authoritative.

Why the recognition of teaching with authority? And why the jab at the scribes? The scribes taught by referring to others, similar to the dialogues that happen in the Mishna. “On this point, Rabbi Heschel says this but Rabbi Joshua says that.” Jesus’s authority was his interpretation of the Law, not that of another. He taught as a prophet. “Thus says the Lord!” It often put him in conflict with the scribes. Who is the teaching authority? The healing exorcism shows that Jesus is the teaching authority. There is no need for him to refer or defer to other rabbis. His teachings are authoritative.

I studied theology for many years in order to be able to teach with authority. I ended up using that knowledge of philosophy, theology and Scriptural analytics in teaching courses, perhaps with authority. But, when someone asked me a question that was not based on my education, my answers, with the authority of books and professors, were not what they were seeking. They wanted to know who God is. They were not looking for a proof of God’s existence. They were not looking for an explanation of the various kinds of “God-talk.” They wanted to know how to talk with God, how to pray.

One of my clearest memories of this was when I was asked to lead a scripture study for some teens. At the time I was reading a book on the “J” trajectory through the Torah. When followed, the trajectory is quite a dramatic story, a soap opera of sorts. I thought this would capture the interest of the teens during our weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. I failed miserably. The wanted to explore how the scriptures impacted their lives. I was giving them a dramatic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that could touch their minds but did not touch their souls. The study ended after about 6 weeks. I did not have the skills that I have developed since then, skills to help them learn how to listen to God’s word addressed to them. I did not have the courage to open up to them, to ask them what impacted them in a passage, to tell them how it impacted my life.

That is what they sought. That is what our catechumens and other seekers want. That is what I am now able to give because I have gone beyond teaching with the knowledge of the scribes to teaching with the authority of one who wants to share faith.

I continue to study. I am not rejecting the scripture studies or reading and discussing philosophy and theology The knowledge I acquired and continue to acquire is valuable. But it is valuable when I am able to integrate it into my faith life and then try to help others gain insight into their faith lives.

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I saw you under the fig tree — John 1: 43-51

This weeks Gospel passage relates the calling of Phillip and Nathanael. It includes the notable line, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But it Jesus’ fig tree statement that sticks with me. Sitting under a fig tree is code in the Bible for waiting for and reflecting on the Divine. What was it for Jesus to see Nathanael sitting under the fig tree? Did he walk by and see this stranger (if indeed Nathanael was a stranger) sitting and studying Torah. Perhaps Nathanael was reflecting upon a passage. He could have been doing the simple but difficult task to take time, be silent and be with the Divine, either through the law and the prophets or just through the silence.

Where was the fig tree? There is no mention that Jesus was in Galilee or Bethsaida when he called Phillip. Nor is there any mention of that when Phillip invites Nathanael to “come and see.” Perhaps it was in a village and Nathanael was resting from his labors. Perhaps he was “people watching.” But perhaps he was in a quiter space. Jesus had gone into the wilderness. Had Nathanael as well?

Was Nathanael already prone to seeking the silence and to discern the seeker in another? Such gifts come from sitting under fig trees.

(I was interrupted in the midst of this reflection. Now it is time to move on so I will post this, however brief.)

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Be silent and let God be God

I’ve done several things recently related to spiritual growth. At the counsel of my pastor, I have sought out a spiritual director and I have started reading Richard Rohr. I think the first will be helpful. We haven’t met except for a preliminary superficial connection. But today I will sign our contract and send it back. People have pointed me to Richard Rohr for years. I have not taken the time until now. I am reading his daily meditation as well as one of his books: Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the two halves of Life.

The backstory, as we say these days: When I retired, one of my goals was to develop my spirituality so I can be a better catechumenate minister. I looked for books on spirituality and the catechumenate. The first thing I came up with that looked pretty inviting was Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spirituality. This gave me a better appreciation of the BCP but did little to help me discern God’s presence in my life or how to go about that. Then our new dean, Mathew Woodard, came on the scene in June. I told him what I was trying to do. He asked me if I had a spiritual director or a confessor and advised that I get one immediately. He also said that he didn’t think that I should lead the catechumenate until I had done some real work, guided work, in the area of my own spiritual growth. In fact, as time went on, he asked me who else could lead the catechumenate. Right away, he saw that my going it alone was not going to work. He is right. That is not the path to greater “spiritual enlightenment.” He kept pressuring me. I kept avoiding the search. Finally, after it became clear that he was not going to let me continue to lead the catechumenate until I had done some real work, I took up the search.

