What are you doing for Lent this year? What are you giving up? What are you taking on? In this somber season, what discipline are you embracing?
With all due respect to those asking the question, “It's none of your business.”
Our readings from Joel and Matthew both address issues regarding sacrifice and penitence. The prophet Joel is calling God's people back into right relationships, especially a right relationship with God. Rend your hearts and not your clothing, because our act of penitence has nothing to do with outward appearances. It does us no good to don sackcloth and ashes today if we behave the same tomorrow. Rend your hearts, not your clothing.
Jesus also addresses this issue, but much more directly. It can seem as if people are in a competition to show how holy they are. Everything from bumper stickers to jewelry to t-shirts to pithy Facebook posts to announcements of only watching “proper” movies arise because there is an irrational need to prove how pious we are. I can't tell you why that is, but I can tell you it's been going on for a long time, and I can tell you Jesus warns those around him to knock it off.
Like Jesus' story of the two men praying in the temple, and like his observation of the widow at the treasury surrounded by people putting in lots of money, Jesus is reminding us that our relationship with God is like our relationship with our spouse – there are some parts that need to remain private. Praying is a private conversation between you and God. Fasting is a covenant you make with God. Giving alms involves your personal budget and does not need to be scrutinized by others. And, hopefully, it will be in and through those acts in which your heart is changed.
There are, of course, exceptions. You can't always pray in your closet when you are part of a faith community. We ask for pledge cards; and while private, they aren't always secret. Sometimes fasting is best done when you have someone else to lean on. And, of course, there is today.
Today is a day for alms giving. Today is a day of prayer. Today is a day of fasting. Today is a day of remembering that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In that remembering, your forehead is marked with the sign of the cross. This is a remembrance of our mortality. This is an acknowledgment that we belong to Christ. This is an outward and visible sign of the anointing we received at our baptism. This is a sign clearly visible to others when we walk out those doors and practice our piety before them.
And this is always our dilemma – the practice of our piety up against the showing off of our piety. How do we practice our piety in a way that honors our Father who sees in secret without being overly worried whether or not we are doing it for show?
May I suggest changing the question?
“What are you doing this Lent?”
“What are you giving up?”
“What discipline are you embracing?”
These all have to do with the mechanics of Lent. When we focus on the mechanics it can become impersonal. It can not only become impersonal, but it can become competitive. You're giving up chocolate – good for you; I’m giving up all forms of sugar. You're going to start walking a mile a day – good for you; I’m going to get up at 5:30, meditate for 30 minutes, walk to church for Morning Prayer every day, quit watching TV and read the Bible.
Change the question.
“Why are you giving up … X?”
“Why are you taking on a particular discipline?”
“Why do you have ashes on your forehead?”
Changing from, “What are you ...” to, “Why are you ...” moves the answer from the purely mechanical to the deeply personal.
I’m fasting because I want to take the money spent on food and donate it to a feeding program.
I’m giving up computer games because I want to spend more time in prayer.
The “Why” question may or may not be answered when asked by others – it is, after all, personal. But the “Why” question most certainly needs to be answered by you when it is asked by either you or God. If the answer to the “Why” question is, “Because I want others to know how religious I am,” you're doing it wrong.
Remember, Jesus never said, “Don't practice your piety before others.” He said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”
Lent isn't about what you are doing – it's about why you are doing it. Maybe an appropriate Lenten discipline is to ask, “Why?” more often.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
What are you doing for Lent this year? What are you giving up? What are you taking on? In this somber season, what discipline are you embracing?
Monday, February 08, 2016
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and on this last Sunday we once again have a gospel of revealings and beginnings. We also have the second bookend of the Epiphany season. First, let's look at the revealings and beginnings this passage offers.
This story is a theophany – a revealing or manifestation of God. Peter, James, and John go with Jesus up the mountain. While there Jesus is transfigured to a dazzling white, is joined by Moses and Elijah, and a voice comes from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” You can't get much more revealing than that.
