Day of Midian?

I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m like hand sanitizer and 99.9% certain that no preacher wants to tackle Isaiah 9 on Christmas.  We’re so focused on the birth of the Messiah and the conflation of the Synoptic stories to worry at all about what boarders on a supercessionist shoe-horning of Isaiah’s oracle for Hezekiah’s reign into a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.  The odds are pretty good that one the congregation hears “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” on Christmas Eve, their imaginations are already in the shepherd’s fields waiting the heavenly chorus.  Knowing this, the RCL didn’t let us off the hook by simply hiding Isaiah 9 on the Feast of the Nativity.  Instead, it makes a triumphant reappearance here on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A.

While the common reading of this text as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah seems so easy and feels pretty good, I couldn’t help but get caught up on this image of the yoke of oppression being broken “as on the day of Midian.”  I’ve heard these words for 40 years, but have never given any real thought as to what that that reference was about.  Until today.  Today, for whatever reason, the day of Midian grabbed my attention.  Funny how scripture does that.

According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Isaiah was references a story recounted in the Book of Judges.  Before we get there, however, it behooves us to learn who Midian was.  The son of Abraham by Keturah, Midian and his brothers have a story similar to Ishmael.  As the children of a wife/concubine, Midian and his siblings were left very little when Abraham died.  His family was left to wander as nomads, left without a home.  Over time, the descendants of Midian grew in number and eventually became a great tribe, and when the Lord God needed to punish Israel for their worship of false gods, the Lord used the Midianites to oppress the people of Israel.   Judges 6-8 tells the story of the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s army’s conquest and Gideon’s almost instant return to idolatry.

It’s an odd reference, given that the relationship between God and Israel was only good for about half a minute, but when Isaiah uses this image of the rod of oppression being broken as on the day of Midian, it helps remind me that this salvation thing is ongoing work.  My salvation, as well as the salvation of the whole world, is being worked out day by day, as the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, deeper relationship, and the work of justice and peace.  The great light isn’t something we come to see in fullness in a moment, but is revealed to, epiphany after epiphany, through the course of our lives as disciples.

Praying Shapes Believing

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Praying Shapes Believing is one of the standard texts for anyone who is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  It has been for at least two decades, even if the Eucharistic Prayer chapter based on what is now thought to be some pretty outdated scholarship (that’s another post).  My own discernment process in Central Pennsylvania was pretty well based on the structure of this text, so its core concepts are engrained in me, and I am a firm believer that the things we pray for eventually become the things we believe and the things we believe shape the way we act.

Thus, I read with great excitement the Collect for Epiphany 3, which at Christ Church is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Would that we really wanted this prayer to be answered.  Would that all of us were ready, by God’s grace, to answer the call of Jesus to share the Good News of salvation with all people.  Would that we weren’t, and I’m not saying anything about “we” that I don’t also mean for “me,” weren’t so afraid of what others have done in the name of Jesus that sometimes, we hide our own faith under a bushel basket.

I’ve written extensively on the Episcopal Church’s discomfort with evangelism as anything more than doing good deeds.  I’d be happy to send you my doctoral thesis, if you need help falling asleep at night.  Alas, we’ve taken to heart this made up anachronistic supposed saying of Saint Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.” to the detriment of the Gospel and the lament of our churches.  As followers of Jesus, who experience the Gospel as a Way of Love rather than a way of fear, judgement, or condemnation, we should be the one’s out there, shouting from the rooftops the Good News of God in Christ.

We might not be there, yet, but thanks be to God for this prayer, which I hope will lead to belief in the importance of evangelism, which I hope will then lead us outside of these walls with the Good News of Christ Jesus in our hearts and on our lips.

A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.

The Lord Abides

The juxtaposition in literary grace between John’s prologue on the eternal Word (v. 1-14) and our introduction to the person of Jesus toward the tail end of John 1 couldn’t be more jarring if it tried.  From the loftiness of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14) we find John the Baptist not wild-eyed, beard matted with honey and locust legs, but rather stilted, awkward almost, as he tries to explain to his disciples who this “Lamb of God” is.  “I myself” is a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve never uttered myself 😉 and yet, John says it three times in four sentences.  It’s as if we replaced the poet of the first fourteen verses with a systematic theologian for the next twenty.  Anyway, what this really strange interaction between John and his disciples manages to do is a) introduce an adult, already baptized Jesus into the narrative, and b) pique the interest of the two disciples, Andrew and an unnamed disciple, so that they take on their Rabbi’s awkwardness and just start to follow Jesus.

Eventually, Jesus feels them on his heels, turns around, and asks a most appropriate question, “What are you looking for?”  Caught in their own weirdness (I can say this, as one of my spiritual gifts is awkwardness), one of them blurts out a random question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Despite the overall oddity of the language in this passage, John does seem to always be doing something with the narrative.  This question, strange as it may be, begins a short riff on the Greek word, meno, which is variously translated as “staying” and “remained.”  If we were going to stay stilted, I would have preferred the translators have used the word “abide” instead.