I met with Matthew earlier this week because I had asked to attend vestry meetings (virtually). He said that he wanted to talk about it. He asked me if I knew what it felt like for him to receive an email from him before he had even started at Trinity. I didn’t and I still don’t understand what he is saying in that question. I wanted to talk to him early on about the catechumenate. Admittedly, I did use the excuse of updating him on the Trinity of the past decade as an excuse. During our first conversation he quickly moved from the “things” of the past 10 years to the state of my spiritual quest. This has been the case with subsequent meetings as well. In this most recent discussion he asked me why I wanted to start attending Vestry meetings. I told him that I am interested in that part of parish life and that I am feeling disenfranchised from Trinity. He said that he didn’t want me to attend meetings at this time, not because the vestry has anything to hide but rather because he thinks I need more time to step back from any leadership role in the parish.

Initially I was angry with Matthew. I was tempted to close my laptop and terminate our Zoom meeting. As our conversation proceeded I realized that what he was asking me to do was take time to set aside my ego in terms of feeling a need to lead. Good leadership involves becoming of the gifts, skills, talents that others bring and allowing them to use those gifts. I need to realize that other people can do what I was doing. I need to realize that Trinity’s life will go on without me. Specifically, in terms of the catechumenate, I need to realize that others can and perhaps should lead. And, though Matthew did not directly say it, I am pretty sure that he realizes the power of the catechumenate and intends to keep it going at Trinity.

This conversation, along with the new direction I am taking in terms of spiritual development has helped me realize that what I need to do is to step back, diminish my ego and let the Divine guide my life. In the words of one reflection of Richard Rohr: “Be quiet and let God be God.”

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Baptism — Mark 1: 4-11

This is the first Sunday of Epiphany. We celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. This is one of the Sundays of the year that we explicitly focus on baptism. This is one of the Sundays of the year when I hope the preacher will talk about baptism, our baptismal covenant and how to prepare to live that covenant more fully. This is one of the Sundays of the year that I hope the preacher will talk about the catechumenate and its power for our entire community. But unfortunately it is surprisingly rare that the preacher takes this opportunity in its fullness.

Often we will baptize infants on this day. Often we will say the Baptismal Covenant rather than the Nicene Creed. But often the preacher puts neither of these in the context of the formation and preparation that should take place prior to the celebration and prior to our proclamation of the Covenant.

The Collect and Scripture passages are ripe for such teachings!

The Collect: “Father in Heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the Covenant they have made and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” This prayer, in and of itself, has sufficient material for a sermon!

The readings — Genesis 1: 1-5 “in the beginning…” that tells us of the beginning of new life; new life created and sustained by God; new holy life; Acts 10: 1-7 that tells of Paul’s visit to Corinth where he makes the distinction of John’s baptism of repentance and the Christian baptism into the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit; Mark 1: 4-11 that gives us Mark’s account of John baptizing in the wilderness “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” and the difference in John’s baptism of Jesus in which the Holy Spirit is a visible part of the baptism. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? How does it differ from a baptism of repentance? Both involve water. Both involve repentance, conversion, transformation (three different words to name the same miracle, the radical change of one’s life). Acts gives us a hint of the distinction. Those baptized with the Holy Spirit “spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

We expect to see, yes, actually see, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit witnessed to in the change of the newly baptized behavior. We can expect this. We need to expect this because they witness to us that we too can be transformed. We can continue to be transformed. The new behavior may not involve literally speaking in tongues but it will involve living an entirely new way, it will be prophesying through one’s new life of service and prayer and worship.

To say we expect to see this change is not overstating the requirement. The bar is raised for all of us as we participate in a new baptism. It is raised for all Christians as we join those to be baptized in donning the Baptismal Covenant and adjusting it once again for our new growth. For those being baptized the bar is high but attainable because the Holy Spirit makes it high and attainable in the formation process that is the Catechumenate.