Peter, filled with some kind of motivation, steps up to build three dwellings, one for each holy man. Luke tells us that Peter did not know what he had said. There could be, and are, may explanations for this, but rather than offer an explanation, I want to make an observation.
Jesus is transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear. This is a major event and Peter jumps to action. It is then the voice calls out, “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him.”
There are plenty of times when people want to jump to action in the name of Christ. There are plenty of times when people claim to be acting on behalf of Christ, oftentimes misquoting or pulling quotes out of context.
Listen to him.
As this Epiphany season winds down, and as we prepare to move into Lent where we are called to, among other things, self-examination and reading and meditating on God's holy Word, these three words spoken to Peter, James, and John are spoken to us – Listen to him.
God has been revealed to us through the transfiguration of Jesus. Instead of jumping into rash actions without understanding what we are saying or doing, may we begin to listen to what Jesus is really saying and revealing to us.
The second aspect of today's reading is its role as right-hand bookend. The Epiphany season begins, obviously, with the Epiphany on January 6 and the arrival of the wise men. But because January 6 rarely falls on a Sunday, the season, practically speaking, begins on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. If you recall, that was the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.
Think back to that Sunday and the gospel reading we had. When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The season begins with seeing the revealing of Jesus as God's son while he is praying, and with the voice from heaven. From there we hear readings of revealings and beginnings. This continues through today, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. And on this Sunday we hear that Jesus went to pray, that he was revealed as God's son, and we hear the voice from heaven.
This season is book-ended by readings of prayer, revealings, and beginnings. This season, more than any other, is focused on the revealing of God's glory and the beginning of our understanding of who Jesus is. This season begins with the mystery of Jesus' baptism and it ends with the mystery of the transfiguration.
The gospel passage ends with this sentence: And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
This seems to be counter-intuitive to us. Why wouldn't they tell people about their amazing experience? Why wouldn't they turn this into a mega-evangelism tool? If I had that experience, I'd be telling everyone around me.
Well . . . probably not.
When we are confronted with the holy mystery, in whatever form it takes, we are often as silent as these disciples. After Mary's encounter with Gabriel, she left town for some quiet time. After the shepherds told Mary about their angelic vision, she pondered them in her heart. When I sat alone in the chapel after a Morning Prayer service while visiting a seminary campus, my only words were, “This is where I need to be.” When confronted with the holy mystery, we need time to process that experience.
We are closing out the Epiphany season. We have had five weeks of gospel stories providing us with revealings and beginnings. We have seen Jesus anointed with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. We have seen Jesus transfigured before our eyes. We have heard the voice from heaven twice declaring Jesus as God's son. We have glimpsed holy mysteries.
And now, as this Epiphany season comes to a close and Lent begins, we are given two things for which to be mindful. First, if we are to begin to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and the nearness of the kingdom of God, then we must learn to listen to what Jesus is saying. It does us no good to start building things without first hearing what Jesus might actually be telling us.
Second, we must be aware that we have witnessed holy mysteries this season. As we move into Lent, remember that we are called to a new season of self-examination and meditation. Follow the example of the disciples and others and be quiet. Pray. Examine. Meditate. Ponder.
And in that listening, in that pondering, may you come to be book-ended – surrounded – by the holy mysteries of God.
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Epiphany, as I've been saying, is a season of revealings and beginnings. The gospel passage for today, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, follows this theme of revealings and beginnings.
Today follows directly after last week's gospel – the one that ended with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The gospel today begins with that very same sentence.
Jesus has read from the prophet Isaiah anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind. He read from this piece of scripture while attending the synagogue in his home town. And before Jesus has an opportunity to clarify or elaborate on today's opening sentence, everybody there gets all excited and jumps on the Jesus bandwagon.
I wonder what might have happened if the people hadn't gone all gaga over him? Would they have heard his message of good news? Would he have called a person or two to be his disciples? We will never know.