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I have my reasons for liking the word “abide”

This image of Jesus abiding is helpful to me as I think about what it is that Jesus was called to do during his active years of ministry.  Though he was always on the move and had no place to lay his head, part of what Jesus modeled for the generations of Christian leaders to come was an abiding spirit.  Even when the narrative seems clear that Jesus intended to quickly move from one place to another, we find many examples of Jesus being present to and abiding with an interruption.  His was a ministry of presence.  He abided with those whom the world passed quickly.  He spent time with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the oppressed.  He shared precious moments with those whom the world said weren’t worth anything.

The Book of Acts tells the story of the first generation of Christian leaders also abiding.  Paul abided, sometimes for years, in places to which he had been called.  Philip abided in Samaria and later in the chariot next to the Ethiopian Eunuch, neither places that a good Jew would spend much time.  James the Just abided in Jerusalem despite growing pressure to leave.  So too, as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are called to abide.  Whether we are clergy or lay leaders, part of what it means to follow in the model of Christ is to be present, to abide despite discomfort, and to see what God has planned next.  In John 1’s stilted language, we learn that the Lord abides, and we should too.

More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

Rejecting our Createdness

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While it is in no way controversial to say that humanity is created in the image of God, there is plenty of room for debate on what that reality actually means.  Some would say that the imago Dei is our ability to reason, which up until recent scholarship, was thought to be what set us apart from other animals.  Some argue that we bear the image of God in our ability to imaginatively create new things, be they tools, art, or technology; a form of creation ex nihilo.  Still others would say that the image of God in each of us is the ruah, the breath, the Spirit of God at work in our lives.  In reading the Acts lesson appointed for Sunday, I began to wonder if part of what it means to carry the image of God is that we were created to be impartial, just as God is.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul argues that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry, not as the worship of money or power, but of self, by placing one’s self in the seat of God and acting as judge against our neighbor.  If God shows no partiality, which scripture affirms in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, then when we are partial to ourselves, to our what we assume to be normative, to lift up the sin of another while ignoring it in ourselves, to turn a blind eye to our our prejudices and biases against those who differ from us is in color, gender, sexual identity, religion, or mental or physical capacity.  All that run on Pauline stuff to say that every time we might choose to judge our neighbor is, in fact, rejecting our creation in the image of God.

Ultimately, this may be the sin of Adam and Eve that we carry within us to this day.  It isn’t sex or nakedness, as the Puritans who founded this country would have us believe, but rather, it is that we were not equipped with the proper lenses required to discern good from evil.  With the forbidden fruit consumed and passed on generation to generation, in coming to know the difference between good and evil, our understanding is inherently flawed.  We can’t see as God sees, and so what we see through our own lenses as good might very well be evil, and what we see as evil, might very well be good.  It is in the very act of making those determinations, of showing our partiality, that we fall into the sin of idolatry and reject the imago Dei within us.

In his sermon, Peter is clear, God shows no partiality, and that God is the only rightful judge of human beings.  It seems like it would behoove us as followers of Jesus, made in the image of God, if we reclaimed that understanding, to give up our bigotry, and to seek to do what is right in the eyes of the one who created us in their own image, God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Blessed and a Blessing – a homily

As with most great and storied traditions, we have no idea where the ancient practice of chalking doors with “holy graffiti”[1] on the Feast of the Epiphany got its start.  We can assume that the concept grows from the ancient roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  In the Exodus, as the descendants of Abraham prepare for their final escape from Egypt, the LORD commanded them to mark their door with the blood of the Passover lamb as a sign for the Angel of the Lord to pass over their homes when it came to kill the firstborn of Egypt.  Later, in Deuteronomy, this image of marking doorposts was used again.  Moses is again instructing the people about how they might find favor with God, this time as they finally prepare to enter into the Promised Land of Cana.  Moses gives the people what would become their foundational prayer, a mantra of sorts, that is still used by the Jewish faithful of today, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NRSV)

Tonight, as we gather to remember the coming of the Magi from the East to pay homage to the child born as king of Jews, we hear in their story the blessedness of hospitality.  As guests in the home of Mary and Joseph, the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, meant to be blessings to the holy family in the days to come.  But as guests, the sages from the east were also surely blessed by Mary and Joseph.  Hospitality was assumed in the ancient world.  When a stranger entered your home, they were offered water to clean their feet, food to eat, and wine to drink.  No matter how little you might have, you would bless your guests upon their arrival because you never knew when you might find yourself in need of a blessing along your own journey.  The chalk that we bless tonight is meant to mark a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon your homes, but also as a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon all who will pass through those doors.

This double blessing is symbolized in the three letters, C, M, and B that make up the blessing.  C, M, and B are the initials of the three names that tradition has given the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, reminding us of the blessing that comes from welcoming guests into our homes.  They also are the first letters in the Latin blessing, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which means “May Christ bless this house,” as we ask God in this holy season to be present among us as God the Son was made manifest upon earth in his Incarnation.  In this Epiphany Season, may you be blessed with a safe lodging. May you be a blessing to all who pass through your doors.  And may this church be a blessing to all who pass by and through, shining as a beacon of God’s grace and love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

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[1] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2020/01/06/for-an-epiphany-blessing-chalk-the-door-with-holy-graffiti/