Sunday, February 25, 2018

2 Lent B, 2018: Get behind me, Satan!

Lectionary: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30 ; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

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En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I am aware that there are at least two puppies establishing their relationships with two families in this congregation. It’s such an exciting time, integrating a furry family member. The way we teach the puppies to relate to the people in our family, our homes, our furniture, our shoes… will determine the quality of our lives for the next 10-20 years.

The relationship we want to form with our pets takes time to build and it requires patience, discipline, and forgiveness. The same can be said about our relationship with God.

Our Scriptures today hold up for us today the concept of righteousness, that is, right relationship with God. So what exactly is righteousness?

The dictionary defines righteousness as something that is morally right or justifiable. It says a righteous person is virtuous, in other words, their behavior that is morally right.

By comparison, our Judeo-Christian tradition takes a radically different approach to this concept. For us, righteousness is right relationship, it’s a quality from within us, and the fruit of righteousness is wholeness, harmony, and peace, joy, and love. And righteousness, our relationship with God, is life.

For example, our story from Genesis describes how God invited Abraham into relationship. God offered Abraham a covenant, that is, a formal agreement – a contract – saying, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful…” Remember, he’s 99 years old and has no son, and God says, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful… I will make nations of you” and I will bring life from Sarah’s barren womb and I will make nations rise from her… “ I will keep this covenant with your descendants too. It will be an everlasting covenant.

Abraham’s part in the contract was to accept the offer, despite what earthly barriers seemed in the way. I love the part of Paul’s letter to the Romans (he rarely makes me laugh, but this time he did!) where he discusses this: “He did not weaken in the faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about 100 years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made [Abraham] waiver…”

That is righteousness… that is right relationship.

Compare that now with Peter, blessed Peter, who waivers… But I, for one, am grateful that he did. I waiver too.

Jesus is preparing his disciples for a difficult season in their relationship, one that will illustrate to them the cost of righteousness. He tells them that he is about to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leadership, and be executed, after which he will rise again.

Peter must have quit listening before that last part, because he pulls Jesus aside and rebukea him privately: ‘Say it ain’t so!’ Peter’s love of Jesus, his respect and admiration for him, and his wisdom about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah are barriers to his being able to look beyond the earthly circumstances to the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus and these circumstances in which that plan will be fulfilled.

Jesus responds to Peter publicly indicating that this is an important lesson for all of his followers, not just his rock. So looking at the disciples, Jesus hit Peter with these biting words: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” How are we to understand this?

Do you remember last week I said we should do a word study on ‘satan’? Let’s do al little bit of that right now…

In her book, “The Origin of Satan,” theologian Elaine Pagels teaches us this: The Hebrew term “the satan” describes an adversarial role, not a particular character. Since the 6th century the supernatural character has been discussed in Hebrew commentary as one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The word “satan” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.” If the path is bad, the obstruction is good, thus the satan may have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. (pp 39, 40)

That’s how the idea of Satan started. So, I’m glad Jesus called Peter Satan, because it makes it impossible to veer off into the weird and unbiblical path of the personified Satan of our more recent Protestant-leaning brothers and sisters. Satan is not a red demon guy with a tail and pitchfork who is waiting to trick believers away from God. We’re perfectly capable of going astray ourselves.

Besides, if we believe in the power and efficacy of our Baptism, and Jesus’ own words that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt 28:20), then we can’t be tricked into unrighteousness. It isn’t possible. We can choose to go there. We can also choose to repent – to return to God.

Is evil real? Absolutely. I have personally confronted it. It’s real. But ‘evil’ and ‘satan’ are not synonyms. That’s another word study for another day…

Like Peter, we all waiver, but for God, whose glory it is to always have mercy, even our moments of unrighteousness can be used by God to restore us to righteousness and to further God’s plan toward its fulfillment. That’s why Peter is the quintessential disciple in formation.

Peter eventually did get there – after denying Jesus three times, abandoning him at his crucifixion, initially doubting his resurrection, and fighting with Paul (and losing) over whether Gentiles could become followers of the Way of Christ. Then God spoke to Peter in a dream which transformed him and set him on the path of righteousness, enabling him to fulfill his divine purpose as the rock upon which Christ built the church.