Instead he confronts the people with what will really happen. What really happens is that the town, or at least the people in the synagogue, want to claim him for themselves. They want what's known in sports negotiations as a home town discount. They want the status that comes with being able to say, “He's our boy.”
To which Jesus responds with a foreshadowing of the crucifixion – Doctor, cure yourself – and an indictment of their attitude – Do here in your hometown what you did over in Capernaum. He doesn't dwell on the first, but he definitely hits them with the second. And when he does, they promptly escort him to the nearest cliff.
It isn't clear in Luke that Jesus was in Capernaum before this event. Luke only tells us that he “returned to Galilee and a report about him spread throughout the whole countryside.” This may or may not be a reference to Jesus in Capernaum – I can't say for sure one way or the other. What I can tell you is that Capernaum was his next stop. But regardless, Jesus is confronting them about their desire to see him perform miraculous works.
A few days before 2 Epiphany there was a video clip making the Facebook rounds among my clergy friends. I didn't post it because I knew it would mess me up. I barely got through the gospel without laughing as it was.
2 Epiphany was the wedding in Cana/water-to-wine gospel. The video is of Rowan Atkinson, better known as Mr. Bean, doing a skit on that very story. “The servants took the water become wine to the steward, and he did not know from WHENCE it had come. But the servants knew, and they all applauded wildly. And they enquired of him, 'Do you do children's parties?' And the Lord said, 'No'.”
The skit goes on with Jesus bringing forth carrots and white rabbits and all the people praising him.
While this is funny stuff from an off-beat English comic, it reminds me of today's gospel. Rowan's skit has the people pushing Jesus for more and more tricks – the highlight of which is sawing Mary Magdalene in half. Eventually they get him to perform in Jerusalem, where “they absolutely crucified him.” The skit isn't about Jesus and the good news; it's about people wanting to see magic tricks. Today's gospel isn't about the people of Nazareth wanting to hear the good news; it's about them wanting to see the act – Do for us here what we heard you did there.
The people of Nazareth fail to comprehend two important points of Jesus. First, this is not an act. This is the in-breaking of God into our world in a new way. This has to do with new life. In other words, this is good news.
Second, what Jesus is doing is meant for a wider audience than just his hometown. To make his point he references the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. Those are important references because the widow was visited by Elijah and Naaman was cleansed by Elisha, two of Israel's greatest prophets. The catch, though, is that both the widow and Naaman were Gentiles. God reached out across boundaries then, and God is reaching out beyond boundaries now. And that, I think, is what really gets the people of Nazareth so terribly upset.
The people of Nazareth were being confronted with the idea that they did not possess God – God did not belong to them. In a larger sense, this is what the people of Israel were confronted with when Elijah visited the widow in Zarephath and when Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian: God does not belong to Israel.
Before we get too judgmental about the people of Nazareth and the Israelites, remember that Christians are just as good at playing this game. We have a good habit of proclaiming and labeling people as being outside the bounds of orthodoxy for not believing what we believe, believing what we don't believe, not allowing what we allow, and allowing what we don't allow in all manner of things. How many times have we heard, “You/They can't be Christians because . . .”
What we are essentially saying is, “God does not belong to you.”
But what Jesus is saying, what Elijah and Elisha were saying, and what so many people refuse to hear is, “Everyone belongs to God – everyone is the Lord's possession.”
God is not ours, we are God's. God does not belong to us, we belong to God. As it says in the burial service (borrowing from Paul), “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.”
If you think about it, this lies at the heart of almost every religious disagreement we have. Not all, but a lot. When we exclude certain people we are essentially telling them that God is ours and we control who has access to him. Fear of losing that control, fear of seeing God differently than we've always seen him, is one of the reasons we take Jesus to the cliff.
Epiphany is the season of beginnings and revealings. Today's gospel isn't so much about revealing who Jesus is, as much as it's revealing what we think about Jesus and God. The epiphany today is that Jesus/God is not yours, but that everyone, even people outside our boundaries, are the Lord's possession. May we begin to reveal this truth as we proclaim, “You are the Lord's possession, and you are welcome here.”