All of this needs to be taught in the sermon for The Baptism of our Lord. It can be said in many ways. But it needs to be preached in order to teach those to be baptized and us baptized the context for our baptism and renewal of baptism. Otherwise we need to join with Paul in asking, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit where you were baptized?” “Into what were you baptized?” And the opportunity to preach about what the meaning and act of baptizing comes around once more.

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Stuff

Actually this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That’s all, a little place for my stuff. That’s all I want, that’s all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody’s got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else’s stuff is all over the place! And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven’t used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven’t moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there’s usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there’s NO ROOM for your stuff on it. Somebody else’s shit is on the dresser.

Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff? God! And you say, “Get that shit offa there and let me put my stuff down!

Sometimes you leave your house to go on vacation. And you gotta take some of your stuff with you. Gotta take about two big suitcases full of stuff, when you go on vacation. You gotta take a smaller version of your house. It’s the second version of your stuff. And you’re gonna fly all the way to Honolulu. Gonna go across the continent, across half an ocean to Honolulu. You get down to the hotel room in Honolulu and you open up your suitcase and you put away all your stuff. “Here’s a place here, put a little bit of stuff there, put some stuff here, put some stuff–you put your stuff there, I’ll put some stuff–here’s another place for stuff, look at this, I’ll put some stuff here…” And even though you’re far away from home, you start to get used to it, you start to feel okay, because after all, you do have some of your stuff with you. That’s when your friend calls up from Maui, and says, “Hey, why don’tchya come over to Maui for the weekend and spend a couple of nights over here.”

Oh, no! Now what do I pack? Right, you’ve gotta pack an even SMALLER version of your stuff. The third version of your house. Just enough stuff to take to Maui for a coupla days. You get over to Maui–I mean you’re really getting extended now, when you think about it. You got stuff ALL the way back on the mainland, you got stuff on another island, you got stuff on this island. I mean, supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain. You get over to your friend’s house on Maui and he gives you a little place to sleep, a little bed right next to his windowsill or something. You put some of your stuff up there. You put your stuff up there. You got your Visine, you got your nail clippers, and you put everything up. It takes about an hour and a half, but after a while you finally feel okay, say, “All right, I got my nail clippers, I must be okay.” That’s when your friend says, “Aaaaay, I think tonight we’ll go over the other side of the island, visit a pal of mine and maybe stay over.”

Aww, no. NOW what do you pack? Right–you gotta pack an even SMALLER version of your stuff. The fourth version of your house. Only the stuff you know you’re gonna need. Money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hanky, pen, smokes, rubber and change. Well, only the stuff you HOPE you’re gonna need.” — George Carlin.

Recently I helped clean out a house. The owner had died and her children had to get rid of all of her stuff in order to sell the house. They wanted to get the house on the market this year so we were under a tight timeline to clear out the stuff.

For the first few days Mary and I inventoried much of the stuff. The criteria was whether or not someone in the family would want part of the stuff. Another was to make sure we inventoried gifts that various family members had given to the deceased so that each would get their particular gifts back. There were some very nice things among the stuff: Waterford crystal, china sets that had been in the family for several generations, sets of “every day” plates, silver ware, everyday tableware, an entire collection of English village Christmas houses, pictures of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, kitchen appliances, furniture, and so much more stuff.

After inventoried what we thought was much of the stuff, the person’s children met and divided up what each wanted. The first criteria was “did you gift the item or set?” It’s yours. That took care of most of the crystal and fine china. Then there were the “legacy” items — things that each connected with memories of the deceased. Finally there were items that one or the other might find useful — kitchen appliances, lamps, televisions, tools and so much more stuff. We established a table for items that people might want. All of the rest wold go to charity.

I packed boxes and boxes of books. Since I am reticent to collect any books, I took very few even though there were art books, history books, and literary works that were tempting. We did keep a few books that were by family members, including the person who had passed away. The rest went to a charity. I realized how used book stores get so many od items that don’t seem relevant anymore. For example, I packed a set of encyclopedias and the accompanying “year books” from 1976 to 2018. Two of the daughters collected clothes, shoes, purses in large bags that went to a charity.