And that’s the point… God is always faithful to God’s covenant to us which is: I will be your God and you will be my people.

God is gracious, merciful, patient, and steadfast… God does not give up on us but continually gives us the time, support, and resources we need to grow into our divine purpose. So when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan” he was teaching Peter and the other disciples (and us) this important lesson:

‘You can’t be my follower if you are in front of me telling me how it ought to go. Get behind me and follow me. I am God whose glory it is always to have mercy. I will lead. Remember, you can only see from an earthly perspective. I see with divine sight. Trust me. Get behind me, and follow me.”

As we journey deeper into Lent, deeper into that wilderness where the wild beasts of temptation lead us to dare to tell God how to proceed according to our plan, Jesus reminds us to follow him. Sometimes the lesson stings at first, but the mercy of God is in it – guaranteed.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent 1B, 2018: The divine embrace

Lectionary: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

When our kids were little, they honestly believed that Steve and I could help them understand any mystery they confronted, or solve any problem that arose in their lives. Then they became teenagers and we suddenly knew nothing – until they got to their twenties, when we became smart again!

Of course, Steve and I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand the mysteries of life, and we can’t solve every problem that arises for our children, though we will give it our best. But the innocence of a child’s total trust in their parents’ care for them is a beautiful thing, and parents must be faithful to that trust. Even really good parents, however, aren’t perfect, but God is.

God alone is steadfast in faithfulness, compassion, grace, and mercy, and deserving of our total trust. In our relationship with God, we strive for the kind of innocent faith that knows absolutely that, even knowing our weaknesses and mistakes, God loves us, and is willing and able to help us anytime… every time we need it.

Lent is the time we trust God enough to examine the mysteries that confound us as Christians, as people. It’s the time we trust God’s compassion enough to re-examine our own approach to people or situations in our world and hold our response up to God’s response to us. Are we as compassionate, merciful, and generous to them as God is to us?

This week we have all been grieving the deaths of 17 children killed by a mass shooter in southern FL. This is just the latest chapter in a horrible story of the sin of mass murder to which our country needs to respond. Like most of the mass shootings in our country, it’s us killing our own.

Have you been watching the responses online? It’s a bit dizzying and (for me, at least) soul-killing to hear the vitriolic, hate-filled responses when a person puts their opinion out there on social media. It doesn’t even matter what side of the fence their on, someone will attack them for it.

So what do we do? How do we confront this moment and address this problem? Where is our all-knowing parent to make sense of our collective chaos?

God is present with us always, even to the end of the age, so we go to God who speaks to us through Scripture, tradition, and reason, as theologian Richard Hooker used to say, and in the divine providence of God, our Scripture today is revelatory to our current circumstance. Today’s reading from Genesis is a reminder of God’s covenant relationship with us. To understand this covenant, however, we need to go back for a minute to the creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis. In the beginning, the chaos waters covered the earth and God calmed them, and brought order to the chaos. (Gen 1:6)

In the story of Noah, the chaos waters are again covering the earth, destroying everything. The chaos waters symbolize the consequence of human sin.

The Creator looks upon the devastating effect of sin on creation and brings order to the chaos again, because that is the character of God. As the psalmist reminds us: God is “gracious and upright,” God “teaches sinners” the way to go and “guides the humble” (that is, those who will let God be God), onto the right path. And the psalmist continues: “all the paths of God are love and faithfulness” to those who keep their end of the covenant. (Ps 25)

So God, seeing the destructive effects of sin on creation, breathes the breath of life over the earth again, calming the chaos and removing the power of sin to destroy. Then the Creator invites the created to renew the covenant – which is simply this: I will be your God, and you will be my people. Then God puts a rainbow in the sky as an everlasting reminder of this covenant. (Gen 1:14-15)

Doesn’t your heart sing just a little every time you see a rainbow? Mine does! I think heaven rejoices in me just a little when I see this everlasting reminder of our covenant.

On Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel called us to open our hearts so that we could let God in. Now God is doing the same. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God opens heaven and lets us in. In this baptism, humanity and divinity were joined one to another, not just ritually, or conceptually, but actually - in Jesus. This is where Jesus becomes the first-born: the first time the divine and human co-exists in a human body. We are the next born through him. Think about that…

Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit of God drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by satán, who opposes God, and where the wild beasts threaten his very survival.

That is exactly what we are called to do during Lent: to go into the wilderness, knowing that we will be tempted, and trusting our survival to God. We’re called to devote time to be in the presence of God in the fullness of our humanity, so that we can remember who God is to us, and who we are to God. In this wilderness, we’re called to remember what tempts us to sin, and repent of it.

Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, calls sin “a wretched and continual contrariness to peace and love.” (John Skinner, ed., Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 137.) Julian likens a sinner to a headstrong toddler who, she says, must be free to run and explore her little world if she is to grow to maturity, but who inevitably falls, tearing her clothing and becoming hurt and dirty.

[The child] cries out – not to a God of punishment but to a loving mother Christ. (This was a revolutionary concept for the Middle Ages – Christ as a loving mother!) The loving mother [Christ] picks up the toddler, cleans and comforts it, then holds it close again.” (Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening, the Art of Spiritual Direction [Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1992]) 27.

That is the gift and fruit of repentance: being held close in the loving embrace of God. Repentance means choosing to lay aside our shame and guilt, and asking to be lifted up so we can rest in the lap of our Creator.

As we grieve the 17 children lost in Parkland, FL, and the children and educators at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and on and on… we, as a nation, are confronting our contrariness to peace and love, our sin. This is the wild beast that threatens our survival. As comic strip character Pogo once said so wisely: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

As long as we humans live, we will fall into sin. As we do, we must look at ourselves and our responses in this chaotic moment. Are we trusting God and participating as people of God? Have our responses to others as they react or respond (which are different things) been compassionate, gracious, and merciful? Have we noticed our own internal responses and risked laying aside our shame and guilt in order to listen and act to restore peace and love?

We are all culpable, and we are all suffering, because we are all one.

Each child lost in Parkland FL is our child. Each teacher who gave their life protecting the children, is our sister or brother. Even the shooter, who is 15 years old, is our child. We are, all of us, children of God; one family, one people.

God has lost children this week and God is grieving. And so are wel We are hurting, confused, angry, and confounded about how to go forward. This is when we run like the headstrong toddler Julian described, back to the lap of God, with our knees skinned, and our egos bruised.

This is when we remember the covenant and trust that God our Father is able and willing to save; and Christ our Mother will lift us onto his lap, clean us off, comfort us, and give us a divine hug that will fill us with divine peace and love and grace and mercy. Then we jump off the lap of God and bear those divine gifts into the world which so desperately needs them.

Let us pray…

Gracious and merciful God, as we rise from the chaos waters, fall gently upon us; we ask you to lift us up and embrace us, fill us to overflowing with your divine presence, that we may trust you to be our God and recommit ourselves to be your people, in the name of Jesus, the first-born of our race, with whom you are well pleased. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, 2018: Choosing Lent

Ash Wednesday: Choosing New Life to be Formed in Us

Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

(Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.)

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. On this day, we gather as a people in solemn assembly to pray and answer God's continuing call to us to return with all our hearts.

We fast (if we can), and we mark the sign of our salvation - the cross of Christ – on our foreheads with the dust of ashes. These are traditional symbols of repentance and humility before God. By doing these things today, we also mark these next five weeks of Lent as different.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners (despite what you heard in the Collect), and we don't fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply.

That is what our Lenten journey is about.

Lent is a time to get honest about the God of all mercy who is full of compassion, slow to anger, forgives our sins, and cares for us deeply, intimately, with a sacrificial love that knows no bounds. Lent is also the time we get honest about ourselves. We are all wonderfully made by our Creator, who hates us not.

But we often forget to live as if that's true – in other words, we sin. Every one of us will find ourselves, at times, lacking the will to be compassionate toward someone else especially when it involves some amount of sacrifice on our part. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly – if at all.