And if some people want to take us to the cliff, so be it – we will be in good company.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Heard the news that the anti-government terrorists in eastern Oregon have been arrested (with, unfortunately, one killed) AND that certain pro-forced birth terrorists have been indicted after covertly videotaping and then doctoring the footage to be used as a "documentary."
The terrorist takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge seems to be coming to an end as several of the terrorists were stopped while traveling to a neighboring community to try and raise support for their efforts.
A small number of the terrorist group is still holed up at the Refuge, one of them stating that the F.B.I. was "hellbent on war," but he hopes for a peaceful resolution.
Let me guess . . . that "peaceful resolution" is defined as "Give me what I want and go away." As one person said in the NYT comments, "It might be easier to believe they want a peaceful resolution if they weren't armed to the teeth."
And in another form of domestic terrorism, one group using any means necessary to shut down clinics that provide healthcare for (mainly) low-income women have been indicted for using illegal means and fraud.
From the NY Times about the videotaping:
Mr. Daleiden and Sandra S. Merritt, 62, were indicted on felony charges of tampering with a governmental record with the intent to defraud — specifically, falsifying California driver’s licenses to pose as biotechnology representatives and infiltrate Planned Parenthood centers and research conferences. Mr. Daleiden was also charged with a misdemeanor related to trying to buy human organs.
Yet, despite the illegal activities, the blatant lies, and the desire to treat women as property duly controlled by men, the pro-forced birth crowd is beginning to double down on their stance of bearing false witness and comparing Planned Parenthood to the S.S. and Holocaust.
But for now, the terrorists have been dealt a setback. We'll see how it plays out in the future.
Monday, January 25, 2016
I was talking with a parishioner after services on Sunday and somehow we got on the subject of the Church and NASCAR ... stay with me.
Most congregations are running at some sort of a deficit. The one we are facing is manageable; it's certainly not ideal, but we are optimistic that we are on an upward swing. Other congregations are facing deficits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
How might we be able to cover these deficits, we wondered. And after a bit of back and forth, I suggested that maybe our answer could be found in NASCAR.
"NASCAR???" she asked incredulously.
"Sure . . . Think about a car race. Other than seeing a bunch of cars going really fast to the left, what do you notice?"
She thought for a moment and said, "Advertisements."
"Bingo. Every car has a major sponsor. Every car has a multitude of minor sponsors. Every car's paint job is covered with advertisers. So is the driver's fire suit and helmet. The driver will never talk about 'my car,' but about the advertiser's car ... as in, 'Yeah, the Nationwide car was running really good today on those Goodyears.'
"So what if we sold advertising space for things in church?"
In short, we developed a way to get people to buy sponsorships for the various seasonal hangings (Christmas and Easter costing more than say, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost), the stoles I wear, the Advent candles, etc. And then she decided we needed an electronic hymn board. Every year during the Season after Pentecost we take hymn suggestions and incorporate them into Sunday services. We could begin selecting hymns based on the highest bidder and advertise that on the electronic hymn board. "The opening hymn today is 618, brought to you by Nancy Davidson."
I drew the line, though, when it was suggested that Communion be sponsored by Bud Light.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Epiphany is the season of revealings and beginnings. Christ was manifested to the Gentiles (revealed) when the wise men came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He was revealed as the Beloved Son of God at his baptism when the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him; his public ministry beginning shortly thereafter. And Jesus stepped into the spotlight when he performed his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, revealing his glory.
Today we get another revealing and beginning with the episode of Jesus reading from Isaiah and claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah's end-time prophecy. This end-time prophecy being ushered in by Jesus includes release of captives, sight for the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. This is a new beginning for the people of God.
The passage Jesus reads comes from two places in Isaiah – mainly from 61:1-2 and partly from 58:6. Both of these quotes are taken from what scholars refer to as Third Isaiah, basically the last ten chapters of that book. In this last section of the book, the Jewish exiles have returned home from Babylon and the prophet addresses practical problems of restoration and reconstruction. There is a focus on living daily into the holiness of God and to remind the people of what that looks like.