There was a lot of furniture. We took several arm chairs, a sofa and several chests of drawers with us. Some family members took a few items. But a very nice china hutch, book cases, bed side tables, media centers, and sofas went to charities. A lot was given away. Better than dumping it.

Why not an estate sale? Not enough time. The family wants to get the house on the market before we go into the holiday season when there are fewer opportunities to sell.

I am being judgmental in this blog. I like to think that I am not materialistic and enamored by stuff. I like to think that I could give “it” all away and become monastic. I know that I could and would “divest” myself of a lot of the stuff in my life if given a chance. I do some of that. But I am not put to the test very much on this. “Divesting” for me means throwing away rather than giving away. I need to get in the mode of realizing that what is stuff to me is of value to others who do not have my wealth. Right now, I need to continue what I can to not get burdened and trapped by my stuff.

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Endless Advent (Advent and the Pandemic) — Shared Thoughts

Like many other Christians I have been reflecting on how our time the season of advent in which we celebrate the disciplines of patience and fruitful waiting can serve us as we continue to look forward to the end of this pandemic. In her reflection for The Christian Century, Heidy Haverkamp says it so much better than I could.

Endless Advent [reflections on Lk 2:1-20]

“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters from Prison. “One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are of no real consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”

Perhaps being shut in quarantine is a kind of Advent, too: waiting, hoping, and doing many things that seem to have no real consequence. It sounds all too familiar. 2020 has felt like week after week of an old-school, medieval Advent— complete with penance, contrition, exile, and apocalyptic visions.

What does that mean for Christians when Christmas arrives? A jail sentence is over when, as Bonhoeffer writes, the door is “opened from the outside” and the prisoner is set free. (Or, more ominously, when a sentence ends in death, as Bonhoeffer’s did.) The liturgical season of Advent ends, clearly and definitely, at Christmas. But we don’t really know when the Advent of 2020 will come to an end.

We don’t know when an effective vaccine will be widely available and administered to most people. We don’t know when or how the political strife and uncertainty of these recent times will be ended or healed. We don’t know how or when the work of so many for racial justice will materialize into policy changes or reforms.

This year, maybe Christians in the developed world will finally find ourselves with the tables turned, when those in the developing world can plausibly ask if we know that it’s Christmas. We may be wondering this ourselves: Is this Christmas? Does it feel like Christmas? So much of what we are waiting for in our personal lives, communities, and nation are things that we will still be waiting for after Christmas, and for quite a long time afterward.

When this long Advent of 2020 (and let’s face it, 2021 and beyond) comes to end, how will we know? What will that Christmas feel like? It won’t be a single day, like waking up to presents under the tree, or a prison door swung open, or a day when “everything is normal” again.

On the night Jesus was born, it wasn’t that everything suddenly became safe or peaceful. The Roman Empire continued; war, disease, and poverty were not eliminated. And yet, a new door on the journey toward salvation was opened. God came to earth, to live and die as one of us and to teach us about a different kind of freedom—a freedom to love without fear of death, pain, or shame. Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the door,” in the King James translation of John 10:9: “by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” There is no longer any prison or lockdown that can take our truest freedom, our relationship with our God. Bonhoeffer also wrote in Letters from Prison, “May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.”

And as the season of Advent tries to remind us every year, we will in fact always be living in the season of Advent—because, in the end, the only one who will open the door to the other side of the kingdom, on a day we do not know, is Christ.

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Matthew 20: 1-16 — Gifts. Grace.

 Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What is the Kingdom of God? Is it the landowner? Is it his vineyard? Is it all of his land and his ability to hire laborers for his vineyard? Is the whole parable a description of the Kingdom? I usually get caught up with the story, the supposed “meat” of the parable” that follows the “set up” but the set up is ambiguous.

Certainly the 1st Lesson pericopes seem to support the supposition that this passage is about God’s generosity and our tendency to always look for more. There are two optional passages. The first is Exodus 16: 2-15. The “whole congregation of the Israelites” complain against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The people think they will die from hunger. God spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Tell them I will send manna (the term means “food” which is more generic than the usual interpretation of “bread). The other possible 1st Lesson pericope is Jonah 3: 10-4:11. Jonah is angry that God has saved Nineveh after Jonah told them that they were doomed. Now Jonah looks like a false prophet. God’s response to Jonah’s anger is that God sees the big picture and can show mercy to whomever God wants.