And we can be, at times, so preoccupied with ourselves and our own – stuff, people, thoughts - that we become blind to the fact that all around us, others of God's kin are suffering – lacking food, friendship, or hope. Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction – and we can be addicted to many things: being the center of attention, food, alcohol or drugs, work, the news, misery, or power. We can even be addicted to “good” things like exercise, vitamin-taking, or otherwise healthy endeavors.

Whatever takes our attention and distracts us from our purpose… that’s what addiction does.

The word "Lent" means spring. It is a time when new life is being formed; and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God.

The temptation we face is in thinking that we need to choose what to do or stop doing for Lent. We don't do Lent. God does it. We simply choose to let Lent (new life) be formed in us and we do that by faith.

The hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. As Americans, this is probably our greatest besetting sin. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it.

That's why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus' death and resurrection, we have no fear of death, not even the little ones like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, or our neighbors.

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways we can use to respond to God's call to us to return with our whole hearts. Prayer brings us into the presence of God, the same God who created us, knows our humanity, and hates us not. The same God who gave up his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. The same God whose Spirit dwells in us and invites us to receive a seed of new life in our hearts.

Fasting reminds us of our mortality and our real limitations as humans, and it provides a way for us to experience solidarity with those who truly hunger. Most of us here know we will have another meal… and when we will have it. So when we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice, and alsmgiving is the way we can do that.

Our Lenten practices aren't about success or failure. You can’t fail Lent! If you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can't fast from food –don't. That’s not what this is about. We can fast from lots of other things: criticizing, complaining, or estrangement. Last year I asked my husband to fast from the news because the constant exposure to the stressful information was raising his blood pressure and I want him around for a long time.

Remember when we used to watch the news twice a day… in the morning and in the evening? Now the news is 24-hours a day, non-stop. We are over-exposed. And much of it isn’t news at all – its commentary. So, if watching the news distracts you from your Lenten self-emptying, limit your exposure to it. If anything of real import happens, one of us will let you know.

One last thing… Our bishop, +José McLoughlin, posted a video – his message to us for Lent. Bishop José asks us to consider adding to our Lenten discipline some practice of “taking up” such as taking up a new ministry, or a new attitude. He offers that the practice of “taking up” is about a new way of being, for example, being a voice of good news in the midst of uncertainty or being present and speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Self-emptying and taking up. This is our Lenten journey.

We don't score points for praying or fasting or taking up a new way of being, and we don't get demerits for not doing those things, because, remember, we don't DO Lent. We choose it: we choose to make space in our lives and in our hearts for God to form new life in us.

Let us pray…

God of all, you love all you have made. Show us how to empty ourselves of all that isn’t loving and plant the seeds of new life, new love in us. For we desire to love as you have loved us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The love of God is what's real

In the story from Exodus, we hear the voice of God speaking the Law to the people of Israel. God gave the Law to guide us on how to be in right relationship with ourselves (our bodies and souls), with one another, and with God.

Deviation from the Law causes harm and eventually destroys the bonds of love between people and between a people and their God. It is for this reason that the Psalmist proclaims the law of God to be perfect and just, clean and enduring. It protects life and preserves love. (Ps 19)

Try as we might, however, we cannot keep the law entirely. We sin. We let some idol or another take the place of God in our lives: career, money, reputation, self-loathing, revenge, or control. Whatever idol lures us, it steals our loyalty and attention from God and eventually destroys the bonds of love in our lives. Ask any addict or the family of an addict.

The Law helps us to remember that we sin when we fail to give God priority in our lives. We sin when we fail to appreciate the abundance of gifts God is already pouring upon us and the gifts God is waiting for us to open ourselves to receive. How often do we fail to see what we have because we’re looking elsewhere at what we think we want?

I know of a woman who was engaged to an already married man for a year and a half. This woman found a way to understand this as if it weren’t adultery. We humans are gifted at fooling ourselves into thinking our sin isn’t really sin. The Psalmist calls this presumptuous sin and asks God to “cleanse us from our secret faults,” faults that are a secret to us, not to God.