What that looks like, according to Isaiah, is that God's spirit is upon us to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. In other words, now that God has freed us, we must help free others.
This prophetic message, however, fell by the wayside as Israel became focused on internal affairs, working to maintain their core identity, and life in general. It eventually got forgotten and Israel began spending their collective time waiting for the arrival of a savior.
At the time of Jesus, Israel was not in exile but they were occupied. They had been overrun by the Roman military and political machine. They were oppressed. They worked hard to maintain their identity. And they waited for a savior.
For us Christians we believe that Savior came in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that he was a fulfillment of the prophecies, born of the Virgin Mary, God incarnate, fully human and fully divine, and all of that other stuff we proclaim. We also believe he came to announce the nearness of the kingdom of God.
Over time, however, this salvific message of the nearness of the kingdom has fallen by the wayside. It seems we have spent more time focused on internal affairs, trying to maintain an identity and getting sidetracked by life. And while we work to maintain the institution of Christianity, we sit idly by waiting for the arrival of a savior.
We need to avoid that trap. We need to avoid arguing about internal affairs and get busy proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. We need to stop waiting for a savior and get to work proclaiming the message of Christ.
“But,” you may protest, “Jesus read that passage from Isaiah and interpreted it to refer to himself.” That certainly may be technically correct because the text does say, “me,” and Jesus proclaims it fulfilled. But this is one of those times when we need to take a wider view.
The Bible, for all its faults, messiness, and brutality, is, more than anything else, a love story between God and creation. It is a story in which we participate, however imperfectly. It is a story of our reunification with God.
The story begins in a garden and our banishment to keep us from eating from the tree of life. The story ends in the city of God that has as its centerpiece that very same tree of life. In between we are asked to participate with God in his vision of what creation is intended to be. To do that, we need to have an all-encompassing view and understanding of Scripture. And for that, Paul gives us an excellent example.
Today's Epistle from 1 Corinthians has Paul comparing the Church to a physical body. We are baptized into one body – the body of Christ. Paul goes on to talk about the various parts – hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, etc. – and how, though different, they are all part of the one body. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we are one with Christ.
If we are in Christ, if we are a member of Christ’s body, then the mission of Christ is our mission and the proclamations of Christ are our proclamations. The mission of the Church as we understand it is to restore all people to unity with God. This also happens to be the mission of Christ.
Part of that mission is to be found in the Isaiah passage read by Jesus. Part of that mission is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and to free the oppressed. Jesus reads that passage, complete with, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME,” and tells his audience that Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in their hearing.
It was certainly fulfilled in the person of Jesus. But taking Scripture holistically, and using Paul's belief that, collectively, we are the body of Christ, that prophecy should be fulfilled in us. Isaiah's writings point to us just as surely as they point to Jesus.
We are united together in Christ. We are united with Christ in his mission. We are not called to wait for a savior. We are called to participate with the Savior in restoring all people to unity with God.
Today's epiphany is that we are one with Christ. Today's epiphany is that we are called, along with Jesus, to begin to proclaim the good news to the people of Isaiah's prophecy. Today's epiphany is that this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Last Sunday I said it was the beginning of the life of the church. We commemorated and celebrated the baptism of Jesus by renewing our own baptismal vows. And I asked how you might begin again to live into those promises we made – continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, resisting evil and repenting, proclaiming the good news, loving your neighbor, and respecting the dignity of every human being.
In doing these things we are helping manifest Christ to the world. In doing these things, we are instigating small epiphanies for those around us and for ourselves as well.
All through this season of Epiphany we are presented with gospel stories that give us an epiphany, or a showing, of who Christ is. Last week it was John's announcement, the dove, and the voice showing us who Jesus was. Today it's a miracle that changes water to wine. This is one of those stories that transcends Christianity in that even non-Christians are familiar with the general story, if not all the details.