To strengthen the context even more, the 2nd lesson is Philippians 1:21-30. Paul is advising the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.” Given our context, this could loosely be interpreted as both your joyful living and your suffering are good because you live in Christ.

So back to the Gospel passage. It seems that at least one message is that it is that we should be happy about the gifts we have been given. “Don’t worry; be happy” as the song advises. Do not look at others and feel cheated. Interestingly the passage does not talk about some of the laborers getting more than others. They all get the same. Those who work the whole day think they should get more but the is up to the landowner.

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. What does it mean to be first or last. In a different passage Jesus advises to take a chair lower at the table. Do not exalt yourself. The host (the landowner?) may invite you to sit further up. In both cases it is someone else’s decision, not mine.

Still, what are we to take from this passage? If we see ourselves as the laborers, it may not matter when we are called. We are all in the Kingdom. (Possibly others are as well.). What maters is that we recognize that Grace comes from the landowner. It is ours to recognize as blessing. It is ours to accept. There is no “more” or “less.” Grace is.

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Utopia, Optimism, Dystopia

On September 11, 2001, our daughter was seven years old. We all woke up that morning to a horrific “accident” at the World Trade Center. It very quickly became apparent that this was not an accident; it was an attack on the United States. I remember telling her that we were going to take her to school and that either Mary or I would find out what had happened and come back for her if we needed to. She remained calm but noticeably alarmed.

Jacquelyn is a “millennial.” Her generation mainly knows a post-9/11 world. This is a world of insecurity and catastrophic world threats. Theirs is a world of lethal climate change conditions, nationalistic right wing rulers and pandemics. They really enjoy dystopian stories of human survival in an entire different world. That world is the one of “Blade Runner,” or Ender’s Game,” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They enjoy these in both print and film. The world is one of living in destruction here on Earth or of escaping Earth to live as strangers in a strange new land. (Is the moon the new land?) They have strong doubts that life and love always stronger than death and hate?

As Debby Irving writes in “Waking Up White,” mine is a generation of optimism. (These meanderings are inspired by reading a chapter in which she characterizes our generation, the Boomers.) We were born after Word War II. It was the era of the postwar GI bill and all of the increased prosperity that the Bill brought so many Americans. Our parents acquired new houses, new cars, televisions, kitchen appliances and more and more stuff. Americans had saved Europe and the world from fascist dictators and a Japanese Emperor whose people would die for him. We had the nuclear bomb, the ultimate weapon. Yes, we were soon in the Cold War with Russia but we would win that too.

Doubts started creeping into this optimistic perspective fairly soon. We are not able to force Russia out of Korea and had to settle for a treaty that still hasn’t ended that war. But then JFK, the young, vibrant idealist, came along to boost our spirits. But the Vietnam War came along as well and the doubts returned. However, the bottom line remained: we are Americans and we can achieve anything we set our minds to. We can walk on the moon. We can make progress in civil rights. We have the Peace Corp and can right the wrongs that exist throughout the world.

Irving talks about seeing oherelf as one of the “privileged” during her upbringing. She was born into an East Coast family who traced its roots to colonial America. “Waking Up White…” is her story about becoming aware of that privileged status. One of her points is that if she is “privileged,” then there are those who are not privileged. Who are they? What does it mean to be something other than privileged? Her larger thesis is that most white people in America and certainly those of us reading her book are among the privileged.

Are “privileged” and “blessed” the same? My parents were poor. They came from upper New York farming families and made the adventurous trip to Fort Lewis, Washington. My dad had been assigned there during the War. But they didn’t quite get there. They stopped in Grants Pass, Oregon to pick apples and pears in order to make enough money for the last miles of their journey. They ended up staying in Gr4ants Pass. All of us children grew up on a farm. We counted our blessings. The one major tragedy that entered our lives and almost shattered our family was our brother Damian’s death. But we grew up believing that we were and are blessed, but certainly not privileged. On the other hand we were somewhat like those families that Irving describes. There were no negroes in Grants Pass, at least not until LBJ’s War on Poverty program established a Job Corps center outside of town. My parents were among those who were vocally against the center. I didn’t know that negroes were actually human beings like me until I met some kids from Portland’s inner city while working at a summer camp during my senior year of high school.