The thing about sin is that is distracts us from what is real by tempting us with what isn’t real. And for this woman it sounded something like this: ‘I want a certain lifestyle and he seems to have it. If I have him, I have the life I want. Never mind that he’s married; that marriage never should have happened anyway (everyone says so), so ending it is really the right thing to do.’ But once married to this man, the woman finds out that the life she desired didn’t materialize. The reason is, it wasn’t real.

So what is real? God is real. God’s unfathomable love is real. God’s plan of salvation for the whole world fulfilled in Jesus Christ is real. God’s promises are real. The cross of Christ was real, as was the empty tomb. Forgiveness of our sin is real. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our midst is real.

During Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb 14, we stop and take notice of our sin, being still and listening for the voice of God. Running through the motions won’t do the trick. We might be able to fool ourselves, but there’s no fooling God. As St. Paul says, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1Cor 1:20) True wisdom is found on the cross of Christ where we have salvation by the forgiveness of our sins.

We don’t, therefore, have to avoid our sins – we couldn't if we tried. We only have to be willing to repent of them, to change our direction and go a different way.

Like St. Paul, I am convinced that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Ro 8:38-39). With assurance like that, we have the confidence to repent year after year, time after time, and return to the love of God who never ceases to sustain us.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Epiphany Last, 2018: Receive the overshadowing

Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Mountains, clouds, and dazzling light... Today’s gospel story is filled with symbolic language! Let’s take a closer look…

Jesus leads Peter, James and John away from the other disciples, up to “a high mountain” which is biblical language for the place where God is met and heard. Suddenly, their friend and rabbi begins to shine with a dazzling light – biblical language for the presence of God. In that moment the veil between earth and heaven is lifted, and the two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, biblical heroes who were long dead, are suddenly right there for Peter, James, and John to see… and they’re talking with Jesus, like… that’s what dead prophets do, of course!

Excited and a not a little bit confused, Peter suggests they build a memorial to mark this amazing moment, but before he can finish speaking, he and the other disciples are “overshadowed” by a cloud which is biblical language for the formless yet visible presence of the Spirit of God. This is the same overshadowing that happened to Moses on Mt. Sinai when he received the 10 commandments, and it’s the same overshadowing that happened to Mary when she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

When God overshadows us, there is a purpose. The people receive what they need to serve God on behalf of God’s people and God’s plan of redemption.

What the disciples receive in today’s gospel story is a blowing away of their expectations for the Messiah. What they witnessed and experienced on the mountain provided them a new understanding: that Jesus is not just another powerful prophet or Biblical hero. He is so much more somehow (the fullness of their understanding of this will unfold for them over time), and the voice from heaven said they should “listen to him.”

Seeing Jesus glow in that heavenly light and hearing the heavenly voice claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples came to realize that everything they thought about Jesus, and even their notions of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah as the new David, suddenly seemed so limited, so small.

As Jesus guides them down the mountain to rejoin the others, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. You can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: Did that just happen? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you have a group dream?

Their journey down the mountain marks the beginning of a transformed life for these disciples. The truth that has been conceived in them
is only now beginning to take root and grow, and it will be a life-long journey for them.

They will constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and each time that happens, Jesus will patiently and lovingly guide them beyond those limits. The rest of their time with Jesus is spent learning, practicing, and nurturing the understanding conceived in them that day on the high mountain.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, Christians around the world also begin our liturgical descent from the mountain, where we witnessed the brilliant Epiphany light of Jesus, the Christ, into the wilderness of Lent where we will commit ourselves to journey together, with Jesus guiding us, beyond whatever limits us, so that we too can serve God on behalf of God’s people and God’s plan of redemption for the whole world.

The disciplines we choose to practice during Lent will enable us to break-ground, you might say… to crack open the soil of our souls so that we can invite God in to work a new thing in us.

But today, on this feast day of the Lord, we collectively receive the overshadowing of God’s spirit and hear again God’s command to “listen” to Jesus, the Beloved who will lead us, again and again, into a transformed life in the world.

Have you ever had the experience of being overshadowed by the Spirit of God? Have you ever seen someone else being overshadowed?