One detail that is important to remember is that this story comes from the Gospel of John. That is, not “this version of the story,” but “this story.” It's only in John where we hear the story of changing water to wine. This miracle wasn't a healing or feeding. Nobody asked Jesus to provide wine (although his mother insinuated it), let alone offer any kind of solution to the problem of running out of wine for the party. But, unbeknownst to anyone but the servants, he did provide wine. And those few who knew about it believed in him.
John is funny that way. In the three other gospels, the healings and other miracles are almost always preceded by a request and a statement of faith: “Do you believe I can do this? Yes, Lord, I believe.” In John this pattern is reversed – the miracle leads to belief. Water is changed to wine, and the disciples believe; a group of Samaritans spend time with Jesus and come to believe because of what they hear; a blind man is given sight and comes to believe; and, most famously, Thomas comes to a profound belief after his encounter with the risen Christ.
For this reason I think John should be the patron gospel of every Christian church. There are very few people who express a belief in Jesus Christ without having any experience of him. The vast majority of people have an experience and then come to believe. Whether that experience is growing up in a devoutly faithful home or being invited to church or searching for yourself to find a spiritual home, it's often the experience that leads to shaping belief. And that belief is continually shaped by experience.
This is one, some might say, THE, purpose of the church: to offer an experience of the divine that shapes and forms disciples.
For us as Episcopalians, we are shaped by the liturgy whether we know it or not. We are shaped by the particular rhythm of the service. We are shaped by particular words and prayers we hear over the years. We sit, stand, and kneel at particular times, involving our whole body in the act of worship. And, as I wrote in the Wednesday Word a couple of weeks ago, we can take that liturgical experience into our daily lives so that our every act is an intentional liturgical act. The liturgy can, if we let it, infuse our daily lives so that we can experience the divine in a way that shapes our discipleship and we can more fully say, “I believe.”
This liturgy, this experience of the divine that continually shapes and changes us, can be augmented to give us an even deeper rhythm. One way is through the Daily Offices – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Whether you say those in private or corporately (as at the 7:15 Morning Prayer service), you need to give it time to work, you need to give it time to become a habit. In that habit is yet another way the experience shapes and forms us. And if the daily offices are a bit much to fit into your schedule, maybe you could try reading and meditating on the Sunday Collect throughout the week.
The purpose of all this is to help us experience the divine so that we can be formed and shaped as disciples. That formation and shaping of who we are is really just another way of saying we have been changed. And that is really what today's gospel is about – changing.
The first change comes in how Jesus does business. The steward is impressed and says, “Everyone else serves the good wine first, then the cheap stuff later; but you saved the good stuff until the end of the party.” In other words, he's addressing the “We've never done it that way/We've always done it this way” argument. Our experience of Jesus is calling us to look at how we've done things and make changes if necessary. Moving the choir and altar could fit into this type of change.
The other change happens with the water itself. Water to wine – a change in substance and form. I won't go into all the chemical details of this change, nor will I address any of the arguments that this miracle has generated (was it really wine or was it grape juice or was it a non-alcoholic wine) because all that does is miss the point. The point is this: Jesus did something miraculous, do you believe it?
The other important piece to remember is that Jesus was present when the water was changed to wine.
Much later Jesus will make another change – he will change wine to blood. As with the change of water to wine, it's not necessary to get into the details and run chemical tests to determine what type of fluid is actually in the chalice. What's important to remember is that a change is made and that Jesus is truly present.
What Jesus did at the wedding, what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and what Jesus does at the Communion event, is to change the ordinary into the extraordinary.
So while this gospel story is most often seen as an epiphany story, showing Jesus to have divine powers and thereby proclaiming him Son of God, this is also a story of change. We experience Jesus in a variety of ways and locations, and that helps form and shape us as disciples.
This is the Epiphany season. This is the season of beginnings. How will your own epiphany, your own experience of Christ, change you from ordinary to extraordinary? Pay close attention, there's an epiphany in there somewhere.
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