What is the opposite of a dystopian world view? Possibly a utopian one. This summer I attended a virtual lecture (via Zoom) on the 19th century transcendental utopian movement in New York. Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed at Blithedale for awhile. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in several utopian communities. Bronson and Abby Alcott were part of the movement and founders of a couple of utopian communities. They raised Louisa May Alcott in the utopian Fruitlands community. Henry David Thoreau was a family friend. Utopians believe that human beings are not only called to be better but can be so. They try to demonstrate through their communal life what that something better looks like. There is no particular generational name for utopians. They have been part of Western societies for centuries. In fact the writer of Luke-Acts describes a early Christian utopia in chapter 2 of Acts: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. There were numerous such communities in the eastern part of the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some had a core Christian belief system. Others were more humanistic in nature. The ones to which Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts found themselves drawn were part of the Transcendental movement of the day.

Dystopians look past the current world and believe that it is coming to a bleak end. Survival will be in a very different, bleaker world, if we survive at all. Utopians look at the current world and wish for something better. Both are different from the Boomers. We are optimists. We see what is and believe that not only can there be a better world but that we can and will make it so.

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Matthew 18: 15-20 — Reconciliation and Forgiveness

When our daughter, Jacquelyn, was in middle school, she was in a rehearsal for a play with other classmates and students. The teacher/director had a sign on the gymnasium door that read, “Do Not Disturb. Practice in Session.” She often held the students over the time rehearsal was supposed to be finished. This angered me and I talked to a couple of the other parents about it. These parents were friends of mine. One evening just after the rehearsal ended, I marched up to the teacher. I made a big scene by publicly going up to her and telling her that we parents had other things to do than wait around as she took extra time for the rehearsals. I said this in a loud voice. There were still children around. Later the head mistress of the school demanded that I apologize to the teacher. She threatened to pull me off of the Parent Board if I did not apologize. So I did, even though I still thought the teacher was in the wrong. Months later I realized how embarrassed the teacher must have by my reprimand in front of her students.

We have been having some repair work done on our house. On the first day, one of the workers kept leaving the old wood they were removing with nail points facing up. My father always told me not to do this. I have carried that safety point with me. I turned over a plank without saying anything to the worker but I suspect he saw me do that. Soon he placed another on the ground in the same manner. When I saw it, I urned that one over as well. He soon placed another one with nail points up and I decided to leave it but I did not say anything to him. When his supervisor arrived a little later, I told him that I am concerned about work place safety and wold like it if the workers were more careful about placing wood with nail points down. The crew was present. He apologized and then turned to the crew and said something to them in Ukrainian.

I have often reflected on the first incident and others like it, including the most recent. I see something that goes against my principals and I try to correct it by saying something to the person, in front of others. This not not what Jesus tells us to do in this passage. Instead, we are to go to the person and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. This is the kinder thing to do. In both cases I could have spoken to the other person in private but, subconsciously, wanted to make a show of my righteousness. This may have resulted in a change of ways. Instead, it caused a rift between us.

We all fail every day. We often fail in front of others. We often hurt others through our failures. The two incidents described above are about my failures as much as, if not more than, the other person’s offense. I could just as easily be taken before the assembly. “If such an offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This seems strange because, elsewhere in the Gospel (perhaps not in Matthew) Jesus teaches that Gentiles and tax collectors are welcomed into the Kingdom, into the church.

I often see and feel others sin against me. But I usually do not have the courage to “go and point out the fault” when we are alone. I often do not take the time to compose myself so that I am not confrontational. I often do not use the formula,”When you do or say X, I feel Y.” This passage carries a heavy burden. If the offender does not follow the “rules” of the church, he can be treated like a Gentile or tax collector. She can be excommunicated. But, in the process, I and the one or two others I take with me and, eventually, the entire church, may find ourselves cast out. This is why reconciliation is done between God (through the confessor) and the one person. This is why I need to take the first step toward reconciliation. I may judge the other wrong but, in the judgment, I carry guilt for not recognizing and proclaiming the infinite divine love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed.