Yesterday, I led a contemplative retreat and I witnessed person after person being overshadowed and transformed by the Spirit of God. It’s an amazing reality and I feel so privileged to be a witness to it.

Each one of these participants had admitted that they felt like God was mostly absent in their lives. One person called it a spiritual drought.

After learning various forms of prayer, like praying with icons, centering prayer, praying through song, lectio divina using poetry, etc. each one of these went off to practice their prayer discipline and returned to the group with tears and joy over-flowing from them as they recounted their experiences of being overshadowed by the Spirit of God.

Each one also knew where this transformation was beginning to lead them. A path had begun to open before them, giving their lives new purpose and energy – on behalf of the people of God and God’s plan of redemption.

That’s what happens when we are overshadowed by the Spirit of God. St. Theresa of Avila put it like this:

"There is a divine world of light
with many suns in
the sky.

I slept with my Lord
one night,

now all that is luminous
I know we
conceived." Source: “Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West,” Daniel Ladinsky, Trans., The Penguin Group, NY, 2002, 288.)

We are all co-creators with God of the dream of God for the world. We are bearers of the heavenly light of Christ into the darkness of the world.

As St. Paul said in the epistle to the Corinthians: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

If we close our eyes we can see the dazzling face of Jesus, illumined by the light of heaven, smiling upon us, reaching hands toward us to come to him, to let his light shine in us, so that we can carry that light into the world.

God, who is the source of all love, all life, will give us what we need to serve. On this last Sunday after the Epiphany we take the opportunity to remember and accept that God has chosen us and we open ourselves to the overshadowing God’s Holy Spirit. and the transformation of life and purpose that brings.

Grant us, loving God, that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to serve and changed into his likeness from glory to glory, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Epiphany 5B, 2018: Our ghetto gospel

Lectionary: Epiphany 5B: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Note: We may be snowed out today, but thanks to technology, the Word can still be proclaimed!

Note: If this player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As some you know from our Parish Tour conversations, I spent a year as a hospital chaplain on the oncology-hematology unit of a regional hospital deep in the heart of the Bible belt in south GA. All of my cancer patients died and many of the hematology patients either died or, as in the case of the sickle cell patients, returned regularly with terribly painful recurrences of their disease.

The people I served needed God to be bigger and more powerful than the diseases destroying their bodies. They needed the God described in Isaiah who is “great in strength [and] mighty in power.”

They also needed this magnificent, powerful Holy One to care about them as insignificant and undeserving as they often said they felt. They needed the compassionate God whom Isaiah proclaimed “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless” so that no matter how depleted or defeated they felt by their disease, they could hope to run and not be weary, and imagine themselves mounting up and soaring with the powerful freedom of an eagle.

Julian of Norwich once said that prayer “unites the soul to God” (Source: Robert Backhouse, A Feast of Anglican Spirituality (The Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1998), 74) and that has been my experience. Yet with so much diversity in belief (and non-belief) among the people I served as chaplain, prayer was a complicated thing.

During a typical visit, I would spend a great deal of time listening. There were times that I knew I should only listen and pray quietly, within the secrecy of my own heart. Other times I was compelled to speak and to act – inviting them to pray and engage the God they feared. I say they feared God because many confessed that they felt angry at God for “punishing” them with their disease or they felt betrayed by God for not caring about them enough to cure them.

As their chaplain, I had to trust God to use my prayer to unite us all to God, to connect them with the magnificent, compassionate God described in Isaiah. It also meant putting aside my way of being a child of God and entering their way. For example, when family or friends were present, I would listen as they talked or prayed together. I made note of the words and phrases they used – especially the ones they repeated.

I would listen for the song of their prayers, that is, the way they used their voices. I learned the cadence and language of their prayers so that I when I spoke the good news to them they could hear and understand it.

For the Pentecostals, I learned to pray as a Pentecostal: “Thank you, Jesus. We just thank you Jesus that we can come to you right now and give you praise. We call upon you, Lord, in the name of Jesus to lift the burdens of our hearts. Here is your child, Father God. Take him home now – home to glory-land. Thank you, Jesus. Glory halleluiah!”