“What ever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This passage includes the justification the church has used down through the centuries for “confession” and for excommunication. And history and society have often showed the error in the church’s judgements and actions. This passage ends with the reminder “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This is not a justification for judging others. It is a reminder to restrain ourselves from judging.

Before I rush to bind, I need to step back and remember that Jesus is among us. I need to be conscious of this. Even if my sister or brother is not conscious of this, by having Jesus with me, I bring him into our meeting. If I step back, if I reflect, if I use the “when you do this, I feel that” formula, if I remember that I am a follower of Jesus, I will see fewer (if any) reasons for me to confront others about their sins against me. I will learn humility about my sins against them.

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Mt 16: 13-20. Who do you say that I am?

There is much that comes to mind when reflecting on this passage. I tell the candidates that this is the central question of all four gospels. Is it? John does not have Jesus asking the question. Maybe that’s because John’s gospel is loaded with “I am” proclamations. But it is central for the three Synoptics. Matthew, Mark and Luke spend their entire gospels trying to answer the question. We spend our entire Christian lives trying to figure out the answer as well.

So my personal question is “Who is Jesus for me?” And I will try to give my personal answer here (rather than go off on some safe, impersonal theological discourse). And my expression of this personal answer might be different in an hour or in a day or in a year. Often times I don’t know the answer because I don’t stop to think about how to give an answer. Jesus is the historical person who was so open and honest with people that he called them to live and to be better. He lived this in such a way that they (and I?) saw the Holy through him. He is the person who, when he was crucified as a criminal, could not be accepted as a criminal by those who knew him, especially his closest companions. They came to believe that he was very different. But I suspect they didn’t realize that at the time of his death. Then they were simply filled with grief, like so many are when a loved one passes into new life.

But the story is that they came gradually to see that he was, in some way or another, still with them. And they tried to express that in many ways. “I have seen Jesus and he is my Lord! He proclaimed a wonderful message that God loves you and me and everyone with no exception, with no limitations, with infinite forgiveness of our inability to ever do enough!” Then they tried to elaborate on that with “He is risen!” and all of the expressions both in word and in deed that have followed.

I still am not sure who I say he is. I am not sure why I continue to feel the call of Jesus’ moral commands. I tell people that it is because I know deep within that Jesus is Lord. But I don’t know what that means for me. I celebrate that he was raised. But I don’t know what that means for me. I am involved in the catechumenate in order that others may answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” ever more clearly in their lives, but I don’t know what that means even when I see it in them and hear them proclaim it.

We are transformed. Is it more than a feeling? It is if and when we try to live the Christian life. It all comes down to this. Why do you do what you do? And that is why I’m not sure what my answer is. It is never enough. Neither my words or my deeds are anywhere near adequate to answer the question. But Jesus’ message is that they are and they aren’t. It is because any response, so far as it is an attempt to do what is good and life giving and life sustaining and that brings joy into others life, and perhaps into mine, is good. It is never enough because I fall short of meeting the standard that is packed into the words of Peter’s response “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” That is why I pray yet know that I can pray “better.” That is why I do what I do (sometimes) and know that I can do better.

My personal frustration with being a follower of Jesus, a follower of a person who leads me, in some mysterious way, to the Holy, is that whatever I do is never enough. For some people that is a reason not to be part of “a religion.” You are never good enough. But with Christianity that doesn’t matter. None of us gets “there,” gets to fully see and touch the Divine. That is what it is to be human.

Thoughts like these are theological meanderings. They are what is expressed in the basic, primal, first witness accounts that Paul’s letters embody and that are set down in the Gospel stories. They are what is expressed in the creeds and in all of the theological and mystical expressions down through 2,000 plus years of pondering like I am doing here. They are what led Karl Rahner, for example, to talk and write so much about grace. They are what preachers try to express to us in every homily and sermon.

And acts of kindness and love (be they random or not) are how we physically express these thoughts. This is where the letters of James come in. They and the Gospels remind us that our Christian answers to “Who do you say that I am?” can never be only cerebral responses. We must put our faith into action. That is what I try to do and what I fall so short of doing.

Thank you God, who is revealed through Jesus, for helping me do and try to do. And thank you for the knowledge that my failings are forgiven and that I am loved even when I do not love enough. Thank you for the knowledge and belief that love is always stronger than death.

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