For the Jews, I prayed like a Jew: “Hear, O Adonai, and answer the prayers of your faithful servants.
Look upon the suffering of this your righteous one and be merciful to her. Protect her with the strength of your right arm, for you are steadfast in love and mighty in power, and to you we give thanks and sing our praise forever.”

To the wounded Christian, I prayed as one also wounded: “Holy God, you are gracious and full of compassion. Hear our prayers for this beloved child of yours. Hold him close in the warm embrace of your healing love. Smile upon him and comfort him in body, mind, and spirit.”

Praying like this didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical to me. Was it hypocritical of God to become Incarnate – to become like us – so that we could understand and believe? By seeking to serve in this way, I came to realize that there is within me the free and open heart of a Pentecostal, the deep and faithful heart of a Jew, and the willing and hopeful heart of the wounded ones.

My purpose, as a witness of Christ’s love, was to let God’s presence be the priority, not to analyze their theology or teach them mine. All I had to do was let God show me the connection between them and me,then be willing to be connected. Religious laws and theological perspectives become so unimportant in the face of the Love that connects us.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he violated religious law. Jewish men never touched women who were not their family, and worse yet, he did it on the Sabbath. But for Jesus, compassion overruled the law – and it was the first of many times he would model such behavior.

Mark tells us that Jesus created quite a buzz when he healed the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue (the story we heard last week). And the next day the whole city showed up at Peter’s house, and Jesus cured many of them.

Giving freely of his divine compassion and comfort, Jesus released those who came to him from whatever sin held them bound. Jesus was also generous with his proclamation, preaching beyond the limits of acceptability. He came out, as he said, to proclaim the good news to all regardless of the divisions imposed by culture – divisions like class or race or gender or nationality.

We who carry on the ministry of proclaiming the good news must be willing, as Jesus was, to go to the people who need to hear the message of salvation, and like St. Paul teaches, give it to them in ways they can understand so that they can receive it.

For example, Elizabethan English, which is found in the King James Bible and in the Rite I services in our Prayer Book, is the language of a past world, and it isn’t very useful in ‘the hood’ or with 20-somethings. It is, however, the deep spiritual language of many over the age of 50, so it continues to have value. Then there is the “The Hip Hop Prayer Book” a translation of our Prayer Book into rap by my good friend and colleague The Rev. Timothy Holder, or “Poppa T” as he is known.

So how many fans of rap and hip hop do we have here? I admit it - for years I hated rap and hip hop. I had lots of good reasons for putting up a barrier against it (I thought): the language, the misogynistic and violent messages, but that was my sin. God had a connection to make and I was refusing to be connected.

Now, one of my favorite music artists is Tupac Shakur, a rapper who died at the young age of 25. I commend to you his video, Ghetto Gospel. Here’s a bit of Tupac’s message:

there's no need for you to fear me
if you take the time to hear me,
maybe you can learn to cheer me
it aint about black or white, cuz we're human
I hope we see the light before its ruined
my ghetto gospel
(Source: Tupac Shakur, Ghetto Gospel)

The beauty of our Episcopal/Anglican tradition is that we can pray in Elizabethan English, preach about a rapper, pray from the Hip Hop Prayer Book, and chant our Eucharistic prayers – all in the same service. We are and we can be, as St. Paul says, all things to all people, reflecting the character and purpose of God.

The greater challenge we face is found at the end of our Gospel. Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring town, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” And out he went, Jesus and his small church community, to proclaim the good news.

We cannot let the beauty of our worship or our sanctuary trap us inside it. We come here to be fed and strengthened by Word and Sacrament so that we can follow Jesus’ example and go out there to share the good news we know: that good news that the everlasting God, who is creator of the ends of the earth is also a compassionate God who renews our strength and enables us to soar with the freedom of an eagle. We come together at church so that we can go out there and unite ourselves and those we meet to God in prayer, trusting God to show us how to do that.

Like Tupac, “I hope we see the light… [our] ghetto gospel” and speak it out there to all who need to hear it. Amen.